The Mark of Cain
When Jehan, in a fever of indignation, slipped stealthily out of the house in the Rue Touchet and sped up the dark, quiet street after Madame de Vidoche, he had no subtler purpose in his mind than to overtake her and warn her. The lady had spoken kindly to him on the night of the supper at Les Andelys. She was young, weak, oppressed; the plot against her seemed to the child to be fiendish in its artfulness. It needed no more to rouse every chivalrous instinct in his nature--and these in a boy should be many, or woe betide the man--and determine him to save her.
He thought that if he could overtake her and warn her all would be well; and at first h is purpose went no farther than that. But as he ran, now looking over his shoulder in terror, and now peering into the darkness ahead, sometimes slipping into the gutter in his haste, and sometimes stumbling over a projecting step, a new and whimsical thought flashed into his mind, and in a moment fascinated him. How it came to one so young, whether the astrologer's duplicity, to which he had been a witness, suggested it, or it sprang from some precocious aptitude in the boy's own nature, it is impossible to say. But on a sudden there it was in his mind, full-grown, full-armed, a perfect scheme. He had only a few minutes in which to consider it before he caught madame up, and the time to put it into execution came; but in that interval he found no flaw in it. Rather he revelled in it. It satisfied the boy's stern sense of retribution and justice. It more than satisfied the boy's love of mischief and trickery.
He felt not the slightest misgiving, therefore, when it came to playing his part. He went through it without pity, without a scruple or thought of responsibility--nay, he followed madame home, and hid himself behind the curtain. with no feeling of apprehension as to what was coming, with no qualms of conscience.
But when he had seen all, and lying spellbound in his hiding-place had witnessed the tragedy, when covering his ears with his hands, and cowering down as if he would cower through the floor, he had heard Vidoche's death-cry and winced at each syllable of madame's heart-broken utterance--when, with quaking limbs and white cheeks, he had crept at last down the stairs and fled from the accursed house, then the boy knew all; knew what he had done, and was horror-stricken! Even the darkness and freezing cold were welcome, if he might escape from that house--if he might leave those haunting cries behind. But how? by what road? He fled through street after street, alley after alley, over bridges, and along quays, by the doors of churches and the gates of prisons. But everywhere the sights and sounds went with him, forestalled him, followed him. He could not forget. When at last, utterly exhausted, he flung himself down on a pile of refuse in a distant corner of the Halles, his heart seemed bursting. He had killed a man. He had worse than killed a woman. He would be hung. The astrologer had told him truly; he was doomed, given up to evil and the devil!
He lay for a long time panting and shuddering, with his face hidden; while a burst of agony, provoked by some sudden pang of remembrance, now and again racked his frame. The spot he had, almost unconsciously, chosen for his hiding-place was a corner between two stalls, at the east end of the market: an angle well sheltered from the wind, and piled breast-high with porters' knots and rubbish. The air was a little less bitter there than outside; and by good fortune he had thrown himself down on an old sack, which he, by-and-bye, drew over him. Otherwise he must have perished. As it was, he presently sobbed himself into an uneasy slumber; but only to awake in a few minutes with a scream of affright and a dismal return of all his apprehensions.
Still, nature and was already at work to console him; and misery sleeps proverbially well. After a time he dozed again for a few minutes, and then again. At length, a little before daybreak, he went off into a sounder sleep, from which he did not awake until the wintry sun was nearly an hour up, and old-fashioned people were thinking of dinner.
After opening his eyes, he lay a while between sleeping and waking, with the sense of some unknown trouble heavy upon him. On a sudden a voice, a harsh, rasping voice, speaking a strange clipped jargon, roused him effectually. "He is a runaway!" the voice said, with two or three unnecessary oaths. "A crown to a penny on it, my bully-boys! Well, it is an ill-wind blows no one any good. Rouse up the little shaveling, will you? That is not the way! Here, lend it me."
The next moment the boy sat up, with a cry of pain, for a heavy porter's knot fell on his shinbone and nearly broke it. He found himself confronted by three or four grinning ruffians, whose eyes glistened as they scanned his velvet clothes and the little silver buttons that fastened them. The man who had spoken before seemed to be the leader of the party: a filthy beggar with one arm and a hare-lip. "Ho! ho!" he chuckled; "so you can feel, M. le Marquis, can you! Flesh and blood like other folk. And doubtless with money in your pockets to pay for your night's lodging."
He hauled the child to him and passed his hands through his clothes. But he found nothing, and his face grew dark. "Morbleu!" he swore. "The little softy has brought nothing away with him!"
The other men, gathering round, glared at the boy hungrily. In the middle of the Forest of Bondy he could not have been more at their mercy than he was in this quiet corner of the market, where a velvet coat with silver buttons was as rare a sight as a piece of the true cross. Two or three houseless wretches looked on from their frowsy lairs under the stalls, but no one dreamed of interfering with the men in possession. As for the boy, he gazed at his captors stolidly; he was white, mute, apathetic.
"Plague, if I don't think the lad is a softy!" said one, staring at him.
"Not he!" replied the man who had hold of him. And roughly seizing the boy by the head with his huge hand, he forced up an eyelid with his finger as if to examine the eye. The boy uttered a cry of pain. "There!" said the ruffian, grinning with triumph. "He is all right. The question is, what shall we do with him?"
"There are his clothes," one muttered eyeing the boy greedily.
"To be sure, there are always his clothes," was the answer. "It does not take an Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu to see that, gaby! And, of course, they would melt to the tune of something apiece! But maybe we can do better than that with him. He has run away. You don't find truffles on the dung-hill every day."
"Well", said his duller fellows, their eyes beginning to sparkle with greed, "what then, Bec de Lievre?"
"If we take him home again, honest market porters, why should we not be rewarded? Eh, my bully-boys?"
"That is a bright idea!" said one. So said another. The rest nodded. "Ask him where he lives, when he is a home."
They did. But Jehan remained mute. "Twist his arm!" said the last speaker. "He will soon tell you. Or stick your finger in his eye again! Blest if I don't think the kid is dumb!" the man continued, gazing with astonishment at the boy's dull face and lack-lustre eyes.
"I think I shall find a tongue for him", the former operator replied with a leer. "Here, sonny, answer before you are hurt, will you? Where do you live?"
But Jehan remained silent. The ruffian raised his hand. In another moment it would have fallen, but in the nick of time came an interruption. "Nom de ma mere!" someone close at hand cried, in a voice of astonishment. "It is my Jehan!"
Two of the party in possession turned savagely on the intruder--a middle-sized man with foxy eyes, and a half-starved ape on his shoulder. "Who asked you to speak?" snarled one. "Begone about your business, my fine fellow, or I shall be making a hole in you?" cried another.
"But he is my boy!" the new-comer answered, fairly trembling with joy and astonishment. "He is my boy!"
"Your boy?" cried Bec de Lievre, in a tone of contempt. "You look it, don't you? You look as if you dined on gold plate every day and had a Rohan to your cup-bearer, you do! Go along, man; don't try to bamboozle us, or it will be the worse for you!" And with an angry scowl he turned to his victim.
But the showman, though he was a coward, was not to be put down so easily. "It is the boy who is bamboozling you!" he said. "You take him for a swell! It is only his show dress he has on. He is a tumbler's boy, I tell you. He circled the pole with me for two years. Last November he ran away. If you do not believe me, ask the monkey. See, the monkey knows him."
Bec de Lievre had to acknowledge that the monkey did know him. For the poor beast was no sooner brought close to its old playmate than it sprang upon him and covered him with caresses, gibbering and crying out the while after so human a fashion that it might well have moved hearts less hard. The boy did not return it endearments, however; but a look of intelligence came into his eyes, and on a sudden he heaved a sigh as if his heart was breaking.
The men who had taken possession of him looked at one another. "It was the boy's cursed clothes fooled us," Bec de Lievre growled savagely. "We will have them, at any rate. Strip him and have done with it. And do you keep off, Master Tumbler, or we will tumble you."
But when the showman, who was trembling with delight and anticipation, made them understand that he would give a crown for the boy as he was in his clothes--"and that is more than the fence will give you," he added--they began to see reason. True, they stood out for awhile for a higher price; but the bargain was eventually struck at a crown and a livre, and the boy handed over.
Master Crafty Eyes' hand shook as he laid it on the child's collar and turned him round so that he might see his face the better. Bec de Lievre discerned the man's excitement, and he looked at him curiously. "You must be very fond of the lad," he said.
The showman's eyes glittered ferociously. "So fond of him," he said, in a mocking tone, "that when I get him home I shall--oh, I shall not hurt his fine clothes, or his face, or his little brown hands, for those all show, and they are worth money to me. But I shall--I shall put a poker in the fire, and then Master Jehan will take off his new clothes so that they may not be singed, and--I shall teach him several new tricks with the poker."
"You are a queer one," the other answered "I'll be shot if you don't look like a man with a good dinner before him."
"That is the man I am," the showman answered, a hideous smile distorting his face. "I have gone without dinner or supper many a day because my little friend here chose to run away one fine night, when he was on the point of making my fortune. But I am going to dine now. I am going to feed--on him!"
"Well, every man to his liking," the hair-lipped beggar answered indifferently. "You have paid for your dinner, and may cook it as you please, for me."
"I am going to," the showman answered, with an ugly look. He plucked the boy almost off his feet as he spoke, and while the men cried after him "Bon appetit!" and jeered, dragged him away across the open part of the market; finally disappearing with him in one of the noisome alleys which then led out of the Halles on the east side.
His way lay through a rabbit-warren of beetling passages and narrow lanes, where the boy, once loose, could have dodged him a hundred ways and escaped; and he held him with the utmost precaution, expecting him every moment to make a desperate attempt at it. But Jehan was not the old Jehan who had turned and twisted, walked and frolicked on the rope, and in the utmost depths of ill-treatment had still kept teeth to bite and spirit to use them. He was benumbed body and soul. He had had no food for nearly twenty hours. He had passed the night exposed to the cold. He had gone through intense excitement, horror, despair. So he stumbled along, with Vidoche's dying cries in his ears, and, famished, frozen, bemused, met the showman's threats with a face of fixed, impassive apathy. He was within a very little of madness.
For a time Crafty Eyes did not heed this strange impassiveness. The showman's fancy was busy with the punishment he would inflict when he got the boy home to his miserable room. He gloated in anticipation over the tortures he would contrive, and the care he would take that they should not maim or disfigure the boy. When he had him tied down, and the door locked, and the poker heated--ah! how he would enjoy himself! The ruffian licked his lips. His eyes sparkled with pleasure. He jerked the boy along in his hideous impatience.
But after a time the child's bearing began to annoy him. He stopped and, holding him with one hand, beat him brutally on the head with the other, until the boy fell and hung in his grasp. Then he dragged him up roughly and hauled him on with volleys of oaths; still scowling at him from time to time, as if, somehow, he found this little foretaste of vengeance less satisfying than he had expected.
There were people coming and going in the dark filthy lane where this happened--a place where smoke-grimed gables almost met overhead, and the gutter was choked with refuse--but no one interfered. What was a little beating more or less? Or, for the matter of that, what was a boy more or less? The hulking loafers and frowsy slatterns, who huddled for warmth in corners, nodded their heads and looked on approvingly. They had their own brats to beat and business to mind. There was no one to take the boy's part. And another hundred yards would lodge him in the showman's garret.
At that last moment the boy awoke from his trance and understood; and in a convulsion of fear hung back and struggled, screaming and throwing himself down. The man dragged him up savagely, and was in the act of taking him up bodily to carry him, when a person, who had already passed the pair once, came back and looked at the boy again. The next moment a hand fell on the showman's arm, and a voice said, "Stop! What boy is that?"
The showman looked up, saw that the intervener was a priest, and sneered. "What is that to you, father?" he said, trying by a side movement to pass by. "Not one of flock at any rate."
"No, but you are!: the priest retorted in a strangely sonorous voice. He was a stalwart man, with a mobile face and sad eyes that seemed out of keeping with the rest of him. "You are! And if you do not this minute set him down and answer my question, you ruffian, when your time comes you shall go to the tree alone!"
"Diable!" the showman muttered, startled yet scowling. "Who are you, then?"
"I am Father Bernard. Now tell me about that boy, and truly. What have you been doing to him? Ay, you may well tremble, rascal!"
For the showman was trembling. In the Paris of that day the name of Father Bernard was almost as well known as the name of Cardinal Richelieu. There was not a night-prowler or cutpurse, bully or swindler, who did not know it, and dream in his low fits, when the drink was out and the money spent, of the day when he would travel by Father Bernard's side to Montfaucon, and find no other voice and no other eye to pity him in his trouble. Impelled by feelings of humanity, rare at that time, this man made it his life-work to attend on all who were cast for execution; to wait on them in prison, and be with them at the last, and by his presence and words of comfort to alleviate their sufferings here, and bring them to a better mind. He had become so well known in this course of work that the king himself did him honor, and the Cardinal granted him special rights. The mob also. The priest passed unharmed through the lowest wynds of Paris, and penetrated habitually to places where the Lieutenant of the Chatelet, with a dozen pikes at his back, would not have been safe for a moment.
This was the man whose stern voice brought the showman to a standstill. Master Crafty Eyes faltered. Then he remembered that the boy was his boy, that his title to him was good. He said so sulkily.
"Your boy?" the priest replied, frowning. "Who are you, then?"
"An acrobat, father."
"So I thought. But do acrobats' boys wear black velvet clothes with silver buttons?"
"He was stolen from me," the showman answered eagerly. He had a good conscience as to the clothes. "I have only just recovered him, father."
"Who stole him? Where has he been?" The priest spoke quickly, and with no little excitement. He looked narrowly at the boy the while, holding him at arm's length. "Where did he spend last night, for instance?"
The showman spread out his palms and shrugged his shoulders. "How should I know?" he said. "I was not with him."
"He has black hair and blue eyes!"
"Yes. But what of that?" Crafty Eyes answered. "I can swear to him. He is my boy."
"And mine!" Father Bernard retorted with energy. "The boy I want!" The priest's eyes sparkled, his form seemed to dilate with triumph. "Deo laus! Deo laus!" he murmured sonorously, so that a score of loiterers who had gathered round, and were staring and shivering by turns, fell back affrighted and crossed themselves. "He is the boy! God has put him in my way this day as clearly as if an angel had led me by the hand. And he goes with me; he goes with me. Chut, man!"--this to the showman, who stood frowning in his path--"don't dare to look black at me. The boy goes with me, I say. I want him for a purpose. If you choose you can come too."
"To the Chatelet," Father Bernard answered with a grim chuckle. "You don't seem to relish the idea. But do as you please."
"You will take the boy?"
"This moment," the priest answered.
"Mon Dieu! but you shall not!" the showman exclaimed. Wrath for the moment drove out fear. He seized the child by the arm. "He is my boy! You shall not, I say!" he cried, almost foaming with rage. "He is mine!"
"Idiot! Beast! Gallows-bird!" the priest thundered in reply. "For one-half of a denier I would throw you into the next street! Let go, or I will blast you with--Oh, it is well for you you are are reasonable. Now begone! Begone! or, at a word from me, there are a score here will--"
He did not finish his sentence, for the showman fell back panic-stricken, and stood off among the crowd, malevolence and craven fear struggling for the mastery in his countenance. The priest took the boy up gently in his arms and looked at him. His face grew strangely mild as he did so. The black brows grew smooth, the lips relaxed. "Get a little water," he said to the nearest man, a hulking, olive-skinned Southerner. "The child has swooned."
"Your pardon, father," the man answered. "He is dead."
But Father Bernard shook his head. "No, my son," he said kindly. "He who led me here today will keep life in him a little longer. God's ways never end in a cul-de-sac. Get the water. He has swooned only."
Chapter 7 Chapter 9