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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    TO TAKE OR LEAVE.

    The house in the Corraterie, near the Porte Tertasse, differed in no
    outward respect from its neighbours. The same row of chestnut trees
    darkened its lower windows, the same breezy view of the Rhone meadows,
    the sloping vineyards and the far-off Jura lightened its upper rooms. A
    kindred life, a life apparently as quiet and demure, moved within its
    walls. Yet was the house a house apart. Silently and secretly, it had
    absorbed and sucked and drawn into itself the hearts and souls and minds
    of two men. It held for the one that which the old prize above all
    things in the world--life; and for the other, that which the young set
    above life--love.

    Life? The Syndic did not doubt; the bait had been dangled before his
    eyes with too much cunning, too much skill. In a casket, in a room in
    that house in the Corraterie, his life lay hidden; his life, and he
    could not come at it! His life? Was it a marvel that waking or sleeping
    he saw only that house, and that room, and that casket chained to the
    wall; that he saw at one time the four steps rising to the door, and the
    placid front with its three tiers of windows; at another time, the room
    itself with its litter of scripts and dark-bound books, and rich
    furnishings, and phials and jars and strangely shaped alembics? Was it a
    marvel that in the dreams of the night the sick man toiled up and up and
    up the narrow staircase, of which every point remained fixed in his
    mind; or that waking, whatever his task, or wherever he might be, alone
    or in company, in his parlour or in the Town House, he still fell
    a-dreaming of the room and the box--the room and the box that held his
    life?

    Had this been the worst! But it was not. There were times, bitter times,
    dark hours, when the pains were upon him, and he saw his fate clear
    before him; for he had known men die of the disease which held him in
    its clutches, and he knew how they had died. And then he must needs lock
    himself into his room that other eyes might not witness the passionate
    fits of revolt, of rage and horror, and weak weeping, into which the
    knowledge cast him. And out of which he presently came back to--_the
    house_. His life lay there, in that room, in that house, and he could
    not come at it! He could not come at it! But he would! He would!

    It issued in that always; in some plan or scheme for gaining possession
    of the philtre. Some of the plans that occurred to him were wild and
    desperate; dangerous and hopeless on the face of them. Others were
    merely violent; others again, of which craft was the mainspring, held
    out a prospect of success. For a whole day the notion of arresting
    Basterga on a charge of treason, and seizing the steel casket together
    with his papers, was uppermost. It seemed feasible, and was feasible;
    nay, it was more than feasible, it was easy; for already there were
    rumours of the man abroad, and his name had been mentioned at the
    council table. The Syndic had only to give the word, and the arrest
    would be made, the search instituted, the papers and casket seized. Nay,
    if he did not give the word, it was possible that others might.

    But when he thought of that step, that irrevocable step, he knew that he
    would not have the courage to take it. For if Basterga had so much as
    two minutes' notice, if his ear so much as caught the tread of those who
    came to take him, he might, in pure malignity, pour the medicine on the
    floor, or he might so hide it as to defy search. And at the thought--at
    the thought of the destruction of that wherein lay his only chance of
    life, his only hope of seeing the sun and feeling again the balmy breath
    of spring, the Syndic trembled and shook and sweated with rage and fear.
    No, he would not have the courage. He would not dare. For a week and
    more after the thought occurred to him, he dared not approach the
    scholar's lodging, or be seen in the neighbourhood, so great was his
    fear of arousing Basterga's suspicions and setting him on his guard.

    At the end of a fortnight or so, the choice of ways was presented to him
    in a concrete form; and with an abruptness which placed him on the edge
    of perplexity. It was at a morning meeting of the smaller council. The
    day was dull, the chamber warm, the business to be transacted
    monotonous; and Blondel, far from well and interested in one thing
    only--beside which the most important affairs of Geneva seemed small as
    the doings of an ant-hill viewed through a glass--had fallen asleep, or
    nearly asleep. Naturally a restless and wakeful man, of thin habit and
    nervous temperament, he had never done such a thing before: and it was
    unfortunate that he succumbed on this occasion, for while he drowsed the
    current of business changed. The debate grew serious, even vital.
    Finally he awoke to the knowledge of place and time with a name ringing
    in his ears; a name so fixed in his waking thoughts that, before he knew
    where he was or what he was doing, he repeated it in a tone that drew
    all eyes upon him.

    "Basterga!"

    Some knew he had slept and smiled; more had not noticed it, and turned,
    struck by the strange tone in which he echoed the name. Fabri, the First
    Syndic, who sat two places from him, and had just taken a letter from
    the secretary, leaned forward so as to view him. "Ay, Basterga," he
    said, "an Italian, I take it. Do you know him, Messer Blondel?"

    He was awake now, but, confused and startled, inclined to believe that
    he was on his trial; and that the faint parleyings with treason, small
    things hard to define, to which he had stooped, were known.
    Mechanically, to gain time, he repeated the name: "Basterga?"

    "Yes," Fabri repeated. "Do you know him?"

    "Cæsar Basterga, is it?"

    "That is his name."

    He was himself now, though his nerves still shook; himself so far as he
    could be, while ignorant of what had passed, and how he came to be
    challenged. "Yes, I know him," he said slowly, "if you mean a Paduan, a
    scholar of some note, I believe. Who applied to me--I dare say it would
    be six weeks back--for a licence to stay a while in the town."

    "Which you granted?"

    "In the usual course. He had letters from"--Blondel shrugged his
    shoulders--"I forget from whom. What of him?" with a steady look at
    Baudichon the councillor, his life-long rival, and the quarter whence if
    trouble were brewing it was to be expected. "What of him?" he repeated,
    throwing himself back in his chair, and tapping the table with his
    fingers.

    "This," Fabri answered, waving the letter which he had in his hands.

    "But I do not know what that is," Blondel replied coolly. "I am
    afraid"--he looked at his neighbour on either side--"was I asleep?"

    "I fear so," said one, while the other smiled. They were his very good
    friends and allies.

    "Well, it is not like me. I can say that I am not often," with a keen
    look at Baudichon, "caught napping! And now, M. Fabri," he continued
    with his usual practical air, "I have delayed the business long enough.
    What is it? And what is that?" He pointed to the letter in the First
    Syndic's hands.

    "Well, it is really your affair in the main," Fabri answered, "since as
    Fourth Syndic you are responsible for the guard and the city's safety;
    and ours afterwards. It is a warning," he continued, his eyes reverting
    to the page before him, "from our secret agent in Turin, whose name I
    need not mention"--Blondel nodded--"informing us of a fresh attempt to
    be made on the city before Christmas; by means of rafts formed of
    hurdles and capable of transporting whole companies of soldiers. These
    he has seen tried in the River Po, and they performed the work. Having
    reached the walls by their means the assailants are to mount by ladders
    which are being made to fit into one another. They are covered with
    black cloth, and can be laid against the wall without noise. It
    sounds--circumstantial?" Fabri commented, breaking off and looking at
    Blondel.

    The Syndic nodded thoughtfully. "Yes," he said, "I think so. I think
    also," he continued, "that with the aid of my friend, Captain Blandano,
    I shall be able to give a good account of the rafts and the ladders."

    Baudichon the councillor interposed. "But that is not all," he muttered,
    rolling ponderously in his chair as he spoke. He was a stout man with a
    double chin and a weighty manner; honest, but slow, and the spokesman of
    the more wealthy burghers. His neighbour Petitot, a man of singular
    appearance, lean, with a long thin drooping nose, commonly supported
    him. Petitot, who bore the nickname of "the Inquisitor," represented the
    Venerable Company of Pastors, and was viewed with especial distaste by
    the turbulent spirits whom the war had left in the city, as well as by
    the lower ranks, who upheld Blondel. In sense and vigour the Fourth
    Syndic was more than a match for the two precisians: but honesty of
    purpose has a weight of its own that slowly makes itself felt. "That is
    not all," Baudichon repeated after a glance at his neighbour and ally
    Petitot, "I want to know----"

    "One moment, M. Baudichon, if you please," Fabri said, cutting him
    short, amid a partial titter; the phrase "I want to know" was so often
    on the councillor's lips that it had become ridiculous. "One moment; as
    you say, that is not all. The writer proceeds to warn us that the Grand
    Duke's lieutenant, M. d'Albigny, has taken a house on the Italian side
    of the frontier, and is there constructing a huge petard on wheels which
    is to be dragged up to the gate----"

    "With the ladders and rafts?"

    "They seem to belong to another scheme," Fabri said, as he turned back
    and conned the letter afresh.

    "With M. d'Albigny at the bottom of both?"

    "Yes."

    "Well, if he be not more successful with this," Blondel answered
    contemptuously, "than he was with the attempt to mine the Arsenal--which
    ended in supplying us with two or three casks of powder--I think Captain
    Blandano and I may deal with him."

    A murmur of assent approved the boast; but it did not proceed from all.
    There were men at the table who had children, who had wives, who had
    daughters, whose faces were grave. Just thirty years had passed over the
    world since the horrors of the massacre of St. Bartholomew--to be
    speedily followed by the sack of Antwerp--had paled the cheek of Europe.
    Just thirty years were to elapse and the sack of Magdeburg was to prove
    a match and more than a match for both in horror and cruelty. That the
    Papists, if they entered, would deal more gently with Geneva, the head
    and front of offence, or extend to the Mother of Heretics mercy which
    they had refused to her children, these men did not believe. The
    presence of an enemy ever lurking within a league of their gates, ever
    threatening them by night and by day, had shaken their nerves. They
    feared everything, they feared always. In fitful sleep, in the small
    hours, they heard their doors smashed in; their dreams were disturbed by
    cries and shrieks, by the din of bells, and the clash of weapons.

    To these men Blondel seemed over confident. But no one took on himself
    to gainsay him in his particular province, the superintendence of the
    guard; and though Baudichon sighed and Petitot shook his head, the word
    was left with him. "Is that all, Messer Fabri?" he asked.

    "Yes, if we lay it to heart."

    "But I want to know," Baudichon struck in, puffing pompously, "what is
    to be done about--Basterga."

    "Basterga? To be sure I was forgetting him," Fabri answered. "What is to
    be done? What do you say, Messer Blondel? What are we to do about him?"

    "I will tell you if you will tell me what the point is that touches him.
    You forget, Messer Syndic"--with a somewhat sickly smile--"that I was
    asleep."

    "The letter," Fabri replied, returning to it, "touches him seriously. It
    asserts that a person of that name is here in the Grand Duke's interest,
    that he is in the secret of these plots, and that we should do well to
    expel him, if we do not seize and imprison him."

    "And you want to know----"

    "I want to know," Baudichon answered, rolling in his chair as was his
    habit when delivering himself, "what you know of him, Messer Blondel."

    Blondel turned rudely on him, perhaps to hide a slight ebb of colour
    from his cheeks. "What I know?" he said.

    "Ay, ay."

    "No more than you know!"

    "But," Petitot retorted in his dry, thin voice, "it was you, Messer
    Blondel, not Messer Baudichon, who gave him permission to reside in the
    town."

    "And I want to know," Baudichon chimed in remorselessly, "what
    credentials he had. That is what I want to know!"

    "Credentials? Oh, something formal! I don't know what," Blondel replied
    rudely. He looked to the secretary who sat at the foot of the table. "Do
    you know?" he asked.

    "No, Messer Syndic," the man replied. "I remember that a licence was
    granted to him in the name of Cæsar Basterga, graduate of Padua; and
    doubtless--for licences to reside are not granted without such--he had
    letters, but I do not recall from whom. They would be returned to him
    with the licence."

    "And that is all," Petitot said, his long nose drooping, his inquisitive
    eyes looking over his glasses, "that you know about him, Messer
    Blondel?"

    Did they know anything, and, if so, what did they know? Blondel
    hesitated. This persistence, this continual harping on one point, began
    to alarm him. But he carried it bravely. "Do you mean as to his
    convictions?" he asked with a sneer.

    "No, I mean at all!"

    "I want to know," Baudichon added--the parrot phrase began to carry to
    Blondel's ears the note of fate--"what you know about him."

    This time a pause betrayed Blondel's hesitation. Should he admit that he
    had been to Basterga's lodging; or dared he deny a fact that might imply
    an intimacy greater than he had acknowledged? A faint perspiration rose
    on his brow as he decided that he dare not. "I know that he lives in a
    house in the Corraterie," he answered, "a house beside the Porte
    Tertasse, and that he is a scholar--I believe of some repute. I know so
    much," he continued boldly, "because he wrote to thank me for the
    licence, and, by way of acknowledgment, invited me to visit his lodging
    to view a rare manuscript of the Scriptures. I did so, and remained a
    few minutes with him. That is all I know of him. I suppose," with a grim
    look at Baudichon and the Inquisitor, who had exchanged meaning glances,
    "it is not alleged that I am in the plot with him? Or that he has
    confided to me the Grand Duke's plans?"

    Fabri laughed heartily at the notion, and the laugh, which was echoed by
    four-fifths of those at the table, cleared the air. Petitot, it is true,
    limited himself to a smile, and Baudichon shrugged his shoulders. But
    for the moment the challenge silenced them. The game passed to Blondel's
    hands, and his spirits rose. "If M. Baudichon wants to know more about
    him," he said contemptuously, "I dare say that the information can be
    obtained."

    "The point is," Fabri answered, "what are we to do?"

    "As to--what?"

    "As to expelling him or seizing him."

    "Oh!" The exclamation fell from Blondel's lips before he could stay it.
    He saw what was coming, and the dilemma in which he was to be placed.

    "We have the letter before us," the First Syndic continued, "and apart
    from it, we know nothing for this person or against him." He looked
    round the table and met assenting glances. "I think, therefore, that it
    will be well, to leave it to Messer Blondel. He is responsible for the
    safety of the city, and it should be for him to say what is to be
    done."

    "Yes, yes," several voices agreed. "Leave it to Messer Blondel."

    "You assent to that, Messer Baudichon?"

    "I suppose so," the councillor muttered reluctantly.

    "Very good," said Fabri. "Then, Messer Blondel, it remains with you to
    say what is to be done."

    The Fourth Syndic hesitated, and with reason; had Baudichon, had the
    Inquisitor known the whole, they could hardly have placed him in a more
    awkward dilemma. If he took the course that prudence in his own
    interests dictated, and shielded Basterga, his action might lay him open
    to future criticism. If, on the other hand, he gave the word to expel or
    seize him, he broke at once and for ever with the man who held his last
    chance of life in the hollow of his hand.

    And yet, if he dared adopt the latter course, if he dared give the word
    to seize, there was a chance, and a good chance, that he would find the
    _remedium_ in the casket; for with a little arrangement Basterga might
    be arrested out of doors, or be allured to a particular place and there
    be set upon. But in that way lay risk; a risk that chilled the current
    of the Syndic's blood. There was the chance that the attempt might fail;
    the chance that Basterga might escape; the chance that he might have the
    _remedium_ about him--and destroy it; the chance that he might have
    hidden it. There were so many chances, in a word, that the Syndic's
    heart stood still as he enumerated them, and pictured the crash of his
    last hope of life.

    He could not face the risk. He could not. Though duty, though courage
    dictated the venture, craven fear--fear for the loss of the new-born
    hope that for a week had buoyed him up--carried it. Hurriedly at last,
    as if he feared that he might change his mind, he pronounced his
    decision.

    "I doubt the wisdom of touching him," he said. "To seize him if he be
    guilty proclaims our knowledge of the plot; it will be laid aside, and
    another, of which we may not be informed, will be hatched. But let him
    be watched, and it will be hard if with the knowledge we have we cannot
    do something more than frustrate his scheme."

    After an interval of silence, "Well," Fabri said, drawing a deep breath
    and looking round, "I believe you are right. What do you say, Messer
    Baudichon?"

    "Messer Blondel knows the man," Baudichon answered drily. "He is,
    therefore, the best judge."

    Blondel reddened. "I see you are determined to lay the responsibility on
    me," he cried.

    "The responsibility is on you already!" Petitot retorted. "You have
    decided. I trust it may turn out as you expect."

    "And as you do not expect!"

    "No; but you see"--and again the Inquisitor looked over his
    glasses--"you know the man, have been to his lodging, have conversed
    with him, and are the best judge what he is! I have had naught to do
    with him. By the way," he turned to Fabri, "he is at Mère Royaume's, is
    he not? Is there not a Spaniard of the name of Grio lodging there?"

    Blondel did not answer and the secretary looked up from his register.
    "An old soldier, Messer Petitot?" he said. "Yes, there is."

    "Perhaps you know him also, Messer Blondel?"

    "Yes, I know him. He served the State," Blondel answered quietly. He had
    winked at more than one irregularity on the part of Grio, and at the
    sound of the name anger gave place to caution. "I have also," he
    continued, "my eye upon him, as I shall have it upon Basterga. Will that
    satisfy you, Messer Petitot?"

    The councillor leaned forward. "Fac salvam Genevam!" he replied in a
    voice low and not quite steady. "Do that, keep Geneva safe--guard well
    our faith, our wives and little ones--and I care not what you do!" And
    he rose from his seat.

    The Fourth Syndic did not answer. Those few words that in a moment
    raised the discussion from the low level of detail on which the
    Inquisitor commonly wasted himself, and set it on the true plane of
    patriotism--for with all his faults Petitot was a patriot--silenced
    Blondel while they irritated and puzzled him. Why did the man assume
    such airs? Why talk as if he and he alone cared for Geneva? Why bear
    himself as if he and he alone had shed and was prepared to shed his
    blood for the State? Why, indeed? Blondel snarled his indignation, but
    made no other answer.

    A few minutes later, as he descended the stairs, he laughed at the
    momentary annoyance which he had felt. What did it matter to him, a
    dying man, who had the better or who the worse, who posed, or who
    believed in the pose? It was of moment indeed that his enemies had
    contrived to fix him with the responsibility of arresting Basterga, or
    of leaving him at large: that they had contrived to connect him with the
    Paduan, and made him accountable to an extent which did not please him
    for the man's future behaviour. But yet again what did that
    matter--after all? Of what moment was it--after all? He was a dying man.
    Was anything of moment to him except the one thing which Basterga had it
    in his power to grant or to withhold, to give or to deny?

    Nothing! Nothing!

    He pondered on what had passed, and wondered if he had not done
    foolishly. Certainly he had let slip a grand, a unique opportunity of
    seizing the man and of snatching the _remedium_. He had put the chance
    from him at the risk of future blame. Now he was of two minds about it.
    Of two minds: but of one mind only about another thing. As he veered
    this way and that in his mind, now cursing his cowardice, and now
    thanking God that he had not taken the irrevocable step,

    Opportunity
    That work'st our thoughts into desires, desires
    To resolutions,

    kindled in him a burning impatience to act. If he did not act, if he
    were not going to act, if he were not going to take some surer and safer
    step, he had been foolish and trebly foolish to let slip the opportunity
    that had been his.

    But he would act. For a fortnight he had abstained from visiting
    Basterga, and had even absented himself from the neighbourhood of the
    house lest the scholar's suspicions should be wakened. But to what
    purpose if he were not going to act? If he were not going to build on
    the ground so carefully prepared, to what end this wariness and this
    abstention?

    Within an hour the Syndic, long so wary, had worked himself into a fever
    and, rather than remain inactive, was ripe for any step, however
    venturesome, provided it led to the _remedium_. He had still the
    prudence to postpone action until night; but when darkness had fairly
    set in and the bell of St. Peter, inviting the townsfolk to the evening
    preaching, had ceased to sound--an indication that he would meet few in
    the streets--he cloaked himself, and, issuing forth, bent his steps
    across the Bourg du Four in the direction of the Corraterie.

    Even now he had no plan in his mind. But amid the medley of schemes that
    for a week had been hatching in his brain, he hoped to be guided by
    circumstances to that one which gave surest promise of success. Nor was
    his courage as deeply rooted as he fancied: the day had told on his
    nerves; he shivered in the breeze and started at a sound. Yet as often
    as he paused or hesitated, the words "A dying man! A dying man!" rang in
    his ears and urged him on.
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