The Seats of the Mighty Part 19

He wheeled, and came to me so swiftly that I shrank back in my chair with alarm, his action was so sudden, and, peering into my face, he said, glancing, as I thought, anxiously at the jailer, "Blow--blow--how blow us all to pieces, m'sieu'?" He eyed me with suspicion, and I could see that he felt like some hurt animal among its captors, ready to fight, yet not knowing from what point danger would come. Something pregnant in what I said had struck home, yet I could not guess then what it was, though afterwards it came to me with great force and vividness.

"I meant nothing, Voban," answered I, "save that you look dangerous."

I half put out my hand to touch his arm in a friendly way, but I saw that the jailer was watching, and I did not. Voban felt what I was about to do, and his face instantly softened, and his blood-shot eyes gave me a look of grat.i.tude. Then he said:

"I will tell you what happen next I know the palace very well, and when I see the Intendant and M'sieu' Doltaire and others leave the ballroom I knew that they go to the chamber which they call 'la Chambre de la Joie,' to play at cards. So I steal away out of the crowd into a pa.s.sage which, as it seem, go nowhere, and come quick, all at once, to a bare wall. But I know the way. In one corner of the pa.s.sage I press a spring, and a little panel open. I crawl through and close it behin'. Then I feel my way along the dark corner till I come to another panel. This I open, and I see light. You ask how I can do this? Well, I tell you.

There is the valet of Bigot, he is my friend. You not guess who it is?

No? It is a man whose crime in France I know. He was afraid when he saw me here, but I say to him, 'No, I will not speak--never'; and he is all my friend just when I most need. Eh, voila, I see light, as I said, and I push aside heavy curtains ver' little, and there is the Chamber of the Joy below. There they all are, the Intendant and the rest, sitting down to the tables. There was Capitaine Lancy, M'sieu' Cadet, M'sieu'

Cournal, M'sieu' le Chevalier de Levis, and M'sieu' le Generale, le Marquis de Montcalm. I am astonish to see him there, the great General, in his grand coat of blue and gold and red, and laces tres beau at his throat, with a fine jewel. Ah, he is not ver' high on his feet, but he has an eye all fire, and a laugh come quick to his lips, and he speak ver' galant, but he never let them, Messieurs Cadet, Marin, Lancy, and the rest, be thick friends with him. They do not clap their hands on his shoulder comme le bon camarade--non!

"Well, they sit down to play, and soon there is much noise and laughing, and then sometimes a silence, and then again the noise, and you can see one snuff a candle with the points of two rapiers, or hear a sword jangle at a chair, or listen to some one sing ver' soft a song as he hold a good hand of cards, or the ring of louis on the table, or the sound of gla.s.s as it break on the floor. And once a young gentleman--alas! he is so young--he get up from his chair, and cry out, 'All is lost! I go to die!' He raise a pistol to his head; but M'sieu'

Doltaire catch his hand, and say quite soft and gentle, 'No, no, mon enfant, enough of making fun of us. Here is the hunder' louis I borrow of you yesterday. Take your revenge.' The lad sit down slow, looking ver' strange at M'sieu' Doltaire. And it is true: he took his revenge out of M'sieu' Cadet, for he win--I saw it--three hunder' louis. Then M'sieu' Doltaire lean over to him and say, 'M'sieu', you will carry for me a message to the citadel for M'sieu' Ramesay, the commandant.' Ah, it was a sight to see M'sieu' Cadet's face, going this way and that. But it was no use: the young gentleman pocket his louis, and go away with a letter from M'sieu' Doltaire. But M'sieu' Doltaire, he laugh in the face of M'sieu' Cadet, and say ver' pleasant, 'That is a servant of the King, m'sieu', who live by his sword alone. Why should civilians be so greedy?

Come, play, M'sieu' Cadet. If M'sieu' the General will play with me, we two will what we can do with you and his Excellency the Intendant.'

"They sit just beneath me, and I hear all what is said, I see all the looks of them, every card that is played. M'sieu' the General have not play yet, but watch M'sieu' Doltaire and the Intendant at the cards.

With a smile he now sit down. Then M'sieu' Doltaire, he say, 'M'sieu'

Cadet, let us have no mistake--let us be commercial.' He take out his watch. 'I have two hours to spare; are you dispose to play for that time only? To the moment we will rise, and there shall be no question of satisfaction, no discontent anywhere--eh, shall it be so, if m'sieu' the General can spare the time also?' It is agree that the General play for one hour and go, and that M'sieu' Doltaire and the Intendant play for the rest of the time.

"They begin, and I hide there and watch. The time go ver' fast, and my breath catch in my throat to see how great the stakes they play for. I hear M'sieu' Doltaire say at last, with a smile, taking out his watch, 'M'sieu' the General, your time is up, and you take with you twenty thousan' francs.'

"The General, he smile and wave his hand, as if sorry to take so much from M'sieu' Cadet and the Intendant. M'sieu' Cadet sit dark, and speak nothing at first, but at last he get up and turn on his heel and walk away, leaving what he lose on the table. M'sieu' the General bow also, and go from the room. Then M'sieu' Doltaire and the Intendant play. One by one the other players stop, and come and watch these. Something get into the two gentlemen, for both are pale, and the face of the Intendant all of spots, and his little round eyes like specks of red fire; but M'sieu' Doltaire's face, it is still, and his brows bend over, and now and then he make a little laughing out of his lips. All at once I hear him say, 'Double the stakes, your Excellency!' The Intendant look up sharp and say, 'What! Two hunder' thousan' francs!'--as if M'sieu'

Doltaire could not pay such a like that. M'sieu' Doltaire smile ver'

wicked, and answer, 'Make it three hunder' thousan' francs, your Excellency.' It is so still in the Chamber of the Joy that all you hear for a minute was the fat Monsieur Varin breathe like a hog, and the rattle of a spur as some one slide a foot on the floor.

"The Intendant look blank; then he nod his head for answer, and each write on a piece of paper. As they begin, M'sieu' Doltaire take out his watch and lay it on the table, and the Intendant do the same, and they both look at the time. The watch of the Intendant is all jewels.

'Will you not add the watches to the stake?' say M'sieu' Doltaire. The Intendant look, and shrug a shoulder, and shake his head for no, and M'sieu' Doltaire smile in a sly way, so that the Intendant's teeth show at his lips and his eyes almost close, he is so angry.

"Just this minute I hear a low noise behind me, and then some one give a little cry. I turn quick and Madame Cournal. She stretch her hand, and touch my lips, and motion me not to stir. I look down again, and I see that M'sieu' Doltaire look up to the where I am, for he hear that sound, I think--I not know sure. But he say once more, 'The watch, the watch, your Excellency! I have a fancy for yours!' I feel madame breathe hard beside me, but I not like to look at her. I am not afraid of men, but a woman that way--ah, it make me shiver! She will betray me, I think. All at once I feel her hand at my belt, then at my pocket, to see if I have a weapon; for the thought come to her that I am there to kill Bigot.

But I raise my hands and say, 'No,' ver' quiet, and she nod her head all right.

"The Intendant wave his hand at M'sieu' Doltaire to say he would not stake the watch, for I know it is one madame give him; and then they begin to play. No one stir. The cards go out flip, flip, on the table, and with a little soft sc.r.a.pe in the hands, and I hear Bigot's hound much a bone. All at once M'sieu' Doltaire throw down his cards, and say, 'Mine, Bigot! Three hunder' thousan' francs, and the time is up!' The other get from his chair, and say, 'How would you have pay if you had lost, Doltaire?' And m'sieu' answer, 'From the coffers of the King, like you, Bigot' His tone is odd. I feel madame's breath go hard. Bigot turn round and say to the others, 'Will you take your way to the great hall, messieurs, and M'sieu' Doltaire and I will follow. We have some private conf'rence.' They all turn away, all but M'sieu' Cournal, and leave the room, whispering. 'I will join you soon, Cournal,' say his Excellency.

M'sieu' Cournal not go, for he have been drinking, and something stubborn got into him. But the Intendant order him rough, and he go. I can hear madame gnash her teeth sof' beside me.

"When the door close, the Intendant turn to M'sieu' Doltaire and say, 'What is the end for which you play?' M'sieu' Doltaire make a light motion of his hand, and answer, 'For three hunder' thousan' francs.'

'And to pay, m'sieu', how to pay if you have lost?' M'sieu' Doltaire lay his hand on his sword sof'. 'From the King's coffers, as I say; he owes me more than he has paid. But not like you, Bigot. I have earned, this way and that, all that I might ever get from the King's coffers--even this three hunder' thousan' francs, ten times told. But you, Bigot--tush! why should we make bubbles of words?' The Intendant get white in the face, but there are spots on it like on a late apple of an old tree. 'You go too far, Doltaire,' he say. 'You have hint before my officers and my friends that I make free with the King's coffers.'

M'sieu' answer, 'You should see no such hints, if your palms were not musty.' 'How know you,' ask the Intendant, 'that my hands are musty from the King's coffers?' M'sieu' arrange his laces, and say light, 'As easy from the must as I tell how time pa.s.ses in your nights by the ticking of this trinket here.' He raise his sword and touch the Intendant's watch on the table.

"I never hear such silence as there is for a minute, and then the Intendant say, 'You have gone one step too far. The must on my hands, seen through your eyes, is no matter, but when you must the name of a lady there is but one end. You understan', m'sieu', there is but one end.' M'sieu' laugh. 'The sword, you mean? Eh? No, no, I will not fight with you. I am not here to rid the King of so excellent an officer, however large fee he force for his services.' 'And I tell you,' say the Intendant, 'that I will not have you cast a slight upon a lady.' Madame beside me start up, and whisper to me, 'If you betray me, you shall die. If you be still, I too will say nothing.' But then a thing happen.

Another voice sound from below, and there, coming from behind a great screen of oak wood, is M'sieu' Cournal, his face all red with wine, his hand on his sword. 'Bah!' he say, coming forward--'bah! I will speak for madame. I will speak. I have been silent long enough.' He come between the two, and, raising his sword, he strike the time-piece and smash it.

'Ha! ha!' he say, wild with drink, 'I have you both here alone.' He snap his fingers under the Intendant's nose. 'It is time I protect my wife's name from you, and by G.o.d, I will do it!' At that M'sieu' Doltaire laugh, and Cournal turn to him, and say, 'Batard!' The Intendant have out his sword, and he roar in a hoa.r.s.e voice, 'Dog, you shall die!' But M'sieu' Doltaire strike up his sword, and face the drunken man. 'No, leave that to me. The King's cause goes shipwreck; we can't change helmsman now. Think--scandal and your disgrace!' Then he make a pa.s.s at m'sieu' Cournal, who parry quick. Another, and he p.r.i.c.k his shoulder.

Another, and then madame beside me, as I spring back, throw aside the curtains, and cry out, 'No, m'sieu'! no! For shame!'

"I kneel in a corner behind the curtains, and wait and listen. There is not a sound for a moment; then I hear a laugh from M'sieu' Cournal, such a laugh make me sick--loud, and full of what you call not care and the devil. Madame speak down at them. 'Ah,' she say, 'it is so fine a sport to drag a woman's name in the mire!' Her voice is full of spirit and she look beautiful--beautiful. I never guess how a woman like that look; so full of pride, and to speak like you could think knives sing as they strike steel--sharp and cold. 'I came to see how gentlemen look at play, and they end in brawling over a lady!'

"M'sieu' Doltaire speak to her, and they all put up their swords, and M'sieu' Cournal sit down at a table, and he stare and stare up at the balcony, and make a motion now and then with his hand. M'sieu' Doltaire say to her, 'Madame, you must excuse our entertainment; we did not know we had an audience so distinguished.' She reply, 'As scene-shifter and prompter, M'sieu' Doltaire, you have a gift. Your Excellency,' she say to the Intendant, 'I will wait for you at the top of the great staircase, if you will be so good as to take me to the ballroom.' The Intendant and M'sieu' Doltaire bow, and turn to the door, and M'sieu'

Cournal scowl, and make as if to follow; but madame speak down at him, 'M'sieu'--Argand'--like that! and he turn back, and sit down. I think she forget me, I keep so still. The others bow and sc.r.a.pe, and leave the room, and the two are alone--alone, for what am I? What if a dog hear great people speak? No, it is no matter!

"There is all still for a little while, and I watch her face as she lean over the rail and look down at him; it is like stone, like stone that aches, and her eyes stare and stare at him. He look up at her and scowl; then he laugh, with a toss of the finger, and sit down. All at once he put his hand on his sword, and gnash his teeth.

"Then she speak down to him, her voice ver' quiet. 'Argand,' she say, 'you are more a man drunk than sober. Argand,' she go on, 'years ago, they said you were a brave man; you fight well, you do good work for the King, your name goes with a sweet sound to Versailles. You had only your sword and my poor fortune and me then--that is all; but you were a man.

You had ambition, so had I. What can a woman do? You had your sword, your country, the King's service. I had beauty; I wanted power--ah yes, power, that was the thing! But I was young and a fool; you were older.

You talked fine things then, but you had a base heart, so much baser than mine.... I might have been a good woman. I was a fool, and weak, and vain, but you were base--so base--coward and betrayer, you!'

"At that m'sieu' start up and s.n.a.t.c.h at his sword, and speak out between his teeth, 'By G.o.d, I will kill you to-night!' She smile cold and hard, and say, 'No, no, you will not; it is too late for killing; that should have been done before. You sold your right to kill long ago, Argand Cournal. You have been close friends with the man who gave me power, and you gold.' Then she get fierce. 'Who gave you gold before he gave me power, traitor?' Like that she speak. 'Do you never think of what you have lost?' Then she break out in a laugh. 'Pah! Listen: if there must be killing, why not be the great Roman--drunk!'

"Then she laugh so hard a laugh, and turn away, and go quick by me and not see me. She step into the dark, and he sit down in the chair, and look straight in front of him. I do not stir, and after a minute she come back sof', and peep down, her face all differen'. 'Argand! Argand!'

she say ver' tender and low, 'if--if--if'--like that. But just then he see the broken watch on the floor, and he stoop, with a laugh, and pick up the pieces; then he get a candle and look on the floor everywhere for the jewels, and he pick them up, and put them away one by one in his purse like a miser. He keep on looking, and once the fire of the candle burn his beard, and he swear, and she stare and stare at him. He sit down at the table, and look at the jewels and laugh to himself. Then she draw herself up, and shake, and put her hands to her eyes, and 'C'est fini! c'est fini!' she whisper, and that is all.

"When she is gone, after a little time he change--ah, he change much, he go to a table and pour out a great bowl of wine, and then another, and he drink them both, and he begin to walk up and down the floor. He sway now and then, but he keep on for a long time. Once a servant come, but he wave him away, and he scowl and talk to himself, and shut the doors and lock them. Then he walk on and on. At last he sit down, and he face me. In front of him are candles, and he stare between them, and stare and stare. I sit and watch, and I feel a pity. I hear him say, 'Antoinette! Antoinette! My dear Antoinette! We are lost forever, my Antoinette!' Then he take the purse from his pocket, and throw it up to the balcony where I am. 'Pretty sins,' he say, 'follow the sinner!' It lie there, and it have sprung open, and I can see the jewels shine, but I not touch it--no. Well, he sit there long--long, and his face get gray and his cheeks all hollow.

"I hear the clock strike one! two! three! four! Once some one come and try the door, but go away again, and he never stir; he is like a dead man. At last I fall asleep. When I wake up, he still sit there, but his head lie in his arms. I look round. Ah, it is not a fine sight--no. The candles burn so low, and there is a smell of wick, and the grease runs here and there down the great candlesticks. Upon the floor, this place and that, is a card, and pieces of paper, and a scarf, and a broken gla.s.s, and something that shine by a small table. This is a picture in a little gold frame. On all the tables stand gla.s.ses, some full, and some empty of wine. And just as the dawn come in through the tall windows, a cat crawl out from somewhere, all ver' thin and shy, and walk across the floor; it make the room look so much alone. At last it come and move against m'sieu's legs, and he lift his head and look down at it, and nod, and say something which I not hear. After that he get up, and pull himself together with a shake, and walk down the room. Then he see the little gold picture on the floor which some drunk young officer drop, and he pick it up and look at it, and walk again. 'Poor fool!' he say, and look at the picture again. 'Poor fool! Will he curse her some day--a child with a face like that? Ah!' And he throw the picture down. Then he walk away to the doors, unlock them, and go out. Soon I steal away through the panels, and out of the palace ver' quiet, and go home. But I can see that room in my mind."

Again the jailer hurried Voban; There was no excuse for him to remain longer; so I gave him a message to Alixe, and slipped into his hand a transcript from my journal. Then he left me, and I sat and thought upon the strange events of the evening which he had described to me. That he was bent on mischief I felt sure, but how it would come, what were his plans, I could not guess. Then suddenly there flashed into my mind my words to him, "blow us all to pieces," and his consternation and strange eagerness. It came to me suddenly: he meant to blow up the Intendance.

When? And how? It seemed absurd to think of it. Yet--yet--The grim humour of the thing possessed me, and I sat back and laughed heartily.

In the midst of my mirth the cell door opened and let in Doltaire.

XV. IN THE CHAMBER OF TORTURE

I started from my seat; we bowed, and, stretching out a hand to the fire, Doltaire said, "Ah, my Captain, we meet too seldom. Let me see: five months--ah yes, nearly five months. Believe me, I have not breakfasted so heartily since. You are looking older--older. Solitude to the active mind is not to be endured alone--no."

"Monsieur Doltaire is the surgeon to my solitude," said I.

"H'm!" he answered, "a jail surgeon merely. And that brings me to a point, monsieur. I have had letters from France. The Grande Marquise--I may as well be frank with you--womanlike, yearns violently for those silly letters which you hold. She would sell our France for them. There is a chance for you who would serve your country so. Serve it, and yourself--and me. We have no news yet as to your doom, but be sure it is certain. La Pompadour knows all, and if you are stubborn, twenty deaths were too few. I can save you little longer, even were it my will so to do. For myself, the great lady girds at me for being so poor an agent.

You, monsieur"--he smiled whimsically--"will agree that I have been persistent--and intelligent."

"So much so," rejoined I, "as to be intrusive."

He smiled again. "If La Pompadour could hear you, she would understand why I prefer the live amusing lion to the dead dog. When you are gone, I shall be inconsolable. I am a born inquisitor."

"You were born for better things than this," I answered.

He took a seat and mused for a moment. "For larger things, you mean,"

was his reply. "Perhaps--perhaps. I have one gift of the strong man--I am inexorable when I make for my end. As a general, I would pour men into the maw of death as corn into the hopper, if that would build a bridge to my end. You call to mind how those Spaniards conquered the Mexique city which was all ca.n.a.ls like Venice? They filled the waterways with shattered houses and the bodies of their enemies, as they fought their way to Montezuma's palace. So I would know not pity if I had a great cause. In anything vital I would have success at all cost, and to get, destroy as I went--if I were a great man."

I thought for a moment with horror of his pursuit of my dear Alixe.

"I am your hunter," had been his words to her, and I knew not what had happened in all these months.

"If you were a great man, you should have the best prerogative of greatness," I remarked quietly.

"And what is that? Some excellent moral, I doubt not," was the rejoinder.

"Mercy," I replied.

"Tush!" he retorted, "mercy is for the fireside, not for the throne.

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