A little later that night, at the hour which saw the showman pay his second visit to the street before the Chariot d'Or, there to stand gaping at the lighted windows, and peering into the courtyard in a kind of fascination--or perhaps to assure himself that the house would not fly away, and his golden hopes with it--the twelve-year-old boy, the basis of those hopes, awoke and stirred restlessly in the straw. He was cold, and the chain galled him. His face ached where the man had struck him. In the next stall two drunken men were fighting, and the place reeked with oaths and foulness. But none of these things were so novel as to keep the boy awake; and sighing and drawing the monkey nearer to him, he would in a moment have been asleep again if the moon, shining with great brightness through the little square aperture above him, had not thrown its light directly on his head, and roused him more completely.
He sat up and gazed at it, and God knows what softening thoughts and pitiful recollections the beauty of the night brought into his mind; but presently he began to weep--not as a child cries, with noise and wailing, but in silence, as a man weeps. The monkey awoke and crept into his breast, but he hardly regarded it. The misery, the hopelessness, the slavery of his life, ignored from hour to hour, or borne at other times with a boy's nonchalance, filled his heart to bursting now. Crouching in his lair in the straw, he shook with agony. The tears welled up, and would not be restrained, until they hid the face of the sky and darkened even the moon's pure light.
Or was it his tears? He dashed them away and looked, and rose slowly to his feet; while the ape, clinging to h is breast, began to mow and gibber. A black mass, which gradually resolved itself, as the boy's eyes cleared, into a man's hat and head, filled the aperture.
"Hush!" came from the head in a cautious whisper. "Come nearer. I will not hurt you. Do you wish to escape, lad?" The boy clasped his hands in an ecstasy. "Yes, oh yes!" he murmured. The question chimed in so naturally with his thoughts, it scarcely surprised him.
"If you were loose, could you get through this window?" the man asked. He spoke cautiously, under his breath; but the noise in the next stall, to say nothing of a vile drinking song which was being chanted forth at the farther end of the stables, was such he might safely have shouted. "Yes? Then take this file. Rub at the fifth link from the end: the one that is nearly through. Do you understand, boy?"
"Yes, yes," Jehan cried again, groping in the straw for the tool, which had fallen at his feet. "I know."
"When you are loose, cover up the chain," continued the other in a slow biting tone. "Or lie on that part of it, and wait until morning. As soon as you see the first gleam of light, climb out through the window. You will find me outside."
The boy would have uttered his trembling thanks. But lo! in a moment the aperture was clear again; the moon sailed unchanged through an unchanged sky; and all was as before. Save for the presence of the little bit of rough steel in his hand, he might have thought it a dream. But the file was there; it was there, and with a choking sob of hope and fear and excitement, he fell to work on the chain.
It was clumsy work he made of it in the dark. But the link was so much worn, a man might have wrenched it open, and the boy did not spare his fingers. The dispute next door covered the song of the file; and the smoky horn lantern which alone lighted that end of the stable had no effect in the dark corner where he lay. True, he had to work by feel, looking out all the while for his tyrant's coming; but the tool was good, and the fingers, hardened by many an hour of work on the rope, were strong and lithe. When the showman at last stumbled to his place in the straw, the boy lay free--free and trembling.
All was not done, however. It seemed an hour before the man settled himself--an hour of agony and suspense to Jehan, feigning sleep; since at any moment his master might tae it into his head to look into things. But Crafty Eyes had no suspicion. Having kicked the boy and heard the chain rattle, and so assured himself that he was there--so much caution he exercised every night, drunk or sober--he was satisfied; and by-and-by, when his imagination, heated by thoughts of wealth, permitted it, he fell asleep, and dreamed that he had married the Cardinal's cook-maid and ate collops on Sundays.
Even so, the night seemed endless to the boy, lying wakeful, with his eyes on the sky. Now he was hot, now cold. One moment the thought that the window might prove too strait for him threw him into a bath of perspiration; the next he shuddered at the possibility of re-capture, and saw himself dragged back and flayed by his brutal owner. But a watched pot does boil, though slowly. The first streak of dawn came at last--as it does when the sky is darkest; and with it, even as the boy rose warily to h is feet, the sound of a faint whistle outside the window.
A common mortal could no more have passed through that window without noise than an old man can make himself young again. But the boy did it. As he dropped to the ground outside he heard the whistle again. The air was still dark; but a score of paces away, beyond a low wall, he made out the form of a horseman, and went toward it.
It was the man in the cloak, who stooped and held out his hand. "Jump up behind me," he muttered.
The boy went to obey, but as he clasped the outstretched hand, it was suddenly withdrawn. "What is that? What have you got there?" the rider exclaimed, peering down at him.
"It is only Taras, the monkey," Jehan said timidly.
"Throw it away," the stranger answered. "Do you hear me?" he continued in a stern, composed tone. "Throw it away, I say."
The boy stood hesitating a moment; then, without a word, he turned and fled into the darkness the way he had come. The man on the horse swore under his breath, but he had no remedy; and before he could tell what to expect, the boy was at his side again. "I've put it through the window," Jehan explained breathlessly. "If I had left it here, the dogs and the boys would have killed it."
The man made no comment aloud, but jerked him roughly to the crupper; and bidding him hold fast, started the horse, which, setting off a an easy amble, quickly bore them out of Fecamp. As they passed through the fair-ground of yesterday--a shadowy, ghastly waste at this hour, peopled by wandering asses and packhorses, and a few lurking figures that leaped up out of the darkness, and ran after them whining for alms--the boy shivered and clung close to his protector. But he had no more than recognized the scene before they were out of sight of it, and riding through the open fields. The grey dawn was spreading, the cocks at distant farms were crowing. The dim, misty countryside, the looming trees, the raw air, the chill that crept into his ill-covered bones--all these, which might have seemed to others wretched conditions enough, filled the boy with hope and gladness. For they meant freedom.
But presently, as they rode on, his thoughts took a fresh turn. They began to busy themselves, and fearfully, with the man before him, whose continued silence and cold reserve set a hundred wild ideas humming in his brain. What manner of man was he? Who was he? Why had he helped him? Jehan had heard of ogres and giants that decoyed children into forests and devoured them. He had listened to ballads of such adventures, sung at fairs and in the streets, a hundred times; now they came so strongly into his mind, and so grew upon him in this grim companionship, that by-and-by, seeing a wood before them through which the road ran, he shook with terror and gave himself up for lost. Sure enough, when they came to the wood, and had ridden a little way into it, the man, whose face he had never seen, stopped. "Get down," he said sternly.
Jehan obeyed, his teeth chattering, his legs quaking under him. He expected the man to produce a large carving-knife, or call some of his fellows out of the forest to share his repast. Instead, the stranger made a queer pass with his hands over his horse's neck, and bade the boy go to an old stump which stood by the way. "there is a hole in the farther side of it," he said. "Look in the hole."
Jehan went trembling and found the hole, and looked. "what do you see?" the rider asked.
"A piece of money," said Jehan.
"Bring it to me," the stranger answered gravely.
The boy took it--it was only a copper sou--and did as he was bidden. "Get up!" said the horseman curtly. Jehan obeyed, and they went on as before.
When they had ridden half-way through the forest, however, the stranger stopped again.
"Get down," he said.
The boy obeyed, and was directed as on the former occasion--but not until the horseman had made the same strange gesture with his hands--to go to an old stump. This time he found a silver livre. He gave it to his master, and climbed again to his place, marveling much.
A third time they stopped, on the farther verge of the forest. The same words passed, but this time the boy found a gold crown in the hole.
After that his mind no longer ran upon ogres and giants. Instead, another fancy almost as dreadful took possession of him. He marked that everything the stranger wore was black: his cloak, his hat, his gauntlets. Even his long boots, which in those days were commonly made of untanned leather, were black. So was the furniture of the horse. Jehan noticed this as he mounted the third time; and connecting it with the marvelous springing up of money where the man willed, began to be seized with panic, never doubting but that he had fallen into the hands of the devil. Likely enough, he would have dropped off at the first opportunity that offered, and fled for his life--or his soul, but he did not know much of that--if the stranger had not in the nick of time drawn a parcel of food from his saddlebag. He gave some to Jehan. Even so, the boy, hungry as he was, did not dare to touch it until he was assured that his companion was really eating--eating, and not pretending. Then, with a great sigh of relief, he began to eat too. For he knew that the devil never ate!
After this they rode on in silence, until, about an hour before noon, they came to a small farm-steading standing by the road, half a league short of the sleepy old town of Yvetot, which Beranger was one day to celebrate. Here the magician--for such Jehan now took his companion to be--stopped. "Get down," he said.
The boy obeyed, and instinctively looked for a stump. But there was no stump, and this time his master, after scanning his ragged garments as if to assure himself of his appearance, had a different order to give. "Go to that farm," he said. "Knock at the door, and say that Solomon Notredame de Paris requires two fowls. They will give them to you. Bring them to me."
They boy went wide-eyed, knocked, and gave his message. A woman, who opened the door, stretched out her hand, took up a couple of fowls that lay tied together on the hearth, and have them to him without a word. He took them--he no longer wondered at anything--and carried them back to his master in the road.
"Now listen to me," said the latter, in his slow, cold tone. "Go into the town you see before you, and in the market-place you will find an inn with the sign of the Three Pigeons. Enter the yard and offer these fowls for sale, but ask a livre apiece for them, that they may not be bought. While offering them, make an excuse to go into the stable, where you will see a grey horse. Drop this white lump into the horse's manger when no one is looking, and afterward remain at the door of the yard. If you see me, do not speak to me. Do you understand?"
Jehan said he did; but his new master made him repeat his orders from beginning to end before he let him go with the fowls and the white lump, which was about the size of a walnut, and looked like rock-salt.
About an hour later the landlord of the Three Pigeons at Yvetot heard a horseman stop at his door. He went out to meet him. Now, Yvetot is on the road to Havre and Harfleur; and though the former of these places was then in the making and the latter was dying fast, the landlord had had experience of many guests. But so strange a guest as the one he found awaiting him he thought he had never seen. In the first place, the gentleman was clad from top to toe in black; and though he had no servants behind him, the wore an air of as grave consequence as though he boasted six. In the next place, his face was so long, thin, and cadaverous that, but for a great black line of eyebrows that cut it in two and gave it a very curious and sinister expression, people meeting him for the first time might have been tempted to laugh. Altogether, the landlord could not make him out; but he thought it safer to go out and hold his stirrup, and ask his pleasure.
"I shall dine here," the stranger answered gravely. As he dismounted his cloak fell open. The landlord observed with growing wonder that its black lining was sprinkled with cabalistic figures embroidered in white.
Introduced to the public room, which was over the great stone porch and happened to be empty, the traveler lost none of his singularity. He paused a little way within the door, and stood as if suddenly fallen into deep thought. The landlord, beginning to think him mad, ventured to recall him by asking what his honor would take.
"There is something amiss in this house," the stranger replied abruptly, turning his eyes on him.
"Amiss?" the host answered faltering under his gaze, and wishing himself well out of the room. "Not that I am aware of, your honor."
"There is no one ill?"
"No, your honor, certainly not."
"You are mistaken," the stranger answered firmly. "Know that I am Solomon, son to Caesar, son to Michel Notredame of Paris, commonly called by the learned Nostradamus ant the Transcendental, who read the future and rode the Great White Horse of Death. All things hidden are open to me."
The landlord only gaped, but his wife and a serving wench, who had come to the door out of curiosity, and were listening and staring with all their might, crossed themselves industriously. "I am here," the stranger continued, after a brief pause, "to construct the horoscope of His Eminence the Cardinal, of who it has been predicted that he will die at Yvetot. But I find the conditions unpropitious. There is an adverse influence in this house."
The landlord scratched his head, and looked helplessly at his wife, But she was quite taken up with awe of the stranger, whose head nearly touched the ceiling of the low room; while his long, pale face seemed in the obscurity--for the day was dark--to be of an unearthly pallor.
"An adverse influence," the astrologer continued gravely. "What is more, I now see where it is. It is in the stable. You have a grey horse."
The landlord, somewhat astonished, said he had.
"You had. You have not now. The devil has it!" was the astounding answer.
"My grey horse?"
The stranger inclined his head.
"Nay, there you are wrong!" the host retorted briskly. "I'm hanged if he has! For I rode the horse this morning, and it went as well and quietly as ever in its life."
"Send and see," the tall man answered.
The serving girl, obeying a nod, went off reluctantly to the stable, while her master, casting a look of misliking at his guest, walked uneasily to the window. In a moment the girl came back her face white. "The grey is in a fit," she cried, keeping the whole width of the room between her and the stranger. "It is sweating and staggering."
The landlord, with an oath, ran off to see, and in a minute the appearance of an excited group in the square under the window showed that the thing was known. The traveler took no notice of this, however, nor of the curious and reverential glances which the womenfolk, huddled about the door of the room, cast at him. He walked up and down the room with his eyes lowered.
The landlord came back presently, his face black as thunder. "It has got the staggers," he said resentfully.
"It has got the devil," the stranger answered coldly. "I knew it was in the house when I entered. If you doubt me, I will prove it."
"Ay?" said the landlord stubbornly.
The man in black went to his saddle-bag, which had been brought up and laid in a corner, and took out a shallow glass bowl, curiously embossed with a cross and some mystic symbols. "Go to the church there," he said, "and fill this with holy water."
The host took it unwillingly, and went on his strange errand. While he was away the astrologer opened the window, and looked out idly. When he saw the other returning, he gave the order "Lead out the horse."
There was a brief delay, but presently two stablemen, with a little posse of wondering attendants, partly urged and partly led out a handsome grey horse. The poor animal trembled and hung its head, but with some difficulty was brought under the window. Now and again a sharp spasm convulsed its limbs, and scattered the spectators right and left.
Solomon Notredame leaned out of the window. In his left hand he held the bowl, in his right a small brush. "If this beast is sick with any earthly sickness," he cried in a deep solemn voice, audible across the square, "or with such as earthly skill can cure, then let this holy water do it no harm, but refresh it. But if it be possessed by the devil, and given up to the powers of darkness and to the enemy of man for ever and ever to do his will and pleasure, then let these drops burn and consume it as with fire. Amen! Amen!"
With the last word he sprinkled the horse. The effect was magical. The animal reared up, as if it had been furiously spurred, and plunged so violently that the men who held it were dragged this way and that. The crowd fled every way; but not so quickly but that a hundred eyes had seen the horse smoke where the water fell on it. Moreover, when they cautiously approached it, the hair in two or three places was found to be burned off!
The magician turned gravely from the window. "I wish to eat," he said.
None of the servants, however, would come into the room or serve him, and the landlord, trembling, set the board with his own hands and waited on him. Mine host had begun by doubting and suspecting, but, simple man! his scepticism was not proof against the holy water trial and his wife's terror. By-an-by, with a sidelong glance at his guest, he faltered the question: What should he do with the horse?
The man in black looked solemn. "Whoever mounts it will die within the year," he said.
"I will shoot it," the landlord replied, shuddering.
"The devil will pass into one of the other horses," was the answer.
"Then," said the miserable innkeeper, "perhaps your honor would accept it?"
"God forbid!" the astrologer answered. And that frightened the other more than all the rest. "But if you can find at any time," the wizard continued, "a beggar-boy with black hair and blue eyes, who does not know his father's name, he may take the horse and break the spell. So I read the signs."
The landlord cried out that such a person was not to be met with in a lifetime. But before he had well finished his sentence a shrill voice called through the keyhole that there was such a boy in the yard at that moment, offering poultry for sale.
"In God's name, then, give him the horse!" the stranger said. "Bid him take it to Rouen, and at every running water he comes to say a paternoster and sprinkle its tail. So he may escape, and you, too. I know no other way."
The trembling innkeeper said he would do that, and did it. And so, when the man in black rode into Rouen the next evening, he did not ride alone. He was attended at a respectful distance by a good-looking page clad in sable velvet, and mounted on a handsome grey horse.
Chapter I Chapter III