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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBardelys The Magnificent - Chapter 16. Swords!
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Bardelys The Magnificent - Chapter 16. Swords! Post by :DebbieLeigh Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3099

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Bardelys The Magnificent - Chapter 16. Swords!

CHAPTER XVI. SWORDS!

La Fosse led the way with me, his arm through mine, swearing that he would be my second. He had such a stomach for a fight, had this irresponsible, irrepressible rhymester, that it mounted to the heights of passion with him, and when I mentioned, in answer to a hint dropped in connection with the edict, that I had the King's sanction for this combat, he was nearly mad with joy.

"Blood of La Fosse!" was his oath. "The honour to stand by you shall be mine, my Bardelys! You owe it me, for am I not in part to blame for all this ado? Nay, you'll not deny me. That gentleman yonder, with the wild-cat moustaches and a name like a Gascon oath--that cousin of Mironsac's, I mean--has the flair of a fight in his nostrils, and a craving to be in it. But you'll grant me the honour, will you not? Pardieu! It will earn me a place in history."

"Or the graveyard," quoth I, by way of cooling his ardour.

"Peste! What an augury!" Then, with a laugh: "But," he added, indicating Saint-Eustache, "that long, lean saint--I forget of what he is patron--hardly wears a murderous air."

To win peace from him, I promised that he should stand by me. But the favour lost much of its value in his eyes when presently I added that I did not wish the seconds to engage, since the matter was of so very personal a character.

Mironsac and Castelroux, assisted by Saint-Eustache, closed the heavy portecochere, and so shut us in from the observation of passers-by. The clanging of those gates brought the landlord and a couple of his knaves, and we were subjected to the prayers and intercessions, to the stormings and ravings that are ever the prelude of a stable-yard fight, but which invariably end, as these ended, in the landlord's withdrawal to run for help to the nearest corps-de-garde.

"Now, my myrmillones," cried La Fosse in bloodthirsty jubilation, "to work before the host returns."

"Po' Cap de Dieu!" growled Castelroux, "is this a time for jests, master joker?"

"Jests?" I heard him retorting, as he assisted me to doff my doublet. "Do I jest? Diable! you Gascons are a slow-witted folk! I have a taste for allegory, my friend, but that never yet was accounted so low a thing as jesting."

At last we were ready, and I shifted the whole of my attention to the short, powerful figure of Chatellerault as he advanced upon me, stripped to the waist, his face set and his eyes full of stern resolve. Despite his low stature, and the breadth of frame which argue sluggish motion, there was something very formidable about the Count. His bared arms were great masses of muscular flesh, and if his wrist were but half as supple as it looked powerful, that alone should render him a dangerous antagonist.

Yet I had no qualm of fear, no doubt, even, touching the issue. Not that I was an habitual ferrailleur. As I have indicated, I had fought but one man in all my life. Nor yet am I of those who are said to know no fear under any circumstances. Such men are not truly brave; they are stupid and unimaginative, in proof of which I will advance the fact that you may incite a timid man to deeds of reckless valour by drugging him with wine. But this is by the way. It may be that the very regular fencing practice that in Paris I was wont to take may so have ordered my mind that the fact of meeting unbaited steel had little power to move me.

Be that as it may, I engaged the Count without a tremor either of the flesh or of the spirit. I was resolved to wait and let him open the play, that I might have an opportunity of measuring his power and seeing how best I might dispose of him. I was determined to do him no hurt, and to leave him, as I had sworn, to the headsman; and so, either by pressure or by seizure, it was my aim to disarm him.

But on his side also he entered upon the duel with all caution and wariness. From his rage I had hoped for a wild, angry rush that should afford me an easy opportunity of gaining my ends with him. Not so, however. Now that he came with steel to defend his life and to seek mine, he appeared to have realized the importance of having keen wits to guide his hand; and so he put his anger from him, and emerged calm and determined from his whilom disorder.

Some preliminary passes we made from the first engagement in the lines of tierce, each playing warily for an opening, yet neither of us giving ground or betraying haste or excitement. Now his blade slithered on mine with a ceaseless tremor; his eyes watched mine from under lowering brows, and with knees bent he crouched like a cat making ready for a spring. Then it came. Sudden as lightning was his disengage; he darted under my guard, then over it, then back and under it again, and stretching out in the lunge--his double-feint completed--he straightened his arm to drive home the botte.

But with a flying point I cleared his blade out of the line of my body. There had been two sharp tinkles of our meeting swords, and now Chatellerault stood at his fullest stretch, the half of his steel past and behind me, for just a fraction of time completely at my mercy. Yet I was content to stand, and never move my blade from his until he had recovered and we were back in our first position once again.

I heard the deep bass of Castelroux's "Mordieux!" the sharp gasp of fear from Saint-Eustache, who already in imagination beheld his friend stretched lifeless on the ground, and the cry of mortification from La Fosse as the Count recovered. But I heeded these things little. As I have said, to kill the Count was not my object. It had been wise, perhaps, in Chatellerault to have appreciated that fact; but he did not. From the manner in which he now proceeded to press me, I was assured that he set his having recovered guard to slowness on my part, never thinking of the speed that had been necessary to win myself such an opening as I had obtained.

My failure to run him through in that moment of jeopardy inspired him with a contempt of my swordplay. This he now made plain by the recklessness with which he fenced, in his haste to have done ere we might chance to be interrupted. Of this recklessness I suddenly availed myself to make an attempt at disarming him. I turned aside a vicious thrust by a close--a dangerously close--parry, and whilst in the act of encircling his blade I sought by pressure to carry it out of his hand. I was within an ace of succeeding, yet he avoided me, and doubled back.

He realized then, perhaps, that I was not quite so contemptible an antagonist as he had been imagining, and he went back to his earlier and more cautious tactics. Then I changed my plans. I simulated an attack, and drove him hard for some moments. Strong he was, but there were advantages of reach and suppleness with me, and even these advantages apart, had I aimed at his life, I could have made short work of him. But the game I played was fraught with perils to myself, and once I was in deadly danger, and as near death from the sword as a man may go and live. My attack had lured him, as I desired that it should, into making a riposte. He did so, and as his blade twisted round mine and came slithering at me, I again carried it off by encircling it, and again I exerted pressure to deprive him of it. But this time I was farther from success than before. He laughed at the attempt, as with a suddenness that I had been far from expecting he disengaged again, and his point darted like a snake upwards at my throat.

I parried that thrust, but I only parried it when it was within some three inches of my neck, and even as I turned it aside it missed me as narrowly as it might without tearing my skin. The imminence of the peril had been such that, as we mutually recovered, I found a cold sweat bathing me.

After that, I resolved to abandon the attempt to disarm him by pressure, and I turned my attention to drawing him into a position that might lend itself to seizure. But even as I was making up my mind to this--we were engaged in sixte at the time--I saw a sudden chance. His point was held low while he watched me; so low that his arm was uncovered and my point was in line with it. To see the opening, to estimate it, and to take my resolve was all the work of a fraction of a second. The next instant I had straightened my elbow, my blade shot out in a lightning stroke and transfixed his sword-arm.

There was a yell of pain, followed by a deep growl of fury, as, wounded but not vanquished, the enraged Count caught his falling sword in his left hand, and whilst my own blade was held tight in the bone of his right arm, he sought to run me through. I leapt quickly aside, and then, before he could renew the attempt, my friends had fallen upon him and wrenched his sword from his hand and mine from his arm.

It would ill have become me to taunt a man in his sorry condition, else might I now have explained to him what I had meant when I had promised to leave him for the headsman even though I did consent to fight him.

Mironsac, Castelroux, and La Fosse stood babbling around me, but I paid no heed either to Castelroux's patois or to La Fosse's misquotations of classic authors. The combat had been protracted, and the methods I had pursued had been of a very exhausting nature. I leaned now against the porte-cochere, and mopped myself vigorously. Then Saint-Eustache, who was engaged in binding up his principal's arm, called to La Fosse.

I followed my second with my eyes as he went across to Chatellerault. The Count stood white, his lips compressed, no doubt from the pain his arm was causing him. Then his voice floated across to me as he addressed La Fosse.

"You will do me the favour, monsieur, to inform your friend that this was no first blood combat, but one a outrance. I fence as well with my left arm as with my right, and if Monsieur de Bardelys will do me the honour to engage again, I shall esteem it."

La Fosse bowed and came over with the message that already we had heard.

"I fought," said I in answer, "in a spirit very different from that by which Monsieur de Chatellerault appears to have been actuated. He made it incumbent upon me to afford proof of my courage. That proof I have afforded; I decline to do more. Moreover, as Monsieur de Chatellerault himself must perceive, the light is failing us, and in a few minutes it will be too dark for sword-play."

"In a few minutes there will be need for none, monsieur," shouted Chatellerault, to save time. He was boastful to the end.

"Here, monsieur, in any case, come those who will resolve the question," I answered, pointing to the door of the inn.

As I spoke, the landlord stepped into the yard, followed by an officer and a half-dozen soldiers. These were no ordinary keepers of the peace, but musketeers of the guard, and at sight of them I knew that their business was not to interrupt a duel, but to arrest my erstwhile opponent upon a much graver charge.

The officer advanced straight to Chatellerault.

"In the King's name, Monsieur le Comte," said he. "I demand your sword."

It may be that at bottom I was still a man of soft heart, unfeeling cynic though they accounted me; for upon remarking the misery and gloom that spread upon Chatellerault's face I was sorry for him, notwithstanding the much that he had schemed against me. Of what his fate would be he could have no shadow of doubt. He knew--none better--how truly the King loved me, and how he would punish such an attempt as had been made upon my life, to say nothing of the prostitution of justice of which he had been guilty, and for which alone he had earned the penalty of death.

He stood a moment with bent head, the pain of his arm possibly forgotten in the agony of his spirit. Then, straightening himself suddenly, with a proud, half scornful air, he looked the officer straight between the eyes.

"You desire my sword, monsieur?" he inquired.

The musketeer bowed respectfully.

"Saint-Eustache, will you do me the favour to give it to me?"

And while the Chevalier picked up the rapier from the ground where it had been flung, that man waited with an outward calm for which at the moment I admired him, as we must ever admire a tranquil bearing in one smitten by a great adversity. And than this I can conceive few greater. He had played for much, and he had lost everything. Ignominy, degradation, and the block were all that impended for him in this world, and they were very imminent.

He took the sword from the Chevalier. He held it for a second by the hilt, like one in thought, like one who is resolving upon something, whilst the musketeer awaited his good pleasure with that deference which all gentle minds must accord to the unfortunate.

Still holding his rapier, he raised his eyes for a second and let them rest on me with a grim malevolence. Then he uttered a short laugh, and, shrugging his shoulders, he transferred his grip to the blade, as if about to offer the hilt to the officer. Holding it so, halfway betwixt point and quillons, he stepped suddenly back, and before any there could put forth a hand to stay him, he had set the pummel on the ground and the point at his breast, and so dropped upon it and impaled himself.

A cry went up from every throat, and we sprang towards him. He rolled over on his side, and with a grin of exquisite pain, yet in words of unconquerable derision "You may have my sword now, Monsieur l'Officier," he said, and sank back, swooning.

With an oath, the musketeer stepped forward. He obeyed Chatellerault to the letter, by kneeling beside him and carefully withdrawing the sword. Then he ordered a couple of his men to take up the body.

"Is he dead?" asked some one; and some one else replied, "Not yet, but he soon will be."

Two of the musketeers bore him into the inn and laid him on the floor of the very room in which, an hour or so ago, he had driven a bargain with Roxalanne. A cloak rolled into a pillow was thrust under his head, and there we left him in charge of his captors, the landlord, Saint-Eustache, and La Fosse the latter inspired, I doubt not, by that morbidity which is so often a feature of the poetic mind, and which impelled him now to witness the death-agony of my Lord of Chatellerault.

Myself, having resumed my garments, I disposed myself to repair at once to the Hotel de l'Epee, there to seek Roxalanne, that I might set her fears and sorrows at rest, and that I might at last make my confession.

As we stepped out into the street, where the dusk was now thickening, I turned to Castelroux to inquire how Saint-Eustache came into Chatellerault's company.

"He is of the family of the Iscariot, I should opine," answered the Gascon. "As soon as he had news that Chatellerault was come to Languedoc as the King's Commissioner, he repaired to him to offer his services in the work of bringing rebels to justice. He urged that his thorough acquaintance with the province should render him of value to the King, as also that he had had particular opportunities of becoming acquainted with many treasonable dealings on the part of men whom the State was far from suspecting."

"Mort Dieu!" I cried, "I had suspected something of such a nature. You do well to call him of the family of the Iscariot. He is more so than you imagine: I have knowledge of this--ample knowledge. He was until lately a rebel himself, and himself a follower of Gaston d'Orleans--though of a lukewarm quality. What reasons have driven him to such work, do you know?"

"The same reason that impelled his forefather, Judas of old. The desire to enrich himself. For every hitherto unsuspected rebel that shall be brought to justice and whose treason shall be proven by his agency, he claims the half of that rebel's confiscated estates."

"Diable!" I exclaimed. "And does the Keeper of the Seals sanction this?"

"Sanction it? Saint-Eustache holds a commission, has a free hand and a company of horse to follow him in his rebel-hunting."

"Has he done much so far?" was my next question.

"He has reduced half a dozen noblemen and their families. The wealth he must thereby have amassed should be very considerable, indeed."

"To-morrow, Castelroux, I will see the King in connection with this pretty gentleman, and not only shall we find him a dungeon deep and dank, but we shall see that he disgorges his blood-money."

"If you can prove his treason you will be doing blessed work," returned Castelroux. "Until tomorrow, then, for here is the Hotel de l'Epee."

From the broad doorway of an imposing building a warm glow of light issued out and spread itself fanwise across the ill-paved street. In this--like bats about a lamp--flitted the black figures of gaping urchins and other stragglers, and into this I now passed, having taken leave of my companions.

I mounted the steps and I was about to cross the threshold, when suddenly above a burst of laughter that greeted my ears I caught the sound of a singularly familiar voice. This seemed raised at present to address such company as might be within. One moment of doubt had I--for it was a month since last I had heard those soft, unctuous accents. Then I was assured that the voice I heard was, indeed, the voice of my steward Ganymede. Castelroux's messenger had found him at last, it seemed, and had brought him to Toulouse.

I was moved to spring into the room and greet that old retainer for whom, despite the gross and sensuous ways that with advancing years were claiming him more and more, I had a deep attachment. But even as I was on the point of entering, not only his voice, but the very words that he was uttering floated out to my ears, and they were of a quality that held me there to play the hidden listener for the second time in my life in one and the same day.

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