Scaramouche/Book III/Chapter VII
After an absence of rather more than a week, M. le Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr was back in his place on the Côté Droit of the National Assembly. Properly speaking, we should already at this date allude to him as the ci-devant Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr, for the time was September of 1790, two months after the passing— on the motion of that downright Breton leveller, Le Chapelier—of the decree that nobility should no more be hereditary than infamy; that just as the brand of the gallows must not defile the possibly worthy descendants of one who had been convicted of evil, neither should the blazon advertising achievement glorify the possibly unworthy descendants of one who had proved himself good. And so the decree had been passed abolishing hereditary nobility and consigning family escutcheons to the rubbish-heap of things no longer to be tolerated by an enlightened generation of philosophers. M. le Comte de Lafayette, who had supported the motion, left the Assembly as plain M. Motier, the great tribune Count Mirabeau became plain M. Riquetti, and M. le Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr just simple M. Lesarques. The thing was done in one of those exaltations produced by the approach of the great National Festival of the Champ de Mars, and no doubt it was thoroughly repented on the morrow by those who had lent themselves to it. Thus, although law by now, it was a law that no one troubled just yet to enforce.
That, however, is by the way. The time, as I have said, was September, the day dull and showery, and some of the damp and gloom of it seemed to have penetrated the long Hall of the Manège, where on their eight rows of green benches elliptically arranged in ascending tiers about the space known as La Piste, sat some eight or nine hundred of the representatives of the three orders that composed the nation.
The matter under debate by the constitution-builders was whether the deliberating body to succeed the Constituent Assembly should work in conjunction with the King, whether it should be periodic or permanent, whether it should govern by two chambers or by one.
The Abbé Maury, son of a cobbler, and therefore in these days of antitheses orator-in-chief of the party of the Right—the Blacks, as those who fought Privilege's losing battles were known—was in the tribune. He appeared to be urging the adoption of a two-chambers system framed on the English model. He was, if anything, more long-winded and prosy even than his habit; his arguments assumed more and more the form of a sermon; the tribune of the National Assembly became more and more like a pulpit; but the members, conversely, less and less like a congregation. They grew restive under that steady flow of pompous verbiage, and it was in vain that the four ushers in black satin breeches and carefully powdered heads, chain of office on their breasts, gilded sword at their sides, circulated in the Piste, clapping their hands, and hissing—
"Silence! En place!"
Equally vain was the intermittent ringing of the bell by the president at his green-covered table facing the tribune. The Abbé Maury had talked too long, and for some time had failed to interest the members. Realizing it at last, he ceased, whereupon the hum of conversation became general. And then it fell abruptly. There was a silence of expectancy, and a turning of heads, a craning of necks. Even the group of secretaries at the round table below the president's daïs roused themselves from their usual apathy to consider this young man who was mounting the tribune of the Assembly for the first time.
"M. André-Louis Moreau, deputy suppléant, vice Emmanuel Lagron, deceased, for Ancenis in the Department of the Loire."
M. de La Tour d'Azyr shook himself out of the gloomy abstraction in which he had sat. The successor of the deputy he had slain must, in any event, be an object of grim interest to him. You conceive how that interest was heightened when he heard him named, when, looking across, he recognized indeed in this André-Louis Moreau the young scoundrel who was continually crossing his path, continually exerting against him a deep-moving, sinister influence to make him regret that he should have spared his life that day at Gavrillac two years ago. That he should thus have stepped into the shoes of Lagron seemed to M. de La Tour d'Azyr too apt for mere coincidence, a direct challenge in itself.
He looked at the young man in wonder rather than in anger, and looking at him he was filled by a vague, almost a premonitory, uneasiness.
At the very outset, the presence which in itself he conceived to be a challenge was to demonstrate itself for this in no equivocal terms.
"I come before you," André-Louis began, "as a deputy-suppléant to fill the place of one who was murdered some three weeks ago."
It was a challenging opening that instantly provoked an indignant outcry from the Blacks. André-Louis paused, and looked at them, smiling a little, a singularly self-confident young man.
"The gentlemen of the Right, M. le Président, do not appear to like my words. But that is not surprising. The gentlemen of the Right notoriously do not like the truth."
This time there was uproar. The members of the Left roared with laughter, those of the Right thundered menacingly. The ushers circulated at a pace beyond their usual, agitated themselves, clapped their hands, and called in vain for silence.
The President rang his bell.
Above the general din came the voice of La Tour d'Azyr, who had half-risen from his seat: "Mountebank! This is not the theatre!"
"No, monsieur, it is becoming a hunting-ground for bully-swordsmen," was the answer, and the uproar grew.
The deputy-suppléant looked round and waited. Near at hand he met the encouraging grin of Le Chapelier, and the quiet, approving smile of Kersain, another Breton deputy of his acquaintance. A little farther off he saw the great head of Mirabeau thrown back, the great eyes regarding him from under a frown in a sort of wonder, and yonder, among all that moving sea of faces, the sallow countenance of the Arras' lawyer Robespierre—or de Robespierre, as the little snob now called himself, having assumed the aristocratic particle as the prerogative of a man of his distinction in the councils of his country. With his tip-tilted nose in the air, his carefully curled head on one side, the deputy for Arras was observing André-Louis attentively. The horn-rimmed spectacles he used for reading were thrust up on to his pale forehead, and it was through a levelled spy-glass that he considered the speaker, his thin-lipped mouth stretched a little in that tiger-cat smile that was afterwards to become so famous and so feared.
Gradually the uproar wore itself out, and diminished so that at last the President could make himself heard. Leaning forward, he gravely addressed the young man in the tribune:
"Monsieur, if you wish to be heard, let me beg of you not to be provocative in your language." And then to the others: Messieurs, if we are to proceed, I beg that you will restrain your feelings until the deputy-suppléant has concluded his discourse."
"I shall endeavour to obey, M. le Président, leaving provocation to the gentlemen of the Right. If the few words I have used so far have been provocative, I regret it. But it was necessary that I should refer to the distinguished deputy whose place I come so unworthily to fill, and it was unavoidable that I should refer to the event which has procured us this sad necessity. The deputy Lagron was a man of singular nobility of mind, a selfless, dutiful, zealous man, inflamed by the high purpose of doing his duty by his electors and by this Assembly. He possessed what his opponents would call a dangerous gift of eloquence."
La Tour d'Azyr writhed at the well-known phrase—his own phrase—the phrase that he had used to explain his action in the matter of Philippe de Vilmorin, the phrase that from time to time had been cast in his teeth with such vindictive menace.
And then the crisp voice of the witty Canalés, that very rapier of the Privileged party, cut sharply into the speaker's momentary pause.
"M. le Président," he asked with great solemnity, "has the deputy-suppléant mounted the tribune for the purpose of taking part in the debate on the constitution of the legislative assemblies, or for the purpose of pronouncing a funeral oration upon the departed deputy Lagron?"
This time it was the Blacks who gave way to mirth, until checked by the deputy-suppléant.
"That laughter is obscene!" In this truly Gallic fashion he flung his glove into the face of Privilege, determined, you see, upon no half measures; and the rippling laughter perished on the instant quenched in speechless fury.
Solemnly he proceeded.
"You all know how Lagron died. To refer to his death at all requires courage, to laugh in referring to it requires something that I will not attempt to qualify. If I have alluded to his decease, it is because my own appearance among you seemed to render some such allusion necessary. It is mine to take up the burden which he set down. I do not pretend that I have the strength, the courage, or the wisdom of Lagron; but with every ounce of such strength and courage and wisdom as I possess that burden will I bear. And I trust, for the sake of those who might attempt it, that the means taken to impose silence upon that eloquent voice will not be taken to impose silence upon mine."
There was a faint murmur of applause from the Left, splutter of contemptuous laughter from the Right.
"Rhodomont!" a voice called to him.
He looked in the direction of that voice, proceeding from the group of spadassins amid the Blacks across the Piste, and he smiled. Inaudibly his lips answered:
"No, my friend—Scaramouche; Scaramouche, the subtle, dangerous fellow who goes tortuously to his ends." Aloud, he resumed: "M. le Président, there are those who will not understand that the purpose for which we are assembled here is the making of laws by which France may be equitably governed, by which France may be lifted out of the morass of bankruptcy into which she is in danger of sinking. For there are some who want, it seems, not laws, but blood; I solemnly warn them that this blood will end by choking them, if they do not learn in time to discard force and allow reason to prevail."
Again in that phrase there was something that stirred a memory in La Tour d'Azyr. He turned in the fresh uproar to speak to his cousin Chabrillane who sat beside him.
"A daring rogue, this bastard of Gavrillac's," said he.
Chabrillane looked at him with gleaming eyes, his face white with anger.
"Let him talk himself out. I don't think he will be heard again after to-day. Leave this to me."
Hardly could La Tour have told you why, but he sank back in his seat with a sense of relief. He had been telling himself that here was matter demanding action, a challenge that he must take up. But despite his rage he felt a singular unwillingness. This fellow had a trick of reminding him, he supposed, too unpleasantly of that young abbé done to death in the garden behind the "Bréton Armé" at Gavrillac. Not that the death of Philippe de Vilmorin lay heavily upon M. de La Tour d'Azyr's conscience. He had accounted himself fully justified of his action. It was that the whole thing as his memory revived it for him made an unpleasant picture: that distraught boy kneeling over the bleeding body of the friend he had loved, and almost begging to be slain with him, dubbing the Marquis murderer and coward to incite him.
Meanwhile, leaving now the subject of the death of Lagron, the deputy-suppléant had at last brought himself into order, and was speaking upon the question under debate. He contributed nothing of value to it; he urged nothing definite. His speech on the subject was very brief—that being the pretext and not the purpose for which he had ascended the tribune.
When later he was leaving the hall at the end of the sitting, with Le Chapelier at his side, he found himself densely surrounded by deputies as by a body-guard. Most of them were Bretons, who aimed at screening him from the provocations which his own provocative words in the Assembly could not fail to bring down upon his head. For a moment the massive form of Mirabeau brought up alongside of him.
"Felicitations, M. Moreau," said the great man. "You acquitted yourself very well. They will want your blood, no doubt. But be discreet, monsieur, if I may presume to advise you, and do not allow yourself to be misled by any false sense of quixotry. Ignore their challenges. I do so myself. I place each challenger upon my list. There are some fifty there already, and there they will remain. Refuse them what they are pleased to call satisfaction, and all will be well." André-Louis smiled and sighed.
"It requires courage," said the hypocrite.
"Of course it does. But you would appear to have plenty."
"Hardly enough, perhaps. But I shall do my best."
They had come through the vestibule, and although this was lined with eager Blacks waiting for the young man who had insulted them so flagrantly from the rostrum, André-Louis' body-guard had prevented any of them from reaching him.
Emerging now into the open, under the great awning at the head of the Carrière, erected to enable carriages to reach the door under cover, those in front of him dispersed a little, and there was a moment as he reached the limit of the awning when his front was entirely uncovered. Outside the rain was falling heavily, churning the ground into thick mud, and for a moment André-Louis, with Le Chapelier ever at his side, stood hesitating to step out into the deluge.
The watchful Chabrillane had seen his chance, and by a détour that took him momentarily out into the rain, he came face to face with the too-daring young Breton. Rudely, violently, he thrust André-Louis back, as if to make room for himself under the shelter.
Not for a second was André-Louis under any delusion as to the man's deliberate purpose, nor were those who stood near him, who made a belated and ineffectual attempt to close about him. He was grievously disappointed. It was not Chabrillane he had been expecting. His disappointment was reflected on his countenance, to be mistaken for something very different by the arrogant Chevalier.
But if Chabrillane was the man appointed to deal with him, he would make the best of it.
"I think you are pushing against me, monsieur," he said, very civilly, and with elbow and shoulder he thrust M. de Chabrillane back into the rain.
"I desire to take shelter, monsieur," the Chevalier hectored.
"You may do so without standing on my feet. I have a prejudice against any one standing on my feet. My feet are very tender. Perhaps you did not know it, monsieur. Please say no more."
"Why, I wasn't speaking, you lout!" exclaimed the Chevalier, slightly discomposed.
"Were you not? I thought perhaps you were about to apologize."
"Apologize?" Chabrillane laughed. "To you! Do you know that you are amusing?" He stepped under the awning for the second time, and again in view of all thrust André-Louis rudely back.
"Ah!" cried André-Louis, with a grimace. "You hurt me, monsieur. I have told you not to push against me." He raised his voice that all might hear him, and once more impelled M. de Chabrillane back into the rain.
Now, for all his slenderness, his assiduous daily sword-practice had given André-Louis an arm of iron. Also he threw his weight into the thrust. His assailant reeled backwards a few steps, and then his heel struck a baulk of timber left on the ground by some workmen that morning, and he sat down suddenly in the mud.
A roar of laughter rose from all who witnessed the fine gentleman's downfall. He rose, mud-bespattered, in a fury, and in that fury sprang at André-Louis.
André-Louis had made him ridiculous, which was altogether unforgivable.
"You shall meet me for this!" he spluttered. "I shall kill you for it."
His inflamed face was within a foot of André-Louis'. André-Louis laughed. In the silence everybody heard the laugh and the words that followed.
"Oh, is that what you wanted? But why didn't you say so before? You would have spared me the trouble of knocking you down. I thought gentlemen of your profession invariably conducted these affairs with decency, decorum, and a certain grace. Had you done so, you might have saved your breeches."
"How soon shall we settle this?" snapped Chabrillane, livid with very real fury.
"Whenever you please, monsieur. It is for you to say when it will suit your convenience to kill me. I think that was the intention you announced, was it not?" André-Louis was suavity itself.
"To-morrow morning, in the Bois. Perhaps you will bring a friend."
"Certainly, monsieur. To-morrow morning, then. I hope we shall have fine weather. I detest the rain."
Chabrillane looked at him almost with amazement. André-Louis smiled pleasantly.
"Don't let me detain you now, monsieur. We quite understand each other. I shall be in the Bois at nine o'clock to-morrow morning."
"That is too late for me, monsieur."
"Any other hour would be too early for me. I do not like to have my habits disturbed. Nine o'clock or not at all, as you please."
"But I must be at the Assembly at nine, for the morning session."
"I am afraid, monsieur, you will have to kill me first, and I have a prejudice against being killed before nine o'clock."
Now this was too complete a subversion of the usual procedure for M. de Chabrillane's stomach. Here was a rustic deputy assuming with him precisely the tone of sinister mockery which his class usually dealt out to their victims of the Third Estate. And to heighten the irritation, André-Louis—the actor, Scaramouche always—produced his snuffbox, and proffered it with a steady hand to Le Chapelier before helping himself.
Chabrillane, it seemed, after all that he had suffered, was not even to be allowed to make a good exit.
"Very well, monsieur," he said. "Nine o'clock, then; and we'll see if you'll talk as pertly afterwards."
On that he flung away, before the jeers of the provincial deputies. Nor did it soothe his rage to be laughed at by urchins all the way down the Rue Dauphine because of the mud and filth that dripped from his satin breeches and the tails of his elegant, striped coat.
But though the members of the Third had jeered on the surface, they trembled underneath with fear and indignation. It was too much. Lagron killed by one of these bullies, and now his successor challenged, and about to be killed by another of them on the very first day of his appearance to take the dead man's place. Several came now to implore André-Louis not to go to the Bois, to ignore the challenge and the whole affair, which was but a deliberate attempt to put him out of the way. He listened seriously, shook his head gloomily, and promised at last to think it over.
He was in his seat again for the afternoon session as if nothing disturbed him.
But in the morning, when the Assembly met, his place was vacant, and so was M. de Chabrillane's. Gloom and resentment sat upon the members of the Third, and brought a more than usually acrid note into their debates. They disapproved of the rashness of the new recruit to their body. Some openly condemned his lack of circumspection. Very few—and those only the little group in Le Chapelier's confidence—ever expected to see him again.
It was, therefore, as much in amazement as in relief that at a few minutes after ten they saw him enter, calm, composed, and bland, and thread his way to his seat. The speaker occupying the rostrum at that moment—a member of the Privileged—stopped short to stare in incredulous dismay. Here was something that he could not understand at all. Then from somewhere, to satisfy the amazement on both sides of the assembly, a voice explained the phenomenon contemptuously.
"They have n't met. He has shirked it at the last moment."
It must be so, thought all; the mystification ceased, and men were settling back into their seats. But now, having reached his place, having heard the voice that explained the matter to the universal satisfaction, André-Louis paused before taking his seat. He felt it incumbent upon him to reveal the true fact.
"M. le Président, my excuses for my late arrival." There was no necessity for this. It was a mere piece of theatricality, such as it was not in Scaramouche's nature to forgo. "I have been detained by an engagement of a pressing nature. I bring you also the excuses of M. de Chabrillane. He, unfortunately, will be permanently absent from this Assembly in future."
The silence was complete. André-Louis sat down.