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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 14

 

CHAPTER XIV

THE SECRETARY AND THE DUKE

THOSE reflections which I set down at the end of the last paragraph drifted me somewhat from the regular thread of my narrative. This, perhaps, is not the only reason why I should stumble and shy along like a balky palfrey when I approach one of the trifling accidents which transpired immediately after our arrival at Sceaux.

Thinking now this matter over, my withered cheeks lose their ashen hue, and burn again with the hot, tumultuous blood of youth and shame. But I may as well tell it with all the resolution a man summons before plunging into an icy bath at midwinter. It came, the unexpected prelude to one long, sweet song. It was in this wise:

Jerome seemed a welcome guest at Sceaux, and from the hearty greetings, yet respectful withal, which were accorded him, must have been a man of more consideration in the world than I had heretofore supposed. Before this, I received him at his own worth, and our short acquaintance had been so filled with matters of serious moment, I made no inquiries beyond the scant stray bits of information he had himself volunteered. However that might be, his welcome at Sceaux was sincere. Nor did I wonder at his being a favorite, from the jovial jests and flings he cast at those who crowded round, which set them all a-laughing. His familiarity with the doings of the day, and the quick repartee he used to men of different parties, astonished me greatly.

Having disposed of our horses, and given quiet orders to the groom, Jerome made me acquainted with his friends. Some part of their good-fellowship fell to my lot as a friend of Jerome's, and put me upon my mettle to return it.

As good luck would have it, Jerome's friend, the Chevalier Charles de la Mora, was then at Sceaux, and came up early on learning of our arrival.

He was a splendid fellow of thirty-five, stalwart and unusually graceful for a man of his inches. His frank and cordial manner was his greatest charm to me, though a woman would doubtless have raved more over those dark, dreamy eyes, which while mild enough, betimes gave promise of fire and to spare.

He spoke most affectionately to Jerome, and bade us both be sure his wife would receive us with sincerest pleasure. Several of the gentlemen had seen service, and with them I was immediately on easy terms.

Before entering the Villa I paused in a doorway at the head of a short flight of steps, bowing and posturing through my new catalogue of behavior, anxiously watching for Jerome's approval, or a cue. The rascal, I could not for the life of me tell from his expression whether he applauded my fine manners or laughed secretly at the folly of it all. But I went on as I was taught, bending myself pretty well double, half backing into the door which led to an inner hall. Holding this position, which however elegant it might have appeared to those in front, was certainly neither graceful or attractive viewed from within, I felt a sudden jar from the rear, and being thus struck at a point of vantage, came near to plunging forward upon my face. Before I could recover my equilibrium and turn about, I heard the jingle of a tray of glasses and a cool shower of spray flew about my ears. Then the dazed and bewildered eyes of a timid girl looked full into mine; she courageously paused and essayed to stammer out an apology. Her gaze, though, wandered past me, and one sight of the drawn features of those who had seen it all and now sought in vain to restrain their laughter, was too much for this startled fawn. She turned and fled as the wind, just when their merry peal burst out.

"Well, my little lady had best look where she goes, and not run through a door with her eyes behind her," roared de Virelle, when the girl had well escaped.

"His clothes are ruined, and so fine, ah, so fine," drawled Miron.

"By my soul, Captain, you have flowers to spare," chimed in Le Rue. "That's right, gather them up, for Mademoiselle is not usually so generous with her guerdons that any should be lost. The little icicle."

His speech was suited to my actions, for, like a fool, I had already dropped upon my knees, busied about picking up the scattered roses and replacing them in the vases from which they had fallen. The tray was still rolling and rattling around on the floor. Verily, I felt my shame must consume me, and took refuge in this humble occupation to hide my face. There is some sort of a confused recollection now abiding with me, that a man-servant at length came to sweep up the fragments, while I watched him vacantly, a tangled bunch of roses in my hand.

In all their laughs and jests and jibes hurled at my embarrassment, Jerome never for a moment lost sight of the main purpose of our visit. As all roads led to Rome, so did he adroitly turn all topics of conversation into those channels where might be supposed to run the information we wanted.

I felt myself, especially in my present frame of mind, ill-fitted for such a play. The blunt and awkward directness of the camp suited better my ways and speech. Though I might discreetly hold my tongue, I could never use it with the credit I could my sword. Nor could I rid my mind of the childish vision which for one short instant confronted me at the door. Even then I pondered more on her amazed expression and youthful innocence than upon our own chances for success or failure.

From the comments of those about me, I gathered she was a protegee of Madame's, whose reserved manners made her no great favourite with the dissolute throng which collected at the gay Villa of Sceaux. I took little part in their conversation, and was glad when Jerome by a gesture called me to follow him away.

"Let us go to see Madame," he said simply, when we were entirely out of hearing.

"Du Maine?" I inquired, vaguely wondering why we should venture into the lion's den.

"No—Madame—the other," he replied with some degree of hesitation.

I followed him without further questioning. He led the way, which was doubtless a familiar one, and the maid at the door, knowing him, admitted us at once to Madame's apartment. The woman, who sat alone in the dainty silk-hung boudoir, rose and came swiftly forward to greet Jerome, the radiant girlish smile changing quickly when she perceived me enter behind him. It was more the grande dame, and less the delighted woman, who acknowledged my presentation with courtly grace. Intuitively I felt her unvoiced inquiry of Jerome why he had not come alone. Yet was she thoroughly polite, and chatted pleasantly with us concerning the news of the day.

"We are to have a fete this afternoon; you must both come. Each guest is expected to contribute in some way to the entertainment of the company. You Jerome—M. de Greville," she begged pardon with a sudden glance at me, "You, M. de Greville, will doubtless favour us with a well-turned madrigal. And you, my dear Captain de Mouret, in which direction do your talents lie?"

"I have no talents, Madame; a plain blunt man of the camp."

"Ah! a soldier; so interesting in these stupid times, when men are little but women differently dressed. Ah, it has been too truly said that 'when men were created, some of the mud which remained served to fashion the souls of princes and lackeys.' But surely you could give us a story?" and so she talked on, not discourteous, but heedless of my protests. I was really alarmed, lest she seriously call upon me before that stately company.

The tiny clock upon her table chimed the third quarter, and she volunteered that at eleven she expected other callers. Acting upon this hint Jerome proceeded at once to tell her why we came, yet I noted in all his confidences he ever kept something to himself for safety's sake. The maid's reappearance interrupted us. She announced, "M. de Valence."

A gleam of anger swept across Madame's face.

"Bid him wait my pleasure in the ante-room. He is ten minutes early. No, the sooner he comes the sooner it is over; wait; bid him come in. M. le Captain, de Greville, will you gentlemen please to retire in that small room for a short space? I will speedily be free again."

And so it came about we overheard matters which opened my mind to the way affairs of state are managed, and I grew to learn upon what slender threads of love, of malice, of jealousy and of hate the destinies of nations must often hang. From our situation we could not help but hear all that passed between Madame and her caller. The maid withdrew, in the slow hurry of a truant on his way to school, but hastened at a sign of annoyance from Madame.

"Monsieur de Valence, you are full ten minutes early. You know I bade you be always exactly punctual," was Madame's petulant greeting of the handsome man who bore himself so meekly in her presence.

No tone was ever colder, no demeanor more haughty than hers, and this proud man who bent before no storm, who held the fortunes of many within his grasp, bowed like an obedient child to her whim.

"Yes, Celeste, I know, but—"

"Madame de Chartrain," she corrected. (I use the name de Chartrain, though it was not her own.)

"Yes—Madame, I know, but, it is so hard to wait; do you not understand how I count the minutes every day until—"

"Yes, yes, I've heard all those fine excuses before. To your business. The other can wait, business first, then—"

"Pleasure?" he supplemented with an eagerness strangely at variance with the rigid self-control he had hitherto shown.

"I did not say pleasure," she gravely broke in, "your business."

The man submitted with the patience of one quite accustomed, yet not wholly resigned to such a reception, and spread numerous papers upon the table before her. Selecting one he began to explain:

"Your wishes in regard to this matter have been carried out; I had the man detained in the city where he is at your command. He suspects nothing, though fretful at the restraint."

"Very good. And the other?"

"Yes, here it is. You see this has been so arranged that the Duke quite naturally selected Menezes to bear these dispatches. You may remind him that Menezes is a brother of the man Perrault, whom he had hanged some years ago. Here is the man's history, which you can look over at leisure. The Duke has forgotten all this in his impatience to remedy the Yvard fiasco. It will serve, however, to make him think you even more clever and devoted to him."

I listened closely at the name "Yvard."

"Well, now so far so good. And the question of finance? That is of more importance."

"And of more difficulty. The Madame often dabbles herself in these dealings involving money, and she is harder to deceive. However she is not accurate at figures, clever though she be otherwise. Look over this; this calculation. See, there is a simple transposition of an item, which results in a difference of near ten thousand livres. It appears there to have been made by the money lender for his greater gain. You can study this copy before the Duke comes. Then you will be quite prepared to point out this error and make the correction. Here is his copy which he will sign."

"Ah, good," she said looking over the memorandum he had given her of the amounts, with the correct calculations all neatly carried out.

"Well, that is enough for this morning; you may go; these things weary me."

"Celeste, Celeste, how long is this to continue? will you never—"

"Madame," she corrected positively, rumpling and smoothing out again the paper in her lap.

"As you will," with an air of hopeless protest. "Do you mean always to send me away when our business is completed—?"

"Was it not our agreement?"

"Yes, but I thought—"

"You had no right to think."

"A man must needs think whether he will or no, what is of life itself. Are you a woman of ice? Do you not realize I sell all I hold most dear, the confidence born of a life-time's honest service to my King, my own honour, only to serve you, to be with you?"

"I am weary. It is time for you to go."

"Yes, but is there nothing else? You agreed—"

"Oh, I know, why remind me?" She turned upon him fiercely. "Do you wish to make me hate you? Now you are only an object of indifference, objectionable to me as are all men who make love, and sigh, and worry me. Do you wish me to hate and despise you more than the rest?"

"God forbid! But—"

"You still insist?"

"Yes, I must have my thirty pieces of silver, the price of my treachery," de Valence returned bitterly; "men die in the Bastille for lesser offencses than mine."

"That is your affair," the woman replied, without a shade of concern.

I thought I could perceive a growing embarrassment in her manner as de Valence came closer to her, remembering, for so she must, that we could hear every word through the portiere. She collected herself bravely; de Valence must not suspect.

"Come, I'll pay you," and she put her lips upward so coolly I wondered he should care to touch them. Jerome raged silently, for I confess we were both guilty of looking as well as listening. De Valence leaned over her, but lifted his head again.

"Celeste—Madame, so cold. I'd as lief kiss the marble lips of Diana in the park."

"Oh, as you please; you may kiss them, too, if you like," she shrugged her shoulders, and was not pretty for the instant. "I pay as I promise; it is a mere barter of commodities. You may take or leave it as you choose."

The man's attitude of dejection touched even me, but the woman gave no sign of feeling or compassion, only intense impatience.

"Well, Monsieur, am I to sit waiting an hour? Are you come to be a sordid huckster to wrangle over your price?"

De Valence bent over her again, touched the lips lightly, and strode away, gathering up his papers from the table as he went. Two only were left, and those Madame held listlessly in her hand.

We felt thoroughly conscious of our guilt, Jerome and I, when we put aside the screen and re-entered the room. There was a certain air of resentment in his manner, as if he would call her to account, and I heartily wished myself otherwhere. Perhaps it was all for the best; my presence prevented, for the time, explanations, and I fancied the woman was grateful for the respite. Her lassitude, and effort to overcome it, smote me to the quick, and right willingly I would have aided her had I but the power. To Jerome she spoke:

"You heard—all?"

He nodded.

"And saw?" Less resolutely this question came. The words conveyed the wish, unexpressed, that he had not heard. To me she gave no thought. Again Jerome nodded, and looked away.

"It is the penalty and the price of power. Oh, Jerome, how fervently I have prayed that this all had not been," she went on oblivious of my presence.

Jerome's resentment faded away at her mute appeal for sympathy, and I am very sure he would not have me chronicle all that then occurred. Suffice it, that I employed myself by the window, some minutes perhaps, until a hasty rap on the door, and the maid bore a message which she delivered to her mistress in secret.

"Bid him come in at once if it please him."

"He is already here, madame," the girl replied.

We had barely time to gain our former hiding place before a man richly dressed, and limping, entered; the same I had seen in the gardens of Versailles. I was now intensely interested in this little drama, which, as it were, was being played for my own benefit, and gave closer study to the Duke of Maine who hurried in.

The weak, irresolute face bore no trace of the dignity and power which made his royal father at times truly great; it showed, too, but little inheritance from the proud beauty of de Montespan. Vastly inferior to both, and to his ambitious wife whose schemes he adopted when they succeeded and disowned when they failed, the Duke trembled now upon the verge of a mighty intrigue which perchance would make him master of an empire, perchance consign him to the Bastille or to the block. Well he knew that the abandoned Philip of Orleans, though he sometimes forgot his friends, never spared an enemy. With these thoughts haunting him, his timid mind shrank from putting his fortunes to a decisive test, and he looked forward, dreading to see the increasing feebleness of the King hasten that day when a quick stroke must win or lose.

He approached Madame at the table with a semblance of that swagger affected by the weakling in presence of women, yet permitting the wandering eye and uncertain gestures to betray his uneasiness. Something had evidently gone wrong with my lord.

"Have you heard, Celeste, of Yvard?" he inquired, dropping into a seat.

My ears quickened at the familiar name.

"Well, what of him?"

"He has lost the Louisiana dispatches, and I know not what they contained."

"What!" exclaimed the woman, as if genuinely alarmed, and learning the bad news at first hand.

"Yes, the cursed fool lost them in some drunken brawl in the city. We have had the place thoroughly searched, but—" he finished the sentence with a shrug to express his failure.

"What if they should reach Orleans?" he continued evenly. "My men fear he has gone to him anyway, hoping to play in with both for pardon. I'd feel much safer could we only lay our hands upon him. He is the one man beside ourselves here who knows—who knows, anything," the Duke went on with growing trepidation.

"Well, make yourself comfort, my lord, I took the responsibility to detain Yvard in Paris."

"You?" he sprang from his chair in astonishment. "You? Why? How?"

"I thought your safety demanded it. My lord is too generous, too confiding," she threw toward him a glance of concern poor de Valance would have periled his soul to win. "You see, when we entrusted him with this business, it was so delicate a mission, I set a watch upon him—some of my own people of Anjou—and when he acted negligently they reported to me. He began drinking, too, and freely, so I feared his discretion. I now have the man safe in Paris. What would my lord with him?"

Du Maine fixed his cold eyes upon her, for a short space, then,

"It would be prudent to put him quietly out of the way," he suggested, the thin lips closing cruelly. "No, hold him, we may have further need for his sword. But have a care that he talks to no one."

Madame had raised no objection to the Duke's cool command that an end be made of Yvard, yet I did her the credit to suppose it was because she well knew she might do as she liked, and he be none the wiser.

He now settled himself upon a divan near Madame, with all the complacency of a man whose own foresight has saved him a serious trouble, and said after mature deliberation, gazing thoughtfully at the sportive cherubs on the ceiling:

"Well, it could not have been so bad after all, for I observed the caution to prepare a warning for our friends across the frontier, and had arranged for a friend of ours to be entrapped by Orleans, betraying misleading dispatches to him. A fine plan, think you? Menezes you know is devoted to me, and I have promised him a patent."

"Who did your grace say was to be this friend?"

"Menezes."

"Why Menezes?"

"I have done much for the fellow, and he is not over clever; clever enough for the purpose, you know, but—"

"Does my lord not remember Menezes is a brother of the Perrault whom you had hanged some years ago? I fear you have been badly advised."

"No! I do not recall him."

"The rogue who cast a stone at your horse?"

"Ah, I bring him to mind. Short, thick-set fellow, who whined something about hunger, children, and the cold. Ugh! What concern have I with the rabble? But how do you know this, Celeste?"

"I have long misdoubted him, and had the rascal overlooked. He is of Picardy, and his father was attached to St. Andre, who likes not His Grace, the Duke of Maine."

"No, by my faith, he hates me. Ah, I see it all. Celeste, you should have been a man, a man's wit almost you have. Really, so much brain is wasted in that pretty head of yours. Madame will come to comprehend she does not know it all—yet she torments me till I give in. I think I shall take firmer hold, and manage my own affairs to better advantage than she. Ugh! What a scrape she was like to get me in."

He gradually regained the expression of complete satisfaction with himself, and prepared now to show the masterpiece of his work, the contract with Antonio of Modena, the money-lender.

"Here are our financial plans; the usury is high, but there is great risk, so thinks Antonio; egad! perhaps he is right, though it is possible we may pay him. Altogether a most excellent plan, my own work——."

Madame interrupted him, thinking perhaps it was wise that he should not be committed too far that he could not throw the blame on other shoulders. She took advantage of a pause to examine the document with apparent care.

"Yes, excellent, but let us see. Three, seven, twelve, fourteen, twenty-three—here is some mistake. Let us go over it again. Yes, here it is. This is not your accounting. The miserly Lombard would cozen you of your honour if he could but sell it again. Here is an error of near ten thousand livres; let me correct it for you."

And while he stared at her she deftly copied the correct amounts from the slip she held concealed in her hand. She knew the figures were his own, but gave no token.

"I doubt not you would have looked over it more carefully before you signed it, and these matters would have been detected by your own eyes."

"Yes, yes," he replied nervously, reaching out his hand for the paper lest she observe—what her quick eyes had at first seen—that the contract already bore his signature and seal. She gave it him and he replaced it carefully in his breast.

"I will give those careless secretaries a lesson they sorely need," and in this disturbed condition of mind he blustered out of the apartment, forgetting his usual gallantries, which Madame so diplomatically put aside without giving too serious offence.

Jerome leaned against the window-facing, his unseeing eyes resting on the park beyond the little garden at our feet. His brow lowered, not as of a storm, but with the murkiness of a settled and dismal day. Perchance his thoughts wandered with his childhood's sweetheart amid the fertile vales of far away Anjou. Nothing was more distant from him than the gilded furnishings, the frescoes, the marble Venus at his elbow. Beside her table, alone, and abstracted as Jerome, the woman toyed with a dainty fan; her impassive beauty, born of rigid training, betrayed not the inner desolation. Her face was calm and serious enough, the skin lay smooth and glowed with all those delicate tints that women love.

Her quietude reminded me of the slumbering ocean, glassy and tranquil, whose unmarred surface conveyed no hint of sunken ships beneath, of cold dumb faces tossing in the brine, of death-abysses where wrecks abandoned lie.

I slipped away without rousing a protest from Jerome, and closing the door softly left them to their meditations and to each other.