MoboReader> Literature > Captain Fracasse

   Chapter 11 THE PONT-NEUF

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 48189

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


It would be too long and tedious to follow our comedians, step by step, on their way up to Paris, the great capital. No adventures worthy of being recorded here befell them; as they were in good circumstances financially, they could travel rapidly and comfortably, and were not again subjected to such hardships and annoyances as they had endured in the earlier stages of their long journey. At Tours and Orleans they stopped to give a few representations, which were eminently successful, and very satisfactory to the troupe as well as the public. No attempt being made to molest them in any way, Blazius after a time forgot his fears, which had been excited by the vindictive character of the Duke of Vallombreuse, but Isabelle could not banish from her memory the wicked plot to abduct her, and many times saw again in her dreams Chiquita's wild, weird face, with the long, tangled elf-locks hanging around it, just as it had appeared to her that dreadful night at the Armes de Frame, glaring at her with fierce, wolfish eyes. Then she would start up, sobbing and trembling, in violent agitation, and it required the most tender soothing from her companion, Zerbine, whose room she had shared ever since they quitted Poitiers, to quiet and reassure her. The soubrette, thoroughly enamoured of Isabelle as of old, was devoted to her, and took great delight in watching over and ministering to her; an own sister could not have been kinder or more affectionately considerate.

The only evidence that de Sigognac gave of the anxiety which he secretly felt, was his always insisting upon occupying the room nearest Isabelle's, and he used to lie down in his clothes, with his drawn sword on the bed beside him, so as to be ready in case of any sudden alarm. By day he generally walked on in advance of the chariot, taking upon himself the duty of a scout; redoubling his vigilance wherever there happened to be bushes, thickets, high walls, or lurking places of any kind, favourable to an ambuscade, near the roadside. If he perceived from afar a group of travellers approaching, whose appearance seemed to him in the least suspicious, he would instantly draw his sword and fall back upon the chariot, around which the tyrant, Scapin, Blazius and Leander formed an apparently strong guard; though, of the last two mentioned, one was incapacitated for active service by age, and the other was as timid as a hare. Some times, varying his tactics like a good general, who thinks of and provides against every emergency, the baron would constitute himself a rear guard, and follow the chariot at a little distance, keeping watch over the road behind them. But all his precautions were needless, for no attack was made upon the travellers, or any attempt to interfere with them, and they proceeded tranquilly on their way, "without let or hindrance." Although it was winter, the season was not a rigorous one, and our comedians, well fortified against the cold by plenty of warm clothing and good nourishing food, did not mind their exposure to the weather, and found their journey a very enjoyable affair. To be sure, the sharp, frosty air brought a more brilliant colour than usual into the cheeks of the fair members of the troupe, but no one could say that it detracted from their charms; and even when it extended, as it did sometimes, to their pretty little noses, it could not be found serious fault with, for everything is becoming to a young and beautiful woman.

At last they drew near to the capital-following the windings of the Seine, whose waters flow past royal palaces, and many another edifice of world-wide renown-and at four o'clock of a bright winter afternoon came in sight of its spires and domes. The smoke rising from its forest of chimneys hung over it in a semi-transparent cloud, through which the sun shone, round and red, like a ball of fire. As they entered the city by the Porte Saint Bernard, a glorious spectacle greeted their wondering eyes. In front of them Notre Dame stood out in bold relief, with its magnificent flying buttresses, its two stately towers, massive and majestic, and its slender, graceful spire, springing from the lofty roof at the point of intersection of the nave and transepts. Many other lesser towers and spires rose above churches and chapels that were lost amid the densely crowded houses all about them, but de Sigognac had eyes only for the grand old cathedral, which overwhelmed him with astonishment and delight. He would have liked to linger for hours and gaze upon that splendid triumph of architecture, but he needs must go forward with the rest, however reluctantly. The wonderful and unceasing whirl and confusion in the narrow, crowded streets, through which they made their way slowly, and not without difficulty, perplexed and distracted him, accustomed as he had been all his life to the vast solitude of the Landes, and the deathly stillness that reigned almost unbroken in his own desolate old chateau; it seemed to him as if a mill-wheel were running round and round in his head, and he could feel himself staggering like a drunken man. The Pont-Neuf was soon reached, and then de Sigognac caught a glimpse of the famous equestrian statue in bronze of the great and good king, Henri IV, which stands on its lofty pedestal and seems to be keeping guard over the splendid bridge, with its ever-rolling stream of foot-passengers, horsemen, and vehicles of every kind and description, from the superb court carriage to the huckster's hand-cart; but in a moment it was lost to view, as the chariot turned into the then newly opened Rue Dauphine. In this street was a fine big hotel, frequently patronized by ambassadors from foreign lands, with numerous retinues; for it was so vast that it could always furnish accommodations for large parties arriving unexpectedly. As the prosperous state of their finances admitted of their indulging in such luxury, Herode had fixed upon this house as their place of abode in Paris; because it would give a certain prestige to his troupe to be lodged there, and show conclusively that they were not mere needy, vagabond players, gaining a precarious livelihood in their wanderings through the provinces, but a company of comedians of good standing, whose talents brought them in a handsome revenue.

Upon their arrival at this imposing hostelry, they were first shown into an immense kitchen, which presented an animated, busy scene-a whole army of cooks bustling about the great roaring fire, and around the various tables, where all sorts of culinary rites were in active progress; while the mingling of savoury odours that pervaded the whole place so tickled the olfactory organs of Blazius, Herode, and Scapin, the gourmands of the troupe, that their mouths expanded into the broadest of grins, as they edged as near as possible to the numerous saucepans, etc., from which they issued. In a few moments a servant came to conduct them to the rooms that had been prepared for them, and just as they turned away from the blazing fire, round which they had gathered, to follow him, a traveller entered and approached it, whose face seemed strangely familiar to de Sigognac. He was a tall, powerful man, wearing large spurs, which rang against the stone floor at every step, and the great spots of mud-some of them not yet dry-with which he was bespattered from head to foot, showed that he must have been riding far and fast. He was a fierce-looking fellow, with an insolent, devil-may-care, arrogant sort of expression, and bold, swaggering gait, yet he started at sight of the young baron, and plainly shrunk from his eye; hastening on to the fire and bending over it, with his back turned to de Sigognac, under pretence of warming his hands. In vain did our hero try to recall when and where he had seen the man before, but he was positive that he had come in contact with him somewhere, and that recently; and he was conscious of a vague feeling of uneasiness with regard to him, that he could not account for. However, there was nothing for him to do but follow his companions, and they all went to their respective chambers, there to make themselves presentable for the meal to which they were shortly summoned, and which they thoroughly enjoyed, as only hungry travellers can. The fare was excellent, the wine capital, the dining-room well lighted, warm, and comfortable, and all were in high spirits; congratulating each other upon having happily reached the end of their long journey at last, and drinking to their own future success in this great city of Paris. They indulged in the flattering hope of producing a sensation here as well as at Poitiers, and even dared to dream of being commanded to appear before the court, and of being rewarded royally for their exertions to please. Only de Sigognac was silent and preoccupied, and Isabelle, whose thoughts were all of him, cast anxious glances at him, and wished that she could charm away his melancholy. He was seated at the other end of the table, and still puzzling over the face that he had seen in the kitchen, but he soon looked towards her, and caught her lovely eyes fixed upon him, with such an adorable expression of chaste love and angelic tenderness in their shadowy depths, that all thoughts save of her were at once banished from his mind. The warmth of the room had flushed her cheeks a little, her eyes shone like stars, and she looked wonderfully beautiful; the young Duke of Vallombreuse would have been more madly enamoured of her than ever if he could have seen her then. As for de Sigognac, he gazed at her with unfeigned delight, his dark, expressive eyes eloquent of adoring love and deep reverence. A new sentiment mingled with his passion now-ever since she had opened her heart to him, and let him see all its heavenly purity and goodness-which elevated, ennobled, and intensified it. He knew now the true, lofty beauty of her soul, that it was akin to the angels, and but for the keen, ever-increasing grief he suffered because of her firm refusal to give herself wholly to him, his happiness, in possessing her faithful, devoted love, would have been too perfect for this life of trials and sorrow.

When supper was over, de Sigognac accompanied Isabelle to the threshhold of her own room, and said ere he left her, "Be sure to fasten your door securely, my sweet Isabelle, for there are so many people about in a great hotel like this that one cannot be too careful."

"You need have no fears for me here, my dear baron," she replied; "only look at this lock, and you will be convinced of that. Why it is strong enough for a prison door, and the key turns thrice in it. And here is a great thick bolt besides-actually as long as my arm. The window is securely barred, and there is no dreadful bull's eye, or opening of any kind in the wall, to make me afraid. Travellers so often have articles of value with them that I suppose it is necessary for them to have such protections against thieves. Make yourself easy about me, de Sigognac! never was the enchanted princess of a fairy tale, shut up in her strong tower guarded by dragons, in greater security than am I in this fortress of mine."

"But sometimes it chances that the magic charms and spells, represented by these bolts and bars, are insufficient, my beloved Isabelle, and the enemy manages to force his way in, despite them all-and the mystic signs, phylacteries, and abracadabras into the bargain."

"Yes; but that is when the princess within secretly favours his efforts," said Isabelle, with a mischievous smile, "and in some mysterious way constitutes herself his accomplice; being tired of her seclusion, perhaps, or else in love with the bold intruder-neither of which is my case you know, de Sigognac! Surely if I'm not afraid-I, who am more timid than the trembling doe when she hears the dread sound of the hunter's horn and the baying of the hounds you should not fear-you, who are brave as Alexander the Great himself. Sleep in peace to-night, my friend, I pray you, and sleep soundly-not with one eye open, as you have done so often of late for my sake; and now, good night."

She held out to him a pretty little hand, white and soft enough to have belonged to a veritable princess, which he kissed as reverently as if it had been a queen's; then waited to hear her turn the big, clumsy, iron key three times in the lock-no easy task for her delicate fingers-and push home the heavy bolt. Breathing a fervent blessing upon her, he turned away reluctantly towards his own door. As he paused an instant before it he saw a shadow moving, turned round quickly, and caught sight of the very man he had been thinking of, and puzzling over, so much that evening-whose approach he had not heard at all-passing stealthily along the corridor, presumably on his way to his own room. Not an extraordinary circumstance, that; but the baron's suspicions were instantly aroused, and under pretext of trying to introduce his key into the lock, he furtively watched him the whole length of the passage, until a turn in it hid him from view, as he gained an unfrequented part of the house; a moment later, the sound of a door being softly opened and closed announced that he had probably reached his own chamber, and then all was still again.

"Now what does this mean?" said de Sigognac to himself, and haunted by a vague feeling of anxiety and uneasiness, he could not even bring himself to lie down upon his bed and rest his weary frame; so, after pacing restlessly about the room for a while, he concluded to occupy himself in writing a letter to his good old Pierre; he had promised to apprise him of his arrival in Paris. He was careful that the handwriting should be very large, clear, and distinct, for the faithful old servant was not much of a scholar, and addressed him as follows:

MY GOOD PIERRE:-Here I am at last, actually in Paris, the great capital, where, according to general belief, I am to fall in with some sort of good fortune or other, that will enable me to re-establish the ancient prosperity of my house-though in truth I cannot see where I am to look for it. However, some happy chance may bring me into relations with the court, and if I could only get to speak to the king-the great dispenser of all favours-the important and famous services rendered by my ancestors to his royal predecessors would surely incline him to listen to me with indulgence and interest. His gracious majesty could not, it seems to me, suffer a noble family, that had devoted all their possessions to the service of king and country, in many wars, to die out so miserably, if once he knew of it. Meantime, for want of other employment, I have taken to acting, and have made a little money thereby-part of which I shall send to you, as soon as I can find a good opportunity. It would have been better perhaps if I had enlisted as a soldier; but I could not give up my liberty, and however poverty-stricken a man may be, his pride revolts at the idea of putting himself under the orders of those whom his noble ancestors used to command. The only adventure worth relating that has befallen me since I left you was a duel that I fought at Poitiers, with a certain young duke, who is held to be invincible; but, thanks to your good instructions, I was able to get the better of him easily. I ran him through the right arm, and could just as well have run him through the body, and left him dead upon the field, for his defence was weak and insufficient-by no means equal to his attack, which was daring and brilliant, though very reckless-and several times he was entirely at my mercy, as he grew heated and angry. He has not been so thoroughly trained to preserve his sang-froid, whatever may happen, as I, and I now appreciate, for the first time, your wonderful patience and perseverance in making me a master of the noble art of fencing, and how valuable my proficiency in it will be to me. Your scholar does you honour, my brave Pierre, and I won great praise and applause for my really too easy victory. In spite of the constant novelty and excitement of my new way of life, my thoughts often return to dwell upon my poor old chateau, crumbling gradually into ruin over the tombs of my ancestors. From afar it does not seem so desolate and forlorn, and there are times when I fancy myself there once more, gazing up at the venerable family portraits, wandering through the deserted rooms, and I find a sort of melancholy pleasure in it. How I wish that I could look into your honest, sunburnt face, lighted up with the glad smile that always greeted me-and I am not ashamed to confess that I long to hear Beelzebub's contented purring, Miraut's joyful bark, and the loud whinnying of my poor old Bayard, who never failed to recognise my step. Are they all still alive-the good, faithful, affectionate creatures-and do they seem to remember me? Have you been able to keep yourself and them from starvation thus far? Try to hold out until my return, my good Pierre, so as to share my fate-be it bright or dark, happy or sad-that we may finish our days together in the place where we have suffered so much, yet which is so dear to us all. If I am to be the last of the de Sigognacs, I can only say, the will of God be done. There is still a vacant place left for me in the vault where my forefathers lie.

"BARON DE SIGOGNAC."

The baron sealed this letter with the ring bearing his family arms, which was the only jewel remaining in his possession; directed it, and put it into his portfolio, to wait until he should find an opportunity to forward it to Gascony. Although by this time it was very late, he could still hear the vague roar of the great city, which, like the sound of the ocean, never entirely ceases, and was so strange and novel to him, in contrast with the profound silence of the country that he had been accustomed to all his life long. As he sat listening to it, he thought he heard cautious footsteps in the corridor, and extinguishing his light, softly opened his door just a very little way, scarcely more than a crack-and caught a glimpse of a man, enveloped in a large cloak, stealing along slowly in the direction the other one had taken. He listened breathlessly until he heard him reach, and quietly enter, apparently the same door. A few minutes later, while he was still on the lookout, another one came creeping stealthily by, making futile efforts to stifle the noise of his creaking boots. His suspicions now thoroughly aroused, de Sigognac continued his watch, and in about half an hour came yet another-a fierce, villainous looking fellow, and fully armed, as every one of his predecessors had been also. This strange proceeding seemed very extraordinary and menacing to the baron, and the number of the men-four-brought to his mind the night attack upon him in the streets of Poitiers, after his quarrel with the Duke of Vallombreuse. This recollection was like a ray of light, and it instantly flashed upon him that the man he had seen in the kitchen was no other than one of those precious rascals, who had been routed so ignominiously-and these, without doubt, were his comrades. But how came they there? in the very house with him-not by chance surely. They must have followed him up to Paris, stage by stage, in disguise, or else keeping studiously out of his sight, Evidently the young duke's animosity was still active, as well as his passion, and he had not renounced his designs upon either Isabelle or himself. Our hero was very brave by nature, and did not feel the least anxiety about his own safety trusting to his good sword to defend himself against his enemies-but he was very uneasy in regard to his sweet Isabelle, and dreaded inexpressibly what might be attempted to gain possession of her. Not knowing which one of them the four desperadoes had in view now, he determined not to relax his vigilance an instant, and to take such precautions as he felt pretty sure would circumvent their plans, whatever they might be. He lighted all the candles there were in his room-a goodly number-and opened his door, so that they threw a flood of light on that of Isabelle's chamber, which was exactly opposite his own. Next he drew his sword, laid it, with his dagger, on a table he had drawn out in front of the door, and then sat down beside it, facing the corridor, to watch. He waited some time without hearing or seeing anything. Two o'clock had rung out from a neighbouring church tower when a slight rustling caught his listening ear, and presently one of the four rascals-the very man he had first seen-emerged from the shadow into the bright light streaming out into the passage from his open door. The baron had sprung to his feet at the first sound, and stood erect on the threshold, sword in hand, with such a lofty, heroic, and triumphant air, that Merindol-for it was he-passed quickly by, without offering to molest him, with a most deprecating, crestfallen expression; a laughable contrast to his habitual fierce insolence. His three doughty comrades followed in quick succession-but not one of them dared to attack de Sigognac, and they slunk out of sight as rapidly as possible. He saluted each one with a mocking gesture as he passed, and stood tranquilly watching them as long as he could see them. In a few minutes he had the satisfaction of hearing the stamping of horses' feet in the court-yard below, then the opening of the outer door to let them pass out into the street, and finally a great clattering of hoofs as they galloped off down the Rue Dauphine.

At breakfast the next morning the tyrant said to de Sigognac, "Captain, doesn't your curiosity prompt you to go out and look about you a little in this great city-one of the finest in the world, and of such high renown in history? If it is agreeable to you I will be your guide and pilot, for I have been familiar from my youth up with the rocks and reefs, the straits and shallows, the scyllas and charybdises of this seething ocean, which are often so dangerous-sometimes so fatal-to strangers, and more especially to inexperienced country people. I will be your Palinurus-but I promise you that I shall not allow myself to be caught napping, and so fall overboard, like him that Virgil tells us about. We are admirably located here for sight-seeing; the Pont-Neuf, which is close at hand, you know, is to Paris what the Sacra Via was to ancient Rome-the great resort and rallying place of high and low, great and small, noble men, gentlemen, bourgeois, working men, rogues and vagabonds. Men of every rank and profession under the sun are to be found gathered together at this general rendezvous."

"Your kind proposition pleases me greatly, my good Herode," de Sigognac replied, "and I accept it with thanks; but be sure to tell Scapin that he must remain here, and keep a sharp watch over all who come and go; and, above all, that he must not let any one gain access to Isabelle. The Duke of Vallombreuse has not given up his designs against her and me-I feel very anxious about her safety," and therewith he recounted the occurrences of the preceding night.

"I don't believe they would dare to attempt anything in broad daylight," said the tyrant; "still it is best to err on the safe side, and we will leave Scapin, Blazius and Leander to keep guard over Isabelle while we are out. And, by the way, I will take my sword with me, too, so that I can be of some assistance in case they should find an opportunity to fall upon you in the streets."

After having made every arrangement for Isabelle's safety, de Sigognac and his companion sallied forth into the Rue Dauphine, and turned towards the Pont-Neuf. It was quickly reached, and when they had taken a few steps upon it a magnificent view suddenly burst upon them, which held the young baron enthralled. In the immediate foreground, on the bridge itself, which was not encumbered with a double row of houses, like the Pont au Change and the Pont Saint Michel, was the fine equestrian statue of that great and good kin

g, Henri IV, rivalling in its calm majesty the famous one of Marcus Aurelius, on the Capitoline Hill at Rome. A high railing, richly gilded, protected its pedestal from injury by mischievous street arabs, and the deep, strong tints of the bronze horse and rider stood out vigorously against the appropriate background formed by the distant hill-sides beyond the Pont Rouge. On the left bank of the river the spire of the venerable old church of Saint Germain des Pres pointed upwards from amid the houses that completely hemmed it in, and the lofty roof of the unfinished Hotel de Nevers towered conspicuously above all its surroundings. A little farther on was the only tower still standing of the famous, and infamous, Hotel de Nesle, its base bathed by the river, and though it was in a ruinous condition it still lifted itself up proudly above the adjacent buildings. Beyond it lay the marshy Grenouillere, and in the blue, hazy distance could be distinguished the three crosses on the heights of Calvary, or Mont-Valerien. The palace of the Louvre occupied the other bank right royally, lighted up by the brilliant winter sunshine, which brought out finely all the marvellous details of its rich and elaborate ornamentation. The long gallery connecting it with the Tuileries, which enabled the monarch to pass freely from his city palace to his country house, especially challenged their admiration; with its magnificent sculptures, its historical bas-reliefs and ornamented cornices, its fretted stonework, fine columns and pilasters, it rivalled the renowned triumphs of the best Greek and Roman architects. Beyond the gardens of the Tuileries, where the city ended, stood the Porte de la Conference, and along the river bank, outside of it, were the trees of Cours-la-Reine, the favourite promenade of the fashionable world, which was thronged of an afternoon with gay and luxurious equipages. The two banks, which we have thus hastily sketched, framed in the most animated scene imaginable; the river being covered with boats of all sorts and descriptions, coming and going, crossing and recrossing, while at the quay, beside the Louvre, lay the royal barges, rich with carving and gilding, and gay with bright-coloured awnings, and near at hand rose the historic towers of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois.

After gazing silently for a long time at this splendid view, de Sigognac turned away reluctantly at his companion's instance, and joined the little crowd already gathered round the "Samaritan," waiting to see the bronze figure surmounting the odd little hydraulic edifice strike the hour with his hammer on the bell of the clock. Meanwhile they examined the gilt bronze statue of Christ, standing beside the Samaritan, who was leaning on the curb of the well, the astronomic dial with its zodiac, the grotesque stone mask pouring out the water drawn up from the river below, the stout figure of Hercules supporting the whole thing, and the hollow statue, perched on the topmost pinnacle, that served as a weathercock, like the Fortune on the Dogana at Venice and the Giralda at Seville. As the hands on the clock-face at last pointed to ten and twelve respectively, the little chime of bells struck up a merry tune, while the bronze man with the hammer raised his ponderous arm and deliberately struck ten mighty blows, to the great delight of the spectators. This curious and ingenious piece of mechanism, which had been cunningly devised by one Lintlaer, a Fleming, highly amused and interested de Sigognac, to whom everything of the kind was absolutely new and surprising.

"Now," said Herode, "we will glance at the view from the other side of the bridge, though it is not so magnificent as the one you have already seen, and is very much shut in by the buildings on the Pont au Change yonder. However, there is the tower of Saint Jacques, the spire of Saint Mederic, and others too numerous to mention; and that is the Sainte Chapelle-a marvel of beauty, so celebrated, you know, for its treasures and relics. All the houses in that direction are new and handsome, as you see; when I was a boy I used to play at hop-scotch where they now stand. Thanks to the munificence of our kings, Paris is being constantly improved and beautified, to the great admiration and delight of everybody; more especially of foreigners, who take home wondrous tales of its splendour."

"But what astonishes me," said de Sigognac, "more even than the grandeur and sumptuousness of the buildings, both public and private, is the infinite number of people swarming everywhere-in the streets and open squares, and on the bridges-like ants when one has broken into an ant hill; they are all rushing distractedly about, up and down, back and forth, as if life and death depended upon their speed. How strange it is to think that every individual in this immense crowd must be lodged and fed-and what a prodigious amount of food and wine it must take to satisfy them all."

And indeed, it was not surprising that the great numbers of people, moving in every direction, should strike one unaccustomed to the crowded thoroughfares of large cities as extraordinary. On the Pont-Neuf an unceasing stream of vehicles rolled in each direction-fine carriages, richly decorated and gilded, drawn by two or four prancing horses, with lackeys in brilliant liveries clinging on behind, and stately coachmen on the box; less pretentious carriages with more quiet steeds and fewer servants; heavy carts laden with stone, wood, or wine-barrels, whose drivers swore loudly at the detentions they were frequently obliged to submit to, and which were unavoidable in such a crush of vehicles; and among them all, gentlemen on horseback, threading their way carefully in and out among the press of carts and carriages, and endeavouring to avoid coming in contact with their muddy wheels-not always successfully; while here and there a sedan chair crept slowly along, keeping upon the edge of the stream, so as not to be crushed; and the narrow, raised walk on either side was thronged with pedestrians. Presently a drove of cattle made its appearance on the bridge, and then the uproar and confusion became terrible indeed; horses, as well as foot-passengers, were frightened, and tried to run away from danger, requiring all the strength of their drivers to restrain them. Soon after that excitement was over a detachment of soldiers came marching along, with drums beating and colours flying, and everybody had to make way for the valiant sons of Mars, no matter at what inconvenience to themselves. And so it went on, one thing after another-a constant scene of bustle, hurry, and commotion. As de Sigognac and the tyrant strolled slowly along they were beset by beggars, more or less impudent and pertinacious, and by all sorts of odd characters, plying various extraordinary vocations for the amusement of the passers-by, for which they seemed to be liberally enough remunerated. Here was an improvisatore, singing, not unmelodiously, his rather clever verses; there a blind man, led by a stout, jolly-looking old woman, who recited his dolorous history in a whining voice, and appealed to the charity of the ever-changing multitude; farther on a charlatan, loudly claiming to be able to cure "all the ills that flesh is heir to" by his magical compound-and finding plenty of dupes; and next to him a man with a monkey, whose funny tricks caused much merriment. Suddenly a great tumult arose near the other end of the bridge, and in a moment a compact crowd had gathered around four men, who, with loud cries and imprecations, were fighting with swords-apparently with great fury, though in reality it was only a mock combat, probably intended to give a good chance to the thieves and pickpockets in the throng, with whom they were in league; such tactics being very common, as well as successful. By Herode's advice, de Sigognac refrained from mingling with the crowd immediately around the combatants, so he could not get a very good view of them; but he was almost sure that they were the very men he had met first in the streets of Poitiers, to their great discomfiture, and had seen again the previous night at the hotel in the Rue Dauphine, where they certainly had gained no advantage to make up for their former defeat. He communicated his suspicions to the tyrant, but the rascals had already slipped away, and it would have been as useless to attempt to find them in the throng as to look for a needle in a haystack.

"It certainly is possible," said Herode, thoughtfully, "that this quarrel was gotten up with a view to involving you in it, by some means or other, for we are undoubtedly followed and watched by the emissaries of the Duke of Vallombreuse. One of the scoundrels might have made believe that you were in the way, or that you had struck him, and falling upon you suddenly, before you had time to draw your sword, have given you a thrust that would have done for you; and if he failed to wound you mortally; the others could have pretended to come to their comrade's aid, and have completed the job-nothing would have been easier. Then they would have separated, and slipped away through the crowd, before any one could interfere with them, or else have stood their ground, and declared unanimously that they had been obliged to attack you in self defence. It is next to impossible in such cases to prove that the act was premeditated, and there is no redress for the unhappy victim of such a conspiracy."

"But I am loath to believe," said the brave, generous young baron, "that any gentleman could be capable of such an utterly base and unworthy act as this-what, send a set of hired ruffians to foully assassinate his rival! If he is not satisfied with the result of our first encounter, I am willing and ready to cross swords with him again and again, until one or the other of us is slain. That is the way that such matters are arranged among men of honour, my good Herode!"

"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.

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