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Rafael Sabatini - The Red Mask

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The Red Mask
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The Red Mask

By Rafael Sabatini

During the last year of his reign, it was a common thing for Mazarin to repair to the masques given by the King at the Louvre.

In a long domino, the ample folds of which cloaked his tall, lean figure beyond all recognition, it was his custom to mingle in the crowd--all unconscious of his presence--in the hope of gleaning through the channels of court gossip some serviceable information.

These visits to the Louvre were kept a profound secret from all save Monsieur André, the valet who dressed him, and myself, the captain of his guards, who escorted him.

It was usual upon such occasions for the Cardinal to retire to his own apartments, under the pretence of desiring to be a-bed at an earlier hour. Once screened from the gaze of the curious, he would prepare for the ball, and when he was ready, André would summon me from the ante-chamber. On the night in question, however, I was startled out of the reverie into which I had lapsed whilst watching two pages throwing at dice and discussing the arts of the practice, by the Cardinal's own voice uttering my name:

"Monsieur de Cavaignac,"

At the sound of the rasping voice, which plainly told me that his Eminence was out of humour, one of the lads sat precipitately upon the dice, to hide from his master's eyes the unholy nature of their pastime, whilst I, astonished at the irregularity of the proceedings, turned sharply round and made a profound obeisance.

One glance at Mazarin told me there was trouble. An angry flush was upon his sallow face, and his eyes glittered in a strange, discomforting manner, whilst his jewelled fingers tugged nervously at the long pointed beard which he still wore, after the fashion of the days of his late Majesty, Louis XIII.

"Follow me, Monsieur," he said; whereupon, respecting his mood, I lifted my sword to prevent its clanking, and passed into the study, which divided the bedroom from the ante-chamber.

Suppressing with masterly self-control, the anger that swelled within him, Mazarin held out to me a strip of paper.

"Read," he said laconically, as if afraid to trust his voice with more.

Taking the paper as I was bid, I gazed earnestly at it, and marvelled to myself whether the Cardinal's dotage was upon him, for, stare as I would, I could detect no writing.

Noting my perplexity, Mazarin took a heavy silver candlestick from the table, and placing himself at my side, held it so as to throw a strong light upon the paper. Wonderingly, I examined it afresh, and discovered this time the faint impression of such characters as might have been written with a pencil upon another sheet placed over the one that I now held.

With infinite pains, and awed at what I read, I had contrived to master the meaning of the first two lines, when the Cardinal, growing impatient at my slowness, set down the candlestick and snatched the paper from my hand.

"You have seen?" he asked.

"Not all, your eminence," I replied.

"Then I will read it to you; listen."

And in a slightly shaken monotone he read out to me the following words:--

"The Italian goes disguised to-night to attend the King's masque. He will arrive at ten, wearing a black silk domino and a red vizor."

Slowly he folded the document, and then, turning his sharp eyes upon me.

"Of course," he said, "you do not know the handwriting; but I am well acquainted with it; it is that of my valet, André."

"It is a gross breach of confidence, if you are certain that it alludes to your Eminence," I ventured, timidly.

"A breach of confidence, Chevalier!" he cried in derision. "A breach of confidence! I took you for a wiser man. Does this message suggest nothing more than a breach of confidence to you?"

I started, aghast, as his meaning dawned upon me, and noting this,

"Ah, I see that it does," he said, with a curious smile. "Well, what do you say now?"

"I scarcely like to word my thoughts, Monseigneur," I answered.

"Then I will word them for you," he retorted. "There is a conspiracy afoot."

"God forbid!" I cried, then added quickly; "Impossible! your Eminence is too well beloved."

"Pish!" he answered, with a frown; "you forget, de Cavaignac, this is the Palais Mazarin, and not the Louvre. We need no courtiers here."

"Twas but the truth I spoke, Monseigneur," I expostulated.

"Enough!" he exclaimed, "we are wasting time. I am assured that he is in league with one, or may be more, foul knaves of his kidney, whose purpose it is--well, what is the usual purpose of a conspiracy?"

"Your Eminence!" I cried, in horror.

"Well?" he said, coldly, and with a slight elevation of the eyebrows.

"Pardon me for suggesting that you may be in error. What evidence is there to show that you are the person to whom that note alludes?"

He gazed at me in undisguised astonishment, and may-be pity, at my dullness.

"Does it not say, 'the Italian'?"

"But then, Monseigneur, pardon me again, you are not the only Italian in Paris; there are several at court--Botillani, del'Asta de Agostini, Magnani. Are these not all Italians? Is it not possible that the note refers to one of them?"

"Do you think so?" he inquired, raising his eyebrows.

"Ma foi, I see no reason why it should not."

"But does it not occur to you that in such a case there would be little need for mystery? Why should not André have mentioned his name?"

"The course of leaving out the name appears to me, if Monseigneur will permit me to say so, an equally desirable one, whether the party conspired against, be your Eminence or a court fop."

"You argue well," he answered, with a chilling sneer. "But come with me, de Cavaignac, and I will set such an argument before your eyes as can leave no doubt in your mind. Venez."

Obediently I followed him through the white and gold folding-doors into his bedroom. He walked slowly across the apartment, and pulling aside the curtains he pointed to a long black silk domino lying across the bed; then, putting out his hand, he drew forth a scarlet mask and held it up to the light, so that I might clearly see its colour.

"Are you assured?" he asked.

I was indeed! Whatever doubts there may have been in my mind as to Monsieur André's treachery were now utterly dispelled by this overwhelming proof.

Having communicated my opinion to his Eminence, I awaited, in silence, his commands.

For some moments he paced the room slowly with bent head and toying with his beard. At last he stopped.

"I have sent that knave André upon a mission that will keep him engaged for some moments yet. Upon his return I shall endeavour to discover the name of his accomplice, or rather," he added scornfully, "of his master. I half-suspect--" he began, then suddenly turned to me, "Can you think of any one, Cavaignac?" he enquired.

I hastened to assure him that I could not, whereat he shrugged his shoulders in a manner meant to express the value he set upon my astuteness.

"Ohimè!" he cried bitterly, "how unenviable is my position. Traitors and conspirators in my very house, and none to guard me against them!"

"Your Eminence!" I exclaimed, almost indignantly, for this imputation to one who had served him as I had done was cruel and unjust.

He shot a sharp glance at me from under his puckered brows, then softening suddenly, as he saw the look upon my face, he came over to where I stood, and placing his soft white hand upon my shoulder,

"Forgive me, Cavaignac," he said gently, "forgive me, my friend, I have wronged you. I know that you are true and faithful--and the words I spoke were wrung from me by bitterness at the thought that one upon whom I have heaped favours should so betray me--probably," he added bitterly, "for the sake of a few paltry pistoles, even as Iscariot betrayed his Master."

"I have so few friends, Cavaignac," he went on, in a tone of passing sadness, "so few that I cannot afford to quarrel with the only one of whom I am certain. There are many who fear me; many who cringe to me, knowing that I have the power to make or break them--but none who love me. And yet I am envied!" and he broke into a short bitter laugh, "Envied. 'There goes the true King of France' say noble and simple, as they doff their hats and bow low before the great and puissant Cardinal Mazarin. They forget my fortes but they denounce my foibles, and envying, they malign me, for malice is ever the favourite mask of envy. They envy me, a lonely old man amid all the courtiers who cringe like curs about me. Ah; Cavaignac, 'twas wisely said by that wise man, the late Cardinal Richelieu, that often those whom the world most envies, stand most in need of pity."

I was deeply moved by his words and by the low tone, now sad, now fierce, in which they were delivered--for it was unusual for Mazarin to say so much in a breath, and I knew that André's treachery must have stricken him sorely.

It was not for me to endeavour by argument to convince him that he was in error; moreover, I knew full well that all he said was true, and being no lisping courtier, to whom the art of falsehood comes as naturally as that of breathing, but a blunt soldier who spoke but what was in my heart, I held my peace.

With those keen eyes of his he read what was in my mind; taking me by the hand, he pressed it warmly.

"Thanks, my friend, thanks!" he murmured, "you at least are true, true as the steel you wear and honour, and so long as this weak hand of mine can sway men's fortunes, so long as I live, you shall not be forgotten. But go now, Cavaignac, leave me; André may return at any moment, and it would awaken his suspicions to find you here, for there are none so suspicious as traitors. Await my orders in the ante-chamber, as usual."

"But is it safe to leave your Eminence alone with him?" I cried, in some concern.

He laughed softly.

"Think you the knave is eager to enjoy the gibbet he has earned as Montfaucon?" he said. "Nay, have no fear, it will not come to violence."

"A rat at bay is a dangerous foe," I answered.

"I know, I know," he replied, "and so I have taken my precautions--unnecessary as I think them--voyez!" and as he opened his scarlet robe I beheld the glitter of a shirt of mail beneath.

"'Tis well," I replied, and, bowing, I withdrew.

In the dark and silent ante-chamber--for the pages and their ungodly toys were gone when I returned--I paced slowly to and fro, musing sadly over all that the Cardinal had said, and cursing in my heart that dog André. So bitter did I feel towards the villainous traitor, that, when at the end of half an hour I beheld him standing before me with a false smile upon his pale countenance, it was only by an effort that I refrained from striking him.

"Here is your domino, Monsieur de Cavaignac," he said, placing a long dark garment upon a chair back.

"Is his Eminence ready?" I inquired, in a surly tone. As my tone was usually a surly one, there was no reason why it should affect André upon this occasion; nor did it.

"His Eminence is almost ready," he replied. "He wishes you to wait in the study."

This was unusual and set me thinking. The conclusion I arrived at was that Mazarin had not yet opened his campaign against the luckless servant, but wished to have me within call when he did so.

Without a word to André I unbuckled my sword, as was my custom, and begged him to take it to my room, since I should have no further use for it that night.

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