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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 5

 

CHAPTER V

THE DECADENCE OF VERSAILLES

IT was nearly noon on the fourth day when I alighted at the Place d'Armes, the grand court-yard of Versailles, and I fear I cut but a sorry figure for a governor's messenger. It appeared that my dress at best was unlike that worn at the court; my fringed leather leggings, hunting knife and long sword differed much from the wigs and frizzes worn by the officers of the guard. However, I made bold to seem at ease and accustomed to court as I addressed the officer of the watch.

"Can you direct me, sir, to M. de Serigny? I have business with him."

The man smiled, I knew not at what, and regarded me curiously. I felt my face flush, but repeated the question.

"M. de Serigny," he replied, "is with the court. Seek him at his apartments. Pass through yonder great gate, turn to the left and inquire of the guard at the door."

I walked on hastily, glad to be quit of his inspection. Such a throng of fine gentlemen in silks, satins and ribbons I never dreamed of; even the soldiers seemed dressed more for bridals than for battles. I held my peace though, walking steadily onward as directed, yet itching to stick my sword into some of their dainty trappings. At the door I came upon a great throng of loungers playing at dice, some throwing and others laying their wagers upon those who threw.

Standing somewhat aloof was a slender young fellow who wore the slashed silver and blue of the King's own guard—I knew the colors well from some of our older officers in the Provincial army. They had told me of men, soldiers and hard fighters, too, wearing great frizzled wigs outside their natural hair, with ruffles on their sleeves and perfumed laces at their throats—but I had generally discredited such tales. Here was a man dressed more gaily than I had ever seen a woman in my childhood—and he seemed a fine, likely young fellow, too. I fear I examined him rather critically and without proper deference to his uniform, for he turned upon me angrily, catching my glance.

"Well, my good fellow, didst never see the King's colors before? Where hast thou lived then all these years?"

He seemed quite as much amused at my plain forest garb, leggings and service cap, as I had been at his silken trumpery. I replied to him as quietly as might be:

"In our parts beyond the seas we hear often of the King's Guard, but never have my eyes rested upon their uniform before."

Observing my shoulder straps he unbent somewhat and inquired:

"Thou bearest the rank of captain?"

"Aye, comrade, in the service of the King in his province of Louisiana. I pray you direct me to the apartments of M. de Serigny, I would have speech with him."

He was a manly young lad, of soldierly bearing, too, despite his effeminate dress; he turned and himself guided me through the many intricate halls and passages until we reached a door which he pointed out as Serigny's, where, with polite speeches, he left me alone.

Monsieur was out, at what business the servant did not know, but would return at two of the clock. In the meantime I sought to amuse myself strolling about the place. I knew I could find my way along the bayou paths of Louisiana the darkest night God ever sent, for there at least I would have through the trees the glimmer of a friendly star to guide me. But here in the King's palace of Versailles, with the winding passages running hither and yonder, each as like the other as twin gauntlets, I lost myself hopelessly.

Clanking about alone over the tiles in great deserted corridors I grew almost frightened at my own noise until I passed out into an immense gallery, gaily decorated, and thronged with the ladies and gentlemen of the court. I could not make much sense of it all except it seemed greatly painted up, especially overhead, and nearly every figure bore the face of the King.

From the windows I could see a strange forest where every tree grew in the shape of some odd beast or bird, being set in long rows, and among them were white images of some substance like unto the Holy Mother at the shrine in Montreal. Some of these graven stones were in semblance of men with horns and goats' legs, and some of warrior women with plumed helms upon their heads. Verily I marveled much at these strange sights.

The pert little lads who idled about the hall began to make sport of me concerning my dress, and laughed greatly at their own wit. I paid no heed to their foolish gibes, there being no man among them. It irked me more than good sense would admit, and I left the hall, and after many vain endeavors made my way out into the open air—being right glad to breathe again without a roof above my head.

I was ill at ease among all these gay gallants who minced and paced along like so many string-halted nags. It was said the King walked much in that way, and so, forsooth, must all his lords and ladies go. Perhaps it was the fashion of the court, but I stuck to the only gait I knew, a good, honest, swinging stride which could cover fifteen leagues a day at a pinch.

Off to one side the water kept leaping up into the air as I am told the spouting springs do in the Dacotah country. I walked that way and was soon lost in wonderment at the contemplation of a vast bronze basin filled with curious brazen beasts, half men half fishes, the like of which I had never seen. Some had horns from which they blew sparkling streams; others astride of strange sea monsters plunged about and cast up jets of water. It all made so much noise I scarcely heard a voice behind me say:

"I'll lay a golden Louis his coat is of as queer a cut as his nether garment—whatever its outlandish name maybe."

"Done," said another voice.

I gave no heed, thinking they meant not me, until a dapper little chap, all plumed and belaced, stepped in front of me with a most lordly air.

"Hey, friend, who is thy tailor?" and behind me rang out the merry laugh at such a famous jest.

I turned and there being a party of fine ladies at my back full gladly would I have retired, had not the young braggart swaggered to my front again and persisted:

"Friend, let us see the cut of thy coat."

We men of the forest accustomed to the rough ways of a camp, and looking not for insult, are slow to anger, so I only asked as politely as might be, because of the ladies:

"And wherefore?"

"Because I say so, sir," he replied, most arrogantly and stamping his foot, "cast off thy cloak that we may see."

I still stood undecided, scarce knowing what to think, and being ignorant of fashions at court. De Brienne—for that was his name—mistaking my hesitation, advanced and laying his hand upon my cloak would have torn it off, had I not brushed him aside so vigorously he stumbled and fell to the ground.

I had no thought of using strength sufficient to throw him down. He sprang up instantly, and, furious, drew his sword. I felt my own wrath rise at sight of cold steel—it was ever a way of mine beyond control—and asked him hotly:

"How is it affair of thine what manner of coat I wear?"

He made no reply, but, raising his arm, said, menacingly;

"Now, clown, show thy coat, or I'll spit thee like a dog."

I glanced around the circle at the blanched faces of the ladies, seeing such a serious turn to their jest, and would not even then have drawn, but the men made no effort to interfere, so I only answered him, "Nay, I'll wear my cloak," when he made a quick lunge at me. I know not that he meant me serious injury, but taking no risk my blade came readily, and catching his slenderer weapon broke it short off, leaving him raging and defenceless—a simple trick, yet not learned in a day. It was a dainty little jewel-hilted toy, and I hated to spoil it.

"Now, sir, thank the King's uniform for thy life," my blood was up, and I ached to teach him a lesson, "I can not turn the King's sword against one of his servants."

The ladies laughed now, and the hot flush mounted to my cheeks, for I feared a woman, but their merriment quickly died away at sound of an imperious voice saying:

"For shame de Brienne, brawler!" "And thou, my young coxcomb of Orleans," he continued, addressing that dissolute Prince: "How dare you, sir, lead such a throng of revellers into the King's own gardens? Is not your own house of debauchery sufficient for Your Grace? Have a care, young sir, I am yet the King, and thou mayest never be the Regent."

The Duke simulated his profound regret, but when Louis' back was turned made a most unprincely and most uncourtly grimace at his royal uncle, which set them all a-laughing. Whereat all these noble lords and ladies made great pretense of gravity, and ostentatiously held their handkerchiefs before their mouths to hide their mirth.

Already these satellites began to desert the sinking to attach their fortunes to those of the rising sun. I marvelled at this, for the name of Louis had been held in almost Godlike reverence by us in the colonies. Meanwhile he had turned to me:

"Well said, young man; thou hast a loyal tongue."

"And a loyal master, sire," for it needed not the mention of his name to tell me I faced the King. That face, stamped on his every golden namesake, had been familiar to me since the earliest days of my childhood.

"Thy name, sir?"

Kingly still, though a little bent, for he was now well past sixty, Louis stood in his high-heeled shoes tapping the ground impatiently with a long cane, his flowing coat fluttering in the wind. For a period I completely lost my tongue, could see nothing but the blazing cross of the Holy Ghost, the red order of St. Louis, upon the Monarch's breast, could hear nothing but the grating of his cane against the gravel. Yet I was not ashamed, for a brave soldier can proudly fear his God, his conscience and his King.

"Thy name," he sharply demanded, "dost hear?"

"Placide de Mouret, Captain of Bienville's Guards, Province of Louisiana, may it please you, sire," I stammered out.

"Attend me at the morning hour to-morrow," and he strutted away from the giggling crowd.

I too would have turned off, had not my late antagonist proven himself a man at heart. He quickly moved toward me holding out his hand in reconciliation.

"I ask thy pardon, comrade; I too am a soldier, though but an indifferent one in these peaceful times. We mistook thee, and I humbly ask thy pardon."

Of course I could bear no malice against the fellow, and he seeming sincere, I suffered him to present me to his friends. First among these, de Brienne presented me to His Royal Highness, the Duke of Orleans, "First Prince of the Blood, and the coming Regent of France."

This latter speech was given with decided emphasis, and a malicious glance toward a pale, studious looking man, a cripple, who, the center of a more sedate group, was well within hearing. The deformed Duke of Maine, I thought, rival of Orleans for the Regency. The ladies I would have willingly escaped, but they would not hear of it, and soon I was surrounded by a chattering group, asking a thousand questions about the fabled land of gold and glory beyond the seas. Right glad was I when one of the gallants pointed out a thoughtful looking gentleman who walked slowly through the eastern gate.

"There is M. de Serigny, a brother of Bienville, your Governor."

"That de Serigny?" I repeated, "then I must leave you, for I would speak with him," and I bowed myself off with what grace I could muster, knowing naught of such matters. A brisk walk fetched me to Serigny's side. In a few words I communicated my mission. His quick, incisive glance took in every detail of my dress and appearance, but his features never changed.

"Wait, my dear Captain," he drawled out, with a polite wave of his perfumed handkerchief, "time for business after a while. Let us enjoy the beauties of the garden."

My spirits fell. Could this be a brother of the stern Bienville, this the man upon whom my governor's fortunes now so largely depended? His foppish manner impressed me very disagreeably, and, in no pleasant frame of mind, I stalked along by his side listening to the senseless gossip of the court. We soon passed out of the gardens into the great hall, and reached his own apartments.

No sooner was the valet dismissed and the key turned in the lock than his face showed the keenest interest. After satisfying himself of my identity and glancing through the packet which I now handed him, he gave vent to an exclamation of intense relief.

"Not a day too soon, my dear Captain, not a day, not a day, not a day," he kept repeating over and over, looking at the different documents. "The King promises to act on this matter in a few days, to-morrow, probably. Chamillard is against us; he seems all powerful now; the King loves him for his truculence. But these will help, yes, these will help." And again he ran through the various papers with business-like swiftness. His fashionable air and the perfumed handkerchief were alike laid aside. Now I could see the resemblance between him and his sturdy brother.

"To-morrow, yes, to-morrow, my lad—pardon me the familiarity, Captain de Mouret," he apologized, waiving aside my hand raised in protest. "To-morrow we must act. We must gain the King's own ear. These must not go through the department of war. Chamillard will poison the King's mind against us. Most likely they would never reach the King at all. Louis will hardly listen to me even now."

"Then let me speak to the King," I blurted out before I thought.

"You?" he repeated in unconcealed astonishment.

"Yes, I," I replied, for I was now well into it, and determined to wade through; besides I loved my old commander, and would venture much in his service.

Then I told Serigny of the occurrence in the garden, or enough to let him understand why I was summoned to the morning audience.

"Thou art lucky, lad; here half a day and already have an appointment with the King." "Yes," he roused half aloud, "Louis likes such things. He grows suspicious with age, and doubts even his ministers. It is quite possible he may question you of affairs in the colonies. If so, speak out, and freely, too, my lad; Louis loves the plain truth when it touches not his princely person or his vanities. God grant that we may win."

Serigny then told me much of the petty trickery of the court in order that I might understand how the land lay.

"It may be of service to you to know something of the many webs which ambition, cupidity and malice have woven about us here in this great government of France," he went on, speaking bitterly. "We never dare speak our thoughts, for blindness, silence, flattery and fawning seem surer passports to favor than are gallant deeds and honest service. The King grows old, and it is feared his end is near. Of this, men scarcely whisper. His death, as you know, would leave all France to the frail little Duke of Anjou. Looking to this, the court here is already divided in interest between the rivals for the regency, Philip of Orleans, and the Duke of Maine. The Orleans party is the stronger, though the Duke stands accused in the vulgar mind of poisoning all who may come between himself and the throne, save this Anjou child, who will probably die of sheer weakness. The King has recently had his de Montespan children legitimated and rendered capable of inheriting the crown, though the legality of this action is bitterly contested by the Orleanists. He has also, it is said, left a will in favor of the Duke of Maine, giving him all real power, while nominally making Orleans the Regent. And strange as it may seem, it is said this will was made at the persistent request of de Maintenon, so viciously hated by the proud de Montespan. But you know she was the teacher of this little Duke, and they are very much attached to each other. Were the Duke of Maine a more vigorous man, there would be no doubt of his success. If 'that little wasp of Sceaux,' as Madame Orleans calls the wife of the Duke of Maine, were the man of the family, she would surely be the Regent. She's a wonderful woman. Madame du Maine hates Bienville because she can not use him in her dealings with Spain. She has duped the Bretons by the promise of an independent provincial government, but Bienville stands true to his King. So they seek by every means to discredit him. You may surmise from this how unfortunately our affairs here are complicated in the affairs of great personages, where lesser men lose their lives at the first breath of suspicion."

After a little I had ample opportunity to observe the man more closely, for he kept his seat to examine at leisure the dispatches I had brought. He was evidently not entirely pleased with this inspection, giving vent at times to low expressions of annoyance.

"Always the same trouble, la Salle and de la Vente, spies in Biloxi—Ah, here is the fine hand of Madame du Maine, currying favor with the Spaniard in aid of her cripple husband. If we could only make this plain to Louis; this stirring up of strife. Fancy a son of de Montespan on the throne of France. Yes, yes, yes, here is the awkward work of our old friend Crozat, the tradesman, who would purchase an empire of the King. See how clumsily he throws out his golden bait."

I could but listen and observe. Now, more than ever, in the sternness and decision of his countenance he resembled his famous brothers, Iberville, Sauvolle and Bienville—and yet beyond them all he possessed the faculties of a courtier.

"Captain, are you acquainted with the nature of these dispatches?" he asked directly.

"No, sire, only in general, and from my knowledge of affairs at Biloxi."

"My brother tells me I may trust you." My face flushed hotly with the blood of anger.

"Oh, my dear Captain, I meant no offense; I speak plainly, and there are few men about this court whom you can trust. There is an adventure of grave importance upon which I wish to employ you. Your being unknown in Paris may assist us greatly."

I signified my attention.

"It is supposed we are on the eve of war with Spain, and it is my belief the colonies will be the first objects of attack. Some person, and one who is in our confidence, is now carrying on a secret correspondence with the Spanish agent at Paris. Cellamare, the Spanish Ambassador, is concerned in the intrigue. This much we know from letters which have fallen into my hands, and I have permitted them to be delivered rather than interrupt a correspondence which will eventually lead to a discovery of the traitor. We have now good reason to believe that dispatches of a very serious nature are expected daily by Yvard—Yvard is the Spanish spy—"

"Yvard, Yvard," I mentally repeated, where had I heard that name?

"These papers are to give our exact strength at Biloxi, the plans of our fortifications, and a chart of all the navigable waters of Louisiana. We can not afford to let the Spaniards have this information, even if thereby we should capture their agent."

I maintained a strict silence.

"You understand le Dauphin is the last vessel over, and no other is expected for months, so we think all this information came over with you."

When he began I instinctively thought of Levert, who set out alone for Paris just behind me. As he proceeded, the name "Yvard" again fixed my attention. The very name I had heard mentioned by one of the men the morning I left Biloxi. Serigny was right in his surmise, but I let him go on without interruption.

"If I am correct, these plans will be perfected in Paris before le Dauphin sails again. The spy, whoever he may be, will perhaps want to return in her. Now you can see what I want. You can understand what a help you may possibly be in this matter. You doubtless know every person who came over in le Dauphin, yet you must avoid notice yourself, for they would suspect you instantly."

I still said nothing to him of the conversation I had overheard, or of my own suspicions, childishly thinking I would gain the greater credit by unearthing the whole affair and divulging it at one time.

"We have some reliable fellows in Paris, and I will send such letters as will put you in possession of all the information they have. You and they, I trust, can do the work satisfactorily, but in no event shall my name, or that of Bienville, be connected with the enterprise. If the matter should come to the King, we would lose what little hold we now have upon him. It is not an easy or an agreeable task. The Spanish spy bears the name of Carne Yvard, a man of good birth, but a gambler and a profligate. He is known throughout Paris as a reckless gamester, but no man dare question him, because of his marvellous skill with the sword. He spends much of his time at Bertrand's wine and card rooms, though he has the entrée at some of the most fashionable houses in the city, even at Madame du Maine's exclusive Villa of Sceaux. But thereby hangs his employment; we do not know how far Madame is involved in this intrigue with Spain and the Bretons."

Verily I felt encouraged as Serigny unfolded his charming plans for my entertainment. In a strange city to hunt up and dispossess a man like this of papers which would hang him. A delightful undertaking forsooth!

"But we plan in advance, my dear Captain. We must wait the pleasure of the King concerning you. We will renew this subject to-morrow."

That night I lodged with Serigny.