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On a certain wet night, in the spring of the year 1587, the rain was doing its utmost to sweeten the streets of old Paris: the kennels were aflood with it, and the March wind, which caused the crowded sign-boards to creak and groan on their bearings, and ever and anon closed a shutter with the sound of a pistol-shot, blew the downpour in sheets into exposed doorways, and drenched to the skin the few wayfarers who were abroad. Here and there a stray dog, bent over a bone, slunk away at the approach of a roisterer's footstep; more rarely a passenger, whose sober or stealthy gait whispered of business rather than pleasure, moved cowering from street to street, under such shelter as came in his way.
About two hours before midnight, a man issued somewhat suddenly from the darkness about the head of the Pont du Change and turned the corner into the Rue de St. Jacques la Boucherie, a street which ran parallel with the Quays, about half a mile east of the Louvre. His heavy cloak concealed his figure, but he made his way in the teeth of the wind with the spring and vigour of youth; and arriving presently at a doorway, which had the air of retiring modestly under a couple of steep dark gables, and yet was rendered conspicuous by the light which shone through the unglazed grating above it, he knocked sharply on the oak. After a short delay the door slid open of itself and the man entered. He showed none of a stranger's surprise at the invisibility of the porter, but after staying to shut the door, he advanced along a short passage, which was only partially closed at the further end by a high wooden screen. Coasting round this he entered a large low-roofed room, lighted in part by a dozen candles, in part by a fire which burned on a raised iron plate in the corner.
The air was thick with wood smoke, but the occupants of the room, a dozen men, seated, some at a long table, and some here and there in pairs, seemed able to recognize the new-comer through it, and hailed his appearance with a cry of welcome--a cry that had in it a ring of derision. One man who stood near the fire, impatiently kicking the logs with his spurred boots, turned, and seeing who it was moved towards him. "Welcome, M. de Bazan," he said briskly; "so you have come to resume our duel! I had given up hope of you."
"I am here," the new-comer answered. He spoke curtly, and as he did so he took off his horseman's cloak and laid it aside. The action disclosed a man scarcely twenty, moderately well dressed, and of slight though supple figure. His face wore an air of determination singular in one so young, and at variance with the quick suspicious glances with which he took in the scene. He did not waste time in staring, however, but quickly and with a business-like air he seated himself at a small wooden table which stood in a warm corner of the hearth, and directly under a brace of candles. Calling for a bottle of wine, he threw a bag of coin on the table; at the same time he hitched forward his sword until the pommel of the weapon lay across his left thigh; a sinister movement which the debauched and reckless looks of some of his companions seemed to justify. The man who had addressed him took his seat opposite, and the two, making choice of a pair of dice-boxes, began to play.
They did not use the modern game of hazard, but simply cast the dice, each taking it in turn to throw, and a nick counting as a drawn battle. The two staked sums higher than were usual in the company about them, and one by one, the other gamblers forsook their tables, and came and stood round. As the game proceeded, the young stranger's face grew more and more pale, his eyes more feverish. But he played in silence. Not so his backers. A volley of oaths and exclamations almost as thick as the wood smoke that in part shrouded the game, began to follow each cast of the dice. The air, one moment still and broken only by the hollow rattle of the dice in the box, rang the next instant with the fierce outburst of a score of voices.
The place, known as Simon's, was a gaming-house of the second class: frequented, as the shabby finery of some and the tarnished arms of others seemed to prove, by the poorer courtiers and the dubious adventurers who live upon the great. It was used in particular by the Guise faction, at this time in power; for though Henry of Valois was legal and nominal King of France, Henry of Guise, the head of the League, and the darling of Paris, imposed his will alike upon the King and the favourites. He enjoyed the substance of power; the King had no choice but to submit to his policy. In secret Henry the Third resented the position, and between his immediate servants and the arrogant followers of the Guises there was bitter enmity.
As the game proceeded, a trifle showed that the young player was either ignorant of politics, or belonged to a party rarely represented at Simon's. For some time he and his opponent had enjoyed equal luck. Then they doubled the stakes, and fortune immediately declared herself against him; with wondrous quickness his bag grew lank and thin, the pile at the other's elbow a swollen sliding heap. The perspiration began to stand on the young man's face. His hand trembled as he shook out the last coins left in the bag and shoved them forward amid a murmur half of derision half of sympathy; for if he was a stranger from the country--that was plain, and they had recognized it at his first appearance among them three days before--at least he played bravely. His opponent, whose sallow face betrayed neither joy nor triumph, counted out an equal sum, and pushed it forward without a word. The young man took up the box, and for the first time seemed to hesitate; it could be seen that he had bitten his lip until it bled. "After you," he muttered at last, withdrawing his hand. He shrank from throwing his last throw.
"It is your turn," the other replied impassively, "but as you will." He shook the box, brought it down sharply on the table and raised it. "The Duke!" he said with an oath--he had thrown the highest possible. "Twelve is the game."
With a shiver the lad--he was little more than a lad, though in his heart, perhaps, the greatest gambler present--dashed down his box. He raised it. "The King!" he cried; "long life to him!" He had also thrown twelve. His cheek flushed a rosy red, and with a player's superstitious belief in his luck he regarded the check given to his opponent in the light of a presage of victory. They threw again, and he won by two points--nine to seven. Hurrah!
"King or Duke," the tall man answered, restraining by a look the interruption which more than one of the bystanders seemed about to offer, "the money is yours; take it."
"Let it lie," the young man answered joyously. His eyes sparkled. When the other had pushed an equal amount into the middle of the table, he threw again, and with confidence.
Alas! his throw was a deuce and an ace. The elder player threw four and two. He swept up the pile. "Better late than never," he said. And leaning back he looked about him with a grin of satisfaction.
The young man rose. The words which had betrayed that he was not of the Duke's faction, had cost him the sympathy the spectators had before felt for him; and no one spoke. It was something that they kept silence, that they did not interfere with him. His face, pale in the light of the candles which burned beside him, was a picture of despair. Suddenly, as if he bethought him of something, he sat down again, and with a shaking hand took from his neck a slender gold chain with a pendant ornament. "Will you stake against this?" he murmured with dry lips.
"Against that, or your sword, or your body, or anything but your soul!" the other answered with a reckless laugh. He took up the chain and examined it. "I will set you thirty crowns against it!" he said.
They threw and the young man lost.
"I will stake ten crowns against your sword if you like," the victor continued, eyeing the curiously chased pommel.
"No," the young man replied, stung by something in the elder's tone. "That I may want. But I will set my life against yours!"
A chuckle went round. "Bravo!" cried half a dozen voices. One man in the rear, whose business it was to enlist men in the Duke's guard, pressed forward, scenting a recruit.
"Your life against mine! With these?" the winner answered, holding up the dice.
"Yes, or as you please." He had not indeed meant with those: he had spoken in the soreness of defeat, intending a challenge.
The other shook his head. "No," he said, "no. No man can say that Michel Berthaud ever balked his player, but it is not a fair offer. You have lost all, my friend, and I have won all. I am rich, you are poor. 'Tis no fair stake. But I will tell you what I will do. I will set you your gold chain and seventy crowns--against your life if you like."
A roar of laughter hailed the proposal. "A hundred!" cried several, "a hundred!"
"Very well. The gold chain and a hundred. Be it so!"
"But my life?" the young man muttered, gazing at him in bewilderment. "Of what use will it be to you, M. Berthaud?"
"That is my business," was the dry answer. "If you lose, it is forfeit to me. That is all, and the long and the short of it. To be frank, I have a service which I wish you to perform for me."
"And if I will not perform it?"
"Then I will take your word as a gentleman that you will kill yourself. Observe, however, that if I win I shall allow you a choice, my friend."
He leaned back with that, meeting with a faint smile and half-lowered eye-lids, the various looks bent on him. Some stared, some nodded secret comprehension, some laughed outright, or nudged one another and whispered. For four evenings they, the habitués of the place, had watched this play duel go on, but they had not looked for an end so abnormal as this. They had known men stake wives and mistresses, love and honour, ay, their very clothes, and go home naked through the streets; for the streets of Paris saw strange things in those days. But life? Well, even that they had seen men stake in effect, once, twice, a hundred times; but never in so many words, never on a wager as novel as this. So with an amazement which no duel, fought as was the custom in that day, three to three, or six to six, would have evoked, they gathered round the little table under the candles and waited for the issue.
The young man shivered. Then, "I accept," he said slowly. In effect he was desperate, driven to his last straits. He had lost his all, the all of a young man sent up to Paris to make his fortune, with a horse, his sword, and a bag of crowns--the latter saved for him by a father's stern frugality, a mother's tender self-denial. A week ago he had never seen a game of chance. Then he had seen; the dice had fallen in his way, the devil of play, cursed legacy of some long-forgotten ancestor, had awoke within him, and this was the end. "I accept," he said slowly.
His opponent, still with his secretive smile, took up the caster. But a short, sturdy man, who was standing at his elbow, and who wore the colours of the Duke of Guise, intervened. "No, Michel," he said, with a good-natured glance at the young player. "Let the lad choose his bones, and throw first or last as he pleases."
"Right," said Berthaud, yawning. "It is no matter. My star is in the ascendant to-night. He will not win."
The young man took up the box, shook it, hesitated, swallowed, and threw seven!
Berthaud threw carelessly--seven!
Some shouted, some drew a deep breath, or whispered an oath. These wild spirits, who had faced death often in one form or another, were still children, and still in a new thing found a new pleasure.
"Your star may be in the ascendant," the man muttered who had intervened before, "but it--well, it twinkles, Michel."
Berthaud did not answer. The young man made him a sign to throw. He threw again--eight.
The young man threw with a hand that scarcely dared to let the dice go. Seven! He had lost.
An outburst might have been expected, some cry of violence, of despair. It did not come. And a murmur passed round the circle. "Berthaud will recruit him," growled one. "A queer game," muttered another, and thought hard. Nor did the men go back to their tables. They waited to see what would follow, what would come of it. For the young man who had lost sat staring at the table like one in a dream; until presently his opponent reaching out a hand touched his sleeve. "Courage!" Berthaud said, a flicker of triumph in his eye, "a word with you aside. No need of despair, man. You have but to do what I ask, and you will see sixty yet."
Obedient to his gesture the young man rose, and the other drawing him aside began to talk to him in a low voice. The remaining players loitering about the deserted table could not hear what was said; but one or two by feigning to strike a sudden blow, seemed to pass on their surmises to those round them. One thing was clear. The lad objected to the proposal made, objected fiercely and with vehemence; and at last submitted only with reluctance. Submit in the end, however, he did, for after some minutes of this private talk he went to his cloak, and avoiding, as it seemed, his fellows' eyes, put it on. Berthaud accompanied him to the door, and the winner's last words were audible. "That is all," he said; "succeed in what I impose, M. de Bazan, and I cry quits, and you shall have fifty crowns for your pains. Fail, and you will but be paying your debt. But you will not fail. Remember, half an hour after midnight. And courage!"
The young man nodded sullenly, and drawing his cloak about his throat, went through the passage to the street. The night was a little older than when he had entered, otherwise it was unchanged. The rain was still falling; the wind still buffeted the creaking shutters and the swinging sign-boards. But the man? He had entered, thinking nothing of rain or wind, thinking little even of the horse and furniture, and the good clothes made under his mother's eye, which he had sacrificed to refill his purse. The warmth of the play fever coursing through his veins had clad him in proof against cold and damp and the depression of the gloomy streets, even against the thought of home. And for the good horse, and the laced shirts and the gold braid, the luck could not run against him again! He would win all back, and the crowns to boot.
So he had thought as he went in. And now? He stood a moment in the dark, narrow chasm of a street, and looked up, letting the rain cool his brow; looked up, and, seeing a wrack of clouds moving swiftly across the slit of stormy sky visible between the overhanging roofs, faced in a dull amazement the fact that he who now stood in the darkness, bankrupt even in life, was the same man who had entered Paris so rich in hope and youth and life a week--only a week--before. He remembered--it was an odd thing to occur to him when his thoughts should have been full of the events of the last hour--a fault of which he had been guilty down there in the country; and of which, taking advantage of a wrathful father's offer to start him in Paris, he had left the weaker sinner to bear the brunt. And it seemed to him that here was his punishment. The old grey house at home, quaint and weather-beaten, rose before him. He saw his mother's herb-garden, the great stackyard, and the dry moat, half filled with blackberry bushes, in which he had played as a boy. And on him fell a strange calm, between apathy and resignation. This, then, was his punishment. He would bear it like a man. There should be no flinching a second time, no putting the burden on others' shoulders, no self-sparing at another's cost.
He started to walk briskly in the direction of the Louvre. But when he had gained the corner of the open space in front of the palace, whence he had a view of the main gate between the two tennis courts, he halted and looked up and down as if he hesitated. A watch-fire smouldering and sputtering in the rain was burning dully before the drawbridge; the forms of one or two men, apparently sentinels, were dimly visible about it. After standing in doubt more then a minute, Bazan glided quickly to the porch of the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois, and disappeared in the angle between it and the cloisters.
He had been stationary in this position for some half-hour--in what bitterness of spirit, combating what regrets and painful thoughts it is possible only to imagine--when a slight commotion took place at the gate which faced him. Two men came out in close converse, and stood a moment looking up as if speaking of the weather. They separated then, and one who even by that uncertain light could be seen to be a man of tall, spare presence, came across the open space towards the end of the Rue des Fosses, which passed beside the cloisters. He had just entered the street, when Bazan, who had been closely watching his movements, stepped from the shadow of the houses and touched his sleeve.
The tall man recoiled sharply as he turned. He laid his hand on his sword and partly drew it. "Who are you?" he said, trying in the darkness to make out the other's features.
"M. de Crillon, is it not?" the young man asked.
"Yes. And you, young sir?"
"My name is Claude de Bazan, but you do not know me, I have a word to say to you."
"You have chosen an odd time, my friend."
"Some things are always timely," the young fellow answered, the excitement under which he laboured and the occasion imparting a spice of flippancy to his tone. "I come to warn you that your life is in danger. Do not go alone, M. de Crillon, or pass this way at night! And whatever you do, walk for the future in the middle of the street!"
"For the warning I am obliged to you," the tall man answered, his voice cool and satirical, while his eyes continued to scan the other's features. "But, I say again, you have chosen a strange time to give it, young sir. Moreover, your name is new to me, and I do not know your face."
"Nor need you," said Bazan.
"Ay, but I think I need, craving your pardon," replied the tall, spare man with some sternness. "I am not wont to be scared by little things, nor will I give any man the right to say that he has frightened me with a lighted turnip."
"Will it convince you if I tell you that I came hither to kill you?" the young man cried impetuously.
"Yes, if you will say also why you did not--at least try?" Crillon answered drily.
Bazan had not meant to explain himself; he had proposed to give his warning, and to go. But on the impulse of the moment, carried away by his excitement, he spoke, and told the story, and Crillon, after leading him aside, so that a building sheltered them from the rain, listened. He listened, who knew all the dark plans, all the scandals, all the jealousies, all the vile or frantic schemings of a court, that, half French, half Italian, mingled so grimly force and fraud. Nay, when all was told, when Bazan, passing lightly over the resolution he had formed to warn the victim instead of attacking him, came suddenly and lamely to a stop, he still for a time stood silent. At last, "And what will you do now, my friend?" he asked.
"Go back," the young man answered.
"Pay my debt."
The courtier swore a great oath--it was his failing--and with sudden violence he seized his companion by the arm, and hurried him into the roadway, and along the street. "To Simon's!" he muttered. "To Simon's, my friend. I know the place. I will cut that villain Berthaud's throat."
"But what shall I be the better of that?" the young man answered, somewhat bitterly. "I have none the less lost, and must pay."
Crillon stopped short, the darkness hiding alike his face and his feelings. "So!" he said slowly, "I did not think of that! No, I did not think of that. But do you mean it? What, if I kill him?"
"I have played for my life, and lost," Bazan answered proudly. "I promised, and I am a gentleman."
"Pheugh!" Crillon whistled. He swore again, and stood. He was a great man, and full of expedients, but the position was novel. Yet, after a minute's thought, he had an idea. He started off again, taking Bazan's arm, and impelling him onwards, with the same haste and violence. "To Simon's! to Simon's!" he cried as before. "Courage, my friend, I will play him for you and win you: I will redeem you. After all, it is simple, absolutely simple."
"He will not play for me," the young man answered despondently. Nevertheless he suffered himself to be borne onwards. "What will you set against me?"
"Anything, everything!" his new friend cried recklessly. "Myself, if necessary. Courage, M. de Bazan, courage! What Crillon wills, Crillon does. You do not know me yet, but I have taken a fancy to you, I have!"--He swore a grisly oath. "And I will make you mine."
He gave the young man no time for further objection, but, holding him firmly by the arm, he hurried him through the streets to the door below the two gables. On this he knocked with the air of one who had been there before, and to whom all doors opened. In the momentary pause before it yielded Bazan spoke. "Will you not be in danger here?" he asked, wondering much.
"It is a Guise house? True, it is. But there is danger everywhere. No man dies more than once or before God wills it! And I am Crillon!"
The superb air with which he said this last prepared Bazan for what followed. The moment the door was opened, Crillon pushed through the doorway, and with an assured step strode down the passage. He turned the corner of the screen and stood in the room; and, calmly smiling at the group of startled, astonished faces which were turned on him, he drew off his cloak and flung it over his left arm. His height at all times made him a conspicuous figure; this night he was fresh from court. He wore black and silver, the hilt of his long sword was jewelled, the Order of the Holy Ghost glittered on his breast; and this fine array seemed to render more shabby the pretentious finery of the third-rate adventurers before him. He saluted them coolly. "It is a wet night, gentlemen," he said.
Some of those who sat farthest off had risen, and all had drawn together as sheep club at sight of the wolf. One of them answered sullenly that it was.
"You think I intrude, gentlemen?" he returned, smiling pleasantly, drinking in as homage the stir his entrance had caused. For he was vain. "I want only an old friend, M. Michel Berthaud, who is here, I think?"
"And for what do you want him?" the tall dark player answered defiantly; he alone of those present seemed in a degree a match for the new-comer, though even his gloomy eyes fell before Crillon's easy stare. "For what do you want me?"
"To propose a little game to you," Crillon answered: and he moved down the room, apparently at his ease. "My friend here has told me of his ill-luck. He is resolved to perform his bargain. But first, M. Berthaud, I have a proposal to make to you. His life is yours. You have won it. Well, I will set you five hundred crowns against it."
The scowl on Berthaud's face did not relax. "No," he said contemptuously. "I will not play with you, M. de Crillon. Let the fool die. What is he to you?"
"Nothing, and yet I have a fancy to win him," Crillon replied lightly. "Come, I will stake a thousand crowns against him! A thousand crowns for a life! Mon Dieu," he added, with a whimsical glance at Bazan, "but you are dear, my friend!"
Indeed, half a score of faces shone with cupidity, and twice as many bearded lips watered. A thousand crowns! A whole thousand crowns! But to the surprise of most--a few knew their man--Berthaud shook his head.
"No," he said, "I will not play! I won his life, and I will have it."
"Fifteen hundred crowns. I will set that! Fifteen----"
"Two thousand, then! Two thousand, man! And I will throw in my chain. It is worth five hundred more."
"No! No! No!"
"Then, say what you will play for!" the great man roared, his face swelling with rage. "Thousand devils and all tonsured! I have a mind to win his life. What will you have against it?"
"Yours!" said M. Berthaud, very softly.
Bazan drew in his breath--sharply: otherwise the silence was so intense that the fall of the wood-ashes from the dying fire could be heard. The immense, the boundless audacity of the proposal made some smile and some start. But none smiled so grimly as M. Michel Berthaud the challenger and none started so little as M. de Crillon, the challenged.
"A high bid!" he said, lifting his chin with something almost of humour; and then glancing round him, as a wolf might glance, if the sheep turned on him. "You ask much, M. Berthaud."
"I will ask less then," replied Berthaud, with irony. "If I win, I will give you his life. He shall go free whether you win or lose, M. de Crillon."
"That is much!" with answering irony.
"Much or little----"
"It is understood?"
"It is," Berthaud rejoined with a sarcastic bow.
"Then I accept!" Crillon cried: and with a movement so brisk that some recoiled, he sat down at the table. "I accept. Silence!" he continued, turning sharply upon Bazan, whose cry of remonstrance rang above the astonished murmur of the bystanders. "Silence, fool!" He struck the table. "It is my will. Fear nothing! I am Crillon, and I do not lose."
There was a superb self-confidence in the man, an arrogance, a courage, which more than anything else persuaded his hearers that he was in earnest, that he was not jesting with them.
"The terms are quite understood," he proceeded, grimly. "If I win, we go free, M. Berthaud. If I lose, M. de Bazan goes free, and I undertake on the honor of a nobleman to kill myself before daylight. Shall I say within six hours? I have affairs to settle!"
Probably no one in the room felt astonishment equal to that of Berthaud. A faint colour tinged his sallow cheeks; a fierce gleam of joy flashed in his eyes. But all he said was, "Yes, I am satisfied."
"Then throw!" said Crillon, and leaning forward he took a candle from a neighbouring table, and placed it beside him. "My friend," he added, speaking to Bazan with earnest gravity, "I advise you to be quiet. If you do not we shall quarrel."
His smile was as easy, his manner as unembarrassed, his voice as steady, as when he had entered the room. The old gamesters who stood round the table, and had seen, with interest indeed and some pity, but with no great emotion, a man play his last stake, saw this, saw a man stake his life for a whim, with very different feelings; with astonishment, with admiration, with a sense of inferiority that did not so much gall their pride as awaken their interest. For the moment, the man who was above death, who risked it for a fancy, a trifle, a momentary gratification, was a demigod. "Throw!" repeated Crillon, heedless and apparently unconscious of the stir round him: "Throw! but beware of that candle! Your sleeve is in it."
It was; it was singeing. Berthaud moved the candle, and as if his enemy's sang froid wounded him, he threw savagely, dashing down the dice on the table, and lifting the box with a gesture of defiance. He swore a frightful oath: his face was livid. He had thrown aces only.
"So!" murmured his opponent quietly. "Is that all? A thousand crowns to a hundred that I better that! Five hundred to a hundred that I double it! Will no one take me? Then I throw. Courage, my friend. I am Crillon!"
He threw; an ace and a deuce.
"I waste nothing," he said.
But few heard the words--his opponent perhaps and one or two others; for from end to end the room rang and the oaken rafters shook with a great cry of "Long live Crillon! the brave Crillon!"--a cry which rose from a score of throats. Then and onwards till the day of his death, many years later, he was known throughout France by no other name. The great king's letter to him, "Hang yourself, brave Crillon. We have fought to-day, and you were not there!" is not yet forgotten--nay, never will be forgotten--in a land where, more than in other, the memories of the past have been swept away.
He rose from the table, bowing grandly, superbly, arrogantly. "Adieu, M. Berthaud--for the present," he said; and had he not seemed too proud to threaten, a threat might have underlain his words. "Adieu, gentlemen," he continued, throwing on his cloak. "A good night to you, and equal fortune. M. de Bazan, I will trouble you to accompany me? You have exchanged, let me tell you, one taskmaster for another."
The young man's heart was too full for words, and making no attempt to speak, or to thank his benefactor, before those who had seen the deed, he followed him from the room. Crillon did not speak or halt until they stood in the Rue des Fosses; nor even there, for after a momentary hesitation he passed through it, and led the way to the middle of the open space before the Louvre. Here he stopped, and touched his companion on the breast. "Now," he said, "we can speak with freedom, my friend. You wish to thank me? Do not. Listen to me instead. I have saved your life, ay, that have I; but I hold it at my will? Say, is it not so? Well, I, too, in my turn wish you to do something for me."
"Anything!" said the young man, passionately. The sight of the other's strange daring had stirred his untried nature to its depths. "You have but to ask and have."
"Very well," Crillon answered, gravely, "be it so. I take you at your word. Though, mind you, M. de Bazan, 'tis no light thing I ask. It is something," pausing, "from which I shrink myself."
"Then it is nothing you ask me to do," Bazan answered.
"Not so," the courtier replied, though he looked far from ill-pleased by the compliment. "Listen. To-morrow the king sups at the house of Madame de Sauves. I shall be with him. Her house is in the Rue de l'Arbre Sec, two doors from the convent. Here are a hundred crowns. Dress yourself so that you may appear as one of my gentlemen, and wait near the gates till I come. Then follow me in, and at supper stand behind my chair, as the others of my suite will stand."
"And is that all?" Bazan asked in astonishment.
"No, not quite," Crillon answered dryly. "The rest I will whisper in your ear as I pass. Only do what I bid you boldly and faithfully, my friend, and afterwards, if all be well, I will not forget you."
"I am yours! Do with me as you will!" Bazan protested.
But to mortals the unknown is ever terrible; and for twenty-four hours Bazan had the unknown before him. What could that be from which Crillon himself said that he shrank--a man so brave? It could not be death, for that he had risked on the lightest, the flimsiest, the most fantastic provocation. Then what could it be? Bazan turned the question in his mind, turned it a hundred times that night, turned it a hundred times as he went about his preparations next day. Turned it and turned it, but instinctively, though no injunctions to that effect had been given him, took care to show himself as little as possible in public, and especially to shun all places where he might meet those who had been present at that strange game at Simon's.
A quarter before nine on the next evening, saw him waiting with a beating heart outside the house in the Rue de l'Arbre Sec. He formed one of a crowd of lackeys, and linkboys, citizens, apprentices, and chance passers who had been attracted to the spot by the lights and by the guards in the royal livery, who already, though the king was not come, kept the entrance to the courtyard. Bazan pushed himself with some difficulty into the front rank, and there waited, scanning with feverish eagerness every one who entered.
Time passed, and no Crillon appeared, though presently a great shouting along the street proclaimed the approach of the Duke of Guise, and that nobleman passed slowly in, noting with a falcon's eye the faces of the bowing throng. He was a man of grand height and imperial front--a great scar seeming to make the latter more formidable--his smile a trifle supercilious, his eyes somewhat near one another; and under his glance Bazan felt for the moment small and mean. A little later, from the talk of those about him, the young man learned that the king was drawing near, and Henry's coach, surrounded by a dozen of the Forty-five, lumbered along the street. It was greeted with comparative coldness, only those who stood under the guards' eyes performing a careless salute.
Bazan was no Parisian, though for the present in Paris, and no Leaguer, though a Roman Catholic; and he forgot his present errand in the excitement of his rustic loyalty. Raising his bonnet, he cried loudly Vive le Roi!--cried it more than once. There were six in the coach, but Henry, whose pale meagre face with its almond eyes and scanty beard permitted no mistake, remarked the salutation and the giver, and his look cast the young man into a confusion which nearly cost him dearly; for it was only as the guards closed round the coach that he perceived Crillon sitting in the nearer boot. The moment he did see him he pushed forward among the running footmen who followed the coach, and succeeded in entering with it.
The courtyard, crowded with gentlemen, lackeys and torch-bearers, was a scene of great confusion, and Bazan had no difficulty in approaching Crillon and exchanging a sentence with him. That effected, so completely was he confounded by the order whispered in his ear, that he observed nothing more until he found himself in a long gallery, waiting with many others attached to the great men's suites, while the magnificoes themselves talked together at the upper end. By listening to the gossip round him, he learned that one dark handsome man among the latter was Alphonso d'Ornano, often called the Corsican Captain. A second was M. d'O, the Governor of Paris; a third, the Count of Soissons. But he had scarcely time to note these, or the novel and splendid scene in which he stood, before the double doors at the end of the gallery were thrown widely open, and amid a sudden hush the great courtiers passed into the supper room in which the king, the Duke of Guise, and several ladies, already stood or sat in their places, having entered by another door. Bazan pressed in with the flock of attendant gentlemen, and seeing Crillon preparing to sit down not far from the daïs and canopy which marked the king's chair, he took his stand against the wall behind him.
If the words which Crillon had dropped into his ear had not occupied three-fourths of his thoughts, Bazan would have felt a keener admiration of the scene before him; which, as was natural, surpassed in luxury anything the country lad had ever imagined. The room, panelled and ceiled with cedar, was hung with blue velvet and lighted by a hundred tapers. The table gleamed with fine napery and gold plate, with Palissy ware and Cellini vases; and these, with the rich dresses and jewels and fair shoulders of the ladies, combined to form a beautiful interior which resounded with the babble of talk and laughter. It was hard to detect danger lurking under these things, under the silk, within the flashing, gleaming cups, behind smiling eyes; still harder to discern below these fair appearances a peril from which a Crillon shrank.
But to Bazan, as he waited with tortured nerves, these things were nothing. They were no more than fair flowers to the man who espies the coils of a snake among the blossoms. Crillon's whisper had revealed all to him--all, in one brief sentence; so that when he presently recognized Michel Berthaud standing near the upper end of the table and on the farther side of it, in attendance upon the Duke of Guise, he felt no astonishment, but only a shrewd suspicion of the quarter from which the danger might be expected.
The king, a man of thirty-seven, so effeminate in appearance that it was hard to believe he had seen famous fields and once bidden fair to be a great Captain, was nursing a dog on his lap, the while he listened with a weary air to the whispers of the beautiful woman who sat next him. Apparently he had a niggard ear even for her witcheries, and little appetite save for the wine flask. Lassitude lived in his eyes, his long thin fingers trembled. Bazan watched him drain his goblet of wine, almost as soon as he sat down, and watched him, too, hold out the gold cup to be filled again. The task was performed by an assiduous hand, and for a moment the king poised the cup in his fingers, speaking to his neighbour the while. Then he laid it down, but his hand did not quit its neighbourhood.
The next moment the room rang with a cry of alarm and indignation, and every face was turned one way. Bazan with unparalleled audacity had stepped forward, had seized the sacred cup almost from the royal hand, and drained it!
While some sprang from their seats, two or three seized the culprit and held him fast. One more enthusiastic than the others or more keenly sensitive to the outrage of which he had been guilty, aimed a fierce blow at his breast with a poniard. The stroke was well meant, nay, was well directed; but it was adroitly intercepted by M. de Crillon, who had been among the first to rise. With a blow of his sheathed sword he sent the dagger spinning towards the ceiling.
"Back!" he cried, in a voice of thunder, placing himself before the culprit. "Stand back, I say! I will answer to the king for all!"
He cleared a space before him with his scabbard, and a quick signal brought to his side the two guards at the nearest door, who were men of his command. These, crossing their pikes before the prisoner, secured him from immediate attack. By this time all in the room had risen save the king, who appeared less moved than any by the incident. At this point he raised his hand to procure silence.
"Is he mad?" he asked calmly. "What is it, Crillon?"
"I will satisfy your Grace," the courtier answered. But the next moment, with a sudden change of tone, he cried loudly and rapidly, "Stop that man, I beg you, d'Ornano! Stop him!"
The warning came too late. The Corsican sprang indeed to the door, but the crowd impeded him; and the man to whom Crillon referred--the same who had struck at Bazan, and who was no other than Berthaud--got to it first, slipped out and was gone from sight, before those near the entrance had recovered from their surprise.
"Follow him," Crillon cried loudly. "Seize him at all hazards! Mort de Dieu! He has outwitted us at last."
"His Majesty has asked, M. de Crillon," said one at the table, speaking in the haughty, imperious tone of a man who never spoke unheeded, "what is the meaning of all this? Perhaps you will kindly satisfy him."
"I will satisfy him," Crillon answered, grimly fixing his eyes on the other's handsome face. "And you, too, M. de Guise. An attempt has been made to poison my master. This young man, observing that a strange hand poured the king's wine, has saved his Majesty's life by taking the poison himself!"
Henry of Guise laughed scornfully. "A likely story!" he said.
"And in my house!" Madame de Sauves cried in the same tone. "His Majesty will not believe that I----"
"I said nothing against Madame de Sauves," Crillon answered, with firmness. "For the rest, let the king be judge. The issue is simple. If the lad go scatheless, there was no poison in that cup and I am a liar. If he suffer, then let the king say who lies!"
A close observer might have seen an uneasy expression flit across more than one face, darken more than one pair of eyes. Crillon remained on his guard facing the table, his eyes keenly vigilant. The Count of Soissons, one of the younger Bourbons, had already stepped to the king's side and taken place by his chair, his hand on his hilt. D'Ornano, who had despatched two guards after Berthaud, openly drew his long sword and placed himself on the other side of the daïs. Nor was suspicion confined to their party. Half a dozen gentlemen had risen to their feet about the Duke of Guise, who continued to sit with folded arms, content to smile. He was aware that at the worst here in Paris he was safe; perhaps he was innocent of harm or intent.
The main effect, however, of Crillon's last words was to draw many eyes, and amongst them the king's, to the prisoner's face. Bazan was leaning against the wall, the cup still in his grasp. As they turned with a single movement towards him, his face began to grow a shade paler, a spasm moved his lips, and after the interval of a moment the cup fell from his hand to the ground. Thrusting himself with a convulsive movement from the wall, he put out his hands and groped with them as if he could no longer see; until, one of them meeting the pike of the nearest guard, he tried to support himself by this. At the same time he muttered hoarsely, "M. de Crillon, you saw it! We are--we are quits!"
He would have fallen on that, but the men caught him in their arms and held him up, amid a murmur of horror; to many brave men death in this special form is appalling. Here and there a woman shrieked; one fainted. Meanwhile, the young man's face was becoming livid; his neck seemed to stiffen, his eyes to protrude. The king looked at him and shuddered. "Saint Denis!" he muttered, the perspiration standing on his brow, "what an escape! What an escape! Can nothing be done for him?"
"I will try, Sire," Crillon answered, abandoning for the first time his attitude of watchfulness. Drawing a small phial from his pocket, he directed one of the guards to force open the lad's teeth, and then himself poured the contents of the bottle between them.
"Good lad," he muttered to himself, "he has drained the cup. I bade him drink only half. It would have been enough. But he is young and strong. He may surmount it."
The rest looked on, some in curiosity, some in pity, some in secret apprehension. It was the Duke of Guise who put into words the thoughts of many. "Those," he said scornfully, "who find the antidote, may know the poison, M. de Crillon."
"What do you mean, Duke?" Crillon replied passionately, as he sprang to his feet. "That I was in this? That I know more than I have told of it? If so, you lie, sir; and you know it!"
"I know it?" the Duke cried, his eyes aflame, his cheeks reddening. Never had he heard such words. "Do you dare to insinuate--that I know more of this plot than yourself--if plot there be?"
"Enough!" said the king, rising in great haste, and with a face which betrayed his emotion. "Silence, gentlemen! silence! And you, my cousin, not another word, I command you! Who poured out the wine?"
"A villain called Berthaud," Crillon answered promptly and fiercely, "who was in attendance upon the Duke of Guise."
"He was not in attendance on me!" the duke answered, with spirit.
"Then on Madame de Sauves."
"I know nothing of him!" cried that lady, hysterically. "I never spoke to the man in my life. I do not know him!"
"Enough!" the king said with decision; but the gloom on his brow grew darker. "Enough. Until Berthaud is found, let no more be said. Cousin," he continued to the Count of Soissons, "you will see us home. D'Ornano, we return at once, and you will accompany us. For M. de Crillon, we commit to him the care of this young man, to whom we appear to be indebted, and whose thought for us we shall not forget. Madame, I kiss your hand."
Guise's salutation he acknowledged only by a grave bow. The last of the Valois could at times exert himself, could at times play again the hero of Jarnac and Montcontour, could even assume a dignity no whit less than that of Guise. As he retired all bowed low to him, and the greater part of the assemblage--even those who had not attended him to the house--left in his train. In three minutes Crillon, a couple of inferior officers, and a handful of guards alone remained round the young man.
"He will recover," Crillon said, speaking to the officer next him. "He is young, and they did not dare to make the dose too strong. We shall not, however, convict any one now, unless Berthaud speaks."
"Berthaud is dead."
"As dead as Clovis," the lieutenant repeated calmly. "He is lying in the passage, M. de Crillon."
"Who killed him?" cried Crillon, leaping up in a rage. "Who dared to kill him? Not those fools of guards when they knew it was his evidence we wanted."
"No, no," said the other coolly. "They found him dead not twenty paces from the house. He was a doomed man when he passed through the door. You understand, M. de Crillon? He knew too much to live."
"Mort de Dieu!" cried Crillon, raising his hands in admiration. "How clever they are! Not a thing forgotten! Well, I will to the king and tell him. It will put him on his guard. If I had not contrived to try the draught there and then, I could not have convinced him; and if I had not by a lucky hazard won this young man last night, I might have whistled for one to try it! But I must go."
Yet he lingered a minute to see how the lad progressed. The convulsions which had for a time racked Bazan's vigorous frame had ceased, and a profuse perspiration was breaking out on his brow.
"Yes, he will recover," said Crillon again, and with greater confidence.
As if the words had reached Bazan's brain, he opened his eyes.
"I did it!" he muttered. "I did it. We are quits, M. de Crillon!"
"Not so!" cried the other, stooping impetuously and embracing him. "Not quits! The balance is against me now, but I will redress it. Be easy; your fortune is made, M. de Bazan. While James Berthon de Crillon lives you shall not lack a friend!"
He kept his word. There can be little doubt that the Laurence de Bazan who held high office under the Minister Sully, and in particular rose to be Deputy Superintendent of the Finances in Guienne, was our young Bazan. This being so, it is clear that he outlived by many years his patron: for Crillon, "le brave Crillon," whose whim it was to dare greatly, and on small occasion, died early in the seventeenth century--in his bed--and lies under a famous stone in the Cathedral of Avignon. Whereas we find Bazan still flourishing, and a person of consequence at Court, when Richelieu came to the height of his power. Nevertheless on him there remains no stone; only some sketch of the above, and a crabbed note at the foot of a dusty page in a dark library.
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