The Ludgate, January 1900
by Rafael Sabatini
I was kept waiting for nigh upon an hour at my illustrious client's hôtel, in a room of surpassing elegance, sadly out of tune with the rags I wore.
Had the insolent lacquey who escorted me suited his own taste and judgment, I should have been less pleasantly lodged until the Seigneur de Launay arrived; but I had a word or two to say as to where I would wait, and when the fellow remonstrated, a threat to thrash him on the spot and have him dismissed anon, silenced him effectively.
As my ill-shod feet trod the soft carpet, and as I gazed about me at the different articles of value wherewith the room was furnished, I was sorely puzzled to understand how my cousinwhose means I knew to be far from amplecame to be so admirably lodged. To sustain such wealthy surroundings as those I contemplated, must soon bring him into a state of destitution akin to my own.
But still greater was my wonderment at the intimacy wherein, to judge by his position in the cavalcade which I had stood to see go by in the Rue St. Honoré, he was held by Louis XIII.
Was the Cardinal asleep that he detected not this wolf in sheep's clothing? Or had the Seigneur de Launay abandoned the interests of that arch-plotter, the Duke of Orléans, and attached himself in soul as well as in body to the King?
I could not tellfor 'twas two years since my disgrace and banishment from Courttwo years since I started on that downward route at a headlong pace which had brought me into the tatters that hung about me. I knew not what had taken place at Court during the period, but I did know that when I turned my back upon the Louvre, Ferdinanad de Launay was already deep in the mire of half a score of Orléaniste plots, which, I had thought, would have earned him a dungeon in the Bastille long before the day whereof I write.
My speculations were ended at last by his arrival. It was announced to me by a clatter of hoofs in the courtyard below, followed by a bustle which would have honoured a prince of the blood.
There was a quick step in the ante-room beyond, then the door opened, and my cousin, handsome, flushed and breathless, stood before me.
I had expected that, seeing me in my sorry plight, chivalry would have bidden him forget our feuds, and that his greeting, if not cousinly, would at least be friendlyespecially when considered that 'twas he, not I, who sought this interview.
Not so, however. The right hand, which still clasped his hat and riding whip, remained at his side, the other rested on the pummel of his sword, and his eyes travelled over me, from my unkempt head to my well-worn boots, with a disdainful curiosity which made my gorge rise.
"So Verville," he said at length, in a scornful tone, "'tis to this that your profligate's career has brought you!"
"Even as your treachery has earned you that suit of velvet," I retorted, towering grimly above him in my rage.
Notre Dame! How my words smote home! How I chuckled inwardly to see the flush die from the boy's face, and his teeth catch at his nether lip.
"What do you mean?" he enquired.
"Pah," I answered; "you understand me well enough."
He gazed at me intently for a moment, as if searching in my bold eyes to read how much I really knew. Then, flinging down his hat and whip, he advanced toward me with outstretched hand, and a false, courtier's smile upon his lips.
"Forgive me, Eugène," he said, "if I was brusque, but the sight of your garments pained me deeply, and"
"A truce to all this, master courtier," I broke in surlily, and putting my hands behind me, "my temper is passing short and has been greatly tried this morning. Will you explain, I pray you, why I have been forced hither without being asked if I chose to come?"
He fell back a pace, and his face assumed a look of sorrow.
"Believe me, Eugène," he exclaimed, "I would have sought you out, but that I believed you dead."
"And had not some evil angel bidden me to gape at you," I retorted sharply, "your thoughts would have been correct ere this, for to-day I am houseless and foodless, and I was on my way to the Seine to put a fitting end to a mis-spent life, when I stopped to see the Royal cavalcade go by. Sangdieu! but you cut a bold figure at the King's side," I continued, with a wild laugh that startled him. "You reminded me of Cinq-Mars'twas thus I saw him ride by the King; 'twas thus I saw him smile at the monarch's vapid jests; may you have the courage to mount the scaffold, when your turn comes, with as firm a tread!"
He went white to the very lips.
"For God's sake, Eugéne, be silent!" he said, scarce above a whisper. "I mean you well."
"Then you have altered greatly since last we parted," I rejoined coldly.
But, say what I would, I could not anger him as I thought tofor I was bent upon ascertaining the reason of his increasing friendliness, and I knew that in anger a man's tongue will oft betray him.
He persisted in his protestations that he meant me well, and he did but desire to help me retrieve my fortunes.
It sounded marvellous from the lips of scheming, selfish de Launay; but, in the end, when, among other things, he told me that he was about to marry, I, remembering how often the influence of a good woman will make a rogue honourable, and a traitor true, recognised the change that had been wrought in my cousin's character, and believed in his sincerity.
And so my fortunes altered, and I had that day the satisfaction of beholding the eyes of the lacquey who had that morning so haughtily addressed me, grow round and large at the sight of the suit of grey velvet that encased my stalwart figure.
For nearly a month I stayed on at the Hôtel de Launay, and what with sumptuous dinners and generous wines, I became each day more grateful to my cousin for having rescued me from the brink of suicide, to bring me back to a world of warmth and ease, such as I had not known for many a day. The mistrust which penury breeds in all of us was excluded from my heart by good living.
But, albeit in a measure, my old gay recklessness was upon me, yet at times I would chafe at the manner of my life, until in the end I broached the subject to Ferdinand. In his reply methought I found a motive for his kindness, and again I grew mistrustful.
He urged me to espouse the Orléans' cause, gather what friends had returned to me in my new prosperity, and when the time was ripe, to either join the Duke in Lorraine, or strike for him in Paris, as should seem best; I heard him through; then, with a sad, bitter laugh
"So, Ferdinand," I said, "it is for this that you saved me from the Seine? Hélas! I had ascribed a better motive to your generosity."
"Nor were you wrong in doing so," he cried hotly. "It is naught to me whether you serve the Duke or not; you are still my cousin, and my most trusted friend. But, when you ask me for employment, would you have me counsel you to take service in a cause to which I am at heart averse?"
I was forced to grant that he was right.
"When first I saw you in the Rue St. Honoré," he continued, "I will frankly admit, Eugéne, that your condition struck me as that of a desperate man, ripe for any enterprise that might put a coat on your back and a meal in your stomach, and it was chiefly in the hope of obtaining another recruit for Gaston d'Orléans that I sent my servant after you. But, before I saw you here, nobler thoughts had overcome my purpose, and again I say to-day, that it matters little to me whether you serve the Duke or not.
Before so frank an admission my mistrust melted like snow before the sun, and for some days no more was said. When at length we did revert to the subject, it was I who led the conversation, and I listened earnestly to my cousin's arguments.
I knew much of the state of France, but chiefly as seen through the eyes of Richelieu's enemies; for, during the past two years, gamesters and bullies had been my chief associates, and such men as these cordially hated the Cardinal, who made war upon them and their brawling customs. Coupled with this was a (hitherto passive) hatred for the King, who had disgraced me; so that it is not unnatural that I turned a willing ear to my cousin's doctrinesand so persuasive was his tongue that in the end I became as bold an Orléaniste as you might find in France, awaiting impatiently the time to unsheathe my ever-ready sword.
And so the weeks wore on apace, and the trees grew green again, in their April garb, until one day my cousin startled me by suggesting that I should accompany him to Court. I reminded him of the manner of my dismissal; but he laughed at my scruples, saying the King's memory was short, and that, as his cousin, I might rely upon a gracious welcome.
His arguments prevailed, and I went. But I had not been wrong in my surmise that Louis XIII would remember, and still hold me in ill-odour; for, at the very mention of my name, his brow was wrinkled by an angry frown, whilst Richelieu watched surreptitiously through half-closed lids.
But de Launay bent forward, and said something in the Royal ear which drove the frown from Louis' face, and, with a gracious smile, he held out his hand for me to kiss.
And as I turned me, after that ceremony was over, I found his smile reflected upon the faces of his courtiers, one and all, and everywhere was I received with friendly words and an attention almost servileso high in favour stood my cousin then.
This was truly the beginning of a new era in my life, for amongst that throng of courtly stars there was one that to me shone more brightly than all the rest, and drew me towards it to become its satellite.
'Tis passing strange, and to me inexplicable, that Iwho thought to have done with all the follies of adolescenceshould at the age of thirty have found in a heart grown so callous and hard with the reckless life I had lived, a spot still vulnerable to a woman's smiles. But more inexplicable still was it to me to find my love returnedto see the blush mount to my lady's cheeks and pleasure brighten her eyes at my approach.
And so it fell out that I was less often to be found at the Hôtel de Launay than at the side of Mademoiselle de Troiscantins.
I was no longer a ruined gamester; no longer a man of blighted hopes and gloomy moods; but a courtier once morea gallant! a fool! My life became one round of fêtes. Not that these vapid merrymakings pleased or amused me, but they kept me near to her I loved.
My bygone recklessness arose before me like a reproachful sprite, and as I gazed upon the lovely Madeline, so pure and saintly, a blush of shame would warm my sallow skin, evoked by the realisation of how vile and utterly unworthy I was of the tenderness she lavished on me.
My cousin would quip me at times, and mock the decorum which now marked my once ribald tongue, and I would sullenly resent his jests, and pursue my endeavour to cleanse my over-maculate honour.
Then again, as I remembered that, in spite of all, I was but a penniless adventurer, whose very finery belonged to another's wardrobe, I would determine to quit Paris and take my unfortunate presence to some other clime. But when I went to say farewell, my courage failed memy adieux were unspoken and I lingered on.
Next I determined to have done with plotting; but here a rude shock awaited me, for, when I broached the matter to de Launey,
"I'll be sworn," he said, "that your leathery conscience, which has at last been awakened to a sense of duty by Mademoiselle de Troiscantins, has something to do with this."
"Peste!" I replied impatiently; "can you not leave Mademoiselle out of the discussion?"
"Nay," he rejoined with a laugh, "methinks I do well to mention her, for let me tell you, Master Saint, that there is no more fervent Orléaniste in all France than this chit of a girl."
"Impossible!" I cried angrily; "she is no plotter! Look at her face, man. Why, 'tis a mirror of purity and innocence!"
He laughed a cynical laugh that angered me, as, with a toss of his fine head, he answered,
"Who speaks of plotters? I will allow that this angel of yours isso far as a man may judgean incarnation of virtue and sanctity; but be her soul in whatever state it may, her heart, her sympathies are in the Orléaniste cause."
I was in no mood to allow his rascally tongue to paint for me my lady's character, so, taking up my hat, I went to seek the lady herself, and from her own lips, I learned that what de Launay had said was true.
Cordieu! How differently I viewed the Orléanistes from that day. We were no longer plotters and traitors, but apostles and martyrs of a holy cause in the defence of which I was prepared to sacrifice everything down to the last drop of blood in my veinsso mighty a sophist is love!
There was but one touch wanting to turn my treason into fanaticism, and that touch came from the King's own hand.
It was at a levée one morning. He paused before me in the ante-chamber and ran me over with an almost mocking glance.
"Ha! Chevalier," he murmured, "what a courtier you have become; you are never absent from our side."
I knew not how to read his words, nor what might underlie them, but the tone in which they were delivered boded ill.
"Your Majesty is gracious enough to permit me the honour of being near you," I answered, bowing.
"Yes, yes," he said, so loud that all might hear him. "It gives us pleasure to see your cousin's clotheshe is a man of taste."
A titter went through the crowd, and for a moment I stood dumbfounded, unable to believe that a King's lips could shape the vulgar taunt, whereby I recognised that I was again dismissed from Court.
I stood before that Royal fool, white with passion, and the glance I bent upon him was so terrible that he quailed before it, and maybe, repented him of what he had said. Then of a sudden, I broke into a loud discordant laugh which frightened those about me, and the old foolhardiness which had made me scoff at destiny was again upon me.
A stinging retort was on my lips; but remembering that it might cost me my life, or at least my liberty, and that whilst I lived I might be avenged, I checked my tongue betimes, and, turning on my heel, without another word, stalked boldly and firmly from the Royal presence.
And as I hastened home, to tell de Launay of the insult which had been offered me, there arose in my mind the memory of certain words that Mademoiselle de Troiscantins had spoken days before:
"If by some act of God this worthless King were set aside, and the impending civil war averted, how much misery would France be spared!"
Yes, Mordieu! I was resolved! My hand would be the act of God, and with one bold stroke I would gain the day for Gaston d'Orléans without the butchery of battle. One man should die; Louis the fool'twas thus I dubbed him in my angerand his death should spare many a woman tears of widowhood.
My cousin appeared frightened by my fury and by the resolve which I communicated to him, and sought at first to dissuade me. But when, growing calmer, I reasoned with him, and showed him what a victory it would gain for the Duke of Orléans, he wavered, and at last bid me take counsel with Mademoiselle de Troiscantins and be guided by her judgment.
I agreed to this, and entering de Launay's carriage, I drove to the Rue de l'Epée.
I found Madeline in a state of great excitement, for news had been just brought her of what had taken place at the Louvre; and upon seeing me, she vented in unmeasured terms her indignation at the gross insult which I had received.
"The King will repent, never fear," I cried, "but not until"
"Until it is too lateuntil his hour is at hand!"
She recoiled from me, and her cheeks went deadly pale. "Do you mean to kill him?" she gasped.
Calmly I told her what was in my mind, adding that I had come to her, so that shewho had become the guiding star of my lifemight give me counsel in this extremity. Nor did I forget to point out what a solution it would afford to the Orléans difficulties.
After she had overcome the natural horror wherewith at first my purpose had inspired her, she pondered deeply for some moments; then, raising her wonderful eyes to mine
"Can you do it without peril to yourself?" she asked.
"I think so," I replied. "Moreover, there will be small risk, for when the King is dead, Orléans will be master; and I do not think he will forget me."
"Then go," she said, placing her arms about my neck, and speaking in a tender, almost tearful voice. "Go, Eugène, and strike this great blow for a good and sacred cause; and when it is done, come back to meI will shield you, my love, and, if you ask me, I will marry you, so that none thereafter shall reproach you with your poverty, for I am rich."
My senses swam; I seemed drunk with happiness, and for a moment all in the world but this lovely woman was forgotten. Then, as the memory of grim realities awakened in my mind, I tore myself from those clinging arms and went to lay my plans.
There was to be a fête at the Palais Bourdois upon the following night. Then would I reckon with Louis the Just.
Craftily and cunningly did I prepare, so that no suspicion might attach to mefor the fate of Ravaillac, the last regicide, was still in my mind, and I had no stomach for the brodéquin and the scalding oil. Moreover, there was happiness stored up for my future, and remembering that if I had tasted so little of it in the past, it is but natural that I clung to a life which had suddenly become of value to me.
The King, I had ascertained, would return alone to the Louvre. It was my purpose to follow him, disguised as an attendant, conceal myself in his bedchamber, and strike as soon as he was alone.
Albeit I had received an invitation, I dared not be present at the fète; but having assumed my disguiseretaining, however, my sword, lest I should have need of itI entered the grounds of the Palais Bourdois as eleven was striking.
I wandered aimlessly about the garden, watching the lighted windows, my mind dwelling more upon Madeline and the days to come than upon the task before me, when, suddenly, a murmur of voices close at hand arrested my attention. I stopped and, crouching behind a tree, I peered about me.
For some moments all remained still, and I was beginning to think that my over-wrought fancy had tricked me, when my vigilant eye caught the shimmer of somethingprobably, I told myself, some garment.
Stepping gently forth, I moved on tip-toe and under cover of the trees, drawn, nolens volens, towards that inhabited spot. Once the gravel crunched, and once a twig snapped 'neath my tread, and each time I paused, with beating heart and listening ears; but all was still safe for that faint sound of voices. Then 'twas a laugh, a woman's smothered laugh, that startled me; but when at last from my position I was enabled to distinguish two human faces, faintly discernible in the light which fell upon them from the palace windows, it seemed to me that my heart had stopped beating, and that I was nigh upon death from the shock of what I beheld.
On a stone bench sat Ferdinand de Launay and Mademoiselle de Troiscantins!
His arm was about her neck, and her headthat lovely head I knew so wellrested upon his shoulder. The light was uncertain, and as I stood there, not ten paces from the traitors, with clenched teeth and the breath rushing stertorously through my nostrils, I prayed to God that either my eyes were being cheated, or else that I might awaken from the ghastly nightmare that was upon me.
Then, of a sudden, my own name came wafted towards me on the gentle breeze, followed by a sigh, a laugh, and a mocking epithet, and I knew at length that I was the victim of neither dream nor hallucination, but of treacherydastardly, unseemly treachery; and in my anger I drew nearer to the trees that shaded them, until I could hear their whispered words.
Oh God! Why did I live to learn what their conversation told me? Why had not some merciful assassin ended my life an hour before, whilst I was happy in the belief that I was loved?
I cannot, even now that years are past, go over that conversation of theirs in detailit was too horrible, too revolting. Enough when I tell you that I gathered from it that my cousin, whose extravagance had well-nigh ruined him, had betrayed my father and my elder brother, for association in a Gascon plot. My father had already mounted the scaffold at Toulouse, and my brother was to follow soon. It but remained to remove me, and for this my cousin had befriended me, and with his diabolical cunning had inveigled me in the Orléaniste cause.
I understood how all those hints thrown out by Madeline, of a bold hand that should end the battle at once by felling one of the leaders, were but meant to fire my enamoured senses.
It was de Launay himselfI gathered it from what he saidwho had whispered in the Royal ear the insult which I had received from the King, whereby he meant to bring matters to the crisis to which they had come. I was to slay Louis XIII; he would denounce and destroy me, seat Orléans upon the throne of France, and, himself, inherit the Verville estates and the title which were mine, although I knew it not.
Mille diables! But they had schemed well, these two! And had it not been for their imprudent conversation, they would of a certainty have succeeded.
Oh, the bitterness of that disillusion! I was a fool! A shameless woman's dupe!
"To-morrow, Madeline," I heard him say as they arose to return to the palace, "to-morrow, when this second Ravaillac shall have done his work and been rewarded, I shall be a rich and powerful man. You will share my power and my wealth, sweetheart, and we will"
I heard no more. It was with difficulty that I saved myself from swooning as I stood there, clinging for support to a friendly bough, peering after their retreating figures and invoking my heart's unspoken curses on their heads.
I met the Seigneur de Launay half-an-hour later, as he emerged from the Palais Bourdois. He started at seeing me.
"Is anything wrong?" he whispered feverishly.
"Nothing of moment. But unless swift measures be taken, something will be."
I spoke calmly and even mildly, my fury mastered for the while.
"Dismiss your carriage," I said, "and come with me. We must pay a visit."
"Is it necessary that I should accompany you?" he asked; and I new full well what was in his craven mind.
"I can trust to no other companion; go alone I may not; yet, if I do not go, the King will still be alive to-morrow, and our chance will be lost."
"What is it," he enquired.
"Treason!" I answered fiercely; "black, dastardly treason. But never fear, I shall be in time to choke it before any harm is done. Come!"
In silence he walked along beside me for some ten minutes, during which he appeared lost in his musings. So lost, that he marked not the way I led him; until, as we entered the Rue de l'Epée, he suddenly lifted up his head.
"Ho there! Eugène, whither are we bound?" he cried, recognising the street.
"But a few steps further," I answered abruptly, and paced on until we stood before a door, upon which the number "24" was just discernible in the light of a lamp hard by.
"We are arrived," I said, stopping and turning to face him.
"But this, if I mistake not, is the house of Mademoiselle de Troiscantins."
"Precisely," I answered with a laugh, "and it is here that the treason, the damnable treason whereof I spoke, was hatched. The die is cast, most noble cousin; you and that woman have made an Orléaniste of me; I may not go back, for you have duped me too far, therefore I go on. To-night, I set out to join the Duke of Orléans in Lorraine, but before I go, there will be a reckoning."
I faced him now, and my breath was hot and my eyes ablaze with the fury that possessed me. His jaw fell, and his handsome face grew ashen, as he caught the meaning of my words.
"I do not understand," he stammered.
"You will understand everything in a few minutes," I answered derisively, "for we are taught that in death all is made clear. You will understand how you duped me, and how I, in my turn, have duped you to accompany me hither so that justice may be done."
I laughed, and at the sound he recoiled as if I had struck him.
"You are mistaken," he gasped, trembling in every limb.
I flung down my hat and cloak, and unsheathed my sword as I advanced upon him.
"Draw! Traitor! Hound! Judas! Draw!" I thundered, flashing my blade before his eyes.
"You are mistaken," he repeated feebly, shrinking from me.
"What!" I jeered, "Can one so bold to plot be so slow to draw? Is there no manhood in you, that you stand there trembling like one smitten with the ague? Or has the sight of steel struck terror into your woman's heart?"
He threw back his head at the taunt; then, with a muttered oath, he drew and fell on guard.
Mortdieu! how I toyed with him! The hour was late, and none came that way to interrupt us. For full ten minutes I humoured his blundering swordplay, and mocked him the while with a recitation of his sins, asking him how it felt to die unshriven. He saw his death in my eyes, heard it in my voice, felt it in my wrists. The sweat burst into great beads upon his forehead, and in that ten minutes he suffered twenty agonies.
A fearful shriek burst from his lips; he writhed for a second on my point like a wounded worm; then fell forward, and was dead before I had turned him over.
Seizing him, I dragged him from the middle of the road where we had fought, to the door of Mademoiselle's house. With his own dagger I pinned a slip of paper to his breast, whereon I had written: "An offering of her dupe, 'the second Ravaillac,' to Mademoiselle de Troiscantins."
Her coach was coming down the street as I completed my revengeful task; so, sheathing my sword and straightening my cloak, I moved swiftly away, leaving that carrion across her doorstep to greet her with its ghastly message.
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