The arm and the darkness, p.1
The Arm and the Darkness, page 1
The Arm and the Darkness
PIERRE VAN PAASSEN,
a man of good will, whose works have been a constant inspiration to me.
“Three things only can reach beyond the world: the sun in its light, the darkness of night, and the long arm of God.”—
The events and the characters in this novel were not invented by me. To critics, I refer the evidence of history. If there appears too much violence, I recommend a study of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the acts of that most Catholic Christian gentleman, Philip of Spain, in Holland. To those who believe the Roman Hierarchy is uniformly vicious, I refer the lives of many heroic priests, without whom the cause of civilization would long have perished. Men of good will are not confined to one creed or race, but can be found in the most unlikely places. To these men this novel is dedicated with reverence.
The tumultuous storm had passed over Paris, and behind it there came a hollow silence, in which there were no echoes. But a moist and livid patina formed on the chaotic rooftops, which an uncertain moon, shrouded with tattered veils, turned at intervals to a dull silver. A mist was rising rapidly from the river, its upper reaches brightening into pale bright clouds in the vagrant moonlight, its lower depths swirling like dark smoke over the city. Here and there, the roofs of higher buildings resembled the outlines of wrecked ships drifting under the illusive moon, and the towers of Notre Dame, in a deceptive distance, loomed as soft vast shadows, somber and unreal.
The fog came in with remorseless silence, engulfing the streets, flooding them. It had not yet reached this street. The houses were old and dilapidated. The upper stories projected over the silvered stones of the street, and their narrow shuttered windows were dark. The filthy gutters gurgled chokingly. The street went into darkness and out again into vague light, as the moon flung herself behind clouds or leapt out as if pursued.
There was no light of any kind in this narrow and crooked street, which was hardly more than an alley, leading to other and more narrow alleys. But, yes, there was a single glimmering light after all, flickering through a slit of a window on the street level. So faint it was, so spectral, that only a desperate or seeking eye could have discerned it.
The city, at midnight, might have been dead, at least from this street, where there was no sound at all, and only a breathless and sunken quiet. Yet, all at once, there was the thin echo of running feet, and harsh breath and stumbling steps. The breathing had already taken on itself the quality of sobs, spent and agonized. The moon came out again, shining with wan brilliance down the length of the street. A man was running, staggering, his wild eye leaping ahead of him, as if to find refuge and shelter.
He was in terrible distress, panting and dishevelled, carrying in his right hand a drawn sword. The night was cool, too cool for his coatless condition. His white shirt was torn, and on the right sleeve there was a wet dark stain, and from his right cheek there dripped a tiny rivulet of blood. Mud and water had drenched his doublet and boots; his long hair was matted close to his head, as though recently dipped in water. He had just emerged from the river, into which he had plunged in order to escape his pursuers. But he had not escaped them; now, in the near distance, still hidden from him by the corner of the street, he could see the red shadow of a torch, and could hear the slapping of running feet.
He was young, and his eye was keen, and by the light of the moon he could discern that the end of the street was a cul-de-sac, and that at right angles to it there was another alley. He leaped forward, stumbling, then halted, trembling. He would have no time to reach that alley. His pursuers would see him. He was already exhausted. He could go no farther.
His wild eye struck the shut and bolted doors of the miserable houses. He crept, shivering, under the shelter of a projecting balcony, trying to assauge the bursting pain of his heart, looking backwards, as he did so, to the corner which he had just recently rounded. He would be slaughtered in this street, right where he stood. There was no help. In a moment, his enemies would be upon him.
Suddenly, he saw the wan glimmer of the candlelight near at hand. Instantly, he leaped towards it, and glanced within. An old man sat at a table in a bare and wretched room. A single candle in a wine bottle stood near his right elbow. He was reading from the pages of a large book. The young man could peer through the cracks in the shutters. So sharp and intense were his emotions then, that he could be impressed, even in his mortal danger, by the slow and thoughtful manner in which the old man turned the pages, and the meditative bend of his head.
There was a door near at hand. The young man pressed his palms desperately against it. It yielded, with a dolorous squealing. He had hardly expected it to yield, and he sobbed aloud a word of gratitude. He found himself in a dank dark passage smelling of mice and dust. At his right hand was a door leading to the chamber which he had seen. It was slightly ajar. He pushed it open, sprang into the room, closed it. There was a bolt upon it, and he shot it into place.
The old man, startled, glanced up, half rose with an expression of alarm. He saw before him a young man, white and ghastly of face and lips, bleeding, armed with a sword. He saw the distraught dark eyes, the dripping garments. He uttered a faint cry.
But the young man was already glancing beyond him to the curtained doorway of a dark windowless room. A young girl, aroused by the old man’s cry, appeared in the doorway, in her shift, braids of light brown hair on her shoulders. She gripped one of the ragged curtains in her hand as she saw the strange and ferocious visitor who had just precipitated himself into the room.
In a moment he had sprung the three or four paces towards her, had jumped behind her. He lifted his pistol and pressed it into the small of her soft young back. The old man stood by his table, staring. The young girl did not move or turn, but her face turned gray and still, and her hand clenched the curtain tightly.
The young man spoke through his teeth, softly, and with a deadly intonation.
“I am pursued,” he said. “They will see your light. Blow it out!” He listened. “No, it is too late. They are already in the street. They have seen your candle. They will be suspicious—In an instant, they will knock upon your door. You will tell them I am not here. If you do not obey me, this girl will die. Instantly.”
The old man slowly sank back into his chair. His hand, wrinkled and swollen, fell heavily upon the open book. Terrible fear appeared on his bearded face. He could not see his visitor, but he saw the wide strained eyes of the girl, fixed steadfastly upon him.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
The invisible man did not answer. But it was evident that he was listening. In the street outside there was a subdued tumult, the hoarse infuriated voices of men, and in through the shutters there came lances of red light. The young girl still did not move or speak, but the knuckles of her gripping hand had turned a pearly white.
Now there was a thundering upon the door. The door opened, and men catapulted themselves into the little passageway. They struck at the barred inner door.
“Open! Open in the name of His Majecty, and the Cardinal!”
“Open the door,” said the invisible man, very softly.
The old man forced himself to his feet. For an instant, he looked at the girl, and his bearded lips shook. She returned his regard with desperate gravity. He tottered towards the door and opened it. Two musketeers, in the livery of Monsieur the Cardinal, forced themselves into the room so violently that the old man was hurled back. In the passageway outside, he saw the flushed coarse faces of other men. One held a torch high. Drawn swords were in every
“What is it? What do you wish, messieurs?” asked the old man, in his faint cracked voice.
They were panting. They did not answer him for a moment, but they looked at the young girl. Then one spoke.
“Have you seen a man? Has he taken shelter in here?”
“There is no one here but my granddaughter, and myself, messieurs.”
He looked at their heavy bodies, at their brutal faces, and a strange gleam came into his pale and sunken eyes.
“Who is the man? A thief? A murderer?”
One of the men laughed savagely. “Worse, old man. He is a Huguenot. Worse than that, he is conspiring against the King and the Cardinal. You have seen nothing of him?”
Now the old man spoke in a stronger, more controlled voice. “Nothing. I have heard nothing. I was reading to my granddaughter, and was about to go to my bed.”
The musketeers, by the light of the candle, glared at him suspiciously.
“It is strange,” one of them, evidently, the leader, said. “He had not time to reach the end of this alley. He has taken refuge somewhere, in one of these houses.”
There was a shout behind him, from the street. “Here is blood, on the doorstep!”
The leader scrutinized the old man with narrowed eyes. “Blood upon your doorstep, grandfather. The criminal halted there for a moment. Are you certain you have seen or heard nothing?”
“I have said,” answered the old man, with strength and tranquillity. “If you doubt my word, search my poor house. There are three rooms. It will not take you long. That is my granddaughter’s bedroom. Beyond her room is the kitchen, where I sleep. Beyond that, is a passageway into a back alley. You are welcome to search.”
He glanced at the young girl. For a moment, her full white lids drooped over her eyes. But she did not stir. He saw a faint convulsion pass over her pale mouth. But he compelled her to silence and motionlessness by the hard and direct impact of his glance.
The men hesitated. One took a step forward, then stopped. The harsh and ferocious eyes of the Cardinal’s men scrutinized him. But he looked at them calmly.
“Why do you not search?” he asked them.
A look of doubt passed over their faces. Then the leader said impatiently: “We are wasting time. It is evident that he is not here. In these moments, he can have hid himself securely in another of these cursed houses.”
He turned towards the door, and his men followed him, scowling threateningly at the old man. The young girl’s face changed, and she moved slightly as though about to swoon. The old man stood quietly, the candlelight on his cheek and bearded lips. The door closed behind the Cardinal’s men. Outside, they could hear their angry altercations, the sound of their hurrying feet. The red torchlight wavered over the shutters. They could hear the voice of the leader.
“You, Armand, will stay near this house, and watch, and you, also, Jean. I and the others will search at every house. He cannot have gone far, curse him!”
There was silence in the miserable bare chamber, whose plastered walls were leprously spotted with decay and moisture. The candlelight wavered. The old man went back to his table, trimmed the candle, bent over his book. His lips moved in a whisper.
“Cecile, return to your bed, my child.”
The girl stirred, waited, her eyes fixed helplessly on her grandfather.
“Yes, return to your bed,” murmured the invisible man. “It is best.”
The girl slowly moved, stepped backwards. There was a poor bed in the dark chamber. She fell upon it; the straw creaked and rustled with her slight weight. She sighed deeply. The visitor remained behind the ragged curtains.
The old man turned a page. He was actually reading, his lips moving soundlessly as his eyes followed the printed lines. Then, as if he had forgotten the stranger, he began to read aloud, murmuringly, and the man behind the curtain subtly knew this was his usual way:
“He is free who lives as he wishes to live; to whom none can do violence, none hinder or compel; whose impulses are unimpeded, whose desires attain their purpose, who falls not into what he would avoid. Who then would live in error? None. Who would live deceived and prone to fall, unjust, intemperate, in abject whining at his lot? None. Then doth no wicked man live as he would, and therefore neither is he free.”
There was a mysterious and tranquil grandeur in the low melodious words, which followed each other like the measures of some lofty music sung by the soul to itself in the depths of some radiant peace. The effect was extraordinary. The bare chamber, cold and gloomy, lit only by the light of that wan and flickering candle, which caused gigantic and unformed shadows to drift over the spotted and broken walls, was filled with quietness and majesty. It was impossible to believe that violence had recently erupted into this room. The stillness of ages appeared to overflow in it. And the man behind the curtain listened, as if amazed, and overcome.
“Epictetus!” he said at last, in a loud whisper. And he laughed, softly and incredulously.
“It is evident that you are familiar with the philosophers,” said the old man, and his lips hardly moved. He did not glance up. “It is also true that a loud voice can be heard from the street.” His eyes did not leave the printed page, and again, he slowly turned another page. “Moreover, I suspect an eye is still watching me through the shutter.”
The visitor did not answer. The old man bent closer over his book. His face had a thin and singular nobility in its outlines, in its high narrow nose. Even the gray unkempt beard gave him a classic look, aristocratic and melancholy. He was almost bald, and a fringe of gray hair outlined his slender and fragile skull. His clothing was of the poorest and meanest, and much patched. His hands were twisted and calloused, but the fingers were long and delicate, and faintly trembling. As his eye swiftly travelled down the pages, the candlelight caught gleams of their pale blueness and quiet intensity.
“What and who are you?” whispered the young man.
The old man did not answer for a moment. He finished the page, turned another. He did not glance up.
“My name is nothing. But it is François Grandjean, if you will. I am one of those employed to care for the Palais Justice. I am also a Breton.” He hesitated, asked gently, his lips scarcely moving: “And you?”
There was a long hesitation. Then the answer, still whispered: “My name is—Arsène—” The whisper ended abruptly.
“And evidently not a sweeper. Not even a burgher.” A tired smile passed over the old man’s eyes and lips.
He leaned back on his stool, sighed, rubbed his hand over his eyes, yawned, drooped his head. He looked wearily at the candle, got to his feet. With tender hands he closed the book. The cover was of the finest leather, but old and flaking, and there was a dim golden crest on it. His hand touched it reverently. He yawned again, took the bottled candle in his fingers and lifted it. He could feel the sharp round eye watching him through the shutter.
He turned his back to the window and whispered. “I am coming into my granddaughter’s chamber, and then I shall go into the kitchen. You may follow me.”
He moved quietly towards the curtain, holding the candle high. He heard the young man falling back. The candle dimly cleft the darkness of the bedchamber. The old man looked only at his granddaughter upon the poor bed. She had drawn the tattered covers up to her chin, and her blue eyes shone silently in the light. There was no fear in them, but only steadfastness. Now it was to be seen that she was very young, scarcely more than fifteen, with her grandfather’s nobility of feature, and with it, a great beauty. The old man bent over her, and kissed her forehead with deep love.
“Goodnight, my child,” he said. “God keep you through the night.”
He went to the rear of the bedchamber, opened the door, leaving it ajar. The candlelight disappeared. Both the front room and the bedchamber were in complete darkness.
The young man could hear the soft irregular breathing of the girl, and the dripping sound of the renewed rain.
He waited. She said nothing. “My deep regrets,” he murmured. Then he slipped silently towards the rear door, opened it, closed it behind him.
When Arsène entered the kitchen, he found the old man kneeling on the hearth, blowing on incandescent old embers, and adding small sticks to them. He had set his candle upon a bare stained table, and it revealed the misery of the little windowless room, with its slanting plastered ceiling and cracked distempered plaster walls. Moisture ran in quicksilver drops from the ceiling and down the walls, and the drops caught the light of both fire and candle so that they glittered like tiny silver balls. The room contained a wooden cupboard, leaning sideways, and filled with mugs, jugs and wooden plates, and there was a bare and broken table, and a wooden bench. On the floor, in a corner near the table, there was a straw pallet, covered with tattered quilts. The floor itself was of uneven stone, the cracks filled with moist mud and dirt.
Arsène stood in the doorway for a moment, leaning against the side, for he was weak and exhausted. He panted audibly. He still carried his sword and pistol in his hands. The old man continued to blow on the fire, as if he were alone and unaware of the stranger in the doorway. The fire now crackling to his satisfaction on its ashen stone hearth, he put upon it a deep iron vessel filled with water. Arsène, after a moment’s hesitation, laid his pistol and sword upon the table. The firelight shone on the hilt of the sword, which was of gold, elaborately twisted and set with twinkling gems. The young man hesitated, sighed, sank upon the bench, leaned his elbow on the table and dropped his head on his hand. The blood still moistened his sleeve, and a slow drip of blood from his cheek filtered its way through his white fingers.
He closed his eyes, then opened them, and stared at the old man curiously.
“You are brave,” he said, in a faint forced voice.
by Taylor Caldwell / Literature & Fiction / Historical Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes