"I thank you heartily for this offer," answered the duke, "which proves your faithful devotion to me and my interests, but I cannot accept it. That low scoundrel has dared to lay hands upon me, and he must expiate his crime in the most ignominious way. Should he prove to be a gentleman, he will be able to find redress. I never fail to respond, as you know, when there is question of settling a matter by the sword."
"As you please, my lord duke," said Vidalinc, stretching out his legs lazily and putting his feet on the fender, with the air of a man who can do no more, but must stand aside and let things take their own course. "By the way, do you know that that Serafina is charming? I paid her several compliments, which were very graciously received; and more than that, she has promised to allow me to call upon her, and appointed the time. She is a very amiable as well as beautiful young woman. Maitre Bilot was perfectly correct in his statements to us."
After which the two gentlemen awaited, in almost unbroken silence, the return of the FOUR ruffians who had gone forth to chastise de Sigognac.
CHAPTER IX. A MELEE AND A DUEL
The rehearsal was over, and the comedians were preparing to return to their hotel; de Sigognac, expecting some sort of an assault on his way through the deserted streets, did not lay aside Matamore's big sword with the rest of his costume. It was an excellent Spanish blade, very long, and with a large basket hilt, which made a perfect protection for the hand—altogether a weapon which, wielded by a brave man, was by no means to be despised, and which could give, as well as parry, good hard thrusts. Though scarcely able to inflict a mortal wound, as the point and edge had been blunted, according to the usual custom of theatrical sword owners, it would be, however, all that was requisite to defend its wearer against the cudgels of the ruffians that the Duke of Vallombreuse had despatched to administer his promised punishment. Herode, who also anticipated an attack upon de Sigognac, and was not one to desert a friend when danger threatened, took the precaution to arm himself with the big heavy club that was used to give the signal—three loud raps—for the rising of the curtain, which made a very formidable weapon, and would do good service in his strong hands.
"Captain," said he to the baron as they quitted the tennis-court, "we will let the women go on a little way in advance of us, under the escort of Blazius and Leander, one of whom is too old, the other too cowardly, to be of any service to us in case of need. And we don't want to have their fair charges terrified, and deafening us with their shrieks. Scapin shall accompany us, for he knows a clever trick or two for tripping a man up, that I have seen him perform admirably in several wrestling bouts. He will lay one or two of our assailants flat on their backs for us before they can turn round. In any event here is my good club, to supplement your good sword."
"Thanks, my brave friend Herode," answered de Sigognac, "your kind offer is not one to be refused; but let us take our precautions not to be surprised, though we are in force. We will march along in single file, through the very middle of the street, so that these rogues, lurking in dark corners, will have to emerge from their hiding places to come out to us, and we shall be able to see them before they can strike us. I will draw my sword, you brandish your club, and Scapin must cut a pigeon wing, so as to make sure that his legs are supple and in good working order. Now, forward march!"
He put himself at the head of the little column, and advanced cautiously into the narrow street that led from the tennis-court to the hotel of the Armes de France, which was very crooked, badly paved, devoid of lamps, and capitally well calculated for an ambuscade. The overhanging gable-ends on either side of the way made the darkness in the street below them still more dense—a most favourable circumstance for the ruffians lying in wait there. Not a single ray of light streamed forth from the shut-up house whose inmates were presumably all sleeping soundly in their comfortable beds, and there was no moon that night. Basque, Azolan, Labriche and Merindol had been waiting more than half an hour for Captain Fracasse in this street, which they knew he was obliged to pass through in returning to his hotel. They had disposed themselves in pairs on opposite sides of the way, so that when he was between them their clubs could all play upon him together, like the hammers of the Cyclops on their great anvil. The passing of the group of women, escorted by Blazius and Leander, none of whom perceived them, had warned them of the approach of their victim, and they stood awaiting his appearance, firmly grasping their cudgels in readiness to pounce upon him; little dreaming of the reception in store for them—for ordinarily, indeed one may say invariably, the poets, actors, bourgeois, and such-like, whom the nobles condescended to have cudgeled by their hired ruffians, employed expressly for that purpose, took their chastisement meekly, and without attempting to make any resistance. Despite the extreme darkness of the night, the baron, with his penetrating eyes, made out the forms of the four villains lying in wait for him, at some distance, and before he came up with them stopped and made as if he meant to turn back—which ruse deceived them completely—and fearing that their prey was about to escape them, they rushed impetuously forth from their hiding places towards him. Azolan was the first, closely followed by the others, and all crying at the tops of their voices, "Kill! Kill! this for Captain Fracasse, from the Duke of Vallombreuse." Meantime de Sigognac had wound his large cloak several times round his left arm for a shield, and receiving upon it the first blow from Azolan's cudgel, returned it with such a violent lunge, full in his antagonist's breast, that the miserable fellow went over backward, with great force, right into the gutter running down the middle of the street, with his head in the mud and his heels in the air. If the point of the sword had not been blunted, it would infallibly have gone through his body, and come out between his shoulder-blades, leaving a dead man, instead of only a stunned one, on the ground. Basque, in spite of his comrade's disaster, advanced to the charge bravely, but a furious blow on his head, with the flat of the blade, sent him down like a shot, and made him see scores of stars, though there was not one visible in the sky that night. The tyrant's club encountering Merindol's cudgel broke it short off, and the latter finding himself disarmed, took to his heels; not however without receiving a tremendous blow on the shoulder before he could get out of Herode's reach. Scapin, for his part, had seized Labriche suddenly round the waist from behind, pinning down his arms so that he could not use his club at all, and raising him from the ground quickly, with one dexterous movement tripped him up, and sent him rolling on the pavement ten paces off, so violently that he was knocked senseless—the back of his neck coming in contact with a projecting stone—and lay apparently lifeless where he fell.
So the way was cleared, and the victory in this fierce encounter was honourably gained by our hero and his two companions over the four sturdy ruffians, who had never been defeated before. They were in a sorry plight—Azolan and Basque creeping stealthily away, on their hands and knees, trying under cover of the darkness to put themselves beyond the reach of further danger; Labriche lying motionless, like a drunken man, across the gutter, and Merindol, less badly hurt, flying towards home as fast as his legs could carry him. As he drew near the house, however, he slackened his pace, for he dreaded the duke's anger more than Herode's club, and almost forgot, for the moment, the terrible agony from his dislocated shoulder, from which the arm hung down helpless and inert. Scarcely had he entered the outer door ere he was summoned to the presence of the duke, who was all impatient to learn the details of the tremendous thrashing that, he took it for granted, they had given to Captain Fracasse. When Merindol was ushered in, frightened and embarrassed, trembling in every limb, not knowing what to say or do, and suffering fearfully from his injured shoulder, he paused at the threshold, and stood speechless and motionless, waiting breathlessly for a word or gesture of encouragement from the duke, who glared at him in silence.
"Well," at length said the Chevalier de Vidalinc to the discomfited Merindol, seeing that Vallombreuse only stared at him savagely and did not seem inclined to speak, "what news do you bring us? Bad, I am sure, for you have by no means a triumphant air—very much the reverse, indeed, I should say."
"My lord, the duke, of course cannot doubt our zeal in striving to execute his orders, to the best of our ability," said Merindol, cringingly, "but this time we have had very bad luck."
"What do you mean by that?" asked the duke sharply, with an angry frown and flashing eyes, before which the stout ruffian quailed. "There were four of you! do you mean to tell me that, among you, you could not succeed in thrashing this miserable play-actor?"
"That miserable play-actor, my lord," Merindol replied, plucking up a little courage, "far exceeds in vigour and bravery the great Hercules they tell us of. He fell upon us with such fury that in one instant he had knocked Azolan and Basque down into the gutter. They fell under his blows like pasteboard puppets—yet they are both strong men, and used to hard knocks. Labriche was tripped up and cleverly thrown by another actor, and fell with such force that he was completely stunned; the back of his head has found out that the stones of Poitiers pavements are harder than it is, poor fellow! As for me, my thick club was broken short off by an immense stick in the hands of that giant they call Herode, and my shoulder so badly hurt that I sha'n't have the use of my arm here for a fortnight."
"You are no better than so many calves, you pitiful, cowardly knaves!" cried the Duke of Vallombreuse, in a perfect frenzy of rage. "Why, any old woman could put you to rout with her distaff, and not half try. I made a horrid mistake when I rescued you from the galleys and the gallows, and took you into my service, believing that you were brave rascals, and not afraid of anything or anybody on the face of the globe. And now, answer me this: When you found that clubs would not do, why didn't you whip out your swords and have at him?"
"My lord had given us orders for a beating, not an assassination, and we would not have dared to go beyond his commands."
"Behold," cried Vidalinc, laughing contemptuously, "behold a faithful, exact and conscientious scoundrel whose obedience does not deviate so much as a hair's breadth from his lord's commands. How delightful and refreshing to find such purity and fidelity, combined with such rare courage, in the character of a professional cut-throat! But now, Vallombreuse, what do you think of all this? This chase of yours opens well, and romantically, in a manner that must be immensely pleasing to you, since you find the pursuit agreeable in proportion to its difficulty, and the obstacles in the way constitute its greatest charms for you. I ought to congratulate you, it seems to me. This Isabelle, for an actress, is not easy of access; she dwells in a fortress, without drawbridge or other means of entrance, and guarded, as we read of in the history of ancient chivalry, by dragons breathing out flames of fire and smoke. But here comes our routed army."
Azolan, Basque, and Labriche, who had recovered from his swoon, now presented themselves reluctantly at the door, and stood extending their hands supplicatingly towards their master. They were a miserable-looking set of wretches enough—very pale, fairly livid indeed, haggard, dirty and blood-stained; for although they had only contused wounds, the force of the blows had set the blood flowing from their noses, and great red stains disfigured their hideous countenances.
"Get to your kennel, ye hounds!" cried the duke, in a terrible voice, being moved only to anger by the sight of this forlorn group of supplicants. "I'm sure I don't know why I have not ordered you all soundly thrashed for your imbecility and cowardice. I shall send you my surgeon to examine your wounds, and see whether the thumps you make such a babyish outcry about really were as violent and overpowering as you represent. If they were not, I will have you skinned alive, every mother's son of you, like the eels at Melun; and now, begone! out of my sight, quick, you vile canaille!" The discomfited ruffians turned and fled, thankful to make their escape, and forgetful for the moment of their painful wounds and bruises; such abject terror did the young duke's anger inspire in the breasts of those hardened villains. When the poor devils had disappeared, Vallombreuse threw himself down on a heap of cushions, piled up on a low, broad divan beside the fire, and fell into a revery that Vidalinc was careful not to break in upon. They evidently were not pleasant thoughts that occupied him; dark, tempestuous ones rather, judging by the expression of his handsome face, as he lay back idly among the soft pillows, looking very picturesque in the rich showy costume he still wore. He did not remain there long. Only a short time had elapsed when he suddenly started up, with a smothered imprecation, and bidding his friend an abrupt good-night, retired to his own chamber, without touching the dainty little supper that had just been brought in. Vidalinc sat down and enjoyed it by himself, with perfect good humour, thinking meanwhile of Serafina's remarkable beauty and amiability, with which he was highly charmed, and not neglecting to drink her health in the duke's choice wine ere he quitted the table, and, following his example, retired to his own room, where he slept soundly, dreaming of Serafina, until morning; while Vallombreuse, less fortunate, and still haunted by disturbing thoughts, tossed restlessly, and turned from side to side, courting sleep in vain, under the rich silken hangings drawn round his luxurious bed.
When de Sigognac, the tyrant and Scapin reached the Armes de France, after having overcome the serious obstacles in their way, they found the others in a terrible state of alarm about them. In the stillness of the night they had distinctly heard the loud cries of the duke's ruffians, and the noise of the fierce combat, and feared that their poor friends were being murdered. Isabelle, nearly frantic in her terror lest her lover should be overpowered and slain, tried to rush back to him, never remembering that she would be more of a hindrance than a help; but at the first step she had again almost fainted away, and would have fallen upon the rough pavement but for Blazius and Zerbine, who, each taking an arm, supported her between them the rest of the way to the hotel When they reached it at last, she refused to go to her own room, but waited with the others at the outer door for news of their comrades, fearing the worst, yet prayerfully striving to hope for the best. At sight of de Sigognac—who, alarmed at her extreme pallor, hastened anxiously to her side—she impetuously raised her arms to heaven, as a low cry of thanksgiving escaped her lips, and letting them fall around his neck, for one moment hid her streaming eyes against his shoulder; but quickly regaining her self-control, she withdrew herself gently from the detaining arm that had fondly encircled her slender, yielding form, and stepping back from him a little, resumed with a strong effort her usual reserve and quiet dignity.
"And you are not wounded or hurt?" she asked, in her sweetest tones, her face glowing with happiness as she caught his reassuring gesture; he could not speak yet for emotion. The clasp of her arms round his neck had been like a glimpse of heaven to him a moment of divine ecstasy. "Ah! if he could only snatch her to his breast and hold her there forever," he was thinking, "close to the heart that beat for her alone," as she continued: "If the slightest harm had befallen you, because of me, I should have died of grief. But, oh! how imprudent you were, to defy that handsome, wicked duke, who has the assurance and the pride of Lucifer himself, for the sake of a poor, insignificant girl like me. You were not reasonable, de Sigognac! Now that you are a comedian, like the rest of us, you must learn to put up with certain impertinences and annoyances, without attempting to resent them."
"I never will," said de Sigognac, finding his voice at last, "I swear it, I never will permit an affront to be offered to the adorable Isabelle in my presence even when I have on my player's mask."
"Well spoken, captain," cried Herode, "well spoken, and bravely. I would not like to be the man to incur your wrath. By the powers above! what a fierce reception you gave those rascals yonder. It was lucky for them that poor Matamore's sword had no edge. If it had been sharp and pointed, you would have cleft them from head to heels, clean in two, as the ancient knight-errants did the Saracens, and wicked enchanters."
"Your club did as much execution as my sword, Herode, and your conscience need not reproach you, for they were not innocents that you slaughtered this time."
"No, indeed!" the tyrant rejoined, with a mighty laugh, "the flower of the galleys these—the cream of gallows-birds."
"Such jobs would scarcely be undertaken by any other class of fellows you know," de Sigognac said; "but we must not neglect to make Scapin's valiant deeds known, and praise them as they deserve. He fought and conquered without the aid of any other arms than those that nature gave him."
Scapin, who was a natural buffoon, acknowledged this encomium with a very low obeisance—his eyes cast down, his hand on his heart—and with such an irresistibly comical affectation of modesty and embarrassment that they all burst into a hearty laugh, which did them much good after the intense excitement and alarm.
After this, as it was late, the comedians bade each other good-night, and retired to their respective rooms; excepting de Sigognac, who remained for a while in the court, walking slowly back and forth, cogitating deeply. The actor was avenged, but the gentleman was not. Must he then throw aside the mask that concealed his identity, proclaim his real name, make a commotion, and run the risk of drawing down upon his comrades the anger of a powerful nobleman? Prudence said no, but honour said yes. The baron could not resist its imperious voice, and the moment that he decided to obey it he directed his steps towards Zerbine's room.
He knocked gently at the door, which was opened cautiously, a very little way at first, by a servant, who instantly admitted the unexpected guest when he saw who it was.
The large room was brilliantly lighted, with many rose-coloured wax candles in two handsome candelabra on a table covered with fine damask, on which smoked a dainty supper. Game and various other delicacies were there, most temptingly served. One crystal decanter, with sprigs of gold scattered over its shining surface, was filled with wine rivalling the ruby in depth and brilliancy of hue, while that in the other was clear and yellow as a topaz. Only two places had been laid on this festive board, and opposite Zerbine sat the Marquis de Bruyeres, of whom de Sigognac was in search. The soubrette welcomed him warmly, with a graceful mingling of the actress's familiarity with her comrade with her respect for the gentleman.
"It is very charming of you to come and join us here, in our cosy little nest," said the marquis to de Sigognac, with much cordiality, "and we are right glad to welcome you. Jacques, lay a place for this gentleman—you will sup with us?"
"I will accept your kind invitation," de Sigognac replied; "but not for the sake of the supper. I do not wish to interfere with your enjoyment, and nothing is so disagreeable for those at table as a looker-on who is not eating with them."
The baron accordingly sat down in the arm-chair rolled up for him by the servant, beside Zerbine and opposite the marquis, who helped him to some of the partridge he had been carving, and filled his wine-glass for him; all without asking any questions as to what brought him there, or even hinting at it. But he felt sure that it must be something of importance that had caused the usually reserved and retiring young nobleman to take such a step as this.
"Do you like this red wine best or the other?" asked the marquis. "As for me, I drink some of both, so that there may be no jealous feeling between them."
"I prefer the red wine, thank you," de Sigognac said, with a smile, "and will add a little water to it. I am very temperate by nature and habit, and mingle a certain devotion to the nymphs with my worship at the shrine of Bacchus, as the ancients had it. But it was not for feasting and drinking that I was guilty of the indiscretion of intruding upon you at this unseemly hour. Marquis, I have come to ask of you a service that one gentleman never refuses to another. Mlle. Zerbine has probably related to you something of what took place in the green-room this evening. The Duke of Vallombreuse made an attempt to lay hands upon Isabelle, under pretext of placing an assassine for her, and was guilty of an insolent, outrageous, and brutal action, unworthy of a gentleman, which was not justified by any coquetry or advances on the part of that young girl, who is as pure as she is modest and for whom I feel the highest respect and esteem."
"And she deserves it," said Zerbine heartily, "every word you say of her, as I, who know her thoroughly, can testify. I could not say anything but good of her, even if I would."
"I seized the duke's arm, and stopped him before he had succeeded in what he meant to do," continued de Sigognac, after a grateful glance at the soubrette; "he was furiously angry, and assailed me with threats and invectives, to which I replied with a mocking sang-froid, from behind my stage mask. He declared he would have me thrashed by his lackeys, and in effect, as I was coming back to this house, a little while ago, four ruffians fell upon me in the dark, narrow street. A couple of blows with the flat of my sword did for two of the rascals, while Herode and Scapin put the other two hors-de-combat in fine style. Although the duke imagined that only a poor actor was concerned, yet as there is also a gentleman in that actor's skin, such an outrage cannot be committed with impunity. You know me, marquis, though up to the present moment you have kindly and delicately respected my incognito, for which I thank you. You know who and what my ancestors were, and can certify that the family of de Sigognac has been noble for more than a thousand years, and that not one who has borne the name has ever had a blot on his scutcheon."
"Baron de Sigognac," said the marquis, addressing him for the first time by his own name, "I will bear witness, upon my honour, before whomsoever you may choose to name, to the antiquity and nobility of your family. Palamede de Sigognac distinguished himself by wonderful deeds of valour in the first crusade, to which he led a hundred lances, equipped, and transported thither, at his own expense. That was at an epoch when the ancestors of some of the proudest nobles of France to-day were not even squires. He and Hugues de Bruyeres, my own ancestor, were warm friends, and slept in the same tent as brothers in arms."
At these glorious reminiscences de Sigognac raised his head proudly, and held it high; he felt the pure blood of his ancestors throbbing in his veins, and his heart beat tumultuously. Zerbine, who was watching him, was surprised at the strange inward beauty—if the expression may be allowed—that seemed to shine through the young baron's ordinarily sad countenance, and illuminate it. "These nobles," she said to herself, "are certainly a race by themselves; they look as if they had sprung from the side of Jupiter, not been born into the world like ordinary mortals. At the least word their pride is up in arms, and transforms them, as it does the Baron de Sigognae now. If he should make love to me, with eyes like those, I simply could not resist him; I should have to throw over my marquis. Why, he fairly glows with heroism; he is god-like."
Meantime de Sigognac, in blissful ignorance of this ardent admiration, which would have been so distasteful to him, was saying to the marquis, "Such being your opinion of my family, you will not, I fancy, object to carry a challenge from me to the Duke of Vallombreuse."
"Assuredly I will do it for you," answered the marquis, in a grave, measured way, widely different from his habitual good-natured, easy carelessness of manner and speech; "and, moreover, I offer my own services as your second. To-morrow morning I will present myself at the duke's night in your behalf; there is one thing to be said in his favour—that although he may be, in fact is, very insolent, he is no coward, and he will no longer intrench himself behind his dignity when he is made acquainted with your real rank. But enough of this subject for the present; I will see you to-morrow morning in good season, and we will not weary poor Zerbine any longer with our man's talk of affairs of honour. I can plainly see that she is doing her best to suppress a yawn, and we would a great deal rather that a smile should part her pretty red lips, and disclose to us the rows of pearls within. Come, Zerbine, fill the Baron de Sigognac's glass, and let us be merry again."
The soubrette obeyed, and with as much grace and dexterity as if she had been Hebe in person; everything that she attempted to do she did well, this clever little actress.
The conversation became animated, and did not touch upon any other grave subject, but was mainly about Zerbine's own acting—the marquis overwhelming her with compliments upon it, in which de Sigognac could truthfully and sincerely join him, for the soubrette had really shown incomparable spirit, grace, and talent. They also talked of the productions of M. de Scudery—who was one of the most brilliant writers of the day—which the marquis declared that he considered perfect, but slightly soporific; adding that he, for his part, decidedly preferred the Rodomontades of Captain Fracasse to Lygdamon et Lydias—he was a gentleman of taste, the marquis!
As soon as he could do so without an actual breach of politeness, de Sigognac took his leave, and retiring to his own chamber locked himself in; then took an ancient sword out of the woollen case in which he kept it to preserve it from rust—his father's sword—which he had brought with him from home, as a faithful friend and ally. He drew it slowly out of the scabbard, kissing the hilt with fervent affection and respect as he did so, for to him it was sacred. It was a handsome weapon, richly, but not too profusely, ornamented—a sword for service, not for show; its blade of bluish steel, upon which a few delicate lines of gold were traced, bore the well-known mark of one of the most celebrated armourers of Toledo. The young baron examined the edge critically, drawing his fingers lightly over it, and then, resting the point against the door, bent it nearly double to test its elasticity. The noble blade stood the trial right valiantly, and there was no fear of its betraying its master in the hour of need. Delighted to have it in his hand again, and excited by the thought of what was in store for it and himself, de Sigognac began to fence vigorously against the wall, and to practise the varius thrusts and passes that his faithful old Pierre, who was a famous swordsman, had taught him at Castle Misery. They had been in the habit of spending hours every day in these lessons, glad of some active occupation, and the exercise had developed the young baron's frame, strengthened his muscles, and greatly augmented his natural suppleness and agility. He was passionately fond of and had thoroughly studied the noble art of fencing, and, while he believed himself to be still only a scholar, had long been a master in it—a proficient, such as is rarely to be found, even in the great cities. A better instructor than old Pierre he could not have had—not in Paris itself—and buried though he had been in the depths of the country, entirely isolated, and deprived of all the usual advantages enjoyed by young men of his rank, he yet had become, though perfectly unconscious of it, a match for the most celebrated swordsmen in France—that is to say, in the world—able to measure blades with the best of them. He may not have had all the elegant finish, and the many little airs and graces affected by the young sprigs of nobility and polished men of fashion in their sword-play, but skilful indeed must be the blade that could penetrate within the narrow circle of flashing steel in which he intrenched himself. Finding, after a long combat with an imaginary foe, that his hand had not lost its cunning, and satisfied at length both with himself and with his sword, which he placed near his bedside, de Sigognac was soon sleeping soundly, and as quietly as if he had never even dreamed of sending a challenge to that lofty and puissant nobleman, the Duke of Vallombreuse.
Isabelle meanwhile could not close her eyes, because of her anxiety about the young baron. She knew that he would not allow the matter to rest where it was, and she dreaded inexpressibly the consequences of a quarrel with the duke; but the idea of endeavouring to prevent a duel never even occurred to her. In those days affairs of honour were regarded as sacred things, that women did not dream of interfering with, or rendering more trying to their near and dear ones by tears and lamentations, in anticipation of the danger to be incurred by them.
At nine o'clock the next morning, the Marquis de Bruyeres was astir, and went to look up de Sigognae, whom he found in his own room, in order to regulate with him the conditions of the duel. The baron asked him to take with him, in case of incredulity, or refusal of his challenge, on the duke's part, the old deeds and ancient parchments, to which large seals were suspended, the commissions of various sorts with royal signatures in faded ink, the genealogical tree of the de Sigognacs, and in fact all his credentials, which he had brought away from the chateau with him as his most precious treasures; for they were indisputable witnesses to the nobility and antiquity of his house. These valuable documents, with their strange old Gothic characters, scarcely decipherable save by experts, were carefully wrapped up in a piece of faded crimson silk, which looked as if it might have been part of the very banner borne by Palamede de Sigognac at the head of his hundred followers in the first crusade.
"I do not believe," said the marquis, "that these credentials will be necessary; my word should be sufficient; it has never yet been doubted. However, as it is possible that this hot-headed young duke may persist in recognising only Captain Fracasse in your person, I will let my servant accompany me and carry them for me to his house, in case I should deem it best to produce them."
"You must do whatever you think proper and right," de Sigognac answered; "I have implicit confidence in your judgment, and leave my honour in your hands, without a condition or reservation."
"It will be safe with me, I do solemnly assure you," said the Marquis de Bruyeres earnestly, "and we will have satisfaction yet from this proud young nobleman, whose excessive insolence and outrageously imperious ways are more than a little offensive to me, as well as to many others. He is no better than the rest of us, whose blood is as ancient and noble as his own, nor does his ducal coronet entitle him to the superiority he arrogates to himself so disagreeably. But we won't talk any more about it—we must act now. Words are feminine, but actions are masculine, and offended honour can only be appeased with blood, as the old saying has it."
Whereupon the marquis called his servant, consigned the precious packet, with an admonition, to his care, and followed by him set off on his mission of defiance. The duke, who had passed a restless, wakeful night, and only fallen asleep towards morning, was not yet up when the Marquis de Bruyeres, upon reaching his house, told the servant who admitted him to announce him immediately to his master. The valet was aghast at the enormity of this demand, which was expressed in rather a peremptory tone. What! disturb the duke! before he had called for him! it would be as much as his life was worth to do it; he would as soon venture unarmed into the cage of a furious lion, or the den of a royal tiger. The duke was always more or less surly and ill-tempered on first waking in the morning, even when he had gone to bed in a good humour, as his servants knew to their cost.
"Your lordship had much better wait a little while, or call again later in the day," said the valet persuasively, in answer to the marquis. "My lord, the duke, has not summoned me yet, and I would not dare—"
"Go this instant to your master and announce the Marquis de Bruyeres," interrupted that gentleman, in loud, angry tones, "or I will force the door and admit myself to his presence. I MUST speak to him, and that at once, on important business, in which your master's honour is involved."
"Ah! that makes a difference," said the servant, promptly, "why didn't your lordship mention it in the first place? I will go and tell my lord, the duke, forthwith; he went to bed in such a furious, blood-thirsty mood last night that I am sure he will be enchanted at the prospect of a duel this morning—delighted to have a pretext for fighting."
And the man went off with a resolute air, after respectfully begging the marquis to be good enough to wait a few minutes. At the noise he made in opening the door of his master's bedroom, though he endeavoured to do it as softly as possible, Vallombreuse, who was only dozing, started up in bed, broad awake, and looked round fiercely for something to throw at his head.
"What the devil do you mean by this?" he cried savagely. "Haven't I ordered you never to come in here until I called for you? You shall have a hundred lashes for this, you scoundrel, I promise you; and you needn't whine and beg for mercy either, for you'll get none from me. I'd like to know how I am to go to sleep again now?"
"My lord may have his faithful servant lashed to death, if it so please his lordship," answered the valet, with abject respect, "but though I have dared to transgress my lord's orders, it is not without a good reason. His lordship, the Marquis de Bruyeres, is below, asking to speak with my lord, the duke, on important business, relating to an affair of honour, and I know that my lord never denies himself to any gentleman on such occasions, but always receives visits of that sort, at any time of day or night."
"The Marquis de Bruyeres!" said the duke, surprised, "have I any quarrel with him? I don't recollect a difference between us ever; and besides, it's an age since I've seen him. Perhaps he imagines that I want to steal his dear Zerbine's heart away from him; lovers are always fancying that everybody else is enamoured of their own particular favourites. Here, Picard, give me my dressing-gown, and draw those curtains round the bed, so as to hide its disorder; make haste about it, do you hear? we must not keep the worthy marquis waiting another minute."
Picard bustled about, and brought to his master a magnificent dressing-gown-made, after the Venetian fashion, of rich stuff, with arabesques of black velvet on a gold ground—which he slipped on, and tied round the waist with a superb cord and tassels; then, seating himself in an easychair, told Picard to admit his early visitor.
"Good morning, my dear marquis," said the young duke smilingly, half rising to salute his guest as he entered. "I am very glad to see you, whatever your errand may be. Picard, a chair for his lordship! Excuse me, I pray you, for receiving you so unceremoniously here in my bedroom, which is still in disorder, and do not look upon it as a lack of civility, but rather as a mark of my regard for you. Picard said that you wished to see me immediately."
"I must beg you to pardon me, my dear duke," the marquis hastened to reply, "for insisting so strenuously upon disturbing your repose, and cutting short perhaps some delicious dream; but I am charged to see you upon a mission, which, among gentlemen, will not brook delay."
"You excite my curiosity to the highest degree," said Vallombreuse, "and I cannot even imagine what this urgent business may be about."
"I suppose it is not unlikely, my lord," rejoined the marquis, "that you have forgotten certain occurrences that took place last evening. Such trifling matters are not apt to make a very deep impression, so with your permission I will recall them to your mind. In the so-called green-room, down at the tennis-court, you deigned to honour with your particular notice a young person, Isabelle by name, and with a playfulness that I, for my part, do not consider criminal, you endeavoured to place an assassine for her, just above her white bosom, complimenting her upon its fairness as you did so. This proceeding, which I do not criticise, greatly shocked and incensed a certain actor standing by, called Captain Fracasse, who rushed forward and seized your arm."
"Marquis, you are the most faithful and conscientious of historiographers," interrupted Vallombreuse. "That is all true, every word of it, and to finish the narrative I will add that I promised the rascal, who was as insolent as a noble, a sound thrashing at the hands of my lackeys; the most appropriate chastisement I could think of, for a low fellow of that sort."
"No one can blame you for that, my dear duke, for there is certainly no very great harm in having a play-actor—or writer either, for that matter—thoroughly thrashed, if he has had the presumption to offend," said the marquis, with a contemptuous shrug; "such cattle are not worth the value of the sticks broken over their backs. But this is a different case altogether. Under the mask of Captain Fracasse—who, by the way, routed your ruffians in superb style—is the Baron de Sigognac; a nobleman of the old school, the head of one of the best families we have in Gascony; one that has been above reproach for many centuries."
"What the devil is he doing in this troupe of strolling players, pray?" asked the Duke of Vallombreuse, with some heat, toying nervously with the cord and tassels of his dressing-gown as he spoke. "Could I be expected to divine that there was a de Sigognac hidden under that grotesque costume, and behind that absurd false nose?"
"As to your first question," the marquis replied, "I can answer it in one word—Isabelle. Between ourselves, I believe that the young baron is desperately in love with her. Indeed, he makes no secret of that fact; and, not having been able to induce her to remain with him in his chateau, he has joined the troupe of which she is a member, in order to pursue his love affair. You certainly ought not to find this gallant proceeding in bad taste, since you also admire the fair object of his pursuit."
"No; I admit all that you say. But you, in your turn, must acknowledge that I could not be cognisant of this extraordinary romance by inspiration, and that the action of Captain Fracasse was impertinent."
"Impertinent for an actor, I grant you," said the marquis, "but perfectly natural, indeed inevitable, for a gentleman, resenting unauthorized attentions to his mistress, and angry at an affront offered to her. Now Captain Fracasse throws aside his mask, and as Baron de Sigognac sends you by me his challenge to fight a duel, and demands redress in that way for the insult you have offered him."
"But who is to guarantee me that this pretended Baron de Sigognac, who actually appears on the stage before the public with a company of low buffoons as one of themselves, is not a vulgar, intriguing rascal, usurping an honourable name, in the hope of obtaining the honour of crossing swords with the Duke of Vallombreuse?"
"Duke," said the Marquis de Bruyeres, with much dignity, and some severity of tone, "I would not serve as second to any man who was not of noble birth, and of honourable character. I know the Baron de Sigognac well. His chateau is only a few leagues from my estate. I will be his guarantee. Besides, if you still persist in entertaining any doubts with regard to his real rank, I have here with me all the proofs necessary to convince you of his right to the ancient and distinguished name of Sigognac. Will you permit me to call in my servant, who is waiting in the antechamber? He will give you all those documents, for which I am personally responsible."
"There is no need," Vallombreuse replied courteously; "your word is sufficient. I accept his challenge. My friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, who is my guest at present, will be my second; will you be good enough to consult with him as to the necessary arrangements? I will agree to anything you may propose—fight him when and where you please, and with any weapons he likes best; though I will confess that I should like to see whether the Baron de Sigognac can defend himself against a gentleman's sword as successfully as Captain Fracasse did against my lackeys' cudgels. The charming Isabelle shall crown the conqueror in this tournament, as the fair ladies crowned the victorious knights in the grand old days of chivalry. But now allow me to retire and finish my toilet. The Chevalier de Vidalinc will be with you directly. I kiss your hand, valiant marquis, as our Spanish neighbours say."
With these courteous words the Duke of Vallombreuse bowed with studied deference and politeness to his noble guest, and lifting the heavy portiere of tapestry that hung over the door opening into his dressing-room, passed through it and vanished. But a very few moments had elapsed when the Chevalier de Vidalinc joined the marquis, and they lost no time in coming to an understanding as to the conditions of the duel. As a matter of course, they selected swords—the gentleman's natural weapon—and the meeting was fixed for the following morning, early; as de Sigognac, with his wonted consideration for his humble comrades, did not wish to fight that same day, and run the risk of interfering with the programme Herode had announced for the evening, in case of his being killed or wounded. The rendezvous was at a certain spot in a field outside the walls of the town, which was level, smooth, well sheltered from observation, and advantageous in every way—being the favourite place of resort for such hostile meetings among the duellists of Poitiers.
The Marquis de Bruyeres returned straightway to the Armes de France, and rendered an account of the success of his mission to de Sigognac; who thanked him warmly for his services, and felt greatly relieved, now that he was assured of having the opportunity to resent, as a gentleman should do, the affront offered to his adored Isabelle.
The representation was to begin very early that evening, and all day the town crier went about through the streets, beating his drum lustily, and, whenever he had gathered a curious crowd around him, stopping and announcing the "great attractions—offered for that evening by Herode's celebrated troupe." Immense placards were posted upon the walls of the tennis-court and at the entrance of the Armes de France, also announcing, in huge, bright-coloured capitals, which reflected great credit on Scapin, who was the calligraphist of the troupe, the new play of "Lygdamon et Lydias," and the Rodomontades of Captain Fracasse. Long before the hour designated an eager crowd had assembled in the street in front of the theatre, and when the doors were opened poured in, like a torrent that has burst its bounds, and threatened to sweep everything before them. Order was quickly restored, however, within, and "the nobility and gentry of Poitiers" soon began to arrive in rapid succession. Titled dames, in their sedan chairs, carried by liveried servants, alighted amid much bowing and flourishing of attendant gallants. Gentlemen from the environs came riding in, followed by mounted grooms who led away their masters' horses or mules. Grand, clumsy old carriages, vast and roomy, with much tarnished gildings and many faded decorations about them, and with coats-of-arms emblazoned on their panels, rolled slowly up, and out of them, as out of Noah's ark, issued all sorts of odd-looking pairs, and curious specimens of provincial grandeur; most of them resplendent in the strange fashions of a bygone day, yet apparently well satisfied with the elegance of their appearance. The house was literally packed, until there was not room left for another human being, be he never so slender. On each side of the stage was a row of arm-chairs, intended for distinguished spectators, according to the custom of the times, and there sat the young Duke of Vallombreuse, looking exceedingly handsome, in a very becoming suit of black velvet, elaborately trimmed with jet, and with a great deal of exquisite lace about it. Beside him was his faithful friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, who wore a superb costume of dark green satin, richly ornamented with gold. As to the Marquis de Bruyeres, he had not claimed his seat among the notables, but was snugly ensconced in his usual place—a retired corner near the orchestra—whence he could applaud his charming Zerbine to his heart's content, without making himself too conspicuous. In the boxes were the fine ladies, in full dress, settling themselves to their satisfaction with much rustling of silks, fluttering of fans, whispering and laughing. Although their finery was rather old-fashioned, the general effect was exceedingly brilliant, and the display of magnificent jewels—family heirlooms—was fairly dazzling. Such flashing of superb diamonds on white bosoms and in dark tresses; such strings of large, lustrous pearls round fair necks, and twined amid sunny curls; such rubies and sapphires, with their radiant surroundings of brilliants; such thick, heavy chains of virgin gold, of curious and beautiful workmanship; such priceless laces, yellow with age, of just that much-desired tint which is creamy at night; such superb old brocades, stiff and rich enough to stand alone; and best of all, such sweet, sparkling, young faces, as were to be seen here and there in this aristocratic circle. A few of the ladies, not wishing to be known had kept on their little black velvet masks, though they did not prevent their being recognised, spoken of by name, and commented on with great freedom by the plebeian crowd in the pit. One lady, however, who was very carefully masked, and attended only by a maid, baffled the curiosity of all observers. She sat a little back in her box, so that the full blaze of light should not fall upon her, and a large black lace veil, which was loosely fastened under her chin, covered her head so effectually that it was impossible to make out even the colour of her hair. Her dress was rich and elegant in the extreme, but sombre in hue, and in her hand she held a handsome fan made of black feathers, with a tiny looking-glass in the centre. A great many curious glances were directed at her, which manifestly made her uneasy, and she shrank still farther back in her box to avoid them; but the orchestra soon struck up a merry tune, and attracted all eyes and thoughts to the curtain, which was about to rise, so that the mysterious fair one was left to her enjoyment of the animated scene in peace. They began with "Lygdamon et Lydias," in which Leander, who played the principal part, and wore a most becoming new costume, was quite overwhelmingly handsome. His appearance was greeted by a murmur of admiration and a great whispering among the ladies, while one unsophisticated young creature, just emancipated from her convent-school, exclaimed rapturously, aloud, "Oh! how charming he is!" for which shocking indiscretion she received a severe reprimand from her horrified mama, that made her retire into the darkest corner of the box, covered with blushes and confusion. Yet the poor girl had only innocently given expression to the secret thought of every woman in the audience, her own dignified mother included; for, really, Leander was delightfully, irresistibly handsome as Lygdamon—a perfect Apollo, in the eyes of those provincial dames. But by far the most agitated of them all was the masked beauty; whose heaving bosom, trembling hand—betrayed by the fan it held—and eager attitude—leaning breathlessly forward and intently watching Leander's every movement—would inevitably have borne witness to her great and absorbing interest in him, if anybody had been observing her to mark her emotion; but fortunately for her all eyes were turned upon the stage, so she had time to recover her composure. Leander was surpassing himself in his acting that night, yet even then he did not neglect to gaze searchingly round the circle of his fair admirers, trying to select the titled dames, and decide which one among them he should favour with his most languishing glances. As he scrutinized one after another, his eyes finally reached the masked lady, and at once his curiosity was on the qui vive—here was assuredly something promising at last; he was convinced that the richly dressed, graceful incognita was a victim to his own irresistible charms, and he directed a long, eloquent, passionate look full at her, to indicate that she was understood. To his delight—his rapturous, ecstatic delight—she answered his appealing glance by a very slight bend of the head, which was full of significance, as if she would thank him for his penetration. Being thus happily brought en rapport, frequent glances were exchanged throughout the play, and even little signals also, between the hero on the stage and the lady in her box.
Leander was an adept in that sort of thing, and could so modulate his voice and use his really fine eyes in making an impassioned declaration of love to the heroine of the play, that the fair object of his admiration in the audience would believe that it was addressed exclusively to herself. Inspired by this new flame, he acted with so much spirit and animation that he was rewarded with round after round of applause; which he had the art to make the masked lady understand he valued less than the faintest mark of approbation and favour from her.
After "Lygdamon et Lydias" came the Rodomontades of Captain Fracasse, which met with its accustomed success. Isabelle was rendered very uneasy by the close proximity of the Duke of Vallombreuse, dreading some act of insolence on his part; but her fears were needless, for he studiously refrained from annoying her in any way—even by staring at her too fixedly. He was moderate in his applause, and quietly attentive, as he sat in a careless attitude in his arm-chair on the stage throughout the piece. His lip curled scornfully sometimes when Captain Fracasse was receiving the shower of blows and abuse that fell to his share, and his whole countenance was expressive of the most lofty disdain, but that was all; for though violent and impetuous by nature, the young duke was too much of a gentleman—once his first fury passed—to transgress the rules of courtesy in any way; and more especially towards an adversary with whom he was to fight on the morrow—until then hostilities were suspended, and he religiously observed the truce.
The masked lady quietly withdrew a little before the end of the second piece, in order to avoid mingling with the crowd, and also to be able to regain her chair, which awaited her close at hand, unobserved; her disappearance mightily disturbed Leander, who was furtively watching the movements of the mysterious unknown. The moment he was free, almost before the curtain had fallen, he threw a large cloak around him to conceal his theatrical costume, and rushed towards the outer door in pursuit of her. The slender thread that bound them together would be broken past mending he feared if he did not find her, and it would be too horrible to lose sight of this radiant creature—as he styled her to himself—before he had been able to profit by the pronounced marks of favour she had bestowed upon him so lavishly during the evening. But when he reached the street, all out of breath from his frantic efforts in dashing through the crowd, and bustling people right and left regardless of everything but the object he had in view, there was nothing to be seen of her; she had vanished, and left not a trace behind. Leander reproached himself bitterly with his own folly in not having endeavoured to exchange a few words with his lost divinity in the brief interval between the two plays, and called himself every hard name he could think of; as we are all apt to do in moments of vexation.
But while he still stood gazing disconsolately in the direction that she must have taken, a little page, dressed in a dark brown livery, and with his cap pulled down over his eyes, suddenly appeared beside him, and accosted him politely in a high childish treble, which he vainly strove to render more manly. "Are you M. Leander? the one who played Lygdamon a while ago?"
"Yes, I am," answered Leander, amused at the pretentious airs of his small interlocutor, "and pray what can I do for you, my little man?"
"Oh! nothing for me, thank you," said the page, with a significant smile, "only I am charged to deliver a message to you—if you are disposed to hear it—from the lady of the mask."
"From the lady of the mask!" cried Leander. "Oh I tell me quickly what it is; I am dying to hear it."
"Well, here it is, then, word for word," said the tiny page jauntily. "If Lygdamon is as brave as he is gallant, he will go at midnight to the open square in front of the church, where he will find a carriage awaiting him; he will enter it without question, as without fear, and go whither it will take him."
Before the astonished Leander had time to answer, the page had disappeared in the crowd, leaving him in great perplexity, for if his heart beat high with joy at the idea of a romantic adventure, his shoulders still reminded him painfully of the beating he had received in a certain park at dead of night, and he remembered with a groan how he had been lured on to his own undoing. Was this another snare spread for him by some envious wretch who begrudged him his brilliant success that evening, and was jealous of the marked favour he had found in the eyes of the fair ladies of Poitiers? Should he encounter some furious husband at the rendezvous, sword in hand, ready to fall upon him and run him through the body? These thoughts chilled his ardour, and had nearly caused him to disregard entirely the page's mysterious message. Yet, if he did not profit by this tempting opportunity, which looked so promising, he might make a terrible mistake; and, if he failed to go, would not the lady of the mask suspect him of cowardice, and be justified in so doing? This thought was insupportable to the gallant Leander, and he decided to venture, though low be it spoken—in fear and trembling. He hastened back to the hotel, scarcely touched the substantial supper provided for the comedians—his appetite lost in his intense excitement—and retiring to his own chamber made an elaborate toilet; curling and perfuming his hair and mustache, and sparing no pains to make himself acceptable to the lovely lady of the mask. He armed himself with a dagger and a sword, though he did not know how to use either; but he thought that the mere sight of them might inspire awe.
When he was all ready at last, he drew his broad felt hat well down over his eyes, threw the corner of his cloak over his shoulder, in Spanish fashion, so as to conceal the lower part of his face, and crept stealthily out of the hotel—for once being lucky enough to escape the observation of his wily tormentor, Scapin, who was at that moment snoring his loudest in his own room at the other end of the house.
The streets had long been empty and deserted, for the good people of the ancient and respectable town of Poitiers go early to bed. Leander did not meet a living creature, excepting a few forlorn, homeless cats, prowling about and bewailing themselves in a melancholy way, that fled before him, and vanished round dark corners or in shadowy doorways. Our gallant reached the open square designated by the little page just as the last stroke of twelve was vibrating in the still night air. It gave him a shudder; a superstitious sensation of horror took possession of him, and he felt as if he had heard the tolling of his own funeral bell. For an instant he was on the point of rushing back, and seeking quiet, safe repose in his comfortable bed at the Armes de France, but was arrested by the sight of the carriage standing there waiting for him, with the tiny page himself in attendance, perched on the step and holding the door open for him. So he was obliged to go on—for few people in this strange world of ours have the courage to be cowardly before witnesses—and instinctively acting a part, he advanced with a deliberate and dignified bearing, that gave no evidence of the inward fear and agitation that had set his heart beating as if it would burst out of his breast, and sent strong shivers over him from his head to his feet. Scarcely had he taken his seat in the carriage when the coachman touched his horses with the whip, and they were off at a good round pace; while he was in utter darkness, and did not even know which way they went, as the leathern curtains were carefully drawn down, so that nothing could be seen from within, or without. The small page remained at his post on the carriage step, but spoke never a word, and Leander could not with decency question him, much as he would have liked to do so. He knew that his surroundings were luxurious, for his exploring fingers told him that the soft, yielding cushions, upon which he was resting, were covered with velvet, and his feet sank into a thick, rich rug, while the vague, delicious perfume, that seemed to surround and caress him, soothed his ruffled feelings, and filled his mind with rapturous visions of bliss. He tried in vain to divine who it could be that had sent to fetch him in this delightfully mysterious way, and became more curious than ever, and also rather uneasy again, when he felt that the carriage had quitted the paved streets of the town, and was rolling smoothly and rapidly along over a country road. At last it stopped, the little page jumped down and flung the door wide open, and Leander, alighting, found himself confronted by a high, dark wall, which seemed to inclose a park, or garden; but he did not perceive a wooden door close at hand until his small companion, pushing back a rusty bolt, proceeded to open it, with considerable difficulty, and admitted him into what was apparently a thick wood.
"Take hold of my hand," said the page patronizingly to Leander, "so that I can guide you; it is too dark for you to be able to make out the path through this labyrinth of trees."
Leander obeyed, and both walked cautiously forward, feeling their way as they wound in and out among the trees, and treading the crackling, dry leaves, strewn thickly upon the ground, under their feet. Emerging from the wood at last, they came upon a garden, laid out in the usual style, with rows of box bordering the angular flower beds, and with yew trees, cut into pyramids, at regular intervals; which, just perceptible in the darkness, looked like sentinels posted on their way—a shocking sight for the poor timid actor, who trembled in every limb. They passed them all, however, unchallenged, and ascended some stone steps leading up to a terrace, on which stood a small country house—a sort of pavilion, with a dome, and little turrets at the corners. The place seemed quite deserted, save for a subdued glimmer of light from one large window, which the thick crimson silk curtains within could not entirely conceal. At this reassuring sight Leander dismissed all fear from his mind, and gave himself up to the most blissful anticipations. He was in a seventh heaven of delight; his feet seemed to spurn the earth; he would have flown into the presence of the waiting angel within if he had but known the way. How he wished, in this moment of glory and triumph, that Scapin, his mortal enemy and merciless tormentor, could see him. The tiny page stepped on before him, and after opening a large glass door and showing him into a spacious apartment, furnished with great luxury and elegance, retired and left him alone, without a word. The vaulted ceiling—which was the interior of the dome seen from without—was painted to represent a light blue sky, in which small rosy clouds were floating, and bewitching little Loves flying about in all sorts of graceful attitudes, while the walls were hung with beautiful tapestry. The cabinets, inlaid with exquisite Florentine mosaics and filled with many rare and curious objects of virtu, the round table covered with a superb Turkish cloth, the large, luxurious easy-chairs, the vases of priceless porcelain filled with fragrant flowers, all testified to the wealth and fastidious taste of their owner. The richly gilded candelabra, of many branches, holding clusters of wax candles, which shed their soft, mellow light on all this magnificence, were upheld by sculptured arms and hands in black marble, to represent a negro's, issuing from fantastic white marble sleeves; as if the sable attendants were standing without the room, and had passed their arms through apertures in the wall.
Leander, dazzled by so much splendour, did not at first perceive that there was no one awaiting him in this beautiful apartment, but when he had recovered from his first feeling of astonishment, and realized that he was alone, he proceeded to take off his cloak and lay it, with his hat and sword, on a chair in one corner, after which he deliberately rearranged his luxuriant ringlets in front of a Venetian mirror, and then, assuming his most graceful and telling pose, began pouring forth in dulcet tones the following monologue: "But where, oh! where, is the divinity of this Paradise? Here is the temple indeed, but I see not the goddess. When, oh! when, will she deign to emerge from the cloud that veils her perfect form, and reveal herself to the adoring eyes, that wait so impatiently to behold her?" rolling the said organs of vision about in the most effective manner by way of illustration.
Just at that moment, as if in response to this eloquent appeal, the crimson silk hanging, which fell in front of a door that Leander had not noticed, was pushed aside, and the lady he had come to seek stood before him; with the little black velvet mask still over her face, to the great disappointment and discomfiture of her expectant suitor. "Can it be possible that she is ugly?" he thought to himself; "this obstinate clinging to the mask alarms me." But his uncertainty was of short duration, for the lady, advancing to the centre of the room, where Leander stood respectfully awaiting her pleasure, untied the strings of the mask, took it off, and threw it down on the table, disclosing a rather pretty face, with tolerably regular features, large, brilliant, brown eyes, and smiling red lips. Her rich masses of dark hair were elaborately dressed, with one long curl hanging down upon her neck, and enhancing its whiteness by contrast; the uncovered shoulders were plump and shapely, and the full, snowy bosom rose and fell tumultuously under the cloud of beautifully fine lace that veiled, not concealed, its voluptuous curves.
"Mme. la Marquise de Bruyeres!" cried Leander, astonished to the highest degree, and not a little agitated, as the remembrance of his last, and first, attempt to meet her, and what he had found in her place, rushed back upon him; "can it be possible? am I dreaming? or may I dare to believe in such unhoped-for, transcendent happiness?"
"Yes; you are not mistaken, my dear friend," said she, "I am indeed the Marquise de Bruyeres, and recognised, I trust, by your heart as well as your eyes."
"Ah! but too well," Leander replied, in thrilling tones. "Your adored image is cherished there, traced in living lines of light; I have only to look into that devoted, faithful heart, to see and worship your beauteous form, endowed with every earthly grace, and radiant with every heavenly perfection."
"I thank you," said the marquise, "for having retained such a kind and tender remembrance of me; it proves that yours is a noble, magnanimous soul. You had every reason to think me cruel, ungrateful, false—when, alas! my poor heart in reality is but too susceptible, and I was far from being insensible to the passionate admiration you so gracefully testified for me. Your letter addressed to me did not reach my hands, but unfortunately fell into those of the marquis—through the heartless treachery of the faithless maid to whom it was intrusted—and he sent you the answer which so cruelly deceived you, my poor Leander! Some time after he showed me that letter, laughing heartily over what he was wicked enough to call a capital joke; that letter, in every line of which the purest, most impassioned love shone so brightly, and filled my heart with joy, despite his ridicule and coarse abuse. It did not produce the effect upon me that he expected and intended; the sentiment I cherished secretly for you was only increased and strengthened by its persuasive eloquence, and I resolved to reward you for all that you had suffered for my sake. Knowing my husband to be perfectly absorbed in his most recent conquest, and so oblivious of me that there was no danger of his becoming aware of my absence from the Chateau de Bruyeres, I have ventured to come to Poitiers; for I have heard you express fictitious love so admirably, that I long to know whether you can be as eloquent and convincing when you speak for yourself."
"Mme. la Marquise," said Leander, in his sweetest tones, sinking gracefully on his knees, upon a cushion at the feet of the lady, who had let herself fall languidly into a low easy-chair, as if exhausted by the extreme effort that her confession had been to her modesty. "Madame, or rather most lovely queen and deity, what can mere empty words, counterfeit passion, imaginary raptures, conceived and written in cold blood by the poets, and make-believe sighs, breathed out at the feet of an odious actress, all powdered and painted, whose eyes are wandering absently around the theatre—what can these be beside the living words that gush out from the soul, the fire that burns in the veins and arteries, the hyperboles of an exalted passion, to which the whole universe cannot furnish images brilliant and lofty enough to apply to its idol, and the aspirations of a wildly loving heart, that would fain break forth from the breast that contains it, to serve as a footstool for the dear object of its adoration? You deign to say, celestial marquise, that I express with some feeling the fictitious love in the pieces I play. Shall I tell you why it is so? Because I never look at, or even think of, the actress whom I seem to address—my thoughts soar far above and beyond her—and I speak to my own perfect ideal; to a being, noble, beautiful, spirituelle as yourself, Mme. la Marquise! It is you, in fine, YOU that I see and love under the name of Silvie, Doralice, Isabelle, or whatever it may chance to be; they are only your phantoms for me."
With these words Leander, who was too good an actor to neglect the pantomime that should accompany such a declaration, bent down over the hand that the marquise had allowed him to take, and covered it with burning kisses; which delicate attention was amiably received, and his real love-making seemed to be as pleasing to her ladyship as even he could have desired.
The eastern sky was all aflame with the radiance of the coming sun when Leander, well wrapped in his warm cloak, was driven back to Poitiers. As he lifted a corner of one of the carefully lowered curtains, to see which side of the town they were approaching, he caught sight of the Marquis de Bruyeres and the Baron de Sigognac, still at some distance, who were walking briskly along the road towards him, on their way to the spot designated for the duel.
Leander let the curtain drop, so as not to be seen by the marquis, who was almost grazed by the carriage wheels as they rolled by him, and a satisfied smile played round his lips; he was revenged—the beating was atoned for now.
The place selected for the hostile meeting between the Baron de Sigognac and the Duke of Vallombreuse was sheltered from the cold north wind by a high wall, which also screened the combatants from the observation of those passing along the road. The ground was firm, well trodden down, without stones, tufts of grass, or inequalities of any kind, which might be in the way of the swordsmen, and offered every facility to men of honour to murder each other after the most correct and approved fashion. The Duke of Vallombreuse and the Chevalier de Vidalinc, followed by a surgeon, arrived at the rendezvous only a few seconds after the others, and the four gentlemen saluted each other with the haughty courtesy and frigid politeness becoming to well-bred men meeting for such a purpose. The duke's countenance was expressive of the most careless indifference, as he felt perfect confidence in his own courage and skill. The baron was equally cool and collected, though it was his first duel, and a little nervousness or agitation would have been natural and excusable. The Marquis de Bruyeres watched him with great satisfaction, auguring good things for their side from his quiet sang-froid. Vallombreuse immediately threw off his cloak and hat, and unfastened his pourpoint, in which he was closely imitated by de Sigognac. The marquis and the chevalier measured the swords of the combatants, which were found to be of equal length, and then each second placed his principal in position, and put his sword in his hand.
"Fall to, gentlemen, and fight like men of spirit, as you are," said the marquis.
"A needless recommendation that," chimed in the Chevalier de Vidalinc; "they go at it like lions—-we shall have a superb duel."
The Duke of Vallombreuse, who, in his inmost heart, could not help despising de Sigognac more than a little, and had imagined that he should find in him but a weak antagonist, was astonished when he discovered the strength of the baron's sword, and could not deny to himself that he wielded a firm and supple blade, which baffled his own with the greatest ease—that he was, in fine, a "foeman worthy of his steel." He became more careful and attentive; then tried several feints, which were instantly detected. At the least opening he left, the point of de Sigognac's sword, rapid as lightning in its play, darted in upon him, necessitating the exercise of all his boasted skill to parry it. He ventured an attack, which was so promptly met, and his weapon so cleverly struck aside, that he was left exposed to his adversary's thrust, and but for throwing himself back out of reach, by a sudden, violent movement, he must have received it full in his breast. From that instant all was changed for the young duke; he had believed that he would be able to direct the combat according to his own will and pleasure, but, instead of that, he was forced to make use of all his skill and address to defend himself. He had believed that after a few passes he could wound de Sigognae, wherever he chose, by a thrust which, up to that time, he had always found successful; but, instead of that, he had hard work to avoid being wounded himself. Despite his efforts to remain calm and cool, he was rapidly growing angry; he felt himself becoming nervous and feverish, while the baron, perfectly at his ease and unmoved, seemed to take a certain pleasure in irritating him by the irreproachable excellence of his fence.
"Sha'n't we do something in this way too, while our friends are occupied?" said the chevalier to the marquis.
"It is very cold this morning. Suppose we fight a little also, if only to warm ourselves up, and set our blood in motion."
"With all my heart," the marquis replied; "we could not do better."
The chevalier was superior to the Marquis de Bruyeres in the noble art of fencing, and after a few passes had sent the latter's sword flying out of his hand. As no enmity existed between them, they stopped there by mutual consent, and turned their attention again to de Sigognac and Vallombreuse. The duke, sore pressed by the close play of the baron, had fallen back several feet from his original position. He was becoming weary, and beginning to draw panting breaths. From time to time, as their swords clashed violently together, bluish sparks flew from them; but the defence was growing perceptibly weaker, and de Sigognac was steadily forcing the duke to give way before his attack. When he saw the state of affairs, the Chevalier de Vidalinc turned very pale, and began to feel really anxious for his friend, who was so evidently getting the worst of it.
"Why the devil doesn't he try that wonderful thrust he learned from Girolamo of Naples?" murmured he. "This confounded Gascon cannot possibly know anything about that."
As if inspired by the same thought, the young duke did, at that very moment, try to put it into execution; but de Sigognac, aware of what he was preparing to do, not only prevented but anticipated him, and touched and wounded his adversary in the arm—his sword going clean through it.
The pain was so intense that the duke's fingers could no longer grasp his sword, and it fell to the ground. The baron, with the utmost courtesy, instantly desisted, although he was entitled by the rules of the code to follow up his blow with another—for the duel does not necessarily come to an end with the first blood drawn. He turned the point of his sword to the ground, put his left hand on his hip, and stood silently awaiting his antagonist's pleasure. But Vallombreuse could not hold the sword which his second had picked up and presented to him, after a nod of acquiescence from de Sigognac; and he turned away to signify that he had had enough. Whereupon, the marquis and the baron, after bowing politely to the others, set forth quietly to walk back to the town.
CHAPTER X. A MIDNIGHT ADVENTURE
After the surgeon had bandaged his injured arm, and arranged a sling for it, the Duke of Vallombreuse was put carefully into a chair, which had been sent for in all haste, to be taken home. His wound was not in the least a dangerous one, though it would deprive him of the use of his right hand for some time to come, for the blade had gone quite through the forearm; but, most fortunately, without severing any important tendons or arteries. He suffered a great deal of pain from it of course, but still more from his wounded pride; and he felt furiously and unreasonably angry with everything and everybody about him. It seemed to be somewhat of a relief to him to swear savagely at his bearers, and call them all the hardest names he could think of, whenever he felt the slightest jar, as they carried him slowly towards home, though they were walking as steadily as men could do, and carefully avoiding every inequality in the road. When at last he reached his own house, he was not willing to be put to bed, as the surgeon advised, but lay down upon a lounge instead, where he was made as comfortable as was possible by his faithful Picard, who was in despair at seeing the young duke in such a condition; astonished as well, for nothing of the kind had ever happened before, in all the many duels he had fought; and the admiring valet had shared his master's belief that he was invincible. The Chevalier de Vidalinc sat in a low chair beside his friend, and gave him from time to time a spoonful of the tonic prescribed by the surgeon, but refrained from breaking the silence into which he had fallen. Vallombreuse lay perfectly still for a while; but it was easy to see, in spite of his affected calmness, that his blood was boiling with suppressed rage. At last he could restrain himself no longer, and burst out violently: "Oh! Vidalinc, this is too outrageously aggravating! to think that that contemptible, lean stork, who has flown forth from his ruined chateau so as not to die of starvation in it, should have dared to stick his long bill into me! I have encountered, and conquered, the best swordsmen in France, and never returned from the field before with so much as a scratch, or without leaving my adversary stretched lifeless on the ground, or wounded and bleeding in the arms of his friends."
"But you must remember that the most favoured and the bravest of mortals have their unlucky days, Vallombreuse," answered the chevalier sententiously, "and Dame Fortune does not ALWAYS smile, even upon her prime favourites. Until now you have never had to complain of her frowns, for you have been her pampered darling all your life long."
"Isn't it too disgraceful," continued Vallombreuse, growing more and more heated, "that this ridiculous buffoon—this grotesque country clown—who takes such abominable drubbings on the stage, and has never in his life known what it was to associate with gentlemen, should have managed to get the best of the Duke of Vallombreuse, hitherto by common accord pronounced invincible? He must be a professional prize-fighter, disguised as a strolling mountebank."
"There can be no doubt about his real rank," said Vidalinc, "for the Marquis de Bruyeres guarantees it; but I must confess that his unequalled performance to-day filled me with astonishment; it was simply marvellous. Neither Girolamo nor Paraguante, those two world-renowned swordsmen, could have surpassed it. I watched him closely, and I tell you that even they could not have withstood him. It took all your remarkable skill—which has been so greatly enhanced by the Neapolitan's instructions—to avoid being mortally wounded; why your defeat was a victory in my eyes, in that it was not a more overwhelming one."
"I don't know how I am to wait for this wound to heal," the duke said, after a short pause, "I am so impatient to provoke him again, and have the opportunity to revenge myself."
"That would be a very hazardous proceeding, and one that I should strongly advise you not to attempt," Vidalinc replied in an earnest tone. "Your sword-arm will scarcely be as strong as before for a long time I fear, and that would seriously diminish your chances of success. This Baron de Sigognac is a very formidable antagonist, and will be still more so, for you, now that he knows your tactics; and besides, the confidence in himself which his first victory naturally gives him would be another thing in his favour. Honour is satisfied, and the encounter was a serious one for you. Let the matter rest here, I beseech you!"
Vallombreuse could not help being secretly convinced of the justice of these remarks, but was not willing to avow it openly, even to his most intimate friend. He was a sufficiently accomplished swordsman himself to appreciate de Sigognac's wonderful prowess, and he knew that it far surpassed his own much vaunted skill, though it enraged him to have to recognise this humiliating fact. He was even obliged to acknowledge, in his inmost heart, that he owed his life to the generous forbearance of his hated enemy; who might have taken it just as well as not, but had spared him, and been content with giving him only a flesh wound, just severe enough to put him hors-de-combat, without doing him any serious injury. This magnanimous conduct, by which a less haughty nature would have been deeply touched, only served to irritate the young duke's pride, and increase his resentment. To think that he, the valiant and puissant Duke of Vallombreuse, had been conquered, humiliated, wounded! the bare idea made him frantic. Although he said nothing further to his companion about his revenge, his mind was filled with fierce projects whereby to obtain it, and he swore to himself to be even yet with the author of his present mortification—if not in one way, then in another; for injuries there be that are far worse than mere physical wounds and hurts.
"I shall cut a sorry figure enough now in the eyes of the fair Isabelle," said he at last, with a forced laugh, "with my arm here run through and rendered useless by the sword of her devoted gallant. Cupid, weak and disabled, never did find much favour with the Graces, you know. But oh! how charming and adorable she seems to me, this sweet, disdainful Isabelle! I am actually almost grateful to her for resisting me so; for, if she had yielded, I should have been tired of her by this time, I fancy. Her nature certainly cannot be a base, ordinary one, or she would never have refused thus the advances of a wealthy and powerful nobleman, who is ready to lavish upon her everything that heart could desire, and whose own personal attractions are not to be despised; if the universal verdict of the fair sex of all ranks can be relied upon. There is a certain respect and esteem mingled with my passionate admiration for her, that I have never felt before for any woman, and it is very sweet to me. But how in the world are we to get rid of this confounded young sprig of nobility, her self-constituted champion? May the devil fly away with him!"
"It will not be an easy matter," the chevalier replied, and especially now that he is upon his guard. "But even if you did succeed in getting rid of him, Isabelle's love for him would still be in your way, and you ought to know, better than most men, how obstinate a woman can be in her devoted attachment to a man."
"Oh! if I could only kill this miserable baron," continued Vallombreuse, not at all impressed by the chevalier's last remark, "I could soon win the favour of this virtuous young person, in spite of all her little prudish airs and graces. Nothing is so quickly forgotten as a defunct suitor."
These were by no means the chevalier's sentiments, but he refrained from pursuing the subject then, wishing to soothe, rather than irritate, his suffering friend.
"You must first get well as fast as you can," he said, "and it will be time enough then for us to discuss the matter. All this talking wearies you, and does you no good. Try to get a little nap now, and not excite yourself so. The surgeon will tax me with imprudence, and call me a bad nurse, I'm afraid, if I don't manage to keep you more quiet—mentally as well as physically."
His patient, yielding with rather an ill grace to this sensible advice, sank back wearily upon his pillows, closed his eyes, and soon fell asleep—where we will leave him, enjoying his much needed repose.
Meantime the Marquis de Bruyeres and de Sigognac had quietly returned to their hotel, where, like well-bred gentlemen, they did not breathe even a hint of what had taken place. But walls have ears they say, and eyes as well it would appear, for they certainly see as much as they ever hear. In the neighbourhood of the apparently solitary, deserted spot where the duel had taken place, more than one inquisitive, hidden observer had closely watched the progress of the combat, and had not lost a moment after it was over in spreading the news of it; so that by breakfast-time all Poitiers was in a flutter of excitement over the intelligence that the Duke of Vallombreuse had been wounded in a duel with an unknown adversary, and was exhausting itself in vain conjectures as to who the valiant stranger could possibly be. No one thought of de Sigognac, who had led the most retired life imaginable ever since his arrival; remaining quietly at the hotel all day, and showing only his stage mask, not his own face, at the theatre in the evening.
Several gentlemen of his acquaintance sent to inquire ceremoniously after the Duke of Vallombreuse, giving their messengers instructions to endeavour to get some information from his servants about the mysterious duel, but they were as taciturn as the mutes of a seraglio, for the very excellent and sufficient reason that they knew nothing what ever about it. The young duke, by his great wealth, his overweening pride, his uncommon good looks, and his triumphant success among fair ladies everywhere, habitually excited much secret jealousy and hatred among his associates, which not one of them dared to manifest openly—but they were mightily pleased by his present discomfiture.
It was the first check he had ever experienced, and all those who had been hurt or offended by his arrogance—and they were legion—now rejoiced in his mortification. They could not say enough in praise of his successful antagonist, though they had never seen him, nor had any idea as to what manner of than he might be. The ladies, who nearly all had some cause of complaint against the haughty young noble man, as he was wont to boast loudly of his triumphs, and basely betray the favours that had been accorded to him in secret, were full of enthusiastic and tender admiration for this victorious champion of a woman's virtue, who, they felt, had unconsciously avenged for them many scornful slights, and they would have gladly crowned him with laurel and myrtle, and rewarded him with their sweetest smiles and most distinguished favour.
However, as nothing on this terraqueous and sublunary globe can long remain a secret, it soon transpired through Maitre Bilot, who had it direct from Jacques, the valet of the Marquis de Bruyeres, who had been present during the momentous interview between his master and the Baron de Sigognac, that the duke's brave antagonist was no other than the redoubtable Captain Fracasse; or rather, a young nobleman in disguise, who for the sake of a love affair had become a member of Herode's troupe of travelling comedians. As to his real name, Jacques had unfortunately forgotten it, further than that it ended in "gnac," as is not uncommon in Gascony, but on the point of his rank he was positive. This delightfully romantic and "ower-true tale" was received with acclamations by the good folk of Poitiers. They were fairly overflowing with admiration for and interest in the valiant gentleman who wielded such a powerful blade, and the devoted lover who had left everything to follow his mistress, and when Captain Fracasse appeared upon the stage that evening, the prolonged and enthusiastic applause that greeted him, and was renewed over and over again before he was allowed to speak a single word, bore witness unmistakably to the favour with which he was regarded; while the ladies rose in their boxes and waved their handkerchiefs, even the grandest and most dignified among them, and brought the palms of their gloved hands daintily together in his honour. It was a real ovation, and best of all a spontaneous one. Isabelle also received a perfect storm of applause, which alarmed and had nearly overcome the retiring young actress, who blushed crimson in her embarrassment, as she made a modest curtsey in acknowledgment of the compliment.