* * * * *
It presented a very different appearance now. Then it had been all ablaze with lights and merry with laughter and music. Now it was lit by but a pair of candles over the hearth and, the glow of a dying fire. Overhead the high roof glimmered into darkness, and the gorgeous furniture was no more than dimness. I stopped short on the threshold, bewildered at the gloom, thinking that the chamber was empty; then I saw that a woman had raised herself from the great couch on which the King had lolled with his little dogs last Sunday night, and was staring at me like a ghost.
At that sight I ran forward and kneeled down on one knee.
“Madame,” I said in French, “His Majesty hath sent me—”
At that she was up, and had me by the shoulders. Her face was ghastly, all slobbered over with crying, and her eyes sunken and her lips pale as wax. God knows what she was dressed in; for I do not.
“His Majesty,” she cried, “His Majesty! He is not dead! For the love of God—”
I stood up; she still gripped me like a fury.
“No, Madame,” said I, “His Majesty is not dead. He hath sent me. I spoke with him not five minutes ago. But he is very near death.”
“He hath sent for me! He hath sent for me!” she screamed, as if in mingled joy and terror.
“No, Madame; but he hath sent to you. His Majesty desires you to get him a priest.”
Her hands relaxed and fell to her side. I do not know what she thought. I do not judge her. But I thought that she hesitated. I fell on my knees again; and seized her hand. I would have kneeled to the Devil, if he could have helped me then.
“Madame—for the love of Christ do as the King asks! He desires a priest. For the love of Christ, Madame!”
She was still silent for an instant, staring down on me. Then she tore her hand free, and I thought she would refuse me. But she caught me again by the shoulders.
“Stand up, sir; stand up. I—I will do whatever the King desires. But what can I do? God! there is someone coming!”
There came very plainly, through the antechambers I had just run through, the tramp of feet. I stood, as in a paralysis, not knowing what to do next. Then she seized on me again as the steps came near.
“Stand back,” she said, “stand back, sir. I must see—”
There came a knocking on the door as I sprang back away from the hearth, and stood out of the firelight. Then the door opened, as Her Grace made no answer, and the page whom I had seen just now stood bowing upon the threshold.
“Madame,” said he. “M. Barillon, the French ambassador—”
She made a swift gesture, and he fell back. There was a pause; and then, through the door came M. Barillon, very upright and lean, walking quickly, all alone. He stopped short when he saw Her Grace, put his heels together and bowed very low.