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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 7

 

CHAPTER VII

AT THE AUSTRIAN ARMS

IT was well into the night when the first dim lights of Paris came into view, and perhaps some two good hours afterwards before we drew up in front of the "Austrian Arms."

It was not a new or prepossessing place, yet much better than those I had seen along the road from Dieppe.

The host well deserved Serigny's appellation of a churl, for he looked suspiciously at me, and when I asked for de Greville replied he knew nothing of him. I could get no satisfaction from him, so I determined to take up my abode and wait. In I went and heeded not the surly host who regarded me askance.

The small public room was vacant, and I possessed myself of it with the settled air of a man who has come to stay. Verily the fire felt most grateful, and it did me much comfort to stretch as I listed, after the tedious confinement of the coach. Mine host busied himself about mending the fire, but whenever I raised my eyes I caught his gaze fixed doubtingly upon me. Evidently the man knew more than he told, and I planned to test his loyalty.

"Here, my good man," I called to him, "dost know anything of this Jerome de Greville? Where is he?"

"By our Lady, noble sir, I know him not. Paris is a great city, and many noble gentlemen come and go at their will."

"But M. de Greville lodges with you, I am told. My business is urgent."

"I do not recall such a name? Jerome de Greville?" and the rascal turned his eyes to the ceiling in the attitude of deep contemplation. I smiled inwardly.

"If it please you, sir, to write your name in my guest book, should Monsieur de Greville call I will show it him. You may tell me where you can be found."

He fetched out a worn and greasy book from a chest in the rear, and handed me a pen, watching, as I thought, with some interest, what name I would write, though I much questioned if he could read it. I pushed the book aside.

"Oh, it matters not, my name; it is an obscure one, and M. de Greville would not recall it. See here my good fellow, here is a gold piece to aid thy memory. At what hour will M. de Greville return?"

He took the coin, and turning it over and over in his palm, said, as if to it:

"If Monsieur will write a note and leave it, I will send to other inns and see if such a man be in Paris. Monsieur is of Gascony?" he ventured.

The Gascons were at this time regarded with distrust, it was such an easy matter for them to carry news into Spain, being on the border.

I soon found there was nothing to be gained from the fellow, and becoming convinced of his steadfastness was willing he should keep the coin as earnest money for future services. De Greville not coming in, I grew restive, and concluded I would stroll about the city. Claude, for so the landlord styled himself, directed me to the principal thoroughfare, and I thought by walking straight along one street I could easily return. There was nothing unusual in the neighbouring buildings to make a landmark of, so I chose a great round tower not far away, and carefully laid my bearings from that.

The landlord watched me taking my observations and felt sure I would shortly return; the more so that my few articles of apparel and necessity were left stowed in the corner by his hearth. These I had purposely so arranged that I could detect any meddling. Throwing my cloak about me I took the way he indicated, and soon passed into a wider and more handsome street, which I came afterward to know. Walking idly on, without thought of distance or direction, I tired after a while, and began to think of getting back to the inn fireside. I retraced my steps perfectly, I thought, and if my calculations were right should have stood where the broad, well-lighted street I had traversed corners on Rue St. Denis. But the locality was entirely strange, and I had lost sight of the great tower which I thought would guide me home, when a squad of the watch halted me and questioned my errand.

"I am a gentleman, and officer of the King," I replied with such an air they passed on.

"I pray you, gentlemen, direct me to the Rue St. Denis, thence I can find my way."

The man gave me directions which simply confused me, and, ashamed to confess my ignorance, I blundered on to where five or six narrow, crooked streets ran together, branching out like the fingers from my palm. I paused now uncertain which way to go amid so many devious courses, and deciding almost at hazard, turned down the best paved of all those dingy streets. I had hardly gone past more than two cross streets, when there stood at a corner, looking timidly this way and that, a slight girl, with blonde hair and eyes of Breton blue. She seemed so brave, yet so out of place and helpless at that hour of the night, on such an unfrequented road, I almost made so bold as to address her, thinking I might be of service to a lady in distress. But my tongue was not formed for such well chosen words and polite phrases, so I merely held to one side, she standing to the outer edge to admit of my passage.

At the moment I got opposite her, it seems she had misjudged the width of the pavement, for I heard her give a slight ejaculation, and one foot slipped off the paved way as if she would fall into the muddy street. I passed my arm quickly about her, and raised her to a place of safety, but even then could bring no word of courtly elegance to my assistance.

She thanked me prettily and daintily, and as I pursued my course, I could but turn and give yet another glance in her direction. She caught my eye, and again looking each way, bent her steps down a byway leading off to the left, which we were that instant nearest. There was that in her manner, I could not say exactly what, which led me to follow her at a respectful distance, seeing which she turned her head, and I fancied I could observe a thankful little smile playing about her lips. At any rate she quickened her pace and walked with more assurance, no longer in doubt about her movements.

For many rods at times she would be lost to view in the dark, and her tread was so light it scarcely made a sound—or the great, clumsy clattering I created drowned it entirely. Just at the time I thought I had lost her, I could catch a glimpse of a flitting skirt beneath one of the flambeaux, which, stuck in niches of the wall here and there, lighted old Paris.

In a very pleasant frame of mind, I strode along behind her. It was wonderful, I thought, how readily a woman's intuition recognizes a protector. And I—for I must admit I was young then; in the ways of women, far younger than my years—I amused myself with many conjectures concerning what manner of errand had taken this young woman abroad alone on such a night. A lady she plainly seemed. Disguised a little, that might be, for her quiet dignity did not fully comport with the style of her dress.

A thousand airy castles I built for my fair heroine to live in, and I, like the knightly heroes of the Crusades, was ever her defender, ever her champion in the lists.

Busied with these fancies and romantic thoughts, I lost count of streets and passages, turning this way, that and the other, through many narrow and tortuous byways and alleys, until I realized I was hopelessly lost. With my fair guide in front and my good sword by my side, lightly I recked of streets or houses. Yet I dared not forget I was on an errand for the Governor and must not expose myself to bootless peril.

At last, and somewhat to my relief, she stopped before a great oaken iron-studded gate, possibly of five good paces width, in one corner of which was cut a smaller door so low a man must stoop to pass. Upon this smaller door she rapped and stood in the attitude of waiting.

I had a moment now to look about me. It was in a quarter of the town that was forbidding. Here were two huge, dismal, gray-stone mansions, separated by a court-yard of probably forty paces across; a high wall fronted the street, flanked by a tower on either side the gate. On top, this wall was defended by bits of broken glass and spikes of steel, stuck into the masonry while it was yet soft. More than this the flickering brazier would not permit me to see. All of this I took in at a glance; across the street the murkiness of the night shut out my view. She rapped again, impatiently, but in the same manner as before. A trifling space thereafter the smaller door was opened, whoever was inside having first peeped out through a round hole, which closed itself with a shutter no bigger than his eye.

The lady looked first to me, then stepped inside and stood back as if she bade me enter.

This was an adventure I had not bargained for. Thinking only to see that the lady reached her destination in safety, here was a complication of which I had never dreamed. What her singular errand was, or wherein she desired my assistance, I could not even hazard a guess. Yet there she stood and beckoned me to enter, and I moved forward a pace or two so I could see within the door.

The concierge held the door ajar, and a more repulsive, deformed wretch I never laid eyes upon. His left arm hung withered by his side; at his girdle he swung a bunch of keys, with any one of which a strong man might have brained an ox. Every evil passion which curses the race of men had left its imprint upon his lowering countenance. Yet for a moment, when his gaze rested upon the girl, it was as though some spark of her loveliness drove the villainy from his face. He was hardly so tall as she who stood beside him watching me, the semblance of a mocking sneer about her lips. Looking past them both I could see what manner of place it was. A smoky oil-lamp sputtered in the rear, sufficiently distinct to disclose the paved court-yard, covered with the green slime which marks the place where no sun ever shines. Further than this I could see nothing except the tall gray buildings which shut in every side and this wall in front. That door once locked upon the intruder there would be no easy egress. Instinctively I held back.

"Monsieur is afraid?" she inquired, then tossed back her head, and laughed such a low, disdainful, mean laugh, as fired my every nerve to hear. I hesitated no longer. Let come what will, let the Governor's errand look to itself, for no man or no woman could ever laugh at me like that.

Holding my blade at easy command, I stepped inside. Immediately the door closed, and the rasping of the key told me it was securely locked as before. Then came regret, but came too late. What I had so foolishly commenced, I must now see finished. The cup had been taken in hand and the dice must be thrown.

As we came, I followed her again, though at much closer range. We crossed the yard diagonally, across the broken panes, bits of casks, wine bottles and other refuse scattered about. I liked not the aspect of the place. As the girl was about to enter a door leading inside the building, a man came down the inner stairs and passed out, coming in our direction. For the moment he was under the light I had good sight of him.

A rather low, dark fellow, dressed in the height of the fashion, yet somewhat flashily withal; not too foppish, he was evidently a young gallant of the better class. He staggered somewhat from wine, and carried a magnificent breadth of shoulder, denoting considerable strength. This was my mental catalogue from the glimpse I caught.

By this time, the lady had got rather within the range of the light; the man came straight at her, and, to my amazement, despite her struggles, seized and kissed her. This was before I could reach them.

I was upon him in an instant. Another, and he had reeled back against the wall, drawing his weapon as he fell. He recovered his feet, my blade met his, yet each paused, well knowing the deadly lottery of such a duel in the dark.

The lady ran up as nearly between us as she dared, and besought:

"Oh, Messires, Messires," she plucked me by the sleeve, "do not fight; there is no need of it."

"Get out of the way you impudent hussy," he commanded, "I'll kill your meddling lover, like the varlet hound he is."

I went at him in earnest. His further insult to her made every muscle a cord of steel. I soon found this no mere sport, for the fellow was a thorough master of his weapon. I was a trifle the taller and had a longer reach; this, with my heavier blade, gave me well the vantage. Besides I had touched no wine, and my nerves were steady.

However, I had the light full in my face, and he was not slow to see the annoyance it caused me. I knew I could not maintain such a fight for long, so I pressed him sternly and the bright sparks flew. Backwards, step by step he retreated, until he had almost reached the door out of which he came. I durst not withdraw my eyes from his, yet I had seen the lady run swiftly up the inner stairs, whether for help or for other assassins I could not guess.

Still back, ever pressing him desperately back, the fight went, and he stood again inside the door, at the very foot of the stair. Now every advantage was mine, for he was well within the glow of the lamp, every movement distinctly visible, while I yet stood in darkness.

"For the sake of mercy, my lord, come quick." It was the girl's voice at the head of the stairs; "there they are. They will desist if you command it." And I heard the heavy tread of two men coming down the stairs, a lighter step behind them. My foot touched something which lay in the dense shadow of the doorstep. It felt soft, a package of some kind. Then I remember seeing something fall from the cloak of my adversary forgotten in the heat of the fray. I placed my foot upon it.

"What quarrel is this, gentlemen? Put by your swords?"

The voice was that of a man accustomed to obedience. My antagonist stood entirely upon the defensive; I stepped back a pace and we rested at ease. He leaned heavily against the balustrade; his breath came hard; I could see he was nearly spent, so furious had been our short contest. His face showed, besides, the flush of too much wine, or perchance I had not been so fortunate.

"What mean you, gentlemen? Your quarrel?"

"I did but kiss the wench, and this fellow set upon me in the dark."

"Aye, my lord," I replied stoutly, according to the stranger the respect he seemed to command. "A wanton insult to this lady whom I met unprotected in the streets, and saw her safely to her gate. Who she is, or what, I know not."

The two men looked at each other, from the girl to me, then burst into such peals of incredulous laughter as roused my anger again. Even my late foe joined in, but faintly.

"Would either of you, my lords, be pleased to take the matter up?" for I was hot now indeed.

But they only laughed the more. The lady looked much confused.

"Thou art not of Paris?" the taller man asked.

"No, this is my first night in Paris."

"I thought as much. This lady," the tall man continued in a sarcastic tone, "permit me to present you to Mademoiselle Florine, waitress and decoy pigeon for Betrand's wine rooms, where gentlemen sometimes play at dice."

He laughed again, and even the girl could muster up a smile now that the danger had blown over.

"That is true, Mademoiselle?" I asked. She nodded.

"Then, good sirs, I'll fight no more in such a matter."

"And by my soul, comrade, right glad I am to hear you say it; for you fight like a very devil of hell, and Carne Yvard knows a swordsman."

Carne Yvard! The very fellow I had been sent out to find, now by a queer chance thrown full in my way. Verily, I was relieved to know I could hold my own against this famous—or infamous—bravo. Another thing gained; I knew my man while yet a stranger to him. And further, I stumbled on the very place which of all others I desired to find. Truly the chance was odd.

The two gentlemen upon the stair had not yet staunched their merriment, while these thoughts coming so unexpectedly had swept from me every recollection of the fight.

"Thou art not of Paris?" the spokesman asked again.

I heard him as a man hears something afar off, for my foot resting upon the package which had been dropped, sent my mind a wandering again. Could it be that this was a paper of importance, or possibly the very one I desired? Why not? I resolved to possess it at every hazard. Yet were I to stoop and pick it up now, and they saw me, I knew of no means by which I might leave the place in safety. So I carelessly shoved it with my foot farther into the shadow of the step. I answered the question asked me so long before.

"No, my lord, the city is a strange one to me."

"Of what place, did you say?"

Now I had purposely refrained from saying, and did not know what reply to give. I hated to appear boorish, besides it would not serve my purpose. My father being of Normandy, I deemed I would have nearly the accent of those people, so I made a venture to say:

"Of Normandy, sir," in such a way he did not pursue the subject further.

"We thought you no Parisian, or this lady would not have made so easy a conquest," and they laughed again.

"Do you play?" he queried.

"But rarely, my lord," the fact was I knew little of the dice.

They put about and ascended the stair, the two together, then Yvard, I coming on behind, but not until the packet, from which I hoped so much, was safely in my bosom. This was easily accomplished when Yvard had turned his back.

We climbed the stair, and after some forty or fifty paces stood inside the room of which Serigny had spoken to me. I could recognize the place from his description.

The gaming tables were ranged about in the center of the room, and about them sat many men—and women, too—at play. On three sides of the place a row of columns ran some four or five yards from the wall. These pillars formed convenient alcoves for those who would sit and sip their wine. Some were curtained, the better to screen their occupants. Others stood broadly open.

The four of us walked over to a table well out of view and sat down to wine. It was then I regretted not having already heeded Serigny's admonition to provide myself with garments more suited to my character, for I felt I attracted some attention as we passed through the room, and this was most to be avoided.

We seated ourselves about the table and ordered wine; mine remained untasted while the others drank. I determined to touch no wine that night.

"Comrade, you do not drink," Yvard remarked, "is your blood still hot with the clash of steel?"

"No, by my honor, that is long forgotten; it is my oath, an oath, too, that can not be broken."

"Ah, to a lady?"

I nodded, and he smiled.

We talked indifferent gossip, and after awhile the Spanish troubles were mentioned; I think the tall man first spoke of it. Somehow I felt Yvard's carelessness to be assumed, and that he very much desired to hear what these two gentlemen would say on a matter so important. His manner made it plain to me he knew the two gentlemen, and also that they were men of rank. However, they were quite discreet; while they talked much, yet they said nothing which was not common talk on the streets. After a bit they arose to leave, and I was sorely perplexed whether it were better that I depart with them, now that papers which might be valuable rested safely against my breast, or had I better stay and endeavor to learn more from Yvard, who was beginning to drink heavily. Perhaps a little more liquor might loosen his tongue, and I might even capture him or his confederate. Discretion would have taken me away, for that these two gentlemen were powerful enough to protect me in case of trouble in the house I did not doubt. The bearing of the elder man especially was such as to inspire confidence.

The adventure, though, was too enticing, and the hotter counsels of youth prevailed. I bade the gentlemen good night, and remained sitting at table with Yvard. It was but a few moments before I regretted my unwise decision.

Yvard leaned forward, the edge of the table pressing against his breast, and in so doing noticed the absence of the paper which he had forgotten in the fight. His face changed instantly, the drunken leer vanished. At first there was merely a puzzled expression, as of an intense effort to remember. He looked swiftly at me. I gave no sign. The two men were gone. His anxiety convinced me of the importance of the papers. He thought for a moment, then excused himself and went out the way we came. As he passed through the room, I saw him stoop and whisper a word to one of the men at the dice table. In a minute the fellow shifted his seat, and though he continued to play, he had taken a position where, as I imagined, he could watch me that I did not leave. I became uneasy now, for I could not tell how many there were, and my principal thought was how to get out of the house. Assuredly not by the way I entered.

Looking about more carefully to note the different means of egress, my attention was attracted by a carven shield above the main door. The arms were the same as those graven on the locket shown me by Colonel d'Ortez the night I left Biloxi. There, standing out boldly above the door, was the same sable wolf, the crest of the d'Artins. For a moment his story filled my mind again but I had no time then for such reflections, and dismissed them to a future period of leisure. The question how to leave the house on that particular night gave me infinitely more concern than the idle speculation as to who had probably owned it long years before.