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- The Seats Of The Mighty, Volume 3. - 5/13 -
I felt a strange churning in my throat, but with composure I took the books, and said, "Mademoiselle Duvarney chooses distinguished messengers."
"It is a distinction to aid her in her charities," he replied.
I could not at all conceive what was meant. The packet hung in my hands like lead. There was a mystery I could not solve. I would not for an instant think what he meant to convey by a look--that her choice of him to carry back my gift to her was a final repulse of past advances I had made to her, a corrective to my romantic memories. I would not believe that, not for one fleeting second. Perhaps, I said to myself, it was a ruse of this scoundrel. But again, I put that from me, for I did not think he would stoop to little meannesses, no matter how vile he was in great things. I assumed indifference to the matter, laying the packet down upon my couch, and saying to him, "You will convey my thanks to Mademoiselle Duvarney for these books, whose chief value lies in the honourable housing they have had."
He smiled provokingly; no doubt he was thinking that my studied compliment smelt of the oil of solitude. "And add--shall I--your compliments that they should have their airing at the hands of Monsieur Doltaire?"
"I shall pay those compliments to Monsieur Doltaire himself one day," I replied.
He waved his fingers. "The sentiments of one of the poems were commendable, fanciful. I remember it"--he put a finger to his lip--"let me see." He stepped towards the packet, but I made a sign of interference--how grateful was I of this afterwards!--and he drew back courteously. "Ah well," he said, "I have a fair memory; I can, I think, recall the morsel. It impressed me. I could not think the author an Englishman. It runs thus," and with admirable grace he recited the words:
"O flower of all the world, O flower of all! The garden where thou dwellest is so fair, Thou art so goodly and so queenly tall, Thy sweetness scatters sweetness everywhere, O flower of all!
"O flower of all the years, O flower of all! A day beside thee is a day of days; Thy voice is softer than the throstle's call, There is not song enough to sing thy praise, O flower of all!
"O flower of all the years, O flower of all! I seek thee in thy garden, and I dare To love thee; and though my deserts be small, Thou art the only flower I would wear, O flower of all!"
"Now that," he said, "is the romantic, almost the Arcadian spirit. We have lost it, but it lingers like some rare scent in the folds of lace. It is also but artifice, yet so is the lingering perfume. When it hung in the flower it was lost after a day's life, but when gathered and distilled into an essence it becomes, through artifice, an abiding sweetness. So with your song there. It is the spirit of devotion, gathered, it may be, from a thousand flowers, and made into an essence, which is offered to one only. It is not the worship of this one, but the worship of a thousand distilled at last to one delicate liturgy. So much for sentiment," he continued. "Upon my soul, Captain Moray, you are a boon. I love to have you caged. I shall watch your distressed career to its close with deep scrutiny. You and I are wholly different, but you are interesting. You never could be great. Pardon the egotism, but it is truth. Your brain works heavily, you are too tenacious of your conscience, you are a blunderer. You will always sow, and others will reap."
I waved my hand in deprecation, for I was in no mood for further talk, and I made no answer. He smiled at me, and said, "Well, since you doubt my theories, let us come, as your Shakespeare says, to Hecuba.... If you will come with me," he added, as he opened my cell door, and motioned me courteously to go outside. I drew back, and he said, "There is no need to hesitate; I go to show you merely what will interest you."
We passed in silence through the corridors, two sentinels attending, and at last came into a large square room, wherein stood three men with hands tied over their heads against the wall, their faces twitching with pain. I drew back in astonishment, for there, standing before them, were Gabord and another soldier. Doltaire ordered from the room the soldier with Gabord, and my two sentinels, and motioned me to one of two chairs set in the middle of the floor.
Presently his face became hard and cruel, and he said to the tortured prisoners, "You will need to speak the truth, and promptly. I have an order to do with you what I will, and I will do it without pause. Hear me. Three nights ago, as Mademoiselle Duvarney was returning from the house of a friend living near the Intendance, she was set upon by you. A cloak was thrown over her head, she was carried to a carriage, where two of you got inside with her. Some gentlemen and myself were coming that way. We heard the lady's cries, and two gave chase to the carriage, while one followed the others. By the help of soldier Gabord here you all were captured. You have hung where you are for two days, and now I shall have you whipped. When that is done, you shall tell your story. If you do not speak truth, you shall be whipped again, and then hung. Ladies shall have safety from rogues like you."
Alixe's danger told in these concise words made me, I am sure, turn pale; but Doltaire did not see it, he was engaged with the prisoners. As I thought and wondered, four soldiers were brought in, and the men were made ready for the lash. In vain they pleaded they would tell their story at once. Doltaire would not listen; the whipping first, and their story after. Soon their backs were bared, their faces were turned to the wall, and, as Gabord with harsh voice counted, the lashes were mercilessly laid on. There was a horrible fascination in watching the skin corrugate under the lashes, rippling away in red and purple blotches, the grooves in the flesh crossing and recrossing, the raw misery spreading from the hips to the shoulders. Now and again Doltaire drew out a box and took a pinch of snuff, and once, coolly and curiously, he walked up to the most stalwart prisoner and felt his pulse, then to the weakest, whose limbs and body had stiffened as though dead. "Ninety-seven! Ninety-eight! Ninety-nine!" growled Gabord, and then came Doltaire's voice:
"Stop! Now fetch some brandy."
The prisoners were loosened, and Doltaire spoke sharply to a soldier who was roughly pulling one man's shirt over the excoriated back. Brandy was given by Gabord, and the prisoners stood, a most pitiful sight, the weakest livid.
"Now tell your story," said Doltaire to this last.
The man, with broken voice and breath catching, said that they had erred. They had been hired to kidnap Madame Cournal, not Mademoiselle Duvarney.
Doltaire's eyes flashed. "I see, I see," he said aside to me. "The wretch speaks truth."
"Who was your master?" he asked of the sturdiest of the villains; and he was told that Monsieur Cournal had engaged them. To the question what was to be done with Madame Cournal, another answered that she was to be waylaid as she was coming from the Intendance, kidnapped, and hurried to a nunnery to be imprisoned for life.
Doltaire sat for a moment, looking at the men in silence. "You are not to hang," he said at last; "but ten days hence, when you have had one hundred lashes more, you shall go free. Fifty for you," he continued to the weakest who had first told the story.
"Not fifty nor one!" was the shrill reply, and, being unbound, the prisoner snatched something from a bench near; there was a flash of steel, and he came huddling in a heap on the floor, muttering a malediction on the world.
"There was some bravery in that," said Doltaire, looking at the dead man. "If he has friends, hand over the body to them. This matter must not be spoken of--at your peril," he added sternly. "Give them food and brandy."
Then he accompanied me to my cell, and opened the door. I passed in, and he was about going without a word, when on a sudden his old nonchalance came back, and he said:
"I promised you a matter of interest. You have had it. Gather philosophy from this: you may with impunity buy anything from a knave and fool except his nuptial bed. He throws the money in your face some day."
So saying he plunged in thought again, and left me.
BE SAINT OR IMP
Immediately I opened the packet. As Doltaire had said, the two books of poems I had lent Alixe were there, and between the pages of one lay a letter addressed to me. It was, indeed, a daring thing to make Doltaire her messenger. But she trusted to his habits of courtesy; he had no small meannesses--he was no spy or thief.
DEAR ROBERT (the letter ran): I know not if this will ever reach you, for I am about to try a perilous thing, even to make Monsieur Doltaire my letter-carrier. Bold as it is, I hope to bring it through safely.
You must know that my mother now makes Monsieur Doltaire welcome to our home, for his great talents and persuasion have so worked upon her that she believes him not so black as he is painted. My father, too, is not unmoved by his amazing address and complaisance. I do not think he often cares to use his arts--he is too indolent; but with my father, my mother, and my sister he has set in motion all his resources.
Robert, all Versailles is here. This Monsieur Doltaire speaks for it. I know not if all courts in the world are the same, but if so, I am at heart no courtier; though I love the sparkle, the sharp
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