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    Chapter 15

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    Chapter 15
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    ON THE BRIDGE.

    To say that the Syndic, as soon as he had withdrawn, repented of his
    weakness and wished with all his heart that he had not opened until the
    _remedium_ was in his hand, is only to say that he was human. He did
    more than this, indeed. When he had advanced some paces in the direction
    of the Porte Tertasse he returned, and for a full minute he stood before
    the Royaumes' door irresolute; half-minded to knock and, casting the
    fear of publicity to the winds, to say that he must have at once that
    for which he had come. He would get it, if he did, he was certain of
    that. And for the rest, what the young men said or thought, or what
    others who heard their story might say or think, mattered not a straw
    now that he came to consider it; since he could have Basterga seized on
    the morrow, and all would pass for a part of his affair.

    Yet he did not knock. A downward step on the slope of indecision is hard
    to retrace. He reflected that he would get the _remedium_ in the
    morning. He would certainly get it. The girl was won over, Basterga was
    away. Practically, he had no one to fear. And to make a stir when the
    matter could be arranged without a stir was not the part of a wise man
    in the position of a magistrate. Slowly he turned and walked away.

    But, as if his good angel touched him on the shoulder, under the Porte
    Tertasse he had qualms; and again he stood. And when, after a shorter
    interval and with less indecision, he resumed his course, it was by no
    means with the air of a victor. He would receive what he needed in the
    morning: he dared not admit a doubt of that. And yet--was it a vague
    presentiment that weighed on him as he walked, or only the wintry night
    wind that caused the blood to run more slowly and more tamely in his
    veins? He had not fared ill in his venture, he had made success certain.
    And yet he was unreasonably, he was unaccountably, he was undefinably
    depressed.

    He grew more cheerful when he had had his supper and seated before a
    half-flagon of wine gave the reins to his imagination. For the space of
    a golden hour he held the _remedium_ in his grasp, he felt its
    life-giving influence course through his frame, he tasted again of
    health and strength and manhood, he saw before him years of success and
    power and triumph! In comparison to it the bath of Pelias, though
    endowed with the virtues which lying Medea attributed to it, had not
    seemed more desirable, nor the elixir of life, nor the herb of Anticyra.
    Nor was it until he had taken the magic draught once and twice and
    thrice in fancy, and as often hugged himself on health renewed and life
    restored that a thought, which had visited him at an earlier period of
    the evening, recurred and little by little sobered him.

    This was the reflection that he knew nothing of the quantity of the
    potion which he must take, nothing of the time or of the manner of
    taking it. Was it to be taken all at once, or in doses? Pure, or diluted
    with wine, or with water, or with _aqua vitæ_? At any hour, or at
    midnight, or at a particular epoch of the moon's age, or when this or
    that star was in the ascendant?

    The question bulked larger as he considered it; for in life no trouble
    is surmounted but another appears to confront us; nor is the most
    perfect success of an imperfect world without its drawback. Now that he
    held the elixir his, now that in fancy he had it in his grasp, the
    problem of the mode and the quantity which had seemed trivial and
    negligible a few days or hours before, grew to formidable dimensions;
    nor could he of himself discover any solution of it. He had counted on
    finding with the potion some scrap of writing, some memorandum, some
    hieroglyphics at least, that, interpreted by such skill as he could
    command, would give him the clue he sought. But if there was nothing, as
    the girl asserted, not a line nor a sign, the matter could be resolved
    in one way only. He must resort to pressure. With the potion and the man
    in his possession, he must force the secret from Basterga; force it by
    threats or promises or aught that would weigh with a man who lay
    helpless and in a dungeon. It would not be difficult to get the truth in
    that way: not at all difficult. It seemed, indeed, as if Providence--and
    Fabri and Petitot and Baudichon--had arranged to put the man in his
    power _ad hoc_.

    He hugged this thought to him, and grew so enamoured of it that he
    wondered that he had not had the courage to seize Basterga in the
    beginning. He had allowed himself to be disturbed by phantoms; there lay
    the truth. He should have seen that the scholar dared not for his own
    sake destroy a thing so precious, a thing by which he might, at the
    worst, ransom his life. The Syndic wondered that he had not discerned
    that point before: and still in sanguine humour he retired to bed, and
    slept better than he had slept for weeks, ay, for months. The elixir was
    his, as good as his; if he did not presently have Messer Basterga by the
    nape he was much mistaken.

    He had had the scholar watched and knew whither he was gone and that he
    would not return before noon. At nine o'clock, therefore, the hour at
    which he had directed Claude to come to him at his house, he approached
    the Royaumes' door. Pluming himself on the stratagem by which twice in
    the twenty-four hours he had rid himself of an inconvenient witness, he
    opened the door boldly and entered.

    On the hearth, cap in hand, stood not Claude, but Louis. The lad wore
    the sneaking air as of one surprised in a shameful action, which such
    characters wear even when innocently employed. But his actions proved
    that he was not surprised. With finger on his lip, and eyes enjoining
    caution, he signed to the Syndic to be silent, and with head aside set
    the example of listening.

    The Syndic was not the man to suffer fools gladly, and he opened his
    mouth. He closed it--all but too late. All but too late, if--the thought
    sent cold shivers down his back--if Basterga had returned. With an air
    almost as furtive as that of the lad before him, he signed to him to
    approach.

    Louis crossed the room with a show of caution the more strange as the
    early December sun was shining and all without was cheerful. "Has he
    come back?" Blondel whispered.

    "Claude?"

    "Fool!" Low as the Syndic pitched his tone it expressed a world of
    contempt. "No, Basterga?"

    The youth shook his head, and again laying his finger to his lips
    listened.

    "What! He has not?" Blondel's colour returned, his eyes bulged out with
    passion. What did the imbecile mean? Because he knew certain things did
    he think himself privileged to play the fool? The Syndic's fingers
    tingled. Another second and he had broken the silence with a vengeance,
    when--

    "You are--too late!" Louis muttered. "Too late!" he repeated with
    protruded lips.

    Blondel glared at him as if he would annihilate him. Too late? What did
    this creature know? Or how could it be too late, if Basterga had not
    returned? Yet the Syndic was shaken. His fingers no longer tingled for
    the other's cheek; he no longer panted to break the silence in a way
    that should startle him. On the contrary, he listened; while his eyes
    passed swiftly round the room, to gather what was amiss. But all seemed
    in order. The lads' bowls and spoons stood on the table, the great roll
    of brown bread lay beside them, and a book, probably Claude's, lay face
    downwards on the board. The door of one of the bedrooms stood open. The
    Syndic's suspicious gaze halted at the closed door. He pointed to it.

    Louis shook his head; then, seeing that this was not enough, "There is
    no one there," he whispered. "But I cannot tell you here. I will follow
    you, honoured sir, to----"

    "The Porte Tertasse."

    "Mercier would meet us, by your leave," Louis rejoined with a faint
    grin.

    The magistrate glared at the tool who on a sudden was turned adviser.
    Still, for the time he must humour him. "The mills, then, on the
    bridge," he muttered. And he opened the door with care and went out.
    With a dreadful sense of coming evil he went along the Corraterie and
    took his way down the steep to the bridge which, far below, curbed the
    blue rushing waters of the Rhone. The roar of the icy torrent and of the
    busy mills, stupendous as it was, was not loud enough to deaden the two
    words that clung to his ears, "Too late! Too late!" Nor did the frosty
    sunshine, gloriously reflected from the line of snowy peaks to eastward,
    avail to pierce the gloom in which he walked. For Louis Gentilis, if it
    should turn out that he had inflicted this penance for naught, there was
    preparing an evil hour.

    The magistrate turned aside on a part of the bridge between two mills.
    With his back to the wind-swept lake and its wide expanse of ruffled
    waves, he stood a little apart from the current of crossers, on a space
    kept clear of loiterers by the keen breeze. He seemed, if any curious
    eye fell on him, to be engaged in watching the swirling torrent pour
    from the narrow channel beneath him, as in warmer weather many a one
    stood to watch it. Here two minutes later Louis found him; and if
    Blondel still cherished hope, if he still fought against fear, or
    maintained courage, the lad's smirking face was enough to end all.

    For a moment, such was the effect on him, Blondel could not speak. At
    last, with an effort, "What is it?" he said. "What has happened?"

    "Much," Louis replied glibly. "Last night, after you had gone, honoured
    sir, I judged by this and that, that there was something afoot. And
    being devoted to your interests, and seeking only to serve you----"

    "The point! The point!" the Syndic ejaculated. "What has happened?"

    "Treachery," the young man answered, mouthing his words with enjoyment;
    it was for him a happy moment. "Black, wicked treachery!" with a glance
    behind him. "The worst, sir, the worst, if I rightly apprehend the
    matter."

    "Curse you," Blondel cried, contrary to his custom, for he was no
    swearer, "you will kill me, if you do not speak."

    "But----"

    "What has happened. What has happened, man!"

    "I was going to tell you, honoured sir, that I watched her----"

    "Anne? The girl?"

    "Yes, and an hour before midnight she took that which you wished me to
    get--the bottle. She went to Basterga's room, and----"

    "Took it! Well? Well?" The Syndic's face, grey a moment before, was
    dangerously suffused with blood. The cane that had inflicted the bruise
    Louis still wore across his visage, quivered ominously. Public as the
    bridge was, open to obloquy and remark as an assault must lay him,
    Blondel was within an inch of striking the lad again. "Well? Well?" he
    repeated. "Is that all you have to tell me?"

    "Would it were!" Louis replied, raising his open hands with
    sanctimonious fervour. "Alas, sir!"

    "You watched her?"

    "I watched her back to her room."

    "Upstairs?"

    "Yes, the room which she occupies with her mother. And kneeling and
    listening, and seeing what I could for your sake," the knave continued,
    not a feature evincing the shame he should have felt, "I saw her handle
    the phial at a little table opposite the door, but hidden by a curtain
    from the bed."

    The Syndic's eyes conveyed the question his lips refused to frame. No
    man, submitted to the torture, has ever suffered more than he was
    suffering.

    But Louis had as much mind to avenge himself as the bravest, if he could
    do so safely; and he would not be hurried. "She held it to the light,"
    he said, dwelling on every syllable, "and turned it this way and that,
    and I could see bubbles as of gold----"

    "Ah!"

    "Whirling and leaping up and down in it as if they lived--God guard us
    from the evil one! Then she knelt----"

    The Syndic uttered an involuntary cry.

    "And prayed," Louis continued, confirming his astonishing statement by a
    nod. "But whether to it--'twas on the table before her--or to the devil,
    or otherwise, I know not. Only"--with damnatory candour--"it had a
    strange aspect. Certainly she knelt, and it was on the table in front of
    her, and her forehead rested on her hands, and----"

    "What then? What then? By Heaven, the point!" gasped Blondel, writhing
    in torture. "What then? blind worm that you are, can you not see that
    you are killing me? What did she do with it? Tell me!"

    "She poured it into a glass, and----"

    "She drank it?"

    "No, she carried it to her mother," Louis replied as slowly as he dared.
    Fawning on the hand that had struck him, he would fain bite it if he
    could do so safely. "I did not see what followed," he went on, "they
    were behind the screen. But I heard her say that it was Madame's
    medicine. And I made out enough----"

    "Ah!"

    "To be sure that her mother drank it."

    Blondel stared at him a moment, wide-eyed; then, with a cry of despair,
    bitter, final, indescribable, the Syndic turned and hurried away. He did
    not hear the timid remonstrances which Louis, who followed a few paces
    behind, ventured to utter. He did not heed the wondering looks of those
    whom he jostled as he plunged into the current of passers and thrust his
    way across the bridge in the direction whence he had come. The one
    impulse in his blind brain was to get home, that he might be alone, to
    think and moan and bewail himself unwatched; even as the first instinct
    of the wounded beast is to seek its lair and lie hidden, there to await
    with piteous eyes and the divine patience of animals the coming of
    death.

    But this man had the instinct only, not the patience. In his case would
    come with thought wild rages, gnawings of regret, tears of blood. That
    he might have, and had not, that he had failed by so little, that he
    had been worsted by his own tools--these things and the bitter irony of
    life's chances would madden and torment him. In an hour he would live a
    lifetime of remorse; yet find in his worst moments no thought more
    poignant than the reflection that had he played the game with courage,
    had he grasped the nettle boldly, had he seized Basterga while it was
    yet time, he might have lived! He might have lived! Ah, God!

    Meanwhile Louis, though consumed with desire to see what would happen,
    remained on the bridge. He had tasted a fearful joy and would fain
    savour more of it if he could do so with a whole skin. But to follow
    seemed perilous; he held the Syndic's mood in too great awe for that. He
    did the next best thing. He hastened to a projecting part of the bridge
    a few paces from the spot where they had conferred; there he raised
    himself on the parapet that he might see which way Blondel turned at the
    end of the bridge. If he entered the town no more could be made of it:
    but if he turned right-handed and by the rampart to the Corraterie,
    Louis' mind was made up to risk something. He would follow to the
    Royaumes' house. The magistrate could hardly blame him for going to his
    own lodging!

    It was a busy hour, and, cold as it was, a fair number of people were
    passing between the island and the upper town. For a moment, look as he
    might, he could not discern the Syndic's spare figure; and he was
    beginning to think that he had missed him when he saw something that in
    a twinkling turned his thoughts. On the bank a little beside the end of
    the bridge stood Claude Mercier. He carried a heavy stick in his hand,
    and he was waiting: waiting, with his eyes fixed on our friend, and a
    look in those eyes that even at that distance raised a gentle sweat on
    Louis' brow.

    It required little imagination to follow Claude's past movements. He had
    gone to the Syndic's house at nine, and finding himself tricked a second
    time had returned hot-foot to the Corraterie. Thence he had tracked the
    two to this place. But how long had he been waiting, Louis wondered; and
    how much had he seen? Something for certain. His face announced that;
    and Louis, hot all over, despite the keen wind and frosty air, augured
    the worst. Cowards however have always one course open. The way was
    clear behind him. He could cross the island to the St. Gervais bank, and
    if he were nimble he might give his pursuer the slip in the maze of
    small streets beside the water. It was odd if the lapse of a few hours
    did not cool young Mercier's wrath, and restore him to a frame of mind
    in which he might be brought to hear reason.

    No sooner planned than done. Or rather it would have been done if
    turning to see that the way was clear behind him, Louis had not
    discovered a second watcher, who from a spot on the edge of the island
    was marking his movements with grim attention. This watcher was
    Basterga. Moreover the glance which apprised Louis of this showed him
    that the scholar's face was as black as thunder.

    Then, if the gods looked down that day upon any mortal with pity, they
    must have looked down on this young man; who was a coward. At the one
    end of the bridge, Claude, with an ugly weapon and a face to match! At
    the other, Basterga, with a black brow and Heaven alone could say how
    much knowledge of his treachery! The scholar could not know of the loss
    of the phial, indeed, for it was clear that he had just returned to the
    city by the St. Gervais gate. But that he soon would know of it, that he
    knew something already, that he had been a witness to the colloquy with
    the Syndic--this was certain.

    At any rate Louis thought so, and his knees trembled under him. He had
    no longer a way of retreat, and out of the corner of his eye he saw
    Claude beginning to advance. What was he to do? The perspiration burst
    out on him. He turned this way and that, now casting wild eyes at the
    whirling current below, now piteous eyes--the eyes of a calf on its way
    to the shambles, and as little regarded--on the thin stream of passers.
    How could they go on their way and leave him to the mercies of this
    madman?

    He smothered a shriek as Claude, now less than twenty paces away, sped a
    look at him. Claude, indeed, was thinking of Anne and her wrongs; and of
    a certain kiss. His face told this so plainly, and that passion was his
    master, that Louis' cheek grew white. What if the ruffian threw him into
    the river? What if--and then like every coward, he chose the remoter
    danger. With Claude at hand, he turned and fled, dashed blindly through
    the passers on the bridge, flung himself on Basterga, and, seizing the
    big scholar by the arm, strove to shelter himself behind him.

    "He is mad!" he gasped. "Mad! Save me! He is going to throw me over!"

    "Steady!" Basterga answered; and he opposed his huge form to Claude's
    rush. "What is this, young man? Coming to blows in the street? For
    shame! For shame!" He moved again so as still to confront him.

    "Give him up!" Claude panted, scarcely preventing himself from attacking
    both. "Give him up, I say, and----"

    "Not till I have heard what he has done! Steady, young man, keep your
    distance!"

    "I will tell you everything! Everything!" Louis whined, clinging to his
    arm.

    "Do you hear what he says?" Basterga replied. "In the meantime, I tell
    you to keep your distance, young man. I am not used to be jostled!"

    Claude hesitated a moment, scowling. Then, "Very well!" he said, drawing
    off with a gesture of menace. "It is only put off: I shall pay him
    another time. It is waiting for you, sneak, bear that in mind!" And
    shrugging his shoulders he turned with as much dignity as he could and
    moved off.

    Basterga wheeled from him to the other. "So!" he said. "You have
    something to tell me, it seems?" And taking the trembling Louis by the
    arm, he drew him aside, a few paces from the approach of the bridge. In
    doing this he hung a moment searching the bridge and the farther bank
    with a keen gaze. He knew, and for some hours had known, on what a
    narrow edge of peril he stood, and that only Blondel's influence
    protected him from arrest. Yet he had returned: he had not hesitated to
    put his head again into the lion's mouth. Still if Louis' words meant
    that certain arrest awaited him, he was not too proud to save himself.

    He could discern no officers on the bridge, and satisfied on the point
    of immediate danger, he turned to his shivering ally. "Well, what is
    it?" he said. "Speak!"

    "I'll tell you the truth," Louis gabbled.

    "You had better!" Basterga replied, in a tone that meant much more than
    he said. "Or you will find me worse to deal with than yonder hot-head! I
    will answer for that."

    "Messer Blondel has been at the house," Louis murmured glibly, his mind
    centred on the question how much he should tell. "Last night and again
    this morning. He has been closeted with Anne and Mercier. And there has
    been some talk--of a box or a bottle."

    "Were they in my room?" Basterga asked, his brow contracting.

    "No, downstairs."

    "Did they get--the box or the bottle?" There was a dangerous note in
    Basterga's voice; and a look in his eyes that scared the lad.

    Louis, as his instinct was, lied again, fleeing the more pressing peril.
    "Not to my knowledge," he said.

    "And you?" The scholar eyed him with bland suavity. "You had nothing to
    do--with all this, I suppose?"

    "I listened. I was in my room, but they thought I was out. When I went,"
    the liar continued, "they discovered me; and Messer Blondel followed me
    and overtook me on the bridge and threatened--that he would have me
    arrested if I were not silent."

    "You refused to be silent, of course?"

    But Louis was too acute to be caught in a trap so patent. He knew that
    Basterga would not believe in his courage, if he swore to it. "No, I
    said I would be silent," he answered. "And I should have been," he
    continued with candour, "if I had not run into your arms."

    "But if you assented to his wish," Basterga retorted, eyeing him keenly,
    "why did he depart after that fashion?"

    "Something happened to him," Louis said. "I do not know what. He seemed
    to be in distress, or to be ill."

    "I could see that," the scholar answered dryly. "But Master Claude? What
    of him? And why was he so enamoured of you that he could not be parted
    from you?"

    "It was to punish me for listening. They followed me different ways."

    "I see. And that is the truth, is it?"

    "I swear it is!"

    The scholar saw no reason why it should not be the truth. Louis, a
    facile tool, had always been of his, the stronger, party. If Blondel
    tampered with any one, he would naturally, if he knew aught of the
    house, suborn Claude or Anne. And Louis, spying and fleeing, and when
    overtaken, promising silence, was quite in the picture. The only thing,
    indeed, which stood out awkwardly, and refused to fall into place, was
    the fashion in which the Syndic had turned and gone off the bridge. And
    for that there might be reasons. He might have been seized with a sudden
    attack of his illness, or he might have perceived Basterga watching him
    from the farther bank.

    On the whole, the scholar, forgetting that cowards are ever liars, saw
    no reason to doubt Louis' story. It did but add one more to the motives
    he had for action: immediate, decisive, striking action, if he would
    save his neck, if he would succeed in his plans. That the Syndic alone
    stood between him and arrest, that by the Syndic alone he lived, he had
    learned at a meeting at which he had been present the previous night at
    the Grand Duke's country house four leagues distant. D'Albigny had been
    there, and Brunaulieu, Captain of the Grand Duke's Guards, and Father
    Alexander, who dreamed of the Episcopate of Geneva, and others--the
    chiefs of the plot, his patrons. To his mortification they had been able
    to tell him things he had not learned, though he was within the city,
    and they without. Among others, that the Council had certain knowledge
    of him and his plans, and but for the urgency of Blondel would have
    arrested him a fortnight before.

    His companions at the midnight supper had detected his dismay, and had
    derided him, thinking that with that there was an end of the mysterious
    scheme which he had refused to impart. They fancied that he would not
    return to the city, or venture his head a second time within the lion's
    jaws. But they reckoned without their man, Basterga with all his faults
    was brave; and he had failed in too many schemes to resign this one
    lightly.

    "Si fractus illabatur orbis
    Impavidum ferient ruinæ,"

    he murmured; and he had ventured, he had passed the gates, he was here.
    Here, with his eyes open to the peril, and open to the necessity of
    immediate action if the slender thread by which all hung were not to
    snap untimely.

    Blondel! He lived by Blondel. And Blondel--why had he left the bridge in
    that strange fashion? Abruptly, desperately, as if something had
    befallen him. Why? He must learn, and that quickly.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 15
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