The Company of the Marjolaine


John Buchan

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The Company of the Marjolaine

Qu’est-c’ qui passe ici si tard, Compagnons de la Marjolaine?

Chansons de France

[This extract from the unpublished papers of the Manorwater family has seemed to the Editor worth printing for its historical interest. The famous Lady Molly Carteron became Countess of Manorwater by her second marriage. She was a wit and a friend of wits, and her nephew, the Honourable Charles Hervey–Townshend (afterwards our Ambassador at The Hague), addressed to her a series of amusing letters while making, after the fashion of his contemporaries, the Grand Tour of Europe. Three letters, written at various places in the Eastern Alps and dispatched from Venice, contain the following short narrative. (JB)]

. . . I came down from the mountains and into the pleasing valley of the Adige in as pelting a heat as ever mortal suffered under. The way underfoot was parched and white; I had newly come out of a wilderness of white limestone crags, and a sun of Italy blazed blindingly in an azure Italian sky. You are to suppose, my dear aunt, that I had had enough and something more of my craze for foot-marching. A fortnight ago I had gone to Belluno in a post-chaise, dismissed my fellow to carry my baggage by way of Verona, and with no more than a valise on my back plunged into the fastnesses of those mountains. I had a fancy to see the little sculptured hills which made backgrounds for Gianbellin, and there were rumours of great mountains built wholly of marble which shone like the battlements of the Celestial City. So at any rate reported young Mr Wyndham, who had travelled with me from Milan to Venice. I lay the first night at Piave, where Titian had the fortune to be born, and the landlord at the inn displayed a set of villainous daubs which he swore were the early works of that master. Thence up a toilsome valley I journeyed to the Ampezzan country, where indeed I saw my white mountains, but, alas! no longer Celestial. For it rained like Westmoreland for five endless days, while I kicked my heels in an inn and turned a canto of Ariosto into halting English couplets. By and by it cleared, and I headed westward towards Bozen, among the tangle of wild rocks where the Dwarf King had once his rose garden. The first night I had no inn, but slept in the vile cabin of a forester, who spoke a tongue half Latin, half Dutch, which I could not master. The next day was a blaze of heat, the mountain paths lay thick with dust, and I had no wine from sunrise to sunset. Can you wonder that, when the following noon I saw Santa Chiara sleeping in its green circlet of meadows, my thought was only of a deep draught and a cool chamber? I protest that I am a great lover of natural beauty, of rock and cascade, and all the properties of the poet; but the enthusiasm of M. Rousseau himself would sink from the stars to earth if he had marched since breakfast in a cloud of dust with a throat like the nether millstone.

Yet I had not entered the place before Romance revived. The little town — a mere wayside halting-place on the great mountain road to the North — had the air of mystery which foretells adventure. Why is it that a dwelling or a countenance catches the fancy with the promise of some strange destiny? I have houses in my mind which I know will some day and somehow be intertwined oddly with my life; and I have faces in memory of which I know nothing save that I shall undoubtedly cast eyes again upon them. My first glimpses of Santa Chiara gave me this earnest of romance. It was walled and fortified, the streets were narrow pits of shade, old tenements with bent fronts swayed to meet each other. Melons lay drying on flat roofs, and yet now and then would come a high-pitched northern gable. Latin and Teuton met and mingled in the place, and, as Mr Gibbon has taught us, the offspring of this admixture is something fantastic and unpredictable. I forgot my grievous thirst and my tired feet in admiration and a certain vague expectation of wonders. Here, ran my thought, it is fated, maybe, that Romance and I shall at last compass a meeting. Perchance some princess is in need of my arm, or some affair of high policy is afoot in this jumble of old masonry. You will laugh at my folly, but I had an excuse for it. A fortnight in strange mountains disposes a man to look for something at his next encounter with his kind, and the sight of Santa Chiara would have fired the imagination of a judge in Chancery.

I strode happily into the courtyard of the Tre Croci, and presently had my expectation confirmed. For I found my fellow, Gianbattista — a faithful rogue I got in Rome on a Cardinal’s recommendation — hot in dispute with a lady’s maid. The woman was old, harsh-featured — no Italian clearly, though she spoke fluently in the tongue. She rated my man like a pick-pocket, and the dispute was over a room.

‘The signor will bear me out,’ said Gianbattista. ‘Was not I sent to Verona with his baggage, and thence to this place of ill manners? Was I not bidden engage for him a suite of apartments? Did I not duly choose these fronting on the gallery, and dispose therein the signer’s baggage? And lo! an hour ago I found it all turned into the yard and this woman installed in its place. It is monstrous, unbearable! Is this an inn for travellers, or haply the private mansion of these Magnificences?’

‘My servant speaks truly,’ I said, firmly yet with courtesy, having had no mind to spoil adventure by urging rights. ‘He had orders to take these rooms for me, and I know not what higher power can countermand me.’

The woman had been staring at me scornfully, for no doubt in my dusty habit I was a figure of small count; but at the sound of my voice she started, and cried out, ‘You are English, signor?’ I bowed an admission. ‘Then my mistress shall speak with you,’ she said, and dived into the inn like an elderly rabbit.

Gianbattista was for sending for the landlord and making a riot in that hostelry; but I stayed him, and bidding him fetch me a flask of white wine, three lemons, and a glass of eau de vie I sat down peaceably at one of the little tables in the courtyard and prepared for the quenching of my thirst. Presently, as I sat drinking that excellent compound which was my own invention, my shoulder was touched, and I turned to find the maid and her mistress. Alas for my hopes of a glorious being, young and lissom and bright with the warm riches of the south! I saw a short, stout little lady, well on the wrong side of thirty. She had plump red cheeks, and fair hair dressed indifferently in the Roman fashion. Two candid blue eyes redeemed her plainness, and a certain grave and gentle dignity. She was notably a gentlewoman, so I got up, doffed my hat, and awaited her commands.

She spoke in Italian. ‘Your pardon, signor, but I fear my good Cristine has done you unwittingly a wrong.’

Cristine snorted at this premature plea of guilty, while I hastened to assure the fair apologist that any rooms I might have taken were freely at her service.

I spoke unconsciously in English, and she replied in a halting parody of that tongue. ‘I understand him,’ she said, ‘but I do not speak him happily. I will discourse, if the signor pleases, in our first speech.’

She and her father, it appeared, had come over the Brenner, and arrived that morning at the Tre Croci, where they purposed to lie for some days. He was an old man, very feeble, and much depending upon her constant care. Wherefore it was necessary that the rooms of all the party should adjoin, and there was no suite of the size in the inn save that which I had taken. Would I therefore consent to forgo my right, and place her under an eternal debt?

I agreed most readily, being at all times careless where I sleep, so the bed be clean, or where I eat, so the meal be good. I bade my servant see the landlord and have my belongings carried to other rooms. Madame thanked me sweetly, and would have gone, when a thought detained her.

‘It is but courteous,’ she said, ‘that you should know the names of those whom you have befriended. My father is called the Count d’Albani, and I am his only daughter. We travel to Florence, where we have a villa in the environs.’

‘My name,’ said I, ‘is Hervey–Townshend, an Englishman travelling abroad for his entertainment.’

‘Hervey?’ she repeated. ‘Are you one of the family of Miladi Hervey?’

‘My worthy aunt,’ I replied, with a tender recollection of that preposterous woman.

Madame turned to Cristine, and spoke rapidly in a whisper.

‘My father, sir,’ she said, addressing me, ‘is an old frail man, little used to the company of strangers; but in former days he has had kindness from members of your house, and it would be a satisfaction to him, I think, to have the privilege of your acquaintance.’

She spoke with the air of a vizier who promises a traveller a sight of the Grand Turk. I murmured my gratitude, and hastened after Gianbattista. In an hour I had bathed, rid myself of my beard, and arrayed myself in decent clothing. Then I strolled out to inspect the little city, admired an altar-piece, chaffered with a Jew for a cameo, purchased some small necessaries, and returned early in the afternoon with a noble appetite for dinner.

The Tre Croci had been in happier days a bishop’s lodging, and possessed a dining-hall ceiled with black oak and adorned with frescoes. It was used as a general salle a manger for all dwellers in the inn, and there accordingly I sat down to my long-deferred meal. At first there were no other diners, and I had two maids, as well as Gianbattista, to attend on my wants. Presently Madame d’Albani entered, escorted by Cristine and by a tall gaunt serving-man, who seemed no part of the hostelry. The landlord followed, bowing civilly, and the two women seated themselves at the little table at the farther end. ‘Il Signer Conte dines in his room,’ said Madame to the host, who withdrew to see to that gentleman’s needs.

I found my eyes straying often to the little party in the cool twilight of that refectory. The man-servant was so old and battered, and yet of such a dignity, that he lent a touch of intrigue to the thing. He stood stiffly behind Madame’s chair, handing dishes with an air of silent reverence — the lackey of a great noble, if ever I had seen the type. Madame never glanced towards me, but conversed sparingly with Cristine, while she pecked delicately at her food. Her name ran in my head with a tantalising flavour of the familiar. Albani! D’Albani! It was a name not uncommon in the Roman States, but I had never heard it linked to a noble family. And yet I had — somehow, somewhere; and in the vain effort at recollection I had almost forgotten my hunger. There was nothing bourgeois in the little lady. The austere servants, the high manner of condescension, spake of a stock used to deference, though, maybe, pitifully decayed in its fortunes. There was a mystery in these quiet folk which tickled my curiosity. Romance after all was not destined to fall me at Santa Chiara.

My doings of the afternoon were of interest to myself alone. Suffice it to say that when I returned at nightfall I found Gianbattista the trustee of a letter. It was from Madame, written in a fine thin hand on a delicate paper, and it invited me to wait upon the signor, her father, that evening at eight o’clock. What caught my eye was a coronet stamped in a corner. A coronet, I say, but in truth it was a crown, the same as surmounts the Arms Royal of England on the signboard of a Court tradesman. I marvelled at the ways of foreign heraldry. Either this family of d’Albani had higher pretensions than I had given it credit for, or it employed an unlearned and imaginative stationer. I scribbled a line of acceptance and went to dress.

The hour of eight found me knocking at the Count’s door. The grim serving-man admitted me to the pleasant chamber which should have been mine own. A dozen wax candles burned in sconces, and on the table, among fruits and the remains of supper, stood a handsome candelabra of silver. A small fire of logs had been lit on the hearth, and before it in an armchair sat a strange figure of a man. He seemed not so much old as aged. I should have put him at sixty, but the marks he bore were clearly less those of Time than of Life. There sprawled before me the relics of noble looks. The fleshy nose, the pendulous cheek, the drooping mouth, had once been cast in the lines of manly beauty. Heavy eyebrows above and heavy bags beneath spoiled the effect of a choleric blue eye, which age had not dimmed. The man was gross and yet haggard; it was not the padding of good living which clothed his bones, but a heaviness as of some dropsical malady. I could picture him in health a gaunt loose-limbed being, high-featured and swift and eager. He was dressed wholly in black velvet, with fresh ruffles and wrist-bands, and he wore heeled shoes with antique silver buckles. It was a figure of an older age which rose slowly to greet me, in one hand a snuff-box and a purple handkerchief, and in the other a book with finger marking place. He made me a great bow as Madame uttered my name, and held out a hand with a kindly smile.

‘Mr Hervey–Townshend,’ he said, ‘we will speak English, if you please. I am fain to hear it again, for ’tis a tongue I love. I make you welcome, sir, for your own sake and for the sake of your kin. How is her honourable ladyship, your aunt? A week ago she sent me a letter.’

I answered that she did famously, and wondered what cause of correspondence my worthy aunt could have with wandering nobles of Italy.

He motioned me to a chair between Madame and himself, while a servant set a candle on a shelf behind him. Then he proceeded to catechise me in excellent English, with now and then a phrase of French, as to the doings in my own land. Admirably informed this Italian gentleman proved himself. I defy you to find in Almack’s more intelligent gossip. He inquired as to the chances of my Lord North and the mind of my Lord Rockingham. He had my Lord Shelburne’s foibles at his fingers’ ends. The habits of the Prince, the aims of their ladyships of Dorset and Buckingham, the extravagance of this noble Duke and that right honourable gentleman were not hid from him. I answered discreetly yet frankly, for there was no ill-breeding in his curiosity. Rather it seemed like the inquiries of some fine lady, now buried deep in the country, as to the doings of a forsaken Mayfair. There was humour in it and something of pathos.

‘My aunt must be a voluminous correspondent, sir,’ I said.

He laughed. ‘I have many friends in England who write to me, but I have seen none of them for long, and I doubt I may never see them again. Also in my youth I have been in England.’ And he sighed as at a sorrowful recollection. Then he showed the book in his hand. ‘See,’ he said, ‘here is one of your English writings, the greatest book I have ever happened on.’ It was a volume of Mr Fielding.

For a little he talked of books and poets. He admired Mr Fielding profoundly, Dr Smollett somewhat less, Mr Richardson not at all. But he was clear that England had a monopoly of good writers, saving only my friend M. Rousseau, whom he valued, yet with reservations. Of the Italians he had no opinion. I instanced against him the plays of Signer Alfieri. He groaned, shook his head, and grew moody.

‘Know you Scotland?’ he asked suddenly.

I replied that I had visited Scotch cousins, but had no great estimation for the country. ‘It is too poor and jagged,’ I said, ‘for the taste of one who loves colour and sunshine and suave outlines.’

He sighed. ‘It is indeed a bleak land, but a kindly. When the sun shines at all he shines on the truest hearts in the world. I love its bleakness too. There is a spirit in the misty hills, and the harsh sea-wind which inspires men to great deeds. Poverty and courage go often together, and my Scots, they are poor, are as untamable as their mountains.’

‘You know the land, sir?’ I asked.

‘I have seen it, and I have known many Scots. You will find them in Paris and Avignon and Rome, with never a plack in their pockets. I have a feeling for exiles, sir, and I have pitied these poor people. They gave their all for the cause they followed.’

Clearly the Count shared my aunt’s views of history — those views which have made such sport for us often at Carteron. Stalwart Whig as I am, there was something in the tone of the old gentleman which made me feel a certain majesty in the lost cause.

‘I am a Whig in blood and Whig in principle,’ I said, ‘but I have never denied that those Scots who followed the Chevalier were too good to waste on so trumpery a leader.’

I had no sooner spoken the words than I felt that somehow I had been guilty of a betise.

‘It may be so,’ said the Count. ‘I did not bid you here, sir, to argue on politics, on which I am assured we should differ. But I will ask you one question. The King of England is a stout upholder of the right of kings. How does he face the defection of his American possessions?’

‘The nation takes it well enough, and as for His Majesty’s feelings, there is small inclination to inquire into them. I conceive of the whole war as a blunder out of which we have come as we deserved. The day is gone by for the assertion of monarchic rights against the will of a people.’

‘May be. But take note that the King of England is suffering today as — how do you call him? — the Chevalier suffered forty years ago. “The wheel has come full circle”, as your Shakespeare says. Time has wrought his revenge.’ He was staring into a fire, which burned small and smokily.

‘You think the days for kings is ended. I read it differently. The world will ever have need of kings. If a nation cast out one it will have to find another. And mark you, those later kings, created by the people, will bear a harsher hand than the old race who ruled as of right. Some day the world will regret having destroyed the kindly and legitimate line of monarchs and put in their place tyrants who govern by the sword or by flattering an idle mob.’

This belated dogma would at other times have set me laughing, but the strange figure before me gave no impulse to merriment. I glanced at Madame, and saw her face grave and perplexed, and I thought I read a warning gleam in her eye. There was a mystery about the party which irritated me, but good breeding forbade me to seek a clue.

‘You will permit me to retire, sir,’ I said. ‘I have but this morning come down from a long march among the mountains east of this valley. Sleeping in wayside huts and tramping those sultry paths make a man think pleasantly of bed.’

The Count seemed to brighten at my words. ‘You are a marcher, sir, and love the mountains? Once I would gladly have joined you, for in my youth I was a great walker in hilly places. Tell me, now, how many miles will you cover in a day?’ I told him thirty at a stretch. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I have done fifty, without food, over the roughest and mossiest mountains. I lived on what I shot, and for drink I had spring water. Nay, I am forgetting. There was another beverage, which I wager you have never tasted. Heard you ever, sir, of that eau de vie which the Scots call usquebagh? It will comfort a traveller as no thin Italian wine will comfort him. By my soul, you shall taste it. Charlotte, my dear, bid Oliphant fetch glasses and hot water and lemons. I will give Mr Hervey–Townshend a sample of the brew. You English are all tetes-de-fer, sir, and are worthy of it.’

The old man’s face had lighted up, and for the moment his air had the jollity of youth. I would have accepted the entertainment had I not again caught Madame’s eye. It said, unmistakably and with serious pleading, ‘Decline.’ I therefore made my excuses, urged fatigue, drowsiness, and a delicate stomach, bade my host goodnight, and in deep mystification left the room.

Enlightenment came upon me as the door closed. There on the threshold stood the man-servant whom they called Oliphant, erect as a sentry on guard. The sight reminded me of what I had once seen at Basle when by chance a Rhenish Grand Duke had shared the inn with me. Of a sudden a dozen clues linked together — the crowned notepaper, Scotland, my aunt Hervey’s politics, the tale of old wanderings.

‘Tell me,’ I said in a whisper. ‘Who is the Count d’Albani, your master?’ and I whistled softly a bar of “Charlie is my darling”.

‘Ay,’ said the man, without relaxing a muscle of his grim face. ‘It is the King of England — my king and yours.’

ii

In the small hours of the next morning I was awoke by a most unearthly sound. It was as if all the cats on all the roofs of Santa Chiara were sharpening their claws and walling their battle-cries. Presently out of the noise came a kind of music — very slow, solemn, and melancholy. The notes ran up in great flights of ecstasy, and sunk anon to the tragic deeps. In spite of my sleepiness I was held spellbound, and the musician had concluded with certain barbaric grunts before I had the curiosity to rise. It came from somewhere in the gallery of the inn, and as I stuck my head out of my door I had a glimpse of Oliphant, nightcap on head and a great bagpipe below his arm, stalking down the corridor.

The incident, for all the gravity of the music, seemed to give a touch of farce to my interview of the past evening. I had gone to bed with my mind full of sad stories of the deaths of kings. Magnificence in tatters has always affected my pity more deeply than tatters with no such antecedent, and a monarch out at elbows stood for me as the last irony of our mortal life. Here was a king whose misfortunes could find no parallel. He had been in his youth the hero of a high adventure, and his middle age had been spent in fleeting among the courts of Europe, and waiting as pensioner on the whims of his foolish but regnant brethren. I had heard tales of a growing sottishness, a decline in spirit, a squalid taste in pleasures. Small blame, I had always thought, to so ill-fated a princeling. And now I had chanced upon the gentleman in his dotage, travelling with a barren effort at mystery, attended by a sad-faced daughter and two ancient domestics. It was a lesson in the vanity of human wishes which the shallowest moralist would have noted. Nay, I felt more than the moral. Something human and kindly in the old fellow had caught my fancy. The decadence was too tragic to prose about, the decadent too human to moralise on. I had left the chamber of the — shall I say de jure King of England? — a sentimental adherent of the cause. But this business of the bagpipes touched the comic. To harry an old valet out of bed and set him droning on pipes in the small hours smacked of a theatrical taste, or at least of an undignified fancy. Kings in exile, if they wish to keep the tragic air, should not indulge in such fantastic serenades.

My mind changed again when after breakfast I fell in with Madame on the stair. She drew aside to let me pass, and then made as if she would speak to me. I gave her good-morning, and, my mind being full other story, addressed her as ‘Excellency’.

‘I see, sir,’ she said, ‘that you know the truth. I have to ask your forbearance for the concealment I practised yesterday. It was a poor requital for your generosity, but it is one of the shifts of our sad fortune. An uncrowned king must go in disguise or risk the laughter of every stable-boy. Besides, we are too poor to travel in state, even if we desired it.’

Honestly, I knew not what to say. I was not asked to sympathise, having already revealed my politics, and yet the case cried out for sympathy. You remember, my dear aunt, the good Lady Culham, who was our Dorsetshire neighbour, and tried hard to mend my ways at Carteron? This poor Duchess — for so she called herself — was just such another. A woman made for comfort, housewifery, and motherhood, and by no means of racing about Europe in charge of a disreputable parent. I could picture her settled equably on a garden seat with a lapdog and needlework, blinking happily over green lawns and mildly rating an errant gardener. I could fancy her sitting in a summer parlour, very orderly and dainty, writing lengthy epistles to a tribe of nieces. I could see her marshalling a household in the family pew, or riding serenely in the family coach behind fat bay horses. But here, on an inn staircase, with a false name and a sad air of mystery, she was woefully out of place. I noted little wrinkles forming in the corners of her eyes, and the ravages of care beginning in the plump rosiness other face. Be sure there was nothing appealing in her mien. She spoke with the air of a great lady, to whom the world is matter only for an after-thought. It was the facts that appealed and grew poignant from her courage.

‘There is another claim upon your good nature,’ she said. ‘Doubtless you were awoke last night by Oliphant’s playing upon the pipes. I rebuked the landlord for his insolence in protesting, but to you, a gentleman and a friend, an explanation is due. My father sleeps ill, and your conversation seems to have cast him into a train of sad memories. It has been his habit on such occasions to have the pipes played to him, since they remind him of friends and happier days. It is a small privilege for an old man, and he does not claim it often.’

I declared that the music had only pleased, and that I would welcome its repetition. Whereupon she left me with a little bow and an invitation to join them that day at dinner, while I departed into the town on my own errands. I returned before midday, and was seated at an arbour in the garden, busy with letters, when there hove in sight the gaunt figure of Oliphant. He hovered around me, if such a figure can be said to hover, with the obvious intention of addressing me. The fellow had caught my fancy, and I was willing to see more of him. His face might have been hacked out of grey granite, his clothes hung loosely on his spare bones, and his stockinged shanks would have done no discredit to Don Quixote. There was no dignity in his air, only a steady and enduring sadness. Here, thought I, is the one of the establishment who most commonly meets the shock of the world’s buffets. I called him by name and asked him his desires.

It appeared that he took me for a Jacobite, for he began a rigmorale about loyalty and hard fortune. I hastened to correct him, and he took the correction with the same patient despair with which he took all things. ’Twas but another of the blows of Fate.

‘At any rate,’ he said in a broad Scotch accent, ‘ye come of kin that has helpit my maister afore this. I’ve many times heard tell o’ Herveys and Townshends in England, and a’ folk said they were on the richt side. Ye’re maybe no a freend, but ye’re a freend’s freend, or I wadna be speirin’ at ye.’

I was amused at the prologue, and waited on the tale. It soon came. Oliphant, it appeared, was the purse-bearer of the household, and woeful straits that poor purse-bearer must have been often put to. I questioned him as to his master’s revenues, but could get no clear answer. There were payments due next month in Florence which would solve the difficulties for the winter, but in the meantime expenditure had beaten income. Travelling had cost much, and the Count must have his small comforts. The result, in plain words, was that Oliphant had not the wherewithal to frank the company to Florence; indeed, I doubted if he could have paid the reckoning in Santa Chiara. A loan was therefore sought from a friend’s friend, meaning myself.

I was very really embarrassed. Not that I would not have given willingly, for I had ample resources at the moment and was mightily concerned about the sad household. But I knew that the little Duchess would take Oliphant’s ears from his head if she guessed that he had dared to borrow from me, and that, if I lent, her back would for ever be turned against me. And yet, what would follow on my refusal? In a day or two there would be a pitiful scene with mine host, and as like as not some of their baggage detained as security for payment. I did not love the task of conspiring behind the lady’s back, but if it could be contrived ’twas indubitably the kindest course. I glared sternly at Oliphant, who met me with his pathetic, dog-like eyes.

‘You know that your mistress would never consent to the request you have made of me?’

‘I ken,’ he said humbly. ‘But payin’ is my job, and I simply havena the siller. It’s no’ the first time it has happened, and it’s a sair trial for them both to be flung out o’ doors by a foreign hostler because they canna meet his charges. But, sir, if ye can lend to me, ye may be certain that her leddyship will never hear a word o’t. Puir thing, she takes nae thocht o’ where the siller comes frae, ony mair than the lilies o’ the field.’

I became a conspirator. ‘You swear, Oliphant, by all you hold sacred, to breathe nothing of this to your mistress, and if she should suspect, to lie like a Privy Councillor?’

A flicker of a smile crossed his face. ‘I’ll lee like a Scots packman, and the Father o’ lees could do nae mair. You need have no fear for your siller, sir. I’ve aye repaid when I borrowed, though you may have to wait a bittock.’ And the strange fellow strolled off.

At dinner no Duchess appeared till long after the appointed hour, nor was there any sign of Oliphant. When she came at last with Cristine, her eyes looked as if she had been crying, and she greeted me with remote courtesy. My first thought was that Oliphant had revealed the matter of the loan, but presently I found that the lady’s trouble was far different. Her father, it seemed, was ill again with his old complaint. What that was I did not ask, nor did the Duchess reveal it.

We spoke in French, for I had discovered that this was her favourite speech. There was no Oliphant to wait on us, and the inn servants were always about, so it was well to have a tongue they did not comprehend. The lady was distracted and sad. When I inquired feelingly as to the general condition of her father’s health she parried the question, and when I offered my services she disregarded my words. It was in truth a doleful meal, while the faded Cristine sat like a sphinx staring into vacancy. I spoke of England and of her friends, of Paris and Versailles, of Avignon where she had spent some years, and of the amenities of Florence, which she considered her home. But it was like talking to a nunnery door. I got nothing but ‘It is indeed true, sir,’ or ‘Do you say so, sir?’ till my energy began to sink. Madame perceived my discomfort, and, as she rose, murmured an apology. ‘Pray forgive my distraction, but I am poor company when my father is ill. I have a foolish mind, easily frightened. Nay, nay!’ she went on when I again offered help, ‘the illness is trifling. It will pass off by tomorrow, or at the latest the next day. Only I had looked forward to some ease at Santa Chiara, and the promise is belied.’

As it chanced that evening, returning to the inn, I passed by the north side where the windows of the Count’s room looked over a little flower garden abutting on the courtyard. The dusk was falling, and a lamp had been lit which gave a glimpse into the interior. The sick man was standing by the window, his figure flung into relief by the lamplight. If he was sick, his sickness was of a curious type. His face was ruddy, his eye wild, and, his wig being off, his scanty hair stood up oddly round his head. He seemed to be singing, but I could not catch the sound through the shut casement. Another figure in the room, probably Oliphant, laid a hand on the Count’s shoulder, drew him from the window, and closed the shutter.

It needed only the recollection of stories which were the property of all Europe to reach a conclusion on the gentleman’s illness. The legitimate King of England was very drunk.

As I went to my room that night I passed the Count’s door. There stood Oliphant as sentry, more grim and haggard than ever, and I thought that his eye met mine with a certain intelligence. From inside the room came a great racket. There was the sound of glasses falling, then a string of oaths, English, French, and for all I knew, Irish, rapped out in a loud drunken voice. A pause, and then came the sound of maudlin singing. It pursued me along the gallery, an old childish song, delivered as if ’twere a pot-house catch —

Qu’est-c’ qui passe id si tard, Compagnons de la Marjolaine —

One of the late-going company of the Marjolaine hastened to bed. This king in exile, with his melancholy daughter, was becoming too much for him.

iii

It was just before noon next day that the travellers arrived. I was sitting in the shady loggia of the inn, reading a volume of De Thou, when there drove up to the door two coaches. Out of the first descended very slowly and stiffly four gentlemen; out of the second four servants and a quantity of baggage. As it chanced there was no one about, the courtyard slept its sunny noontide sleep, and the only movement was a lizard on the wall and a buzz of flies by the fountain. Seeing no sign of the landlord, one of the travellers approached me with a grave inclination. ‘This is the inn called the Tre Croci, sir?’ he asked. I said it was, and shouted on my own account for the host. Presently that personage arrived with a red face and a short wind, having ascended rapidly from his own cellar. He was awed by the dignity of the travellers, and made none of his usual protests of incapacity. The servants filed off solemnly with the baggage, and the four gentlemen set themselves down beside me in the loggia and ordered each a modest flask of wine.

At first I took them for our countrymen, but as I watched them the conviction vanished. All four were tall and lean beyond the average of mankind. They wore suits of black, with antique starched frills to their shirts; their hair was their own and unpowdered. Massive buckles of an ancient pattern adorned their square-toed shoes, and the canes they carried were like the yards of a small vessel. They were four merchants, I had guessed, of Scotland, maybe, or of Newcastle, but their voices were not Scotch, and their air had no touch of commerce. Take the heavy-browed preoccupation of a Secretary of State, add the dignity of a bishop, the sunburn of a fox-hunter, and something of the disciplined erectness of a soldier, and you may perceive the manner of these four gentlemen. By the side of them my assurance vanished. Compared with their Olympian serenity my person seemed fussy and servile. Even so, I mused, must Mr Franklin have looked when baited in Parliament by the Tory pack. The reflection gave me the cue. Presently I caught from their conversation the word ‘Washington’, and the truth flashed upon me. I was in the presence of four of Mr Franklin’s countrymen. Having never seen an American in the flesh, I rejoiced at the chance of enlarging my acquaintance.

They brought me into the circle by a polite question as to the length of road to Verona. Soon introductions followed. My name intrigued them, and they were eager to learn of my kinship to Uncle Charles. The eldest of the four, it appeared, was Mr Galloway out of Maryland. Then came two brothers, Sylvester by name, of Pennsylvania, and last Mr Fish, a lawyer of New York. All four had campaigned in the late war, and all four were members of the Convention, or whatever they call their rough-and-ready Parliament. They were modest in their behaviour, much disinclined to speak of their past, as great men might be whose reputation was world-wide. Somehow the names stuck in my memory. I was certain that I had heard them linked with some stalwart fight or some moving civil deed or some defiant manifesto. The making of history was in their steadfast eye and the grave lines of the mouth. Our friendship flourished mightily in a brief hour, and brought me the invitation, willingly accepted, to sit with them at dinner.

There was no sign of the Duchess or Cristine or Oliphant. Whatever had happened, that household today required all hands on deck, and I was left alone with the Americans. In my day I have supped with the Macaronies, I have held up my head at the Cocoa Tree, I have avoided the floor at hunt dinners, I have drunk glass to glass with Tom Carteron. But never before have I seen such noble consumers of good liquor as those four gentlemen from beyond the Atlantic. They drank the strong red Cyprus as if it had been spring water. ‘The dust of your Italian roads takes some cleansing, Mr Townshend,’ was their only excuse, but in truth none was needed. The wine seemed only to thaw their iron decorum. Without any surcease of dignity they grew communicative, and passed from lands to peoples and from peoples to constitutions. Before we knew it we were embarked upon high politics.

Naturally we did not differ on the war. Like me, they held it to have been a grievous necessity. They had no bitterness against England, only regret for her blunders. Of His Majesty they spoke with respect, of His Majesty’s advisers with dignified condemnation. They thought highly of our troops in America; less highly of our generals.

‘Look you, sir,’ said Mr Galloway, ‘in a war such as we have witnessed the Almighty is the only strategist. You fight against the forces of Nature, and a newcomer little knows that the success or failure of every operation he can conceive depends not upon generalship, but upon the conformation of a vast country. Our generals, with this in mind and with fewer men, could make all your schemes miscarry. Had the English soldiery not been of such stubborn stuff, we should have been victors from the first. Our leader was not General Washington, but General America, and his brigadiers were forests, swamps, lakes, rivers, and high mountains.’

‘And now,’ I said, ‘having won, you have the greatest of human experiments before you. Your business is to show that the Saxon stock is adaptable to a republic.’

It seemed to me that they exchanged glances.

‘We are not pedants,’ said Mr Fish, ‘and have no desire to dispute about the form of a constitution. A people may be as free under a king as under a senate. Liberty is not the lackey of any type of government.’

These were strange words from a member of a race whom I had thought wedded to the republicanism of Helvidius Priscus.

‘As a loyal subject of a monarchy,’ I said, ‘I must agree with you. But your hands are tied, for I cannot picture the establishment of a House of Washington, and — if not, where are you to turn for your sovereign?’

Again a smile seemed to pass among the four.

‘We are experimenters, as you say, sir, and must go slowly. In the meantime, we have an authority which keeps peace and property safe. We are at leisure to cast our eyes round and meditate on the future.’

‘Then, gentleman,’ said I, ‘you take an excellent way of meditation in visiting this museum of old sovereignties. Here you have the relics of any government you please — a dozen republics, tyrannies, theocracies, merchant confederations, kingdoms, and more than one empire. You have your choice. I am tolerably familiar with the land, and if I can assist you I am at your service.’

They thanked me gravely. ‘We have letters,’ said Mr Galloway; ‘one in especial is to a gentleman whom we hope to meet in this place. Have you heard in your travels of the Count of Albany?’

‘He has arrived,’ said I, ‘two days ago. Even now he is in the chamber above us at dinner.’

The news interested them hugely.

‘You have seen him?’ they cried. ‘What is he like?’

‘An elderly gentleman in poor health, a man who has travelled much, and, I judge, has suffered something from fortune. He has a fondness for the English, so you will be welcome, sirs; but he was indisposed yesterday, and may still be unable to receive you. His daughter travels with him and tends his old age.’

‘And you — you have spoken with him?’

‘The night before last I was in his company. We talked of many things, including the late war. He is somewhat of your opinion on matters of government.’

The four looked at each other, and then Mr Galloway rose.

‘I ask your permission, Mr Townshend, to consult for a moment with my friends. The matter is of some importance, and I would beg you to await us.’ So saying, he led the others out of doors, and I heard them withdraw to a corner of the loggia. Now, thought I, there is something afoot, and my long-sought romance approaches fruition. The company of the Marjolaine, whom the Count had sung of, have arrived at last.

Presently they returned and seated themselves at the table.

‘You can be of great assistance to us, Mr Townshend, and we would fain take you into our confidence. Are you aware who is this Count of Albany?’

I nodded. ‘It is a thin disguise to one familiar with history.’

‘Have you reached any estimate of his character or capabilities? You speak to friends, and, let me tell you, it is a matter which deeply concerns the Count’s interests.’

‘I think him a kindly and pathetic old gentleman. He naturally bears the mark of forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness.’

Mr Galloway took snuff.

‘We have business with him, but it is business which stands in need of an agent. There is no one in the Count’s suite with whom we could discuss affairs?’

‘There is his daughter.’

‘Ah, but she would scarcely suit the case. Is there no man — a friend, and yet not a member of the family, who can treat with us?’

I replied that I thought that I was the only being in Santa Chiara who answered the description.

‘If you will accept the task, Mr Townshend, you are amply qualified. We will be frank with you and reveal our business. We are on no less an errand than to offer the Count of Albany a crown.’

I suppose I must have had some suspicion of their purpose, and yet the revelation of it fell on me like a thunderclap. I could only stare owlishly at my four grave gentlemen.

Mr Galloway went on unperturbed. ‘I have told you that in America we are not yet republicans. There are those among us who favour a republic, but they are by no means a majority. We have got rid of a king who misgoverned us, but we have no wish to get rid of kingship. We want a king of our own choosing, and we would get with him all the ancient sanctions of monarchy. The Count of Albany is of the most illustrious stock in Europe — he is, if legitimacy goes for anything, the rightful King of Britain. Now, if the republican party among us is to be worsted, we must come before the nation with a powerful candidate for its favour. You perceive my drift? What more potent appeal to American pride than to say: “We have got rid of King George; we choose of our own free will the older line and King Charles”?’

I said foolishly that I thought monarchy had had its day, and that ’twas idle to revive it.

‘That is a sentiment well enough under a monarchical government; but we, with a clean page to write upon, do not share it. You know your ancient historians. Has not the repository of the chief power always been the rock on which republicanism has shipwrecked? If that power is given to the chief citizen, the way is prepared for the tyrant. If it abides peacefully in a royal house, it abides with cyphers who dignify, without obstructing, a popular constitution. Do not mistake me, Mr Townshend. This is no whim of a sentimental girl, but the reasoned conclusion of the men who achieved our liberty. There is every reason to believe that General Washington shares our views, and Mr Hamilton, whose name you may know, is the inspirer of our mission.’

‘But the Count is an old man,’ I urged; for I knew not where to begin in my exposition of the hopelessness of their errand.

‘By so much the better. We do not wish a young king who may be fractious. An old man tempered by misfortune is what our purpose demands.’

‘He has also his failings. A man cannot lead his life for forty years and retain all the virtues.’

At that one of the Sylvesters spoke sharply. ‘I have heard such gossip, but I do not credit it. I have not forgotten Preston and Derby.’

I made my last objection. ‘He has no posterity — legitimate posterity — to carry on his line.’

The four gentlemen smiled. ‘That happens to be his chiefest recommendation,’ said Mr Galloway. ‘It enables us to take the House of Stuart on trial. We need a breathing-space and leisure to look around; but unless we establish the principle of monarchy at once the republicans will forestall us. Let us get our king at all costs, and during the remaining years of his life we shall have time to settle the succession problem. We have no wish to saddle ourselves for good with a race who might prove burdensome. If King Charles falls he has no son, and we can look elsewhere for a better monarch. You perceive the reason of my view?’

I did, and I also perceived the colossal absurdity of the whole business. But I could not convince them of it, for they met my objections with excellent arguments. Nothing save a sight of the Count would, I feared, disillusion them.

‘You wish me to make this proposal on your behalf?’ I asked.

‘We shall make the proposal ourselves, but we desire you to prepare the way for us. He is an elderly man, and should first be informed of our purpose.’

‘There is one person whom I beg leave to consult — the Duchess, his daughter. It may be that the present is an ill moment for approaching the Count, and the affair requires her sanction.’

They agreed, and with a very perplexed mind I went forth to seek the lady. The irony of the thing was too cruel, and my heart ached for her. In the gallery I found Oliphant packing some very shabby trunks, and when I questioned him he told me that the family were to leave Santa Chiara on the morrow. Perchance the Duchess had awakened to the true state of their exchequer, or perchance she thought it well to get her father on the road again as a cure for his ailment.

I discovered Cristine, and begged for an interview with her mistress on an urgent matter. She led me to the Duchess’s room, and there the evidence of poverty greeted me openly. All the little luxuries of the menage had gone to the Count. The poor lady’s room was no better than a servant’s garret, and the lady herself sat stitching a rent in a travelling cloak. She rose to greet me with alarm in her eyes.

As briefly as I could I set out the facts of my amazing mission. At first she seemed scarcely to hear me. ‘What do they want with him?’ she asked. ‘He can give them nothing. He is no friend to the Americans or to any people who have deposed their sovereign.’ Then, as she grasped my meaning, her face flushed. ‘It is a heartless trick, Mr Townshend. I would fain think you no party to it.’

‘Believe me, dear madame, it is no trick. The men below are in sober earnest. You have but to see their faces to know that theirs is no wild adventure. I believe sincerely that they have the power to implement their promise.’

‘But it is madness. He is old and worn and sick. His day is long past for winning a crown.’

‘All this I have said, but it does not move them.’ And I told her rapidly Mr Galloway’s argument.

She fell into a muse. ‘At the eleventh hour! Nay, too late, too late. Had he been twenty years younger, what a stroke of fortune! Fate bears too hard on us, too hard!’

Then she turned to me fiercely. ‘You have no doubt heard, sir, the gossip about my father, which is on the lips of every fool in Europe. Let us have done with this pitiful make-believe. My father is a sot. Nay, I do not blame him. I blame his enemies and his miserable destiny. But there is the fact. Were he not old, he would still be unfit to grasp a crown and rule over a turbulent people. He flees from one city to another, but he cannot flee from himself. That is his illness on which you condoled with me yesterday.’

The lady’s control was at breaking-point. Another moment and I expected a torrent of tears. But they did not come. With a great effort she regained her composure.

‘Well, the gentlemen must have an answer. You will tell them that the Count, my father — nay, give him his true title if you care — is vastly obliged to them for the honour they have done him, but would decline on account of his age and infirmities. You know how to phrase a decent refusal.’

‘Pardon me,’ said I, ‘but I might give them that answer till doomsday and never content them. They have not travelled many thousand miles to be put off by hearsay evidence. Nothing will satisfy them but an interview with your father himself.’

‘It is impossible,’ she said sharply.

‘Then we must expect the renewed attentions of our American friends. They will wait till they see him.’

She rose and paced the room.

‘They must go,’ she repeated many times. ‘If they see him sober he will accept with joy, and we shall be the laughing-stock of the world. I tell you it cannot be. I alone know how immense is the impossibility. He cannot afford to lose the last rags of his dignity, the last dregs of his ease. They must not see him. I will speak with them myself.’

They will be honoured, madame, but I do not think they will be convinced. They are what we call in my land “men of business”. They will not be content till they get the Count’s reply from his own lips.’

A new Duchess seemed to have arisen, a woman of quick action and sharp words.

‘So be it. They shall see him. Oh, I am sick to death of fine sentiments and high loyalty and all the vapouring stuff I have lived among for years. All I ask for myself and my father is a little peace, and, by Heaven! I shall secure it. If nothing will kill your gentlemen’s folly but truth, why, truth they shall have. They shall see my father, and this very minute. Bring them up, Mr Townshend, and usher them into the presence of the rightful King of England. You will find him alone.’ She stopped her walk and looked out of the window.

I went back in a hurry to the Americans. ‘I am bidden to bring you to the Count’s chamber. He is alone and will see you. These are the commands of madame his daughter.’

‘Good’.’ said Mr Galloway, and all four, grave gentlemen as they were, seemed to brace themselves to a special dignity as befitted ambassadors to a king. I led them upstairs, tapped at the Count’s door, and, getting no answer, opened it and admitted them.

And this was what we saw. The furniture was in disorder, and on a couch lay an old man sleeping a heavy drunken sleep. His mouth was open and his breath came stertorously. The face was purple, and large purple veins stood out on the mottled forehead. His scanty white hair was draggled over his cheek. On the floor was a broken glass, wet stains still lay on the boards, and the place reeked of spirits.

The four looked for a second — I do not think longer — at him whom they would have made their king. They did not look at each other. With one accord they moved out, and Mr Fish, who was last, closed the door very gently behind him.

In the hall below Mr Galloway turned to me. ‘Our mission is ended, Mr Townshend. I have to thank you for your courtesy.’ Then to the others, ‘If we order the coaches now, we may get well on the way to Verona ere sundown.’

An hour later two coaches rolled out of the courtyard of the Tre Croci. As they passed, a window was half-opened on the upper floor, and a head looked out. A line of a song came down, a song sung in a strange quavering voice. It was the catch I had heard the night before:

Qu’est-c’ qui passe ici si tard, Compagnons de la Marjolaine?

It was true. The company came late indeed — too late by forty years . . .

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