Chapter V

The Upper Portal

 

     The astrologer was not alone.  A tall figure, cloaked and muffled to the chin, entered after him, and stood waiting at his elbow while se secured the fastenings of the door.  Apparently, they had only met on the threshold, for the stranger, after looking round him and silently noting the fantastic disorder of the room, said, in a hoarse voice, "You do not know me?"

     "Perfectly, M. de Vidoche," the astrologer answered, removing his hat.

     "Did you know I was following you?"

     "I came to show you the way."

     "That is a lie, at any rate!"  the young noble retorted, with a sneer, "for I did not know I was coming myself."

     "Until you saw me," the astrologer answered, unmoved.  "Will you not take off your cloak?  You will need it when you leave."

     M. de Vidoche complied with an ill grace.  "The usual stock-in-trade, I see," he muttered, looking round him scornfully.  "Skulls and bones, and dead h ands and gibbet ropes.  Faugh!  The place smells.  I suppose these are the things you keep to frighten children."

     "Some," Notredame answered calmly--he was busy lighting a lamp--"and some are for sale."

     "For sale?" M. de Vidoche cried incredulously.  "Who will buy them?"

     "Some one thing, and some another," the astrologer answered carelessly.  "Take this, for instance," he continued, turning to his visitor, and looking at him for the first time.  "I expect to find a customer for that very shortly."

     M. de Vidoche followed the direction of his finger, and shuddered, despite himself.  "That," was a coffin.  "Enough of this," he said, with savage impatience.  "Suppose you get off your high horse, and come to business.  Can I sit, man, or are you going to keep me standing all night?"

     The man in black brought forward two stools, and led the way behind the curtain.  "It is warmer here," he said, pushing aside an earthen pipkin, and clearing a space with his foot in front of the glowing embers.  "Now I am at your service, M. de Vidoche.  Pray be seated."

     "Are we alone?" the young noble asked suspiciously.

     "Trust me for that," the astrologer answered.  "I know my business."

     But M. de Vidoche seemed to find some difficulty in stating his; though he had evinced so high a regard for time a moment before.  He sat irresolute, stealing malevolent glances first at his companion, and then at the dull, angry-looking fire.  If he expected M. Notredame to help him, however, he did not yet know his host.  The astrologer sat patiently waiting, with every expression, save placid expectation, discharged from his face.

     "Oh, d---n you!" the young man ejaculated at last.  "Have you got nothing to say?  You know what I want," he added, with irritation, "as well as I do."

     "I shall be happy to learn," the astrologer answered politely.

     "Give it me without more words, and let me go!"

     The astrologer raised his eyebrows.  "Alas! there is a limit to omniscience," he said, shaking his head gently.  "It is true we keep it in stock--to frighten children.  But it does not help me at present, M. de Vidoche."

     M. de Vidoche looked at him with an evil scowl.  "I see; you want me to commit myself," he muttered.  The perspiration stood on his forehead, and his voice was husky with rage or some other emotion.  "I was a fool to come here," he continued.  "If you must have it, I want to kill a cat; and I want something to give to it."

     The astrologer laughed silently.  "The mountain was in labor, and lo! a cat!" he said, in a tone of amusement.  "And lo! a cat!  Well, in that case I am afraid you have come to the wrong place, M. de Vidoche.  I don't kill cats.  There is no risk in it, you see," he continued, looking fixedly at his companion, "and no profit.  Nobody cares about a cat.  The fist herbalist you come to will give you what you want for a few sous.  Even if the creature turns black within the hour, and its mouth goes to the nape of its neck," he went on, with a horrid smile, "as Madame de Beaufort's did--cui malo?--no one is a penny the worse.  But if it were a question of-- I think I saw monsieur riding in company with Mademoiselle de Farincourt to-day?"

     M. de Vidoche, who had been contemplating his tormentor with eyes of rage and horror, started at the unexpected question.  "Well," he muttered, "and what if I was?"

     "Oh, nothing," the man in black answered carelessly.  "Mademoiselle is beautiful, and monsieur is a happy man if she smiles on him.  But she is high-born; and proud, I am told." He leaned forward as he spoke, and warmed his long, lean hands at the fire.  But his beady eyes never left the other's face.

     M. de Vidoche writhed under their gaze.  "Curse you!" he muttered hoarsely.  "What do you mean?"

     "Her family are proud also, I am told; and powerful.  Friends of the Cardinal too, I hear."  The man in black's smile was like nothing save the crocodile's.

     M. de Vidoche rose from his seat, but sat down again.

     "He would avenge the honor of the family to the death," continued the astrologer gently.  "To the death, I should say.  Don't you think so, M. de Vidoche?"

     The perspiration stood in thick drops on the young man's forehead, and he glared at his tormentor.  But the latter met the look placidly, and seemed ignorant of the effect he was producing.  "It is a pity, therefore, monsieur is not free to marry," he said, shaking his head regretfully--"a great pity.  One does not know what may happen.  Yet, on the other hand, if he had not married he would be a poor man now."

     M. de Vidoche sprang to his feet with an oath.  But he sat down again.

     "When he married he was a poor man, I think," the astrologer continued, for the first time averting his gaze from the other's face, and looking into the fire with a queer smile.  "And in debt.  Madame--the present Madame de Vidoche, I mean--paid his debts, and brought him an estate, I believe."

     "Of which she has never ceased to remind him twice a day since!"  the young man cried in a terrible voice.  And then in a moment he lost all self-control, all disgu8ise, all the timid cunning which had marked him hitherto.  He sprang to his feet.  The veins in his temples swelled, his face grew red.  So true is it that small things try us more than great ones, and small grievances rub deeper raws than great wrongs.  "My God!" he said between his teeth, "if you knew what I have suffered from that woman!  Pal-faced, puling fool, I have loathed her these five years, and I have been tied to her and her whining ways and her nun's face!  Twice a day?  No, ten times a day, twenty times a day, she has reminded me of my debts, my poverty, ad my straits before I married her!  And of her family!  And her three marshals!  And her---"

     He stopped for very lack of breath.  "Madame was of good family?" the man in black said abruptly.  He had grown suddenly attentive.  His shadow on the wall behind him was still and straight-backed.

     "Oh, yes," the husband answered bitterly.

     "In Perigord?"

     "Oh, yes."

     "Three marshals of France?"  M. Notredame murmured thoughtfully; but there was a strange light in his eyes, and he kept his face carefully averted from his companion.  "That is not common!  That is certainly something to boast of!"

     "Mon Dieu!  She did boast of it, though no one else allowed the claim.  And of her blood of Roland!"  M. de Vidoche cried, with scorn.  His voice still shook, and his hands trembled with rage.  He strode up and down.

     "What was her name before she married?" the astrologer asked, stooping over the fire.

     The young man stopped, arrested in his passion--stopped, and looked at him suspiciously.  "Her name?" he muttered.  "What has that to do with it?"

     "If you want me to--draw her horoscope," the astrologer replied, with a cunning smile, "I must have something to go upon."

    "Diane de Martinbault," the young man answered sullenly; and then, in a fresh burst of rage, he muttered, "Diane! Diable!"

     "She inherited her estates from her father?"

     "Yes."

     "Who had a son?  A child who died young?" the astrologer continued coolly.

     M. de Vidoche looked at him.  "That is true," he said sulkily.  "But I do not see what it has to do with you."

     For answer, the man in black began to laugh, at first silently, then aloud--a sly devil's laugh, that sounded more like the glee of fiends sporting over a lost soul than any human mirth, so full was it of derision and mockery and insult.  He made no attempt to check or disguise it, but rather seemed to flout it in the other's face; for when the young noble asked him, with fierce impatience, what it was, and what he meant, he did not explain.  He only cried, "In a moment!  In a moment, noble sir, I swear you shall have what you want.  But--ha! ha!"  And then he fell to laughing again, more loudly and shrilly than before.

     M. de Vidoche turned white and red with rage.  His first thought was that a trap had been laid for him, and that he had fallen into it; that to what he had said there had been witnesses; and that now the astrologer had thrown off the mask.  With a horrible expression of shame and fear on his countenance he stood at bay, peering into the dark corners, of which there were many in that room, and plumbing the shadows.  When no one appeared and nothing happened, his fears passed, but not his rage.  With his hand on his sword, he turned hotly on his confederate.  "You dog!" he said between his teeth, and his eyes gleamed dangerously in the light of the lamp, "know that for a farting I would slit your throat!  And I will, too, if you do not this instant stop that witch's grin of yours!  Are you going to do what I ask, or are you not?"

     "Chut! chut!" the astrologer answered, waving his hand in deprecation.  "I said so, and I am always as good as my word."

     "Ay, but now--now!" the young man retorted furiously.  "You have played with me long enough.  Do you think that I am going to spend the night in this charnel-house of yours?"

     M. Notredame began to fear that he had carried his cruel amusement too far.  He had enjoyed himself vastly, and made an unexpected discovery; one which opened an endless vista of mischief and plunder to his astute gaze.  But it was not his policy to drive his customer to distraction, and he changed his tone.  "Peace, peace," he said, spreading out his hands humbly.  "You shall have it now; now, this instant.  There is only one little preliminary."

     "Name it!" the other said imperiously.

     "The price.  A horoscope, with the House of Death in the ascendant--the Upper Portal, as we call it--is a hundred crowns, M. de Vidoche.  There is the risk, you see."

     "You shall have it.  Give me the--the stuff!"  

     The young man's voice trembled, but it was with anger and impatience, not with fear.  The astrologer recognized the change in him, and fell into his place.  He went, without further demur, to a little shelf in the darkest corner of the laboratory, whence he reached down a crucible.  He was in the act of peering into this, with his back to his visitor, when M. de Vidoche uttered a startled cry, and, springing toward him, seized his arm.  "You fiend!" the young man hissed--he was pale to the lips, and shook as with an ague--"there is someone there!  There is someone listening!"

     For a second the man in black stood breathless, his hand arrested, the shadow of his companion's terror darkening his face.  M. de Vidoche pointed with a trembling finger to the staircase which led to the farther part of the house, and on this the two bent their sombre, guilty eyes.  The lamp burned unsteadily, giving out an odor of smoke.  The room was full of shadows, uncouth distorted shapes, that rose and fell with the light, and had something terrifying in their sudden appearances and vanishings.  But in all the place there was nothing so appalling or so ugly as the two vicious, panic-stricken faces that glared into the darkness.

  

     The man in black was the first to break the silence.  "What did you hear?" he muttered at length, after a long, long period of waiting and watching.

     "Someone moved there," Vidoche answered, under his breath.  His voice still trembled; his face was livid with terror.

     "Nonsense!" the other answered.  He knew the place, and was fast recovering his courage.  "What was the sound like, man?"

     "A dull, heavy sound.  Someone moved."

     M. Notredame laughed, but not pleasantly.  "It was the toad," he said.  "There is no other living thing here.  The door on the staircase is locked.  It is thick, too.  A dozen men might be behind, it, yet they would not hear a word that passed in this room.  But come; you shall see."

     He led the way to the farther end of the room, and, moving some of the larger things, showed M. de Vidoche that there was no one there.  Still, the young man was only half-convinced.  Even when the toad was found lurking in a skull which had rolled to the floor, he continued to glance about him doubtfully.  "I do not think it was that," he said.  "Are you sure that the door is locked?"

     "Try it," the astrologer answered curtly.

     M. de Vidoche did, and nodded.  "Yes," he said.  "All the same, I will get out of this.  Give me the stuff, will you?"

     The man in black raised the lamp in one hand, and with the other selected from the crucible two tiny yellow packets.  He stood a moment, weighing them in his hand and looking lovingly at them, and seemed unwilling to part with them.  "They are power," he said, in a voice that was little above a whisper.  The alarm had tried even his nerves, and he was not quite himself.   "The greatest power of all--death.  They are the key of the Upper Portal--the true Pulvis Olympicus.  Take one to-day, one to-morrow, in liquid, and you will feel neither hunger, nor cold, nor want, nor desire any more for ever.  The late King of England took one; but there, it is yours, my friend."

     "Is is painful?" the young man whispered, shuddering, and with eyes averted.

     The tempter grinned horribly.  "What is that to you?" he said.  "It will not bring her mouth to the back of her neck.  That is enough for you to know."

     "It will not be detected?"

     "Not by the bunglers they call doctors," the astrologer answered scornfully.  "Blind bats!  You may trust me for that.  Of what did the King of England die?  A tertian ague.  So will madame.  But if you think--"

     He stopped on a sudden, his hand in the air, and the two stood gazing at one another with alarm printed on their faces.  The loud clanging note of a bell, harshly struck in the house, came dolefully to their ears.  "What is it?" M. de Vidoche muttered uneasily.

     "A client," the astrologer answered quietly.  "I will see.  Do not stir until I come back to you."

     M. de Vidoche made an impatient movement toward the door in the Rue Touchet: and doubtless he would much have preferred to be gone at once, since he had now got what he wanted.  But the man in black was already unlocking the door at the head of the little staircase, and uttering a querulous oath M. de Vidoche resigned himself to wait.  With a dark look he hid the powders on his person.

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

     He thought himself alone.  But all the time a white-faced boy lay within a few feet of him, watching his every movement, and listening to his breathing--a small boy, instinct with hate and loathing.  Impunity renders people careless, or M. Notredame would not have been so ready to set down the noise his confederate made to the toad.  The Judas-hole and the spying-place would have come to mind, and in a trice he would have caught the listener in the act, and this history would never have been written.

     For Jehan, though his master's first entrance and appearance had sent his fleeing, breathless and panic-stricken, from his post, had not been able to keep aloof long.  The house was dull, silent, dark; only in the closet was amusement to be found.  So while terror dragged him one way, curiosity haled him the other, and at last had the victory.  He listened and shivered at the head of the stairs until that shrill eldritch peal of laughter in which the astrologer indulged, and for which he was destined to pay dearly, penetrated even the thick door.  Then he cold hold out no longer.  His curiosity grew intolerable.  Laughter!  Laughter in that house!  Slowly and stealthily the boy opened the door of the dark closet, and crept in.  Just across the threshold he stumbled over the extinguished taper, and this it was which caused M. de Vidoche's alarm.

     Jehan fancied himself discovered, and lay sweating and trembling until the search for the toad was over.  Then he sat up, and, finding himself safe, began to listen.  What he heard was not clear, nor perfectly intelligible; but gradually there stole even into his boyish mind a perception of something horrible.  The speakers' looks of fear, their low tones and dark glances, the panic which seized them when they fancied themselves overheard, and their relief when nothing came of it, did more to bring the conviction home to his mind than their words.  Even of these he caught enough to assure him that someone was to be poisoned--to be put out of the world.  Only the name of the victim--that escaped him.

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

     Probably M. de Vidoche, left to himself, found his thoughts poor company, for by-and-by he grew restless.  He walked across the room and listened, and walked again and listened.  The latter movement brought him by chance to the foot of the little flight of six steps by which the astrologer had retired, and he looked up and saw that the door at the top was ajar.  Impelled by curiosity, or suspicion, or the mere desire to escape from himself, he stole up, and, opening it farther, thrust his head through and listened.

     He remained in this position about a minute.  Then he turned, and crept down again, and stood, thinking, at the foot of the stairs, with an expression of such utter and complete amazement on his face as almost transformed the man.  Something he had heard or seen which he could not understand!  Something incredible, something almost miraculous!  For all else, even his guilty purpose, seemed swallowed up in sheer astonishment.

     The stupor held him until he heard the astrologer's steps.  Even then he only turned and looked.  But if ever dumb lips asked a question, his did then.

     The man in black nodded silently.  He seemed not at all surprised that the other had heard or seen what he had.  Even in him the thing, whatever it was, had worked a change.  His eyes shone, his eyebrows were raised, his face wore a pale smile of triumph and conceit.

     M. de Vidoche found his voice at last.  "My wife!" he whispered.

     The astrologer's shoulders went up to his ears.  He spread out his hands.  He nodded--once, twice.  "Mais oui, Madame!" he said.

     "Here?--now?"  M. de Vidoche stammered, his eyes wide with astonishment.

     "She is in the chamber of the astrolabe."

     "Mon Dieu!" the husband exclaimed.  "Mon Dieu!"  And then for a moment he shook, as if someone were passing over his grave.  His face was pale.  There was dread mingled with his surprise.  "I do not understand," he muttered at last.  "What does it mean?  What is she doing here?"

     "She has come for a love-philtre," M. Notredame answered, with a sphinx-like smile.

     "For whom?"

     "For you."

     The husband drew a deep breath.  "For me?" he exclaimed.  "Impossible!"

     "Possible," the man in black answered quietly; "and true."

     "Then what shall you do?"

     "Give her one," the astrologer answered.  The enigmatical smile, which had been all along playing on his face, grew deeper, keener, more cruel.  His eyes gleamed with triumph--and evil.  "I shall give her one," he said again.

     "But--what will she do with it?" M. de Vidoche muttered.

     "Take it!  You fool, cannot you understand?" the man in black answered sharply.  "Give me back the powders.  I shall give them to her.  She will take them--herself.  You will be saved--all!"

     M. de Vidoche reeled.  "My God!" he cried.  "I think you are the devil!"

     "Perhaps," the man in black answered, "but give me the powders."

 

Chapter IV                                                  Chapter VI