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THE FIFTY PISTOLES OF MONSIEUR LE VICOMTE
The roisterers went their devious ways, sobered and subdued. So deep was their distraction that the watch passed unmolested. Usually a rout was rounded out and finished by robbing the watch of their staffs and lanterns; by singing in front of the hôtel of the mayor or the episcopal palace; by yielding to any extravagant whim suggested by mischief. But to-night mischief itself was quiet and uninventive. Had there been a violent death among them, the roisterers would have accepted the event with drunken philosophy. The catastrophe of this night, however, was beyond their imagination: they were still-voiced and horrified. The Chevalier du Cévennes, that prince of good fellows . . . was a nobody, a son of the left hand! Those who owed the Chevalier money or gratitude now recollected with no small satisfaction that they had not paid their indebtedness. Truly adversity is the crucible in which the quality of friendship is tried.
On the way to the Corne d'Abondance the self-made victim of this night's madness and his friend exchanged no words. There was nothing to be said. But there was death in the Chevalier's heart; his chin was sunken in his collar, and he bore heavily on Victor's arm; from time to time he hiccoughed. Victor bit his lips to repress the sighs which urged against them.
"Where do you wish to go, Paul?" he asked, when they arrived under the green lantern and tarnished cherubs of the tavern.
"Have I still a place to go?" the Chevalier asked. "Ah well, lead on, wherever you will; I am in your keeping."
So together they entered the tavern.
"Maître," said Victor to le Borgne, "is the private assembly in use?"
"No, Monsieur; you wish to use it?"
"Yes; and see that no one disturbs us."
In passing through the common assembly, Victor saw Du Puys and Bouchard in conversation with the Jesuits. Brother Jacques glanced carelessly in the Chevalier's direction, frowned at some thought, and turned his head away. The Iroquois had fallen asleep in a chair close to the fire. In a far corner Victor discovered the form of the Vicomte d'Halluys; he was apparently sleeping on his arms, which were extended across the table.
"Why do I dislike that man?" Victor asked in thought. "There is something in his banter which strikes me as coming from a man consumed either by hate or envy." He pushed the Chevalier into the private assembly, followed and closed the door.
"Ah!" The Chevalier sank into a chair. "Three hours ago I was laughing and drinking in this room. Devil take me, but time flies!"
"God knows, Paul," said Victor, brokenly, "what you have done this night. You are mad, mad! What are you going to do? You have publicly branded yourself as the illegitimate son of the marquis."
"It is true," simply.
"True or false, you have published it without cause or reason. Good God! and they will laugh at you; and I will kill all who laugh in my presence. What madness!" Victor flung his hat on the table, strode the length of the room, beating his hands and rumpling his hair.
"How you go on, Victor!" said the Chevalier with half a smile. "And you love me still?"
"And will, to the latest breath in my body. I know of no other man I love so wholly as I love you."
"I would lose two marquisates rather than be without this knowledge."
"But oh! what have you done? To-morrow . . . What will you do to-morrow?"
"To-morrow? A bottle of wine, lad; and wherefore to-morrow? To-morrow? There will always be a tomorrow. The world began on one and will end on one. So give me wine, bubbling with lies, false promises, phantom happiness, mockery and despair. Each bottle is but lies; and yet how well each bottle tells them! Wine, Victor; do you hear me? I must never come sober again; in drunkenness, there lies oblivion. What! shall I come sober . . . to feel, to care? . . . to hear them laugh? No, no! See!" brushing his forehead, beaded with moisture; "I am sweating gall, lad. God!" striking the table with his fist; "could you but look within and see the lust to kill, the damnation and despair! Woe to him whom I hear laugh! And yet . . . he will be within his rights. Whenever men tire of torturing animals, nature gives them a cripple or a bastard to play with. And look! I am calm, my hand no longer shakes."
Victor leaned against the chimney, haggard of face, silent of tongue.
The Chevalier took out a letter and held it close to the candle-light. He sighed. Victor saw that he was not looking at the letter, but through it and beyond. Some time passed.
"And, Victor, I was going back to Paris to-morrow, to life and to love. Within this scented envelope a woman has written the equivalent of 'I love you!' as only a loving woman can write it. How quickly the candle would eat it! But shall I destroy it? No. Rather let me keep it to remind myself what was and what might have been. Far away from here I shall read it again and again, till it crumbles in my hand and scatters into dust." He hid the letter in his doublet and drew forth a miniature. Like a ruddy ember it lay in his hand. "Paris! O prince of cities, there lies upon your stones the broken cup which held my youth!" The yellow of the candle and the red of the fire gave a singularly rich tone to his face, from which the dullness of intoxication was suddenly gone.
"Paul, you are breaking my heart," cried Victor, choking. His poet's soul, and only such as his, could comprehend how full was the Chevalier's cup of misery.
"Only women's hearts break, lad, and then in verse. Shall I weep? No. Let me laugh; for, my faith, it is laughable. I brought it on myself. Fate led me to the precipice, and I myself jumped over. Yesterday I had pride, I was heir to splendid estates, with forty thousand livres the year to spend. To-night . . . Let me see; the vicomte owes me fifty pistoles. It will be a start in life . . . And much have I snuffed besides candles to-night! By all means, let me laugh."
This irony overcame Victor, who sat down, covered his face, and wept noiselessly.
"You weep? And I . . . I am denied the joy of cursing."
"But what made you speak? In God's name, what possessed you to publish this misfortune?"
"On my word, Victor, I do not know. Wine, perhaps; perhaps anger, madness, or what you will. I know only this: I could not help myself. Poor fool! Yes, I was mad. But he roused within me all the disgust of life, and it struck me blind. But regret is the cruelest of mental poisons; and there is enough in my cup without that. And that poor marquis; I believe I must have caused him some annoyance and chagrin."
"But what will you do?"
"What shall I do? Paris shall see me no more, nor France. I shall go . . . Yes; thanks, Brother Jacques, thanks! I shall go to that France across the sea and become . . . a grand seigneur, owning a hut in the wilderness. Monsieur le Chevalier, lately a fop at court will become a habitant of the forests, will wear furs, and seek his food by the aid of a musket. It will be a merry life, Victor; no dicing, no tennis, no women, no wine." The Chevalier rested his chin in his hands, staring at the candle. "On Thursday next there will be a mask ball at the Palais Royal; but the Chevalier du Cévennes will not be with his company. He will be on the way to New France, with many another broken soldier, to measure his sword against fortune's. And from the camp-fires, lad, I shall conjure up women's faces, and choose among the most patient . . . my mother's. Vanity!" suddenly. "But for vanity I had not been here. Look, Victor; it was not wine, it was not madness. It was vanity in the shape of a grey cloak, a grey cloak. Will you call Major du Puys?"
"Paul, you can not mean it?"
"Frankly, can I remain in France? Have I not already put France behind me?"
"And what's to become of me?" asked the poet.
"You? Why, you will shortly find Madame de Brissac, marry her, and become a fine country gentleman. And when Mazarin becomes forgetful or dies, you will return to Paris, your head secure upon your shoulders. As for me, New France, and a fresh quill, and I will be a man yet," smiling. "And I give you the contents of my rooms at the Candlestick."
"What! live among these ghosts of happy times? I could not!"
"Well, I will give them to Mignon, then. There is one who will miss me. Will you call the major, or shall I?"
"I will call him, since you are determined."
"I shall take the grey cloak, too, lad. I will wear that token of vanity into rags. Faith, I have not looked at it once since I loaned it to you."
"And the unknown?"
"When we come to the end of a book, my poet, we lay it down. What woman's love could surmount this birth of mine, these empty pockets? I have still some reason; that bids me close the book. Yonder, from what I have learned, they are in need of men's arms and brains, not ancestry, noble birth. And there is some good blood in this arm, however it may have come into the world." The Chevalier extended it across the table and the veins swelled upon the wrist and hand. "Seek the major, lad."
When the major entered the Chevalier stood up. "Monsieur," he said, "pardon me for interrupting you, but is it true that to-morrow you sail for Quebec?"
"The weather permitting," answered Du Puys, vaguely wondering why the Chevalier wished to see him. His shrewd glance traveled from the Chevalier to Victor, and he saw that they had been drinking.
"Thanks," said the Chevalier. "You are recruiting?"
"Yes, Monsieur. I have succeeded indifferently well."
"Is there room in your company for another recruit?"
"You have a friend who wishes to seek his fortune?" smiling grimly.
"I am speaking for myself. I wish to visit that country. Will you accept my sword and services?"
"You, Monsieur?" dumfounded. "You, a common trooper in Quebec? You are jesting!"
"Not at all. I shall never return to Paris."
"Monsieur le Comte . . ." began Du Puys.
The Chevalier raised his hand. "Not Monsieur le Comte; simply Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes; Cévennes for the sake of brevity."
"Monsieur, then, pardon a frank soldier. The life at Quebec is not at all suited to one who has been accustomed to the ease and luxury of court. There is all the difference in the world between De Guitaut's company in Paris and Du Puy's ragged band in Quebec. Certainly, a man as rich as yourself . . ."
"I have not a denier in my pockets," said the Chevalier, with a short laugh.
"Not at present, perhaps," replied Du Puys. "But one does not lose forty thousand livres in a night, and that, I understand, is your revenue."
"I lost them to-night," quietly.
"Forty thousand livres?" gasped the soldier. "You have lost a fortune, then?" annoyed.
"Yes; and more than that, I have lost the source from which they came, these forty thousand livres. I see that you are mystified. Perhaps you will learn in the morning how I came to lose this fortune. Will you accept my sword?"
"Monsieur," answered Du Puys, "you are in wine. Come to me in the morning; you will have changed your mind."
"And if not?"
"Then I shall give you a place in the company. But, word of honor, I do not understand . . ."
"It is not necessary that you should. The question is, is my past record as a soldier sufficient?"
"Your courage is well known, Monsieur."
"That is all. Good night, Major. I shall sign your papers at nine to-morrow."
Du Puys returned to his party. They asked questions mutely.
"Father," he said to Chaumonot, "here is a coil. Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes, son of the Marquis de Périgny, wishes to sign for Quebec."
The Vicomte d'Halluys lifted his head from his arms. But none took notice of him.
"What!" cried Brother Jacques. "That fop? . . . in Quebec?"
"It is as I have the honor of telling you," said Du Puys. "There is something going on. We shall soon learn what it is."
The Vicomte d'Halluys rose and came over to the table. "Do I understand you to say that the Chevalier is to sign for Quebec?" His tone possessed a disagreeable quality. He was always insolent in the presence of churchmen.
"Yes, Monsieur," said Du Puys. "You were with him to-night. Perhaps you can explain the Chevalier's extraordinary conduct? He tells me that he has lost forty thousand livres to-night."
"He has, indeed, lost them." The vicomte seemed far away in thought.
"Forty thousand livres?" murmured Brother Jacques. He also forgot those around him. Forty thousand livres, and he had never called one hundred his own!
"Monsieur," repeated the major, "can you account for the Chevalier's strange behavior?"
"I can," said the vicomte, "but I refuse. There are looser tongues than mine. I will say this: the Chevalier will never enter his father's house again, either here, in Paris, or in Périgny. There is hot blood in that family; it clashed to-night; that is all. Be good to the Chevalier, Messieurs; let him go to Quebec, for he can not remain in France."
"Has he committed a crime?" asked Du Puys anxiously.
"No, Major," carelessly, "but it seems that some one else has."
"And the Chevalier is shielding him?" asked Brother Jacques.
The vicomte gazed down at the young Jesuit, and smiled contemptuously. "Is he shielding some one, you ask? I do not say so. But keep your Jesuit ears open; you will hear something to-morrow." Noting with satisfaction the color on Brother Jacques's cheeks, the vicomte turned to Captain Bouchard. "I have determined to take a cabin to Quebec, Monsieur. I have some land near Montreal which I wish to investigate."
"You, Monsieur?" said the sailor. "The only cabin-room left is next to mine, and expensive."
"I will pay you in advance. I must go to Quebec. I can not wait."
"Very well, Monsieur."
The vicomte went to the door of the private assembly and knocked boldly. Victor answered the summons.
"D'Halluys?" cried Victor, stepping back.
"Yes, Monsieur. Pardon the intrusion, but I have something to say to Monsieur le Chevalier."
He bared his head, looked serenely into Victor's doubting eyes, and turned to the Chevalier, whose face was without any sign of welcome or displeasure. "Monsieur," the vicomte began, "it is very embarrassing--Patience, Monsieur de Saumaise!" for Victor had laid his hand upon his sword; "my errand is purely pacific. It is very embarrassing, then, to approach a man so deeply in trouble as yourself. I know not what madness seized you to-night. I am not here to offer you sympathy; sympathy is cheap consolation. I am here to say that no man shall in my presence speak lightly of your misfortune. Let me be frank with you. I have often envied your success in Paris; and there were times when this envy was not unmixed with hate. But a catastrophe like that to-night wipes out such petty things as envy and hate."
"Take care, Monsieur," said Victor haughtily. He believed that he caught an undercurrent of raillery.
"Why, Monsieur, what have I said?" looking from one to the other.
"Proceed, Vicomte," said the Chevalier, motioning Victor to be quiet. He was curious to learn what the vicomte had to say.
"To continue, then: you are a man of extraordinary courage, and I have always admired you even while I envied you. To-night I lost to you some fifty pistoles. Give me the happiness of crossing out this trifling debt," and the vicomte counted out fifty golden pistoles which he laid on the table. There was no particle of offense in his actions.
"To prove to you my entire good will, I will place my life into your keeping, Monsieur le Chevalier. Doubtless Saumaise has told you that at present Paris is uninhabitable both to himself and to me. The shadows of the Bastille and the block cast their gloom upon us. We have conspired against the head of the state, which is Mazarin. There is a certain paper, which, if seen by the cardinal, will cause the signing of our death warrants. Monsieur de Saumaise, have you any idea who stole your cloak?"
"It was not my cloak, Monsieur," said Victor, with a frown; "it was loaned to me by Monsieur le Chevalier."
"Yours?" cried the vicomte, turning to the Chevalier.
"Yes." The Chevalier thoughtfully fingered the golden coin. One slipped through his fingers and went jangling along the stone of the floor.
"I was wondering where I had seen it before. Hang me, but this is all pretty well muddled up. There was a traitor somewhere, or a coward. What think you, Saumaise; does not this look like Gaston of Orléans?"
Victor started. "I never thought of him!"
"Ah! If Gaston has that paper, France is small, Monsieur," said the vicomte, addressing the Chevalier, "I learn that you are bound for Quebec. Come, Saumaise; here is our opportunity. Let the three of us point westward."
Victor remained silent. As oil rises to the surface of water, so rose his distrust. He could not shut out the vision of that half-smile of the hour gone.
"Monsieur," said the Chevalier, looking up, "this is like you. You have something of the Bayard in your veins. It takes a man of courage to address me, after what has happened. I am become a pariah; he who touches my hand loses caste."
"Bah! Honestly, now, Chevalier, is it not the man rather than the escutcheon? A trooper is my friend if he has courage; I would not let a coward black my boots, not if he were a king."
"If ever I have offended you, pray forgive me."
"Offended me? Well, yes," easily. "There was Madame de Flavigny of Normandy; but that was three years ago. Such affairs begin and end quickly. My self-love was somewhat knocked about; that was all. If the weather permits, the Saint Laurent will sail at one o'clock. Till then, Messieurs," and bowing gravely the vicomte retired.
Both Victor and the Chevalier stared, at the door through which the vicomte vanished. Victor frowned; the Chevalier smiled.
"Curse his insolence!" cried the poet, slapping his sword.
"Lad, what an evil mind you have!" said the Chevalier in surprise.
"There is something below all this. Did he pay you those pistoles he lost to you in December?"
"To the last coin."
"Have you played with him since?"
"Yes, and won. Last night he won back the amount he lost to me; and with these fifty pistoles our accounts are square. What have you against the vicomte? I have always found him a man. And of all those who called themselves my friends, has not he alone stood forth?"
"There is some motive," still persisted the poet.
"Time will discover it."
"Oh, the devil, Paul! he loves Madame de Brissac; and my gorge rises at the sight of him."
"What! is all Paris in love with Madame de Brissac? You have explained your antipathy. Every man has a right to love."
"I know it."
"I wonder how it happens that I have never seen this daughter of the Montbazons?"
"You have your own affair."
"Past tense, my lad, past tense. Now, I wish to be alone. I have some thinking to do which requires complete isolation. Go to bed and sleep, and do not worry about me. Come at seven; I shall be awake." The Chevalier stood and held forth his arms. They embraced. Once alone the outcast blew out the candle, folded his arms on the table, and hid his face in them. After that it was very still in the private assembly, save for the occasional moaning in the chimney.
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