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The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 28081

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The Hotel de Périgny stood in the Rue des Augustines, diagonally opposite the historic pile once occupied by Henri II and Diane de Poitiers, the beautiful and fascinating Duchesse de Valentinois of equivocal yet enduring fame. It was constructed in the severe beauty of Roman straight lines, and the stains of nearly two centuries had discolored the blue-veined Italian marble. A high wall inclosed it, and on the top of this wall ran a miniature cheval-de-frise of iron. Nighttime or daytime, in mean or brilliant light, it took on the somber visage of a kill-joy. The invisible hand of fear chilled and repelled the curious: it was a house of dread. There were no gardens; the flooring of the entire court was of stone; there was not even the usual vine sprawling over the walls.

Men had died in this house; not always in bed, which is to say, naturally. Some had died struggling in the gloomy corridors, in the grand salon, on the staircase leading to the upper stories. In the Valois's time it had witnessed many a violent night; for men had held life in a careless hand, and the master of fence had been the law-giver. Three of the House of Périgny had closed their accounts thus roughly. The grandsire and granduncle of the present marquis, both being masters of fence, had succumbed in an attempt to give law to each other. And the apple of discord, some say, had been the Duchesse de Valentinois. The third to die violently was the ninth marquis, father of the present possessor of the title. History says that he died of too much wine and a careless tongue. Thus it will be seen that the blood in the veins of this noble race was red and hot.

Children, in mortal terror, scampered past the h?tel; at night sober men, when they neared it, crossed the street. Few of the Rochellais could describe the interior; these were not envied of their knowledge. It had been tenanted but twice in thirty years. Of the present generation none could remember having seen it cheerful with lights. The ignorant abhor darkness; it is the meat upon which their superstition feeds. To them, deserted houses are always haunted, if not by spirits at least by the memory of evil deeds.

The master of this house of dread was held in awe by the citizens to whom he was a word, a name to be spoken lowly, even when respect tinctured the utterance. Stories concerning the marquis had come from Paris and Périgny, and travel, the good gossip, had distorted acts of mere eccentricity into deeds of violence and wickedness. The nobility, however, did not share the popular belief. They beheld in the marquis a great noble whose right to his title ran back to the days when a marquisate meant the office of guarding the marshes and frontiers for the king. Besides, the marquis had been the friend of two kings, the lover of a famous beauty, the husband of the daughter of a Savoy prince. These three virtues balanced his moral delinquencies. To the popular awe in which the burghers held him there was added a large particle of distrust; for during the great rebellion he had served neither the Catholics nor the Huguenots; neither Richelieu, his enemy, nor De Rohan, his friend. Catholics proclaimed him a Huguenot, Huguenots declared him a Catholic; yet, no one had ever seen him attend mass, the custom of good Catholics, nor had any heard him pray in French, the custom of good Huguenots. What then, being neither one nor the other? An atheist, whispered the wise, a word which was then accepted in its narrowest cense: that is to say, Monsieur le Marquis had sold his soul to the devil.

Périgny, it is not to be denied, was a sinister sound in the ears of a virtuous woman. To the ultra-pious and the bigoted, it was a letter in the alphabet of hell. Yet, there was in this grim chain of evil repute one link which did not conform with the whole. The marquis never haggled with his tradesmen, never beat his servants or his animals, and opened his purse to the poor with more frequency than did his religious neighbors. Those who believed in his total wickedness found it impossible to accept this incongruity.

For ten years the h?tel had remained in darkness; then behold! but a month gone, a light was seen shining from one of the windows. The watch, upon investigation, were informed that Monsieur le Marquis had returned to the city and would remain indefinitely. After this, on several occasions the h?tel was lighted cheerfully enough. Monsieur le Marquis's son entertained his noble friends and the officers from Fort Louis. There was wine in plenty and play ran high. The marquis, however, while he permitted these saturnalia, invariably held aloof. It was servants' hall gossip that the relations existing between father and son were based upon the coldest formalities. Conversation never went farther than "Good morning, Monsieur le Marquis" and "Good morning, Monsieur le Comte." The marquis pretended not to understand when any referred to his son as the "Chevalier du Cévennes." It was also gossiped that this noble house was drawing to its close; for the Chevalier had declined to marry, and was drinking and gaming heavily; and to add to the marquis's chagrin, the Chevalier had been dismissed from court, in disgrace,-a calamity which till now had never fallen upon the House of Périgny.

The marquis was growing old. As he sat before the fire in the grand salon, the flickering yellow light playing over his features, which had a background of moving, deep velvet-brown shadows, he might have been the theme of some melancholy whim by Rubens, a stanza by Dante. His face was furrowed like a frosty road. Veins sprawled over his hands which rested on the arms of his chair, and the knuckles shone like ivory through the drawn transparent skin. The long fingers drummed ceaselessly and the head teetered; for thus senility approaches. His lips, showing under a white mustache, were livid and fallen inward. The large Alexandrian nose had lost its military angle, and drooped slightly at the tip: which is to say, the marquis no longer acted, he thought; he was no longer the soldier, but the philosopher. The domineering, forceful chin had the essentials of a man of justice, but it was lacking in that quality of mercy which makes justice grand. Over the Henri IV ruff fell the loose flesh of his jaws. Altogether, it was the face of a man who was practically if not actually dead. But in the eyes, there lay the life of the man. From under jutting brows they peered as witnesses of a brain which had accumulated a rare knowledge of mankind, man's shallowness, servility, hypocrisy, his natural inability to obey the simplest laws of nature; a brain which was set in motion always by calculation, never by impulse. They were grey eyes, bold and fierce and liquid as a lion's. None among the great had ever beaten them down, for they were truthful eyes, almost an absolute denial of the life he had lived. But truth to the marquis was not a moral obligation. He was truthful as became a great noble who was too proud and fearless of consequences to lie. In his youth he had been called Antinous to Henri's Caesar; but there is a certain type of beauty which, if preyed upon by vices, becomes sardonic in old age.

At his elbow stood a small Turkish table on which were a Venetian bell and a light repast, consisting of a glass of weakened canary and a plate of biscuits spread sparingly with honey. Presently the marquis drank the wine and struck the bell. Jehan, the marquis's aged valet, entered soon after with a large candelabrum of wax candles. This he placed on the mantel. Even with this additional light, the other end of the salon remained in semi-darkness. Only the dim outline of the grand staircase could be seen.

Over the mantel the portrait of a woman stood out clearly and definitely. It represented Madame la Marquise at twenty-two, when Marie de Médicis had commanded the young Rubens to paint the portrait of one of the few women who had volunteered to share her exile. Madame lived to be only twenty-four, happily.

"Jehan, light the chandelier," said the marquis. His voice, if high, was still clear and strong. "Has Monsieur le Comte ventured forth in this storm?"

"Yes, Monsieur; but he left word that he would return later with a company of friends."

"Friends?" The marquis shrugged. "Is that what he calls them? When do these grasping Jesuits visit me?"

"At eight, Monsieur. They are due this moment, unless they have failed to make the harbor."

"And they bring the savage? Good. He will interest me, and I am dying of weariness. I shall see a man again. Arrange some chairs next to me, bring a bottle of claret, and a thousand livres from the steward's chest. And listen, Jehan, let Monsieur le Comte's servant give orders to the butler for his master. I forbid you to do it."

"Yes, Monsieur," and Jehan proceeded to light the chandelier, the illumination of which brought out distinctly the tarnished splendor of the salon. Jehan retired.

The marquis, to steady his teetering head, rested his chin on his hands, which were clasped over the top of his walking-stick. Occasionally his eyes roved to the portrait of his wife, and a melancholy, unreadable smile broke the severe line of his lips.

"A beautiful woman," he mused aloud, "though she did not inspire me with love. Beauty: that is the true religion, that is the shrine of worship, as the Greeks understood it; beauty of woman. Woman was born to express beauty, man to express strength. We detest weakness in a man, and a homely woman is a crime. And so De Brissac passed violently? And his oaths of vengeance were breaths on a mirror. Ah well, I had ceased to hate him these twenty years. Did he love yonder woman, or was his fancy like mine, ephemeral? And he married Mademoiselle de Montbazon? That is droll, a kind of tentative vengeance."

His eyes closed and he fell into a dreaming state. Like all men who have known eventful but useless lives, the marquis lived in the past. The future held for him nothing cut pain and death, and his thought seldom went forth to meet it. Day after day he sat alone with his souvenirs, unmindful of the progress about him, indifferent.

When the valet returned with the wine and the livres, he placed three chairs within easy distance of the marquis, and waited to learn what further orders his master had in mind.

The marquis opened his eyes. "When Messieurs the Jesuits come, show them in at once. The hypocrites come on a begging errand. After I have humiliated them, I shall give them money, and they will say, 'Absolvo te.' It is simple. And they will promise to pray for the repose of my soul when I am dead. My faith, how easy it is to gain Heaven! A thousand livres, a prayer mumbled in Latin, and look! Heaven is for the going. The thief and the murderer, the fool and the wise man, the rich and the beggared, how they must jostle one another in the matter of precedence! Poor Lucifer! Who will lend Lucifer a thousand livres and an 'Absolvo te'?"

Jehan crossed himself, for he was a pious Catholic.

"Hypocrite!" snarled the marquis; "Have I not forbidden you this mummery in my presence? Begone!"

The Swiss clock on the mantel had chimed the first quarter after eight ere the marquis was again disturbed. He turned in his seat to witness the entrance of his unwelcome guests. He smiled, but not pleasantly.

"Be seated, Messieurs," he said, waving his hand toward the chairs, and eying the Iroquois with that curiosity with which one eyes a new species of animal. Next his gaze fell upon Brother Jacques, whose look, burning and intense, aroused a sense of impatience in the marquis's breast. "Monsieur," he said peevishly, "have not the women told you that you are too handsome for a priest?"

"If so, Monsieur," imperturbably, "I have not heard." And while a shade of color grew in his cheeks, Brother Jacques's look was calm and undisturbed.

"And you are Father Chaumonot?" said the marquis turning to the elder. His glance discovered a finely modeled head, a high benevolent brow, eyes mild and intelligent, a face marred neither by greed nor by cunning; not handsome, rather plain, but wholesome, amiable, and with a touch of those human qualities which go toward making a man whole. There was even a suspicion of humor in the fine wrinkles gathered around the eyes. The marquis pictured this religious pioneer in the garb of a soldier. "You would be a man but for that robe," he said, when his scrutiny was brought to an end.

"I pray God that I may be a man for it."

The marquis laughed. He loved a man of quick reply. "What do you call him?" indicating the Indian, whose dark eyes were constantly roving.

"The Black Kettle is his Indian name; but I have baptized him as Dominique."

"Tell him for me that he is a man."

"My son," said Chaumonot, speaking slowly in French, "the white chief says that you are a man."

The Iroquois expanded under this flattery. "The white chief has the proud eye of the eagle."

"Devil take me!" cried the marquis; "but it seems that he talks very good French!"

"It took some labor," replied Chaumonot; "but he was quick to learn, and he is of great assistance to me."

"Is he a Catholic?" curiously.

"Aye, and proud to be."

The marquis signified his astonishment by wagging his head. "I should like to see this Indian at mass; it must be very droll."

"Monsieur," said Chaumonot, passing over the marquis's questionable irony, "will you permit me to tell you a short story before approaching the subject of my visit?"

"Rabelaisian?" maliciously.

"No; not a monstrous story, but one relative to an act of kindness which took place many years ago."

"Well, if I am not interested I shall interrupt you," said the marquis. He swept his hand toward the wine, but the priests and the Iroquois respectfully declined. "Proceed."

"Once upon a time," began Chaumonot, his eyes directed toward the bronze console which supported the mantel, "there lived a lad whose fa

ther was a humble vine-dresser. At the age of ten he was sent to Chatillon, where he lived with his uncle, a priest, who taught him Latin and Holy history. This did not prevent him from yielding to the persuasion of one of his companions to run off to Beaune, where the two proposed to study music under the Fathers of Oratory. To provide funds for the journey, he stole a dozen livres from his uncle, the priest. Arriving at Beaune, he became speedily destitute. He wrote home to his mother for money. She showed the letter to his father, who ordered him home. Stung by the thought of being branded a thief in his native town, he resolved not to return, but in expiation to set out forthwith on a pilgrimage to Rome. Tattered and penniless, he took the road to Rome. He was proud, this boy, and at first refused to beg; but misery finally forced his pride to its knees, and his hand stretched forth from door to door. He slept in open fields, in cowsheds, in haystacks, occasionally finding lodging in a convent. Thus, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of wandering vagabonds, he made his way through Savoy and Lombardy in a pitiable condition of destitution and disease. At length he arrived at Ancona, where the thought occurred to him of visiting the Holy House of Loretto, and of applying for succor of the Holy Virgin. Patience, Monsieur; only a moment more."

The marquis, leaning on his cane, was distorting his lips and wrinkling his eyebrows.

"The lad's hopes were not disappointed. He had reached the renowned shrine, knelt, paid his devotions, when, as he issued from the chapel door, he was accosted by an elegant cavalier, who was having some difficulty with a stirrup. He asked the wretched boy to hold the horse, and for this service gave him five Spanish pistoles of gold."

The expression on the marquis's face was now one of animation.

"Is it possible! I recall the episode distinctly. I was on the way to my marriage."

"Well, Monsieur le Marquis, I have never forgotten that service. I have always treasured that act of kindness. For those five pistoles renewed life, took me to my journey's end, and eventually led me into the Society of Jesus. I have always desired the pleasure of meeting you and thanking you personally." Chaumonot's face beamed.

"Be not hasty with your thanks. I have forgotten the purpose I had in mind when I gave you those pistoles. Ah well, I will leave you with the illusion that it was an act of generosity. And as I remember, you were a pitiful looking young beggar." Turning to Brother Jacques, the marquis said: "Have I ever done you a service?"

"No, Monsieur le Marquis; you have never done me a service." There was a strange irony beneath the surface of these words. Chaumonot did not notice it, but the marquis, who was a perfect judge of all those subtile phases of conversation, caught the jangling note; and it caused him to draw together his brows in a puzzled frown.

"Have I ever met you till now?" he asked.

"Not that I know of, Monsieur." The tone was gentle, respectful.

"There is something familiar about your face;" and the marquis stared into space; but he could not conjure up the memory he sought. He had seen this handsome priestly face before. Where?

Brother Jacques's features were without definite expression.

Presently the marquis roused himself from the past. "I received your letter in regard to funds. How is it that you came to me?"

"You have gained the reputation of being liberal."

"I have several reputations," said the marquis dryly. "But why should I give you a thousand livres? That is a good many."

"Oh, Monsieur, give what you like; only that sum was suggested by me because it is the exact amount needed in our work."

"But I am out of sympathy with your projects and your religion, especially your religion. I am neither a Catholic nor a Huguenot. Religion which seeks political domination is not a religion, but a party. And what are Catholicity and Huguenotism but political factions, with a different set of prayers? Next to a homely woman, there is nothing I detest so much as politics. I have no religion."

"It would be a great joy," said Chaumonot, "to bring about your conversion."

"You have heard of Sisyphus, who was condemned eternally to roll a stone up a hill? Well, Monsieur, that would be a simple task compared with an attempt to convert me to Catholicism. I believe in three things: life, pleasure, and death, because I know them to exist."

"And pain, Monsieur?" said Brother Jacques softly.

"Ah well, and pain," abstractedly. "But as to Heaven and hell, bah! Let some one prove to me that there exists a hereafter other than silence; I am not unreasonable. People say that I am an infidel, an atheist. I am simply a pagan, even more of a pagan than the Greeks, for they worshiped marble. Above all things I am a logician; and logic can not feed upon suppositions; it must have facts. Why should I be a Catholic, to exterminate all the Huguenots; a Huguenot, to annihilate all the Catholics? No, no! Let all live; let each man worship what he will and how. There is but one end, and this end focuses on death, unfeeling sod, and worms. Shall I die to-morrow? I enjoyed yesterday. And had I died yesterday, I should now be beyond the worry of to-morrow. I wish no man's death, because he believes not as I believe. I wish his death only when he has wronged me … or I have wronged him. I do not say to you, 'Monsieur, be a heretic'; I say merely, permit me to be one if I choose. And what is a soul?" He blew upon the gold knob of his stick, and watched the moisture evaporate.

"Thought, Monsieur; thought is the soul. Can you dissect the process of reason? Can you define of what thought consists? No, Monsieur; there you stop. You possess thought, but you can not tell whence it comes, or whither it goes when it leaves this earthly casket. This is because thought is divine. When on board a ship, in whom do you place your trust?" Chaumonot's eyes were burning with religious zeal.

"I trust the pilot, because I see him at the wheel. I speak to him, and he tells me whither we are bound. I understand your question, and have answered it. You would say, 'God is the pilot of our souls.' But what proof? I do not see God; and I place no trust in that which I can not see. Thought, you say, is the soul. Well, then, a soul has the ant, for it thinks. What! a Heaven and a hell for the ant? Ah, but that would be droll! I own to but one goddess, and she is chastening. That is Folly! She is a liberal creditor. How bravely she lends us our excesses! When we are young, Folly is a boon companion. She opens her purse to us, laughing. But let her find that we have overdrawn our account with nature, then does Folly throw aside her smiling mask, become terrible with her importunities, and hound us into the grave. I am paying Folly, Monsieur," exhibiting a palsied hand. "I am paying in precious hours for the dross she lent me in my youth."

Chaumonot could not contain his indignation against this fallacious reasoning. He knew that his words might lose him a thousand livres; nevertheless he said bravely: "Monsieur le Marquis, it is such men as yourself who make the age what it is; it is philosophy such as yours that corrupts and degenerates. It is wrong, I say, a thousand times wrong. Being without faith, you are without a place to stand on; you are without hope; you live in darkness, and everything before you must be hollow, empty, joyless. You think, yet deny the existence of a soul! Folly has indeed been your god. Oh, Monsieur, it is frightful!" And the zealot rose and crossed himself, expecting a fiery outburst and instant dismissal. He could not repress a sigh. A thousand livres were a great many.

But the marquis acted quite contrary to his expectations. He astonished the good man by laughing and pounding the floor with his cane.

"Good!" he cried. "I like a man of your kidney. You have an opinion and the courage to support it. You are still less a Jesuit than a man. Brother Jacques here might have acquiesced to all my theories rather than lose a thousand livres."

"You are wrong, Monsieur," replied Brother Jacques quietly. "I should go to further lengths of disapprobation. I should say that Monsieur le Marquis's philosophy is the cult of fools and of madmen, did I not know that he was simply testing our patience when he advanced such impossible theories."

"What! two of them?" sarcastically. "I compliment you both upon risking my good will for an idea."

Chaumonot sighed more deeply. The marquis motioned him to his chair.

"Sit down, Monsieur; you have gained my respect. Frankness in a Jesuit? Come; what has the Society come to that frankness replaces cunning and casuistry? Bah! There never was an age but had its prude to howl 'O these degenerate days!' Corrupt and degenerate you say? Yes; that is the penalty of greatness, richness, and idleness. It began with the Egyptians, it struck Rome and Athens; it strikes France to-day. Yesterday we wore skins and furs, to-day silks and woolens, to-morrow … rags, mayhap. But listen: human nature has not changed in these seven thousand years, nor will change. Only governments and fashions change … and religions."

There was a pause. Chaumonot wondered vaguely how he could cope with this man who was flint, yet unresponsive to the stroke of steel. Had the possibility of the thousand livres become nothing? Again he sighed. He glanced at Brother Jacques, but Brother Jacques was following the marquis's lead … sorting visions in the crumbling, glowing logs. As for the Indian, he was admiring the chandelier.

"Monsieur," said Brother Jacques, breaking the silence, but not removing his gaze from the logs, "it is said that you have killed many men in duels."

"What would you?" complacently. "All men fight when need says must. I never fought without cause, just or unjust. And the Rochellais have added a piquant postscript that for every soul I have despatched …"

"You speak of soul, Monsieur?" interrupted Chaumonot.

"A slip of the tongue. What I meant to say was, that for every life I've sent out of the world, I've brought another into it," with a laugh truly Rabelaisian.

Brother Jacques's hands were attacked by a momentary spasm. Only the Indian witnessed this sign of agitation; but the conversation was far above his learning and linguistic resources, and he comprehended nothing.

"Well, Monsieur Chaumonot," said the marquis, who was growing weary of this theological discussion, "Here are your livres in the sum of one thousand. I tell you frankly that it had been my original intention to subject you to humiliation. But you have won my respect, for all my detestation of your black robes; and if this money will advance your personal ambitions, I give it to you without reservation." He raised the bag and cast it into Chaumonot's lap.

"Monsieur," cried the good man, his face round with delight, "every night in yonder wilderness I shall pray for the bringing about of your conversion. It will be a great triumph for the Church."

"You are wasting your breath. I am not giving a thousand livres for an 'Absolvo te.' Perhaps, after all," and the marquis smiled maliciously, "I am giving you this money to embarrass Monsieur du Rosset, the most devout Catholic in Rochelle. I have heard that he has refused to aid you."

"I shall not look into your purpose," said Chaumonot.

"Monsieur," said Brother Jacques musically, "I am about to ask a final favor."

"More livres?" laughing.

"No. There may come a time when, in spite of your present antagonism, you will change your creed, and on your death-bed desire to die in the Church. Should that time ever come, will you promise me the happiness of administering to you the last sacraments?"

For some time the marquis examined the handsome face, the bold grey eyes and elegant shape of this young enthusiast, and a wonder grew into his own grey eyes.

"Ah well, I give you my promise, since you desire it. I will send for you whenever I consider favorably the subject of conversion. But supposing you are in America at the time?"

"I will come. God will not permit you to die, Monsieur, before I reach your bedside." The young Jesuit stood at full height, his eyes brilliant, his nostrils expanded, his whole attitude one of religious fervor … so Chaumonot and the marquis thought.

At this moment the Chevalier and his company of friends arrived; and they created some noise in making their entrance. To gain the dining-hall, where they always congregated, the company had to pass through the grand salon. The Chevalier had taught his companions to pay no attention to the marquis, his father, nor to offer him their respects, as the marquis had signified his desire to be ignored by the Chevalier's friends. So, led by De Saumaise, who was by now in a most genial state of mind, the roisterers trailed across the room toward the dining-hall, laughing and grumbling over their gains and losses at the Corne d'Abondance. The Chevalier, who straggled in last, alone caught the impressive tableau at the other end of the salon; the two Jesuits and the Indian, their faces en silhouette, a thread of reflected fire following the line of their profiles, and the white head of the marquis. When the young priest turned and the light from the chandelier fell full upon his face, the Chevalier started. So did Brother Jacques, though he quickly assumed a disquieting calm as he returned the Chevalier's salutation.

"What is he doing here?" murmured the Chevalier. "Devil take him and his eyes;" and passed on into the dining-hall.

When the Jesuits and their Indian convert departed, the marquis resumed his former position, his chin on his hands, his hands resting on his cane. From time to time he heard loud laughter and snatches of song which rose above the jingle of the glasses in the dining-hall.

"I am quite alone," he mused, with a smile whimsically sad.

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