Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
There were a score round us when the fool, little knowing the man with whom he had to deal, and as little how to lose like a gentleman, flung the words in my teeth. He thought, I'll be sworn, that I should storm and swear and ruffle it like any common cock of the hackle. But that was never Gil de Berault's way. For a few seconds after he had spoken I did not even look at him. I passed my eye instead--smiling, bien entendu--round the ring of waiting faces, saw that there was no one except De Pombal I had cause to fear; and then at last I rose and looked at the fool with the grim face I have known impose on older and wiser men.
'Marked cards, M. l'Anglais?' I said, with a chilling sneer. 'They are used, I am told, to trap players--not unbirched schoolboys.'
'Yet I say that they are marked!' he replied hotly, in his queer foreign jargon. 'In my last hand I had nothing. You doubled the stakes. Bah, sir, you knew! You have swindled me!'
'Monsieur is easy to swindle--when he plays with a mirror behind him,' I answered tartly.
At that there was a great roar of laughter, which might have been heard in the street, and which brought to the table everyone in the eating-house whom his voice had not already attracted. But I did not relax my face. I waited until all was quiet again, and then waving aside two or three who stood between us and the entrance, I pointed gravely to the door.
'There is a little space behind the church of St Jacques, M. l'Etranger,' I said, putting on my hat and taking my cloak on my arm. 'Doubtless you will accompany me thither?'
He snatched up his hat, his face burning with shame and rage.
'With pleasure!' he blurted out. 'To the devil, if you like!'
I thought the matter arranged, when the Marquis laid his hand on the young fellow's arm and checked him.
'This must not be,' he said, turning from him to me with his grand, fine-gentleman's air. 'You know me, M. de Berault. This matter has gone far enough.'
'Too far! M. de Pombal,' I answered bitterly. 'Still, if you wish to take your friend's place, I shall raise no objection.'
'Chut, man!' he retorted, shrugging his shoulders negligently. 'I know you, and I do not fight with men of your stamp. Nor need this gentleman.'
'Undoubtedly,' I replied, bowing low, 'if he prefers to be caned in the streets.'
That stung the Marquis.
'Have a care! have a care!' he cried hotly. 'You go too far, M. Berault.'
'De Berault, if you please,' I objected, eyeing him sternly. 'My family has borne the de as long as yours, M. de Pombal.'
He could not deny that, and he answered, 'As you please;' at the same time restraining his friend by a gesture. 'But none the less,' he continued, 'take my advice. The Cardinal has forbidden duelling, and this time he means it! You have been in trouble once and gone free. A second time it may fare worse with you. Let this gentleman go, therefore, M. de Berault. Besides--why, shame upon you, man!' he exclaimed hotly; 'he is but a lad!'
Two or three who stood behind me applauded that, But I turned and they met my eye; and they were as mum as mice.
'His age is his own concern,' I said grimly. 'He was old enough a while ago to insult me.'
'And I will prove my words!' the lad cried, exploding at last. He had spirit enough, and the Marquis had had hard work to restrain him so long. 'You do me no service, M. de Pombal,' he continued, pettishly shaking off his friend's hand. 'By your leave, this gentleman and I will settle this matter.'
'That is better,' I said, nodding drily, while the Marquis stood aside, frowning and baffled. 'Permit me to lead the way.'
Zaton's eating-house stands scarcely a hundred paces from St Jacques la Boucherie, and half the company went thither with us. The evening was wet, the light in the streets was waning, the streets themselves were dirty and slippery. There were few passers in the Rue St Antoine; and our party, which earlier in the day must have attracted notice and a crowd, crossed unmarked, and entered without interruption the paved triangle which lies immediately behind the church. I saw in the distance one of the Cardinal's guard loitering in front of the scaffolding round the new Hotel Richelieu; and the sight of the uniform gave me pause for a moment. But it was too late to repent.
The Englishman began at once to strip off his clothes. I closed mine to the throat, for the air was chilly. At that moment, while we stood preparing, and most of the company seemed a little inclined to stand off from me, I felt a hand on my arm, and turning, saw the dwarfish tailor at whose house, in the Rue Savonnerie, I lodged at the time. The fellow's presence was unwelcome, to say the least of it; and though for want of better company I had sometimes encouraged him to be free with me at home, I took that to be no reason why I should be plagued with him before gentlemen. I shook him off, therefore, hoping by a frown to silence him.
He was not to be so easily put down, however, and perforce I had to speak to him.
'Afterwards, afterwards,' I said hurriedly. 'I am engaged now.
'For God's sake, don't, sir!' the poor fool cried, clinging to my sleeve. 'Don't do it! You will bring a curse on the house. He is but a lad, and--'
'You, too!' I exclaimed,losing patience. 'Be silent, you scum! What do you know about gentlemen's quarrels? Leave me; do you hear?'
'But the Cardinal!' he cried in a quavering voice. 'The Cardinal, M. de Berault! The last man you killed is not forgotten yet. This time he will be sure to--'
'Leave me, do you hear?' I hissed. The fellow's impudence passed all bounds. It was as bad as his croaking. 'Begone!' I added. 'I suppose you are afraid that he will kill me, and you will lose your money.'
Frison fell back at that almost as if I had struck him, and I turned to my adversary, who had been awaiting my motions with impatience. God knows he did look young as he stood with his head bare and his fair hair drooping over his smooth woman's forehead--a mere lad fresh from the college of Burgundy, if they have such a thing in England. I felt a sudden chill as I looked at him: a qualm, a tremor, a presentiment. What was it the little tailor had said? That I should--but there, he did not know. What did he know of such things? If I let this pass I must kill a man a day, or leave Paris and the eating-house, and starve.
'A thousand pardons,' I said gravely, as I drew and took my place. 'A dun. I am sorry that the poor devil caught me so inopportunely. Now however, I am at your service.'
He saluted and we crossed swords and began. But from the first I had no doubt what the result would be. The slippery stones and fading light gave him, it is true, some chance, some advantage, more than he deserved; but I had no sooner felt his blade than I knew that he was no swordsman. Possibly he had taken half-a- dozen lessons in rapier art, and practised what he learned with an Englishman as heavy and awkward as himself. But that was all. He made a few wild clumsy rushes, parrying widely. When I had foiled these, the danger was over, and I held him at my mercy.
I played with him a little while, watching the sweat gather on his brow and the shadow of the church tower fall deeper and darker, like the shadow of doom, on his face. Not out of cruelty --God knows I have never erred in that direction!--but because, for the first time in my life, I felt a strange reluctance to strike the blow. The curls clung to his forehead; his breath came and went in gasps; I heard the men behind me and one or two of them drop an oath; and then I slipped--slipped, and was down in a moment on my right side, my elbow striking the pavement so sharply that the arm grew numb to the wrist.
He held off. I heard a dozen voices cry, 'Now! now you have him!' But he held off. He stood back and waited with his breast heaving and his point lowered, until I had risen and stood again. on my guard.
'Enough! enough!' a rough voice behind me cried. 'Don't hurt the man after that.'
'On guard, sir!' I answered coldly--for he seemed to waver, and be in doubt. 'It was an accident. It shall not avail you again.'
Several voices cried 'Shame!' and one, 'You coward!' But the Englishman stepped forward, a fixed look in his blue eyes. He took his place without a word. I read in his drawn white face that he had made up his mind to the worst, and his courage so won my admiration that I would gladly and thankfully have set one of the lookers-on--any of the lookers-on--in his place; but that could not be. So I thought of Zaton's closed to me, of Pombal's insult, of the sneers and slights I had long kept at the sword's point; and, pressing him suddenly in a heat of affected anger, I thrust strongly over his guard, which had grown feeble, and ran him through the chest.
When I saw him lying, laid out on the stones with his eyes half shut, and his face glimmering white in the dusk--not that I saw him thus long, for there were a dozen kneeling round him in a twinkling--I felt an unwonted pang. It passed, however, in a moment. For I found myself confronted by a ring of angry faces --of men who, keeping at a distance, hissed and cursed and threatened me, calling me Black Death and the like.
They were mostly canaille, who had gathered during the fight, and had viewed all that passed from the farther side of the railings. While some snarled and raged at me like wolves, calling me 'Butcher!' and 'Cut-throat!' or cried out that Berault was at his trade again, others threatened me with the vengeance of the Cardinal, flung the edict in my teeth, and said with glee that the guard were coming--they would see me hanged yet.
'His blood is on your head!' one cried furiously. 'He will be dead in an hour. And you will swing for him! Hurrah!'
'Begone,' I said.
'Ay, to Montfaucon,' he answered, mocking me.
'No; to your kennel!' I replied, with a look which sent him a yard backwards, though the railings were between us. And I wiped my blade carefully, standing a little apart. For--well, I could understand it--it was one of those moments when a man is not popular. Those who had come with me from the eating-house eyed me askance, and turned their backs when I drew nearer; and those who had joined us and obtained admission were scarcely more polite.
But I was not to be outdone in sang froid. I cocked my hat, and drawing my cloak over my shoulders, went out with a swagger which drove the curs from the gate before I came within a dozen paces of it. The rascals outside fell back as quickly, and in a moment I was in the street. Another moment and I should have been clear of the place and free to lie by for a while--when, without warning, a scurry took place round me. The crowd fled every way into the gloom, and in a hand-turn a dozen of the Cardinal's guards closed round me.
I had some acquaintance with the officer in command, and he saluted me civilly.
'This is a bad business, M. de Berault,' he said. 'The man is dead they tell me.'
'Neither dying nor dead,' I answered lightly. 'If that be all you may go home again.'
'With you,' he replied, with a grin, 'certainly. And as it rains, the sooner the better. I must ask you for your sword, I am afraid.'
'Take it,' I said, with the philosophy which never deserts me. 'But the man will not die.'
'I hope that may avail you,' he answered in a tone I did not like. 'Left wheel, my friends! To the Chatelet! March!'
'There are worse places,' I said, and resigned myself to fate. After all, I had been in a prison before, and learned that only one jail lets no prisoner escape.
But when I found that my friend's orders were to hand me over to the watch, and that I was to be confined like any common jail- bird caught cutting a purse or slitting a throat, I confess my heart sank. If I could get speech with the Cardinal, all would probably be well; but if I failed in this, or if the case came before him in strange guise, or if he were in a hard mood himself, then it might go ill with me. The edict said, death!
And the lieutenant at the Chatelet did not put himself to much trouble to hearten me. 'What! again M. de Berault?' he said, raising his eyebrows as he received me at the gate, and recognised me by the light of the brazier which his men were just kindling outside. 'You are a very bold man, or a very foolhardy one, to come here again. The old business, I suppose?'
'Yes, but he is not dead,' I answered coolly. 'He has a trifle --a mere scratch. It was behind the church of St Jacques.'
'He looked dead enough, my friend,' the guardsman interposed. He had not yet left us.
'Bah!' I answered scornfully. 'Have you ever known me make a mistake When I kill a man I kill him. I put myself to pains, I tell you, not to kill this Englishman. Therefore he will live.'
'I hope so,' the lieutenant said, with a dry smile. 'And you had better hope so, too, M. de Berault, For if not--'
'Well?' I said, somewhat troubled. 'If not, what, my friend?'
'I fear he will be the last man you will fight,' he answered. 'And even if he lives, I would not be too sure, my friend. This time the Cardinal is determined to put it down.'
'He and I are old friends,' I said confidently.
'So I have heard,' he anwered, with a short laugh. 'I think that the same was said of Chalais. I do not remember that it saved his head.'
This was not reassuring. But worse was to come. Early in the morning orders were received that I should be treated with especial strictness, and I was given the choice between irons and one of the cells below the level. Choosing the latter, I was left to reflect upon many things; among others, on the queer and uncertain nature of the Cardinal, who loved, I knew, to play with a man as a cat with a mouse; and on the ill effects which sometimes attend a high chest-thrust however carefully delivered. I only rescued myself at last from these and other unpleasant reflections by obtaining the loan of a pair of dice; and the light being just enough to enable me to reckon the throws, I amused myself for hours by casting them on certain principles of my own. But a long run again and again upset my calculations; and at last brought me to the conclusion that a run of bad luck may be so persistent as to see out the most sagacious player. This was not a reflection very welcome to me at the moment.
Nevertheless, for three days it was all the company I had. At the end of that time, the knave of a jailor who attended me, and who had never grown tired of telling me, after the fashion of his kind, that I should be hanged, came to me with a less assured air.
'Perhaps you would like a little water?' he said civilly.
'Why, rascal?' I asked.
'To wash with,' he answered.
'I asked for some yesterday, and you would not bring it,' I grumbled. 'However, better late than never. Bring it now. If I must hang, I will hang like a gentleman. But depend upon it, the Cardinal will not serve an old friend so scurvy a trick.'
'You are to go to him,' he announced, when he came back with the water.
'What? To the Cardinal?' I cried.
'Yes,' he answered.
'Good!' I exclaimed; and in my joy and relief I sprang up at once, and began to refresh my dress. 'So all this time I have been doing him an injustice,' I continued. 'Vive monseigneur! Long live the little Bishop of Luchon! I might have known it, too.'
'Don't make too sure!' the man answered spitefully. Then he went on, 'I have something else for you. A friend of yours left it at the gate,' and he handed me a packet.
'Quite so!' I said, leading his rascally face aright. 'And you kept it as long as you dared--as long as you thought I should hang, you knave! Was not that so? But there, do not lie to me. Tell me instead which of my friends left it.' For, to confess the truth, I had not so many friends at this time and ten good crowns--the packet contained no less a sum--argued a pretty staunch friend, and one of whom a man might reasonably be proud.
The knave sniggered maliciously. 'A crooked dwarfish man left it,' he said. 'I doubt I might call him a tailor and not be far out.'
'Chut!' I answered--but I was a little out of countenance, nevertheless. 'I understand. An honest fellow enough, and in debt to me! I am glad he remembered. But when am I to go, friend?'
'In an hour,' he answered sullenly. Doubtless he had looked to get one of the crowns; but I was too old a hand for that. If I came back I could buy his services; and if I did not I should have wasted my money.
Nevertheless, a little later, when I found myself on my way to the Hotel Richelieu under so close a guard that I could see nothing in the street except the figures that immediately surrounded me, I wished that I had given him the money. At such times, when all hangs in the balance and the sky is overcast, the mind runs on luck and old superstitions, and is prone to think a crown given here may avail there--though there be a hundred leagues away.
The Palais Richelieu was at this time in building, and we were required to wait in a long, bare gallery, where the masons were at work. I was kept a full hour here, pondering uncomfortably on the strange whims and fancies of the great man who then ruled France as the King's Lieutenant-General, with all the King's powers, and whose life I had once been the means of saving by a little timely information. On occasion he had done something to wipe out the debt; and at other times he had permitted me to be free with him, and so far we were not unknown to one another.
Nevertheless, when the doors were at last thrown open, and I was led into his presence, my confidence underwent a shock. His cold glance, that, roving over me, regarded me not as a man but an item, the steely glitter of his southern eyes, chilled me to the bone. The room was bare, the floor without carpet or covering. Some of the woodwork lay about, unfinished and in pieces. But the man--this man, needed no surroundings. His keen pale face, his brilliant eyes, even his presence--though he was of no great height, and began already to stoop at the shoulders--were enough to awe the boldest. I recalled, as I looked at him, a hundred tales of his iron will, his cold heart, his unerring craft. He had humbled the King's brother, the splendid Duke of Orleans, in the dust. He had curbed the Queen-mother. A dozen heads, the noblest in France, had come to the block through him. Only two years before he had quelled Rochelle; only a few months before he had crushed the great insurrection in Languedoc: and though the south, stripped of its old privileges, still seethed with discontent, no one in this year 1630 dared lift a hand against him--openly, at any rate. Under the surface a hundred plots, a thousand intrigues, sought his life or his power; but these, I suppose, are the hap of every great man.
No wonder, then, that the courage on which I plumed myself sank low at sight of him; or that it was as much as I could do to mingle with the humility of my salute some touch of the sang froid of old acquaintanceship.
And perhaps that had had been better left out. For it seemed that this man was without bowels. For a moment, while he stood looking at me, and before he spoke to me, I gave myself up for lost. There was a glint of cruel satisfaction in his eyes that warned me, before he opened his mouth, what he was going to say to me.
'I could not have made a better catch, M. de Berault,' he said, smiling villainously, while he gently smoothed the fur of a cat that had sprung on the table beside him. 'An old offender, and an excellent example. I doubt it will not stop with you. But later, we will make you the warrant for flying at higher game.'
'Monseigneur has handled a sword himself,' I blurted out. The very room seemed to be growing darker, the air colder. I was never nearer fear in my life.
'Yes?' he said, smiling delicately. 'And so--?'
'Will not be too hard on the failings of a poor gentleman.'
'He shall suffer no more than a rich one,' he replied suavely as he stroked the cat. 'Enjoy that satisfaction, M. de Berault. Is that all?'
'Once I was of service to your Eminence,' I said desperately.
'Payment has been made,' he answered, 'more than once. But for that I should not have seen you.'
'The King's face!' I cried, snatching at the straw he seemed to hold out.
He laughed cynically, smoothly. His thin face, his dark moustache, and whitening hair, gave him an air of indescribable keenness.
'I am not the King,' he said. 'Besides, I am told that you have killed as many as six men in duels. You owe the King, therefore, one life at least. You must pay it. There is no more to be said, M. de Berault,' he continued coldly, turning away and beginning to collect some papers. 'The law must take its course.'
I thought that he was about to nod to the lieutenant to withdraw me, and a chilling sweat broke out down my back. I saw the scaffold, I felt the cords. A moment, and it would be too late!
'I have a favour to ask,' I stammered desperately, 'if your Eminence will give me a moment alone.'
'To what end?' he answered, turning and eyeing me with cold disfavour. 'I know you--your past--all. It can do no good, my friend.'
'No harm!' I cried. 'And I am a dying man, Monseigneur!'
'That is true,' he said thoughtfully. Still he seemed to hesitate; and my heart beat fast. At last he looked at the lieutenant. 'You may leave us,' he said shortly. 'Now,' he continued, when the officer had withdrawn and left us alone, 'what is it? Say what you have to say quickly. And, above all, do not try to fool me, M. de Berault.'
But his piercing eyes so disconcerted me now that I had my chance, and was alone with him, that I could not find a word to say, and stood before him mute. I think this pleased him, for his face relaxed.
'Well?' he said at last. 'Is that all?'
'The man is not dead,' I muttered.
He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
'What of that?' he said. 'That was not what you wanted to say to me.'
'Once I saved your Eminence's life,' I faltered miserably.
'Admitted,' he answered, in his thin, incisive voice. 'You mentioned the fact before. On the other hand, you have taken six to my knowledge, M. de Berault. You have lived the life of a bully, a common bravo, a gamester. You, a man of family! For shame! Do you wonder that it has brought you to this! Yet on that one point I am willing to hear more,' he added abruptly.
'I might save your Eminence's life again,' I cried. It was a sudden inspiration.
'You know something?' he said quickly, fixing me with his eyes. 'But no,' he continued, shaking his head gently. 'Pshaw! The trick is old. I have better spies than you, M. de Berault.'
'But no better sword,' I cried hoarsely. 'No, not in all your guard!'
'That is true,' he said slowly. 'That is true.' To my surprise, he spoke in a tone of consideration; and he looked down at the floor. 'Let me think, my friend,' he continued.
He walked two or three times up and down the room, while I stood trembling. I confess it, trembling. The man whose pulses danger has no power to quicken, is seldom proof against suspense; and the sudden hope his words awakened in me so shook me that his figure as he trod lightly to and fro with the cat rubbing against his robe and turning time for time with him, wavered before my eyes. I grasped the table to steady myself. I had not admitted even in my own mind how darkly the shadow of Montfaucon and the gallows had fallen across me.
I had leisure to recover myself, for it was some time before he spoke. When he did, it was in a voice harsh, changed, imperative. 'You have the reputation of a man faithful, at least, to his employer,' he said. 'Do not answer me. I say it is so. Well, I will trust you. I will give you one more chance --though it is a desperate one. Woe to you if you fail me! Do you know Cocheforet in Bearn? It is not far from Auch.'
'No, your Eminence.'
'Nor M. de Cocheforet?'
'No, your Eminence.'
'So much the better,' he replied. 'But you have heard of him. He has been engaged in every Gascon plot since the late King's death, and gave more trouble last year in the Vivarais than any man twice his years. At present he is at Bosost in Spain, with other refugees, but I have learned that at frequent intervals he visits his wife at Cocheforet which is six leagues within the border. On one of these visits he must be arrested.'
'That should be easy,' I said.
The Cardinal looked at me. 'Chut, man! what do you know about it?' he answered bluntly. 'It is whispered at Cocheforet if a soldier crosses the street at Auch. In the house are only two or three servants, but they have the countryside with them to a man, and they are a dangerous breed. A spark might kindle a fresh rising. The arrest, therefore, must be made secretly.'
'One resolute man inside the house,' the Cardinal continued, thoughtfully glancing at a paper which lay on the table, 'with the help of two or three servants whom he could summon to his aid at will, might effect it. The question is, Will you be the man, my friend?'
I hesitated; then I bowed. What choice had I?
'Nay, nay, speak out!' he said sharply. 'Yes or no, M. de Berault?'
'Yes, your Eminence,' I said reluctantly. Again, I say, what choice had I?
'You will bring him to Paris, and alive. He knows things, and that is why I want him. You understand?'
'I understand, Monseigneur,' I answered.
'You will get into the house as you can,' he continued with energy. 'For that you will need strategy, and good strategy. They suspect everybody. You must deceive them. If you fail to deceive them, or, deceiving them, are found out later, I do not think that you will trouble me again, or break the edict a second time. On the other hand, should you deceive me'--he smiled still more subtly, but his voice sank to a purring note--'I will break you on the wheel like the ruined gamester you are!'
I met his look without quailing. 'So be it!' I said recklessly. 'If I do not bring M. de Cocheforet to Paris, you may do that to me, and more also!'
'It is a bargain!' he answered slowly. 'I think that you will be faithful. For money, here are a hundred crowns. That sum should suffice; but if you succeed you shall have twice as much more. That is all, I think. You understand?'
'Then why do you wait?'
'The lieutenant?' I said modestly.
The Cardinal laughed to himself, and sitting down wrote a word or two on a slip of paper. 'Give him that,' he said in high good- humour. 'I fear, M. de Berault, you will never get your deserts --in this world!'
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.