Scaramouche/Book III/Chapter VIII
THE PALADIN OF THE THIRD
M. Le Chevalier de Chabrillane had been closely connected, you will remember, with the iniquitous affair in which Philippe de Vilmorin had lost his life. We know enough to justify a surmise that he had not merely been La Tour d'Azyr's second in the encounter, but actually an instigator of the business. André-Louis may therefore have felt a justifiable satisfaction in offering up the Chevalier's life to the Manes of his murdered friend. He may have viewed it as an act of common justice not to be procured by any other means. Also it is to be remembered that Chabrillane had gone confidently to the meeting, conceiving that he, a practised ferailleur, had to deal with a bourgeois utterly unskilled in swordsmanship. Morally, then, he was little better than a murderer, and that he should have tumbled into the pit he conceived that he dug for André-Louis was a poetic retribution. Yet, notwithstanding all this, I should find the cynical note on which André-Louis announced the issue to the Assembly utterly detestable did I believe it sincere. It would justify Aline of the expressed opinion, which she held in common with so many others who had come into close contact with him, that André-Louis was quite heartless.
You have seen something of the same heartlessness in his conduct when he discovered the faithlessness of La Binet although that is belied by the measures he took to avenge himself. His subsequent contempt of the woman I account to be born of the affection in which for a time he held her. That this affection was as deep as he first imagined, I do not believe; but that it was as shallow as he would almost be at pains to make it appear by the completeness with which he affects to have put her from his mind when he discovered her worthlessness, I do not believe; nor, as I have said, do his actions encourage that belief. Then, again, his callous cynicism in hoping that he had killed Binet is also an affectation. Knowing that such things as Binet are better out of the world, he can have suffered no compunction; he had, you must remember, that rarely level vision which sees things in their just proportions, and never either magnifies or reduces them by sentimental considerations. At the same time, that he should contemplate the taking of life with such complete and cynical equanimity, whatever the justification, is quite incredible.
Similarly now, it is not to be believed that in coming straight from the Bois de Boulogne, straight from the killing of a man, he should be sincerely expressing his nature in alluding to the fact in terms of such outrageous flippancy. Not quite to such an extent was he the incarnation of Scaramouche. But sufficiently was he so ever to mask his true feelings by an arresting gesture, his true thoughts by an effective phrase. He was the actor always, a man ever calculating the effect he would produce, ever avoiding self-revelation, ever concerned to overlay his real character by an assumed and quite fictitious one. There was in this something of impishness, and something of other things.
Nobody laughed now at his flippancy. He did not intend that anybody should. He intended to be terrible; and he knew that the more flippant and casual his tone, the more terrible would be its effect. He produced exactly the effect he desired.
What followed in a place where feelings and practices had become what they had become is not difficult to surmise. When the session rose, there were a dozen spadassins awaiting him in the vestibule, and this time the men of his own party were less concerned to guard him. He seemed so entirely capable of guarding himself; he appeared, for all his circumspection, to have so completely carried the war into the enemy's camp, so completely to have adopted their own methods, that his fellows scarcely felt the need to protect him as yesterday.
As he emerged, he scanned that hostile file, whose air and garments marked them so clearly for what they were. He paused, seeking the man he expected, the man he was most anxious to oblige. But M. de La Tour d'Azyr was absent from those eager ranks. This seemed to him odd. La Tour d'Azyr was Chabrillane's cousin and closest friend. Surely he should have been among the first to-day. The fact was that La Tour d'Azyr was too deeply overcome by amazement and grief at the utterly unexpected event. Also his vindictiveness was held curiously in leash. Perhaps he, too, remembered the part played by Chabrillane in the affair at Gavrillac, and saw in this obscure André-Louis Moreau, who had so persistently persecuted him ever since, an ordained avenger. The repugnance he felt to come to the point, with him, particularly after this culminating provocation, was puzzling even to himself. But it existed, and it curbed him now.
To André-Louis, since La Tour was not one of that waiting pack, it mattered little on that Tuesday morning who should be the next. The next, as it happened, was the young Vicomte de La Motte-Royau, one of the deadliest blades in the group.
On the Wednesday morning, coming again an hour or so late to the Assembly, André-Louis announced—in much the same terms as he had announced the death of Chabrillane—that M. de La Motte-Royau would probably not disturb the harmony of the Assembly for some weeks to come, assuming that he were so fortunate as to recover ultimately from the effects of an unpleasant accident with which he had quite unexpectedly had the misfortune to meet that morning.
On Thursday he made an identical announcement with regard to the Vidame de Blavon. On Friday he told them that he had been delayed by M. de Troiscantins, and then turning to the members of the Côté Droit, and lengthening his face to a sympathetic gravity:
"I am glad to inform you, messieurs, that M. des Troiscantins is in the hands of a very competent surgeon who hopes with care to restore him to your councils in a few weeks' time."
It was paralyzing, fantastic, unreal; and friend and foe in that assembly sat alike stupefied under those bland daily announcements. Four of the most redoubtable spadassinicides put away for a time, one of them dead—and all this performed with such an air of indifference and announced in such casual terms by a wretched little provincial lawyer!
He began to assume in their eyes a romantic aspect. Even that group of philosophers of the Côté Gauche, who refused to worship any force but the force of reason, began to look upon him with a respect and consideration which no oratorical triumphs could ever have procured him.
And from the Assembly the fame of him oozed out gradually over Paris. Desmoulins wrote a panegyric upon him in his paper "Les Révolutions," wherein he dubbed him the "Paladin of the Third Estate," a name that caught the fancy of the people, and clung to him for some time. Disdainfully was he mentioned in the "Actes des Apôtres," the mocking organ of the Privileged party, so light-heartedly and provocatively edited by a group of gentlemen afflicted by a singular mental myopy.
The Friday of that very busy week in the life of this young man who even thereafter is to persist in reminding us that he is not in any sense a man of action, found the vestibule of the Manège empty of swordsmen when he made his leisurely and expectant egress between Le Chapelier and Kersain.
So surprised was he that he checked in his stride.
"Have they had enough?" he wondered, addressing the question to Le Chapelier.
"They have had enough of you, I should think," was the answer. "They will prefer to turn their attention to some one less able to take care of himself."
Now this was disappointing. André-Louis had lent himself to this business with a very definite object in view. The slaying of Chabrillane had, as far as it went, been satisfactory. He had regarded that as a sort of acceptable hors d'oeuvre. But the three who had followed were no affair of his at all. He had met them with a certain amount of repugnance, and dealt with each as lightly as consideration of his own safety permitted. Was the baiting of him now to cease whilst the man at whom he aimed had not presented himself? In that case it would be necessary to force the pace!
Out there under the awning a group of gentlemen stood in earnest talk. Scanning the group in a rapid glance, André-Louis perceived M. de La Tour d'Azyr amongst them. He tightened his lips. He must afford no provocation. It must be for them to fasten their quarrels upon him. Already the "Actes des Apôtres" that morning had torn the mask from his face, and proclaimed him the fencing-master of the Rue du Hasard, successor to Bertrand des Amis. Hazardous as it had been hitherto for a man of his condition to engage in single combat it was rendered doubly so by this exposure, offered to the public as an aristocratic apologia.
Still, matters could not be left where they were, or he should have had all his pains for nothing. Carefully looking away from that group of gentlemen, he raised his voice so that his words must carry to their ears.
"It begins to look as if my fears of having to spend the remainder of my days in the Bois were idle."
Out of the corner of his eye he caught the stir his words created in that group. Its members had turned to look at him; but for the moment that was all. A little more was necessary. Pacing slowly along between his friends he resumed:
"But is it not remarkable that the assassin of Lagron should make no move against Lagron's successor? Or perhaps it is not remarkable. Perhaps there are good reasons. Perhaps the gentleman is prudent."
He had passed the group by now, and he left that last sentence of his to trail behind him, and after it sent laughter, insolent and provoking.
He had not long to wait. Came a quick step behind him, and a hand falling upon his shoulder, spun him violently round. He was brought face to face with M. de La Tour d'Azyr, whose handsome countenance was calm and composed, but whose eyes reflected something of the sudden blaze of passion stirring in him. Behind him several members of the group were approaching more slowly. The others—like André-Louis' two companions—remained at gaze.
"You spoke of me, I think," said the Marquis quietly.
"I spoke of an assassin—yes. But to these my friends." André-Louis' manner was no less quiet, indeed the quieter of the two, for he was the more experienced actor.
"You spoke loudly enough to be overheard," said the Marquis, answering the insinuation that he had been eavesdropping.
"Those who wish to overhear frequently contrive to do so."
"I perceive that it is your aim to be offensive."
"Oh, but you are mistaken, M. le Marquis. I have no wish to be offensive. But I resent having hands violently laid upon me, especially when they are hands that I cannot consider clean, In the circumstances I can hardly be expected to be polite."
The elder man's eyelids flickered. Almost he caught himself admiring André-Louis' bearing. Rather, he feared that his own must suffer by comparison. Because of this, he enraged altogether, and lost control of himself.
"You spoke of me as the assassin of Lagron. I do not affect to misunderstand you. You expounded your views to me once before, and I remember."
"But what flattery, monsieur!"
"You called me an assassin then, because I used my skill to dispose of a turbulent hot-head who made the world unsafe for me. But how much better are you, M. the fencing-master, when you oppose yourself to men whose skill is as naturally inferior to your own!"
M. de La Tour d'Azyr's friends looked grave, perturbed. It was really incredible to find this great gentleman so far forgetting himself as to descend to argument with a canaille of a lawyer-swordsman. And what was worse, it was an argument in which he was being made ridiculous.
"I oppose myself to them!" said André-Louis on a tone of amused protest. "Ah, pardon, M. le Marquis; it is they who chose to oppose themselves to me—and so stupidly. They push me, they slap my face, they tread on my toes, they call me by unpleasant names. What if I am a fencing-master? Must I on that account submit to every manner of ill-treatment from your bad-mannered friends? Perhaps had they found out sooner that I am a fencing-master their manners would have been better. But to blame me for that! What injustice!"
"Comedian!" the Marquis contemptuously apostrophized him. "Does it alter the case? Are these men who have opposed you men who live by the sword like yourself?"
"On the contrary, M. le Marquis, I have found them men who died by the sword with astonishing ease. I cannot suppose that you desire to add yourself to their number."
"And why, if you please?" La Tour d'Azyr's face had flamed scarlet before that sneer.
"Oh," André-Louis raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, a man considering. He delivered himself slowly. "Because, monsieur, you prefer the easy victim—the Lagrons and Vilmorins of this world, mere sheep for your butchering. That is why."
And then the Marquis struck him.
André-Louis stepped back. His eyes gleamed a moment; the next they were smiling up into the face of his tall enemy.
"No better than the others, after all! Well, well! Remark, I beg you, how history repeats itself—with certain differences. Because poor Vilmorin could not bear a vile lie with which you goaded him, he struck you. Because you cannot bear an equally vile truth which I have uttered, you strike me. But always is the vileness yours. And now as then for the striker there is..." He broke off. "But why name it? You will remember what there is. Yourself you wrote it that day with the point of your too-ready sword. But there. I will meet you if you desire it, monsieur."
"What else do you suppose that I desire? To talk?"
André-Louis turned to his friends and sighed. "So that I am to go another jaunt to the Bois. Isaac, perhaps you will kindly have a word with one of these friends of M. le Marquis', and arrange for nine o'clock to-morrow, as usual."
"Not to-morrow," said the Marquis shortly to Le Chapelier. "I have an engagement in the country, which I cannot postpone."
Le Chapelier looked at André-Louis.
"Then for M. le Marquis' convenience, we will say Sunday at the same hour."
"I do not fight on Sunday. I am not a pagan to break the holy day."
"But surely the good God would not have the presumption to damn a gentleman of M. le Marquis' quality on that account? Ah, well, Isaac, please arrange for Monday, if it is not a feast-day or monsieur has not some other pressing engagement. I leave it in your hands."
He bowed with the air of a man wearied by these details, and threading his arm through Kersain's withdrew.
"Ah, Dieu de Dieu! But what a trick of it you have," said the Breton deputy, entirely unsophisticated in these matters.
"To be sure I have. I have taken lessons at their hands." He laughed. He was in excellent good-humour. And Kersain was enrolled in the ranks of those who accounted André-Louis a man without heart or conscience.
But in his "Confessions" he tells us—and this is one of the glimpses that reveal the true man under all that make-believe—that on that night he went down on his knees to commune with his dead friend Philippe, and to call his spirit to witness that he was about to take the last step in the fulfilment of the oath sworn upon his body at Gavrillac two years ago.