Queen of the Jesters/At the House of the Scarlet Witch

Queen of the Jesters by Max Pemberton
At the House of the Scarlet Witch

pp. 123-161. Pages 129-132 missing in scan. Missing text sourced from story in Pearson's magazine, April 1897 at Hathitrust. But, while the start and end paragraphs match, the story in the book is more fleshed out; so some text may be missing.

IV
AT THE HOUSE OF THE SCARLET WITCH

The Abbé Morellet heard the ring of hoofs upon the dusty road behind him and instantly stopped his long-suffering white pony. He was a man of alarms, was this good abbé; and his two servants, being dutiful servants, were for the occasion men of alarms also. All three had heard strange stories of the perils of those travellers rash enough to venture after sunset upon the great Western highway to Paris; all three had begun to regret the necessity which had carried them from the peaceful presbytery near Rambouillet to the woods upon the outskirts of the great city. Yet here they were at eight o'clock of a summer's evening in the year 1762 still three leagues from Paris, with dark already threatening them, and all the tales of bogies and of robbers ringing in their ears like a passing bell in the ears of men about to be hanged.

“It is my opinion,” said the abbé, addressing François, his valet,—“it is my opinion that we are followed by the three young men who delayed us at the Maison Rouge. I can see a cloud of dust upon the horizon and I count three horses.”

François, the valet, and Jean, the groom, hastened in their turn to check the asses which they rode and to inspect the winding highway which they had traversed with so many misgivings. Being ready men, their tongues presently wagged together, and they declared themselves willing to submit to untold tortures if they also did not see a cloud of dust upon the horizon and count three horses.

“Sapristi!” cried François, the valet, “I suspected those fellows from the beginning. What says the proverb, my master?—he who makes friends in an inn has the devil for his comrade. Body of Saint John, I was for going on as your reverence is well aware.”

Jean, the groom, who watched the approaching horsemen with fearful eyes, yet was unwilling to betray himself, remembered now that he had been for going on too.

“Oh,” cried he, “if yon rogues are not footpads I never saw one. Did you mark how they kept their faces masked even when they sat at meat? Put me in the pillory if ever I heard of an honest man who was afraid to show his nose to his neighbour. We shall all be dead men presently, rely upon it.”

QueenOfTheJesters 124--if yon rogues not footpads, put me in pillory.jpg

“If yon Rogues are not Footpads, put me in the Pillory.

The abbé, who nursed a secret suspicion that the groom spoke the truth, told him nevertheless to hold his tongue. He consoled himself with the thought that his personal property was not worth a louis to any rogue; he knew that he had but ten crowns in his pouch; and those he would surrender readily. Indeed, he began to frame a little speech in which he determined both to rebuke the robbers and to conciliate them. And this was still troubling his mind when the three men rode up at a gallop, and began to parley with him. They were a strange trio—all dressed elegantly, all mounted upon horses which might well have come from the king's stable. The abbé, stealing glances at them when he lifted his eyes a moment from his breviary, did not fail to observe the shining embroidery upon their vests nor the rich ruffles falling delicately upon their wrists, nor the diamonds glistening upon their fingers. These things had been hidden from him in the dark room of the tavern at Sèvres, where the merry fellows had kept him dallying long over a bowl of claret. Now he saw plainly that his pursuers were men of quality, and that two of them were singularly finely built, while the third possessed a figure so slim and delicately proportioned that it might well have been the figure of a young girl. But all three were masked as they had been at the tavern—and this fact alone kept the abbé's suspicions alive.

“Sirs,” said he, closing his breviary with a sudden snap, “I observe that you wish to speak with me.”

“My lord, the Bishop of Blois,” began the tallest of the men, while he doffed his plumed hat with a gesture of profound respect, “it is evident that you are a stranger upon the road to Paris—”

The abbé interrupted him with a momentary display of irritation.

“My son,” said he, “I pray you address me by my own name and not by that to which I have no title. It is true that the Bishop of Blois is unhappily dead, but under no circumstances is it possible that so unworthy a successor should be found for the See as the humble priest who has lately enjoyed your hospitality. I, gentlemen, am the Abbé Morellet, curé of the village of Yvette, a man with whom the princes of the Church may well concern themselves but little. I go to Paris now to carry my ward Corinne—you may know her as Mademoiselle de Montesson, gentlemen—to a convent of Benedictine nuns at Charenton. And Heaven forbid that I should aspire to such a distinction as you have named.”

He spoke with great dignity, being a man accustomed to command in his own little world. His manner was that of one who has made an end of the argument; but the three horsemen, who maintained a fine gravity of demeanour during the parley, would not be put off by it; and they now held their horses at the walk while the leader answered the obstinate abbé.

“My Lord Bishop,” said he, “I fear that you jest with us. We know you well, and we are concerned to find you abroad here at such an hour. The Church has too few faithful servants that one of the stoutest of her champions should make himself a mark for footpads. Do you forget that you are about to enter the woods of St. Cloud—and that it is sunset?”

The abbé looked surprised.

“Sirs,” said he, “I have never ridden to Paris but once before in all my life, and whether this be St. Cloud or another place, I am, indeed, unable to tell you. Yet for any warning or direction you may be pleased to give me, you will find a grateful listener. I am but a simple priest, gentlemen, and I cannot think that any robber would stoop to find a victim so unprofitable. Heaven be my witness that I have an unpleasant duty to perform in the city yonder. Authority, sirs, is a physic which the surgeon may hesitate to employ, until both persuasion and counsel have been administered. Too long have I been patient—the day for that has passed. Even though the king himself were to intercede, my purpose should be delayed no more. To-morrow, gentlemen, all Paris shall hear that the Hôtel Beautreillis is closed, and that its mistress, my ward, is safe within the convent walls at Charenton.”

The abbé was emphatic. He brought this pompous speech to a fitting close with a good thwack of the cudgel nicely laid upon the pony's quarters. His two servants, always imitative, laid two sticks smartly upon the backs of their asses, and all began to ride at a good trot towards the park of St. Cloud. As for the three horsemen, they seemed to enjoy the abbé's company immensely; and they kept close at his side, while merry glances passed between them, and the youngest of the three—who had the figure of a girl—bent low, the better to escape observation. Thus they came altogether to the summit of the hill wherefrom they could see the thick woods about the château of St. Cloud with the river Seine flowing like a river of blood in the valley, and Paris herself away in the distance, the sunlight making red blotches of her domes and towers, and shining with a deep crimson from a thousand west-turned windows. Here, the three strangers drew rein, and one of them, who had not spoken before, addressed the abbé in a parting word.

[1]"My Lord Bishop," said he, "you go on a bold errand. There have been many before this who have sought to stand between Corinne de Montesson and her pleasures. Do you seek for those persons, you will find them in the prisons of Paris—or gone to the wars for shame of their defeat. Beware then, how you act, and think yourself a lucky man if you ride into Paris at all. Nay, I will wager you a thousand crowns that this time to-morrow night you shall be very glad to see us and to get back to Yvette with what speed you may. Yon wood is full of strange sights and sounds, Monseigneur-—many a man who entered it at sundown has been known no more when dawn has come. Look to your steps, I beseech you; and heaven guard you!"

He doffed his cap as the other had done,and all three bowing with ready grace, presently they set spurs to their horses and disappeared at a gallop into the heart of the wood. The Abbé, who had been content at first to think that some mistake had led them to give him so distinguished a title, now became very angry and not a little alarmed.

"A plague on them and their Bishop of Blois as well!" cried he; "three tipsy gallants, I will wager, ridden out of the palace to point the finger at me. I should not be surprised to hear that Corinne has sent them. It is well known that she is a friend to footpads. Possibly she has saved them from the gallows. But she shall gain nothing by this. Though she fall on her knees before me. I will carry her to the convent. The day for mercy has passed."

The reflection pleased the Abbé. He had been made guardian of the pretty Corinne de Montesson (who, as all the world knew, was mistress of the Hôtel Beautreillis, in Paris) upon the death of her father, the Count. For his part, he would have sent her to a convent at once, there to complete her education, which, he thought, had been sadly neglected. But the King had put in a word; and so Corinne was left in her great house to be the friend of all the ne'er-do-wells in the city, and to disgrace, as the good Abbé said, the proud position to which she had been called.

Had she done anything for him personally, his anger, possibly, would have been more moderate. But, notwithstanding her professions of love, he remained the simple curé of Yvette, and there he had fretted two years over his misfortunes. Then came the tidings that Corinne had helped the notorious Coq-le-Roi, the highwayman, to escape from Sartines, the new lieutenant of police. The news awoke the Abbé to his old resolutions.

"I will go to Paris," said he, "and place her with the good nuns of Charenton. She is like a little wild animal; her claws must be cut. I have been merciful too long."

This seemed a very simple resolution in theory; but when the Abbé entered the dark woods of St. Cloud, after his conversation with the three jesters in the masks, the practice of it began to be difficult.

"Ho, ho!" said he, as he quitted the high road and plunged into the darkness of the silent thicket; "strange sights and sounds, indeed. Am I a child to be frightened by old women’s tales? Never let it be said."

The reflection comforted him. It was very dark in the woods, and so silent that the sound of distant church bells or the barking of dogs sounded like voices from a far-off world. The Abbé, do what he would, could not put off a certain dread and foreboding. His two servants did not attempt any such task. They told each other, consolingly, that they would be dead men before morning; and so they rode hand in hand; each devoutly hoping that the other would be the victim of the night, and that the Abbé, their master, would precede them to the grave.

“I have heard it said,” muttered François to Jean as they drove their stubborn asses still deeper[2] into the woods,—“I have heard it said that you have but to look upon the woman to be for ever blind.”

Jean groaned.

“God grant that our master sees her first,” said he.

“And worse than that,” said the valet, “if you are young and good-looking, she will kiss you upon the forehead, and then you are branded like one who has been sent to the galleys.”

Jean sighed.

“Saint Denis!” said he, “I knew how it would be. We shall die here, comrade—and for what? Because we follow our master. Is that our duty? I tell you he is no longer himself. Did you hear how yon fellows called him? Be sure of it—they have bewitched him already. I am ready to die for the abbé of Yvette; but a plague upon me if I ride another league for the Lord Bishop of Blois.”

He stopped his ass with the word, and François the valet made haste to imitate him. They were at this moment in a glade so deeply bordered by chestnut-trees that you could scarce see a patch of the grey sky above. The moss beneath their feet was soft and yielding, and the asses' feet sunk in it almost to the hocks. The figure of the abbé was scarce to be discerned, although he rode but twenty paces before them. It was a gloomy spot, dark, threatening, lonely. A stag, which leaped up at their coming, set the hearts of the cowardly pair beating like pumps. And just at the supreme moment of their alarm what should they see in the hollow but a great flash of crimson light, which lit up the brake about them until every twig seemed to have been dipped in blood, every tree trunk to be a scarlet phantom conjured up by the ghostly flames! Twice the light flashed, lurid, smoking, terrible—then darkness fell; and from the wood there came a scream of many voices raised in an awful wail, like the wail of departed spirits or of men in their agony.

At the first flashing of the fire, the abbé's pony stood quite still, shivering with fear. Nor was his master in any better plight.

“François,” roared the abbé, “Jean! do you not hear me? God help us all—what a thing to see!”

But François and Jean heard nothing. They were even then on their way back to Yvette, at all the speed of which asses are capable. Long the abbé called them in language which the Church might not have approved, but which the occasion and the abbé's fear demanded. When he found at last that he was alone, beads of perspiration stood upon his forehead, and it seemed that a hundred spirits were mocking him in the wood.

“Oh,” groaned he, “what do I see—where am I—who is it that follows me? That I should have left my home to come to such a place! Heaven help me or I am surely lost.”

He beat his pony the more in his fear, and driving the unwilling beast through the thicket only by a generous application of his cudgel, he came at last out upon a sward upon which great trees cast shadows of fantastic shape. The spot was desolate enough for anything; but it was lighter than the copse he had just quitted; and the stars shining brightly in the grey heaven above seemed to cast down a message of courage.

“Come,” said the abbé to himself as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead and began to take heart a little, “why do I fear when I have but ten crowns in my pocket? Who would harm the curé of Yvette?—not the footpads of St. Cloud, I am sure. And I do not believe in spirits—certainly they are for hags' tales. What I saw was the fire of some charcoal-burner. No doubt that was it. My men will come up presently, and we will all go on together. I could laugh to remember what a figure I cut.”

He did laugh at the remembrance, but it was a poor attempt—hollow and mocking, like the thought which bred it. And he began now to be very anxious for the company of his servants, bidding them come forth from the thicket where he believed them still to lie.

“François, Jean!” he bawled, “it is I, your master, who calls you. What do you fear, knaves? Am I not here to protect you? Oh, surely I will lay my cudgel upon your backs to-morrow.”

To his amazement, neither Jean nor François answered his appeal; but in the wood behind him there arose again the eerie wail, and now it was long sustained and piercing, like the wail of witches upon the wing.

“Hail to the Lord Bishop of Blois,” was the cry, “hail, hail! Whither he goes, there go we—lolalla—lolalla—lolalla!”

The echo fled from wood to wood and grove to grove, until it died away in moaning sighs, afar, at the heart of the forest. When the last note was stilled, the abbé heard a voice, sweet and fresh and young, crying,—

“What shall be done to the Lord Bishop of Blois?”

And from the woods the answer came,—

“He must suffer, he must suffer—lolalla—lolalla—lolalla!”

A loud peal of laughter followed the words, and while the laughter rang, the thicket was lit again with the flaming scarlet light. The abbé's heart threatened to stand still when he saw, grouped there upon the green, the strangest company he had ever beheld in all his life. Dressed in scarlet, some like devils, some like dwarfs, some like hideous creatures with horns protruding from their brows, the throng appeared to be led by a woman whose sugar-loaf cap and sweeping crimson skirts answered in all things to the popular pictures of a witch. When the abbé beheld her she rode upon a great black horse, but those around her were mounted upon white ponies; and the whole company galloping out of the wood, presently they surrounded the trembling ecclesiastic and roared until the very woods rang as with demon voices,—

“Long live the Lord Bishop of Blois—lolalla—lolalla!”

It was a strange scene; the torches, which many of the masqueraders had now lighted, casting a lurid glow upon the scarlet dresses and masks and whitened faces of the dwarfs and demons—horrid monsters, who now flocked about the amazed curé of Yvette. He, on his part, knew not whether the whole were a hideous dream, or the perpetration of some masquerade of which he was to be the victim. Possibly deep down in his mind there was born the question—are these human things or spiritual? Even the learned were gross in superstitution in the middle of the eighteenth century; and the excellent abbé was no wiser than other men—perhaps even a little more prone to believe in omens and the unseen than the common citizen. No wonder if the terror of the wood and the dark of the night and the horrid yells of the horned and hoofed company which now swarmed about him contributed to his bewilderment. A hundred possibilities occurred to him while the cries were still ringing in his ears. He had heard of the terrible jests which courtly masqueraders had perpetrated on those who were obnoxious to them. Could he have given offence in high places—or was it true, after all, that the woods of St. Cloud were peopled by spirits and elves and witches, and that he had fallen into their power? He said he would believe no such tale. Rather would he take courage; and if this were a jest of Corinne's, then should two years instead of one be her portion in the convent.

With this resolution to nerve him, he turned of a sudden upon the horde who pressed about him and began to argue with them.

“Sirs,” said he, “I have heard much talk of the Lord Bishop of Blois, and I see plainly that you mistake me for him. Know then that I am but a simple priest, the curé of Yvette, sirs, and that I ride to Paris upon an affair of very great importance.”

He spoke the words very slowly, but to his astonishment no one gave any answer. All together, witches, dwarfs, and demons, they began to repeat his explanation in a sort of monotone, the key of which changed note by note until it rose to a discordant, unearthly shriek.

“Sirs,” cried they, “we have heard much talk of the Lord Bishop of Blois, and we see plainly that you mistake us for him. Know then that we are but simple priests, the curés of Yvette, and that we ride to Paris upon an affair of very great importance.”

The abbé, deafened by the clamour, put his fingers into his ears and began to shiver with fear.

“Ciel!” he murmured, “you are all mad.”

“Ciel!” repeated the scarlet company, “we are all mad.”

The sally was roared rather than intoned; and at the end of it, the whole company bent low in their saddles, the men doffing their hats to the terrified abbé, the women blowing kisses to him.

Then the scarlet woman who appeared to be the mistress of the throng, raised her fresh young voice and asked again,—

“What must be done to the Lord Bishop of Blois?”

And for the second time the answer came,—

“He must suffer—he must suffer—lolalla—lolalla—lolalla!”

The abbé was really frightened now. The wailing melancholy of the chaunt, the hideous shapes of the men who rode at his side, the strange, distorted whitened faces, seemed to him to resemble nothing human, nothing known. Minute by minute the conviction crept upon him that here was the scarlet witch of whom the common people spoke in their folk-tales. The more he said to himself “It is a jest,” the farther was his mind from accepting that assurance. He shuddered when he remembered that he was alone with jesters so terrible.

“Oh,” he moaned at last, “what do you want with me, what would you do with me?”

“Oh,” echoed the crowd with stentorian voice, “what do you want with us, what would you do with us?”

“Sirs,” wailed the abbé, “for pity's sake have done with it and take me where you will. I have but ten crowns upon me, and those you shall find in my pouch. Get them, I pray you, and permit me to go in peace.”

A mocking peal of laughter attended this simple confession.

“What shall be done with the ten crowns of the Lord Bishop of Blois?” asked a great horned goblin who rode upon the smallest of the small white ponies.

The girl with the crimson hat answered,—

“He shall buy a supper at the house of the scarlet witch.”

The command moved the company to frenzies of turbulent delight. Before the bewildered abbé could protest or answer, strong hands had clapped a bandage to his eyes, and knotted it so tightly behind his ears that the whole of the strange vision of grotesque and grinning figures was shut instantly from his view. He knew only that his pony was carrying him rapidly through the forest, that the air became fresher as he mounted to the higher places of the park, that he was led it might have been for the space of ten minutes before his beast was stopped and he was lifted gently to the ground. Never once, however, while the procession moved, did the throng cease their unearthly monotone. The chaunt rose ever like a voice of the night, the wail of spirits wandering, or of phantoms at their pleasures. When it stopped at last with a sudden crash, the abbé's pony stopped too. A strong arm encircled his waist; he was lifted from the saddle and bidden to walk,—he knew that he was entering some room in a house,—a gentle hand forced him into a seat, it removed his bandage; the abbé could see again.

By this time the unhappy man was incapable of surprise. The scene in the wood had robbed him of all power of reason. When they stripped him of his bandage, and he was able to look about him, he neither spoke nor wondered. Yet the spectacle was strange enough to have amazed a bolder man. For the abbé sat at that moment in a room draped in scarlet; and more than that, he sat in a high chair before a long table lit pleasingly by the soft light of many wax candles, and so weighed down with plate and exquisite cut glass that the scarlet drapery below was hardly to be seen. As for the company, that also was a scarlet company,—devils, demons, witches; their whitened faces now hidden by crimson masks, their very hair appearing to be of the brightest red. Even the walls were draped in the same glaring colours; while the attendants, some in hideous masks, some garbed like scarlet elves, capped the scheme fittingly. Yet this was the curious thing—no word was spoken, no greeting given. The company sat like mutes. The abbé shuddered again, for he could not altogether suppress the thought that he might be supping with the risen dead.

Such a haunting suggestion was quick to pass. Though a grim foreboding pursued him while he asked himself, “Where will it end, what did they mean when they called me the Lord Bishop of Blois and said that I must suffer?”—the abbé, good man that he was,—and there was none better in France,—was like other men in possessing a healthy appetite. The groaning table put some heart into him. “I have ridden far, and a well boiled capon with a cup of Burgundy will not come amiss to me,” he thought. And so, for the first time since he had entered the terrible wood, he permitted himself to hope. “They will let me ride on when supper is done,” he assured himself, “and I shall be in Paris, after all, by the last day of the month. It would never do to be delayed over to-morrow, for the king returns to Paris then, and Corinne will see him and cheat me once more. Certainly, I must be in Paris to-morrow. Meanwhile, I will see what sort of a supper it is, for I am very hungry.”

One of the servants had set a plate before him now,—a plate upon which was a little silver dish exquisitely garnished and served. So tempting did the morsel look that the good abbé hastened to plunge his fork into it—but at the first mouthful he made an ugly grimace and was unable to withhold an exclamation.

“How now!” cried he, “that is nothing but bread-crumbs!”

He looked round the table appealingly, but no one in the masked company vouchsafed to him an answer. All were busy upon similar dishes, of which they appeared to partake with exceeding relish. Indeed, they had finished their portions before the abbé had recovered from his astonishment; and while he was still looking at them, a lacquey, dressed in crimson, carried in a dish upon which was a smoking fish of great size, and began to serve slices of it—to the abbé first, and afterwards to the other suppers. At the same moment, another attendant filled the abbé's glass—a magnificent glass of the rarest Venetian work—with wine from a crystal goblet, and then did a similar service for the rest of the company. The action reassured the hungry curé. For the second time he plunged a ready fork into the dish before him. “Fish is fish,” he said to himself, while he smacked his lips in famished anticipation. The assurance scarce had comforted him when he broke out with a word which was neither ecclesiastical nor abbatorial.

“Name of the devil!” he exclaimed, “but this is bread too.”

How it came to be, in what manner the cheat had been contrived, the abbé knew no more than the dead. Yet there was the fish right enough, and a second mouthful convinced him that it was made of nothing but bread.

“Saint John,” cried he, sitting back in his chair, “who ever heard of that—a fish made of bread-crumbs—and every one eating of it as though it were a mullet from the king's table! Body of Saint Paul!—they are all mad.”

Mad or sane, the scarlet company appeared to enjoy the fish very much. Their heads bent over their plates, the suppers varied their occupation of eating only by the equally pleasant one of taking long draughts from the crystal goblets before them. They did not appear so much as to notice that the abbé was appealing to them. His words, his exclamations, his questions fell alike upon deaf ears. Not a man listened to him, not a woman raised her eyes to watch him. Nor did his anger, which succeeded presently to his hunger, help him at all. That, too, was absolutely unobserved. Had he roared like a bull, the masked company would have remained oblivious of his presence.

“Ho, ho!” said he at last, while he leant back in his chair and raised the goblet in his hand, “a plague upon the table which sets bread-crumbs before a hungry man!”

He put the goblet to his lips and took a long draught from it. The wine, he had said, would at any rate wash the tasteless bread from his mouth—and so he held the cup long. When at length he put it down, there was upon his face the most unclerical grimace that had ever sat there.

“Maledetto!” cried he, “but that is water.”

He spoke loudly; nor did he look for an answer, being quite assured by this time that he was dreaming, or if he were not, then that he had become the victim of the strangest jest yet played in France. And he was very much surprised when a voice behind him greeted him with the first word he had heard since he entered the room. For the matter of that, the voice was hardly raised before all the suppers leaped to their feet and stood in an attitude of respectful attention.

“And what is the trouble of the Lord Bishop of Blois?” asked the speaker, as he advanced to the abbé's chair.

He was a man slightly above the medium height, and he wore a dress of white velvet, upon which a lace-work of the whitest diamonds glittered. The abbé observed that he was somewhat advanced in years, and that his features were clear-cut and singularly handsome. He was attended now by two pages, who wore trunk-hose of purple and purple cloaks above them; while an officer in the blue uniform of the Corsican legion stood at his heels as though expecting some command.

“Ho, ho,” thought the abbé, as he watched the stranger, “here then is the rogue who has played this jest upon me. I will find a word for him at any rate.” And so he spoke aloud.

“Sir,” said he, “who you may be I do not wish to know; but if this be your house, permit me to tell you that I have been the victim of a great liberty.”

The stranger feigned astonishment.

“What,” cried he, “have you not supped well, 'seigneur?”

“Sir,” answered the abbé, “I beseech you that you will not call me '’seigneur,' for to such a title I have no claim. As for your supper—I would not offer it to a dog.”

“But surely,” cried the other, feigning great astonishment, “that is turbot which you eat, my friend—and do you not hold a cup of the wine of Burgundy in your hand?”

“Monsieur,” said the abbé, with hungry dignity, “whoever has told you that has lied. There is nothing but water here.”

Oh, indeed,” cried the new-comer; “pray permit me to put it to my lips, 'seigneur. You say that is water?—Saint Louis, I would like to have a cellar full of such water as that!”

He tasted the draught as he spoke, and smacked his lips over it as though it had been a delicious nectar. The abbé, staggered at the action, was silent for some moments; but after a pause he took the cup up in his hands, and did that which was a rare thing for him to do—he lost his temper.

“My son,” he asked, “you declare that to be the wine of Burgundy?”

“Most certainly,” replied the stranger; “most admirable wine.”

“Then I pray you drink it,” exclaimed the abbé—and at the invitation he threw the contents of his goblet into the new-comer's face.

It was a deserved retort, perhaps, but the miserable curé, had he foreseen that which was to follow, would have cut off his right hand before he allowed his temper to carry him so far. Scarce was the thing done when a cry of horror burst from the company about the table. Fifty hands were raised as if to strike the cowering priest. Threats, execrations, remonstrances were hurled at him until his head buzzed with the clamour. The stranger alone appeared to be unmoved. He wiped his face with a handkerchief of lace, and then turned to the Corsican at his elbow.

“I am sorry,” said he, “but I must ask you to arrest monsieur, the Bishop of Blois. You will take him to his room and keep him there until my pleasure is known.”

“Your majesty is obeyed,” was the answer.

There was a great silence in the place now; and it lasted while the Corsican stepped forward and bade the quaking priest follow him. As for the abbé, he was like one petrified.

“Great Heaven!” he moaned, when they led him from the room, “it is the king who speaks. And I have thrown my wine in his face. God help me, for my day has surely come.”

All else was forgotten in this; the visions of the night, his purpose in riding to Paris, even the offences of little Corinne, gave place to the tremendous fear which his folly had brought upon him. He saw it all now—mystery no longer perplexed him. The masquerade in the woods, the horrible apparition, the flashing of the crimson fire—what was it all but the work of the jesters at the palace of St. Cloud! They had gone out to seek whom they could devour, and they had lighted upon the curé of Yvette, he said. Then the king—he had heard, of course, of their pastime, and had come to witness its consummation. And thus had the abbé been led to the perpetration of a crime so terrible. Nothing, not even religion, was held as sacred, in that year 1759, as the body of the king. The abbé knew full well that unless mercy were shown to him, he might spend the remaining years of his life in the prison of Fort-Êfivêque or even in the Bastille. Men had come to such a punishment for mere words—but to throw a goblet of wine in his majesty's face! The very memory of his offending compelled him to shudder like one who was already doomed.

But the Corsican officer had led him to a bedroom now; a pretty room lighted by many wax candles, and furnished with all the taste characterising a period so tasteful. It was a large apartment, with a cabinet giving off it—and the abbé observed in this smaller chamber a supper-table decked prettily with lighted candles and flowers. For this, however, he had no appreciating eyes. He felt at the moment as though he could never eat again. Foreboding, real and stern, had set his nerves itching. He began to question his conductor, hoping for some little word of comfort.

“Monsieur,” he said with pitiable anxiety, “I beg you tell me—whose house is this and where does it lie?”

“Readily,” answered the young officer. “This is the pavilion of Madame Doublet de Persau. The villagers call it the House of the Scarlet Witch. I regret, monseigneur, that your first acquaintance of it should be made so unpropitiously. Saint Denis! who would have thought that his majesty was unknown to you!”

“God help me,” answered the abbé, “I never saw him but once, monsieur, and then it was from a bench in the Place Louis Quinze. Oh, surely he will remember that!”

The Corsican shook his head, implying that he doubted.

“My Lord Bishop,” said he, “I am but a very humble servant of his majesty, and Heaven forbid that I should anticipate his decision. If you have friends, however, let me beg of you to write to them. It is possible, should their influence be not delayed, that you may yet atone for this offence with a year in the Bastille.”

“A year in the Bastille,” murmured the abbé, “a year—the Saints help me—a year for a moment's loss of temper! Oh, mon Dieu, will you not plead for me, monsieur? I am no Lord Bishop, but only a poor curé, who is friendless and helpless as you see, my son. I conjure you, of your charity be a friend to me.”

“How!” cried the soldier, with a wondrous assumption of surprise, “you tell me, my lord, that you are not the Bishop of Blois! Oh, surely, this night's work has robbed you of your memory. Think a little and you will recall the circumstances. Here to-day you were riding to Paris upon the business of your diocese when you fall into the hands of Madame Doublet de Persau's merry fellows, who bring you to this house to supper. The king, learning of the jest, is driven over from the palace to enjoy it, when you, losing your temper, throw a goblet of wine in his majesty's face, and so become my prisoner until your sentence is delivered. I exhort you, my lord, hide none of these things from yourself, but send at once to your friends and conjure them to intercede for you.”

There was a wondrous air of honesty about the Corsican's tale; and although the abbé was more perplexed than ever when the soldier had done, he determined to trust him, and to make a last effort to help himself. Indeed, a sudden inspiration seized upon him, and when he spoke his words came quickly and his white cheeks flushed scarlet.

“Monsieur,” he said, “I see it all plainly; they have mistaken me for the Lord Bishop of Blois, and so this misfortune has fallen upon me. I have but one friend in Paris, if, indeed, she be in Paris now. I speak of my ward, Corinne de Montesson, who is to be found at the Hôtel Beautreillis in the Rue St. Paul. Could you but convey a word to her of my necessity, I know that it would not be unavailing. Indeed, she is very gentle and loving to all, and never fails to help those who are in adversity. Send to her, I beg of you, and tell her to come to St. Cloud at once. Say that the Abbé Morellet implores her assistance—”

“Ciel!” cried the Corsican, “I will tell her no such tale—for why should she come to the help of the Abbé Morellet when it is Monseigneur the Bishop of Blois whom she is to assist?”

“Sir,” said the abbé, with humble entreaty, “if you tell her that, I am surely lost.”

“Courage,” said the Corsican, “you forget, monseigneur. In a little time your memory will come back to you. I shall send to Paris at once. Meanwhile you will pardon me if I must hold you under lock and key. You heard the king's command, my lord?”

“God help me,” cried the abbé, “I heard it too well.”

At this the Corsican withdrew and went downstairs to the supper-table. The scarlet masks of the company were all laid aside now, and the suppers no longer ate fish made of bread-crumbs. On the contrary, they were very merry over flagons of rare red wine and goblets of champagne, and trout from the Lake of Geneva, and dishes of carp's tongues and sturgeon and mullet, and legs of venison, and fat capons. When they saw the officer, they cried out joyfully, and hastened to ask how the abbé did.

“Grimod, Grimod, what does he say, what does he do—oh, tell us quickly—we die with impatience—you have news, Grimod?”

The Corsican held up his hand for quiet. Then, addressing the scarlet witch,—whose fresh and piquant face belied her rôle now that the mask was laid aside,—he said,—

Ma foi! Mademoiselle Corinne, the abbé asks for you.”

“For me?” said the girl; “then you have told him, Grimod?”

“Upon my word, mademoiselle, I have told him nothing. He thinks you are at the Hôtel Beautreillis, and he begs me to send a messenger there.”

Corinne clapped her pretty hands.

“Oh,” she said, “how I love him! But he will not send me to a convent after all.”

The idea that Corinne de Montesson would ever succumb to such a fate seemed to amuse the masqueraders very much. They greeted her words with extravagant enthusiasm. One love-sick swain—whose devil's head was set mockingly upon a plate before him—turned toward her, eyes full of sheepish affection, and exclaimed,—

“Saint John, Corinne, if you go to the nuns at Charenton, you will take half Paris with you.”

“We shall have to build a city there,” cried another.

“Such a place of worship will never have been seen,” said a third.

“I go as maid-in-waiting,” lisped a pretty boy, who was busy with a dish of venison.

“And the king, what does he go as?” asked a demon, whose head was tucked away under his chair.

“Yes,” cried Corinne, joyfully, “the king, where is he? Come forth, sir, and let us see you.”

“Sacrebleu!” answered a voice from the further end of the table, “the king is very well, thank you, mademoiselle—but he will be the better when he has eaten this pasty.”

Could the abbé have seen the king at that moment his fears would have vanished like the wind. Truth to tell, his majesty looked exceedingly unkingly, seated as he was astride a small chair and holding a very large pasty between his knees. But the wretched priest in the bedroom above knew of none of these things. While the masqueraders below were at the zenith of their merriment, the miserable abbé was pacing his elegant prison; and every turn he took brought a fresh exclamation to his lips.

“Oh,” he would moan, “a year in the Bastille at the least—that I should have left my home for this! A year in the Bastille, where they put you in cages so that your bones are bent; or in ditches, where the floors are deep in slime! Heaven be merciful to me—I have thrown wine in the king's face! Fool that I was!—his dress should have taught me better manners. And now they will punish me—oh, miserable day, unhappy hour—what would I not give to be in my bed at Yvette again!”

He, good man, had lived so noble a life that fear had not in all his years been an enemy to him. But now he feared exceedingly,—feared so that for a long while he started at every whisper of the wind or creak of board; feared until he forgot that he was hungry and had not supped. By and by, however, one of his restless pacings carried him into the cabinet which opened off the bed-chamber; and then he beheld the little table with the flowers and the wax-lights and the flagon of red wine and the well-dressed capon.

“Bah!” he exclaimed angrily, “the wine is but coloured water, the capon is made of bread—they shall not befool me a second time.”

He thought it a cruel jest, and vowed he would not be the victim of it; and so he began to pace the room again; but his steps carried him, despite his resolution, straight into the cabinet again; and at the third time of his coming, hunger and thirst so far prevailed that he poured a little of the wine from the flagon and ventured to taste it.

“Oh,” cried he, filling a goblet to the brim, “can it be true?—upon my word, this is very like the wine of Burgundy—Saint John! I have never tasted a better imitation.”

There was almost a smile upon the abbé's face now, and he began with eager hands to help himself to the capon. A moment later he had seated himself at the little table and was busy with a groaning plate. Only when the meal was done did a haunting memory of his night's work come back to him—and at that, the wine was soured and the bread turned bitter. He looked at the great carved bed, and told himself that sleep was not for such as him. He heard a bell without strike the hour of midnight, and the new-come day seemed to be the herald of his misfortunes. Once or twice he went to the door of his prison-chamber and listened, but could distinguish no sound, neither of voices nor of steps.

“Holy Saints!” cried he, beginning to pace his room again, “if I could only lie this night in my bed at Yvette!”

He sighed at the hopelessness of the desire; but, to his intense amazement, his sigh was echoed from the opposite side of the room. And he was very surprised when, upon turning round, he beheld, standing there by a picture let into the panel of the wainscoting, two of the masked men who had met him on the road earlier in the evening. Indeed, the abbé rubbed his eyes to make sure that he did not dream; and it was not until the tallest of the two spoke that he believed altogether in the reality of that which he saw.

“My Lord Bishop,” said the stranger, “we have kept our promise, and you see us again. Is it gladly?”

“Gentlemen,” cried the abbé, “gladly indeed—oh, Heaven knows! You have heard of my misfortune?”

The masked man raised his hand.

“Hush,” said he; “a word may cost you your life. We know all, and have come to save you. Follow me, 'seigneur, and say nothing, whatever you may see or hear.”

With this, he laid his hand upon a button in the picture, and the panel slid back noiselessly, showing a narrow aperture through which the three men passed—and then, the dazed abbé! The aperture thus disclosed gave access to a narrow flight of stairs, at the foot of which was a little door opening at the back of the pavilion directly upon the park of St. Cloud. Before the abbé had realised anything of that which was being done, he found himself out upon the soft grass with the bridle rein of a horse in his left hand and a groom at his right hand waiting to assist him to mount. The two men in their turn went to horses waiting for them, and all leaping into the saddles, the leader said presently,—

“Seigneur, mount, I beg of you. We ride to Blois for your life.”

“To Blois?” gasped the abbé.

But the groom had helped him into the saddle now, and the man having sent the horse off to join the others with a lusty smack upon the quarters, the abbé found himself, for good or ill, galloping wildly through the park towards the road for Sèvres. So absorbed was he in doubt and wonder that he failed to observe that a young girl now rode with his guides—though she was masked as the others were. Indeed, those with him never drew rein nor spoke a single word until dawn broke in the sky and St. Cloud and its woods lay far behind them. Then for the first time they permitted their foaming beasts to go at the walk and the fresh wind of the morning to breathe upon their heated faces.

The place was the summit of a hill some five miles from the town of Rambouillet. Below them a valley stretched pleasantly, and in the far distance the spire of the church at Yvette stood up like a needle against the cloudless sky.

“My lord,” said the leader of the strangers as he halted suddenly at the spot, “yonder is your home. As for us, our work is done. We have but to give you this paper and to bid you make your way to Blois with all speed. I doubt not that you will obey faithfully the king's wish that you shall not leave your new diocese for the space of one year.”

“My diocese—the king's wish!” exclaimed the abbé, whose face was bathed with perspiration and whose limbs were so sore that he could scarce sit upon his horse.

“Certainly,” answered the masked man, pressing the paper into the priest's hands; “read that and all will be known to you.”

The abbé read the paper; then he raised his hands in an attitude of humble thankfulness.

“Merciful Heaven be praised,” cried he, a they have made me Bishop of Blois, me—the unworthy—the simple priest—the humble curé of Yvette! Surely the king has forgiven me then. Gentlemen, I thank you from my heart for this night's work. Never shall your services be forgotten. Tell me your names, I beg of you, that I may remember them in my prayers.”

The first of the men removed his mask.

“'Seigneur,” said he, “they call me Bénôit, the swordsman.”

“'Seigneur,” cried the second, unmasking in his turn, “I am the Comte de Guibert—the oldest friend of your ward, Mademoiselle Corinne de Montesson.”

It was the moment for the young girl now. Swiftly unmasking and turning her pretty face upon the astonished abbé, she said,—

“And I, 'seigneur, am Corinne herself.”

The abbé sat as one dumfounded. Tears welled up in his eyes. Gratitude choked his words.

“Corinne,” he said, “oh, it is to you that I owe my pardon and my fortune then! God bless you a thousand times.”

“But not at Charenton,” cried Corinne, merrily.

“Heaven forbid,” cried the abbé. “Return to your home and carry an old man's blessing with you.”

The Bishop of Blois was wont to tell, even in his old age, how that at St. Cloud he had once thrown a glass of wine in the king's face. But the knowing ones shook their heads.

“Bah!” said they among themselves, “it was one of pretty Corinne's jests. The only king our good bishop ever met was Lekain, the actor from the king's theatre.”


  1. Missing pages 129-132. Start. (Text replaced from the Pearson's Magazine April 1897, where it was first published)
  2. Missing pages 129-132. End