Queen of the Jesters/A Prison of Swords

(pp. 123-161.)
Paris, Conciergerie 04.jpg
The Bonbec Tower (Tour Bonbec) was built between 1226 and 1270 during the reign of Louis IX, or Saint Louis. The tower served as the primary torture chamber during the Middle Ages; it was said that prisoners tortured would sing like birds, with a 'bon bec,' or beak open wide. (Wikipedia)

III
A PRISON OF SWORDS

Jacques de Serrefort was sleeping when the jailor opened the door of his cell; but he awoke while the keys still rattled in the lock, and sat up in his bed half blinded by the sunlight which streamed through the high window of his prison. It was a morning of early June, fresh with sweet breezes of the summer and the odour of roses in the air j but the captive, who had lived a day of the long ago in his dreams, regarded neither the hour nor the freshness of it. Every morning for fifteen years had he arisen from such dreams of the old time to forget them quickly in the terrible realities of his doom. The gentle smile upon his face, born of the visions of the night, passed at once in the first moments of the day. Sleep had carried him to the fair fields of Brittany, to the pastures of his homestead, to the ingle wherein his wife, and the daughter he had loved more than life, had been wont to greet him when the day's work was done. But the dawn destroyed illusions so welcome. He became the slave again. Nothing to him that it was the height of summer, when all Paris was alive with merry music and feasting and the notes of bells calling lovers to the altars. Day or night, the fall of the leaf or the flowering of the blossom—the hour was long since passed when he remembered these. No more did he rave against the destiny which had made him a perpetual prisoner in the Conciergerie. His mind was rusted from long disuse; he talked and acted like a little child; tears refused him their consoling friendship. He prayed that the end might be soon; he sorrowed only because death was not given to him.

The jailor entered the cell as he had entered it every morning during those terrible years. He and Serrefort had grown old together; old in association, almost in captivity. True, Baptiste, as they called the fellow, had a little house out in the cathedral close yonder, and went there at odd hours to gossip with his neighbours; but nine-tenths of his years were spent in the Conciergerie, and he knew every stone in it, nay, almost every crack in its tremendous walls. In his way, he had been a good friend to Jacques de Serrefort—a friend in the little things of kindness whose worth to a prisoner is inestimable. Every morning, as soon as the bells of Notre Dame struck six o'clock, he would enter the wretched man's cell to cry: “Courage, comrade; here is the day. Who knows what it will bring?” Jacques would declare sometimes that he had said the same thing every day for fifteen years. But it came out of the goodness of his heart, and was not to be resented. Indeed, the prisoner welcomed the sound of the homely voice; and when on this particular morning of June, in the year 1761, the customary greeting was not given, Serrefort turned quickly to his jailor with a question upon his lips.

“How now, Baptiste,” cried he, “you are silent this morning!”

Baptiste shook his head, and went toward the window that Serrefort might not see his face.

“Courage, comrade,” said he; “it will not be for long—your daughter will return to Paris presently, and then all will be well.”

Serrefort, who had begun to dress, sat down upon his bed again. He divined that some great misfortune was about to overtake him, though of its nature he could foresee nothing.

“Come, Baptiste,” said he, “you speak in riddles. What has my daughter to do with the Conceirgerie—have I not enough to bear that you should talk of her?”

“Dame!” replied the old jailor, “I must speak of her since she alone has kept you from the Bombec Tower [1] these two years and more. Think you, comrade, that the bailiff gives windows and red wine to all who ask them? Saint Denis, you have the best quarters in the prison, and the best food. And why?—why, because your daughter has paid for such things. You don't know that?”

“I swear to heaven that I know nothing,” exclaimed Serrefort. “You say that I have these things through my daughter, and that she pays for them?”

“How else should you have them? Sapristi! a child would not be so simple. She has paid for them since your old protector, the Sieur Buchot, died. And she will pay for them again—when she comes back to Paris. Oh, be sure of it. She is a good child, and rare is the week when she does not tell me what she means to do for you. Do not lose heart, old friend. Who knows?—she may be ill or gone away upon an affair of importance. If the bailiff were reasonable, he would think of these things. But he will not hear me, and the order now is that I am to carry you to the Bombec Tower this morning, and to show you no more favours until you can pay for them again.”

Serrefort shuddered. He had not lived in the great prison for fifteen years without hearing many a grim story of the terrible oubliettes below the level of the river Seine, wherein, shut out from God's day and surrounded by horrors unnameable, the more wretched and poorer victims of the bailiff Hubert's greed went all too slowly to their doom. Captivity is apt to obliterate from a man's heart those finer affections which are fed upon freedom. Serrefort was tempted for a moment to bitter thoughts of the daughter who had left him to a fate so horrible. But anon he remembered Baptiste's words, that she must be ill or away upon an affair of importance. And then he complained no more, but fell to wondering what her life had been since he had left her, a child of fifteen, in the old home in Brittany. He could not forget altogether that he owed this enduring punishment to her, and her alone. The hardness born of prison life closed about his heart when he told himself that if he had not struck the man who had been the shadow upon her life, he would not now be a prisoner in the Conciergerie. Such thoughts, however, passed upon the instant, and his great love of her came flowing into his heart like a freshet, and he longed, with the accumulated longing of years, to take her to his heart again.

“Lord, let me see her once more,” he prayed, and so praying he dressed himself and told Baptiste that he was ready.

“Old friend,” said he, “I have been blind indeed, to take these gifts from the hand of one whose own need must be so great. Think you that I would have permitted Irène to work for me at a time when she has neither friends nor helpers in all the city? Heaven forbid that I should have so little love for her. Oh, I am ready to follow you, Baptiste. I care not where you carry me if only you bring me news that she is well. Have I aught else in the world to remember but my little Irène? God shield her always in the shadow of His love.”

He stood up dressed now, and the sunlight fell, bright and golden, upon his clear features and snow-white hair. He had been one of Condé's legion in the old time; a type of fine manhood and dashing courage. They said that there was no finer swordsman in the regiment; no better horseman. Nor had fifteen years of captivity robbed him altogether of that magnificent figure and soldierly carriage which had been the envy of his comrades in the long ago, when Brittany was the fairest country in the world to him, and the face of his young wife the sweetest face in all France. He stood up now, the sun showing the pallor of his face and the deep black lines beneath his eyes; but his body was erect, his shoulders square, his step firm. And so, like a soldier upon parade, he quitted the cell which had harboured him so long, and followed Baptiste to the corridor without.

There was a file of men in the passage armed with harberds and spontoons; a little army to guard a prisoner, who had never in his wildest moments dreamed of escape from a citadel so formidable as the Conciergerie. Serrefort exchanged no greeting with them; but he surveyed them with some scorn when they closed about him and began to march down the corridor, and so to the head of a flight of steps which appeared to lead into the very bowels of the earth. For one short instant a window showed him the city, and beyond that the river, bright with lapping green waves and busy boats, and the houses all huddled together in the sunlight, and the streets full of hurrying throngs, glad because the new day had come. He said that the world lay there,—the world where men hoped and loved and worked; the world he would never know again. And then the window was passed, and he found himself descending the winding stairs of the great Bombec Tower, which seemed to rise up from the very river itself. Though his guards held torches high above their heads, the place was so dark that even the garish yellow light could not penetrate the terrible blackness. Serrefort feared almost to set foot upon the ground, lest he should tumble into some horrid pit or go headlong into the waters of the Seine. So heavy and damp was the air that his lungs seemed to be filled with noxious vapours at every breath. Even the floor of the staircase was covered with wet and slime, while water dripped from the walls in a ceaseless “pat-pat-pat,” which spoke eloquently of the surpassing misery of those who must live in depths so terrible. Serrefort had heard often of the Bombec Tower. He remembered that when as a little child his father had brought him to Paris, they had shown him this great stone bastille, one of the towers of the Conciergerie springing up from the very river's bed, and they had spoken in hushed voices of the suffering of those doomed to such a prison. And now he must learn of these things for himself. Indeed, the lesson had begun already when the sunshine was left far above him; and an intolerable longing for air and light forced him to say that he must lose his reason if they did not carry him up again to the day he had left. And so he came to the foot of the staircase, and his guards having gone some little way down a narrow and sinuous passage, one of them held a torch aloft, while old Baptiste unlocked the door of a cell and bade the prisoner enter.

“Courage,” said he, “for the love of Heaven. It is only for a little while, and your daughter will be back again. You will find a seat there—do not quit it until I come to you. It is the prison of swords you enter, God help you.”

There was a quaver in the old man's voice when he spoke; but Serrefort did not hear. His eyes were staring horribly into the hole which henceforth must be his home. Bright as the flare of the torch was, its light could penetrate but a little way into that den wherein the sun's rays had not entered for centuries, nor any sound been heard but the groans and sobs of the wretched victims of the dungeon.

“Oh,” cried Serrefort, pitifully drawing back, “if I might die! I cannot enter—I cannot—”

But old Baptiste cried again,—

“Courage, my son, courage; she will come back—I shall see her to-day—oh, she has not forgotten you, be sure of it.”

He spoke as a father might have spoken to a son; and pushing the trembling prisoner gently forward, he closed the door upon him and hurried back to the light and the life above. Penalty enough that he should spend moments in an abode of such horrors. Serrefort, on the other hand, took two steps forward and then sank down upon the mouldy straw with which the floor of his new prison was covered. There was no braver man in Paris, none with a stouter heart nor more noble courage; but the Bombec Tower was quick to conquer him. Fear now dominated his mind, until his whole body trembled, and his very heart seemed to stand still. The darkness weighed upon him like a crushing burden. The foul cell appeared to be full of the shapes of those who had gone before him to this agony. His lungs were scorched by the stifling air; the dreadful silence, he said, was the silence of the tomb. Every moment he waited to feel the touch of some creeping thing upon his face; he crouched like a driven animal, putting out his hand to find the walls with his fingers. But his hand was cut by the blade of a knife protruding from the stone work, and as he drew it back bleeding, he remembered what Baptiste had said, that he was then in the prison of swords. Full well he knew what the words meant. Many a time had he heard of this infamous cell wherein the walls bristled with knives, and the floor of which, as tradition told, was covered with creeping things, and even with loathsome reptiles.

“Oh, my God,” he prayed again, “have pity upon me, have pity upon me—I cannot suffer it—I cannot!”

Maddened, as many prisoners before him, he hurled himself ferociously upon the floor and writhed there with burning brain, and hands and arms cut by the sharp blades which protruded from the walls. When the fever passed, and he lay weak and motionless upon the straw, he began to ask himself by what right the bailiff inflicted these wrongs upon him. Years had gone by since he had sinned in striking the Comte de Châteauneuf, the lord of his province, who had robbed him of a fame which was more precious to him than wealth, and had sought to injure the one being for whom he would have given his life willingly. Had they such memories that they remembered the crime still? He could not believe it; but as misery grew upon him, there came back, strong and clear and life-giving, his hate of the man who had doomed him to such agonies. Often in his prison above had he prayed that the day might be his when he would meet the Comte de Châteauneuf face to face and reckon with him for these years. His brightest dreams were those wherein he fancied that his enemy lay dead at his feet, and that he, Jacques de Serrefort, had the dripping sword of victory in his hand. But these dreams were sent for his punishment, since how could he, a helpless prisoner, revenge himself upon a man who commanded in Paris an influence no less powerful than in Brittany. He knew that it could not be; yet hoped the more, and in his hope found the will to live.

It had been very early in the morning when they carried him to the Bombec Tower and old Baptiste had brought a manchet of bread and a flask of wine to the dungeon, so that Serrefort could not hope to see his jailor again before night fell. For the matter of that, he had nothing to tell him the hour; and he lay, it seemed for days, quite still in his cell, while the rats ran over his arms, and ever and anon some living thing would touch his face and fill him with loathing inexpressible. The patter of these animals was for a long time the only sign of life down there below the river's flood; but anon he heard a gentle lapping of water, and knew that the tide was rising. It was good at the first to think of Mother Seine, which ran without like some friend of the world he had forgotten, and he took pleasure in calling to mind its aspect when last he had seen it. That was when they carried him over the Pont Neuf to prison. The river had been alive with boats then; with boats and barges, and gallant going down to Passy, and merry jesters making merry music, and all the life and brightness of the great city. To-day, he said grimly, all that world passed within a stone's throw of him; yet his eyes were blinded to the sights; his ears deaf to the music; he would never see that river again; the world would pass for ever by and no cry of his go out, no hand of pity be offered to him. And while this thought was in his mind, the lap of the waves grew stronger; the sound of water began to fill the whole cell. He realised quite suddenly, yet with a new, an immeasurable dread, that the river would rise above the level of his cell. When at last a cold stream of water touched his feet, he cried out anew, thinking that they meant to drown him and had brought him to the Bombec Tower with that intent.

The water rose slowly, lapping about the feet and knees and hands of the prisoner. But he had imagined a fate which was not in the minds of those who had sent him to the dungeon. Twice every day the Seine washed the floor of this cell, bringing up great rats in its flood and leaving the oozing slime and filth of its waters upon the straw which made the prisoner's bed. Just when Jacques de Serrefort was telling himself that the water would cover his mouth presently, its flow ceased, and taught him the devilish malignity of his captors. Wet and cold and shivering, the wretched man stood for long hours while the stream ebbed. Then he sank again upon his reeking bed to ask how he should support another day of torture so revolting and cruel. He could not forget that there had been prisoners who had spent long years in this very cell, who had become raving madmen and yet had lived on; sport for their jailors, but not food for death. Serrefort swore that no such fate should be his j he would find another way; he would cast himself upon the mercy of heaven and end the terror before reason robbed him of the power.

Until this time, and he judged that it must now be night, no sign had been given that those above remembered his existence. Though he listened long and called out with all his strength, he heard no answering voice, no tread in the passage without. The massive walls shut down his cries and entombed them. A fearful roof of earth seemed to weigh upon his prison and heat it with hot and choking air. Serrefort declared that he realised for the first time what anguish must be the lot of those who wake in a tomb. He would have welcomed death as a gift of mercy; but for the time being he had neither the strength nor the will to compel death. Rather he turned to think of old Baptiste's promise that he would come again; of his assurance that his daughter Irène would return to Paris to bring him the comforts of the cells above. But the hours wore on and no one came, and hope ebbed, and the fever of the cell racked his bones. He had been known ever as one who had a clear mind, quick, active, far-seeing; but the darkness of the dungeon in the Bombec already warred upon his brain. A drowsiness crept upon him, nature's medicine against his terror; he could not sleep, yet became almost insensible to the horrors of the cell; he forgot where he was; visions of his home and wife came back to him, so that when his cell door was opened presently and the flare of a torch lit up its inmost recesses, those who visited him found tears running down his cheeks and a word of love upon his lips.

Serrefort had thought when he heard the key grate in the lock that it was old Baptiste come back as he had promised; but as soon as his eyes were awake to the light, he looked up to see the bailiff Hubert, the governor of the prison, and with him a tall grey-haired man, whose fine dress and white ruffles were strange things to find in the Conciergerie. The same soldiers who had conducted the prisoner to the cell in the morning now accompanied the governor and ranged themselves on either side of the prisoner, bidding him rise and salute the bailiff. Serrefort did so mechanically, shutting his eyes that he might not behold the dreadful sights which the torches disclosed. All his old spirit was broken now; he held his head erect no more—one day in the Bombec had made him an old man.

“Sirs'" said he, with a sob in his voice, “I beg of your pity carry me from this place—you see how I suffer—oh, God knows what my sufferings have been.”

He stood before them sobbing like a child, fearful that they would leave him to the silence of the pit again, to the flowing waters and the maddening darkness. At any other time, his distress would have been a fine subject for merriment to the bailiff Hubert; but the man was dumb in the presence of a stranger, who did not conceal his sympathy nor hesitate to utter it.

“Monsieur,” said this stranger, presently, “you are Jacques de Serrefort, I believe, sent to this place now fifteen years ago for threatening to kill Monsieur le Comte de Châteauneuf—is that so?”

Serrefort raised his head quickly at the mention of his crime. His shoulders were squared again; he stood before them erect and fearless, as he had stood before his officers in the old days.

“Monsieur,” he said, “it is quite true that I am the Jacques de Serrefort you name. Yet whether it were a crime or no which sent me to this place I leave my God to judge.”

“Impudent fellow,” cried the bailiff, “I will have you branded upon the face with an iron.”

The stranger, who did not appear to love the bailiff, hushed him with a gesture of his hand.

“Please to hold your tongue, monsieur,” cried he, with the air of one accustomed to command; “I am here to interrogate the prisoner, not to listen to your angers.”

The bailiff bit his lip and scowled at Serrefort. It was with difficulty that he turned a smiling face to the stranger at last, and said as pleasantly as possible:—

“Your pardon, Monsieur le Comte. Yet have a care, I beg of you, how you deal with this fellow, for he is very dangerous.”

“I will be the judge of that myself,” said the man addressed as count; and then turning to Serrefort, he continued:—

“Hark you, my friend, you are not to deceive yourself with any hope that I am come here to serve you. If I carry you away from the Conciergerie to-night, it will be that I may send you back when a few hours are passed to do as the bailiff shall bid you. But first you must give me your word as a man of honour—for such I know you to be, monsieur—that you will obey me faithfully and return here when midnight is struck. Are we agreed upon that, Monsieur de Serrefort?”

Serrefort rubbed his eyes; the men, the light, the voices were unreal to him. He heard the injunction and yet could not gather the words together.

“Monsieur,” cried he at last, “if you should take me out of this place, be it only for an hour, I will thank you from my heart. You know not what a place it is—oh, there is no crime which merits such a punishment as this, monsieur.”

The count surveyed him with pity in his glance.

“Very well, Monsieur de Serrefort,” cried he, after a moment; “we are agreed upon the bargain then. You are to have your liberty until twelve o'clock in return for some information you shall give me presently. But it is understood that you return here at midnight, and that you will not seek to escape those who accompany you. I have your word, monsieur?”

“A hundred times,” replied Serrefort, to whom the thought of an hour's liberty was dear beyond price.

The count turned swiftly to the bailiff Hubert.

“Let your prisoner be taken to my carriage at once,” said he; “what else is to be done you have learnt already. Is it not so?”

The bailiff stammered an answer.

“Monsieur le Comte,” exclaimed he, “this is a serious matter—I have no authority from the king—and—as monsieur knows—”

“Silence!” cried the count. “Should any ask you upon what authority, answer them upon the authority of the Count de Saint Florentin and of this ring.”

He held up a gold signet ring—the ring of Louis, the well-beloved king of France. That was a talisman powerful even to conquer the bailiff, who drew back with a little cry when the count spoke, and now made haste to offer his apologies.

“Sir,” cried he, “had I known that you came upon the king's business, it would have been different. Hold me not to blame in that I remember my duty and the security of those intrusted—”

“Oh, monsieur,” said the count, whose impatience now amounted almost to anger, “if you would remember that I wait, I would even forget all your stupidities. Lead the way, sir, and let us hear less of your pestilent tongue.”

The bailiff, astounded at the rebuke and snarling with temper, commanded the guards to lead out the prisoner. Serrefort, who said still that this must be a vision of his sleep, followed the soldiers with trembling steps. Never in all his life had he known so sweet a moment as that which carried him from the foul depths of the Bombec Tower to the world above and the gentle breezes of the night. Had it not been ever in his mind that he must return to that abode of suffering when a few hours had passed, he would have said that heaven had been too good to him and that he was not worthy of such happiness. But the shadow of the dungeon lay upon him like the shadow of the living death. He thought still to hear the dreadful lapping of the water; still to feel the touch of the creeping things; still to be entombed in the very bowels of the earth, with all the weight of that mighty stone crushing him down. Nothing could free him from the loathing and the fear. He saw all things about him, the figures of the men, the torches and lanterns of the guards, the open square before the Halls of Justice, of which his prison was a part, and he said that they were phantoms of his burning brain. Nor was it different when the Count of Saint Florentin bade him enter a coach drawn up at the gates, and they drove him quickly across the Pont Neuf and to the heart of the city which he had not seen for fifteen long years. He was like a man walking in his sleep. The hum of Paris, awake to the pleasures of the night, the merry cries from the boatmen upon the river, the crowds in the streets, the flickering lamps, the great buildings—here was the world for which he had longed; but it meant nothing to him. “At midnight,” he said always,—“at midnight they will carry me to the Bombec again—oh, God have mercy upon me!”

The Count of Saint Florentin, meanwhile, sat back in his carriage and surveyed the prisoner with curious eyes. He was asking himself a remarkable question, and was busy in speculation as to the answer. And his question was this—would Jacques de Serrefort return to his cell a miserable or a contented man? “The king,” said he to himself, “has wagered pretty Corinne de Montesson a thousand gold pieces and the man's liberty that she will not send him back to the Conciergerie willingly. She is to have him in her house until the clock strikes twelve. If then he confesses himself content to go back to his cell, Corinne wins the wager. Oh, it is a pretty question—yet, I make sure, she has lost it already. For who ever saw a fellow so gloomy? Saint Denis, the man is at death's door now.”

The count, who was then one of the most powerful men in Paris, did not usually concern himself much about the sufferings of rogues in the Conciergerie; but something in the face of Jacques de Serrefort appealed to his pity; and beyond that, he was, like all the world, in love with Corinne de Montesson, who owned the great Hôtel Beautreillis. He began to hope that she would win her wager; though, for the life of him, he had no idea as to the way she would set about it. He, at any rate, had performed his part faithfully; and when, anon, the coach drew up before the gates of Corinne's house, he had become as much interested in the strange experiment as though his own money had been ventured upon it.

The gates of the Hôtel Beautreillis were open when the coach rolled up. Many lights shone from the windows of the great house, and it was plain that Serrefort had been expected. No sooner did the coachman rein in the horses than lacqueys came running from the house to greet the count and to help the prisoner. Serrefort, accustomed to the gloom and silence of the prison, was half blinded by the brilliancy of all he saw; deafened by the clamour and the cries of the many servants. Indeed, he stood for a spell gazing about him wildly, pitifully; and would have remained so had it not been for a lacquey who touched him upon the arm and bade him follow. And so he passed the open courtyard to a pavilion of the house just as a clock in one of the turrets chimed the hour of nine. The bell reminded him that he had three hours of liberty before him; three hours when he might live in the world and hear men's voices and forget the cell—if that were possible. But the promise only added to his gloom. “They torture me with a little liberty,” he said, “to make my punishment more cruel.” Nor could he imagine what strange mystery had brought him to the house. All the events of that wonderful night had put a spell upon his mind. He was like a child, obeying his master in awe and wonder.

But they had conducted him to a room in the house by this time; a cabinet with painted frieze and thick carpets, and gilded chairs and many tapers shedding a soft light. He opened his eyes when he saw the richness of the apartment, and was the more surprised when two or three servants came up and began to busy themselves with his ragged clothes.

“Monsieur,” said one of the fellows, bowing with great deference, “will you be pleased to dress now? Mademoiselle waits and will sup directly.”

“To dress?” cried Serrefort, wonderingly. “Where am I, then, and whose house is this that I should be carried here?”

“Oh, sir,” said the man, surprised that such a question should be put, “you are in the house of Mademoiselle Corinne de Montesson, and be sure that she wishes well to you. Indeed, you are lucky to have found such a friend, monsieur.”

“A friend to me,” gasped Serrefort; “how then is that—you jest, sir.”

The lacquey did not heed the question. Rather, he made haste to take Serrefort's coat from him and to bring him water for his hands. When this was done, he spread out a uniform upon the couch and invited his mistress's guest to put it on.

“Monsieur,” said he, “my mistress thinks that you would wish to appear here to-night in the uniform of your old regiment. It is all laid out there, and I beg you to hasten, for they will sup before the clock strikes.”

He indicated the articles one by one as he spoke, the coat of bright blue with the gold facings, the brass helmet, the high boots, the cunningly wrought sword. Serrefort gave a little cry of delight and hesitated no longer. His weary brain, thinking ever of the Bombec, forgot its task for a moment, and carried him back swiftly to the years when there had been no finer horseman, no more dashing trooper in all France, than Jacques de Serrefort. They said afterwards that his hands trembled, that there were tears in his eyes when he stood before the long glass and buckled the sword to his belt. It was pitiful to see his snowy white hair straggling beneath the rim of the great brass helmet, to watch the effort it cost him to square his shoulders and walk as he had walked in the years long ago. But courage came with the memories, and erect, proud, almost defiant, he turned to those who served him and declared that he was ready.

“Tell your mistress,” said he, “that Jacques de Serrefort awaits her commands.”

The lacquey bowed and bade him, for the second time, to follow. Had it been any other who had thrown off the veteran to ape the young man, the fellow would have laughed aloud; but there was a light in Serrefort's eyes, a boldness in his carriage, before which many a man would have quailed. The lacquey said to himself that here was a true soldier, and there was a certain pride in his voice when he threw open the doors of a vast salon and announced—

“Monsieur Jacques de Serrefort.”

The great room was magnificently lighted, hundreds of tapers burning brightly in chandeliers and candelabra of Venetian work. Though the floor of it was of wood, none the less were the boards polished and waxed until they shone like glass; while the walls were hid by paintings of colossal size and all the ceiling was a blaze of mosaic. So vast was the place that Serrefort remained at the door silent in awe and wonder; but when he had stood an instant he heard a sweet young voice greeting him, and looking up, he beheld Mademoiselle Corinne herself. She was standing by a great armchair, set up like a throne at the other end of the chamber, a pretty figure superbly dressed, and surrounded by fifteen men and women, whose fine clothes and graceful manners were in keeping with the magnificence of the apartment.

“Monsieur,” she said, holding out both hands, “I welcome you with all my heart to this house. These are my friends,—the Duc de Richelieu, the Duc de Cosse-Brissac, the Comte de Vaudreuil, the Duchesse de Lauzan, the Comtesse d'Egmont—oh, make haste to know them all, for they will be your friends presently.”

Serrefort was stupefied. He stood motionless, staring at the gorgeous dresses, the gold, the silver, the diamonds, of the company. Though his liberty had been offered him for a word of thanks, he could not have uttered it. Minutes, indeed, passed before emotion conquered him, and he turned away with a sob in his voice.

“Oh,” cried he, “it is a dream—a dream! I shall awake presently to the darkness and the silence—God help me.”

That was a cry wrought of long years of misery, and it stilled the company to a hush of deep sympathy. As for the mistress of the house, there were tears in her eyes when she advanced swiftly to the old soldier's side and took his hand in hers.

“Monsieur,” she said in a low voice, “have courage, I beg of you. I am your friend; you will trust me. Were you not one of Condé's legion? Remember that and forget all else.”

She raised her pretty blue eyes to his in encouragement, and spoke so tenderly that a memory of his daughter's voice came back to him. But chiefly he thought of this—that he had been one of Condé's legion, and that he wore the beloved uniform again now at the eventide of his life.

“Mademoiselle,” said he, proudly, “I will remember naught but your kindness—do with me what you will.”

His voice was strong now, and he faced the company unflinchingly. They, in turn, anxious only that he should forget, began to speak of trivial things; and one of them—a line fellow who was addressed as Bénôit—came to Serrefort's side and talked to him of the old days in Germany, of the wars which had been his glory, and the triumphs he had won. And so well did the young man contrive things that when supper was ready and the company passed into a neighbouring cabinet, a pretty little room fit for the king, the prisoner had forgotten the Bombec, even the Concieigerie, and all that he had suffered there.

There were sixteen guests at the table, Serrefort being placed at the right hand of the hostess, while the old Due de Richelieu sat opposite to him, and Bénôit upon his left hand. It was a long meal exquisitely served, and offering those rare and dainty dishes in which the cooks of the eighteenth century excelled. Two soups, a bisque of pigeon and cock's combs, a side soup of hashed capon, a quarter of veal, a partridge pie, a grilled turkey, salads, creams, rissoles beignets—the dishes were multiplied in an abundancy which was to be found nowhere at that time but in the houses of the French nobles. Serrefort discovered first that he had little relish for the delicacies; his palate had been hardened for years of coarse food and sour wine; but when he had drunk some champagne from a foaming goblet and had tasted a dish of capon, his old love for good things came back to him, and he set to work to sup as heartily as the others. As for his pretty hostess, she babbled away incessantly, telling him all the news of Paris; all the jests, the humours, the intrigues, just as though he were a freeman like the rest of them, and not a prisoner enjoying a terrible furlough. For the matter of that, he began himself to forget his condition; he ceased to ask after a while, “Why am I brought here?” He said that some trick of sleep cheated him—but the sleep was very sweet, and he would enjoy it. Nor would he let himself willingly remember that when twelve o'clock struck he must set off to his prison again. The oasis in his life was too dear; heaven had taken pity upon him, he thought, and here was the answer to his prayer.

In this spirit, he began to talk presently, adding to the anecdotes and the jests. He spoke of his old deeds with the army; of the duels he had fought and the intrigues he had known. When at last supper was done, and the guests went out to enjoy the night air in the beautiful gardens, he accompanied young Bénôit readily, and found himself almost in a merry mood. For the garden was fresh and sweet at that hour; it was good to tread the soft grass; to walk upon the white moonlit paths; to smell the strong odours of the plants. No memory of a prison came to mar that hour. He was old Jacques de Serrefort again, the pride of his regiment.

This forgetfulness endured, it might have been, for the half of an hour. Young Bénôit had brought him by this time to a little grove where an arbour stood, and old trees rich in leaf; a flowery dell hid away from the world like a pool in a forest. Here they walked awhile, earnest in merry talk; but of a sudden Serrefort stood quite still, his face paled, his hand trembled. A clock in a church near by was striking the hour. The wretched man counted the bells as one doomed to death may count them upon the morning of his execution.

“Eleven o'clock,” he exclaimed at last in a hoarse voice; “you heard it strike, monsieur?”

“Certainly,” answered the young man; “it is eleven o'clock, as you say, Monsieur de Serrefort. An hour yet to midnight—when we lose you, I fear. I am sure that you will remember us all the same—as we shall remember you in our affection.”

Serrefort did not hear him. His face was set, his shoulders stooped again. “Mon Dieu!” he cried, “I cannot go back—I cannot.”

Bénôit, whose heart was cut by his piteous cry, pretended not to hear it; but turning quickly to the old soldier he said:—

“Monsieur, when our friend, the Comte de Saint Florentin, brought you here to-night, he told you that my mistress counted upon you for certain information. I am sure you will serve her so far as may be possible. As the time presses, let us talk of it without delay.”

Serrefort answered with an inclination of the head. His thoughts were set upon the dungeon below the river. The garden, the house, the fine people—he had forgotten them all again in his overwhelming dread of the cell. Bénôit observed his abstraction, but continued nevertheless:—

“Since you are willing, Monsieur de Serrefort, will you permit me to present to you one whose acquaintance you made in Brittany many years ago, a man who desires exceedingly to speak with you, and who is coming here to-night for that purpose?”

Serrefort bowed again.

“Sir,” said he, “your mistress's wish is my wish. I knew many in the old days at Brittany, many whom I would well speak of, though, heaven knows, I shall never see them again.”

“I understand that, Monsieur de Serrefort,” cried Bénôit, “but the man in whom we are interested should even now be in this garden. I will go and seek him if you are content to rest here awhile.”

Serrefort assented indifferently. He heard the other's words with difficulty; followed his argument at a hazard; had no mind to reason the proposition. The cool night air, the gentle rustling trees, the seclusion of the garden, brought back to his memory the years when he had known the peace of a haven like this in his own fair home at Brittany. He remembered that the sin of one man had driven him forth from that home to endure the living death of the prison. Never had his hate of the Comte de Châteauneuf, the man who had sent him to the Conciergerie, waxed so strong as it did in that instant. There was a fever in his blood at the thought of the name. “Ciel!” he murmured, “if I might meet him face to face before I die.”

It was an angry exclamation; his hand was hot upon the hilt of his sword, while the impulse of vengeance maddened him. He uttered the name of Monsieur de Châteauneuf again and again, as he paced the path with unresting steps. When he stopped at last, a great cry frothed upon his lips, the strength of ten men filled his veins; he knew that his prayer had been answered. For Monsieur de Châteauneuf stood before him in the grove—and the two were face to face at the hour of reckoning.

The count stood before him,—a man in the prime of life, dressed as the fashion of the hour dictated, in a suit of violet silk slashed with gold, and embroidered with precious stones. A sword whose hilt sparkled with diamonds hung at his side; there were diamond buckles upon his shoes; diamond pins glittering in his snow-white ruffles. But the easy placid smile which usually characterised his handsome face lighted it no longer. He stood before Serrefort with terror shining in his eyes, with quaking knees and beating heart. Ten minutes before that supreme moment, he had entered the Hôtel Beautreillis, thinking that little Corinne had some favour to grant him. They had conducted him to the garden upon that excuse, and young Bénôit had met him and brought him to the grove. But Bénôit was at his side no longer. Mysteriously, silently, he and the other guests had withdrawn from the garden. The two men, he who had sinned and he who had suffered, stood face to face in the deserted glade, and both of them knew that this was an hour momentous beyond any they had lived.

The count was the first to speak. He had suppressed a cry at the moment when first his eyes encountered those of his victim; but now, after it was plain to him that Serrefort was mad and exultant at the meeting, he turned round, thinking his guide was still at his heels.

“Monsieur, what liberty is this?”

But no one answered him. Bénôit had vanished. It seemed to the count that the silence of death was in the place. He had the impulse to flee the garden; a stupefying fear paralysed his limbs, choked his voice; the sweat of death seemed already to gather upon his forehead. Since the day when a word of his had sent Jacques de Serrefort to the Conciergerie he had forgotten the very fact that his victim lived. Now, however, it were as though a dead man had come out of his grave to demand reckoning. As for Serrefort, the ferocity of a wild beast was upon him. Anger, joy, lust for vengeance, gave incoherency to his words. The sword with which Corinne de Montesson had armed him flashed already at the count's throat. Age, debility, long years of suffering, were powerless to mar that strength of hate and of victory. Never, in his day of youth and skill, did the trooper of Condé's legion stand up with such confidence, The ring of triumph was already in his voice; his hand was the hand of a man who knows no mercy.

“Monsieur le Comte de Châteauneuf,” he cried, with terrible deliberation, “God surely has sent you here that I may kill you. Draw, monsieur, for your hour has come.”

The count reeled back, crying with all his voice for help. The cry moved his antagonist to a peal of mocking laughter.

“Ha,” cried he, “you would run like a lacquey. Monsieur le Comte; you who have boasted of your skill in every salon of Paris—shame on you! Must I call for a whip to beat you like a dog?—draw, I beg of you, for my patience is worn. Oh, monsieur, I have waited fifteen long years for this hour. I swear that all Paris shall not save you now.”

He pressed upon the doomed man with a new ferocity, adding light blows of his sword to the stinging taunts of invitation. Châteauneuf, who saw that he had fallen into a trap, hesitated no longer, but drew his sword and sprang to the engagement. And at this, Serrefort cried out again, and then, clenching his teeth, began to fight with the cunning and the resolution of a maître d'armes. The night, the garden, the mystery, the prison—all were gone from his thoughts. He saw but one object, the pale face of the man who had sent him fifteen years ago from the happiness of his home to the grave of the Conciergerie. Hate gave him a skill which had never been his, even in the best hour of the old time. And to the strength of hate was added the terror and the confusion and the conscience of Monsieur de Châteauneuf. The count, indeed, had death at his heart from the first. He fought with trembling hand, with quaking limbs. There was ever dinning in his ears the cry—“This is the justice of God.” He knew that he was to die, there in the silence of the garden; knew that the sun would never shine for him again.

Twice round the grove the men fought, Serrefort playing with the other like a beast with its prey. Though the ring of swords made strange music of the night, though the sharp cries and the fierce stamping of the two were to be heard even in the street without, the men remained alone. No witness of the deed was to be found in all the great house; the silence of desolation was upon it; little Corinne and her guests had vanished in the darkness. When, at last, the count raised his voice again to call out that he was the victim of an assassin, Serrefort answered with a yell of derision.

“Monsieur le Comte,” said he, “ask help of heaven and not of men, for that shall be your last cry. Ha, you have a cunning hand, monsieur, but it cannot stand the burden of your sin. Shall I tell them that I fought with a lacquey? Never let it be said.”

Goaded to madness at the taunt, the Count of Châteauneuf permitted his anger to master him. He disengaged with the skill and quickness of an old swordsman, and made to lunge in quarte; but his foot failed him in the heat of the feint, and before he could regain his position the sword of Serrefort was running through his heart.

“Assassin!” he gasped; but the word was choked upon his lips. For an instant, he stood quite still, with the sword cutting his flesh; then, turning sharply upon his heel, he fell headlong, and lay face downwards upon the grass.

QueenOfTheJesters 118--sword of Serrefort running thru his heart.jpg

The Sword of Serrefort was running through his Heart

But Serrefort, withdrawing his sword and running wildly into the lighter place of the garden, stood with the moonlight falling upon his face and tears glistening in his eyes. It seemed to him that some mighty miracle was wrought in that hour, for of a sudden men and women, and lacqueys with lanterns, came running out of the house, and that which had been a scene of desolation was now a glittering picture of life.

Nevertheless, had he no care for a pageant so strange, but standing like one in a trance, he raised his eyes to heaven and exclaimed,—

“My God, I thank Thee for this night, for surely my prison shall be a prison to me no more. Nay, Lord, I go gladly, since Thou hast given me his life.”

And so saying, he fell in a swoon, and they carried him into the house.

When Jacques de Serrefort came to his senses again, he was lying upon a couch in a little pavilion of the Hôtel Beautreillis, and his daughter, Irène, had her arms about him.

“Dear father,” she said, “turn not away from me. It is your daughter Irène who speaks,—she whom you loved in the long ago.”

Serrefort looked at her with a loving regard. Then taking her hand as he used to do in the old days in Brittany, he exclaimed:—

“Little one, you will never leave me more?”

“Oh, never,” she exclaimed, covering his hands and face with kisses. “Dear father, the king, who learnt all to-night, has pardoned you. It is Mademoiselle Corinne's work—she who owns this house and has taken pity upon us. We are to go to Brittany to-morrow, for she has the king's promise. I will never leave you more, beloved father.”

But Serrefort closed his eyes again. The great clock of Notre Dame was striking twelve, and all the phantoms of the Bombec came winging into the room to torture him with a memory of that which might have been. When the hour was struck, he raised himself upon his couch and kissed his daughter.

“Little one,” said he, “our God is good—let us go and thank your mistress.”

  1. Author's Note.—The Bombec Tower, it may be well to point out, was that tower of the Conciergerie prison in Paris in which torture was generally inflicted. I have added nothing in this story to historical descriptions of the cells in this horrible place. It was not until the end of the last century that these sunless dungeons were altered radically. At that time, the swords in the walls, and the loathsome creatures which the Seine washed into the cells, were still the talk of the curious.