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    Chapter 8

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    Chapter 8
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    ON THE THRESHOLD.

    He hurried along the ramparts in a rage with those whom he had left, in
    a still greater rage with himself. He had played the Tissot with a
    vengeance. He had flown at them in weak passion, he had recoiled as
    weakly, he had left them to call him coward. Now, even now, he was
    fleeing from them, and they were jeering at him. Ay, jeering at him;
    their laughter followed him, and burned his ears.

    The rain that beat on his fevered face, the moist wind from the Rhone
    Valley below, could not wipe out _that_--the defeat and the shame. The
    darkness through which he hurried could not hide it from his eyes. Thus
    had Tissot begun, flying out at them, fleeing from them, a thing of
    mingled fury and weakness. He knew how they had regarded Tissot. So they
    now regarded him.

    And the girl? What shame lay on his manhood who had abandoned her, who
    had left her to be their sport! His rage boiled over as he thought of
    her, and with the rain-laden wind buffeting his brow he halted and made
    as if he would return. But to what end if she would not have his aid, to
    what end if she would not suffer him? With a furious gesture, he hurried
    on afresh, only to be arrested, by-and-by, at the corner of the ramparts
    near the Bourg du Four, by a dreadful thought. What if he had deceived
    himself? What if he had given back before them, not because she had
    willed it, not because she had looked at him, not in compliance with
    her wishes; but in face of the odds against him, and by virtue of some
    streak of cowardice latent in his nature? The more he thought of it, the
    more he doubted if she had looked at him; the more likely it seemed that
    the look had been a straw, at which his craven soul had grasped!

    The thought maddened him. But it was too late to return, too late to
    undo his act. He must have left them a full half-hour. The town was
    growing quiet, the sound of the evening psalms was ceasing. The rustle
    of the wind among the branches covered the tread of the sentries as they
    walked the wall between the Porte Neuve and the Mint tower; only their
    harsh voices as they met midway and challenged came at intervals to his
    ears. It must be hard on ten o'clock. Or, no, there was the bell of St.
    Peter's proclaiming the half-hour after nine.

    He was ashamed to return to the house, yet he must return; and
    by-and-by, reluctantly and doggedly, he set his face that way. The wind
    and rain had cooled his brow, but not his brain, and he was still in a
    fever of resentment and shame when his lagging feet brought him to the
    house. He passed it irresolutely once, unable to make up his mind to
    enter and face them. Then, cursing himself for a poltroon, he turned
    again and made for the door.

    He was within half a dozen strides of it when a dark figure detached
    itself from the doorway, and stumbled down the steps. Its aim seemed to
    be to escape, and leaping to the conclusion that it was Gentilis, and
    that some trick was being prepared for him, Claude sprang forward. His
    hand shot out, he grasped the other's neck. His wrath blazed up.

    "You rogue!" he said. "I'll teach you to lie in wait for me!" And
    shifting his grasp from the man's neck to his shoulder, he turned him
    round regardless of his struggles. As he did so the man's hat fell off.
    With amazement Claude recognised the features of the Syndic Blondel.

    The young man's arm fell, and he stared, open-mouthed and aghast, the
    passion with which he had seized the stranger whelmed in astonishment.

    The Syndic, on the other hand, behaved with a strange composure.
    Breathing rather quickly, but vouchsafing no word of explanation, he
    straightened the crumpled linen about his neck, and set right his coat.
    He was proceeding, still in silence, to pick up his hat, when Claude,
    anticipating the action, secured the hat and restored it to him.

    "Thank you," he said. And then, stiffly, "Come with me," he continued.

    He turned as he spoke and led the way to a spot at some distance from
    the house, yet within sight of the door; there he wheeled about. "I was
    coming to see you," he said, steadfastly confronting Claude. "Why have
    you not called upon me, young man, in accordance with the invitation I
    gave you?"

    Claude stared. The Syndic's matter-of-factness and the ease with which
    he ignored what had just passed staggered him. Perhaps after all Blondel
    had come for this, and had been startled while waiting at the door by
    the quickness of his approach. "I--I had overlooked it," he murmured,
    trying to accept the situation.

    "Then," the Syndic answered shrewdly, "I can see that you have not
    wanted anything."

    "No."

    "You lodge there?" Blondel continued, pointing to the house. "But I know
    you do. And keep late hours, I fear. You are not alone in the house, I
    think?"

    "No," Claude replied; and on a sudden, as his mind went back to the
    house and those in it, there leapt into it the temptation to tell all to
    this man, a magistrate, and appeal to him in the girl's behalf. He
    could not speak to a more proper person, if he sought the city through;
    and here was the opportunity, brought unsought, to his door. But then he
    had not the girl's leave to speak; could he speak without her leave? He
    shifted his feet, and to gain time, "No," he said slowly, "there are two
    or three who lodge in the house."

    "Is not the person with whom you quarrelled at the inn one of them?" the
    Syndic asked. "Eh? Is not he one?"

    "Yes," Claude answered; and the recollection of the scene and of the
    support which the Syndic had given to Grio checked the impulse to speak.
    Perhaps after all the girl knew best.

    "And a person of the name of Basterga, I think?"

    Claude nodded. He dared not trust himself to speak now. Could it be that
    a whisper of what was passing in the house had reached the magistrates?

    The Syndic coughed. He glanced from the distant door, now a mere blur in
    the obscurity, to his companion's face and back again to the door--of
    which he seemed reluctant to lose sight. For a moment he seemed at a
    loss how to proceed. When he did speak, after a long pause, it was in a
    dry curt tone. "It is about him I wish to hear something," he said. "I
    look to you as a good citizen to afford such information as the State
    requires. The matter is more important than you think. I ask you what
    you know of that man."

    "Messer Basterga!"

    "Yes."

    Claude stared. "I know no good," he answered, more and more surprised.
    "I do not like him, Messer Syndic."

    "But he is a learned man, I believe. He passes for such, does he not?"

    "Yes."

    "Yet you do not like him. Why?"

    Claude's face burned. "He puts his learning to no good use," he blurted
    out. "He uses it to--to torture women. If I could tell you all--all,
    Messer Blondel," the young man continued, in growing excitement, "you
    would understand me better! He gains power over people, a strange power,
    and abuses it."

    "Power? What do you mean? What kind of power?"

    "God knows."

    The Syndic stared a moment, his face expressive of contempt. This was
    not the line he had meant his questions to take. What did it matter to
    him how the man treated women? Pshaw! Then suddenly a light--as of
    satisfaction, or discovery--gleamed in his eyes. "Do you mean," he
    muttered, lowering his voice, "by sorcery?"

    "God knows."

    "By evil arts?"

    The young man shook his head. "I do not know," he answered, almost
    pettishly. "How should I? But he has a power. A secret power! I do not
    understand him or it!"

    The Syndic looked at him darkly thoughtful. "You did not know that that
    was said of him?" he asked.

    "That he----"

    "Has magical arts?"

    Claude shook his head.

    "Nor that he has a laboratory upstairs?" Blondel continued, fixing the
    young man gravely with his eyes. "A laboratory in which he reads much in
    unknown tongues? And speaks much when no one is present? And tries
    experiments with strange substances?"

    Claude shook his head. "No!" he said. "Never! I never heard it."

    He never had; but in his eyes dawned none the less a look of horror. No
    man in those days doubted the existence of the devilish arts at which
    Blondel hinted--arts by the use of which one being could make himself
    master of the will and person of another. No man doubted their
    existence: and that they were rare, were difficult, were seldom brought
    within a man's experience, made them only the more hateful without
    making them seem to the men of that day the less probable. That they
    were often exercised at the cost of the innocent and pure, who in this
    way were added to the accursed brood--few doubted this too; but the full
    horror of it could be known only to the man who loved, and who
    reverenced where he loved. Fortunately, men who never doubted the
    reality of witchcraft, seldom conceived of it as touching those about
    them; and it was only slowly that Claude took in the meaning of the
    Syndic's suggestion, or discerned how perfectly it accounted for a thing
    otherwise unaccountable--the mysterious sway which the scholar held over
    the young girl.

    But he reached, he came to that point at last; and his silence and
    agitation were more eloquent than words. The Syndic, who had not shot
    his bolt wholly at a venture--for to accuse Basterga of the black art
    had passed through his mind before--saw that he had hit the mark; and he
    pushed his advantage. "Have you noted aught," he asked, "to bear out the
    idea that he is given to such practices?"

    Claude was silent in sheer horror: horror of the thing suggested to him,
    horror of the punishment in which he might involve the innocent.

    "I don't know!" he stammered at last, and almost incoherently. "I know
    nothing! Don't ask me! God grant it be not so!" And he covered his face.

    "Amen! Amen, indeed," Blondel answered gravely. "But now for the woman,
    over whom you said he had power?"

    "I said?"

    "Aye, you, a minute ago! Who is she? Is she one of the household? Come,
    young man, you must answer me," the Syndic continued with severity
    proportioned to the other's hesitation. "I know much, and a little more
    light may enable us to act and to bring the guilty to punishment. Does
    she live in the house?"

    Only the darkness hid Claude's pallor. "There is a woman," he muttered
    reluctantly, "who lives in the house. But I know nothing! I have no
    proof! Nothing, nothing!"

    "But you suspect! You suspect, young man," the Syndic continued, eyeing
    him sternly, "and suspecting you would leave her in the clutches of the
    devil whose she must become, body and soul! For shame!"

    "But I do not believe it!" Claude cried fiercely. "I do not believe it!"

    "Of her?"

    "Of her? No! _Mon dieu!_ No! She is a child! She is innocent! Innocent
    as----"

    "The day! you would say?" the Syndic struck in, almost solemnly. "The
    likelier prey? The choicest are ever the devil's morsels."

    "And you think that she----"

    "God help her, if she be in his power! This man," the Syndic continued,
    laying his hand on the other's arm, "has ruined hundreds by his secret
    arts, by his foul practices, by his sorceries. He has made Venice too
    hot for him. In Padua they will have him no more. Genoa has driven him
    forth. If you doubt this character of him there is an easy proof; for it
    is whispered, nay, it is almost certain, in what his power lies. Do you
    know his room?"

    "No."

    "No?" in a tone of dismay. "But is it not on a level with yours?"

    "No," Claude answered, shivering; "it is over mine."

    "No matter, there is an easy mode of proving him," the Syndic replied;
    and despite himself his tone was eager. "If he be the man they say he
    is, there is in his room a box of steel chained to the wall. It contains
    the spell he uses. By means of it he can enter where he pleases, he can
    enslave women to his will, he----"

    "And you do not seize it?" Claude cried in a tone of horror.

    "He has the Grand Duke's protection," the Syndic answered smoothly, "and
    to touch him without clear proof might cause much trouble to the State."

    "And for that you suffer him," Claude exclaimed, his voice trembling.
    "You suffer him to work his will? You suffer him----"

    "I must follow the law," Blondel answered, shaking his head. He looked
    warily round; the dark ramparts were quiet. "I act but as a magistrate.
    Were I a mere man and knew him, as I know him now, for what he is--a
    foul magician weaving his spells about the young, ensnaring, with his
    sorceries, the souls of innocent women, corrupting--but what is it,
    young man?"

    "He is within?"

    "No; he left the house a minute or so before you arrived. But what is
    it?" Seizing the young man's arm he restrained him. "Where are you
    going?"

    "To his room!" Claude answered between his set teeth. "Be he man or
    devil--to his room!"

    "You dare?"

    "I dare and I will!" Resisting the Syndic's feigned efforts to hold him
    back, he strode towards the door. "That spell shall not be his another
    hour."

    But Blondel terrified by his sudden success, and loth, now the time was
    come, to put all on a cast, kept his hand on him. "Stay! Stay!" he
    babbled, dragging him back. "Do not be rash!"

    "Stay, and leave him to ruin her!"

    "Still, listen! Whatever you do, listen!" the Syndic answered; and
    insisted, clinging to him. His agitation was such, that had Claude
    retained his powers of observation, he must have found something strange
    in this anxiety. "Listen! If you find the casket, on your life touch
    nothing in it! On your life!" Blondel repeated, his hands clinging more
    tightly to the other's arm. "Bring it entire--touch nothing! If you do
    not promise me I will raise the alarm here and now! To open it, I warn
    you, is to risk all!"

    "I will bring it!" Claude answered, his foot on the steps, his hand on
    the latch. "I will bring it!"

    "Ay, but you do not know what hangs on it! You will bring it as you find
    it?"

    His persistence was so strange, he clung to the young man's arm with so
    complete an abandonment of his ordinary manner, that, with the latch
    half raised, Claude looked at him in wonder. "Very well, I will bring it
    as I find it!" he muttered. Then, notwithstanding a movement which the
    Syndic made to restrain him, he pushed the door.

    It was not locked, and, in a moment, he stood in the living-room which
    he had left little more than an hour before. It was untenanted, but not
    in darkness; a rushlight, set in an earthen vessel on the hearth, flung
    long shadows on the walls and ceiling, and gave to the room, so homely
    in its every-day aspect, a sinister look. The door of Gentilis' room was
    shut; probably he was asleep. That at the foot of the staircase was also
    shut. Claude stood a moment, frowning; then he crossed the floor
    towards the staircase door. But though his mind was fixed, the spell of
    the other's excitement told on him: the flicker of the rushlight made
    him start; and half-way across the room a sound at his elbow brought him
    up as if he had been stabbed. He turned his head, expecting to find the
    big man's eyes bent on him from some corner. He found instead the
    Syndic, who had stolen in after him, and with a dark anxious face was
    standing like a shadow of guilt between him and the door.

    The young man resented the alarm which the other had caused him. "If you
    are going, go," he muttered. "And if you will do it yourself, Messer
    Syndic, so much the better." He pointed to the door of the staircase.

    The Syndic recoiled, his beard wagging senilely. "No, no," he babbled.
    "No, I will go back."

    It was no longer the formal magistrate, but a frightened man who stood
    at Claude's elbow. And this was so clear that superstition, which is of
    all things the most infectious, began to shake the young man's
    resolution. Desperately he threw it off, and went to open the door. Then
    he reflected that it would be dark upstairs, he must have a light; and
    re-crossing the floor he brought the rushlight from the hearth. Holding
    it aloft he opened the creaking door and began to ascend the stairs.

    With every step the awe of the other world grew on him; while the
    shadow, which he had found at his elbow below, followed him upwards.
    When he paused at the head of the flight the Syndic's face was on a
    level with his knee, the Syndic's eyes were fixed on his.

    Claude did not understand this; but the man's company was welcome now;
    and the sight of Basterga's door, not three paces from the place where
    he stood, diverted his thoughts. He had not been above stairs since the
    day of his arrival, but he knew that Basterga's room was the nearest to
    the stairs. That was the door then; behind that door the Italian wrought
    his devilish spells!

    His light, smoky and wavering, cast black shadows on the walls of the
    passage as he moved. The air seemed heavy, laden with some strange drug;
    the house was still, with the stillness which precedes horror. Not many
    men of his time, suspecting what he suspected, would have opened that
    door, or at that hour of the night would have entered that room. But
    Claude, though he feared, though he shuddered, though unearthly terrors
    pressed upon him, possessed a charm that supported his courage: the
    memory of the scene in the room below, of the scalding drops falling on
    the white skin, of the girl looking at him with that face of pain. The
    devil was strong, but there was a stronger; and in the strength of love
    the young man approached the door and tried it. It was locked.

    Somehow the fact augmented his courage. "Where the devil is, is no need
    of locks," he muttered, and he felt above the door, then, stooping,
    groped under it. In the latter place he found the key, thrust out of
    sight between door and floor, where doubtless it was Basterga's custom
    to hide it. He drew it out, and with a grim face set it in the lock.

    "Quick!" muttered a voice in his ear, and turning he saw that the Syndic
    was trembling with eagerness. "Quick, quick! Or he may return!"

    Claude smiled. If he did not fear the devil he certainly did not fear
    Basterga. He was about to turn the key in the lock when a sound stayed
    his hand, ay, and rooted him to the spot. Yet it was only a laugh--but a
    laugh such as his ears had never caught before, a laugh full of ghastly,
    shrill, unearthly mirth. It rang through the passage, through the
    house, through the night; but whence it proceeded, whether from some
    being at his elbow, or from above stairs, or below, it was impossible to
    say; and the blood gone from his face, Claude stood, peering over his
    shoulder into the dark corners of the passage. Again that laugh rose,
    shrill, mocking, unearthly; and this time his hand fell from the lock.

    The Syndic, utterly unmanned, leant sweating against the wall. He called
    upon the name of his Maker. "My God!" he muttered. "My God!"

    "_There is no God!_"

    The words, each syllable of them clear, though spoken in a voice shrill
    and cracked and strange, and such as neither of them had ever heard
    before, were beyond doubt. Close on them followed a shriek of weird
    laughter, and then the blasphemy repeated in the same tone of mockery.
    The hair crept on Claude's head, the blood withdrew to his heart. The
    key which he had drawn out of the lock fell from the hand it seemed to
    freeze.

    With distended eyes he glared down the passage. The words were still in
    the air, the laughter echoed in his brain, the shadows cast by the
    shaking rushlight danced and took weird shapes. A rustling as of black
    wings gathered about him, unseen shapes hovered closer and closer--was
    it his fancy or did he hear them?

    He tried to disbelieve, he strove to withstand his terror; and a moment
    his fortitude held. Then, as the Syndic, shaking as with the palsy,
    tottered, with a hand on either wall down the stairs, and moaning aloud
    in his terror, felt his way across the room below, Claude's courage,
    too, gave way; not in face of that he saw, but of that which he fancied.
    He turned too, and with a greater show of composure, and still carrying
    the light, he stumbled down the stairs and into the room below.

    There, for an instant sense and nerve returned, and he stood. He turned
    even, and made as if he would re-ascend the staircase. But he had no
    sooner thrust his head into it, and paused an instant to listen ere he
    ventured, than a faint echo of the same mirthless laughter reached him,
    and he turned shuddering, and fled--fled out of the room, out of the
    house, out of the light, to the same spot under the trees whence he had
    started with so bold a heart a few minutes earlier.

    The Syndic was there before him--or no, not the Syndic, but a stricken
    man, clinging to a tree; seized now and again with a fresh fit of
    trembling. "Take me home," he babbled. "There is no hope! There is no
    hope. Take me home!"

    His house was not far off, and Claude, when he had a little recovered
    himself, assented, gave the tottering man his arm and supported him--he
    needed support--until they reached the dwelling in the Bourg du Four.
    Still a wreck Blondel was by this time a little more coherent. He
    foresaw solitude, and dreaded it; and would have had the other enter and
    pass the night with him. But the young man, already ashamed of his
    weakness, already doubting and questioning, refused, and would say no
    more than that he would return on the morrow. With an aspect apparently
    composed, he insisted on taking his leave, turned from the door and
    retraced his steps to the Corraterie. But when he came to the house, he
    lacked, brave as he was, the heart to enter; and passing it, he spent
    the time until daybreak, in walking up and down the rampart within
    hearing of the sentries.

    His mind grown somewhat calmer, he set himself to recall, precisely and
    exactly, the thing that had happened. But recall it as he might, he
    could not account for it. The words of blasphemy that had scorched his
    ears as the key entered the lock, had been uttered, he was sure, in no
    voice known to him; nay more, in no voice of human intonation. How could
    he explain them? How account for them save in one way? How defend his
    cowardice save on one ground? He shuddered, gazing at the house, and
    murmuring now a prayer, and now a word of exorcism. But the day had
    come, the sky was red, and the sun was near its rising before he took
    courage and dared to cross the threshold.
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    Chapter 8
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