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A MARQUIS DONS HIS BALDRIC
They were men, the marquis and his contemporaries. They were born in rough times, they lived and died roughly. They were men who made France what it was in life and is to-day in history, resplendent. The marquis never went about his affairs impetuously; he calculated this and balanced that. When he arrived at a conclusion or formed a purpose, it was definite. He never swerved nor retreated. To-night he had formed a purpose, and he proceeded toward it directly, as was his custom.
"Jehan, my campaign rapier," he said.
"Campaign rapier, Monsieur!" repeated the astonished lackey. Monsieur le Marquis had not worn that weapon in almost ten years.
"Take care, Jehan; you know that I am not particularly fond of repeating commands. Certainly my old basket-hilt took the journey with me."
Jehan went rummaging among his master's personal effects, and soon returned. He buckled on the marquis's shoulder a worn baldric pendent to which was the famous basket-sword which had earned for its owner the sobriquet of "Prince of a hundred duels."
"It has grown heavy since the last time I put it on," observed the marquis, thoughtfully, weighing the blade on his palms. "Those were merry days," reminiscently.
"Monsieur goes abroad to-night?" essayed the lackey, experiencing an old-time thrill.
"Yes, but alone. Now, a cup of wine undiluted. Monsieur de Leviston is still in the hospital?"
"Through the kindly offices of Monsieur de Saumaise."
"Who is a gallant fellow."
To this Monsieur le Marquis readily agreed. "But Monsieur d'Hérouville is no longer confined. I saw him abroad this afternoon."
"They say that he is a furious swordsman, Monsieur," ventured Jehan, trembling.
The marquis threw a keen glance at his servant. "What did they say of me, even ten years ago?"
"You had no peer in all France, Monsieur . . . ten years ago."
The marquis smiled. "I have grown thin in ten years, that is all."
"Shall you leave any commands, Monsieur?"
"You may have the evening to yourself, and don't return till midnight."
Jehan bowed. There was nothing for him to say.
At dinner the marquis was unusually brilliant and witty. He dazzled the governor and his ladies, and unbent so far as to accept four glasses of burgundy. On one side sat Anne de Vaudemont, on the other the governor's son, and directly opposite, Madame de Brissac, an unnamed mystery to them all save Anne. Madame, despite her antagonism and the terror lest she be discovered and unmasked by those remarkable grey eyes, found herself irresistibly drawn toward and fascinated by this remarkable exponent of a past epoch. She forgot the stories she had heard regarding his past, she forgot the sinister shadow he had cast over her own life, she forgot all save that without such men as this there would and could be no history. And she was quite ignorant of the fact that her scrutiny was being returned in kind.
"Madame," he asked, "have I not met you somewhere in wide and beautiful France?"
"France is wide, as you say. I do not recollect having seen you before taking passage on the Henri IV."
He felt instinctively that she had immediately erected a barrier between them; not from her words, but from their hidden sense. He at once turned to Anne and recounted an anecdote relating to her distinguished grandsire. But covertly he watched madame; watched the half-drooping eyelids, the shadow of a dimple in her left cheek, the curving throat, the shimmering ringlet which half obscured the perfect ear. He had seen this face before, or one as like it as the reflection of the moon upon placid water is like the moon itself. Now and then he frowned, remembering his purpose. But why was this young woman, who was fit to grace a palace, why was she here incognito? Ah!
"Madame, have you met Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes, my son?"
Anne trembled for her friend.
"I have noticed him, Monsieur. Is he anything like you, as you were in your youth?" It was admirable, but not even Anne dreamed of the delicacy of the thread which held together madame's tones.
"Modesty compels me to remain silent," replied the marquis.
"And how goes Mazarin's foreign policy?" asked De Lauson.
"Politics is a weed which I have cast out of my garden, your Excellency," said the marquis, laughing.
Madame had a grateful thought for the governor, and she regretted that she could not express it aloud. He had changed the current from a dangerous channel.
It was the marquis who opened the door for the ladies; it was the marquis who said good night with an inflection which gave it a new meaning; it was the marquis who intruded into madame's thoughts, causing her partly to forget the letter and the broken sentence of D'Hérouville's.
"What an extraordinary man he is, that marquis!" was Anne's comment as they mounted the stairs.
"Monsieur le Chevalier has yet a good deal to learn from his father. See the moon, Anne; how beautiful it is!"
"Your Excellency," began the marquis, resuming his seat, "where may I find Monsieur le Comte d'Hérouville this evening?"
"I am at a loss to say," was the reply, "unless he is at the hospital, which I understand he left this day."
"He is not here at the château, then?"
"Not at my invitation," tersely. "I will, however, undertake to find him for you."
"I shall be grateful."
So the governor despatched an orderly, who returned within half an hour with the information that Monsieur le Comte was waiting in the citadel's parade. The marquis rose.
"Monsieur, my thanks; your Excellency will excuse me, as I have something important to say to Monsieur d'Hérouville."
It was only when the marquis was leaving the hall that the governor noticed the basket-hilt of the old man's dueling sword. Its formidable length disquieted his Excellency more than he would have liked to confess.
It was early moonlight, and the parade ground was empty and ghostly. The marquis glanced about. He discovered D'Hérouville leaning against a cannon, contemplating the escarps and bastions of the citadel. The marquis went forward, striking his heels soundly. D'Hérouville roused himself and turned round.
"You are Monsieur le Comte d'Hérouville," began the marquis, abruptly.
"I am," peering into the marquis's face, and stepping back in surprise.
"You come, I believe, from an ancient and notable house."
"Almost as notable as yours, Monsieur le Marquis," bowing in his wonder, though this wonder was not wholly free from suspicion.
"Almost, but not quite," added the marquis. "The House of Périgny was established some hundred and fifty years before royalty gave you a patent. Your grandsire and your father were brave men."
"So history writes it," his puzzlement still growing.
"I wish a few words with you in private."
"I suppose his Excellency has summoned me here for this purpose. But I am in a hurry. The night air is not good for me, it being heavy with dews, and I am out of the hospital only this day."
The marquis's grim laugh was jarring.
"You laugh, Monsieur?" patiently.
"Yes. I am never in a hurry."
"What is it you wish to say?"
"It is a question. Why do you hate Monsieur le Comte, my son?"
"Monsieur le Comte?" with frank irony.
"In all that the name implies. Some man has, over De Leviston's shoulder, called my son a son of . . . the left hand." The words seemed to skin the marquis's lips.
"And you, Monsieur," banteringly, "did you not make him so?" D'Hérouville began to understand.
"He is my lawful son."
"Ah! then you have gone to Parliament and had him legitimatized? That is royal on your part, believe me."
"The son of my wife, Monsieur."
"Then, what the devil . . . !"
"And when Monsieur de Leviston accused my son of not knowing who his mother was," continued the old man, coldly and evenly, which signified a deadly wrath, "you laughed."
"Certainly I did not weep." D'Hérouville did not know the caliber of the man he was speaking to. He merely expected that the marquis would request him to apologize.
"My son has challenged you?" with the same unchanging quiet.
"He has; but I have this day advised him not to wear out his voice in that direction, for certainly I shall not cross swords with him."
"You are very discreet," dryly.
"And I shall make no apologies."
"Apologies, Monsieur! Can one offer an apology for what you have done? Besides, it is said that my son is magnificent with the rapier and would accept the apology of no man."
"Bah! That is a roundabout way of calling me a coward."
"I was presently coming to the phrase bluntly. If I were not seventy; if I were young," as if musing.
"Well," truculently, "if you were young?"
The marquis's bold and fearless eyes sparkled with fire. "I am an old man; vain wishes are useless. You are a coward, Monsieur; one of the coarser breed; and I say to you if my son had not challenged you or had accepted an apology, I would disown him indeed. As you will not fight him, and as apologies are out of the question . . . Here, Monsieur; there is equal light, and we are alone."
"I do not kill old men."
"Then listen: I apply to you the term De Leviston applied to my son."
"Monsieur, retract that!"
Their shoulders brushed and glowing eyes looked into glowing eyes.
"Bah! In my fifties I killed more men of your kidney than I am proud of. Retract? I never retract;" and the marquis snapped his fingers under D'Hérouville's nose.
D'Hérouville slapped the marquis in the face. "Your age, Monsieur, will not save you. No man shall address me in this fashion!"
"Not even my son, eh, Monsieur? There is still blood in your muddy veins, then? Come to my room, Monsieur; no one will see us there. And you will not be subjected to the evils of the night air and the dew;" and the calm old man waved a hand toward the lights which shone from the windows of his room above.
"You have brought this upon yourself," said D'Hérouville, cold with fury, forgetting his newly healed wound.
"What worried me most was the fear that you might not understand me. Permit me to show you the way, Monsieur."
The marquis was the calmer of the two. A strange and springing new life seemed to have entered his watery veins. A flare of the old-time fire rose up within him: he was again the prince of a hundred duels. On reaching the room, he lit all the candles and arranged them so as to leave no shadows. Next he poured out a glass of wine and drank it, drew his rapier, and bared his arm.
At the sight of that arm, thin and white, D'Hérouville felt all his ire ooze from his pores. He could not measure swords with this old man, who stood near enough to his grave without being sent into it offhand.
"Monsieur, forgive me for striking an old man, who is visibly my inferior in strength and youth. My anger got the better of me. Your courage compels my admiration. I can not fight you."
The marquis spat upon the floor. "On guard, Monsieur!"
"If you insist;" and D'Hérouville stepped forward carelessly.
The blades came together. Then followed a sight for the paladins. For it took D'Hérouville but a moment to learn why the marquis had been called the prince of a hundred duels. Only twice in his life had he met such a master.
"I am old, eh, Monsieur?" said the marquis, making an assault which D'Hérouville, had his blade swerved the breadth of a hair, would never have neutralized.
Back, step by step, he was forced, till he felt his shoulders touch the wall. He was beginning to suffer cruelly. A warmth on his side told him that his old wound had opened and was bleeding. Good God! and if this old man at whom he had laughed should kill him! With a desperate return he succeeded in regaining the open. He tried the offensive, it was too late. The marquis, describing a circle, toppled over a candle, which rolled across the floor and was snuffed in its own melting wax.
The marquis's eyes burned like carbuncles; his blade was like living light. He spoke.
"I am old; beware of old dogs that have teeth."
Round and round they circled, back and forth. D'Hérouville was fighting for his life. His own wonderful mastery, and this alone, kept the life in his body. Sometimes it seemed that he must be in a dream, the victim of some terrible nightmare. For the marquis's face did not look human, animated as it was with the lust to kill.
"God!" burst from the count's cracked lips. His sword was rolling at his feet. It was the end. He shut his eyes.
The marquis drew back his arm to send the blade home, and there came a change. At the very moment when victory must have been his, he staggered, a black mist filming his eyes. The magic blade slipped from his grasp and clanged to the floor. He tried to save himself, but he could not. He fell by the side of his sword and lay there silent. His strength, had been superhuman, the last flare of a burnt-out fire.
"Good God, and I never touched him!" gasped, D'Hérouville. He was covered with a cold sweat. "A moment more and I had been a dead man!" He brushed his eyes, and his hand shook with a transient palsy.
There was a tableau: the aged noble stretched out beside his rapier, D'Hérouville leaning against the wall and wild-eyed . . . and a black-robed figure standing in the doorway.
"Have you killed him?" asked the black-robed figure, stepping into the room.
D'Hérouville gazed at him, incapable of speaking.
"Have you killed him, I say?" repeated Brother Jacques.
D'Hérouville choked, and presently found his voice. "I have not even touched him. God is witness! He has been stricken by a vapor, or he is dead."
"It is well for you, Monsieur, that your sword did not touch him. You had better go."
The count's hand shook so that he could hardly put his rapier into the scabbard. With a dazed glance at the marquis, who had not yet stirred, with another glance at the priest, he passed out, holding the flat of his hand against his side.
Immediately Brother Jacques bent over the fallen man.
"He lives; that is well. So I must go on to the end."
He poured out some wine and bathed the marquis's temples and wrists. Next he lifted the old man in his arms and carried him to the bed, undressed him, and covered him over. He drew a chair to the side of the bed and sat down, waiting and watching. Occasionally his glance wandered, to the sinking candles, to the moon outside, from the marbled face on the pillow to the empty wine-glass on the small table. Once he recollected seeing an envelope within a hand's span of the glass.
A duel! This palsied old man pressing youth and vigor to the wall! It seemed incredible. What must this man have been in his prime? Age vanquishing youth! A shiver ran across Brother Jacques's spine, a shiver of admiration and wonder. He touched the withered hand which had but a few moments since been endowed with marvelous skill and cunning and strength: it was icy and damp.
He filled the glass of wine, ready for the marquis's awakening, and again found his gaze entrapped by the envelope. His hand reached out for it absently and without purpose. He read the address indifferently--"To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivered into his hands at my death." The marquis, then, had lost some friend? He put back the letter, placing a book upon it to prevent its being swept to the floor.
There was a sound. The marquis had recovered his senses. He looked blankly around, at the candles, at Brother Jacques, at the sheets which covered his strangely deadened limbs.
"Ah! I have had only a bad dream, then? Pour me a glass of wine, and I shall sleep."
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