Chapter XXXII. A Tavern Brawl.
 

On the following day, accordingly, we started. But the news of the two kings' successes, and particularly the certainty which these had bred in many minds that nothing short of a miracle could save Paris, had moved so many gentlemen to take the road that we found the inns crowded beyond example, and were frequently forced into meetings which made the task of concealing our identity more difficult and hazardous than I had expected. Sometimes shelter was not to be obtained on any terms, and then we had to lie in the fields or in any convenient shed. Moreover, the passage of the army had swept the country so bare both of food and forage, that these commanded astonishing prices; and a long day's ride more than once brought us to our destination without securing for us the ample meal we had earned, and required.

Under these circumstances, it was with joy little short of transport that I recognised the marvellous change which had come over my mistress. Bearing all without a murmur, or a frown, or so much as one complaining word, she acted on numberless occasions so as to convince me that she spoke truly--albeit I scarcely dared to believe it--when she said that she had but one trouble in the world, and that was the prospect of our coming separation.

For my part, and despite some gloomy moments, when fear of the future overcame me, I rode in Paradise riding by my mistress. It was her presence which glorified alike the first freshness of the morning, when we started with all the day before us, and the coolness of the late evening, when we rode hand-in-hand. Nor could I believe without an effort that I was the same Gaston de Marsac who she had once spurned and disdained. God knows I was thankful for her love. A thousand times, thinking of my grey hairs, I asked her if she did not repent; and a thousand times she answered No, with so much happiness in her eyes that I was fain to thank God again and believe her.

Notwithstanding the inconvenience of the practice, we made it a rule to wear our masks whenever we appeared in public; and this rule me kept more strictly as we approached Paris. It exposed us to some comment and more curiosity, but led to no serious trouble until we reached Etampes, twelve leagues from the capital; where we found the principal inn so noisy and crowded, and so much disturbed by the constant coming and going of couriers, that it required no experience to predicate the neighbourhood of the army. The great courtyard seemed to be choked with a confused mass of men and horses, through which we made our way with difficulty. The windows of the house were all open, and offered us a view of tables surrounded by men eating and drinking hastily, as the manner of travellers is. The gateway and the steps of the house were lined with troopers and servants and sturdy rogues; who scanned all who passed in or out, and not unfrequently followed them with ribald jests and nicknames. Songs and oaths, brawling and laughter, with the neighing of horses and the huzzas of the beggars, who shouted whenever a fresh party arrived, rose above all, and increased the reluctance with which I assisted madame and mademoiselle to dismount.

Simon was no match for such an occasion as this; but the stalwart aspect of the three men whom Maignan had left with me commanded respect, and attended by two of these I made a way for the ladies--not without some opposition and a few oaths--to enter the house. The landlord, whom we found crushed into a corner inside, and entirely overborne by the crowd which had invaded his dwelling, assured me that he had not the smallest garret he could place at my disposal; but I presently succeeded in finding a small room at the top, which I purchased from the four men who had taken possession of it. As it was impossible to get anything to eat there, I left a man on guard, and myself descended with madame and mademoiselle to the eating-room, a large chamber set with long boards, and filled with a rough and noisy crew. Under a running fire of observations we entered, and found with difficulty three seats in an inner corner of the room.

I ran my eye over the company, and noticed among them, besides a dozen travelling parties like our own, specimens of all those classes which are to be found in the rear of an army. There were some officers and more horse-dealers; half a dozen forage-agents and a few priests; with a large sprinkling of adventurers, braves, and led-captains, and here and there two or three whose dress and the deference paid to them by their neighbours seemed to indicate a higher rank. Conspicuous among these last were a party of four who occupied a small table by the door. An attempt had been made to secure some degree of privacy for them by interposing a settle between them and the room; and their attendants, who seemed to be numerous, did what they could to add to this by filling the gap with their persons. One of the four, a man of handsome dress and bearing, who sat in the place of honour, was masked, as we were. The gentleman at his right hand I could not see. The others, whom I could see, were strangers to me.

Some time elapsed before our people succeeded in procuring us any food, and during the interval we were exposed to an amount of comment on the part of those round us which I found very little to my liking. There were not half a dozen women present, and this and our masks rendered my companions unpleasantly conspicuous. Aware, however, of the importance of avoiding an altercation which might possibly detain us, and would be certain to add to our notoriety, I remained quiet; and presently the entrance of a tall, dark-complexioned man, who carried himself with a peculiar swagger, and seemed to be famous for something or other, diverted the attention of the company from us.

The new-comer was somewhat of Maignan's figure. He wore a back and breast over a green doublet, and had an orange feather in his cap and an orange-lined cloak on his shoulder. On entering he stood a moment in the doorway, letting his bold black eyes rove round the room, the while he talked in a loud braggart fashion to his companions. There was a lack of breeding in the man's air, and something offensive in his look; which I noticed produced wherever it rested a momentary silence and constraint. When he moved farther into the room I saw that he wore a very long sword, the point of which trailed a foot behind him.

He chose out for his first attentions the party of four whom I have mentioned; going up to them and accosting them with a ruffling air, directed especially to the gentleman in the mask. The latter lifted his head haughtily on finding himself addressed by a stranger, but did not offer to answer. Someone else did, however, for a sudden bellow like that of an enraged bull proceeded from behind the settle. The words were lost in noise, the unseen speaker's anger seeming so overpowering that he could not articulate; but the tone and voice, which were in some way familiar to me, proved enough for the bully, who, covering his retreat with a profound bow, backed out rapidly, muttering what was doubtless an apology. Cocking his hat more fiercely to make up for this repulse, he next proceeded to patrol the room, scowling from side to side as he went, with the evident intention of picking a quarrel with someone less formidable.

By ill-chance his eye lit, as he turned, on our masks. He said something to his companions; and encouraged, no doubt, by the position of our seats at the board, which led him to think us people of small consequence, he came to a stop opposite us.

'What! more dukes here?' he cried scoffingly. 'Hallo, you sir!' he continued to me, 'will you not unmask and drink a glass with me?'

I thanked him civilly, but declined.

His insolent eyes were busy, while I spoke, with madame's fair hair and handsome figure, which her mask failed to hide. 'Perhaps the ladies will have better taste, sir,' he said rudely. 'Will they not honour us with a sight of their pretty faces?'

Knowing the importance of keeping my temper I put constraint on myself, and answered, still with civility, that they were greatly fatigued and were about to retire.

'Zounds!' he cried, 'that is not to be borne. If we are to lose them so soon, the more reason we should enjoy their beaux yeux while we can. A short life and a merry one, sir. This is not a nunnery, nor, I dare swear, are your fair friends nuns.'

Though I longed to chastise him for this insult, I feigned deafness, and went on with my meal as if I had not heard him; and the table being between us prevented him going beyond words. After he had uttered one or two coarse jests of a similar character, which cost us less as we were masked, and our emotions could only be guessed, the crowd about us, seeing I took the thing quietly, began to applaud him; but more as it seemed to me out of fear than love. In this opinion I was presently confirmed on hearing from Simon who whispered the information in my ear as he handed a dish--that the fellow was an Italian captain in the king's pay, famous for his skill with the sword and the many duels in which he had displayed it.

Mademoiselle, though she did not know this, bore with his insolence with a patience which astonished me; while madame appeared unconscious of it. Nevertheless, I was glad when he retired and left us in peace. I seized the moment of his absence to escort the ladies through the room and upstairs to their apartment, the door of which I saw locked and secured. That done I breathed more freely; and feeling thankful that I had been able to keep my temper, took the episode to be at an end.

But in this I was mistaken, as I found when I returned to the room in which we had supped, my intention being to go through it to the stables. I had not taken two paces across the floor before I found my road blocked by the Italian, and read alike in his eyes and in the faces of the company--of whom many hastened to climb the tables to see what passed--that the meeting was premeditated. The man's face was flushed with wine; proud of his many victories, he eyed me with a boastful contempt my patience had perhaps given him the right to feel.

'Ha! well met, sir,' he said, sweeping the floor with his cap in an exaggeration of respect, 'now, perhaps, your high-mightiness will condescend to unmask? The table is no longer between us, nor are your fair friends here to protect their cher ami!'

'If I still refuse, sir,' I said civilly, wavering between anger and prudence, and hoping still to avoid a quarrel which might endanger us all, 'be good enough to attribute it to private motives, and to no desire to disoblige you.'

'No, I do not think you wish to disoblige me,' he answered, laughing scornfully--and a dozen voices echoed the gibe. 'But for your private motives, the devil take them! Is that plain enough, sir?'

'It is plain enough to show me that you are an ill-bred man!' I answered, choler getting the better of me. 'Let me pass, sir.'

'Unmask!' he retorted, moving so as still to detain me, 'or shall I call in the grooms to perform the office for you?'

Seeing at last that all my attempts to evade the man only fed his vanity, and encouraged him to further excesses, and that the motley crowd, who filled the room and already formed a circle round us, had made up their minds to see sport, I would no longer balk them; I could no longer do it, indeed, with honour. I looked round, therefore, for someone whom I might enlist as my second, but I saw no one with whom I had the least acquaintance. The room was lined from table to ceiling with mocking faces and scornful eyes all turned to me.

My opponent saw the look, and misread it; being much accustomed, I imagine, to a one-sided battle. He laughed contemptuously. 'No, my friend, there is no way out of it,' he said. 'Let me see your pretty face, or fight.'

'So be it,' I said quietly. 'If I have no other choice, I will fight.'

'In your mask?' he cried incredulously.

'Yes,' I said sternly, feeling every nerve tingle with long- suppressed rage. 'I will fight as I am. Off with your back and breast, if you are a man. And I will so deal with you that if you see to-morrow's sun you shall need a mask for the rest of your days!'

'Ho! ho!' he answered, scowling at me in surprise, 'you sing in a different key now. But I will put a term to it. There is space enough between these tables, if you can use your weapon; and much more than you will need to-morrow.'

'To-morrow will show,' I retorted.

Without more ado he unfastened the buckles of his breast-piece, and relieving himself of it, stepped back a pace. Those of the bystanders who occupied the part of the room he indicated--a space bounded by four tables, and not unfit for the purpose, though somewhat confined--hastened to get out of it, and seize instead upon neighbouring posts of 'vantage. The man's reputation was such, and his fame so great, that on all sides I heard naught but wagers offered against me at odds; but this circumstance, which might have flurried a younger man and numbed his arm, served only to set me on making the most of such openings as the fellow's presumption and certainty of success would be sure to afford.

The news of the challenge running through the house had brought together by this time so many people as to fill the room from end to end, and even to obscure the light, which was beginning to wane. At the last moment, when we were on the point of engaging, a slight commotion marked the admission to the front of three or four persons, whose consequence or attendants gained them this advantage. I believed them to be the party of four I have mentioned, but at the time I could not be certain.

In the few seconds of waiting while this went forward I examined our relative positions with the fullest intention of killing the man--whose glittering eyes and fierce smile filled me with a loathing which was very nearly hatred--if I could. The line of windows lay to my right and his left. The evening light fell across us, whitening the row of faces on my left, but leaving those on my right in shadow. It occurred to me on the instant that my mask was actually an advantage, seeing that it protected my sight from the side-light, and enabled me to watch his eyes and point with more concentration.

'You will be the twenty-third man I have killed!' he said boastfully, as we crossed swords and stood an instant on guard.

'Take care!' I answered. 'You have twenty-three against you!'

A swift lunge was his only answer. I parried it, and thrust, and we fell to work. We had not exchanged half a dozen blows, however, before I saw that I should need all the advantage which my mask and greater caution gave me. I had met my match, and it might be something more; but that for a time it was impossible to tell. He had the longer weapon, and I the longer reach. He preferred the point, after the new Italian fashion, and I the blade. He was somewhat flushed with wine, while my arm had scarcely recovered the strength of which illness had deprived me.

On the other hand, excited at the first by the cries of his backers, he played rather wildly; while I held myself prepared, and keeping up a strong guard, waited cautiously for any opening or mistake on his part.

The crowd round us, which had hailed our first passes with noisy cries of derision and triumph, fell silent after a while, surprised and taken aback by their champion's failure to spit me at the first onslaught. My reluctance to engage had led them to predict a short fight and an easy victory.

Convinced of the contrary, they began to watch each stroke with bated breath; or now and again, muttering the name of Jarnac, broke into brief exclamations as a blow more savage than usual drew sparks from our blades, and made the rafters ring with the harsh grinding of steel on steel.

The surprise of the crowd, however, was a small thing compared with that of my adversary. Impatience, disgust, rage and doubt chased one another in turn across his flushed features. Apprised that he had to do with a swordsman, he put forth all his power. With spite in his eyes he laboured blow on blow, he tried one form of attack after another, he found me equal, if barely equal, to all. And then at last there came a change. The perspiration gathered on his brow, the silence disconcerted him; he felt his strength failing under the strain, and suddenly, I think, the possibility of defeat and death, unthought of before, burst upon him. I heard him groan, and for a moment he fenced wildly. Then he again recovered himself. But now I read terror in his eyes, and knew that the moment of retribution was at hand. With his back to the table, and my point threatening his breast, he knew at last what those others had felt!

He would fain have stopped to breathe, but I would not let him though my blows also were growing feeble, and my guard weaker; for I knew that if I gave him time to recover himself he would have recourse to other tricks, and might out-manoeuvre me in the end. As it was, my black unchanging mask, which always confronted him, which hid all emotions and veiled even fatigue, had grown to be full of terror to him--full of blank, passionless menace. He could not tell how I fared, or what I thought, or how my strength stood. Superstitious dread was on him, and threatened, to overpower him. Ignorant who I was or whence I came, he feared and doubted, grappling with monstrous suspicions, which the fading light encouraged. His face broke out in blotches, his breath came and went in gasps, his eyes began to protrude. Once or twice they quitted mine for a part of a second to steal a despairing glance at the rows of onlookers that ran to right and left of us. But he read no pity there.

At last the end came--more suddenly than I had looked for it, but I think he was unnerved. His hand lost its grip of the hilt, and a parry which I dealt a little more briskly than usual sent the weapon flying among the crowd, as much to my astonishment as to that of the spectators. A volley of oaths and exclamations hailed the event; and for a moment I stood at gaze, eyeing him watchfully. He shrank back; then he made for a moment as if he would fling himself upon me dagger in hand. But seeing my point steady, he recoiled a second time, his face distorted with rage and fear.

'Go!' I said sternly. 'Begone! Follow your sword! But spare the next man you conquer.'

He stared at me, fingering his dagger as if he did not understand, or as if in the bitterness of his shame at being so defeated even life were unwelcome. I was about to repeat my words when a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.

'Fool!' a harsh growling voice muttered in my ear. 'Do you want him to serve you as Achon served Matas? This is the way to deal with him.'

And before I knew who spoke or what to expect a man vaulted over the table beside me. Seizing the Italian by the neck and waist, he flung him bodily--without paying the least regard to his dagger--into the crowd. 'There!' the new-comer cried, stretching his arms as if the effort had relieved him, 'so much for him! And do you breathe yourself. Breathe yourself, my friend,' he continued with a vain-glorious air of generosity. 'When you are rested and ready, you and I will have a bout. Mon dieu! what a thing it is to see a man! And by my faith you are a man!'

'But, sir,' I said, staring at him in the utmost bewilderment, 'we have no quarrel.'

'Quarrel?' he cried in his loud, ringing voice. 'Heaven forbid! Why should we? I love a man, however, and when I see one I say to him, "I am Crillon! Fight me!" But I see you are not yet rested. Patience! There is no hurry. Berthon de Crillon is proud to wait your convenience. In the meantime, gentlemen,' he continued, turning with a grand air to the spectators, who viewed this sudden bouleversement with unbounded surprise, 'let us do what we can. Take the word from me, and cry all, "Vive le roi, et vive l'inconnu!"'

Like people awaking from a dream--so great was their astonishment the company complied and with the utmost heartiness. When the shout died away, someone cried in turn, 'Vive Crillon!' and this was honoured with a fervour which brought the tears to the eyes of that remarkable man, in whom bombast was so strangely combined with the firmest and most reckless courage. He bowed again and again, turning himself about in the small space between the tables, while his face shone with pleasure and enthusiasm. Meanwhile I viewed him with perplexity. I comprehended that it was his voice I had heard behind the settle; but I had neither the desire to fight him nor so great a reserve of strength after my illness as to be able to enter on a fresh contest with equanimity. When he turned to me, therefore, and again asked, 'Well, sir, are you ready?' I could think of no better answer than that I had already made to him, 'But, sir, I have no quarrel with you.'

'Tut, tut!' he answered querulously, 'if that is all, let us engage.'

'That is not all, however,' I said, resolutely putting up my sword. 'I have not only no quarrel with M. de Crillon, but I received at his hands when I last saw him a considerable service.'

'Then now is the time to return it,' he answered. briskly, and as if that settled the matter.

I could not refrain from laughing. 'Nay, but I have still an excuse,' I said. 'I am barely recovered from an illness, and am weak. Even so, I should be loth to decline a combat with some; but a better man than I may give the wall to M. de Crillon and suffer no disgrace.'

'Oh, if you put it that way--enough said,' he answered in a tone of disappointment. 'And, to be sure, the light is almost gone. That is a comfort. But you will not refuse to drink a cup of wine with me? Your voice I remember, though I cannot say who you are or what service I did you. For the future, however, count on me. I love a man who is brave as well as modest, and know no better friend than a stout swordsman.'

I was answering him in fitting terms--while the fickle crowd, which a few minutes earlier had been ready to tear me, viewed us from a distance with respectful homage--when the masked gentleman who had before been in his company drew near and saluted me with much stateliness.

'I congratulate you, sir,' he said, in the easy tone of a great man condescending. 'You use the sword as few use it, and fight with your head as well as your hands. Should you need a friend or employment, you will honour me by remembering that you are known to the Vicomte de Turenne.'

I bowed low to hide the start which the mention of his name caused me. For had I tried, ay, and possessed to aid me all the wit of M. de Brantome, I could have imagined nothing more fantastic than this meeting; or more entertaining than that I, masked, should talk with the Vicomte de Turenne masked, and hear in place of reproaches and threats of vengeance a civil offer of protection. Scarcely knowing whether I should laugh or tremble, or which should occupy me more, the diverting thing that had happened or the peril we had barely escaped, I made shift to answer him, craving his indulgence if I still preserved my incognito. Even while I spoke a fresh fear assailed me: lest M. de Crillon, recognising my voice or figure, should cry my name on the spot, and explode in a moment the mine on which we stood.

This rendered me extremely impatient to be gone. But M. le Vicomte had still something to say, and I could not withdraw myself without rudeness.

'You are travelling north like everyone else?' he said, gazing at me curiously. 'May I ask whether you are for Meudon, where the King of Navarre lies, or for the Court at St. Cloud?'

I muttered, moving restlessly under his keen eyes, that I was for Meudon.

'Then, if you care to travel with a larger company,' he rejoined, bowing with negligent courtesy, 'pray command me. I am for Meudon also, and shall leave here three hours before noon.'

Fortunately he took my assent to his gracious invitation for granted, and turned away before I had well begun to thank him. From Crillon I found it more difficult to escape. He appeared to have conceived a great fancy for me, and felt also, I imagine, some curiosity as to my identity. But I did even this at last, and, evading the obsequious offers which were made me on all sides, escaped to the stables, where I sought out the Cid's stall, and lying down in the straw beside him, began to review the past, and plan the future. Under cover of the darkness sleep soon came to me; my last waking thoughts being divided between thankfulness for my escape and a steady purpose to reach Meudon before the Vicomte, so that I might make good my tale in his absence. For that seemed to be my only chance of evading the dangers I had chosen to encounter.