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Few are ignorant of that weakness of the vulgar which leads them to admire in the great not so much the qualities which deserve admiration as those which, in the eyes of the better-informed, are defects; so that the amours of Caesar, the clock-making of Charles, and the jests of Coligny are more in the mouths of men than their statesmanship or valour. For one thing commendable, two that are diverting are told; and for one man who in these days recalls the thousand great and wise deeds of the late King a thousand remember his occasional freaks, the duel he would have fought, or his habit of visiting the streets of Paris by night and in disguise. That this last has been much exaggerated, I can myself bear witness; for though Varenne or Coquet, the Master of the Household, were his usual companions on these occasions, he seldom failed to confess to me after the event, and more than once I accompanied him.
If I remember rightly, it was in April or May of this year, 1606, and consequently a few days after his return from Sedan, that he surprised me one night as I sat at supper, and, requesting me to dismiss my servants, let me know that he was in a flighty mood; and that nothing would content him but to play the Caliph in my company. I was not too willing, for I did not fail to recognise the risk to which these expeditions exposed his person; but, in the end, I consented, making only the condition that Maignan should follow us at a distance. This he conceded, and I sent for two plain suits, and we dressed in my closet. The King, delighted with the frolic, was in his wildest mood. He uttered an infinity of jests, and cut a thousand absurd antics; and, rallying me on my gravity, soon came near to making me repent of the easiness which had led me to fall in with his humour.
However, it was too late to retreat, and in a moment we were standing in the street. It would not have surprised me if he had celebrated his freedom by some noisy extravagance there; but he refrained, and contented himself--while Maignan locked the postern behind us--with cocking his hat and lugging forward his sword, and assuming an air of whimsical recklessness, as if an adventure were to be instantly expected.
But the moon had not yet risen, the night was dark, and for some time we met with nothing more diverting than a stumble over a dead dog, a word with a forward wench, or a narrow escape from one of those liquid douches that render the streets perilous for common folk and do not spare the greatest. Naturally, I began to tire, and wished myself with all my heart back at the Arsenal; but Henry, whose spirits a spice of danger never failed to raise, found a hundred things to be merry over, and some of which he made a great tale of afterwards. He would go on; and presently, in the Rue de ]a Pourpointerie, which we entered as the clocks struck the hour before midnight, his persistence was rewarded.
By that time the moon had risen; but, naturally, few were abroad so late, and such as were to be seen belonged to a class among whom even Henry did not care to seek adventures. Our astonishment was great therefore when, half-way down the street-- a street of tall, mean houses neither better nor much worse than others in that quarter--we saw, standing in the moonlight at an open door, a boy about seven years old.
The King saw him first, and, pressing my arm, stood still. On the instant the child, who had probably seen us before we saw him, advanced into the road to us. "Messieurs," he said, standing up boldly before us and looking at us without fear, "my father is ill, and I cannot close the shutter."
The boy's manner, full of self-possession, and his tone, remarkable at his age, took us so completely by surprise--to say nothing of the late hour and the deserted street, which gave these things their full effect--that for a moment neither of us answered. Then the King spoke. "Indeed, M. l'Empereur," he said gravely; "and where is the shutter?"
The boy pointed to an open shutter at the top of the house behind him.
"Ah!" Henry said. "And you wish us to close it?"
"If you please, messieurs."
"We do please," Henry replied, saluting him with mock reverence. "You may consider the shutter closed. Lead on, Monsieur; we follow."
For the first time the boy looked doubtful; but he turned without saying anything, and passing through the doorway, was in an instant lost in the pitchy darkness of the entry. I laid my hand on the King's arm, and tried to induce him not to follow; fearing much that this might be some new thieves' trap, leading nowhither save to the poire d'angoisse and the poniard. But the attempt was hopeless from the first; he broke from me and entered, and I followed him.
We groped for the balustrade and found it, and began to ascend, guided by the boy's voice; who kept a little before us, saying continually, "This way, messieurs; this way!" His words had so much the sound of a signal, and the staircase was so dark and ill-smelling, that, expecting every moment to be seized or to have a knife in my back, I found it almost interminable. At last, however, a gleam of light appeared above us, the boy opened a door, and we found ourselves standing on a mean, narrow landing, the walls of which had once been whitewashed. The child signed to us to enter, and we followed him into a bare attic, where our heads nearly touched the ceiling.
"Messieurs, the air is keen," he said in a curiously formal tone. "Will you please to close the shutter?"
The King, amused and full of wonder, looked round. The room contained little besides a table, a stool, and a lamp standing in a basin on the floor; but an alcove, curtained with black, dingy hangings, broke one wall. "Your father lies there?" Henry said, pointing to it.
"He feels the cold?"
"Yes, monsieur. Will you please to close the shutter?"
I went to it, and, leaning out, managed, with a little difficulty, to comply. Meanwhile, the King, gazing curiously at the curtains, gradually approached the alcove. He hesitated long, he told me afterwards, before he touched the hangings; but at length, feeling sure that there was something more in the business than appeared, he did so. Drawing one gently aside, as I turned from the window, he peered in; and saw just what he had been led to expect--a huddled form covered with dingy bed-clothes and a grey head lying on a ragged, yellow pillow. The man's face was turned to the wall; but, as the light fell on him, he sighed and, with a shiver, began to move. The King dropped the curtain.
The adventure had not turned out as well as he had hoped; and, with a whimsical look at me, he laid a crown on the table, said a kind word to the boy, and we went out. In a moment we were in the street.
It was my turn now to rally him, and I did so without mercy; asking if he knew of any other beauteous damsel who wanted her shutter closed, and whether this was the usual end of his adventures. He took the jest in good part, laughing fully as loudly at himself as I laughed; and in this way we had gone a hundred paces or so very merrily, when, on a sudden, he stopped.
"What is it, sire?" I asked.
"Hola!" he said, "The boy was clean."
"Yes; hands, face, clothes. All clean."
"How could he be? His father in bed, no one even to close the shutter. How could he be clean?"
"But, if he was, sire?"
For answer Henry seized me by the arm, turned me round without a word, and in a moment was hurrying me back to the house. I thought that he was going thither again, and followed reluctantly; but twenty paces short of the door he crossed the street, and drew me into a doorway. "Can you see the shutter?" he said. "Yes? Then watch it, my friend."
I had no option but to resign myself, and I nodded. A moist and chilly wind, which blew through the street and penetrating our cloaks made us shiver, did not tend to increase my enthusiasm; but the King was proof even against this, as well as against the kennel smells and the tedium of waiting, and presently his persistence was rewarded. The shutter swung slowly open, the noise made by its collision with the wall coming clearly to our ears. A minute later the boy appeared in the doorway, and stood looking up and down.
"Well," the King whispered in my ear, "what do you make of that, my friend?"
I muttered that it must be a beggar's trick.
"They would not earn a crown in a month," he answered. There must be something more than that at the bottom of it."
Beginning to share his curiosity, I was about to propose that we should sally out and see if the boy would repeat his overture to us, when I caught the sound of footsteps coming along the street. "Is it Maignan?" the King whispered, looking out cautiously.
"No, sire," I said. "He is in yonder doorway."
Before Henry could answer, the appearance of two strangers coming along the roadway confirmed my statement. They paused opposite the boy, and he advanced to them. Too far off to hear precisely what passed, we were near enough to be sure that the dialogue was in the main the same as that in which we had taken part. The men were cloaked, too, as were we, and presently they went in, as we had gone in. All, in fact, happened as it had happened to us, and after the necessary interval we saw and heard the shutter closed.
"Well," the King said, "what do you make of that?"
"The shutter is the catch-word, sire."
"Ay, but what is going on up there?" he asked. And he rubbed his hands.
I had no explanation to give, however, and shook my head; and we stood awhile, watching silently. At the end of five minutes the two men came out again and walked off the way they had come, but more briskly. Henry moreover, whose observation was all his life most acute, remarked that whatever they had been doing they carried away lighter hearts than they had brought. And I thought the same.
Indeed, I was beginning to take my full share of interest in the adventure; and in place of wondering, as before, at Henry's persistence, found it more natural to admire the keenness which he had displayed in scenting a mystery. I was not surprised, therefore, when he gripped my arm to gain my attention, and, a the window fell slowly open again, drew me quickly into the street, and hurried me across it and through the doorway of the house.
"Up!" he muttered in my ear. "Quickly and quietly, man! If there are to be other visitors, we will play the spy. But softly, softly; here is the boy!"
We stood aside against the wall, scarcely daring to breathe; and the child, guiding himself by the handrail, passed us in the dark without suspicion, and pattered on down the staircase. We remained as we were until we heard him cross the threshold, and then we crept up; not to the uppermost landing, where the light, when the door was opened, must betray us, but to that immediately below it. There we took our stand in the angle of the stairs and waited, the King, between amusement at the absurdity of our position and anxiety lest we should betray ourselves, going off now and again into stifled laughter, from which he vainly strove to restrain himself by pinching me.
I was not in so gay a mood myself, however, the responsibility of his safety lying heavy upon me; while the possibility that the adventure might prove no less tragical in the sequel than it now appeared comical, did not fail to present itself to my eyes in the darkest colours. When we had watched, therefore, five minutes more--which seemed to me an hour--I began to lose faith; and I was on the point of undertaking to persuade Henry to withdraw, when the voices of men speaking at the door below reached us, and told me that it was too late. The next moment their steps crossed the threshold, and they began to ascend, the boy saying continually, "This way, messieurs, this way!" and preceding them as he had preceded us. We heard them approach, breathing heavily, and but for the balustrade, by which I felt sure that they would guide themselves, and which stood some feet from our corner, I should have been in a panic lest they should blunder against us. But they passed safely, and a moment later the boy opened the door of the room above. We heard them go in, and without a second's hesitation we crept up after them, following them so closely that the door was scarcely shut before we were at it. We heard, therefore, what passed from the first: the child's request that they would close the shutter, their hasty compliance, and the silence, strange and pregnant, which followed, and which was broken at last by a solemn voice. "We have closed one shutter," it said, "but the shutter of God's mercy Is never closed."
"Amen," a second person answered in a tone so distant and muffled that it needed no great wit to guess whence it came, or that the speaker was behind the curtains of the alcove. "Who are you?"
"The cure of St. Marceau," the first speaker replied.
"And whom do you bring to me?"
"What has he done?"
"He will tell you."
"I am listening."
There was a pause on this, a long pause; which was broken at length by a third speaker, in a tone half sullen, half miserable. "I have robbed my master," he said.
"Of how much?"
"I lost it at play."
"And you are sorry."
"I must be sorry," the man panted with sudden fierceness, "or hang!" Hidden though he was from us, there was a tremor in his voice that told a tale of pallid cheeks and shaking knees,and a terror fast rising to madness.
"He makes up his accounts to-morrow?"
Someone in the room groaned; it should have been the culprit, but unless I was mistaken the sound came through the curtains. A long pause followed. Then, "And if I help you," the muffled voice resumed, "will you swear to lead an honest life?"
But the answer may be guessed. I need not repeat the assurances, the protestations and vows of repentance, the cries and tears of gratitude which ensue; and to which the poor wretch, stripped of his sullen indifference, completely abandoned himself. Suffice it that we presently heard the clinking of coins, a word or two of solemn advice from the cure, and a man's painful sobbing; then the King touched my arm, and we crept down the stairs. I was for stopping on the landing where we had hidden ourselves before; but Henry drew me on to the foot of the stairs and into the street.
He turned towards home, and for some time did not speak. At length he asked me what I thought of it.
"In what way, sire?"
"Do you not think," he said in a voice of much emotion, "that if we could do what he does, and save a man instead of hanging him, it would be better?"
"For the man, sire, doubtless," I answered drily; "but for the State it might not be so well. If mercy became the rule and justice the exception--there would be fewer bodies at Montfaucon and more in the streets at daylight. I feel much greater doubt on another point."
Shaking off the moodiness that had for a moment overcome him, Henry asked with vivacity what that was.
"Who he is, and what is his motive?"
"Why?" the King replied in some surprise--he was ever of so kind a nature that an appeal to his feelings displaced his judgment. "What should he be but what he seems?"
"Well, sire, I grant that he may be M. de Joyeuse, who has spent his life in passing in and out of monasteries, and has performed so many tricks of the kind that I could believe anything of him. But if it be not he--"
"It was not his voice," Henry said, positively.
"Then there is something here," I answered, "still unexplained. Consider the oddity of the conception, sire, the secrecy of the performance, the hour, the mode, all the surrounding circumstances! I can imagine a man currying favour with the basest and most dangerous class by such means. I can imagine a conspiracy recruited by such means. I can imagine this shibboleth of the shutter grown to a watchword as deadly as the 'tuez!' of '72. I can imagine all that, but I cannot imagine a man acting thus out of pure benevolence."
"No?" Henry said, thoughtfully. "Well, I think that I agree with you." and far from being displeased with my warmth (as is the manner of some sovereigns when their best friends differ from them), he came over to my opinion so completely as to halt and express his intention of returning and probing the matter to the bottom. Midnight had gone, however; it would take some little time to retrace our steps; and with some difficulty I succeeded in dissuading him, promising instead to make inquiries on the morrow, and having learned who lived in the house, to turn the whole affair into a report, which should be submitted to him.
This amused and satisfied him, and, expressing himself well content with the evening's diversion--though we had done nothing unworthy either of a King or a Minister--he parted from me at the Arsenal, and went home with his suite.
It did not occur to me at the time that I had promised to do anything difficult; but the news which my agents brought me next day--that the uppermost floor of the house in the Rue Pourpointerie was empty--put another face upon the matter. The landlord declared that he knew nothing of the tenant, who had rented the rooms, ready furnished, by the week; and as I had not seen the man's face, there remained only two sources whence I could get the information I needed--the child, and the cure of St. Marceau.
I did not know where to look for the former, however; and I had to depend on the cure. But here I carne to an obstacle I might easily have foreseen. I found him, though an honest man, obdurate in upholding his priest's privileges; to all my inquiries he replied that the matter touched the confessional, and was within his vows; and that he neither could, nor dared--to please anyone, or for any cause, however plausible--divulge the slightest detail of the affair. I had him summoned to the arsenal, and questioned him myself, and closely; but of all armour that of the Roman priesthood is the most difficult to penetrate, and I quickly gave up the attempt.
Baffled in the only direction in which I could hope for success, I had to confess my defeat to the King, whose curiosity was only piqued the more by the rebuff. He adjured me not to let the matter drop, and, suggesting a number of persons among whom I might possibly find the unknown, proposed also some theories. Of these, one that the benevolent was a disguised lady, who contrived in this way to give the rein at once to gallantry and charity, pleased him most; while I favoured that which had first occurred to me on the night of our sally, and held the unknown to be a clever rascal, who, to serve his ends, political or criminal, was corrupting the commonalty, and drawing people into his power.
Things remained in this state some weeks, and, growing no wiser, I was beginning to think less of the affair--which, of itself, and apart from a whimsical interest which the King took in it, was unimportant--when one day, stopping in the Quartier du Marais to view the works at the new Place Royale, I saw the boy. He was in charge of a decent-looking servant, whose hand he was holding, and the two were gazing at a horse that, alarmed by the heaps of stone and mortar, was rearing and trying to unseat its rider. The child did not see me, and I bade Maignan follow him home, and learn where he lived and who he was.
In an hour my equerry returned with the information I desired. The child was the only son of Fauchet, one of the Receivers- General of the Revenue; a man who kept great state in the largest of the old-fashioned houses in the Rue de Bethisy, where he, had lately entertained the King. I could not imagine anyone less likely to be concerned in treasonable practices; and, certain that I had made no mistake in the boy, I was driven for a while to believe that some servant had, perverted the child to this use. Presently, however, second thoughts, and the position of the father, taken, perhaps, with suspicions that I had for a long time entertained of Fauchet--in common with most of his kind-- suggested an explanation, hitherto unconsidered. It was not an explanation very probable at first sight, nor one that would have commended itself to those who divide all men by hard and fast rules and assort them like sheep. But I had seen too much of the world to fall into this mistake, and it satisfied me. I began by weighing it carefully; I procured evidence, I had Fauchet watched; and, at length, one evening in August, I went to the Louvre.
The King was dicing with Fernandez, the Portuguese banker; but I ventured to interrupt the game and draw him aside. He might not have taken this well, but that my first word caught his attention.
"Sire," I said, "the shutter is open."
He understood in a moment. "St. Gris!" He exclaimed with animation. "Where? At the same house?"
"No, sire; in the Rue Cloitre Notre Dame."
"You have got him, then?"
"I know who he is, and why he is doing this."
"Why?" the King cried eagerly.
"Well, I was going to ask for your Majesty's company to the place," I answered smiling. "I will undertake that you shall be amused at least as well as here, and at a cheaper rate."
He shrugged his shoulders. "That may very well be," he said with a grimace. "That rogue Pimentel has stripped me of two thousand crowns since supper. He is plucking Bassompierre now.
Remembering that only that morning I had had to stop some necessary works through lack of means, I could scarcely restrain my indignation. But it was not the time to speak, and I contented myself with repeating my request. Ashamed of himself, he consented with a good grace, and bidding me go to his: closet, followed a few minutes later. He found me cloaked to the eyes, and with a soutane and priest's hat; on my arm. "Are those for me?" he said.
"Who am I, then?"
"The cure of St. Germain."
He made a wry face. "Come, Grand Master," he said; "he died yesterday. Is not the jest rather grim?"
"In a good cause," I said equably.
He flashed a roguish look at me. "Ah!" he said, "I thought that that was a wicked rule which only we Romanists avowed. But, there; don't be angry. I am ready."
Coquet, the Master of the Household, let us out by one of the river gates, and we went by the new bridge and the Pont St. Michel. By the way I taught the King the role I wished him to play, but without explaining the mystery; the opportune appearance of one of my agents who was watching the end of the street bringing Henry's remonstrances to a close.
"It is still open?" I said.
"Yes, your excellency."
"Then come, sire," I said, "I see the boy yonder. Let us ascend, and I will undertake that before you reach the street again you shall be not only a wiser but a richer sovereign."
"St. Gris!" he answered with alacrity. Why did you not say that before, and I should have asked no questions. On, on, in God's name, and the devil take Pimentel!"
I restrained the caustic jest that rose to my lips, and we proceeded in silence down the street. The boy, whom I had espied loitering in a doorway a little way ahead, as if the great bell above us which had just tolled eleven had drawn him out, peered at us a moment askance; and then, coming forward, accosted us. But I need not detail the particulars of a conversation which was almost word for word the same as that which had passed in the Rue de la Pourpointerie; suffice it that he made the same request with the same frank audacity, and that, granting it, we were in a moment following hint up a similar staircase.
"This way, messieurs, this way!" he said; as he had on that other night, while we groped our way upwards in the dark. He opened a door, and a light shone out; and we entered a room that seemed, with its bare walls and rafters, its scanty stool and table and lamp, the very counterpart of that other room. In one wall appeared the dingy curtains of an alcove, closely drawn; and the shutter stood open, until, at the child's request, expressed in the same words, I went to it and closed it.
We were both so well muffled up and disguised, and the light of the lamp shining upwards so completely distorted the features, that I had no fear of recognition, unless the King's voice betrayed him. But when he spoke, breaking the oppressive silence of the room, his tone was as strange and hollow as I could wish.
"The shutter is closed," be said; "but the shutter of God's mercy is never closed!"
Still, knowing that this was the crucial moment, and that we should be detected now if at all, I found it; an age before the voice behind the curtains answered "Amen!" and yet another age before the hidden speaker continued "Who are you?"
"The cure of St. Germain," Henry responded.
The man behind the curtains gasped, and they were for a moment violently agitated, as if a hand seized them and let them go again. But I had reckoned that the unknown, after a pause of horror, would suppose that he had heard amiss and continue his usual catechism. And so it proved. In a voice that shook a little, he asked, "Whom do you bring to me?"
"A sinner," the King answered.
"What has he done?"
"He will tell you."
"I am listening," the unknown said.
The light in the basin flared up a little, casting dark shadows on the ceiling, and at the same moment the shutter, which I had failed to fasten securely, fell open with a grinding sound. One of the curtains swayed a little in the breeze, "I have robbed my master," I said, slowly.
"Of how much?"
"A hundred and twenty thousand crowns."
The bed shook until the boards creaked under it; but this time no hand grasped the curtains. Instead, a strained voice--thick and coarse, yet differing from that muffled tone which we had heard before--asked, "Who are you?"
I waited. The King, who understood nothing but had listened to my answers with eager attention, and marked no less closely the agitation which they caused in the unknown, leant forward to listen. But the bed creaked no more; the curtain hung still; even the voice, which at last issued from the curtains, was no more like the ordinary accents of a man than are those which he utters in the paroxysms of epilepsy. "Are you--sorry?" the unknown muttered--involuntarily, I think; hoping against hope; not daring to depart from a formula which had become second nature. But I could fancy him clawing, as he spoke, at his choking throat.
France, however, had suffered too long at the hands of that race of men, and I had been too lately vilified by them to feel much pity; and for answer I lifted a voice that to the quailing wretch must have been the voice of doom. "Sorry?" I said grimly. "I must be--or hang! For to-morrow the King examines his books, and the next day I--hang!"
The King's hand was on mine, to stop me before the last word was out; but his touch came too late. As it rang through the room one of the curtains before us was twitched aside, and a face glared out, so ghastly and drawn and horror-stricken, that few would have known it for that of the wealthy fermier, who had grown sleek and fat on the King's revenues. I do not know whether he knew us, or whether, on the contrary, he found this accusation, so precise, so accurate, coming from an unknown source, still more terrible than if he had known us; but on the instant he fell forward in a swoon.
"St. Gris!" Henry cried, looking on the body with a shudder, "you have killed him, Grand Master! It was true, was it?"
"Yes, sire," I answered. "But he is not dead, I think." And going to the window I whistled for Maignan, who in a minute came to us. He was not very willing to touch the man, but I bade him lay him on the bed and loosen his clothes and throw water on his face; and presently M. Fauchet began to recover.
I stepped a little aside that he might not see me, and accordingly the first person on whom his eyes lighted was the King, who had laid aside his hat and cloak, and taken the terrified and weeping child on his lap. M. Fauchet stared at him awhile before he recognised him; but at last the trembling man knew him, and tottering to his feet, threw himself on his knees, looking years older than when I had last seen him in the street.
"Sire," he said faintly, "I will make restitution."
Henry looked at him gravely, and nodded. "It is well," he said. "You are fortunate, M. Fauchet; for had this come to my ears in any other way I could not have spared you. You will render your accounts and papers to M. de Sully to-morrow, and according as you are frank with him you will be treated."
Fauchet thanked him with abject tears, and the King rose and prepared to leave. But at the door a thought struck him, and he turned. "How long have you done this?" he said, indicating the room by a gesture, and speaking in a gentler tone.
"Three years, sire," the wretched man answered.
"And how much have you distributed?"
"Fifteen hundred crowns, sire."
The King cast an indescribable look at me, wherein amusement, scorn, and astonishment were all blended. "St. Gris! man!" he said, shrugging his shoulders and drawing in his breath sharply, "you think God is as easily duped as the King! I wish I could think so."
He did not speak again until we were half-way back to the Louvre; when he opened his mouth to announce his intention of rewarding me with a tithe of the money recovered. It was duly paid to me, and I bought with it part of the outlying lands of Villebon-- those, I mean, which extend towards Chartres. The rest of the money, notwithstanding all my efforts, was wasted here and there, Pimentel winning thirty crowns of the King that year. But the discovery led to others of a similar character, and eventually set me on the track of a greater offender, M. l'Argentier, whom I brought to justice a few months later.
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