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   Chapter 16 M. DE PERRENCOURT WONDERS

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 25948

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As I walked briskly from my quarters down to the sea, M. de Perrencourt's last whisper, "With my favour and such a lady for his wife, a gentleman might climb high," echoed in my ears so loudly and insistently as to smother all thought of what had passed in the Council Chamber, and to make of no moment for me the plots and plans alike of Kings, Catholics, and Ranters. That night I cared little though the King had signed away the liberties of our religion and his realm; I spared no more than a passing wonder for the attempt to which conscience run mad had urged Phineas Tate, and in which he in his turn had involved my simpleton of a servant. Let them all plot and plan; the issue lay in God's hand, above my knowledge and beyond my power. My task was enough, and more than enough, for my weakness; to it I turned, with no fixed design and no lively hope, with a prayer for success only, and a resolve not to be King Louis' catspaw. A month ago I might have marvelled that he offered such a part to any gentleman; the illusions of youth and ignorance were melting fast; now I was left to ask why he had selected one so humble for a place that great men held in those days with open profit and without open shame; aye, and have held since. For although I have lived to call myself a Whig, I do not hold that the devil left England for good and all with the House of Stuart.

We were on the quay now, and the little ship lay ready for us. A very light breeze blew off the land, enough to carry us over if it held, but promising a long passage; the weather was damp and misty. M. Colbert had shrugged his shoulders over the prospect of a fog; his master would hear of no delay, and the King had sent for Thomas Lie, a famous pilot of the Cinque Ports, to go with us till the French coast should be sighted. The two Kings were walking up and down together in eager and engrossed conversation. Looking about, I perceived the figures of two women standing near the edge of the water. I saw Colbert approach them and enter into conversation; soon he came to me, and with the smoothest of smiles bade me charge myself with the care of Mistress Quinton.

"Madame," said he, "has sent a discreet and trustworthy waiting-woman with her, but a lady needs a squire, and we are still hampered by business." With which he went off to join his master, bestowing another significant smile on me.

I lost no time in approaching Barbara. The woman with her was stout and short, having a broad hard face; she stood by her charge square and sturdy as a soldier on guard. Barbara acknowledged my salutation stiffly; she was pale and seemed anxious, but in no great distress or horror. But did she know what was planned for her or the part I was to play? The first words she spoke showed me that she knew nothing, for when I began to feel my way, saying: "The wind is fair for us," she started, crying: "For us? Why, are you coming with us?"

I glanced at the waiting-woman, who stood stolidly by.

"She understands no English," said Barbara, catching my meaning. "You can speak freely. Why are you coming?"

"Nay, but why are you going?"

She answered me with a touch of defiance in her voice.

"The Duchess of York is to return with Madame on a visit to the French Court, and I go to prepare for her coming."

So this was the story by which they were inducing her to trust herself in their hands. Doubtless they might have forced her, but deceit furnished a better way. Yet agitation had mingled with defiance in her voice. In an instant she went on:

"You are coming, in truth are you? Don't jest with me."

"Indeed I'm coming, madame. I hope my company is to your liking?"

"But why, why?"

"M. de Perrencourt has one answer to that question and I another."

Her eyes questioned me, but she did not put her question into words. With a little shiver she said:

"I am glad to be quit of this place."

"You're right in that," I answered gravely.

Her cheek flushed, and her eyes fell to the ground.

"Yes," she murmured.

"But Dover Castle is not the only place where danger lies," said I.

"Madame has sworn--" she began impetuously.

"And M. de Perrencourt?" I interrupted.

"He-he gave his word to his sister," she said in a very low voice. Then she stretched her hand out towards me, whispering, "Simon, Simon!"

I interpreted the appeal, although it was but an inarticulate cry, witnessing to a fear of dangers unknown. The woman had edged a little away, but still kept a careful watch. I paid no heed to her. I must give my warning.

"My services are always at your disposal, Mistress Barbara," said I, "even without the right to them that M. de Perrencourt purposes to give you."

"I don't understand. How can he-Why, you wouldn't enter my service?"

She laughed a little as she made this suggestion, but there was an eagerness in her voice; my heart answered to it, for I saw that she found comfort in the thought of my company.

"M. de Perrencourt," said I, "purposes that I should enter your service, and his also."

"Mine and his?" she murmured, puzzled and alarmed.

I did not know how to tell her; I was ashamed. But the last moments fled, and she must know before we were at sea.

"Yonder where we're going," I said, "the word of M. de Perrencourt is law and his pleasure right."

She took alarm, and her voice trembled.

"He has promised-Madame told me," she stammered. "Ah, Simon, must I go? Yet I should be worse here."

"You must go. What can we do here? I go willingly."

"For what?"

"To serve you, if it be in my power. Will you listen?"

"Quick, quick. Tell me!"

"Of all that he swore, he will observe nothing. Hush, don't cry out. Nothing."

I feared that she would fall, for she reeled where she stood. I dared not support her.

"If he asks a strange thing, agree to it. It's the only way."

"What? What will he ask?"

"He will propose a husband to you."

She tore at the lace wrapping about her throat as though it were choking her; her eyes were fixed on mine. I answered her gaze with a steady regard, and her cheek grew red with a hot blush.

"His motive you may guess," said I. "There is convenience in a husband."

I had put it at last plainly enough, and when I had said it I averted my eyes from hers.

"I won't go," I heard her gasp. "I'll throw myself at the King's feet."

"He'll make a clever jest on you," said I bitterly.

"I'll implore M. de Perrencourt--"

"His answer will be-polite."

For a while there was silence. Then she spoke again in a low whisper; her voice now sounded hard and cold, and she stood rigid.

"Who is the man?" she asked. Then she broke into a sudden passion, and, forgetting caution, seized me by the arm, whispering, "Have you your sword?"

"Aye, it is here."

"Will you use it for me?"

"At your bidding."

"Then use it on the body of the man."

"I'm the man," said I.

"You, Simon!"

Now what a poor thing is this writing, and how small a fragment of truth can it hold! "You, Simon!" The words are nothing, but they came from her lips full-charged with wonder, most incredulous, yet coloured with sudden hope of deliverance. She doubted, yet she caught at the strange chance. Nay, there was more still, but what I could not tell; for her eyes lit up with a sudden sparkle, which shone a brief moment and then was screened by drooping lids.

"That is why I go," said I. "With M. de Perrencourt's favour and such a lady for my wife I might climb high. So whispered M. de Perrencourt himself."

"You!" she murmured again; and again her cheek was red.

"We must not reach Calais, if we can escape by the way. Be near me always on the ship, fortune may give us a chance. And if we come to Calais, be near me, while you can."

"But if we can't escape?"

I was puzzled by her. It must be that she found in my company new hope of escape. Hence came the light in her eyes, and the agitation which seemed to show excitement rather than fear. But I had no answer to her question, "If we can't escape?"

Had I been ready with fifty answers, time would have failed for one. M. Colbert called to me. The King was embracing his guest for the last time; the sails were spread; Thomas Lie was at the helm. I hastened to obey M. Colbert's summons. He pointed to the King; going forward, I knelt and kissed the hand extended to me. Then I rose and stood for a moment, in case it should be the King's pleasure to address me. M. de Perrencourt was by his side.

The King's face wore a smile and the smile broadened as he spoke to me.

"You're a wilful man, Mr Dale," said he, "but fortune is more wilful still. You would not woo her, therefore woman-like she loves you. You were stubborn, but she is resolute to overcome your stubbornness. But don't try her too far. She stands waiting for you open-armed. Isn't it so, my brother?"

"Your Majesty speaks no more than truth," answered M. de Perrencourt.

"Will you accept her embraces?" asked the King.

I bowed very low and raised my head with a cheerful and gay smile.

"Most willingly," I answered.

"And what of reservations, Mr. Dale?"

"May it please your Majesty, they do not hold across the water."

"Good. My brother is more fortunate than I. God be with you, Mr Dale."

At that I smiled again. And the King smiled. My errand was a strange one to earn a benediction.

"Be off with you," he said with an impatient laugh. "A man must pick his words in talking with you." A gesture of his hand dismissed me. I went on board and watched him standing on the quay as Thomas Lie steered us out of harbour and laid us so as to catch the wind. As we moved, the King turned and began to mount the hill.

We moved, but slowly. For an hour we made way. All this while I was alone on deck, except for the crew and Thomas Lie. The rest had gone below; I had offered to follow, but a gesture from M. Colbert sent me back. The sense of helplessness was on me, overwhelming and bitter. When the time came for my part I should be sent for, until then none had need of me. I could guess well enough what was passing below, and I found no comfort in the knowledge of it. Up and down I walked quickly, as a man torn and tormented with thoughts that his steps, however hasty, cannot outstrip. The crew stared at me, the pilot himself spared a glance of amused wonder at the man who strode to and fro so restlessly. Once I paused at the stern of the ship, where Lie's boat, towed behind us, cut through the water as a diamond cuts a pane of glass. For an instant I thought of leaping in and making a bid for liberty alone. The strange tone in which "You, Simon!" had struck home to my heart forbade me. But I was sick with the world, and turned from the boat to gaze over the sea. There is a power in the quiet water by night; it draws a man with a promise of peace in the soft lap of forgetfulness. So strong is the allurement that, though I count myself sane and of sound mind, I do not love to look too long on the bosom of deep waters when the night is full; for the doubt comes then whether to live is sanity and not rather to die and have an end of the tossing of life and the unresting dissatisfaction of our state. That night the impulse came on me mightily, and I fought it, forcing myself to look, refusing the weakness of flight from the seductive siren. For I was fenced round with troubles and of a sore heart: there lay the open country and a heart at peace.

Suddenly I gave a low exclamation; the water, which had fled from us as we moved, seeming glad to pass us by and rush again on its race undisturbed, stood still. From the swill came quiet, out of the shimmer a mirror disentangled itself, and lay there on the sea, smooth and bright. But it grew dull in an instant; I heard the sails flap, but saw them no more. A dense white vapour settled on us, the length of my arm bounded my sight, all movement ceased, and we lay on the water, inert and idle. I leant beside the gunwale, feeling the fog moist on my face, seeing in its baffling folds a type of the toils that bound and fettered me. Now voices rose round me, and again fell; the crew questioned, the captain urged; I heard Colbert's voice as he hurried on deck. The sufficient answer was all around us; where the mist was there could be no wind; in grumbling the voices died away.

The rest of what passed seems even now a strange dream that I can hardly follow, whose issue alone I know, which I can recover only dimly and vaguely in my memory. I was there in the stern, leaning over, listening to the soft sound of the sea as Thomas Lie's boat rolled lazily from side to side and the water murmured gently under the gentle stroke. Then came voices again just by my shoulder. I did not move. I knew the tones that spoke, the persuasive commanding tones hard to resist, apt to compel. Slowly I turned myself round; the speakers must be within eight or ten feet of me, but I cou

ld not see them. Still they came nearer. Then I heard the sound of a sob, and at it sprang to rigidity, poised on ready feet, with my hand on the hilt of my sword.

"You're weary now," said the smooth strong voice. "We will talk again in the morning. From my heart I grieve to have distressed you. Come, we'll find the gentleman whom you desire to speak with, and I'll trouble you no more. Indeed I count myself fortunate in having asked my good brother for one whose company is agreeable to you. For your sake, your friend shall be mine. Come, I'll take you to him, and then leave you."

Barbara's sobs ceased; I did not wonder that his persuasions won her to repose and almost to trust. It seemed that the mist grew a little less thick; I saw their figures. Knowing that at the same moment I must myself be seen, I spoke on the instant.

"I am here, at Mistress Quinton's service."

M. de Perrencourt (to call him still by his chosen name) came forward and groped his way to my arm, whispering in French,

"All is easy. Be gentle with her. Why, she turns to you of her own accord! All will go smoothly."

"You may be sure of it, sir," I said. "Will you leave her with me?"

"Yes," he answered. "I can trust you, can't I?"

"I may be trusted to death," I answered, smiling behind the mist's kind screen.

Barbara was by his side now; with a bow he drew back. I traced him as he went towards where Lie stood, and I heard a murmur of voices as he and the helmsman spoke to one another. Then I heard no more, and lost sight of him in the thick close darkness. I put out my hand and felt for Barbara's; it came straight to mine.

"You-you'll stay with me?" she murmured. "I'm frightened, Simon."

As she spoke, I felt on my cheek the cold breath of the wind. Turning my full face, I felt it more. The breeze was rising, the sails flapped again, Thomas Lie's boat buffeted the waves with a quicker beat. When I looked towards her, I saw her face, framed in mist, pale and wet with tears, beseeching me. There at that moment, born in danger and nursed by her helplessness, there came to me a new feeling, that was yet an old one; now I knew that I would not leave her. Nay, for an instant I was tempted to abandon all effort and drift on to the French shore, looking there to play my own game, despite of her and despite of King Louis himself. But the risk was too desperate.

"No, I won't leave you," I said in low tones that trembled under the fresh burden which they bore.

But yes, the wind rose, the mist began to lift, the water was running lazily from under our keel, the little boat bobbed and danced to a leisurely tune.

"The wind serves," cried Thomas Lie. "We shall make land in two hours if it hold as it blows now."

The plan was in my head. It was such an impulse as coming to a man seems revelation and forbids all questioning of its authority. I held Barbara still by the hand, and drew her to me. There, leaning over the gunwale, we saw Thomas Lie's boat moving after us. His sculls lay ready. I looked in her eyes, and was answered with wonder, perplexity, and dawning intelligence.

"I daren't let him carry you to Calais," I whispered; "we should be helpless there."

"But you-it's you."

"As his tool and his fool," I muttered. Low as I spoke, she heard me, and asked despairingly:

"What then, Simon? What can we do?"

"If I go there, will you jump into my arms? The distance isn't far."

"Into the boat! Into your arms in the boat?"

"Yes. I can hold you. There's a chance if we go now-now, before the mist lifts more."

"If we're seen?"

"We're no worse off."

"Yes, I'll jump, Simon."

We were moving now briskly enough, though the wind came in fitful gusts and with no steady blast, and the mist now lifted, now again swathed us in close folds. I gripped Barbara's hand, whispering, "Be ready," and, throwing one leg over the side, followed with the other, and dropped gently into Thomas Lie's boat. It swayed under me, but it was broad in the beam and rode high in the water; no harm happened. Then I stood square in the bows and whispered "Now!" For the beating of my heart I scarcely heard my own voice, but I spoke louder than I knew. At the same instant that Barbara sprang into my arms, there was a rush of feet across the deck, an oath rang loud in French, and another figure appeared on the gunwale, with one leg thrown over. Barbara was in my arms. I felt her trembling body cling to mine, but I disengaged her grasp quickly and roughly-for gentleness asks time, and time had we none-and set her down in the boat. Then I turned to the figure above me. A momentary glance showed me the face of King Louis. I paid no more heed, but drew my knife and flung myself on the rope that bound the boat to the ship.

Then the breeze dropped, and the fog fell thick and enveloping. My knife was on the rope and I severed the strands with desperate strength. One by one I felt them go. As the last went I raised my head. From the ship above me flashed the fire of a pistol, and a ball whistled by my ear. Wild with excitement, I laughed derisively. The last strand was gone, slowly the ship forged ahead; but then the man on the gunwale gathered himself together and sprang across the water between us. He came full on the top of me, and we fell together on the floor of the boat. By the narrowest chance we escaped foundering, but the sturdy boat proved true. I clutched my assailant with all my strength, pinning him arm to arm, breast to breast, shoulder to shoulder. His breath was hot on my face. I gasped "Row, row." From the ship came a sudden alarmed cry: "The boat, the boat!" But already the ship grew dim and indistinct.

"Row, row," I muttered; then I heard the sculls set in their tholes, and with a slow faltering stroke the boat was guided away from the ship, moving nearly at a right angle to it. I put out all my strength. I was by far a bigger man than the King, and I did not spare him. I hugged him with a bear's hug, and his strength was squeezed out of him. Now I was on the top and he below. I twisted his pistol from his hand and flung it overboard. Tumultuous cries came from the blurred mass that was the ship; but the breeze had fallen, the fog was thick, they had no other boat. The King lay still. "Give me the sculls," I whispered. Barbara yielded them; her hands were cold as death when they encountered mine. She scrambled into the stern. I dragged the King back-he was like a log now-till he lay with the middle of his body under the seat on which I sat; his face looked up from between my feet. Then I fell to rowing, choosing no course except that our way should be from the ship, and ready, at any movement of the still form below me, to drop my sculls and set my pistol at his head. Yet till that need came I bent lustily to my work, and when I looked over the sea the ship was not to be seen, but all around hung the white vapour, the friendly accomplice of my enterprise.

That leap of his was a gallant thing. He knew that I was his master in strength, and that I stood where no motive of prudence could reach and no fear restrain me. If I were caught, the grave or a French prison would be my fate; to get clear off, he might suppose that I should count even the most august life in Christendom well taken. Yet he had leapt, and, before heaven, I feared that I had killed him. If it were so, I must set Barbara in safety, and then follow him where he was gone; there would be no place for me among living men, and I had better choose my own end than be hunted to death like a mad dog. These thoughts spun through my brain as my arms drove the blades into the water, on an aimless course through the mist, till the mass of the ship utterly disappeared, and we three were alone on the sea. Then the fear overcame me. I rested on my oars, and leaning over to where Barbara sat in the stern, I shaped with awe-struck lips the question-"Is he dead? My God, is he dead?"

She sat there, herself, as it seemed, half-dead. But at my words she shivered and with an effort mastered her relaxed limbs. Slowly she dropped on her knees by the King and raised his head in her arms. She felt in her bosom and drew out a flask of salts, which she set to his nostrils. I watched his face; the muscles of it contracted into a grimace, then were smoothed again to calmness; he opened his eyes. "Thank God," I muttered to myself; and the peril to him being gone by, I remembered our danger, and taking out my pistol looked to it, and sat dangling it in my hand.

Barbara, still supporting the King's head, looked up at me.

"What will become of us?" she asked.

"At least we shan't be married in Calais," I answered with a grim smile.

"No," she murmured, and bent again over the King.

Now his eyes were wide-opened, and I fixed mine on them. I saw the return of consciousness and intelligence; the quick glance that fell on me, on the oars, on the pistol in my hand, witnessed to it. Then he raised himself on his elbow, Barbara drawing quickly away, and so rested an instant, regarding me still. He drew himself up into a sitting posture, and seemed as though he would rise to his feet. I raised the pistol and pointed it at him.

"No higher, if you please," said I. "It's a matter of danger to walk about in so small a boat, and you came near to upsetting us before."

He turned his head and saw Barbara, then gazed round on the sea. No sail was to be seen, and the fog still screened the boat in impenetrable solitude. The sight brought to his mind a conviction of what his plight was. Yet no dismay nor fear showed in his face. He sat there, regarding me with an earnest curiosity. At last he spoke.

"You were deluding me all the time?" he asked.

"Even so," said I, with an inclination of my head.

"You did not mean to take my offer?"

"Since I am a gentleman, I did not."

"I also am accounted a gentleman, sir."

"Nay, I took you for a prince," said I.

He made me no answer, but, looking round him again, observed:

"The ship must be near. But for this cursed fog she would be in sight."

"It's well for us she isn't," I said.

"Why, sir?" he asked brusquely.

"If she were, there's the pistol for the lady, and this sword here for you and me," said I coolly. For a man may contrive to speak coolly, though his bearing be a lie and his heart beat quick.

"You daren't," he cried in amazement.

"I should be unwilling," I conceded.

For an instant there was silence. Then came Barbara's voice, soft and fearful:

"Simon, the fog lifts."

It was true. The breeze blew and the fog lifted. Louis' eyes sparkled. All three of us, by one impulse, looked round on the sea. The fresh wind struck my cheek, and the enveloping folds curled lazily away. Barbara held up her hand and pointed. Away on the right, dimly visible, just detached from the remaining clouds of mist, was a dark object, sitting high on the water. A ship it was, in all likelihood the king's ship. We should be sighted soon. My eyes met the King's and his were exultant and joyful; he did not yet believe that I would do what I had said, and he thought that the trap closed on us again. For still the mist rose, and in a few moments they on the ship must see us.

"You shall pay for your trick," he said between his teeth.

"It is very likely," said I. "But I think that the debt will be paid to your Majesty's successor."

Still he did not believe. I burst into a laugh of grim amusement. These great folk find it hard to understand how sometimes their greatness is nothing, and the thing is man to man; but now and then fortune takes a whim and teaches them the lesson for her sport.

"But since you are a King," said I, "you shall have your privilege. You shall pass out before the lady. See, the ship is very plain now. Soon we shall be plain to the ship. Come, sir, you go first."

He looked at me, now puzzled and alarmed.

"I am unarmed," he said.

"It is no fight," I answered. Then I turned to Barbara. "Go and sit in the stern," I said, "and cover your face with your hands."

"Simon, Simon," she moaned, but she obeyed me, and threw herself down, burying her face in her hands. I turned to the king.

"How will you die, sir?" said I quietly, and, as I believe, in a civil manner.

A sudden shout rang in my ears. I would not look away from him, lest he should spring on me or fling himself from the boat. But I knew whence the shout came, for it was charged with joy and the relief of unbearable anxiety. The ship was the King's ship and his servants had seen their master. Yet they would not dare to fire without his orders, and with the risk of killing him; therefore I was easy concerning musket shot. But we must not come near enough for a voice to be heard from us, and a pistol to carry to us.

"How will you die?" I asked again. His eyes questioned me. I added, "As God lives I will." And I smiled at him.

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