The Second Floor of la Bertaudiere
On the second flight of stairs, whether from fatigue or emotion, the breathing of the visitor began to fail him, and he leaned against the wall. "Will you begin with this one?" said Baisemeaux; "for since we are going to both, it matters very little whether we ascend from the second to the third story, or descend from the third to the second."
"No, no," exclaimed Aramis, eagerly, "higher, if you please; the one above is the more urgent." They continued their ascent. "Ask the jailer for the keys," whispered Aramis. Baisemeaux did so, took the keys, and, himself, opened the door of the third room. The jailer was the first to enter; he placed upon the table the provisions, which the kind-hearted governor called dainties, and then left the room. The prisoner had not stirred; Baisemeaux then entered, while Aramis remained at the threshold, from which place he saw a youth about eighteen years of age, who, raising his head at the unusual noise, jumped off the bed, as he perceived the governor, and clasping his hands together, began to cry out, "My mother, my mother," in tones which betrayed such deep distress that Aramis, despite his command over himself, felt a shudder pass through his frame. "My dear boy," said Baisemeaux, endeavoring to smile, "I have brought you a diversion and an extra, -- the one for the mind, the other for the body; this gentleman has come to take your measure, and here are some preserves for your dessert."
"Oh, monsieur," exclaimed the young man, "keep me in solitude for a year, let me have nothing but bread and water for a year, but tell me that at the end of a year I shall leave this place, tell me that at the end of a year I shall see my mother again."
"But I have heard you say that your mother was very poor, and that you were very badly lodged when you were living with her, while here -- upon my word!"
"If she were poor, monsieur, the greater reason to restore her only means of support to her. Badly lodged with her! Oh, monsieur, every one is always well lodged when he is free."
"At all events, since you yourself admit you have done nothing but write that unhappy distich ---- "
"But without any intention, I swear. Let me be punished -- cut off the hand which wrote it, I will work with the other -- but restore my mother to me."
"My boy," said Baisemeaux, "you know very well that it does not depend upon me; all I can do for you is to increase your rations, give you a glass of port wine now and then, slip in a biscuit for you between a couple of plates."
"Great heaven!" exclaimed the young man, falling backward and rolling on the ground.
Aramis, unable to bear this scene any longer, withdrew as far as the landing. "Unhappy, wretched man," he murmured.
"Yes, monsieur, he is indeed very wretched," said the jailer; "but it is his parents' fault.
"In what way?"
"No doubt. Why did they let him learn Latin? Too much knowledge, you see; it is that which does harm. Now I, for instance, can't read or write, and therefore I am not in prison." Aramis looked at the man, who seemed to think that being a jailer in the Bastile was not being in prison. As for Baisemeaux, noticing the little effect produced by his advice and his port wine, he left the dungeon quite upset. "You have forgotten to close the door," said the jailer.
"So I have," said Baisemeaux, "there are the keys, do you do it."
"I will solicit the pardon of that poor boy," said Aramis.
"And if you do not succeed," said Baisemeaux, "at least beg that he may be transferred to the ten-franc list, by which both he and I shall be gainers."
"If the other prisoner calls out for his mother in a similar manner," said Aramis, "I prefer not to enter at all, but will take my measure from outside."
"No fear of that, monsieur architect, the one we are now going to see is as gentle as a lamb; before he could call after his mother he must open his lips, and he never says a word."
"Let us go in, then," said Aramis, gloomily.
"Are you the architect of the prisons, monsieur?" said the jailer.
"It is odd, then, that you are not more accustomed to all this."
Aramis perceived that, to avoid giving rise to any suspicions he must summon all his strength of mind to his assistance. Baisemeaux, who carried the keys, opened the door. "Stay outside," he said to the jailer, "and wait for us at the bottom of the steps." The jailer obeyed and withdrew.
Baisemeaux entered first and opened the second door himself. By the light which filtered through the iron-barred window, could be seen a handsome young man, short in stature, with closely cut hair, and a beard beginning to grow; he was sitting on a stool, his elbow resting on an armchair, and all the upper part of his body reclining against it. His dress, thrown upon the bed, was of rich black velvet, and he inhaled the fresh air which blew in upon his breast through a shirt of the very finest cambric. As the governor entered, the young man turned his head with a look full of indifference; and on recognizing Baisemeaux, he arose and saluted him courteously. But when his eyes fell upon Aramis, who remained in the background, the latter trembled, turned pale, and his hat, which he held in his hand, fell upon the ground, as if all his muscles had become relaxed at once. Baisemeaux, habituated to the presence of his prisoner, did not seem to share any of the sensations which Aramis experienced, but, with all the zeal of a good servant, he busied himself in arranging on the table the pasty and crawfish he had brought with him. Occupied in this manner, he did not remark how disturbed his guest had become. When he had finished, however, he turned to the young prisoner and said: "You are looking very well, -- are you so?"
"Quite well, I thank you, monsieur," replied the young man.
The effect of the voice was such as almost to overpower Aramis, and notwithstanding his control over himself, he advanced a few steps towards him, with his eyes wide open and his lips trembling. The movement he made was so marked that Baisemeaux, notwithstanding his preoccupation, observed it. "This gentleman is an architect who has come to examine your chimney," said Baisemeaux, "does it smoke?"
"You were saying just now," said the governor, rubbing his hands together, "that it was not possible for a man to be happy in prison; here, however, is one who is so. You have nothing to complain of, I hope?"
"Do you ever feel weary?" said Aramis.
"Ha, ha," said Baisemeaux, in a low tone of voice; "was I right?"
"Well, my dear governor, it is impossible not to yield to evidence. Is it allowed to put any question to him?"
"As many as you like."
"Very well; be good enough to ask him if he knows why he is here."
"This gentleman requests me to ask you," said Baisemeaux, "if you are aware of the cause of your imprisonment?"
"No, monsieur," said the young man, unaffectedly, "I am not."
"That is hardly possible," said Aramis, carried away by his feelings in spite of himself; "if you were really ignorant of the cause of your detention, you would be furious."
"I was so during the early days of my imprisonment."
"Why are you not so now?"
"Because I have reflected."
"That is strange," said Aramis.
"Is it not odd?" said Baisemeaux.
"May one venture to ask you, monsieur, on what you have reflected?"
"I felt that as I had committed no crime, Heaven could not punish me."
"What is a prison, then," inquired Aramis, "if it be not a punishment?"
"Alas! I cannot tell, said the young man; "all that I can tell you now is the very opposite of what I felt seven years ago."
"To hear you converse, to witness your resignation, one might almost believe that you liked your imprisonment?"
"I endure it.
"In the certainty of recovering your freedom some day, I suppose?"
"I have no certainty; hope I have, and that is all; and yet I acknowledge that this hope becomes less every day."
"Still, why should you not again be free, since you have already been so?"
"That is precisely the reason," replied the young man, "which prevents me expecting liberty; why should I have been imprisoned at all if it had been intended to release me afterwards?"
"How old are you?"
"I do not know."
"What is your name?"
"I have forgotten the name by which I was called."
"Who are your parents?"
"I never knew them."
"But those who brought you up?"
"They did not call me their son."
"Did you ever love any one before coming here?"
"I loved my nurse, and my flowers."
"Was that all?"
"I also loved my valet."
"Do you regret your nurse and your valet?"
"I wept very much when they died."
"Did they die since you have been here, or before you came?"
"They died the evening before I was carried off."
"Both at the same time?"
"Yes, both at the same time."
"In what manner were you carried off?"
"A man came for me, directed me to get into a carriage, which was closed and locked, and brought me here."
"Would you be able to recognize that man again?"
"He was masked."
"Is not this an extraordinary tale?" said Baisemeaux, in a low tone of voice, to Aramis, who could hardly breathe.
"It is indeed extraordinary," he murmured.
"But what is still more extraordinary is, that he has never told me so much as he has just told you."
"Perhaps the reason may be that you have never questioned him," said Aramis.
"It's possible," replied Baisemeaux; "I have no curiosity. Have you looked at the room? it's a fine one, is it not?"
"Very much so."
"A carpet ---- "
"I'll wager he had nothing like it before he came here."
"I think so, too." And then again turning towards the young man, he said, "Do you not remember to have been visited at some time or another by a strange lady or gentleman?"
"Yes, indeed; thrice by a woman, who each time came to the door in a carriage, and entered covered with a veil, which she raised when we were together and alone."
"Do you remember that woman?"
"What did she say to you?"
The young man smiled mournfully, and then replied, "She inquired, as you have just done, if I were happy, and if I were getting weary?"
"What did she do on arriving, and on leaving you?"
"She pressed me in her arms, held me in her embrace, and kissed me."
"Do you remember her?"
"Do you recall her features distinctly?"
"You would recognize her, then, if accident brought her before you, or led you into her presence?"
A flush of fleeting satisfaction passed across Aramis's face. At this moment Baisemeaux heard the jailer approaching. "Shall we leave?" he said, hastily, to Aramis.
Aramis, who probably had learnt all that he cared to know, replied, "When you like."
The young man saw them prepare to leave, and saluted them politely. Baisemeaux replied merely by a nod of the head, while Aramis, with a respect, arising perhaps from the sight of such misfortune, saluted the prisoner profoundly. They left the room, Baisemeaux closing the door behind them.
"Well," said Baisemeaux, as they descended the staircase, "what do you think of it all?"
"I have discovered the secret, my dear governor," he said.
"Bah! what is the secret, then?"
"A murder was committed in that house."
"But attend; the valet and nurse died the same day."
"And by poison. What do you think?"
"That it is very likely to be true."
"What! that that young man is an assassin?"
"Who said that? What makes you think that poor young fellow could be an assassin?"
"The very thing I was saying. A crime was committed in his house," said Aramis, "and that was quite sufficient; perhaps he saw the criminals, and it was feared that he might say something."
"The deuce! if I only thought that ---- "
"I would redouble the surveillance."
"Oh, he does not seem to wish to escape."
"You do not know what prisoners are."
"Has he any books?"
"None; they are strictly prohibited, and under M. de Mazarin's own hand."
"Have you the writing still?"
"Yes, my lord; would you like to look at it as you return to take your cloak?
"I should, for I like to look at autographs."
"Well, then, this one is of the most unquestionable authenticity; there is only one erasure."
"Ah, ah! an erasure; and in what respect?"
"With respect to a figure. At first there was written: `To be boarded at fifty francs.'"
"As princes of the blood, in fact?"
"But the cardinal must have seen his mistake, you understand; for he canceled the zero, and has added a one before the five. But, by the by ---- "
"You do not speak of the resemblance."
"I do not speak of it, dear M. de Baisemeaux, for a very simple reason -- because it does not exist."
"The deuce it doesn't."
"Or, if it does exist, it is only in your own imagination; but, supposing it were to exist elsewhere, I think it would be better for you not to speak about it."
"The king, Louis XIV. -- you understand -- would be excessively angry with you, if he were to learn that you contributed in any way to spread the report that one of his subjects has the effrontery to resemble him."
"It is true, quite true," said Baisemeaux, thoroughly alarmed; "but I have not spoken of the circumstance to any one but yourself, and you understand, monseigneur, that I perfectly rely on your discretion."
"Oh, be easy."
"Do you still wish to see the note?"
While engaged in this manner in conversation, they had returned to the governor's apartments; Baisemeaux took from the cupboard a private register, like the one he had already shown Aramis, but fastened by a lock, the key which opened it being one of a small bunch of keys which Baisemeaux always carried with him. Then placing the book upon the table, he opened it at the letter "M," and showed Aramis the following note in the column of observations: "No books at any time; all linen and clothes of the finest and best quality to be procured; no exercise; always the same jailer; no communications with any one. Musical instruments; every liberty and every indulgence which his welfare may require, to be boarded at fifteen francs. M. de Baisemeaux can claim more if the fifteen francs be not sufficient."
"Ah," said Baisemeaux, "now I think of it, I shall claim it."
Aramis shut the book. "Yes," he said, "it is indeed M. de Mazarin's handwriting; I recognize it well. Now, my dear governor," he continued, as if this last communication had exhausted his interest, "let us now turn to our own little affairs."
"Well, what time for repayment do you wish me to take? Fix it yourself."
"There need not be any particular period fixed; give me a simple acknowledgment for one hundred and fifty thousand francs."
"When to be made payable?"
"When I require it; but, you understand, I shall only wish it when you yourself do."
"Oh, I am quite easy on that score," said Baisemeaux, smiling; "but I have already given you two receipts."
"Which I now destroy," said Aramis; and after having shown the two receipts to Baisemeaux, he destroyed them. Overcome by so great a mark of confidence, Baisemeaux unhesitatingly wrote out an acknowledgment of a debt of one hundred and fifty thousand francs, payable at the pleasure of the prelate. Aramis, who had, by glancing over the governor's shoulder, followed the pen as he wrote, put the acknowledgment into his pocket without seeming to have read it, which made Baisemeaux perfectly easy. "Now," said Aramis, "you will not be angry with me if I were to carry off one of your prisoners?"
"What do you mean?"
"By obtaining his pardon, of course. Have I not already told you that I took a great interest in poor Seldon?"
"Yes, quite true, you did so."
"That is your affair; do as you think proper. I see you have an open hand, and an arm that can reach a great way."
"Adieu, adieu." And Aramis left, carrying with him the governor's best wishes.Next