Chapter VI

The Powder of Attraction

 

     MEANWHILE, a few yards away, in the room of the astrolabe, Madame de Vidoche sat, waiting and trembling, afraid to move from the spot where the astrologer had placed her, and longing for his return.  The minutes seemed endless, the house a grave.  The silence and mystery which wrapped her round, the sombre hangings, the burning candles, the cabalistic figures filled her with awe and apprehension.  She was a timid woman; nothing but that last and fiercest hunger of all, the hunger for love, could have driven her to this desperate step or brought her here.  But she was here, it had brought her; and though fear blanched her cheek, and her limbs shook under her, and she dared not pray--for what was this she was doing?--she did not repent, or wish the step untaken, or go back on her desire.

     The place was dreadful to her; but not so dreadful as the cold home, the harsh words, the mockery of love, the slowly growing knowledge that there never had been love, from which she was here to escape.  She was alone, but not more lonely than she had been for months in her own house.  The man who daily met her with gibes and taunts, and seldom spoke without reminding her how pale and colorless she showed beside the florid witty beauties of the Court--his friends--was still her all, and had been her idol.  If he failed her, the world was empty indeed.  Only one thing remained therefore; by hook or crook.  by all a woman might do or dare, by submission, by courage, to win back his love.  She had tried.  God knows she had tried!  She had knelt to him, and he had struck her.  She had dressed and been gay, and striven to jest as his friends jested:  he had scourged her with a cutting sneer.  She had prayed, and Heaven had not answered.  She had turned from Heaven--a white-faced, pining woman, little more than a girl--and she was here.

     Only let the man be quick!  Let him be quick and give her what she sought; and then scarcely any price he could ask should strain her gratitude.  At last she heard his step, and in a moment he came in.  Against the black background, and seen by the gloomy light of the candles, he looked taller, leaner, paler, more sombre than life.  His eyes glowed with unnatural lustre.  Madame shuddered as he came toward her; and he saw it, and grinned behind his cadaverous mask.

     "Madam," he said gravely, bowing his head, "it is as I hoped.  Venus is in the ascendant for nine days from to-day, and in fortunate conjunction with Mars.  I am happy that you come to me at a time so propitious.  A very little effort at this season will suffice.  But it is necessary, if you would have the charm work, to preserve the most absolute silence and secrecy in regard to it."

     Her lips were dry, her tongue seemed to cleave to her mouth.  She felt shame as well as fear in this man's presence.  But she made an effort, and muttered, "It will work?"

     "I will answer for it!" he replied bluntly, a world of dubious meaning in his tone and eyes.  "It is the powder of attraction, by the use of which Diane de Poitiers won the love of the king, though she surpassed him by twenty years; and Madame de Valentinois held the hearts of men till her seventieth winter.  Madame de Hautefort uses it.  It is made of liquid gold, etherealized and strengthened with secret drugs.  I have made up two packets, but it will be safer if madame will take both at once, dissolved in good wine and before the expiration of the ninth day."

     Madame de Vidoche took the packets, trembling.  A little red dyed her pale cheeks.  "Is that all?" she murmured, faintly.

     "All, madame; except that when you drink it you must think of your husband," he answered.  As he said this he averted his face; for, try as he would, he could not check the evil smile that curled his lip.  Dieu!  Was ever so grim a jest known?  Or so forlorn, so helpless, so infantine a fool?  He could almost find it in his heart to pity her.  As for her husband--ah, how he would bleed him when it was over!

     "How much am I to pay you, sir?" she asked timidly, when she had hidden away the precious packets in her bosom.  She had got what she wanted; she was panting to be gone.

     "Twenty crowns," he answered, coldly.  "The charm avails for nine moons.  After that--"

     "I shall need more?" she asked; for he had paused.

    "Well, no, I think not," he answered slowly--hesitating strangely, almost stammering.  "I think in your case, madame, the effect will be lasting."

     She had no clue to the fantastic impulse, the ghastly humor, which inspired the words; and she paid him gladly.  He would not take the money in his hands, but bade her lay it on the great open book, "because the gold was alloyed, and not virgin."  In one or two other ways he played his part; directing her, for instance, if she would increase the strength of the charm, to gaze at the planet Venus for half an hour each evening, but not through glass or with any metal on her person.  And then he let her out by the door which opened on the quiet street.

     "Madame has, doubtless, her woman, or some attendant?" he said, looking up and down.  "Or I--"

     "Oh, yes, yes!" she answered; gasping in the cold night air.  "She is here.  Good night, sir."

     He muttered some words in a strange tongue, and, as Madame de Vidoche's attendant came out of the shadow to meet her, turned and went in again.

     The night was dark as well as cold, but madame, in the first fervor of her spirits, did not heed it.  She suffered her maid to wrap her up warmly, and draw the cloak more closely round her throat; but she was scarcely conscious of the attention, and bore it as child might--in silence.  Her yes shone in the darkness; her heart beat with a soft subtle joy.  She had the charm--the key to happiness!  It was in her bosom; and every moment, under cover of the cloak and night, her fingers flew to it and assured her it was safe.  The scruples with which she had contemplated the interview troubled her no longer.  In her joy and relief that the ordeal was over and the philtre gained, she knew no doubt, no suspicion.  She lived only for the moment when she might put the talisman to the test, and see love wake again in those eyes which, whether they smiled or scowled, fate had made the lodestones of her life.

     The streets, by reason of the cold, were quiet enough.  No one remarked the two women as they flitted along under cover of the wall.  Presently, however, the bell of a church close at hand began to ring for service, and the sound, startling madame, brought her suddenly, chillily, sharply, to earth again.  She stopped.  "What is that?" she said.  "It cannot be compline.  It wants three hours of midnight."

     "It is St. Thomas's Day," the woman with her answered.

     "So it is," madame replied, moving on again, but more slowly.  "Of course; it is four days to Christmas.  Don't they call him the Apostle of Faith, Margot?"

     "Yes, madame."

     "To be sure," madame rejoined thoughtfully.  "To be sure; yes, we should have faith--we should have faith."  And with that she buoyed herself up again (as people will in certain moods, using the strangest floats), and went on gaily, her feet tripping to the measure of her heart, and her hand on the precious packet that was to change the world for her.  On the foulest mud gleams sometimes the brightest phosphorescence:  otherwise it were not easy to conceive how even momentary happiness could come of the house in Rue Touche! 

     The two women had nearly reached the Church of St. Gervais by the Greve, when the sound of a swift stealthy footstep coming along the street behind them caught the maid's ear.  It was not a reassuring sound at night and in that place.  The dark square of the Greve, swept by the icy wind from the river, lay before them; and though a brazier, surrounded by a knot of men belonging to the watch, burned in the middle of the open, the two women were reluctant to show themselves where they might meet with rudeness.  Margot laid her hand on her mistress's arm, and for a few seconds the two stood listening, with thumping hearts.  The step came on--a light, pattering step.  Acting on a common impulse the women turned and looked at one another.  Then slipping noiselessly into the shadow cast by the church porch, they pressed themselves against the wall, and stood scarcely daring to breathe.

     But fortune was against them, or their follower's eye was keen beyond the ordinary.  They had not been there many seconds before he came running up--a stooping figure, slight and short.  He slackened speed abruptly, and stopped exactly opposite their lurking place.  A moment of suspense, and then a pale face, rendered visible by a gleam from the distant fire, looked in on them, and a thin, panting voice murmured timidly, "Madame! Madame de Vidoche, if you please!"

     "Saint Siege!" madam's woman gasped, in a voice of astonishment.  "I declare it is a child!"

     Madame almost laughed in her relief.  "Ah! she said, "how you frightened us!  I thought you were a man dogging us--a thief!"

     "I am not," the boy said simply.

     This time Margot laughed.  "Who are you, then?" she asked, briskly stepping out, "and why have you been following us?  You seem to have my lady's name pretty pat," she added, sharply.

     "I want to speak to her," the boy answered, his lip trembling.  In truth, he was trembling all over with fear and excitement.  But eh darkness hid that.

     "Oh!"  Madame de Vidoche said graciously.  "Well, you may speak.  But tell me first who you are, and be quick about it.  It is cold and late."

     "I am from the house where you have been," Jehan answered bravely.  "You saw me at Les Andelys, too, when you were at supper, madame.  I was the boy at the door.  I want to speak to you alone, please."

     "Alone!" madame exclaimed.

     The boy nodded firmly.  "If you please," he said.

     "Hoity-toity!" Margot exclaimed; and she was for demurring.  "He only wants to beg," she said.

     "I don't!" the boy cried, with tears in his voice.

     "Then it is a present he wants!" she rejoined, scornfully.  "They expect their vales at those place.  And we are to freeze while he makes a tale."

     But madame, out of pity or curiosity, would hear him.  She bade the woman wait a few paces away.  And when they were alone:  "Now," she said kindly, "what is it?  You must be quick, for it is very cold."

     "He sent me after you--with a message," Jehan answered. 

     Madame started, and her hand went to the packet.  "Do you mean M. Notredame?" she murmured.

     The boy nodded.  "He--he said he had forgotten one thing," he continued, halting between his sentences and shivering.  "He--he said you were to alter one thing, madame."

     "Oh!" Madame answered frigidly, her heart sinking, her pride roused by this intervention of the boy, who seemed to know all.  "What thing, if you please?"

     Jehan looked quickly and fearfully over his shoulder.  But all was quiet.  "He said he had forgotten that your husband was dark," he stammered.

     "Dark!" madame muttered in astonishment.  

     "Yes, dark-complexioned,"  Jehan continued desperately.  "And that being so, you were not to take the--the charm yourself."

     Madame's eyes flashed with anger.  "Oh!" she said, "indeed!  And is that all?"

     "But to give it to him, without telling him," the boy rejoined, with sudden spirit and firmness.

     Madame started and drew a deep breath.  "Are you sure you have made no mistake?" she said, trying to read the boy's face.  But it was too dark for that.

     "Quite sure," he answered hardily.

     "Oh," madame said, slowly and thoughtfully; "very well.  Is that all?"

     "That is all," he replied, drawing back a step; but reluctantly, as it seemed.

     Margot, who had been all the time moving a little nearer and a little nearer, came right up at this.  "Now, my lady," she said sharply, "I beg you will have done.  This is no place for us at this time of night, and this little imp of Satan ought to be about his business.  I am sure I am perishing with cold, and the sound of those creaking boats on the river makes me think of nothing but gibbets and corpses, till I have got the creeps all down my back!  And the watch will be here presently."

     "Very well, Margot," madame answered; "I am coming."  But still she looked at the boy and lingered.  "You are sure there is nothing else?" she murmured.

     "Nothing," he answered.

     She thought his manner odd, and wondered why he lingered; why he did not hurry off, since the night was cold and he was bareheaded.  But Margot pressed her again, and she turned, saying reluctantly, "Very well, I am coming."

     "Ay, and so is Christmas!"  the woman grumbled.  And this time she fairly took her by the arm and hurried her away.

     "That is not a good retort, Margot!" madame said presently, when they had gone a few paces, and were flitting hand-in-hand across the Greve, with heads bent to the wind, "for it wants only four days to Christmas.  You had forgotten that!"

     "I think you are fey, my lady!" the woman replied, in an ill-temper.  "I have not seen you so gay these twelve months; and what with the cold, and fear of the watch and monsieur, I am ready to sink.  You must have heard fine news down there."

     But madame did not answer.  She was thinking of last Christmas.  Her husband had gone to the revels at the Palais Cardinal, which was then in building.  She had offered to go with him, and he had told her, with an oath, that if she did she should remember it.  So she had stopped at home alone--her first Christmas in Paris.  She had gone to mass, and then had sat all day in the cold, splendid house, and cried.  Half the servants had played truant, and her woman had been cross, and for hours together no one had gone near her.

     This Christmas it was to be different.

     Madam's eyes began to shine again, and her heart to beat a pleasant measure.  If she had her will, they would go to no pageants or merry-makings.  But then he liked such things, and showed to advantage in them.  Yes, they would go, and she would sit quiet as a mouse; and listening while they praised him, would feed all the sweet knowledge that now he was hers--her own.

     She had not done dreaming when they reached the house.  The porter was drowsing in his lodge, the gate ajar.  They slipped into the dark silent courtyard, and, flitting across it, entered the house.  Two servants lay stretched asleep in the hall, and in a little room to the left of the door they could hear others talking; but no one looked out.  Fortune could not have aided them better.  With a little laugh of relief and thankfulness madame tripped up the grand staircase and under the great lamp which lit it and the hall.

     Margot followed, but neither she nor her mistress saw who followed them:  who had followed them across the windy Greve, through street and lane and byway; even, after a moment's hesitation, over the threshold of the court and into the house.  A servant who heard the stairs creak as they went up, and looked out, fancied he saw a small black figure glide out of sight above; but as there were no children in the house, and this was a child, if anything, he thought his eyes deceived him--he was half-asleep--and, crossing himself, went back, yawning.

     The boy could never quite explain--though often asked in after-years--what led him to run this risk.  It is true he dared not return to the Rue Touchet; and he was only twelve years old, and knew nowhere else to go.  But--  However, that is all that can be said.  He did follow them.

     He paused at the head of the stairs, and stood shivering under the great lamp.  In front of him hung a pair of heavy curtains.  After a moment's hesitation he crept between them and found himself in a splendid apartment, spacious though sparely furnished, lit from the roof, and in character half-hall, half-parlor.  A high marble chimney-piece in the new Italian mode faced him, and on either hand were two lofty doorways screened by curtains.  The floor was of parquet, the walls were panelled in chestnut wood.  On each side of the fire, which smoldered low between the dogs and was nearly out, a long bench, velvet-covered, ran along the wall.  A posset-cup stood on a tripod on the hearth, and in the middle of the room a marble table bore a dish of sweetmeats and a tray of flasks and glasses.  In that day, when people dined at eleven and supped at six, it was customary to take les 'epices et le vin du coucher before retiring at nine.

     The boy stood cowering and listening--a strange, pale-faced little figure, reflected in a narrow mirror which decked one wall.  It was very cold even here; outside he must die of cold.  He heard the two women moving and talking in one of the rooms on the left; otherwise the house was still.  He looked about, hesitated, and at last stole on tip-toe across the floor to one of the doors on his right.  The curtain which hid it trailed a yard on the ground.  He sat down between it and the door, and, winding one corner of the thick heavy stuff round his frozen limbs, uttered a sigh of relief.  He had found a refuge of a kind.

     He meant to sleep, but he could not, for all his nerves were tense with excitement.  Not a sound in the house escaped him.  He heard the soft ashes sink on the hearth; he heard one of the men who slept in the hall turn and moan in his sleep.  At last, quite close to him, a door opened.

     Jehan moved a little and peered from his ambush.  The noise had come from madame's room.  He was not surprised when he saw her face thrust out.  Presently she put the curtain quite aside and came out, and stood a little way from him, listening intently.  She wore a loose robe of some soft stuff, and he fancied she was barefoot, for she moved without noise.

     She stood listening a full minute, with her hand to her bosom.  Then she nodded, as if assured that all was well, and, going to the table, looked down at the things it held.  Her face wore a subtle smile, her cheeks flamed softly, there was a shy sparkle in her eyes.  The lamp seemed to lend her new loveliness.

     Apparently she did not find what she wanted on the table, for in a moment she turned and went to the fireplace.  She took the posset from the trivet, and, lifting the lid of the cup, looked in.  What she saw appeared to satisfy her, for with a quick movement she carried the cup to the table and set it down open.  She had her back to Jehan now, and he could not see what she was doing, though he watched her every motion and partly guessed.  When she had finished whatever it was, she raised the cup to her lips, and the boy's heart stood still.  Ay, stood still!  He half rose, his face white.  But he was in error.  She only kissed the wine and covered it, and took it back to the trivet, murmuring something over it as she set it down.

     The boy lay still, like one fascinated, while madame, clasping two little silk bags to her bosom, stole back to her door.  As she raised the curtain with one hand she turned on a sudden impulse and kissed the other toward the hearth.  Slowly the curtain fell and hid her shining eyes.

Chapter V                                                    Chapter VII