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    Chapter 10

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    Chapter 10
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    AUCTIO FIT: VENIT VITA.

    In his spacious chestnut-panelled parlour, in a high-backed oaken chair
    that had throned for centuries the Abbots of Bellerive, Messer Blondel
    sat brooding with his chin upon his breast. The chestnut-panelled
    parlour was new. The shields of the Cantons which formed a frieze above
    the panels shone brightly, the or and azure, gules and argent of their
    quarterings, undimmed by time or wood-smoke. The innumerable panes of
    the long heavily leaded windows which looked out on the Bourg du Four
    were still rain-proof; the light which they admitted still found
    something garish in the portrait of the Syndic--by Schouten--that formed
    the central panel of the mantelpiece. New and stately, the room had not
    its pair in Geneva; and dear to its owner's heart had it been a short, a
    very short time before. He had anticipated no more lasting pleasure,
    looked forward to no safer gratification for his declining years, than
    to sit, as he now sat, surrounded by its grandeur. In due time--not at
    once, lest the people take alarm or his enemies occasion--he had
    determined to rebuild the whole house after the same fashion. The plans
    of the oaken gallery, the staircase and dining-chamber, prepared by a
    trusty craftsman of Basle, lay at this moment in the drawer of the
    bureau beside his chair.

    Now all was changed. A fiat had gone forth, which placed him alike
    beyond the envy of his friends, and the hatred of his foes. He must
    die. He must die, and leave these pleasant things, this goodly room,
    that future of which he had dreamed. Another man would lie warm in the
    chamber he had prepared; another would be Syndic and bear his wand. The
    years of stately plenty which he had foreseen, were already as last
    year's harvest. No wonder that the sheen of portrait and panel, the
    pride of echoing oak, were fled; or that the eyes with which he gazed on
    the things about him were dull and lifeless.

    Dull and lifeless at one moment, and clouded by the apathy of despair;
    at another bright with the fierce fever of revolt. In the one phase or
    the other he had passed many hours of late, some of them amid the
    dead-sea grandeur of this room. And he had had his hours of hope also. A
    fortnight back a ray of hope, bright as the goblin light which shines
    the more brilliantly the darker be the night, had shone on him and
    amused and enchanted him. And then, in one moment, God and man--or if
    not God, the devil--had joined to quench the hope; and this morning he
    sat sunk in deepest despair, all in and around him dark. Hitherto he had
    regarded appearances. He had hidden alike his malady and his fears, his
    apathy and his mad revolt; he had lived as usual. But this morning he
    was beyond that. He could not rouse himself, he could not be doing. His
    servants, wondering why he did not go abroad or betake himself to some
    task, came and peeped at him, and went away whispering and pointing and
    nudging one another. And he knew it. But he paid no heed to them or to
    anything, until it happened that his eyes, resting dully on the street,
    marked a man who paused before the door and looked at the house, in
    doubt it seemed, whether he should seek to enter or should pass on.

    For an appreciable time the Syndic watched the loiterer without seeing
    him. What did it matter to a dying man--a man whom heaven, impassive,
    abandoned to the evil powers--who came or who went? But by-and-by his
    eyes conveyed the identity of the man to his brain; and he rose to his
    feet, laying his hands on a bell which stood on the table beside him. In
    the act of ringing he changed his mind, and laying the bell down, he
    strode himself to the outer door, the house door, and opened it. The man
    was still in the street. Scarcely showing himself, Blondel caught his
    eye, signed to him to enter, and held the door while he did so.

    Claude Mercier--for he it was--entered awkwardly. He followed the Syndic
    into the parlour, and standing with his cap in his hand, began
    shamefacedly to explain that he had come to learn how the Syndic was,
    after--after that which had happened----He did not finish the sentence.

    For that matter, Blondel did not allow him to finish. He had passed at
    sight of the youth into the other of the two conditions between which
    his days were divided. His eyes glittered, his hands trembled. "Have you
    done anything?" he asked eagerly; and the voice in which he said it
    surprised the young man. "Have you done anything?"

    "As to Basterga, do you mean, Messer Syndic?"

    "As to what else? What else?"

    "No, Messer Blondel, I have not."

    "Nor learned anything?"

    "No, nothing."

    "But you don't mean--to leave it there?" Blondel cried, his voice rising
    high. And he sat down and rose up again. "You have done nothing, but you
    are going to do something? What will it be? What?" And then as he
    discerned the other's surprise, and read suspicion in his eyes, he
    curbed himself, lowered his tone, and with an effort was himself. "Young
    man," he said, wiping his brow, "I am still ridden--by what happened
    last night. I have lain, since we parted, under an overwhelming sense of
    the presence of evil. Of evil," he repeated, still speaking a little
    wildly, "such as this God-fearing town should not know even by repute!
    You think me over-anxious? But I have felt the hot blast of the furnace
    on my cheek, my head bears even now the smell of the burning. Hell gapes
    near us!" He was beginning to tremble afresh, partly with impatience of
    this parleying, partly with anxiety to pluck from the other his answer.
    The glitter was returning to his eyes. "Hell gapes near us," he
    repeated. "And I ask you, young man, what are you going to do?"

    "I?"

    "Yes, you!"

    Claude stared. "What would you have me do?" he asked.

    "What would you have done last night?" the Syndic retorted. "Did you ask
    me then? Did you wait for my permission? Did you wait even for my
    presence?"

    "No, but----"

    "But what?"

    "Things are changed."

    "Changed? How?" Blondel's tone sank to one of unnatural calm; but his
    frame shook and his face was purple with the pressure he put upon
    himself. "What is changed? Who has changed it?" he continued; to see his
    chance of life hang on the will of this imbecile was almost more than he
    could bear. "Speak out! Let me know what has happened."

    "You know what happened as well as I do," Claude answered slowly. He had
    given his word to the girl that he would not interfere, but he began to
    see difficulties of which he had not thought. "It was enough for me! He
    may be all you said he was, Messer Syndic, but----"

    "But you no longer burn to break the spell?" Blondel cried. "You no
    longer desire to snatch from him the woman you love? You will stand by
    and see her perish body and soul in this web of iniquity? You are
    frightened, and will leave her to the law!" He thrust out his thin
    flushed face, his pointed beard wagging malignantly. "For that is what
    will come of it! To the law, you understand! I warn you, the magistrates
    in Geneva bear not the sword in vain."

    The young man's brow grew damp. The crisis was nearer than he had
    feared. "But--she has done nothing!" he faltered.

    "The tool with the hand that uses it! The idol and him who made it!" the
    Syndic cried, swaying himself to and fro.

    Claude stared. "But you know nothing!" he made shift to say after a
    pause. "You have nothing against her, Messer Blondel. He may be all you
    say, but she----"

    "I have ears!"

    The tone said more than the words, and Claude trembled. He knew the
    width of the net where witchcraft or blasphemy was in question. He knew
    that, were Basterga seized, all in the house would be taken with him,
    and though men often escaped for the fright, it was seldom that women
    went free so cheaply. The knowledge of this tied his tongue; and urgent
    as he felt the need to be, he could only glare helplessly at the
    magistrate.

    Blondel, on his part, saw the effect of his words, and desperately
    resolved to force the young man to his will, he followed up the blow.
    "If you would see her burn, well and good!" he cried. "It is for you to
    choose. Either break the spell, bring me the box, and set her free; or
    see the law take its course! Last night----"

    "Last night," Claude replied, hurt to the quick, "you were not so bold,
    Messer Blondel!"

    The Syndic winced, but merged his wrath in an anxiety a thousand times
    deeper. "Last night is not to-day," he answered. "Midnight is not
    daylight! I have told you where the spell is, where, at least, it is
    reputed to be, what it does, and under what sway it lays her; you who
    love her--and I see you do--you who have access to the house at all
    hours, who can watch him out----"

    "We watched him out last night!" Claude muttered.

    "Ay, but day is day! In the daylight----"

    "But it is not laid on me to do this! I am not the only one----"

    "You love her!"

    "Who has access to the house."

    "Are you a coward?"

    Claude breathed hard. He was driven to the wall. Between his promise to
    her, and the Syndic's demand, he found himself helpless. And the demand
    was not so unreasonable. For it was true that he loved her, and that he
    had access to the house; and if the plan suggested seemed unusual, if it
    was not the course most obvious or most natural, it was hardly for him
    to cavil at a scheme which promised to save her, not only from the evil
    influence which mysteriously swayed her, but from the law, and the
    danger of an accusation of witchcraft. Apart from his promise he would
    have chosen this course; as it had been his first impulse to pursue it
    the evening before. But now he had given his word to her that he would
    not interfere, and he was conscious that he understood but in part how
    she stood. That being so----

    "A coward!" the Syndic repeated, savagely and coarsely. He had waited in
    intolerable suspense for the other's answer. "That is what you are, with
    all your boasting!--A coward! Afraid of--why, man, of what are you
    afraid? Basterga?"

    "It may be," Claude answered sullenly.

    "Basterga? Why----" But on the word Blondel stopped; and over his face
    came a startling change. The rage died out of it and the flush; and
    fear, and a cringing embarrassment, took the place of them. In the same
    instant the change was made, and Claude saw that which caused it.
    Basterga himself stood in the half-open doorway, looking towards them.

    For a few seconds no one spoke. The magistrate's tongue clave to the
    roof of his mouth, as the scholar advanced, cap in hand, and bowed to
    one and the other. The florid politeness of his bearing thinly veiling
    the sarcasm of his address when he spoke.

    "O mire conjunctio!" he said. "Happy is Geneva where age thinks no shame
    of consorting with youth! And youth, thrice happy, imbibes wisdom at the
    feet of age! Messer Blondel," he continued, looking to him, and dropping
    in a degree the irony of his tone, "I have not seen you for so long, I
    feared that something was amiss, and I come to inquire. It is not so, I
    hope?"

    The Syndic, unable to mask his confusion, forced a sickly phrase of
    denial. He had dreaded nothing so much as to be surprised by Basterga in
    the young man's company: for his conscience warned him that to find him
    with Mercier and to read his plan, would be one and the same thing to
    the scholar's astuteness. And here was the discovery made, and made so
    abruptly and at so unfortunate a moment that to carry it off was out of
    his power, though he knew that every halting word and guilty look bore
    witness against him.

    "No? that is well," Basterga answered, smiling broadly as he glanced
    from one face to the other. "That is well!" He had the air of a
    good-natured pedagogue who espies his boys in a venial offence, and will
    not notice it save by a sly word. "Very well! And you, my friend," he
    continued, addressing Claude, "is it not true what I said,

    Terque Quaterque redit!

    You fled in haste last night, but we meet again! Your method in affairs
    is the reverse, I fear, of that which your friend here would advise:
    namely, that to carry out a plan one should begin slowly, and end
    quickly; thereby putting on the true helmet of Plato, as it has been
    called by a learned Englishman of our time."

    Claude glowered at him, almost as much at a loss as the Syndic, but for
    another reason. To exchange commonplaces with the man who held the woman
    he loved by an evil hold, who owned a power so baneful, so foul--to
    bandy words with such an one was beyond him. He could only glare at him
    in speechless indignation.

    "You bear malice, I fear," the big man said. There was no doubt that he
    was master of the situation. "Do you know that in the words of the same
    learned person whom I have cited--a marvellous exemplar amid that
    fog-headed people--vindictive persons live the life of witches, who as
    they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate."

    The blood left Claude's face. "What do you mean?" he muttered, finding
    his voice at last.

    "Who hates, burns. Who loves, burns also. But that is by the way."

    "Burns?"

    "Ay," with a grin, "burns! It seems to come home to you. Burns! Fie,
    young man; you hate, I fear, beyond measure, or love beyond measure, if
    you so fear the fire. What, you must leave us? It is not very mannerly,"
    with sarcasm, "to go while I speak!"

    But Claude could bear no more. He snatched his cap from the table, and
    with an incoherent word, aimed at the Syndic and meant for
    leave-taking, he made for the door, plucked it open and disappeared.

    The scholar smiled as he looked after him. "A foolish young man," he
    said, "who will assuredly, if he be not stayed, end unfortunate. It is
    the way of Frenchmen, Messer Blondel. They act without method and strike
    without intention, bear into age the follies of youth, and wear the
    gravity neither of the north nor of the south. But that reminds me," he
    continued, speaking low and bending towards the other with a look of
    sympathy--"you are better, I hope?"

    The words were harmless, but they conveyed more than their surface
    meaning, and they touched the Syndic to the quick. He had begun to
    compose himself; now he had much ado not to gnash his teeth in the
    scholar's face. "Better?" he ejaculated bitterly. "What chance have I of
    being better? Better? Are you?" He began to tremble, his hands on the
    arms of his chair. "Otherwise, if you are not, you will soon have cause
    to know what I feel."

    "I am better," Basterga answered with fervour. "I thank Heaven for it."

    Blondel rose to his feet, his hands still clutching the chair. "What!"
    he cried. "You--you have not tried the----"

    "The _remedium_?" The scholar shook his head. "No, on the contrary, I am
    relieved from my fears. The alarm was baseless. I have it not, I thank
    Heaven. I have not the disease. Nor, if there be any certainty in
    medicine, shall have it."

    The Syndic, alas for human nature, could have struck him in the face!

    "You have it not?" he snarled. "You have it not?" And then regaining
    control of himself, "I suppose I ought," with a forced and ghastly
    smile, "to felicitate you on your escape."

    "Rather to felicitate yourself," Basterga answered. "Or so I had hoped
    two days ago."

    "Myself?"

    "Yes," Basterga replied lightly. "For as soon as I found that I had no
    need of the _remedium_, I thought of you. That was natural. And it
    occurred to me--nay, calm yourself!"

    "Quick! Quick!

    "Nay, calm yourself, my dear Messer Blondel," Basterga repeated with
    outward solicitude and inward amusement. "Be calm, or you will do
    yourself an injury; you will indeed! In your state you should be
    prudent; you should govern yourself--one never knows. And besides, the
    thought, to which I refer--I see you recognise what it was----"

    "Yes! yes! Go on! Go on!"

    "Proved futile."

    "Futile?"

    "Yes, I am sorry to say it. Futile."

    "Futile!" The wretched man's voice rose almost to a scream as he
    repeated the word. He rose and sat down again. "Then how did you--why
    did you----" He stopped, fighting for words, and, unable to frame them,
    clutched the air with his hands. A moment he mouthed dumbly, then "Tell
    me!" he gasped. "Speak, man, speak! How was it? Cannot you see--that you
    are killing me?"

    Basterga saw indeed that he had gone nearer to it than he had intended:
    for a moment the starting eyes and purple face alarmed him. In all
    haste, he gave up playing with the others fears. "It occurred to me," he
    said, "that as I no longer needed the medicine myself, there was only
    the Grand Duke to be considered, I thought that he might be willing to
    waive his claim, since he is as yet free from the disease. And four
    days ago I despatched a messenger whom I could trust to him at Turin. I
    had hopes of a favourable reply, and in that event, I should not have
    lost a minute in waiting upon you. For I am bound to say, Messer
    Blondel"--the big man rubbed his chin and eyed the other
    benevolently--"your case appealed to me in an especial manner. I felt
    myself moved, I scarcely know why, to do all I could on your behalf.
    Alas, the answer dashed my hopes."

    "What was it?" Blondel's voice sounded hollow and unnatural. Sunk in the
    high-backed chair, his chin fallen on his breast, it was in his eyes
    alone, peering from below bent brows, that he seemed to live.

    "He would not waive his claim," Basterga answered gently, "save on
    a--but in substance that was all."

    Blondel raised himself slowly and stiffly in the chair. His lips parted.
    "In substance?" he muttered hoarsely, "There was more then?"

    Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "There was. Save, the Grand Duke added,
    on the condition--but the condition which followed was inadmissible."

    Blondel gave vent to a cackling laugh. "Inadmissible?" he muttered.
    "Inadmissible." And then, "You are not a dying man, Messer Basterga, or
    you would think--few things inadmissible."

    "Impossible, then."

    "What was it? What was it?"--with a gesture eloquent of the impatience
    that was choking him.

    "He asked," Basterga replied reluctantly, "a price."

    "A price?"

    The big man nodded.

    The Syndic rose up and sat down again. "Why did you not say so? Why did
    you not say so at once?" he cried fiercely. "Is it about that you have
    been fencing all this time? Is that what you were seeking? And I
    fancied--A price, eh? I suppose"--in a lower tone, and with a gleam of
    cunning in his eyes--"he does not really want--the impossible? I am not
    a very rich man, Messer Basterga--you know that; and I am sure you would
    tell him. You would tell him that men do not count wealth here as they
    do in Genoa or Venice, or even in Florence. I am sure you would put him
    right on that," with a faint whine in his tone. "He would not strip a
    man to the last rag. He would not ask--thousands for it."

    "No," Basterga answered, with something of asperity and even contempt in
    his tone. "He does not ask thousands for it, Messer Blondel. But he
    asks, none the less, something you cannot give."

    "Money?"

    "No."

    "Then--what is it?" Blondel leant forward in growing fury. "Why do you
    fence with me? What is it, man?"

    Basterga did not answer for a moment. At length, shrugging his
    shoulders, and speaking between jest and earnest, "The town of Geneva,"
    he said. "No more, no less."

    The Syndic started violently, then was still. But the hand which in the
    first instant of surprise he had raised to shield his eyes, trembled;
    and behind it great drops of sweat rose on his brow, and bore witness to
    the conflict in his breast.

    "You are jesting," he said presently, without removing his hand.

    "It is no jest," Basterga answered soberly. "You know the Grand Duke's
    keen desire. We have talked of it before. And were it only a matter," he
    shrugged his shoulders, "of the how--of ways and means in fact--there
    need be no impossibility, your position being what it is. But I know
    the feeling you entertain on the subject, Messer Blondel; and though I
    do not agree with you, for we look at the thing from different sides, I
    had no hope that you would come to it."

    "Never!"

    "No. So much so, that I had it in my mind to keep the condition to
    myself. But----"

    "Why did you not, then?"

    "Hope against hope," the big man answered, with a shrug and a laugh.
    "After all, a live dog is better than a dead lion--only you will not see
    it. We are ruled, the most of us, by our feelings, and die for our side
    without asking ourselves whether a single person would be a ducat the
    worse if the other side won. It is not philosophical," with another
    shrug. "That is all."

    Apparently Blondel was not listening, for "The Duke must be mad!" he
    ejaculated, as the other uttered his last word.

    "Oh no."

    "Mad!" the Syndic repeated harshly, his eyes still shaded by his hand.
    "Does he think," with bitterness, "that I am the man to run through the
    streets crying 'Viva Savoia!' To raise a hopeless _émeute_ at the head
    of the drunken ruffians who, since the war, have been the curse of the
    place! And be thrown into the common jail, and hurried thence to the
    scaffold! If he looks for that----"

    "He does not."

    "He is mad."

    "He does not," Basterga repeated, unmoved. "The Grand Duke is as sane as
    I am."

    "Then what does he expect?"

    But the big man laughed. "No, no, Messer Blondel," he said. "You push me
    too far. You mean nothing, and meaning nothing, all's said and done. I
    wish," he continued, rising to his feet, and reverting to the tone of
    sympathy which he had for the moment laid aside, "I wish I might
    endeavour to show you the thing as I see it, in a word, as a philosopher
    sees it, and as men of culture in all ages, rising above the prejudices
    of the vulgar, have seen it. For after all, as Persius says,

    Live while thou liv'st! for death will make us all,
    A name, a nothing, but an old wife's tale.

    But I must not," reluctantly. "I know that."

    The Syndic had lowered his hand; but he still sat with his eyes averted,
    gazing sullenly at the corner of the floor.

    "I knew it when I came," Basterga resumed after a pause, "and therefore
    I was loth to speak to you."

    "Yes."

    "You understand, I am sure?"

    The Syndic moved in his chair, but did not speak, and Basterga took up
    his cap with a sigh. "I would I had brought you better news, Messer
    Blondel," he said, as he rose and turned to go. "But _Cor ne edito!_ I
    am the happier for speaking, though I have done no good!" And with a
    gesture of farewell, not without its dignity, he bowed, opened the door,
    and went out, leaving the Syndic to his reflections.
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    Chapter 10
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