MADAME DE VIDOCHE heard the name and braced herself again, turning toward the door as others turned, and waiting with dry lips and feverish eyes for the man who was to save her--to save her in spite of king and court. Would he never come? The door stood open, remained open. She could see through it the passage with its bare walls and dusky ceiling, and hear in the hushed silence a noise of shuffling feet. Gradually the noise grew louder; though it still seemed a thing by itself, and so distant that in the court where they waited, with every eye expectant, the slightest sound, the lowest whisper was audible. When the usher cried again, "Solomon Notredame, stand forward!" more than one glanced at him angrily. He balked their expectation.
Ha! at last! But they were carrying him! Madame shivered slightly as she watched the four men come slowly along the passage, bearing a chair between them. At the door they stumbled and paused, giving her time to think. They had been racking him, then, and he could not walk; she might have guessed it. Her cheek, white before, became a shade ghastlier, and she clutched the bar with a firmer grip.
They brought him slowly down the three steps and through the narrow passage toward her. The men who carried him blocked her view, but she saw presently that there was something odd about his head. When they set him down, three paces from her, she saw what it was. His face was covered. There was a loose cloth over his head, and he leaned forward in a strange way.
What did it mean? She began to tremble, gazing at him wildly, expecting she knew not what. And he did not move.
Suddenly the President's solemn voice broke the silence. "Madame," he said--but it seemed to her that he was speaking a long way off--"here is your witness. You asked to be confronted with him, and the court, hoping that this may be the more merciful way of inducing you to confess your crime, assent to the request. But I warn you that he is a witness not for you, but against you. He has confessed."
For a moment she looked dumbly at the speaker; then her eyes went back to the veiled figure in the chair--it had a horrible attraction for her.
"Unhappy woman," the President continued, in solemn accents, "he has confessed. Will you now, before you look upon him, do likewise?"
She shook her head. She would have denied, protested, cried that she was not guilty; but her throat was parched--she had lost her voice, hope, all. There was a drumming noise in the court; or perhaps it was in her head. It was growing dark, too.
"He has confessed," she heard the President go on--but he was speaking a long, long way off now, and his voice came to her ears dully--"by executing on himself that punishment which otherwise the law would have imposed. Are you still obstinate? Let the face be uncovered then. Now, wretched woman, look on your accomplice."
Perhaps he spoke in mercy, and to prepare her; for she looked, and did not at once swoon, though the sight of that dead yellow face, with its stony eyes and open mouth, drew shrieks from more than one. The self-poisoner had done his work well. The sombre features wore even in death a cynical grin, the lips a smile of triumph. But this was on the surface. In the glassy eyes, dull and lustreless, lurked--as all saw who gazed closely--a horror; a look of sudden awakening, as if in the moment of dissolution the wicked man had come face to face with judgment; and, triumphant over his earthly foes, had met on the threshold of the dark world a shape that froze the very marrow in his bones.
Grimmest irony that he who had so long sported with the things of death, and traded on men's fear of it, should himself be brought here dead, to be exposed and gazed at! Of small use now his tricks and chemicals, his dark knowledge and the mystery in which he had wrapped himself. Orcus had him, grim head, black heart and all.
A moment, I have said, madame stared. Then gradually the truth, the hideous truth, came home to her. He was dead! He had killed himself! The horror of it overcame her at last. With a shuddering cry she fell swooning to the floor.
When she came to herself again--after how long an interval she could not tell--and the piled faces and sharp outlines of the court began to shape themselves out of the mist, her first thought, as remembrance returned, was of the ghastly figure in the chair. With an effort--someone was sponging her forehead, and would have restrained her--she turned her head and looked. To her relief it was gone. She sighed, and closing her eyes lay for a time inert, hearing the hum of voices, but paying no attention. But gradually the misery of her position took hold of her again, and with a faint moan she looked up.
In a moment she fell to trembling and crying softly, for her eyes met those of the woman who stooped over her and read there something new, strange, wonderful--kindness. The woman patted her hand softly, and murmured to her to be still and to listen. She was listening herself between times, and presently madame followed her example.
Dull as her senses still were, she noticed that the king sat forward with an odd keen look on his face, that the judges seemed startled, that even the Cardinal's pale features were slightly flushed. And not one of all had eyes for her. They were looking at a boy who stood at the end of the table, beside a priest. The cold light from a window fell full on his face, and he was speaking. "I listened," she heard him say. "Yes."
"And how long a time elapsed before Madame de Vidoche came?" the President asked, continuing, apparently, an examination of which she had missed the first part.
"Half an hour, I think," the boy answered, in a clear, bold tone.
"You are sure it was poison he required?"
"I am sure."
"You heard both interviews?"
"You are sure of the arrangement made between Vidoche and this man, of which you have told us? That the poison should be given to madame in the form of a love-philtre? That she might take it herself?"
"I am sure."
"And it was you who ran after Madame de Vidoche and told her that the draught was to be given to her husband instead?"
"Do you acknowledge, then," the President continued slowly, "that it was you who, in fact, killed M. de Vidoche?"
For the first time the boy faltered and stumbled and looked this way and that as if for a chance of escape. But there was none, and Father Bernard, by laying his hand on his arm, seemed to give him courage. "I do," he answered, in a low tone.
"Why?" the President demanded, with a quick look at his colleagues. He spoke amid an irrepressible murmur of interest. The tale had been told once, but it was a tale that bore telling.
"Because--I heard him plan his wife's death--and I thought it right," the boy stammered, terror growing in his eyes. "I wanted to save her. I did not know. I did not think."
The President looked toward the king, but suddenly from an unexpected quarter came an interruption. Madame rose trembling to her feet and stood grasping the bar before her. Her face passed from white to red, and red to white. Her eyes glittered through her tears. The woman beside her would have held her back, but she would not be restrained. "What is this?" she panted. "Does he say that my husband was--there?"
"Yes, madame, he does," the President answered indulgently.
"And that he came for poison--for me?"
"He says so, madame."
She looked at him for a moment wildly, then sank back on her stool and began to sob. She had gone through so many emotions; love and death, shame and fear, had so sported with her during the last few days that she could taste nothing to the full now, neither sweet nor bitter. As the dawning of life and hope had left her rather dazed than thankful, so this stab, that a little earlier would have pierced her very heartstrings, did but prick her. Afterward the thankfulness and the pain--and the healing--might come. But here in the presence of all these people, where so much had happened to her, she could only sob weakly.
The President turned again to the king. Louis nodded, and with a painful effort--for he stammered terribly--spoke. "Who is th-this lad?" he said. "Ask him."
The judge bowed and returned to the witness. "You call yourself Jean de Bault?" he said somewhat roughly. The name, and especially the particle, displeased him.
The boy assented.
"Who are you, then?"
Jehan opened his mouth to answer, but Father Bernard interposed. "Tell His Majesty," he said, "what you told me."
After a moment's hesitation the boy complied, speaking fast, with his face on his breast and a flushed cheek. Nevertheless, in the silence very word reached the ear. "I am Jehan de Bault," he pattered in his treble voice, "seigneur of I know not where, and lord of seventeen lordships in the county of Perigord--" and so on, and so on, through the quaint formula to which we have listened more than once.
Ninety-nine out of a hundred who heard him, heard him with incredulous surprise, and took the tale for a mountebank's patter; though patter, they acknowledged it was of a novel kind, aptly made and well spoken. Two or three of the bolder laughed. There had been little to laugh at before. The king moved restlessly in his chair, saying, "Pish! Wh-hat is this rubbish? What is he s-saying?"
The President frowned, and taking his cue from the king, was about to rebuke the boy sharply, when one who had not before spoken, but whose voice in an instant produced silence among high and low, intervened. "The tale rings true!" the Cardinal said, in low, suave accents. "But there is no family of Bault in Perigord, is there?"
"With His Majesty's permission, no!" replied a bluff, hearty voice; and therewith the elderly soldier who had come in with the king advanced a pace to the side of his master's chair. "I am of Perigord, and know, your Eminence," he continued. "More. Two months ago I saw this lade--I recognize him now--at the fair of Fecamp. He was differently dressed then, but he had the same tale, except that he did not mention Perigord."
"S-someone has taught it him," said the king.
"Your Majesty is doubtless right," the President answered obsequiously. Then to the boy he continued, "Speak, boy; who taught it you?"
But Jehan only shook his head and looked puzzled. At last, being pressed, he said, "At Bault, in Perigord."
"There is no such place!" M. de Bresly cried roundly.
Father Bernard looked distressed. He began to repent that he had led the child to tell the tale; he began to fear that it might hurt instead of helping. Perhaps after all he had been too credulous. But again the Cardinal came to the rescue.
"Is there any family in Perigord can boast of three marshals, M. de Bresly?" he asked, in his thin incisive tones.
"None that I know of. Several that can boast of two."
"The blood of Roland?"
M. de Bresly shrugged his shoulders. "It is common to all of us," he said, smiling.
The great Cardinal smiled, too--a flickering, quickly-passing smile. Then he leaned forward and fixed the boy with his fierce black eyes. "What was your father's name?" he said.
Jehan shook his head, impotently, miserably.
"Where did you live?"
The same result. The king threw himself back and muttered, "It is no good." The President moved in his seat. Some in the galleries began to whisper.
But the Cardinal raised his hand imperiously. "Can you read?" he said.
"No," Jehan murmured.
"Then your arms?" The Cardinal spoke rapidly now, and his face was growing hard. "They were over the gate, over the door, over the fireplace. Think--look back--reflect. What were they?"
For a moment Jehan stared at him in bewilderment, flinching under the gaze of those piercing eyes. Then on a sudden the boy's face grew crimson. He raised his hand eagerly. "Or, on a mount vert!" he cried impetuously--and stopped. But presently, in a different voice, he added slowly, "It was a tree--on a hill."
With a swift look of triumph the Cardinal turned to M. de Bresly. "Now," he said, "that belongs to--"
The soldier nodded almost sulkily. "It is Madame de Vidoche's," he said.
"And her name was--"
"Martinbault. Mademoiselle de Martinbault!"
A murmur of astonishment rose from every part of the court. For a moment the King, the Cardinal, the President, M. de Bresly, all were inaudible. The air seemed full of exclamations, questions, answers; it rang with the words, "Bault--Martinbault!" Everywhere people rose to see the boy, or craned forward and slipped with a clattering noise. Etiquette, reverence, even the presence of the king, went for nothing in the rush of excitement. It was long before the ushers could obtain silence, or any get a hearing.
Then M. de Bresly, who looked as much excited as any, and as red in the face, was found to be speaking. "Pardieu, sire, it may be so!" he was heard to say. "It is true enough, as I now remember. A child was lost in that family about eight years back. But it was at the time of the Rochelle expedition; the province was full of trouble, and M. and Madame de Martinbault were just dead, and little was made of it. All the same, this may be the boy. Nay, it is a thousand to one he is!"
"What is he, then, to M--Madame de V--Vidoche?" the king asked, with an effort. He was vastly excited--for him.
"A brother, sire," M. de Bresly answered.
That word pierced at last through the dulness which wrapped madame's faculties, and had made her impervious to all that had gone before. She rose slowly, listened, looked at the boy--looked with growing wonder, like one awakening from a dream. Possibly in that moment the later years fell from her, and she saw herself again a child--a tall, lanky girl playing in the garden of the old chateau with a little toddling boy who ran and lisped, beat her sturdily with fat, bare arms or cuddled to her for kisses. For with a sudden gesture she stretched out her hands, and cried in a clear voice, "Jean! Jean! It is little Jean!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It became the fashion--a fashion which lasted half a dozen years at least--to call that Christmas the Martinbault Christmas; so loudly did those who were present at that famous examination, and the discovery which attended it, profess that it exceeded all the other amusements of the year, not excepting even the great ball at the Palais Cardinal, from which every lady carried off an etrenne worth a year's pin-money. The story became the rage. Those who had been present drove their friends, who had not been so fortunate, to the verge of madness. From the court the tale spread to the markets. Men made a broadsheet of it, and sold it in the streets--in the Rue Touchet, and under the gallows at Montfaucon, where the body of Solomon Notredame withered in the spring rains. Had Madame de Vidoche and the child stayed in Paris, it must have offended their ears ten times a day.
But they did not. As soon as madame could be moved, she retired with the boy to the old house four leagues from Perigueux, and there, in the quiet land where the name of Martinbault ranked with the name of the king, she sought to forget her married life. She took her maiden title, and in the boy's breeding, in works of mercy, in a hundred noble and fitting duties entirely to her taste, succeeded in finding peace, and presently happiness. But one thing neither time, nor change, nor in the event love, could erase from her mind; and that was a deep-seated dread of the great city in which she had suffered so much. She never returned to Paris.
About a year after the trail a man with crafty, foxy eyes came wandering through Perigueux, with a monkey on his shoulder. He saw not far from the road--as his evil-star would have it--an old chateau standing low among trees. The place promised well, and he went to it and began to perform before the servants in the courtyard. Presently the lord of the house, a young boy, came out to see him.
More need not be said, save that an hour later a man, half naked, covered with duck-weed, and aching in every bone, crawled on to the highroad, and went on his way in sadness--with his mouth full of curses; and that for years afterward a monkey, answering to the name of Taras, teased the dogs, and plucked the ivy, and gambolled at will on the great south terrace at Martinbault.
Chapter IX Chapter I