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ACHATES WRITES A BALLADE OF DOUBLE REFRAIN
The golden geese of day had flown back to the Master's treasure house; and ah! the loneliness of that first night at sea!--the low whistling song of the icy winds among the shrouds; the cold repellent color tones which lay thinly across the west, pressing upon the ragged, heaving horizon; the splendor and intense brilliancy of the million stars; the vast imposing circle of untamed water, the purple of its flowing mountains and the velvet blackness of its sweeping valleys; the monotonous seething round the boring prow and the sad gurgle of the speeding wake; the weird canvas shadows rearing heavenward; and above all, that silence which engulfs all human noises simply by its immensity! More than one stout heart grew doubtful and troubled under the weight of this mystery.
Even the Iroquois Indian, born without fear, stoic, indifferent to physical pain, even he wrapped his blanket closer about his head, held his pipe pendent in nerveless fingers, and softly chanted an appeal to the Okies of his forebears, forgetting the God of the black-robed fathers in his fear of never again seeing the peaceful hills and valleys of Onondaga or tasting the sweet waters of familiar springs. For here was evil water, of which no man might drink to quench his thirst; there were no firebrands to throw into the face of the North Wind; there was no trail, to follow or to retrace. O for his mat by the fire in the Long House, with the young braves and old warriors sprawling around, recounting the victories of the hunt!
Only the seamen and the priests went about unconcerned, untroubled, tranquil, the one knowing his sea and the other his God. There was something reassuring in the serenity of the black cassocks as they went hither and thither, offering physical and spiritual assistance. They inspired the timid and the fearful, many of whom still believed that the world had its falling-off place. And seasickness overcame many.
With some incertitude the Vicomte d'Halluys watched the Jesuits. After all, he mused, it was something to be a priest, if only to possess this calm. He himself had no liking for this voyage, since the woman he loved was on the way to Spain. Whenever Brother Jacques passed under the ship's lanterns, the vicomte stared keenly. What was there in this handsome priest that stirred his antagonism? For the present there seemed to be no solution. Eh, well, all this was a strange whim of fate. Fortune had as many faces as Notre Dame has gargoyles. To bring the Comte d'Hérouville, himself, and the Chevalier du Cévennes together on a voyage of hazard! He looked around to discover the whereabouts of the count. He saw him leaning against a mast, his face calm, his manner easy.
"There is danger in that calm; I must walk with care. My faith! but the Chevalier will have his hands full one of these days."
Mass was celebrated, and a strange, rude picture was presented to those eyes accustomed to the interior of lofty cathedrals: the smoky lanterns, the squat ceiling, the tawdry woodwork, the kneeling figures involuntarily jostling one another to the rolling of the ship, the resonant voice of Father Chaumonot, the frequent glitter of a breast-plate, a sword-hilt, or a helmet.
The Chevalier knelt, not because he was in sympathy with Chaumonot's Latin, but because he desired not to be conspicuous. God was not in his heart save in a shadowy way; rather an infinite weariness, a sense of drifting blindly, a knowledge of a vague and futile grasping at the end of things. And winding in and out of all he heard was that mysterious voice asking: "Whither bound?" Aye, whither bound, indeed! Visions of golden days flitted across his mind's eye, snatches of his youth; the pomp and glory of court as he first saw it; the gallant epoch of the Fronde; the warm sunshine of forgotten summers; and the woman he loved! . . . The Chevalier was conscious of a pain of stupendous weight bearing down upon his eyes. Waves of dizziness, accompanied by flashes of fire, passed to and fro through his aching head. His tongue was thick and his lips were cracked with fever. It seemed but a moment gone that he had been shaking with the cold. He found himself fighting what he supposed to be an attack of seasickness, but this was not the malady which was seizing him in its pitiless grasp.
Chaumonot's voice rose and fell. Why had the marquis given this man a thousand livres? What evil purpose lay behind it? The marquis gave to the Church? He was surprised to find himself struggling against a wild desire to laugh. Sometimes the voice sounded like thunder in his ears; anon, it was so far away that he could hear only the echo of it. Presently the mass came to an end. The worshipers rose by twos and threes. But the Chevalier remained kneeling. The next roll of the ship toppled him forward upon his face, where he lay motionless. Several sprang to his aid, the vicomte and Victor being first. Together they lifted the Chevalier to his feet, but his knees doubled up. He was unconscious.
"Paul?" cried Victor in alarm. "He is seasick?" turning anxiously toward the vicomte.
"This is not seasickness; more likely a reaction. Here comes Lieutenant Nicot, who has some fame as a leech. He will tell us what the trouble is."
A hasty examination disclosed that the Chevalier was in the first stages of brain fever, and he was at once conveyed to his berthroom. Victor was inconsolable; the vicomte, thoughtful; and even the Comte d'Hérouville showed some interest.
"What brought this on?" asked Nicot, when the Chevalier was stretched on his mattress.
The vicomte glanced significantly at Victor.
"He . . . The Chevalier has just passed through an extraordinary mental strain," Victor stammered.
"Of what nature?" asked Nicot.
"Never mind what nature, Lieutenant," interrupted the vicomte. "It is enough that he has brain fever. The question is, can you bring him around?"
Nicot eyed his patient critically. "It is splendid flesh, but he has been on a long debauch. I'll fetch my case and bleed him a bit."
"Poor lad!" said Victor. "God knows, he has been through enough already. What if he should die?"
"Would he not prefer it so?" the vicomte asked. "Were I in his place I should consider death a blessing in disguise. But do not worry; he will pull out of it, if only for a day, in order to run his sword through that fool of a D'Hérouville. The Chevalier always keeps his engagements. I will leave you now. I will call in the morning."
For two weeks the Chevalier's mind was without active thought or sense of time. It was as if two weeks had been plucked from his allotment without his knowledge or consent. Many a night Victor and Breton were compelled to use force to hold the sick man on his mattress. He horrified the nuns at evening prayer by shouting for wine, calling the main at dice, or singing a camp song. At other times his laughter broke the quiet of midnight or the stillness of dawn. But never in all his ravings did he mention the marquis or the tragedy of the last rout. Some secret consciousness locked his lips. Sometimes Brother Jacques entered the berthroom and applied cold cloths, and rarely the young priest failed to quiet the patient. Often Victor came in softly to find the Chevalier sleeping that restless sleep of the fever-bound and the priest, a hand propping his chin, lost in reverie. One night Victor had been up with the Chevalier. The berthroom was close and stifling. He left the invalid in Breton's care and sought the deck for a breath of air, cold and damp though it was. Glancing up, he saw Brother Jacques pacing the poop-deck, his hands clasped behind him, his head bent forward, absorbed in thought. Victor wondered about this priest. A mystery enveloped his beauty, his uncommunicativeness.
Presently the Jesuit caught sight of the dim, half-recognizable face below.
"The Chevalier improves?" he asked.
"His mind has just cleared itself of the fever's fog, thank God!" cried Victor, heartily.
"He will live, then," replied Brother Jacques, sadly; and continued his pacing. After a few moments Victor went below again, and the priest mused aloud: "Yes, he will live; misfortune and misery are long-lived." All about him rolled the smooth waters, touched faintly with the first pallor of dawn.
On the sixteenth of April the Chevalier was declared strong enough to be carried up to the deck, where he was laid on a cot, his head propped with pillows in a manner such as to prevent the rise and fall of the ship from disturbing him. O the warmth and glory of that spring sunshine! It flooded his weak, emaciated frame with a soothing heat, a sense of gladness, peace, calm. As the beams draw water from the rivers to the heavens, so they drew forth the fever-poison from his veins and cast it to the cleansing winds. He was aware of no desire save that of lying there in the sun; of watching the clouds part, join, and dissolve, only to form again, when the port rose; of measuring the bright horizon when the port sank. From time to time he held up his white hands and let the sun incarnadine them. He spoke to no one, though when Victor sat beside him he smiled. On the second day he feebly expressed a desire for some one to read to him.
"What shall I read, Paul?" asked Victor, joyously.
"You will find my Odyssey in the berthroom. Read me of Ulysses when he finally arrived at Ithaca and found Penelope still faithful."
"Monsieur," said Chaumonot, who overheard the request, "would you not rather I should read to you from the life of Loyola?"
"No, Father," gently; "I am still pagan enough to love the thunder of Homer."
"If only I might convince you of the futility of such books!" earnestly.
"Nothing is futile, Father, which is made of grace and beauty."
So Victor read from the immortal epic. He possessed a fine voice, and being a musician he knew how to use it. The voice of his friend and the warmth of the sun combined to produce a pleasant drowsiness to which the Chevalier yielded, gratefully. That night he slept soundly.
The following day was not without a certain glory. The wind was mild and gentle like that which springs up suddenly during a summer's twilight and breathes mysteriously among the tops of the pines or stirs a murmur in the fields of grain. The sea wrinkled and crinkled its ancient face, not boisterously, but rather kindly; like a giant who had forgotten his feud with mankind and lay warming himself in the sunshine. From the unbroken circle of the horizon rose a cup of perfect turquoise. Victor, leaning against the rail, vowed that he sniffed the perfume of spices, blown up from the climes of the eternal summer.
"I feel it in my bones," he said, solemnly, "that I shall write verses to-day. What is it the presence of spring brings forth from us?--this lightness of spirit, this gaiety, this flinging aside of worldly cares, this longing to laugh and sing?"
"Well, Master Poet," and Major du Puys clapped the young man on the shoulder and smiled into his face. "Let them be like 'Henri at Cahors,' and, my faith! you may read them all day to me."
"No, I have in mind a happy refrain. 'Where are the belles of the balconies?' This is the time of year when life awakens in the gardens. Between four and five the ladies will come out upon the balconies and pass the time of day. Some one will have discovered a new comfit, and word will go round that Mademoiselle So-and-So, who is a great lady, has fallen in love with a poor gentleman. And lackeys will wander forth with scented notes of their mistresses, and many a gallant will furbish up his buckles. Heigho! Where, indeed, are the belles of the balconies? But, Major, I wish to thank you for the privileges which you have extended the Chevalier and myself."
"Nonsense, my lad!" cried the good major. "What are we all but a large family, with a worldly and a spiritual father? All I ask of you, when we are inside the fort at Quebec, is not to gamble or drink or use profane language, to obey the king, who is represented by Monsieur de Lauson and myself, to say your prayers, and to attend mass regularly. And your friend, the Chevalier?"
"On my word of honor, he laughed at a jest of mine not half an hour ago. Oh, we shall have him in his boots again ere we see land. If we are a big family, as you say, Major, will you not always have a fatherly eye upon my friend? He survives a mighty trouble. His heart is like a king's purse, full of gold that rings sound and true. Only give him a trial, and he will prove his metal. I know what lieutenants and corporals are. Sometimes they take delight in pricking a fallen lion. Let his orders come from you till he has served his time."
"I have nothing to ask for myself."
"Monsieur, no man need ask favors of me. Let him not shirk his duty, and the Chevalier's days shall be as peaceful as may be. And if he serves his time in the company, why, he shall have his parcel of land on the Great River. I shall not ask you any questions. His past troubles are none of my affairs. Let him prove a man. I ask no more of him than that. Father Chaumonot has told me that Monsieur le Marquis has given a thousand livres to the cause. The Chevalier will stand in well for the first promotion."
"Thank you, Major. It is nine. I will go and compose verses till noon."
"And I shall arrange for some games this afternoon, feats of strength and fencing. I would that my purse were heavy enough to offer prizes."
"Amen to that."
The major watched the poet as he made for the main cabin. "So the Chevalier has a heart of gold?" he mused. "It must be rich, indeed, if richer than this poet's. He's a good lad, and his part in life will have a fine rounding out."
Victor passed into the cabin and seated himself at the table in the main cabin. Occasionally he would nod approvingly, or rumple the feathery end of the quill between his teeth, or drum with his fingers in the effort to prove a verse whose metrical evenness did not quite satisfy his ear. There were obstacles, however, which marred the sureness of his inspiration. First it was the face of madame as he had seen it, now here, now there, in sunshine, in cloud. Was hers a heart of ice which the warmth of love could not melt? Did she love another? Would he ever see her again? Spain! Ah, but for the Chevalier he might be riding at her side over the Pyrenees. The pen moved desultorily. Line after line was written, only to be rejected. The envoi first took shape. It is a peculiar habit the poet has of sometimes putting on the cupola before laying the foundation of his house of fancy. Victor read over slowly what he had written:
"Prince, where is the tavern's light that cheers? Where is La Place with its musketeers, Golden nights and the May-time breeze? And where are the belles of the balconies?"
Ah, the golden nights, indeed! What were they doing yonder in Paris? Were they all alive, the good lads in his company? And how went the war with Spain? Would the ladies sometimes recall him in the tennis courts? With a sigh he dipped the quill in the inkhorn and went on. The truth is, the poet was homesick. But he was not alone in this affliction.
Breton was sitting by the port-hole in his master's berthroom. He was reading from his favorite book. Time after time he would look toward the bunk where the Chevalier lay dozing. Finally he closed the book and rose to gaze out upon the sea. In fancy he could see the hills of Périgny. The snow had left them by now. They were green and soft, rolling eastward as far as the eye could see. Old Martin's daughter was with the kine in the meadows. The shepherd dog was rolling in the grass at her feet. Was she thinking of Breton, who was on his way to a strange land, who had left her with never a good by to dull the edge of separation? He sobbed noiselessly. The book slipped from his fingers to the floor, and the noise of it brought the Chevalier out of his gentle dreaming.
"Is it you, lad?"
"Yes, Monsieur Paul," swallowing desperately.
"What is the matter?"
"I was thinking how the snow has left the hills of Périgny. I can see my uncle puttering in the gardens at the château. Do you remember the lilacs which grew by the western gates? They will soon be filling the park with fragrance. Monsieur will forgive me for recalling?"
"Yes; for I was there in my dreams, lad. I was fishing for those yellow perch by the poplars, and you were baiting my hooks."
"Was I, Monsieur?" joyfully. "My mother used to tell me that it was a sign of good luck to dream of fishing. Was the water clear?"
"As clear as Monsieur le Cure's emerald. Do you remember how he used to twist it round and round when he visited the château? It was a fine ring. The Duchesse d'Aiguillon gave it to him, so he used to tell us. 'Twas she who founded the Hôtel Dieu at Quebec, where we are going."
"Yes; and in the month of May, which is but a few days off, we used to ride into Cévennes to the mines of porphyry and marbles which . . . which . . ." Breton stopped, embarrassed.
"Which I used to own," completed the Chevalier. "They were quarries, lad, not mines. 'Golden days, that turn to silver, then to lead,' writes Victor. Eh, well! Do you know how much longer we are to remain upon this abominable sea? This must be something like the eighteenth of April."
"The voyage has been unusually prosperous, Captain Bouchard says. We sight Acadia in less than twenty days. It will be colder then, for huge icebergs come floating about in the water. We shall undoubtedly reach Quebec by June. The captain says that it is all nonsense about pirates. They never come so far north as this. I wonder if roses grow in this new country? I shall miss the lattice-covered summer-house."
"There will be roses, Breton, but the thorns will be large and fierce. A month and a half before we reach our destination! It is very long."
"You see, Monsieur, we sail up a river toward the inland seas. If we might sail as we sail here, it would take but a dozen days to pass Acadia. But they tell me that this river is a strange one. Many rocks infest it, and islands grow up or disappear in a night."
The Chevalier fingered the quilt and said nothing. By and by his eyes closed, and Breton, thinking his master had fallen asleep, again picked up his book. But he could not concentrate his thought upon it. He was continually flying over the sea to old Martin's daughter, to the grey château nestling in the green hills. He was not destined long to dream. There was a rap on the door, and Brother Jacques entered.
"My son," he said to Breton, "leave us."
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