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Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 22433

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

It is easy to imagine the frame of mind in which the Duke of Vallombreuse returned home after his repulse by Isabelle, and her rescue from his arms by the timely intervention of her friends, the comedians. At sight of his face, fairly livid and contorted with suppressed rage, his servants trembled and shrunk away from him-as well they might-for his natural cruelty was apt to vent itself upon the first unhappy dependent that happened to come in his way when his wrath was excited. He was not an easy master to serve, even in his most genial mood-this haughty, exacting young nobleman-and in his frantic fits of anger he was more savage and relentless than a half-starved tiger. Upon entering his own house he rushed through it like a whirlwind, shutting every door behind him with such a violent bang that the very walls shook, and pieces of the gilt mouldings round the panels were snapped off, and scattered on the floor. When he reached his own room he flung down his hat with such force that it was completely flattened, and the feather broken short off. Then, unable to breathe freely, he tore open his rich velvet pourpoint, as he rushed frantically to and fro, without any regard for the superb diamond buttons that fastened it, which flew in every direction. The exquisitely fine lace ruffles round his neck were reduced to shreds in a second, and with a vigorous kick he knocked over a large arm-chair that stood in his way, and left it upside down, with its legs in the air.

"The impudent little hussy!" he cried, as he continued his frenzied walk, like a wild beast in a cage. "I have a great mind to have her thrown into prison, there to be well-whipped, and have her hair shaved off, before being sent to a lunatic asylum-or better still to some strict convent where they take in bad girls who have been forcibly rescued from lives of infamy. I could easily manage it. But no, it would be worse than useless-persecution would only make her hate me more, and would not make her love that cursed de Sigognac a bit less. How can I punish her? what on earth shall I do?" and still he paced restlessly to and fro, cursing and swearing, and raving like a madman. While he was indulging in these transports of rage, without paying any attention to how the time was passing, evening drew on, and it was rapidly growing dark when his faithful Picard, full of commiseration, screwed up his courage to the highest point, and ventured to go softly in-though he had not been called, and was disobeying orders-to light the candles in his master's room; thinking that he was quite gloomy enough already without being left in darkness as well, and hoping that the lights might help to make him more cheerful. They did seem to afford him some relief, in that they caused a diversion; for his thoughts, which had been all of Isabelle and her cruel repulse of his passionate entreaties, suddenly flew to his successful rival, the Baron de Sigognac.

"But how is this?" he cried, stopping short in his rapid pacing up and down the room. "How comes it that that miserable, degraded wretch has not been despatched before this? I gave the most explicit orders about it to that good-for-nothing Merindol. In spite of what Vidalinc says, I am convinced that I shall succeed with Isabelle when once that cursed lover of hers is out of my way. She will be left entirely at my mercy then, and will have to submit to my will and pleasure with the best grace she can muster-for I shall not allow any sulking or tears. Doubtless she clings so obstinately to that confounded brute in the belief that she can induce him to marry her in the end. She means to be Mme. la Baronne de Sigognac-the aspiring little actress! That must be the reason of all this mighty display of mock modesty, and of her venturing to repulse the attentions of a duke, as scornfully, by Jove! as if he were a stable-boy. But she shall rue it-the impertinent little minx! and I'll have no mercy shown to the audacious scoundrel who dared to disable this right arm of mine. Halloa there! send Merindol up to me instantly, do you hear?"

Picard flew to summon him, and in a few moments the discomfited bully made his appearance; pale from abject terror, with teeth chattering and limbs trembling, as he was ushered into the dread presence of his angry lord. In spite of his efforts to assume the sang-froid he was so far from feeling, he staggered like a drunken man, though he had not drank enough wine that day to drown a fly, and did not dare to lift his eyes to his master's face.

"Well, you cowardly beast," said Vallombreuse angrily, how long, pray, are you going to stand there speechless, like a stupid fool, with that hang-dog air, as if you already had the rope that you so richly deserve round your wicked neck? "I only awaited your lordship's orders," stammered Merindol, trying to appear at ease, and failing lamentably. "My lord duke knows that I am entirely devoted to his service-even to being hanged, if it seems good to your lordship."

"Enough of that cant!" interrupted the duke impatiently. "Didn't I charge you to have that cursed de Sigognac, otherwise Captain Fracasse, cleared out of my way? You have not done it-my orders have not been obeyed. It is worth while, upon my word, to keep confounded hired rascals to do such work for me, at this rate! All that you are good for is to stuff yourself in the kitchen, you dastardly beast, and to guzzle my good wine from morning until night. But I've had enough of this, by Jove! and if there is not a change, and that without any further loss of time, to the hangman you shall go-do you hear? just as sure as you stand there, gaping like a drivelling idiot."

"My lord duke," said Merindol in a trembling voice, "is unjust to his faithful servant, who desires nothing but to do his lord's bidding. But this Baron de Sigognac is not to be disposed of so easily as my lord believes. Never was there a braver, more fearless man. In our first attack on him, at Poitiers, he got the better of us in a most wonderful way-we never saw the like of it-and all he had to fight with was a dull, rusty sword, not intended for use at all; a theatre sword, just for looks. And when we tried to do for him here in Paris, the very night he got here, it all came to naught, because he was so watchful, and somehow suspected what we were up to, and was ready for us; and that upset our beautiful little plan entirely. I never was so surprised in my life; and there was nothing for us to do, the whole four of us, but to get out of his sight as fast as we could, and he standing there laughing at us. Oh! he's a rare one, is Captain Fracasse. And now he knows my face, so I can't go near him myself. But I have engaged the services of a particular friend of mine-the bravest man and the best fighter in Paris-he hasn't his equal in the world with the sword, they all say. He is lying in wait for him on the Pont-Neuf now, at this very moment, and there'll be no mistake this time. Lampourde will be sure to despatch him for us-if it is not done already-and that without the slightest danger of your lordship's name being mixed up with the affair in any way, as it might have been if your lordship's own servants had done it."

"The plan is not a bad one," said the young duke, somewhat mollified, "and perhaps it is better that it should be done in that way. But are you really sure of the courage and skill of this friend of yours? He will need both to get the better of that confounded de Sigognac, who is no coward, and a master hand with the sword, I am bound to acknowledge, though I do hate him like the devil."

"My lord need have no fears," said Merindol enthusiastically, being now more at his ease. "Jacquemin Lampourde is a hero, a wonder, as everybody will tell your lordship. He is more valiant than Achilles, or the great Alexander. He is not spotless certainly, like the Chevalier Bayard, but he is fearless."

Picard, who had been hovering about for a few minutes in an uneasy way, now seeing that his master was in a better humour, approached and told him that a very odd-looking man was below, who asked to see him immediately on most important business.

"You may bring him in," said the duke, "but just warn him, Picard, that if he dares to intrude upon me for any trifling matter, I'll have him skinned alive before I let him go."

Mirindol was just about leaving the room, when the entrance of the newcomer rooted him to the spot; he was so astonished and alarmed that he could not move hand or foot. And no wonder, for it was no other than the hero whose name he had just spoken-Jacquemin Lampourde in person-and the bare fact of his having dared to penetrate so boldly into the dread presence of that high and mighty seignior, the Duke of Vallombreuse, ignoring entirely the agent through whom his services had been engaged, showed of itself that something very extraordinary must have taken place.

Lampourde himself did not seem to be in the least disconcerted, and after winking at his friend furtively in a very knowing way, stood unabashed before the duke, with the bright light of the many wax candles shining full upon his face. There was a red mark across his forehead, where his hat had been pressed down over it, and great drops of sweat stood on it, as if he had been running fast, or exercising violently. His eyes, of a bluish gray tint, with a sort of metallic lustre in them, were fixed upon those of the haughty young nobleman, with a calm insolence that made Merindol's blood run cold in his veins; his large nose, whose shadow covered all one side of his face, as the shadow of Mount Etna covers a considerable portion of the island of Sicily, stood out prominently, almost grotesquely, in profile; his mustache, with its long stiff points carefully waxed, which produced exactly the effect of an iron skewer stuck through his upper lip, and the "royal" on his chin curled upward, like a comma turned the wrong way, all contributed to make up a very extraordinary physiognomy, such as caricaturists dote on. He wore a large scarlet cloak, wrapped closely about his erect, vigorous form, and in one hand, which he extended towards the duke, he held suspended a well filled purse-a strange and mysterious proceeding which Mirindol could by no means understand.

"Well, you rascal," said the duke, after staring for a moment in astonishment at this odd-looking specimen, "what does this mean? Are you offering alms to me, pray, or what? with your purse there held out at arm's length, apparently for my acceptance."

"In the first place, my lord duke," said Lampourde, with perfect sang-froid and gravity, "may it not displease your highness, but I am not a rascal. My name is Jacquemin Lampourde, and I ply the sword for a living. My profession is an honourable one. I have never degraded myself by taking part in trade of any kind, or by manual labour. Killing is my business, at the risk of my own life and limb-for I always do my work alone, unaided, armed only with my trusty sword. Fair play is a jewel, and I would scorn to take a mean advantage of anybody. I always give warning before I attack a man, and let him have a chance to de

fend himself-having a horror of treachery, and cowardly, sneaking ways. What profession could be more noble than mine, pray? I am no common, brutal assassin, my lord duke, and I beseech your lordship to take back that offensive epithet, which I could never accept, save in a friendly, joking way-it outrages too painfully the sensitive delicacy of my amour-propre, my lord!"

"Very well, so be it, Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde, since you desire it," answered Vallombreuse, very much amused at the oddity of his strange visitor. "And now have the goodness to explain your business here, with a purse in your hand, that you certainly appear to be steadily offering to me."

Jacquemin satisfied by this concession to his susceptibility, suddenly jerked his head forward, without bending his body, while he waved the hat that he held slowly to and fro, making, according to his ideas, a salute that was a judicious mingling of the soldier's and the courtier's-which ceremony being concluded, he proceeded as follows with his explanation:

"Here is the whole thing in a nutshell, my lord duke! I received, from Merindol-acting for your lordship-part payment in advance for despatching a certain Baron de Sigognac, commonly called Captain Fracasse. On account of circumstances beyond my control, I have not been able to finish the job, and as I am a great stickler for honesty, and honour also, I have hastened to bring back to you, my lord duke, the money that I did not earn."

With these words he advanced a step, and with a gesture that was not devoid of dignity, gently laid the purse down on a beautiful Florentine mosaic table, that stood at the duke's elbow.

"Verily," said Vallombreuse sneeringly, "we seem to have here one of those droll bullies who are good for naught but to figure in a comedy; an ass in a lion's skin, whose roar is nothing worse than a bray. Come, my man, own up frankly that you were afraid of that same de Sigognac."

"Jacquemin Lampourde has never been afraid of anybody in his life," the fighting man replied, drawing himself up haughtily, "and no adversary has ever seen his back. Those who know me will tell your lordship that easy victories have no charm for me. I love danger and court it. I take positive delight in it. I attacked the Baron de Sigognac 'secundum artem,' and with one of my very best swords-made by Alonzo de Sahagun, the elder, of Toledo."

"Well, and what happened then?" said the young duke eagerly. "It would seem that you could not have been victorious, since you wish to refund this money, which was to pay you for despatching him."

"First let me inform your highness that in the course of my duels and combats, of one sort and another, I have left no less than thirty-seven men stretched dead upon the ground-and that without counting in all those I have wounded mortally or crippled for life. But this Baron de Sigognac intrenched himself within a circle of flashing steel as impenetrable as the walls of a granite fortress. I called into requisition all the resources of my art against him, and tried in every possible way to surprise him off his guard, but he was ready for everything-as quick as a flash, as firm as a rock-he parried every thrust triumphantly, magnificently, with the most consummate science, and a grace and ease I have never seen equalled. He kept me busy defending myself too all the time, and more than once had nearly done for me. His audacity was astonishing, his sang froid superb, and his perfect mastery over his sword, and his temper, sublime-he was not a man, but a god. I could have fallen down and worshipped him. At the risk of being spitted on his sword, I prolonged the fight as much as I dared, so as to enjoy his marvellous, glorious, unparalleled method to the utmost. However, there had to be an end of it, and I thought I was sure of despatching him at last by means of a secret I possess-an infallible and very difficult thrust, taught and bequeathed to me by the great Girolamo of Naples, my beloved master-no man living has a knowledge of it but myself-there is no one else left capable of executing it to perfection, and upon that depends its success. Well, my lord duke, Girolamo himself could not have done it better than I did to-night. I was thunderstruck when my opponent did not go down before it as if he had been shot. I expected to see him lying dead at my feet. But not at all, by Jove! That devil of a Captain Fracasse parried my blow with dazzling swiftness, and with such force that my blade was broken short off, and I left completely at his mercy, with nothing but the stump in my hand. See here, my lord duke! just look what he did to my precious, priceless Sahagun." And Jacquemin Lampourde, with a piteous air, drew out and exhibited the sorry remains of his trusty sword-almost weeping over it-and calling the duke's attention to the perfectly straight and even break.

"Your highness can see that it was a prodigious blow that snapped this steel like a pipe-stem, and it was done with such ease and precision. To despatch Captain Fracasse by fair means is beyond my skill, my lord duke, and I would scorn to resort to treachery. Like all truly brave men, he is generous. I was left entirely defenceless, and he could have spitted me like an ortolan just by extending his arm, but he refrained; he let me go unscathed. A miraculous display of delicacy, as well as chivalrous generosity, from a gentleman assaulted in the gloaming on the Pont-Neuf. I owe my life to him, and moreover, such a debt of gratitude as I shall never be able to repay. I cannot undertake anything more against him, my lord duke; henceforth he is sacred to me. Besides, it would be a pity to destroy such a swordsman-good ones are rare in these degenerate days, and growing more so every year. I don't believe he has his equal on earth. Most men handle a sword as if it were a broomstick nowadays, and then expect to be praised and applauded, the clumsy, stupid fools! Now, I have given my reasons for coming to inform your highness that I must resign the commission I had accepted. As for the money there, I might perhaps have been justified in keeping it, to indemnify me for the great risk and peril I incurred, but such a questionable proceeding would be repugnant to my tender conscience and my honest pride, as your highness can understand."

"In the name of all the devils in the infernal regions, take back your money!" cried Vallombreuse impetuously, "or I will have you pitched out of the window yonder, you and your money both. I never heard of such a scrupulous scoundrel in my life. You, Merindol, and your cursed crew, have not a spark of honour or honesty among you all; far enough from it." Then perceiving that Lampourde hesitated about picking up the purse, he added, "Take it, I tell you! I give it to you to drink my health with."

"In that, my lord duke, you shall be religiously obeyed," Lampourde replied joyfully; "however, I do not suppose that your highness will object to my dedicating part of it to lansquenet." And he stretched out his long arm, seized the purse, and with one dexterous movement, like a juggler, chucked it jingling into the depths of his pocket.

"It is understood then, my lord duke, that I retire from the affair so far as the Baron de Sigognac is concerned," continued Lampourde, "but, if agreeable to your highness, it will be taken in hand by my 'alter ego,' the Chevalier Malartic, who is worthy to be intrusted with the most delicate and hazardous enterprises, because of his remarkable adroitness and superior ability, and he is one of the best fellows in the world into the bargain. I had sketched out a scheme for the abduction of the young actress, in whom your highness condescends to take an interest, which Malartic will now carry out, with all the wonderful perfection of detail that characterizes his clever way of doing things. Merindol here, who knows him, will testify to his rare qualifications, my lord duke, and you could not find a better man for your purpose. I am presenting a real treasure to your lordship in tendering Malartic's services. When he is wanted your highness has only to send a trusty messenger to mark a cross in chalk on the left-hand door-post of the Crowned Radish. Malartic will understand, and repair at once, in proper disguise, to this house, to receive your lordship's last orders."

Having finished this triumphant address, Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde again saluted the duke as before, then put his hat on his head and stalked majestically out of the room, exceedingly well satisfied with his own eloquence, and what he considered courtly grace, in the presence of so illustrious a nobleman. His oddity and originality, together with his strange mingling of lofty notions of honour and rascality, had greatly amused and interested the young Duke of Vallombreuse, who was even willing to forgive him for not having despatched de Sigognac; for, if even this famous professional duellist could not get the better of him, he really must be invincible, and in consequence the thought of his own defeat became less galling and intolerable to his pride and vanity. Moreover, he had not been able to get rid of an uncomfortable consciousness, even in his most angry mood, that his endeavouring to compass de Sigognac's assassination was rather too great an enormity, not on account of any conscientious scruples, but simply because his rival was a gentleman; he would not have hesitated a second about having half-a-dozen bourgeois murdered, if they had been rash or unfortunate enough to interfere with him, the blood of such base, ignoble creature being of no more consequence in his eyes than so much water. Vallombreuse would have liked to despatch his enemy himself in honourable combat, but that was rendered impossible by the baron's superior ability as a swordsman, of which he still had a painful reminder in his wounded arm; which was scarcely healed yet, and would prevent his indulging in anything like a duel for some time to come. So his thoughts turned to the abduction of the young actress; a pleasanter subject to dwell upon, as he felt not the slightest doubt that once he had her to himself, separated from de Sigognac and her companions, she would not long be able to withstand his eloquent pleading and personal attractions. His self-conceit was boundless, but not much to be wondered at, considering his invariable and triumphant success in affairs of gallantry; so, in spite of his recent repulse, he flattered himself that he only required a fitting opportunity to obtain from Isabelle all that he desired.

"Let me have her for a few days in some secluded place," said he to himself, "where she cannot escape from me, or have any intercourse with her friends, and I shall be sure to win her heart. I shall be so kind and good and considerate to her, treat her with so much delicacy and devotion, that she cannot help feeling grateful to me; and then the transition to love will be easy and natural. But when once I have won her, made her wholly mine, then she shall pay dearly for what she has made me suffer. Yes, my lady, I mean to have my revenge-you may rest assured of that."

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