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    Chapter 3

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    Chapter 3
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    THE QUINTESSENTIAL STONE.

    The old town of Geneva, pent in the angle between lake and river, and
    cramped for many generations by the narrow corselet of its walls, was
    not large; it was still high noon when Mercier, after paying his
    reckoning at the "Bible and Hand," and collecting his possessions, found
    himself again in the Corraterie. A pleasant breeze stirred the leafy
    branches which shaded the ramparts, and he stood a moment beside one of
    the small steep-roofed watch-towers, and resting his burden on the
    breast-high wall, gazed across the hazy landscape to the mountains,
    beyond which lay Chatillon and his home.

    Yet it was not of his home he was thinking as he gazed; nor was it his
    mother's or his father's face that the dancing heat of mid-day mirrored
    for him as he dreamed. Oh, happy days of youth when an hour and a face
    change all, and a glance from shy eyes, or the pout of strange lips
    blinds to the world and the world's ambitions! Happy youth! But alas for
    the studies this youth had come so far to pursue, for the theology he
    had crossed those mountains to imbibe--at the pure source and fount of
    evangelical doctrine! Alas for the venerable Beza, pillar and pattern of
    the faith, whom he had thirsted to see, and the grave of Calvin, aim and
    end of his pilgrimage! All Geneva held but one face for him now, one
    presence, one gracious personality. A scarlet blister on a round white
    arm, the quiver of a girl's lip a-tremble on the verge of tears--these
    and no longing for home, these and no memory of father or mother or the
    days of childhood, filled his heart to overflowing. He dreamed with his
    eyes on the hills, but it was not

    Of Providence, foreknowledge, will and fate,
    Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,

    the things he had come to study; but of a woman's trouble and the secret
    life of the house behind him, of which he was about to form part.

    At length the call of a sentry at the Porte Tertasse startled him from
    his thoughts. He roused himself, and uncertain how long he had lingered
    he took up his cloak and bag and, turning, hastened across the street to
    the door at the head of the four steps. He found it on the latch, and
    with a confident air, which belied his real feelings, he pushed it open
    and presented himself.

    For a moment he fancied that the room held only one person. This was a
    young man who sat at the table in the middle of the room and, surprised
    by the appearance of a stranger, suspended his spoon in the air that he
    might the better gaze at him. But when Claude had set down his bag
    behind the door, and turned to salute the other, he discovered his
    error; and despite himself he paused in the act of advancing, unable to
    hide his concern. At the table on the hearth, staring at him in silence,
    sat two other men. And one of the two was Grio.

    Mercier paused we have said; he expected an outburst of anger if not an
    assault. But a second glance at the old ruffian's face relieved him: a
    stare of vacant wonder made it plain that Grio sober retained little of
    the doings of Grio drunk. Nevertheless, the silent gaze of the
    three--for no one greeted him--took Claude aback; and it was but
    awkwardly and with embarrassment that he approached the table, and
    prepared to add himself to the party. Something in their looks as well
    as their silence whispered him unwelcome. He blushed, and addressing the
    young man at the larger table--

    "I have taken Tissot's room," he said shyly. "This is his seat, I
    suppose. May I take it?" And indicating an empty bowl and spoon on the
    nearer side of the table, he made as if he would sit down before them.

    In place of answering, the young man looked from him to the two on the
    hearth, and laughed--a foolish, frightened laugh. The sound led
    Mercier's eyes in the same direction, and he appreciated for the first
    time the aspect of the man who sat with Grio; a man of great height and
    vast bulk, with a large plump face and small grey eyes. It struck
    Mercier as he met the fixed stare of those eyes, that he had entered
    with less ceremony than was becoming, and that he ought to make amends
    for it; and, in the act of sitting down in the vacant seat, he turned
    and bowed politely to the two at the other table.

    "Tissotius timuit, jam peregrinus adest!" the big man murmured in a
    voice at once silky and sonorous. Then ignoring Mercier, but looking
    blandly at the young man who sat facing him at the table, "What is this
    of Tissot?" he continued. "Can it be," with a side-glance at the
    newcomer, "that we have lost our--I may not call him our quintessence or
    alcahest--rather shall I say our baser ore, that at the virgin touch of
    our philosophical stone blushed into ruddy gold? And burned ever
    brighter and hotter in her presence! Tissot gone, and with him all those
    fair experiments! Is it possible?"

    The young man's grin showed that he savoured a jest. But, "I know
    nothing," he muttered sheepishly. "'Tis new to me."

    "Tissot gone!" the big man repeated in a tone humorously melancholy. "No
    more shall we

    Upon his viler metal test our purest pure,
    And see him transmutations three endure!

    Tissot gone! And you, sir, come in his place. What change is here! A
    stranger, I believe?"

    "In Geneva, yes," Claude answered, wondering and a little abashed. The
    man spoke with an air of power and weight.

    "And a student, doubtless in our Academia? Like our Tissot? Yes. It may
    be," he continued in the same smooth tones wherein ridicule and
    politeness appeared to be so nicely mingled that it was difficult to
    judge if he spoke in jest or earnest, "like him in other things! It may
    be that we have gained and not lost. And that qualities finer and more
    susceptible underlie an exterior more polished and an ease more
    complete," he bowed, "than our poor Tissot could boast! But here is

    Our stone angelical whereby
    All secret potencies to light are brought!

    Doubtless"--with a wave of the hand he indicated the girl who had that
    moment entered--"you have met before?"

    "I could not otherwise," Claude answered coldly--he began to resent both
    the man and his manner--"have engaged the lodging." And he rose to take
    from the girl's hand the broth she was bringing him. She, on her side,
    made no sign that she noticed a change, or that it was no longer Tissot
    she served. She gave him what he needed, mechanically and without
    meeting his eyes. Then turning to the others, she waited on them after
    the same fashion. For a minute or two there was silence in the room.

    A strange silence, Claude thought, listening and wondering: as strange
    and embarrassing as the talk of the man who shared with Grio the table
    by the fireplace: as strange as the atmosphere about them, which hung
    heavy, to his fancy, and oppressive, fraught with unintelligible
    railleries, with subtle jests and sneers. The girl went to and fro, from
    one to another, her face pale, her manner quiet. And had he not seen her
    earlier with another look in her eyes, had he not detected a sinister
    something underlying the big man's good humour, he would have learned
    nothing from her; he would have fancied that all was as it should be in
    the house and in the company.

    As it was he understood nothing. But he felt that a something was wrong,
    that a something overhung the party. Seated as he was he could not
    without turning see the faces of the two at the other table, nor watch
    the girl when she waited on them. But the suspicion of a smile which
    hovered on the lips of the young man who sat opposite him--whom he could
    see--kept him on his guard. Was a trick in preparation? Were they about
    to make him pay his footing? No, for they had no notice of his coming.
    They could not have laid the mine. Then why that smile? And why this
    silence?

    On a sudden he caught the sound of a movement behind him, the swirl of a
    petticoat, and the clang of a pewter plate as it fell noisily to the
    floor. His companion looked up swiftly, the smile on his face broadening
    to a snigger. Claude turned too as quickly as he could and looked, his
    face hot, his mind suspecting some prank to be played on him; to his
    astonishment he discovered nothing to account for the laugh. The girl
    appeared to be bending over the embers on the hearth, the men to be
    engaged with their meal; and baffled and perplexed he turned again and,
    his ears burning, bent over his plate. He was glad when the stout man
    broke the silence for the second time.

    "Agrippa," he said, "has this of amalgams. That whereas gold, silver,
    tin are valuable in themselves, they attain when mixed with mercury to a
    certain light and sparkling character, as who should say the bubbles on
    wine, or the light resistance of beauty, which in the one case and the
    other add to the charm. Such to our simple pleasures"--he continued with
    a rumble of deep laughter--"our simple pleasures, which I must now also
    call our pleasures of the past, was our Tissot! Who, running fluid
    hither and thither, where resistance might be least of use, was as it
    were the ultimate sting of enjoyment. Is it possible that we have in our
    friend a new Tissot?"

    The young man at the table giggled. "I did not know Tissot!" Claude
    replied sharply and with a burning face--they were certainly laughing at
    him. "And therefore I cannot say."

    "Mercury, which completes the amalgam," the stout man muttered absently
    and as if to himself, "when heated sublimes over!" Then turning after a
    moment's silence to the girl, "What says our Quintessential Stone to
    this?" he continued. "Her Tissot gone will she still work her wonders?
    Still of base Grios and the weak alloys red bridegrooms make?
    Still--kind Anne, your hand!"

    Silence! Silence again. What were they doing? Claude, full of suspicion,
    turned to see what it meant; turned to learn what it was on which the
    greedy eyes of his table-fellow were fixed so intently. And now he saw,
    more or less. The stout man and Grio had their heads together and their
    faces bent over the girl's hand, which the former held. On them,
    however, Claude scarcely bestowed a glance. It was the girl's face which
    caught and held his eyes, nay, made them burn. Had it blushed, had it
    showed white, he had borne the thing more lightly, he had understood it
    better. But her face showed dull and apathetic; as she stood looking
    down at the men, suffering them to do what they would with her hand, a
    strange passivity was its sole expression. When the big man (whose name
    Claude learned later was Basterga), after inspecting the palm, kissed it
    with mock passion, and so surrendered it to Grio, who also pressed his
    coarse lips to it, while the young man beside Claude laughed, no change
    came over her. Released, she turned again to the hearth, impassive. And
    Claude, his heart beating, recognised that this was the hundredth
    performance; that so far from being a new thing it was a thing so old as
    to be stale to her, moving her less, though there were insult and
    derision in every glance of the men's eyes, than it moved him.

    And noting this he began in a dim way to understand. This was the thing
    which Tissot had not been able to bear; which in the end had driven the
    young man with the small chin from the house. This was the pleasantry to
    which his feeble resistance, his outbursts of anger, of jealousy, or of
    protest had but added piquancy, the ultimate sting of pleasure to the
    jaded palate of the performers. This was the obsession under which she
    lay, the trial and persecution which she had warned him he would find it
    hard to witness.

    Hard? He believed her, trifling as was the thing he had seen. For behind
    it he had a glimpse of other and worse things, and behind all of some
    shadowy brooding mystery which compelled her to suffer them and forbade
    her to complain. What that was he could not conceive, what it could be
    he could not conceive: nor had he long to consider the question. He
    found the shifty eyes of his table-fellow fixed upon him, and, though
    the moment his own eyes met them they were averted, he fancied that they
    sped a glance of intelligence to the table behind him, and he hastened
    to curb, if not his feelings, at least the show of them. He had his
    warning. It was not as Tissot he must act if he would help her, but more
    warily, more patiently, biding her time, and letting the blow, when the
    time came, precede the word. Unwarned, he had acted it is probable as
    Tissot had acted, weakly and stormily: warned, he had no excuse if he
    failed her. Young as he was he saw this. The fault lay with him if he
    made the position worse instead of better.

    Whether, do what he would, his feelings made themselves known--for the
    shoulders can speak, and eloquently, on occasion--or the reverse was the
    case, and his failure to rise to the bait disappointed the tormentor,
    the big man, Basterga, presently resumed the attack.

    "Tissotius pereat, Tissotianus adest!" he muttered with a sneer. "But
    perhaps, young sir, Latinity is not one of your subjects. The tongue of
    the immortal Cicero----"

    "I speak it a little," Claude answered quietly. "It were foolish to
    approach the door of learning without the key."

    "Oh, you are a wit, young sir! Well, with your wit and your Latinity can
    you construe this:--

    Stultitiam expellas, furca tamen usque recurret
    Tissotius periit terque quaterque redit!"

    "I think so," Claude replied gravely.

    "Good, if it please you! And the meaning?"

    "Tissot was a fool, and you are another!" the young man returned. "Will
    you now solve me one, reverend sir, with all submission?"

    "Said and done!" the big man answered disdainfully.

    "Nec volucres plumæ faciunt nec cuspis Achillem! Construe me that then
    if you will!"

    Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "Fine feathers do not make fine birds!"
    he said. "If you apply it to me," he continued with a contemptuous face,
    "I----"

    "Oh, no, to your company," Claude answered. Self-control comes hardly to
    the young, and he had already forgotten his _rôle_. "Ask him what
    happened last night at the 'Bible and Hand,'" he continued, pointing to
    Grio, "and how he stands now with his friend the Syndic!"

    "The Syndic?"

    "The Syndic Blondel!"

    The moment the words had passed his lips, Claude repented. He saw that
    he had struck a note more serious than he intended. The big man did not
    move, but over his fat face crept a watching expression; he was plainly
    startled. His eyes, reduced almost to pin-points, seemed for an instant
    the eyes of a cat about to spring. The effect was so evident indeed that
    it bewildered Claude and so completely diverted his attention from Grio,
    the real target, that when the bully, who had listened stupidly to the
    exchange of wit, proved by a brutal oath his comprehension of the
    reference to himself, the young man scarcely heard him.

    "The Syndic Blondel?" Basterga muttered after a pregnant pause. "What
    know you of him, pray?"

    Before the young man could answer, Grio broke in. "So you have followed
    me here, have you?" he cried, striking his jug on the table and glaring
    across the board at the offender. "You weren't content to escape last
    night it seems. Now----"

    "Enough!" Basterga muttered, the keen expression of his face unchanged.
    "Softly! Softly! Where are we? I don't understand. What is this? Last
    night----"

    "I want not to rake up bygones if you will let them be," Claude answered
    with a sulky air, half assumed. "It was you who attacked me."

    "You puppy!" Grio roared. "Do you think----"

    "Enough!" Basterga said again: and his eyes leaving the young man fixed
    themselves on his companion. "I begin to understand," he murmured, his
    voice low, but not the less menacing for that, or for the cat-like purr
    in it. "I begin to comprehend. This is one of your tricks, Messer Grio.
    One of the clever tricks you play in your cups! Some day you'll do that
    in them will--No!" repressing the bully as he attempted to rise. "Have
    done now and let us understand. The 'Bible and Hand,' eh? 'Twas there, I
    suppose, you and this youth met, and----"

    "Quarrelled," said Claude sullenly. "That's all."

    "And you followed him hither?"

    "No, I did not."

    "No? Then how come you here?" Basterga asked, his eyes still watchful.
    "In this house, I mean? 'Tis not easy to find."

    "My father lodged here," Claude vouchsafed. And he shrugged his
    shoulders, thinking that with that the matter was clear.

    But Basterga continued to eye him with something that was not far
    removed from suspicion. "Oh," he said. "That is it, is it? Your father
    lodged here. And the Syndic--Blondel, was it you said? How comes he into
    it? Grio was prating of him, I suppose?" For an instant, while he waited
    the answer to the question, his eyes shrank again to pin-points.

    "He came in and found us at sword-play," Claude answered. "Or just
    falling to it. And though the fault was not mine, he would have sent me
    to prison if I had not had a letter for him."

    "Oh!" And returning with a manifest effort to the tone and manner of a
    few minutes before:--

    "Impiger, Iracundus, Inexorabilis, acer
    Jura neget sibi nata, nihil non arroget armis,"

    he hummed. "I doubt if such manners will be appreciated in Geneva, young
    man," and furtively he wiped his brow. "To old stagers like my friend
    here who has given his proofs of fidelity to the State, some indulgence
    is granted----"

    "I see that," Claude answered with sarcasm.

    "I am saying it. But you, if you will not be warned, will soon find or
    make the town too hot for you."

    "He will find this house too hot for him!" growled his companion, who
    had made more than one vain attempt to assert himself. "And that to-day!
    To-day! Perdition, I know him now," he continued, fixing his bloodshot
    eyes on the young man, "and if he crows here as he crowed last night,
    his comb must be cut! As well soon as late, for there will be no living
    with him! There, don't hold me, man! Let me at him!" And he tried to
    rise.

    "Fool, have done!" Basterga replied, still restraining him, but only by
    the exertion of considerable force. And then in a lower tone but one
    partially audible, "Do you want to draw the eyes of all Geneva this
    way?" he continued. "Do you want the house marked and watched and every
    gossip's tongue wagging about it? You did harm enough last night, I'll
    answer, and well if no worse comes of it! Have done, I say, or I shall
    speak, you know to whom!"

    "Why does he come here? Why does he follow me?" the sot complained.

    "Cannot you hear that his father lodged here?"

    "A lie!" Grio cried vehemently. "He is spying on us! First at the 'Bible
    and Hand' last night, and then here! It is you who are the fool, man.
    Let me go! Let me at him, I say!"

    "I shall not!" the big man answered firmly. And he whispered in the
    other's ear something which Claude could not catch. Whatever it was it
    cooled Grio's rage. He ceased to struggle, nodded sulkily and sat back.
    He stretched out his hand, took a long draught, and having emptied his
    jug, "Here's Geneva!" he said, wiping his lips with the air of a man who
    had given a toast. "Only don't let him cross me! That is all. Where is
    the wench?"

    "She has gone upstairs," Basterga answered with one eye on Claude. He
    seemed to be unable to shake off a secret doubt of him.

    "Then let her come down," Grio answered with a grin, half drunken, half
    brutal, "and make her show sport. Here, you there," to the young man who
    shared Claude's table, "call her down and----"

    "Sit still!" Basterga growled, and he trod--Claude was almost sure of
    it--on the bully's foot. "It is late, and these young gentlemen should
    be at their themes. Theology, young sir," he turned to Claude with the
    slightest shade of over-civility in his pompous tone, "like the pursuit
    of the Alcahest, which some call the Quintessence of the Elements,
    allows no rival near its throne!"

    "I attend my first lecture to-morrow," Claude answered drily. And he
    kept his seat. His face was red and his hand trembled. They would call
    her down for their sport, would they! Not in his presence, nor again in
    his absence, if he could avoid it.

    Grio struck the table. "Call her down!" he ordered in a tone which
    betrayed the influence of his last draught. "Do you hear!" And he looked
    fiercely at Louis Gentilis, the young man who sat opposite Claude.

    But Louis only looked at Basterga and grinned.

    And Basterga it was plain was not in the mood to amuse himself. Whatever
    the reason, the big man was no longer at his ease in Mercier's company.
    Some unpleasant thought, some suspicion, born of the incident at the
    "Bible and Hand," seemed to rankle in his mind, and, strive as he
    would, betrayed its presence in the tone of his voice and the glance of
    his eye. He was uneasy, nor could he hide his uneasiness. To the look
    which Gentilis shot at him he replied by one which imperatively bade the
    young man keep his seat. "Enough fooling for to-day," he said, and
    stealthily he repressed Grio's resistance. "Enough! Enough! I see that
    the young gentleman does not altogether understand our humours. He will
    come to them in time, in time," his voice almost fawning, "and see we
    mean no harm. Did I understand," he continued, addressing Claude
    directly, "that your father knew Messer Blondel?"

    "Who is now Syndic? My uncle did," Claude answered rather curtly. He was
    more and more puzzled by the change in Basterga's manner. Was the big
    man a poltroon whom the bold front shown to Grio brought to heel? Or was
    there something behind, some secret upon which his words had unwittingly
    touched?

    "He is a good man," Basterga said. "And of the first in Geneva. His
    brother too, who is Procureur-General. Their father died for the State,
    and the sons, the Syndic in particular, served with high honour in the
    war. Savoy has no stouter foe than Philibert Blondel, nor Geneva a more
    devoted son." And he drank as if he drank a toast to them.

    Claude nodded.

    "A man of great parts too. Probably you will wait on him?"

    "Next week. I was near waiting on him after another fashion," Claude
    continued rather grimly. "Between him and your friend there," with a
    glance at Grio, who had relapsed into a moody glaring silence, "I was
    like to get more gyves than justice."

    The big man laughed. "Our friend here has served the State," he
    remarked, "and does what another may not. Come, Messer Grio," he
    continued, clapping him on the shoulder, as he rose from his seat. "We
    have sat long enough. If the young ones will not stir, it becomes the
    old ones to set an example. Will you to my room and view the
    precipitation of which I told you?"

    Grio gave a snarling assent, and got to his feet; and the party broke up
    with no more words. Claude took his cap and prepared to withdraw, well
    content with himself and the line he had taken. But he did not leave the
    house until his ears assured him that the two who had ascended the
    stairs together had actually repaired to Basterga's room on the first
    floor, and there shut themselves up.
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    Chapter 3
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