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The Collected Complete Works of Rafael Sabatini
Bardelys the Magnificent
St. Martin's Summer
The Historical Nights Entertainment
The Historical Nights Entertainment, Second Series
The Life of Cesare Borgia
The Lion's Skin
The Shame of Motley
The Strolling Saint
The Suitors of Yvonne
The Tavern Knight
The Trampling of the Lilies
Bardelys the Magnificent
BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT
Being on Account of the Strange Wooing pursued by the Sieur Marcel de Saint-Pol; Marquis of Bardelys, and of the things that in the course of it befell him in Languedoc, in the year of the Rebellion
BY RAFAEL SABATINI
CONTENTS I. THE WAGER II. THE KING'S WISHES III. RENT: DE LESPERON IV. A MAID IN THE MOONLIGHT V. THE VICOMTE DE LAVEDAN VI. IN CONVALESCENCE VII. THE HOSTILITY OF SAINT-EUSTACHE VIII. THE PORTRAIT IX. A NIGHT ALARM X. THE RISEN DEAD XI. THE KING'S COMMISSIONER XII. THE TRIBUNAL OF TOULOUSE XIII. THE ELEVENTH HOUR XIV. EAVESDROPPING XV. MONSIEUR DE CHATELLERAULT IS ANGRY XVI. SWORDS XVII. THE BABBLING OF GANYMEDE XVIII. SAINT-EUSTACHE IS OBSTINATE XIX. THE FLINT AND THE STEEL XX. THE "BRAVI" AT BLAGNAC XXI. LOUIS THE JUST XXII. WE UNSADDLE
BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT
Speak of the Devil," whispered La Fosse in my ear, and, moved by the words and by the significance of his glance, I turned in my chair.
The door had opened, and under the lintel stood the thick-set figure of the Comte de Chatellerault. Before him a lacquey in my escutcheoned livery of red-and-gold was receiving, with back obsequiously bent, his hat and cloak.
A sudden hush fell upon the assembly where a moment ago this very man had been the subject of our talk, and silenced were the wits that but an instant since had been making free with his name and turning the Languedoc courtship - from which he was newly returned with the shame of defeat - into a subject for heartless mockery and jest. Surprise was in the air for we had heard that Chatellerault was crushed by his ill-fortune in the lists of Cupid, and we had not looked to see him joining so soon a board at which - or so at least I boasted - mirth presided.
And so for a little space the Count stood pausing on my threshold, whilst we craned our necks to contemplate him as though he had been an object for inquisitive inspection. Then a smothered laugh from the brainless La Fosse seemed to break the spell. I frowned. It was a climax of discourtesy whose impression I must at all costs efface.
I leapt to my feet, with a suddenness that sent my chair gliding a full half-yard along the glimmering parquet of the floor, and in two strides I had reached the Count and put forth my hand to bid him welcome. He took it with a leisureliness that argued sorrow. He advanced into the full blaze of the candlelight, and fetched a dismal sigh from the depths of his portly bulk.
"You are surprised to see me, Monsieur le Marquis," said he, and his tone seemed to convey an apology for his coming - for his very existence almost.
Now Nature had made my Lord of Chatellerault as proud and arrogant as Lucifer - some resemblance to which illustrious personage his downtrodden retainers were said to detect in the lineaments of his swarthy face. Environment had added to that store of insolence wherewith Nature had equipped him, and the King's favour - in which he was my rival - had gone yet further to mould the peacock attributes of his vain soul. So that this wondrous humble tone of his gave me pause; for to me it seemed that not even a courtship gone awry could account for it in such a man.
"I had not thought to find so many here," said he. And his next words contained the cause of his dejected air. "The King, Monsieur de Bardelys, has refused to see me; and when the sun is gone, we lesser bodies of the courtly firmament must needs turn for light and comfort to the moon." And he made me a sweeping bow.
"Meaning that I rule the night?" quoth I, and laughed. "The figure is more playful than exact, for whilst the moon is cold and cheerless, me you shall find ever warm and cordial. I could have wished, Monsieur de Chatellerault, that your gracing my board were due to a circumstance less untoward than His Majesty's displeasure."
"It is not for nothing that they call you the Magnificent," he answered, with a fresh bow, insensible to the sting in the tail of my honeyed words.
I laughed, and, setting compliments to rest with that, I led him to the table.
"Ganymede, a place here for Monsieur le Comte. Gilles, Antoine, see to Monsieur de Chatellerault. Basile, wine for Monsieur le Comte. Bestir there!"
In a moment he was become the centre of a very turmoil of attention. My lacqueys flitted about him buzzing and insistent as bees about a rose. Would Monsieur taste of this capon a la casserole, or of this truffled peacock? Would a slice of this juicy ham a l'anglaise tempt Monsieur le Comte, or would he give himself the pain of trying this turkey aux olives? Here was a salad whose secret Monsieur le Marquis's cook had learnt in Italy, and here a vol-au-vent that was invented by Quelon himself.
Basile urged his wines upon him, accompanied by a page who bore a silver tray laden with beakers and Wagons. Would Monsieur le Comte take white Armagnac or red Anjou? This was a Burgundy of which Monsieur le Marquis thought highly, and this a delicate Lombardy wine that His Majesty had oft commended. Or perhaps Monsieur de Chatellerault would prefer to taste the last vintage of Bardelys?
And so they plagued him and bewildered him until his choice was made; and even then a couple of them held themselves in readiness behind his chair to forestall his slightest want. Indeed, had he been the very King himself, no greater honour could we have shown him at the Hotel de Bardelys.
But the restraint that his coming had brought with it hung still upon the company, for Chatellerault was little loved, and his presence there was much as that of the skull at an Egyptian banquet.
For of all these fair-weather friends that sat about my table - amongst whom there were few that had not felt his power - I feared there might be scarcely one would have the grace to dissemble his contempt of the fallen favourite. That he was fallen, as much his words as what already we had known, had told us.
Yet in my house I would strive that he should have no foretaste of that coldness that to-morrow all Paris would be showing him, and to this end I played the host with all the graciousness that role may bear, and overwhelmed him with my cordiality, whilst to thaw all iciness from the bearing of my other guests, I set the wines to flow more freely still. My dignity would permit no less of me, else would it have seemed that I rejoiced in a rival's downfall and took satisfaction from the circumstance that his disfavour with the King was like to result in my own further exaltation.
My efforts were not wasted. Slowly the mellowing influence of the grape pronounced itself. To this influence I added that of such wit as Heaven has graced me with, and by a word here and another there I set myself to lash their mood back into the joviality out of which his coming had for the moment driven it.
And so, presently, Good-Humour spread her mantle over us anew, and quip and jest and laughter decked our speech, until the noise of our merry-making drifting out through the open windows must have been borne upon the breeze of that August night down the rue Saint-Dominique, across the rue de l'Enfer, to the very ears perhaps of those within the Luxembourg, telling them that Bardelys and his friends kept another of those revels which were become a byword in Paris, and had contributed not a little to the sobriquet of "Magnificent" which men gave me.
But, later, as the toasts grew wild and were pledged less for the sake of the toasted than for that of the wine itself, wits grew more barbed and less restrained by caution; recklessness hung a moment, like a bird of prey, above us, then swooped abruptly down in the words of that fool La Fosse.
"Messieurs," he lisped, with that fatuousness he affected, and with his eye fixed coldly upon Chatellerault, "I have a toast for you." He rose carefully to his feet - he had arrived at that condition in which to move with care is of the first importance. He shifted his eye from the Count to his glass, which stood half empty. He signed to a lacquey to fill it. "To the brim, gentlemen," he commanded. Then, in the silence that ensued, he attempted to stand with one foot on the ground and one on his chair; but encountering difficulties of balance, he remained upright - safer if less picturesque.
"Messieurs, I give you the most peerless, the most beautiful, the most difficult and cold lady in all France. I drink to those her thousand graces, of which Fame has told us, and to that greatest and most vexing charm of all - her cold indifference to man. I pledge you, too, the swain whose good fortune it maybe to play Endymion to this Diana.
"It will need," pursued La Fosse, who dealt much in mythology and classic lore - "it will need an Adonis in beauty, a Mars in valour, an Apollo in song, and a very Eros in love to accomplish it. And I fear me," he hiccoughed, "that it will go unaccomplished, since the one man in all France on whom we have based our hopes has failed. Gentlemen, to your feet! I give you the matchless Roxalanne de Lavedan!"
Such amusement as I felt was tempered by apprehension. I shot a swift glance at Chatellerault to mark how he took this pleasantry and this pledging of the lady whom the King had sent him to woo, but whom he had failed to win. He had risen with the others at La Fosse's bidding, either unsuspicious or else deeming suspicion too flimsy a thing by which to steer conduct. Yet at the mention of her name a scowl darkened his ponderous countenance. He set down his glass with such sudden force that its slender stem was snapped and a red stream of wine streaked the white tablecloth and spread around a silver flowerbowl. The sight of that stain recalled him to himself and to the manners he had allowed himself for a moment to forget.
"Bardelys, a thousand apologies for my clumsiness," he muttered.
"Spilt wine," I laughed, "is a good omen."
And for once I accepted that belief, since but for the shedding of that wine and its sudden effect upon him, it is likely we had witnessed a shedding of blood. Thus, was the ill-timed pleasantry of my feather-brained La Fosse tided over in comparative safety. But the topic being raised was not so easily abandoned. Mademoiselle de Lavedan grew to be openly discussed, and even the Count's courtship of her came to be hinted at, at first vaguely, then pointedly, with a lack of delicacy for which I can but blame the wine with which these gentlemen had made a salad of their senses. In growing alarm I watched the Count. But he showed no further sign of irritation. He sat and listened as though no jot concerned. There were moments when he even smiled at some lively sally, and at last he went so far as to join in that merry combat of wits, and defend himself from their attacks, which were made with a good-humour that but thinly veiled the dislike he was held in and the satisfaction that was culled from his late discomfiture.
For a while I hung back and took no share in the banter that was toward. But in the end - lured perhaps by the spirit in which I have shown that Chatellerault accepted it, and lulled by the wine which in common with my guests I may have abused - I came to utter words but for which this story never had been written.
"Chatellerault," I laughed, "abandon these defensive subterfuges; confess that you are but uttering excuses, and acknowledge that you have conducted this affair with a clumsiness unpardonable in one equipped with your advantages of courtly rearing."
A flush overspread his face, the first sign of anger since he had spilled his wine.
"Your successes, Bardelys, render you vain, and of vanity is presumption born," he replied contemptuously.
"See!" I cried, appealing to the company. "Observe how he seeks to evade replying! Nay, but you shall confess your clumsiness."
"A clumsiness," murmured La Fosse drowsily, "as signal as that which attended Pan's wooing of the Queen of Lydia."
"I have no clumsiness to confess," he answered hotly, raising his voice. "It is a fine thing to sit here in Paris, among the languid, dull, and nerveless beauties of the Court, whose favours are easily won because they look on dalliance as the best pastime offered them, and are eager for such opportunities of it as you fleering coxcombs will afford them. But this Mademoiselle de Lavedan is of a vastly different mettle. She is a woman; not a doll. She is flesh and blood; not sawdust, powder, and vermilion. She has a heart and a will; not a spirit corrupted by vanity and licence."
La Fosse burst into a laugh.
"Hark! O, hark!" he cried, "to the apostle of the chaste!"
"Saint Gris!" exclaimed another. "This good Chatellerault has lost both heart and head to her."
Chatellerault glanced at the speaker with an eye in which anger smouldered.
"You have said it," I agreed. "He has fallen her victim, and so his vanity translates her into a compound of perfections. Does such a woman as you have described exist, Comte? Bah! In a lover's mind, perhaps, or in the pages of some crack-brained poet's fancies; but nowhere else in this dull world of ours."
He made a gesture of impatience.
"You have been clumsy, Chatellerault," I insisted.
"You have lacked address. The woman does not live that is not to be won by any man who sets his mind to do it, if only he be of her station and have the means to maintain her in it or raise her to a better. A woman's love, sir, is a tree whose root is vanity. Your attentions flatter her, and predispose her to capitulate. Then, if you but wisely choose your time to deliver the attack, and do so with the necessary adroitness - nor is overmuch demanded - the battle is won with ease, and she surrenders. Believe me, Chatellerault, I am a younger man than you by full five years, yet in experience I am a generation older, and I talk of what I know."
He sneered heavily. "If to have begun your career of dalliance at the age of eighteen with an amour that resulted in a scandal be your title to experience, I agree," said he. "But for the rest, Bardelys, for all your fine talk of conquering women, believe me when I tell you that in all your life you have never met a woman, for I deny the claim of these Court creatures to that title. If you would know a woman, go to Lavedan, Monsieur le Marquis. If you would have your army of amorous wiles suffer a defeat at last, go employ it against the citadel of Roxalanne de Lavedan's heart. If you would be humbled in your pride, betake yourself to Lavedan."
"A challenge!" roared a dozen voices. "A challenge, Bardelys!"
"Mais voyons," I deprecated, with a laugh, "would you have me journey into Languedoc and play at wooing this embodiment of all the marvels of womanhood for the sake of making good my argument? Of your charity, gentlemen, insist no further."
"The never-failing excuse of the boaster," sneered Chatellerault, "when desired to make good his boast."
"Monsieur conceives that I have made a boast?" quoth I, keeping my temper.
"Your words suggested one - else I do not know the meaning of words. They suggested that where I have failed you could succeed, if you had a mind to try. I have challenged you, Bardelys. I challenge you again. Go about this wooing as you will; dazzle the lady with your wealth and your magnificence, with your servants, your horses, your equipages; and all the splendours you can command; yet I make bold to say that not a year of your scented attentions and most insidious wiles will bear you fruit. Are you sufficiently challenged?"
"But this is rank frenzy!" I protested. "Why should I undertake this thing?"
"To prove me wrong," he taunted me. "To prove me clumsy. Come, Bardelys, what of your spirit?"
"I confess I would do much to afford you the proof you ask. But to take a wife! Pardi! That is much indeed!"
"Bah!" he sneered. "You do well to draw back You are wise to avoid discomfiture. This lady is not for you. When she is won, it will be by some bold and gallant gentleman, and by no mincing squire of dames, no courtly coxcomb, no fop of the Luxembourg, be his experiences of dalliance never so vast."
"Po' Cap de Dieu!" growled Cazalet, who was a Gascon captain in the Guards, and who swore strange, southern oaths. "Up, Bardelys! Afoot! Prove your boldness and your gallantry, or be forever shamed; a squire of dames, a courtly coxcomb, a fop of the Luxembourg! Mordemondieu! I have given a man a bellyful of steel for the half of those titles!"
"I heeded him little, and as little the other noisy babblers, who now on their feet - those that could stand - were spurring me excitedly to accept the challenge, until from being one of the baiters it seemed that of a sudden the tables were turned and I was become the baited. I sat in thought, revolving the business in my mind, and frankly liking it but little. Doubts of the issue, were I to undertake it, I had none.
My views of the other sex were neither more nor less than my words to the Count had been calculated to convey. It may be - I know now that it was that the women I had known fitted Chatellerault's description, and were not over-difficult to win. Hence, such successes as I had had with them in such comedies of love as I had been engaged upon had given me a false impression. But such at least was not my opinion that night. I was satisfied that Chatellerault talked wildly, and that no such woman lived as he depicted. Cynical and soured you may account me. Such I know I was accounted in Paris; a man satiated with all that wealth and youth and the King's favour could give him; stripped of illusions, of faith and of zest, the very magnificence - so envied - of my existence affording me more disgust than satisfaction. Since already I had gauged its shallows.
Is it strange, therefore, that in this challenge flung at me with such insistence, a business that at first I disliked grew presently to beckon me with its novelty and its promise of new sensations?
"Is your spirit dead, Monsieur de Bardelys?" Chatellerault was gibing, when my silence had endured some moments. "Is the cock that lately crowed so lustily now dumb? Look you, Monsieur le Marquis, you are accounted here a reckless gamester. Will a wager induce you to this undertaking?"
I leapt to my feet at that. His derision cut me like a whip. If what I did was the act of a braggart, yet it almost seems I could do no less to bolster up my former boasting - or what into boasting they had translated.
"You'll lay a wager, will you, Chatellerault?" I cried, giving him back defiance for defiance. A breathless silence fell. "Then have it so. Listen, gentlemen, that you may be witnesses. I do here pledge my castle of Bardelys, and my estates in Picardy, with every stick and stone and blade of grass that stands upon them, that I shall woo and win Roxalanne de Lavedan to be the Marquise of Bardelys. Does the stake satisfy you, Monsieur le Comte? You may set all you have against it," I added coarsely, "and yet, I swear, the odds will be heavily in your favour."
I remember it was Mironsac who first found his tongue, and sought even at that late hour to set restraint upon us and to bring judgment to our aid.
"Messieurs, messieurs!" he besought us. "In Heaven's name, bethink you what you do. Bardelys, your wager is a madness. Monsieur de Chatellerault, you'll not accept it. You'll--"
"Be silent," I rebuked him, with some asperity. "What has Monsieur de Chatellerault to say?"
He was staring at the tablecloth and the stain of the wine that he had spilled when first Mademoiselle de Lavedan's name was mentioned. His head had been bent so that his long black hair had tumbled forward and partly veiled his face. At my question he suddenly looked up. The ghost of a smile hung on his sensuous lips, for all that excitement had paled his countenance beyond its habit.
"Monsieur le Marquis." said he rising, "I take your wager, and I pledge my lands in Normandy against yours of Bardelys. Should you lose, they will no longer call you the Magnificent; should I lose --I shall be a beggar. It is a momentous wager, Bardelys, and spells ruin for one of us."
"A madness!" groaned Mironsac.
"Mordieux!" swore Cazalet. Whilst La Fosse, who had been the original cause of all this trouble, vented his excitement in a gibber of imbecile laughter.
"How long do you give me, Chatellerault?" I asked, as quietly as I might.
"What time shall you require?"
"I should prefer that you name the limit," I answered.
He pondered a moment. Then "Will three months suffice you?" he asked.
"If it is not done in three months, I will pay," said I.
And then Chatellerault did what after all was, I suppose, the only thing that a gentleman might do under the circumstances. He rose to his feet, and, bidding the company charge their glasses, he gave them a parting toast.
"Messieurs, drink with me to Monsieur le Marquis de Bardelys's safe journey into Languedoc, and to the prospering of his undertaking."
In answer, a great shout went up from throats that suspense had lately held in leash. Men leapt on to their chairs, and, holding their glasses on high, they acclaimed me as thunderously as though I had been the hero of some noble exploit, instead of the main figure in a somewhat questionable wager.
"Bardelys!" was the shout with which the house reechoed. "Bardelys! Bardelys the Magnificent! Vive Bardelys!"
THE KING'S WISHES
It was daybreak ere the last of them had left me, for a dozen or so had lingered to play lansquenet after the others had departed. With those that remained my wager had soon faded into insignificance, as their minds became engrossed in the fluctuations of their own fortunes.
I did not play myself; I was not in the mood, and for one night, at least, of sufficient weight already I thought the game upon which I was launched.
I was out on the balcony as the first lines of dawn were scoring the east, and in a moody, thoughtful condition I had riveted my eyes upon the palace of the Luxembourg, which loomed a black pile against the lightening sky, when Mironsac came out to join me. A gentle, lovable lad was Mironsac, not twenty years of age, and with the face and manners of a woman. That he was attached to me I knew.
"Monsieur le Marquis," said he softly, "I am desolated at this wager into which they have forced you."
"Forced me?" I echoed. "No, no; they did not force me. And yet," I reflected, with a sigh, "perhaps they did."
"I have been thinking, monsieur, that if the King were to hear of it the evil might be mended."
"But the King must not hear of it, Armand," I answered quickly. "Even if he did, matters would be no better - much worse, possibly."
"But, monsieur, this thing done in the heat of wine--"
"Is none the less done, Armand," I concluded. "And I for one do not wish it undone."
"But have you no thought for the lady?" he cried.
I laughed at him. "Were I still eighteen, boy, the thought might trouble me. Had I my illusions, I might imagine that my wife must be some woman of whom I should be enamoured. As it is, I have grown to the age of twenty-eight unwed. Marriage becomes desirable. I must think of an heir to all the wealth of Bardelys. And so I go to Languedoc. If the lady be but half the saint that fool Chatellerault has painted her, so much the better for my children; if not, so much the worse. There is the dawn, Mironsac, and it is time we were abed. Let us drive these plaguy gamesters home."
When the last of them had staggered down my steps, and I had bidden a drowsy lacquey extinguish the candles, I called Ganymede to light me to bed and aid me to undress. His true name was Rodenard; but my friend La Fosse, of mythological fancy, had named him Ganymede, after the cup-bearer of the gods, and the name had clung to him. He was a man of some forty years of age, born into my father's service, and since become my intendant, factotum, majordomo, and generalissimo of my regiment of servants and my establishments both in Paris and at Bardelys.
We had been to the wars together ere I had cut my wisdom teeth, and thus had he come to love me. There was nothing this invaluable servant could not do. At baiting or shoeing a horse, at healing a wound, at roasting a capon, or at mending a doublet, he was alike a master, besides possessing a score of other accomplishments that do not now occur to me, which in his campaigning he had acquired. Of late the easy life in Paris had made him incline to corpulency, and his face was of a pale, unhealthy fullness.
To-night, as he assisted me to undress, it wore an expression of supreme woe.
"Monseigneur is going into Languedoc?" he inquired sorrowfully. He always called me his "seigneur," as did the other of my servants born at Bardelys.
"Knave, you have been listening," said I.
"But, monseigneur," he explained, "when Monsieur le Comte de Chatellerault laid his wager--"
"And have I not told you, Ganymede, that when you chance to be among my friends you should hear nothing but the words addressed to you, see nothing but the glasses that need replenishing? But, there! We are going into Languedoc. What of it?"
"They say that war may break out at any moment," he groaned; "that Monsieur le Duc de Montmorency is receiving reenforcements from Spain, and that he intends to uphold the standard of Monsieur and the rights of the province against the encroachments of His Eminence the Cardinal."
"So! We are becoming politicians, eh, Ganymede? And how shall all this concern us? Had you listened more attentively, you had learnt that we go to Languedoc to seek a wife, and not to concern ourselves with Cardinals and Dukes. Now let me sleep ere the sun rises."
On the morrow I attended the levee, and I applied to His Majesty for leave to absent myself. But upon hearing that it was into Languedoc I went, he frowned inquiry. Trouble enough was his brother already making in that province. I explained that I went to seek a wife, and deeming all subterfuge dangerous, since it might only serve to provoke him when later he came to learn the lady's name, I told him - withholding yet all mention of the wager - that I fostered the hope of making Mademoiselle de Lavedan my marquise.
Deeper came the line between his brows at that, and blacker grew the scowl. He was not wont to bestow on me such looks as I now met in his weary eyes, for Louis XIII had much affection for me.
"You know this lady?" he demanded sharply.
"Only by name, Your Majesty."
At that his brows went up in astonishment.
"Only by name? And you would wed her? But, Marcel, my friend, you are a rich man one of the richest in France. You cannot be a fortune hunter."
"Sire," I answered, "Fame sings loudly the praises of this lady, her beauty and her virtue - praises that lead me to opine she would make me an excellent chatelaine. I am come to an age when it is well to wed; indeed, Your Majesty has often told me so. And it seems to me that all France does not hold a lady more desirable. Heaven send she will agree to my suit!"
In that tired way of his that was so pathetic: "Do you love me a little, Marcel?" he asked.
"Sire," I exclaimed, wondering whither all this was leading us, "need I protest it?"
"No," he answered dryly; "you can prove it. Prove it by abandoning this Languedoc quest. I have motives - sound motives, motives of political import. I desire another wedding for Mademoiselle de Lavedan. I wish it so, Bardelys, and I look to be obeyed."
For a moment temptation had me by the throat. Here was an unlooked-for chance to shake from me a business which reflection was already rendering odious. I had but to call together my friends of yesternight, and with them the Comte de Chatellerault, and inform them that by the King was I forbidden to go awooing Roxalanne de Lavedan. So should my wager be dissolved. And then in a flash I saw how they would sneer one and all, and how they would think that I had caught avidly at this opportunity of freeing myself from an undertaking into which a boastful mood had lured me. The fear of that swept aside my momentary hesitation.
"Sire," I answered, bending my head contritely, "I am desolated that my inclinations should run counter to your wishes, but to your wonted kindness and clemency I must look for forgiveness if these same inclinations drive me so relentlessly that I may not now turn back."
He caught me viciously by the arm and looked sharply into my face.
"You defy me, Bardelys?" he asked, in a voice of anger.
"God forbid, Sire!" I answered quickly. "I do but pursue my destiny."
He took a turn in silence, like a man who is mastering himself before he will speak. Many an eye, I knew, was upon us, and not a few may have been marvelling whether already Bardelys were about to share the fate that yesterday had overtaken his rival Chatellerault. At last he halted at my side again.
"Marcel," said he, but though he used that name his voice was harsh, "go home and ponder what I have said. If you value my favour, if you desire my love, you will abandon this journey and the suit you contemplate. If, on the other hand, you persist in going - you need not return. The Court of France has no room for gentlemen who are but lip-servers, no place for courtiers who disobey their King."
That was his last word. He waited for no reply, but swung round on his heel, and an instant later I beheld him deep in conversation with the Duke of Saint-Simon. Of such a quality is the love of princes - vain, capricious, and wilful. Indulge it ever and at any cost, else you forfeit it.
I turned away with a sigh, for in spite of all his weaknesses and meannesses I loved this cardinal-ridden king, and would have died for him had the need occurred, as well he knew. But in this matter --well, I accounted my honour involved, and there was now no turning back save by the payment of my wager and the acknowledgment of defeat.
RENE DE LESPERON
That very day I set out. For since the King was opposed to the affair, and knowing the drastic measures by which he was wont to enforce what he desired, I realized that did I linger he might find a way definitely to prevent my going.
I travelled in a coach, attended by two lacqueys and a score of men-at-arms in my own livery, all commanded by Ganymede. My intendant himself came in another coach with my wardrobe and travelling necessaries. We were a fine and almost regal cortege as we passed down the rue de l'Enfer and quitted Paris by the Orleans gate, taking the road south. So fine a cortege, indeed, that it entered my mind. His Majesty would come to hear of it, and, knowing my destination, send after me to bring me back. To evade such a possibility, I ordered a divergence to be made, and we struck east and into Touraine. At Pont-le-Duc, near Tours, I had a cousin in the Vicomte d'Amaral, and at his chateau I arrived on the third day after quitting Paris.
Since that was the last place where they would seek me, if to seek me they were inclined, I elected to remain my cousin's guest for fifteen days. And whilst I was there we had news of trouble in the South and of a rising in Languedoc under the Duc de Montmorency. Thus was it that when I came to take my leave of Amaral, he, knowing that Languedoc was my destination, sought ardently to keep me with him until we should learn that peace and order were restored in the province. But I held the trouble lightly, and insisted upon going.
Resolutely, then, if by slow stages, we pursued our journey, and came at last to Montauban. There we lay a night at the Auberge de Navarre, intending to push on to Lavedan upon the morrow. My father had been on more than friendly terms with the Vicomte de Lavedan, and upon this I built my hopes of a cordial welcome and an invitation to delay for a few days the journey to Toulouse, upon which I should represent myself as bound.
Thus, then, stood my plans. And they remained unaltered for all that upon the morrow there were wild rumours in the air of Montauban. There were tellings of a battle fought the day before at Castelnaudary, of the defeat of Monsieur's partisans, of the utter rout of Gonzalo de Cordova's Spanish tatterdemalions, and of the capture of Montmorency, who was sorely wounded - some said with twenty and some with thirty wounds - and little like to live. Sorrow and discontent stalked abroad in Languedoc that day, for they believed that it was against the Cardinal, who sought to strip them of so many privileges, that Gaston d'Orleans had set up his standard.
That those rumours of battle and defeat were true we had ample proof some few hours later, when a company of dragoons in buff and steel rode into the courtyard of the Auberge de Navarre, headed by a young spark of an officer, who confirmed the rumour and set the number of Montmorency's wounds at seventeen. He was lying, the officer told us, at Castelnaudary, and his duchess was hastening to him from Beziers. Poor woman! She was destined to nurse him back to life and vigour only that he might take his trial at Toulouse and pay with his head the price of his rebellion.
Ganymede who, through the luxurious habits of his more recent years had - for all his fine swagger - developed a marked distaste for warfare and excitement, besought me to take thought for my safety and to lie quietly at Montauban until the province should be more settled.
"The place is a hotbed of rebellion," he urged. "If these Chouans but learn that we are from Paris and of the King's party, we shall have our throats slit, as I live. There is not a peasant in all this countryside indeed, scarce a man of any sort but is a red-hot Orleanist, anti-Cardinalist, and friend of the Devil. Bethink you, monseigneur, to push on at the present is to court murder."
"Why, then, we will court murder," said I coldly. "Give the word to saddle."
I asked him at the moment of setting out did he know the road to Lavedan, to which the lying poltroon made answer that he did. In his youth he may have known it, and the countryside may have undergone since then such changes as bewildered him. Or it may be that fear dulled his wits, and lured him into taking what may have seemed the safer rather than the likelier road. But this I know, that as night was falling my carriage halted with a lurch, and as I put forth my head I was confronted by my trembling intendant, his great fat face gleaming whitely in the gloom above the lawn collar on his doublet.
"Why do we halt, Ganymede?" quoth I.
"Monseigneur," he faltered, his trembling increasing as he spoke, and his eyes meeting mine in a look of pitiful contrition, "I fear we are lost."
"Lost?" I echoed. "Of what do you talk? Am I to sleep in the coach?"
"Alas, monseigneur, I have done my best--"
"Why, then, God keep us from your worst," I snapped. "Open me this door."
I stepped down and looked about me, and, by my faith, a more desolate spot to lose us in my henchman could not have contrived had he been at pains to do so. A bleak, barren landscape - such as I could hardly have credited was to be found in all that fair province - unfolded itself, looking now more bleak, perhaps, by virtue of the dim evening mist that hovered over it. Yonder, to the right, a dull russet patch of sky marked the west, and then in front of us I made out the hazy outline of the Pyrenees. At sight of them, I swung round and gripped my henchman by the shoulder.
"A fine trusty servant thou!" I cried. "Boaster! Had you told us that age and fat living had so stunted your wits as to have extinguished memory, I had taken a guide at Montauban to show us the way. Yet, here, with the sun and the Pyrenees to guide you, even had you no other knowledge, you lose yourself!"
"Monseigneur," he whimpered, "I was choosing my way by the sun and the mountains, and it was thus that I came to this impasse. For you may see, yourself, that the road ends here abruptly."
"Ganymede," said I slowly, "when we return to Paris - if you do not die of fright 'twixt this and then - I'll find a place for you in the kitchens. God send you may make a better scullion than a follower!" Then, vaulting over the wall, "Attend me, some half-dozen of you," I commanded, and stepped out briskly towards the barn.
As the weather-beaten old door creaked upon its rusty hinges, we were greeted by a groan from within, and with it the soft rustle of straw that is being moved. Surprised, I halted, and waited whilst one of my men kindled a light in the lanthorn that he carried.
By its rays we beheld a pitiable sight in a corner of that building. A man, quite young and of a tall and vigorous frame, lay stretched upon the straw. He was fully dressed even to his great riding-boots, and from the loose manner in which his back-and-breast hung now upon him, it would seem as if he had been making shift to divest himself of his armour, but had lacked the strength to complete the task. Beside him lay a feathered headpiece and a sword attached to a richly broidered baldrick. All about him the straw was clotted with brown, viscous patches of blood. The doublet which had been of sky-blue velvet was all sodden and stained, and inspection showed us that he had been wounded in the right side, between the straps of his breastplate.
As we stood about him now, a silent, pitying group, appearing fantastic, perhaps, by the dim light of that single lanthorn, he attempted to raise his head, and then with a groan he dropped it back upon the straw that pillowed it. From out of a face white, as in death, and drawn with haggard lines of pain, a pair of great lustrous blue eyes were turned upon us, abject and pitiful as the gaze of a dumb beast that is stricken mortally.
It needed no acuteness to apprehend that we had before us one of yesterday's defeated warriors; one who had spent his last strength in creeping hither to get his dying done in peace. Lest our presence should add fear to the agony already upon him, I knelt beside him in the blood-smeared straw, and, raising his head, I pillowed it upon my arm.
"Have no fear," said I reassuringly. "We are friends. Do you understand?"
The faint smile that played for a second on his lips and lighted his countenance would have told me that he understood, even had I not caught his words, faint as a sigh "Merci, monsieur." He nestled his head into the crook of my arm. "Water - for the love of God!" he gasped, to add in a groan, "Je me meurs, monsieur."
Assisted by a couple of knaves, Ganymede went about attending to the rebel at once. Handling him as carefully as might be, to avoid giving him unnecessary pain they removed his back-and-breast, which was flung with a clatter into one of the corners of the barn. Then, whilst one of them gently drew off his boots, Rodenard, with the lanthorn close beside him, cut away the fellow's doublet, and laid bare the oozing sword-wound that gaped in his mangled side. He whispered an order to Gilles, who went swiftly off to the coach in quest of something that he had asked for; then he sat on his heels and waited, his hand upon the man's pulse, his eyes on his face.
I stooped until my lips were on a level with my intendant's ear.
"How is it with him?" I inquired.
"Dying," whispered Rodenard in answer. "He has lost too much blood, and he is probably bleeding inwardly as well. There is no hope of his life, but he may linger thus some little while, sinking gradually, and we can at least mitigate the suffering of his last moments."
When presently the men returned with the things that Ganymede had asked for, he mixed some pungent liquid with water, and, whilst a servant held the bowl, he carefully sponged the rebel's wound. This and a cordial that he had given him to drink seemed to revive him and to afford him ease. His breathing was no longer marked by any rasping sound, and his eyes seemed to burn more intelligently.
"I am dying - is it not so?" he asked, and Ganymede bowed his head in silence. The poor fellow sighed. "Raise me," he begged, and when this service had been done him, his eyes wandered round until they found me. Then "Monsieur," he said, "will you do me a last favour?"
"Assuredly, my poor friend," I answered, going down on my knees beside him.
"You - you were not for the Duke?" he inquired, eyeing me more keenly.
"No, monsieur. But do not let that disturb you; I have no interest in this rising and I have taken no side. I am from Paris, on a journey of - of pleasure. My name is Bardelys - Marcel de Bardelys."
"Bardelys the Magnificent?" he questioned, and I could not repress a smile.
"I am that overrated man."
"But then you are for the King!" And a note of disappointment crept into his voice. Before I could make him any answer, he had resumed. "No matter; Marcel de Bardelys is a gentleman, and party signifies little when a man is dying. I am Rene de Lesperon, of Lesperon in Gascony," he pursued. "Will you send word to my sister afterwards?"
I bowed my head without speaking.
"She is the only relative I have, monsieur. But - and his tone grew wistful - "there is one other to whom I would have you bear a message." He raised his hand by a painful effort to the level of his breast. Strength failed him, and he sank back. "I cannot, monsieur," he said in a tone of pathetic apology. "See; there is a chain about my neck with a locket. Take it from me. Take it now, monsieur. There are some papers also, monsieur. Take all. I want to see them safely in your keeping."
I did his bidding, and from the breast of his doublet I drew some loose letters and a locket which held the miniature of a woman's face.
"I want you to deliver all to her, monsieur."
"It shall be done," I answered, deeply moved.
"Hold it - hold it up," he begged, his voice weakening. "Let me behold the face."
Long his eyes rested on the likeness I held before him. At last, as one in a dream--
"Well-beloved," he sighed. "Bien aimee!" And down his grey, haggard cheeks the tears came slowly. "Forgive this weakness, monsieur," he whispered brokenly. "We were to have been wed in a month, had I lived." He ended with a sob, and when next he spoke it was more labouredly, as though that sob had robbed him of the half of what vitality remained. "Tell her, monsieur, that my dying thoughts were of her. Tell - tell her - I--"
"Her name?" I cried, fearing he would sink before I learned it. "Tell me her name."
He looked at me with eyes that were growing glassy and vacant. Then he seemed to brace himself and to rally for a second.
"Her name?" he mused, in a far-off manner. "She is - Ma-de-moiselle de -"
His head rolled on the suddenly relaxed neck. He collapsed into Rodenard's arms.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
Rodenard nodded in silence.
A MAID IN THE MOONLIGHT
I do not know whether it was the influence of that thing lying in a corner of the barn under the cloak that Rodenard had flung over it, or whether other influences of destiny were at work to impel me to rise at the end of a half-hour and announce my determination to set out on horseback and find myself quarters more congenial.
"To-morrow," I instructed Ganymede, as I stood ready to mount, "you will retrace your steps with the others, and, finding the road to Lavedan, you will follow me to the chateau."
"But you cannot hope to reach it to-night, monseigneur, through a country that is unknown to you," he protested.
"I do not hope to reach it to-night. I will ride south until I come upon some hamlet that will afford me shelter and, in the morning, direction."
I left him with that, and set out at a brisk trot. Night had now fallen, but the sky was clear, and a crescent moon came opportunely if feebly to dispel the gloom.
I quitted the field, and went back until I gained a crossroad, where, turning to the right, I set my face to the Pyrenees, and rode briskly amain. That I had chosen wisely was proved when some twenty minutes later. I clattered into the hamlet of Mirepoix, and drew up before an inn flaunting the sign of a peacock - as if in irony of its humbleness, for it was no better than a wayside tavern. Neither stable-boy nor ostler was here, and the unclean, overgrown urchin to whom I entrusted my horse could not say whether indeed Pere Abdon the landlord would be able to find me a room to sleep in. I thirsted, however; and so I determined to alight, if it were only to drink a can of wine and obtain information of my whereabouts.
As I was entering the hostelry there was a clatter of hoofs in the street, and four dragoons headed by a sergeant rode up and halted at the door of the Paon. They seemed to have ridden hard and some distance, for their horses were jaded almost to the last point of endurance.
Within, I called the host, and having obtained a flagon of the best vintage - Heaven fortify those that must be content with his worst! --I passed on to make inquiries touching my whereabouts and the way to Lavedan. This I learnt was but some three or four miles distant. About the other table - there were but two within the room - stood the dragoons in a whispered consultation, of which it had been well had I taken heed, for it concerned me more closely than I could have dreamt.
"He answers the description," said the sergeant, and though I heard the words I took no thought that it was of me they spoke.
"Padrieu," swore one of his companions, "I'll wager it is our man."
And then, just as I was noticing that Master Abdon, who had also overheard the conversation, was eyeing me curiously, the sergeant stepped up to me, and--
"What is your name, monsieur?" quoth he.
I vouchsafed him a stare of surprise before asking in my turn "How may that concern you?"
"Your pardon, my master, but we are on the King's business."
I remembered then that he had said I answered some description. With that it flashed through my mind that they had been sent after me by His Majesty to enforce my obedience to his wishes and to hinder me from reaching Lavedan. At once came the dominant desire to conceal my identity that I might go unhindered. The first name that occurred to me was that of the poor wretch I had left in the barn half an hour ago, and so--
"I am," said I, "Monsieur de Lesperon, at your service."
Too late I saw the mistake that I had made. I own it was a blunder that no man of ordinary intelligence should have permitted himself to have committed. Remembering the unrest of the province, I should rather have concluded that their business was more like to be in that connection.
"He is bold, at least," cried one of the troopers, with a burst of laughter. Then came the sergeant's voice, cold and formal, "In the King's name, Monsieur de Lesperon, I arrest you."
He had whipped out his sword, and the point was within an inch of my breast. But his arm, I observed, was stretched to its fullest extent, which forbade his making a sudden thrust. To hamper him in the lunge there was the table between us.
So, my mind working quickly in this desperate situation, and realizing how dire and urgent the need to attempt an escape, I leapt suddenly back to find myself in the arms of his followers. But in moving I had caught up by one of its legs the stool on which I had been sitting. As I raised it, I eluded the pinioning grip of the troopers. I twisted in their grasp, and brought the stool down upon the head of one of them with a force that drove him to his knees. Up went that three-legged stool again, to descend like a thunderbolt upon the head of another. That freed me. The sergeant was coming up behind, but another flourish of my improvised battle-axe sent the two remaining soldiers apart to look to their swords. Ere they could draw, I had darted like a hare between them and out into the street. The sergeant, cursing them with horrid volubility, followed closely upon my heels.
Leaping as far into the roadway as I could, I turned to meet the fellow's onslaught. Using the stool as a buckler, I caught his thrust upon it. So violently was it delivered that the point buried itself in the wood and the blade snapped, leaving him a hilt and a stump of steel. I wasted no time in thought. Charging him wildly, I knocked him over just as the two unhurt dragoons came stumbling out of the tavern.
I gained my horse and vaulted into the saddle. Tearing the reins from the urchin that held them, and driving my spurs into the beast's flanks, I went careering down the street at a gallop, gripping tightly with my knees, whilst the stirrups, which I had had no time to step into, flew wildly about my legs.
A pistol cracked behind me; then another, and a sharp, stinging pain in the shoulder warned me that I was hit. But I took no heed of it then. The wound could not be serious, else I had already been out of the saddle, and it would be time enough to look to it when I had outdistanced my pursuers. I say my pursuers, for already there were hoofbeats behind me, and I knew that those gentlemen had taken to their horses. But, as you may recall, I had on their arrival noted the jaded condition of their cattle, whilst I bestrode a horse that was comparatively fresh, so that pursuit had but small terrors for me. Nevertheless, they held out longer, and gave me more to do than I had imagined would be the case. For nigh upon a half-hour I rode, before I could be said to have got clear of them, and then for aught I knew they were still following, resolved to hound me down by the aid of such information as they might cull upon their way.
I was come by then to the Garonne. I drew rein beside the swiftly flowing stream, winding itself like a flood of glittering silver between the black shadows of its banks. A little while I sat there listening, and surveying the stately, turreted chateau that loomed, a grey, noble pile, beyond the water. I speculated what demesne this might be, and I realized that it was probably Lavedan.
I pondered what I had best do, and in the end I took the resolve to swim the river and knock at the gates. If it were indeed Lavedan, I had but to announce myself, and to one of my name surely its hospitalities would be spread. If it were some other household, even then the name of Marcel de Bardelys should suffice to ensure me a welcome.
By spurring and coaxing, I lured my steed into the river. There is a proverb having it that though you may lead a horse to the water you cannot make him drink. It would have now applied to my case, for although I had brought mine to the water I could not make him swim; or, at least, I could not make him breast the rush of the stream. Vainly did I urge him and try to hold him; he plunged frantically, snorted, coughed, and struggled gamely, but the current was bearing us swiftly away, and his efforts brought us no nearer to the opposite shore. At last I slipped from his back, and set myself to swim beside him, leading him by the bridle. But even thus he proved unequal to the task of resisting the current, so that in the end I let him go, and swam ashore alone, hoping that he would land farther down, and that I might then recapture him. When, however, I had reached the opposite bank, and stood under the shadow of the chateau, I discovered that the cowardly beast had turned back, and, having scrambled out, was now trotting away along the path by which we had come. Having no mind to go after him, I resigned myself to the loss, and turned my attention to the mansion now before me.
Some two hundred yards from the river it raised its great square bulk against the background of black, star-flecked sky. From the facade before me down to the spot where I stood by the water, came a flight of half a dozen terraces, each balustraded in white marble, ending in square, flat-topped pillars of Florentine design. What moon there was revealed the quaint architecture of that stately edifice and glittered upon the mullioned windows. But within nothing stirred; no yellow glimmer came to clash with the white purity of the moonlight; no sound of man or beast broke the stillness of the night, for all that the hour was early. The air of the place was as that of some gigantic sepulchre. A little daunted by this all-enveloping stillness, I skirted the terraces and approached the house on the eastern side. Here I found an old-world drawbridge --now naturally in disuse - spanning a ditch fed from the main river for the erstwhile purposes of a moat. I crossed the bridge, and entered an imposing courtyard. Within this quadrangle the same silence dwelt, and there was the same obscurity in the windows that overlooked it. I paused, at a loss how to proceed, and I leaned against a buttress of the portcullis, what time I considered.
I was weak from fasting, worn with hard riding, and faint from the wound in my shoulder, which had been the cause at least of my losing some blood. In addition to all this, I was shivering with the cold of my wet garments, and generally I must have looked as little like that Bardelys they called the Magnificent as you might well conceive. How, then, if I were to knock, should I prevail in persuading these people - whoever they might be - of my identity? Infinitely more had I the air of some fugitive rebel, and it was more than probable that I should be kept in durance to be handed over to my friends the dragoons, if later they came to ride that way. I was separated from those who knew me, and as things now stood - unless this were, indeed, Lavedan - it might be days before they found me again.
I was beginning to deplore my folly at having cut myself adrift from my followers in the first place, and having embroiled myself with the soldiers in the second; I was beginning to contemplate the wisdom of seeking some outhouse of this mansion wherein to lie until morning, when of a sudden a broad shaft of light, coming from one of the windows on the first floor, fell athwart the courtyard. Instinctively I crouched back into the shadow of my friendly buttress, and looked up.
That sudden shaft of light resulted from the withdrawal of the curtains that masked a window. At this window, which opened outward on to a balcony; I now beheld - and to me it was as the vision of Beatrice may have been to Dante - the white figure of a woman. The moonlight bathed her, as in her white robe she leaned upon the parapet gazing upward into the empyrean. A sweet, delicate face I saw, not endowed, perhaps, with that exquisite balance and proportion of feature wherein they tell us beauty lies, but blessed with a wondrously dainty beauty all its own; a beauty, perhaps, as much of expression as of form; for in that gentle countenance was mirrored every tender grace of girlhood, all that is fresh and pure and virginal.
I held my breath, I think, as I stood in ravished contemplation of that white vision. If this were Lavedan, and that the cold Roxalanne who had sent my bold Chatellerault back to Paris empty-handed then were my task a very welcome one.
How little it had weighed with me that I was come to Languedoc to woo a woman bearing the name of Roxalanne de Lavedan I have already shown. But here in this same Languedoc I beheld to-night a woman whom it seemed I might have loved, for not in ten years - not, indeed, in all my life - had any face so wrought upon me and called to my nature with so strong a voice.
I gazed at that child, and I thought of the women that I had known --the bold, bedizened beauties of a Court said to be the first in Europe. And then it came to me that this was no demoiselle of Lavedan, no demoiselle at all in fact, for the noblesse of France owned no such faces. Candour and purity were not to be looked for in the high-bred countenances of our great families; they were sometimes found in the faces of the children of their retainers. Yes; I had it now. This child was the daughter of some custodian of the demesne before me.
Suddenly, as she stood there in the moonlight, a song, sung at half-voice, floated down on the calm air. It was a ditty of old Provence, a melody I knew and loved, and if aught had been wanting to heighten the enchantment that already ravished me, that soft melodious voice had done it. Singing still, she turned and reentered the room, leaving wide the windows, so that faintly, as from a distance, her voice still reached me after she was gone from sight.
It was in that hour that it came to me to cast myself upon this fair creature's mercy. Surely one so sweet and saintly to behold would take compassion on an unfortunate! Haply my wound and all the rest that I had that night endured made me dull-witted and warped my reason.
With what strength I still possessed I went to work to scale her balcony. The task was easy even for one in my spent condition. The wall was thick with ivy, and, moreover, a window beneath afforded some support, for by standing on the heavy coping I could with my fingers touch the sill of the balcony above. Thus I hoisted myself, and presently I threw an arm over the parapet. Already I was astride of that same Parapet before she became aware of my presence.
The song died suddenly on her lips, and her eyes, blue as forget-me-nots, were wide now with the fear that the sight of me occasioned. Another second and there had been an outcry that would have brought the house about our ears, when, stepping to the threshold of the room, "Mademoiselle," I entreated, "for the love of God, be silent! I mean you no harm. I am a fugitive. I am pursued."
This was no considered speech. There had been no preparing of words; I had uttered them mechanically almost - perhaps by inspiration, for they were surely the best calculated to enlist this lady's sympathy. And so far as went the words themselves, they were rigorously true.