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   Chapter 25 THE MIND OF M. DE FONTELLES

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 20711

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As I made my way through the Court nothing seemed changed; all was as I had seen it when I came to lay down the commission that Mistress Gwyn had got me. They were as careless, as merry, as shameless as before; the talk then had been of Madame's coming, now it was of her going; they talked of Dover and what had passed there, but the treaty was dismissed with a shrug, and the one theme of interest, and the one subject of wagers, was whether or how soon Mlle. de Quérouaille would return to the shores and the monarch she had left. In me distaste now killed curiosity; I pushed along as fast as the throng allowed me, anxious to perform my task and be quit of them all as soon as I could. My part there was behind me; the prophecy was fulfilled, and my ambitions quenched. Yet I had a pleasure in the remaining scene of the comedy which I was to play with the King; I was amused also to see how those whom I knew to be in the confidence of the Duke of York and of Arlington eyed me with mingled fear and wariness, and hid distrust under a most deferential civility. They knew, it seemed, that I had guessed their secrets. But I was not afraid of them, for I was no more their rival in the field of intrigue or in their assault upon the King's favour. I longed to say to them, "Be at peace. In an hour from now you will see my face no more."

The King sat in his chair, alone save for one gentleman who stood beside him. I knew the Earl of Rochester well by repute, and had been before now in the same company, although, as it chanced, I had never yet spoken with him. I looked for the King's brother and for Monmouth, but neither was to be seen. Having procured a gentleman to advise the King of my presence, I was rewarded by being beckoned to approach immediately. But when he had brought me there, he gave me no more than a smile, and, motioning me to stand by him, continued his conversation with my Lord Rochester and his caresses of the little dog on his lap.

"In defining it as the device by which the weak intimidate the strong," observed Rochester, "the philosopher declared the purpose of virtue rather than its effect. For the strong are not intimidated, while the weak, falling slaves to their own puppet, grow more helpless still."

"It's a just retribution on them," said the King, "for having invented a thing so tiresome."

"In truth, Sir, all these things that make virtue are given a man for his profit, and that he may not go empty-handed into the mart of the world. He has stuff for barter; he can give honour for pleasure, morality for money, religion for power."

The King raised his brows and smiled again, but made no remark. Rochester bowed courteously to me, as he added:

"Is it not as I say, sir?" and awaited my reply.

"It's better still, my lord," I answered. "For he can make these bargains you speak of, and, by not keeping them, have his basket still full for another deal."

Again the King smiled as he patted his dog.

"Very just, sir, very just," nodded Rochester. "Thus by breaking a villainous bargain he is twice a villain, and preserves his reputation to aid him in the more effectual cheating of his neighbour."

"And the damning of his own soul," said the King softly.

"Your Majesty is Defender of the Faith. I will not meddle with your high office," said Rochester with a laugh. "For my own part I suffer from a hurtful sincerity; being known for a rogue by all the town, I am become the most harmless fellow in your Majesty's dominions. As Mr Dale here says-I have the honour of being acquainted with your name, sir-my basket is empty and no man will deal with me."

"There are women left you," said the King.

"It is more expense than profit," sighed the Earl. "Although indeed the kind creatures will most readily give for nothing what is worth as much."

"So that the sum of the matter," said the King, "is that he who refuses no bargain however iniquitous and performs none however binding--"

"Is a king among men, Sir," interposed Rochester with a low bow, "even as your Majesty is here in Whitehall."

"And by the same title?"

"Ay, the same Right Divine. What think you of my reasoning, Mr Dale?"

"I do not know, my lord, whence you came by it, unless the Devil has published a tract on the matter."

"Nay, he has but circulated it among his friends," laughed Rochester. "For he is in no need of money from the booksellers since he has a grant from God of the customs of the world for his support."

"The King must have the Customs," smiled Charles. "I have them here in England. But the smugglers cheat me."

"And the penitents him, Sir. Faith, these Holy Churches run queer cargoes past his officers-or so they say;" and with another bow to the King, and one of equal courtesy to me, he turned away and mingled in the crowd that walked to and fro.

The King sat some while silent, lazily pulling the dog's coat with his fingers. Then he looked up at me.

"Wild talk, Mr Dale," said he, "yet perhaps not all without a meaning."

"There's meaning enough, Sir. It's not that I miss."

"No, but perhaps you do. I have made many bargains; you don't praise all of them?"

"It's not for me to judge the King's actions."

"I wish every man were as charitable, or as dutiful. But-shall I empty my basket? You know of some of my bargains. The basket is not emptied yet."

I looked full in his face; he did not avoid my regard, but sat there smiling in a bitter amusement.

"You are the man of reservations," said he. "I remember them. Be at peace and hold your place. For listen to me, Mr Dale."

"I am listening to your Majesty's words."

"It will be time enough for you to open your mouth when I empty my basket."

His words, and even more the tone in which he spoke and the significant glance of his eyes, declared his meaning. The bargain that I knew of I need not betray nor denounce till he fulfilled it. When would he fulfil it? He would not empty his basket, but still have something to give when he dealt with the King of France. I wondered that he should speak to me so openly; he knew that I wondered, yet, though his smile was bitter, he smiled still.

I bowed to him and answered:

"I am no talker, Sir, of matters too great for me."

"That's well. I know you for a gentleman of great discretion, and I desire to serve you. You have something to ask of me, Mr Dale?"

"The smallest thing in the world for your Majesty, and the greatest for me."

"A pattern then that I wish all requests might follow. Let me hear it."

"It is no more than your Majesty's favour for my efforts to win the woman whom I love."

He started a little, and for the first time in all the conversation ceased to fondle the little dog.

"The woman whom you love? Well, sir, and does she love you?"

"She has told me so, Sir."

"Then at least she wished you to believe it. Do I know this lady?"

"Very well, sir," I answered in a very significant tone.

He was visibly perturbed. A man come to his years will see a ready rival in every youth, however little other attraction there may be. But perhaps I had treated him too freely already; and now he used me well. I would keep up the jest no longer.

"Once, Sir," I said, "for a while I loved where the King loved, even as I drank of his cup."

"I know, Mr Dale. But you say 'once.'"

"It is gone by, Sir."

"But, yesterday?" he exclaimed abruptly.

"She is a great comedian, Sir; but I fear I seconded her efforts badly."

He did not answer for a moment, but began again to play with the dog. Then raising his eyes to mine he said:

"You were well enough; she played divinely, Mr Dale."

"She played for life, Sir."

"Ay, poor Nelly loves me," said he softly. "I had been cruel to her. But I won't weary you with my affairs. What would you?"

"Mistress Gwyn, Sir, has been very kind to me."

"So I believe," remarked the King.

"But my heart, Sir, is now and has been for long irrevocably set on another."

"On my faith, Mr Dale, and speaking as one man to another, I'm glad to hear it. Was it so at Canterbury?"

"More than ever before, Sir. For she was there and--"

"I know she was there."

"Nay, Sir, I mean the other, her whom I love, her whom I now woo. I mean Mistress Barbara Quinton, Sir."

The King looked down and frowned; he patted his dog, he looked up again, frowning still. Then a queer smile bent his lips and he said in a voice which was most grave, for all his smile,

"You remember M. de Perrencourt?"

"I remember M. de Perrencourt very well, Sir."

"It was by his choice, not mine, Mr Dale, that you set out for Calais."

"So I understood at the time, Sir."

"And he is believed, both by himself and others, to choose his men-perhaps you will allow me to say his instruments, Mr Dale-better than any Prince in Christendom. So you would wed Mistress Quinton? Well, sir, she is above your station."

"I was to have been made her husband, Sir."

"Nay, but she's above your station," he repeated, smiling at my retort, but conceiving that it needed no answer.

"She's not above your Majesty's persuasion, or, rather, her father is not. She needs none."

"You do not err in modesty, Mr Dale."

"How should I, Sir, I who have drunk of the King's cup?"

"So that we should be friends."

"And known what the King hid?"

"So that we must stand or fall together?"

"And loved where the King loved?"

He made no answer to that, but sat silent for a great while. I was conscious that many eyes were on us, in wonder that I was so long with him, in speculation on what our business might be and whence came the favour that gained me such distinction. I paid little heed, for I was seeking to follow the thoughts of the King and hoping that I had won him to my side. I asked only leave to lead a quiet life with her whom I loved, setting bounds at once to my ambition and to the plans which he had made concerning her. Nay, I believe that I might have claimed some hold over him, but I would not. A gentleman may not levy hush-money however fair the coins seem in his eyes. Yet I feared that he might suspect me, and I said:

"To-day, I leave the town, Sir, whether I have what I ask of you or not; and whether I have what I ask of you or not I am silent. If your Majesty will not grant it me, yet, in all thi

ngs that I may be, I am your loyal subject."

To all this-perhaps it rang too solemn, as the words of a young man are apt to at the moments when his heart is moved-he answered nothing, but looking up with a whimsical smile said,

"Tell me now; how do you love this Mistress Quinton?"

At this I fell suddenly into a fit of shame and bashful embarrassment. The assurance that I had gained at Court forsook me, and I was tongue-tied as any calf-lover.

"I-I don't know," I stammered.

"Nay, but I grow old. Pray tell me, Mr Dale," he urged, beginning to laugh at my perturbation.

For my life I could not; it seems to me that the more a man feels a thing the harder it is for him to utter; sacred things are secret, and the hymn must not be heard save by the deity.

The King suddenly bent forward and beckoned. Rochester was passing by, with him now was the Duke of Monmouth. They approached; I bowed low to the Duke, who returned my salute most cavalierly. He had small reason to be pleased with me, and his brow was puckered. The King seemed to find fresh amusement in his son's bearing, but he made no remark on it, and, addressing himself to Rochester, said:

"Here, my lord, is a young gentleman much enamoured of a lovely and most chaste maiden. I ask him what this love of his is-for my memory fails-and behold he cannot tell me! In case he doesn't know what it is that he feels, I pray you tell him."

Rochester looked at me with an ironical smile.

"Am I to tell what love is?" he asked.

"Ay, with your utmost eloquence," answered the King, laughing still and pinching his dog's ears.

Rochester twisted his face in a grimace, and looked appealingly at the King.

"There's no escape; to-day I am a tyrant," said the King.

"Hear then, youths," said Rochester, and his face was smoothed into a pensive and gentle expression. "Love is madness and the only sanity, delirium and the only truth; blindness and the only vision, folly and the only wisdom. It is--" He broke off and cried impatiently, "I have forgotten what it is."

"Why, my lord, you never knew what it is," said the King. "Alone of us here, Mr Dale knows, and since he cannot tell us the knowledge is lost to the world. James, have you any news of my friend M. de Fontelles?"

"Such news as your Majesty has," answered Monmouth. "And I hear that my Lord Carford will not die."

"Let us be as thankful as is fitting for that," said the King. "M. de Fontelles sent me a very uncivil message; he is leaving England, and goes, he tells me, to seek a King whom a gentleman may serve."

"Is the gentleman about to kill himself, Sir?" asked Rochester with an affected air of grave concern.

"He's an insolent rascal," cried Monmouth angrily. "Will he go back to France?"

"Why, yes, in the end, when he has tried the rest of my brethren in Europe. A man's King is like his nose; the nose may not be handsome, James, but it's small profit to cut it off. That was done once, you remember--"

"And here is your Majesty on the throne," interposed Rochester with a most loyal bow.

"James," said the King, "our friend Mr Dale desires to wed Mistress Barbara Quinton."

Monmouth started violently and turned red.

"His admiration for that lady," continued the King, "has been shared by such high and honourable persons that I cannot doubt it to be well founded. Shall he not then be her husband?"

Monmouth's eyes were fixed on me; I met his glance with an easy smile. Again I felt that I, who had worsted M. de Perrencourt, need not fear the Duke of Monmouth.

"If there be any man," observed Rochester, "who would love a lady who is not a wife, and yet is fit to be his wife, let him take her, in Heaven's name! For he might voyage as far in search of another like her as M. de Fontelles must in his search for a Perfect King."

"Shall he not have her, James?" asked the King of his son.

Monmouth understood that the game was lost.

"Ay, Sir, let him have her," he answered, mustering a smile. "And I hope soon to see your Court graced by her presence."

Well, at that, I, most inadvertently and by an error in demeanour which I now deplore sincerely, burst into a short sharp laugh. The King turned to me with raised eye-brows.

"Pray let us hear the jest, Mr Dale," said he.

"Why, Sir," I answered, "there is no jest. I don't know why I laughed, and I pray your pardon humbly."

"Yet there was something in your mind," the King insisted.

"Then, Sir, if I must say it, it was no more than this; if I would not be married in Calais, neither will I be married in Whitehall."

There was a moment's silence. It was broken by Rochester.

"I am dull," said he. "I don't understand that observation of Mr Dale's."

"That may well be, my lord," said Charles, and he turned to Monmouth, smiling maliciously as he asked, "Are you as dull as my lord here, James, or do you understand what Mr Dale would say?"

Monmouth's mood hung in the balance between anger and amusement. I had crossed and thwarted his fancy, but it was no more than a fancy. And I had crossed and thwarted M. de Perrencourt's also; that was balm to his wounds. I do not know that he could have done me harm, and it was as much from a pure liking for him as from any fear of his disfavour that I rejoiced when I saw his kindly thoughts triumph and a smile come on his lips.

"Plague take the fellow," said he, "I understand him. On my life he's wise!"

I bowed low to him, saying, "I thank your Grace for your understanding."

Rochester sighed heavily.

"This is wearisome," said he. "Shall we walk?"

"You and James shall walk," said the King. "I have yet a word for Mr Dale." As they went he turned to me and said, "But will you leave us? I could find work for you here."

I did not know what to answer him. He saw my hesitation.

"The basket will not be emptied," said he in a low and cautious voice. "It will be emptied neither for M. de Perrencourt nor for the King of France. You look very hard at me, Mr Dale, but you needn't search my face so closely. I will tell you what you desire to know. I have had my price, but I do not empty my basket." Having said this, he sat leaning his head on his hands with his eyes cast up at me from under his swarthy bushy brows.

There was a long silence then between us. For myself I do not deny that youthful ambition again cried to me to take his offer, while pride told me that even at Whitehall I could guard my honour and all that was mine. I could serve him; since he told me his secrets, he must and would serve me. And he had in the end dealt fairly and kindly with me.

The King struck his right hand on the arm of his chair suddenly and forcibly.

"I sit here," said he; "it is my work to sit here. My brother has a conscience, how long would he sit here? James is a fool, how long would he sit here? They laugh at me or snarl at me, but here I sit, and here I will sit till my life's end, by God's grace or the Devil's help. My gospel is to sit here."

I had never before seen him so moved, and never had so plain a glimpse of his heart, nor of the resolve which lay beneath his lightness and frivolity. Whence came that one unswerving resolution I know not; yet I do not think that it stood on nothing better than his indolence and a hatred of going again on his travels. There was more than that in it; perhaps he seemed to himself to hold a fort and considered all stratagems and devices well justified against the enemy. I made him no answer but continued to look at him. His passion passed as quickly as it had come, and he was smiling again with his ironical smile as he said to me:

"But my gospel need not be yours. Our paths have crossed, they need not run side by side. Come, man, I have spoken to you plainly, speak plainly to me." He paused, and then, leaning forward, said,

"Perhaps you are of M. de Fontelles' mind? Will you join him in his search? Abandon it. You had best go to your home and wait. Heaven may one day send you what you desire. Answer me, sir. Are you of the Frenchman's mind?"

His voice now had the ring of command in it and I could not but answer. And when I came to answer there was but one thing to say. He had told me the terms of my service. What was it to me that he sat there, if honour and the Kingdom's greatness and all that makes a crown worth the wearing must go, in order to his sitting there? There rose in me at once an inclination towards him and a loathing for the gospel that he preached; the last was stronger and, with a bow, I said:

"Yes, Sir, I am of M. de Fontelles' mind."

He heard me, lying back in his chair. He said nothing, but sighed lightly, puckered his brow an instant, and smiled. Then he held out his hand to me, and I bent and kissed it.

"Good-bye, Mr Dale," said he. "I don't know how long you'll have to wait. I'm hale and-so's my brother."

He moved his hand in dismissal, and, having withdrawn some paces, I turned and walked away. All observed or seemed to observe me; I heard whispers that asked who I was, why the King had talked so long to me, and to what service or high office I was destined. Acquaintances saluted me and stared in wonder at my careless acknowledgment and the quick decisive tread that carried me to the door. Now, having made my choice, I was on fire to be gone; yet once I turned my head and saw the King sitting still in his chair, his head resting on his hands, and a slight smile on his lips. He saw me look, and nodded his head. I bowed, turned again, and was gone.

Since then I have not seen him, for the paths that crossed diverged again. But, as all men know, he carried out his gospel. There he sat till his life's end, whether by God's grace or the Devil's help I know not. But there he sat, and never did he empty his basket lest, having given all, he should have nothing to carry to market. It is not for me to judge him now; but then, when I had the choice set before me, there in his own palace, I passed my verdict. I do not repent of it. For good or evil, in wisdom or in folly, in mere honesty or the extravagance of sentiment, I had made my choice. I was of the mind of M. de Fontelles, and I went forth to wait till there should be a King whom a gentleman could serve. Yet to this day I am sorry that he made me tell him of my choice.

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