Chapter IV

The House With Two Doors

 

     On the site of the old Palais des Tournelles, where was held the tournament in which Henry the Second was killed, Henry the Fourth built the Place Royale.  You will not find it called by that name in any map of Paris of to-day; modern France, which has no history, traditions, or reverence, has carefully erased such landmarks in favor of her grevys and Eiffels, her journalists and soap-boilers.  But for all that, and though the Place Royale has now lost even its name, in the reign of the thirteenth Louis it was the centre of fashion.  The Quartier du Marais, in which it stood, opposite the Ile de St. Louis, was then the Court quarter.  It saw coaches come into common use among the nobility, and ruffs and primero go out, and great many other queer things, such as Court quarters in those days looked to see.

     The back stairs of a palace, however, are seldom an improving or brilliant place; or if they can be said to be brilliant at all, their brightness is of a somewhat lurid and ghastly character.  The king's amusements--very royal and natural, no doubt, and, when viewed from the proper quarter, attractive enough--have another side; and that side is toward the back stairs.  It is the same with the Court and its purlieus.  They are the rough side of the cloth, the underside of the moss, the cancer under the fair linen.  Secrets are no secrets there; and so it has always been.  Things De Thou did not know, and Brantome only guessed at, were household words there.  They in the Court under-world knew all about that mysterious disease of which Gabrielle d'Estrees died after eating a citron at Zamet's--all, more than we know now or has ever been printed.  That little prick of a knife which made the second Wednesday in May, 1610, a day memorable in history, was gossip down there a month before.  Henry of Conde's death, Mazarin's marriage, D'Eon's sex, Cagliostro's birth, were no mysteries in the by-ways of the Louvre and Petit Trianon.  He who wrote "Under the king's hearthstone are many cockroaches" knew his world--a seamy, ugly, vicious, dangerous world.

     If any street in the Paris of that day belonged to it, the Rue Touchet did; a little street a quarter of a mile from the Place Royale, on the verge of the Quartier du Marais.  The houses on one side of the street had their backs to the river, from which they were divided only by a few paces of foul foreshore.  These houses were older than the opposite row, were irregularly built, and piled high with gables and crooked chimneys.  Here and there a beetle-browed passage led beneath them to the river; and one out of every two was a tavern, or worse.  A fencing-school and a gambling-hell occupied the two largest.  To the south-west the street ended in a cul-de-sac, being closed by a squat stone house, built out of the ruins of an old water gateway that had once stood there.  The windows of this house were never unshuttered, the door was seldom opened in the daylight.  It was the abode of Solomon Notredame.  Once a week or so the astrologer's sombre figure might be seen entering or leaving, and men at tavern doors would point at him, and slatternly women, leaning out of window, cross themselves.  But few in the Rue Touchet knew that the house had a second door, which did not open on the water, as the back doors of the riverside houses did, but on a quiet street leading to it.

     M. Notredame's house was, in fact, double, and served two sorts of clients.  Great ladies and courtiers, wives of the long robe and city madams, came to the door in the quiet street, and knew nothing of the Rue Touchet.  Through the latter, on the other hand, came those who paid in meal, if not in malt; lackeys and waiting-maids, and skulking apprentices and led-captains--the dregs of the quarter, sodden with vice and crime--and knowledge.

     The house was furnished accordingly.  The clients of the Rue Touchet found the astrologer in a room divided into two by scarlet hangings, so arranged as to afford the visitor a partial view of the farther half, where the sullen glow of a furnace disclosed alembics and crucibles, mortars and retorts, a multitude of uncouth vessels and phials, and all the mysterious apparatus of the alchemist.  Immediately about him the shuddering rascal found things still more striking.  A dead hand hung over each door, a skeleton peeped from a closet.  A stuffed alligator sprawled on the floor, and, by the wavering uncertain light of the furnace, seemed each moment to be awaking to life.  Cabalistic signs and strange instruments and skull-headed staves were everywhere, with parchment scrolls and monstrous mandrakes, and a farrago of such things as might impose on the ignorant; who, if he pleased, might sit on a coffin, and, when he would amuse himself, found a living toad at his foot!  Dimly seen, crowded together, ill-understood, these things were enough to overawe the vulgar, and had often struck terror into the boldest ruffians the Rue Touchet could boast.

     From this room a little staircase, closed at the top by a strong door, led to the chamber and antechamber in which the astrologer received his real clients.  Here all was changed.  Both rooms were hung, canopied, carpeted with black:  were vast, death-like, empty.  The antechamber contained two stools, and in the middle of the floor a large crystal ball on a bronze stand.  That was all, except the silver hanging lamp, which burned blue, and added to the funereal gloom of the room.

     The inner chamber, which was lighted by six candles set in sconces round the wall, was almost as bare.  A kind of altar at the farther end bore two great tomes, continually open.  In the middle of the floor was an astrolabe on an ebony pillar, and the floor itself was embroidered in white, with the signs of the Zodiac and the twelve Houses arranged in a circle.  A seat for the astrologer stood near the altar.  And that was all.  For power over such as visited him here Notredame depended on a h higher range of ideas; on the more subtle forms of superstition, the influence of gloom and silence on the conscience:  and above all, perhaps, on his knowledge of the world--and them.

     Into the midst of all this came that shrinking, terrified little mortal, Jehan.  It was his business to pen the door into the quiet street, and admit those who called.  He was forbidden to speak under the most terrible penalties, so that visitors thought him dumb.  For a week after his coming he lived in a world of almost intolerable fear.  The darkness and silence of the house, the funereal lights and hangings, the skulls and bones and horrid things he saw, and on which he came when he least expected them, almost turned his brain.  He shuddered, and crouched hither and thither.  His face grew white, and his eyes took a strange staring look, so that the sourest might have pitied him.  It wanted, in a word, but a little to send the child stark mad; and but for his hardy training and outdoor life, that little would not have been wanting.

     He might have fled, for he was trusted at the door, and at any moment could have opened it and escaped.  But Jehan never doubted his master's power to find him and bring him back; and the thought did not enter his mind.  After a week or so, familiarity wrought on him, as on all.  The house grew less terrifying, the darkness lost its horror, the air of silence and dread its first paralyzing influence.  He began to sleep better.  Curiosity, in a degree, took the place of fear.  He fell to pouring over the signs of the Zodiac, and to taking furtive peeps into the crystal.  The toad became his playfellow.  He fed it with cockroaches, and no longer wanted employment.

     The astrologer saw the change in the lad, and perhaps was not wholly pleased with it.  By-and-by he took steps to limit it.  One day he found Jehan playing with the toad with something of a boy's abandon, making the uncouth creature leap over his hands, and tickling it with a straw.  The boy rose on his entrance, and shrank away; for his fear of the man's sinister face and silent ways was not in any lessened.  But Notredame called him back. ""You are beginning to forget," he said, eyeing the child grimly.

     The boy trembled under his gaze, but did not dare to answer.

     "Whose are you?"

     Jehan looked this way and that.  At length, with dry lips, he muttered, "Yours."

     "No, you are not," the man in black replied.  "Think again.  You have a short memory."

     Jehan thought and sweated.  But the man would have his answer, and at last Jehan whispered,  "The devil's."

    "That is better," the astrologer said coldly.  "Do you know what this is?"

     He held up a glass bowl.  The boy recognized it, and his hair began to rise.  But he shook his head.

     "It is holy water," the man in black said, his small cruel eyes devouring the boy.  "Hold out your hand."

     Jehan dared not refuse.  "This will try you,"  Notredame said slowly, "whether you are the devil's or not.  If not, water will not hurt you.  If so, if you are his forever and ever, to do his will and pleasure, then it will burn like fire!"

At the last word he suddenly sprinkled some with a brush on the boy's hand. Jehan leaped back with a shriek of pain, and, holding the burned hand to his breast, glared at his master with starting eyes.

"It burns," said the astrologer pitilessly. "It burns. It is as I said. You are his. His! After this I think you will remember. Now go."

Jehan went away, shuddering with horror and pain. But the lesson had not the precise effect intended. He continued to fear his master, but he began to hate him also, with a passionate, lasting hatred strange in a child. Though he still shrank and crouched in his presence, behind his back he was no longer restrained by fear. The boy knew of no way in which he could avenge himself. He did not form any plans to that end, he did not conceive the possibility of the thing. But he hated; and, given the opportunity, was ripe to seize it.

He was locked in whenever Notredame went out; and in this way he spent many solitary and fearful hours. These led him, however, in the end, to a discovery. One day, about the middle of December, while he was poking about the house in the astrologer's absence, he found a door. I say "found," for though it was not a secret door, it was small and difficult to detect, being placed in the side of the straight, narrow passage at the head of the little staircase which led from the lower to the upper chambers. At first he thought it was locked, but coming to examine it more closely, though in mere curiosity, he found the handle of the latch let into a hollow of the panel. He pressed this, and the door yielded a little.

At the time the boy was scared. He saw the place was dark, drew the door to the jamb again, and went away without satisfying his curiosity. But in a little while the desire to know what was behind the door overcame his terror. He returned with a taper, and, pressing the latch again pushed the door open and entered, his heart beating loudly.

He held up his taper, and saw a very narrow, bare closet, made in the thickness of the wall. And that was all, for the place was empty--the one and only thing it contained being a soft, rough mat which covered the floor. The boy stared fearfully about him, still expecting something dreadful, but there was nothing else to be seen. And gradually his fears subsided, and his curiosity with them, and he went out again.

Another day, however, when he came into this place, he made a discovery. Against either wall he saw a morsel of black cloth fastened--a little flap a few inches long and three inches wide. He held the light first to one and then to another of these, but he could make nothing of them until he noticed that the lower edges were loose. Then he raised one. It disclosed a long, narrow slit, through which he could see the laboratory, with the fire burning dully, the phials glistening, and the crocodile going through its unceasing pretence of arousing itself. He raised the other, and found a slit there, too; but as the chamber on that side--the room with the astrolabe--was in darkness, he could see nothing. He understood, however. The closet was a spying-place, and these were Judas-holes, so arranged that the occupant, himself unheard and unseen, could see and hear all that happened on either side of him.

It was the astrologer's custom to lock up the large room next the Rue Touchet when he went out. For this reason, and because the place was forbidden, the boy lingered at the Judas-hole, gazing into it. He knew by this time most of the queer things it contained, and the red glow of the furnace fire gave it, to his mind, a weird kind of comfort. He listened to the ashes falling, and the ticking of some clockwork at the farther end. He began idly to enumerate all the things he could see; but the curtain which shut off the laboratory proper threw a great shadow across the room, and this he strove in vain to pierce. To see the better, he put out his light and looked again. He had scarcely brought his eyes back to the slit, however, when a low grating noise caught his ear. He started and held his breath, but before he could stir a finger the heavy door which communicated with the Rue Touchet slowly opened a foot or two, and the astrologer came in.

For a few seconds the boy remained gazing, afraid to breathe or move. Then, with an effort, he dropped the cloth over the slit, and crept softly away.

Chapter III                                                       Chapter V