Under the Red Robe/Chapter 14
ST. MARTIN’S SUMMER
Yes, at the great Cardinal’s levée I was the only client. I stared round the room, a long narrow gallery, through which it was his custom to walk every morning, after receiving his more important visitors. I stared, I say, round this room, in a state of stupefaction. The seats against either wall were empty, the recesses of the windows empty too. The hat, sculptured and painted here and there, the staring R, the blazoned arms, looked down on a vacant floor. Only, on a little stool by the farther door, sat a quiet-faced man in black, who read, or pretended to read, in a little book, and never looked up. One of those men, blind, deaf, secretive, who fatten in the shadow of the great.
At length, while I stood confounded and full of shamed thought—for I had seen the antechamber of Richelieu’s old hotel so crowded that he could not walk through it,—this man closed his book, rose and came noiselessly towards me. ‘M. de Berault?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘His Eminence awaits you. Be good enough to follow me.’
I did so, in a deeper stupor than before. For how could the Cardinal know that I was here? How could he have known when he gave the order? But I had short time to think of these things, or others. We passed through two rooms, in one of which some secretaries were writing; we stopped at a third door. Over all brooded a silence which could be felt. The usher knocked, opened, and, with his finger on his lip, pushed aside a curtain and signed to me to enter. I did so, and found myself behind a screen.
‘Is that M. de Berault?’ asked a thin, high-pitched voice.
‘Yes, Monseigneur,’ I answered trembling.
‘Then come, my friend, and talk to me.’
I went round the screen, and I know not how it was, the watching crowd outside, the vacant antechamber in which I had stood, the stillness—all seemed to be concentrated here, and gave to the man I saw before me, a dignity which he had never possessed for me when the world passed through his doors, and the proudest fawned on him for a smile. He sat in a great chair on the farther side of the hearth, a little red skull-cap on his head, his fine hands lying still in his lap. The collar ofwhich fell over his cape was quite plain, but the skirts of his red robe were covered with rich lace, and the order of the Holy Ghost shone on his breast. Among the multitudinous papers on the great table near him I saw a sword and pistols lying; and some tapestry that covered a little table behind him failed to hide a pair of spurred riding-boots. But he—in spite of these signs of trouble—looked towards me as I advanced, with a face mild and almost benign; a face in which I strove in vain to read the traces of last night’s passion. So that it flashed across me that if this man really stood—and afterwards I knew that he did—on the thin razor-edge between life and death, between the supreme of earthly power, lord of France and arbiter of Europe, and the nothingness of the clod, he justified his fame. He gave weaker natures no room for triumph.
The thought was no sooner entertained than it was gone. ‘And so you are back at last, M. de Berault?’ he said gently. ‘I have been expecting to see you since nine this morning.’
‘Your Eminence knew, then—’ I muttered.
‘That you returned to Paris by the Orleans gate last evening, alone?’ He fitted together the ends of his fingers, and looked at me over them with inscrutable eyes. ‘Yes, I knew all that last night. And now of your mission? You have been faithful and diligent, I am sure. Where is he?’
I stared at him, and was dumb. Somehow the strange things I had seen since I had left my lodgings, the surprises I had found awaiting me here, had driven my own fortunes, my own peril, out of my head, until this moment. Now, at this question, all returned with a rush. My heart heaved suddenly in my breast. I strove for a savour of the old hardihood; but for the moment I could not find a word.
‘Well,’ he said lightly, a faint smile lifting his moustache. ‘You do not speak. You left Auch with him on the twenty-fourth, M. de Berault. So much I know. And you reached Paris without him last night. He has not given you the slip?’ with sudden animation.
‘No, Monseigneur,’ I muttered.
‘Ha! that is good,’ he answered, sinking back again in his chair. ‘For the moment—but I knew that I could depend on you. And now where is he?’ he continued. ‘What have you done with him? He knows much, and the sooner I know it the better. Are your people bringing him, M. de Berault?’
‘No, Monseigneur,’ I stammered, with dry lips. His very good humour, his benignity, appalled me. I knew how terrible would be the change, how fearful his rage, when I should tell him the truth. And yet that I, Gil de Berault, should tremble before any man! I spurred myself, as it were, to the task. ‘No, your Eminence,’ I said, with the courage of despair. ‘I have not brought him, because I have set him free.’
‘Because you have—what?’ he exclaimed. He leaned forward, his hands on the arm of the chair; and his glittering eyes, growing each instant smaller, seemed to read my soul.
‘Because I have let him go,’ I repeated.
‘And why?’ he said, in a voice like the rasping of a file.
‘Because I took him unfairly,’ I answered. ‘Because, Monseigneur, I am a gentleman, and this task should have been given to one who was not. I took him, if you must know,’ I continued impatiently,—the fence once crossed, I was growing bolder,—‘by dogging a woman’s steps and winning her confidence and betraying it. And whatever I have done ill in my life,—of which you were good enough to throw something in my teeth when I was last here,—I have never done that, and I will not!’
‘And so you set him free?’
‘After you had brought him to Auch?’
‘And, in point of fact, saved him from falling into the hands of the commandant at Auch?’
‘Yes,’ I answered desperately.
‘Then, what of the trust I placed in you, sirrah?’ he rejoined, in a terrible voice; and stooping still farther forward, he probed me with his eyes. ‘You who prate of trust and confidence, who received your life on parole, and but for your promise to me would have been carrion this month past, answer me that! What of the trust I placed in you?’
‘The answer is simple,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders with a touch of my old self. ‘I am here to pay the penalty.’
‘And do you think that I do not know why?’ he retorted, striking one hand on the arm of his chair with a force that startled me. ‘Because you have heard, Sir, that my power is gone! Because you have heard that I, who was yesterday the King’s right hand, am to-day dried up, withered and paralysed! Because—but have a care! Have a care!’ he continued not loudly, but in a voice like a dog’s snarl. ‘You, and those others! Have a care, I say, or you may find yourselves mistaken yet.’
‘As Heaven shall judge me,’ I answered solemnly, ‘that is not true. Until I reached Paris last night I knew nothing of this report. I came here with a single mind, to redeem my honour by placing again in your Eminence’s hands that which you gave me on trust, and here I do place it.’
For a moment he remained in the same attitude, staring at me fixedly. Then his face somewhat relaxed. ‘Be good enough to ring that bell,’ he said.
It stood on a table near me. I rang it, and a velvet-footed man in black came in, and gliding up to the Cardinal, placed a paper in his hand. The Cardinal looked at it while the man stood with his head obsequiously bent; my heart beat furiously. ‘Very good,’ his Eminence said, after a pause, which seemed to me to be endless, ‘Let the doors be thrown open.’
The man bowed low, and retired behind the screen. I heard a little bell ring, somewhere in the silence, and in a moment the Cardinal stood up. ‘Follow me!’ he said, with a strange flash of his keen eyes.
Astonished, I stood aside while he passed to the screen; then I followed him. Outside the first door, which stood open, we found eight or nine persons—pages, a monk, the major-domo, and several guards waiting like mutes. These signed to me to precede them and fell in behind us, and in that order we passed through the first room and the second, where the clerks stood with bent heads to receive us. The last door, the door of the antechamber, flew open as we approached; a score of voices cried, ‘Place! Place for his Eminence!’ We passed through two lines of bowing lackeys, and entered—an empty room!
The ushers did not know how to look at one another. The lackeys trembled in their shoes. But the Cardinal walked on, apparently unmoved, until he had passed slowly half the length of the chamber. Then he turned himself about, looking first to one side and then to the other, with a low laugh of derision. ‘Father,’ he said in his thin voice, ‘what does the Psalmist say? “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness and like an owl that is in the desert!”’
The monk mumbled assent.
‘And later in the same psalm, is it not written, “They shall perish, but thou shalt endure?”’
‘It is so,’ the father answered. ‘Amen.’
‘Doubtless that refers to another life,’ the Cardinal continued, with his slow wintry smile. ‘In the meantime we will go back to our books, and serve God and the King in small things, if not in great. Come, father, this is no longer a place for us. Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas! We will retire.’
So, as solemnly as we had come, we marched back through the first and second and third doors, until we stood again in the silence of the Cardinal’s chamber; he and I and the velvet-footed man in black. For a while Richelieu seemed to forget me. He stood brooding on the hearth, his eyes on the embers. Once I heard him laugh; and twice he uttered in a tone of bitter mockery, the words, ‘Fools! Fools! Fools!’
At last he looked up, saw me, and started. ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘I had forgotten you. Well, you are fortunate, M. de Berault. Yesterday I had a hundred clients. To-day I have only one, and I cannot afford to hang him. But for your liberty—that is another matter.’
I would have said something, but he turned abruptly to the table, and sitting down wrote a few lines on a piece of paper. Then he rang his bell, while I stood waiting and confounded.
The man in black came from behind the screen. ‘Take this letter and that gentleman to the upper guard-room,’ His Eminence said sharply. ‘I can hear no more,’ he continued wearily, raising his hand to forbid interruption. ‘The matter is ended, M. de Berault. Be thankful.’
And in a moment I was outside the door, my head in a whirl, my heart divided between gratitude and resentment. Along several passages I followed my guide; everywhere finding the same silence, the same monastic stillness. At length, while I was dolefully considering whether the Bastile or the Châtelet would be my fate, he stopped at a door, gave me the letter, and, lifting the latch, signed to me to enter.
I went in in amazement, and stopped in confusion. Before me, alone, just risen from a chair, with her face one moment pale, the next crimson with blushes, stood Mademoiselle de Cocheforêt. I cried out her name.
‘M. de Berault,’ she said, visibly trembling. ‘You did not expect to see me?’
‘I expected to see no one so little, Mademoiselle,’ I answered, striving to recover my composure.
‘Yet you might have thought that we should not utterly desert you,’ she replied, with a reproachful humility which went to my heart. ‘We should have been base indeed, if we had not made some attempt to save you. I thank Heaven, M. de Berault, that it has so far succeeded that that strange man has promised me your life. You have seen him?’ she continued eagerly, and in another tone, while her eyes grew suddenly large with fear.
‘Yes, Mademoiselle, I have seen him’ I said. ‘And he has given me my life.’
‘And sent me into imprisonment.’
‘For how long?’ she whispered.
‘I do not know,’ I answered. ‘I expect, during the King’s pleasure.’
She shuddered. ‘I may have done more harm than good,’ she murmured, looking at me piteously. ‘But I did it for the best. I told him all, and—yes, perhaps I did harm.’
But to hear her accuse herself thus, when she had made this long and lonely journey to save me; when she had forced herself into her enemy’s presence, and had, as I was sure she had, abased herself for me, was more than I could bear. ‘Hush, Mademoiselle, hush!’ I said, almost roughly. ‘You hurt me. You have made me happy; and yet I wish that you were not here, where, I fear, you have few friends, but back at Cocheforêt. You have done more for me than I expected, and a hundred times more than I deserved. But it must end here. I was a ruined man before this happened. I am no more now, but I am still that; and I would not have your name pinned to mine on Paris lips. Therefore, good-bye. God forbid I should say more to you, or let you stay where foul tongues would soon malign you.’
She looked at me in a kind of wonder; then, with a growing smile, ‘It is too late,’ she said gently.
‘Too late?’ I exclaimed. ‘How, Mademoiselle?’
‘Because—do you remember, M. de Berault, what you told me of your love story, by Agen? That it could have no happy ending? For the same reason I was not ashamed to tell mine to the Cardinal. By this time it is common property.’
I looked at her as she stood facing me. Her eyes shone, but they were downcast. Her figure drooped, and yet a smile trembled on her lips. ‘What did you tell him, Mademoiselle?’ I whispered, my breath coming quickly.
‘That I loved,’ she answered boldly, raising her clear eyes to mine. ‘And therefore that I was not ashamed to beg, even on my knees. Nor ashamed to be with my lover, even in prison.’
I fell on my knees, and caught her hand before the last word passed her lips. For the moment I forgot King and Cardinal, prison and the future, all—all except that this woman, so pure and so beautiful, so far above me in all things, loved me. For the moment, I say. Then I remembered myself. I stood up and thrust her from me in a sudden revulsion of feeling. ‘You do not know me,’ I said. ‘You do not know me. You do not know what I have done.’
‘That is what I do know,’ she answered, looking at me with a wondrous smile.
‘Ah, but you do not!’ I cried. ‘And besides, there is this—this between us.’ And I picked up the Cardinal’s letter. It had fallen on the floor.
She turned a shade paler. Then she said, ‘Open it! open it! It is not sealed nor closed.’
I obeyed mechanically, dreading what I might see. Even when I had it open I looked at the finely scrawled characters with eyes askance. But at last I made it out. And it ran thus:—
‘The King’s pleasure is that M. Gil de Berault, having mixed himself up in affairs of state, retire forthwith to the manor of cocheforêt, and confine himself within its limits until the King’s pleasure be further known.
On the next day we were married. The same evening we left Paris, and I retraced, in her company, the road which I had twice traversed alone and in heaviness.
A fortnight later were at Cocheforêt, in the brown woods under the southern mountains; and the great Cardinal, once more triumphant over his enemies, saw, with cold, smiling eyes, the world pass through his chamber. The flood-tide, which then set in, lasted thirteen year; in brief, until his death. For the world had learned its lesson, and was not to be deceived a second time. To this hour they call that day, which saw me stand alone for all his friends, ‘The [[W:Day of the Dupes|day of Dupes}}.’