BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT
Being an 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
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
CHAPTER I. THE WAGER
"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!"
CHAPTER II. 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.
CHAPTER III. 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.
CHAPTER IV. 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.
With eyes wide open still, she confronted me, and I now observed that she was not so tall as from below I had imagined. She was, in fact, of a short stature rather, but of proportions so exquisite that she conveyed an impression of some height. In her hand she held a taper by whose light she had been surveying herself in her mirror at the moment of my advent. Her unbound hair of brown fell like a mantle about her shoulders, and this fact it was drew me to notice that she was in her night-rail, and that this room to which I had penetrated was her chamber.
"Who are you?" she asked breathlessly, as though in such a pass my identity were a thing that signified.
I had almost answered her, as I had answered the troopers at Mirepoix, that I was Lesperon. Then, bethinking me that there was no need for such equivocation here, I was on the point of giving her my name. But noting my hesitation, and misconstruing it, she forestalled me.
"I understand, monsieur," said she more composedly. "And you need have no fear. You are among friends."
Her eyes had travelled over my sodden clothes, the haggard pallor of my face, and the blood that stained my doublet from the shoulder downward. From all this she had drawn her conclusions that I was a hunted rebel. She drew me into the room, and, closing the window, she dragged the heavy curtain across it, thereby giving me a proof of confidence that smote me hard—impostor that I was.
"I crave your pardon, mademoiselle, for having startled you by the rude manner of my coming," said I, and never in my life had I felt less at ease than then. "But I was exhausted and desperate. I am wounded, I have ridden hard, and I swam the river."
The latter piece of information was vastly unnecessary, seeing that the water from my clothes was forming a pool about my feet. "I saw you from below; mademoiselle, and surely, I thought, so sweet a lady would have pity on an unfortunate." She observed that my eyes were upon her, and in an act of instinctive maidenliness she bore her hand to her throat to draw the draperies together and screen the beauties of her neck from my unwarranted glance, as though her daily gown did not reveal as much and more of them.
That act, however, served to arouse me to a sense of my position. What did I there? It was a profanity—a defiling, I swore; from which you'll see, that Bardelys was grown of a sudden very nice.
"Monsieur," she was saying, "you are exhausted."
"But that I rode hard," I laughed, "it is likely they had taken me to Toulouse, were I might have lost my head before my friends could have found and claimed me. I hope you'll see it is too comely a head to be so lightly parted with."
"For that," said she, half seriously, half whimsically, "the ugliest head would be too comely."
I laughed softly, amusedly; then of a sudden, without warning, a faintness took me, and I was forced to brace myself against the wall, breathing heavily the while. At that she gave a little cry of alarm.
"Monsieur, I beseech you to be seated. I will summon my father, and we will find a bed for you. You must not retain those clothes."
"Angel of goodness!" I muttered gratefully, and being still half dazed, I brought some of my Court tricks into that chamber by taking her hand and carrying it towards my lips. But ere I had imprinted the intended kiss upon her fingers—and by some miracle they were not withdrawn—my eyes encountered hers again. I paused as one may pause who contemplates a sacrilege. For a moment she held my glance with hers; then I fell abashed, and released her hand.
The innocence peeping out of that child's eyes it was that had in that moment daunted me, and made me tremble to think of being found there, and of the vile thing it would be to have her name coupled with mine. That thought lent me strength. I cast my weariness from me as though it were a garment, and, straightening myself, I stepped of a sudden to the window. Without a word, I made shift to draw back the curtain when her hand, falling on my sodden sleeve, arrested me.
"What will you do, monsieur?" she cried in alarm. "You may be seen."
My mind was now possessed by the thing I should have thought of before. I climbed to her balcony, and my one resolve was to get me thence as quickly as might be.
"I had not the right to enter here," I muttered. "I—" I stopped short; to explain would only be to sully, and so, "Good-night! Adieu!" I ended brusquely.
"But, monsieur—" she began.
"Let me go," I commanded almost roughly, as I shook my arm free of her grasp.
"Bethink you that you are exhausted. If you go forth now, monsieur, you will assuredly be taken. You must not go."
I laughed softly, and with some bitterness, too, for I was angry with myself.
"Hush, child," I said. "Better so, if it is to be."
And with that I drew aside the curtains and pushed the leaves of the window apart. She remained standing in the room, watching me, her face pale, and hex eyes pained and puzzled.
One last glance I gave her as I bestrode the rail of her balcony. Then I lowered myself as I had ascended. I was hanging by my hands, seeking with my foot for the coping of the window beneath me, when, suddenly, there came a buzzing in my ears. I had a fleeting vision of a white figure leaning on the balcony above me; then a veil seemed drawn over my eyes; there came a sense of falling; a rush as of a tempestuous wind; then—nothing.
CHAPTER V. THE VICOMTE DE LAVEDAN
When next I awakened, it was to find myself abed in an elegant apartment, spacious and sunlit, that was utterly strange to me. For some seconds I was content to lie and take no count of my whereabouts. My eyes travelled idly over the handsome furnishings of that choicely appointed chamber, and rested at last upon the lean, crooked figure of a man whose back was towards me and who was busy with some phials at a table not far distant. Then recollection awakened also in me, and I set my wits to work to grapple with my surroundings. I looked through the open window, but from my position on the bed no more was visible than the blue sky and a faint haze of distant hills.
I taxed my memory, and the events of yesternight recurred to me. I remembered the girl, the balcony, and my flight ending in my giddiness and my fall. Had they brought me into that same chateau, or—Or what? No other possibility came to suggest itself, and, seeing scant need to tax my brains with speculation, since there was one there of whom I might ask the question—
"Hola, my master!" I called to him, and as I did so I essayed to move. The act wrung a sharp cry of pain from me. My left shoulder was numb and sore, but in my right foot that sudden movement had roused a sharper pang.
At my cry that little wizened old man swung suddenly round. He had the face of a bird of prey, yellow as a louis d'or with a great hooked nose, and a pair of beady black eyes that observed me solemnly. The mouth alone was the redeeming feature in a countenance that had otherwise been evil; it was instinct with good-humour. But I had small leisure to observe him then, for simultaneously with his turning there had been another movement at my bedside, which drew my eyes elsewhere. A gentleman, richly dressed, and of an imposing height, approached me.
"You are awake, monsieur?" he said in a half interrogative tone.
"Will you do me the favour to tell me where I am, monsieur?" quoth I.
"You do not know? You are at Lavedan. I am the Vicomte de Lavedan—at your service."
Although it was no more than I might have expected, yet a dull wonder filled me, to which presently I gave expression by asking stupidly—
"At Lavedan? But how came I hither?"
"How you came is more than I can tell," he laughed. "But I'll swear the King's dragoons were not far behind you. We found you in the courtyard last night; in a swoon of exhaustion, wounded in the shoulder, and with a sprained foot. It was my daughter who gave the alarm and called us to your assistance. You were lying under her widow." Then, seeing the growing wonder in my eyes and misconstruing it into alarm: "Nay, have no fear, monsieur," he cried. "You were very well advised in coming to us. You have fallen among friends. We are Orleanists too,—at Lavedan, for all that I was not in the fight at Castelnaudary. That was no fault of mine. His Grace's messenger reached me overlate, and for all that I set out with a company of my men, I put back when I had reached Lautrec upon hearing that already a decisive battle had been fought and that our side had suffered a crushing defeat." He uttered a weary sigh.
"God help us, monsieur! Monseigneur de Richelieu is likely to have his way with us. But let that be for the present. You are here, and you are safe. As yet no suspicion rests on Lavedan. I was, as I have said, too late for the fight, and so I came quietly back to save my skin, that I might serve the Cause in whatever other way might offer still. In sheltering you I am serving Gaston d'Orleans, and, that I may continue so to do, I pray that suspicion may continue to ignore me. If they were to learn of it at Toulouse or of how with money and in other ways I have helped this rebellion—I make no doubt that my head would be the forfeit I should be asked to pay."
I was aghast at the freedom of treasonable speech with which this very debonnaire gentleman ventured to address an utter stranger.
"But tell me, Monsieur de Lesperon," resumed my host, "how is it with you?"
I started in fresh astonishment.
"How—how do you know that I am Lesperon?" I asked.
"Ma foi!" he laughed, "do you imagine I had spoken so unreservedly to a man of whom I knew nothing? Think better of me, monsieur, I beseech you. I found these letters in your pocket last night, and their superscription gave me your identity. Your name is well known to me," he added. "My friend Monsieur de Marsac has often spoken of you and of your devotion to the Cause, and it affords me no little satisfaction to be of some service to one whom by repute I have already learned to esteem."
I lay back on my pillows, and I groaned. Here was a predicament! Mistaking me for that miserable rebel I had succoured at Mirepoix, and whose letters I bore upon me that I might restore them to some one whose name he had failed to give me at the last moment, the Vicomte de Lavedan had poured the damning story of his treason into my ears.
What if I were now to enlighten him? What if I were to tell him that I was not Lesperon—no rebel at all, in fact—but Marcel de Bardelys, the King's favourite? That he would account me a spy I hardly thought; but assuredly he would see that my life must be a danger to his own; he must fear betrayal from me; and to protect himself he would be justified in taking extreme measures. Rebels were not addicted to an excess of niceness in their methods, and it was more likely that I should rise no more from the luxurious bed on which his hospitality had laid me. But even if I had exaggerated matters, and the Vicomte were not quite so bloodthirsty as was usual with his order, even if he chose to accept my promise that I would forget what he had said, he must nevertheless—in view of his indiscretion—demand my instant withdrawal from Lavedan. And what, then, of my wager with Chatellerault?
Then, in thinking of my wager, I came to think of Roxalanne herself—that dainty, sweet-faced child into whose chamber I had penetrated on the previous night. And would you believe it that I—the satiated, cynical, unbelieving Bardelys—experienced dismay at the very thought of leaving Lavedan for no other reason than because it involved seeing no more of that provincial damsel?
My unwillingness to be driven from her presence determined me to stay. I had come to Lavedan as Lesperon, a fugitive rebel. In that character I had all but announced myself last night to Mademoiselle. In that character I had been welcomed by her father. In that character, then, I must remain, that I might be near her, that I might woo and win her, and thus—though this, I swear, had now become a minor consideration with me—make good my boast and win the wager that must otherwise involve my ruin.
As I lay back with closed eyes and gave myself over to pondering the situation, I took a pleasure oddly sweet in the prospect of urging my suit under such circumstances. Chatellerault had given me a free hand. I was to go about the wooing of Mademoiselle de Lavedan as I chose. But he had cast it at me in defiance that not with all my magnificence, not with all my retinue and all my state to dazzle her, should I succeed in melting the coldest heart in France.
And now, behold! I had cast from me all these outward embellishments; I came without pomp, denuded of every emblem of wealth, of every sign of power; as a poor fugitive gentleman, I came, hunted, proscribed, and penniless—for Lesperon's estate would assuredly suffer sequestration. To win her thus would, by my faith, be an exploit I might take pride in, a worthy achievement to encompass.
And so I left things as they were, and since I offered no denial to the identity that was thrust upon me, as Lesperon I continued to be known to the Vicomte and to his family.
Presently he called the old man to my bedside and I heard them talking of my condition.
"You think, then, Anatole," he said in the end, "that in three or four days Monsieur de Lesperon may be able to rise?"
"I am assured of it," replied the old servant.
Whereupon, turning to me, "Be therefore of good courage, monsieur," said Lavedan, "for your hurt is none so grievous after all."
I was muttering my thanks and my assurances that I was in excellent spirits, when we were suddenly disturbed by a rumbling noise as of distant thunder.
"Mort Dieu!" swore the Vicomte, a look of alarm coming into his face. With a bent head, he stood in a listening attitude.
"What is it?" I inquired.
"Horsemen—on the drawbridge," he answered shortly. "A troop, by the sound."
And then, in confirmation of these words, followed a stamping and rattle of hoofs on the flags of the courtyard below. The old servant stood wringing his hands in helpless terror, and wailing, "Monsieur, monsieur!"
But the Vicomte crossed rapidly to the window and looked out. Then he laughed with intense relief; and in a wondering voice "They are not troopers," he announced. "They have more the air of a company of servants in private livery; and there is a carriage—pardieu, two carriages!"
At once the memory of Rodenard and my followers occurred to me, and I thanked Heaven that I was abed where he might not see me, and that thus he would probably be sent forth empty-handed with the news that his master was neither arrived nor expected.
But in that surmise I went too fast. Ganymede was of a tenacious mettle, and of this he now afforded proof. Upon learning that naught was known of the Marquis de Bardelys at Lavedan, my faithful henchman announced his intention to remain there and await me, since that was, he assured the Vicomte, my destination.
"My first impulse," said Lavedan, when later he came to tell me of it, "was incontinently to order his departure. But upon considering the matter and remembering how high in power and in the King's favour stands that monstrous libertine Bardelys, I deemed it wiser to afford shelter to this outrageous retinue. His steward—a flabby, insolent creature—says that Bardelys left them last night near Mirepoix, to ride hither, bidding them follow to-day. Curious that we should have no news of him! That he should have fallen into the Garonne and drowned himself were too great a good fortune to be hoped for."
The bitterness with which he spoke of me afforded me ample cause for congratulation that I had resolved to accept the role of Lesperon. Yet, remembering that my father and he had been good friends, his manner left me nonplussed. What cause could he have for this animosity to the son? Could it be merely my position at Court that made me seem in his rebel eyes a natural enemy?
"You are acquainted with this Bardelys?" I inquired, by way of drawing him.
"I knew his father," he answered gruffly. "An honest, upright gentleman."
"And the son," I inquired timidly, "has he none of these virtues?"
"I know not what virtues he may have; his vices are known to all the world. He is a libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift. They say he is one of the King's favourites, and that his monstrous extravagances have earned for him the title of 'Magnificent'." He uttered a short laugh. "A fit servant for such a master as Louis the Just!"
"Monsieur le Vicomte," said I, warming in my own defence, "I swear you do him injustice. He is extravagant, but then he is rich; he is a libertine, but then he is young, and he has been reared among libertines; he is a gamester, but punctiliously honourable at play. Believe me, monsieur, I have some acquaintance with Marcel de Bardelys, and his vices are hardly so black as is generally believed; whilst in his favour I think the same may be said that you have just said of his father—he is an honest, upright gentleman."
"And that disgraceful affair with the Duchesse de Bourgogne?" inquired Lavedan, with the air of a man setting an unanswerable question.
"Mon Dieu!" I cried, "will the world never forget that indiscretion? An indiscretion of youth, no doubt much exaggerated outside Court circles."
The Vicomte eyed me in some astonishment for a moment.
"Monsieur de Lesperon," he said at length, "you appear to hold this Bardelys in high esteem. He has a staunch supporter in you and a stout advocate. Yet me you cannot convince." And he shook his head solemnly. "Even if I did not hold him to be such a man as I have pronounced him, but were to account him a paragon of all the virtues, his coming hither remains an act that I must resent."
"But why, Monsieur le Vicomte?"
"Because I know the errand that brings him to Lavedan. He comes to woo my daughter."
Had he flung a bomb into my bed he could not more effectively have startled me.
"It astonishes you, eh?" he laughed bitterly. "But I can assure you that it is so. A month ago I was visited by the Comte de Chatellerault—another of His Majesty's fine favourites. He came unbidden; offered no reason for his coming, save that he was making a tour of the province for his amusement. His acquaintance with me was of the slightest, and I had no desire that it should increase; yet here he installed himself with a couple of servants, and bade fair to take a long stay.
"I was surprised, but on the morrow I had an explanation. A courier, arriving from an old friend of mine at Court, bore me a letter with the information that Monsieur de Chatellerault was come to Lavedan at the King's instigation to sue for my daughter's hand in marriage. The reasons were not far to seek. The King, who loves him, would enrich him; the easiest way is by a wealthy alliance, and Roxalanne is accounted an heiress. In addition to that, my own power in the province is known, whilst my defection from the Cardinalist party is feared. What better link wherewith to attach me again to the fortunes of the Crown—for Crown and Mitre have grown to be synonymous in this topsy-turvy France—than to wed my daughter to one of the King's favourites?
"But for that timely warning, God knows what mischief had been wrought. As it was, Monsieur de Chatellerault had but seen my daughter upon two occasions. On the very day that I received the tidings I speak of, I sent her to Auch to the care of some relatives of her mother's. Chatellerault remained a week. Then, growing restive, he asked when my daughter would return. 'When you depart, monsieur,' I answered him, and, being pressed for reasons, I dealt so frankly with him that within twenty-four hours he was on his way back to Paris."
The Vicomte paused and took a turn in the apartment, whilst I pondered his words, which were bringing me a curious revelation. Presently he resumed.
"And now, Chatellerault having failed in his purpose, the King chooses a more dangerous person for the gratifying of his desires. He sends the Marquis, Marcel de Bardelys to Lavedan on the same business. No doubt he attributes Chatellerault's failure to clumsiness, and he has decided this time to choose a man famed for courtly address and gifted with such arts of dalliance that he cannot fail but enmesh my daughter in them. It is a great compliment that he pays us in sending hither the handsomest and most accomplished gentleman of all his Court—so fame has it—yet it is a compliment of whose flattery I am not sensible. Bardelys goes hence as empty-handed as went Chatellerault. Let him but show his face, and my daughter journeys to Auch again. Am I not well advised, Monsieur de Lesperon?"
"Why, yes," I answered slowly, after the manner of one who deliberates, "if you are persuaded that your conclusions touching Bardelys are correct."
"I am more than persuaded. What other business could bring him to Lavedan?"
It was a question that I did not attempt to answer. Haply he did not expect me to answer it. He left me free to ponder another issue of this same business of which my mind was become very full. Chatellerault had not dealt fairly with me. Often, since I had left Paris, had I marvelled that he came to be so rash as to risk his fortune upon a matter that turned upon a woman's whim. That I possessed undeniable advantages of person, of birth, and of wealth, Chatellerault could not have disregarded. Yet these, and the possibility that they might suffice to engage this lady's affections, he appeared to have set at naught when he plunged into that rash wager.
He must have realized that because he had failed was no reason to presume that I must also fail. There was no consequence in such an argument, and often, as I have said, had I marvelled during the past days at the readiness with which Chatellerault had flung down the gage. Now I held the explanation of it. He counted upon the Vicomte de Lavedan to reason precisely as he was reasoning, and he was confident that no opportunities would be afforded me of so much as seeing this beautiful and cold Roxalanne.
It was a wily trap he had set me, worthy only of a trickster.
Fate, however, had taken a hand in the game, and the cards were redealt since I had left Paris. The terms of the wager permitted me to choose any line of action that I considered desirable; but Destiny, it seemed, had chosen for me, and set me in a line that should at least suffice to overcome the parental resistance—that breastwork upon which Chatellerault had so confidently depended.
As the rebel Rene de Lesperon I was sheltered at Lavedan and made welcome by my fellow-rebel the Vicomte, who already seemed much taken with me, and who had esteemed me before seeing me from the much that Monsieur de Marsac—whoever he might be—had told him of me. As Rene de Lesperon I must remain, and turn to best account my sojourn, praying God meanwhile that this same Monsieur de Marsac might be pleased to refrain from visiting Lavedan whilst I was there.
CHAPTER VI. IN CONVALESCENCE
Of the week that followed my coming to Lavedan I find some difficulty in writing. It was for me a time very crowded with events—events that appeared to be moulding my character anew and making of me a person different, indeed, from that Marcel de Bardelys whom in Paris they called the Magnificent. Yet these events, although significant in their total, were of so vague and slight a nature in their detail, that when I come to write of them I find really little that I may set down.
Rodenard and his companions remained for two days at the chateau, and to me his sojourn there was a source of perpetual anxiety, for I knew not how far the fool might see fit to prolong it. It was well for me that this anxiety of mine was shared by Monsieur de Lavedan, who disliked at such a time the presence of men attached to one who was so notoriously of the King's party. He came at last to consult me as to what measures might be taken to remove them, and I—nothing loath to conspire with him to so desirable end—bade him suggest to Rodenard that perhaps evil had befallen Monsieur de Bardelys, and that, instead of wasting his time at Lavedan, he were better advised to be searching the province for his master.
This counsel the Vicomte adopted, and with such excellent results that that very day—within the hour, in fact—Ganymede, aroused to a sense of his proper duty, set out in quest of me, not a little disturbed in mind—for with all his shortcomings the rascal loved me very faithfully.
That was on the third day of my sojourn at Lavedan. On the morrow I rose, my foot being sufficiently recovered to permit it. I felt a little weak from loss of blood, but Anatole—who, for all his evil countenance, was a kindly and gentle—servant was confident that a few days—a week at most—would see me completely restored.
Of leaving Lavedan I said nothing. But the Vicomte, who was one of the most generous and noble hearted men that it has ever been my good fortune to meet, forestalled any mention of my departure by urging that I should remain at the chateau until my recovery were completed, and, for that matter, as long thereafter as should suit my inclinations.
"At Lavedan you will be safe, my friend," he assured me; "for, as I have told you, we are under no suspicion. Let me urge you to remain until the King shall have desisted from further persecuting us."
And when I protested and spoke of trespassing, he waived the point with a brusqueness that amounted almost to anger.
"Believe, monsieur, that I am pleased and honoured at serving one who has so stoutly served the Cause and sacrificed so much to it."
At that, being not altogether dead to shame, I winced, and told myself that my behaviour was unworthy, and that I was practising a detestable deception. Yet some indulgence I may justly claim in consideration of how far I was victim of circumstance. Did I tell him that I was Bardelys, I was convinced that I should never leave the chateau alive. Very noble-hearted was the Vicomte, and no man have I known more averse to bloodthirstiness, but he had told me much during the days that I had lain abed, and many lives would be jeopardized did I proclaim what I had learned from him. Hence I argued that any disclosure of my identity must perforce drive him to extreme measures for the sake of the friends he had unwittingly betrayed.
On the day after Rodenard's departure I dined with the family, and met again Mademoiselle de Lavedan, whom I had not seen since the balcony adventure of some nights ago. The Vicomtesse was also present, a lady of very austere and noble appearance—lean as a pike and with a most formidable nose—but, as I was soon to discover, with a mind inclining overmuch to scandal and the high-seasoned talk of the Courts in which her girlhood had been spent.
From her lips I heard that day the old, scandalous story of Monseigneur de Richelieu's early passion for Anne of Austria. With much unction did she tell us how the Queen had lured His Eminence to dress himself in the motley of a jester that she might make a mock of him in the eyes of the courtiers she had concealed behind the arras of her chamber.
This anecdote she gave us with much wealth of discreditable detail and scant regard for either her daughter's presence or for the blushes that suffused the poor child's cheeks. In every way she was a pattern of the class of women amongst whom my youth had been spent, a class which had done so much towards shattering my faith and lowering my estimate of her sex. Lavedan had married her and brought her into Languedoc, and here she spent her years lamenting the scenes of her youth, and prone, it would seem, to make them matter for conversation whenever a newcomer chanced to present himself at the chateau.
Looking from her to her daughter, I thanked Heaven that Roxalanne was no reproduction of the mother. She had inherited as little of her character as of her appearance. Both in feature and in soul Mademoiselle de Lavedan was a copy of that noble, gallant gentleman, her father.
One other was present at that meal, of whom I shall have more to say hereafter. This was a young man of good presence, save, perhaps, a too obtrusive foppishness, whom Monsieur de Lavedan presented to me as a distant kinsman of theirs, one Chevalier de Saint-Eustache. He was very tall—of fully my own height—and of an excellent shape, although extremely young. But his head if anything was too small for his body, and his good-natured mouth was of a weakness that was confirmed by the significance of his chin, whilst his eyes were too closely set to augur frankness.
He was a pleasant fellow, seemingly of that negative pleasantness that lies in inoffensiveness, but otherwise dull and of an untutored mind—rustic, as might be expected in one the greater part of whose life had been spent in his native province, and of a rusticity rendered all the more flagrant by the very efforts he exerted to dissemble it.
It was after madame had related that unsavoury anecdote touching the Cardinal that he turned to ask me whether I was well acquainted with the Court. I was near to committing the egregious blunder of laughing in his face, but, recollecting myself betimes, I answered vaguely that I had some knowledge of it, whereupon he all but caused me to bound from my chair by asking me had I ever met the Magnificent Bardelys.
"I—I am acquainted with him," I answered warily. "Why do you ask?"
"I was reminded of him by the fact that his servants have been here for two days. You were expecting the Marquis himself, were you not, Monsieur le Vicomte?"
Lavedan raised his head suddenly, after the manner of a man who has received an affront.
"I was not, Chevalier," he answered, with emphasis. "His intendant, an insolent knave of the name of Rodenard, informed me that this Bardelys projected visiting me. He has not come, and I devoutly hope that he may not come. Trouble enough had I to rid myself of his servants, and but for Monsieur de Lesperon's well-conceived suggestion they might still be here."
"You have never met him, monsieur?" inquired the Chevalier.
"Never," replied our host in such a way that any but a fool must have understood that he desired nothing less than such a meeting.
"A delightful fellow," murmured Saint-Eustache—"a brilliant, dazzling personality."
"You—you are acquainted with him?" I asked.
"Acquainted?" echoed that boastful liar. "We were as brothers."
"How you interest me! And why have you never told us?" quoth madame, her eyes turned enviously upon the young man—as enviously as were Lavedan's turned in disgust. "It is a thousand pities that Monsieur de Bardelys has altered his plans and is no longer coming to us. To meet such a man is to breathe again the air of the grand monde. You remember, Monsieur de Lesperon, that affair with the Duchess de Bourgogne?" And she smiled wickedly in my direction.
"I have some recollection of it," I answered coldly. "But I think that rumour exaggerates. When tongues wag, a little rivulet is often described as a mountain torrent."
"You would not say so did you but know what I know," she informed me roguishly. "Often, I confess, rumour may swell the importance of such an affaire, but in this case I do not think that rumour does it justice."
I made a deprecatory gesture, and I would have had the subject changed, but ere I could make an effort to that end, the fool Saint-Eustache was babbling again.
"You remember the duel that was fought in consequence, Monsieur de Lesperon?"
"Yes," I assented wearily.
"And in which a poor young fellow lost his life," growled the Vicomte. "It was practically a murder."
"Nay, monsieur," I cried, with a sudden heat that set them staring at me; "there you do him wrong. Monsieur de Bardelys was opposed to the best blade in France. The man's reputation as a swordsman was of such a quality that for a twelvemonth he had been living upon it, doing all manner of unseemly things immune from punishment by the fear in which he was universally held. His behaviour in the unfortunate affair we are discussing was of a particularly shameful character. Oh, I know the details, messieurs, I can sure you. He thought to impose his reputation upon Bardelys as he had imposed it upon a hundred others, but Bardelys was over-tough for his teeth. He sent that notorious young gentleman a challenge, and on the following morning he left him dead in the horsemarket behind the Hotel Vendome. But far from a murder, monsieur, it was an act of justice, and the most richly earned punishment with which ever man was visited."
"Even if so," cried the Vicomte in some surprise, "why all this heat to defend a brawler?"
"A brawler?" I repeated after him. "Oh, no. That is a charge his worst enemies cannot make against Bardelys. He is no brawler. The duel in question was his first affair of the kind, and it has been his last, for unto him has clung the reputation that had belonged until then to La Vertoile, and there is none in France bold enough to send a challenge to him." And, seeing what surprise I was provoking, I thought it well to involve another with me in his defence. So, turning to the Chevalier, "I am sure," said I, "that Monsieur de Saint-Eustache will confirm my words."
Thereupon, his vanity being all aroused, the Chevalier set himself to paraphrase all that I had said with a heat that cast mine into a miserable insignificance.
"At least," laughed the Vicomte at length, "he lacks not for champions. For my own part, I am content to pray Heaven that he come not to Lavedan, as he intended."
"Mais voyons, Gaston," the Vicomtesse protested, "why harbour prejudice? Wait at least until you have seen him, that you may judge him for yourself."
"Already have I judged him; I pray that I may never see him."
"They tell me he is a very handsome man," said she, appealing to me for confirmation. Lavedan shot her a sudden glance of alarm, at which I could have laughed. Hitherto his sole concern had been his daughter, but it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps not even her years might set the Vicomtesse in safety from imprudences with this devourer of hearts, should he still chance to come that way.
"Madame," I answered, "he is accounted not ill-favored." And with a deprecatory smile I added, "I am said somewhat to resemble him."
"Say you so?" she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows, and looking at me more closely than hitherto. And then it seemed to me that into her face crept a shade of disappointment. If this Bardelys were not more beautiful than I, then he was not nearly so beautiful a man as she had imagined. She turned to Saint-Eustache.
"It is indeed so, Chevalier?" she inquired. "Do you note the resemblance?"
"Vanitas, vanitate," murmured the youth, who had some scraps of Latin and a taste for airing them. "I can see no likeness—no trace of one. Monsieur de Lesperon is well enough, I should say. But Bardelys!" He cast his eyes to the ceiling. "There is but one Bardelys in France."
"Enfin," I laughed, "you are no doubt well qualified to judge, Chevalier. I had flattered myself that some likeness did exist, but probably you have seen the Marquis more frequently than have I, and probably you know him better. Nevertheless, should he come his way, I will ask you to look at us side by side and be the judge of the resemblance."
"Should I happen to be here," he said, with a sudden constraint not difficult to understand, "I shall be happy to act as arbiter."
"Should you happen to be here?" I echoed questioningly. "But surely, should you hear that Monsieur de Bardelys is about to arrive, you will postpone any departure you may be on the point of making, so that you may renew this great friendship that you tell us you do the Marquis the honour of entertaining for him?"
The Chevalier eyed me with the air of a man looking down from a great height upon another. The Vicomte smiled quietly to himself as he combed his fair beard with his forefinger in a meditative fashion, whilst even Roxalanne—who had sat silently listening to a conversation that she was at times mercifully spared from following too minutely—flashed me a humorous glance. To the Vicomtesse alone who in common with women of her type was of a singular obtuseness—was the situation without significance.
Saint-Eustache, to defend himself against my delicate imputation, and to show how well acquainted he was with Bardelys, plunged at once into a thousand details of that gentleman's magnificence. He described his suppers, his retinue, his equipages, his houses, his chateaux, his favour with the King, his successes with the fair sex, and I know not what besides—in all of which I confess that even to me there was a certain degree of novelty. Roxalanne listened with an air of amusement that showed how well she read him. Later, when I found myself alone with her by the river, whither we had gone after the repast and the Chevalier's reminiscences were at an end, she reverted to that conversation.
"Is not my cousin a great fanfarron, monsieur," she asked.
"Surely you know your cousin better than I," I answered cautiously. "Why question me upon his character?"
"I was hardly questioning; I was commenting. He spent a fortnight in Paris once, and he accounts himself, or would have us account him, intimate with every courtier at the Luxembourg. Oh, he is very amusing, this good cousin, but tiresome too." She laughed, and there was the faintest note of scorn in her amusement. "Now, touching this Marquis de Bardelys, it is very plain that the Chevalier boasted when he said that they were as brothers—he and the Marquis—is it not? He grew ill at ease when you reminded him of the possibility of the Marquis's visit to Lavedan." And she laughed quaintly to herself. "Do you think that he so much as knows Bardelys?" she asked me suddenly.