"Doubtless," replied the tyrant, dryly, "but the duke well knows—despite his cursed pride—that the result of another meeting with you could not but be disastrous to himself. He has tried the strength of your blade, and learned by bitter experience that its point is sharp. You may be sure that he hates you like the very devil, and will not scruple to make use of any means whatever to revenge himself for his defeat at your hands."
"Well, if he does not care to try my sword again, we could fight on horseback with pistols. He could not accuse me of having any advantage of him there."
Talking thus the two had reached the Quai de l'Ecole, and there a carriage just missed running over de Sigognac, though he did his best to get out of its way. As it was, only his extremely slender figure saved him from being crushed between it and the wall, so close did it come to him—notwithstanding the fact that there was plenty of room on the other side, and that the coachman could easily have avoided the foot passenger he actually seemed to pursue. The windows of the carriage were all closed, and the curtains drawn down, so that it was impossible to tell whether it had any inmates or not—but if de Sigognac could have peeped within he would have seen, reclining languidly upon the luxurious cushions, a handsome young nobleman, richly dressed, whose right arm was supported by a black silk scarf, arranged as a sling. In spite of the warm red glow from the crimson silk curtains, he was very pale, and, though so remarkably handsome, his face wore such an expression of hatred and cruelty, that he would have inspired dislike, rather than admiration—as he sat there with a fierce frown contracting his brow, and savagely gnawing his under lip with his gleaming white teeth. In fine, the occupant of the carriage that had so nearly run over the Baron de Sigognac was no other than the young Duke of Vallombreuse.
"Another failure!" said he to himself, with an oath, as he rolled along up the broad quay past the Tuileries. "And yet I promised that stupid rascal of a coachman of mine twenty-five louis if he could be adroit enough to run afoul of that confounded de Sigognac—who is the bane of my life—and drive over him, as if by accident. Decidedly the star of my destiny is not in the ascendant—this miserable little rustic lordling gets the better of me in everything. Isabelle, sweet Isabelle, adores HIM, and detests me—he has beaten my lackeys, and dared to wound ME. But there shall be an end of this sort of thing, and that speedily—even though he be invulnerable, and bear a charmed life, he must and shall be put out of my way—I swear it! though I should be forced to risk my name and my title to compass it."
"Humph!" said Herode, drawing a long breath; "why those brutes must be of the same breed as the famous horses of that Diomedes, King of Thrace, we read of, that pursued men to tear them asunder, and fed upon their flesh. But at least you are not hurt, my lord, I trust! That coachman saw you perfectly well, and I would be willing to wager all I possess in the world that he purposely tried to run over you—he deliberately turned his horses towards you—I am sure of it, for I saw the whole thing. Did you observe whether there was a coat of arms on the panel? As you are a nobleman yourself I suppose you must be familiar with the devices of the leading families in France."
"Yes, I am of course," answered de Sigognac, "but I was too much occupied in getting out of the way of the swift rolling carriage to notice whether there was anything of that kind on it or not."
"That's a pity," rejoined the tyrant regretfully, "for if we only knew that, we should have a clew that might lead to our discovering the truth about this most suspicious affair. It is only too evident that some one is trying to put you out of the way, quibuscumque viis, as the pedant would say. Although we unfortunately have no proof of it, I am very much inclined to think that this same carriage belongs to his lordship, the Duke of Vallombreuse, who wished to indulge himself in the pleasure of driving over the body of his enemy in his chariot, in true classical and imperial style."
"What extraordinary idea have you got into your head now, Sir Herode?" said de Sigognac, rather indignantly. "Come, that would be too infamous and villainous a proceeding for any gentleman to be guilty of, and you must remember that after all the Duke of Vallombreuse is one, and that he belongs to a very high and noble family. Besides, did not we leave him in Poitiers, laid up with his wound? How then could he possibly be in Paris, when we have only just arrived here ourselves?"
"But didn't we stop several days at Tours? and again at Orleans? And even if his wound were not entirely healed he could easily travel in his luxurious carriage, by easy stages, from Poitiers to Paris. His hurt was not of a dangerous character, you know, and he is young and vigorous. You must be on your guard, my dear captain, unceasingly; never relax your vigilance for one moment, for I tell you there are those about who seek your life. You once out of the way, Isabelle would, be in the duke's power—for what could we, poor players, do against such a great and powerful nobleman? Even if Vallombreuse himself be not in Paris—though I am almost positive that he is—his emissaries are, as you know, and but for your own courage and watchfulness you would have been assassinated in your bed by them last night."
This de Sigognac could not dispute, and he only nodded in token of assent, as he grasped the hilt of his sword, so as to be ready to draw it at the slightest cause for suspicion or alarm. Meantime they had walked on as far as the Porte de la Conference, and now saw ahead of them a great cloud of dust, and through it the glitter of bayonets. They stepped aside to let the cavalcade pass, and saw that the soldiers preceded the carriage of the king, who was returning from Saint Germain to the Louvre. The curtains of the royal vehicle were raised, and the glasses let down, so that the people could distinctly see their sovereign, Louis XIII, who, pale as a ghost and dressed all in black, sat as motionless as an effigy in wax. Long, dark brown hair fell about his mournful, ghastly countenance, upon which was depicted the same terrible ennui that drove Philip II of Spain, to seclude himself so much, during the later years of his life, in the silence and solitude of the dreary Escorial. His eyes were fixed on vacancy, and seemed utterly lifeless—no desire, no thought, no will lent them light or expression. A profound disgust for and weariness of everything in this life had relaxed his lower lip, which fell sullenly, in a morose, pouting way. His hands, excessively thin and white, lay listlessly upon his knees, like those of certain Egyptian idols. And yet, for all, there was a truly royal majesty about this mournful figure, which personified France, and in whose veins flowed sluggishly the generous blood of Henri IV.
The young baron had always thought of the king as a sort of supernatural being, exalted above all other men. Glorious and majestic in his person, and resplendent in sumptuous raiment, enriched with gold and precious stones; and now he saw only this sad, motionless figure, clad in dismal black, and apparently unconscious of his surroundings, sunk in a profound reverie that none would dare to intrude upon. He had dreamed of a gracious, smiling sovereign, showering good gifts upon his loyal subjects, and here was an apathetic, inanimate being, who seemed capable of no thought for any one but himself. He was sadly disappointed, shocked, amazed; and he felt, with a sinking heart, how hopeless was his own case. For even should he be able to approach this mournful, listless monarch, what sympathy could be expected from him? The future looked darker than ever now to this brave young heart. Absorbed in these sorrowful reflections he walked silently along beside his companion, who suspected his taciturn mood, and did not intrude upon it, until, as the hour of noon approached, he suggested that they should turn their steps homeward, so as to be in time for the mid-day meal. When they reached the hotel they were relieved to find that nothing particular had happened during their absence. Isabelle, quietly seated at table with the others when they entered, received the baron with her usual sweet smile, and held out her little white hand to him. The comedians asked many questions about his first experiences in Paris, and inquired mischievously whether he had brought his cloak, his purse, and his handkerchief home with him, to which de Sigognac joyfully answered in the affirmative. In this friendly banter he soon forgot his sombre thoughts, and asked himself whether he had not been the dupe of a hypochondriac fancy, which could see nothing anywhere but plots and conspiracies.
He had not been alarmed without reason however, for his enemies, vexed but not discouraged by the failure of their several attempts upon him, had by no means renounced their determination to make away with him. Merindol, who was threatened by the duke with being sent back to the galleys whence he had rescued him, unless he and his comrades succeeded in disposing of the Baron de Sigognac, resolved to invoke the assistance of a certain clever rascal of his acquaintance, who had never been known to fail in any job of that kind which he undertook. He no longer felt himself capable to cope with the baron, and moreover now, laboured under the serious disadvantage of being personally known to him. He went accordingly to look up his friend, Jacquemin Lampourde by name, who lodged not very far from the Pont-Neuf, and was lucky enough to find him at home, sleeping off the effects of his last carouse. He awoke him with some difficulty, and was violently abused for his pains. Then, having quietly waited until his friend's first fury was exhausted, he announced that he had come to consult with him on important business, having an excellent job to intrust to him, and begging that he would be good enough to listen to what he had to say.
"I never listen to anybody when I am drunk," said Jacquemin Lampourde, majestically, putting his elbow on his knee as he spoke, and resting his head on his hand—"and besides, I have plenty of money—any quantity of gold pieces. We plundered a rich English lord last night, who was a walking cash-box, and I am a gentleman of wealth just at present. However, one evening at lansquenet may swallow it all up. I can't resist gambling you know, and I'm deuced unlucky at it, so I will see you to-night about this little matter of yours. Meet me at the foot of the bronze statue on the Pont-Neuf at midnight. I shall be as fresh and bright as a lark by that time, and ready for anything. You shall give me your instructions then, and we will agree upon my share of the spoils. It should be something handsome, for I have the vanity to believe that no one would come and disturb a fellow of my calibre for any insignificant piece of business. But after all I am weary of playing the thief and pickpocket—it is beneath me—and I mean to devote all my energies in future to the noble art of assassination; it is more worthy of my undisputed prowess. I would rather be a grand, man-slaying lion than any meaner beast of prey. If this is a question of killing I am your man—but one thing more, it must be a fellow who will defend himself. Our victims are so apt to be cowardly, and give in without a struggle—it is no better than sticking a pig—and that I cannot stand, it disgusts me. A good manly resistance, the more stubborn the better, gives a pleasant zest to the task."
"You may rest easy on that score," Mirindol replied, with a malicious smile; "you will find a tough customer to handle, I promise you."
"So much the better," said Lampourde, "for it is a long time since I have found an adversary worth crossing swords with. But enough of this for the present. Good-bye to you, and let me finish my nap."
But he tried in vain to compose himself to sleep again, and, after several fruitless efforts, gave it up as a bad job; then began to shake a companion, who had slept soundly on the floor under the table during the preceding discussion, and when he had succeeded in rousing him, both went off to a gaming-house, where lansquenet was in active progress. The company was composed of thieves, cut-throats, professional bullies, ruffians of every sort, lackeys, and low fellows of various callings, and a few well-to-do, unsophisticated bourgeois, who had been enticed in there—unfortunate pigeons, destined to be thoroughly plucked. Lampourde, who played recklessly, had soon lost all his boasted wealth, and was left with empty pockets. He took his bad luck with the utmost philosophy.
"Ouf!" said he to his companion, when they had gone out into the street, and the cool, night air blew refreshingly upon his heated face, "here am I rid of my money, and a free man again. It is strange that it should always make such a brute of me. It surprises me no longer that rich men should invariably be such stupid fools. Now, that I haven't a penny left, I feel as gay as a lark—ready for anything. Brilliant ideas buzz about my brain, like bees around the hive. Lampourde's himself again. But there's the Samaritan striking twelve, and a friend of mine must be waiting for me down by the bronze Henri IV, so goodnight."
He quitted his companion and walked quickly to the rendezvous, where he found Merindol, diligently studying his own shadow in the moonlight; and the two ruffians, after looking carefully about them to make sure that there was no one within ear-shot, held a long consultation, in very low tones. What they said we do not know; but, when Lampourde quitted the agent of the Duke of Vallombreuse, he joyously jingled the handful of gold pieces in his pocket, with an imprudent audacity that showed conclusively how much he was respected by the thieves and cut throats who haunted the Pont-Neuf.
CHAPTER XII. THE CROWNED RADISH
Jacquemin Lampourde, after parting company with Merindol, seemed in great uncertainty as to which way he should go, and had not yet decided when he reached the end of the Pont-Neuf. He was like the donkey between two bundles of hay; or, if that comparison be not pleasing, like a piece of iron between two magnets of equal power. On the one side was lansquenet, with the fascinating excitement of rapidly winning and losing the broad gold pieces that he loved; and on the other the tavern, with its tempting array of bottles; for he was a drunkard as well as a gambler, this same notorious Jacquemin Lampourde. He stood stock still for a while, debating this knotty point with himself, quite unable to come to a decision, and growing very much vexed at his own hesitation, when suddenly a brilliant idea occurred to him, and, plunging his hand into his well-filled pocket, he drew forth a gold piece, which he tossed into the air, crying, "Head for the tavern, tail for lansquenet." The coin rang upon the pavement as it fell, and he kneeled down to see what fate had decided for him; head was up. "Very well," said he, philosophically, as he picked up the piece of money, carefully wiped off the mud, and put it back in his pocket, "I'll go and get drunk." Then, with long strides, he made off to his favourite tavern, which had the advantage of being in the immediate vicinity of his own lodgings, so that with a few zigzags he was at home, after he had filled himself with wine from the soles of his boots to the apple in his throat. It was not an inviting-looking place, this same tavern, with the odd device of an enormous radish, bearing a golden crown—now rather tarnished—which had served as its sign for many generations of wine-drinkers. The heavy wooden shutters were all closed when Lampourde reached it; but by the bright light streaming through their crevices, and the sounds of song and revelry that reached his ear, he knew that there must be a numerous company within. Knocking on the door in a peculiar way with the handle of his sword, he made himself known as an habitue of the house, and was promptly admitted—the door being carefully made fast again the moment he had entered. The large, low room into which he made his way was filled with the smoke from many pipes, and redolent with the fumes of wine. A cheerful wood fire was blazing on the hearth, lighting up the array of bottles in the bar, which was placed near it, where the master of the establishment sat enthroned, keeping a watchful eye on the noisy crowd gathered round the many small tables with which the room abounded, drinking, smoking, playing at various games, and singing ribald songs. Lampourde paid no attention to the uproarious throng, further than to look about and make sure that none of his own particular friends and associates were among them. He found an unoccupied table, to which a servant quickly brought a bottle of fine old Canary wine, very choice and rare, which was reserved for a few privileged and appreciative customers, who could afford to indulge in such luxuries. Although he was quite by himself, two glasses were placed before him, as his dislike of drinking alone was well known, and at any moment a comrade might come in and join him. Meantime he slowly filled his glass, raised it to the level of his eyes, and looked long and lovingly through the beautiful, clear topaz of the generous wine. Having thus satisfied the sense of sight, he passed to that of smell, and held the glass under his nostrils, where he could enjoy the delicious aroma arising from it, giving the wine a rotary motion as he did so, in a very artistic manner; then, putting the glass to his lips, he let a few drops trickle slowly down over his tongue to his palate, lengthening out the enjoyment as much as possible, and approving smack of relish as he at last swallowed the smooth nectar. Thus Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde managed to gratify three of the five senses man is blessed with by means of a single glass of wine. He pretended that the other two might also have a share of the enjoyment—that of touch by the highly polished surface and swelling curves of the wine-glass, and that of hearing by the merry ringing when two glasses are clinked together, or by the musical sounds to be brought forth from a glass by drawing the moistened finger round and round the edge of it. But these are fantastic and paradoxical ideas, which only serve to show the vicious refinement of this fastidious ruffian. He had been but a few minutes alone when an odd-looking, shabbily dressed individual came in, who rejoiced in a remarkably pale face, which looked as if it had been chalked, and a nose as red and fiery as a live coal; the idea of how many casks of wine and bottles of brandy must have been imbibed to bring it to such an intensity of erubescence would be enough to terrify the ordinary drinker. This singular countenance was like a cheese, with a bright, red cherry stuck in the middle of it; and to finish the portrait it would only be necessary to add two apple seeds, placed a little obliquely, for the eyes, and a wide gash for a mouth. Such was Malartic—the intimate friend, the Pylades, the Euryalus, the "fidus Achates" of Jacquemin Lampourde; who certainly was not handsome—but his mental and moral qualities made up for his little physical disadvantages. Next to Lampourde—for whom he professed the most exalted admiration and respect—he was accounted the most skillful swordsman in Paris; he was always lucky at cards, and could drink to any extent without becoming intoxicated. For the rest, he was a man of great delicacy and honour, in his way—ready to run any risk to help or support a friend, and capable of enduring any amount of torture rather than betray his comrades—so that he enjoyed the universal and unbounded esteem of his circle.
Malartic went straight to Lampourde's table, sat down opposite to him, silently seized the glass the other had promptly filled, and drained it at a single draught; evidently his method differed from his friend's, but that it was equally efficacious his nose bore indisputable witness. The two men drank steadily and in silence until they had emptied their third bottle, and then called for pipes. When they had puffed away for a while, and enveloped themselves in a dense cloud of smoke, they fell into conversation, deploring the bad times since the king, his court and followers, had all gone to Saint Germain, and comparing notes as to their own individual doings since their last meeting. Thus far they had paid no attention whatever to the company round them, but now such a loud discussion arose over the conditions of a bet between two men about some feat that one of them declared he could perform and the other pronounced impossible, that they both looked round to see what it was all about. A man of lithe, vigorous frame, with a complexion dark as a Moor's, jet-black hair and flashing eyes, was drawing out of his red girdle a large, dangerous looking knife, which, when opened, was nearly as long as a sword, and called in Valencia, where it was made, a navaja. He carefully examined and tested the edge and point of this formidable weapon, with which he seemed satisfied, said to the man he had been disputing with, "I am ready!" then turned and called, "Chiquita! Chiquita!"
At the sound of her name a little girl, who had been sleeping, rolled up in a cloak, on the floor in a dark corner, rose and came towards Agostino—for it was he of course—and, fixing her large dark eyes upon his face earnestly, said, "Master, what do you want me to do? I am ready to obey you here as everywhere else, because you are so brave, and have so many red marks on your navaja."
Chiquita said this rapidly, in a patois which was as unintelligible to the Frenchmen around her as German, Hebrew or Chinese. Agostino took her by the hand and placed her with her back against the door, telling her to keep perfectly still, and the child, accustomed to that sort of thing, showed neither alarm nor surprise, but stood quietly, looking straight before her with perfect serenity, while Agostino, at the other end of the room, standing with one foot advanced, balanced the dread navaja in his hand. Suddenly with a quick jerking movement he sent it flying through the air, and it struck into the wooden door, just over Chiquita's head. As it darted by, like a flash of lightning, the spectators had involuntarily closed their eyes for a second, but the fragile child's long dark eyelashes did not even quiver. The brigand's wonderful skill elicited a loud burst of admiration and applause from an audience not easily surprised or pleased, in which even the man who had lost his water joined enthusiastically. Agostino went and drew out the knife, which was still vibrating, and returning to his place this time sent it in between Chiquita's arm—which was hanging down by her side—and her body; if it had deviated a hair's breadth it must have wounded her. At this everybody cried "Enough!" but Agostino insisted upon aiming at the other side as well, so as to prove to them that there was no chance about it; that it was purely a matter of skill. Again the terrible navaja flew through the air, and went straight to the mark, and Chiquita, very much delighted at the applause that followed, looked about her proudly, glorying in Agostino's triumph. She still wore Isabelle's pearl beads round her slender brown neck; in other respects was much better dressed than when we first saw her, and even had shoes on her tiny feet; they seemed to worry and annoy her very much, it is true, but she found them a necessary nuisance on the cold Paris pavements, and so had to submit to wearing them with as good a grace as she could muster. When Agostino gave her leave to quit her position she quietly returned to her corner, rolled herself up anew in the large cloak, and fell sound asleep again, while he, after pocketing the five pistoles he had won, sat down to finish his measure of cheap wine; which he did very slowly, intending to remain where he was as long as possible; he had no lodging place yet in Paris, having arrived that very evening, and this warm room was far more comfortable than a refuge in some convent porch, or under the arch of a bridge perhaps, where he had feared that he and Chiquita might have to lie shivering all night long.
Quiet being restored, comparatively speaking, Lampourde and Malartic resumed their interrupted conversation, and after a few remarks upon the strange performance they had just witnessed—in which Lampourde especially praised Agostino's marvellous skill, and Malartic warmly commended Chiquita's wonderful courage and sang-froid—the former confided to his friend that he had a piece of work in prospect, in which he would need some assistance, and desired to have his opinion as to which of their comrades would be best suited for his purpose. He told him that, in the first place, he was commissioned to despatch a certain Captain Fracasse, an actor, who had dared to interfere with the love affair of a very great lord. In this, of course, he would not require any aid; but he had also to make arrangements for the abduction of the lady, a very beautiful young actress, who was beloved by both the nobleman and the comedian, and who would be zealously defended by the members of the dramatic company to which she belonged; so that he should be obliged to resort to some stratagem, and would probably need the help of several hands to carry it out—adding that they were sure of being well paid, for the young lord was as generous and open handed as he was wealthy and determined. Thereupon they fell to discussing the respective merits of their numerous friends and acquaintances—gentlemen of the same stamp as themselves—and having decided upon four, and determined to keep an eye upon Agostino, who seemed a clever rascal and might be of use, they called for another bottle of wine. When that was finished Jacquemin Lampourde was indisputably drunk, and having loyally kept his word, retired, somewhat unsteadily, to his own quarters in a high state of maudlin satisfaction, accompanied by his friend Malartic, whom he had invited to spend the night with him. By this time—it was nearly four o'clock in the morning—the Crowned Radish was almost deserted, and the master of the establishment, seeing that there was no prospect of further custom, told his servants to rouse up and turn out all the sleepers—Agostino and Chiquita among the rest—and his orders were promptly executed.
CHAPTER XIII. A DOUBLE ATTACK
The Duke of Vallombreuse was not a man to neglect his love affairs, any more than his enemies. If he hated de Sigognac mortally, he felt for Isabelle that furious passion which the unattainable is apt to excite in a haughty and violent nature like his, that has never met with resistance. To get possession of the young actress had become the ruling thought of his life. Spoiled by the easy victories he had always gained heretofore, in his career of gallantry, his failure in this instance was utterly incomprehensible to him, as well as astonishing and maddening. He could not understand it. Oftentimes in the midst of a conversation, at the theatre, at church, at the court, anywhere and everywhere, the thought of it would suddenly rush into his mind, sweeping everything before it, overwhelming him afresh with wonder and amazement. And indeed it could not be easy for a man who did not believe that such an anomaly as a truly virtuous woman ever existed—much less a virtuous actress—to understand Isabelle's firm resistance to the suit of such a rich and handsome young nobleman as himself. He sometimes wondered whether it could be that after all she was only playing a part, and holding back for a while so as to obtain more from him in the end—tactics that he knew were not unusual—but the indignant, peremptory way in which she had rejected the casket of jewels proved conclusively that no such base motives actuated Isabelle. All his letters she had returned unopened. All his advances she had persistently repulsed; and he was at his wit's end to know what to do next. Finally he concluded to send for old Mme. Leonarde to come and talk the matter over with him; he had kept up secret relations with her, as it is always well to have a spy in the enemy's camp. The duke received her, when she came in obedience to his summons, in his own particular and favoured room, to which she was conducted by a private staircase. It was a most dainty and luxurious apartment, fitted up with exquisite taste, and hung round with portraits of beautiful women—admirably painted by Simon Vouet, a celebrated master of that day—representing different mythological characters, and set in richly carved oval frames. These were all likenesses of the young duke's various mistresses, each one displaying her own peculiar charms to the greatest possible advantage, and having consented to sit for her portrait—in a costume and character chosen by the duke—as a special favour, without the most remote idea that it was to form part of a gallery.
When the duenna had entered and made her best curtsey, the duke condescendingly signed to her to be seated, and immediately began to question her eagerly about Isabelle—as to whether there were any signs yet of her yielding to his suit, and also how matters were progressing between her and the detested Captain Fracasse. Although the crafty old woman endeavoured to put the best face upon everything, and was very diplomatic in her answers to these searching questions, the information that she had to give was excessively displeasing to the imperious young nobleman, who had much ado to control his temper sufficiently to continue the conversation. Before he let her go he begged her to suggest some plan by which he could hope to soften the obdurate beauty—appealing to her great experience in such intrigues, and offering to give her any reward she chose to claim if she would but help him to succeed. She had nothing better to propose, however, than secretly administering a strong narcotic to Isabelle, and concerting some plan to deliver her into his hands while unconscious from the effects of it; which even the unscrupulous young duke indignantly rejected. Whereupon, fixing her wicked old eyes admiringly upon his handsome face, and apparently moved by a sudden inspiration, she said: "But why does not your lordship conduct this affair in person? why not begin a regular and assiduous courtship in the good old style? You are as beautiful as Adonis, my lord duke! You are young, fascinating, powerful, wealthy, a favourite at court, rich in everything that is pleasing to the weaker sex; and there is not a woman on earth who could long hold out against you, if you would condescend, my lord, to plead your own cause with her."
"By Jove! the old woman is right," said Vallombreuse to himself, glancing complacently at the reflection of his own handsome face and figure in a full-length mirror opposite to him; "Isabelle may be virtuous and cold, but she is not blind, and Nature has not been so unkind to me that the sight of me should inspire her with horror. I can at least hope to produce the same happy effect as a fine statue or picture, which attracts and charms the eye by its symmetry, or its beautiful and harmonious colouring. Then, kneeling at her feet, I can softly whisper some of those persuasive words that no woman can listen to unmoved—accompanied by such passionately ardent looks that the ice round her heart will melt under them and vanish quite away. Not one of the loftiest, haughtiest ladies at the court has ever been able to withstand them—they have thawed the iciest, most immaculate of them all; and besides, it surely cannot fail to flatter the pride of this disdainful, high-spirited little actress to have a real duke actually and openly kneeling at her feet. Yes, I will take the old woman's advice, and pay my court to her so charmingly and perseveringly that I shall conquer at last—she will not be able to withstand me, my sweet Isabelle. And it will be a miracle indeed if she has a regret left then for that cursed de Sigognac; who shall no longer interfere between my love and me—that I swear! She will soon forget him in my arms."
Having dismissed old Mme. Leonarde with a handsome gratuity, the duke next summoned his valet, Picard, and held an important consultation with him, as to his most becoming costumes, finally deciding upon a very rich but comparatively plain one, all of black velvet; whose elegant simplicity he thought would be likely to suit Isabelle's fastidious taste better than any more gorgeous array, and in which it must be confessed that he looked adorably handsome—his really beautiful face and fine figure appearing to the utmost advantage.
His toilet completed, he sent a peremptory order to his coachman to have the carriage, with the four bays, ready in a quarter of an hour. When Picard had departed on this errand, Vallombreuse began pacing slowly to and fro in his chamber, glancing into the mirror each time he passed it with a self-satisfied smile. "That proud little minx must be deucedly cross-grained and unappreciative," said he, "if she does not perceive how much more worthy I am of her admiration than that shabby de Sigognac. Oh, yes! she'll be sure to come round, in spite of her obstinate affectation of such ferocious virtue, and her tiresome, Platonic love for her impecunious suitor. Yes, my little beauty, your portrait shall figure in one of those oval frames ere long. I think I'll have you painted as chaste Diana, descended from the sky, despite her coldness, to lavish sweet kisses on Endymion. You shall take your place among those other goddesses, who were as coy and hard to please at first as yourself, and who are far greater ladies, my dear, than you ever will be. Your fall is at hand, and you must learn, as your betters have done before you, that there's no withstanding the will of a Vallombreuse. 'Frango nec frangor,' is my motto."
A servant entered to announce that the carriage awaited his lordship's pleasure, and during the short drive from his own house to the Rue Dauphine, the young duke, despite his arrogant assurance, felt his heart beating faster than usual as he wondered how Isabelle would receive him. When the splendid carriage, with its four prancing horses and servants in gorgeous liveries, drove into the courtyard of the hotel where the comedians were stopping, the landlord himself, cap in hand, rushed out to ask the pleasure of the lordly visitor; but, rapid as were his movements, the duke had already alighted before he could reach him. He cut short the obsequious host's obeisances and breathless offers of service by an impatient gesture, and said peremptorily:
"Mlle. Isabelle is stopping here. I wish to see her. Is she at home? Do not send to announce my visit; only let me have a servant to show me the way to her room."
"My lord, let me have the glory of conducting your lordship myself—such an honour is too great for a rascally servant—I myself am not worthy of so distinguished a privilege."
"As you please," said Vallombreuse, with haughty negligence, "only be quick about it. There are people at every window already, staring down at me as if I were the Grand Turk in person."
He followed his guide, who, with many bows and apologies, preceded him upstairs, and down a long, narrow corridor with doors on either side, like a convent, until they reached Isabelle's room, where the landlord paused, and, bowing lower than ever, asked what name he should have the honour of announcing.
"You can go, now," the duke replied, laying his hand on the door; "I will announce myself."
Isabelle was sitting by the window, diligently studying her part in a new play to be shortly put in rehearsal, and, at the moment the Duke of Vallombreuse softly entered her chamber, was repeating, in a low voice and with closed eyes, the verses she was learning by heart—just as a child does its lessons. The light from the window shone full upon her beautiful head and face—seen in profile—and her lovely figure, thrown back in a negligent attitude full of grace and abandon. She made a most bewitching picture thus, and with a delicious effect of chiaroscuro that would have enchanted an artist—it enthralled the young duke.
Supposing that the intruder who entered so quietly was only the chambermaid, come to perform some forgotten duty, Isabelle did not interrupt her study or look up, but went on composedly with her recitation. The duke, who had breathlessly advanced to the centre of the room, paused there, and stood motionless, gazing with rapture upon her beauty. As he waited for her to open her eyes and become aware of his presence, he sank gracefully down upon one knee, holding his hat so that its long plume swept the floor, and laying his hand on his heart, in an attitude that was slightly theatrical perhaps, but as respectful as if he had been kneeling before a queen. Excitement and agitation had flushed his pale cheeks a little, his eyes were luminous and full of fire, a sweet smile hovered on his rich, red lips, and he had never looked more splendidly, irresistibly handsome in his life. At last Isabelle moved, raised her eyelids, turned her head, and perceived the Duke of Vallombreuse, kneeling within six feet of her. If Perseus had suddenly appeared before her, holding up Medusa's horrid head, the effect would have been much the same. She sat like a statue, motionless, breathless, as if she had been petrified, or frozen stiff—her eyes, dilated with excessive terror, fixed upon his face, her lips parted, her throat parched and dry, her tongue paralyzed—unable to move or speak. A ghastly pallor overspread her horror-stricken countenance, a deathly chill seized upon all her being, and for one dreadful moment of supreme anguish she feared that she was going to faint quite away; but, by a desperate, prodigious effort of will, she recalled her failing senses, that she might not leave herself entirely defenceless in the power of her cruel persecutor.
"Can it be possible that I inspire such overwhelming horror in your gentle breast, my sweet Isabelle," said Vallombreuse in his most dulcet tones, and without stirring from his position, "that the mere sight of me produces an effect like this? Why, a wild beast, crouching to spring upon you from his lair, with angry roar and blazing eyeballs, could not terrify you more. My presence here may be a little sudden and startling, I admit; but you must not be too hard upon one who lives only to love and adore you. I knew that I risked your anger when I decided to take this step; but I could not exist any longer without a sight of you, and I humbly crave your pardon if I have offended you by my ardour and devotion. I kneel at your feet, fair lady, a despairing and most unhappy suppliant for your grace and favour."
"Rise, my lord, I beseech you," said the frightened, trembling girl, speaking with great difficulty and in a voice that sounded strange in her own ears; "such a position does not become your rank. I am only an actress, and my poor attractions do not warrant such homage. Forget this fleeting fancy, I pray you, and carry elsewhere the ardour and devotion that are wasted upon me, and that so many great and noble ladies would be proud and happy to receive and reward."
"What do I care for other women, be they what they may?" cried Vallombreuse impetuously, as he rose in obedience to her request; "it is YOUR pride and purity that I adore, YOUR beauty and goodness that I worship; your very cruelty is more charming to me than the utmost favour of any other woman in the world. Your sweet modesty and angelic loveliness have inspired in me a passion that is almost delirium, and unless you can learn to love me I shall die—I cannot live without you. You need not be afraid of me," he added, as Isabelle recoiled when he made one step forward, and tried to open the window with her trembling bands, as if she meant to throw herself out in case of his coming any nearer; "see, I will stay where I am. I will not touch you, not even the hem of your garment, so great is my respect for you, charming Isabelle! I do not ask anything more than that you will deign to suffer my presence here a little longer now, and permit me to pay my court to you, lay siege to your heart, and wait patiently until it surrenders itself to me freely and of its own accord, as it surely will. The most respectful lover could not do more."
"Spare me this useless pursuit, my lord," pleaded Isabelle, "and I will reward you with the warmest gratitude; but love you I cannot, now or ever."
"You have neither father, brother, husband, or affianced lover," persisted Vallombreuse, "to forbid the advances of a gallant gentleman, who seeks only to please and serve you. My sincere homage is surely not insulting to you; why do you repulse me so? Oh! you do not dream what a splendid prospect would open out before you if you would but yield to my entreaties. I would surround you with everything that is beautiful and dainty, luxurious and rare. I would anticipate your every wish; I would devote my whole life to your service. The story of our love should be more enchanting, more blissful than that of Love himself with his delicious Psyche—not even the gods could rival us. Come, Isabelle, do not turn so coldly away from me, do not persevere in this maddening silence, nor drive to desperation and desperate deeds a passion that is capable of anything, of everything, save renouncing its adored object, your own sweet, charming self!"
"But this love, of which any other woman would be justly proud," said Isabelle modestly, "I cannot return or accept; you MUST believe me, my lord, for I mean every word I say, and I shall never swerve from this decision. Even if the virtue and purity that I value more highly than life itself were not against it, I should still feel myself obliged to decline this dangerous honour."
"Deign to look upon me with favour and indulgence, my sweet Isabelle," continued Vallombreuse, without heeding her words, "and I will make you an object of envy to the greatest and noblest ladies in all France. To any other woman I should say—take what you please of my treasures—my chateaux, my estates, my gold, my jewels—dress your lackeys in liveries richer than the court costumes of princes—have your horses shod with silver—live as luxuriously as a queen—make even Paris wonder at your lavish splendour if you will—though Paris is not easily roused to wonder—but I well know that you have a soul far above all such sordid temptations as these. They would have no weight with you, my noble Isabelle! But there IS a glory that may touch you—that of having conquered Vallombreuse—of leading him captive behind your chariot wheels—of commanding him as your servant, and your slave. Vallombreuse, who has never yielded before—who has been the commander, not the commanded—and whose proud neck has never yet bowed to wear the fetters that so many fair bands have essayed to fasten round it."
"Such a captive would be too illustrious for my chains," said Isabelle, firmly, "and as I could never consent to accept so much honour at your hands, my lord, I pray you to desist, and relieve me of your presence."
Hitherto the Duke of Vallombreuse had managed to keep his temper under control; he had artfully concealed his naturally violent and domineering spirit under a feigned mildness and humility, but, at Isabelle's determined and continued—though modest and respectful—resistance to his pleading, his anger was rapidly rising to boiling point. He felt that there was love—devoted love—for another behind her persistent rejection of his suit, and his wrath and jealousy augmented each other. Throwing aside all restraint, he advanced towards her impetuously—whereat she made another desperate effort to tear open the casement. A fierce frown contracted his brow, he gnawed his under lip savagely, and his whole face was transformed—if it had been beautiful enough for an angel's before, it was like a demon's now.
"Why don't you tell the truth," he cried, in a loud, angry voice, "and say that you are madly in love with that precious rascal, de Sigognac? THAT is the real reason for all this pretended virtue that you shamelessly flaunt in men's faces. What is there about that cursed scoundrel, I should like to know, that charms you so? Am I not handsomer, of higher rank, younger, richer, as clever, and as much in love with you as he can possibly be? aye, and more—ten thousand times more."
"He has at least one quality that you are lacking in, my lord," said Isabelle, with dignity; "he knows how to respect the woman he loves."
"That's only because he cares so little about you, my charmer!" cried Vallombreuse, suddenly seizing Isabelle, who vainly strove to escape from him, in his arms, and straining her violently to his breast—despite her frantic struggles, and agonized cry for help. As if in response to it, the door was suddenly opened, and the tyrant, making the most deprecating gestures and profound bows, entered the room and advanced towards Isabelle, who was at once released by Vallombreuse, with muttered curses at this most inopportune intrusion.
"I beg your pardon, mademoiselle," said Herode, with a furtive glance at the duke, "for interrupting you. I did not know that you were in such good company; but the hour for rehearsal has struck, and we are only waiting for you to begin."
He had left the door ajar, and an apparently waiting group could be discerned without, consisting of the pedant, Scapin, Leander, and Zerbine; a reassuring and most welcome sight to poor Isabelle. For one instant the duke, in his rage, was tempted to draw his sword, make a furious charge upon the intruding canaille, and disperse them "vi et armis"—but a second thought stayed his hand, as he realized that the killing or wounding of two or three of these miserable actors would not further his suit; and besides, he could not stain his noble hands with such vile blood as theirs. So he put force upon himself and restrained his rage, and, bowing with icy politeness to Isabelle, who, trembling in every limb, had edged nearer to her friends, he made his way out of the room; turning, however, at the threshold to say, with peculiar emphasis, "Au revoir, mademoiselle!"—a very simple phrase certainly, but replete with significance of a very terrible and threatening nature from the way in which it was spoken. His face was so expressive of evil passions as he said it that Isabelle shuddered, and felt a violent spasm of fear pass over her, even though the presence of her companions guaranteed her against any further attempts at violence just then. She felt the mortal anguish of the fated dove, above which the cruel kite is circling swiftly in the air, drawing nearer with every rapid round.
The Duke of Vallombreuse regained his carriage, which awaited him in the court followed by the obsequious landlord, with much superfluous and aggravating ceremony that he would gladly have dispensed with, and the next minute the rumble of wheels indicated to Isabelle that her dangerous visitor had taken his departure.
Now, to explain the timely interruption that came so opportunely to rescue Isabelle from her enemy's clutches. The arrival of the duke in his superb carriage at the hotel in the Rue Dauphine had caused an excitement and flutter throughout the whole establishment, which soon reached the ears of the tyrant, who, like Isabelle, was busy learning his new part in the seclusion of his own room. In the absence of de Sigognac, who was detained at the theatre to try on a new costume, the worthy tyrant, knowing the duke's evil intentions, determined to keep a close watch over his actions, and having summoned the others, applied his ear to the key-hole of Isabelle's door, and listened attentively to all that passed within—holding himself in readiness to interfere at any moment, if the duke should venture to offer violence to the defenceless girl—and to his prudence and courage it was due that she escaped further persecution, on that occasion, from her relentless and unscrupulous tormentor.
That day was destined to be an eventful one. It will be remembered that Lampourde, the professional assassin, had received from Merindol—acting for the Duke Of Vallombreuse—a commission to put Captain Fracasse quietly out of the way, and accordingly that worthy was dodging about on the Pont-Neuf, at the hour of sunset, waiting to intercept his intended victim, who would necessarily pass that way in returning to his hotel. Jacquemin awaited his arrival impatiently, frequently breathing on his fingers and rubbing them vigorously, so that they should not be quite numb with the cold when the moment for action came, and stamping up and down in order to warm his half-frozen feet. The weather was extremely cold, and the sun had set behind the Pont Rouge, in a heavy mass of blood-red clouds. Twilight was coming on apace, and already there were only occasional foot-passengers, or vehicles, to be encountered hurrying along the deserted streets.
At last de Sigognac appeared, walking very fast, for a vague anxiety about Isabelle had taken possession of him, and he was in haste to get back to her. In his hurry and preoccupation he did not notice Lampourde, who suddenly approached and laid hold of his cloak, which he snatched off, with a quick, strong jerk that broke its fastenings. Without stopping to dispute the cloak with his assailant, whom he mistook at first for an ordinary foot-pad, de Sigognac instantly drew his sword and attacked him. Lampourde, on his side, was ready for him, and pleased with the baron's way of handling his weapon, said to himself, though in an audible tone, "Now for a little fun." Then began a contest that would have delighted and astonished a connoisseur in fencing—such swift, lightning-like flashing of the blades, as they gave and parried cut and thrust—the clashing of the steel, the blue sparks that leaped from the contending swords as the fight grew more furious—Lampourde keeping up meanwhile an odd running commentary, as his wonder and admiration grew momentarily greater and more enthusiastic, and he had soon reached an exulting mood. Here at last was a "foeman worthy of his steel," and he could not resist paying a tribute to the amazing skill that constantly and easily baffled his best efforts, in the shape of such extraordinary and original compliments that de Sigognac was mightily amused thereby. As usual, he was perfectly cool and self-possessed, keeping control of his temper as well as of his sword—though by this time he felt sure that it was another agent of the Duke of Vallombreuse's he had to deal with, and that his life, not his cloak, was the matter at stake. At last Lampourde, who had begun to entertain an immense respect for his valiant opponent, could restrain his curiosity no longer, and eagerly asked,
"Would it be indiscreet, sir, to inquire who was your instructor? Girolamo, Paraguante, or Cote d'Acier would have reason to be proud of such a pupil. Which one of them was it?"
"My only master was an old soldier, Pierre by name," answered de Sigognac, more and more amused at the oddities of the accomplished swordsman he was engaged with. "Stay, take that! it is one of his favourite strokes."
"The devil!" cried Lampourde, falling back a step, "I was very nearly done for, do you know! The point of your sword actually went through my sleeve and touched my arm—I felt the cold steel; luckily for me it was not broad daylight—I should have been winged; but you are not accustomed, like me, to this dim, uncertain light for such work. All the same, it was admirably well done, and Jacquemin Lampourde congratulates you upon it, sir! Now, pay attention, to me—I will not take any mean advantage of such a glorious foe as you are, and I give you fair warning that I am going to try on you my own secret and special thrust Captain Fracasse—the crowning glory of my art, the 'ne plus ultra' of my science—the elixir of my life. It is known only to myself, and up to this time has been infallible. I have never failed to kill my man with it. If you can parry it I will teach it to you. It is my only possession, and I will leave it to you if you survive it; otherwise I will take my secret to the grave with me. I have never yet found any one capable of executing it, unless indeed it be yourself—admirable, incomparable swordsman that you are! It is a joy to meet such an one. But suppose we suspend hostilities a moment to take breath."
So saying Jacquemin Lampourde lowered the point of his sword, and de Sigognac did the same. They stood eyeing each other for a few moments with mutual admiration and curiosity, and then resumed the contest more fiercely than ever—each man doing his best, as he had need to do, and enjoying it. After a few passes, de Sigognac became aware that his adversary was preparing to give the decisive blow, and held himself on his guard against a surprise; when it came, delivered with terrible force, he parried it so successfully that Lampourde's sword was broken short off in the encounter with his own trusty weapon, leaving only the hilt and a few inches of the blade in his hand.
"If you have not got the rest of my sword in your body," cried Lampourde, excitedly, "you are a great man!—a hero!—a god!"
"No," de Sigognac replied calmly, "it did not touch me; and now, if I chose, I could pin you to the wall like a bat; but that would be repugnant to me, though you did waylay me to take my life, and besides, you have really amused me with your droll sayings.
"Baron," said Jacquemin Lampourde, calmly, "permit me, I humbly pray you, to be henceforth, so long as I live, your devoted admirer, your slave, your dog! I was to be paid for killing you—I even received a portion of the money in advance, which I have spent. But never mind that; I will pay it back, every penny of it, though I must rob some one else to do it."
With these words he picked up de Sigognac's cloak, and having put it carefully, even reverentially, over his shoulders, made him a profound obeisance, and departed.
Thus the efforts of the Duke of Vallombreuse, to advance his suit and to get rid of his rival, had once more failed ignominiously.
CHAPTER XIV. LAMPOURDE'S DELICACY
It is easy to imagine the frame of mind in which the Duke of Vallombreuse returned home after his repulse by Isabelle, and her rescue from his arms by the timely intervention of her friends, the comedians. At sight of his face, fairly livid and contorted with suppressed rage, his servants trembled and shrunk away from him—as well they might—for his natural cruelty was apt to vent itself upon the first unhappy dependent that happened to come in his way when his wrath was excited. He was not an easy master to serve, even in his most genial mood—this haughty, exacting young nobleman—and in his frantic fits of anger he was more savage and relentless than a half-starved tiger. Upon entering his own house he rushed through it like a whirlwind, shutting every door behind him with such a violent bang that the very walls shook, and pieces of the gilt mouldings round the panels were snapped off, and scattered on the floor. When he reached his own room he flung down his hat with such force that it was completely flattened, and the feather broken short off. Then, unable to breathe freely, he tore open his rich velvet pourpoint, as he rushed frantically to and fro, without any regard for the superb diamond buttons that fastened it, which flew in every direction. The exquisitely fine lace ruffles round his neck were reduced to shreds in a second, and with a vigorous kick he knocked over a large arm-chair that stood in his way, and left it upside down, with its legs in the air.
"The impudent little hussy!" he cried, as he continued his frenzied walk, like a wild beast in a cage. "I have a great mind to have her thrown into prison, there to be well-whipped, and have her hair shaved off, before being sent to a lunatic asylum—or better still to some strict convent where they take in bad girls who have been forcibly rescued from lives of infamy. I could easily manage it. But no, it would be worse than useless—persecution would only make her hate me more, and would not make her love that cursed de Sigognac a bit less. How can I punish her? what on earth shall I do?" and still he paced restlessly to and fro, cursing and swearing, and raving like a madman. While he was indulging in these transports of rage, without paying any attention to how the time was passing, evening drew on, and it was rapidly growing dark when his faithful Picard, full of commiseration, screwed up his courage to the highest point, and ventured to go softly in—though he had not been called, and was disobeying orders—to light the candles in his master's room; thinking that he was quite gloomy enough already without being left in darkness as well, and hoping that the lights might help to make him more cheerful. They did seem to afford him some relief, in that they caused a diversion; for his thoughts, which had been all of Isabelle and her cruel repulse of his passionate entreaties, suddenly flew to his successful rival, the Baron de Sigognac.
"But how is this?" he cried, stopping short in his rapid pacing up and down the room. "How comes it that that miserable, degraded wretch has not been despatched before this? I gave the most explicit orders about it to that good-for-nothing Merindol. In spite of what Vidalinc says, I am convinced that I shall succeed with Isabelle when once that cursed lover of hers is out of my way. She will be left entirely at my mercy then, and will have to submit to my will and pleasure with the best grace she can muster—for I shall not allow any sulking or tears. Doubtless she clings so obstinately to that confounded brute in the belief that she can induce him to marry her in the end. She means to be Mme. la Baronne de Sigognac—the aspiring little actress! That must be the reason of all this mighty display of mock modesty, and of her venturing to repulse the attentions of a duke, as scornfully, by Jove! as if he were a stable-boy. But she shall rue it—the impertinent little minx! and I'll have no mercy shown to the audacious scoundrel who dared to disable this right arm of mine. Halloa there! send Merindol up to me instantly, do you hear?"
Picard flew to summon him, and in a few moments the discomfited bully made his appearance; pale from abject terror, with teeth chattering and limbs trembling, as he was ushered into the dread presence of his angry lord. In spite of his efforts to assume the sang-froid he was so far from feeling, he staggered like a drunken man, though he had not drank enough wine that day to drown a fly, and did not dare to lift his eyes to his master's face.
"Well, you cowardly beast," said Vallombreuse angrily, how long, pray, are you going to stand there speechless, like a stupid fool, with that hang-dog air, as if you already had the rope that you so richly deserve round your wicked neck? "I only awaited your lordship's orders," stammered Merindol, trying to appear at ease, and failing lamentably. "My lord duke knows that I am entirely devoted to his service—even to being hanged, if it seems good to your lordship."
"Enough of that cant!" interrupted the duke impatiently. "Didn't I charge you to have that cursed de Sigognac, otherwise Captain Fracasse, cleared out of my way? You have not done it—my orders have not been obeyed. It is worth while, upon my word, to keep confounded hired rascals to do such work for me, at this rate! All that you are good for is to stuff yourself in the kitchen, you dastardly beast, and to guzzle my good wine from morning until night. But I've had enough of this, by Jove! and if there is not a change, and that without any further loss of time, to the hangman you shall go—do you hear? just as sure as you stand there, gaping like a drivelling idiot."
"My lord duke," said Merindol in a trembling voice, "is unjust to his faithful servant, who desires nothing but to do his lord's bidding. But this Baron de Sigognac is not to be disposed of so easily as my lord believes. Never was there a braver, more fearless man. In our first attack on him, at Poitiers, he got the better of us in a most wonderful way—we never saw the like of it—and all he had to fight with was a dull, rusty sword, not intended for use at all; a theatre sword, just for looks. And when we tried to do for him here in Paris, the very night he got here, it all came to naught, because he was so watchful, and somehow suspected what we were up to, and was ready for us; and that upset our beautiful little plan entirely. I never was so surprised in my life; and there was nothing for us to do, the whole four of us, but to get out of his sight as fast as we could, and he standing there laughing at us. Oh! he's a rare one, is Captain Fracasse. And now he knows my face, so I can't go near him myself. But I have engaged the services of a particular friend of mine—the bravest man and the best fighter in Paris—he hasn't his equal in the world with the sword, they all say. He is lying in wait for him on the Pont-Neuf now, at this very moment, and there'll be no mistake this time. Lampourde will be sure to despatch him for us—if it is not done already—and that without the slightest danger of your lordship's name being mixed up with the affair in any way, as it might have been if your lordship's own servants had done it."
"The plan is not a bad one," said the young duke, somewhat mollified, "and perhaps it is better that it should be done in that way. But are you really sure of the courage and skill of this friend of yours? He will need both to get the better of that confounded de Sigognac, who is no coward, and a master hand with the sword, I am bound to acknowledge, though I do hate him like the devil."
"My lord need have no fears," said Merindol enthusiastically, being now more at his ease. "Jacquemin Lampourde is a hero, a wonder, as everybody will tell your lordship. He is more valiant than Achilles, or the great Alexander. He is not spotless certainly, like the Chevalier Bayard, but he is fearless."
Picard, who had been hovering about for a few minutes in an uneasy way, now seeing that his master was in a better humour, approached and told him that a very odd-looking man was below, who asked to see him immediately on most important business.
"You may bring him in," said the duke, "but just warn him, Picard, that if he dares to intrude upon me for any trifling matter, I'll have him skinned alive before I let him go."
Mirindol was just about leaving the room, when the entrance of the newcomer rooted him to the spot; he was so astonished and alarmed that he could not move hand or foot. And no wonder, for it was no other than the hero whose name he had just spoken—Jacquemin Lampourde in person—and the bare fact of his having dared to penetrate so boldly into the dread presence of that high and mighty seignior, the Duke of Vallombreuse, ignoring entirely the agent through whom his services had been engaged, showed of itself that something very extraordinary must have taken place.
Lampourde himself did not seem to be in the least disconcerted, and after winking at his friend furtively in a very knowing way, stood unabashed before the duke, with the bright light of the many wax candles shining full upon his face. There was a red mark across his forehead, where his hat had been pressed down over it, and great drops of sweat stood on it, as if he had been running fast, or exercising violently. His eyes, of a bluish gray tint, with a sort of metallic lustre in them, were fixed upon those of the haughty young nobleman, with a calm insolence that made Merindol's blood run cold in his veins; his large nose, whose shadow covered all one side of his face, as the shadow of Mount Etna covers a considerable portion of the island of Sicily, stood out prominently, almost grotesquely, in profile; his mustache, with its long stiff points carefully waxed, which produced exactly the effect of an iron skewer stuck through his upper lip, and the "royal" on his chin curled upward, like a comma turned the wrong way, all contributed to make up a very extraordinary physiognomy, such as caricaturists dote on. He wore a large scarlet cloak, wrapped closely about his erect, vigorous form, and in one hand, which he extended towards the duke, he held suspended a well filled purse—a strange and mysterious proceeding which Mirindol could by no means understand.
"Well, you rascal," said the duke, after staring for a moment in astonishment at this odd-looking specimen, "what does this mean? Are you offering alms to me, pray, or what? with your purse there held out at arm's length, apparently for my acceptance."
"In the first place, my lord duke," said Lampourde, with perfect sang-froid and gravity, "may it not displease your highness, but I am not a rascal. My name is Jacquemin Lampourde, and I ply the sword for a living. My profession is an honourable one. I have never degraded myself by taking part in trade of any kind, or by manual labour. Killing is my business, at the risk of my own life and limb—for I always do my work alone, unaided, armed only with my trusty sword. Fair play is a jewel, and I would scorn to take a mean advantage of anybody. I always give warning before I attack a man, and let him have a chance to defend himself—having a horror of treachery, and cowardly, sneaking ways. What profession could be more noble than mine, pray? I am no common, brutal assassin, my lord duke, and I beseech your lordship to take back that offensive epithet, which I could never accept, save in a friendly, joking way—it outrages too painfully the sensitive delicacy of my amour-propre, my lord!"
"Very well, so be it, Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde, since you desire it," answered Vallombreuse, very much amused at the oddity of his strange visitor. "And now have the goodness to explain your business here, with a purse in your hand, that you certainly appear to be steadily offering to me."
Jacquemin satisfied by this concession to his susceptibility, suddenly jerked his head forward, without bending his body, while he waved the hat that he held slowly to and fro, making, according to his ideas, a salute that was a judicious mingling of the soldier's and the courtier's—which ceremony being concluded, he proceeded as follows with his explanation:
"Here is the whole thing in a nutshell, my lord duke! I received, from Merindol—acting for your lordship—part payment in advance for despatching a certain Baron de Sigognac, commonly called Captain Fracasse. On account of circumstances beyond my control, I have not been able to finish the job, and as I am a great stickler for honesty, and honour also, I have hastened to bring back to you, my lord duke, the money that I did not earn."
With these words he advanced a step, and with a gesture that was not devoid of dignity, gently laid the purse down on a beautiful Florentine mosaic table, that stood at the duke's elbow.
"Verily," said Vallombreuse sneeringly, "we seem to have here one of those droll bullies who are good for naught but to figure in a comedy; an ass in a lion's skin, whose roar is nothing worse than a bray. Come, my man, own up frankly that you were afraid of that same de Sigognac."
"Jacquemin Lampourde has never been afraid of anybody in his life," the fighting man replied, drawing himself up haughtily, "and no adversary has ever seen his back. Those who know me will tell your lordship that easy victories have no charm for me. I love danger and court it. I take positive delight in it. I attacked the Baron de Sigognac 'secundum artem,' and with one of my very best swords—made by Alonzo de Sahagun, the elder, of Toledo."
"Well, and what happened then?" said the young duke eagerly. "It would seem that you could not have been victorious, since you wish to refund this money, which was to pay you for despatching him."
"First let me inform your highness that in the course of my duels and combats, of one sort and another, I have left no less than thirty-seven men stretched dead upon the ground—and that without counting in all those I have wounded mortally or crippled for life. But this Baron de Sigognac intrenched himself within a circle of flashing steel as impenetrable as the walls of a granite fortress. I called into requisition all the resources of my art against him, and tried in every possible way to surprise him off his guard, but he was ready for everything—as quick as a flash, as firm as a rock—he parried every thrust triumphantly, magnificently, with the most consummate science, and a grace and ease I have never seen equalled. He kept me busy defending myself too all the time, and more than once had nearly done for me. His audacity was astonishing, his sang froid superb, and his perfect mastery over his sword, and his temper, sublime—he was not a man, but a god. I could have fallen down and worshipped him. At the risk of being spitted on his sword, I prolonged the fight as much as I dared, so as to enjoy his marvellous, glorious, unparalleled method to the utmost. However, there had to be an end of it, and I thought I was sure of despatching him at last by means of a secret I possess—an infallible and very difficult thrust, taught and bequeathed to me by the great Girolamo of Naples, my beloved master—no man living has a knowledge of it but myself—there is no one else left capable of executing it to perfection, and upon that depends its success. Well, my lord duke, Girolamo himself could not have done it better than I did to-night. I was thunderstruck when my opponent did not go down before it as if he had been shot. I expected to see him lying dead at my feet. But not at all, by Jove! That devil of a Captain Fracasse parried my blow with dazzling swiftness, and with such force that my blade was broken short off, and I left completely at his mercy, with nothing but the stump in my hand. See here, my lord duke! just look what he did to my precious, priceless Sahagun." And Jacquemin Lampourde, with a piteous air, drew out and exhibited the sorry remains of his trusty sword—almost weeping over it—and calling the duke's attention to the perfectly straight and even break.
"Your highness can see that it was a prodigious blow that snapped this steel like a pipe-stem, and it was done with such ease and precision. To despatch Captain Fracasse by fair means is beyond my skill, my lord duke, and I would scorn to resort to treachery. Like all truly brave men, he is generous. I was left entirely defenceless, and he could have spitted me like an ortolan just by extending his arm, but he refrained; he let me go unscathed. A miraculous display of delicacy, as well as chivalrous generosity, from a gentleman assaulted in the gloaming on the Pont-Neuf. I owe my life to him, and moreover, such a debt of gratitude as I shall never be able to repay. I cannot undertake anything more against him, my lord duke; henceforth he is sacred to me. Besides, it would be a pity to destroy such a swordsman—good ones are rare in these degenerate days, and growing more so every year. I don't believe he has his equal on earth. Most men handle a sword as if it were a broomstick nowadays, and then expect to be praised and applauded, the clumsy, stupid fools! Now, I have given my reasons for coming to inform your highness that I must resign the commission I had accepted. As for the money there, I might perhaps have been justified in keeping it, to indemnify me for the great risk and peril I incurred, but such a questionable proceeding would be repugnant to my tender conscience and my honest pride, as your highness can understand."
"In the name of all the devils in the infernal regions, take back your money!" cried Vallombreuse impetuously, "or I will have you pitched out of the window yonder, you and your money both. I never heard of such a scrupulous scoundrel in my life. You, Merindol, and your cursed crew, have not a spark of honour or honesty among you all; far enough from it." Then perceiving that Lampourde hesitated about picking up the purse, he added, "Take it, I tell you! I give it to you to drink my health with."
"In that, my lord duke, you shall be religiously obeyed," Lampourde replied joyfully; "however, I do not suppose that your highness will object to my dedicating part of it to lansquenet." And he stretched out his long arm, seized the purse, and with one dexterous movement, like a juggler, chucked it jingling into the depths of his pocket.
"It is understood then, my lord duke, that I retire from the affair so far as the Baron de Sigognac is concerned," continued Lampourde, "but, if agreeable to your highness, it will be taken in hand by my 'alter ego,' the Chevalier Malartic, who is worthy to be intrusted with the most delicate and hazardous enterprises, because of his remarkable adroitness and superior ability, and he is one of the best fellows in the world into the bargain. I had sketched out a scheme for the abduction of the young actress, in whom your highness condescends to take an interest, which Malartic will now carry out, with all the wonderful perfection of detail that characterizes his clever way of doing things. Merindol here, who knows him, will testify to his rare qualifications, my lord duke, and you could not find a better man for your purpose. I am presenting a real treasure to your lordship in tendering Malartic's services. When he is wanted your highness has only to send a trusty messenger to mark a cross in chalk on the left-hand door-post of the Crowned Radish. Malartic will understand, and repair at once, in proper disguise, to this house, to receive your lordship's last orders."
Having finished this triumphant address, Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde again saluted the duke as before, then put his hat on his head and stalked majestically out of the room, exceedingly well satisfied with his own eloquence, and what he considered courtly grace, in the presence of so illustrious a nobleman. His oddity and originality, together with his strange mingling of lofty notions of honour and rascality, had greatly amused and interested the young Duke of Vallombreuse, who was even willing to forgive him for not having despatched de Sigognac; for, if even this famous professional duellist could not get the better of him, he really must be invincible, and in consequence the thought of his own defeat became less galling and intolerable to his pride and vanity. Moreover, he had not been able to get rid of an uncomfortable consciousness, even in his most angry mood, that his endeavouring to compass de Sigognac's assassination was rather too great an enormity, not on account of any conscientious scruples, but simply because his rival was a gentleman; he would not have hesitated a second about having half-a-dozen bourgeois murdered, if they had been rash or unfortunate enough to interfere with him, the blood of such base, ignoble creature being of no more consequence in his eyes than so much water. Vallombreuse would have liked to despatch his enemy himself in honourable combat, but that was rendered impossible by the baron's superior ability as a swordsman, of which he still had a painful reminder in his wounded arm; which was scarcely healed yet, and would prevent his indulging in anything like a duel for some time to come. So his thoughts turned to the abduction of the young actress; a pleasanter subject to dwell upon, as he felt not the slightest doubt that once he had her to himself, separated from de Sigognac and her companions, she would not long be able to withstand his eloquent pleading and personal attractions. His self-conceit was boundless, but not much to be wondered at, considering his invariable and triumphant success in affairs of gallantry; so, in spite of his recent repulse, he flattered himself that he only required a fitting opportunity to obtain from Isabelle all that he desired.
"Let me have her for a few days in some secluded place," said he to himself, "where she cannot escape from me, or have any intercourse with her friends, and I shall be sure to win her heart. I shall be so kind and good and considerate to her, treat her with so much delicacy and devotion, that she cannot help feeling grateful to me; and then the transition to love will be easy and natural. But when once I have won her, made her wholly mine, then she shall pay dearly for what she has made me suffer. Yes, my lady, I mean to have my revenge—you may rest assured of that."
CHAPTER XV. MALARTIC AT WORK
If the Duke of Vallombreuse had been furious after his unsuccessful visit to Isabelle, the Baron de Sigognac was not less so, when, upon his return that evening, he learned what had taken place during his absence. The tyrant and Blazius were almost obliged to use force to prevent his rushing off, without losing a minute, to challenge the duke to mortal combat—a challenge sure to be refused; for de Sigognac, being neither the brother nor husband of the injured fair one, had no earthly right to call any other gentleman to account for his conduct towards her; in France all men are at liberty to pay their court to every pretty woman.
As to the attack upon the baron on the Pont-Neuf, there could be no doubt that it was instigated by the Duke of Vallombreuse; but how to prove it? that was the difficulty. And even supposing it could be proved, what good would that do? In the eyes of the world the Baron de Sigognac, who carefully concealed his real rank, was only Captain Fracasse, a low play-actor, upon whom a great noble, like the Duke of Vallombreuse, had a perfect right to inflict a beating, imprisonment, or even assassination, if it so pleased him; and that without incurring the blame, or serious disapproval, of his friends and equals.
So far as Isabelle was concerned, if the affair were made public, nobody would believe that she was really pure and virtuous—the very fact of her being an actress was enough to condemn her—for her sake it was important to keep the matter secret if possible. So there was positively no means of calling their enemy to account for his flagrant misdeeds, though de Sigognac, who was almost beside himself with rage and indignation, and burning to avenge Isabelle's wrongs and his own, swore that he would punish him, even if he had to move heaven and earth to compass it. Yet, when he became a little calmer, he could not but acknowledge that Herode and Blazius were right in advising that they should all remain perfectly quiet, and feign the most absolute indifference; but at the same time keep their eyes and ears very wide open, and be unceasingly on their guard against artful surprises, since it was only too evident that the vindictive young duke, who was handsome as a god and wicked as the devil, did not intend to abandon his designs upon them; although thus far he had failed ignominiously in everything he had undertaken against them.
A gentle, loving remonstrance from Isabelle, as she held de Sigognac's hands, all hot and trembling with suppressed rage, between her own soft, cool palms, and caressingly interlaced her slender white fingers with his, did more to pacify him than all the rest, and he finally yielded to her persuasions; promising to keep quiet himself, and allow, things to go on just as usual.
Meantime the representations of the troupe had met with splendid success. Isabelle's modest grace and refined beauty, Serafina's more brilliant charms, the soubrette's sparkling vivacity and bewitching coquetry, the superb extravagances of Captain Fracasse, the tyrant's majestic mien, Leander's manly beauty, the grotesque good humour of the pedant, Scapin's spicy deviltries, and the duenna's perfect acting had taken Paris by storm, and their highest hopes were likely to be realized. Having triumphantly won the approbation of the Parisians, nothing was wanting but to gain also that of the court, then at Saint Germain, and a rumour had reached their ears that they were shortly to be summoned thither; for it was asserted that the king, having heard such favourable reports of them, had expressed a desire to see them himself. Whereas Herode, in his character of treasurer, greatly rejoiced, and all felt a pleasant excitement at the prospect of so distinguished an honour. Meanwhile the troupe was often in requisition to give private representations at the houses of various people of rank and wealth in Paris, and it quickly became the fashion among them to offer this very popular style of entertainment to their guests.
Thus it befell that the tyrant, being perfectly accustomed to that sort of thing, was not at all surprised, or suspicious of evil, when one fine morning a stranger, of most venerable and dignified mien, presented himself at the hotel in the Rue Dauphine, and asked to speak with him on business. He appeared to be the major-domo, or steward, of some great nobleman's establishment, and, in effect, announced to Herode that he had been sent to consult with him, as manager of the troupe, by his master, the Comte de Pommereuil.
This highly respectable old functionary was richly dressed in black velvet, and had a heavy gold chain round his neck. His face was slightly sunburnt; the wavy hair that fell upon his shoulders, his thick, bushy eyebrows, heavy mustache, and long, sweeping beard were all white as snow. He had the most patriarchal, benevolent air imaginable, and a very gentle, yet dignified manner. The tyrant could not help admiring him very much, as he said, courteously, "Are you, sir, the famous Herode I am in quest of, who rules with a hand as firm as Apollo's the excellent company of comedians now playing in Paris? Their renown has gone abroad, beyond the walls of the city, and penetrated even to my master's ears, on his estate out in the country."
"Yes, I have the honour to be the man you seek," the tyrant answered, bowing very graciously.
"The Comte de Pommereuil greatly desires to have you give one of your celebrated representations at his chateau, where guests of high rank are sojourning at this moment, and I have come to ascertain whether it will be possible for you to do so. The distance is not very considerable, only a few leagues. The comte, my master, is a very great and generous seignior, who is prepared to reward your illustrious company munificently for their trouble, and will do everything in his power to make them comfortable while they are under his roof."
"I will gladly do all that I can to please your noble master," the tyrant replied, "though it will be a little difficult for us to leave Paris at present, just in the height of the season; even if it be only for a short absence."
"Three days would suffice for this expedition," said the venerable major-domo persuasively; "one for the journey, the second for the representation, and the third for the return to Paris. There is a capital theatre at the chateau, furnished with everything that is requisite, so that you need not be encumbered with much luggage—nothing beyond your costumes. Here is a purse containing a hundred pistoles that the Comte de Pommereuil charged me to put into your hands, to defray the expenses of the journey. You will receive as much more before you return, and there will be handsome presents for the actresses forthcoming, of valuable jewels, as souvenirs of the occasion."
After a momentary hesitation, the tyrant accepted the well-filled purse tendered to him, and, with a gesture of acquiescence, put it into his pocket.
"I am to understand then that you accept, and I may tell my master that you will give a representation at the chateau, as he desires?"
"Yes, I place myself and my company at his disposition," Herode said, smilingly. "And now let me know what day you want us to go, and which of our pieces your master prefers."
"Thursday is the day my master designated; as for selecting the play, that he leaves to your own good taste and discretion."
"Very well; and now you have only to give me directions as to the road we must take to reach the chateau. Be as explicit as you can, I pray you, so that there may be no danger of our going astray."
The agent of the Comte de Pommereuil accordingly gave the most minute and exact directions possible, but ended by saying, "Never mind, you need not burden your memory with all these troublesome details! I will send you a lackey to serve as guide."
Matters being thus satisfactorily arranged, the charming old major-domo took leave of Herode, who accompanied him down the stairs and across the court to the outer door of the hotel, and departed, looking back to exchange a last polite sign of farewell ere he turned the corner of the street. If the honest tyrant could have seen him as he walked briskly away, the moment he was safely out of sight, he would have been astonished at the way the broad, stooping shoulders straightened themselves up, and at the rapid, vigorous step that succeeded to the slow, rather infirm gait of his venerable visitor—but these things our worthy Herode neither saw nor suspected.
On Wednesday morning, as the comedians were finishing the packing of their chariot, which stood ready for departure in the courtyard of the hotel, with a pair of fine spirited horses before it that the tyrant had hired for the journey, a tall, rather fierce-looking lackey, dressed in a neat livery and mounted on a stout pony, presented himself at the outer door, cracking his whip vigorously, and announcing himself as the guide, sent according to promise by the considerate major-domo, to conduct them to the Chateau de Pommereuil.
Eight clear strokes rang out from the Samaritan just as the heavy vehicle emerged into the Rue Dauphine, and our company of players set forth on their ill-fated expedition. In less than half an hour they had left the Porte Saint Antoine and the Bastile behind them, passed through the thickly settled faubourg and gained the open country; advancing towards Vincennes, which they could distinguish in the distance, with its massive keep partially veiled by a delicate blue mist, that was rapidly dispersing under the influence of the bright, morning sunshine. As the horses were fresh, and travelled at a good pace, they soon came up with the ancient fortress—which was still formidable in appearance, though it could not have offered any adequate resistance to the projectiles of modern artillery. The gilded crescents on the minarets of the chapel built by Pierre de Montereau shone out brightly, as if joyous at finding themselves in such close proximity to the cross—the sign of redemption. After pausing a few minutes to admire this monument of the ancient splendour of our kings, the travellers entered the forest, where, amid the dense growth of younger trees, stood a few majestic old oaks—contemporaries doubtless of the one under which Saint Louis, that king of blessed memory, used to sit and dispense justice to his loyal subjects in person—a most becoming and laudable occupation for a monarch.
The road was so little used that it was grass-grown in many places, and the chariot rolled so smoothly and noiselessly along over it that they occasionally surprised a party of rabbits frolicking merrily together, and were very much amused to see them scamper away, in as great a hurry as if the hounds were at their heels. Farther on a frightened deer bounded across the road in front of them, and they could watch its swift, graceful flight for some distance amid the leafless trees. The young baron was especially interested in all these things, being country-bred, and it was a delight unspeakable to him to see the fields, the hedgerows, the forest, and the wild creatures of the wood once more. It was a pleasure he had been deprived of ever since he had frequented cities and towns, where there is nothing to look at but dingy houses, muddy streets and smoky chimneys—the works of man not of God. He would have pined in them for the fresh country air if he had not had the sweet companionship of the lovely woman he adored; in whose deep, blue eyes he saw a whole heaven of bliss.
Upon emerging from the wood the road wound up a steep hill-side, so the horses were stopped, to rest a few minutes before beginning the ascent, and de Sigognac, profiting by the opportunity thus afforded him, said to Isabelle, "Dear heart, will you get down and walk a little way with me? You will find it a pleasant change and rest after sitting still in the chariot so long. The road is smooth and dry, and the sunshine deliciously warm—do come!"
Isabelle joyfully acceded to this request, and putting her hand into the one extended to help her, jumped lightly down. It was a welcome means of according an innocent tete-a-tete to her devoted lover, and both felt as if they were treading on air, they were so happy to find themselves alone together, as, arm in arm, they walked briskly forward, until they were out of sight of their companions. Then they paused to look long and lovingly into each other's eyes, and de Sigognac began again to pour out to Isabelle "the old, old story," that she was never weary of hearing, but found more heavenly sweet at every telling. They were like the first pair of mortal lovers in Paradise, entirely sufficient to and happy in each other. Yet even then Isabelle gently checked the passionate utterances of her faithful suitor, and strove to moderate his rapturous transports, though their very fervour made her heart rejoice, and brought a bright flush to her cheeks and a happy light to her eyes that rendered her more adorably beautiful than ever.
"Whatever you may do or say, my darling," he answered, with a sweet, tender smile, "you will never be able to tire out my constancy. If need be, I will wait for you until all your scruples shall have vanished of themselves—though it be not till these beautiful, soft brown tresses, with their exquisite tinge of gold where the sun shines on them, shall have turned to silver."
"Oh!" cried Isabelle, "I shall be so old and so ugly then that even your sublime courage will be daunted, and I fear that in rewarding your perseverance and fidelity by the gift of myself I should only be punishing my devoted knight and brave champion."
"You will never be ugly, my beloved Isabelle, if you live to be a hundred," he replied, with an adoring glance, "for yours is not the mere physical beauty, that fades away and vanishes—it is the beauty of the soul, which is immortal."
"All the same you would be badly off," rejoined Isabelle, "if I were to take you at your word, and promise to be yours when I was old and gray. But enough of this jesting," she continued gravely, "let us be serious! You know my resolution, de Sigognac, so try to content yourself with being the object of the deepest, truest, most devoted love that was ever yet bestowed on mortal man since hearts began to beat in this strange world of ours."
"Such a charming avowal ought to satisfy me, I admit, but it does not! My love for you is infinite—it can brook no bounds—it is ever increasing—rising higher and higher, despite your heavenly voice, that bids it keep within the limits you have fixed for it."
"Do not talk so, de Sigognac! you vex me by such extravagances," said Isabelle, with a little pout that was as charming as her sweetest smile; for in spite of herself her heart beat high with joy at these fervent protestations of a love that no coldness could repel, no remonstrance diminish.
They walked on a little way in silence—de Sigognac not daring to say more then, lest he should seriously displease the sweet creature he loved better than his own life. Suddenly she drew her arm out of his, and with an exclamation of delight, sprang to a little bank by the road-side, where she had spied a tiny violet, peeping out from amid the dead leaves that had lain there all the winter through—the first harbinger of spring, smiling up at her a friendly greeting, despite the wintry cold of February. She knelt down and gently cleared away the dry leaves and grass about it, carefully broke the frail little stem, and returned to de Sigognac's side with her treasure—more delighted than if she had found a precious jewel lying hidden among the mosses.
"Only see, how exquisitely beautiful and delicate it is"—said she, showing it to him—"with its dear little petals scarcely unrolled yet to return the greeting of this bright, warm sunshine, that has roused it from its long winter sleep."
"It was not the sunshine, however bright and warm," answered de Sigognac, "but the light of your eyes, sweet Isabelle, that made it open out to greet you—and it is exactly the colour too of those dear eyes of yours."
"It has scarcely any fragrance, but that is because it's so cold," said Isabelle, loosening her scarf, and putting it carefully inside the ruff that encircled her slender, white neck. In a few minutes she took it out again, inhaled its rich perfume, pressed it furtively to her lips, and offered it to de Sigognac.
"See how sweet it is now! The warmth I imparted to it has reassured the little modest, timid blossom, and it breathes out its incomparable fragrance in gratitude to me."
"Say rather that it has received it from you," he replied, raising the violet tenderly to his lips, and taking from it the kiss Isabelle had bestowed—"for this delicate, delicious odour has nothing gross or earthly about it—it is angelically pure and sweet, like yourself, my own Isabelle."
"Ah! the naughty flatterer," said she, smiling upon him with all her heart in her eyes. "I give him a little flower that he may enjoy its perfume, and straightway he draws from it inspiration for all sorts of high-flown conceits, and fine compliments. There's no doing anything with him—to the simplest, most commonplace remark he replies with a poetical flight of fancy."
However, she could not have been very seriously displeased, for she took his arm again, and even leaned upon it rather more heavily than the exigencies of the way actually required; which goes to prove that the purest virtue is not insensible to pretty compliments, and that modesty itself knows how to recompense delicate flattery.
Not far from the road they were travelling stood a small group of thatched cottages—scarcely more than huts—whose inhabitants were all afield at their work, excepting a poor blind man, attended by a little ragged boy, who sat on a stone by the wayside, apparently to solicit alms from those who passed by. Although he seemed to be extremely aged and feeble, he was chanting a sort of lament over his misfortunes, and an appeal to the charity of travellers, in a loud, whining, yet vigorous voice; promising his prayers to those who gave him of their substance, and assuring them that they should surely go to Paradise as a reward for their generosity. For some time before they came up with him, Isabelle and de Sigognac had heard his doleful chant—much to the annoyance of the latter; for when one is listening, entranced, to the sweet singing of the nightingale, it is sorely vexatious to be intruded upon by the discordant croaking of a raven. As they drew near to the poor old blind man, they saw his little attendant bend down and whisper in his ear, whereupon he redoubled his groans and supplications—at the same time holding out towards them a small wooden bowl, in which were a few coppers, and shaking it, so as to make them rattle as loudly as possible, to attract their attention. He was a venerable looking old man, with a long white beard, and seemed to be shivering with cold, despite the great, thick, woollen cloak in which he was wrapped. The child, a wild-looking little creature, whose scanty, tattered clothing was but a poor protection against the stinging cold, shrunk timidly from notice, and tried to hide himself behind his aged charge. Isabelle's tender heart was moved to pity at the sight of so much misery, and she stopped in front of the forlorn little group while she searched in her pocket for her purse—not finding it there she turned to her companion and asked him to lend her a little money for the poor old blind beggar, which the baron hastened to do—though he was thoroughly out of patience with his whining jeremiads—and, to prevent Isabelle's coming in actual contact with him, stepped forward himself to deposit the coins in his wooden bowl. Thereupon, instead of tearfully thanking his benefactor and invoking blessings upon his head, after the usual fashion of such gentry, the blind man—to Isabelle's inexpressible alarm—suddenly sprang to his feet, and straightening himself up with a jerk, opened his arms wide, as a vulture spreads its wings for flight, gathered up his ample cloak about his shoulders with lightning rapidity and flung it from him with a quick, sweeping motion like that with which the fisherman casts his net. The huge, heavy mantle spread itself out like a dense cloud directly above de Sigognac, and falling over and about him enveloped him from head to foot in its long, clinging folds, held firmly down by the lead with which its edges were weighted—making him a helpless prisoner—depriving him at once of sight and breath, and of the use of his hands and feet. The young actress, wild with terror, turned to fly and call for help, but before she could stir, or utter a sound, a hand was clapped over her mouth, and she felt herself lifted from the ground. The old blind beggar, who, as by a miracle, had suddenly become young and active, and possessed of all his faculties, had seized her by the shoulders, while the boy took her by the feet, and they carried her swiftly and silently round a clump of bushes near by to where a man on horseback and masked, was waiting for them. Two other men, also mounted and masked, and armed to the teeth, were standing close at hand, behind a wall that prevented their being seen from the road. Poor Isabelle, nearly fainting with fright, was lifted up in front of the first horseman, and seated on a cloak folded so as to serve for a cushion; a broad leather strap being passed round her waist, which also encircled that