1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 18
The second thing he noticed was the eyes: deep set, around a small nose; dark and piercing, as if they took in every detail.
“Ah,” the man said, gesturing to the table. “I see you have not partaken of refreshments.” He turned to the guard who had opened the door for him. “Leave us, s’il vous plait,” he said.
“But, Monsieur –“
The man held up one of those long-fingered hands. “Leave us,” he repeated. “Do not make me repeat myself.”
The guard withdrew quickly, dismissed like a misbehaving hound. Stephane heard the door being secured.
“Now,” the gentleman said. “Let us sit and enjoy this fine wine. Alsatian,” he added, picking up the bottle and examining the label.
Stephane’s heart skipped a beat. He felt suddenly unmasked, exposed, as if this man knew exactly who he was.
“Excuse me, Monsieur, but I…”
“Sit,” he said, gesturing to a chair. Stephane felt that he had no other choice. The wine bottle was opened, and wine was poured into the two cups. “Salut,” the man added, and drank first; Stephane followed, taking a careful sip. He was not at all surprised to find that it was excellent.
“You can enjoy petun as well, if you wish.”
Stephane did not answer; he was surprised to see the New World herb on the table — there was a rule against it in prison, though many of the guards and prisoners used it nonetheless.
“I would like to put you at your ease, Stephane,” the man said at once, completing the task of unmasking him. “Yes,” he continued, “I know your name — it was easy enough to obtain. And yes, I know your profession.”
Stephane did not answer; there was nothing he could say.
“I assume that you are bursting with questions. All young men are; the ones that learn to ask the right question, at the right time, have a chance to become middle-aged men…and sometimes, if they are even more careful, to become old men. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think you have a good chance to become middle-aged, Stephane.
“Assuming, that is, that you ask the right question.”
“I’m not sure what that might be, Monsieur.”
“Do not hesitate, Stephane. Begin with the most obvious.”
“As you wish,” Stephane answered. “Why am I here?”
“Excellent,” the man answered. “That is truly excellent. A less wise man might have asked who I am. The effrontery — in case it was later determined that I was well known, and to ask my identity would be an affront to my notoriety. No, you have begun with the most obvious.
“You are here, young Stephane, because you were picked up on suspicion.”
“Suspicion of what?”
The man made an offhand gesture with one hand. “Does it really matter? The Prefect of Police is really quite competent in following orders. Suspicion it is, and let us let it go at that. Truly, of all of Marcel’s little band of thieves and confidence artists, you were the one of greatest interest.”
“Do not dissemble with me. Your mentor. Your — keeper. Your father, I venture to say.”
“My father is in Alsace.”
“A turn of phrase. He is — or, should I say, was” — Stephane’s heart sank: if the man were telling the truth, it confirmed what he already feared — “your protector here in Paris. As I say, of all of his former wards, you are the most interesting.”
“Marcel. Is he –“
“Sadly, yes, he is dead. The wheel of fortune turns, young Stephane. Perhaps it is fortunate that you stopped on your way home, non?”
Stephane remembered feeling sick for a few moments, as if he were going to vomit up the wine and the last few days’ gruel. The gentleman sitting opposite, speaking of Marcel’s death in polite, casual tones, was suddenly repellent.
He stood up from his chair and went to the window, turning his back on his drinking companion.
“Who are you, then?” he asked, not turning.
“I am your new employer, Stephane,” the man said. “Unless you would prefer to continue to rot in this prison. It would be a waste of your obvious talents, but…c’est la vie, I suppose.”
“But who are you?” He turned, his face hot, but his eyes dry and filled with anger. “Or is that not the right question now, Monsieur? Who are you that wishes to employ me?”
“Now it comes to this question,” the man said. “Very good. Now that we understand each other –“
“We do not,” Stephane interrupted. “Even so.”
“As you wish. My name…is unimportant: but if you must have it, my name is Servien. Étienne Servien. I suspect you have not heard of me. But you will know the name of the man whom I serve.”
“Speak it and I shall tell you,” Stephane answered.
“Of course,” Servien had said. “His name is Richelieu. The Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu.”
* * *
He had learned his letters from his mother, who was a strong believer in such things; but he knew very little more. Servien demanded that he be able to read and write well enough to correspond: he told Stephane that he could be taught such things, and would prefer that he learn than he try to train a highly literate dullard to be clever and observant as he believed Stephane to be. Of course, no highly literate dullards had been deposited in the Prison de l’Abbaye, at the mercy of Monsieur Servien.
As far as he knew.
For all of the summer, and fall, and into the winter, he devoted himself to studies under the tutelage of a stern Dominican priest, Père Montségur, at a monastery outside of Paris. Stephane was his only student; the priest always carried a wooden dowel, ten inches long, as if he was constantly searching for some carpentry project that needed his attention: but its real use was to correct Stephane’s penmanship, or use of the accent grave, or anything else that annoyed the good Père — by a sharp rap on the knuckles of his non-writing hand and a stern faîtes attention! Because of this, he developed the habit of placing his left hand beneath the table as he wrote. Père Montségur used the dowel on his left shoulder instead — and Stephane always made sure to wince, even though it scarcely hurt at all.
The abbey was no haven of ascetics. Père Montségur was a younger son of a nobleman in the country, and was thus accustomed to finer things — and saw no reason why his pupil should not enjoy them as well. There was fresh fruit, and olives, and cheese, and bread baked every morning, and vin ordinaire better than the best he’d ever had. He learned his lessons well — not just the writing, but tests of observation and memory…and learning all that could be learned about the great wonder of the age — the phenomenon known as the Ring of Fire.
No one could say for certain what it was that brought the up-timers to Thuringia in the fall of 1631, three years before Stephane’s first encounter with Monsieur Servien. The Church was decidedly silent on the subject — Père Montségur would only say that he had not been given any particular doctrinal guidance on it. There was a bishop in the new town responsible for the souls of those devoted to the Church Universal, and as his Holiness was satisfied with that the Père would be satisfied as well.
* * *
There was always this to be said in favor of Stephane’s new life. His mother would have strongly disapproved of his former career as a thief, had she ever found out. His new profession as a spy in the service of France’s ruler…that might be another matter entirely.
A pity, of course, that she’d never find that out either.