The Man In Black

by Stanley J. Weyman

 

Chapter I

 

The Fair at Fecamp

 

"I am Jehan de Bault, Seigneur of--I know not where, and Lord of seventeen lordships in the County of--I forget the name, of a most noble and puissant family, possessing the High Justice, the Middle, and the Low.  In my veins runs the blood of Roland, and of my forefathers were three marshals of France.  I stand here, the--"

     It was the eve of All Saints, and the famous autumn horse-fair was in progress at Fecamp--Fecamp on the Normandy coast, the town between the cliffs, which Boisrose, in the year '93, snatched for the Great King by a feat of audacity unparalleled in war.  This only by the way, however; and that a worthy deed may not die.  For at the date of this fair of which we write, the last day of October, 1637, stout Captain Boisrose, whom Sully made for his daring   Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, had long ceased to ruffle it; the Great King had lain in his grave a score of years or more; and though Sully, duke and peer and marshal, still lived, an aged, formal man, in his chateau of Villebon by Chartres, all France, crouching under the iron hand of the Cardinal, looked other ways.

     The great snarled, biting at the hem of the red soutane.  But that the mean and Jacques Bonhomme, the merchant and the trader, flourished under his rule, Fecamp was as good evidence this day as man could desire.  Even old burghers who remembered Charles the ninth, and the first glass windows ever seen in Fecamp outside the Abbey, could not say when the price of horses had been higher or the town more full.  All day, and almost all night, the clatter of hoofs and babble of bargains filled the narrow streets; while hucksters' cries and drunkards' oaths, with all raucous sounds, went up to heaven like the smoke from a furnace.  The Chariot d'Or and the Holy Fig, haunts of those who came to buy, fairly hummed with guests, with nobles of the province and gay sparks from Rouen, army contractors from the Rhine, and dealers from the south.  As for the Dame Belle and the green Man, houses that lower down the street had food and forage for those who came to sell, they strewed their yards a foot deep with straw, and saying to all alike, "Voila, monsieur!" charged the full price of a bed.

     Beyond the streets it was the same.  Strings of horses and ponies, with an army of grooms and chaunters, touts and cutpurses, camped on every piece of level ground, while the steeper slopes and hill-sides swarmed with troupes more picturesque, if less useful.  For these were the pitches of the stilt-walkers and funambulists, the morris dancers and hobby-horses:  in a word, of an innumerable company of quacks, jugglers, poor students, and pasteboard giants, come together for the delectation of the gaping Normans, and all under the sway and authority of the Chevalier du Guet, in whose honor two gibbets, each bearing a creaking corpse, rose on convenient situations overlooking the fair.  For brawlers and minor sinners a pillory and a whipping-post stood handy by the landward gate, and from time to time, when a lusty vagrant or a handsome wench was dragged up for punishment, outvied in attraction all the professional shows.

     Of these, one that seemed as successful as any in catching and chaining the fancy of the shifting crowd consisted of three persons--a man, a boy, and an ape--who had chosen for their pitch a portion of the steep hill-side overhanging the road.  High up in this they had driven home an iron peg, and stretching a cord from this to the top of a tree which stood on the farther edge of the highway, had improvised a tight-rope at once simple and effective.  All day, as the changing throng passed to and fro below, the monkey and the boy might be seen twisting and turning and posturing on this giddy eminence, while the man, fantastically dressed in an iron cap a world too big for him, and a back-and breast-piece which ill-matched his stained crimson jacket and taffety breeches, stood beating a drum at the foot of the tree, or now and again stepped forward to receive in a ladle the sous and eggs and comfits that rewarded the show. 

     He was a lean, middle-sized man, with squinting eyes and a crafty mouth.  Unaided he might have made his living by cutting purses.  But he had the wit to do by others what he could not do himself, and the luck to have that in his company which pleased all comers; for while the clowns gazed saucer-eyed at the uncouth form and hideous grimaces of the ape, the thin cheeks and panting lips of the boy touched the hearts of their mistresses, and drew from them many a cake and fairing.  Still, with a crowd change is everything; and in the contest of attractions, where there was her a flying dragon and there a dancing bear, and in a place apart the mystery of Joseph of Arimathaea and the Sacred Fig tree was being performed by a company that had played before the King in Paris--and when, besides all these raree-shows, a score of quacks and wizards and collar-grinners with lungs of brass, were advertising themselves amid indescribable clanging of drums and squeaking of trumpets, it was not to be expected that a boy and a monkey could always hold the first place.  An hour before sunset the ladle began to come home empty.  The crowd grew thin.  Gargantuan roars of laughter from the players' booth drew off some who lingered.  It seemed as if the trio's run of success was at an end; and that, for all the profit they were still likely to make, they might pack up and be off to bed.

     But Master Crafty Eyes knew better.  Before his popularity quite flickered out he produced a folding stool.  Setting it at the foot of the tree with a grand air, which of itself was enough to arrest the waverers, he solemnly covered it with a red cloth.  This done, he folded his arms, looked very sternly two ways at once, and raising his hand without glancing upward, cried, "Tenez!  His Excellency the Seigneur de Bault will have the kindness to descend."

     The little handful of gapers laughed, and the laugh added to their number.  But the boy to whom the words were addressed, did not move.  He sat idly on the rope, swaying to and fro, and looked out straight before him, with a set face, and a mutinous glare in his eyes.  He appeared to be about twelve years old.  He was lithe-limbed, and burned brown by the sun, with a mass of black hair and, strange to say, blue eyes.  The ape sat cheek by jowl with him; and even at the sound of the master's voice turned to him humanly, as if to say, "You had better go."

     Still he did not move.  "Tenez!" Master Crafty Eyes cried again, and more sharply.  "His Excellency the Seigneur de Bault will have the kindness to descend, and narrate his history.  Ecoutez!  Ecoutez!  mesdames et messieurs!  It will repay you."

     This time the boy, frowning and stubborn, looked down from his perch.  He seemed to be measuring the distance, and calculating whether his height from the ground would save him from the whip.  Apparently he came to the conclusion it would not, for on the man crying "Vitement!  Vitement!" and flinging a grim look upward, he began to descend slowly, a sullen reluctance manifest in all his movements.

     On reaching the ground, he made his way through the audience--which had increased to above a score--and climbed heavily on the stool, where he stood looking round him with a dark shamefacedness, surprising in one who was part of a show, and had been posturing all day long for the public amusement.  The women, quick to espy the hollows in his cheeks, and the great wheal that seamed his neck, and quick also to admire the straightness of his limbs and the light pose of his head, regarded him pitifully.  The men only stared; smoking had not yet come in at Fecamp, so they munched cakes and gazed by turns.

     "Oyez!  Oyez!  Oyez!" cried the man with the drum.  "Listen to the remarkable, lamentable, and veritable history of the Seigneur de Bault, now before you!  Oyez!"

     The boy cast a look round, but there was no escape.  So sullenly, and in a sing-song tone--through which, nevertheless, some note of dignity, some strange echo of power and authority, that gave the recital its bizarre charm and made it what it was, would continually force itself--he began with the words at the head of this chapter:--

     "I am Jehan de Bault, Seigneur of--I know not where, and Lord of seventeen lordships in the County of--I forget the name, of a most noble and puissant family, possessing the High Justice, the Middle, and the Low.  In my veins runs the blood of Roland, and of my forefathers were three marshals of France.  I stand here, the last of my race; in token whereof may God preserve my mother, the King, France, and this Province!  I was stolen by gypsies at the age of five, and carried off and sold by my father's steward, as Joseph was by his brethren, and I appeal to--I appeal to--all good subjects of France to--help me to--"

     "My rights!" interjected Crafty Eyes, with a savage glance.

     "My rights," the boy whispered, lowering his head.

     The drum man came forward briskly.  "Just so, ladies and gentlemen," he cried with wonderful glibness.  "And seldom as it is that you have before you the representative of one of our most noble and ancient families a-begging your help, seldom as that remarkable, lamentable, and veritable sight is to be seen in Fecamp, sure I am that you will respond willingly, generously, and to the point, my lord, ladies and gentlemen!"  And with this, and a far grander air than when it had been merely an affair of a boy and an ape, the knave carried round his ladle, doffing his cap to each who contributed, and saying politely, "The Sieur de Bault thanks you, sir.  The Sieur de Bault is your servant, madam."

     There was something so novel in the whole business, something so odd and inexplicably touching in the boy's words and manner, that with all the appearance of a barefaced trick, appealing only to the most ignorant, the thing wrought on the crowd:  as doubtless it had wrought on a hundred crowds before.  The first man to whom the ladle came grinned sheepishly and gave against his will; and his fellows throughout maintained a position of reserve, shrugging their shoulders and looking wisdom.  But a dozen women became believers at once, and despite the blare and flare of rival dragons and Moriscoes and the surrounding din and hubbub, the ladle came back full of deniers and sous.

     The showman was counting his gains into his pouch, when a silver franc spun through the air and fell at his feet, and at the same time a harsh voice cried, "Here, you, sirrah!  A word with you."

     Master Crafty Eyes looked up, and doffing his cap humbly--for the voice was a voice of authority--went cringing to the speaker.  This was an elderly man, well mounted, who had reined up his horse on the skirts of the crowd as the boy began his harangue.  He had a plain soldier's face, with grey moustachios and a small, pointed grey beard, and he seemed to be a person of rank on his way out of the town; for he had two or three armed servants behind him, of whom one carried a valise on his crupper.

     "What is your will, noble sir?" the showman whined, standing bare-headed at his stirrup and looking up at him.

     "Who taught the lad that rubbish?" the horseman asked sternly.

     "No one, my lord.  It is the truth."

     "Then bring him here, liar!" was the answer.

     The showman obeyed, not very willingly, dragging the boy off the stool, and jerking him through the crowd.  The stranger looked down at the child for a moment in silence.  Then he said sharply, "Hark ye, tell me the truth, boy.  What is your name?"

     The lad stood straight up, and answered without hesitation, "Jehan de Bault."

     "Of nowhere in the County of No Name," the stranger gibed gravely.  "Of a noble and puissant family--and the rest.  All that is true, I suppose?"

     A flicker as of hope gleamed in the boy's eyes.  His cheek reddened.  He raised his hand to the horse's shoulder, and answered in a voice which trembled a little, "It is true."

     "Where is Bault?" the stranger asked grimly.  

     The lad looked puzzled and disappointed.  His lip trembled, his color fled again.  He glanced here and there, and finally shook his head.  "I do not know," he said faintly.

     "Nor do I," the horseman replied, striking his long brown boot with his riding-switch to give emphasis to the words, and looking sternly round.  "Nor do I.  And what is more, you may take it from me that there is no family of that name in France!  And once more you may take this from me too.  I am the Vicomte de Bresly, and I have a government in Guienne.  Play this game in my county, and I will have you both whipped for common cheats, and you, Master Drummer, branded as well!  Bear it in mind, sirrah; and when you perform, give Perigord a wide berth.  That is all."

     He struck his horse at the last word, and rode off; sitting, like an old soldier, so straight in his saddle that he did not see what happened behind him, or that the boy sprang forward with a hasty cry, and would, but for the showman's grasp, have followed him.  He rode away, unheeding and without looking back; and the boy, after a brief passionate struggle with his master, collapsed.

     "You limb!"  the man with the drum cried, as he shook him.  "What bee has stung you?  You won't be quiet, eh?  Then take that! and that!" and he struck the child brutally in the face--twice.

     Some cried shame and some laughed.  But it was nobody's business, and there were a hundred delights within sight.  What was one little boy, or a blow more or less, amid the whirl and tumult of the fair?  A score of yards away a dancing girl, a very Peri--or so she seemed by the light of four tallow candles--was pirouetting on a rickety platform. Almost rubbing elbows with her was a philosopher, who had conquered all the secrets of Nature except cleanliness, and was prepared to sell infallible love-philtres and the potion of perpetual youth--for four farthings!  And beyond these stretched a vista of wonders and prodigies, all vocal, not to say deafening.  So one by one, with a shrug or a sneer, the onlookers melted away, until only our trio remained:  Master Crafty Eyes counting his gains, the boy sobbing against the bank on which he had thrown himself, and the monkey gibbering and chattering overhead--a dark shapeless object on a invisible rope.  For night was falling:  where the fun of the fair was not were gloom and a rising wind, lurking cutpurses, and waste land.

     The showman seemed to feel this, for having counted his takings, he kicked up the boy and began to pack up.  He had nearly finished, and was stooping over the coil of rope, securing the end, when a touch on his shoulder caused him to jump a yard.  A tall man wrapped in a cloak, who had come up unseen, stood at his elbow.

     "Well!" the showman cried, striving to hide his alarm under an appearance of bluster.  "And what may you want?"

     "A word with you," the unknown answered.

     The voice was so cold and passionless it gave Crafty Eyes a turn.  "Diable!"  he muttered, striving to pierce the darkness and see what the other was like.  But he could not; so as to shake off the impression, he asked, with a sneer, "You are not a vicomte, are you?"

     "No," the stranger replied gravely, "I am not."

     "Nor the governor of a county?"

     "No."

     "Then you may speak!" rejoined the showman grandly.

     "Not here," the cloaked man answered.  "I must see you alone."

     "Then you will have to come home with me, and wait until I have put up the boy," the other said.  "I am not going to lose him for you or anyone.  And for a penny he'd be off!  Does it suit you?  You may take it or leave it."

     The unknown, whose features were completely masked by the dusk, nodded assent, and without more ado the four turned their faces toward the streets; the boy carrying the monkey, and the two men following close on his heels. Whenever they passed before a lighted booth the showman strove to learn something of his companion's appearance, but the latter wore his cloak so high about his face, and was so well served by a wide-flapped hat which almost met it, that curiosity was completely baffled; and they reached the low inn where the showman rented a corner of the stable without that cunning gentleman being a jot the wiser for his pains.

     It was a vile, evil-smelling place they entered, divided into six or eight stalls by wooden partitions reaching half-way to the tiles.  A horn lantern hung at each end filled it with yellow lights and deep shadows.  A pony raised its head and whinnied as the men entered, but most of the stalls were empty, or tenanted only by drunken clowns sleeping in the straw.

     "You cannot lock him in there," said the stranger, looking round him.

     The showman grunted.  "Cannot I?" he said.  

     "There are tricks in all trades, master.  I reckon I can--with this!"  And producing from somewhere about him a thin steel chain, he held it before the other's face.  "That is my lock and door," he said triumphantly.

     "It won't hold him long," the other answered impassively.  "The fifth link from the end is worn through now."

     "You have sharp eyes!" the showman exclaimed, with reluctant admiration.  "But it will hold a bit yet.  I fasten him in yonder corner.  Do you wait here, and I will come back to you."

     He was not long about it.  When he returned he led the stranger into the farthest of the stalls, which, as well as that next to it, was empty.  "We can talk here," he said bluntly.  "At any rate, I have no better place.  The house is full.  Now, what is it?"

     "I want that boy," the tall man answered.

     The showman laughed--stopped laughing--laughed again.  "I dare say you do," he said derisively.  "There is not a better or a pluckier boy on the rope out of Paris.  And for patter?  There is nothing on the road like the bit he did this afternoon, nor a bit that pays as well."

     "Who taught it him?" the stranger asked.

     "I did."

     "That is a lie," the other answered in a perfectly unmoved tone.  "If you like I will tell you what you did.  You taught him the latter half of the story.  The other he knew before:  down to the word' province'."

     The showman gasped.  "Diable!" he muttered.  "Who told you?"

     "Never mind.  You bought the boy.  From whom?"

     "From some gypsies at the great fair of Beaucaire," the showman answered sullenly.

     "Who is he?"

     Crafty Eyes laughed dryly.  "If I knew I should not be padding the hoof," he said.  "Or, again, he may be nobody, and the tale patter.  You have heard as much as I have.  What do you think?"

     "I think I shall find out when I have bought the boy," the stranger answered coolly.  "What will you take for him?"

     The showman gasped again.  "You come to the point," he said.

     "It is my custom.  What is his price?"

     The showman's imagination had never soared beyond nor his ears every heard of a larger sum than a thousand crowns.  He mentioned it trembling.  There might be such a sum in the world.

     "A thousand livres, if you like.  Not a sou more," was the answer.

     The nearer lantern threw a strong light on Crafty Eyes' face; but that was mere shadow beside the light of cupidity which sparkled in his eyes.  He could get another boy; scores of boys.  But a thousand livres?  A thousand livres!  "Tournois" he said faintly.  "Livres Tournois!" In his wildest moments of avarice he had never dreamed of possessing such a sum.

     "No, Paris livres," the stranger answered coldly.  "Paid to-morrow at the Golden Chariot.  If you agree, you will deliver the boy to me there at noon, and receive the money."

     The showman nodded, vanquished by the mere sound of the sum.  Paris livres let it be.  Danae did not more quickly succumb to the golden shower.

Chapter II