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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 6

 

CHAPTER VI

LOUIS XIV

EVEN at this time I remember how nervous I was when I dressed for my interview with the King. What it was for, or how it might result, I could form no idea, so I did not trouble myself with vain thinking.

Promptly at ten I presented myself at that famous door which led to the room where Louis held his morning levee. Already the approaches were crowded, and the officer on watch was busy examining passes and requests for admission. Some there were who passed haughtily in without even so much as a glance at the guard or the crowd which parted obsequiously to let them through. Most probably favorites of the King, or perchance his ministers. When he reached me the officer of the guard, noting my uniform, inquired:

"Captain de Mouret of Louisiana?"

"Yes."

"You are to be admitted, sir," and I found myself ushered immediately through the opening ranks of Swiss mercenaries into the audience chamber of the King.

Louis no longer held his levees in the great vaulted chamber into which I was first shown, but in a smaller a and more sombre room, that of de Maintenon. The character and dress of those present reflected with a chameleon's fidelity the change in His Majesty's habits. Madame sat near the King, working upon a piece of tapestry which, when she was interested in what went on, lay idle in her lap. Behind her chair stood the sour-visaged Jesuit confessor, Letellier.

Death, which spared not even the Bourbon, had taken away the Dauphin and his son; leaving as the King's successor an infant yet in his cradle. This embittered every thought of the King's declining years, made him gloomy, petulant and querulous. And yet there were many men still about him capable of upholding the dignity of the throne. I heard announced, one after the other, Grand Marshal Villars, lately placed in command of all the armies of France; the Duke of Savoy, a famous soldier, but a deserter from the English; the brothers de Noailles, one bearing a Marshal's baton, the other, cold, cynical, austere, robed in churchly garments, Archbishop of Paris. There were Villeroi, de Tourville, the admiral; and Marshal Tallard—he who lost the bloody field of Blenheim to the Englishman Churchill.

I confess I was abashed at the sound of so many great names, and advanced in hesitating fashion across the floor, to kneel before the King.

"Tut, tut, Captain de Mouret," he said, kindly, "Rise, we would hear somewhat from you touching matters in our Province of Louisiana, and particularly of their safety in case of war—say, with Spain."

He then asked a few questions about things familiar to me, which put me quite at ease. What I said I can scarce at this time recollect, but I know I spoke with all a soldier's enthusiasm of my beloved commander, of his diplomacy in peace, of his war-won successes.

It did not pass unnoticed that many a venomous glance was shot towards me from that little group behind the King, but in the King's presence I feared nothing, and spoke on, unrestrained.

Once a tall man whom I took to be Chamillard interrupted; the King motioned me to proceed, and I told him all the strength and resources of the colonies, their weakness and their needs. When I thought I had finished, the King's face hardened, and looking me straight in the eye, he inquired:

"What is this I hear of Bienville's presuming to criticise me—me, Louis, his King—for contemplating such a disposition of the colonies as suits my royal pleasure? Can you tell me that as glibly, sir?"

For the moment I was astounded and had no word to say. I could see a faint smile run round the circle as they exchanged glances of intelligence. Serigny was right. The spy had already arrived. His eavesdropping news had reached the King. In my indignation I forgot the man I addressed was the Imperial Louis. Defending my master I spoke vigorously the truth, and that right earnestly.

"Your Majesty is a soldier, and will forgive a soldier's blunt speech. I beg you, Sire, to consider the services and the sorrows of Bienville's people, the loyal Le Moynes. Where rests his father? Where his valiant brothers, Ste. Helene and Mericourt? Dead, and for the silver lilies! Where's Iberville, the courteous, the brave; he who ravaged the frozen ocean and the tropic seas in his royal master's name? Dead, Sire, of the pestilence in San Domingo. Does the King not remember his good ship Pelican? Has the King forgotten Iberville? Hast forgotten thine own white flag cruising on thine enemy's coast, borne down by four vessels of superior weight? Did the Eagle stretch her wings to escape the Lion?

"Did the Silver Lilies flee before St. George's Cross? No, by the deathless glory of the Bourbon, no! And who was he that dared—following the example of his King, the Conqueror of the Rhine—who was he that dared meet such enemies and engage such odds? Whose was that boyish face of thirty, waving his curls upon the quarter deck, with the noble front of a very God of War? Iberville! Who is he that brushes away a tear to gaze upon his stripling brother beside the guns, soon to be exposed by his command to such a fearful danger? Iberville, again! Who is that fiery soldier, recking nothing save his duty, who seeth without a tremor that beloved brother lying mangled at his post, where the storms of hell do rage, and flames consume the dead? Who, when the enemy lay dismantled, their hulks afire, their colors struck, their best ships sunk, when the glorious standard of France triumphant dallied with the breeze—who is that dauntless gentleman who kneels upon his battle-riven but victorious deck and sobs aloud in agony above his writhing brother? Who is this stricken gentleman, who, having won that most heroic fight for his King, now prints a kiss, as a tender maiden might, upon the pale lips of a dying lad? Ah, Sire, it was Iberville, it was Iberville, my King, Iberville the gentle, Iberville the true! Hast thou forgotten that wounded lad who lived to serve his King so well on other fields? Dost remember his name? Let me remind you, Sire, that lad was Bienville de la Chaise, your loyal governor of Louisiana. Did the King but know the trials and sufferings of my master in upholding the royal authority, he would forgive him much. Nor do I fear to say it even here, that those men who seek his downfall would as lief line their wallets with Spanish doubloons as with honest louis d'or. De la Vente, the renegade priest, the center of strife and discontent in the colonies, traffics with the Indians and brings opprobrium upon your Majesty's name. It is he or La Salle who sends this idle tale—La Salle, who, from your Majesty's commissary, supplies this de la Vente with his merchandise. Who their friends are here to tell your Majesty these tales, I care not. Saving the royal presence, I would be pleased to discuss the matter with them elsewhere."

"Thou art a bold lad," observed the King.

I had noted his eyes flash, and the thin nostrils dilate at mention of the passage of the Rhine; so, emboldened by the surety of success, I kept my own courage up.

"Aye, Sire, truth need have no fear from the greatest of all the Bourbons. Bienville is a soldier, not a courtier, and stung beyond endurance by the threat of his enemies that they would yet beguile your Majesty to sell your fair Province of Louisiana, and turn the royal barracks into a peddler's shop—mayhap he did use some such hot and thoughtless expressions to me. These, some spy may have overheard and forwarded here to his hurt. If it please you to hear the words, I will repeat them upon the oath of an officer."

"Go on," he commanded drily.

"Bienville did say it was a matter of shame to forego such abroad domain wherein lay so much wealth, because of present troubles. It is his ambition to found there a new empire in the west, to add a brighter glory to the name of Bourbon, to plant the silver lilies upon the remotest boundaries of the earth, calling it all Louisiana, a mighty continent, without a rival and without a frontier. Ah! Your Majesty has in Bienville a strong heart and a firm hand, a man who prefers to devote his life to your service, rather than live at ease in France; a man who carries more scars for his King than your Majesty has fingers—poorer to-day than when he entered your service, though others about him have grown rich."

I told him, too, without reserve, of the contemplated Indian attack in the spring, of my own haste to return. His face lighted up with the fire of his thought:

"Then, by my faith," he broke in, "you need a bold, ambitious soldier for your Governor. What think you, Villars, Chamillard—gentlemen?"

None dared oppose the King.

"I overheard you, Captain, in the gardens yesterday, and think the master who has taught you such sentiments is a man the King of France can trust. Convey to the trusty and well beloved Governor of our Province of Louisiana our renewed confidence, with our assurance he is not to be disturbed. We make you our royal messenger for the purpose."

Then he gravely inclined his head to signify the interview was done.

As soon as I decently could I left the royal presence and repaired at once to Serigny. I found him still in his apartments waiting me with every appearance of intense impatience. Almost as I rapped he had opened the door himself. The valet had been dismissed. My face—for I was yet flushed with excitement—told of our victory. He grasped my hand in both his own and asked:

"We have won? Tell me, how was it?"

"Aye, sir, and nobly. I have the King's own warrant that our Governor is not to be disturbed."

Every shade of anxiety vanished, and he laughed as unaffectedly as a girl.

"Thou art a clever lad; but tell me of it, tell me of it!"

I told him then of the audience, neglecting not the minutest detail, not even the black looks of those who thronged about the King.

"Chamillard's doing, and Crozat. Crozat the Parvenu—Marquis du Chatel, forsooth, with his scissors and yardstick for device."

He questioned me closely concerning the personages present, and what they said. After having heard on to the end he was quite composed and broached again the subject of the previous night.

"Well, Captain," he commenced, half banteringly, "if thou hast done thy conferences with the King, we will talk of your next adventure. Time presses, and you see from what Louis said, our enemies are already at work."

I hearkened with many misgivings, for I felt of a truth uncertain of myself in this new character—and shall I confess it—a trifle ill at ease concerning this bravo, Carne Yvard, the duelist of the iron hand, and the gamester with the luck of the devil. However, I put upon myself a steadfast front and listened.

"We have a fine lad at Paris in our service," said Serigny, "and with him four as staunch fellows as ever dodged a halter. De Greville—Jerome de Greville—has his lodgings in Rue St. Denis, at the sign of the Austrian Arms. The host is a surly, close-mouthed churl who will give you little information until he knows you well. Then you may rely upon him. Jerome has been watching our quarry these many weeks; we hold him in easy reach, as a bait to catch his accomplice. Then we will put them both where they can spy upon us no longer. I desire them to be taken alive if possible, and by all the gods, they shall hang."

Verily, this was a pleasant adventure for me to contemplate, taking alive such a desperado, who handled his sword like a hell-born imp.

"I would not expose you to this," continued Serigny, "but for the stern necessity that those papers should reach me unopened. They are to be delivered to you, and I hold you responsible. You understand?"

I bowed my acquiescence.

Then he went on, talking more at ease, though I was far from placid at the prospect. He told me of the different streets, the lay of the town, and the various men with whom I would be thrown.

"Beyond all," and in this I afterward acknowledged his foresight, "do not neglect the women, for their hands now wield the real power in France."

I must own I thought more on the nature of my new errand than on what he was saying. I felt no small degree of distrust, yet, for my honor's sake, kept it to myself.

"And when shall I set out for Paris?" I asked.

"To-day; at once. Le Dauphin has already lain four days at anchorage, and we know for a surety that the expected spy has come. We can not act too promptly."

And so it came about that I left within the hour.

A carriage had been made ready, and I bade Serigny good-bye in his own rooms. He feared our being seen together too frequently about the palace.

"But one other thing, my lad," he stopped me as I would go, "you must need have other garb than that. Your harness of the wilderness but ill befits a gay gallant in Paris—for such you must now appear. You visit the capital to see the sights, understand; a country gentleman—Greville will instruct you, the rascal has naturally a turn for intrigue and masquerading. A dress like yours would mark you apart from the throng and perchance draw upon you the scathe of idle tongue. Here is gold to array yourself as becomes a well-to-do gentleman, and gold to spend at wine and on the games withal—for, thank Providence, the ancient House of Lemoyne is not yet bankrupt."

I fain would not take his proffered coins, but he urged them upon me with such insistency that I, seeing the good sense of doing as I was bid, placed them in my meager purse, and with a light heart I set out upon my doubtful journey.

The fear of which I spoke died away, for since our success with the King, my spirits rose, and I deemed all things possible. Besides, was I not in the personal service of my beloved commander who never knew a fear?

The postilion whipped up his horses, and we turned towards the old city of Paris, that treasure-house of varied fortunes whence every man might draw his lot—of poverty or riches, of fame or obscurity, of happiness or misery—as chance and strength directs.