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   Chapter 12 A DOUBLE ATTACK

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 27941

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


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.

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