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    Chapter 14

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    Chapter 14
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    In his picture of the life led by the two women on the upper floor of
    the house in the Corraterie, that picture which by a singular intuition
    he had conceived on the day of his arrival, Claude had not gone far
    astray. In all respects but one the picture was truly drawn. Than the
    love between mother and daughter, no tie could be imagined at once more
    simple and more holy; no union more real and pure than that which bound
    together these two women, left lonely in days of war and trouble in the
    midst of a city permanently besieged and menaced by an enduring peril.
    Almost forgotten by the world below, which had its own cares, its
    alarums and excursions, its strivings and aims, they lived for one
    another. The weak health of the one and the brave spirit of the other
    had gradually inverted their positions; and the younger was mother, the
    elder, daughter. Yet each retained, in addition, the pious instincts of
    the original relation. To each the welfare of the other was the prime
    thought. To give the other the better portion, be it of food or wine, of
    freedom from care, or ease of mind, and to take the worse, was to each
    the ground plan of life, as it was its chiefest joy.

    In their eyrie above the anxious city they led an existence all their
    own. Between them were a hundred jests, Greek to others; and whimsical
    ways, and fond sayings and old smiles a thousand times repeated. And
    things that must be done after one fashion or the sky would fall; and
    others that must be done after another fashion or the world would end.
    When the house was empty of boarders, or nearly empty--though at such
    times the cupboard also was apt to be bare--there were long hours spent
    upstairs and surveys of household gear, carried up with difficulty, and
    reviews of linen and much talk of it, and small meals, taken at the open
    windows that looked over the Rhone valley and commanded the sunset view.
    Such times were times of gaiety though not of prosperity, and far from
    the worst hours of life--had they but persisted.

    But in the March of 1601 a great calamity fell on these two. A fire,
    which consumed several houses near the Corraterie, and flung wide
    through the streets the rumour that the enemy had entered, struck the
    bedridden woman--aroused at midnight by shouts and the glare of
    flames--with so dire a terror, not on her own account but on her
    daughter's, that she was never the same again. For weeks at a time she
    appeared to be as of old, save for some increase of weakness and
    tremulousness. But below the surface the brain was out of poise, and
    under the least pressure of excitement she betrayed the change in a
    manner so appalling--by the loud negation of those beliefs which in
    saner moments were most dear to her, and especially by a denial of the
    Providence and goodness of God--that even her child, even the being who
    knew her and loved her best, shuddered lest Satan, visible and
    triumphant, should rise to confront her.

    Fortunately the fits of this mysterious malady were short as they were
    appalling, and to the minds of that day, suspicious. And in the
    beginning Anne had the support of an old physician, well-nigh their only
    intimate. True, even he was scared by a form of disease, new and beyond
    his science; but he prescribed a sedative and he kept counsel. He went
    further: for sufficiently enlightened himself to believe in the
    innocence of these attacks, he none the less explained to the daughter
    the peril to which her mother's aberrations must expose her were they
    known to the vulgar; and he bade her hide them with all the care

    Anne, on this would fain have adopted the safest course and kept the
    house empty; to the end that to the horror of her mother's fits of
    delirium might not be added the chance of eavesdropping. But to do this
    was to starve, as well as to reveal to Madame Royaume the fact of those
    seizures of which no one in the world was more ignorant than the good
    woman who suffered under them. It followed that to Anne's burden of
    dread by reason of the outer world, whom she must at all costs deceive,
    was added the weight of concealment from the one from whom she had never
    kept anything in her life. A thing which augmented immeasurably the
    loneliness of her position and the weight of her load.

    Presently the drama, always pitiful, increased in intensity. The old
    leech who had been her stay and helper died, and left her to face the
    danger alone. A month later Basterga discovered the secret and
    henceforth held it over her. From this time she led a life of which
    Claude, in his dreams upon the hearth, exaggerated neither the tragedy
    nor the beauty. The load had been heavy before. Now to fear was added
    contumely, and to vague apprehensions the immediate prospect of
    discovery and peril. The grip of the big scholar, subtle, cruel,
    tightening day by day and hour by hour, was on her youth; slowly it
    paralysed in her all joy, all spirit, all the impulses of life and hope,
    that were natural to her age.

    That through all she showed an indomitable spirit, we know. We have seen
    how she bore herself when threatened from an unexpected quarter on the
    morning when Claude Mercier, after overhearing her mother's ravings, had
    his doubts confirmed by the sight of her depression on the stairs. How
    boldly she met his attack, unforeseen as it was, how bravely she
    shielded her other and dearer self, how deftly she made use of the
    chance which the young man's soberer sense afforded her, will be
    remembered. But not even in that pinch, no, nor in that worse hour when
    Basterga, having discovered his knowledge to her, gave her--as a cat
    plays with a mouse which it is presently to tear to pieces--a little law
    and a little space, did she come so near to despair as on this evening
    when the echo of her mother's insane laughter drew her from the
    living-room at an hour without precedent.

    For hitherto Madame Royaume's attacks had come on in the night only.
    With a regularity not unknown in the morbid world they occurred about
    midnight, an hour when her daughter could attend to her and when the
    house below lay wrapped in sleep. A change in this respect doubled the
    danger, therefore. It did more: the prospect of being summoned at any
    hour shook, if it did not break, the last remains of Anne's strength. To
    be liable at all times to such interruptions, to tremble while serving a
    meal or making a bed lest the dreadful sound arise and reveal all, to
    listen below and above and never to feel safe for a minute, never!
    never!--who could face, who could endure, who could lie down and rise up
    under this burden?

    It could not be. As Anne ascended the stairs she felt that the end was
    coming, was come. Strive as she might, war as she might, with all the
    instinct, all the ferocity, of a mother defending her young, the end was
    come. The secret could not be kept long. Even while she administered the
    medicine with shaking hands, while with tears in her voice she strove
    to still the patient and silence her wild words, even while she
    restrained by force the feeble strength that would and could not, while
    in a word she omitted no precaution, relaxed no effort, her heart told
    her with every pulsation that the end was come.

    And presently, when Madame was quiet and slept, the girl bowed her head
    over the unconscious object of her love and wept, bitterly,
    passionately, wetting with her tears the long grey hair that strewed the
    pillow, as she recalled with pitiful clearness all the stages of
    concealment, all the things which she had done to avert this end.
    Vainly, futilely, for it was come. The dark mornings of winter recurred
    to her mind, those mornings when she had risen and dressed herself by
    rushlight, with this fear redoubling the chill gloom of the cold house;
    the nights, too, when all had been well, and in the last hour before
    sleep, finding her mother sane and cheerful, she had nursed the hope
    that the latest attack might be the last. The evenings brightened by
    that hope, the mornings darkened by its extinction, the rare hours of
    brooding, the days and weeks of brave struggle, of tendance never
    failing, of smiles veiling a sick heart--she lived all these again,
    looking pitifully back, straining tenderly in her arms the dear being
    she loved.

    And then, stabbing her back to life in the midst of her exhaustion, the
    thought pierced her that even now she was hastening the end by her
    absence. They would be asking for her below; they must be asking for her
    already. The supper-time was come, was past, perhaps; and she was not
    there! She tried to picture what would happen, what already must be
    happening; and rising and dashing the tears from her face she stood
    listening. Perhaps Claude would make some excuse to the others; or,
    perhaps--how much had he guessed?

    Her mother was passive now, sunk in the torpor which followed the
    attack and from which the poor woman would awake in happy
    unconsciousness of the whole. Anne saw that her charge might be left,
    and hastily smoothing the tangle of luxuriant hair which had fallen
    about her face, she opened the door. Another might have stayed to allay
    the fever of her cheeks, to remove the traces of her tears, to stay the
    quivering of her hands; but such small cares were not for her, nor for
    the occasion. She could form no idea of the length of time she had spent
    upstairs, a half-hour, or an hour and a half; and without more ado she
    raised the latch, slipped out, and turning the key on her patient ran
    down the upper flight of stairs.

    She anticipated many things, but not that which she encountered--silence
    on the upper landing, and below when she had descended and opened the
    staircase door--an empty room. The place was vacant; the tables were as
    she had left them, half laid; the pot was gently simmering over the

    What had happened? The supper-hour was past, yet none of the four who
    should have sat down to the meal were here. Had they overheard her
    mother's terrible cry--those words which voiced the woman's despair on
    finding, as she fancied, the city betrayed? And were they gone to
    denounce her? The thought was discarded as soon as formed; and before
    she could hit on a second explanation a hasty knocking on the door
    turned her eyes that way.

    The four who lodged in the house were not in the habit of knocking, for
    the door was only locked at night when the last retired. She approached
    it then, wondering, hesitated an instant, and at last, collecting her
    courage, raised the latch. The door resisted her impulse. It was locked.

    She tried it twice, and it was only as she drew back the second time
    that she saw the key lying at the foot of the door. That deepened the
    mystery. Why had they locked her in? Why, when they had done so, had
    they thrust the key under the door and so placed it in her power? Had
    Claude Mercier done it that the others might not enter to hear what he
    had heard and discover what he had discovered? Possibly. In which case
    the knocker--who at that instant made a second and more earnest attack
    upon the door--must be one of the others, and the sooner she opened the
    door the less would be the suspicion created.

    With an apology trembling on her lips she hastened to open. Then she
    stood bewildered; she saw before her, not one of the lodgers, but Messer
    Blondel. "I wish to speak to you," the magistrate said with firmness.
    Before she knew what was happening he had motioned to her to go before
    him into the house, and following had locked the door behind them.

    She knew him by sight, as did all Geneva; and the blood, which surprise
    at the sight of a stranger had brought to her cheeks, fled as she
    recognised the Syndic. Had they betrayed her, then, while she lingered
    upstairs? Had they locked her in while they summoned the magistrate? And
    was he here to make inquiries about--something he had heard?

    His voice cut short her thoughts without allaying her fears. "I wish to
    speak to you alone," he said. "Are you alone, girl?" His manner was
    quiet, but masked excitement. His eyes scrutinised her and searched the
    room by turns.

    She nodded, unable to speak.

    "There is no one in the house with you?"

    "Only my mother," she murmured.

    "She is bedridden, is she not? She cannot hear us?" he added, frowning.

    "No, but I am expecting the others to return."

    "Messer Basterga?"


    "He will not return before morning," the Syndic replied with decision,
    "nor his companion. The two young men are safe also. If you are alone,
    therefore, I wish to speak to you."

    She bowed her head, trembling and wondering, fearing what the next
    moment might disclose.

    "The young man who lodges here--of the name of Gentilis--he came to you
    some time ago and told you that the State needed certain letters which
    the man Basterga kept in a steel box upstairs? That is so, is it not?"

    "Yes, Messer Syndic."

    "And you looked for them?"

    "Yes, I--I was told that you desired them."

    "You found a phial? You found a phial?" the Syndic repeated, passing his
    tongue over his lips. His face was flushed; his eyes shone with a
    peculiar brightness.

    "I found a small bottle," she answered slowly. "There was nothing else."

    He raised his hand. If she had known how the delay of a second tortured
    him! "Describe it to me!" he said. "What was it like?"

    Wondering, the girl tried to describe it. "It was small and of a strange
    shape, of thin glass, Messer Syndic," she said. "Shot with gold, or
    there was gold afloat in the liquid inside. I do not know which."

    "It was not empty?"

    "No, it was three parts full."

    His hand went to his mouth, to hide the working of his lips. "And there
    was with it--a paper, I think?"


    "A scrap of parchment then? Some words, some figures?" His voice rose
    as he read a negative in her face. "There was something, surely?"

    "There was nothing," she said. "Had there been a scrap even of

    "Yes, yes?" He could not control his impatience.

    "I should have sent it to you. I should have thought," she continued
    earnestly, "that it was that you needed, Messer Syndic; that it was that
    the State needed. But there was nothing."

    "Well, be there papers with it or be there not, I must have that phial!"

    Anne stared. "But I do not think"--she ventured with hesitation--and
    then as she gained courage, she went on more firmly--"that I can take
    it! I dare not, Messer Syndic."

    "Why not?"

    "Papers for the State--were one thing," she stammered in confusion; "but
    to take this--a bottle--would be stealing!"

    The Syndic's eyes sparkled. His passion overcame him. "Girl, don't play
    with me!" he cried. "Don't dare to play with me!" And then as she shrank
    back alarmed by his tone, and shocked by this sudden peeping forth of
    the tragic and the real, lo, in a twinkling he was another man,
    trembling, and holding out shaking hands to her. "Get it for me!" he
    said. "Get it for me, girl! I will tell you what it is! If I had told
    you before, I had had it now, and I should be whole and well! whole and
    well. You have a heart and can pity! Women can pity. Then pity me! I am
    rich, but I am dying! I am a dying man, rising up and lying down,
    counting the days as I walk the streets, and seeing the shroud rise
    higher and higher upon my breast!"

    He paused for breath, endeavouring to gain some command of himself;
    while she, carried off her feet by this rush of words, stared at him in
    stupefaction. Before he came he had made up his mind to tell her the
    truth--or something like the truth. But he had not intended to tell the
    truth in this way until, face to face with her and met by her scruples,
    he let the impulse to tell the whole carry him away.

    He steadied his lips with a shaking hand. "You know now why I want it,"
    he resumed, speaking huskily and with restrained emotion. "'Tis life!
    Life, girl! In that"--he fought with himself before he could bring out
    the word--"in that phial is my life! Is life for whoever takes it! It is
    the _remedium_, it is strength, life, youth, and but one--but one dose
    in all the world! Do you wonder--I am dying!--that I want it? Do you
    wonder--I am dying!--that I will have it? But"--with a strange grimace
    intended to reassure her--"I frighten you, I frighten you."

    "No!" she said, though in truth she had unconsciously retreated almost
    to the door of the staircase before his extended hands. "But I--I
    scarcely understand, Messer Blondel. If you will please to tell me----"

    "Yes, yes!"

    "What Messer Basterga--how he comes to have this?" She must parley with
    him until she could collect her thoughts; until she could make up her
    mind whether he was sane or mad and what it behoved her to do.

    "Comes to have it!" he cried vehemently. "God knows! And what matter?
    'Tis the _remedium_, I tell you, whoever has it! It is life, strength,
    youth!" he repeated, his eyes glittering, his face working, and the
    impulse to tell her not the truth only, but more even than the truth, if
    he might thereby dazzle her, carrying him away. "It is health of body,
    though you be dying, as I am! And health of mind though you be
    possessed of devils! It is a cure for all ills, for all weaknesses, all
    diseases, even," with a queer grimace, "for the Scholar's evil! Think
    you, if it were not rare, if it were not something above the common, if
    it were not what leeches seek in vain, I should be here! I should have
    more than enough to buy it, I, Messer Blondel of Geneva!" He ceased,
    lacking breath.

    "But," she said timidly, "will not Messer Basterga give it to you? Or
    sell it to you?"

    "Give it to me? Sell it to me? He?" Blondel's hands flew out and clawed
    the air as if he had the Paduan before him, and would tear it from him.
    "He give it me? No, he will not. Nor sell it! He is keeping it for the
    Grand Duke! The Grand Duke? Curse him; why should he escape more than

    Anne stared. Was she dreaming or had her brain given way? Or was this
    really Messer Blondel the austere Syndic, this man standing before her,
    shaking in his limbs as he poured forth this strange farrago of
    _remedia_ and scholars and princes and the rest? Or if she were not mad
    was he mad? Or could there be truth, any truth, any fact in the medley?
    His clammy face, his trembling hands, answered for his belief in it. But
    could there be such a thing in nature as this of which he spoke? She had
    heard of panaceas, things which cured all ills alike; but hitherto they
    had found no place in her simple creed. Yet that he believed she could
    not doubt; and how much more he knew than she did! Such things might be;
    in the cabinets of princes, perhaps, purchasable by a huge fortune and
    by the labour, the engrossment, the devotion of a life. She did not
    know; and for him his acts spoke.

    "It was this that Louis Gentilis was seeking?" she murmured.

    "What else?" he retorted, opening and shutting his hands. "Had I told
    him the truth, as I have told you, the thing had been in my grasp now!"

    "But are you sure," she ventured to ask with respect, "that it will do
    these things, Messer Blondel?"

    He flung up his hands in a gesture of impatience. "And more! And more!"
    he cried. "It is life and strength, I tell you! Health and youth! For
    body or mind, for the old or the young! But enough! Enough, girl!" he
    resumed in an altered tone, a tone grown peremptory and urgent. "Get it
    me! Do you hear? Stand no longer talking! At any moment they may return,
    and--and it may be too late."

    Too late! It was too late already. The door shook even as he spoke under
    an angry summons. As he stiffened where he stood, his eyes fixed upon
    it, his hand still pointing her to his bidding, a face showed white at
    the window and vanished again. An instant he imagined it Basterga's; and
    hand, voice, eyes, all hung frozen. Then he saw his mistake--to
    whomsoever the face belonged, it was not Basterga's; and finding voice
    and breath again, "Quick!" he muttered fiercely, "do you hear, girl? Get
    it! Get it before they enter!"

    Her hand was on the latch of the inner door. Another second and, swayed
    by his will, she would have gone up and got the thing he needed, and the
    stout door would have shielded them, and within the staircase he might
    have taken it from her and no one been the wiser. But as she turned,
    there came a second attack on the door, so loud, so persistent, so
    furious, that she faltered, remembering that the duplicate key of
    Basterga's chamber was in her mother's room, and that she must mount to
    the top of the house for it.

    He saw her hesitation, and, shaken by the face which had looked in out
    of the night, and which still might be watching his movements, his
    resolution gave way. The habit of a life of formalism prevailed. The
    thing was as good as his, she would get it presently. Why, then, cause
    talk and scandal by keeping these persons--whoever they were--outside,
    when the thing might be had without talk?

    "To-night!" he cried rapidly. "Get it to-night, then! Do you hear, girl?
    You will be sure to get it?" His eyes flitted from her to the door and
    back again. "Basterga will not return until to-morrow. You will get it

    She murmured some form of assent.

    "Then open the door! open the door!" he urged impatiently. And with a
    stifled oath, "A little more and they will rouse the town!"

    She ran to obey, the door flew open, and into the room bundled first
    Louis without his cap; and then on his heels and gripping him by the
    nape, Claude Mercier. Nor did the latter seem in the least degree
    abashed by the presence in which he found himself. On the contrary, he
    looked at the Syndic, his head high; as if he, and not the magistrate,
    had the right to an explanation.

    But Blondel had recovered himself. "Come, come!" he said sternly. "What
    is this, young man? Are you drunk?"

    "Why was the door locked?"

    "That you might not interrupt me," Blondel replied severely, "while I
    asked some questions. I have it in my mind to ask you some also. You
    took him to my house?" he continued, addressing Louis.

    Louis whined that he had.

    "You were late then?" His cold eye returned to Claude. "You were late, I
    warrant. Attend me to-morrow at nine, young man. Do you hear? Do you


    "Then have a care you are there, or the officers will fetch you. And
    you," he continued, turning more graciously to Anne, "see, young woman,
    you keep counsel. A still tongue buys friends, and is a service to the
    State. With that--good-night."

    He looked from one to the other with a sour smile, nodded, and passed

    He left Claude staring, and something bewildered in the middle of the
    room. The love, the pity, the admiration of which the lad's heart had
    been full an hour before, still hungered for expression; but it was not
    easy to vent such feelings before Louis, nor at a moment when the
    Syndic's cold eye and the puzzle of his presence there chilled for the
    time the atmosphere of the room.

    Claude, indeed, was utterly perplexed by what he had seen; and before he
    could decide what he would do, Anne, ignoring the need of explanation,
    had taken the matter into her own hands. She had begun to set out the
    meal; and Louis, smiling maliciously, had seated himself in his place.
    To speak with any effect then, or to find words adequate to the feelings
    that had moved him a while before, was impossible. A moment later, the
    opportunity was gone.

    "You must please to wait on yourselves," the girl said wearily. "My
    mother is not well, and I may not come down again this evening." As she
    spoke, she lifted from the table the little tray which she had prepared.

    He was in time to open the door for her; and even then, had she glanced
    at him, his eyes must have told her much, perhaps enough. But she did
    not look at him. She was preoccupied with her own thoughts; pressing
    thoughts they must have been. She passed him as if he had been a
    stranger, her eyes on the tray. Worshipping, he stood, and saw her turn
    the corner at the head of the flight; then with a full heart he went
    back to his place. His time would come.

    And she? At the door of Basterga's room she paused and stood long in
    thought, gazing at the rushlight she carried on the tray--yet seeing
    nothing. A sentence, one sentence of all those which Blondel had poured
    forth--not Blondel the austere Syndic, who had set the lads aside as if
    they had been schoolboys, but Blondel the man, trembling, holding out
    suppliant hands--rang again and again in her ears.

    "It is health of body, though you be dying as I am, and health of mind,
    though you be possessed of devils!" Health of body! Health of mind!
    Health of body! Health of mind! The words wrote themselves before her
    eyes in letters of fire. Health of Body! Health of Mind!

    And only one dose in all the world. Only one dose in all the world! She
    recalled that too.
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