The Project Gutenberg eBook of “No. 101”, by Wymond Carey
Title: “No. 101”
Author: Wymond Carey
Illustrator: Walter Paget
Release Date: January 17, 2023 [eBook #69819]
Produced by: D A Alexander, David E. Brown, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive)
By Wymond Carey
A ROMANCE OF THE GREAT
Crown octavo. (By mail, $1.35.) Net, $1.20
|Illustrated. Crown octavo. $1.50.|
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
New York London
Author of “Monsieur Martin,” “For the White Rose,” etc.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
There was a real “No. 101.” Unpublished MS. despatches now in the Record Office of the British Museum reveal the interesting fact that on more than one occasion the British Government obtained important French state secrets through an agent known to the British ministers as “No. 101.” Who this mysterious agent was, whether it was a man or a woman, why and how he or she so successfully played the part of a traitor, have not, so far as is known to the present writer, been discovered by historians or archivists. The references in the confidential correspondences supply no answer to such questions. If the British ministers knew all the truth, they kept it to themselves, and it perished with them. Doubtless there were good reasons for strict secrecy. But it is more than possible that they themselves did not know, that throughout they simply dealt with a cipher whose secret they never penetrated. It is, however, clear that “No. 101” was in a position to discover some of the most intricate designs in the policy of the French Court, and that the British Government, through its[vi] agents, was satisfied of the genuineness of the secrets for which it paid handsomely.
On the undoubted existence of this mysterious cipher, and the riddles that that existence suggests, the writer has based his historical romance.
|II.||One-Fourth of a Secret and Three-Fourths of a Mystery||12|
|III.||A Fair Huntress and the Girl with the Spotted Cow||26|
|IV.||A Lover’s Trick||39|
|V.||The Presumption of a Beardless Chevalier||53|
|VI.||The Wise Woman of “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold”||66|
|VII.||The King’s Handkerchief||78|
|VIII.||The Vivandière of Fontenoy||95|
|IX.||At the Charcoal-Burner’s Cabin in the Woods||109|
|XI.||In the Salon de la Paix at Versailles||137|
|XII.||A Royal Grisette||149|
|XIII.||What the Vicomte de Nérac Saw in the Secret Passage||160|
|XIV.||Two Pages in the Book of Life||171|
|XV.||André is Thrice Surprised||182|
|XVI.||The Fountain of Neptune||196|
|XVIII.||The heart of the Pompadour||220[viii]|
|XIX.||The Flower Girl of “The Gallows and the Three Crows”||231|
|XX.||At Home with a Cipher||244|
|XXI.||The King’s Commission||253|
|XXII.||On Secret Service||264|
|XXIII.||The King Faints||274|
|XXIV.||A Wished-for Miracle||285|
|XXV.||The Fall of the Dice||297|
|XXVI.||The Thief of the Secret Despatch||308|
|XXVII.||The Chevalier Makes his Last Appearance||319|
|XXVIII.||The Carrefour de St. Antoine No. 3||330|
|XXIX.||André Fails to Decide||339|
|XXX.||Denise Has to Decide for the Last Time||354|
|“The Vicomte Henceforth Cannot without Harming Himself Visit Publicly a Bourgeoise Grisette”||Frontispiece|
|Statham Sat Pondering, His Eyes Riveted on the Crossed Daggers||6|
|“Is That Letter to the Comtesse des Forges, One of My Friends—My Friends, Mon Dieu!—Yours, or Is It not?”||48|
|“Fair Archeress,” He Said, “Surely the Shafts You Loose Are Mortal”||88|
|Yes, that is Monseigneur le Maréchal de Saxe, Carried in a Wicker Litter, for He Cannot Sit His Horse||124|
|Madame de Pompadour||188|
|The Curtain Was Sharply Flung aside, and He Saw Denise||204|
|Yvonne Very Modestly Disengaged the Arm which for the First Time He Had Slipped about Her Supple Waist||234|
|Yvonne with a Finger to Her Lips, Holding Her Petticoats off the Floor, Stole In, and behind Her a Stranger||268[x]|
|The Candle Fell from Her Hand. “Gone!” She Muttered Feebly, “Gone!”||320|
|“Yvonne, of Course; Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles,” She Lifted Her Dress a Few Inches||350|
One evening in the January of 1745, the critical year of Fontenoy and of the great Jacobite rising, a middle-aged gentleman, the private secretary of a Secretary of State, was working as usual in the room of a house in Cleveland Row. The table at which he sat was littered with papers, but at this precise moment he had leaned back in his chair with a puzzled expression and his left hand in perplexity pushed his wig awry.
“Extraordinary,” he muttered, “most extraordinary.” The remark was apparently caused by an official letter in his other hand—a letter marked “Most Private,” which came from The Hague, and the passage which he had just read ran:
“I have the honour to submit to you the following important communication in cipher, received, through our agent at Paris, from ‘No. 101,’” etc.
On the table lay the cipher communication together with a decoded version which the secretary now studied for the third time. In explicit language the despatch supplied detailed information as to certain recent highly confidential negotiations between the Jacobite party in Paris and the French King, Louis XV., a revelation in short of the most weighty state secrets of the French Government.
“‘No. 101,’” the secretary murmured, scratching his head, “always ‘No. 101.’ It is marvellous, incredible. How the devil can it be done?”
But there was no answer to this question, save the fact which provoked it—that closely ciphered paper with its disquieting information so curiously and mysteriously obtained.
“Ah.” He jumped up and hurriedly straightened his wig. “Good-evening to you.”
The new-comer was a man of about five-and-thirty, tall, finely built, and of a muscular physique, with a face of considerable power. Most noticeable, perhaps, in his appearance was his air of disciplined reserve, emphasised in his strong mouth and chin, but almost belied by the glow in his large, dark eyes, which looked you through and through with a strangely watchful innocence.
“There is work to be done, sir?” he asked as he took the chair offered.
“Exactly. To-day we have received most gratifying and surprising information from our friend ‘No. 101’—and we have the promise of more.”
“Yes.” The brief monosyllable was spoken almost softly, but the dark eyes gleamed, as they roamed over the room.
“The communications from ‘No. 101’ have begun again,” the secretary pursued; “that in itself is interesting. The Secretary of State therefore desired me to send at once for you, the most trustworthy secret agent we have. In a very few minutes Captain Statham of the First Foot Guards will be here—”
“Sent, I think, from the Low Countries at the request of our agents at The Hague?”
“Ah, I see you are as well informed as usual. You are quite right. Are you,” he laughed, “ever wrong?”
The spy paused. “The communications then from ‘No. 101’ concern the military operations?” was all he said.
“Not yet. But,” he almost laughed, “we have a promise they will. You know the situation. This will be a critical year in Flanders. Great Britain and her allies propose to make a great, an unprecedented effort; his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland will have the supreme command. Unhappily the French under the Maréchal de Saxe apparently propose to make even greater efforts. With such a general as the Maréchal against us we cannot afford to neglect any means, fair or foul, by which his Royal Highness can defeat the enemy.”
“Then you wish me to assist ‘No. 101’ in betraying the French plans to our army under the Duke of Cumberland?”
“Not quite,” the other replied; “we cannot spare you as yet. But you have had dealings with this mysterious cipher, and we ask you to place all your experience at the disposal of Captain Statham.”
“I agree most willingly,” was the prompt answer.
“This curious ‘No. 101,’” continued the secretary slowly, “you do not know personally, I believe?”
The other was looking at him carefully but with a puzzled air.
“I ask because—because I am deeply curious.”
“I am as curious as yourself, sir. ‘No. 101’ is to me simply a cipher number,—nothing more, nothing less.”
“I feared so,” said the secretary. “But is it not incredible? The information sent always proves to be accurate, but there is never a trace of how, why, or by whom it is obtained.”
“That is so. Secrecy is the condition on which alone we get it. We pay handsomely—we obtain the truth—and we are left in the dark.”
“Shall we ever discover the secret, think you?”
“I am sure not.” The tone was conviction itself.
At this moment Captain Statham was ushered in, a typical English gentleman and officer, ruddy of countenance, blue-eyed, frankness and courage in every line of his handsome face and of his athletic figure.
“Captain Statham—Mr. George Onslow of the Secret Service—” the secretary began promptly, adding with a laugh as the two shook hands: “Ah, I see you have met before. I am not surprised. Mr. Onslow knows everybody and everything worth knowing.” He gathered up a bundle of papers. “That is the communication from ‘No. 101’ and the covering letter. And now, gentlemen, I will leave you to your business.” He bowed and left the room.
Onslow took the chair he had vacated and for a quarter of an hour Captain Statham and he chatted earnestly on the position of affairs in the Low Countries, and the war then raging from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, on the vast efforts being made by the French for a great campaign in the coming spring, the military genius of the famous Maréchal de Saxe, the Austrian and Dutch allies of Great Britain, and the new English royal commander-in-chief who was shortly to leave to take over the work of saving Flanders from the arms of Louis XV. Onslow then briefly explained what the Secret Service agents of the Duke of Cumberland were to expect and why.
“Communications,” he wound up, “from this mysterious spy and traitor, ‘No. 101,’ invariably come like bolts from the blue. They are, of course, always in cipher and they will reach you by the most innocent hands—a peasant, a lackey, a tavern wench—sometimes you will simply find them, say, under your pillow, or in your boots. No one can tell how they get there. But never neglect them, however strange or unusual their contents may be, for they are never wrong—never! The genuine ones you will recognise by this mark—” he took up the ciphered paper and put his fingers on a sign—“two crossed daggers and the figures 101 written in blood—you see—so”:
Captain Statham stared at the sign, entranced.
“A soldier,” Onslow remarked with his slow smile, “can always distinguish blood from red ink—is it not so?” Statham nodded. “Remember, then, those crossed daggers with the figures in blood are the only genuine mark. All others are forgeries—reject them unhesitatingly. Let me show it you again.” He produced from his pocket-book a paper with the design in the corner, which, when compared with the one on the table, corresponded exactly.
“I warn you,” Onslow added, “because the existence of this ‘No. 101’ is becoming known to the French—they suspect treachery—their Secret Service is clever and they may attempt to deceive you. As they do not know the countersign, though they may have guessed at the treachery of ‘No. 101’ they cannot really hoodwink you. Cipher papers which come in the name of ‘101’ without that remarkable signature are simply a nom de guerre, of politics, of love, of anything you like, but they are either a forgery or a trap; so put them in the fire.”
Statham sat pondering, his eyes riveted on the crossed daggers. “You, sir,” he began, “have had dealings with this mysterious person. Is it a man or a woman?”
“Ah!” Onslow laughed gently. “Every one asks that, every man at least. I cannot answer; no one, indeed, can. My opinion? Well, I change it every month. But these are the facts: It is absolutely certain that the traitor insists on high, very high pay; absolutely certain that he or she has access to the very best society in Paris and at the Court, and is at home in the most confidential circles of the King and his ministers. We have even had documents from the private cabinet of Louis XV. Furthermore, the traitor can convey the information in such a way as to baffle detection. If it is a woman she is a very remarkable one; if it be a man he is one who controls important women. Perhaps it is both. Such knowledge, so peculiar, so accurate, so extensive, such skill and such ingenuity scarcely seem to be within the powers of any individual man or woman.”
“Every word you say sharpens my surprise and my curiosity.”
“Yes, and every transaction you will have with the cipher will sharpen it more and more. I have been fifteen years in the Secret Service, but this business is to-day as much a puzzle as it ever was, for ‘No. 101’ has taught me a very important secret, one unknown even to the French King’s ministers, which, so jealously guarded as it is, may never be discovered in the King’s lifetime or at all. Can you really believe that Louis, while professing to act through his ministers, has stealthily built up a little secret service of his own whose work is to spy on those ministers, on his ambassadors, generals, and their agents, to receive privately instructions wholly different from what the King has officially sanctioned, and frequently directly to thwart, check, annul, and defeat by intrigue and diplomacy the official policy of their sovereign?”
“Is it possible?”
“It is a fact,” Onslow said, emphatically. “But the King, ‘No. 101,’ you and I and one or two others alone know it. Let me give you a proof. To-day officially Louis through his ministers has disavowed the Jacobites. The ministers believe their master is sincere; many of them regret it, but their instructions are explicit. In truth, through those private agents I spoke of, the King is encouraging the Jacobites in every way and is actually thwarting the steps and the policy which he has officially and publicly commanded.”
“And the ministers are ignorant of this?”
“Absolutely. But mark you, unless the King is very careful, some day there will come an awkward crisis. His Majesty will be threatened with the disclosure of this secret policy which has his royal authority, but which gives the lie to his public policy, equally authentic. And unless he can suppress the first he must be shown to be doubly a royal liar—not to dwell on the consequences to France.”
“What a curious king!” Statham ejaculated.
“Curious!” Onslow laughed softly; “more than curious, because no one knows the real Louis. The world says he is an ignorant, superstitious, indolent, extravagant, heartless dullard in a crown who has only two passions—hunting and women. It is true; he is the prince of hunters and the emperor of rakes. But he is also a worker, cunning, impenetrable, obstinate, remorseless.”
“But why does he play such a dangerous game?”
“God knows. The real Louis no man has discovered, or woman either; he is known only to the Almighty or the devil. But you observe what chances this double life gives to our friend ‘No. 101.’”
Statham began to pace up and down. “What are the traitor’s motives?” he demanded, abruptly.
“Ah, there you beat me.” Onslow rose and confronted him. “My dear sir, a traitor’s motives may be gold, or madness, ambition, love, jealousy, revenge, singly or together, but above all love and revenge.”
Statham made an impatient gesture. “I would give my commission,” he exclaimed, “to know the meaning of this mystery.”
A sympathetic gleam lingered in Onslow’s eyes as he calmly scrutinised the young officer. “Ah,” he said, almost pityingly, “you begin to feel the spell of this mystery wrapped in a number, the spell of ‘No. 101,’ the fatal spell.”
“Fatal?” Statham took him up sharply.
“Yes. I must warn you. Every single person who, in his dealings with this cipher, has got near to the heart of the truth has so far met with a violent end. It is not pleasant, but it is a fact. And the explanation is easy. Those who might betray the truth are removed by accident or design, some by this method, some by that. They pass into the silence of the grave, perhaps just when they could have revealed what they had discovered.” He paused, for Statham was visibly impressed. “Really there is no danger,” he added; “but I say as earnestly as I can, because you are young, and life is sweet for the young, for God’s sake stifle your curiosity, resist the spell—that fatal spell. Take the information as it comes, and ask no questions, push no inquiries, however tempting and easy the path to success seems, or, as sure as I stand here, His Majesty King George the Second will lose a promising and gallant officer.”
Statham walked away and resumed his seat. “And you, Mr. Onslow?” he demanded, looking up with the profoundest interest.
“Do I practise what I preach? Well, I am a spy by profession: to some men such a life is everything—it is, at least, to me. But I do not conceal from myself that if my curiosity overpowers me my hour for silence, too, will come—the silence of the unknown grave in an unknown land.”
“Then is no one ever to know?” Statham muttered with childish petulance.
“Probably not. A hundred years hence the secret that baffles you and me will baffle our successors.”
Statham’s heels tapped on the floor. “Perhaps,” he pronounced, slowly, “perhaps the truth is well worth the price that is paid for it—death and the silence of the grave.”
Onslow stared at him. His eyes gleamed curiously as if they were fixed on visions known only to the inner mind. “Perhaps,” he repeated gravely. “But really,” he added, with a sudden lightness, “there is no one to persuade us it is so. Come, Captain Statham, you have not forgotten supper, I hope, and that I propose to introduce you to-night to the most seductive enchantress in London?”
“No, indeed. All day I have been hungering for that supper. In the Low Countries we do not get suppers presided over by ladies such as you have described to me.”
“In the French army they have both the ladies and the suppers,” Onslow replied, laughing. “And, my dear Captain, to the victors of the spring will fall the spoils. To-night shall be a foretaste, and if my enchantress does not make you forget ‘No. 101,’ I despair of the gallantry of British officers.”
He locked up the papers, chatting all the time, and then the two gentlemen went out together.
For some minutes the pair walked in silence, as if each was still brooding on the mysterious cipher whose treachery to France had brought them together. But presently Statham touched Onslow on the arm. “Tell me,” he said, “something of this enchantress. I am equally curious about her.”
“And I know very little,” Onslow replied. “Her mother, if you believe scandal, was a famous Paris flower girl, who was mistress in turn to half the young rakes of the noblesse; her father is supposed to have been an English gentleman. Your eyes will tell you she is gifted with a singular beauty, which is her only dowry. Gossip says that she makes that dowry go a long way, for she has two passions, flowers and jewels.”
“And she resides in London?”
“She resides nowhere,” Onslow answered with his slow smile; “she is here to-day and away to-morrow. I have met her in Paris, in Brussels, Vienna, Rome. She talks French as easily as she talks English, and wherever she is her apartments are always haunted by the men of pleasure, and by the grand monde. Women you never meet there, for she is not a favourite with her own sex, which is not surprising.”
“Pardon,” Statham asked, “but is she—is she, too, in the Secret Service?”
“God bless my soul! No; we don’t employ ladies with a passion for jewels. It would expose them and us to too many temptations. And, besides, politics are the one thing this goddess abhors. Eating, drinking, the pleasures of the body, poetry, philosophy, romance, the arts, and the pleasures of the mind she adores; luxury and jewels she covets, but politics, no! They are a forbidden topic. For me her friendship is convenient, for the politicians are always in her company. When will statesmen learn,” he added, “that making love to a lady such as she is is more powerful in unlocking the heart and unsealing the lips than wine?” “And her name?”
“She has not got one. ‘Princess’ we call her and she deserves it, for she is fit to adorn the Palace of Versailles.”
“Perhaps,” said Statham, “she will some day.”
“Not a doubt of it—if Louis will only pay enough.”
They had reached the house. Statham noticed that Onslow neither gave his own nor asked for his hostess’s name. He showed the footman a card, which was returned, and immediately they were ushered into two handsome apartments with doors leading the one into the other, and in the inner of the two they found some half-dozen gentlemen talking. Three of them wore stars and ribbons, but all unmistakably belonged to that grand monde of which Onslow had spoken. From behind the group the lady quietly walked forward and curtsied deferentially to Statham, who felt her eyes resting on his with no small interest as his companion kissed her hand. The secret agent had not exaggerated. This woman was indeed strikingly impressive. About the middle height, with a slight but exquisitely shaped figure, at first sight she seemed to flash on you a vision composed of dark masses of black hair, large and liquid blue eyes, and a dazzling skin, cream-tinted. Dressed in a flowing robe of dark red, she wore in her hair blood-red roses, while blood-red roses twined along her corsage, which was cut, not without justification, daringly open. Her bare arms, her theatrical manner, and the profusion of jewels which glittered in the candle-light suggested a curious vulgarity, which was emphasised by her speech, for her English, spoken with the ease of a native, betrayed in its accent rather than its words evidence of low birth. Yet all this was forgotten in the mysterious charm which clung about her like a subtle and intoxicating perfume, and as Statham in turn kissed her jewelled hand, a fleeting something in her eyes, at once pathetic and vindictive, shot with a thrill through him.
“An English officer and a friend of Mr. Onslow,” she remarked, “is always amongst my most welcome guests,” and then she turned to the elderly fop in the star and ribbon and resumed her conversation.
Statham studied her carefully. Superb health, a superb body, and a reckless disregard of convention she certainly had, but the more he observed her the more certain he felt that that wonderful skin as well as those lustrous blue eyes and alluring eyebrows owed more to art than to nature. In fact every pose of her head, every line in her figure, the scandalous freedom of her attire were obviously intended to puzzle as much as to attract—and they succeeded. She was the incarnation of a fascination and of a puzzle.
Two more gentlemen had arrived, and Statham was an interested spectator of what followed.
“Princess,” the new-comer said, “I present to you my very good friend the Vicomte de Nérac.”
The lady turned sharply. Was it the visitor’s name or face which for the moment disturbed her equanimity?—yet apparently neither the Vicomte nor she had met before.
“Welcome, Vicomte,” she said, so swiftly recovering herself that Statham alone noticed her surprise, if it was surprise. “And may I ask how a Capitaine-Lieutenant of the Chevau-légers de la Garde de la Maison du Roi happens to be in England when his country is at war?”
“You know me, Madame!” the Vicomte stammered, looking at her in a confusion he could not conceal.
The lady laughed. “Every one who has been in Paris,” she retorted, “knows the Chevau-légers de la Garde, and the most famous of their officers is Monsieur the Vicomte de Nérac, famous, I would have these gentlemen be aware, for his swordsmanship, for his gallantries—and for his military exploits which won him the Croix de St. Louis.”
“You do me too much honour, Madame,” the Vicomte replied.
“As a woman I fear you, as a lover of gallant deeds and as a fencer myself I adore you, as do all the ladies whether at Versailles or in Les Halles,” she laughed again. “But you have not answered my question. Why are you in England, Monsieur le Vicomte?”
“Nine months ago I had the misfortune to be taken prisoner, Madame, but in three weeks I return to my duty as a soldier and a noble of France.” He bowed to the company with that incomparable air of self-confidence tempered by the dulcet courtesy which was the pride of Versailles and the despair of the rest of the world.
“And here,” the lady answered, “is another gentleman who also shortly returns to his duty. Captain Statham of the First Foot Guards, Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac of the Chevau-légers de la Garde. Perhaps before long you will meet again, and this time not in a woman’s salon.”
“When Captain Statham is taken prisoner,” the Vicomte remarked, smiling, “I can assure him Paris is not less pleasant than London, but till then he and I must agree to cross swords in a friendly manner for the favours of yourself, Princess.”
“And you think you will win, Vicomte?”
“It is impossible we can lose,” the Vicomte replied. “Not even the gallantry of the First Foot Guards can save the allies from the genius of Monseigneur the Maréchal de Saxe.”
“We will see,” Statham responded gruffly.
“Without a doubt, sir.” The Vicomte bowed.
Statham stared at him stolidly. He could hardly have guessed that this exquisitely dressed gentleman with the slight figure and the innocently grand air was really a soldier, and above all an officer in perhaps the most famous cavalry regiment of all Europe, every trooper in which, like the Vicomte himself, was a noble of at least a hundred years’ standing, but he was reluctantly compelled to confess that the stranger was undeniably handsome, and his manner spoke of an ease and a distinction beyond criticism. His smile, too, was singularly seductive in its sweetness and strength, and his brown eyes could glitter with marvellous and unspeakable thoughts. From that minute he seemed to imagine that his hostess belonged to him: he placed himself next her at supper, he absorbed her conversation, and, still more annoying, she willingly consented. Statham in high dudgeon had to listen to the polite small talk of his English neighbour, conscious all the while that at his elbow the Vicomte was chattering away to “the princess” in the gayest French. And after supper he along with the others was driven off to play cards while the pair sat in the other room alone and babbled ceaselessly in that infernal foreign tongue.
“The Vicomte,” Onslow said coolly, “has made another conquest.”
“It is true, then, that he is a fine swordsman as well as a rake?”
“Quite true. His victims amongst the ladies are as numerous as his victims of the sword. It is almost as great an honour for a man to be run through by André de Nérac as it is for a woman to succumb to his wooing. Do not forget he is a Chevau-léger de la Garde and a Croix de St. Louis.”
“It is not fair,” Onslow pursued, throwing down the dice-box. “You are not enjoying yourself,” and he rose and went into the other room. “Gentlemen,” he said, on his return, “I have persuaded our princess to add to our pleasure by dancing. In ten minutes she will be at your service.”
The cards were instantly abandoned and while they waited the Vicomte strolled in and walked up to Onslow.
“That is a strange lady,” he remarked, “a very strange lady. She knows Paris and all my friends as well as I do; yet I have never so much as seen her there.”
“Yes,” Onslow answered, looking him all over, “she is very strange.”
“And the English of Madame is, I think, not the English of the quality?” Onslow nodded. “That, too, is curious, for her French is our French, the French of the noblesse. She says her father was an English gentleman, and her mother a Paris flower girl, which is still more curious, for the flower girls of Paris do not talk as we talk on the staircase Des Ambassadeurs at Versailles, or as my mother and the women of my race talk. Mon Dieu!” he broke off suddenly, for the princess had tripped into the room, turning it by the magic of her saucy costume into a flower booth in the market of Paris, and without ado she began to sing a gay chansonnette, waving gently to and fro her basket of flowers:
And the dance into which without a word of warning she broke was something to stir the blood of both English and French by its invincible mixture of coquetry, lithe grace, and audacious abandon, its swift transitions from a mocking stateliness and a tempting reserve to its intoxicating, almost devilish revelation of uncontrolled passion; and all the while that heartless, airy song twined itself into every pirouette, every pose, and was translated into the wickedest provocation by the twinkling flutter of her short skirt and the flashes of the jewelled buckles in her saucy shoes. To Statham as to André de Nérac the princess had vanished, and all that remained was a witch in woman’s form, a witch with black hair crowned with crimson roses and a cream-tinted skin gleaming white against those roses at her breast.
“To the victor,” she cried, picking a nosegay from her basket, and kissing it, “to the victor of the spring!” and André and Statham found themselves hit in the face by the flowers. The salon rang with “Bravos” and “Huzzas” until every one woke to the discovery that the dancer had disappeared.
When she returned she was once more in her splendid robes and frigidly cynical as before.
“I am tired, gentlemen,” she said; “I must beg you to say good-night.” She held out her hand to the Vicomte. “Au revoir!” she said, permitting her eyes to study his olive-tinted cheeks and the homage of his gaze.
“Your prisoner, Madame,” he said, “your prisoner for always!”
“Or I yours?” she flashed back, swiftly.
And now she was speaking to Statham. “We shall meet again,” she said. “Yes, we shall meet again, Captain.”
“Not in London, Madame,” he answered.
“Oh, no! But I trust our meeting will be as pleasant for you as to-night has been for me.”
“It cannot fail to be.”
“Ah, you never know. Women are ever fickle and cruel,” she answered, and once again as he kissed the jewelled fingers Statham was conscious of that pathetic, pantherish light in her great eyes, which made him at once joyous, sad, and fearful.
When they had all gone the woman stood gazing at her bare shoulders in the long mirror. “Fi, donc!” she muttered with a shrug of disgust, and she tore in two one of the cards with which the gamblers had been playing, allowing the fragments to trickle carelessly down as though the gust of passion which had moved her was already spent. Then she drew the curtains across the door between the two rooms, and remained staring into space. “André Pierre Auguste Marie, Vicomte de Nérac,” she murmured, “Seigneur des Fleurs de Lys, Vicomte de—” she smelled one of her roses, the fingers of her other hand tapping contemplatively on her breast. A faint sigh crept into the stillness of the empty, glittering room.
Then she flung herself on the low divan, put her arms behind her head, and lay gazing in front of her. The door was opening gently, but she did not stir. A man walked in noiselessly, halted on the threshold, and looked at her for fully two minutes. She never moved. It was George Onslow. He walked forward and stood beside her. She let her eyes rest on him with absolute indifference.
“There is your pass,” he said, in a low voice in which emotion vibrated.
“I thank you.” She made no effort to take it, but simply turned her head as if to see him the better.
“Is that all my reward?” he demanded. “It was not easy to get that pass.”
“No?” She pulled a rose from her breast and sniffed it. “I believe you. I can only thank you again.”
He dropped the paper into her lap, where she let it lie.
“By God!” he broke out, “I wish I knew whether you are more adorable as you are now on that sofa, or as you were dancing in that flower girl’s costume.”
“Most men in London prefer the short petticoats,” she remarked, moving the diamond buckle on her shoe into the light, “but in Paris they have better taste, for only a real woman can make herself adorable in this”—she gave a little kick to indicate the long, full robe. “Think about it, mon ami, and let me know to-morrow which you really like the better.”
She stooped forward to adjust her slipper. “To-night,” she repeated, “I must decide whether I dislike you more as the lover of this afternoon, the man of pleasure of this evening, or the spy of to-morrow.”
He put a strong hand on her shoulder. In an instant she had sprung to her feet.
“No!” she cried, imperiously, “I have had enough for one day of men who would storm a citadel by insolence. Leave me!”
“You are expecting some one?”
“And if I am?”
“Don’t torture me. Tell me who it is.”
“Perhaps you will have to wait till dawn or longer before you see him.”
“I will kill him, that is all,—kill him when he leaves this house.”
“I have no objection to that,” was the smiling answer. “One rake less in the world is a blessing for all women, honest or—” she fingered her rose caressingly.
“Is it one of those who were here to-night!” he demanded. “Perhaps that infernal libertine of a Vicomte de——”
“Pray, what have my secrets to do with you?” She faced him scornfully.
“This.” He came close to her. “You flatter yourself, ma mignonne, that you guard your secrets very well. So you do from all men but me. But I take leave to tell you that three-fourths of those secrets are already mine.” She sniffed at the rose in the most provoking way. “Yes, I have discovered three-fourths, and——”
“The one-fourth that remains you will never discover until I choose.”
“Do not be too sure.”
“You, ma mignonne, you the guest of many men, will be in my power, and you will be glad to do what I wish. Oh, I will not be your cur, your lackey, then, but you will——”
She dropped him a curtsey, and walked away to an escritoire, from a drawer in which she took out a piece of paper.
“The one-fourth that remains,” she said, holding it up, and offering it to him, “I give it to you, my cur and lackey.”
She watched him take it, unfold it, read it. His hand shook, the paper dropped from his fingers, and while he passed his handkerchief over his forehead she put the fragment in the fire.
They faced each other in dead silence. She was perfectly calm, but his mouth twitched and his eyes gleamed with an unhallowed fire and with fear.
“Are you mad?” he asked at last, “that you confess such a thing to me—me?”
“Better to you,” she retorted, “than to that infernal libertine, the Vicomte de Nérac, or that infernal simpleton, Captain Statham, eh? No, mon ami, my reason is this: Now, you, George Onslow, who profess to love me, who would make me your slave, are in my power, and the proof is that I order you to leave this room at once.”
“I shall return.”
“Then you certainly will be mad.”
“Ah!” He sprang forward. “Can you not believe that I love you more than ever? I——”
The door had slammed. Onslow was alone.
For a minute he stood, clenching his hands, frustrated passion glowing in his eyes. “Ah!” he exclaimed in a cry of pent-up anguish, and then the door slammed again as he strode out.
Two months later André, Vicomte de Nérac, was riding in the woods around Versailles, and, poverty-stricken, debt-loaded noble as he might be, his heart was gay, for was he not a Capitaine-Lieutenant in the Chevau-légers de la Garde, and a Croix de St. Louis; was he not presently about to fight again for honour and France, and was he not once more a free man and in his native land with Paris at his back? The leafless trees were just beginning to bud, though winter was still here, but the breath of spring was in the air and the gladness of summer shone in the March sun. Yes, the world bid fair to be kind and good, and André’s heart beat responsive to its call. Love and honour and France were his, and what more could a noble wish?
He let the reins drop and breathed with contentment the bracing breeze, while his eyes roamed to and fro. Clearly he was waiting for some one who, his anxious gaze up the road showed, might be expected to come from that quarter—the quarter of the Palace of Versailles.
Along the path walked a peasant girl driving a splendid spotted cow. The bell at its fat throat tinkled merrily, the sun gleamed on its glossy spotted hide. The girl dropped a curtsey to the noble gentleman sitting there on his fine horse and himself so handsome a cavalier, and André nodded a smiling reply. She was not pretty, this peasant wench, with her shock of tumbled flaxen hair tossed over her smutty face, and her bodice and short skirt were soiled and tattered, but André, to whom all young women were interesting, in the sheer gaiety of his heart tossed her a coin and smiled again his captivating smile.
“May Monseigneur le Duc be happy in his love!” the wench said, as she bit the coin before she placed it in her bodice, and André remarked with approval the whiteness of her teeth. If her face was not pretty her body was both trim and sturdy, and she walked with the easy swing of perfect health. He could have kissed her smutty face then just because the world was so fair and he was free.
“You have a magnificent cow, my dear,” he remarked.
“But certainly,” she answered and her white teeth sparkled through her happy laugh, “better a fat cow for a wench than a lean husband. She carries me, does my spotted cow, which no husband would do,” and she scrambled on to the glossy back and laughed again, throwing back her shock of flaxen hair. André observed, heedful by long experience of such trifles, that not even her clumsy sabots could spoil the dainty neatness of her feet.
“And what may your name be?” he demanded.
“Yvonne, Monsieur le Duc; they call me Yvonne of the Spotted Cow, and some,” she dimpled into a chuckle, “Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles. I am not pretty, moi, but that matters not. My fat cow or my ankles will get me a husband some day, and till then, like Monseigneur, I keep a gay heart.”
Whereupon she drove her heels into the cow’s flanks and the two slowly passed out of sight, though the merry tinkling of the bell continued to jingle through the leafless trees long after she had disappeared.
André waited patiently. An hour went by, still he waited. Twice he trotted up the road and peered this way and that, but there was not a soul to be seen, and with a muttered exclamation of disgust he was about to spur away when the notes of a hunting horn caused him to gather up the reins sharply. And now eager expectation was written on every line of his face.
A young lady in a beautiful riding dress of hunting green, and attended by a single lackey on horseback, came galloping down the forest track. At sight of him by the roadside she pulled up her horse in great astonishment.
“André—you—you are back?” she said, and the colour flooded into her cheeks.
“Thank God, yes.”
“Perfectly. My wounds are healed. I am a prisoner no longer, and in a fortnight I return to the Low Countries to seek revenge from my enemies and yours, Denise, the English.”
Her grey eyes flashed, then dropped modestly. “You will find revenge, little doubt,” she said, “the Maison du Roi are soldiers worthy of the noblesse and of France. But do you not come to Versailles first?”
“No. My company is not on duty this month at the Palace and in April we shall all be with His Majesty in Flanders.”
“Yes,” she answered, “I forgot.”
She began to stroke her horse’s neck in some embarrassment. André gazed at her with the hungry eyes of a starved lover, and indeed this girl was worthy of a soldier’s homage. Neither a brunette nor a blonde, for her eyes were grey and their lashes almost black, though her hair was fair and the tint of her cheeks in the morning air delicate as the tint of a tender rose. Beautiful, yes! but something much more than beautiful. A great noble this lady surely, one who saw in kings and queens no more than an equal, and in palaces the only fit home of beauty nobly born, one to whom centuries of command had bequeathed a tone and quality which men and women can inherit but not acquire.
“And when I return,” André said at last, “shall I find at Versailles what I desire more than revenge?”
“What is that?” she asked innocently.
“Can you not guess? Have you forgotten? Ah, Denise, twelve months ago you promised——”
“No, no,” she broke in, eagerly, “I said I would reflect.”
“There is only one thing that a poor Vicomte and a soldier of France can desire—your heart, Denise; your love, Denise; the heart and the love of the most beautiful and loyal woman in France, the heart of the Marquise de Beau Séjour. And André de Nérac loves the Marquise as he loves France. Can he say more?”
“I think not,” she said, averting her eyes, “and the Marquise de Beau Séjour thanks the Vicomte de Nérac for his words and his homage—to France.”
“I do not desire thanks—I——”
“Then go and do your duty as a noble and a soldier, and when peace and victory are ours perhaps I——”
“I cannot wait till then. Have pity, Denise, have pity on the man who was your playmate, who loved you then and who loves you now. Remember, remember, I beg you, that over there in England the one thought that consoled my prisoner’s lot was the hope that when I returned to you—you would——”
“But, André, I cannot give you an answer, here, now——”
“Give it me then before I return to the war, that I may know whether I am to live in hope, or to die sword in hand and in despair.”
“There is more than one marquise in the world,” she said, quietly.
“Not for me.”
Denise looked at him, and he dropped his eyes, for he understood the calm reproach.
“Very well,” she said, with decision. “I go to my home to-morrow. You shall have my answer in four days at the Château de Beau Séjour if you care enough to come and hear it.”
“If—” he broke off. “Ah, Denise—!” he stretched out a passionate hand.
“Hush! There is some one coming.”
A young man was galloping towards them, a boy he seemed, saucy, insolent, handsome, fair, with great blue eyes sparkling with the gayest, wickedest, most careless joy of living. Removing his plumed hat with an airy sweep he kissed the lady’s fingers, bowed low in the saddle, and looked into her face:
“Marquise,” were his words, “the company and His Majesty await you.” His dare-devil eyes roved on to André’s face with a studied insouciance, but André gave him back the look, and more.
Denise made haste to present the young man. “Monsieur le Chevalier de St. Amant, secretary of the King’s Cabinet,” she said and her eyes pleaded for politeness from both.
“Monsieur le Vicomte goes to the war?” the Chevalier asked, carelessly.
“As all true subjects of His Majesty ought to do,” André retorted.
“Except,” said the Chevalier, bowing to Denise, “those who find more pleasant pastime here at home.”
“It is curious,” André remarked, as if he had not heard, “that I who have known Versailles for ten years learn to-day for the first time of St. Amant. Where is St. Amant?”
“Ah,” answered the Chevalier, laughing, “in this life, Vicomte, we are always learning what is disagreeable. The dull philosophers of whom we hear so much in Paris at present say soldiers learn more than others—or ought to? Perhaps you differ from them?”
“Ma foi! no. For when it is necessary the soldiers teach what they have learned to the young men and the schoolboys, which is very good for the schoolboys. But perhaps you, sir, do not like lessons?”
“No, oh, no! my only regret at present is that I cannot stay now and have one at once. But Mademoiselle la Marquise will take your place and I can learn, as we ride together, something that she alone can teach. Monsieur le Vicomte, I have the honour to wish you good-morning and good-bye.” He raised his plumed hat and galloped away with Denise.
The flush in André’s cheek did not die out for some minutes. “Upstart! Puppy!” he continued to mutter while his eyes glittered and his fingers twitched involuntarily on the handle of his sword. But his wrath and his scowls were suddenly dispelled in the most unexpected and agreeable way. A crisp tinkle of bells, the crack of a whip, and down the road came driving an ethereal phaeton, azure blue in colour, and in it sat an enchantress most bewitchingly clad in rose pink.
She too appeared to be waiting for somebody or something, for she pulled up ten yards off and gazed in the direction of the hunting horns which could be heard distinctly in the depths of the wood. To André she was most annoyingly indifferent, but the more he looked at her and marked her exquisite dress, her wonderful complexion, her seductive figure, and her entrancing equipage, the keener was his chagrin. Who was this airy sylph of the royal forest, this divinity floating in the rose of the queen of flowers through a leafless world as Venus might have floated on the sun-kissed foam at dawn? Gods! What a taste in dress, what a bust, and what amorous, saucy charm in her eye!
André fell back behind the trees and watched; nor did he have to wait long. In five minutes the royal hunting train swept by. The rose-pink lady curtsied to her sovereign. A cry of distress! Her hat caught by a sudden gust—surely it was very loosely set on that dainty head—flew off and fell almost under the hoofs of the horse of the King of France. Majesty looked up, coldly, caught her appealing eye, looked down at the hat, and galloped on as if he had seen neither the hat nor its owner. The royal party behaved exactly as did their master, and the rose-pink goddess was left with disgust and indignation in her face and a tear trickling down her cheek.
André moved his horse forward, whereupon she threw a glance over her shoulder almost comic in its pathos and its amusement, as if she did not know whether to laugh or to cry; a glance which convinced his susceptible heart that she had been perfectly well aware of his presence all the while and now invited him to take what she had always intended he should have. In a second he was off his horse and was handing her the hat. Her bow and her smile were more than a reward, for if the rose-pink divinity was alluring seen from behind, she was positively bewitching at a distance of four feet in front. What wonderful eyes! They spoke at once of everything that could stir a soldier’s soul, and her blush was the blush of Aurora.
With the prettiest hesitation she inquired his name, which he only gave on condition that she should also tell hers. But this she laughingly refused. “My name is nothing,” she remarked, “for I am nobody. If you knew it you would despise yourself for having been polite to a bourgeoise.”
“Impossible!” André cried.
“But it is so,” she persisted, gravely, a challenge stealing from under her demure eyelashes.
“I shall find out,” André said, “I shall not rest till I find out.”
“Then inquire,” she retorted gaily, “Rue Croix des Petits Champs—perhaps you will succeed,” and without more ado she flashed him a look of defiant modesty, whipped up her ponies, and the azure phaeton vanished as rapidly as it had appeared.
André stroked his chin meditatively. What did it mean? Who was the unknown and why did she come to the woods in that enchanting guise? A bourgeoise! Pah! it would be well if all the women of the bourgeoisie and some of the noblesse possessed but one of the secrets of her irresistible womanhood. But find out he must, and André, hot on this new quest, began to trot away. He was in a rare humour now, for he had noticed with unbounded satisfaction that, while Denise had been of the royal party, that boyish Chevalier had not.
But he had not ridden far when he was amazed to discover by the roadside Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles weeping as if her heart would break.
“What is the matter?” he demanded.
“Monseigneur—ah! it is the good Monseigneur—” she fell to crying again. “They have stolen my spotted cow,” she sobbed, “robbers have stolen my spotted cow.”
“But yes, three great robbers, and they have beaten me and taken Monseigneur’s piece too. My cow, my spotted cow!”
“See, Yvonne,” he said soothingly, “I am no monseigneur, I am only a poor vicomte, but you shall have another cow, a spotted cow, too.”
But she would not believe it, whereupon he took all the money in his purse, four gold pieces and three silver ones, and thrust them into her hand.
She stared at the money incredulously.
“There, girl,” he urged, for a woman’s distress, even though she were only a peasant, hurt him, “be happy and buy a fat and spotted cow.”
She kneeled to kiss his hand. “Monseigneur,” she sobbed, “is kind to a poor wench. Surely the good God has sent him to me,” and she poured her hot tears of gratitude on the ruffles of his sleeve.
“I am happy again,” she murmured. “Yes, I will buy a cow and be happy,” and she began to sing, flinging the coarse matted hair out of her eyes.
André watched her contentedly; it was pleasant to see her joy.
“Monseigneur is not happy,” she surprised him by saying shyly.
“Can the poor be happy?” he asked, absently, for he was thinking of the goddess in pink.
“No,” she muttered, “not while there are robbers in the land, and the poor are taxed till they starve. Monseigneur is in love. Did I not see him talk with the great lady in green?” she added suddenly. “Ah, if Monseigneur would listen to a poor girl he too could be happy.”
“Peace!” he commanded, but he was much amused.
“I too was in love,” she answered, “and women stole my lover from me as the robbers stole my cow, and I was sick. I wasted away, but the good God who sent me Monseigneur put it into my heart to go to the wise woman who lives at ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold’——”
“’Tis a new tavern in the woods by the village yonder,” she replied earnestly, “and a wise woman lives there. For one piece of silver she brought me back my lover. They say she is a witch, but she is no witch, for with the help of the good God she cured my sickness and changed my lover’s heart so that once again he was as he had been.”
“Tush!” André interrupted, impatiently.
“But it is true,” she persisted. “And if Monseigneur is in distress, he, too, should go to the wise woman, and she will make him happy. It is so, it is so.”
“Adieu, my child, adieu!”
“Monseigneur will not forget. ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,’ in the woods——”
He gave her matted head a pat. It was a pity she was not pretty, this wench, for she had a buxom figure. “A soldier,” he said lightly, “does not love wise women, Yvonne, he loves only the young and the fair and he wins them not by sorcery, but by his sword.”
“Monseigneur is a soldier?” she asked with grave interest.
“Yes, a soldier of France.”
“My lover too is a soldier, but not as Monseigneur. Ah!” she whispered, “if all the nobles of France were as Monseigneur there would be no unhappy women, no robbers, and no poor.”
André left her there. His heart was gay again though his purse was empty, for he had made a woman happy. And as he rode through the woods he could hear her singing as she had sung when he had seen her first on the sleek back of her spotted cow. And all the way to Paris that song of a peasant wench softly caressed his spirit, for it clinked gaily to the echoes of the soul as might have clinked the golden spurs of the cock in the woods of Versailles, and it was fresh with the eternal freshness of spring and the immortal dreams of youth.
The March sun was setting on the hamlet of La Rivière, in the pleasant land of Touraine—Touraine the fit home of so many noble châteaux, the cradle of so many of the proudest traditions and the most inspiring memories of the romance of love and chivalry in the history of France.
André was standing in the churchyard of the hamlet, but it was not at the landscape that he knew so well that he was looking, nor even up the slope beyond, where the great Château de Beau Séjour shot its towers and pointed turrets through its encircling domain of wood. Ten leagues away in the dim distance lay Nérac, the poverty-stricken home from which he took his title, and whose meagre patrimony encumbered with the debts of his ancestors and his own barely sufficed to provide a living for the widowed mother to whom that morning he had said good-bye and whom the English in the Low Countries might decide he should never see again.
Yet it was not of his mother that he was thinking, still less of the enchantress of the forest whose identity he had discovered—one Mademoiselle d’Étiolles she had proved to be, “La Petite d’Étiolles,” as that gay Lothario the Duc de Richelieu called her, the daughter of a Farmer-General, a bourgeoisie notorious for her beauty, her wit, and her friendship with the wits. Indeed he had forgotten the rose-pink divinity in the azure phaeton entirely. No, he was striving to pluck up courage to face Denise and receive her answer. For if that answer was not what he desired it would be better to ride straight down into the Loire and let the last male of the House of Nérac put an end to it for ever.
Twinkling lights began to shine in the great château; its towers and gables insolent in the majesty of their beauty, strong in the might of their antiquity, challenged and defied him in the dusk. That was the château of his Denise, the Marquise de Beau Séjour whom he, gallant fool, rich only in his noble pedigree, dared to love and hoped to win, Denise the richest heiress in France. Yet it had not been hers so long; its broad seignories were a thing of yesterday for her. Fifteen years ago she, as he, had been only the child of a vicomte as poor if as noble as himself. And Beau Séjour lay not here, but ten leagues away, a mile from Nérac, where that church spire hung its cross above the horizon.
The soft gloom of the growing dusk imaged for André at that moment the sombre pall of tragedy which twelve years ago had fallen on the great château. An ancient house, a venerated name had been its owner’s; were not their achievements written in the chronicles of France? was not their origin lost in the twilight of dim ages far, so far away? Capets and Valois and Bourbons that house had seen coming and going on the throne, honour and fame and wealth and high endeavour had been theirs, and then shame and doom, swift, unexpected, irreversible. The story of their downfall had been his first lesson learned in budding manhood of the harshness of the world and the mystery of fate. Such a simple story, too. The wife of the Marquis had run away with a lover, a baseborn stranger gossip called him. The lover had deserted her, why and where no one knew, and disowned by her husband she had died miserably. Her husband, a soldier and ambassador of the great Louis Quatorze, had in despair or madness plunged into treason, and had paid the traitor’s penalty on the scaffold. His only son and heir, from remorse or consciousness of guilt, had perished by his own hand in Poland, whither he had gone to fight in the war. And here to-day at his feet a rough and stained tombstone marked the neglected grave of the only daughter who had remained. Had she lived she would to-night have been just two years older than Denise; had there been no treason, she and not Denise would have been mistress of that château now called De Beau Séjour.
Denise’s father for service to the state had been awarded the lands of the traitor; the old name for centuries noted in this soil had been annulled in infamy; its blood was corrupted by the decree of the law, and by the King’s will the new Marquis had carried to his new possessions the title of his old, that Beau Séjour yonder so near to his own Nérac. The law and the King so far as in them lay had determined that the very name and memory of the ancient house should be blotted out for ever. But blot out the château they could not. There it stood haughty as of old, to tell to all what had once been, and the curious could still read here and there in its storied walls the arms and emblems, the scutcheons and shields of a family which had given nine Marshals to France, and in whose veins royal blood had flowed. What did that matter now? To-day it belonged to Denise, once poor as he was, and destined to be his bride before this sudden swoop upward on the ruins of another to the high places of France.
As André paced to and fro in the dusk the ghostly memories thickened. Twenty years ago as a boy he had ridden with his father to that château. He remembered but two things, but he remembered them as vividly as yesterday. Over the chief gateway a splendid coat of arms had caught his boyish fancy and he had asked what the motto “Dieu Le Vengeur” might mean. “Why, father, there it is again,” he had cried, for in the noble hall, above the famous sculptured chimney-piece, the first thing that caught the boy’s eye was the scroll with those three words “Dieu Le Vengeur.” And the second memory was of a little girl playing with a huge wolf-hound in the dancing firelight under that motto, a little girl with blue eyes and fair hair, innocent of the evil to come, playing in her hall which had seen kings and queens for guests. “Dieu Le Vengeur” she had repeated—“God will protect me,” and they had all laughed. But had God protected her? Here was her grave at his feet. André now recalled his dying father’s remark five years later, when he had heard how his neighbour the Comte de Beau Séjour had been rewarded with the treason-tainted marquisate. “That would have been yours, André, my son,” he had said. And no one had understood, and he had died before he could explain, if explain he could. That, too, had been another bitter lesson in the cruelty of fate, in the bleak, bitter tragedy of baffled and unfulfilled ambitions.
Smitten with a sudden pity, a sharp anguish, André kneeled in the damp, tangled grass and peered at the tombstone which marked the humble resting-place of the dead, worse than dead, dishonoured and infamous. “Marie Angélique Jeanne Gabrielle ...” the rest was eaten away. But in the church close by lay the coffins of her ancestors, the crusaders and nobles, and Marshals of France. The names had been obliterated. But not even a wronged king had dared to remove the tombs with which that church was eloquent of the glories that had once been theirs. Yes, they lay there of right, but she, little Marie, cradled in splendour, who had prattled of “Dieu Le Vengeur,” she, the daughter of a wanton and a traitor, lay here in the rain, and the sheep and the goats browsed over her, and the sabots of those once her serfs and tenants made an insulting path over her grave. And up there another reigned in her place.
A traitor! Yes, his daughter deserved her fate. There should be no mercy for traitors.
“What seek you, Monsieur le Vicomte?”
He started at the question. It was the Chevalier de St. Amant, boyish, insolent, though his tone was strangely soft.
“I was finding a lesson,” André replied quietly.
“In a tombstone?”
André explained. The Chevalier seemed impressed, for he went down on his knees and peered for some minutes at the weather-beaten stone.
“Poor child!” he muttered. “Poor child!”
André was thinking the Chevalier was better than he had supposed, but his next action jarred harshly. Standing carelessly on the stone he gathered his cloak about him. “Ah, well,” he remarked, with his dare-devil lightness, “it is perhaps more fortunate for you or me that little Marie is where she is.”
“For you or me?” André questioned, peering into his young face.
“The Marquise awaits you, Vicomte,” he twitched his thumb towards the château, “perhaps you will understand better when you have seen her,” and with a careless tip of his saucy hat he strode away.
For one minute André burned to seize that cloak and speak to him very straightly. “Pah!” he muttered, “it will do later. Perhaps it will not be necessary at all.”
But it was with increased misgiving that he rode up to the château.
Denise received him in the great hall, unconsciously reproducing the picture which was burnt into André’s memory, for she stood with a certain sweet stateliness by the sculptured chimney-piece and a huge hound lay at her feet. Above her head the emblazoned scutcheon of the old house still adorned the noble carving—indeed you could not have destroyed the one without destroying the other—and the glad firelight which threw such subtly entrancing shadows on the dress and girlish figure of the young Marquise seemed to point with tongues of flame to that sublime motto, “Dieu Le Vengeur!” above her head.
André bowed and halted. Ambition, passion, and hope conspired to choke him for the moment. How fair and noble she was! yes, surpassingly fair and noble.
Denise said nothing. She stared at the buckle of her slipper.
“I have come for my answer,” he said, in a low voice.
She met his pleading eyes fearlessly. “The answer is, ‘No,’” she replied, and her voice, too, was low, as if she could not trust it.
“No?” he repeated, half stunned.
She simply bowed her head.
“You mean it? Oh, Denise, you cannot mean it?”
“I have reflected and I mean it.”
André stepped nearer. “I do not remind you, Denise,” he said, speaking with a composure won by a mighty mastery of himself, “that I love you, that I have loved you since I could love any woman. If you would not believe it before I was taken prisoner, when I spoke in the woods of Versailles, you would not believe it now. Nor do I remind you that twelve months ago you spoke very differently. A lover and a gentleman does not speak of these things when the answer has been ‘No.’ But I do ask you, before you say ‘No,’ always to remember that it was the wish of your dead father and of mine that the answer should be ‘Yes.’”
“My father died five years ago, yours even longer,” she answered.
“Do the years alter their wish?” he asked, with a touch of passion, “do they make a promise, good faith, honour, less a promise, less——”
“There was no promise,” she interrupted.
He bowed calmly. The gesture was better than speech.
“And your reason, Denise?”
“I said I would give you an answer, I did not undertake to give reasons.”
“Certainly. May I plead, however, that perhaps, remembering the past, what you and I have been to each other since childhood, I have some right to ask?”
She placed her fan on the shelf of the chimney with sharp decision. The firelight flashed in her grey eyes. “I refuse,” she said, very distinctly, “to marry a man who does not love me.”
“Then you do not believe my words?” he questioned quickly.
“You are a noble, André,” she answered; “the courtesy of a noble and a gentleman requires that when he demands a woman’s hand in marriage he should profess to love her. For the honour you have done me I thank you, but a woman finds the proof not in words but in deeds. You are a brave soldier, but you do not love me. That is enough.”
“No, it is not enough for me,” he answered.
“Very well.” She took a step forward. “I had no desire to discuss things not fit for a girl to speak of to a man who has done her the honour to ask her hand in marriage, and I would have spared both myself and you unnecessary pain. Plainly then and briefly, when I take a husband I do not choose to share what he professes is his love with any other woman. That is my reason and my answer in one.”
A flush darkened his sallow cheek. “It is not true,” he protested passionately, “it is not true.”
“You would deny it?” she cried, passion too leaping into her voice. “Is that letter to the Comtesse des Forges, one of my friends—my friends, mon Dieu!—yours, or is it not?” She handed it to him with hot scorn.
“It was written twelve months ago,” he said, somewhat lamely.
“And the duel which it caused is twelve months ago, too, I suppose? The right arm of her husband the Comte des Forges is healed, but the wound—my God! the wound in his heart and mine, that you can never heal. And she is not alone. Does not Paris ring with the gallantries of the Vicomte de Nérac? For aught I know there may be a dozen husbands in England who have lost their sword arm because André de Nérac professed to love their wives.” She checked herself and was calm again. “I thank you for the honour you have done me, but—” she offered him the stateliest, coldest curtsey, “Vicomte, I am your servant.”
She would have escaped by the door behind her, but André intercepted her. “No,” he said, “you do not leave me yet. I, too, have something to say and you, Marquise, will be pleased to hear it.”
Their eyes met and then Denise walked back to her place by the fireplace. She was trembling now, and she no longer looked him in the face.
“As to the past,” he said in a low voice, “I say nothing, for I deserve your reproaches. I have been foolish, wicked, unworthy of you. But there is no noble to-day at Versailles of whom the same could not be said. Men are men, and I have never concealed from you what I have been. But such things do not destroy love. They cannot and they never will, and every woman knows it. My past, I assert, is not your reason.”
“What then is?” she asked proudly.
“I am poor, you are rich, but that is not the reason, either. Do not think I would dishonour you by supposing that I believed that, though some whom you call your friends say it is. No, the reason is that while I have been away, a prisoner, defenceless, silent, some one—” he paused, “some one has been poisoning your mind, some one who hopes to take the place——”
“Take care——” she interrupted.
“You speak of the gossip of Paris. I will not tell you what the gossip of Paris and Versailles says, for you will hear it and more fitly from other lips than mine. But I say, that poisoner will answer to me.”
She was about to speak, but checked herself.
“And I will tell you why. First because I love you and I love no one else. You do not believe it. You ask for deeds, not words. In the future you shall have them. And second, because you, Denise, love me, yes, love me.”
“Have done, have done with this mockery!” she cried.
“Tell me,” was his answer, “on your word of honour, that it is not so, tell me that you do not love me and never will, tell me that you love another and on my word as a gentleman I will never speak of love to you again.”
Dead silence. André waited quietly.
“I refuse,” she said, slowly, picking the words, “to be questioned in this manner. But as you insist, I repeat—I do not love you.”
André bowed. “One word more, Denise, if you please,” he said, “one word and I leave your presence for ever.”
She drew herself up. “Yes,” she said, “leave me for ever.” But for all that she, as he, seemed spellbound to the spot.
André deliberately drew from his pocket the letter that she had thrown in his teeth and faced her. “Thank you,” he said, very calmly. “Now that I know you mean what you said, I, too, know what I must do.” He walked away.
“Give me that letter,” she said with a swift flash of command. “It belongs to me.”
“Pardon,” he answered, quietly, “yesterday the Comte des Forges was killed by a friend of his whose honour he had betrayed. The letter belongs to the lady to whom it was written, the lady who will be the Vicomtesse de Nérac.”
A faint cry escaped from Denise’s lips. For the moment she leaned faint against the chimney-piece, white and sick.
André looked at her, but he made no effort to offer her either sympathy or help. Then he walked back, Denise watching him, and flung the letter into the fire. Denise started, but she said nothing, though her great grey eyes were eloquent with half a dozen questions.
“The letter has served its purpose,” André said. “Adieu, Marquise!”
“What does this—this trickery mean?” she demanded, hotly.
“You must forgive one who loves you,” was the calm reply, “for love laughs at tricks. The Comte des Forges is alive and well: he has a wound in his shoulder which is only a scratch, for the poor Comte is always believing that some one is betraying his honour and Madame the Comtesse has a fickle heart. Yesterday I was his second, so I know.”
“Then—then—” she cried and stopped.
André bowed most courteously. “You refused to believe me, Mademoiselle: I returned the compliment and refused to believe you—and I proved it by a lover’s trick, if you choose to call it such. That is all, but it is enough.”
“Ah!” She crumpled up the fan in speechless indignation.
“No, Denise,” he said softly. “I shall not trouble you now or soon, but—” he had caught her hand—“you shall yet be mine, I swear it. You think you do not love me, but you shall be convinced—you shall.”
He kissed her fingers with a tender reverence. “Adieu, Marquise! I go to my duty and revenge,” he said, and he left her there under the spell of his mastery, with her boar-hound at her feet, and the flames of fire pointing to the motto “Dieu Le Vengeur!”
André rode at a walking pace down the slope to the village, for he wanted to think. He had always prided himself on his knowledge of women; he had imagined he knew Denise as well as himself. She was of his class, lovely, high-spirited, proud, patriotic, and best of all a true woman. Hence it was a sore and surprising blow to his pride to discover that she should reject his love because he had lived the life of his and her class. He had gone to the château to confess everything, to swear that from this day onwards no other woman, be she beautiful as the dawn, as enchanting as Circe, could ever occupy five minutes of his thoughts. And he meant it. Those others, the shattered idols of a vanished past, had simply satisfied vanity, ambition, a physical craving. But Denise he really loved. She inspired a devotion, a passion which gripped and satisfied body, soul, and spirit; she was that without which life seemed unmeaning, empty, poor, despicable. But why could not she see this—the difference between a fleeting desire and the sincere homage of manhood to an ideal, between the gallant and the lover? What more had a wife a right to expect than the love of a husband, brave, loyal, faithful? It was unreasonable, for men were men and women were women. Yet here was a woman who did.
But he would—must—win her. That was the adamantine resolution in his breast, all the stronger because she had scorned and defied him. Yet he would win her in his way, not hers. Yes, he would conquer her against herself. For him life now meant simply Denise—the heart and the soul and the spirit of Denise—the conquest of a woman’s will. The hot pulses of health and strength, of manhood, his noble blood and ambition throbbed responsive to the resolution. He thanked God that he was young and a soldier, that there was war and a prize to be won. Yet he also felt that this love meant something new, that it had transformed him into something that he had never dreamed of as possible. And victory would complete the change. So as he rode the fierce thoughts tumbled over each other in a foam of passion, in the sublime intoxication of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth—from which he was rudely awakened.
He had halted for the moment at the door of the village inn. In the dingy parlour sat the Chevalier, one leg thrown over the table, a beaker in his hand resting on his thigh, while his other hand was stroking the chin of the waiting wench, a strapping, tawdry slut.
André kicked the door open. “Am I disturbing you?” he said, pitching his hat off as if the parlour were his own.
“Not in the least,” the Chevalier replied without stirring, though the girl began to giggle with an affectation of alarmed modesty. “My wine is just done”; he drained off the glass. “I will leave Toinette to you, Vicomte, for,” he put on his hat, “it is time I returned to the château.”
This studied insolence was exactly what André required. “I thank you,” he said, freezingly, “but before I take your place, you and I, Monsieur le Chevalier, will have a word first.”
“As you please, my dear Vicomte,” said the young man, swinging comfortably on to the table and peering at him from under his saucy plumes. “You will have much to say, I doubt not, for you must have said so little at the château. Run away, my child,” he added to the wench, who was now staring at them both with genuine alarm in her coarse eyes, “run away.”
André closed the door. “You will not return to the château,” he said quietly.
“My dear Vicomte, you suffer from the strangest hallucinations, stupid phantoms of the mind, if you——”
“Perhaps,” was the cold reply, “but the point of a sword is a reality which exorcises any and every phantom.”
The Chevalier laughed softly.
“Yes,” André continued, “I say it with infinite regret, because you are young, you will not return to the château, for I am going to kill you, unless——”
“Unless?” The Chevalier slowly swung off the table.
“Unless you will give me your word of honour now that you will leave France to-morrow and never return.”
The young man reflectively put back one of his dainty love curls. “Ah, my dear Vicomte,” he answered, “I say it too with infinite regret, but that I cannot promise. So you must kill me I fear. Alas!” he added with dilatory derision, “alas! what have I done?”
“Very good”—André fastened his cloak—“in three days we will meet in Paris.”
“In Paris? Why not kill me here?”
“Here?” André stared at him in astonishment.
“Here and at once.” He walked to the door. “Two torches,” he called, “two torches.”
When he had lit them the Chevalier marched out. “This way,” he said politely; “permit me to show you, with infinite regret, where you can kill me.”
Half expecting a trick or foul play André followed him cautiously until he stopped in a deserted stable yard, paved and clean, and completely shut in by high walls. The young man gravely placed one torch in a ring on the north wall and the other on the wall opposite.
“That,” he said, in the pleasantest manner possible, “will make the lights fair. You”—he pointed to the west—“will stand there, or here, if you prefer, to the east. You will agree, doubtless, that to a man who is to be killed it is a trifle where he stands.”
The torches flared smokily in the April dusk. He was mad, this boyish fool, stark, raving mad. But how prettily and elegantly he played the part.
“See,” the Chevalier said lightly, “there is no one to interrupt—the murder. Toinette knows neither my name nor yours; she will hold her tongue for money and in half an hour you will be gone—and I”—he shrugged his shoulders—“well, it is clean lying here, cleaner, anyway, than under the grass in that dirty churchyard.”
“You mean it?” André asked slowly.
The Chevalier took off his saucy hat and fine coat, hung them upon one of the rusty rings in the wall, and turned back his lace ruffles. A flash—his sword had cut a rainbow through the dusk across the yellow flare of the torches. “I am at your service, Vicomte,” he said with a low bow. “And I shall return to the château when and how I please, and I shall be welcome, eh?”
“By God!” André ripped out. “By God! I will kill you.”
He too had flung off his coat and cloak and took the position by the east wall. A strange duel this, assuredly not the first in which the Vicomte de Nérac had fought for a woman’s sake, but the strangest, maddest that man’s wit or a boy’s folly could have devised. André was as cold as ice now, and he calmly surveyed his opponent as he tried the steel of his blade. How young and supple and insolently gay the beardless popinjay was; but he had the fencer’s figure, and the handling of his weapon revealed to the trained eye that this would be no affair of six passes and a coup de maître. Yet never did André feel so calmly confident of his own famed skill and rich experience. No, he would not kill him, but he would teach him a lesson that he would not forget.
For a brief minute both scanned the ground carefully, testing it with their feet, and marking the falling of the lights from those smoking torches, the flickering of the shadows in the raw chill of eve. All around was deathly still. Not so much as the cluck of a hen to break the misty silence.
The Chevalier was about eight paces off. He now came slowly forward, eagerly watching for the right moment to engage. A swift movement as of a strong spring unbound—a flash—and steel clashed on steel. Yes, the young man could fence. The true swordsman’s wrist could be felt in his blade, the swordsman’s eye in his point, and his passes came with the ease of that mastery of style, swiftness, and precision that the fencer can feel but not describe. For a couple of minutes both played with the greatest caution, for they were both in the deadliest earnest. True, this was idle flummery at present; each had still to know the ground, to learn the secrets of those cruelly baffling lights, to get the measure of the other’s powers. A false step, a misjudged lunge, a gust of wind, a foolish contempt might mean death. And for one, at least, the issue was Denise.
So André, who had always relied on his fire and quickness to disconcert, flurry, and tempt, kept himself sternly in hand, offering no openings and disregarding all. The moment would come presently, the divine moment, and then!
They were both shifting ground slowly, and in their caution they gradually edged and wheeled until the Chevalier almost stood where André had started.
“Bah!” the young man cried, “this is tedious,” and he suddenly changed his tactics. He was now attacking with a fiery swiftness which made André’s blood warm, and stirred his admiration, but he noted with joy how reckless his opponent was growing. Twice the lad only saved himself by the most dexterous reversing of his lunges.
“Fool!” André muttered to himself, “that is not the game to play with me; in three minutes he will be mine,” and he, too, began to press his attack. Ah!—ah!—only by the swiftest convolutions of that supple body had the Chevalier saved himself. André began to nerve himself for a final assault. Should he give him the point in his sword arm—his shoulder, or his lungs? And then the torch light flared right into his face.
In a second he saw what it all meant. By those superb reversed lunges he had been lured on till he had been manœuvred into a place where both torches fell in his eyes and that young devil had the lights behind him. He—he, André de Nérac, had been outplayed by this beardless youth! And now he was in a corner of this damned court-yard with the cursed flicker from the walls making lightning on the crossed steel. “Diable!” he growled, “you would!” and he flung himself on his opponent in the madness of despair and wrath. It was now almost a mêlée corps à corps, but the Chevalier would not give way. He had penned André to the place he desired and he meant to keep him there.
“Holà! Je touche!” he cried.
How had it happened? One of the torches had gone out in a puff of air, André’s sword was on the stones and the Chevalier had his foot on it. By an infernal Italian trick he had dropped on one knee, the lunge that should have gone through his heart had passed over his head and by some superhuman secret he had twisted the weapon from his opponent’s grasp. Yes, André had lost Denise and death was upon him.
With a quick gesture the Chevalier pitched the sword over the wall and stood sword in hand facing the defenceless André. The breeze stirred his dainty love locks.
“Monsieur le Vicomte,” he said cheerfully, “will perhaps permit me now to return to the château. I have had my lesson.” André clenched his fists sullenly. “Toinette,” the young man called, dropping his point, “Toinette, bring another torch, and assist Monsieur le Vicomte with his coat. You are a good wench, Toinette, and a discreet, is it not so?”
“Curse your Italian tricks,” André growled, “curse you and your Italian tricks.”
“Yes, it was a trick, learned in Italy from a great master in the art. But all is fair in war—and in love! I did not wish to be killed and you are too good a swordsman for any one to beat in half an hour, and that is all I had. Come, Vicomte, we have had our little encounter. Can we not be friends?” He offered his hand.
André stared sulkily, yet feeling somewhat ashamed.
“I am not going to the château,” the Chevalier added quietly. “I, too, am going to the war with my master and yours, the King. If it will satisfy you, I will promise not to speak to Mademoiselle the Marquise de Beau Séjour until we both return.”
“You can do as you please with regard to Mademoiselle la Marquise,” André said sharply.
“And will you do me a favour?” the young man pleaded. “I beg you that for the future you will not speak of our meeting here to any one.”
“Simply because I regret now that I prevented myself from being killed by a low trick. Life to the young is sweet—it is my sole excuse to a better swordsman than myself.”
“Very well,” André answered, touched to the quick by the faultless delicacy with which the compliment was paid.
“I thank you. Perhaps now you will give me your hand?”
“With the greatest pleasure.”
The Chevalier had for the moment stormed his heart with the same superb grace that he had robbed him of his sword.
And then in the sorest dudgeon André strode out in search of his sword. To his surprise the wall of the court where they had fought backed on to the churchyard, and a few minutes’ groping revealed his sword by the strangest accident lying in the damp, matted grass that sprawled over the tombstone of the little Marquise Marie. Yes, at that bitter moment he could have shed tears of shame as he recalled the defeat and the humiliation inflicted on him by that beardless boy, on him, a Capitaine-Lieutenant of the Chevau-légers de la Garde, on him who had never been vanquished yet. And he had sworn to win Denise! Why was he not lying under the sod, forgotten and dead to the pain of the world, like little Marie?
A figure was creeping past him in the dark—a woman!
“Who is that?” he cried sharply, plucking at her hood.
“Monseigneur, it is me—me, Monseigneur.”
“Yvonne!” He let the hood go as if he had been stabbed.
“But yes, Monseigneur, Yvonne of the Spotted Cow.” She kissed his hand, humbly.
“Yvonne,” he gasped. “What do you here?”
“I was born in this village,” she answered, “my mother, she lives here. She is old, my mother.”
“Surely, Monseigneur. It is the truth.”
André shivered. Half an hour ago how near his mother, who was old too, had been to praying for the soul of her only son. And she had been spared that pain by the courtesy of a beardless chevalier.
“And what do you now in the churchyard?” he asked.
“I come to say my prayers for the little Marquise Marie. She is in the bosom of the good God, is our little Marquise, but I say a prayer for her soul when I am happy.”
“And why do you pray for the Marquise Marie?” he asked.
“Because surely she is our Marquise. That other”—she waved a hand at the twinkling lights of the noble château—“the King gave to us, but there is only one Marquise for us here, the little lady Marie, who is dead. Dieu Le Vengeur! Dieu Le Vengeur!” she whispered softly below her breath.
“Peace, girl, peace,” he said, half sadly, half angrily.
“Monseigneur,” Yvonne whispered, “Monseigneur loves the Marquise Denise——”
“Who told you that?” he demanded so fiercely that Yvonne shrank back.
“It was the wise woman,” she answered, “the wise woman of ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,’ who knows everything. Ah! if Monseigneur would go to the wise woman she would tell him how he might win the Marquise Denise. Did she not give me back my lover, did she not tell me where to find again my spotted cow, did she not tell me that Monseigneur would be here to-day?”
“She told you that?” he gasped.
André sat down on the tombstone in the supremest amazement and confusion. What did it, could it mean?
“I will pray,” Yvonne went on in her innocent, soft voice, “to our little Marquise that Monseigneur may marry the Marquise Denise.”
“Why?” André asked.
“Because then Monseigneur will be our lord and we will be his serfs.”
“You would like to be my serf, Yvonne?” he demanded, putting his hand on her shoulder, and he could feel her tremble.
“Surely, surely,” she answered.
“Then you shall—some day you shall, I swear it.”
A gust of hot passion swept over him. She was not pretty, this peasant wench, but she had a noble figure, and the comfort of a woman’s caress in that hour of abasement appealed with an irresistible sweetness to his wounded spirit. Something, however, checked his arm that was about to slip round her—as if Yvonne herself by a mysterious power paralysed his passion. Yet she made no effort to escape, and under his hand on her plump shoulder he could feel that she, too, was in the grip of strong emotion.
His arm dropped to his side.
“Monseigneur will go to the wise soothsayer,” she said very quietly, “for she can help him better than any peasant wench.”
And then André laughed. The gaiety of yesterday had suddenly remastered him. He forgot the shamed sword, the Chevalier, and that infernal court with its smoking torches. Denise should yet be his, and this strange girl his serf.
“Why, then, I will seek this wise woman,” he answered lightly, “before I go to the war. I promise, Yvonne.”
And so he left her to her prayers at the tomb of the child who should have been her lord. But she did not pray very long. Indeed, had André cared he might have seen her wrapped in her coarse cloak walking swiftly towards the twinkling lights of the great château, and she sang as she had sung on the back of her spotted cow.
It was a strangely superstitious age this age of Louis XV., strangely superstitious and strangely enlightened. On the one side the illuminated philosophers of the rising school of Voltaire, on the other a society ready to be gulled by every charlatan, quack, or sorceress clever enough to exploit the depths of human credulity. You shall read in the fascinating memoirs of that century how the male and female adventurers tricked to their immense profit that polished, gallant, cynical, and light-hearted noblesse which made the glory of the Court. And André was a true child of his age. Yvonne’s mystifying remarks had stirred all the superstition and awe lurking behind his hollow homage to the established religion, and human curiosity whetted this stimulus of superstition. He scented, in fact, an agreeable adventure in a visit to this mysterious witch.
But first he consulted his friend Henri, Comte de St. Benôit, like himself a Chevau-léger de la Garde, and like himself notorious for his skill with the sword and for his countless gallantries. Was it not St. Benôit who had taken his place in rousing the jealousy of the Comte des Forges and who had also been obliged to give the hot-headed husband the quietus of a flesh-wound?
Henri of course knew all about the wise woman. Was she not the talk of the bel monde?
“She won’t see you,” he said. “She only prophesies to women, and very few of them. I tried to bring her to book, but her girl, a devilish saucy grisette with a roving eye and a skittish pout, shut the door in my face, by Madame’s orders, if you please.”
“And you went away?”
“No, indeed, I put my knee against the door and said that as I couldn’t pay Madame I must pay her. Not the first time the hussy has been kissed, and it won’t be the last. You, too, will discover the jade hasn’t the dislike to men that her mistress has.”
“What will you wager she will not see me—the mistress?”
“A kiss from my Diane of the ballet. I’ll bet, too, Madame is not at home at all, for she comes and goes like a will-o’-the-wisp. But if you do see her she’ll tell you something cursedly disagreeable. She frightened the poor Des Forges, your Comtesse and mine, into hysterics, and,” his voice dropped, “she warned the Duchesse de Châteauroux she had only three weeks to live—and it was all the poor thing had. Don’t go to her, my dear André; she’ll see you in her crystal globe, face upwards in a heap of dead with an English sword in your guts.”
Needless to say, perhaps, that afternoon saw André at the tavern called “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,” which, save for a brand-new sign-board, had all the appearance of a farmhouse hastily turned into an inn. Buried in the woods between Paris and Versailles it was exactly suited for a rendezvous to which all might repair without the world being any the wiser. André had carefully disguised himself, and as he rapped on the door his appearance suggested rather the comfortable bourgeois than the noble Capitaine-Lieutenant des Chevau-légers de la Garde. To his surprise he won his wager with greater ease than he had dreamed.
The saucy grisette, whose demure demeanour could not conceal the shifty falseness of her roving eyes, took to her mistress the name he gave, the “Sieur de Coutances,” and then, to his joy, speedily ushered him with no little ogling into an empty, low-beamed parlour, which was simply the apartment of a woman who could indulge her love of luxury. Of the sorceress trade there were no traces unless you counted for such an enormous black cat with the most ferocious whiskers, who arched his back on André’s entrance and glared at him with diabolical yellow eyes—a cat to make the flesh creep and bristle as did his whiskers.
“Welcome, Vicomte, welcome!”
André found himself staring in the dim light with intense surprise, not at a wizened hag, but at a young woman scarcely more than five-and-twenty, dressed in flowing coal-black draperies which made her wealth of fair hair, blue eyes, and dazzling skin all the more startling. Her dress was wide open at the throat and on her breast flashed an exquisite diamond cross. And what a figure! Those flowing draperies, that step forward revealed a woman perfectly shaped in every limb. It was therefore a shame that above her upper lip there was the suggestion of a dark moustache, though it added in the most extraordinary way to the weird effect of her appearance.
“Welcome, Vicomte, welcome!” she repeated, but she offered him no salute save a wave of her finely shaped hand towards a chair.
“I am not a vicomte,” André answered doggedly.
“Then when did the Vicomte de Nérac lose his rank?” she asked quickly, and laughed at his obvious embarrassment. “Ah, Vicomte, if I were not able to divine who my visitors were I should not have a trinket like this—” she patted her diamond cross, stooped and lifted the huge cat and stroked it gently with her chin.
“And what can I do for you?” she demanded, coming closer.
“My faith, but I do not know,” he answered. The faint perfume of her person was puzzling him sorely. But in truth he was familiar with the perfume of so many women that it was hopeless to expect an answer to the question.
“Nor do I,” the woman answered, still laughing, and her laugh was like the purr of her cat. “In any case, Monsieur le Vicomte must wait. A lady is already here to see me. No, it is not necessary to retire. In spite of that I have said, you doubt my powers; therefore you shall listen while she and I talk.”
She pointed to a large screen and André, now burning with curiosity, gladly seated himself behind it. The woman with the cat still in her arms promptly flung herself on to a long sofa and rang her hand-bell.
“Introduce Madame,” she said to the girl, “Madame’s fille de chambre must wait without.”
The visitor, André decided, was young. Her trim figure, the coquettish pose of her head, the graceful dignity of her carriage filled him with the liveliest regret that he could not see her face, which was thickly veiled. She came to an abrupt halt in the centre of the room—for the woman on the sofa never stirred. Clearly she, too, had expected something very different.
“Your name, Madame?” asked the sorceress abruptly.
“Mademoiselle, if it please you,” the visitor corrected, “Mademoiselle Lucie Marie Villefranche.”
André was listening now with all his ears. Where before had he heard that crisp, alluring voice?
“Mademoiselle—” persisted the visitor, nettled.
“Then why does Mademoiselle wear a wedding-ring?”
The visitor made an impatient movement, bit her lip, and petulantly drew off her glove. On the hand she triumphantly held out there was no sign of a wedding-ring.
“It is in Madame’s pocket,” the sorceress said calmly. “But it is of as little importance as is Madame’s husband to her.”
The visitor checked an indignant reply and simply glared through her veil.
Excellent fun, thought André, when you set one woman against another—and such women!
“Give me your hand,” the sorceress proceeded, and she inspected it with the greatest care, the owner watching her with ill-concealed anxiety. “I see a crown in the palm which I cannot understand,” she said slowly, “a crown reversed. A beautiful hand,” she murmured, “beautiful and strong. The hand of a morceau de roi.”
Madame Villefranche uttered a sharp cry, almost of triumph. “Morceau de roi,” she repeated. “Morceau de roi. That is strange. You have heard perhaps that long ago another soothsayer also said the same.”
“I must consult the orb,” the other replied as if she did not hear, and she gazed long and silently at the crystal circle which she produced from its resting-place beside the diamond cross. “Yes, it is quite clear now.”
“What do you see?” was the eager question.
“A great gallery—it is I think the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles—there are many men and women in it, finely dressed—I see a lady in a rose-coloured satin in their centre—it is her favourite colour—they pay court to her——”
“Ah!” Madame Villefranche had stood up. Her hand went involuntarily to her heart.
“One enters with his hat on”—the sorceress jerked out slowly—“he keeps it on—he advances as they bow—he takes his hat off—it is the King—he kisses the hand of the woman in rose-coloured satin—she salutes——”
“Mon Dieu!” Madame Villefranche suddenly kneeled beside her. André, as excited as she was, crawled forward so as not to lose a word.
“I see her again”—the woman proceeded after a pause—“she gives orders to ministers—she makes generals—she tramples on all who oppose her—the King is her slave—ah! the crystal is disturbed—no—no—there is much unhappiness—the land is poor—there are jealousies, strifes, quarrels, wars—starving men and women cry out against the King and his mistress—but the woman in the rose-coloured satin still wears her jewels—she does not hear them. What is this?—yes, it is—a hearse leaving Versailles for Paris—the King looks out of the window above on to the Place d’Armes—he shrugs his shoulders—I do not see the woman in the rose-coloured satin any more—I think surely she is dead and no one cares—ah! the crystal has become dim.” She put it down and closed her eyes.
Dead silence, but André could hear the deep-drawn breaths of Madame Villefranche. Her hands were twisted in supreme emotion.
“And the face—the face of the woman, did you see that?” she asked with dry lips.
The sorceress opened her eyes. “Oh, yes,” she said slowly. “It is the face of Madame d’Étiolles, born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson—your face, Madame,” she added as she flung her visitor’s veil swiftly back. The cat leaped from her arms. Madame Villefranche sprang to her feet; the two women were confronting each other, each drawn to her full height.
André too had risen. Ha! At last he understood. The visitor was no other than the fair huntress of the woods who had driven to see the King, in an azure phaeton, herself clad in rose-coloured satin.
“Ah!” exclaimed Madame d’Étiolles, stretching her arms. “Ah!” Then she turned on the sorceress furiously. “My woman has betrayed me,” she cried.
“Oh, no, Madame”—she curtsied as to a queen—“not your woman but the crystal and yourself.”
The other threw up her head incredulously. “If you reveal,” she said harshly, “that I have visited you——”
“I never reveal who my visitors are,” was the quiet answer, “they always reveal themselves.” She sat down indolently, but there was almost insolent provocation in the simple grace of the movement.
Madame d’Étiolles turned away. “And your pay?” she demanded sharply.
“As Madame pleases,” came the indifferent answer from the sofa.
The visitor placed five pieces on the table, replaced her veil, and walked towards the door. “Adieu!” she said over her shoulder, but André could see she stepped as one intoxicated by a sublime vision.
“And will Madame remember the wise woman,” the sorceress pleaded in her soft voice, “if the crystal be found to speak the truth?”
“Yes”; she had wheeled sharply, a merciless freezing vengeance glistened in her eyes and steeled her voice. “I will have you burned for an insolent witch. I promise not to forget.”
“My thanks, Madame.” She rang the hand-bell, and Madame was unceremoniously ushered out. The sorceress sat reflecting and then placed the crystal in her bosom and took away the screen.
“It is the turn of Monsieur le Vicomte,” she remarked pleasantly. “It is a pity I did not ask the lady to stay and hear.”
“No, I thank you,” André answered. “I am satisfied, and so was she.”
“Monsieur is not as Madame,” the sorceress said, fixing a penetrating gaze on him, “he fears his fate.”
“Oh, no,” was the quick reply. “My fate lies in my sword and my head. I am ready to face it without fear or reproach when and as it comes. But I will not know beforehand, not even for a crown reversed.”
For a brief second her eyes rested on him with approval, and indeed he looked very handsome and noble at that moment.
“But Monsieur will permit me,” she said gently, and before he could refuse she had taken his hand, “I will not speak unless he wishes.”
While she studied it he studied her. What a subtle pathos seemed to lie in those blue eyes, those smiling lips, that dainty head almost touching him, a pathos like her perfume ascending into the brain. And how enchanting was that diamond cross rising and falling on that dazzling breast.
“What is it?” he asked, for she had dropped his hand with a faint sigh, and sat staring mysteriously at something far away.
“I am forbidden to speak,” she answered, averting her eyes, and she picked up her cat, and walked away.
“You shall tell me,” André said impetuously.
But she only laughed over the cat’s body, stroking it softly with her chin till its purr echoed through the room.
“Confess, confess,” he said, “I will know.”
“The hand of Monsieur le Vicomte,” she answered, smiling mischievously, “is full of interesting revelations—dreams which come and go—but there is one dream that is always there—the dream of love. Women,” she added, “women, women everywhere in Monsieur’s life; as in the years that were past, so in the years to come. Let the Vicomte de Nérac be on his guard against all women—and against one woman in particular——”
André failed to suppress an exclamation. Had this beautiful witch divined that secret too?
“Her name,” she paused to bury her face in the cat’s fur, “is—Yvonne—Yvonne,” she repeated, “of the Spotless Ankles.”
“Yvonne!” he laughed heartily.
“Yes, Yvonne. Sometimes there is more in a peasant girl to tempt and ruin than in a Comtesse des Forges, or a marquise—” it was her turn to laugh. “Ah! the Vicomte is a gallant and reckless lover. He thinks as the noblesse think, that women are necessary to him. But it is not so. It is he who is necessary to them.”
“And your fee for the advice, mistress?”
She flung the five gold pieces of Madame d’Étiolles into a drawer. “Madame has paid for both,” she said. “But if the Vicomte de Nérac will offer something of his own, I will accept—a kiss,” and she looked him daringly in the face.
The hall of the Château de Beau Séjour swept in a vision before him. Dieu Le Vengeur seemed to be written in a scroll of fire round the cat’s ruff.
“I understand,” she added with a contemptuous shrug of her shoulders, “though I am not a marquise or a comtesse.”
“You shall have it,” he blurted out with husky petulance.
She put her hand to her diamond cross—they looked at each other—the woman melted into a defiant reverence.
“The horse of Monsieur le Vicomte,” she commanded quickly to the girl who had appeared as if by magic. “Good-day, sir. You can pay the fee to—Yvonne.”
And here he was alone with the shifty-eyed fille de chambre, who plainly gave him an invitation to mistake her for Yvonne.
“Confound you, what do you wait for?” André said irritably. “Fetch the horse at once if you don’t want to taste a rogue’s fare with your mistress in prison.”
And as he rode through the woods it was little comfort to remember that he had won his wager with Henri, Comte de St. Benôit.
In December the Duchesse de Châteauroux, the maîtresse en titre of the King of France, had died, some said of poison, some of a broken heart at her treatment at Metz when she had been driven by her enemies from the sick King’s bedside and from the Court, a few because she had caught a chill and even maîtresses en titre were mortal. Would Louis select another lady to take her place? Who would she be? That was the question. France was at war—that dreary war called in the books the “War of the Austrian Succession”—and this spring—1745—under the Maréchal de Saxe, (the son of a king and Aurora von Konigsmarck, himself the idol of women of quality as he had been the idol of Adrienne Lecouvreur) great efforts were to be made to drive from the Low Countries the red-coated English and white-coated Austrians, to win for the Fleurs-de-Lis the boundaries that, since the days of Henri IV., God, nature, and French genius had destined to be French. Was not Louis, Le Bien Aimé, himself going to the campaign with the flower of his nobility and with his son and heir? Yes, surely great things would be accomplished before the September winds shook the apples off the trees in the orchards of Normandy or they trod the wine-vats on the sun-clad slopes of Gascony. Paris was in a fever of excitement; the Court was still en fête for the marriage of Monsieur le Dauphin to a Saxon princess. But would there be a successor to the hapless Duchesse de Châteauroux? That was the only question about which the Paris that counted really cared.
André of course went to tell St. Benôit how he had won his bet, and he found him gossiping in the salon of the Comtesse des Forges.
“The King has already chosen,” Madame remarked, fanning herself placidly. “But Monseigneur the Archbishop and the royal confessor are still able to work on his remorse, so for the present His Majesty affects to play at being a dévot.”
“I don’t believe it,” St. Benôit retorted. “The King will be a dévot for one day in the week and a lover for the other six, as all kings of France and their subjects, too, ought to be. Naturally he does not wish to shock Madame la Dauphine, but wait till the campaign is over; Mars will give way to Venus, and then we shall have one of the De Nesles back again.”
Whereat Madame lifted her heavy-lidded eyes, of which she was so proud, and said contemptuously, “Pooh!”
“I have won the wager,” André interposed, “and I will undertake to win another. I will bet that it will not be a De Nesles, but a bourgeoise that the King will select.”
“Impossible!” both St. Benôit and Madame cried, genuinely shocked. “A bourgeoise at Versailles! It would be a scandal, unheard of, monstrous, not to be tolerated.”
But André only smiled, and press him as they might he refused to say more.
“Well,” said the Comtesse, “if you will go to-night, my dear De Nérac, to the ball at the Hôtel-de-Ville you will learn whether I am not right.” And after André had taken his leave she turned to St. Benôit, with genuine concern. “England,” she said, “has demoralised our dear friend. The English have made him incredibly vulgar. As if the King of France would so far forget himself or be so impertinent to us as to introduce into our Versailles a bourgeoise. There would be a revolution.”
“I can see you, Madame,” he answered, “giving the lady her footstool.” He kneeled mockingly at her feet. “God bless my soul! you might as well expect me to kiss the hand of your fille de chambre. André was joking; he knows if the King were to bring her to Court she would not stay a week.”
“A week!” Madame threw up her noble head. “Not twenty-four hours.”
But André, who had heard the crystal’s story, had his good reasons. Already fertile schemes were fermenting in his brain; his ambition, too, was daily soaring upwards, and he dimly guessed that in this strange circling of Fortune’s wheel the opportunity for which he thirsted would at last come. And so like the rest of the gay world he went that night to the grand ball given by the municipality of Paris at the Hôtel-de-Ville in honour of the marriage of the Dauphin; for the King had promised to be present, and it was to be one of those rare occasions when the noblesse had consented to rub shoulders with the middle class in doing honour to the royal bride and bridegroom. Coming events were in the air. André felt, though why he could not say, that to-night would somehow prove a decisive turning-point in the history of himself and of France.
For the purpose of dancing, the court of the Hôtel-de-Ville had been converted into a ballroom, superbly festooned and illuminated, and the crowd that had gathered was immense. Nobles of the realm, great ladies, peers, peeresses, and the Court here jostled in the wildest confusion with the gentlemen of the robe, with aldermen, shopkeepers, and even flower girls and the danseuses of the royal ballet. The company was supposed to be masked, but many had already discarded the flimsy covering; and for all who still wore it the disguise was the merest affectation. Most of the ladies of the middle class had donned fancy attire, but the noblesse for the most part showed their quality by refusing to imitate the canaille. André of course was content with his uniform of the Chevau-légers de la Garde, that beautiful and famous livery of scarlet with white facings, silver buttons, spurs of gold, and hat with white plumes which in itself conferred an enviable distinction, and about his neck, more proudly still, he carried that Croix de St. Louis, whose possession sufficed to make any soldier happy.
For a few minutes he stood gazing at the brilliant spectacle presented by the moving throng,—one vast arena of human beings in which the uniforms, the stars and ribbons, the jewels, the bright eyes, and the fair shoulders were blended into a magic and inspiring panorama, over which floated the tender music of harp, violin, and flute. And as he moved slowly forward kissing noble hands, receiving gentle congratulations, or looking into eyes to which in past days he had whispered devotion in the Œil de Bœuf or beneath the balmy fragrance of a fête champêtre at Rambouillet his ambition soared still higher. But dance he would not; he had come to watch, to teach, and to learn. The Chevalier to his joy was not here; he had been despatched, André discovered with grim satisfaction, on special business of the King. But yonder was Denise, holding a miniature court. As André edged his way towards her, her glance fell on the familiar uniform, and it plainly said: “Here at least let us forget the past—I have forgiven you—come let us be friends as we were before.” And André replied to her graceful reverence with his stiffest bow, as he had deliberately come to do, and then moved slowly off, but not before he had marked with a lover’s joy the pained surprise in Denise’s eyes, the angry flush that coloured her cheek. But the lesson must be completed. A partner must be found and at once. He paused—looked about him—started.
“You, Madame!” he ejaculated, checking his astonishment, for Denise was watching him.
“I, Monsieur le Vicomte,” was the serene reply. “This is more fun than spelling the truth from a crystal,” and she laughed wickedly.
Yes, it was indeed the wise woman from “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,” wearing her diamond cross and dressed in adorably pale blue satin, just such a colour as her eyes covered by the pale blue mask. Strangest of all, André felt at that moment there was not a woman in all this throng who carried herself with more of the true air of the noblesse than did this young sorceress, who plied a charlatan’s trade for hire.
“The Vicomte looks to-night as the Vicomte de Nérac should,” she remarked quietly. “But is it my presence here or is it my perfume that perplexes you?”
And André started again at her unerring divination.
“Surely it is very simple,” she proceeded. “Recall, if you please, a supper party in London—the perfume was there then—now it is here. That is all.”
“What?” He stopped in sheer amazement. “You are that—that woman?”
“Certainly. The same, only a trifle disguised. In London I was dark, in Paris I am fair, because,” she shrugged her shoulders, “I love change and I hate being recognised unless I choose. You will not betray my secret, will you?”
“No. But why are you in Paris?”
“Women like myself,” she answered cynically, “are always dying of ennui, and I was born a Parisienne. Can a Parisienne live without Paris? Well, I cannot. London, mon Dieu! Those suffocating English! They make love as they eat beef and drink beer. Their women are prudes, their men heavy as bull-dogs made of lead. London is a ville de province—no wit, no ideas, no life. Here,” she pointed with her fan, “it is far different. Where will you find the like of that for gaiety of heart, and sparkle of the soul? It is the city of breeding, of philosophers, of poets, of chivalry, and of lovers. Why, that grisette over there can be more spirituelle than an Englishman of genius. And when even the lovers who make love with ardour and in couplets that sing of themselves become annoying I go elsewhere.”
André listened with a puzzled delight. It was not the perfume—it was the mystery that enveloped her which kept him silent. Something in her voice, her manner, reminded him in the most tantalising way of somebody else and for the life of him he could not think who that somebody was.
“No,” she replied to his invitation, “I will not disgrace you by dancing—you the Vicomte de Nérac and I—” she smiled. “Besides you have seen me dance in the only kind of dancing that I care about. But see,” she added, dropping her voice, “do you not recognise a friend, perhaps a partner? Is she not charming—conquering and to conquer?”
“Name of a dog!” he ejaculated.
Away at the other end of the ballroom was a raised dais on which was gathered a bevy of the fairest of the bourgeoisie. One of them, escorted by three or four gentlemen, was descending the stairs into the throng—a woman in the guise of Diana, clad in the airiest, gauziest, purest white, with a silver bow in her hand and a quiver on her shoulder and a jewelled half-moon in her powdered hair. It was—yes, it was—the fair huntress of the woods of Versailles, to-night a matchless spectacle of majestic beauty which rippled over into the gayest, most provocative coquetry imaginable—Juno and Venus and Diana in one and defying you to say which was the more divine. And that cunningly arranged robe of glittering white, with its artful jewels to suggest every curve and line, was just what witchery would have chosen to be the foil to the laughter of her eyes and the subtle sheen of her skin. What other woman could have worn it? But for the one who dared, it was the homage of a woman’s art to the triumph of nature’s womanhood.
André watched her with absorbing interest. Fate had ordained that this woman’s ambitions should be bound up with his. But how? how?
“She has a mind,” his companion was saying, “as well as incomparable beauty. That Abbé at her elbow is Monsieur de Bernis, a poverty-stricken poet who writes her love-letters for her, whom she will make great some day, perhaps, and if Monsieur de Voltaire cared as much for balls as for the muses, he, too, would be snarling his honeyed venom in her ear. She can act and dance and sing. She will not always be Madame d’Étiolles.”
The plans of years were sweeping through André’s brain. What if the crystal—the thought was cut short by a stately flourish of trumpets and the loud hum of applause.
“See,” the sorceress whispered, “the King has arrived.”
Men and women pressed to the entrance and then fell back—on all sides the lowliest reverences. The King, the master of France, had entered and was facing the crowd. And a truly royal figure he made in his splendid dress, for Louis XV. knew how to present himself as a worthy grandson of the Sun God who had created Versailles and made monarchy in Europe sublime: the pose of his handsome head, the dignity of his carriage, the matchless air of command that conveyed an air of majesty such as could only belong to one whose wish since boyhood was law, whose words were orders, whose will was the inspiration of a nation. And when you marked that faint mysterious smile, those blue eyes delicately dull, was he not just like his grandfather, indefinable and impenetrable? What was the real man concealed behind that regal presence? What were the real thoughts masked by that gaze, slightly bored yet caressing and sweet?
“You do not like the King?” André asked quickly, for he had caught behind the pale blue mask a swift glance which sent a shiver down his spine.
“I love him,” she answered, “as all we women do. But I was thinking of the day when I am to be burnt for a witch.”
It was not the truth and André knew it. A woman’s jealousy, he thought—but that, too, he knew it was not.
“My friend,” she said, “go you and salute Madame d’Étiolles. Perhaps you will see something later on to amuse you,” and as if to assist him she glided from him and was lost in the crowd.
She had divined his mind again. To speak with the fair huntress was the resolve that had mastered him. And to his satisfaction Madame no sooner recognised him than she beckoned with her fan, smiling a shy and intoxicating welcome.
André kissed her hand, looking into her eyes, imperial eyes in which slumbered imperial ambitions, such wonderful eyes, now blue, now grey, now softly dark as the violet, now glittering with the lightest mockery. “Un morceau de roi,” he muttered. “Yes, by God! a morceau de roi!”
“Conduct me to yonder pillar,” she said presently, “we can talk better there.”
But that was not her reason, for to reach the pillar they must pass near the King. Clearly Madame d’Étiolles was bent on playing to-night the game of the woods at closer quarters. André as he escorted her now felt that all eyes, including Denise’s, were on him, but he enjoyed it, walking slowly on the giddiest tiptoes of bravado. In front of Louis, he paused to make his reverence. Madame paused too, and as she unslung her quiver to curtsey with more graceful ease André could feel her tremble. The King’s roaming gaze rested on them both. André’s salute he acknowledged with a smile, a word or two of kind greeting, but it was on the jewels on the breast of the huntress that his bored eyes lingered.
“Fair archeress,” he said, “surely the shafts you loose are mortal.”
Madame d’Étiolles flushed with pleasure, curtsied again, and promptly passed on, without attempting to reply.
“Mon Dieu! what a figure! Who the devil is she?” André heard one of the gentlemen of the Chamber mutter.
“You did that to perfection,” his partner whispered by the pillar. “You are a man who understands women, and they are so rare. And now we will dance if you please.”
The sorceress was right. Madame d’Étiolles danced divinely. She had been taught by the best masters, but it was only art that she owed to their science. The rest was her own.
“Will you please do what I tell you?” she whispered as the violins tripped out a stately minuet. “And trust me.”
“Rely on me, Madame,” he answered.
Imperceptibly Madame d’Étiolles in her minuet drew nearer and nearer to the King, who began to observe them closely. A gleam of animation crept into his face and the courtiers parted a little to permit His Majesty a better view of this dainty dancer. Covert whispers, knowing looks, commenced to run through the group. Yes, the King was distinctly interested. But the fair Diana paid no heed. She had only eyes for the superb officer in the scarlet and white of the Chevau-légers de la Garde, who was dancing as he had never danced before.
“Throw your handkerchief,” came the soft command.
Completely puzzled André obeyed as in a dream. His partner caught the handkerchief dexterously on her fan and was rewarded by a ripple of delighted laughter from the spectators.
“A forfeit, Vicomte,” she said loud enough for all to hear, “I give you tit for tat,” and she pressed her own to her lips, and tossed it back to him.
But it was not intended to reach him. The huntress had calculated carefully and the handkerchief lightly hit the King.
A flush shot into Louis’s face; Madame coloured over neck and shoulders, she dropped her eyes, after one swift glance at His Majesty. Silence, save for the dying lullaby of the music. André’s heart beat fast, but not so fast surely as was beating that ambitious heart of the huntress prisoned in its jewels and white satin.
What would the King do? Would he resent or accept the challenge?
Gentlemen and ladies, nobles and bourgeois alike, drew a deep breath. Ah! the King had picked up the handkerchief—a second’s pause, the pause in which a nation’s destiny may be decided—and then the King smilingly threw the handkerchief back, fair and true, at the audacious dancer.
A pent-up cry arose, hands were clapped. “The King has thrown the handkerchief, the King has thrown the handkerchief,” was the ringing sentence on the lips of all.
Madame caught the royal gift and melted into an enchanting reverence. One alluring side-glance under demure eyelashes, a glance of challenge and of submission, and she had taken André’s arm and glided swiftly back to the dais.
“The King has thrown the handkerchief” still rang round the crowded room. But where was the dancer? She was gone—yes, actually gone without waiting to follow up her victory. And of the expectant, excited throng André alone recognised how unerring was her tact. The huntress had accomplished her object. Henceforward it would not be she who must hunt, for defiance to royal hunters can be more triumphant than obedience.
André went over to Madame des Forges and St. Benôit. “You have lost again,” he said, “and you will confess it now.”
“It is infamous,” replied the Comtesse, with fierce indignation. “Infamous! But that grisette has not won yet; the road from the Hôtel-de-Ville to Versailles is long and difficult!”
“Ah, no,” André answered; “not when you can travel in a royal carriage. You will see what you will see when the campaign is over. The bourgeoise before long will have the heel of her slipper on all our necks.”
“And you believe,” said the Comtesse, “that we will permit her to be forced on us. You are as mad as she is.”
She promptly took St. Benôit’s arm to mark her anger at the part André had played. But he only shrugged his shoulders in infinite amusement. A week ago, true enough, he had scorned to lend himself to such tactics, but to-night he was insensible to the reproach that his noble blood should have felt. For he, too, was under the spell of fate and of a witchery far more potent than the drug of any magician. It was not in mortal man to resist the sorcery of that fair huntress who played on human and royal passion as a musician on a stringed instrument. But there was more than mere passion in that dainty wimple of cambric and lace: “La Petite d’Étiolles” was gambling for a great stake. What if she were to be his ally in his great game? Before André there unrolled a wonderful vision of the future. He was necessary to these women. Bien! They should be necessary to him, and bitter as was the contempt in Denise’s pure eyes it only steeled his determination remorselessly to tread the path he had planned towards his goal—Denise.
The King had lost his interest and left the ball. He had entered it a free man; he left it in thraldom. And all Paris knew now that for good or evil the reversed crown of the Duchesse de Châteauroux lay in the lap of another. How long would she be permitted to wear it?
As André hastened to leave, a touch was laid on his arm. “Do you believe in the crystal now?” asked a gently derisive voice.
Ah! the sorceress! he had forgotten her. “You are a true witch,” he said, “you will certainly be burnt. But I thank you.”
“I understand,” she replied and she took the arm he offered. They walked in silence in search of her carriage.
“Why do you hate politics?” André demanded suddenly.
“Because,” she answered slowly, “it is the women to whom politics are a passion who ruin kingdoms.” The vehemence of the reply was as surprising as its nature. “Women,” she added, “governed the great Louis Quatorze, they corrupted the Regent, they will bring our sovereign and his kingdom to be the scorn of the world. Better a hundred witches, a hundred wantons, than one woman whose passion it is to govern a kingdom through its King. That is the woman who should be burnt.”
It was a new idea to André: it would have been a new idea to the salons of the Faubourg St. Germain, to the galleries of Versailles.
“Yes,” she continued, “when a woman is not content to be a wife and a mother she deserves to be treated only as the idol of an hour, the pastime of a fleeting passion.”
“O Monsieur!” she retorted. “Believe me, it is pleasanter for the women in the end and better for the men that such women should be denied everything except that for which they live—pleasure.”
They had reached the carriage.
“Do you remember the pay for which you asked?” he questioned, taking her hand.
“Yes, I can never forget it.”
She stepped serenely into the carriage. “Then,” she whispered, “I shall get it, I suppose, when I really want it,” and she swiftly shut the door in his face. “Drive to the hotel of the Duc de Pontchartrain,” was her order.
André swore softly. The Duke was his friend and also perhaps the greatest libertine in Paris. She should not escape him. In a quarter of an hour he was supping with the Duke and his merry crew; women there were in plenty, but this sorceress, the daughter of a Paris flower girl, had neither been invited nor had so much as exchanged a word with his grace. And when André, weary of lansquenet, ribald songs, and copious toasts, slunk to bed with the rising sun he was strangely glad that she had tricked him. But if she was not what she so cynically professed to be what did it mean? And why in her presence did he always have that irritating feeling that somewhere and somehow he had met her before?
The sun of spring had set on May 10, 1745, the eve of a day memorable in the military annals of the British and French nations. Behind a camp-fire in the entrenchments of Fontenoy André warmed himself, one of the many camp-fires which flared into the dusk on that plain which for two centuries has been the cock-pit of Europe; and as he stared out absently into the swiftly falling night an answering gleam scarcely a mile and a half away yonder to the south-east at Maubray told him that there lay the headquarters of the allied forces of the foe, English, Dutch, and Austrians, commanded by an English prince of the blood-royal, the Duke of Cumberland.
There had been some warm skirmishing to-day. The British and the Austrians by sheer weight of numbers had tumbled out of the enclosures and copses the Pandours and Grassins thrown out as irregular out-posts from the French army; and since then André and St. Benôit with many others had watched the allied generals and their staff reconnoitring at a safe distance the masterly position drawn along the slopes of Fontenoy by Monseigneur le Maréchal de Saxe. A hard nut to crack, gentlemen, these lines, study them through your spy-glasses as you will. Nor will you find it easy to detect the place to push through. Yes; you may attack any time now night or day, for Tournay to our rear is hard pressed and unless relieved will fall into the hands of our master, Louis XV. Well and good; what better could a Chevau-léger de la Garde desire than that the pot-bellied Dutch traders, the Austrian hounds, and the British dogs should dash themselves to pieces on our lines. Mark you how the trenches run from the forest of Barry covering our left away in the north, winding in a gentle semicircle along the rim of the curving slope two miles and more down to the spot where the Château of Anthoin guards the passage of the sluggish Scheldt. And meanwhile we lie here snug and safe behind our redoubts bristling with guns, with logs cut from the forest piled breast-high to aid the advantage our general has given us, and with the flower of the French army crouched and ready to roll you up when you come. See how open the plain in front is, sloping gradually away from us; we can hammer you in the most murderous fashion from under cover if you are mad enough to dream that any troops can drive from its lair a French army that remembers Dettingen and will have Tournay or perish. Our Maréchal de Saxe, who knows something of the art of war, has pronounced it impossible, and God have mercy on your silly, reckless souls if you try, for the French guards are here and the Maison du Roi, and our King’s eye is on us to see that we do our duty!
Yes, His Majesty is here and with him Monsieur le Dauphin, and not a few ladies greatly daring, and the royal household, chamberlains and equerries, serving-men and serving-women, the bluest blood of France, and the wenches of the commissariat, and the actors and actresses of the Théâtre Français. Was there ever such a medley—soldiers, courtesans, and sutlers, thieves, marauders, sluts and wantons, and the gilded coaches and footmen of the beauty and birth that have the right to throng the Staircase des Ambassadeurs at Versailles and have the entrée to the Grand Lever of the King of France?
The camp-fires smoke into the chill dusk; the lights twinkle in the packed villages where battalions of foot bivouac with squadrons of horse. In front smoulders and glares the hamlet of Bourgeon fired by our Grassins when they were driven out this morning. Everywhere the confused turmoil of a great camp, the sharp blare of fitful trumpets, the dull throb of drums, a feverish shot from yonder where skirmishing is still going on, the neighing of horses, the rumble of waggons. Hard by André here the men are taking their evening meal, chattering, laughing, singing, dancing. Such women as can live in camps are drinking too, singing when they cannot thieve. There are wounded to be cared for, or robbed; throats there are beyond the lines to be cut, purses and gold lace to be won from the fallen. Make love while you can. To-morrow’s eve may never come. Have your season of pleasure, Messieurs; to-morrow the wench whom you kiss to-night will strip you in the dusk of the victory and leave you to the mercy of the dogs, the spring frosts, and of God—the God of battles.
Yes, to-morrow there will surely be a great battle. Have not the actors promised it? “To-morrow no performance! The day after to-morrow a play in honour of the victory of Monseigneur le Maréchal de Saxe!” And before long there will be a Te Deum in the glorious aisles of the captured cathedral of Tournay.
André on his straw heap curled in his cloak dreamed of Denise, of the pleasant Loire, and of the Château de Beau Séjour when it should be his. Pest on the canaille and their trulls singing that lampoon at his elbow:
They were singing of no less a lady than the fair huntress and the King, the heroine of the crystal and the King’s handkerchief, “La Petite d’Étiolles,” who was now the heroine and jape of the streets of Paris. Strange, so strange. And he, too, had played his part in the drama of royal love:
His friend! And he would find her at Versailles no doubt when the campaign was over. How long would she stay there, this ambitious bourgeoise?
“Monsieur le Lieutenant is sad.” Some one had touched his arm. Ah! only a little vivandière whom he did not recognise. “Monsieur le Vicomte has left his mistress behind and he is sad,” she protested, kneeling beside him and peering with bright eyes into his ruffled visage.
“Run away, my dear,” André replied sleepily. “I am poor, tired, and in a sad temper.”
“And I am poor, fresh, and in a charming temper,” she retorted. “If Monsieur le Vicomte has left his mistress behind there are still many women in the world. Here is one!” She began to hum the refrain of the song with the archest drollery: “A fait rire tout Paris, ris, ris.”
André sat up. An appetising little vivandière this, name of a dog! Plump and most bravely tricked out in a military coat and short skirt which revealed what would have made two dancers’ fortunes.
“If I give you a kiss will you go?” he said good-humouredly.
“Oh, no. The kisses of Monsieur le Vicomte are no better than those of most men, I suppose.”
“Then stay without them.” He closed his eyes and lay down again.
“My thanks,” she nodded, gaily throwing back her short cloak so as to reveal that her blue coat was open at the throat and suggested a chemisette strangely fine for a vivandière. Then she bent over him. “Would you do a service for Mademoiselle the Marquise de Beau Séjour?” André sat up, sharply. “Would you do the King a service?” she whispered. “Mon Dieu! how those women bleat! Come this way, Vicomte, I have something to say to you—a secret.” She blew him a kiss from saucy finger-tips.
André, now wide-awake, his blood tingling, followed her till she stopped in the shadow of an outhouse. “You will do the King a service?” she asked gravely enough. “Answer in my ear; we must not be heard. Yes?”
“Tell me,” he said, quickly, “what the service is?”
“The Vicomte can talk English?”
“How the dev——?”
“It matters not how I know it. Do not contradict. Time is precious. To-night”—she was speaking earnestly into his ear—“the friends of the King have learned that the secrets of the Maréchal will be betrayed to the English.”
“Good God!” He gripped her arm.
“Hush!” She raised a warning finger. “It is so. To the charcoal-burner’s hut two miles from here will come at midnight two English officers. The plans of the camp—this camp, Vicomte—will be given them; to-night the English will know where to attack to-morrow and then—” she made a significant gesture.
“No one can say how those plans have been stolen. But stolen they have been, and it is too late to alter the entrenchments now. They are made—you understand—and to-morrow is here in ten hours. Worse, worse, the traitor is already at the cottage with the paper.” André sweated hot and cold, for terror rang in her pleading voice. “It is infamous, terrible. But one hope remains. We must find an officer who can speak English, who will pretend to be those English officers and get the plans before they are handed to the enemy. The Vicomte understands?”
“Yes, yes, I see. I will go.” He buttoned up his cloak with peremptory decision.
“Oh!” She sobbed with joy. She could not thank him in words.
“And who are you?” André asked.
“Hush! hush! The army must not know of the danger. If you must know, I am an actress, the friend of Monseigneur le Maréchal. I alone have discovered this, and I am come to you, for I, too, love France.”
The blood swirled for a minute in his temples. Ha! when Denise heard how he, André de Nérac, alone had saved France, the army, and the King, would she not be proud? Perhaps they would give him the Cordon Bleu.
“What am I to do?” he asked quietly. “I am ready.”
She described at length where the charcoal-burner’s hut lay and how it could be reached. “When you are there, rap twice on the door,” she proceeded, “and then say in English to whoever comes, ‘I am from “No. 101” to “No. 101.”’”
“What does that mean?”
“The Vicomte knows what a cipher is? That is the traitor’s cipher—and the traitor’s name. It is all we have discovered.”
“A man, this traitor?”
“No one knows. I swear it. But it must be a man, so say those words in English; speak in English, always—always. Remember you are an officer of the First Foot Guards of the English King; you have come for the papers because ‘No. 101’ has bidden you. You will get them if you are clever and God wills. Then fly—fly for your life, and France is saved.”
“I will not fly till I have killed that traitor.”
“Yes, kill him if you can. But it is the papers you must have or we are all ruined. The papers,” she repeated in a dull agony.
André meditated. Then he took the vivandière by both arms, “Will you swear by the name of the Holy Virgin that this is no trap?” he asked solemnly.
She turned her hooded face up to his and took his Croix de St Louis. “Before God and on this cross,” she answered very slowly, “it is no trap. It is the truth.”
Conviction rang in her low tones and she was trembling with emotion.
“Very well. I am ready. But my uniform?” he asked sharply. “I shall be recognised.”
“I have thought of that,” she said. “See, my room is in the village, a stone’s throw hence. A cloak, a hat, and boots of the English Guard are there, stripped from a dead officer. They will cover your uniform. But you must keep the cloak buttoned, for frock and tunic I have not got, alas! I have, too, my actress’s box of colours. I will disguise you perfectly. Come at once, there is no time to waste.”
And so by two flickering candles her deft fingers transformed him swiftly into the image of a ruddy, beef-fed English officer of the English Guard, and when her work was done she accompanied him to the edge of the lines, where they paused.
“For God’s sake be careful,” she urged. “The Pandours, the Grassins, the marauders, are prowling everywhere. Maybe, too, ‘No. 101’ may have varlets on the look-out. I would not frighten you, but you should know that the man or woman who has hunted ‘No. 101’—and several have tried—has so far met with death.”
But André only smiled grimly.
“Yes,” she repeated, “all who have seen that traitor face to face have died. It is horrible, but the truth. Get the papers, that is all we need. Pry no farther, I beseech you. Ah, sir, a woman, even an actress, would not have on her soul the blood of a gallant gentleman who at her bidding risked all for France.”
“Death can come but once,” he answered, “and in no nobler way than in the service of France and the King.”
“That is true, but you must live. For the King will be grateful, and I—I, too, will not forget.”
André smilingly put his hand on her shoulder. “And is that all?” he asked lightly, “all my reward, Mademoiselle?”
“Come back,” she whispered, “come back and you will see whether it is all. Meanwhile, adieu and au revoir.”
She had slipped from his grasp and vanished as mysteriously as she had come. Who was she? Bah! it did not matter now. The night and its work lay before him. But to-morrow—to-morrow!
He mounted, gave the password, and rode into the night.
Behind him lay the sleeping camp ignorant of its peril, in front the strangest, weirdest, most dangerous task he had ever embarked on; yet André felt no fear. His only thought as he trotted down the slope was a vivid reminiscence of the words of the crystal-gazer. Women everywhere in his life—always women at every turn—the princess in London—Yvonne—“La Petite d’Étiolles”—the crystal-gazer, and now the charming little vivandière—but they were all so many instruments to help him to win the fairest of them all—Denise. It was clear as noonday now. His task was to master the strand of the web in which these women, by design or accident, enwrapped him, and to make them serve his purpose while he seemed to serve theirs. It was an idea which grew in power and fascination every day. Women appealed to him by nature; before the charm of mind and body in women he was defenceless, but it was his love for Denise that had inspired the conception of yoking the pleasure of life to the attainment of a glorious ambition. To-night was a matchless opportunity—and others would follow.
But his mind while it revolved was fully alert. He believed in himself and his sword. His faith in his star grew stronger each day. But fate and God helped those who would best help themselves. To-night he must not fail on this difficult task because he neglected anything that caution could suggest.
From time to time he halted. The night was dark, that was good, and a raw mist steamed out of the sodden earth. He had taken the precaution to bind his horse’s hoofs in soft cloth, and she, a powerful English thoroughbred, his favourite mare, knew her master’s will by instinct. The road, too, was easy to find. No one crossed his path. And here at last was the little wood of which he had been told. Half a mile away gleamed dully a fire, probably an English picket. He dismounted and listened intently. Not a sound. And now very warily he plunged forward into the bowels of this grisly little wood, leading his horse, his pistols cocked and sword ready. Presently he stumbled; only a fallen log; he stumbled again; another? No. This time it was a dead man. André dragged him out and let the rays of his masked lantern fall cautiously on his face. Poor wretch! half-naked too—a common gallows bird of a marauder, stripped by the thieves and with a knife-thrust in his throat, a common enough spectacle to those who had played at war before, mere carrion in the daylight, but causing the flesh to creep in the raw chills of this infernal hiding-place of treachery. Let him lie. And now forward again. Pah! another corpse! A woman, and young, too, that rascal’s companion no doubt, and stripped as he was. He bent over her. Ha! what was that? One hand gone? There had been a quarrel, the robbers had killed her and her mate, and to save time had simply chopped off her fingers to get the booty she had gripped so tightly. Let her lie beside him there and forward again, for such is war.
Halt! Here is the charcoal-burner’s cabin. He could just make out its black outlines in a clearing of the trees. André muffled his mare’s head and tied her to a branch, and then with naked sword crawled forward on hand and knees. Round the hut like a sleuth-hound he wormed his way, learning the ground, making absolutely sure no one lurked in this damp stillness. Positively not a soul, not a whisper. But the horror of the dead man and woman and this awful stillness had mastered him, and ten yards from the door he lay for some minutes watching, thinking. The hut showed no signs of life. What if “No. 101” were not there? What if the English officers had forestalled him and the papers were already gone? What if an ambuscade were concealed in that ramshackle cabin?
Still he lay thinking, shivering, to start swiftly. The shutter in the cabin wall was being slowly pushed open. There was no glass in the window; a gleam of red light; some one was stealthily looking out into the night. André crawled on his stomach across the clearing and lay flat down with a sharp gasp.
By the living God, it was a woman! A woman!
Two drops of icy sweat dripped from his forehead on to the damp ground. A woman! Yes, he could see the silhouette of her hooded head and bust etched against the dull red light behind and the inky frame-work of the window, and she was thinking too, resting her elbow placidly on the sill. A woman! It was terrible, for she was a traitor and he must kill her, here in this cursed cabin, in this damned wood. She moved her head and listened intently. Yes, she was expecting some one. Ha! He was not too late.
The shutter was stealthily closed, but crouching beneath it André heard the faint sigh as of a weary heart. He sprang up, rapped twice on the door.
Steps within, the bolts were being drawn back. At last a masked woman with a lantern in her hand stood in the doorway, and he and she faced each other in silence.
“Who is that?” she asked in a clear voice.
“I am from ‘No. 101’ to ‘No. 101,’” André answered firmly, but inwardly he trembled and his sword was ready to leap out.
She raised the lantern quietly and let the light travel from his hat to his boots.
“Good,” she said. “Enter, sir.”
André paused. Could he dare? No—yes—no? For two slow minutes the thoughts battled within him as he strove to penetrate the secret of that mask and the hood covering her head. She was young—quite young. That faint sigh as of a weary heart seemed to echo through the misty silence of the wood.
Then he stepped inside, and she quietly closed the door.
The woman led the way into the kitchen which opened off the tiny passage and André followed her. The two faced each other in silence. Presently she placed the lantern on the rough table in the centre of the room and once again looked at him thoughtfully through her mask. The only other light there was came from the dying embers of a fire, whose murky shadows flickered on the walls and on the low roof.
André with his fingers on his sword-hilt returned her studied gaze. He could make out that her hair under her hood was fair; her voice, her step, were those of a girl, and what he could see of her figure shrouded in its long cloak bid well to be shapely. Yes, she was young, this woman, but a pest on that mask!
“You are not the officer I expected,” she remarked at last.
“He was wounded; he could not come, so they sent me in his place,” André answered at once.
“I understand,” she replied with a quiet nod, “but they said two would be sent.”
“My companion is outside guarding the horses.” Whereupon she lifted the lantern and inspected him closely. André, ready for anything, stood quite still. “If you doubt my word,” he added carelessly, “I will take you to him now.”
“No,” she answered, replacing the lantern on the table, “your word is enough; the word of an English officer,” and she turned to cross the kitchen.
André’s face was calmness itself, but his blood was tingling with fear, curiosity, revenge. Never in his adventurous life had he been so thrilled as at this moment in this dim, silent kitchen, alone with this cold-blooded traitress in a mask. But, mastered as he was by an overpowering desire to probe her secret to the bottom, he was also carefully studying every nook and cranny. There was only one way out of the room—by the door, which was half-open. He carefully moved so that he might face it, and if a swift rush were necessary not have the table between him and the road to escape.
“There are the papers,” she said in her passionless tones. She had taken them from a cupboard in the wall.
He betrayed no eagerness, but his fingers trembled and his heart thumped wildly as he looked them through by the dim light of the lantern, one eye all the time watching the masked girl, who quietly kneeled down by the fire with her back to him and began to blow on the embers with a bellows.
“They are what you want, are they not?” she remarked over her shoulder.
“I believe so,” he answered as carelessly.
Yes, the vivandière was right. The paper was a complete plan of the French encampment, marking accurately the positions of each battalion and each battery, and in the corner was drawn in blood a curious sign—two crossed daggers with 101 inserted in the gaps:
It sent an icy shiver through him, this countermark of the traitor’s success and good faith. God! they were betrayed indeed to those damned Austrian hounds and English dogs. But he, André de Nérac, had saved the King and the army of France!
“I thank you,” he said, folding the paper up and putting it deliberately within his cloak.
“I do not desire your thanks,” she replied as she blew away some ashes.
André stared in dumb bewilderment at her on her knees there in front of the fire. Should he run her through at once or strangle her for an execrable traitress? The woman betrayed neither fear nor interest. She seemed to have forgotten his presence.
“Are you ‘No. 101’?” he asked at last.
“Oh, no.” She was laughing softly. “I am only her—agent.”
“Then the trait—then she is a woman?”
“Yes.” She stood up and shook some cinders from her cloak. “Yes, she is a woman.” And André knew she was lying. The fingers on his sword relaxed. Kill her he could not—yet. Depart he could not—yet. For he was in the grip of a weird fascination—of a secret whose mystery numbed his senses.
“It is marvellous,” he muttered, “but the English army thanks ‘No. 101’ and you.”
“Yes,” she answered indifferently, “it is marvellous, but the English army is nothing to her nor to me. For myself I detest the English officers, but like you, sir, I simply do as I am bid. Give me the gold and I will wish you good-night.”
The gold; English gold! Pest on it! The vivandière and he had thought of everything but that. The perspiration swelled on to his forehead. He grasped his sword and took a step towards the doorway.
“I was given no gold,” he said brusquely and waited with drawn breath.
“No?” She shrugged her shoulders and astonished him by kneeling down and taking up the bellows. “It is like English officers to buy secrets and not pay for them.”
“You are unjust to the English,” he protested. Ah! that surely was a stroke of genius.
“I know them, the English,” she said without looking round.
Dead silence broken only by the wheezy puffs of the bellows. Pity, fear, astonishment, and a burning curiosity wrestled in André’s breast. Was this masked girl flesh and blood or a devil in human form?
“Do you want the papers back?” he demanded.
“They are not mine to ask. I was told to give them to you; keep them.”
The icy contempt in her voice stung him. If it had not been for France he would have flung them at her and then strangled her on the spot.
“Before I wish you good-night,” he said after a pause, “will you do me the honour to remove your mask?”
“Why?” She wheeled slowly, still on her knees.
“Why does even an English officer ask a woman to do such a thing?”
She rose and came close to him. “I will take off my mask with pleasure,” she said, “if you, sir, will do me the honour to take off your cloak and share my supper.”
André could not check a start. Had she guessed the truth or was this diabolical coquetry?
“Permit me,” she said softly, and before he could move a finger she had wrenched his cloak asunder. “Ah!” she cried, “I thought so. A hero in the uniform of a Chevau-léger de la Garde with a naked sword and I—a woman—defenceless, alone. You an English officer—you—you!”
She had slipped from his side. The table with the smoking lantern was between them.
“Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac,” she whispered, “any woman can make a fool of you.”
André slammed the door behind him. “Traitress,” he swore. “Your last hour has come.”
She gazed at him calmly. “Listen,” she said, “listen! Monsieur Spy. To-morrow you will be shot by the English—and the papers”—she laughed—“will still help towards the ruin of France.”
André halted sharply. What was that outside? Horse hoofs in the clearing—two horses! The English officers were here and he was trapped, trapped, as God lived, by a woman who flouted his uniform and himself.
“You will not escape,” he said with set teeth, “and I have the papers.”
“Pooh!” she flicked her cloak in his face.
A loud rapping on the outer door.
“Enter,” she called. “Enter, Captain Statham, the door is not bolted.”
Captain Statham! They had met again and not in the salon of a woman of pleasure. André laughed aloud.
The latch was being lifted. It was now or never. Twisting his cloak round his left arm as the Spaniard does in a duel with knives, in a trice André, sword in hand, was over the table with the spring of a cat. When he had punished this traitress he would deal with Captain Statham. But the woman was too quick for him. The legs of the table met him in the stomach and sent him staggering back. Through the sickening pain he could hear her soft laugh of victorious contempt. A crash. She had hurled the lamp to the floor and was past him, missing his sword point by just half an inch. The blade quivered in the woodwork. Half-mad, he grabbed at her mask—it came off—but she was gone.
“We shall meet again,” she called, “your business and mine I hope does not end here.” A spurt of flame shot into his eyes. The oil of the exploded lamp had set the dry, rotten timbers ablaze and the kitchen was alight. Quick as thought André hurled himself after the girl. She had doubled to the right—there was another door as he guessed leading to the back—she was through it and he after her, snatching at her figure in the pitchy darkness. For two seconds he held her cloak—she twisted out of it—and he fell back with a curse against the wall. She had escaped.
And now the flame from the kitchen revealed Captain Statham standing in the front doorway, stupefied, his eyes glaring like a madman’s. With a cry he flung himself on André. A cold pain in his left arm—André was stabbed—but this was no moment for vengeance, only for flight, for on his escape hung the safety and honour of France. He rushed into the open at the back. To find his horse—to find his horse!
“I have seen her,” he heard Statham cry as he whipped round the cabin. It would be a race across the clearing now, for Statham’s companion must be waiting on the other side, and in the roar of flame it would be as light as day in this grisly thicket. What if his horse were not there? Two to one then. Bah! should he turn to meet them as it was? No, the papers—the papers first—vengeance would follow later.
For one second André crouched behind the hut. Ah! there was his horse—there was the other officer twenty paces off. Could he do it? He must.
“Jésu!” came the words in the voice of George Onslow as André doubled round the corner, “it is the Vicomte, Statham; we are betrayed. This way for God’s sake—ha!”
Crack went Onslow’s pistol. André had leaped across the clearing. He had missed, but the flash almost singed André’s hair.
One slash of his sword and his horse was free.
“Good-night, gentlemen,” he shouted in victorious bravado, “we shall meet to-morrow. Mes saluts et au revoir!”
In went the spurs and his maddened horse was bursting through the wood. Another pistol-shot and they were after him, but he had a good start and he knew that no beast alive could overhaul the beautiful blood mare he had bought in England. A roar of flame behind him—the crack of the wood—two pistol bullets singing through the swirling raw air—a ghastly vision of that half-naked man and woman in the horror of the clotted grass, his horse’s hoofs stamping out the dead woman’s face as she lay where he had left her—a ride as of devil-tormented goblins through the pains of hell—that was André’s recollection of his return until he dropped fainting within his own lines.
Two flickering candles danced in his eyes as he opened them.
“Bravo!” whispered a caressing voice. “Bravo!”
He was lying in a long chair and the little vivandière was kneeling beside him.
“Bravo!” she repeated, “and now drink—drink!” She forced brandy, glorious and hot, down his throat.
“Ah!” He sat up. The horror was slowly fading away, though he could still see floating between her face and his that black cabin roaring red, and that outcast woman’s face crushed into pulp beneath the iron of his horse’s shoe. “The papers—the plans,” he muttered.
“They are here,” she waved them softly, they were stained with blood. “Yes, we are saved—France and the army and the King are saved and you—you have saved us.”
André smiled, letting his head drop. He was supremely happy. Denise would hear of this—Denise—ah!
“Come, my friend,” the vivandière whispered, “look at yourself. It is too droll.”
He took the mirror from her and laughed—laughed loud and long. Here was, indeed, a picture of a ruffian with a uniform torn and singed, the paint smeared over his cheeks, one sleeve cut away, and his left arm bandaged! Pah! that was where Statham had stabbed him. He would pay for it to-morrow—no, to-day—to-day.
“I found the papers when you fainted,” said the vivandière. “I wept when I found them, for I was sick with fear that you had failed, and now, mon ami, I take them to Monseigneur le Maréchal.”
“Yes, Mademoiselle, they are yours.”
Then André told his story while she listened eagerly. But he did not tell her all, for instinctively he felt some things he had discovered that night had better be locked as a secret in his own heart until he knew more.
“I do not think that was ‘No. 101,’” she remarked thoughtfully. “But it is a pity you did not see her face. Some day hereafter it might be useful to be able to recognise that woman.”
“Perhaps so,” he assented, and he added to himself, “I shall see it before I die. It is written in the stars.” For the curious thought haunted his mind that if he had seen that woman’s face he would never have returned. Yet Captain Statham had seen it; suddenly his cry, his look in that narrow passage, rose before him. Was it what he had seen which had shot such awful fear and horror into his eyes? Could it be that the girl in the mask was—ah! he must wait before the question was answered. And the answer would certainly come. That too was written in the stars.
“And now sleep, Vicomte,” his companion whispered. “In four hours the dawn will be here. A battle is at hand, and once more you must fight for the fair eyes of your mistress, for the honour of France and the King.”
She half-carried him to the bed. The flame-red pictures of the night kept shooting through a blackness of pain in his eyes. How tired and weak he was. From far away a trumpet note rang, a drum throbbed, a snatch of revelling song bubbled mockingly up:
“I made a promise,” dropped the soothing words in his ear, “but Monsieur le Vicomte must never betray the secret to Monseigneur and the King. Yet remember, I beg, there is nothing—nothing—I will not do for you if I can serve you, for I am grateful—more grateful than a woman can say.” A cushion was slipped under his neck. Two soft arms enfolded him for a brief second. “The lips, Vicomte” came the caressing chant—“the lips that a king has kissed salute you.” His head rested on her breast. “Adieu!” She had vanished and his numbed senses ebbed away into an enchanted oblivion. The Loire floated at his feet, the autumn trees rustled a perfect pleasantness and peace, and Denise standing beneath the carved mantelpiece with “Dieu Le Vengeur” in a scroll of gold above her had him in her forgiving arms.
Ha! What was that? Hoarse voices and cries, the rush of feet, of horses, of waggons, and of guns, the rattle of the drums and the challenge of trumpets. André leaped up, flung the window wide open. The dawn was here, and hark, hark! Those are the silver trumpets of the Chevau-légers de la Garde de la Maison du Roi. The trumpets of the Guard calling as they called at Steinkirk. To horse! to horse!
And what is that away yonder through the pearly mist of the morning out there in the enclosures and coppices dripping in the dew of May? Answering calls and the feverish thud of drums. They are coming—the white-coated Austrian hounds and the red-coated English dogs! They are coming! To horse! to horse! For to-day we must fight for the honour of France—fight that we may have the play promised to the army by the actresses of the Théâtre Français when Monseigneur the Maréchal de Saxe has won yet another victory for His Majesty, Well-Beloved. Ah, they shall see, those English dogs, what lies in the hearts and swords of the nobles of the Guard. Fontenoy! Neither they nor we will ever forget Fontenoy.
The dull boom of a gun away on the right greeted André as he flung himself into the saddle, and the trumpets were echoing all along the line from the citadel of Anthoin over the slopes on which the brigaded army lay right up to the forest of Barry which covered the French left. A plumed officer galloped up to him. It was the Chevalier de St. Amant.
“The Dutch and the Austrians,” he cried, “are concentrating opposite us on our right, but the centre of the attack will be”—he waved his sword northwards of Fontenoy—“the English form the enemy’s right flank.”
“And the Maison du Roi?”
“Will make the third line of the cavalry behind the carbineers and the foot guards yonder. But you are wounded, Vicomte?”
“A scratch—nothing at all,” André replied brusquely.
The Chevalier looked at him, smiled, and galloped away.
It was past seven o’clock. André paused to cast a hasty eye out towards Maubray and Veyon, whence the foe must come. Around him staff officers cantered this way and that; hoarse orders were being shouted, regiments were falling in, deploying, lining the entrenchments, one, two, three deep. Everywhere the strenuous confusion and fierce excitement of an army hurriedly preparing for battle. Over the plain hung a soft grey mist gently rolling up as the day grew, but dimly in the distance, past the enclosures and the coppices in the midst of which the wrecked hamlet of Bourgeon still smoked sullenly in the raw air, troops—cavalry mainly—were collecting. Yes, the enemy really meant business. It was to be an assault along the whole front and there was no time to waste.
With the Chevau-légers de la Garde André found St. Benôit.
“Where the devil have you been?” his friend demanded. “We looked for you everywhere last night. Jeannette and Gabrielle supped in my coach.”
“Two assignations,” André laughed. “Such fun, I can tell you.”
“And you got that slit between the two, I suppose?”
“Yes, and a good deal more. Hullo! What’s that?”
The guns from the citadel and the redoubts on the slopes had begun in real earnest, answered as yet feebly from the enemy’s left. St. Benôit and André trotted forward to make the position out.
“Mark you there!” cried St. Benôit. “Those are English cavalry forming up and see—see! There come the red-coated blackguards behind ’em. By God! they’re going to let us give ’em a taste of our quality.”
“Do you imagine they will dare to march across the plain in the teeth of our artillery?” André asked.
“It looks like it,” St. Benôit replied smiling. “And so much the better.”
The pair watched eagerly. The rattle of muskets crackled up from the left—the skirmishers, the Pandours and Grassins are out, and every minute it is hotter and hotter work; the smoke drifts up, and through it they can catch glimpses of red-coated infantry falling in, company on company, battalion upon battalion, in the rear of the covering squadrons of horse. Ha! our guns up here have chimed in now, and already there are empty saddles in the dragoons so placidly arrayed amongst the lanes and enclosures, but those stolid islanders mind it as little as a fisher does flies on a July day. Down rolls the smoke, wafting in sullen clouds, shrouding the slope and the enclosures, only broken by fitful puffs of air or torn by red flashes and the dull plunge of the round shot. Yet this is a mere prelude up here, though on our right the engagement has really begun.
“Monseigneur, poor devil!” whispered St. Benôit, “but what a spirit.”
Yes, that is Monseigneur le Maréchal de Saxe, carried in a wicker litter, for he cannot sit his horse. He is dying of dropsy is Monseigneur, but he will see for himself, and as he is carried along he sucks a leaden bullet to assuage his raging thirst. The fire of battle glows in those eyes which Adrienne Lecouvreur and so many women have adored, and it inspires every man on whom his glance falls, so full of confidence and calm is he as he issues his orders, serene, majestic, and watchful. No troops in the world can ever force this entrenched camp he is thinking, and before death takes him he will win another great victory for his master, King Louis. Northwards of Fontenoy is where he mostly prefers to stay, for this is the critical place where by a miracle the French position may be turned, and here he holds the Maison du Roi and his reserves in leash. Those English are such stubborn devils when they are in the stomach for a tussle at hand grips. We must be ready even for miracles.
An hour—another passed. The Chevalier emerges from the drifting smoke with welcome news.
“The Austrians and Dutch are retiring,” he says. “Can you not hear their drums beating to re-form? Down there we have handled them so roughly that they have sought cover, huddled behind Bourgeon. Their horse is broken and tumbled up, and the plain is littered with their dead. They won’t trouble us much more.”
“It will be the same here, worse luck,” St. Benôit grumbled. “Those cursed artillerymen are to have all the honours to-day. We shall not be wanted at all.”
“Do not be too sure,” André said quietly. And the Chevalier nodded in agreement before he spurred off to carry a message to the King, who with Monsieur le Dauphin is watching the fight near the Hermitage of Notre Dame des Bois.
Boom! boom! on our front at last. Those are the English field-pieces beginning to reply to the salute we have been lavishly doling out. They fire well, those English artillerymen, and their shots come plumping into the entrenchments and crashing into the forest. The men begin to drop in the first line.
“Look at that fool De Grammont,” André muttered, pointing with his sword.
An officer on a white charger was galloping to and fro in front of his regiment of guards, encouraging them in this gallant madcap fashion to keep steady under the ever-increasing fire.
“By God! he’s down,” he exclaimed as he saw the white horse stumble and fall, struck by a six-pounder; and friendly arms are carrying his shattered rider dying to the rear.
“Poor De Grammont!” said St. Benôit, wiping away a tear, “never again will his hot-headed chivalry lead us into a devil’s trap as at Dettingen.”
And he was right. De Grammont, who had ruined a French army on the Maine, had fought his last fight that morning, for a cannon-ball had smashed his thigh.
“Drums! English drums!” André cried excitedly. “They are advancing—can’t you hear ’em? We may be needed—thank God! we may be needed now.”
Below and across the roar of the guns, through the dirty smoke blended with the last wisps of the pearly mist, throbs in a glorious challenge the solemn tuck of English drums and the marching call of English trumpets. They are coming on now. Can we not see the flutter of English colours and the flash of light on epaulet and sword?
“A noble sight that!” muttered St. Benôit with a catch in his throat.
“They are fit for gentlemen to cross swords with,” said the generous André. “I hope they’ll last till we can meet them as they deserve.”
Through the smoke they could both make out how the cavalry had fallen to the rear and the infantry was calmly advancing across the plain in two long lines with the Hanoverians stepping out on their left. Aligned as on the parade ground, never halting, never hurrying, shoulder to shoulder, not a falter, not a wrinkle, the great red column in two long lines comes on to the music of its drums; to-day these English dogs will achieve the impossible if they can. But can they? Surely not. From Fontenoy shriek the cannons, from Eu roar our guns, taking them in flank and in front; there are gaps in the files—they close; a hideous rent—it is sealed up; like a great scarlet wave they roll on majestic in irresistible silence. Nothing can stop them, not all the guns in Europe—marching on, marching on, marching on unreasoning, dogged, straight into the throats of our artillery and the muzzles of our muskets, mad—mad—mad, but the madness that intoxicates the heart and ennobles the soul. Dutch and Austrians have twice faced this hellish fire and twice recoiled, but these English will come on; they said they would storm the entrenchments on the left, and get to them they will, for a promise is a promise, and they have English gentlemen to lead them.
For a time they are lost in the smoke and the roar and the gentle folds of the slope.
“They are broken,” cried St. Benôit. “Well, they did their best, but it’s a pity——”
“Broken! by God!” burst out André, “look there—they’ve done it—done it—and——”
A cry has risen from the French ranks, a cry of rage and dismay and surprise.
The smoke had suddenly lifted, cut asunder by the flashes of the guns, and it revealed a superb spectacle. Not a hundred yards from the entrenchments, right across our left front almost on the top of the slope, have suddenly emerged into sight the grim faces of those serried red lines. The English infantry are on us—actually on us! Hoarse commands, repeated, a quiver, they have halted, the drums still placidly beating, colours gently flapping, while the officers calmly re-dress their battalions.
A frenzied moment, for behind on the slope here it is our footmen’s first real sight of them, and Swiss Guards, Gardes Françaises, the regiments of Courtin, Aubeterre, and of the King are hurried, dashed, into order. What are we waiting for? Keep cool for God’s sake! We have got to fight for it now. This is going to be a serious affair.
And then a touch to stir the blood. An English officer has quietly stepped forward—it is my Lord Charles Hay. Politely he doffs his hat to the French lines and raises his flask as a man drinks a health at a banquet. “Gentlemen,” he cries in French, “I hope you will wait for us to-day and will not swim the Scheldt as you swam the Maine at Dettingen.” A dozen angry voices go up in bitter protest at the taunt, and here, in the third line, we Chevau-légers de la Garde grip our swords in ferocious wrath. My lord turns round. “Men of the King’s Company,” his voice rings out, “here,” he points with his cane, and waves his hat, “here are the French Guards. You are going to beat them to-day,” and at once rolls up in a tumultuous cresendo the thunder of an English cheer, drowning the orders of the French officers, quelling the tornado of the guns. Again and again it surges through the columns, that challenge as of blooded hounds on the quarry at bay.
“For what we are about to receive,” André heard an English officer call out, waving towards the French muskets, “may the Lord make us truly thankful,” and the cheer melts into a gay, grim laugh, cut short by a hideous volley, for the Swiss Guards have fired straight into the column at thirty paces distance. Down go red-coats by the dozen, but they remain unshaken. A minute to draw breath, and the turn of the English dogs is come at last. No more marching now; it will be bullet for bullet—and then the bayonet.
Fire! The command runs along from battalion to battalion. Fire!
André and St. Benôit in the third line wept with wrath and despair. The English volleys are devilish, murderous, horrible, and delivered as calmly, silently, majestically, as they had marched. The red lines are girt about with a halo of impenetrable flame, pitiless, ceaseless, triumphant. The Swiss Guards are decimated, the Courtinois are piled in dying heaps, the French Guards shattered. Hotter and hotter it grows as the smoke becomes thicker. Step by step the red lines advance.
André straining forward can see the stony faces, the loading and reloading as at a battue, the officers walking serenely up and down, marking each volley, now jesting, now reprimanding, now encouraging, now smartly tapping the muskets with their canes to force them down and make the men fire low, and fire low they do. Can nothing be done? The Royal Brigade, the Soissonois are brought up. Forward now in God’s name and for the honour of France! Useless, utterly useless. Volley upon volley shivers the advancing files; they tumble in bloody swathes; they stop, recoil, reel. Disorder is spreading, shouts and cries and the pile of dead grow bigger, and yard by yard to those infernal drums roll on the red lines. They are past the earthworks. On they come—a volley—on—on—steady, slow, irresistible. Ten minutes more and we are lost!
Fierce trumpets through the smoke, the thunder of cavalry charging. The Maréchal has launched them, and not a moment too soon. The English halt—wait—fire. Horses and men crumble up—dissolve. No matter. Bring up the second line and now ride home, ride home. Shame on you that twelve battalions of infantry backed by artillery can defy the flower of our French army. The English line shivers into a bristling wall. Keep quiet there and reserve your fire—muttered whispers and curses, and then the flame leaps out. That is the way, sirs; stand up to them and for heaven’s name let the drums keep beating, the drums that beat at Dettingen and are beating now at Fontenoy. Rank after rank totters, breaks, parts, scatters. A cheer rolls up, the cheers of the victors, for dying men and riderless horses are all that remain of our second line of cavalry.
The English have won! No, by God and the Virgin, the patron of France, not yet! We still remain, we the Maison du Roi and we the Chevau-légers de la Garde. The silver trumpets blare out their warning challenge. One solemn minute—clear your sword arms and charge! Charge!
Boot to boot, saddle to saddle, through the smoke we cut our way with set teeth and sobbing breath. We are no bourgeoisie, we; no canaille or roturiers drawn from the plough; we are nobles all, and this will be the cold steel of the white arm at close grips. The ground is thick with dead—our horses nostrils gleam red—God! we are on them and the blast of the tornado smites us and we—we reel! As hail from a north-easter smites a standing crop so do their bullets smite us and we stagger like drunken men, stagger and blench and fail. Red are their coats, but red and hot as the flames of hell is their fire, and in five awful minutes we too are left sobbing in the saddle, beaten—beaten! The chivalry of France has gone down before that pitiless furnace.
André found himself swept to the rear in the hideous backwash of that miserable recoil, spattered with blood, choked with smoke. Gasping he galloped to the Maréchal.
“The day is lost,” he shouted, “lost!”
The Maréchal nodded as he calmly sucked his leaden bullet.
“Go,” he replied, “do you go and warn the King to retire. At least save His Majesty.”
And then he turned to summon his last reserves for one final effort to retrieve the day while André delivered his message. But Louis would not retire. Impenetrable as ever, inspired by a gleam of kingly pride, he doggedly refused to obey, and André in despair left him to rally and lead the infantry and horse that still remained. Better now death than dishonour, for a prisoner he would not be a second time. Back to the fray and fall before defeat comes!
The Chevalier met him as he plunged once more into the smoke, the thunder of the captains and the shouting. “The tide has turned!” the young man cried, “the Austrians and the Dutch have retired. It is only the English now. This way, Vicomte, this way!”
The Maréchal had grasped the fact. Dutch and Austrians had made a second effort on their right and centre and it had failed. The English were alone, and with consummate coolness he played his last card. Guns, horses, men, are feverishly brought up from Fontenoy, and while the Irish brigade, six battalions strong, men once British subjects but now fighting for France, Jacobites, Papists, loyal and disloyal alike, fugitives, and renegades, gentlemen, thieves, adventurers, and footpads—men fighting not for honour or victory but for their necks—are hurled at the red lines, the broken infantry are rallied, the cavalry re-formed. The gayest libertine in France, the Duc de Richelieu, gathers the scattered companies. The King and the Dauphin are rallying the Maison du Roi.
See! the English are falling back. With sullen reluctance the order has been given—with sullen reluctance it is obeyed. Retire they must or die here to the last man. Step by step, yard by yard, reduced to half its numbers, the red column with drums still beating just when victory was in its grasp slowly halts—fires—retires. As they had advanced, so do they retreat, those English dogs, shoulder to shoulder, files beautifully dressed, in all the cool majesty of the parade ground, firing those terrible volleys to the end.
Led by the King to the charge once again does the Maison du Roi spur furiously to break them; once again as the island rocks hurl back the invading waves do the English columns rend them asunder. Not all the cavalry and infantry of France can mar or shake that glorious red line. And we can do no more. Let them go. Into the smoke and down the blood-stained slopes they glide and vanish. It is enough—enough!
The battle is over. We have won—yes, we have won, for the camp and the entrenchments are once more ours and Tournay will fall. Fontenoy is and will remain a victory for France, but 6000 English dead and wounded and 10,000 French piled on the crest and on these awful ridges bear witness to what a victory it has been. And we French noblemen who have lived through the morning hours of May 11th may well take off our hats to the English and Hanoverian infantry who unsupported—nay, deserted by their allies—marched into a French camp across an open plain and all but wrested victory from twice their numbers. To-morrow the bells of Notre Dame and a hundred churches will ring for the success of Fontenoy, but to-night the British drums that beat on these slopes will beat in our ears and for ever through the centuries their deathless challenge to the homage of chivalry in the hearts of all who call themselves soldiers. No; we do not grudge them their triumph, for there are things finer than victory, and that honour is theirs.
André, marvellously untouched, found St. Benôit lying by his dead horse half under the wheel of a dismounted gun on the top of the slope. This was where the English Guards had turned to bay for the last time, when the final furious charge that had failed had been made by the Maison du Roi. St. Benôit had a bullet through one arm and a bayonet thrust in his thigh, but thank God he still lived, and André carried him to his coach with the help of the Chevalier, who with a tender care strange to his pert insouciance was doing what he could for the fallen.
“He will live!” said the Chevalier as they returned to the spot to seek for others, and plenty there were heaped amongst the Swiss Guards and the Gardes Françaises, nobles, his friends and comrades, in all the gay bravery of their blood-stained ruffles and haughty uniforms, and mostly dead. The strippers of the camp were already at work on their ghastly trade.
“What is it?” asked the Chevalier suddenly, for André had uttered a cry of pain. Only an English officer of the 1st Foot Guards, fresh-coloured, smiling, handsome, lying at his feet amidst a score of common English rank and file. His sword was not drawn, but in his hand was a small cane. He had been re-dressing the line of his company as they had halted to receive and repulse that last charge.
“It is Captain Statham,” André explained. “I knew him in England, and—” he checked himself to stoop. “Yes, he is dead. It is strange.”
“Strange?” questioned the Chevalier.
But André had nothing more to say. The Chevalier looked very seriously at him and then at the dead man. A shiver went through him. “Shall we say a prayer for his soul?” he asked in a hurried, low voice.
André assented in no little surprise, and together they repeated a hasty prayer, and then André carried him away. He could not leave him—this English officer—to the awful mercies of the harpies who preyed on the gallant dead.
“I have had enough of this,” were the Chevalier’s words as they parted, and his gay face was sick. And André had had enough too.
And that night as he munched his supper there was but one thought in his mind. Perhaps an English Denise and an English mother were now on their knees awaiting the news from Fontenoy; but they would never know that last night the son and lover had gone to the cabin of the charcoal-burner and had by an accident seen the face of the masked woman who had striven to betray the French army. To-day Captain Statham, as so many others, had fallen in the performance of his duty. Was that fate or the chance of war? Who could say? With a shudder he recalled the grim words of the little vivandière who had disappeared. But one thing was certain. Whatever secret Captain Statham had learned—if it was a secret—his lips would never reveal it now. And had he, André de Nérac, seen that woman’s face he, too, perhaps, had been found lying where the dead were thickest. “No. 101!” And had he done with “No. 101”? Assuredly not, assuredly not.
“Mon Dieu! my dear Abbé,” exclaimed the Comtesse des Forges, dropping her cards to let her languishing, heavy-lidded eyes linger on the smiling face of her latest protégé, “you make my blood run cold.”
“Brélan de rois” called the plump Duchesse de Pontchartrain, carefully noting the fact on her tablets before she allowed her suspicions to master her. “But are you quite sure?”
The dandy Abbé St. Victor with the air of a connoisseur compared the Venus on the cover of his snuff-box with the delicately-tinted shoulders of her grace.
“As sure,” he said slowly, “as Madame the Dauphine is dead, rest her poor German soul, and that Monsieur the Dauphin will marry again.”
It was Sunday evening a good year after Fontenoy. The Court was just out of mourning, to its great joy, and the Salon de la Paix at Versailles blazed with lights and with the jewels and silks of a brilliant throng, a few of whom were dispersed in groups making love or talking scandal over their chocolate, while the greater part were playing cards, the ladies at the fashionable brélan, the men at the dice which led to duels and mortgaged estates.
“It will be the deuce for the peace negotiations,” Philippe Comte de Mont Rouge remarked, scowling at the Abbé for no other reason than that he was condemned to sit at this table while Denise, the favourite of the Queen’s maids of honour, was talking in an alcove behind his back to the Chevalier de St. Amant.
“Go you, my dear Abbé,” said the Comtesse, “and bring Des Forges and St. Benôit here. Your news will excite them more than throwing three sixes running.”
“And,” added the Duchess in her pouting staccato, “put your head into the gallery yonder, dear friend, and see if my husband has finished his flirtation with that pretty wench of mine.”
“And if he hasn’t, Duchess?”
“Give them a plenary absolution and let them begin all over again,” interposed the Comtesse.
“To be sure,” the Duchess assented plaintively, “it will keep them both out of worse mischief. Really I cannot dismiss the girl. She washes my lace to perfection.” And she resettled the delicate trimming on her corsage for the benefit of the Comte de Mont Rouge.
“Well, what is it?” St. Benôit demanded.
The Abbé took a fresh pinch of snuff. “The messenger,” he said with no little excitement, “the messenger who was conveying secret instructions from the King to the army in Flanders was found last night in a ditch near Vincennes drugged, his arms and feet bound, and——”
“The despatches gone?”
The Comte des Forges meditatively licked his signet ring. “I knew something d-dreadful had hap-happened,” he stammered. “Why ever should I only be able to t-throw twos to-to-night?”
“What do you make of that?” asked Mont Rouge.
St. Benôit appeared to study his uniform of the Chevau-légers de la Garde in the mirror. His eye rested on Denise and her companion. “The second time in the last three months,” he muttered. “What does the courier say?”
“Say,” repeated the Comtesse des Forges, “say! Not a word, you may swear. The fool knows nothing till he woke to find a gag in his mouth and two peasants glaring at him as if he were the devil.”
“Pontchartrain,” remarked the Duchess, “is sure the man fell in with a siren at the cabaret where he had his supper. Pontchartrain knows most of the cabarets and all the sirens.”
“Wait, wait,” pursued the Abbé. “The courier was carrying not merely army despatches, but,” his voice dropped, “a private cipher message from His Majesty to the agent of the Jacobites.”
St. Benôit so forgot the etiquette of the Salon de la Paix as to whistle softly.
“B-by Jove!” stammered Des Forges.
“They say,” whispered the Abbé to his enthralled audience, “that the message was an invitation to Prince Charles Edward to ignore the King’s explicit promise to the English ambassador and to present himself at Versailles.”
“Dear Prince!” exclaimed the Duchess. “If only he would come to Court I believe I could make Pontchartrain jealous and still have my lace washed by Françoise.”
“I should kiss him, yes I should kiss him, the royal hero. You agree, Des Forges?” cried the Comtesse. “The English—pah! I would do anything to spite the English for their treachery to their lawful Prince.”
“But your kisses, ma mie,” replied her husband, “w-would only keep the P-prince from g-going again to seek his c-crown.”
“Pray what does the Comte des Forges know of madame’s kisses?” asked the Duchess innocently, and they all laughed, no one more heartily than the Comtesse herself.
“And this is serious,” said St. Benôit, “even more serious than the kisses of Madame la Comtesse.”
“And the King is really angry,” the Comtesse said. “M. d’Argenson came away from his audience this morning looking as if he had stolen the despatches himself.”
“And His Majesty remained on his knees at mass ten minutes after every one else had risen,” said the Abbé; “he always does when he is thoroughly angry.”
“I told you it would play the devil with the peace negotiations,” Mont Rouge commented.
“It is curious,” mused St. Benôit, “very curious that this infernal treason should begin again just when the Chevalier de St. Amant has returned to his duties.”
“The Chevalier?” they all questioned eagerly.
“Do you remember the night before Fontenoy,” St. Benôit continued, “when our friend André de Nérac saved the army from foul treachery? Well, I never could get the whole truth from him, but he allowed me to infer that the Chevalier was playing a very fishy part in the business.”
“Impossible,” protested the Duchess. “The Chevalier is on our side—the Queen’s side—the right side.”
“The Marquise de Beau Séjour, I suppose,” sneered the Comtesse, “is guarantee for that.”
“That is not worthy of you, dear lady,” St. Benôit corrected gently, looking into her great blue eyes as he had looked twelve months ago. “Mademoiselle de Beau Séjour is Mademoiselle de Beau Séjour. It will take more than a parvenu Italian chevalier to make her forget she is of the same quality and sex as the Comtesse des Forges. But I would wager a diamond bracelet to a sou that either the Chevalier is at the bottom of this dirty business—or,” he delicately sniffed at his lace handkerchief as one who feared infection, “or that woman.”
“Poisson-Pompadour, a fishy grisette,” sniggered Des Forges, playing on the name, “at the b-bottom of a f-fishy business—eh?”
“The Abbé can give us news again,” remarked Mont Rouge sweetly. “He attended the grisette’s toilet this morning.”
“Impossible!” the Comtesse exclaimed with sincere anger.
“He blushes, our dear friend,” pursued the remorseless Mont Rouge, “blushes a rose de Pompadour. Ha! ha!” The hit went home. Rose de Pompadour was the new colour invented in honour of the King’s favourite at the world-famed royal manufactory at Sèvres.
“The Duc de Pontchartrain was there too,” retorted the Abbé sulkily.
“That,” pouted the Duchess, “is a worse insult to me than if——”
“Than what, ma mignonne?” blandly inquired his Grace, who had stolen in upon the group. “I would have you know, ladies, that in a white peignoir, with her hair about her bare shoulders, the Marquise de Pompadour is the prettiest woman save one at Versailles, or Paris for that matter.”
“Every one,” laughed the Abbé, “knows that Monsieur le Duc is a connoisseur of painting.”
“And the name of the other divine grisette?” asked the Comtesse roguishly, for the Duke was studying her as he studied the coryphées of the opera or his race-horses.
The Duke kissed the plump fingers of his wife with the most charming grace imaginable. “The mirror will answer Madame la Duchesse,” quoth he.
“But my peignoir is blue,” she protested, “and even Françoise could tell you my shoulders on such occasions never are bare.”
“The more’s the pity.” St. Benôit bowed to the diamonds on her breast.
“Amen!” droned the Abbé in the officiating priest’s sing-song, and the Duchess dimpled with delight.
“The Abbé has not told you,” said the Duke, “how he sat on the f-fishy grisette’s bed. He is a bold man our spiritual friend. Listen. There were we all at madame’s toilet this morning—charming shoulders she has I repeat—and kept standing on our feet were we, for she is royal now is the Marquise, and no one may have a chair.”
“The insolence of the jade,” cried the Comtesse. “That Versailles should endure it!”
“And presently strides in the King. No chair for him either. Parbleu! My legs were breaking and so apparently were the Abbé’s. Presently I heard a crack, and there had our witty friend plumped himself down right on Madame’s bed. ‘With your permission, sire,’ he said with a comic cock of his eye, ‘but I am dead tired.’ And the King, who had come in as sulky as a bear, burst into laughter. ‘Look, Madame,’ he said, ‘look at this poor devil of an Abbé!’”
“And the Pompadour?”
“She shrugged her bare shoulders and laughed too, because the King was amused, but she put back her ears, very pretty ears, by the way, like a vicious horse. My faith! she will not forget ‘this poor devil of an Abbé.’”
“My friend, I could embrace you,” cried the Duchess.
“If you would only do it again,” said the Comtesse, “I would embrace you, too.”
“Do you remember De Nérac’s prophecy,” St. Benôit asked quietly, “that if that woman came to Versailles she would come to stay?”
“Ah! if only some one would poison her,” murmured the Duchess.
“Or another take her place,” cried the Comtesse.
“For the good of the country,” interposed the Duke, “I am quite ready to sacrifice the Duchess, even though she——”
“This is no jesting matter,” St. Benôit interrupted sharply. “The Queen and the ministers know that unless we can ruin this jade of the bourgeoisie France and we will be ruined. I wish to heaven André de Nérac were here instead of risking his life in Flanders to no purpose than the glory of the Pompadour.”
“A miracle, a miracle!” cried the Duchess, pointing with her fan.
At the end of the salon a little knot of excited courtiers had gathered, and in their midst stood the Vicomte de Nérac.
For a minute or two he halted, gazing about him with a slightly dazed air. The brilliant lights, the jewels and bare shoulders of the ladies, the uniforms and stars of the men, the rattle of the dice and the clatter of a hundred idle tongues seemed to awe him, familiar though he was with the scene. It was pleasant in this heavily-perfumed air with the flash of the candelabra on his riding cloak, faded uniform, and dusty boots, and on his tanned face, to mark the singularly bracing and vivid contrast that he presented to the luxurious idlers of his world. His eye had fallen on Denise. His shoulders straightened, his lips tightened, unconsciously.
“Depend on it,” St. Benôit whispered to the Duke. “André’s appearance has something to do with this damnable treachery.”
“Or,” added the Duke quietly, “with the schemes of that fishy grisette. The post of the master of her household is vacant.”
André was soon basking in the smiles of his lady friends, proud to welcome a hero who had saved an army of France. Ten minutes showed that he knew nothing of the mysterious affair at Vincennes, and he could only repeat that he had been summoned to Versailles by the express commands of his Sovereign. Why and for what he was ignorant.
The ladies in particular as they babbled watched him closely. Eighteen months of campaigning had not robbed his smile of its charm nor his dark eyes of their eloquent reserve. He was still the André de Nérac who had made more husbands jealous, more women rivals, than even the Duc de Richelieu. For Mademoiselle Claire, for Mademoiselle Eugénie, and the other maids of honour he had a bow and the finished compliment so dear to Versailles; he had even a friendly nod for the Chevalier de St. Amant. But to Denise’s curtsey a cold and correct salute in silence was all he deigned to reply. The rebuke made the eyes of the Comtesse des Forges very bright; indeed, it set the Salon de la Paix gossiping when he withdrew to remove the stains of his hard riding.
“This will ruin everything,” St. Benôit muttered, for he had both fears and plans in his head. So that when André and Denise suddenly met in the half-lights of the empty gallery neither knew the meeting was due to a friendly schemer.
The quick flush in Denise’s cheeks (she ravished the gay blades of Versailles by scorning powder and paint), the dropping of her grey eyes, sent a thrill into the soldier’s heart, but he kept a resolute silence.
“Madame your mother,” Denise began with an effort, “will be proud to welcome you back. Do you stay long at Versailles?” she added hurriedly, when he simply bowed.
“I do not know, Mademoiselle; I await His Majesty’s commands.”
“You are perhaps sorry to return?”
“I cannot tell—yet,” he replied with slow emphasis.
Denise flashed an inquiring glance. “What you will find here,” she said hurriedly, “cannot please a noble of France. A neglected and dishonoured queen—an adventuress——”
“We are in the King’s hands,” André interrupted with a dry smile.
“Yes. Versailles, France, are in the King’s hands,” she repeated despairingly. “Ah!” she cried with a sudden flash, “we want all who would help to—to—” the words died away under the chill of his demeanour.
“To banish the Marquise de Pompadour?” he inquired after a pause.
“Yes. There will be no peace nor honour for France until the Queen, my mistress, is restored to her place and that woman ceases to traffic in the affairs of a great kingdom.”
“I dare say you are right, Mademoiselle. Perhaps it is your business. It certainly is not mine.”
“Not yours? Why not? Are you not one of us, a soldier, a noble?”
“Doubtless, but,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I at least cannot forget that a worthless libertine——”
“I had hoped you had forgotten those words; you are cruel,” she interrupted, “you who have shown——”
“Say no more,” he exclaimed joyfully. “I have forgotten and I ask you to forgive. I was rude as well as cruel. Yes, I have come back as I swore I would to prove that I might be worthy of your regard, your love, Denise.”
He gently touched her hand and raised it to his lips.
“Of my love,” she said quietly, “you must not speak, if you please. But my regard you have already won in Flanders. And, André,” she continued earnestly, “there is work for you to do here. You will help us—us who would—ah!”
She broke off sharply, for one of the ushers of the King’s bed-chamber had swiftly come upon them.
“Monsieur le Vicomte,” he said, “His Majesty desires you to wait upon him at once in the salon of Madame la Marquise de Pompadour.”
“But—” André looked at his travel-stained cloak and boots.
“His Majesty desired Monsieur le Vicomte to attend just as he was.”
“Adieu,” Denise whispered, “and do not forget to-night that you are a noble and soldier of France.”
André turned angrily to obey, for the message from those pleading grey eyes had stirred all the fierce pride of his class. Confound this bourgeoise woman who ordered nobles to dance attendance in her salon!
“I will not forget, Denise,” he whispered back and his spurs rang defiance on the staircase which led to the second floor, where the favourite so loathed by the Court held sway.
“Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac,” pronounced the gentleman-usher closing the door behind him.
The King was leaning against the mantelpiece talking to Madame de Pompadour smiling from an arm-chair up at him. The bored, impenetrable royal eyes travelled over André’s figure as he advanced to kneel and kiss his Sovereign’s hand. Madame then without rising held out hers, and André, conscious only of the King’s presence, must swallow his pride and salute as she sat this upstart usurper of royal honours. But the blood of the De Néracs boiled within him.
Louis gazed with lazy approval round the apartment furnished with even greater taste than wealth, at the costly books and pictures, at the unfinished plaster cast which Madame had been modelling, at the plans of buildings littered on a glorious escritoire. A Mæcenas in petticoats, whatever else she was, this adventuress, thought André as he waited in silence, and he recalled the memories of the salon she had held as Madame d’Étiolles for Voltaire, the President Hénault, the Abbé de Bernis, and the other famous wits.
“Madame la Marquise,” said the King abruptly, “will convey my wishes. Good-night, Vicomte.”
The curtains at the other end of the room had scarcely fallen on the departing King when the lady resumed her seat as if she desired the standing André clearly to recognise that the King’s presence made no difference to the rights she claimed. It was, too, as if she insolently invited him to inspect her. And inspect her he did, tingling all the time with rage.
How she looked Nattier and La Tour, who painted her in the heyday of her womanhood and of her beauty, have left on immortal record. And anger could not prevent André’s heart, so susceptible to feminine loveliness, from a swift thrill of homage. That dainty head, the exquisite shape and pose of her neck, those wonderful eyes, now black, now blue, now grey, that bust called by a poet les parfaits plaisirs, the harmony of her heliotrope robe, lace-edged with cunning artlessness—every line, every detail, witnessed to a woman’s magic insight into the handiwork of God. And here in this haughty Versailles, where taste, breeding, and birth were superior to mere beauty, this woman, born a bourgeoise, had by some diabolic witchery usurped the polished ease so justly regarded as the heritage and the monopoly of the château and of the noblesse.
She had risen. “Monsieur le Vicomte,” André noted the musical modulation in her voice, “His Majesty has been pleased to confer on you the fit reward of your valour.”
She was gravely offering him the soldier’s and statesman’s most coveted distinction, the Cordon Bleu. The blood leaped into André’s head. For a moment the room swam blue as the ribbon. “Madame, I thank you,” he stammered.
“It is the King’s gift,” she corrected calmly. For a minute or two they surveyed each other.
“What is it?” she demanded of the servant who had entered.
“The superintendent of police awaits the commands of Madame la Marquise.”
“Let him enter,” she said, resuming her seat and quietly ignoring André.
His anger grew hot again as he observed how she took for granted the official’s humble obedience.
“Study that lampoon,” she said, tossing him a fly-sheet. “You must discover the author and have him punished.”
“But it is impossible, Madame,” the superintendent replied after a pause. “I have no power to arrest, still less to punish, the ladies and gentlemen of Versailles.”
“It comes from the palace, then?”
“It does not come from Paris,” the official answered drily.
She placed the paper in a drawer. For a few seconds the look in her eyes was terrible. “You have the other information I required?” she asked.
“His Majesty last night was closeted with his private secretaries till half-past ten. At a quarter to eleven His Majesty walked in the north gallery with the Chevalier de St. Amant. At eleven they met the Marquise de Beau Séjour leaving her Majesty’s apartments. The Chevalier spoke to her, the King did not. At ten minutes past eleven His Majesty went to bed.”
André went cold as ice at the glib report. Denise was right. There would be no peace till this woman had been hunted from her place.
“Good. That will do,” and she dismissed the official. Then she turned her chair.
“The post of master of my household is vacant,” she said. “It is the King’s pleasure that it be filled by the Vicomte de Nérac.”
“I beg pardon, Madame?” André questioned haughtily.
She calmly repeated the sentence, looking him full in the face.
“It is impossible,” he answered, with difficulty restraining his anger.
“Nothing that the King of France is pleased to command a subject can be impossible,” she rejoined almost sweetly.
André clenched his hands and held his tongue. A gentleman must needs accept an insult even from a low-born woman with the dignity due to himself.
“It is the King’s pleasure,” she proceeded with a flash of sarcasm, “but it is not mine. I do not choose to accept the services of the Vicomte de Nérac.”
André gave her a look. Had she been a man she might have lived twenty-four hours, certainly no more.
“Has Monsieur le Vicomte any further observations to offer? No? Then—” she made the pretence of a curtsey. He, André de Nérac, a Croix of St. Louis and a Cordon Bleu, was dismissed.
An icy bow; he was striding to the door.
“Monsieur le Vicomte leaves the Cordon Bleu on the table,” she remarked, but André in his rage paid no heed.
“Mon Dieu!” a caressing laugh caused him to halt with a shiver. “Mon Dieu! so you have forgotten the little vivandière at Fontenoy? Ah, well, it is no matter.”
André drew a deep breath. The past swept into his eyes. Was he bewitched or——
“But I have not forgotten,” came that silvery voice, “see the proof,” she was holding up the Cordon Bleu.
“It was you—who,” he sat down overcome.
“To be sure. Who else? I am a good actress, am I not? Ah, yes, the world knows I can act. Paint and powder, a red jacket, a short petticoat with boots half-way to the knees. Would they not stare in the Galerie des Glaces if they knew?” She tripped towards him, head cocked on one side, hands on her hips. “The Vicomte will not betray our secret for all his wrath. ‘It is impossible, Madame, impossible,’” she was mimicking divinely his haughty brevity. “Ah! you will forgive the vivandière though you cannot forgive the Marquise de Pompadour. Yes, you did me a service that night for which I have repaid you by an insult. I ask your pardon, for I am grateful.”
In her pleading eyes floated a wonderful tenderness and penitence.
“And every minute,” she pursued softly, “I felt sure you must recognise me. But you did not. My faith! soldiers are strange, so proud and fierce and stupid—eh? But you frightened me, upon my honour you did. I tremble still.”
André stumbled to his feet.
“I am in your power,” she whispered. “No one but you knows that I was at Fontenoy, not even the King. But all France knows that the Vicomte de Nérac saved the army, though they have not learned it was at the bidding of a vivandière,” she nodded, the corners of her mouth bewitching.
“It is amazing,” he cried, bewildered, “amazing!”
She gently closed the door behind him. “Perhaps,” she said. “But have you forgotten ‘No. 101’?”
For eighteen months André had not heard a word of that traitor. His existence had been blotted from his memory, but now in a flash the scene in the wood stormed into his mind.
“Ah!” he muttered. “Ah!” One minute of the past and he was once more back in this dainty salon, though his anger and pride were melting fast before the radiant witchery of this strange woman who had conquered a king.
“The treachery of ‘No. 101’ has begun again,” she was saying quietly. “And it will not stop this time, I have good reason to believe, unless—I—” she broke off—“unless——”
Across the memory of the charcoal-burner’s cabin in the grisly wood rang Denise’s warning. The Cordon Bleu gleamed at him from the table. And Captain Statham who had seen the traitor’s face lay dead at his feet. Madame smiled softly as if she divined the meaning of those clenched fingers, the lips that formed a sentence and then were pressed in silence.
Madame briefly recited as the Abbé had done in the Salon de la Paix the story of the stolen despatches and the courier’s fate in the ditch at Vincennes. “It is the second time in three months,” she summed up. “There will be a third before long.”
“You really think so?”
“I am sure of it,” she replied. “The negotiations for peace have commenced, but the war still goes on. This black, infernal treachery is here in Versailles, in our midst, for the prize to a traitor at this critical time is worth a king’s ransom. It is maddening, maddening—believe me, the man or woman who lays bare the mystery will do the King and France a service never to be forgotten. And His Majesty can be grateful.”
André’s ambitious heart throbbed responsive to the skilful touch.
“I mean to discover the traitor. I foiled him at Fontenoy. I will foil him again, but,” she paused, “a woman cannot do it alone. When the King wrote to me before I came to Versailles, ‘Discret et Fidèle’ was his motto. I want to-day a friend who will be ‘discret et fidèle,’ a man without fear, loyal, ingenious, and brave.”
André raised his head sharply. The thoughts were coming fast; he began to see dimly, to hope, to dream.
“I confess,” she pursued, “that I thought the Vicomte de Nérac might be that man, my man. But it is impossible, impossible.”
“Why, Madame?” He was leaning eagerly across the table.
“Why?” She laughed softly. “Because the Marquise de Pompadour is a bourgeoise, a heartless, selfish, intriguing wanton, and she can find many who will serve her, who will write ballades to her eyes and sonnets to her bosom, and then behind her back will scribble the foul libels that the soldiers sang at Fontenoy. But the Court, the Queen, the Dauphin, the bishops and priests, the libertines and the dévots, the ministers and the great ladies are leagued in hate against me. It is true, is it not?”
And André could not answer.
“So long as I have the King on my side I am safe. But this palace is a labyrinth of intrigue. If the King grows weary I shall be fortunate to leave Versailles a free woman. And by my ruin those of my service will be ruined too. The task I mean to perform is doubly dangerous—there is the Court and there is ‘No. 101.’ Yes, it is no task for the Vicomte de Nérac.”
The gentle voice cut like a whip. André began to pace up and down.
“You are young, my friend.” She was looking at him as she had looked when she slipped the pillow beneath his head at Fontenoy. “You are brave, a soldier with great ambitions and a great future, for you have the heart and courage of your race. You are of the noblesse, your world is not of this salon, but of the Salon de la Paix. Your friends, your blood, have declared war upon me; for a traitor to their cause they will have no mercy. True the King has commanded your services in my household, but Antoinette d’Étiolles, who is grateful for what you did at Fontenoy, refuses to accept because she would not ruin, I cannot say a friend, but a noble hero of France.”
Remorse, ambition, the witchery of her beauty, his love for Denise, strove for mastery within him.
“Adieu,” she whispered, “you must go your way, I mine. We shall meet, perhaps. How long I shall be here God knows. But trust me, I will see that your refusal to accept the King’s pleasure shall do you no harm. You will succeed, you must, for fortune, birth, and manhood are on your side. Adieu!”
“But, Madame—” he cried impulsively.
“No, Vicomte, no. It is impossible. A man may sacrifice himself, but never—never must he sacrifice his love.”
Her eyes rested on him with sympathetic significance. She had divined his secret. André felt the blood scarlet as his uniform in his cheeks. Denise—yes, Denise blocked the way to the future this enchantress had dreamed for him, nay, that he had dreamed for himself.
“Perhaps you are right,” he said slowly, raising her hand to his lips. “But André de Nérac is not ungrateful.”
“Perhaps,” she smiled. “Take your Cordon Bleu. It is none the less deserved because it was asked for by a vivandière. Will Monsieur le Vicomte permit? Yes?” she had pinned it to his breast. Her face was very close to his; the flattery in those wonderful eyes caressed his inmost soul. “See,” she whispered.
“This way—it is safer for you.”
She lifted the curtain over an alcove revealing a narrow staircase down to a dark passage. “At the bottom you will find to the left a door locked; here is the key. By that private door you can return to the public galleries. The dark passage leads to the King’s and the Queen’s private apartments. The King, or indeed any one who has the key, can come this way unknown to the spies of the ministers or of the Court. Remember, there are only two keys; the King has one, this is the other. Keep it; you may want it.”
“Want it?” he repeated, confused.
“The Vicomte,” she corrected gently, “henceforth cannot without harming himself visit publicly a bourgeoise grisette. But he will remember that in Antoinette de Pompadour he has, if he will but believe it, a true and grateful friend. If he is in trouble or in difficulty the key will show him the way and no one will be wiser. If not, it is no matter.”
“But, Madame, why should I be in trouble?”
She laughed mysteriously. “Anything, as the Vicomte well knows, can happen at Versailles. Adieu!”
And yet she lingered. “The Cordon Bleu was from the King,” she said; “accept this, pray, from me; it is the handkerchief, the famous handkerchief of the Hôtel de Ville, and it comes from my heart.” She had tossed it to him with an airy kiss blown from her jewelled fingers.
What a charming picture she made, framed in the darkness there with her heliotrope robe drawn back to avoid the dripping of the candle held above her dainty head. Un morceau de roi, parbleu!
“Remember ‘No. 101.’ Adieu.” The soft echo stole into the chill passage. The Marquise had dropped the curtain and André was alone with his thoughts.
André sat down on the stairs in the dark. It is perhaps not surprising that his first thoughts were of “No. 101.” Across his path had fallen for the second time the shadow of that baleful, blood-stained mystery. So far all who had tried to run the traitor to earth had failed; but when war and peace, the King’s policy and the destinies of France, hung in the balance success in the task meant a great reward. That masked woman in the wood had baffled him. Vanity, a passionate curiosity, the spell of the mystery, patriotism, once more united to kindle his longing to succeed where all had failed. But to attempt it alone or without money or information was out of the question. To invite the co-operation of his friends in this Versailles of intrigue and counter-intrigue, of jealousy and selfishness, spelled certain failure. With Madame de Pompadour’s help alone it might be done, but that was impossible, doubly impossible. Madame was right. A De Nérac, a Croix de St. Louis, and a Cordon Bleu could not enter the service of a bourgeoise favourite, here to-day and gone to-morrow, could not defy his class, the Queen and the Court, could not outrage his own dignity. Denise would spurn him for ever. Sacrifice his love? no, a thousand times no! Still less could he return now a suppliant for the Pompadour’s favours: she who had refused his aid; he who had scorned her offer. Yet—yes, yet with what delicacy and sympathy she had atoned for her apparent insolence. No woman, not Denise herself, could have shown her gratitude with more grace and conviction. An adventuress she was maybe, but a true woman for all that, and as charming as beautiful. Name of a dog! The faint perfume of that dainty handkerchief, which had made history, subtly recalled the intoxicating flattery of her eyes, the tender gratitude of her voice. The King—André laughed softly—the King was no fool when he was conquered by Antoinette d’Étiolles. And he had her key; well, he would see about that key.
His mind travelled to the thought of Denise. He had sworn to win her; he loved her, his beautiful Marquise de Beau Séjour, for was she not what the wife of a De Nérac should be—fair, noble, and pure? The scandalous tongues of the Court rendered her the homage of silence. She was the type to him of what France, the France for which he fought, could be. Did not there burn in her soul the inspiring flame of patriotism, duty, and high endeavour which she, as he, owed to her lineage and to God?
Well, well, to-morrow would bring counsel. He rose to grope his way to the locked door. Mon Dieu! What was this?
The door was opening stealthily. Some one was coming in. The King? Of course. André softly flew up the stairs and crouched in the folds of the curtain. If the King was coming to the Pompadour he was lost, but caught as he was in this dark corridor it was his only chance of concealment.
A light from a hand lamp flickered into the darkness. Ah! that was not the King’s step; nor did the King hum gay songs under his breath. Ho! ho! an adventure! Madame’s key was worth the owning after all.
As he lived, the Chevalier de St. Amant, a rose between his lips, hat cocked jauntily, his slim, boyish figure instinct with an abandoned grace. Pooh! he was the King’s private secretary and the royal key had been given him by his master for his own purposes. This was very interesting and mightily droll.
André drew a deep breath. The door at the top of the stairs at the other end of the passage had quietly opened. Some one with a lamp was standing awaiting the Chevalier. A woman! Yes, the light fell with a gleam on the folds of her dress, on the jewel on her breast. The gay young dog to use his royal master’s key in this way. What adorable audacity!
The woman held up the lamp with a familiar gesture. Denise! By God it was Denise!
One choking moment and then André turned stone-cold. Denise, his Denise! Mechanically he wiped the perspiration from his brow as he stared spellbound. Denise!
The Chevalier doffed his hat, kissed her hand, took the lamp from her, and once more André was alone in the darkness, gnawed by impotent and implacable rage, jealousy black and hot as hell.
But what did it mean—in heaven’s name what did it mean? And the Chevalier? Ah, if it had not been his Denise!
Only by the sternest self-control did he prevent himself from dashing after them. Pure madness, for that door was certainly locked. He must wait here if he waited till Doomsday. It seemed an eternity—in reality it was about half-an-hour—and then the Chevalier reappeared alone and still jauntily humming his song stealthily let himself out, ignorant, poor boy, that only a noble’s refusal to stab in cold blood like a common footpad had saved him from staining the floor of this dark corridor with his life’s blood.
Here was a fresh mystery. This cursed Versailles with its infamies and plots, its libertines and intriguers, its cabals, cliques, and conspiracies! “No. 101,” Yvonne, the crystal-gazer, Madame de Pompadour, war, treachery, and the Chevalier—in what cruel toils was his life set; but this last was the rudest shock of all. André could have cried aloud in sheer perplexity at the riddles that beset him on every side.
He took out the key. The touch of the cool steel on his feverish fingers sent a thrill through him. Ah! Madame had given him this key; she had ushered him out this way. He had wondered why. Because she was grateful? No. It was clear now—clear as daylight. She knew the secrets of this hateful corridor and she desired him to see for himself. Could it be possible? Yes, yes; it must be. A swift decision stormed into his mind.
Cautiously he let himself out. The public gallery was empty, but as he strode towards the stables he was startled to meet Denise hurrying to the Queen’s apartments.
“Ah,” he said, inspecting her closely, “tell me, if you please, where I can find the Chevalier de St. Amant?”
Denise gazed at his bronzed, inscrutable face with astonishment—or was it fear?
“I was informed,” André said carelessly, “that he had been seen in your company going towards the King’s apartments—a mistake, no doubt. The Chevalier is probably with His Majesty. It is a pity, for——”
“But the King,” Denise interrupted hastily, “is not in his private apartments; neither is the Chevalier there.”
André calmly studied her. “Ah, Mademoiselle,” he laughed, “I see you are well informed. I must seek the Chevalier elsewhere.” He turned away.
“And will you not tell me of what passed—” Denise had begun.
“I regret infinitely that I have pressing business, Mademoiselle. To-morrow, if you will be so kind,” and he smilingly bid her good-night.
Five minutes later he was galloping through the woods to “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.” Something useful for his new resolve might possibly be learned there, and every clue would help now.
The inn that looked like a farmhouse buried in the woods wore as deserted an air as it had worn eighteen months ago, and in answer to his imperious knock there appeared the chambermaid with the shifty eyes, who stared in fear and surprise at this officer in his faded uniform and muddy boots who demanded entrance in the dark hours of the night.
“My mistress, the wise woman, is not here, sir,” she replied pettishly, half closing the door in André’s face.
“When will she be here?”
“Never again, Monsieur. She has left.”
André promptly pushed his way into the passage and closed the door. The girl uttered a suppressed shriek. “Are you of the police, sir?” she whimpered. “I know nothing, nothing; I swear it.”
“I am not of the police,” he said quietly. “I am a friend of your mistress. See that gold piece; you shall have it if you will tell me all you know.”
The girl looked slowly round. “I do not know where she is, my mistress,” she said. “Three days ago there came an English gentleman——”
“English?” he interrupted sharply.
“But yes. Madame said he was English. He saw her—he went away. Yesterday Madam left; she will come no more. She is gone, perhaps, to England. I do not know, I swear.”
André reflected. Yes, it was more than possible that “the princess” had returned to England.
“Do you know,” he demanded next, “why she left?”
“Because,” her voice dropped, “she feared the vengeance of the Marquise de Pompadour.”
André vividly recollected the scene when he had come to consult the crystal-gazer. The girl was not lying.
“And you know nothing more?”
She took the gold piece greedily. André had his foot in the stirrup when a thought struck him.
“Tell me,” he asked persuasively, “why you thought I was of the police?”
The girl beckoned him within and closed the door.
“Monsieur the superintendent of police has twice been here this week to inquire about my mistress,” she answered softly. “This very morning he was here. He would know everything would monsieur the superintendent. But he does not pay and he learned nothing, nothing, I swear.” She laughed knowingly.
André mounted and rode away. Fate was against him. Well, it could not be helped now. And the news of that English gentleman and the inquiries of the police were disquieting. What were English gentlemen doing at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold” when England was at war with France? No wonder the police, the Marquise’s friend in particular, were prowling about so suspicious an inn. No wonder the crystal-gazer had taken to flight.
“Who is that?” cried a boyish voice. A galloping horse had suddenly pulled up beside André’s. “You, Vicomte, you! The very man that is wanted.”
André had at the sudden challenge whipped out his sword to defend himself. He now peered through the gloom.
“Chevalier, you!” he exclaimed in intense suspicion and annoyance.
“Yes, I, Chevalier de St. Amant. I am in luck. There’s the devil’s own business here.”
“What is it?” André demanded angrily. To be detected in this wood by the Chevalier, of all men, was maddening.
“Treachery,” said the Chevalier briefly.
St. Amant was excited. “I was on my way to Paris by the King’s orders to overtake a courier. I took the short cut through this wood; you know it doubtless. I hear a groan, I dismount, and there is the courier in the ditch, tied hand and foot, gagged too, poor devil, and his despatches gone.”
“Gone?” A shiver ran down André’s back.
“Clean as a whistle. The idiot had taken the short cut, too. As far as I can make out he was attacked from behind, stunned, and robbed. Will you help to bring the poor wretch back to Versailles, for I must go on to Paris?”
André sat appalled. “Of course,” he replied presently.
“This is the Vincennes affair over again,” the Chevalier remarked when they had unbound the courier and set him on André’s horse. “It is devilish this treachery, devilish and amazing.”
De Nérac nodded. He was in no mood to discuss anything with anybody just now, least of all with the Chevalier de St. Amant.
The young man had mounted. “I am very sorry,” he said, “that I cannot offer to accompany you, but the King’s orders were urgent and I am already late. Good-night, Vicomte.”
André bowed stiffly.
“If I might suggest,” the Chevalier added in the friendliest way, “it would be well to say nothing of this damnable business until the King has been informed in the morning.”
“I thank you,” André replied coldly. “I had already intended to wait until His Majesty had heard the story from your lips.”
“Good. I shall be back at dawn.” The Chevalier spurred away.
As De Nérac rode slowly back the Marquise’s words rang in his ears—“This is the second time in three months. There will be a third before long.” The third had already come, and as usual like a thief in the night. Confound “No. 101”! Confound the Chevalier de St. Amant!
He was in no mood to go to bed. He would walk in one of the galleries until he had eased himself of all the black thoughts and fears, until he could see a path through the thickets into which fate had plunged him.
A party of his friends was still playing at dice, and as André passed through the room they stared at his muddy riding boots in amused surprise.
“You have news?” cried the Comte de Mont Rouge.
“Yes,” André retorted curtly, “bad news which you will learn later.”
“What the devil has he been doing?” he heard St. Benôit exclaim as André sharply left the room.
“I will tell you,” Mont Rouge laughed. “He has already begun to do the dirty work of that grisette.”
“What do you mean?” St. Benôit demanded.
“She is going to make him master of her household.”
“De Nérac? Master of the Pompadour’s household? Impossible!” A dozen voices protested, and the dice-boxes ceased to rattle.
“Wait and you will see,” Mont Rouge’s cynical tones replied.
“Where and how did you learn this?” St. Benôit asked, aghast.
“The Comtesse des Forges told me,” Mont Rouge answered. “She is in the confidence of St. Amant, who as we all know is the King’s most confidential secretary.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Oh, well!” André, who had caught his friend’s denial, halted involuntarily behind the door, picturing to himself Mont Rouge’s shrug of the shoulders. Well, it was only one more item in a long account, an account that would be settled some day.
“If it is true,” said the Abbé St. Victor, “that De Nérac has sold himself, he will be ruined when she is ruined. It is a pity, but he will deserve it.”
Ruined? André laughed the laugh of a reckless gambler staking his last piece. Ruined? They would see.
The curtain over the alcove was very cautiously lifted. Madame de Pompadour looked up from her papers. “Good afternoon, Vicomte,” she smiled. “I was expecting you; you observe I am alone.”
“Expecting me, Madame?” André demanded, astonished.
“To be sure, expecting you to report your account of this baffling affair in the woods with which all Versailles rings and to return my key.”
“I know nothing but what everybody knows of the matter, nor am I here to return your key, but to keep it.” Madame studied him with calm satisfaction. “Yes, Marquise, I am here because I have decided to enter your service.”
The lady leaned back in her chair and laughed. “But it is impossible, my dear Vicomte,” she replied lightly. “His Majesty has already appointed a master of my household.” She rose and looked into his face, stern with a determination born of a prolonged inward struggle. “You are disappointed. I thank you for the compliment. No matter, we will arrange it another way, you and I.”
“Will Madame kindly explain?”
“You have reflected on our chat yesterday?” she asked. “Yes? You have counted the cost?” André bowed in silence. “Good. I do not ask your reasons; they are your affair, and the Vicomte does not act with his eyes shut. But I am rejoiced, my friend; I could sing with pleasure. To the entente cordiale and to our success.” She held out her hand, and in the sunshine of her gaze he raised it to his lips.
“Now listen. I have thought it all out. To the world of Versailles we are for the future deadly enemies, you and I. You have offended me. I have insulted you. What could be more natural? Already the idle tongues chatter in the galleries that the Vicomte de Nérac has refused to accept the King’s pleasure and that Madame is in tears of rage. That is my inspiration, you understand. But you will still keep my key and be in my service without any of the disgrace—eh? Mon Dieu it will be droll.”
André smiled in admiration of her finesse. A genius this marquise.
“But perhaps I shall not be in Versailles,” he said after a pause.
“Leave it to me,” she retorted gaily. “I have already provided for that. It is my little secret—a vivandière’s secret.”
She began slowly to roll up the plans on her table.
André’s eye caught one of the sheets. “Ah, you recognise it?” she asked.
“To be sure. It is the Château de Beau Séjour.”
“Yes; and what the King can give the King can take away,” she replied with her mysterious smile. “Mademoiselle Denise—patience, my friend, and hear me out—is very beautiful and very noble. It is better for women who can afford it to be content with love, their beauty, and their noblesse, and to leave politics alone. Politics, intrigue are a very dangerous game, particularly for young ladies. Mademoiselle would find some very instructive lessons as to that in the history of her château. It might well be that the King might desire a second time to confer Beau Séjour on a servant who had rendered precious service to his Sovereign. And,” she added, throwing up her head, “I hope Mademoiselle will learn that I will not be thwarted in my plans by a girl even though she has forty marshals of France in her pedigree.”
André listened in silence, but the colour in his bronzed cheeks revealed the strong emotion within.
“And now to business.” Madame had almost unsexed herself. The woman’s charm and grace melted into a masculine, alert, and bracing keenness. She beckoned to André to draw his chair up to the table. “‘No. 101,’ that is our affair. After last night it is more imperative than ever the mystery should be laid bare. And it is clear that the treachery starts from Versailles. You agree?”
“Good. The clues unfortunately are very slight. But not far from the palace is an inn called ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold’—you know it?” she questioned sharply.
“I was there eighteen months ago,” he replied, recovering himself.
“No doubt on the same foolish errand as all of us. But the crystal-gazer has vanished and cannot be traced. It is no matter. We have to do with another woman, a country wench called Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles——”
“Yvonne?” He controlled himself with difficulty.
“A curious name for a peasant wench, is it not? Well, I am convinced that this Yvonne in some way yet to be fathomed is connected with this infernal treachery. The police can discover nothing but to her credit; the police, of course, are fools. Vicomte, it is your task to master Yvonne’s secret.”
André’s fingers tapped on the table.
“You are a man, a soldier, a lover,” Madame continued in her cool voice. “You understand women. She is a peasant, you are a noble. A woman who loves will tell everything. You take me?”
“Perfectly.” He rose and began abruptly to pace up and down as he always did when his thoughts over-mastered him. Madame consulted her tablets.
“And then there is the Chevalier de St. Amant,” she resumed, and André came to a dead halt. “He and I do not love one another. The King has his secrets from his ministers, from his valet, from me, secrets of policy, and of his private life. The Chevalier is the King’s creature, his confidant, and he is ambitious. He fears my influence, he is an adventurer, a parvenu. When he has destroyed me the hand of Mademoiselle Denise will wipe out his antecedents, will by a stroke of the King’s pen make him ruler of France and one of its greatest nobles. But,” she rose, “he shall not, he shall not.”
“No,” said André in a low voice, “by God he shall not!”
Madame smiled. “It is your task and mine,” she added, “to defeat, to crush, the Chevalier de St. Amant.”
“Yes,” said André simply.
“We are engaged on a perilous task. There is a plot, more than one, on foot to drive me from Versailles. And they are all in it, the Queen and her ladies, monseigneurs the archbishops and bishops, the Dauphin and the princesses of the blood, the ministers, the nobles, the army, even the King’s valet. In the council, the galleries, the royal study, even the King’s bedroom, day and night they are scheming and intriguing. It will be a duel to the death—one woman against the Queen, the Church, the ministers, and the noblesse, but he who will decide is the King.”
She flung her arms up with a superbly dramatic gesture. Standing there in the triumphant consciousness of her beauty she would have moved the most merciless of her critics to admiration. And the man who would decide was Louis XV.
“He is strange, the King,” she mused as if she had forgotten André, “how strange but few can guess—at one moment the slave of his passion, at another burning with a king’s ambition, at a third indolent and dull, at a fourth consumed by remorse, tortured by fear of God and the pains of hell. The ennui of a royal life, that is his bane. The woman who can amuse him, keep him from himself, he will never desert. And I will be that woman. My beauty will fade, but give me first five years—five years as I am to-day—and it will be death alone that will separate the King and me.”
“And you will rule France, Marquise?”
She wheeled with a flash of fire. “Yes,” she said, “I will rule France through the King.”
There was silence. Madame leaned against the carved mantelpiece; her eyes passed over the salon with its wealth and its refinement out into the measureless spaces of the future, to the rosy peaks known only to the dreams of ambition.
“Paris,” she murmured, “calls me happy, fortunate. Listen,” and she recited:
“M. de Voltaire is a poet. The homage of the poets, the philosophers, the artists, the wits, the homage of the world to her beauty, the love of a king—what can a woman desire more? I have them to-day, but shall I keep them? Mon Dieu! do they reflect, these mere men and women, what it costs to keep them? My life is a martyrdom. A false step, a stupid word, to be gay when I should be silent, to be dull when I should be gay—these may hurl me from my place. And the intrigues! The intrigues! Vicomte, I declare to you that at night I lie awake reckoning with tears what the day has accomplished, wrestling with what to-morrow may bring. Heartless, frivolous, and false are my foes. Is it surprising that I too should be heartless, frivolous, false? But I would not change my lot. No! Better far one year with the cup of pleasure at one’s lips; better far one glorious year in Versailles of passion and power, than an eternity of that life I knew as Madame d’Étiolles. Yes; if in twelve months I must pay the price at the Bastille I would drink now to the full the joys of an uncrowned queen of France.”
She sat down overpowered by the visions of her own spirit.
And André listened with a unique thrill of awe, torn by conflicting emotions. Of his own free will he had asked for her help because his ambitions thrust the sacrifice on him. Away from her presence he recalled with a shiver a word, a gesture, a look, that spoke of a cold selfishness, even of an insolent vulgarity, so strangely blended with such grace, charm, and sympathy. Her low birth, her position at Versailles, stirred in him the contempt that was the heritage of eight centuries of noble ancestors. But once face to face with her all his misgivings, all his scorn and dislike, melted away. And he dimly felt that her victory was no mere triumph of a beautiful and gifted woman over a man’s passion, the appeal of the flesh to the flesh, such as he knew and had yielded to so often. This was no mere idol of a royal and fleeting devotion, no mere splendid courtesan of Nature’s making; it was the breath of the human spirit to the human spirit, blowing with the divine mystery of the wind where it listed on the answering spaces of the sea. And the soaring sweep of her ambition awoke in his soul ambitions not less daring and supreme. What man in whom the ceaseless call of the siren voices within, voices that no priestly code, no laws, and no arguments can still, voices whose sweetness and strength rise from the unfathomable abysses where flesh and spirit are indistinguishable—what man who has from childhood listened to those voices within but must feel the triumphant echo when he finds a woman tempted and inspired as he has been tempted and inspired? Madame de Pompadour might be what the Court said, but there were hopes, visions, in her which the Court and King would never fathom, which it might be well she herself could only see and follow because she must. She was fate, this woman, the fate of France. Let others judge her. He could not. It was enough to listen to her summons and to obey.
And so they sat in silence lapped each in the glamour of their dreams. Sharp awaking came with the abrupt entrance of Madame’s mistress of the robes.
“The King,” she cried, “the King is coming,” and she promptly fled.
The Marquise rose almost in terror. “Quick, quick,” she whispered, “you have the key.”
But Louis had already entered, sullen and bored.
André’s genius did not desert him. “Madame,” he exclaimed with a matchless mixture of dismay and despair, “I am ruined. The King has discovered me.”
Louis broke into a laugh. His royal and jaded humour was tickled by the comic dejection in the Vicomte’s face as he shamefacedly kneeled to kiss the King’s hand.
“Ma foi! The gentleman should think of the lady,” he said smiling, “and not merely of himself.”
“True, Sire, when the lady will think presently of the gentleman. But in this case the lady will not think of him at all—alas!”
André’s half-droll, half-passionate sigh provoked a second royal laugh.
“I must find employment for this idle vicomte,” Louis remarked to Madame, “and not in your household, parbleu!”
“I fear not, more’s the pity,” André answered.
The King flung himself into a chair. His ennui had remastered him, and he stared at the screen dully. “Your Majesty is tired,” the Marquise murmured, kneeling to slip a cushion under his head. “I will read to you something amusing.”
“Not for worlds. They do not write amusing books in Paris to-day as they once did.” He stared at the carpet, then at her faultless dress, and André observed how his hand listlessly rested on hers as she remained kneeling by his side.
“It is only the book of life that is amusing, Sire,” she retorted with a gay nod. “Your Majesty writes a fresh page in mine every day.”
“Is it amusing?” he asked with a faint flash of interest.
“Shall I tell you, Sire, what my woman said this morning? ‘Do you laugh, Madame,’ quoth she, ‘when the King talks because it is a jest or because he is the King?’”
Louis looked up. “And your answer?”
“You must guess, Sire.”
“Because he is the King,” he said gloomily.
“No, no. ‘The King never jests with me,’ I replied, ‘and he is never the King to me; he is only—’” she completed the sentence by a curtsey to her heels and the suspicion of a kiss on his fingers.
“You are a foolish woman,” was the royal reply. The impenetrable eyes cleared for a moment.
André was thrilled by the ripple of laughter that floated through the room. “Ah, Sire, now you jest for the first time—absolutely the first time.”
She rose. “Monsieur le Vicomte,” she said quickly, “you have His Majesty’s permission to retire.” Then as he took his leave, “You are a man, my friend,” she whispered softly, “and you saved us both. I shall not forget,” and behind her Sovereign’s back she blew him an intoxicating adieu.
As the door closed Madame de Pompadour was whispering in Louis’s ear and a hearty royal laugh rang out.
For in such ways do kings permit themselves to be governed.
The great historical buildings in Paris bear witness with eloquence and beauty to the genius and ambition of the many royal rulers who during three centuries of a wonderfully dramatic history have led a nation itself gifted with genius and ambition. Versailles alone is the exception, for in Versailles even the most ignorant and cold-blooded of modern sightseers feels at every step that the years have vanished, that he breathes the air of the grand age, that he is face to face with the monument of one historic figure and one alone—Louis XIV. Gone is the bitter memory of 1870; gone is the tragedy of Marie Antoinette. Alike in the stately splendour of the Galerie des Glaces, in the cold loneliness of the chapel, in the ordered magnificence of these haughty gardens, most of all in the imperial pomp of the royal bedroom, dominates the spirit of the Roi Soleil—the King who made kingship the art and the science and the creed of a nation’s life.
As one steps to-day into the empty stillness of that memorable Œil de Bœuf the light from the oval windows seems to fall only on those white and gold doors beyond which lies the state bed-chamber. But wait in patience and the loneliness will vanish; the room is now crowded with the courtiers awaiting the grand lever of majesty; a hundred tongues are discussing eagerly the events of the hour, a hundred eyes watch with feverish eagerness all who have the right to pass and repass those jealously-guarded portals, behind which monarchy, on whose caprice turns the fate of ministers and nobles, is dressing.
“The King,” said Mont Rouge to St. Benôit, “is as playful this morning as he was last night. Ah, you have not heard?” he added. “Well, when the Duke de Richelieu was pulling off His Majesty’s boots, ‘How many times, by the bye, Duke, have you been in the Bastille?’ asked the King. ‘Three times, Sire,’ Richelieu replied stiffly. ‘Odd numbers are unlucky,’ said the King in his slow way, and even Richelieu was annoyed.”
“A pretty plain hint,” St. Benôit remarked. “What has Richelieu been doing? Another love affair and a duel?”
“Oh, no; he was only saucy to the Pompadour at supper. That woman is itching to show that dukes can be treated like kitchen wenches.”
“Perhaps. But she doesn’t get her way with every one. De Nérac has positively refused to enter her service, and the King is more pleased with him than ever.”
“It is true, then, that he has been given the Cordon Bleu?” Mont Rouge demanded with a flash of jealousy.
“Quite true, the lucky dog,” answered the Duke of Pontchartrain, who had joined them, “and the extraordinary thing is that the Pompadour, who was very angry with De Nérac, jested about it last night.”
“But what has De Nérac done to get the Cordon Bleu?” Mont Rouge growled.
The Duke shrugged his shoulders. “Have you forgotten the night before Fontenoy, my friend?” His voice dropped. “This mysterious affair of yesterday in the woods, too,” he whispered, “is all part of the same infernal business.”
“You don’t mean it?”
“I do. The King and the ministers are convinced that the Vincennes business, this affair of the woods, and that Fontenoy treachery all come from the same hand—a hand near at home.”
Mont Rouge and St. Benôit drew the Duke into a corner.
“The traitor then is here? In Versailles?” St. Benôit asked.
“It is the only explanation.”
Mont Rouge passed a perplexed hand over his chin. “Good Lord!” he ejaculated. “Think you that woman has—”
“No, no,” replied the Duke with sharp conviction. “The Pompadour is as anxious to discover the traitor as the King or d’Argenson himself. You may take your oath of that. Heavens! man, if she can lay bare this inscrutable mystery she will earn the King’s gratitude for the rest of her naughty life.”
“And what has De Nérac to do with——?”
“What De Nérac discovered last night,” St. Benôit interrupted, “is known only to the King and himself. You will get nothing from him; he is pledged to secrecy. But”—he paused to beckon to the Abbé de St. Victor to join them—“but it makes it more necessary than ever for us to have De Nérac on our side.”
“I do not see that,” Mont Rouge objected.
St. Benôit’s foot tapped impatiently. “If our scheme,” he urged, “to persuade the King to expel the Pompadour is to succeed, De Nérac must be our ally. It is as clear as daylight.”
“Of course,” said the Duke, “of course. Drive De Nérac into the Pompadour’s arms and together they will discover the traitor, and the Comte de Mont Rouge will presently be compelled to prefer the village wenches on his estates in Poitou to the ladies of Versailles.”
“Yes,” the Abbé assented. “We must have De Nérac, for he knows more than any of us, and he has courage. Courage is a rare thing in Versailles.”
“I agree,” Mont Rouge said slowly. “But if he won’t join us in getting rid of that detestable woman then he must share her fate.”
“There is André,” St. Benôit gladly remarked. “Let us congratulate him on his refusal to stain his honour by obedience to a wanton of the bourgeoisie.”
But they were anticipated by the Chevalier. “My felicitations, Vicomte,” the young man was saying, “for you are the first to teach our new and high-born marquise her place.”
“You are very kind,” André replied sweetly, to the disgust and astonishment of his friends.
“Mon Dieu!” Mont Rouge growled as the Chevalier smilingly left them to pass into the King’s bedroom, for as a royal favourite he had that privileged entrée, “I would sooner pull that coxcomb’s ears than accept his congratulations even if I were a Cordon Bleu.”
“My dear Mont Rouge,” André answered, “the King will not permit us now to pull a coxcomb’s ears, but some day I hope to have that pleasure.”
“Oh, to be sure, some day?” Mont Rouge sneered.
“To be sure. When you have turned out our mistress, Madame la Marquise de Pompadour, you shall help me to pull the ears of the Chevalier de St. Amant.”
André in fact was in a rare humour. His plans were now arranged to a nicety. With the Pompadour’s help “No. 101” was to be discovered and Denise won. The mystery of last night had suggested half a dozen clues. His star was once more in the ascendant. The great game to be played required courage, resource, and Machiavellian cunning. This was the beginning. The rest would follow. Ah! the white and gold doors were thrown open; hats came off; the King had entered, and all eagerly surveyed his bored, inscrutable countenance.
“Is the Vicomte de Nérac here?” Louis demanded presently, and André stepped forward to kiss his hand. “Monsieur le Vicomte,” he proceeded in his slow, soft, yet clear voice, “you will bear my humble salutations to her Majesty the Queen and say that I offer her Majesty, for the vacant place of the captain of her guard, the services of the bravest officer in the Chevau-légers of my Guards—yourself.”
A loud hum, partly of warm approval, partly of excited and jealous comment, drowned André’s thanks.
“By G-Gad,” stammered Des Forges, “another s-slap for the fishy g-grisette—eh?”
“She’s going, yes, she’s going; God be praised!” muttered the Abbé St. Victor.
“What did I tell you?” St. Benôit cried, “more than ever we must keep De Nérac on our side,” and Mont Rouge sulkily assented.
The Duke de Pontchartrain thoughtfully stroked his lace ruffles. “I am puzzled,” he remarked aside to St. Benôit; “I wonder if it really means that the King has thrown over the grisette, or whether—” he paused.
“Well?” St. Benôit demanded impatiently.
“De Nérac is deep, devilish deep,” the Duke mused, “and so is the King. If De Nérac is not on our side it will play old Harry with our plot to have him ruling the roost in her Majesty’s apartments.”
But his friends laughed his suspicions away. De Nérac had insulted the Pompadour and he had been rewarded with the captaincy of the Queen’s Guards. What could be better?
Meanwhile André, having executed his commission and been flattered by the joyful reception of the news by the Queen’s ladies, was somewhat grimly reflecting in the Hall of the Queen’s Guards on this new turn of fortune’s wheel. Truly the Pompadour was a wonderful woman. She had promised to arrange and she had kept her word. To be placed in an office which must daily bring him into touch with Denise was better than he had ever dreamed. A genius the Pompadour as he had said, and this was the woman whom the priests and ministers and courtiers hoped to expel. Poor blind fools! They little knew the whole truth. Yes, his star was in the ascendant. The Machiavellian game must be played out; it promised victory and Denise.
The rustle of a dress roused him. It was Denise, and surely that was the Chevalier de St. Amant parting from her.
“You have heard the King’s will, Mademoiselle,” André said quietly.
“Yes,” she answered. Very lovely she looked at that moment, though her manner was strangely cold.
“You do not congratulate me?”
André glanced at her with sharp surprise.
“After your kind words on my return,” he began, “I had hoped, Mademoiselle, more for your congratulations than for those of any other in Versailles.”
Denise made no reply; she quietly moved away.
“Denise,” he broke out passionately. “Denise——”
“Mademoiselle la Marquise, if you please, Monsieur le Vicomte,” she interrupted with her head high in air, and André could only gaze at her in mute astonishment.
“Yes,” she continued, “Mademoiselle la Marquise for the future. And if you would know the reason ask your conscience, the conscience of one who was once a noble and soldier of France.” André would have spoken, but she made a peremptory sign with her hand. “It is the second time,” she resumed, “I have been bitterly disappointed. Our world believes that you have had the courage to refuse the temptation of that woman, that the King’s reward was due to your courage and your loyalty. Unhappily I know better. You are Captain of the Queen’s Guards because it is the wish of the Marquise de Pompadour.”
“You deny it?” She paused. “That, Monsieur le Vicomte, unfortunately does not make it less true. But do not be alarmed. I shall not betray your secret. And if you will, let my silence be due to the friendship of the past, a friendship that you yourself by your own act have severed.”
She turned her back on him. But André had swiftly opened the door for her.
“It would be impertinent for me to ask for a hearing,” he said slowly. “That you will not betray my secret as you are pleased to call it is very kind. In return, Mademoiselle, I promise that I will not betray yours.”
Their eyes met. André faced her unflinchingly.
“My secret?” Denise demanded, but she could not quite control her voice.
“Your secret, Marquise.” He bowed low.
He had the bitter satisfaction, if satisfaction it was, to see a faint thrill of fear—or was it trouble?—pass into her eyes. And now that he was alone he strode about the room letting his anger master him, once more a prey to all the black doubts and fears. There was only one explanation—that the Chevalier had wormed out the truth, and for his own purposes had hastened to share his knowledge with Denise. The Court was hoodwinked, but they were not. Cruelest of all, he could not deny it, and the disdain in the face and figure of the woman he loved had cut more sharply than her words. He clenched his fist. He could not go back now—no, he had chosen his path; but the day would come, he swore, when he should prove that it was his love and the ambition that it inspired which had driven him to defy the Court, his class, and herself.
There was work to be done which could not wait. He galloped away into the woods. “Yvonne,” he called out, dismounting at the stables of “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.”
“Monseigneur,” she exclaimed, flinging back her matted yellow hair and springing up. He had surprised her with skirt pinned up to the knees milking her sleek cow. She was indeed Yvonne of the Spotted Cow, Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles. Bah! it was a pity her face was so smudged, her bodice so ragged and dirty, for her figure was excellently straight and supple. “Monseigneur!” she humbly kissed his hand.
André felt strange qualms as he surveyed her in silence. Something inexplicable in this peasant wench seemed to make the task he had undertaken disagreeable, almost revolting, yet she was only a farm slut and he was a noble. And the secret perhaps of “No. 101” was the prize.
“I want your help, Yvonne,” he said abruptly.
“My help?” she repeated as if she did not understand, but there was a momentary gleam in her eyes. “My help? He is not happy, Monseigneur? Ah,” she gave a little cry, “the lady that he loves, the Marquise, is faithless.”
“No,” he interrupted fiercely. “No, no! It is——”
She put her finger on her lip. “Some one is coming,” she whispered. “Monseigneur has enemies, many enemies. He must not be seen here. Come, quick, quick!”
She half pushed him into the stables, closed and locked the door and left him. André from within could hear steps coming to and fro on the stones, could hear voices. They ceased. The door opened.
“Who was it?” he demanded.
“Monsieur the Chevalier de St. Amant,” she replied quietly.
“Name of a dog!” he ejaculated. He drew the girl into the stables, put his hands on her shoulders. Such firm, well-shaped shoulders under her dirty, ill-laced bodice. “Now tell me,” he said peremptorily, “what you know of the Chevalier de St. Amant.”
Yvonne faced him with a humble simplicity. Involuntarily André dropped his hands, mastered by that indefinable feeling. “Monsieur the Chevalier comes here from time to time,” she answered; “he inquires for the wise woman who lived here, but he also would know if Monseigneur visits the inn and why?”
“Ah! And your answer?”
“That I know nothing.”
André scrutinised her remorselessly. Either she told the truth or she was a consummate actress.
“Did I do right, Monseigneur,” she asked in her simple way, “to say what was not true?”
“Yes,” he replied quickly, but not without a stab of shame. “And my enemies, Yvonne, what of my enemies?”
“They are great gentlemen of the Court. They and their servants come here, too, they watch Monseigneur. They seek a traitor, so they say.”
André reflected. It was what he feared. “I also seek a traitor, Yvonne,” he began quietly, “and I am in great trouble. I need your help.”
“Monseigneur is pleased to jest. My help—the help of a peasant girl?”
“Yes, your help, Yvonne. The King, my master, is betrayed. The traitor is unknown, but at this inn perhaps one may learn what will reveal the truth. You are here, you have eyes and ears. Will you promise to tell me all that you can learn?”
The girl was looking at him, but her smudged face disclosed nothing save a natural fear.
“Some might promise you,” he pursued, “money, wealth, love. Money I have not got; love is not mine to give——”
“It is an honour for a peasant girl,” she interrupted softly, “to be loved by a noble who can give her jewels and fine clothes and pleasure. And then when his love is cold, as needs must be, he can make her happy with a good dowry.”
“Oh, yes, that is so. But,” he took her hand, “I will not——”
“I am not pretty, alas!” she interrupted again, but the coquetry in her figure was strangely provocative.
“Peace, child, peace! and listen. I cannot and will not treat you as others might. Love is not mine to give. But I ask your help, although I promise you nothing in return save the grateful thanks of a soldier of France.”
“I would be your servant,” she whispered, “your servant, Monseigneur.”
André felt her hand tremble. For the moment swift passion tempted him, and Yvonne was watching him closely though he did not know it.
“Yes,” he said brusquely, “you shall be my servant, but nothing more.” She was silent, and he feared he had made a fatal mistake. “Your help, that is all I ask, and I ask it because I trust you.”
“I will help,” she said in a low voice. “I will help.”
He raised her hand to his lips as if it were the hand of a gentlewoman. Why he did so strange a thing he could not have explained.
“No, no,” she cried. “I am not worthy. Ah! Monseigneur is not as other nobles. He has pity and respect even for a peasant wench. He shall not dishonour himself, and I—I will help because I am grateful, yes, grateful.” For a moment she hid her face overcome.
“Adieu, Yvonne,” he murmured, almost tenderly. “Adieu, and remember!” He mounted and rode away. As he turned into the woods a man rapidly crossed the bridle track and disappeared, but not before he had caught a sight of his face. Somewhere in the past he had seen that face—when? Where? He knew he was not mistaken, though in vain he racked his brains. And with this fresh torturing thought he rode into Paris.
Yvonne had stood like one in a dream long after he had disappeared. Now she surveyed with ill-concealed disgust her pinned-up skirt and clumsy sabots, now impatiently brushed a tear from under the matted hair over her eyes. “Dieu le Vengeur!” She suddenly threw up her arms with a gesture of pain, “Dieu le Vengeur!” Then furtively glancing round she walked slowly towards the house. On the threshold some one met her and for a half-hour she might have been heard conversing earnestly, almost pleading. The voices ceased. A moment later the Chevalier de St. Amant stepped out from the inn, jauntily flung his gay cloak about him, and galloped swiftly in the direction of Versailles.
The autumn evening had already closed in on the noble gardens of Versailles. Alleys, parterres, and walks alike were deserted save by the Fountain of Neptune, where on a seat under the sombre shadows of the stately trees a woman, cloaked to her feet and hooded, sat patiently watching the ghostly glimmer of the statues in the dusk. She had not to wait long before a man cloaked also had quietly joined her.
“I am late, Mademoiselle,” he said, “but it is not my fault.”
“It does not matter, Chevalier,” Denise replied calmly, “the later the better for both of us.”
“No doubt. Ah, it is noble of you to come here alone, you who have so much to lose if——”
“We will not talk of that, please. I am here of my own free will and I would risk much more for the sake of the Queen, my mistress, and for France.”
“Yet I would it were not necessary.”
“Unhappily it is. That woman’s spies have made it impossible that you can any longer come to confer with the Queen’s friends by the secret passage; if we are to succeed in our plan it must not be known that you, who are in the King’s private service, are an ally of the Ministers and of the Queen’s party; nor can you now openly visit her Majesty’s apartments as you did——”
“No,” said the Chevalier, “the new Captain of the Queen’s Guards has prevented that.”
For a minute or two Denise was silent. “Secrecy is necessary to success,” she resumed in a restrained voice; “I am here as you know on behalf of the Queen’s advisers; what others may think cannot affect those who are my friends, who believe in me because they believe in my—our—cause.”
“Not merely your friends, Marquise, but those who love you.”
“Monsieur, up there,” she pointed to the majestic front of the palace, where the lights were beginning to twinkle, “you can speak like that if you think fit. Down here I beg you to remember I am an orphan, a girl alone.”
And then both were silent.
“Are you sure, really quite sure,” Denise began, “that the Vicomte de Nérac owes his appointment to the intrigues of that woman?”
“I am absolutely sure.”
Denise sighed very faintly. “You will remember your promise not to reveal this discovery to any one else.”
“Certainly. But is it necessary?”
“No, not necessary. I ask it as a favour.”
The Chevalier bowed. Again there was silence, for her tone did not invite further question. “Have you discovered anything fresh of importance?” Denise asked presently.
“Several things, Mademoiselle.”
“Do they concern the Vicomte de Nérac?” she demanded quickly.
“Then I do not wish to hear them. I cannot, I will not,” she added in a low voice of emotion.
The Chevalier made a gesture of despairing dismay. “But speak I must,” he said, “for things cannot be worse than they are. The King is absolutely infatuated. The Pompadour is wise enough to see that that may not last; she will not rest therefore till she has his Majesty completely in her power. This mysterious treachery is her chance. Let her discover the truth and the traitor and no one will prevail against her.” He paused to add, “And the man who will discover it for her is her friend and servant in secret, the Vicomte de Nérac.”
“You believe that?” she faced him eagerly.
“Mademoiselle, if there is any man in Versailles who can do it the Vicomte is that man.”
Denise clasped her hands. “What can we do, Chevalier?” she asked. “What can we do?”
The Chevalier took a step or two up and down. “There are only two courses,” he said very gravely. “Either the Vicomte must be compelled to break with the Pompadour—or—” he paused—“the King must be persuaded to dismiss him from Versailles—in plain words ruin him.”
Denise drew a deep breath. “Ah, God!” she murmured, “that woman, how I hate her! She steals the honourable soldiers of France and corrupts them; she corrupts the King, she wrongs a Queen who has wronged no one. Yes, I hate her because I am a woman, to whom because I believe in God and my noblesse these things are hateful.”
“You are right, Mademoiselle,” sincerity rang in the boyish voice, “to me, too, she is the symbol in a woman’s form of all that is evil in France, and it is your France that will suffer for her ambition and her sins.”
“She will be punished,” said Denise, “God will punish her. Dieu le Vengeur!” she murmured.
The Chevalier had drawn a deep breath. “Dieu le Vengeur!” he repeated to himself almost mockingly. “It is a fine motto, Dieu le Vengeur!”
“It is strange,” she mused, “that you, Chevalier, who were not born a French noble, should feel as we do.”
“You have taught me,” he answered quietly. “Yes, yes, when I entered the King’s service I found a strange court and a strange master. It was you who taught me, what I could scarcely believe, that there are still in France women worthy to be called noble, aye, and men, too. It is for your sake that I work, that I would help to overthrow and punish that low-born adventuress who would ruin the King. No, Marquise,” he added, “I do not forget your warning, and I say no more than this, that your love alone keeps me true to my task, to your—our—cause.”
“I thank you,” she answered with simple dignity. “Let us work for France, Chevalier, and for the right, and we shall win.”
He bid her adieu and vanished, for safety required that he should leave her first. Denise sank back into her seat lost in the bitter thought that André, the friend of her girlhood, the lover of whom for all her indignation she was proud, must either ruin her cause or be ruined by herself and her friends. A step on the gravel startled her.
“What is it, Chevalier?” she asked quickly.
The man peered into her face apparently as startled as she was. “It is not the Chevalier unfortunately,” André said with icy slowness, “but I am obliged for the information, Marquise.”
“Ah!” It was an exquisitely cruel moment. Flight on her part was impossible. “Ah, you came to spy,” she burst out, beside herself.
“Why deny it?” was the cool answer. “You would not believe me. So it was the Chevalier de St. Amant who avoided me so successfully in the dark just now. Happy Chevalier.”
“I will, I can explain,” she began incoherently.
“Pardon,” he interrupted. “The conduct of Mademoiselle la Marquise de Beau Séjour is no affair of mine. I regret, however, that as I have intruded on you I cannot offer you my escort, for it is neither in my interest nor in yours, Mademoiselle, that you and I should run the risk of being seen here by the Chevalier de St. Amant or by any one else who talks of secrets to all his friends. With your permission, therefore, I will leave you.”
Denise dropped into her seat with a sob. That André of all men should discover her here was anguish. Nor was it only that his discovery might mean the frustration of the schemes that were being so carefully planned; it was the cruel humiliation of herself against which all the womanhood in her cried out. If he had reproached her, accused her, denounced her, insulted her! No; he had only been cold as one who was indifferent or was ready to believe any evil.
Yet André was as unhappy as she, could she have but known it. Purely by accident on his return from Paris had he stumbled on Denise in the dark, and torturing thoughts made him feel bitter and then reckless. Denise, his Denise! Surely there was nothing to live for now. Love was a mockery and a sham. Women were all alike, faithless, vain, frivolous, worthless. He would do the Pompadour’s work without a twinge of conscience now, he would take what life had to offer of pleasure and revenge. Yes; he would revenge himself to the full on this perjured, intriguing, and immoral Court, and then he would go to die in the Low Countries.
Meanwhile Denise had returned safely to the Queen’s apartments and after supper sat alone in her misery in the room which opened off the hall of the Queen’s Guards. The curtains were drawn, but the door was ajar and she could hear a group of young nobles chattering as they played cards. Scattered remarks broke in on her bitter self-reproaches. Women’s names, some of them her friends, some of them dancers at the opera, were being freely bandied about. It was intolerable, vile, and her cheek burned to think that it was with these men that the priests and the ministers and herself were working to overthrow the Pompadour. She rose to close the door and shut out the scandalous babble, when a remark stammered out by the Comte des Forges sent a shiver through her.
“I t-tell you it is quite t-true,” he was saying. “Mont Rouge has l-learned that she m-met the Chevalier by the F-fountain of Neptune this very evening.”
“Quite true,” Mont Rouge assented in his most cynical tone. “But don’t spill the wine on the dice, dear friend.”
“But how did you learn?” several voices demanded.
“As one always does, from another woman, of course.” Mont Rouge was carelessly rattling the dice-box.
“And you believe it?”
“Certainly. Your turn to throw, Des Forges. Gad! your hand is shaky to-night. Why should I not believe it? The Marquise, I suppose, is like the rest of her sex, and,” he laughed softly, “the Chevalier is—the Chevalier.”
Des Forges sniggered fatuously. “Sixes—s-sixes. Name of St. Denys! You speak like a m-married m-man, Mont Ro-ouge.”
“What is Mont Rouge’s last scandal?” André had entered.
Half a dozen tongues eager with malice repeated the story. There was a pause. Denise stood thrilled. Her fate was in his hands.
“This is not scandal,” André said slowly and very clearly. “It is a lie.”
Chairs were excitedly pushed back. Dice-boxes and a table rolled over. Then dead silence.
“Yes,” said the clear voice. “I repeat it is a lie.”
“Monsieur le Vicomte,” Mont Rouge was speaking with an affectation of marked politeness but his voice shook with passion, “I beg you to remember who is responsible for the story. You will withdraw that insult.”
“At half-past six,” André proceeded calmly, “I was at the Fountain of Neptune. The Chevalier de St. Amant was not there. The Marquise de Beau Séjour was not there. The Comte de Mont Rouge will therefore no doubt see fit to withdraw his insult.”
“Where is the Chevalier de St. Amant?” “Have the Chevalier fetched,” suggested two or three.
“No,” said André firmly. “This is not the Chevalier’s affair. The Comte de Mont Rouge can deal with him when and how he pleases. For my part I repeat that the statement about the Marquise de Beau Séjour, for which apparently Monsieur le Comte is responsible, is a lie, and I have proved it.”
“The Vicomte de Nérac talks,” Mout Rouge answered fiercely, “as if his honour had been questioned.”
“Yes, sir, it has until you have withdrawn what you said.”
“And supposing I refuse to withdraw at your dictation?”
“It would be only what I expect. Gentlemen, I now assert in the presence of you all that the Comte de Mont Rouge is a liar, and I shall continue to repeat it until——”
“No, sir,” Mont Rouge interrupted. “You will not repeat it. But at half-past six to-morrow morning you will also in the presence of these gentlemen doubtless permit me to teach you that I am not to be insulted even by a Cordon Bleu!”
André bowed. “The Comte de St. Benôit will make the necessary arrangements,” he said quietly, “with the gentleman whom you will name.”
The room slowly emptied. André paced to and fro. The curtain was sharply flung aside, and he saw Denise pale and trembling.
“You will not fight?” she pleaded.
“I have no choice, Mademoiselle.”
“Oh, why did you say it?” she questioned passionately.
“It is surely very simple. Mademoiselle la Marquise has no father, husband, nor brother to maintain her honour. To me as Captain of the Queen’s Guards belongs by right the duty of defending her Majesty’s ladies from insults and lies.”
“But it was true,” she whispered brokenly.
“No,” he answered. “What was said and implied was not true. It was a lie, and you, Mademoiselle, please God, know it as I hope to do.”
The colour leaped into Denise’s cheeks. The thanks in her eyes were intoxicating.
“But if you are killed?” she murmured.
“Why, then, I suppose the Marquise de Pompadour will have the pleasure of appointing my successor.”
Denise shrank at the remorseless taunt. André’s face was pitiless.
“Do not be distressed,” he added as if he were addressing the wall. “I have a long account with the Comte de Mont Rouge and I welcome the opportunity of settling it so satisfactorily. Besides it is high time that these shameless tongues should be silenced. I do assure you that after to-morrow the Marquise de Beau Séjour will have nothing to fear—but the truth.”
Denise turned appealingly to him. “André!” she whispered softly. “André!”
For a moment his hands clenched. “Monsieur le Vicomte,” he corrected, frigidly, “who is your servant, Marquise.”
He raised the curtain with a stately reverence. In silence she walked past him, her head bowed, and in silence he saluted as became the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, to a maid of honour and a marquise. The gleam of the candles in their gilt sconces fell on her hair and neck, on the jewels on her breast. Then the curtain slowly swung between them.
When the woman of the Marquise de Beau Séjour brought in the morning cup of chocolate she found her mistress had passed a sleepless night of tears; but she was able to tell her that the Vicomte de Nérac had for the fiftieth time vindicated his superb swordsmanship, and that the Comte de Mont Rouge would not use his right arm for many weeks to come. And Denise knew that the Court had heard the last of that meeting by the Fountain of Neptune.
The Queen’s ladies had been entertaining their friends, and the antechamber was well filled with a company of the most fashionable and powerful of the noblesse, particularly of those high-born ladies and gentlemen who devoted whatever time they could spare from breaking the Ten Commandments with a dulcet courtesy to the amusement of political intrigue. Strangely enough the Queen’s friends were drawn from three very different types—there were the “devout,” les dévots, les rigoristes, to whom the free-thinking of the fashionable philosophers coming to be the mode in the Faubourg St. Germain was anathema maranatha, my lords of the hierarchy of the bishops, with the high-born women who were their obedient pupils; there were the “fribbles,” the great seigneurs with their wives and sisters and daughters privileged morally as well as politically if only the breach were made within their own class and with due regard to etiquette and good manners, the men and women born within the purple who sincerely believed that “God could scarcely condemn a person of that quality” for what would be mortal sin in a bourgeois; and there were the “snobs,” the women above all of the inferior noblesse remorselessly struggling upwards who snatched at the splendid opportunity a queen’s cause and a minister’s cause offered. Monsieur the Dauphin, mesdames the princesses of the blood were known to hate Madame de Pompadour, to be plotting her overthrow; that was enough. Surely with royalty lay the social future.
“Yes, to be sure,” the Abbé St. Victor was explaining with the smile of the lay roué to the Duchesse de Pontchartrain, “the King’s sin would be only one-half as heinous if Madame de Pompadour were simply a widow or even a demoiselle”; he took a pinch of snuff and regretfully shrugged his shoulders.
“Or if she were really vulgar,” the Duchess interposed with the pouting staccato which she knew became her best. “I wonder if all bourgeoise women are like her. She is not vulgar, alas! and really it is her duty to be vulgar. Pontchartrain says she dresses better than I do.”
“That is mere outward show,” the Abbé remarked, “as well as being not true.”
“I wonder,” the Duchess asked with an air of profundity, “if a woman can be vulgar inside without being vulgar outside.”
“She is not a Christian,” Mademoiselle Eugénie pronounced. “That is enough for me.”
“But she goes regularly to mass,” objected the puzzled Duchess.
“To show her fine dresses to the Duke de Pontchartrain,” Mademoiselle retorted with sour severity. “Clothes, Madame, have nothing to do with religion.”
“For heaven’s sake,” cried the Duchess, alarmed, “don’t say so to Pontchartrain. It would put the most embarrassing ideas into his head.”
The Abbé tittered into his lace handkerchief till he was checked by the ferocious glare of the dévotes at his elbow. “You will see how vulgar the Pompadour can be,” he said hurriedly, “when you have turned her out.”
“Inside out or outside in?” asked the Comtesse des Forges to annoy Mademoiselle Eugénie.
“Oh, do let it be soon,” the Duchess pleaded, “whichever way it is.”
The Abbé nodded mysteriously. He was as pleased as the rest of the company that afternoon with the progress of the great plot.
“You saw His Majesty’s confessor?” The Duke de Pontchartrain had drawn Denise into a corner. “Is it satisfactory?”
“Eminently so. His Majesty listened with great attention, and was much impressed, his reverence thought.”
“Good.” The Duke studied Denise’s eyes and figure. What a magnificent coryphée she would have made, to be sure, and how the diamonds he had just given to that perfidious minx Babette would have suited her. “The ministers,” he added quietly, “have followed the confessor’s remonstrances up, I hear. They urged how unpopular the lady was in Paris. His Majesty likes popularity, you know, with the canaille.”
“Yes,” said Denise, “everything is going as we could wish.”
Her eyes, like the Duke’s, had unconsciously crossed the room, where André was talking to the Comtesse des Forges.
“We miss Mont Rouge,” his Grace remarked carelessly. “He was a valuable friend to the cause.” Like the rest of the Court the Duke was ignorant of what had brought about the duel, but the sudden colour in Denise’s cheeks and her silence confirmed his shrewd suspicions. “And,” he added with the same carelessness, “I am not sure that De Nérac is—what shall I say?—altogether a friend.”
“Why do you think that?” Denise asked almost proudly.
The Duke shrugged his shoulders. “My fancy, I suppose,” he answered lightly. “Perhaps, however, our dear, captivating friend yonder will convert him. She could convert St. Anthony if she really tried, eh?”
Denise knew that under this persiflage the Duke was studying her closely and she was greatly relieved that he now bowed himself away. For all his affectation of being a man of pleasure and nothing more she had divined his keen ability and wide knowledge of life. He had talked to test her and she was angry that she could not meet his searching gaiety with the polished impenetrability that was his unique gift. She bitterly resented, too, that André should stand there basking in the languishing eyes of the Comtesse des Forges, who was never happy save when she was making her stammering nincompoop of a husband unhappy. Two days had passed since that painful evening when he had parted from her in the Salle des Gardes de la Reine. He had proved his chivalry; he had triumphantly vindicated her honour; why did he not give her the opportunity to show that his conduct had appealed both to her pride and her heart? Why had he not come to ask and to receive forgiveness? Was it as gossip whispered, that he really preferred the Comtesse des Forges? Or was it, as the Duke had plainly hinted, because he really preferred, what was far worse, the service and rewards of Madame de Pompadour? And reward him the mistress could, poor Denise was thinking; for to the surprise of the Court the King had simply ignored the duel, though in other similar cases both victor and vanquished had been forbidden Versailles for a season. And André was still Captain of the Queen’s Guards. Denise’s foot beat on the floor. Yes, in the King’s private salon André had a powerful protector, herself and her friends a dangerous enemy, yet her pride and gratitude alike forbade her to reveal the truth to her allies—to the Queen, to the ministers, to the dévots, to the nobles working together for a common end.
André saluted her as he passed out. On the threshold he paused to nod quietly to the Chevalier de St. Amant, who was entering. The young man was as gaily dressed as usual, but his boyish face was grave and sad. He whispered something to the Duke de Pontchartrain.
“Good heavens!” exclaimed his Grace, “impossible!”
“I wish it were,” said the Chevalier, “but it is quite true.”
“Dismissed! The Comptroller-General dismissed!” St. Benôit repeated, and the news flew round the room. “But why? Why?”
“It is an intrigue,” the Chevalier explained. “Messieurs Paris, the bankers, who are related to the Pompadour, have refused to do any further business with the Comptroller-General. And so His Majesty has dismissed not the bankers but the minister.”
“You mean,” remarked the Comtesse des Forges, “that the Pompadour has dismissed the Comptroller-General?”
The consternation was general. “It is no laughing matter,” the Duke de Pontchartrain pronounced. “This is the first time that that woman or any woman in her position has interfered with high affairs of state. It will not be the last.”
“Ah, I knew she must be vulgar inside,” cried his Duchess triumphantly. “It is a pity she dresses so well. The bankers pay, I suppose.”
“It is an outrage,” Mademoiselle Eugénie said. “The Court must protest.”
“My dear lady,” answered the Duke with his most finished scorn, “when a king owes twenty million livres to a pair of money-lenders and wants twenty million more you will find that it is they, not the Court, who can protest.”
“And that is not all,” the Chevalier proceeded grimly. “His Majesty has been pleased to promise the reversion of the Comptroller-General’s place to the Marquis de Vaudières.”
“Impossible! Impossible!” The consternation increased, for the Marquis till a few weeks before had been better known as Abel Poisson, Madame de Pompadour’s brother.
“Charming,” said the Duke, “if His Majesty must make marquises from the gutter at the bidding of a grisette it is only fair he should enable them to be masters of the public finances and to pay their way by plunder. What is His Majesty’s next whim, Chevalier?”
“What it will be to-morrow, Monseigneur, I cannot say. The King has been pleased to do no more to-day than what I have said.”
“And a very pretty day’s work it has been,” his Grace replied. “Well, ladies, I have only one piece of advice to offer you. Smile, smile, smile, for if you protest Madame la Marquise de Pompadour will turn her attention to you. Do not forget that she has a pretty bourgeoise daughter eight years old to whom the post of maid of honour to her Majesty would be a delightful and profitable education.”
He saluted the company, and taking most of the men with him withdrew, for the situation was sufficiently grave to demand an instant conference.
All the heart and gaiety had already been struck out of the ladies. The Chevalier’s dejected air, so strange to his careless and irrepressible spirit, was the most telling comment on the menace in his news. To the angry indignation and rapid questions of the ladies he now replied with melancholy brevity. The King was infatuated and obdurate, and Madame de Pompadour was plainly determined to make him the instrument of her vulgar vengeance.
“She has captured the King,” the young man remarked in his gloomiest tones. “She will now coerce the Queen. Her ambition is to be mistress of the robes and thus to rule all Versailles.”
The mere suggestion of such an outrage on precedent and etiquette made the ladies speechless with horror. A bourgeoise mistress of the robes! It was unthinkable—blasphemous. As if her Majesty in dressing could take even the simplest garment except from the hands of a princess of the blood or of a duchess.
“You forget, Madame,” the Chevalier remarked drily, “that the King’s will is law. Le Roi gouverne par lui-même.”
They were the words of Louis XIV. To-day they can still be read as the motto of Le Roi Soleil in the centre of the superb ceiling of that Galerie des Glaces at Versailles which enshrines for all generations the imperial ambitions of the king who made it. Arrogant words, but true.
The antechamber became gradually deserted. The Chevalier stood at the window watching the gathering gloom. His dejection was not acting. His boyish face was almost tragic in its gravity. Presently he rose and began to pace up and down, wrestling with his thoughts, until he became suddenly aware that Denise had re-entered and was looking at him in questioning silence.
“Mademoiselle,” he advanced to meet her. “I have no comfort for you. Before long I shall be bidding you adieu for ever.”
Her eyes invited an explanation, but she said nothing.
“I speak seriously,” he proceeded. “You and your friends, Mademoiselle, are aware that I am with you heart and soul in the desire to overthrow this woman who will ruin us all. I have been able in the past, as you know, to do some service to the cause by bringing you information that I learned as His Majesty’s confidential secretary. At your request I have to the best of my power abstained from appearing publicly to be of your party, for His Majesty is suspicious and jealous. But I fear from to-day my services must end.”
“Why?” The single word revealed both anxiety and sympathy.
“His Majesty has signified that for the present he will conduct his private correspondence by himself. It is the first step. The next will be that His Majesty no longer needs my services in any capacity, that I am free,” he laughed with gentle bitterness, “to leave Versailles. Yes, Mademoiselle, I can no longer help your cause.”
“That—that woman—” Denise began.
“Certainly. This is her doing. I stood between her and such secrets as His Majesty was pleased to entrust to me, secrets not known to ministers and to the Court. So long as I was private secretary that woman was not the King’s master. But when I am finally dismissed she will rule the King body and soul.”
“Oh, cannot it be stopped?”
“No, Marquise. I am not as his grace of Pontchartrain a great noble, not even a Comptroller-General. I am the King’s creature, just as she is. His Majesty made me, His Majesty can unmake me to-morrow.”
“This is dreadful,” Denise murmured. “Without your help, your information, your private influence with the King, we shall be beaten, humiliated, ruined. You have been a true friend to our cause, Chevalier.”
The young man bowed. “I have done my best,” he said with unmistakable sincerity; “that Madame de Pompadour should triumph cuts me to the heart. But when I am obliged to leave Versailles her victory will not be my only grief.”
Denise looked up at him. His tone had completely altered.
“I shall leave you, Mademoiselle,” he said simply, “and I love you. Ah! it is the truth, the bare truth. You are a great noble, I am only the Chevalier de St. Amant, a parvenu tolerated by the Court merely because he is useful to them. It is presumption in me to dare to love you. But even a parvenu’s heart can love. This cause is sacred to me because not your beauty, nor your nobility, nor your wealth, but the womanhood that is the greatest gift of God to you has taught me what you are—has taught me that your service can be all that a man could desire.”
“Monsieur——” Denise began, but the words failed her.
“I had hoped that some day I might, perhaps, have dared to do more—to ask for your love in return. But that is impossible—impossible.”
“Is it?” Denise asked in a low voice, almost as if she were talking to herself.
“Yes, Marquise, because you love another.”
She looked up half angrily, half inquiringly. “No,” she answered as he was still silent, “I do not.”
St. Amant resumed his pacing up and down. “Mademoiselle,” he said presently, “are you aware how the King can be stopped in his present course?”
Denise turned eagerly towards him. “Madame de Pompadour,” he added very slowly, “is only a woman, but she has an ally, the Vicomte de Nérac, the ablest, subtlest brain in all Versailles. He is ambitious; he loves the Marquise de Beau Séjour—hear me out, please. Take the Vicomte de Nérac from Madame de Pompadour, make him her enemy, not her friend, and——”
“You believe that?” she interrupted.
“Unfortunately it cannot be done,” he replied with decision. “André de Nérac has chosen his party and he will not be turned aside. Therefore the only other course is to ruin him. Publish to the world that he is Madame’s spy, that he has the key of Madame’s secret passage in his pocket, publish what I have told you and you compel me to keep a secret, and you can ruin him to-morrow.”
Denise drew a deep breath. Something like terror shone in her eyes.
“I have information,” continued the Chevalier very quietly, “that if made known to the King would ruin the Vicomte to-night. Am I to use it or not? It is for you, Marquise, to say.”
Denise’s lips paled. Her hand unconsciously crept to her throat. “What sort of information?” she asked in a dry whisper.
“That, Mademoiselle, must be my secret. But I do not jest when I say that you can ruin Madame de Pompadour to-day, but you will also most certainly ruin the Vicomte de Nérac at the same time. Am I to keep silent or to reveal the whole truth to the Comte d’Argenson and the President of the Council of Ministers?”
Denise stood pale and trembling. Her eyes looked on her questioner with a dumb piteousness cruel to behold.
“You have answered me, Marquise,” he replied after an agitating pause. “I shall hold my tongue, and forgive me, I beg, that I have been so merciless. But love is merciless and blind.” He took her hand. “If you doubt that a parvenu can love you better far than he loves himself, think of my silence. When I am driven from Versailles do not forget that I refused to speak the truth of one who regards me as his enemy, at your bidding. Adieu!”
In the doorway he paused to look back. For a moment he wavered. Denise had stumbled to a chair and was crying softly. “Soit!” he muttered, throwing up his head, “Soit!” and humming a reckless catch he strode down the gallery.
After he had left Denise the Chevalier walked for some time in the empty gallery up and down, up and down, striving to master the strong emotion within. But when at last he made his way into the gardens he was once more the jaunty dare-devil cynic whose fine blue eyes had made many a Court beauty feel that even the veteran Vicomte de Nérac had lessons to learn in the art of courtship. By the same Fountain of Neptune where he had met Denise the Chevalier now found a woman waiting, as indeed he expected. Yet, greeting scarcely passed between them.
“You were right,” he began with bitter brevity, “and you have had your way.”
The woman pondered on the reply. “Yes,” she said presently. “I knew I was right. She loves him. And you?” she added, with a swift touch of anxiety.
“I shall finish what I have begun,” he answered with calm determination. “It will cost me my life, perhaps, but,” his tone was savagely reckless, “revenge is better than love.”
The woman put her hand on his arm with affectionate entreaty. “Why not,” she asked, “why not give it all up? It is becoming too dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Of course. But it is too late to draw back, and I will keep my oath now—now,” he repeated, lingering on the word, “if I perish to-morrow.” He put his hand quietly on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. “You, too, some day will come to believe that revenge is better than love.”
“At least we have no choice,” she answered with a cruel little laugh.
“Don’t! don’t,” the Chevalier whispered, in a sudden tenderness. “What does it matter for me? but you—you—I can’t bear it for you.”
“It is fate,” she said very quietly, “your fate and mine.”
With his arm about her she stood in silence for no small while. They were both thinking their own thoughts, and they were not pleasant.
“Are you quite sure he loves her?” the Chevalier asked.
“I shall know for certain before many days,” she answered, “although a woman feels sure now.”
They parted, as they had met, without greeting, but had the Chevalier followed her he would have seen that the woman went in the direction of “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.” It was probably because he already knew this that he returned to the palace.
All this time Denise had sat crushed and sad, alone in the antechamber. Nor did she know that André had stood for some minutes in the doorway looking at her, had twice stepped forward to speak, had twice restrained himself, and finally had left her to her tears and her silence.
But the one person whom he did not desire to meet found him out by accident at that moment.
“Vicomte,” the Comtesse des Forges called softly, “will you do me a favour?”
André smiled with skilful hypocrisy. The Comtesse was looking her best, and her heavy-lidded eyes were bright with admiration and an exquisite suggestion of self-surrender. “A favour,” she repeated, “which is also a secret. You will promise not to betray me.”
André took her hand to his lips for answer. The jewel on the lady’s breast gently rose and fell, echoing tenderly the coy trembling of her fingers. It was not the first time these two had played with passion, heedless of the future, but André swiftly recognised that this evening it would not be play, pastime, or pleasure.
“We have a petition to the King,” the Comtesse said in her silkiest tones, “a petition from the Court praying His Majesty to dismiss that woman, and we want you to present it. His Majesty will listen to you more than to any other.”
André still held her hand; the devotion in his face was intended to conceal his thoughts. For the crisis that he feared had come. This petition to the King from the Court was also an ultimatum to himself from his friends.
“It will be useless,” he said gently, “the petition.”
“No—no! You can succeed with the King—you! André,” she pleaded with a thrill of genuine passion, “do it to please me. You know I can be grateful.”
“I cannot,” he replied, controlling himself, “not even to please you, Gabrielle.”
“You will desert your friends and me—me?” she asked, a menace creeping into her languorous voice. “André, it is impossible, surely impossible.”
“I cannot present the petition,” he answered.
Jealousy, fear, anger, swept the passion out of her eyes. “You are afraid?” she demanded, with biting scorn.
“Yes, I am afraid,” he assented, and if the Comtesse had not lost her self-control she must have detected the delicate irony in his grave bow.
“Ah!” she stepped back. “Ah! If Denise had asked you, you would have consented.”
“No,” he corrected with a freezing pride. “I would not permit the Marquise de Beau Séjour even to make the request.”
The answer surprised and delighted her. Yet, woman though she was, the Comtesse failed to read what lay behind it, and in her determination to win she now made a stupid mistake. “I would save you, André,” she whispered, “because—” she laid a jewelled hand on his sleeve and dropped her eyes slowly. “They will ruin you unless you consent.”
Why break with the past, the present, and the future? André hesitated, but only for a moment.
“I cannot present the petition,” he answered curtly.
“Very well,” she shrugged her shoulders in disdainful wrath. “Very well. I shall not ask you a second time. You understand; so do I.”
“Adieu!” he said, raising her fingers, but she snatched them back and swept him a cold curtsey.
“Soit!” André was saying to himself as his spurs rang in the empty corridor, “c’est la guerre! Soit!” The die was cast. Madame de Pompadour was his only friend now. Henceforward the Court, his friends, his class, the women whom he had loved, would be his bitterest foes. And it was to that one friend that he now turned. Yet, careful as he was, he was unaware that the Comtesse had followed him stealthily, had marked his entry by the secret door, and returned to the Duke of Pontchartrain with the news.
Madame de Pompadour was alone. “You have something to say?” she questioned eagerly.
André related what had just passed and Madame laughed. “Ah, my friend,” she remarked gaily, “it will need more than a petition to-day.” She flung herself back into her chair, her wonderful eyes ablaze with a magnificently carnal consciousness of victorious beauty and power. “And the Vicomte de Nérac cannot go back now,” she added with a sudden gravity. “The priests, the nobles, the officers might forgive you, but a woman, a comtesse, will neither forget nor forgive, never, never!”
“Yes, Madame,” André said, “I am in your hands.”
Madame de Pompadour moved swiftly towards him. “And I in yours,” she whispered.
The perfect music of her voice, the grace of her figure, the flash in her eyes, were irresistible. Compared with this radiant, triumphant goddess of a royal love, even Gabrielle des Forges seemed a bloodless, heartless puppet.
“I have more to say,” André proceeded, “I verily believe I am on the track of ‘No. 101.’” She turned sharply, her breath came quickly. “Yvonne,” she added, “Yvonne is proving very useful. I have learned from her that the English have a spy, an agent in Paris, that he frequents ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,’ that he has a paid servant at the palace. Before long I mean to have that spy in fetters, and then——” he laughed.
“Good—good!” Madame clapped her hands. “It is only what I suspected. And the wench, Yvonne, is she in it?”
“She is a simple girl, Madame, and I cannot say yet. But in another week I shall know more.”
“Do not be in a hurry. It is pleasant cajoling the truth from a wench, n’est-ce pas? We must act with extreme caution, it is a matter of life and death for you and me. I, too, have not been idle. Listen. The King’s secret is mine.”
André looked at her sorely puzzled. Madame invited him to sit beside her on the settee. “What is that secret?” she began. “Simply this: Behind the ministers’ backs, contrary indeed to their despatches and their public statements, His Majesty is intriguing with the Jacobites and others too. More, His Majesty both in Paris and elsewhere spies on his own servants and frequently thwarts them. The Chevalier was his secretary and confidant. But there will be no more Chevalier. There will henceforth only be,” she sprung up with a dramatic gesture, “the Marquise de Pompadour.”
“But why,” asked André slowly, “why does His Majesty do it?”
“God knows. It is his foible, his passion. But so long as he had secrets from me I was in constant peril. To-day I have learned all that there is to know; and now,” she paused, “and now, please Heaven, the King will be in my hands alone.”
André was beginning to understand. “The King, in fact,” he commented, “says one thing to the English ministers who desire peace and another to the Jacobites; that may prove desperately dangerous if it is discovered.”
“Exactly. And the master of his secret is master of His Majesty. Ah, my friend, my foes are learning that already, but it will need some sharper lessons before they submit. They shall have those lessons, I promise you. I have accepted the challenge of the Court and we shall see what we shall see.”
“Yes, Madame,” André said with sincere admiration, “you will be what you desire to be, the ruler of France.”
Madame de Pompadour drifted into a silent reverie. The dreams could be read in her parted lips and faint smile as the soft light played on every supple curve which this woman’s genius knew how to suggest with such subtle restraint.
“But one person can destroy me,” she remarked presently; “‘No. 101.’”
André was startled by the gravity of her voice. “It is the truth,” she was speaking now with nervous rapidity. “If, which God forbid, the King’s secret intrigues are betrayed by treachery, to save his honour and himself he will, must, find a victim. That victim will be I. Yes, yes, I know the game is dangerous, but play it I must because the King insists. Vicomte, ‘No. 101’ must never, never succeed in securing any of the King’s secrets as has happened in the past.”
“Surely, Madame, you and I can prevent that.”
“Can we? Can we? Vicomte, I am not a coward nor a fool, but I feel in the poisonous air of this Court, surrounded by deadly enemies, my fate at the mercy of the King’s caprice, that I am fighting not with flesh and blood but with a foe mysterious, superhuman, invincible. And I repeat, should the King’s secret be betrayed by ‘No. 101’ to my enemies I am ruined.”
“I am confident,” André answered, “that not only can I baffle that traitor but that I can discover him.”
Madame de Pompadour studied his calm, handsome face. Then the room seemed suddenly to swim in the glories of a golden dawn. “My friend,” she cried, holding out both her hands impulsively, “I believe you. Did not Fontenoy teach me you are a man?”
“And it taught me—” he began softly.
“Hush!” she rippled over into an adorable coquetry. “You are not the King yet, not yet, though—” it was the vivandière of Fontenoy whose saucy eyes and curtsey finished the sentence.
“When you are victorious, Madame,” André said, “I shall ask for one favour.”
“Tut! only one! Dare I grant it beforehand?”
She was now the refined Marquise of a remorselessly critical Versailles.
“You can take your revenge on the Court, Madame, as you please, but you must spare,” she put down her fan and waited anxiously, “the Marquise de Beau Séjour.”
There was silence for a minute.
“A woman, a haughty, petted beauty,” she murmured, “and my bitterest foe. Are you aware that Mademoiselle Denise is the soul of the party that would destroy me, the close friend of the Chevalier de St. Amant, and no friend to you.”
“Yes, I know it all.”
Madame de Pompadour came close to him. “She is not worthy of you,” she said quietly, “she does not love you.”
“Madame, I love her.”
“And if I refuse to forego my just vengeance on her?” she awaited his answer with anxiety wreathed in tempting smiles.
“I will share her fate if she will permit it,” he answered simply.
“Chivalrous fool!” she retorted, and she was not wholly jesting. “No woman is worth the sacrifice of such a man as you.”
“Pardon, Madame. Every man who loves a woman perhaps is a fool, but the folly is a folly inspired by God and it leads to heaven.”
The answer surprised her and for the moment she faltered between tears and laughter. “I will not ask again,” André said in a low voice, “for I trust you, Marquise. Adieu!”
She hardly heeded his salute, and André was already in the dark on the secret stairs when he felt a sharp touch on his shoulder. “Be loyal to me, too!” she whispered pleadingly into his ear. “Give me your hand,” and she laid it on her breast. In the darkful hush André could feel the fierce beating of that insurgent, ambitious heart.
“Swear,” she whispered. “Swear with your hand there that you will be loyal also to me, to Antoinette de Pompadour.”
“I swear.” Two words, but two words between a man and a woman can sweep a soul into hell or lift it to heaven.
“The heart of the Pompadour,” she murmured. “Can any man or woman read it? Can she read it herself? God knows. Take care, take care of yourself, my friend,” she added with a sudden wistful pathos. “You alone I can trust. Adieu!”
“The heart of the Pompadour,” André muttered as he stole back to the Queen’s apartments. “The heart of the Pompadour.” What, indeed, was there not written there of passion and ambition? Only a woman’s heart. Yes, but one of the half-dozen women, in the history of the world, the beatings of whose heart have shaped the destinies of peoples and moulded the fate of kingdoms.
André had understated the truth to Madame de Pompadour when he said that he had learned much from Yvonne. Bit by bit her simple confessions had convinced him that “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold” played an important part in the inscrutable mystery of successful treachery summed up in the blood-stained cipher of “No. 101.” Yvonne indeed sorely puzzled him. She was only a hired wench at this hostelry kept by a man and his wife against whom nothing discreditable could be ferreted out. And he had utterly failed to break down the barriers of her simplicity. She related things she had seen or heard which to André with his knowledge of the facts were damningly conclusive, but that she was aware of this was contradicted at every turn by her speech, her gestures, her amazing innocence. In vain had he laid pitfall after pitfall to catch her tripping. Not one syllable, one flutter of an eyelid, one blush, one faltering tone, had rewarded his cunningest or his most artless efforts. The girl had passed ordeal after ordeal just as a peasant wench should who was only a peasant wench. Yet every failure only deepened the feeling that Yvonne was not merely Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles; proof he had none; proof indeed pointed to the very reverse. André had nothing but a vague, indefinable, apparently irrational, suspicion, and it maddened him. In the critical struggle on which he had now embarked he was convinced he was being beaten, tricked by a woman; she held, if he were right, the keys which would unlock the mystery and she was simply playing with him, no doubt for her own ends; she was probably betraying him daily to her accursed allies. Worse still, because it was ridiculous as he felt it, there was an inexplicable charm in this girl which threatened to master him. Despite Denise and Madame de Pompadour and the Comtesse des Forges and half a dozen other refined and attractive women at the Court to inspire love and gratify passion, he, André de Nérac, a Cordon Bleu, a Croix de St. Louis, a noble of the Maison du Roi, was in danger of falling a victim to an unkempt peasant with a smudged face. Yvonne told him things eminently useful, Yvonne baffled him, but these were not the only reasons why daily he went to see her. And he had discovered this humiliating fact by trying to answer a torturing question. If he could prove Yvonne to be a traitor or the ally of traitors, was he ready to hand her over to the awful mercies of the King’s justice? And if not, why not? Supposing he could show that she was the woman who had foiled him in the charcoal-burner’s cabin at Fontenoy, what then? And his heart revolted in its answer against his reason: “No, I cannot; I cannot leave Denise to the vengeance of Madame de Pompadour, because I love her; I cannot give Yvonne to the rack, the executioner’s whip and wheel, because”—and then he always stopped, because he had not the courage even in the most intimate sanctuary of his conscience to finish the answer.
But discover the mystery he must more than ever now. His own fate and Madame de Pompadour’s hung on success. The war was drawing to an end; the negotiations for peace were beginning. If the King’s secrets were betrayed as in the past Madame would be disgraced. André had deliberately broken with his friends and his order. Their implacable lust for vengeance on the mistress would require his punishment too. The issue was as clear as daylight. Either he must crush them or they would crush him. And succeed he must, because success alone meant safety, honour, and the love of Denise.
And so, after leaving Madame de Pompadour, André went as usual straight to Yvonne, whom he found in the stalls feeding the spotted cow. “The Englishman,” she informed him, “has been here, Monseigneur. He spoke with a gentleman from the Court. I only know that to-morrow night they will meet at a tavern in Paris; they called it ‘The Gallows and the Three Crows.’”
André took the lantern from her and let the light fall on her stained face.
“And this tavern, where is it?” he demanded.
Yvonne met his gaze with the calmness of innocent ignorance. “Monseigneur, I do not know. I have never been in Paris.”
“You will swear you heard it as you say?”
“Surely. They said the name twice.”
“And the gentleman from the Court?”
“His cloak was over his face, but I think—I am certain—it was Monsieur the Chevalier.”
André had heard enough. His blood was tingling with passion and excitement. “You have done me a great service, Yvonne,” he cried.
Yvonne very modestly disengaged the arm which for the first time he had slipped about her supple waist. “Monseigneur must not kiss me,” she whispered, humbly. “I cannot betray my lover even to you, sir.”
André started as if he had been detected in a crime. “You have a lover, Yvonne?” he exclaimed.
The girl threw back her shock of matted hair and laughed. “Many lovers,” she said, looking down at her clumsy sabots, “but only one dares to kiss me. Would it be wrong?” she inquired thoughtfully, “for me to let Monseigneur kiss me, too?”
“No,” said André, still in the grip of passion.
“Then Monseigneur will do as he pleases,” she answered quietly. “I am his servant and,” she laughed, “a peasant girl would remember the kiss of a grand gentleman who has surely kissed many great ladies.”
There was no satire in her voice, and the roguish gleam in her eyes was simply bright with an innocent vanity, yet the words fell like ice-cold water on molten steel.
“Damn her!” was André’s savage comment as he galloped back to the palace. Was she playing with him or was it sheer naïveté of soul?—for as usual Yvonne had in her mysterious way lured him on and then administered a humiliating rebuke.
The tavern with the grim name of “The Gallows and the Three Crows” lay in the mouth of a slum on the south side of the river, and when André, cloaked and disguised to the best of his power, entered its dark parlour he recognised that the police were not wrong in telling him it was partly a gaming hell, partly the haunt of the select of the scum, male and female, of Paris, the rendezvous for the low amours of bullies, sharpers, and broken gentry, and the women who were their victims or their tools. He felt that the half-dozen occupants of the room eyed his swaggering entry with the keenest interest, but it was not his first introduction to such resorts, and a soldier of half a dozen campaigns and a swordsman of his quality knew no fear. Nor was the wine so bad, and the flower girl who impudently took a seat at once at his table, though he could scarcely see her face in the gloom, promised some pleasant fun, when she had ceased to turn her back on him and to chaff a man at the next table.
Nothing in particular, however, happened until a figure heavily cloaked rose from the further corner, and as he passed the flower girl tapped her familiarly on the shoulder. She looked up, started unmistakably, and André noticed the man had tried to slip a piece of paper into her basket of flowers. Unnoticed by both, the paper fell on the dirty sanded floor among the refuse, and in a trice André had his foot on it.
He felt his heart beating like a sledge hammer. He had caught a glimpse of the man’s face—the same face that had puzzled him behind the trees near “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.” Ah! the memories rushed in on him. Yes; he remembered now, of course, he had seen that face in the glare of the flaming charcoal-burner’s cabin and in London at a supper party. It was the face of George Onslow, an Englishman. Yvonne had not been mistaken. Onslow was the English spy in Paris. Onslow at Fontenoy had come to receive the plans from “No. 101.” Ha! should he follow him? Yes? No? Before he could decide he recognised two other men drinking carelessly but stealthily watching the room. These were servants, trusted servants, of the Duke de Pontchartrain and the Comte de Mont Rouge. What the devil were they doing here? By accident, or to meet some wench of the town, or as spies on whom or what?
George Onslow had meanwhile disappeared. The flower girl, too, humming a catch, was slipping away. André stooped to pick up the piece of paper, but by the time he had reached the door, pest on her nimble heels, she, too, had vanished! And André was only conscious that the two servants were following him out. Ah, that was their game, was it? Calling for another bottle of wine, he went back to the table, and immediately the pair returned to their seat. That was conclusive. They were there to watch him, but why? Clearly because the Court desired to know of all his movements. The consequences of his refusal to the Comtesse des Forges were in fact beginning. André smiled grimly, stretched out his legs and examined the precious slip of paper. At once his heart pounded the more fiercely. The scrap had no writing on it at all; all that he could see was a curious symbol, two crossed daggers and the figures “101” in red ink—no, blood! There was no mistaking it—blood. The mysterious traitor’s sign, pass, or counterword. He set his teeth. Why, oh, why had he allowed that girl to escape him?
An hour passed. Nothing happened, and André goaded by a feverish curiosity which he could not satisfy, and feeling only that he had been baffled again, planned how to leave. Pausing, to be sure that the two servants were ready as before to follow him, he flung himself round the corner into the darkness and up the first alley and down the next, reckless of stabs in the back, until he was able to crouch in the first convenient doorway. He had thrown his spies off, that was something, and just as he was wondering what to do next a cloaked figure brushed past him. The Chevalier de St. Amant, as he lived! He grabbed at the cloak in vicious rage. The Chevalier at least should not escape him.
“Don’t be so rude, Vicomte,” laughed a woman’s voice. “I won’t vanish up the chimney.”
André, in sheer astonishment, staggered against the door, glaring all the time into the darkness. “You will be wise to follow me,” she continued, “and in silence.”
In two minutes the pair were standing in a small and empty back room of the tavern André had just left. The woman threw back her hood, revealing the trim figure and saucy face of the impudent flower girl, who was no other than his long-lost acquaintance, the crystal-gazer.
“You will present,” she said mockingly, “my humble duties to Madame la Marquise de Pompadour——”
André had recovered his bewilderment. “What is the meaning of that?” he demanded, brusquely, thrusting the slip of paper into her hands.
“I don’t know,” she retorted coolly, and then tore the slip into a dozen pieces, “and I do not care to know.”
André was so startled by the studied insolence of the act that for a few minutes he could neither speak nor move. When he did, it was to put his back to the door very significantly.
“One question, Madame,” he demanded. “You are aware that George Onslow is in Paris, that he spoke to you, gave you that paper?”
“Certainly. Mr. Onslow mistook me for some one else. I have just convinced him of his mistake.” She was positively smiling.
“You expect me to believe that?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “No,” she answered, “the truth told by women is never believed, least of all at Versailles by men.”
André ran his eye over her. As in the past, so now something in her voice and figure reminded him of some one else, but of whom he could not recall. “Madame,” he said earnestly, “I urge you to tell the truth. You were never in such danger as you are now.”
“Perhaps not. But I am not in such peril as you are, Monsieur le Vicomte.”
Instinctively he turned sharply round. The woman laughed and the laugh maddened him, for they were alone and the door had been locked by himself.
“My friend,” she said quietly, “you are being spied on. To-morrow the ministers, the Comtesse des Forges, and the Comte de Mont Rouge will know how the Vicomte de Nérac, who gave out he was going to visit Madame his aged mother, has spent the evening in the company of Mr. George Onslow and disreputable women. I feel sure the Marquise de Beau Séjour will hear it, too, with additions.”
“Well,” said André, stonily.
“Monsieur le Vicomte also is known to frequent the society of one Yvonne. Innocent peasant girls, when put on the rack, are sometimes obliged to tell lies, poor things, but lies useful to those who rack them. The Marquise de Beau——”
“Hold your tongue.”
“No, I will not. Monsieur le Vicomte is also the lover of Madame de Pompadour. You deny it? Then why go in the darkness with the King’s private key to her apartment? The noble whose arm you slit will enjoy taking that delightful scandal about the Captain of the Queen’s Guards to the King, and the King—mon Dieu! the King—” she laughed bloodthirstily, nor was it necessary to finish the sentence.
André wiped the sweat off his brow. The woman came close to him. “Supposing,” she said in a low voice, “supposing you had been arrested to-night with that slip of paper in your pocket, would all your services, all your oaths, your nobility, have saved you? Think, my friend, think. I did a bold thing, perhaps, in destroying it, but it was in your interest, Vicomte, not mine.”
André was silent, appalled at her knowledge. The tables had been turned on him with a vengeance, and this astonishing woman was right, which was hardest of all.
“You would know,” she proceeded, divining marvellously his confused thoughts, “how I have all this information. I have my crystal,” she laughed, “but I also hate the King and the woman who rules him. You and she are not the only persons at Versailles to whom it is a matter of life and death to discover the secret of ‘No. 101.’ Monsieur, I am the paid agent of the foes of that wanton, the King’s mistress, and of yourself.”
Unconsciously André’s fingers clutched the hilt of his sword.
“Why do I tell you all this?” she asked in a low voice. “Does that confession amuse or startle you? Am I the first woman who would sacrifice herself for the Vicomte de Nérac or the first to confess her love? No. And to prove I speak the truth I will reveal to you the secret of ‘No. 101’ that I alone have discovered, but on one condition”—she paused to put her hands on both his shoulders—“that you will promise from this moment to abandon Mademoiselle Denise, who is not worthy of you, and to love me alone.”
Dead silence. André stood hypnotised, half by fear, half by the witchery of her womanhood.
“I have beauty, wealth, power,” she whispered caressingly. “Yes, I am as fair a woman as Mademoiselle Denise; I can make you a greater man than Madame de Pompadour can; I can reveal to you the secret that is worth the ransom of the King’s crown; and I love you. Say yes, André, for your own sake; you will never regret it.”
André looked into her blue eyes, so resplendent against the cream tint of her skin, and at her magnificent black hair. Passion and ambition began to sap his will. Then slowly he dragged himself from his intoxicating dream and disengaged her hands.
“No,” he said gently but firmly, “I do not love you. I cannot—I cannot, because,” his voice rang out, “I love Denise.”
She was trembling, he thought, with rage, but there was no rage in her eyes, only a mysterious pity and pathos as of a woman who had staked all on one throw and lost, yet was not wholly sorry.
“Ah! well,” she said, controlling herself. “I know now that you will never discover the secret of ‘No. 101’—never!”
“I shall,” he answered, with unfaltering confidence, “I shall succeed because I must.”
She shrugged her shoulders with scorn. “Open that window,” she commanded, in the most matter-of-fact tone, “before you leave you had better be sure the King’s police are not waiting for you.”
With the key of the door in his pocket André quietly threw the shutters open and peered out.
“Well? No one?” said a voice at his elbow. “I fear, Vicomte, I cannot wait while you make up your mind what you will do with me. You will hear interesting news at Versailles to-morrow. Thank you. Good-night!”
A sharp push, the vision of two small boots, and a flutter of short skirts, and she had lightly vaulted into the street. When André recovered his balance the darkness of the network of slums had swallowed her. Tricked and baffled again by a woman, and with these questions above all crying out for an answer: why had he mistaken her for the Chevalier? Was she really in love with him? And was she an agent of the plotters against Madame de Pompadour?
Midnight had struck, the same night, more than an hour ago; the black and squalid Carrefour of St. Antoine was deserted; the houses that fringed it lay in darkness, yet in the main salon of one of them, though they could not be discerned by a passer-by, the lights still blazed, for the shutters were closed and bolted, the thick double curtains were drawn tight. On the table in the centre of the room were ample traces that two persons had recently supped, and supped sumptuously. But there was only one now in the room, a woman copying from a roll of manuscript, and absorbed in her task. Save for the monotonous tick of the clock, and a curious muffled murmur which trickled through a door that faced the main entry, the silence in the strangely brilliant glare of the numerous candelabra was oppressively eery. Presently the woman threw down her pen and walked with a quick but graceful step in front of one of the many long mirrors that lined the walls. She inspected herself with a charmingly insolent cynicism. The glass, with truthful admiration, flashed back the reflection of a supple and exquisitely moulded figure, fair hair, bright blue eyes, and a skin on face, neck, and shoulders amazingly delicate in its blended tints of snow and rose. A young woman this, in the heyday of health and beauty, noble of birth, too, if the refinement of her features, and the ease and dignity of her carriage, did not strangely lie; and at every movement the costly jewels in her hair and on her breast, in her artfully simple dress, and on her fingers, only heightened the challenge to the homage claimed by her youth and beauty. Very soon, however, she ceased to find pleasure in looking at herself. A soft pathos swept over the artificial audacity of her eyes and lips. She sat down, her elbows on her knees, then stretched her arms wearily and sighed that most pathetic of all sighs, a sigh from a young woman’s heart.
Suddenly she sprang up, and, after listening attentively, seized a hand lamp and left the room. When she returned, it was with a man, who flung off his cloak and stood blinking now at her, now at the brilliant lights.
“So it is you they have sent?” she said contemptuously; “you!”
“I volunteered,” George Onslow answered, “because I wanted to come.” His gaze lingered hungrily on her. “And, by God! I am glad. You,” he laughed wearily, “you pretend you are not?”
“What does it matter to me whom your accursed government sends? Any man is better than a woman, such women, at least, as they employed last time.”
His eyes roamed from her jewels to the supper table.
“You have had company to-night, Enchantress?” he asked in a flash of jealousy.
“Yes,” she answered over her shoulder, “two can make very good company—sometimes. But here is what you wanted. Take it and go.”
He scanned the roll of manuscript eagerly, his eyes sparkling.
“You have not signed,” he remarked, half jestingly.
The woman opened a penknife and pushed back the lace which fringed her splendid arm at the shoulder.
“Don’t!” cried Onslow, in genuine pain. “I can’t bear——”
“Pooh!” With the few drops of blood produced by the knife she made a symbol with her pen on the roll. “From as near my heart as any man will ever get anything,” she said, replacing the lace again. “And now my pay, please.”
Onslow handed her a small bag of gold, which she locked in a drawer. “You will drink,” she continued, pouring out two glasses of wine. “Your health, skulking spy, and damnation to Louis XV. and all his crew of my fascinating sex!”
“To your trade and mine, ma mignonne, to yourself and—to the damnation of Louis XV.!” He drained his glass, refilled it, and drained it again. “You are a witch,” he cried, tapping the roll. “How do you do it?”
“Come this way and I will show you.”
She opened the side door, revealing a small room lit by a single candle. On the bed lay a man bound hand and foot, and gagged. One boot was off, showing whence the despatch had been taken. “A confidential messenger of the King whose damnation you have just drunk,” she explained, with careless calm, “and like all secret agents the prey of his passions. He went from my supper table—or rather I carried him—like that. There will be a pother in Versailles to-morrow or next day. It is not only at the palace, you see, that a beautiful woman can ruin a kingdom.”
She slammed the door behind her and admired herself in the mirror, while George Onslow’s glowing eyes gloated on the superb picture that the mirror and she made under the blazing candles.
“You are a wonderful woman,” he said softly.
“I am not a woman, I am only a number.”
“As I think I told you when I saw you last in London.”
She wheeled suddenly. “And because you were such a fool as to show you had discovered it,” she retorted, “I could send you to-night, or any night, to be broken on the executioner’s wheel. Exactly.”
“It baffles me why you do it,” he muttered, ignoring the remark.
“Well, I will tell you. For three hundred and sixty days in the year I am a cipher, a sexless vagrant, unknown and a mystery; but for five days maybe I wear my jewels and am a woman rejoicing in my health and my beauty. These are my woman’s hours, glorious hours. That is one reason; the other is—revenge!”
“Ah!” He rubbed his hands appreciatively.
“And you?” she asked, with a faint smile of the most tempting provocation.
“For love,” he spoke with a hint of pain. “To the world you are a mysterious number, but to me you are the most beautiful, most splendid woman on earth, without whose love I cannot live. Had you not by chance crossed my path I would have dropped this dirty felon’s game, but I go on and shall go on, taking my chance of the wheel, the halter, or the footpad’s death in the gutter, till you are mine, wholly mine.”
Her lip curled. “The wine is getting into your head,” she said, in her passionless tones. “In your trade and mine that is dangerous. Remember the fate of all who, knowing what you know, have seen my face; remember your friend, Captain Statham, who recognised the Princess in the hut near Fontenoy. Love? Love? You are a strong, vile animal of a man tempted by mere beauty of body. But I am not an animal, nor a woman as women are in Paris, London, Vienna. Love? a man’s animal love? Think you if that was what I could feel or wanted I would be to-day a thief of state secrets, a cipher, a skulker from justice? No, I would be the mistress of the King of France and would rule a great kingdom. And you have the insolence to offer me the caresses of a felon, a spy, a traitor. You are mad.”
“It is you who made me and keep me mad, thank God!”
She sat down, beckoning him to sit beside her. “Now listen,” she said calmly. “The game is up. There will be no more papers for a long time. Why? Because my foes are on my track. The toils are being drawn around me. My sources of information are being discovered and stopped. And—” she paused—“and a man worth ten of you, unless I am very careful, will——”
“The Vicomte de Nérac?” he gasped out. “Curse him!”
“Yes, the Vicomte de Nérac, who balked you at Fontenoy.”
“You let him balk us—you did.”
“And if I did for my own ends, what then?”
“You love him? Answer! Answer or——”
“What is it to you? He is worth a woman’s love. But, my good friend, he does not love me. Give me your hand!” she suddenly commanded, soothing him at the same time by a caressing look. “Ah! I thought so. There is death, a violent death, in that palm of yours, death coming soon. And yet, my friend, you can avert it. But unless you take my advice and forget me from this night, unless you cease to be a spy and a traitor, before long you will have to reckon with the Vicomte de Nérac—it is written there—and then—” She let his hand drop with icy indifference, “c’est fini pour vous!”
“A fig for your old wives’ fables! I have sworn you shall be mine and you shall.”
“Stand back!” She sprang up.
“No!” For one minute he faced her and then, with a hunter’s cry on his prey, he had pinioned her wrist, and in that besotted grip she was powerless, though she struggled fiercely.
“No, ma mignonne, I, too, am strong. You shall learn you are only a weak woman after all.” He had whipped the dagger from its concealment by her heart, his arm was about her, his eyes the eyes of a victorious maniac.
“Kiss me at your will,” she murmured faintly. “See, mon ami, I resist no longer. Yes, you, too, are a man. I was only tempting you. I am not a number, but a woman. You have my secret, and I am yours!” No man could have resisted the intoxicating self-surrender in her eyes and voice, least of all George Onslow in the grip of unholy passion long thwarted.
Suddenly her released fingers closed like a vise on his throat. In vain he struggled, for he was choking. Her great natural strength was duplicated by rage and an insulted womanhood. She forced him on to the ground, livid, gasping for breath, and put a knee on his chest. “Mercy!” he faltered, “Mercy!”
With her left hand she tore the lace from her breast, and gagged him inch by inch. With her right hand still on his throat she produced a rope from her pocket and tied with practised skill his hands and feet. Then she rose and calmly rearranged her disordered dress and hair and quickly searched him for pistols and dagger.
“Carrion! scum!” she whispered, bending over him, “you deserve to die like the English dog you are. Miserable, insolent libertine!” and she struck him on the cheek. “No, I will not kill you, for you have my work to do and you shall do it. But a weak woman has taught you a lesson and your hour is not yet come. Another shall soil his hands or his sword with your rascallion blood. Go!”
She dragged him down the passages, loosened the rope on his ankles till he could just hobble, flung his coat about him, and with her dagger at his throat pushed him to the open door, where she propped him against the wall in the damp darkness of the court, and the silent serenity of the stars.
“It will take you,” she said pleasantly, “twenty minutes to bite through that cord, and by that time I shall have disappeared for ever from your sight. But remember my advice, or as sure as you stand here, before long my secret will die with you.” She drew the lace gag from his mouth and stuffed it inside his collar. “Cry out now if you please,” she continued contemptuously, “and my secret will die with you in two days on the executioner’s wheel. Oh, keep the lace; it came from a woman’s heart, and on the scaffold will be a pleasant souvenir of a night of love with a cipher. Adieu!”
The outer door was locked. The woman who was a cipher had disappeared; whence and whither, who could say?
As George Onslow stood with rage, jealousy, baffled passion, humiliation, surging within him, he was startled by the sudden appearance of a stranger.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said the boyish voice of the Chevalier de St. Amant. “’Tis a friend.” He muttered a reassuring password. “So that woman has treated you as she treated me?” In a trice he had set the helpless spy free.
Onslow’s answer was an incoherent growl of gratitude, surprise, and relief.
“Well,” said the Chevalier, “we are in the same boat. You will hear from me shortly, I promise you. And then you and I can have our revenge on her and the Vicomte de Nérac. Revenge, my friend, revenge will be sweet. Meanwhile have courage, and be careful till our turn comes!”
And then he, too, glided away to be lost in the night that divined and protected all the treachery and treason, all the dreams of love and hate, of passion and ambition, the tears and laughter and prayers that throbbed then, and will always throb, in the heart of Paris.
André was not the only person at Versailles who, tortured with perplexity and fear, must now choose between loyalty to a cause or loyalty to the dictates of the heart. Poor Denise, whose womanhood, nobility, and devotion to her neglected and insulted Queen made her so bitter a foe of Madame de Pompadour, whose sensitive self-respect and self-reverence, whose ideal of purity so strange in the world of Versailles, whose indignation at André’s desertion to the side of the ambitious mistress, had combined to make her despise and twice reject the hero of her girlhood; yes, poor Denise had at last been driven by a cruel necessity to acknowledge to herself and to the Chevalier that she really loved André, and that she could not sacrifice him even to victory over Madame de Pompadour. Ever since that hour of misery she had bitterly blamed herself for her selfish weakness. She had not only been untrue to her own cause, but perhaps had ensured its defeat—and for what? Because she loved, despite all, one who did not love her. And unless she made atonement for this folly and sin she must forfeit her own self-respect for ever and be punished as well. Denise, therefore, goaded by remorse, by a dim hope of saving André at the last hour, had steeled herself to conquer her pride and her modesty and to speak to André himself.
He, too, oppressed with misgivings and fears, had returned early in the morning to Versailles, and when he found himself alone in the antechamber with Denise, pale and resolute, instinct warned him as it warned her that both their lives might now turn on silence or speech.
“Will you answer a question?” she began with nervous directness.
He bowed with a singularly poor attempt at resolute indifference.
“Why,” she demanded in a low voice, “why did you say you were going to Nérac when you really meant to visit a low cabaret in Paris?”
André had no answer ready, for it was not the question he had been expecting from Denise.
“I see,” he said, after a pitiful pause, “that you are well informed, Mademoiselle.”
Denise looked round the room as if to make sure they were not being spied on. Then she walked towards him, her trembling fingers revealing her emotion.
“I will tell you why I ask,” she said. “This morning, at three o’clock, in the gutter outside the cabaret—where you were seen at midnight—one of the King’s messengers was discovered by the police, gagged and bound, and his despatches gone—stolen, of course, by the traitor who has done this felon’s work before.”
“Good God!” The horror in his face was unmistakable, but was it due to guilty knowledge or innocent surprise? The crystal-gazer’s last words, “There will be news in the morning for you at Versailles,” were ringing in his ears, and now he stared dully and confused at the girl’s pale face.
“You do not wish to tell me,” Denise continued, “why you went to that cabaret?”
With the memory of the night still painfully vivid, aware how his path was beset by pitfalls, André was trying to decide whether Denise was asking as the agent of his implacable foes or for herself alone.
“You,” she began again, “are the Captain of the Queen’s Guards; you visit by stealth at an inn a wench called Yvonne, you refused to present our petition to the King, you visit a cabaret frequented by a foreigner suspected of being an English spy, under whose walls foul treason is committed, and you professed to have gone to Nérac”—she paused, and looked at him wistfully. “Why do you do these things?”
“To discover the traitor; that is my reason,” he answered.
“At the request of His Majesty?” she asked swiftly and significantly.
Should he lie to Denise? André’s troubled eyes passionately sought her face.
“I can say no more,” he replied slowly, and Denise, though she knew that he had admitted her accusation, was glad he had not told her a falsehood.
“Do you know that you are in extreme danger?” she asked.
“Yes, I know it.” He spoke with great gravity.
“I have been unjust to you,” she said quickly; “unjust and unkind. I am more than grateful for your generosity and honour in saving me by that duel. I am ready now to believe your word just because it is yours. They tell me you are the lover of Madame de Pompadour and at heart a traitor, but it is a lie—a lie!”
“Ah!”—it was a true lover’s cry of joy—“a lie, Denise!”
“Yes, a lie. I say so to you because I have said it to them. André, will you for your own sake—I cannot and will not ask for mine—will you not refuse now and henceforth to be the servant and ally of Madame de Pompadour? Will you not help me instead in the cause which is the cause of your nobility and mine—of honesty and honour?”
“I could wish,” he answered earnestly, “for your sake, Denise, that you would refuse to have any part in this squalid struggle for power. Believe me, it is no task for a woman such as we—I—would have you be.”
“Do not I know it?” she answered wearily. “To the woman I would be it is hateful. It soils—it soils,” she cried in a low voice of anguish. “But take my place, André, and I promise you I will leave Versailles for Beau Séjour till”—she looked up timidly, unable to check the tender radiance in her appealing eyes—“till you come to tell me you are victorious and she has gone for ever.”
André had taken her outstretched hands. Her words were like wine to a fainting man. Denise loved him—Denise loved him! Last night with another woman’s hands on his shoulders, a woman promising him love, success, glory, the great secret whose fascination was so irresistible, he had refused to succumb to temptation, and Denise’s look even more than her words was now his reward. He had only to promise and she would be in his arms for ever. And so for a few blissful moments of oblivion to the perils that beset them both he stood with her dear hands in his, her face close to his, supremely happy, as she was.
Suddenly they both stepped back. Some one had stealthily entered—only a lackey peeping cautiously, but a lackey, they both recognised at once, of Madame de Pompadour.
“Whom do you seek?” Denise demanded haughtily.
The man had obviously expected to find André alone. He now tried to sidle away.
“If,” said the Marquise de Beau Séjour, “you have a message for Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac, give it to him.”
The man, thus sternly commanded, reluctantly handed André a small note and fled.
“Read it, I beg,” Denise urged, her tone unconsciously cold and severe.
It was sealed with the crest of the Marquise de Pompadour, and André read these words:
“I must see you at once.—A. de P.”
The crumpled note fell from his fingers. Ah! Sooner or later he had known even in his great bliss that he must answer Denise’s appeal, but this message made a decision imperative.
“Will you save me as I asked you?” Denise said, and once again she came close to him.
“And if I cannot promise to take your place?” he questioned to gain time.
“Then I must go on alone—alone,” she answered, “and God knows what I may do.”
Ambition, loyalty, love, his pledged oath to Madame de Pompadour, fear, remorse, and pain struggled within him.
“I will promise anything, anything but that,” he cried in despair.
“It is the only thing that can help,” she said very quietly: “but it is well I should know the truth. I thank you for that.” Tears were in her voice. “Do not think the worse of me if—” she stopped. Words failed her. Fate and the mistakes of the past of each were too strong for him and for her.
And then, André, unable to endure the misery longer, without a syllable of explanation or justification, left her.
Denise’s eye fell on the note from the woman who she felt had ruined her life and his. For one minute she held it in her fingers. Her friends would give much for this damning evidence of his guilt. If she desired revenge, here was the chance; and she was, alas! racked by the jealousy and curiosity of a woman who loved and had been rejected; but it was only for a moment that she wavered, then with a proud sadness tore the note into fragments and threw them on the fire. Not till the last had been burnt did she take refuge in the hopeless loneliness of her own room.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Madame de Pompadour, as André stepped from behind the curtains of the secret door, “Mon Dieu! my friend, I am not the devil, that you should look at me like that.”
“Madame,” André replied, “I am here to receive your commands.”
A jest, a taunt, a direct question, hovered on the lady’s lips. But after another searching look, instead she held out a hand of swift and strong sympathy.
“Courage, Vicomte,” she said softly, “do not despair. I am not beaten yet, nor are you. No woman can forget a man’s loyalty, certainly not I.”
Madame de Pompadour was a selfish and ambitious woman, yet to a few such nature has granted the mysterious power of expressing in word and look what they do not really feel. Then, as always in her unique career, it proved the most potent of her many gifts.
“I thank you, Marquise,” André replied, deeply touched.
“You have heard the news,” she said, wisely returning to business. “Yes? Could anything be worse? But thank Heaven the messenger was carrying only public despatches. Had it been one of the King’s secrets you and I would not be talking here.”
“And His Majesty?”
“Is one moment furiously angry, at another plunged in the deepest dejection, at another jesting. This accursed treachery appalls him. No wonder. But, as the business of last night affects the ministers more than himself, he is angry with them alone. Cursed dullards, he called them in this very room, infamous bunglers. I think,” she added, smiling, “His Majesty will presently see it is his interest to give some of them change of air and occupation. Who knows, the Vicomte de Nérac may be Minister for War yet.”
André laughed grimly. That would be a triumphant retort indeed to the Court that hoped to prove him a traitor and a libertine.
Madame de Pompadour ceased to smile. Fear and anxiety made her voice and eyes grave. “‘No. 101,’” she said, “has given the King occasion to call his ministers dullards and bunglers. If to-morrow, thanks to ‘No. 101,’ the King should have reason to call me that and worse, you and I are ruined. You follow me?”
“Eh bien! it is necessary for His Majesty to communicate with the Jacobites. That, unhappily, is not my affair. His Majesty wills it so, and I, who alone know this, must obey. This is the despatch.”
André took the sheet of paper. “It is in your handwriting, Madame!” he exclaimed, in sharp astonishment.
“Yes, I wrote it at the King’s dictation this morning. Have you forgotten I, alone, am his confidential secretary now?” She quietly folded the paper, sealed it with her own private seal, and wrote a direction on the cover.
“You wish me to be the bearer?” André asked quickly.
“Three persons alone,” she replied quietly, “know of this despatch and its contents—the King, you, and I. The King cannot deliver it. It must, therefore, be you or I. With ‘No. 101’ out there or here in the palace we cannot trust any messenger. That is the price you and I have to pay for the power we have won.”
“I will take it,” André said at once.
“Reflect, my friend,” she answered. “If that despatch is found on your person, or stolen, it reveals an intrigue with the Jacobites in defiance of the King’s public promise and the policy of his ministers, and you will go to the Bastille as a traitor. It is in my handwriting, sealed with my seal, and the King will disavow us both; therefore, I shall follow you to prison and death. This is a more dangerous errand than my commission at Fontenoy. You can risk it and will, but is it fair?”
“Madame, if you were not involved, I should welcome the Bastille and the scaffold,” he replied.
She flashed a swift look, piercing to the marrow, and she read how the iron of some unknown fate had entered into his soul; but with marvellous self-restraint she suppressed her curiosity.
“I thank you,” she said; “no, I cannot thank you, but some day I will.”
It is not given to many men to see in such a woman’s eyes what André saw then. He wrenched himself into asking an obvious question.
“The agent of the Jacobites will be at midnight at ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,’” she answered. “Do not be surprised; it is not I who have chosen that place; it is the King, and we must obey. Paris is too far off; the road and the city are as we know only too full of dangers. Remember that before you deliver the despatch the agent will give you the password, ‘Discret et fidèle,’ and show you a seal like this. Yes, keep it.” She handed him an impression of the private royal seal. “And now I will sew the paper into your inside pocket; it is the safest way I can think of.”
For a couple of minutes she stitched in the most businesslike way, but neither he nor she could make the operation other than it was.
What a beautiful woman! André was only human, indeed more susceptible than most to physical charm. The flutter of her eyelids, the lights that unconsciously came and went in her eyes, the dimple in the cheek, the rounded curve of neck, shoulder, and arm—veritably a morceau de roi.
“They say,” she whispered, with a roguish laugh, “that poor fool of a messenger was cajoled off his errand by a petticoat. Women, you know, are often surprised at the extraordinary weakness of even strong men. I wonder if any woman could make you, Vicomte, betray yourself. Perhaps?”
“I hope not.” André found it wiser to jest too.
“Ma foi! I should like to try.”
André kissed her fingers with the unconscious grace that was vainly imitated by all the young courtiers of Versailles. “I could only succumb to your equal, Marquise,” he said, “but such a woman does not exist. Therefore I shall succeed.”
“You must; you must.”
“Madame, the paper will be delivered safely or I shall never return.”
The thoughts of both had soared away in the sudden silence, and across the unconquerable dreams of ambition and love there fell the sinister, blood-stained mystery of the unknown traitor and darkened the room.
“God keep you, my friend,” Madame murmured. “God keep you safe!”
The clock in André’s room struck eleven. André pulled the curtains back and surveyed the night. Serene, flawlessly serene, as an October night at Versailles can be. Satisfied that his pistols were properly primed, that the precious despatch was still in his pocket, he blew out the lights and then by a rope ladder swung himself out of the window. His experience at “The Gallows and the Three Crows” had warned him that for his foes to discover the King’s commission was for Madame de Pompadour and himself ruin, death, and dishonour. And he was determined the Court should not so much as know he had left the palace. So at midday he had given out that he was ill, had even sent for a physician, and then had quietly slept till the hour had come. And now that he had successfully given them the slip the Captain of the Queen’s Guards laughed as a truant schoolboy might have done. A few lights still twinkled into the October air, some from behind shutters, others through the open glass. André paused to survey the majestic front of the palace as it faces the broad terrace that commands the gardens, that terrace where to-day the bare-legged French children scamper and the chattering tourists stroll—those gardens where, could he have known it, was to be played out the tragi-comedy of The Diamond Necklace and the downfall of the descendants of Le Roi Soleil. And he was asking himself, would he ever see Versailles again?
Up there to the right was the window of Denise’s room. If only he could have said two words of farewell before he rode out to battle with the unknown! Hush! the shutters were being fretfully thrown back. Yes, that figure in white was Denise looking out, as so many in their sorrow or passion have looked out, to the passionless stars for an answer, and in vain. His blood throbbed feverishly, until Denise, ignorant that in the darkness below her a heart as cruelly torn as her own was beating wistfully, wearily closed the shutters, and went back to a sleepless bed.
André stole away across the gardens to seek the road yonder where a trusted servant from Paris would be waiting with his best horse.
“She is not a peasant,” he muttered, showing whither his thoughts were travelling. “Well, well!”
“If I am not at the palace by nine o’clock, Jean,” he said as he mounted, “come for my orders to the inn called ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.’” And Jean nodded knowingly.
Orders! André smiled grimly. Dead men can give no orders, not even for their own burial, nor can they take all their secrets with them; more was the pity.
When the servant had disappeared André bound the mare’s hoofs with felt, and she whinnied affectionately, as if she understood. She had only twice been so treated, once the night before Fontenoy and now, for she was the English blood mare which had crushed into pulp the face of that miserable dead woman in the charcoal-burner’s wood and had saved her master’s life from “No. 101” and George Onslow. André stroked her neck and whispered into her ear. To-night she might have to save his honour as well as his life.
Once in the main road André drew rein in the shadow of a tree on the outskirts of the forest and listened attentively. To the right ran the track for farm carts that led directly to the inn, but he decided not to take that. If by any chance he had been followed or an ambush was laid his foes would certainly choose that track, his natural route. He therefore rode past it, again halted to listen, and then plunged fearlessly under the trees, picking his way along a wood-cutter’s disused path.
Already, through the tangle of boughs, he could make out the blurred shape of the inn ahead, when a faint hiss brought his sword from the scabbard. No, that was a low whistle there on the right. That bush, too, just in front was stirring suspiciously; by St. Denys! the crown of a man’s hat? A howl of surprise and pain rent the air. André had driven in his spurs; the maddened mare had leaped on to the bush and the hat with the man’s head under it was cut through with one pitiless stroke of the sword. In went the spurs again; for he saw now there were three others running up from the main track which he had refused to follow. The flash of a pistol: the bullet went through his cloak, but the man who fired it took André’s sword point in his throat and dropped, gurgling. The remaining two stood their ground, and struck at him with their swords. One of them, with a cry “Seigneur Jésu!” lurched forward, run through the breast. But the other had stabbed the mare from behind. She plunged and fell heavily. André felt a sharp pain in his left arm; he, too, was stabbed! He had a vision of himself being tossed through the air, his head struck a tree trunk, and——
When he recovered consciousness he was lying on the ground and all was still. In an agony of bewildered fear he tore his coat open and felt for the despatch. Impossible! Yes, it was still there. A red mist danced in his eyes, his left arm throbbed with pain, but he lay half sobbing with a delirious joy. The despatch was still there! Death and dishonour had not the mastery of him yet.
“You are hurt, Monseigneur?”
Yvonne, in her tattered gown and dishevelled hair, with a lantern in her hand, was kneeling beside him. André staggered to his feet; he scarcely knew whether he was hurt or not. He gazed round, trying to recollect, as the flickering light showed him four men’s bodies lying this way and that near him. Dead, all of them. And his horse—no, that was alive; she whinnied as he tottered up to her.
“Take it to the stable,” he muttered, “take the mare, Yvonne. It is not the first time she has saved my life.”
Yvonne in silence led the bleeding beast away. The girl who loved a cow could also understand why a soldier could love his horse.
André now seized the lantern and examined the dead men. Ha! two of them he did not know, but two were the spies of “The Gallows and the Three Crows,” the servants of the Duke de Pontchartrain and the Comte de Mont Rouge. He sat down on a fallen tree trunk, faint and sick. But the shock braced his dazed mind and he tugged out his watch. Ten minutes to twelve. Ten minutes! He could still be in time. His arm indeed was dripping with blood, but it was a mere flesh-wound, which he promptly bound up with his handkerchief, and by this time Yvonne had returned.
“Tell me what happened,” he commanded.
“I was sitting in the kitchen,” she said quietly, “when I heard a cry—a terrible cry. I seized a bludgeon and a lantern and rushed out. Mon Dieu! Monseigneur, it was horrible; you were fighting and falling. I struck as hard as I could, and then all was still. Monseigneur, I can see now, killed three of them, but the fourth I think I killed. See—there!”
Her bludgeon was lying beside one of the dead men, whose head it had battered in. Yvonne began to cry at the sight.
“Will they hang me, Monseigneur?” she asked.
“Hang you! Good heavens! You have saved my life, my honour. They will not hang you unless they hang me, and they will not do that. Come, Yvonne, we must show these canaille where the superintendent of the police can see them to-morrow.”
They carried the four bodies to one of the outhouses, and not till then did André enter the inn parlour to wait for the agent of the Jacobites; but no agent arrived, and, after drinking some wine which Yvonne found for him and telling her to summon him if required, André dismissed her, drew a chair up to the fire, and began to ponder on the night’s work; but his mind refused to think. A curious numbness as if produced by a drug steadily overpowered him, and after wrestling with himself in vain he fell into a deep sleep.
He had been lying in the chair perhaps a quarter of an hour when the door softly opened. Yvonne with a finger to her lips, holding her petticoats off the floor, stole in, and behind her a stranger, shading the light he carried with his hand, stepped stealthily on tiptoe.
In silence they both inspected the sleeping André. Then Yvonne very cautiously inserted her hand inside the sleeper’s coat and probed as it were gently. The pair inspected the despatch closely, smiling when they observed the handwriting on the cover. Then with the same practised sureness of touch, they rebuttoned the coat, and withdrew as noiselessly as they had entered; but as they reached the threshold a little tongue of flame from one of the logs on the fire suddenly revealed the face of Yvonne’s companion to be that of the Chevalier de St. Amant.
Outside the door, the girl hung her lantern quietly on the wall in the passage.
“Why hasn’t François come?” she asked, in an anxious whisper.
“François will never come,” the Chevalier replied, very curtly.
“Do you”—she pushed back her matted hair with a gesture of horror—“do you——”
“Yes, I do. The English have been on François’s track for some time. He was last seen, I learn, loitering about the Carrefour de St. Antoine. Poor fool, why did he go there, of all places? He has disappeared and——”
“George Onslow?” she interrupted with a flash of anger.
“I fear so. Onslow is mad with despair and wrath. He had discovered François’s trade and his Jacobite employers; and the English Government pays handsomely for Jacobite secrets. Onslow, too, was convinced he would get no more papers as he had got them before, and so——”
“Yes, yes.” Then she added, “And he desired revenge on a woman.”
The Chevalier nodded quietly. “If he had secured from François that paper which De Nérac is carrying, revenge was in his hands. But the madman has struck too soon; it is just as well for all of us.” He looked up and down the dimly lit passage. “Some day,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone that was cruelly tragic, “François’s fate will be mine.”
The girl flung out a hand of passionate protest. Her voice choked.
“I feel it for certain,” the Chevalier continued, “it is fate, the fate of our—” He checked himself sharply. “Oh, I shall not resent my turn when it comes; I have no desire to live now.”
“No.” She, too, stretched arms of impotent appeal against the grip of a pitiless destiny. “No, there is nothing to live for, now.”
The Chevalier looked into her eyes with the earnest scrutiny of deep affection. “So your question, too, has been answered?” he whispered.
“Only as I expected. Could it be otherwise?”
“All for De Nérac,” he commented aloud to himself; “all for De Nérac—love, success, glory, honour, and, as if that were not enough, he and that wanton will frustrate the revenge and punishment——”
“Yes, he will do that. It is the destiny of France.”
The thought imposed silence on both. André’s measured breathing could be heard dying away in peaceful innocence in the dim passage.
“But this attack?” Yvonne demanded suddenly.
“The ministers and the Court, of course,” was the quick reply. “Some one has warned them of his”—he nodded towards the parlour—“his errand. The some one can only be Onslow, the miserable traitor, and it explains François’s disappearance, too. The despatch can wait. But Onslow’s game must be watched or——”
“And checkmated,” she interrupted decisively. “Ah! I see it now—I see it all now.”
They fell to talking earnestly.
Three hours later André had returned to his room in the palace as he had left it—by his rope ladder. He had an interesting story to add to the morning chocolate of Madame de Pompadour, and he was able to give back intact a despatch which he had been unable to deliver.
And the next event was at ten o’clock, when the Duke of Pontchartrain was chatting with the morning crowd in the Œil de Bœuf. Sharp exclamations, followed by a dead silence, greeted the entry of the Captain of the Queen’s Guards, whose left arm, all could see, was bandaged and carried in a sling.
“Monsieur le Duc,” André said in a voice that rang through the room, “His Majesty commands your presence at eleven o’clock in the Council Chamber.” He paused to allow the royal message to be appreciated by the attentive company; then he added: “And, Monsieur le Duc, I beg to say for myself that if your Grace wishes to know where your servant and that of the Comte de Mont Rouge are, who attempted to murder me last night when carrying out the commission of the King of France, your Grace will find them both dead, along with two others, in the inn called ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.’”
A haughty bow, and he had left the astonished Duke and the appalled audience to their bewildered reflections.
The customary midday service in the chapel at the palace that morning was unusually crowded. Mansart’s dignified and classical architecture in all its frigid splendour is best viewed to-day by the visitor from the royal tribune, and it is with difficulty that the cold and empty desolation condescends to conjure up for the imagination the historic share of this chapel in the grand age of the French monarchy. For under Louis XV.—sensualist and bigot—the homage of attendance at the rites of the religion of the Sovereign and the national Church was as profitable, nay, as obligatory, as obedience to the inflexible conventions of Court etiquette and the good breeding of the Faubourg St. Germain. So, indeed, it had been under Louis XIV. and the ascetic pietism of Madame de Maintenon; so it continued to be under Louis XV. and the genial culture of Madame de Pompadour and the libertinism of Madame du Barry. But, André, like every one else in the congregation that morning, was not thinking of this curious paradox as his eye scanned the dévots worshipping beside the men and women who patronised Voltaire and laughed at miracles in polished epigrams that dissolved the central truths of the Christian faith into a riddle for the vulgar. He saw the King, the Queen, and the crowd of courtiers, he saw Madame de Pompadour, who as yet had not gained, as she did later, the seat she coveted in the grand tribune. He was asking himself, as he mechanically rose from or fell on his knees, where was the Duke of Pontchartrain and what had the King said to him?
André, alike with the foes of his own order, knew that a crisis had been reached. The next forty-eight hours must settle decisively the great battle between the Court and the maîtresse en titre. And the decision rested with the royal figure kneeling devoutly on his crimson faldstool, with that man of the soft, impenetrable, bored eyes, who broke all the Ten Commandments, yet said his prayers with the same absorption as the most fanatical dévot. Yes; Louis’s worship was watched with feverish interest by every man and woman present.
“He is in a great rage,” the Comtesse des Forges whispered, as she crossed herself; “he never says all the responses unless he is truly angry.”
The Abbé de St. Victor tittered gently, rather because the licentious love story he had had stitched into his service-book had reached an amusing dénoûement. “To be sure,” he whispered back behind his lace handkerchief, “and he never is so polite to the Queen as when he is hopelessly in love with another woman.”
“Poor Pontchartrain,” whispered the Duchess, “always kisses me with passion half an hour before he kisses Françoise. All well-bred men are like the King in that, I suppose. It is the kiss of peace,” she pouted at the High Altar.
The Abbé tittered again with dulcet decorum, but, seeing Denise’s eye on him, prayed for the rest of the service with exemplary fervency and finished his love story at the same time.
When the congregation broke up, the Queen’s antechamber was the general meeting-place of the noble rebels, and Denise, lingering without, marked with surprise Madame de Pompadour’s sedan chair stop in the gallery. Madame de Pompadour had her chair just because it was the privilege of mesdames of the blood-royal, but to return this way was a fresh outrage.
Denise was still more surprised when she was addressed.
“I beg you,” said the lady, “to present my humble duties to her Majesty and to pray her to do me the honour of accepting these flowers.” She tendered a magnificent bouquet.
Denise looked her up and down. “The gentleman-usher of the week, Madame,” she replied, making a motion with her fan, “conveys messages to her Majesty.”
“I am aware of that,” Madame de Pompadour said sweetly, “but I asked a favour, Mademoiselle; may I simply add that I hope if the Marquise de Beau Séjour should so far forget herself as ever to ask a favour of the Marquise de Pompadour she will not be so foolish or so uncharitable as to refer it to her gentleman-usher.”
The two women confronted each other in silence. Then Madame de Pompadour curtsied deferentially, stepped into her chair, and disappeared. Denise walked into the antechamber with two angry red spots in her pale cheeks and her grey eyes blazing.
“Mon Dieu!” cried the Comtesse des Forges. “It is insufferable. What insolence! My consolations, dear Mademoiselle.”
“There is something coming,” the Abbé de St. Victor said gravely. “The grisette’s speech was a trumpet of war. Before long there will be a new maid of honour—that’s what she——”
“A hundred l-livres to one,” stammered Des Forges, “that it is n-not this week.”
“I’ll take that,” said the Abbé, using the jewelled pencil the Duchess had given him. “I want a hundred livres sorely.”
“Here is the Duchess,” exclaimed Mademoiselle Claire.
“Well? the news—the news?” cried a dozen excited voices.
“Terrible,” said the Duchess, fanning herself languidly, “terrible. Pontchartrain is ordered to his estates; he is forbidden Paris and Versailles.”
“For how long?”
“For ever—for ever. No time was said. The King was dreadfully angry. He swore by St. Louis and refused to believe all Pontchartrain’s falsehoods. Oh, my friends, think of living always in the country, the horrible country, where there are so many rosy-cheeked wenches that milk cows. Pontchartrain will take to drinking milk for breakfast, I am sure, before I am dressed, and Françoise will never consent to live in our château, and I sha’n’t have any one worth a sou to wash my lace and do my hair. Ah! the King is abominably cruel and inconsiderate.”
While the ladies were bewailing her fate, St. Benôit turned to the Abbé. “How could the Duke be such a fool,” he asked savagely, “as to allow André to be attacked—André of all men?”
“The information was explicit,” the Abbé said, in a low voice. “If the attack had succeeded, we should have ruined the grisette.”
St. Benôit made an impatient gesture.
“The folly,” added the Abbé, “lay in employing fellows who could be recognised.”
“With the result,” growled St. Benôit, “that the country will enjoy the ablest head in our party. It’s simply disgusting.”
“Exactly,” commented the Chevalier drily. “I sympathise with the Duke. Only I haven’t a château to retire to, worse luck.”
The remark had been heard by the ladies, and called out a dozen questions.
“Yes, Duchess,” the Chevalier said quietly, “this afternoon I have my last audience with His Majesty. I understand I am to be dismissed—from Versailles, perhaps from France.”
“But who will take your place?” cried Mademoiselle Claire.
“The lady who will shortly take all our places, Madame la Marquise de Pompadour.”
He glanced at Denise, and the glance went home. She had refused to let him ruin Madame de Pompadour and André with her; he had obeyed because he loved her; and he alone, poor boy, was to pay the penalty. In Denise’s soul, stricken by remorse, surged the wild desire that had been shaping for days. If only by some great act of renunciation, of self-sacrifice, she could repair the terrible harm that her love for André had done to her and their cause.
“We are ruined, beaten,” the Comtesse des Forges said in a hopeless tone. “That woman has won. Fate is against us.”
“Yes, nothing but a miracle can save us now,” St. Benôit remarked.
“And even the Abbé will admit that the age of miracles is past.”
“You forget, mon cher. The grisette is herself a miracle—of Satan,” retorted the Abbé, but the company was in no mood for jests. The completeness of Madame de Pompadour’s triumph was too convincing and too galling. And the Duke’s dismissal they knew well would be followed shortly by other blows as cruel, as well directed, and as insulting. The King was in the hands of an able and unscrupulous woman with an abler hero as her ally, and the King was absolute master of France.
“If only His Majesty would fall ill,” murmured the Duchess, “if only he would fall dangerously ill.”
“Ah!” the Comtesse cried, with a splendidly vindictive gleam under her heavy eyelids, “ah, then we could treat that wanton as we treated the Duchess of Châteauroux.”
The company assented in silence. Well did they all remember the memorable events of Metz in 1743, when Louis the Well-Beloved had been smitten down, and the Church and the Court had so skilfully used his fears of death to get the maîtresse en titre, the Duchess of Châteauroux, dismissed.
“And the Duchess died, the miserable sinner,” said Mademoiselle Claire, “very soon. It surely was the judgment of Heaven.”
“The same miracle,” smiled the Abbé, “never happens twice, alas!”
“And the King was never so well as to-day,” added St. Benôit, remorsefully.
Denise had already withdrawn. Deep as was her resentment against Madame de Pompadour, strong as was her desire by self-sacrifice, if need be, to atone for what she now felt was a sin, the conversation of her friends never failed to offend her tastes and her conscience. She was working for a cause, they were simply bent on vengeance.
The Chevalier met her in the gallery as he thoughtfully strolled away.
“Courage, Mademoiselle,” he stopped to say. “I cannot win your love; perhaps I may yet be permitted to help to make you happy,” and he glided off before she could ask what he meant or speak a word of all the things she longed to say.
The young man had guessed aright. That afternoon Louis dismissed him in royally curt words, intimating at the same time that he desired to see him no more at Versailles or Paris. The Chevalier simply bowed, and the King now sat alone in his private Cabinet de Travail busy with his secret correspondence and somewhat troubled in mind. Madame de Pompadour had had her way, but the Chevalier de St. Amant, Louis was aware, left his service with a dangerous store of knowledge. And Louis was in fact penning a secret order to the police for his immediate arrest and detention in the fortress of Vincennes when the rings of the curtain over the door behind him rasped sharply. Some one had unceremoniously entered.
The King turned angrily at this extraordinary defiance of his express command that he was to be disturbed by no one. One glance, and the pen dropped from his hand.
“You recognise me, Sire?” said the intruder slowly.
“Dead—dead,” the King muttered. His fingers had clenched, his face was ashy grey.
“I was dead, but I have come back as I promised. The dead do not forget.”
Louis stared straight at him as a man stares in fear through the dark. Two great drops of perspiration dripped on to the unsigned lettre de cachet.
“Some day, perhaps soon,” said the man, “your Majesty will answer for your acts, not at the tribunal of men, but at the tribunal of—the devil.”
Louis crouched in his chair. His lips moved, but he could not speak.
“Fifteen years ago we last met, your Majesty and I. My wife was stolen from me, my nobility branded, myself condemned and executed on a false charge, and you, Sire, were the author of all these foul deeds. To-day your Majesty is betrayed by the unknown. The man who steals, and will continue to steal, your papers, Sire, is not ‘No. 101’; it is I—I—” he stepped forward—“I, the dead.”
Louis shrank back, his dry lips moving; his fingers convulsively crept towards the hand-bell.
“Touch that bell,” said the man in a terrible tone, “and I will strangle you, Sire—royal betrayer of women, curse of the orphan and the fatherless.”
Louis’s arm fell paralysed at his side.
“Take warning,” the unknown continued, “take warning in time. If you, Sire, would save yourself from the judgment of God, dismiss at once the woman who betrays you, the woman called the Marquise de Pompadour.” He paused and repeated her name twice, adding with emphasis on each word, “And remember Dieu Le Vengeur! Dieu Le Vengeur!”
The motto seemed to strike an awful chord in the King’s memory. He covered his face with his hands. When at last a long silence gave him courage again to look up, the room was empty. He was alone!
Ah! He had dreamed an evil dream, that was all. With a shudder of relief he stretched his arms as one freed from the mastery of unendurable pain. A dream, thank God! an evil dream. And then his eye fell on his desk. The lettre de cachet was torn into bits, and the bits were wet with the perspiration of his agony. The King tottered to his feet, clutched at the hand-bell feverishly, and rang—rang—rang.
The gentleman-usher stared in awe at His Majesty’s ashy grey face and twitching lips.
“Did—did any one pass out?” Louis stammered.
“Did any one pass out, out from here?” Louis repeated.
“No, Sire.” The man’s face was both puzzled and frightened. His royal master put his hand on a chair to support himself.
“You are sure?”
“I heard voices in the room, Sire, but——”
“You heard voices, ah!”
“But I can swear no one either entered or left since your Majesty gave orders for—ah! Au secours! Hola there! hola! au secours!” the gentleman-usher’s voice had become a shriek. “Au secours! Le Roi, le Roi!”
Louis had fallen in a dead faint on the floor.
The wished-for miracle had happened after all. Yet the news that the King had suddenly fainted, which spread like wildfire through the palace, was at first made light of. “The King,” said the Abbé de St. Victor, “likes to show a touch of human and feminine weakness; he faints as women do, to relieve the ennui of perpetual flattery.” In two or three hours, however, it was known that after being put to bed His Majesty had fainted again and again, that he had scarcely rallied, that the doctors whispered of palsy and a stroke, and that his condition was truly critical. The excitement slowly rose to feverish anxiety, mingled with no little exultation. Versailles was thrilled as Paris and France had been thrilled in 1743, when the King’s dangerous illness at Metz had fired every class into touching demonstrations of passionate loyalty. About midnight the watchers could relate that urgent couriers had been despatched, on what errands no one could precisely say, but it was certain that Monsieur le Dauphin, absent on a hunting expedition, had been summoned to return at once, that mesdames the princesses were being fetched from their convent, that a council of ministers would be held as soon as the Dauphin arrived, that the Archbishop of Paris and the saintly Bishop of Bordeaux, then in the capital, had been invited by the King’s confessor to come to Versailles. Towards dawn the doctors reported that His Majesty had been twice bled, that he had rallied for an hour and then slowly slipped back into virtual unconsciousness. Unless—unless, the whispers ran, a change for the better came soon, France would have a new king.
And Madame de Pompadour? Her name was on every one’s lips. A new king! Would it be the Bastille or Vincennes for the grisette then? Fierce joy throbbed in the Queen’s apartments when the rumour was confirmed that Madame de Pompadour, on hearing of her royal lover’s illness, had at once hurried to his room, but that the door had been shut in her face, by whose orders no one knew, nor whether it was with the King’s consent or not. What was certain was that the King’s confessor had refused to prepare his Sovereign for absolution so long as he remained in mortal sin, and that the Archbishop of Paris and the Bishop of Bordeaux would without doubt presently support the confessor. The dramatic scene at Metz was in fact repeating itself at Versailles. The King must be reconciled to his Queen and wife, must confess his sin, and promise to dismiss the partner in his guilt from his Court and his presence before he could receive the most solemn ministrations of the Church. And when Queen Marie Leczinska’s ladies were aware that their royal mistress had on her own initiative gone to her husband’s sick couch, had been admitted, and had not yet returned, a sigh of thankfulness, exultation, and vengeance went up. The hours of Madame de Pompadour’s supremacy were numbered. A just Heaven had intervened. Madame de Pompadour was doomed.
By nine o’clock next morning the noblesse had flocked, or were still flocking, in crowds from Paris to Versailles, thirsting for news, pining for revenge, on the tiptoe of excitement. The court-yards and stables were blocked with their carriages and every minute brought fresh arrivals. The Œil de Bœuf was filled with officers, nobles, clerics, officials, who overflowed into the Galerie des Glaces, in the noble windows of which chattered groups of eager questioners. In the Œil de Bœuf itself the subdued babble of talk rose and fell, but all eyes were alertly watching the white and gold doors so jealously kept by the Swiss Guards. Beyond was the royal bed-chamber, but what was passing within who could say? The physicians had forbidden the entrée to every one save the King’s valet, a couple of menial servants, the royal confessor, and now the Bishop of Bordeaux. How critical affairs were reckoned to have become could be judged by the presence of the Chevalier de St. Amant, the Duke of Pontchartrain, and the Comte de Mont Rouge, who had dared thus to defy the exile imposed by the sick King.
“I t-tell you,” Des Forges was saying, “he s-saw a d-devil and f-fainted. I d-don’t w-wonder.”
“It wasn’t a devil nor the devil; it was a woman,” the Abbé corrected. “Some women are devils, but all devils are not women. That is logic and truth together, which is rare.”
“Yes, it was a woman,” Mont Rouge added. “A woman in the shape of a vampire.”
“It was only a flower girl,” Pontchartrain laughed, and he threw in a ribald story which set his hearers choking with laughter.
“Well, when he was bled the blood came out black——”
“No, no; purple”—“yellow”—“blue”—corrected half a dozen voices, and each had a witness who had seen the bleeding and could swear to the colour; and so the speculation as to the causes of the King’s illness gaily ran on. The most extraordinary theories were afloat, for that the King had “seen something” was now a matter of common knowledge. But all were agreed on one point—Madame de Pompadour’s fate was sealed. Whether the King recovered or whether the Dauphin succeeded him the grisette was ruined.
André had hurried from the Queen’s antechamber to learn what could be learned. A glimpse of Denise’s proud, pale face had been granted him as his spurs rang along the galleries. He had read in it pity wrestling with joy, and his soul was bitter within him. And the cold glances, the silence of his friends if he drew near, the shrugs of the shoulders, completed the tale. He, too, was ruined if the Court could have its way. His foes, though they had not published their evidence yet, could prove that he was the ally of Madame de Pompadour. His success inspired their jealousy, his ability their fear. They had tried to murder him in order to procure the final damning proof, and they had failed. But he could never be forgiven for the humiliation of the Duke of Pontchartrain, and Mont Rouge’s arm, not yet healed, cried out for vengeance. To-morrow it would be his turn for exile to Nérac, stripped of his honours, happy if permitted to eat his heart out in a debt-loaded château far from Paris and Versailles. André had played for a great stake; he had been within an ace of winning and now he had lost. Yet alone, shunned, neglected in this seething crowd, he found himself despising as he had never despised before the noblesse to which he belonged. The Court of a dying king does not show even an ancient and haughty nobility, justly proud of its manners and its refinement, at its best. Of the hundreds here were there any who felt any pity, any real affection, for the Sovereign over whose vices they were jesting, at whose weaknesses they jibed? Ambition, curiosity, greed, avarice, jealousy, could be read in many faces; the noblesse were here to worship and honour the rising sun, to flatter the Dauphin, to intrigue, to traffic at the foot of a new throne in the squalid and sleepless scuffle for places, pensions, ribbons, honours, power. André turned away and gazed out of the window, at the serenely noble gardens where the autumn sun was shining on the autumn trees, on the dewy grass, and gleaming statues. Yes, the peace of Nérac near the Loire would be welcome though bought by failure in this Court of Versailles. But there remained “No. 101,” and the fascination of that unsolved riddle gripped him to-day more mercilessly than ever before. The key to the mystery was so near. Was he, too, like all the others, to be baffled? And then there was Denise. He could have had her love; never could he forget that supreme moment when they had stood hand in hand, and life had given him all that a man’s soul could dream or desire; but he had lost Denise. Had he? Ah, had he? And as he stared out towards the Fountain of Neptune the gardens melted into a dark and secret staircase, and once again he heard the beating of the heart of the Pompadour. The vision filled him with a great pity. She was no worse than he had been. There were women in this Court—did he of all men not know it?—on whose carriages glowed coronets and haughty coats of arms, with as little right to absolution as Madame de Pompadour and the dying King. But they confessed and were absolved. Confession and absolution! The mummery of priests. She at least had sinned from ambition, because the flesh and the spirit would not permit her to remain Antoinette de Poisson. But she was a bourgeoise and they were noble. For all that, could those noble women or these men ever understand—would the world ever understand before it judged the heart of such a woman as the Pompadour? To him, perhaps, alone some of the inscrutable riddles of the spirit had been revealed because his heart, too, beat as hers did, and assuredly to that hated and feared woman to-day the bitterness of death would be sweet and welcome compared with the bitterness—the tragic bitterness—of failure. God alone—if there was a God—could know all and judge aright. For her and for him, in this hour of defeat, a great pity was surely fittest.
No one came to speak to him. The renegade Vicomte de Nérac, alone there in the window, scarcely moved even compassion. He had deserted his order; he deserved punishment—to be an example to traitors who betrayed their blood and their dignity—and the punishment had begun. No one? Yes, one; the Chevalier de St. Amant. André was surprised—touched.
“Pardon my presumption,” the young man said, “but you and I, Vicomte, have more than once crossed swords. I at least have done my best to defeat you; you have done yours to defeat me.”
“Certainly,” André admitted readily.
“And you have won.”
“Have I?” André smiled as he looked down the crowded Galerie des Glaces and back at the empty space where they stood.
“Yes, Vicomte, you are victor.” His tones trembled with emotion. “Victor in the one prize that matters—a woman’s heart. Do not you forget that. I at least cannot.”
André looked into his eyes, but he said nothing.
“Whether,” the Chevalier continued, “I go to Italy or you go to Nérac is a little thing; but the other is a great thing, and the result will always be what it is—always. It has been a fair fight if fights for a woman’s love can ever be fair. Will you give me the pleasure of shaking hands?”
“Yes,” André answered, with much emotion. “And if I am not sent to Nérac you shall not go to Italy.”
“We will see.” The Chevalier had resumed his jesting tone, for they were both being jealously watched. He nodded and slipped away. André, muttering, “Always, always,” slipped away, too. “Always.” Was Denise still to be won, or why had a tear stood in the boy’s eye when he had spoken?
“Madame!” he cried, aghast, as he stepped into the Marquise de Pompadour’s salon.
She was sitting in her peignoir in front of the fire, her hair about her lovely shoulders, staring at the smouldering logs. Trunks half-packed littered the room. Papers torn up and drawers half-open met the eye in every corner. And when she wearily turned round at his exclamation her face was the face of a woman sleepless, haggard, and worn—the face of one quieted by fear, misery, and failure.
“Ruined, Vicomte,” she murmured hopelessly, “ruined, and you, too.”
“Not yet,” he answered, with such poor courage as he could summon.
She flung back her hair and pointed at him with a bare arm. “Look in the glass, miserable fellow-gambler; your eyes are as mine, hunted by despair and defeat, and we are both right. My God, have I ever passed such a night? And unless I am gone from this palace in six hours—oh, they have warned me—I shall sleep in a cell at Vincennes. Courage, pshaw! The King alone could save me and I have lost him for ever.”
“Are you sure?”
She waved the question on one side. “It is a plot,” she cried passionately, “a plot of my enemies. They tried to murder you and they failed. Now this—this is their last device. They have poisoned the King, that his sick body may fall into the hands of the priests, who will torture his soul till they have frightened him into dismissing me. What can one woman do against the Church, whose bishops keep mistresses as the King does? Nothing, nothing. I am ruined. I fly from here that I may leave Versailles free. Do you save yourself. I can protect you no longer. Give me up, go back to the Court, trample on the unfortunate—it is not too late for you. Even my wenches know that, and dare to insult me.”
“No, Madame, I will not give you up.”
“Poor, mad fool!” But the sudden, radiant flush in that haggard face would have inspired a man under sentence of death to hope and joy.
“And I will save you yet, Marquise.”
She looked at him, fixedly. “Vicomte,” she moaned, with an exceeding bitter cry, “save me. Yes, save me, I implore you.”
Her helplessness and her misery, she, who twenty-four hours ago had been the Queen of Love to the Sovereign of France, did not appeal in vain.
“The King may recover,” he said, “do not fly yet. If in twelve hours I do not return you will never see me again. Then, but not till then, for God’s sake save yourself, Madame.”
“You have a clue—know something?”
She strove to keep him, but he bowed himself resolutely out, and he knew she had flung herself back into that chair in front of the fire to watch her fortunes and her ambitions flicker out with the dying flames in the remorseless march of the hours.
This time he boldly left by the public entrance.
Twelve hours! Twelve hours! he had no clue, no information. He had spoken from the infatuation of sheer pity; alas! he had nothing but a fierce and meaningless resolve.
“André,” called softly a voice he knew only too well. Denise was standing in the empty gallery, and in her eyes there was something of the hunted despair and fear Madame de Pompadour had read in his. “André, you have been to see her?”
“She is ruined.” She paused. “And they will ruin you too. Let me save you; I can.”
“No,” he said, very quietly, “you cannot.” Denise looked at him, trembling. “You can only save me if I now at once go on my knees to my foes. To you I would gladly do it, for I have wronged you, and I love you, but to them, never! never!”
Her head bowed in appealing silence.
“The Marquise de Pompadour,” he drew himself up, “the Marquise honoured me with her friendship when she was powerful. Now that she is fallen and in misery I will not be such a dastard as to save myself by helping to ruin her. No, I will not!”
“You are mad,” she cried incoherently. But his chivalry fired her heart.
“You must do as you think right, Denise,” he said gently, “and so must I. It is cruel for me—how cruel—no, I must not speak.” He broke off and returned to the Œil de Bœuf.
The crowd was denser than ever. Monsieur le Dauphin had just passed through the heated, suffocating room and was now in the royal bed-chamber. Suddenly the subdued babel of tongues ceased as if by magic. The doors were opening. Dukes, ministers, nobles, lackeys pushed and fought to get to the front. The King was dead! Resolutely the Swiss Guards stemmed the surging tide. Ha! the King’s physician. Dead silence.
“Nobles of the realm, and gentlemen,” cried the physician, “I am happy to say that the sacred person of His Majesty is no longer in danger.” A dull roar as of inarticulate wild beasts rose and fell. “With God’s help the King of France will, we trust, be shortly restored to perfect health.”
The doors were closed again. The Comte de Mont Rouge wiped his brow.
“It is now or never,” he whispered savagely to the Duke of Pontchartrain.
“Yes, now or never,” smiled the Duke, “for I prefer the society of the ladies of Versailles and Paris to that of the drabs and bigots of Pontchartrain.”
The excitement was rather increased than diminished by the report of the King’s recovery. Indeed, throughout, men’s and women’s thoughts were absorbed far more feverishly with the fortunes of Madame de Pompadour than with those of Louis himself. A palace revolution was what was desired, vengeance on the woman who had threatened to become dictator, a happy return to the old order; and the King’s illness was only important as the extraordinary miracle which would accomplish what was so passionately prayed for. The noble gentlemen and ladies spent the next hour in agitating suspense. And when it was reported that the King had rallied so marvellously as to be out of bed, to eat and to talk, the high hopes sank. Another miracle had supervened to undo the work of the first.
“A fig for miracles,” said Pontchartrain. “Voltaire and the philosophers are right; they are either stupid, useless, or meaningless. We can get on so much better without them.”
The “saints” of the circle in the Queen’s antechamber were inexpressibly shocked. And they sighed at the inscrutable and irritating way in which things in this world were ordered by Providence.
“Your theology, my dear Duke, savours of bourgeois vulgarity and ignorance. Heaven will only help those who help themselves. That woman must be ruined before the King is well enough to become insane again. If we can only drive her from the palace to-day she will never return.”
“And,” Mont Rouge added significantly, “there is a pleasant pit into which we can drive her. The fall will break her charming neck.” He began to explain very earnestly his scheme, which was listened to with the most eager attention.
“We have her,” he wound up, triumphantly. “I shall not spend the winter at Mont Rouge.”
The next news was very inspiriting. The King, on the advice of his physicians, was to leave Versailles for Rambouillet, where change of air and, presently, some of his favourite hunting would completely restore his health. He was to leave that afternoon, accompanied only by his confessor, his physician, and half a dozen servants.
“Poor fellow,” commented Pontchartrain, “how bored he will be. I suppose they left out his wife because there are limits to what husbands can endure. You agree, ma mignonne?” He kissed his Duchess’s hands.
“Yes, because there are no limits, mon cher,” she retorted, “to what wives must endure.”
“Ah, we shall make you a vulgar and ignorant philosopher yet, chère amie. And, as His Majesty said to the grisette, yours is an education which promises me infinite amusement.”
But the best part of the new information had still to come. Madame de Pompadour had tried again to see the King, but His Majesty had listened to his confessor’s warning and refused. The doctors, too, had forbidden any such interviews. The King must on no account be excited or annoyed. Physicians and priests alike had their cue from the ministers; and the King, subject all his life to fits of gloomy remorse and superstition, was again ready, after his illness, to listen to the solemn remonstrances from the Church on his evil life. Nor did the Court know that the memory of the apparition, which had been the cause of his collapse, had played its part in strengthening his determination to free himself of Madame de Pompadour.
“She, too, must leave Versailles,” St. Benôit urged. “Mont Rouge has shown us how we can complete the victory once we have driven her out. When the King returns from Rambouillet he must find her fled and then—” He and they all smiled. As soon as the King could bear exciting news there would be exciting news for him with a vengeance.
Denise had so far listened in silence. She now made a suggestion. “Can we not frighten her away?” she said. “If she could be persuaded her life is in danger, once the King has left the palace, she will go of her own accord. I am quite ready to see her and tell her so.”
For Denise was still haunted by the desire, through some act of self-sacrifice,—and to visit Madame de Pompadour would be a painful humiliation,—to atone for what her conscience called treachery in the past to the cause. And if only the Pompadour would leave, André would be really free from her baleful influence and even now might be saved against himself.
“It is not necessary, Mademoiselle,” the Chevalier said. “I have just come from Madame’s salon.” The company that had welcomed his noiseless entry waited breathlessly. “I think I have convinced her she had better leave Versailles this very afternoon.”
Denise joined heartily in the sigh of relief. But the Chevalier’s next sentence was disquieting. “The Vicomte de Nérac,” he said, “is now in audience with the King.”
What did that mean? Had the King sent for him? He was strong enough to see him? Had the doctors permitted it? Were the ministers and the confessor to be present? The Chevalier could not answer these questions. But he could vouch for the fact, as the Vicomte had himself told him half an hour ago of the royal summons.
“More than ever the grisette must leave,” the Abbé de St. Victor pronounced. “Else the Vicomte will be her agent and effect a reconciliation.”
Mont Rouge and the Duke de Pontchartrain were holding an earnest conversation in whispers with the Chevalier. What the Chevalier said clearly gave them great satisfaction, and Mont Rouge studied with ill-concealed joy a paper which looked like a plan that the Chevalier had produced.
“The time has come for the dice,” Mont Rouge said decisively. With the help of the Duke he cleared a table and laid out on it four dice-boxes.
“The ladies will throw as well as the gentlemen?” asked the Comtesse des Forges. She was looking meaningly at Mont Rouge.
“It is hardly necessary,” the Duke said carelessly. “But if one lady be good enough to take her chance then all must. What do you say, ladies?”
“I am always unlucky,” remarked the Duchess, “so I will take my chance.”
“And you, Marquise?” the Duke turned deferentially to Denise. Mont Rouge took up one of the dice-boxes and began to rattle it noisily. Had his courage not been beyond reproach, a close observer might have thought he was at that moment very nervous. The Comtesse des Forges was yawning at her beautiful face in the mirror.
Before Denise could reply, André was seen standing on the threshold. A cold air seemed at once to blow over the room. No one offered a word of greeting, and the conversation proceeded just as if a lackey had entered. The Chevalier, indeed, went so far as to bow haughtily and to leave the room with the air of a man who found André’s presence an intolerable intrusion. Denise alone marked how pale André was and how his dark eyes burned. A choking sensation, as if her heart had ceased to beat, mastered her.
“I am sure,” André said very slowly and distinctly, “it will interest you ladies and gentlemen to know that I have ceased to be Captain of the Queen’s Guards, by His Majesty’s commands.” A rustle of skirts, a suppressed exclamation, a snuff-box dropped, showed in the dead silence the emotion this news had produced. “I am ordered,” André continued, “to retire to Nérac until His Majesty is pleased to change his mind. My congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. You desired and plotted my ruin. You have achieved it.”
The curtain dropped. “And you, Marquise?” repeated the Duke, imperturbably, holding out a dice-box to Denise as if nothing had interrupted the conversation.
Denise saw all the flushed faces, the joy, the banished fears. Too late! Too late! She could not save André. No, but perhaps she could still punish the woman who had seduced and ruined the man she loved.
“Of course I will gladly take my chance,” she answered, in a voice of reckless revolt.
André was pacing down the gallery. No one could have taken him for a ruined man, for aught than a proud officer in the Chevau-légers de la Garde, a Croix de St. Louis, and a Cordon Bleu. Though he knew that fate had at last smitten him down, the bitterest thought in his mind was that in a few hours Madame de Pompadour would be flying, too, from Versailles. The twelve hours would run out; she would never see him again.
“So it is Nérac after all?”
André started. The Chevalier was at his elbow. “No,” he answered, “it will not be Nérac.”
“The best swordsman in France will, to be sure, take a lot of killing,” the young man retorted lightly.
The flash in André’s eye showed with what true sympathy the Chevalier had divined his meaning.
“Well, Vicomte, let us say adieu. We shall not meet again in Versailles, nor elsewhere, I fancy.” Behind the tone of raillery peeped out a strange, almost tragic, gravity.
They shook hands in silence; had, in fact, separated a few paces when the Chevalier added carelessly, “There was a wench asking for you in the stables—Yvonne or some such name—I couldn’t make out what it was all about, but she seemed distressed at not getting word with you. Pardon my mentioning such a trifle.” He hurried away.
Yvonne! André halted dead. Yvonne! Name of St. Denys, what did that mean? For a moment he wavered as if he hoped against hope that Denise might appear. Then his spurs rang out on the polished floor. He was hurrying to the stables.
The Chevalier went back to the antechamber.
“Only two,” Mont Rouge was saying, as he entered the room, “only two threw sixes, two ladies curiously enough, the Comtesse des Forges and the Marquise de Beau Séjour.”
“How stupid,” yawned the Comtesse. “Must we throw again? Or, perhaps, Mademoiselle Denise will kindly withdraw and leave me victor?”
“No, no,” protested Mont Rouge, “the cast of the dice must be fairly played out; I insist.” And the company unanimously agreed with him.
“Oh, very well.” The Comtesse shrugged her shoulders. “Comte, you shall throw for me this time.”
Mont Rouge took up one of the dice-boxes which he had been fingering for some minutes.
“And will the Marquise permit me to throw for her,” inquired the Chevalier.
Denise assented with a nod. But the suggestion did not seem to please the Comtesse. A gleam of vindictive malevolence lingered under her heavy lids, but a glance from Mont Rouge reassured her.
The Chevalier advanced and threw a four and a three. Mont Rouge, the company standing round and watching eagerly, threw carelessly enough a two and a one.
“Bungler!” cried the Comtesse, “you have lost.”
“I did my best,” Mont Rouge answered, looking into her eyes, and he added in a whisper, “my best for you. You have lost, but I have won.”
The Comtesse put her hand warningly on her lips. Her gaze lingered on Denise, pale and calm, accepting her victory as the inevitable will of fate. “My congratulations, Mademoiselle,” she said in the silky tones with which women preface the insult of a kiss to their most-feared rival.
“I will accept them to-morrow,” Denise answered, “when I have done my duty.”
While the company were chattering gaily the Chevalier carelessly and unnoticed took up the dice, first the four and the three he had thrown for Denise, and then the two and the one thrown by Mont Rouge, which were still lying on the table. As he put back the two and the one into the box which belonged to Mont Rouge he smiled. He had detected these two were loaded, yet curiously enough he said nothing. Indeed, the discovery seemed to give him positive pleasure, and he rallied the Comtesse des Forges for a good half-hour, till her husband stammered with rage and Mont Rouge was sulky with jealousy.
Just as the company were breaking up a sweating horse dashed into the stables of the palace. André flung himself from the saddle. He had ridden from “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold” at a break-neck gallop and his spurs were red. He now hurried off to Madame de Pompadour’s salon, bursting in from the secret staircase.
Madame gave him one look. “Begone! quick, hussy,” she cried to the maid who was packing. The scared girl fled from the room.
“Well?” Madame held out her arms in awful suspense.
“Is the secret despatch,” André panted, “still in your keeping?”
“Yes, yes, what of it?”
He sat down and wiped his face. “Ah! thank God!” he muttered.
Madame kneeled down beside him. “What is it?” she asked, in a caressing voice, “does the King want it?”
“The King has already left Versailles; he is now on his way to Rambouillet.”
A cry of despair was wrung from her. “Then I am indeed ruined,” she moaned. “You have come to tell me so. Ah!” she sobbed, her head in her hands on his knees.
“No,” he raised her up. “I have come to save you.”
She stared at him stupefied, incredulous.
“Yes, Madame. You must leave Versailles at once, but you must go to Rambouillet.”
“You are mad or drunk.” She pushed him away angrily.
“No-no.” He almost forced her into a seat and began to talk rapidly and with intense conviction. Madame listened at first sullenly, then gradually became interested, then excited; the lights began to blaze in her eyes, the colour rose in her cheeks. She interrupted sharply with questions. When André had finished she sat thinking.
“By God! I will do it.” She had sprung to her feet. She was once again the Queen of Love, unconquerable, immortal. “I can do it and I will.”
“Leave the rest to me, Madame,” André said.
She put a hand to his shoulder. “And your reward?” She was wooing him unconsciously, as she wooed all men.
“I will ask for it when I have succeeded.”
“And you shall have it. I promise.”
An hour later the Palace heard with rapture that Madame de Pompadour had fled to Paris, in such fear for her life that she had not had time to take even her jewels with her. Her household was to follow her as soon as possible. In the Queen’s antechamber the joy was inexpressible. A third miracle! a third miracle! The grisette had vanished. Ah! If she returned now to one of the King’s castles it would be to the Bastille, not Versailles.
What had André discovered?
When he had reached the stables he could not find Yvonne, but at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,” whither he hurried, he was not disappointed. And Yvonne had news to give him as thrilling as unexpected. The English spy she had learned was coming to the inn that very afternoon to meet a strange woman, and the meeting was to be kept a solemn secret. Yvonne had felt sure Monseigneur ought to know, and had ventured as far as the Palace in search of him. André’s heart leaped at the chance that fate, which had buffeted him so sorely, had now by a miracle put in his way. The spy could be no other than George Onslow, with whom he had crossed swords in the wood the night before Fontenoy; and the woman? Would she be the flower girl of “The Gallows and the Three Crows,” the crystal-gazer, the mysterious “princess,” whose dancing had first stirred his blood in London, the woman who had said she loved him? Or would it be some other unfortunate, caught like himself in the terrible toils of a mystery which bid fair to be the ruin of them all?
What did it matter? André was sure of one thing. Could he but hear what passed at that meeting he would be many steps nearer to the solution of the blood-stained riddle of “No. 101.”
Perhaps he could yet save Madame de Pompadour, yet win Denise, yet take vengeance on his foes. The hand of destiny was in this. With “No. 101” his life had as it were begun; at each stage he had been now thwarted, now strangely aided, by the acts of the unknown traitor; with “No. 101” it was clearly fated to end. Despair, insatiable curiosity, the blind impetus of forces he could not control, alike steeled him to make the attempt.
Yvonne was easily persuaded; indeed, she had already schemed for it, and with her help he lay concealed in the room of meeting and awaited with a beating pulse the arrival of the traitors. The spy proved to be George Onslow, as he had guessed, and André studied his able, sleuth-hound face, the dark eyes of slumbering passion, and the sensual lips, with the eery yet joyous shiver of one who feels that here is an opponent with whom reckoning must be made before life is over. The woman, however, was unknown to him. She was certainly not the crystal-gazer. Nothing more unlike the black hair and dark eyebrows, the creamy skin, of that mysterious enchantress could be imagined. For this was a lady who to-day we should say had stepped straight from a pastel by Latour, or, as André thought, from the Salon de Vénus at Versailles, a girl with the figure of Diana and that indefinable carriage and air which only centuries of high birth and the company of such can bestow. Denise’s grey eyes and exquisite pose of head were not more characteristic of the quality that the noblesse of the ancien régime rightly claimed as their monopoly, than were the blue eyes and innocent insolence of the stranger. And yet André felt that in the most mysterious and irritating way she reminded him of some one. But of whom? Of whom? And then he almost laughed out loud. Of Yvonne!
They both talked in English as English was talked in London, without a trace of a foreign accent. Now if one thing was certain Yvonne did not know a word of English, for he had tried her by many pitfalls in the past and she had simply showed boorish but natural ignorance. Nor could it be the crystal-gazer, for he remembered her English was not the English of the salons. Once only did they drop into French, and then André was more puzzled than ever. Onslow spoke it extraordinarily well, yet his accent betrayed him at once; the girl, however, revealed to a noble’s sensitive ear the idiom and tone so much more difficult to acquire than mere accent of the Faubourg St. Germain. Had the Comtesse heard that sentence she would have said it might have been spoken by the Duchesse de Pontchartrain. Strange, but true.
Much of the conversation was quite unintelligible. There was a reconciliation to begin with, and André marvelled at the subtle way in which the woman soothed the man’s anger, and then with enchanting nuances of provocation, of look, of gesture, quietly reduced him to helpless and adoring submission. And George Onslow was not the only man in the room who at the end of that half-hour felt as clay in her hands. They talked, too, of incidents, of persons, of things which to André were a closed book. But the main substance was perfectly clear and deliriously enthralling to the concealed hearer. That very night the secret despatch in Madame de Pompadour’s handwriting, which the Court had tried to win by murder, was to be stolen from the escritoire in which it still reposed, and in which the King’s sudden illness and the ignorance of its existence by all save Madame herself and André had permitted it to stay. Onslow apparently had wormed out the fact of its existence; the woman now informed him of its hiding-place, and together they planned for its theft, that it might be used by the English Government to blast and ruin the King, with whom that Government was still at war. It would also ruin the Jacobites, which was not less important in English eyes. That it would ruin Madame de Pompadour neither Onslow nor the woman seemed to consider nor care about. Why should they? What were Madame and the hatred of a court to the English or they to her?
But André also learned many other things that were as interesting. It was George Onslow who had informed the anti-Pompadour party of the errand which had led to the attack on André himself. And André gathered that it was with the help of some one at Versailles whose name was not mentioned, for he was always spoken of as “Lui,” that the theft was to be executed. A double-edged business, in fact, this plot. The stolen despatch would do the work of the English Government, but it would also do the work of the Court. When its contents were made public Madame would be ruined automatically. Hence the connivance of “Lui” and his friends in the scheme.
The completeness of their information, the cold-blooded way in which they arranged to a nicety the smallest detail, appalled André. They both knew exactly where Madame was lodged, how to get there, and how to escape, of every fact concerned with the King’s illness and of Madame’s certain flight, on which the success of the plot hung. Who exactly was to be the thief he could not make out; that apparently had already been arranged, but George Onslow was to be at the palace, and he was then to make his way to this inn, whence he and his accomplice were to vanish their own way into the friendly slums of Paris, that would shelter every crime committed against itself and France.
“And the Chevalier?” Onslow had asked.
The woman replied in a low voice: “Have as little to do with the Chevalier as possible. He is not to be trusted in this business. He is no friend of mine and no friend of yours. But,” she paused, “he is far too much a friend of De Nérac.”
At the mention of his own name André almost betrayed his presence, because the warning drew from Onslow a deep “Ah!” and a look of undying hatred, jealousy, and fear. But what had thrilled him quite as much as the look and speech itself was the suppressed emotion in the speaker’s voice. He had only heard a woman speak like that once in his life, when he and Denise had parted at the foot of the Pompadour’s stairs an hour or two ago and he had refused to let her save him.
“Take care of De Nérac,” the woman added slowly, “he ruined you once, and if he can he will ruin you again. De Nérac is the only man who has beaten me. Nor am I the only woman who has found that out to her cost.”
Onslow thrust out his hand. “What does that say?” he demanded with a curious mixture of bravado, curiosity, and fear.
She studied the lines carefully. “Before long you and he will meet,” she answered, “and only one will survive: which,” she paused, “rests with God.”
André found his sword coming slowly out of its sheath. Pah! Let the traitor wait. The woman was right. Onslow must first do his night’s work, and then—and then—ah!
Onslow, too, had said nothing, but his face was eloquent of his resolve. She let him kiss her fingers, even let them linger in his, and her look promised much more of reward when the task had been successfully accomplished. The spy left the room with the air André might have done, the air of a man who was daring all things, hoping all things, for a woman’s sake. Bitter as André felt towards this cold-blooded traitress, he wished so fair a woman had not looked at that sensual sleuth-hound like that.
Once alone the girl stood thoughtfully gazing into space, and presently with a shiver wiped her fingers. André, lost in his thoughts, missed the refined scorn with which she flung the handkerchief she had used on to the burning logs, as if it was soiled. Then she sat down in front of the fire, rested her chin on her hands, and mused. A faint but long-drawn sigh floated up to the blackened rafters. André started. Where was he? Lying, surely, in the damp grass on the rim of that grisly wood at Fontenoy, staring up at a window in a charcoal-burner’s cabin, which had been stealthily opened. For just such a sigh had greeted him on that night, a sigh from a weary woman’s heart.
And with an exultant throb in his blood he felt that at last he was in the presence of “No. 101.” The riddle was solved at last.
The woman stretched her arms as if in pain,—the gesture was strangely familiar,—rose with decision, and glided from the room.
André waited a few minutes before he cautiously made his escape. All his doubts were gone. His suspicions of the Chevalier had been dispelled by the traitorous pair; if Yvonne was an accomplice it mattered not; he saw what must be done. One more great stroke and the game which he had been fighting for so long would be his. Yes. He would save Madame de Pompadour, take vengeance on his foes, and win Denise. Not least, the man who had saved an army of France at Fontenoy would reveal the secret and destroy the traitor who had baffled all and betrayed the destinies of his race.
And it was with the scheme planned out to a nicety that he burst into Madame de Pompadour’s salon.
The Watteau-like shepherdesses of the clock on the mantelpiece in the salon of Madame de Pompadour chimed out eleven tinkling strokes into the darkness—how few of us who have stood to-day in that dismantled room have succeeded in hearing even the echoes of what those bare walls could tell of the true history of France, the history that can never be unearthed by the École des Chartes. Just as the chimes died away André climbed noiselessly up the secret stair, and crouched with drawn sword and pistol cocked behind the curtain, a corner of which he pulled back far enough to give a clear glimpse into the room. It was the third time since Madame had fled that he had, thief-like, lurked in that hiding-place, and, as before, all was ghastly still. Two or three of Madame’s servants had followed her flight; the rest, he was aware, had proclaimed their allegiance to the Court. The powerful favourite who had dismissed a minister was ruined, and none now more noisily swore to their hatred of her than the men and women who had thronged her toilette or taken her pay.
In the dim light André could make out the half-packed trunks, the litter of disorder, so eloquent of their owner’s disgrace. How were the mighty fallen. Here indeed was a truer text for priest and preacher than the sins of the woman who had not been the first to grace these silent apartments, an accomplice in the passions of a King of France. The air to-night was thick with ghostly memories of other women, not less fair and frail, to whose inheritance of soiled supremacy the Marquise de Pompadour had succeeded. And there, gleaming in a faint ray, shone the escritoire which contained the despatch. To complete her mastery of the master of France, Madame had written it with her own hand—had, by doing so, her enemies hoped, signed her own death-warrant. The King’s secret. Little did André know, as he waited, that the true story of Louis’s incredible and persistent determination to pursue his own tortuous policy, to revel in thwarting and intriguing against his own ministers—at once a disease, a passion, and a pastime in that enigma of kings—was in all its labyrinthine details reserved to be the discovery of a noble a century hence, and to be read in a Republican France, a France that had done with kings, that made Versailles a public picture gallery, a France that had seen the victorious legions of Germany offer an imperial crown to the descendant of the parvenu Prussian ally of Louis in the Fontenoy campaign in yonder Galerie des Glaces of the Roi Soleil.
André shivered. He was thinking only of “No. 101.” Could that girl of his own race, if ever woman was, really be the traitor? And if she was, by what temptation of the devil had she embarked on her awful career? To-night she would be a prisoner; she was doomed to die, but would they ever know her secret—the real secret of “No. 101”? Punish her they could, but the secret, the real secret, was beyond their power. André clenched his hands. She would baffle them after all. It was the secret that fascinated him, and that was surely destined to perish with her in a felon’s grave. “No. 101” would be like the man in the iron mask—unknown and unknowable—a perpetual puzzle to the generations to come. Torturing thought.
A mouse squeaked across the floor, the boards creaked. André recalled with a curious thrill the grisly warning that all who had ever seen the face of “No. 101” had perished. He recalled the death of Captain Statham, of others. Was he, after all, to share the same fate? In this deathly quiet he felt his blood go cold, his courage ooze and ebb. A longing to crawl away began to master him.
Brave man though he was, he would have obeyed it, when a rustle on the public stairs brought him with a swift spring to his feet. For that was the rustle of a woman’s skirt. The door was opening. The rustle again, and a gleam of light from a lamp. A woman, by God! the thief was a woman. The woman!
Yes. The girl at the inn surely, for this was a tall young woman who walked straight forward to the escritoire, a thief who knew no fear, calmly determined to do her business without flinching. André wavered as he had in the charcoal-burner’s cabin. Should he arrest her there and then or wait? Yes, no? Yes, wait. She must be caught red-handed in the act that he might win his love.
Suddenly the lingering echo of a trumpet floated up into the darkness from the Cour des Princes. André started. Again that silvery note. The trumpets—the silver trumpets—of the Chevau-légers de la Garde! Was he dreaming? Was he at Fontenoy? No, no. The King’s escort, ha! the King had returned. The great coup had succeeded. The game was his just as he had planned. Fortune, superbly beneficent, had given him all. And then he clutched at the curtain, sick, faint, gasping. For at the second trumpet note the woman had turned to listen, the light fell on her face—Denise! The thief was Denise!
Denise! yes, it was Denise!
The sweat dripped off André’s face in the agony of that moment. His fingers, his brain, his body, had turned numb. Think, he could not. He was only conscious of one thought, that burned red-hot. Fortune, superbly maleficent, had kept her most devilish revenge and punishment to the last. Denise must be ruined by the man who loved her, for Louis, persuaded to return by Madame de Pompadour at the instigation of the Vicomte de Nérac, would be in this room in a few minutes. This, and not the successful theft of the despatch, was the vengeance of “No. 101.”
Fascinated by fear, André, tongue-tied, watched Denise go straight up to the escritoire, insert a key, open the drawer. And then love swept his horror away, unloosed the paralysis that held him a prisoner, and told him what to do. Denise could yet be saved by instant flight. True, his scheme had failed; the wrath of Madame de Pompadour and the King whom she had deceived would fall on him; Madame would herself probably be ruined. What did it matter, so that he rescued Denise from the awful peril, the wiles which “No. 101” had with such fiendish completeness laid for her? For that it was “No. 101’s” diabolical plan he had no doubt now. Yvonne had gulled and betrayed him, as from the first.
But just as he wrenched the curtain aside and sprang into the room with cry of “Denise!” she had tottered back with a low exclamation of horror.
The candle fell from her hand. In the darkness he heard her sob. “Gone,” she muttered feebly. “Gone!”
“Quick, the King is coming! For God’s sake, fly. There is the key—the secret staircase. I will—can—explain later.”
He hurried her towards the doorway with a terrible yet tender energy of love.
“André,” she cried, “André, it is gone.”
“Oh, fly; fly, for God’s sake!”
“But it is gone—the secret despatch; it is not there—stolen!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. She was sobbing on his shoulder with fear and horror.
The words acted like a galvanic shock. Gone—stolen already! This was more—much more—than he had dreamed of. The full meaning of the situation was revealed and it stunned him into action. In a second he had the candle alight, and, mastering the faintness that gripped him, dashed at the escritoire. It was perfectly empty. The secret despatch was not in it. Another thief had already secured it—“No. 101”! He put the candle very slowly down on the table and turned to Denise, who was standing in the middle of the room white to the lips.
André laughed, as men will laugh when tears and passion are futile. That laugh at his own outwitting by a girl and her English accomplice rang through the room. The traitors had been before him. The secret despatch was already in the hands of the King’s enemies, of Madame de Pompadour’s enemies, of his. He and she were ruined. Nothing could save them now. In a few hours the English Government could publish the truth, the Court could proclaim Madame by the evidence of her own hand an intriguer against the King, and Denise and he would be found here in the darkness with an empty escritoire by Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour, to whom its contents were a matter of life and death. Hopeless to struggle now. Love had inspired a plan, but fate was stronger than love. Madame de Pompadour must come, and hear what had happened, from his lips. He had ruined her, ruined himself, ruined Denise. Louis alone could lie. Louis by a lie alone would escape. André had matched himself, in his pride, against “No. 101,” a girl, and this was the result.
“They told me,” Denise began, “it was here. We threw with dice as to who should find it. We were determined to punish and destroy Madame de Pompadour. I took my chance, and——”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted impatiently, for he had already divined Denise’s motives.
“To save you before,” Denise went on, “I let her escape and sinned against my conscience, for that woman polluted Versailles, your life and mine. I owed reparation; this was to be my reparation. You were ruined, André, dismissed, disgraced. I cared no longer for life—for anything. You I could not save, but her I could punish, for she had broken my heart and shattered your career in her selfishness. That is why I came—willingly, gladly. It was a duty to my cause—to myself.”
André knew nothing of the scheme of Mont Rouge, of the loaded dice whereby the love of a wicked woman, the Comtesse des Forges, turned to hatred, and a defeated rival’s vengeance, had foisted on Denise the task of braving alone the perils and the disgrace and of completing the plot of the Court; but what he did know showed him that the Court, too, like himself, had been the victims of the man and the woman he had spied on at the inn. But, unlike himself, the Court would gain its vengeance.
“I performed a duty,” Denise was saying, “and instead, André, I have ruined you. Your enemies have stolen the despatch.”
Voices at the foot of the stairs. No time for explanation now. But, thank God! Denise did not know the truth nor of Madame de Pompadour’s and the King’s return. One glance at the agony in her face, the agony of a woman who loved, and André was again inspired to a noble decision.
“You are mistaken,” he said with perfect calmness. “I was here to watch, I confess, in the interests of His Majesty; we had hoped to catch quite another person, but it is you, Denise, whom my foes have lured into the trap—our trap. I ask you for my sake to leave me to explain all to Madame. Sweetheart”—he was pleading now as he had never pleaded to any woman before—“sweetheart, do not inflict on me the pain of giving you into the hands of Madame. You will not; you cannot do it.”
The glorious lie, aided by the power of his love over her, prevailed. Denise took his key, and just in time André had drawn the curtain when Madame de Pompadour flung the door open. Face and figure were all aglow with the triumphant victory she had won. She had returned to place her heel on the necks of the defeated, to drink the cup of vengeance to the dregs.
André very quietly kissed her hands and removed her cloak. The peace and happiness in his eyes, his self-sacrifice had already brought him, showed that love had by its own divine alchemy created for him a new heaven and a new earth. He could face the future with a tranquil confidence and bliss that surprised himself.
“Mon cher,” Madame cried, “I—no, you—have won. The King is mine. I shall never lose him now.” Her eyes ran over the room—fell on the open escritoire. “Well, you have the traitor?”
“What? They did not dare?” She laughed. “No matter. The King is mine.”
“The paper has been stolen,” he said quietly, “and the thief has escaped.”
Madame put her hand on her breast, tottered back a step or two. Her radiant eyes grew cold. Incredulity and fear made her an old woman. “Stolen? escaped? Do you mean——?”
“They fooled me. The hour was midnight, as I told you. I have been here three times waiting; the thief never came, but the paper is gone.”
The meaning of his words trickled into her mind. With a cry of rage she sprang at the escritoire and turned it upside down. Then she hurled it into the centre of the room, and wheeled on André. “Ah, misérable, coquin, lâche!” the hot, incoherent words tumbled over each other. “You have failed. It is me you have fooled, betrayed. Ah, traitor, you are my foe; gone, Seigneur Jésu, gone! Stolen; then I am ruined; ruined; after all I have done.” She burst into tears, racked by rage, terror, despair.
“I am no traitor.”
“Bah! I have done with you.” She paced up and down. “Ah! that accursed ‘No. 101,’ accursed; what can I do? Ruined, ruined!” she sank into a chair with a low moan.
André watched the candle-light flicker on her hair and breast, on the shimmering folds of the beautiful dress she had so unerringly selected to aid in reconquering Louis. But a woman’s beauty, genius, and passion, and ambition had fought in vain, for “No. 101” was stronger than all of these.
Suddenly she rose with an exclamation of vindictive and unholy exultation. She had picked a jewelled pendant from the floor. “Ha!” she cried, “here is proof of the thief you could not catch. Mademoiselle Denise has been here; that jewel is hers and it fell by the escritoire table; it is not ‘No. 101’ who has stolen the despatch, it is the Marquise de Beau Séjour.”
André had turned deadly pale. He stared in impotent silence. Yes, the jewel was Denise’s; on the back he knew was a fatal D. And it was a pendant that he himself, in a thrice happy hour, had given her.
“The King’s honour,” Madame said in her cruelly cold voice, “is at stake in that despatch. And he will not spare the thief even if she were of the blood-royal. Nor will I. This is proof enough for me; I promise you it will also be proof enough for His Majesty. I have here a lettre de cachet which the King gave me, already signed. But the name is not filled in. That was to be done to-night with the thief’s name. And filled in I swear it shall be. For unless the secret despatch is in my hands by to-morrow morning at ten o’clock the Marquise de Beau Séjour shall go to the Bastille.”
“You cannot deceive me. You are shielding her. It is in your face. She is the thief. I repeat, to-morrow at ten—not one minute longer, and had it not been for our friendship I would have sent her there to-night.”
André was still silent, striving to think, be calm. If Denise were questioned she was ruined. Denise could not tell a lie. Nor could she save her lover now by a lie. “You can settle it,” Madame went on in her icy anger, “with Mademoiselle. I care not how or for what she gives way. Lovers’ confessions can be sweet, they say. But my life, my honour, my future, my dreams, my all, are at stake. Think you I will allow a girl, a noble, a woman who has insulted me, conspired against me, a thief of state secrets, to defeat me—me! Then you do not know the woman Antoinette de Pompadour.”
And André confessed to himself that till that moment he did not.
“Madame,” he said very quietly, “the Marquise de Beau Séjour has not got the despatch, nor did she steal it. However, I do not choose to discuss that now. I shall return to this room at ten o’clock to-morrow. But if I have the despatch by then I do not promise to give it back to you.” Madame had turned her back on him; she wheeled in a flash. “That will depend on some other things. But,” he bowed, “if the Marquise de Pompadour imagines that she can call gentlemen cowards and scoundrels with impunity, or that she can so easily ruin the Marquise de Beau Séjour, she does not know me—me, the man André de Nérac.”
And there he left her stunned into a fearful silence. He was about to pass, he was aware, a night of despairing, futile search, but it would not be such a prolonged agony of torture as this woman, amidst the litter of her humiliation, would endure. One last chance remained. The girl he called “No. 101” and George Onslow had arranged to meet at midnight at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.” That agreement might not prove as false as other things he had overheard and been tricked into believing. If they were there they would not leave the inn alive, for André, too, had begun to divine the full meaning of this hellish plot. His enemies at Court had planned with the English traitors that they might ruin him and Denise likewise. To-morrow he would reckon with the Duc de Pontchartrain, the Comte de Mont Rouge, and the Comtesse des Forges, as well as with Madame de Pompadour, but to-night he had an account to settle with “No. 101,” with George Onslow, with the Chevalier de St. Amant, with Yvonne.
Only pausing to scribble a couple of orders, which went off to Paris by mounted couriers, warned that their royal master would brook of no delay, he gathered a dozen of his guards and spurred his way to “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.” And as he galloped he knew that in a couple of hours the police of Paris would be sweeping every slum, ransacking every cabaret and tavern, hunting down every suspect, and bribing for information every fille de joie from the Faubourg St. Antoine to the Faubourg St. Germain, from the Barrier of the Hôpital St. Louis to the Barriers of Les Gobelins, and the Palais Bourbon. And it was Denise that he must save. Love—not the sham idol of gallantry—but love can do things that neither the fear of death nor of hell can.
The inn was plunged in darkness. Not a light to be spied anywhere. André set his guards around it and began to explore systematically. The outhouses were empty save for Yvonne’s sleek cow contentedly chewing the cud. Not a soul to be seen. Torch in hand he strode into the parlour where he had been so successfully befoiled. There were the chairs, the screen, the tables.
Ha! on the centre table a piece of paper quite large. No writing on it, but instead a mocking sign, two crossed daggers roughly drawn in red and the mystic number:
Blood, human blood! Blood still fresh and scarcely dried. They had been here, the traitors; they had not left long, for blood does not take long to dry, and they had determined to flout their dupe with this ghastly mummery. To Paris! to Paris! They could still be caught before the October dawn was reddening the roofs of the Conciergerie and the battlements of the Bastille.
André wheeled with a hoarse command, and then something, what he could not say, a swift intuition or feeling, arrested him as he left the room. He hurled the screen aside. Ah! Ah! A cry of horror broke from him.
A man was lying behind it, face downwards, his blood staining the mouse-gnawed boards. The man was the Chevalier de St. Amant.
André saw in a moment from the Chevalier’s position as he lay face downwards on the bare boards what had happened. The unhappy boy had been stabbed from behind; and he bore plain signs of having been searched after he had been stabbed, for his clothes were rumpled, his boots wrenched off, his stockings ripped up, his shirt torn open. The searcher had then calmly left him to bleed to death. Had the Chevalier been the robber of the escritoire? If so had the secret despatch been taken from him and the second thief escaped with it? Who could say?
André kneeled down and gently lifted the prostrate body on to the sofa.
“Go, two of you, at once to Versailles,” he cried to his men, “and bring a doctor. Ride for your lives.”
He returned to the couch, but as he did so his boot kicked against something that jingled. An English guinea! George Onslow had been here, then. André recognised with the intuition that is stronger than proof that Onslow was the second thief, as well as the man who had stabbed the Chevalier in the back.
The Chevalier was not dead! A low moan from the couch had echoed through the room, and André poured brandy down his throat, stanched the wound, and waited with feverish passion, for the Chevalier’s lips were moving. His eyes opened—he saw who it was at his side.
“Marie,” came the faint words, “Marie—the Carrefour”—his head fell back.
André waited, overwhelmed by a wave of passion, repentance, remorse. The Chevalier was no foe—he was trying to tell him something, something of vital importance to both of them; would he have the strength to do it? Denise’s and his own fate hung on that.
“Marie,” trickled the feeble words, “Carrefour de St. Antoine No. 3—” again he swooned, but André had learned almost enough. It was time to leave him, cruel as it seemed, for every half-hour now would be precious.
“Marie—paper—save her—Onslow,” the Chevalier was making a great effort; André guessed the rest. But the Chevalier’s hand moved pleadingly. He was asking for a promise—“save her,” he repeated and his lips ceased to move.
André took the young man’s hand. He scarcely knew what he was saying, he knew not who Marie was, but in the presence of death, death inflicted by that dastard stab in the back, a man who was inspired by love might well feel a great pity, the desire to forgive and atone.
“I promise,” he whispered. “I promise.”
Moved by the beautiful peace that those two words brought into the young man’s face, André kneeled beside him. No doctor could save the Chevalier de St. Amant now, but he, too, had loved Denise; he, too, had charged by the side of the Chevau-légers de la Garde at Fontenoy. And him at least an assassin’s dagger had delivered from the justice of the King of France and of Madame de Pompadour.
Sceptic as he was, André whispered a brief prayer, and, as Denise would have wished him to do, reverently made the sign of the Cross, commending his soul to the God whose eyes are upon the truth, and whose mercy is infinite.
As he stepped outside, into that clearing where Yvonne had saved his own life, a sharp altercation apparently in the outhouses at the back sent him hurrying thither.
“Curse you, let me go, scum!” were the words he heard, followed by a sharp scuffle.
“Good-evening, Monsieur le Comte,” André said, with icy sarcasm, “but the scum will not let you go.”
Mont Rouge’s livid face paled at his rival’s voice. De Nérac least of all men had he expected to discover at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.”
“You will keep Monsieur le Comte de Mont Rouge a prisoner,” André commanded the guards who had caught the Count, “until I return, and you will answer with your heads for his safety.”
“By what right—” Mont Rouge began, savagely.
“That, Monsieur le Comte,” André interrupted, politely, “you will learn when it suits me. But to-morrow His Majesty will require to know by what right an exiled gentleman is still at Versailles,” he paused, “and why a noble of France trades under the title of ‘Lui’ with traitors in the pay of the English Government.”
It was a bold thrust, but it went home. The mingled fear and rage in Mont Rouge’s cynical eyes revealed the correctness of André’s guess.
“His Majesty,” André continued, “you will be interested to know, has returned to Versailles to take summary vengeance on all traitors.”
And as he galloped away he knew that Mont Rouge was unaware of Louis’s unexpected return. That Mont Rouge was at the inn at all showed that Onslow and his accomplice had been expected to share the results of their theft with the noble conspirators against Madame de Pompadour.
No. 3 in the deserted Carrefour de St. Antoine was the house where Onslow had made love before, and in that very room, with its barred shutters and tightly drawn curtains, with its thick carpets into which the foot noiselessly sank, and its blazing candles, the woman whom André had spied on at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold” now sat calmly destroying papers. Every now and then she stopped to listen attentively; twice at least she opened the door and peered out, but there was no one, and she placidly resumed her task.
When all the papers were destroyed she surveyed herself in the glass and smiled sadly. To-night her jewels and her patrician virginal beauty gave her no pleasure, yet she was dressed with consummate taste and infinite care, as though she were going to a ball in the Galerie des Glaces.
The clock struck half-past two. She moved behind the curtains and unbarred the shutters, carefully pinning them back, thus leaving the balcony not more than ten feet up from the street quite clear. Then she blew out all the candles but two and waited patiently.
Ten minutes passed. This time when she rose she carefully locked both side doors leading off the salon, and when she returned from the passage she was accompanied by Onslow. Unobserved, she locked that door, too. There was no exit now from the room save by the balcony.
Onslow’s sleuth-hound features wore a careworn look, the look of the hunted man; his cloak and boots were splashed with mud; he was breathing quickly, for he had ridden hard.
“I was expecting you,” she surprised him by saying quietly. “Why did you not bring the Chevalier with you?”
“The Chevalier was obliged to stay at the inn,” was the grim reply. “You forget ‘Lui,’” he added hastily, for her penetrating eyes were searching his face. “Some one had to deal with the fool, and,” with a laugh, “he will be astonished, will be ‘Lui.’”
“He will,” she said with such emphasis that Onslow gave a guilty start. “‘Lui’ I expect at this moment is in the hands of your friend and mine, the Vicomte de Nérac.”
The oath that came from Onslow’s lips as he whipped out a pistol, the look that accompanied it, were more eloquent than an hour’s speech.
“De Nérac, I warned you, was an abler head than yours, my friend; he was concealed in the room when you and I arranged our little plan.”
“What?” Onslow sat down in consternation.
“It is as I say. Yvonne, the wench, was his accomplice. She fooled you, that peasant girl; that is why our programme was so suddenly altered.”
She walked away with her swinging, graceful carriage of head and body. Had Onslow seen her eyes at that moment it would not have relieved the fears that haunted his face. But when she turned again she was smiling seductively.
“You want the paper,” she said. “Here it is. I keep my word, you see.” She quietly handed him the secret despatch and he pounced on it as a hungry vulture pounces on carrion.
“But how did you get it?” he demanded.
“I was at the Palace when the Chevalier stole it. Stealing it was not an easy task, for the Vicomte de Nérac was on the watch, but when I had got it I came straight here. The Chevalier went back to the inn. It would have been better,” she added carelessly, watching him closely, “if he, too, had come here.”
The girl stooped and fastened her shoe, for she knew that she could not always control her eyes. The shoe fastened she was smiling again at Onslow’s trembling fingers.
“There is blood upon your boot,” she remarked pleasantly, “you have been stepping in blood. Whose, I wonder?” She moved towards the curtain, and listened attentively, while she affected to pull the string.
“So De Nérac knew of the plan?” Onslow growled out. “That explains a good deal, but not all.”
“You are right. If De Nérac meets the Chevalier at the inn he may know more,” was the calm response. She had begun to take off her jewels and was packing them one by one into a leather case.
“What do you mean?”
“This. The game is up for you, my friend, and for me. There will be no more richly paid treachery for some time in our lives. The Chevalier loves me, loves me as his own soul. To save me he will probably betray what De Nérac does not already know——”
Onslow had risen. He buttoned up his coat over the despatch, while his eyes glowed with the unholy lust that was corroding his mind and body.
“And,” she continued, “the Chevalier knows that I love him, love him more dearly than any man. I shall be grateful to his love if it saves him and saves me, as I think it will. But it cannot save you, I fear.”
“Ah!” his breath came quick. His eyes went round and round like those of a beast tracked by dogs to its lair.
“Yes, I hope he will confess all.” She faced him. “I tell you now that he went to the inn to confess all—all.”
“Then,” Onslow answered in a thick voice of brutal exultation, “he will not do it. He is dead, your Chevalier, your lover—dead.”
She suppressed the cry of horror, of agony, that was wrung from her. But her great blue eyes fixed on him. “You killed him?” she asked in a whisper.
She sank into a chair and covered her face with her hands. She was not crying. This was a sorrow too deep for tears.
Suddenly Onslow darted forward. The girl, too, sprang up. A horse’s hoofs, several horses’ hoofs, clattering furiously on the stones of the deserted Carrefour could be heard distinctly for those who had ears to hear.
“Miserable libertine!” she cried, in a terrible voice, “assassin! Your hour has come as I told you it would. You will not leave this house alive, and I am glad, very glad. Stand back!” she said peremptorily, and she had whipped out a pistol. “The doors are locked, all of them. Dear God! I could slay you with my own hands, but it is not necessary.”
She had swiftly stolen behind the curtains. There was a moment’s pause while Onslow in vain tried to force the door by which he had entered. There was a crash, a wrench, and then the curtains were drawn back.
“Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac—Monsieur George Onslow,” the girl said quietly, as if she were introducing two gentlemen in a lady’s salon. She had flung the window open and André, sword in hand, was standing in the room, looking about him half dazed but triumphant.
“That man there,” she proceeded in her tearless voice, pointing at Onslow, “is an English spy. In his pocket is the secret despatch of Madame de Pompadour which you seek. He is the assassin, by his own confession, of the Chevalier de St. Amant, and he has also a valuable letter in the handwriting of the Comte de Mont Rouge. Monsieur le Vicomte, you will deal with him as and how you please, but if you have any pity for the blood of the man who sent you to this place you will have no mercy for a coward, a libertine, and an assassin. Adieu!”
She had swiftly unlocked one of the side doors, glided through it, and relocked it from the other side, leaving Onslow and André face to face.
Onslow had the advantage of André in his intimate knowledge of the essential facts of the situation; and he had not been for ten years an agent of the secret service, in daily peril of his life, in hourly need of having to decide at once on a course of action, without learning all that an able and desperate man can learn from pitting his wits against the wits of men and women as unscrupulous and desperate as himself.
“Good-evening, Vicomte,” he now said, bowing politely. “I could not have wished for a more opportune meeting. As a proof, there are my pistols,” he tossed them ostentatiously on to the table.
André drew the curtains behind him, threw off his cloak, and advanced into the centre of the room.
“You killed the Chevalier?” he demanded briefly.
“Certainly. Shall I tell you why? Because he had betrayed me; because, rather, he was the lover of the woman who betrayed me. That woman is the ‘No. 101’ you have sought for so long, who has baffled you before and has baffled you again to-night. She is a liar as well as a wanton.”
André quietly shrugged his shoulders.
“Let us come to business,” Onslow said coolly. “The secret despatch, I regret to say, is not in my possession. It would have been in ten minutes, but it is still in the keeping of the charming spy, who is probably now on her way to the frontier. Madame de Pompadour will hear more of it before long, but that does not concern you. What does,” he held out a paper, “is this letter in the handwriting of the Comte de Mont Rouge.”
Onslow’s tone had the calmness of conviction, and if he spoke the truth André knew he had failed miserably. It was more than probable that “No. 101” had again baffled him. For the despatch was more important to her than to Onslow.
“Well?” André said, to gain time for his mind to work.
“If you have this letter, Vicomte, you can ruin your enemies to-morrow. Let me tell you that Mademoiselle Denise was by loaded dice, the device of another beautiful wanton and her accomplice, the writer of this letter,” he held it out, “yes, Mademoiselle Denise was chosen to steal the despatch in order that she, as well as you, might be destroyed. I see you did not know that. It is worth having, that letter.”
Onslow recognised at once he had struck the right chord. André’s face would have terrified the Comtesse des Forges, and it surprised himself as he caught a glimpse of it in the glass. Men in the white heat of wrath and baffled revenge so seldom see what their faces express.
“You can kill me, of course,” Onslow went on easily. “I am an English spy. But you will not get the letter nor the despatch in that way. Why? Because I haven’t the one, and before you can run me through the letter will be in the fire.”
“Stop!” André commanded, for Onslow was very near the stove and the letter was very precious.
“For five minutes only,” Onslow retorted. “Give me your word of honour that you will let me go free and you shall have the letter—or I destroy it and fight for my life as best I can. Make up your mind, Vicomte.”
The clock ticked very loud and clear while André weighed the issues. The letter was precious; it was there, which the despatch was not; time was more precious still, for there remained “No. 101” to be dealt with. Onslow’s life was of no value to Denise or himself. André studied the secret agent’s calm face for three silent minutes.
“Give me the letter,” he said at last, “you shall go free, on my word of honour.”
“I thank you. But you have decided wisely.” Onslow placed the letter on the table. “And now,” he buttoned up his cloak, “kindly write me a pass, for I must leave your accursed city before dawn.”
“The password at the Barrier of the Hospital of St. Louis is, ‘La santé du Roi,’” André answered. “That will take you through in safety.”
Onslow bowed. “My compliments, Vicomte; your precautions devised at such short notice do you infinite credit. I fancy we shall meet again, but not in the salon of ‘the Princess’ either in Paris or London.”
André had moved towards the writing-table. “I had better write you a pass after all,” he said, very politely, “the police are not so scrupulous as I am about a pledge of honour.”
Onslow fell into the trap. Like many clever men who find a lie succeed beyond their expectations, he wholly misunderstood the motives that had persuaded the other to accept for truth what he feared was untrue. André had turned his back to write, but he had hardly scrawled three words when he wheeled with incredible swiftness.
“No!” he cried, “you don’t stab two men in the back unawares in one night, traitor and spy.”
For that was what Onslow had, dagger in hand, stealthily crept up to do, inspired by the sight of André’s apparently defenceless position at the writing-table and by the desire to wipe out a long score. But a chair hurled with terrible force met him full in the stomach, and when he had recovered he was facing the sword point of the finest swordsman in Paris. He had lost his pistols, and the death his lies had averted so skilfully was at hand.
“I will tell you where you can find the secret despatch,” the spy pleaded, “if you will let me go.”
“I am not going to kill you,” André answered. “A De Nérac’s sword is not to be soiled with the carrion blood of an English hireling and assassin. The public executioner will deal with you, not I.”
He whistled sharply. Three of the guards swung themselves in by the balcony.
“Disarm and bind that scoundrel,” was the brief order, and in three minutes a wounded prisoner had been securely tied hand and foot. Five minutes later George Onslow was on his way to a police cell, and André was standing alone in the beautiful salon, with the secret despatch and Mont Rouge’s damning letter in his possession.
He walked up and down trying to believe that his amazing good fortune was really true. The terrible strain of the last twelve hours had at last begun to tell, and, instead of the triumphant joy that he had imagined would be his should he achieve the impossible and recover the despatch, he was only conscious of complete mental and physical exhaustion, of a strange and utter weariness. The power of his mind seemed broken. His ambition had melted away. He had no doubt saved Madame de Pompadour, the King’s secret would remain a secret, and Denise would emerge scathless from the awful ordeal into which she had been plunged. The love for which he had plotted, schemed, and worked would be his now. Yes, he had gained all of which ambition had inspired him to dream, more than all, for he had only to put into Madame de Pompadour’s hands that guilty letter, and the men and women who had dabbled in treason to sate their jealousy and their lust for vengeance would be condemned to pass from the Salon de Vénus and the Œil de Bœuf to the scaffold.
Success! a Croix de St. Louis, a Cordon Bleu already! To-morrow he might be Minister for War, in the years to come he might share with the bourgeoise mistress of his Sovereign the rule of France. But at what a cost? As Madame de Pompadour had done and must always do, by sleepless intrigue and scheming, by playing on the fears and fancies, the bigotry and animal passions of the King, by checkmating or degrading the noblesse into an odious and reluctant submission. He had won power so far by such ways. It could only be kept at Versailles by the same hateful, sordid scuffling, and he, the man, must daily train himself to keep his place by trading on the weakness of women, from the kitchen wenches to the mistress of the robes, by trafficking in the selfish plans of gamblers as ambitious and unscrupulous as himself. Versailles was there, the King was there; Louis was what he would always be, an impenetrable sensualist and the despot of France. More bitter still, the life of the Court as he and she knew it was what he must ask Denise now to share and to lead. The first offering of their marriage feast would be the disgrace, perhaps the blood, of the men of his own order who had been his friends, by whose side he had fought for France, and of the women to whom—. Bah! it was a revolting thought. Little, indeed, had he foreseen when he rode down the hill from the Castle of Beau Séjour, and swore that at all costs and by all means he would win Denise, what success might and did mean. Well, ah well! he had learned it at last.
Ah! in this bitter hour, if it had not been for Denise, he would have flung despatch and letter into the fire, and left Paris to cast its mystic spell of tears and laughter on other men, and let him go free, deaf to the siren song of the ambitions born of their mother, the enchantress of cities.
Success! Yet had he succeeded after all? Surely not. “No. 101” had escaped. Futile to seek her now. Her papers had been destroyed. She was doubtless provided with a pass. Proof against her there was none. And the mystery with which his search had begun was as great as it had ever been. Yvonne had vanished, the Chevalier de St. Amant was dead, and the woman herself had passed triumphantly into the moonlit autumn night. How strange and puzzling it all was. Yet, had not indeed the Chevalier put him on the track, had she herself not delivered that assassin and spy into his power? In a few days not even Onslow—and who would believe Onslow?—would be able to reveal what he knew. The secret whose fascination lured men to their ruin would remain a secret, and the little he had discovered would be buried in the tombs of the De Néracs. This girl had matched herself against all the brains and resources of a great government and had defeated King, mistress, and ministers, not once, but every time. Worse, far worse, what she had done in the past she could repeat in the future. That eternal struggle for power at Versailles which was to be his and Denise’s life from to-day would be haunted and poisoned, perhaps thwarted and brought to ruin, by the same strange treachery. The blood of the Chevalier would taint the life of Denise and himself and of Madame de Pompadour and the King for ever.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed out four. André stopped his pacing. He must return to Versailles, but as he crossed the room he caught a glimpse of his haggard, sleepless face and burning eyes in the mirror, and he halted and with trembling fingers turned the clock sharply round. He had spied the reflection of a familiar crest on the reverse of the timepiece. “Dieu Le Vengeur!” He had not been wrong. The words were written round the crest. “Dieu Le Vengeur!”
André drew a deep breath, he looked all round the room with a shiver. What did it— A rustle of a woman’s dress. The great curtains were quickly drawn aside. The Princess, as he had seen her first in London with the blood-red flowers on her breast, was watching him, pale and beautiful.
“Why should the clock not be there?” she asked, as if she were continuing a conversation. “Are you so ignorant of Paris, Vicomte, as not to know that the salon in which you stand once belonged to the owners of the clock? It is a fine motto and truer than most. ‘Amour fait tout,’ for example.” She had smilingly selected the motto of the De Néracs. “You don’t agree?”
“I did not come here,” André answered, “to discuss mottoes.”
The appearance of this woman had awakened all his latent anger, his sense of defeat. She should not escape him again.
“No, but to do my business,” she retorted. “I see you have won your despatch and your letter”—they were lying on the table—“and I gladly infer that you have given a scoundrel his deserts. For that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. One libertine and traitor less in the world is a blessing even to women such as I am.”
Her perfect calm, the complete absence of fear, the extraordinary strangeness of their meeting, the crest and motto on the clock, had reduced André to impotent silence. The Princess and crystal-gazer quietly sat down. “One question before you go,” she said in a changed tone—“did Onslow tell the truth when he said that the Chevalier de St. Amant was dead?”
She stretched her arms,—the gesture was curiously familiar to André,—but she said nothing for some minutes. “It is fate,” was her comment in a tearless voice when she spoke at last. “Fate!” she rose, “fate, dear God!” She was staring with knitted fingers into the cold shadows cast by the four flickering candles. And André was more moved by the sight of her stern, impassive self-restraint than if she had wept. Surely she had loved the dead man, for he was in the company of a sorrow too sacred to be fathomed even by herself.
“Why did you come back,” he asked bitterly, “why did you come back?”
She awoke from her reverie. “Where could I go?” she answered. “To ‘The Cock with the Spurs of Gold’?” She shivered. “To ‘The Gallows and the Three Crows,’ where your police are now? To the Barriers that are guarded by your men? I had not the password. The man who would have given it to me, had I chose to ask it, I have sent to his account. No, my friend, I prefer to be arrested by a gentleman who will do his duty like a gentleman, and will not chaffer with me as if I were a street-walker.”
André wiped the perspiration from his brow. The woman smiled and approached him.
“Come, Vicomte,” she said. “It is disagreeable, perhaps, for André de Nérac to arrest a beautiful woman, but you have kept your men waiting quite long enough in the Carrefour out there. Onslow has gone to the Bastille? Yes? Then do me the favour of sending me to Vincennes. I cannot share the same prison as that miscreant murderer.” She walked towards the curtains. André guessed she was about to signal to the square.
“Stop,” he cried, in sharp despair, “stop!”
“You have no choice,” she said. “Are you aware that I have been tracked to this house; that it is known to your police, warned by yourself four hours ago, that I have not left it? Do you doubt my word? Then look.” She cautiously drew back a curtain on the panelled wall which covered a small window. André, with the curtain behind him shutting out the light, stared into the moonlit court at the back. When he let the curtain fall his face wore almost the look of the hunted felon.
“Well; you recognised them,” the Princess said calmly. “Four, I think. Yes? They are Madame de Pompadour’s men,” she added. “She does not trust you, poor woman; she, too, sent messages from Versailles, and she will wish to know in the morning the reason why you have not arrested the impudent hussy who derided her at an inn, who is a traitor into the bargain, and who was in your power, alone, undefended, and with the evidence of her guilt staring you in the face.” She quietly touched the despatch and the letter lying on the table. “Unless, my friend, you wish to join George Onslow, the Comte de Mont Rouge, and myself in the cells you had better do your duty.”
André feverishly took up the papers; he looked now towards the great window into the Carrefour, now towards that hateful little outlook into the court where he knew the sleuth-hounds of an ambitious woman dogged their guilty prey.
“It is useless to destroy the papers,” the Princess remarked placidly. “That will only send Mademoiselle de Beau Séjour to join our pleasant party at the Bastille. Madame de Pompadour is a great and beautiful woman, but like all really ambitious men and women she has no mercy, and she naturally does not wish to take our places in the cells. She is fighting for her life and love as you are. Come, Vicomte, be reasonable. In five minutes it will be all over and you will return a hero to Versailles. Remember what awaits you there.”
Every sentence in this calmly terrible speech made André feel more misery than he could have believed a man could endure.
“Why be in any doubt?” she began again.
“Oh, for God’s sake—” he pleaded. “For God’s sake——”
“No, you must hear me out. The proof of my treachery is here; they, these men, will find it on me”; she had drawn a paper from her breast. “Do you know what that is? It is a copy of the secret despatch; it is addressed to the agent who would convey it to England, and it is signed.”
She held it up and in the flickering light André could see the red mystic sign of the crossed daggers and the cipher number. He shivered as she replaced it in her bosom. “The game is up for me,” she said in her impassive voice. “That paper will send me to the scaffold, and unless you arrest me it will send you too.”
“You are mad,” he cried incoherently, and he really believed what he said. “You are mad.”
“Was the woman mad who tricked you at Fontenoy, who has tricked and befooled you at every turn since you came back? I have betrayed your country, your King, your army, yourself, and yet you, a noble hating treason, loving France, hesitate to arrest the traitress whom you have sworn to bring to justice. It is you who are mad, my friend, not I; or shall I say,” she had dropped her eyes and curtsied, “Monseigneur is too good?”
“Yvonne!” the exclamation burst from his lips. He was leaning heavily on a chair and peering dazed into her eyes.
“Yvonne, of course; Yvonne of the Spotless Ankles,” she lifted her dress a few inches. “Yvonne whom at the bidding of another woman you were to make your tool. Did you? I think not, for the Vicomte de Nérac can be more easily tricked by women into doing what they please than the most unscrupulous libertine in France. But you must take your revenge on Yvonne now.”
Yvonne! André’s brain reeled. Yvonne, who had saved his life, was a traitress, the traitress whose crimes merited condign punishment, whom now, by the devilish device of fate, he must arrest and send to a felon’s death to save himself and Denise.
He seized her arm. “Who and what are you?” he cried, beside himself, for the torture of the fascinating riddle racked him beyond endurance.
“That,” she replied with her slow smile, “is my secret and it will perish with me. Do your duty, Vicomte, and return to Versailles. Madame de Pompadour awaits you; the blood of the noblesse, her foes, will atone in her eyes. She has triumphed, and so have you. Go back to your King, take him the proof of his royal intrigues, destroy the noble traitors who would have destroyed you. Love and revenge, the sweetest things the world can give a man, are yours. Are they not enough?” She was coolly taunting him, and out there in the court-yard waited the police ready to arrest a traitress with the proof of her crime on her person. Was ever a man in so cruel and tragic a position?
“Why do you waver?” she asked very quietly. “Is it because of Denise?”
He met her gaze. This was not the crystal-gazer, nor the “Princess,” nor even Yvonne who spoke. It was another woman, from whom all that was hateful, cynical, insolent, had vanished. André’s hands on his chair trembled.
“Yes,” he answered, in a low voice, “were it not for Denise and Denise’s sake alone I would destroy these papers and would take you past the Barriers myself. You saved my life once, more than once, for you could have killed me in the cabin at Fontenoy; you and the Chevalier—God rest his soul—enabled me to save the honour of Denise—Denise.” He paused for emotion. “You have enabled me to save my own honour. Why you did these things I do not know. But I would to-night, and now, take you past the Barrier of St. Louis, and I would then bid Versailles and you adieu for ever. God alone can judge you, not I—but Denise—there is Denise——”
“Then Denise herself must decide.”
She was mad after all; stark mad. He stood helplessly picking at the embroidered upholstery of the chair. Mad, mad; they were all mad.
The woman had glided towards the door on the right. André looked up exultingly. Ha! She was gone—fled. Then he, too, must escape at once. He gathered up the papers, seized his cloak, and darted towards the window, only to start back with a cry.
On the threshold of the doorway stood Denise.
He stood spellbound. Yes, it was Denise.
She came forward with outstretched hands. “André,” she asked with passionate eagerness, “you are safe?”
He took her to his breast, looking into her eyes. “Sweetheart,” he whispered, “why are you here?”
“Because you sent for me,” she began innocently.
“Sent for you?” he repeated, in dull bewilderment. “Mad,” he muttered, “mad, mad.” His brain was beginning to break down.
“Yes,” she whispered, for his face frightened her, “you sent for me. See; read.”
André took the strip of paper from her. After a few minutes he was able to spell out these words:
“I am in great danger. You alone can save me. Come at once to Paris. Carrefour de St. Antoine No. 3.
The paper dropped. The writing was his, at least it appeared to be. Could he have written it? He searched his whirling thoughts, recalling the events of this awful night following on the King’s illness, the strain of waiting in Madame de Pompadour’s room after the scene at the inn, the discovery of Denise, the interviews that followed, the finding of the Chevalier and Mont Rouge, the gallop to Paris, and then all that had happened in this salon. He snatched at the paper again; he had not written it; no, it was a clever forgery, the work of the only woman who could do it—“No. 101.”
Denise was watching him in terror, for his lips moved, yet he said nothing.
“A girl called Yvonne,” she whispered, “brought it to me at midnight; she conducted me to this house, and I have been waiting here ever since, waiting for you. Yvonne has disappeared and the doors were all locked. There is only the woman who——”
They both turned sharply at the rustle of a dress and stood hand in hand gazing in silence, for there had entered the girl whom André had seen plotting with Onslow at “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold.”
André mechanically whipped off his hat, Denise mechanically answered the curtsey of the lady who had entered, for this was a gentlewoman of their own rank, whose beauty would have adorned the great hall in the Château de Beau Séjour.
“We agreed,” she began quietly, “that Mademoiselle la Marquise was to decide. Monsieur le Vicomte, what I have to say is for the ears of Mademoiselle alone. Permit me to show you where you can wait. I shall not keep you long.” She pointed with her fan to the door and then held out her fingers.
André walked out of the room like one in a dream. The door closed. The two women were alone.
“I can be brief,” the stranger said quietly. “You have heard of ‘No. 101’; you know of the stealing of the secret despatch. I am the thief. I am ‘No. 101.’”
Denise recoiled with a cry of horror, her eyes fixed on the girl’s face with an expression of indignant stupefaction.
“The Vicomte de Nérac,” the stranger proceeded, “knows what you know now, and he will return to Versailles a hero,” she paused, “if he will arrest me. He has the despatch; he has a letter which will convict the Comte de Mont Rouge, who, Mademoiselle, by loaded dice, sent you to be the thief of the Court. The Vicomte has been seen to come here; it has also been discovered that I am in this house, and unless he returns to Versailles with that despatch he will be ruined and Madame de Pompadour will also send you to the Bastille, for she has proof that you were in her room this night. The Vicomte is in great danger, and you were summoned here to save him, for at your bidding alone will he do his duty and arrest the traitress—myself.”
Denise’s indignation had already begun to melt. She freed the necklace at her throat as if it were choking her.
“Shall I now ask the Vicomte to return?” The girl moved towards the door.
“Wait—one moment! You are”—Denise broke off in agitation—“you are Yvonne?” she whispered.
The stranger sat down and unconcernedly began to tear up one of the sheets of paper littering the floor. “I am,” she answered quietly.
“And you gave the Vicomte de Nérac the secret despatch which you stole?”
“He took it from the English agent to whom I had given it.”
“Ah!” Again Denise had guessed the truth. “You once saved the Vicomte’s life?” she went on.
“I helped to do so.”
“Yet you are a traitress?”
“Yes, I am a traitress, and a traitress I should have continued to be if you and the Vicomte de Nérac had not stepped in to prevent me.”
The emotionless voice in which this confession was made had ceased to startle Denise, for she was scanning the girl’s face intently.
“Ah!” she cried with sudden conviction, “the Chevalier de St. Amant is your brother!”
The other looked up quickly. “Was my brother,” she corrected gently. “The Chevalier de St. Amant is dead.”
“Merciful God!” Denise was leaning against a chair, faint and white.
“He was killed at the inn by the English agent, from whom in this room the Vicomte de Nérac took the secret despatch.” Denise had covered her face with her hands. “And you are right, Mademoiselle; the Chevalier was my brother, who helped me till to-night to be the traitress that I am.”
“Silence,” Denise cried in anguish. “Oh, for God’s sake be silent!”
“The truth,” replied the other in her passionless voice, “can never be silent.”
Denise walked to and fro, wrung by a torture unendurable to a woman’s soul.
Suddenly she paused. “Do you know,” she demanded, “that your brother saved the Vicomte de Nérac when he might have ruined him?”
“I know more than that. Yes, Mademoiselle, I know that what he did was done because he loved you. That also is the truth.”
Denise caught at her arms. The question in her gesture and her eyes needed no words. The girl rose and faced her.
“When we parted at the foot of Madame de Pompadour’s stairs his last words were, ‘Unless Denise or the Vicomte gets the paper Denise is ruined.’ The paper was in my possession and my brother went back to the inn to explain to the English agent why he could not have it.”
“But why did you not give me the paper at Versailles—you came to me as Yvonne—you——”
“If I had given you the paper at Versailles should I have been here now? I loved my life a little then—I did not know my brother’s fate.”
And Denise had no answer but a shiver of mute assent.
“You have forgotten my brother, who was to come here to meet me that we might fly together; you have also forgotten the Vicomte, to whom that despatch was a necessity, and you have forgotten yourself, Mademoiselle. Could my brother, who loved you, have wished that you should at Versailles have been proved to have stolen what you had tried to steal? You have forgotten Madame de Pompadour. Would she or the King have believed your story that a peasant girl had given you the despatch?” She paused for a moment. “Would the Vicomte have believed it?”
“André?” Denise cried passionately. “How dare you?”
“There was only one way,” the girl continued, quietly ignoring that cry of love’s conviction, “to save you from the trap into which your enemies had lured you, and that was to bring the Vicomte and yourself here. My brother would have wished it, and I am glad that I tried and succeeded.”
She turned away; her voice showed that the wonderful strength of will which had sustained her was giving way at last.
“You did it,” Denise said after a long silence, “not for my sake, not wholly for your brother’s, but—because you love André.”
The girl, who had sunk on to the sofa, presently rose and crossed the room, and Denise, watching her as only one woman can watch another, shrank at the sight of that noble and pathetic beauty.
“Yes,” was the unfaltering answer, “I did it because I love André, because I alone can save him. Ah! it is not you, but I—I, who have saved him.”
Denise gazed at her in silent helplessness. Fate was too strong for them all. The clock chimed out five strokes into the awful quiet of the room, and as Denise, in her restless misery, walked past the fireplace with its sculptured marble chimney-piece, she halted with a sharp-drawn breath. The crest on the clock had caught her eye, for the motto on it was “Dieu Le Vengeur!”
“Before we part,” she cried, “you will tell me, you must, who you are—no,” she added, in a stricken voice, “it is not necessary. I know, I know. Ah, God! this is terrible. ‘Dieu Le Vengeur!’” She covered her face with her hands.
A quiet hand was laid on her shoulder. “Denise.”
For some moments they looked at each other in breathless silence.
“It is true; yes it is true, and you—you have guessed because you are a woman who loves. Ah! when your ancestors were as nothing mine were the nobles who made kings, who were leading the armies of France. I am a traitress, but to what?” her voice rang out. “To the man called Louis the Fifteenth, a craven, a bigot, a liar, a libertine, the victim of the priests and his lusts. That man is not France, not your France and mine. Listen. What would you have done if the King—the King,” her scorn was immeasurable, “had stolen your mother, deserted her, sent your father to the scaffold for treason that he never committed? if you, the only daughter, had been saved from infamy and beggary by two faithful servants and brought up in secret to know that your name was corrupted, your brother a starveling in exile, your lands given to another? To that King I bear no allegiance and will bear none, so help me God, God who can avenge.”
“Do not say that name. It is blotted out, but it is mine. Fifteen years ago, a child, I swore, and every year since I have sworn it on the grave that is called mine, that I would have revenge.”
Denise answered with pale lips, “Yes, revenge.”
“My brother and I planned and plotted revenge and we succeeded. The Court and the King can judge of that. Beauty was mine and I nourished it for revenge, I used it for revenge, but I have never forgotten, never, that I am a daughter of the noblesse, a woman as proud of my womanhood as you, Denise.”
“Thank God,” she murmured gently.
“To the world I was simply a number, to myself a sexless tool, living for one object alone, until you came into my brother’s life, and then, ah, then, I dreamed of the day when my brother should win through you what is his by right—should be Marquis de Beau Séjour. But——”
Denise took her hand.
“If that were only all.” She paused for a moment, overcome. “In London André came into my life. Till that fatal day I have inspired many men with the passion they call love. I thought I alone of women knew not what love could be, but another dream came to haunt me. It could not be. You did not love François. André did not love me. Some day he will tell you the story; the truth he must never know.”
“And your brother——”
“Yes, he worked for you as best he could and I for André. Remember what we were and how we were placed. But we have succeeded—love brought us through. We remembered our Beau Séjour, and you whom he loved, he whom I loved, will share it between you. I thank God for that. My mother,” the girl went on, “was a De Nérac, a cousin of André’s mother. Had justice been done fifteen years ago André’s father should have had my forfeited lands. But love will do what justice could not—your love and mine.”
“André can restore you your name, your honour. He shall, he must.”
“It is impossible. You cannot change the King. He would not, could not, undo the past—his past. My brother is dead, my family will die with me as will my secret. Fate is too strong for you, for me, for France. With François I worked to destroy the woman who now rules at Versailles and will continue to rule. And André from love for you strove to defeat us. Madame de Pompadour has triumphed over the Court, the noblesse, the Church, my brother, and you. Remember the past and to-night. Remember you can only ruin that woman by ruining yourself, by ruining André, and you will not save me. I see it all now. It is the destiny of France, and against the destiny of God’s will we must fight in vain.”
Denise had clasped her hands like one listening to the sentence of a supreme power. Were they not all caught alike in the web of a mysterious and inscrutable force, mere puppets as it seemed in a stupendous drama whose beginning and whose end were beyond all human insight and control, but puppets also of flesh and blood, whose passions and whose spirit, whose ambitions and whose ideals, whose souls and bodies so strong and so weak, gave to the drama the immortal breath of life? If—ah, if—Denise wrung her hands again. How few are there of those born of women from whom has not been wrung that bitter cry of revolt against the “if” of fate—if only they had been taught that out of the past comes the present and out of the present will come the future, and that they, the puppets, must make, every hour, their own lives and the lives of all others.
“You cannot save your France and mine,” the girl was saying. “She is doomed, doomed. The writing is on the walls. Ruin is coming on kings and nobles and the people. In ten, twenty, perhaps fifty years there will be a new France, for the greatness of my people and yours no power can crush. Voices are crying out in the streets of Paris to-day, but France will not listen. She is drunk, mad, diseased, corrupt. Yet I know it, it has been revealed to me, that there is a glorious future for our country, and see to it that the sons of what to-day is called Beau Séjour shall be in the hour of that rebirth on the side of the new France.”
She moved quietly to the door, opened it, and called softly, “Mademoiselle has decided. Come.”
As André entered he gazed from one to the other with the calmness of a great fear. What had he come to be told? He saw Denise’s mind was made up, and he knew he must obey.
“André,” she said, with dignified composure, “you will please bring the chief of police from the court-yard to this room.”
For an instant he wavered, then controlling his emotion he left the room. When he returned with the chief of police one woman, hooded and cloaked, alone was there.
Denise threw back the girl’s cloak which she had slipped on. The police agent started with intense surprise.
“You recognise me, Monsieur,” Denise said freezingly. “Yes, it is the Marquise de Beau Séjour, and one of the maids of honour to her Majesty, who is not accustomed to be shadowed when she visits a house that belongs to herself, as this does.”
“I offer my apologies to Mademoiselle la Marquise,” the man stammered, “but I thought—I felt sure——”
“What you chose to think,” Denise pursued, “can be no excuse for so insulting a mistake. The Marquise de Beau Séjour will, however, overlook it for once, provided that you promise not to repeat the offence. That will do.”
She turned her back on his fervent avowals and the man crept from her haughty presence. In five minutes the court-yard was clear of Madame de Pompadour’s spies.
Denise had fetched the stranger back. “André,” she said, “be so good as to conduct this lady yourself to the barriers. I will wait for you here.”
The girl quietly put on her cloak. “Adieu, Mademoiselle!” They clasped hands in silence. “Adieu—Denise,” she whispered. “Adieu for ever!” Without another word André and she left the room.
When he returned an hour later one glance at his face told Denise that, whatever had passed in the journey, he did not know the secret of “No. 101.” That was still to remain in the keeping of two women who loved the same man, and it would go with those two to the grave a secret for ever.
“Monsieur le Vicomte de Nérac waits on Madame la Marquise,” said the gentleman-usher.
Madame de Pompadour glanced at the clock. As André bowed it began to strike ten distinctly.
“You are punctual, Vicomte, and a man of your word,” the lady said with a faint smile.
André bowed again. What a contrast! The salon was as gay and refined as it had been a week ago. All traces of disorder had vanished and Madame herself in her heliotrope silk was as divinely seductive, as fresh and unconquerable, as when she had captivated Paris and the King at the ball of the Hôtel-de-Ville. And against that vision of loveliness he saw reflected in the mirror his own grim face, with the haggard eyes and deep-cut lines round mouth and chin of a man who had “been in hell” since he last stood in this room.
“You are tired,” Madame said gently. “If you please—” she wheeled a chair forward. But André remained standing. “I have to ask your pardon,” she continued, dropping her eyes. “I am sorry that last night I used words which I deeply regret using. But though I cannot ask you, Vicomte, to forget them, I can and do ask you to forgive.”
André’s hand tightened unconsciously on the back of the chair. He was here to demand an apology, and he had been swiftly disarmed by one gentle stroke.
“This is the jewel of the Marquise de Beau Séjour,” Madame said, “it is useless to me. I return it to you, unless you prefer I should return it to the Marquise herself in your presence and repeat what I have tried to say to you.”
André took the jewel mechanically. An apology also to Denise! That, too, he had come to extort, and it was his and hers without the asking. The pastels on the panelled walls rocked slowly in a blur of the October sunlight which kissed the heliotrope ribbon on Madame’s throat.
“You have served me,” she added, “as no man has ever done or ever will. I was ungrateful and false and cruel and unjust. Let me atone now.” She had held out a hand.
A third time André felt that he did not know Madame de Pompadour; he was learning as some men can that the heart and thoughts of a woman of genius, born to conquer a king and subjugate a court, are not to be fathomed in a few weeks, even by one to whom many other women have laid bare the mysterious workings of a woman’s heart.
“I have brought you your despatch, Madame,” he said, choosing his words slowly, and conscious of his clumsiness before the ease and tact of this bourgeoise adventuress.
“Yes,” she took it almost indifferently, but the flash that turned her eyes from grey to blue, the quick movement of the locket on her breast, would have revealed much to another woman. She placed it on the table beside a tiny heap of torn papers. André recognised these fragments. They had once been the lettre de cachet for Denise, which Madame had destroyed before he came. “Yes,” she said, “though the despatch is useless now, none the less I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“Useless,” André stammered.
“For two reasons,” she smiled. “The agent from whom you forced that despatch at the peril of your life took poison an hour after he was lodged at the Bastille. You had not heard? Well, the dead tell no embarrassing tales. Secondly,” she pulled out her watch, “the Jacobites have already been informed in the King’s own handwriting that they might have a forgery in my writing imposed on them, and that information has already been privately conveyed to the English Government. The English would not give a sou for the secret despatch to-day.”
So that was how Madame had spent her night, and it had left her radiant as Aphrodite rising from the foam, while he, André, was oppressed by the weariness of the defeated.
“Yes, the Marquise de Beau Séjour is safe, you are safe, Vicomte, and I am safe, and the King is happy and well. The only persons who are not safe and happy,” she smiled with the daintiest irony, “are or will be some of your enemies and mine. My hour has come. I shall not ask them to forgive, nor will they forget.”
Had Denise been in the room she would have recalled the words of the girl whom André had conducted to the Barrier of St. Louis. This woman was the destiny of France, against whom men fought in vain. As it was, Mont Rouge’s letter in his breast pocket seemed to cry out, and André shivered. Madame de Pompadour’s triumph was complete.
“No, they will not forget,” Madame continued, “because they conspired to ruin you, my friend, you to whom Antoinette de Pompadour will always be grateful, for when you might have deserted her and saved yourself you refused. You may not forgive me, but I can punish them, and I will.”
André impulsively took her hand. “Forget my words, Madame,” he cried.
“They were forgotten hours ago,” she answered softly. “I only remember your oath of loyalty and how nobly you kept it.”
It was the vivandière at Fontenoy who was looking at him now; nay, rather it was the woman the beating of whose heart he had heard on the secret stair. Death alone would silence that beating now.
“See,” she said, “you are again the Captain of the Queen’s Guards, the King has promised, and you shall be Minister for War. And,” she unrolled a sheet of paper, “if you choose, to-morrow in the Galerie des Glaces they shall know that before long you will be Marquis de Beau Séjour as well as Vicomte de Nérac. But neither I nor you can settle that, nor the King, for kings and men alone,” she laughed gently, “cannot make a man’s fate.”
“I thank you, Madame. His Majesty, I hope, will know that I am his servant always, but my decision is already taken, and from to-day I shall not live at Versailles nor Paris; De Nérac is to be my home, and perhaps some day Beau Séjour.”
Madame had dropped the roll of paper in an astonishment she failed to master. Her lips parted as she looked him in the face.
“Yes,” André repeated. “The Marquise de Beau Séjour and I have decided. Nothing can alter that decision.”
“Is it because of me?” she asked in a low voice.
“No, Marquise. I had made up my mind before I knew Mademoiselle had made up hers.”
Madame endeavoured to penetrate his motives. There were mysteries fascinating to a woman, the wrestlings of the spirit that alter a human soul, to be read in that handsome face so grey, so tried, yet so nobly firm. Madame de Pompadour could discover no more than that a new element, born of spiritual travail in the night that had passed, had entered into André’s life. What it was, whence it came, and why, baffled her. It is, perhaps, well for women of genius to learn early that there are gifts of the spirit to a few men that it is not for a woman to comprehend, just as there are impulses in a woman that the choicest soul of man must accept by faith in the acts in which they find expression.
“Then your ambitions are gone?” she asked, with that touch of sadness that can quicken sympathy into inspiration. “You are destined to be great, and,” her eyes pierced the vision of the future, “I desired to help to make you great.”
“Madame,” he answered simply, “I have achieved my greatest ambition, and I believe I can serve my France better at Beau Séjour than at Versailles.”
She was playing the great game that was her life, and she was not beaten yet.
“And ‘No. 101’?” she asked gravely.
“There will be treachery, no doubt, in the future,” André replied, “there may even be a ‘No. 101’; but the ‘No. 101’ that you and I, Madame, have fought with will not trouble you again.”
Madame de Pompadour studied the speaker’s face, reflecting on the mysterious confidence in this answer. The riddle was as puzzling to her to-day as it had been at Fontenoy. André, she saw, could have told her much; but she also felt he would never tell. And it was not the least of her rare gifts instinctively to recognise when to stop and when to yield. The future was her absorbing care always, and the Vicomte de Nérac would belong to that future.
“You keep your best news to the end,” she said with graceful gratitude. “Thanks to you, Vicomte, I hope I have heard the last of ‘No. 101.’ I shall not forget you at Beau Séjour; do not, in the years to come, think too harshly of me. Good-bye!”
“Adieu, Madame,” he raised her fingers to his lips. “Adieu!”
And as the door closed on him she knew, if “No. 101” had defeated her after all, that whatever the past had been, whatever the future might bring, she would never triumph over any man as she had triumphed that morning over André de Nérac. Nor would he ever forget the salon of Madame de Pompadour. The spell of a woman’s genius once cast on any man touched to the finer issues of human destinies can never be effaced.
But one thing remained, and it was settled in the parlour of “The Cock with the Spurs of Gold,” in which the Comtesse des Forges, the Duc de Pontchartrain, and the Comte de Mont Rouge, still a prisoner, unknown to the Court and the King, were waiting for André.
They had dimly guessed why they had been summoned, and their bitter fears were confirmed by the sight of Denise, whom André had brought with him.
“The Comte de Mont Rouge,” André began without ceremony, “was arrested last night by myself. The reason will be found in these three letters, copies of which I now give you.”
Denise alone was surprised. André had been given something at the Barrier of St. Louis after all. The letters proved to have been written by Mont Rouge, the Duke, and the Comtesse.
“If I chose,” André continued, “all of you three might now be in the Bastille, noble though you be. But the Marquise de Beau Séjour, who has not read those letters, has asked me to spare you because you were once her friends. I have agreed.”
“I shall not forget your indulgence, Mademoiselle,” the Comtesse burst out, beside herself with vindictive rage.
“Nor will Madame de Pompadour,” André answered drily. “The originals of those letters are now in her possession in a sealed envelope. She does not yet know what they contain; may I hope you will never make it necessary for her to ask for permission from the Marquise de Beau Séjour to break that seal? You may not find either the King or Madame as indulgent as the lady whom you have wronged.”
“Mademoiselle,” said the Duke, after a pause, “the pleasantest task for a gentleman in life is to confess to a lady that he has been a fool, when the folly has been inspired by herself. You will give me that pleasure now.”
And with his finished smile he had kissed her hand and bowed himself out of the room. Not so Mont Rouge.
“You shall give me satisfaction, Vicomte,” he growled sulkily.
André looked him all over with a quiet scorn. “Monsieur le Comte,” he said, “the Vicomte de Nérac does not cross swords with traitors nor with men who use loaded dice.”
Then he took Denise to her carriage and returned.
“And when your sword arm is healed,” he added, “two other gentlemen have a prior claim, and I understand they will both insist on it, the Comte des Forges,” he bowed to the Comtesse, “and my friend the Vicomte de St. Benôit, whose name you pledged to an English traitor without his knowledge, and whom you tricked into being the accomplice of a card-sharper’s rascality. I am afraid I shall not have the pleasure of showing you that for such as you the Vicomte de Nérac does not use a sword, but his hunting whip.”
And André left him to his fate.
Neither he nor Denise altered their decision. To Beau Séjour they went, and at Beau Séjour they remained. Had you visited, as so many travellers then and since have done, the famous château, two questions you would certainly have been tempted to ask: To whom had that noble coat of arms in the great hall once belonged, a coat not of the Beau Séjour nor of the De Néracs? And the other would rise to your lips in the crypt of the village church, where amidst the nameless tombs of many who bear the same coat of arms with the same motto lay a single slab. “François de St. Amant” is all the name it bears. It has no date, no heraldic symbol to show why it is there, but at the foot are cut the familiar words, “Dieu Le Vengeur.” Nor could any one now or since explain why these things were so, nor why beside that simple slab lay for many years another with no inscription on it at all, a tomb waiting, as it were for some one whom death had not yet claimed. To the villagers, happier than any serfs on any demesne in France, these mysteries were simply the will of Madame la Marquise, nor did the curious ever succeed in getting a more satisfying answer.
The villagers were right. It was Denise’s act, and André, whatever he may have guessed, never asked why, for of certain events in the past both he and she were content with the better part of silence. Friends came to them from Paris and Versailles; they heard of all that was being done at the Court, of the unshaken supremacy of Madame de Pompadour; they lived through the years of hollow truce that followed the war of Fontenoy, through the terrible humiliation of the Seven Years’ War that followed the hollow truce, through the sombre and bleak tragedies of misery, disgrace, and starvation, defeat on sea and land for their France. Once only did they go together to Paris, in 1768, to attend the funeral of Queen Marie Leczinska. And once only before then André had been summoned alone to Versailles, to say good-bye to the dying Madame de Pompadour, to find her a wasted skeleton, her face a pitiful wreck of the beauty which twenty years before had stormed the privileged citadel of royalty and the noblesse, but a woman in whom the spirit and the wit that had dominated France were unquenched and unquenchable.
Nor did André ever again forget that April day with its chilling rain. He stood at the windows of the Palace, where, if you will, you can stand to-day, and watched the cortège that carried the last remains of the Marquise de Pompadour from the Cour d’Honneur into the Place d’Armes and down the Avenue de Paris to the magnificent sepulchre that had been prepared in the Church of the Capuchins in the Place Vendôme for the Mistress of France.
To one who had heard the crystal-gazer’s prediction, and had lived through these twenty years, there was more than a sermon in the King’s heartless comment as he, too, eyed the long procession wind away in the drenching squalls.
“Madame,” he said, “has a cold day for her journey.” That was all.
And Queen Marie did not exaggerate when she wrote, “She is forgotten as if she had never existed. Such is the way of the world.” What a world is this, and how does Fortune banter us! as a greater person than Queen Marie remarked.
When André returned to his château from that melancholy visit, Denise asked no questions, not even about the new ring he wore, with a crest she knew and the historic motto, “Discret et Fidèle.” Versailles and Fontenoy alike belonged to a buried past.
Still less had either reason or wish to witness the degradation of the Palace of Louis Quatorze by Madame du Barry, under the grandson for whose death the nation that had once called him “Louis the Well-Beloved” now prayed. With the accession of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette they both believed that the night of bankruptcy and shame had at last passed, and death in his mercy took them away before the belief could be shattered, before the silver trumpets of the nobles of the Chevau-légers de la Garde de la Maison du Roi, that had blown for the monarchy of France on so many stricken fields, were silenced by the tumbrils of the Conciergerie for ever. Perhaps they were happier in their ignorance than those whose footsteps to-day so inquisitively mock the proud silence of the Galerie des Glaces, whose voices scare the ghostly echoes in the loneliness of what was once the salon of Madame de Pompadour; for these are reminded at every turn that in the new France, Versailles, once the emblem of a nation’s greatness, is now only a museum of pictures; that if it has a history for the French children playing on the terrace it is because it is a tomb of bitter memories, of blood shed not only by the hand of an alien foe, of the disaster that cries out for a nation’s revenge, but is not blessed with the heritage of a people’s love, still less has the right to ask for a people’s tears.
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