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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 8

 

CHAPTER VIII

A NEW FRIEND

I RAPPED on the table, called a waitress, and ordered a bottle of light wine, which I knew would not hurt me.

"Send for Mademoiselle Florine," and before many seconds were gone that lady presented herself, and perched upon the edge of the table where I sat. Her humour was gay, her laugh was keen; she smiled and asked, "Has Monsieur forgiven?" with such a penitent little look I bade her be at ease.

"Mademoiselle, sit down, I pray you," and she saw by my serious face I was in no mood for chaffing, so she seated herself with a pretty air of attention. I could see the fellow at the dice watching, but now he appeared quite satisfied I intended to stay and drink with the girl. She was evidently a great favourite with the habitues of the place. He looked at me less frequently than at the door, and I guessed he expected Yvard's return.

Now I grew certain. Yvard had merely gone down the stair to see if he had dropped the papers in the fight. As soon as he found they were not there I felt morally certain he would come and demand them of me. I had begun the game, and must play out the hand. So I reached across the table, filled the glasses for myself and Florine, raising mine high as if I would propose a toast. I tapped her banteringly on the cheek, for the benefit of him who watched, and said in a low tone, trying to maintain my nonchalant manner.

"Listen to me a minute, and I beseech you smile, do not look so serious. You brought me here, and now I trust you to get me out alive. Is there any other way than that I came?"

She looked about her apprehensively, so I cautioned her again.

"For heaven's sake smile; I am closely watched, and you must laugh and be merry as if I drank with you and made love."

She comprehended, and well did she play her part. The tones of her voice were light and playful; she lifted the glass to her lips, tasting as a connoisseur, and said between her sips:

"Yes, Monsieur, there is—another way leading out—on an alley—in the rear."

"How do you reach it?"

"The door behind the table—where they play for highest stakes—leads to the passage. Do but cast—your eyes that way—and you will see."

"Then let us—"

"Wait, Monsieur, not yet. If Monsieur would go and seat himself at that table, as if he desired to play, I will slip around and make ready the door for him. Monsieur was kind to me, and Florine is grateful. Even we women here respect a gentleman."

I pitied the woman from the bottom of my heart. I took out my purse, paid the reckoning, and together we wandered aimlessly toward that table, laughing and looking on at the various games. The fellow watched us as we went, but was pleased, and seemed satisfied the woman but carried out the purposes of her employment.

I took a seat at the table, laid a wager or two and made myself intent upon the game. Florine stood behind my chair for awhile, watched my play, then disappeared. After a little she returned and again took her place behind me. Directly she laughed out merrily, and in a tone loud enough to be heard by the man who listened as well as watched, cried:

"Monsieur plays the stakes too low. Fortune favours the brave," and reaching over she took several gold pieces from my store, laid them out and leaned close beside me to watch the throw. In this position she whispered:

"I have the key to the outer door. The inner door will be unlocked. Monsieur will play twice more, and by that time I will be in the passage. Arise, and when you lay your hand upon the door I will open it from the other side." I lost the throw.

"Double the wager, and better luck next time," she laughed as she moved off, and joking lightly to different men she knew, made her way beyond my range of vision. During the play I saw Yvard come in hurriedly and question the man at the door. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Yvard evidently asked who had passed out or in.

The doorkeeper then recollected, and I imagined he was telling of the two gentlemen who had just gone down the stair. Yvard stood an instant as if uncertain what to do. He was much agitated and perfectly sober. He glanced toward the table where he had left me. I was gone. He strode over to his confederate, yet engaged in play, and made no pretense of concealing the abruptness of his question. The man, in reply, indicated my position at the other table. Yvard appeared somewhat relieved. Again he spoke, and this time the man at the table gathered up the money in front of him and replaced it in his purse. Then he cried loud enough for me to hear:

"What?"

And sprang up instantly. They both looked at me and held a hurried consultation, then separated, and one going one way, one the other, came over toward where I sat. By this time my second throw was made, and I felt if Florine played me false the game was lost. Yet hoping for everything I rose quietly, and thrusting my winnings in a wallet—for I had been fortunate—stepped back and laid my hand upon the knob. It was locked. I had no time to think, but saw the whole trick; lured to my destruction, hemmed in beyond hope of escape. Bitterly I repented my folly.

I have heard men say they faced death without a tremor, and so for that matter have I, yea, many times, but it was upon an honest field in lawful fight for honour's sake or duty's. My cheek paled in spite of me, at sight of the men who now came on. Three others with blades half drawn pressed close behind Yvard. How many more there were I had no knowledge.

It was a sore test to my courage thus to meet the ugly chill of death in a Parisian gambling hell—in a place of such ill-repute. But there was no escape, and even if I fell in fight, they would brand me as a thief. Should the papers be found on my body, then honourable men would execrate my memory as a traitor to country and to King, for had not Serigny told me he could not avow my connection with him? The lust of life still surging strong within me, I drew my sword. Its point effectually guarded the narrow space in front from post to post. They parleyed a time, and I rested firm against the door.

"Come, fellow, thou art trapped; give me up my purse."

"Spit the thief, run him through," came from one of those behind—for the rear guard, beyond the reach of steel, was ever loud and brave. But Yvard, being in front, was more cautious. He well knew the first man who came against me would be badly hurt. And, I rather fancied, he respected my blade.

As they took counsel together, dozens of voices from the hall swelled the din, yet above it all I caught a light step without. My heart bounded to my throat; I felt the door give way at my back, and before they understood what had happened, I was safe on the other side, with the stout oaken boards well locked between.

I heard Yvard yell: "To the great gate, my bullies, and I will follow here," and at once a great pressure was cast against the door, but it bravely bore the strain.

"Come," Florine said; and taking me by the hand together we sped through many dark and devious windings, until I stood once more in the open street.

"Hurry, Monsieur, take that street; it leads to Rue St. Antoine, whence Monsieur can find his way."

I would have paused a moment to thank the girl, but she bade me haste. I pressed a piece of gold into her hand; she would not have it.

"No, Monsieur, not for your gold," and the woman of the wine shop shamed my thought. "Good-night, Monsieur." She kissed my hand, and drew back into the darkness.

I turned hastily down the street, but had not made more than the distance of three rods when I heard a scream, and looking back saw two men dragging Florine back into the street.

"Which way did he go?" Yvard demanded fiercely.

She made no reply.

"Speak quick or I'll kill you as I would a hare."

Still she kept her tongue.

"She makes time for her lover, Carne," the other man suggested, and as I feared he would strike, I called out loudly to them:

"Here he is," to draw them off from the girl.

They dropped her at once and started in my direction. I ran on ahead, yet at a disadvantage, for I knew not where to go, knowing, too, that I could not fight them both. Yet more than all I dreaded falling into the hands of the city guard with the papers I had upon me. I ran under a street lamp, and taking up a position some twenty feet beyond in the dark, waited. The knife for one, the sword for the other, was my thought. Holding my long sword in my left hand, I swung my right free, and catching my knife by its point, stood my ground. The younger man was swifter, yet seemed afraid to lead Yvard. So they passed under the lamp side by side.

Selecting Yvard as my mark, I made a quick cast, and had the satisfaction of seeing my knife glitter as it struck him full in the shoulder, and bury itself well to the hilt. It was a trick I had learned from the Indians, and it had not been lost.

"A million devils, who was that?" screamed the stricken man, tugging to free the knife. Out it came, followed by a widening dark stain upon his doublet.

"He had others with him—hidden in the dark," and at his companion's suggestion, they stood back to back, in readiness for their imaginary foes.

This gave me an opportunity to slip away, they pursuing no further. I dodged round the next corner and took my way up a street running parallel to the one I left.

When they no longer came I slackened my pace to a walk, trying in vain to recall how I came and how to reach Rue St. Denis. There was nothing for it but to keep straight on. The streets grew broader and travellers were not so few. I questioned several, and for a coin secured an honest-looking idler to guide me. It was not so very far after all to my inn, yet right joyful I was to see the place again and to find a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth. I stood before the homelike warmth and chuckled to myself at the success of my adventure.

The host and some crony of his sat at table with their cards and ale. I overlooked the game. They exchanged glances and prepared to leave off, whereat I apologized and begged them not to let me disturb them. Claude declared he had only waited for me, and being tired he would shut the house. He went on up to bed and his friend took a seat beside me at the fire.

He was a simple-looking young fellow, dressed after the fashion of a peasant farmer, with mild blue eyes, and straggling yellow whiskers on his chin. I thought to question him about the city.

"Well, friend, how goes the world in Paris?"

"Much the same as ever, yet your Paris is new to me."

"Indeed? You are not of the city; of what place, then?"

"Of Languedoc, in the south, where the skies are bluer and the wind does not cut you through as it does in this damp Paris of yours."

"Yes, I thought you of Languedoc, from your speech. So the climate is with us in our parts beyond the seas. Beneath our southern sun ice is a thing almost unknown, and the snow never comes."

"And where do you live, my lord?" his eyes wide open and shallow.

I felt somewhat flattered at his artless recognition of the difference In our stations.

"In Biloxi; the Southern Provinces, Louisiana," I explained, "whereof Bienville is governor."

Afterward I thought I could remember a knowing twinkle in the fellow's eye, which passed unnoticed at the moment.

"Ah, I hear much of the colonies; it must be a goodly land to dwell in, but for the savages and the cannibals."

I laughed outright.

"Verily, friend, we have no cannibals worse than the barbarous Spaniards who wait but the chance to slaughter our garrison," and before I was aware, I had told him of my voyage from Biloxi, and of going to Versailles, stopping short only of giving the purpose of my visit to Paris. I was sore ashamed of the indiscretion. When I looked I found him laughing silently to himself, laughing at me.

"Then you are Captain de Mouret?" he asked with purest Parisian intonation, and the courtesy of a gentleman.

"How do you know?" I attempted to be stern, but somehow my effort fell flat. "How do you know?"

"Well, I've been expecting you," and he brushed his hand across his chin, wiping the yellow whiskers away before my astonished eyes.

"I am Jerome de Greville. Claude told me of your coming, but I wished to make sure. We have examined your baggage," he went on frankly, unmindful of my ill-concealed disapproval, "but found nothing in the way of identification. You see," he apologized, "these things are necessary here, in affairs of this nature, if a fellow would preserve the proper connection between his head and his body."

He rolled up his whiskers, laid aside a yellow wig, and I could see he was as Serigny had described. He was not as tall as I, but strongly built, and some two good years my senior.

"Captain, if you will allow me I will take these traps of yours to our apartments. You lodge with me."

I was nettled that I should have spoken so freely to a stranger, and felt ill-disposed to be pleasant, but he soon drove away any lingering animosity.

When we had settled in our rooms, which adjoined, de Greville threw himself across his couch and said:

"Look here, de Mouret, we have a hard task before us, and you may as well know it. M. de Serigny tells me he has instructed you himself, but details he would leave to me. What's your name?"

"Placide," I replied as simply as a lad of ten.

"Well, I'm Jerome. We are to stand together now, and men engaged in business like ours have no time for extra manners."

His bon camaraderie was contagious, and I gladly caught it. "Agreed, Jerome; so be it. Go on."

"First we must locate our friend Carne Yvard, the very fiend of a fellow, who stops at nothing. Then to catch him with the papers, take them, cost what it will. For that work we have strong lads enough and true. Above all we must make no mistake when we strike, for if he scents our suspicions of him he'll whisk them off to Spain before you could bat your eye."

I listened to him intently, yet enjoying to the utmost my prospective triumph. He went on:

"Then there is that other fellow; we don't know who he is, the one that came over with you. He will probably exchange dispatches with Yvard, then off to the colonies again. There is not so much trouble about him, for he can be captured aboard ship. It is Yvard we want, and his dispatches."

I said very quietly, still looking into the fire:

"That much is already done."

Jerome raised up on his elbow and stared at me as if he thought me mad.

"I have taken those dispatches from your friend. Here they are."

"The devil you have," he cried out, reaching the middle of the floor at a single bound. "How and when?"

He would not leave off until I had related the whole of my adventure beginning with meeting the girl, and ending when I found him, at the inn. He was as happy as a school-boy, and laughed heartily at my being so readily made a victim of by the girl Florine.

"Such tender doves to pluck she does not often find, and I warrant you she lets not many go so easily."

I thought it unnecessary to tell him of my encounter with Yvard, only that I had found the packet where he dropped it.

"You lucky dog; it's well he did not see you, or you might not now be talking to me with a whole skin."

It was better though to let him know of Yvard's wound, for that would perhaps assist us in a measure to determine upon our future course. So that part of the affair I detailed in full.

"Verily, lad, your savage accomplishment stood you in good stead."

He recognized the description I gave of the fellow with Yvard, but said he was a bully, hired merely to fight, and perhaps knew nothing of consequence. Then we examined very closely the envelope containing the papers. It had, from all appearance, come over from the colonies, and bore traces of having long been carried about a man's person. This settled one matter. The go-betweens had met, and the traitor on le Dauphin was most likely in possession of the instructions from Spain. This made his capture the more important.

De Greville well merited all Serigny had said of his shrewdness, and more. Now see what a simple scheme he laid.

We were first to find where Yvard was hidden. He would certainly go into hiding until his wound was healed; the finding of the papers upon him making it necessary he should not be seen in Paris.

Where would he be likely to secrete himself? Ah, trust a woman for that; so reasoned Jerome. What woman? L'Astrea, of course. Of her intrigue with Yvard, de Greville, who was a handsome gallant with a smooth tongue, had learned from a waitress at Bertrand's. This was the more probable because, Bertrand's being a public place, the confederate could seek him there without suspicion. This confederate being unknown and unsuspected could come and go unchallenged. Jerome's deductions were plain enough when he told me these things and the wherefore.

It was agreed our plan would be to watch L'Astrea; she at least would enable us to find Yvard, or his accomplice whom we most wished to discover.

Who would do this? Why I, of course, for no one knew me, or would know me when I had wrought the miracle of shining boots, blue coat, curly wig, laces at throat, in all which small matters Jerome was a connoisseur, and so it was laid out with much care; run the quarry to earth, then continue the chase as needs demanded.

Yet folly of follies; how lightly are such well arranged plans broken into. Through a woman came all this scheming, by a woman's hand it was all swept into naught. Both innocent of intention, both ignorant of effect. Yet it was true. Jerome and I, as we then thought, disposed our pieces with great care and circumspection, advanced the pawns, guarded the king, and made ready for the final checkmate. Yet a woman's caprice overturned the board, scattered our puppets far and wide, and by the tyranny of an accident recast our game on other lines, without rule or rhyme or reason.