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   Chapter 34 THE ABSOLUTION OF MONSIEUR LE MARQUIS DE PERIGNY

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 16983

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Chateau Saint Louis shimmered in the November moonlight. It was a castle in dream. Solitude brooded over the pile as a mother broods over an empty cot. High above the citadel the gilded ball of the flagstaff glittered like a warm topaz. Below, the roofs of the warehouses shone like silver under gauze. A crooked black line marked the course of the icy river, and here and there a phantom moon flashed upon it. The quiet beauty of all this was broken by the red harshness of artificial light which gleamed from a single window in the chateau, like a Cyclopean eye. Stillness was within. If any moved about on this floor it was on tiptoe. Death stood at the door and peered into the darkest corners. For the Marquis de Périgny was about to start out upon that journey which has no visible end, which leaves no trail behind: men setting out this way forget the way back, being without desire.

Who shall plumb the depth of the bitterness in this old man's heart, as he lay among his pillows, his head moving feebly from side to side, his attenuated fingers plucking at the coverlet, his tongue stealing slowly along his cracked and burning lips. Fragments of his life passed in ragged panorama. His mind wandered, and again became keen with the old-time cynicism and philosophy, as a coal glows and fades in a fitful wind. In all these weeks he had left his bed but once … to find that his son was lost in the woods, a captive, perhaps dead. Too late; he had always been too late. He had turned the forgiving hand away. And how had he wronged that hand?

"Margot?" he said, speaking to a shadow.

Jehan rose from his chair and approached his master. His withered, leathery face had lost the power to express emotion; but his faded eyes sparkled suspiciously.

"Monsieur?" he said.

"What o'clock is it?" asked the marquis, irritably.

"It is midnight, Monsieur."

"Monsieur le Comte has not come in yet? With his sponging friends, I suppose; drinking and gaming at the Corne d'Abondance." Thus had the marquis spoken in the Rochelle days. "A sip of wine; I am cold." Jehan put his arm around the thin shoulders of his master and held the glass to the trembling lips. A hectic flush superseded the pallor, and the delusion was gone. The coal glowed. "It is you, Jehan? Well, my faithful henchman, you will have to continue the journey alone. My relays have given out. Go back to Périgny in the spring. I shall be buried here."

Jehan shivered. The earth would be very cold here.

"The lad was a prophet. He told me that I should die in bed like this, alone, without one of my blood near me at the end. He spoke of phantoms, too. … They are everywhere. And without the consolation of a friendly priest!"

"Monsieur, do you know me?"

"Why, yes, Jehan."

"Brother Jacques and Monsieur le Comte returned this day from the wilderness. I have seen them."

The marquis's hands became still. "Pride has filled my path with black pits. Jehan, after all, was it a dream?"

"What, Monsieur?"

"That duel with D'Hérouville"

"It was no dream, Monsieur."

"That is well. I should, like to see Monsieur le Comte. He must be a man now."

"I will call him."

"Presently, presently. He forgave me. Only, I should like to have him know that my lips lied when I turned him away. Brother Jacques; he will satisfy my curiosity in the matter of absolution. Death? I never feared it; I do not now. However, I leave with some regret; there were things which I appreciated not in my pursuit of pleasure. Ah well, to die in bed, Jehan, was not among my calculations. But human calculations never balance in the sum total. I have dropped a figure on the route, somewhere, and my account is without head or tail. I recall a letter on the table. See if it is there, Jehan."

Jehan searched and found a letter under a book.

"What does it say?"

"'To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivered into his hands at my death'," Jehan read.

"From … from my son?"

"I do not know, Monsieur."

"Open it and read it."

"It is in Latin, Monsieur, a language unknown to me," Jehan carefully explained.

"Give it to me;" but the marquis's fingers trembled and shook and his eyes stared in vain. "My eyes have failed me, too. I can not distinguish one letter from another. Give it to Brother Jacques when he comes. He is a priest; they all read Latin."

"Then I shall send for him and Monsieur le Comte?"

"Wait till I am sure that I can stand the sight of him. Is Sister Benie without? Call her. She quiets me. Brother Jacques may come in half an hour; after him, Monsieur le Comte. I wish to have done with all things and die in peace."

So Jehan went in search of Sister Benie. When she came in her angelic face was as white as the collaret which encircled her throat, and the scar was more livid than usual. Alas, the marquis's mind had gone a-wandering again: the coal dimmed. She put her hand on his brow to still the wagging head.

"It was so long ago, Margot," he babbled. "It was all a mistake. … A fool plunges into all follies, but a wise man avoids what he can. I have been both the wise man and the fool. … And I struck you across the face with the lash? Ah, the poor scar!" He touched the scar with his hand, and she wavered. "I loved you. It is true. I did not know it then. You are dead, and you know that I loved you. Do you think the lad has really forgiven me for what I have done to him? … I am weary of the contest; Death sits on his horse outside the door."

She was praying, praying for strength to go through this ordeal.

"Where did you go, Margot?" he asked. "I searched for you; you were gone. Where did you go that day?"

Outside, in the corridor, Jehan was listening with eyes distended. And the marquis did not know, being out of his mind again!

"Hush, Henriot!" said Sister Benie. Tumult was in her heart. His icy hand closed over hers, which was scarce warmer; all the blood was in her heart. Her arms ached with longing to wrap this poor form to her breast. This was the supreme hour of her expiation.

"Henriot?" she called softly. "Henriot?" Thirty years of forgiveness and love thrilled in that name.

Jehan stole away. All this was not for his ears. Only God had the right to listen.

"Margot, are you still there? Henriot! I have not heard that name in thirty years."

She knew that delusion held him in its grasp, that he saw her only in fancy, else she must have flown.

"Can you forgive me, Margot? … I have no faith in women. … I have your letter still; in a casket at Périgny. It is yellow with age, and crumbles to the touch. Where did you go? After madame died I was lonely. … All, all are phantoms!" Then his delusion took another turn. He saw her no more. "Monsieur de Longueville, you lie when you say that I received billets from madame. I know a well-trodden place behind the Tuileries. Perhaps you will follow me? … Richelieu dead? What, then, will become of France, Jehan? Has Monsieur le Comte come in yet?"

There were no tears in her eyes. Those reservoirs had emptied and dried twenty years ago. But her heart cried. A new pain stabbed her, causing the room to careen. She kissed him on the forehead. It was all beyond her capacity for suffering. Her love belonged to God, not to man. To remain was to lose her reason. She would go before the delusion passed. In the corridor she would kneel and pray for this dark soul which was about to leap toward the Infinite. On the threshold she came face to face with Brother Jacques, whose pallor, if anything, exceeded her own. She stopped, undecided, hesitant. … Was it the color of his eyes?

"I have come, Sister, to give Monsieur le Marquis absolution." His tone was mild and reassuring. Stuck between his gown and his belt was the letter Jehan had given him to read. He had not looked at it yet. "Monsieur le Marquis has called for me."

"You have full powers?" uncertain and distressed. She did not like the fever in his eyes.

"I am fully ordained. I may not perform mass because of my mutilation, though I am expecting a dispensation from his Holiness the pope." He held out his hand, and her distrust subsided at the sight of those reddened stumps. "You are standing in my way, Sister. Seek Monsieur le Chevalier, if you will be so kind. He is in the citadel."

She moved to one side, and he passed into the room. When he reached the bedside, he turned. Sister Benie dropped her gaze, stepped into the corridor, and softly clos

ed the door. Brother Jacques and the marquis were alone. The mask of calm fell from the priest's countenance, leaving it gloomy and haggard. But the fever in his eyes remained unchanged.

"It is something that you have forgiven me, Margot," the marquis murmured. His fancy had veered again. His eyes were closed; and Brother Jacques could see the shadow of the iris beneath the lids.

"Margot?" Brother Jacques trembled. "He wanders! Will he regain lucidity?"

A quarter of an hour passed. The moonbeam on the wall moved perceptibly. Once Brother Jacques pulled forth the letter and glanced again at the address. It was singular. It recalled to him that night when this old man had pressed D'Hérouville to the wall. "To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivered into his hands at my death." The priest wondered whose death this meant. He did not replace the letter in his belt, but slipped it into the pocket of his robe, thoughtlessly.

"Paul? … Ah! it is Brother Jacques. Curse these phantoms which recur again and again. But my son," eagerly; "he is well? He is uninjured? He will be here soon?"

"Yes, my father."

"Once you asked me to call you if ever I changed my mind regarding religion. I will test this absolution of yours."

"Presently."

"Eh?"

"I said presently, my father."

"Father? … You say father?"

"Yes. But a moment gone you spoke of Margot Bourdaloue."

"What is that to you?" cried the marquis, raising himself on an elbow, though the effort cost him pain.

"She was my mother," softly.

The marquis fell back among his pillows. The gnawing of a mouse behind the wall could be heard distinctly. Brother Jacques was conscious of the sound.

"My mother," he repeated.

"You lie, Jesuit!"

"Not at this hour, my father."

"Son of Margot Bourdaloue, you! … Ah!" The marquis rose again, leaning on both arms. "Have you come to mock my death-bed?"

"Truth is not mockery."

"Away, lying Jesuit!"

The priest stooped. "Look well into my face, Monsieur; look well. Is there not something there to awaken your memory?" Brother Jacques brought his face within a span of the marquis's. "Look!"

"The eyes, the eyes! … Margot, a son? … What do you want?" The marquis moistened his lips.

"To make your last hour something like the many I have lived. Where is the woman you wronged and cast aside, my mother?"

The marquis's arms gave way.

"Ah, but I have waited for this hour!" said Brother Jacques. All the years of suffering returned and spread their venom through his veins. "I have starved. I have begged. I have been beaten. I have slept in fields and have been bitten by dogs. I have seen you feasting at your table while I hungered outside. I have watched your coach as it rolled through the chateau gates. One day your postilion struck me with his whip because I did not get out of the way soon enough. I have crept into sheds and shared the straw with beasts which had more pity than you. I thought of you, Monsieur le Marquis, you in your chateau with plenty to eat and drink, and a fire toasting your noble shins. Have I not thought of you?"

"I am an old man," said the marquis, bewildered. This priest must be a nightmare, another of those phantoms which were crowding around his bed.

"How I longed for riches, luxury, content! For had I not your blood in my veins and were not my desires natural? I became a priest because I could starve no longer without dying. I have seen your true son in the forests, have called him brother, though he did not understand. You cursed him and made him an outcast, wilfully. I was starving as a lad of two. My mother, Margot Bourdaloue, went out in search of bread. I followed, but became lost. I never saw my mother again; I can not even remember how she looked. I can only recall the starved eyes. And you cursed your acknowledged son and applied to him the epithet which I have borne these twenty years. Unnatural father!"

"Unnatural son," murmured the marquis.

"I have suffered!" Brother Jacques flung his arms above his head as if to hurl the trembling curse. "No; I shall not curse you. You do not believe in God. Heaven and hell have no meaning."

"I loved your mother."

"Love? That is a sacred word, Monsieur; you soil it. What was it you said that night at Rochelle? … That for every soul you have sent out of the world, you have brought another into it? Perhaps this fellow is my brother, and I know it not; this woman my sister, and I pass her by."

"I would have provided for you."

To Brother Jacques it seemed that his sword of wrath had been suddenly twisted from his hand. The sweat stood out on his forehead.

"If you were turned away from my door, it was not my hand that opened it."

"I asked for nothing but bread," said Brother Jacques, finding his voice.

"Thirty years ago … I have forgotten. Margot never told me."

"It was easy to forget. I have never known, what love is … from another."

"Have I?" with self-inflicted irony.

"I sought it; you repelled it."

"I knew not how to keep it, that was all. If I should say to you, 'My son, I am sorry. I have lived evilly. I have wronged you; forgive me; I am dying'!" The marquis was breathing with that rapidity which foretells of coming dissolution. "What would you say, Jesuit?"

Brother Jacques stood petrified.

"That silence is scarce less than a curse," said the marquis.

Still Brother Jacques's tongue refused its offices.

"Ah, well, I brought you into the world carelessly, you have cursed me out of it. We are quits. Begone!" There was dignity in his gesture toward the door.

Brother Jacques did not stir.

"Begone, I say, and let me die in peace."

"I will give you absolution, father."

The fierce, burning eyes seemed to search into Brother Jacques's soul. There was on that proud face neither fear nor horror. And this was the hour Brother Jacques had planned and waited for! For this moment he had donned the robes, isolated himself, taken vows, suffered physical tortures! He had come to curse: he was offering absolution.

"Hypocrite, begone!" cried the marquis, seized with vertigo. He tried to strike the bell, but the effort merely sent it jangling to the floor. "Begone!"

"Monsieur!"

"Must I call for help?"

Brother Jacques could stand no more. He rushed madly toward the door, which he opened violently. Sister Benie stood in the corridor, transfixed.

"My son?" she faltered. A pathetic little sob escaped her. Her arms reached out feebly; she fell. Brother Jacques caught her, but she was dead. Her heart had broken. With a cry such as Dante conceived in his dream of hell, Brother Jacques fell beside her, insensible.

The marquis stared at the two prostrate figures, fumbling with his lips.

Then came the sound of hurrying feet, and Jehan, followed by the Chevalier, entered.

"Jehan, quick! My clothes; quick!" The marquis was throwing aside the coverlet.

"Father!" cried the Chevalier.

"Jehan, quick! My clothes; quick!" the marquis cried. "My clothes, my clothes! Help me! I must dress!"

With trembling hands Jehan did as his master bade him. The Chevalier, appalled, glanced first at his father, then at Brother Jacques and Sister Benie. He leaned against the wall, dazed; understood nothing of this scene.

"My shoes! Yes, yes! My sword!" rambled the dying man, in the last frenzy. "Paul said I should die in bed, alone. No, no! … Now, stand me on my feet … that is it! … Paul, it is you? Help me! Take me to her! Margot, Margot? … There is my heart, Jehan, the heart of the marquis. … Take me to her? And I thought I dreamed! Take me to her! … Margot?" He was on his knees beside her, kissing her hands and shuddering, shuddering.

"Margot is dead, Monsieur," said the aged valet. The tears rolled down his leathery cheeks.

"Margot!" murmured the Chevalier. He had never heard this name before. What did it mean? "Father?" He came swiftly toward the marquis.

"Dead!" The marquis staggered to his feet without assistance. He swung dizzily toward the candles on the mantel. He struck them. "Away with the lights, fools." The candles rolled and sputtered en the floor. "Away with them, I say!" Toward the table he lurched, avoiding the Chevalier's arms. From the table he dashed the candles. "Away with the lights! The Marquis de Périgny shall die as he lived … in the dark!"

He fell upon the bed, his face hidden in the pillows. When the Chevalier reached his side he was dead.

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