Chapter III

 

Man and Wife

 

 

     It is a pleasant thing to be warmly clad and to lie softly, and at night to be in shelter and in the day to eat and drink.  But all these things may be dearly bought, and so the boy Jehan de Bault soon found.  He was no longer beaten, chained, or starved; he lay in a truckle bed instead of a stable; the work he had to do was of the lightest.  But he paid for all in fears--in an ever-present, abiding, mastering fear of the man behind whom he rode:  who never scolded, never rated, nor even struck him, but whose lightest word--and much more, his long silences--filled the lad with dread and awe unspeakable.  Something sinister in the man's face, all found; but to Jehan, who never doubted his dark powers, and who shrank from his eye, and flinched at his voice, and cowered when he spoke, there was a cold malevolence in the face, an evil knowledge, that made the boy's flesh creep and chained his soul with dread.

     The astrologer saw this and revelled in it, and went about to increase it after a fashion of his own.  Hearing the boy, on an occasion when he had turned to him suddenly, ejaculate "Oh, Dieu!" he said, with a dreadful smile.  "You should not say that!  Do you know why?"

     The boy's face grew a shade paler, but he did not speak.

     "Ask me why!  Say, 'Why not'?"

     "Why not?"  Jehan muttered.  He would have given the world to avert his eyes, but he could not.

     "Because you have sold yourself to the devil!"  the other hissed.  "Others may say it; you may not.  What is the use?  You have sold yourself--body, soul, and spirit.  You came of your own accord, and climbed on the black horse.  And now," he continued, in a tone which always compelled obedience, "answer my questions.  What is your name?"

     "Jehan de Bault," the boy whispered, shivering and shuddering.

     "Louder!"

     "Jehan de Bault."

     "Repeat the story you told at the fair." 

     "I am Jehan de Bault, Seigneur of--I know not where, and Lord of seventeen lordships in the County of Perigord, 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."

     "Ha! In the County of Perigord!" the astrologer said, with a sudden lightening of his heavy brows.  "You have remembered that?"

     "Yes.  I heard the word at Fecamp."

     "And all that is true?"

     "Yes."

     "Who taught it you?"

     "I do not know."  The boy's face, in its straining, was painful to see.

     "What is the first thing you can remember?"

     "A house in a wood."

     "Can you remember your father?"

     "No."

     "Your mother?"

     "No--yes--I am not sure."

     "Umph!  Were you stolen by gypsies?"

     "I do not know."

     "Or sold by your father's steward?"

     "I do not know."

     "How long were you with the man from whom I took you?"

     "I do not know."

    "I do," the astrologer answered, in the same even tone in which he had put the questions.  And the boy never doubted him.  "Beware, therefore," the man in black continued, with a dreadful sidelong glance, "how you seek to deceive me!  You can fall back now.  I have done with you for the present."

     I say "the boy never doubted him."  This was not wonderful in an age of spells and diablerie, when the wisest allowed the reality of magic, and the learned and curious could cite a hundred instances of its power.  That La Brosse warned Henry the Great he would die in his coach, and that Thomassin read in the stars the very day, hour, and minute of the catastrophe, no man of that time questioned.  That Michel Notredame promised a crown to each of Catherine de Medici's three sons, and that Sully's preceptor foretold in detail that Minister's career, were held to be facts as certain as that La Riviere cast the horoscope of the thirteenth Louis while the future monarch lay in his cradle.  The men of the day believed that the Concini swayed her mistress by magic; that Wallenstein, the greatest soldier of his time, did nothing without his familiar; that Richelieu, the greatest statesman, had Joseph always at his elbow.  In such an age it was not wonderful that a child should accept without question the claims of this man:  who was accustomed to inspire fear in the many, and in the few that vague and subtle repulsion which we are wont to associate with the presence of evil.

     Beyond Rouen, and between that city and Paris, the tow companions found the road well frequented.  Of the passers, many stood to gaze at the traveler in black, and some drew to the farther side of the road as he went by.  But none laughed or found anything ridiculous in his appearance; or if they did, it needed but a glance from his long, pale face to restore them to sobriety.  At the inn at Rouen he was well received; at the Grand Cerf at Les Andelys, where he seemed to be known, he was welcomed with effusion.  Though the house was full, a separate chamber was assigned to him, and supper prepared for him with the utmost speed.

     Here, however, he was not destined to enjoy his privacy long.  At the last moment, as he was sitting down to his meal, with the boy in attendance, a bustle was heard outside.  The voice of someone rating the landlord in no measured terms became audible, the noise growing louder as the speaker mounted the stairs.  Presently a hand was laid on the latch, the door was thrown open, and a gentleman strode into the room whose swaggering air and angry gestures show that he was determined to make good his footing.  A lady, masked, and in a traveling habit, followed more quietly; and in the background could be seen three or four servants, together with the unfortunate landlord, who was very evidently divided between fear of his mysterious guest and the claims of the newcomers.

     The astrologer rose slowly from his seat.  His peculiar aspect, his stature and leanness and black garb, which never failed to impress strangers, took the intruder somewhat aback.  He hesitated, and removing his hat, began to utter a tardy apology.  "I crave your pardon, sir," he said, ungraciously, "but we ride on after supper.  We stay here only to eat, and they tell us there is no other chamber with even a degree of emptiness in it."

     "You are welcome, M. de Vidoche," the man in black answered.

     The intruder started and frowned.  "You know my name," he said, with a sneer.  "But there, I suppose it is your business to know these things."

     "It is my business to know," the astrologer answered, unmoved.  "Will not madame be seated?"

     The lady bowed, and taking off her mask with fingers which trembled a little, disclosed a fair, childish face, that would have been pretty, and even charming, but for an expression of nervousness which seemed habitual to it.  She shrank from the astrologer's gaze, and, sitting down as far from him as the table permitted, pretended to busy herself in taking off her gloves.  He was accustomed to be met in this way, and to see the timid quake before him; but it did not escape his notice that this lady shrank also at the sound of her husband's voice, and when he spoke, listened with the pitiful air of propitiation which may be seen in a whipped dog.  She was pale, and by the side of her husband seemed to lack color.  He was a man of singularly handsome exterior, dark-haired and hard-eyed, with a high, fresh complexion, and a sneering lip.  His dress was in the extreme of the fashion, his falling collar vandyked, and his breeches open below the knee, where they were met by wide-mouthed boots.  A great plume of feathers set off his hat, and he carried a switch as well as a sword.

     "The astrologer read the story at a glance.  "Madame is perhaps fatigued by the journey," he said politely.

     "Madame is very easily fatigued," the husband replied, throwing down his hat with a savage sneer, "especially when she is doing anything she does not like."

     "You are for Paris," Notredame answered, with apparent surprise.  "I thought all ladies liked Paris.  Now, if madame were leaving Paris and going to the country---"

     "The country!" M. de Vidoche exclaimed, with an impatient oath.  "She would bury herself there if she could!"  And he added something under his breath, the point of which it was not very difficult to guess.

     Madame de Vidoche forced a smile, striving, woman-like, to cover all.  "It is natural I should like Pinatel," she said timidly, her eye on her husband.  "I have lived there so much."

     "Yes, madame, you are never tired of reminding me of that!" M. de Vidoche retorted harshly.  Women who are afraid of their husbands say the right thing once in a hundred times.  "You will tell this gentleman in a moment that I was a beggar when I married you!  But if I was---"

     "Oh, Charles!" she murmured faintly.

     "that is right!  Cry now!"  he exclaimed brutally.  "thank God, however, here is supper.  And after supper we go on to Vernon.  The roads are rutty, and you will have something else to do besides cry then."

     The man in black, going on with his meal at the other end of the table, listened with an impassive face.  Like all his profession, he seemed inclined to hear rather than to talk.  But when supper came up with only one plate for the two--a mistake due to the crowded state of the inn--and M. de Vidoche fell to scolding very loudly, he seemed unable to refrain from saying a word in the innkeeper's defense.  "It is not so very unusual for the husband to share his wife's plate," he said coolly; and "and sometimes a good deal more that is hers."

     M. de Vidoche looked at him for a moment, as if he were minded to ask him what business it was of his; but he thought better of it, and instead said, with a scowl, "It is not so very unusual either for astrologers to make mistakes."

     "Quacks," the man in black said calmly.

     "I quite agree," M. de Vidoche replied, with mock politeness.  "I accept the correction."

     "Yet there is one thing to be said even then," the astrologer continued, slowly leaning forward, and, as if by chance, moving one of the candles so as to bring it directly between madame and himself.  "I have noticed it, M. de Vidoche.  They make mistakes sometimes in predicting marriages, and even births.  But never in predicting--deaths."

     M. de Vidoche, who may have had some key in his own breast which unlocked the full meaning of the other's words, started and looked across at him.  Whatever he read in the pale, sombre countenance which the removal of the candle fully revealed to him, and in which the eyes, burning vividly, seemed alone alive, he shuddered.  He made no reply.  His look dropped.  Even a little of his high color left his cheeks.  He went on with his meal in silence.  The four tall candles still burned dully on the table.  But to M. de Vidoche they seemed on a sudden to be the candles that burn by the side of a corpse.  In a flash he saw a room hung with black, a bed, and a silent covered form on it--a form with wan, fair hair--a woman's.  And then he saw other things.

     Clearly, the astrologer was no ordinary man.

     He seemed to take no notice, however, of the effect his words had produced.  Indeed, he no longer urged his attentions on M. de Vidoche.  He turned politely to madame, and made some commonplace observation on the roads.  She answered it--inattentively.

     "You are looking at my boy," he continued; for Jehan was waiting inside the door, watching with a frightened, fascinated gaze his master's every act and movement.  "I do not wonder that he attracts the ladies' eyes."

     "He is a handsome child," she answered, smiling faintly.

     "Yes, he is good-looking," the man in black rejoined.  "There is one thing which men of science sell that he will never need."

     "What is that?" she asked curiously, looking at the astrologer for the first time with attention.

     "A love-philtre," he answered courteously.  "His looks, like madame's, will always supply its place."

     She colored, smiling a little sadly.  "Are there such things?" she said.  "Is it true?--I mean, I always thought that they were a child's tale."

     "No more than poisons and antidotes, madame," he answered earnestly, "the preservative power of salt, or the destructive power of gunpowder.  You take the Queen's herb, you sneeze; the drug of Paracelsus, you sleep; wine, you see double.  Why is the powder of attraction more wonderful than these?  Or if you remain unconvinced," he continued more lightly, "look round you, madame.  You see young men loving old women, the high-born allying themselves with the vulgar, the ugly enchanting the beautiful.  You see a hundred inexplicable matches.  Believe me, it is we who make them.  I speak without motive," he added, bowing, "for Madame de Vidoche can never have need of other philtre than her eyes."

     Madame, toying idly with a plate, her regards on the table, sighed.  "And yet they say matches are made in heaven," she murmured softly.

     "It is from heaven--from the stars--we derive our knowledge," he answered, in the same tone.

     But his face!--it was well she did not see that!  And before more passed, M. de Vidoche broke into the conversation.  "What rubbish is this?" he said, speaking roughly to his wife.  "Have you finished?"  Then let us pay this rascally landlord and be off.  If you do not want to spend the night on the road, that is.  Where are those fools of servants?"

     He rose, and went to the door and shouted for them, and came back and took up his cloak and hat with much movement and bustle.  But it was noticeable in all he did that he never once met the astrologer's eye or looked his way.  Even when he bad him a surly "Good-night"--casually uttered in the midst of injunctions to his wife to be quick--he spoke over his shoulder; and he left the room in the same fashion, completely absorbed, it seemed, in the fastening of his cloak.

     Some, treated in this cavalier fashion, might have been hurt, and some might have resented it.  But the man in black did neither.  Left alone, he remained by the table in an expectant attitude, a sneering smile, which the light of the candles threw into high relief, on his grim visage.  Suddenly the door opened, and M. de Vidoche, cloaked and covered, came in.  Without raising his eyes, he looked round the room--for something he had mislaid, it seemed.

     "Oh, by the way," he said suddenly, and without looking up.

     "My address?" the man in black interjected, with a devilish readiness.  "The end of the Rue Touchet in the Quartier du Marais, near the river.  Where, believe me," he continued, with a mocking bow, "I shall give you madam's horoscope with the greatest pleasure, or any other little matter you may require."

     "I think you are the devil!" M. de Vidoche muttered wrathfully, his cheek growing pale.

     "Possibly," the astrologer answered.  "In that or any other case--au revoir!"  

     When the landlord came up a little later to apologize to M. Solomon Notredame de Paris for the inconvenience to which he had unwillingly put him, he found his guest in high good-humor.  "It is nothing, my friend--it is nothing," M. Notredame said kindly.  "I found my company good enough.  This M. de Vidoche is of this country; and a rich man, I understand."

     "Through his wife," the host said cautiously.  "Ah! so rich that she could build our old castle here from the ground again."

     "Madame de Vidoche was of Pinatel."

     "To be sure.  Monsieur knows everything.  By Jumieges to the north.  I have been there once.  But she has a house in Paris besides, and estates, I hear, in the south--in Perigord."

     "Ha!" the astrologer muttered.  "Perigord again.  That is odd, now."

 

Chapter II                                                      Chapter IV