Chapter 34 THE ABSOLUTION OF MONSIEUR LE MARQUIS DE PERIGNY
The Château Saint Louis shimmered in the November moonlight. It was a castl_n 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 war_opaz. Below, the roofs of the warehouses shone like silver under gauze. _rooked black line marked the course of the icy river, and here and there _hantom moon flashed upon it. The quiet beauty of all this was broken by th_ed harshness of artificial light which gleamed from a single window in th_hâteau, like a Cyclopean eye. Stillness was within. If any moved about o_his floor it was on tiptoe. Death stood at the door and peered into th_arkest corners. For the Marquis de Périgny was about to start out upon tha_ourney which has no visible end, which leaves no trail behind: men settin_ut 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 la_mong his pillows, his head moving feebly from side to side, his attenuate_ingers plucking at the coverlet, his tongue stealing slowly along his cracke_nd burning lips. Fragments of his life passed in ragged panorama. His min_andered, and again became keen with the old-time cynicism and philosophy, a_ coal glows and fades in a fitful wind. In all these weeks he had left hi_ed but once … to find that his son was lost in the woods, a captive, perhap_ead. Too late; he had always been too late. He had turned the forgiving han_way. 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, leather_ace had lost the power to express emotion; but his faded eyes sparkle_uspiciously.
"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 i_he Rochelle days. "A sip of wine; I am cold." Jehan put his arm around th_hin shoulders of his master and held the glass to the trembling lips. _ectic flush superseded the pallor, and the delusion was gone. The coa_lowed. "It is you, Jehan? Well, my faithful henchman, you will have t_ontinue the journey alone. My relays have given out. Go back to Périgny i_he 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. … The_re 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?"
"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 kno_hat my lips lied when I turned him away. Brother Jacques; he will satisfy m_uriosity 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 no_n my pursuit of pleasure. Ah well, to die in bed, Jehan, was not among m_alculations. But human calculations never balance in the sum total. I hav_ropped a figure on the route, somewhere, and my account is without head o_ail. 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 m_eath'," 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 carefull_xplained.
"Give it to me;" but the marquis's fingers trembled and shook and his eye_tared in vain. "My eyes have failed me, too. I can not distinguish one lette_rom another. Give it to Brother Jacques when he comes. He is a priest; the_ll 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 Beni_ithout? 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 i_eace."
So Jehan went in search of Sister Benie. When she came in her angelic face wa_s white as the collaret which encircled her throat, and the scar was mor_ivid than usual. Alas, the marquis's mind had gone a-wandering again: th_oal 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 foo_lunges into all follies, but a wise man avoids what he can. I have been bot_he 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. "_oved you. It is true. I did not know it then. You are dead, and you know tha_ loved you. Do you think the lad has really forgiven me for what I have don_o him? … I am weary of the contest; Death sits on his horse outside th_oor."
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 th_arquis did not know, being out of his mind again!
"Hush, Henriot!" said Sister Benie. Tumult was in her heart. His icy han_losed over hers, which was scarce warmer; all the blood was in her heart. He_rms ached with longing to wrap this poor form to her breast. This was th_upreme hour of her expiation.
"Henriot?" she called softly. "Henriot?" Thirty years of forgiveness and lov_hrilled in that name.
Jehan stole away. All this was not for his ears. Only God had the right t_isten.
"Margot, are you still there? Henriot! I have not heard that name in thirt_ears."
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 lette_till; in a casket at Périgny. It is yellow with age, and crumbles to th_ouch. Where did you go? After madame died I was lonely. … All, all ar_hantoms!" Then his delusion took another turn. He saw her no more. "Monsieu_e Longueville, you lie when you say that I received billets from madame. _now a well-trodden place behind the Tuileries. Perhaps you will follow me? … Richelieu dead? What, then, will become of France, Jehan? Has Monsieur l_omte come in yet?"
There were no tears in her eyes. Those reservoirs had emptied and dried twent_ears ago. But her heart cried. A new pain stabbed her, causing the room t_areen. She kissed him on the forehead. It was all beyond her capacity fo_uffering. Her love belonged to God, not to man. To remain was to lose he_eason. She would go before the delusion passed. In the corridor she woul_neel 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, i_nything, exceeded her own. She stopped, undecided, hesitant. … Was it th_olor of his eyes?
"I have come, Sister, to give Monsieur le Marquis absolution." His tone wa_ild and reassuring. Stuck between his gown and his belt was the letter Jeha_ad given him to read. He had not looked at it yet. "Monsieur le Marquis ha_alled for me."
"You have full powers?" uncertain and distressed. She did not like the feve_n his eyes.
"I am fully ordained. I may not perform mass because of my mutilation, thoug_ am expecting a dispensation from his Holiness the pope." He held out hi_and, and her distrust subsided at the sight of those reddened stumps. "Yo_re standing in my way, Sister. Seek Monsieur le Chevalier, if you will be s_ind. He is in the citadel."
She moved to one side, and he passed into the room. When he reached th_edside, he turned. Sister Benie dropped her gaze, stepped into the corridor, and softly closed the door. Brother Jacques and the marquis were alone. Th_ask of calm fell from the priest's countenance, leaving it gloomy an_aggard. But the fever in his eyes remained unchanged.
"It is something that you have forgiven me, Margot," the marquis murmured. Hi_ancy had veered again. His eyes were closed; and Brother Jacques could se_he 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. Onc_rother Jacques pulled forth the letter and glanced again at the address. I_as singular. It recalled to him that night when this old man had presse_'Hérouville to the wall. "To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivere_nto his hands at my death." The priest wondered whose death this meant. H_id not replace the letter in his belt, but slipped it into the pocket of hi_obe, thoughtlessly.
"Paul? … Ah! it is Brother Jacques. Curse these phantoms which recur again an_gain. But my son," eagerly; "he is well? He is uninjured? He will be her_oon?"
"Yes, my father."
"Once you asked me to call you if ever I changed my mind regarding religion. _ill test this absolution of yours."
"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, thoug_he effort cost him pain.
"She was my mother," softly.
The marquis fell back among his pillows. The gnawing of a mouse behind th_all 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 bot_rms. "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 no_omething there to awaken your memory?" Brother Jacques brought his fac_ithin a span of the marquis's. "Look!"
"The eyes, the eyes! … Margot, a son? … What do you want?" The marqui_oistened his lips.
"To make your last hour something like the many I have lived. Where is th_oman 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 o_uffering 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 bitte_y dogs. I have seen you feasting at your table while I hungered outside. _ave watched your coach as it rolled through the château gates. One day you_ostilion struck me with his whip because I did not get out of the way soo_nough. I have crept into sheds and shared the straw with beasts which ha_ore pity than you. I thought of you, Monsieur le Marquis, you in your châtea_ith plenty to eat and drink, and a fire toasting your noble shins. Have I no_hought of you?"
"I am an old man," said the marquis, bewildered. This priest must be _ightmare, another of those phantoms which were crowding around his bed.
"How I longed for riches, luxury, content! For had I not your blood in m_eins and were not my desires natural? I became a priest because I coul_tarve no longer without dying. I have seen your true son in the forests, hav_alled him brother, though he did not understand. You cursed him and made hi_n outcast, wilfully. I was starving as a lad of two. My mother, Margo_ourdaloue, went out in search of bread. I followed, but became lost. I neve_aw my mother again; I can not even remember how she looked. I can only recal_he starved eyes. And you cursed your acknowledged son and applied to him th_pithet 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 hur_he 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 tha_ight at Rochelle? … That for every soul you have sent out of the world, yo_ave brought another into it? Perhaps this fellow is my brother, and I know i_ot; 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 twiste_rom 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, _m sorry. I have lived evilly. I have wronged you; forgive me; I am dying'!"
The marquis was breathing with that rapidity which foretells of comin_issolution. "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 o_t. 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. Ther_as on that proud face neither fear nor horror. And this was the hour Brothe_acques had planned and waited for! For this moment he had donned the robes, isolated himself, taken vows, suffered physical tortures! He had come t_urse: he was offering absolution.
"Hypocrite, begone!" cried the marquis, seized with vertigo. He tried t_trike the bell, but the effort merely sent it jangling to the floor.
"Must I call for help?"
Brother Jacques could stand no more. He rushed madly toward the door, which h_pened violently. Sister Benie stood in the corridor, transfixed.
"My son?" she faltered. A pathetic little sob escaped her. Her arms reache_ut feebly; she fell. Brother Jacques caught her, but she was dead. Her hear_ad broken. With a cry such as Dante conceived in his dream of hell, Brothe_acques 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 th_overlet.
"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 Siste_enie. 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 _hought 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 hi_eathery cheeks.
"Margot!" murmured the Chevalier. He had never heard this name before. Wha_id it mean? "Father?" He came swiftly toward the marquis.
"Dead!" The marquis staggered to his feet without assistance. He swung dizzil_oward the candles on the mantel. He struck them. "Away with the lights, fools." The candles rolled and sputtered en the floor. "Away with them, _ay!" Toward the table he lurched, avoiding the Chevalier's arms. From th_able he dashed the candles. "Away with the lights! The Marquis de Pérign_hall die as he lived … in the dark!"
He fell upon the bed, his face hidden in the pillows. When the Chevalie_eached his side he was dead.