Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 18.

The Ghosts.

For some time each of the young men kept his secret confined to his own heart. At last their reserve burst its barriers, and the thought which had so long occupied them escaped their lips, and both cemented their friendship by this final proof, without which there is no friendship — namely, perfect confidence.

They were both madly in love — one with a princess and the other with a queen.

For these two poor suitors there was something frightful in the almost insuperable distance separating them from the objects of their desires.

And yet hope is a sentiment so deeply rooted in man’s heart that in spite of the madness of their love they hoped!

They both, as they recovered from their illness, took great pains with their personal appearance. Every man, even the most indifferent to physical appearance, has, at certain times, mute interviews with his looking-glass, signs of intelligence, after which he generally leaves his confidant, quite satisfied with the interview. Now our two young men were not persons whose mirrors were compelled to give them harsh advice. La Mole, delicate, pale, and elegant, had the beauty of distinction; Coconnas, powerful, large-framed, and fresh-colored, had the beauty of strength. He had more, for his recent illness had been of advantage to him. He had become thinner, grown paler, and the famous scar which had formerly caused him so much anxiety from its prismatic relationship to the rainbow had disappeared, giving promise, probably like the post-diluvian phenomenon, of a long series of lovely days and calm nights.

Moreover, the most delicate attentions continued to be lavished on the two wounded men, and each of them on the day when he was well enough to rise found a robe-dechambre on the easy-chair nearest his bed; on the day when he was able to dress himself, a complete suit of clothes; moreover, in the pocket of each doublet was a well-filled purse, which they each kept, intending, of course, to return, in the proper time and place, to the unknown protector who watched over them.

This unknown protector could not be the prince in whose quarters the two young men resided, for the prince had not only never once paid them a visit, but he had not even sent to make any inquiry after them.

A vague hope whispered to each heart that this unknown protector was the woman he loved.

So the two wounded men awaited with intense impatience the moment when they could go out. La Mole, stronger and sooner cured than Coconnas, might have done so long before, but a kind of tacit convention bound him to his friend. It was agreed between them that the first time they went out they should make three calls:

The first should be upon the unknown doctor whose suave medicine had brought such a remarkable improvement in the inflammation of Coconnas’s lungs.

The second to the dwelling of the defunct Maître La Hurière, where each of them had left his portmanteau and horse.

The third to the Florentine Réné, who, uniting to his title of perfumer that of magician, not only sold cosmetics and poisons, but also concocted philters and delivered oracles.

At length, after two months passed in convalescence and confinement, the long-looked-for day arrived.

We used the word “confinement;” the use of it is accurate because several times in their impatience they had tried to hasten that day; but each time a sentinel posted at the door had stopped their passage and they had learned that they could not step out unless Maître Ambroise Paré gave them their exeat.

Now, one day that clever surgeon, having come to the conclusion that the two invalids were, if not completely cured, at least on the road to complete recovery, gave them this exeat, and about two o’clock in the afternoon on a fine day in autumn, such as Paris sometimes offers to her astonished population, who have already laid up a store of resignation for the winter, the two friends, arm in arm, set foot outside the Louvre.

La Mole, finding to his great satisfaction, on an armchair, the famous cherry-colored mantle which he had folded so carefully before the duel, undertook to be Coconnas’s guide, and Coconnas allowed himself to be guided without resistance or reflection. He knew that his friend was taking him to the unknown doctor’s whose potion (not patented) had cured him in a single night, when all of Master Ambroise Paré‘s drugs were slowly killing him. He had divided the money in his purse into two parts, and intended a hundred rose-nobles for the anonymous Esculapius to whom his recovery was due. Coconnas was not afraid of death, but Coconnas was not the less satisfied to be alive and well, and so, as we see, he was intending to recompense his deliverer generously.

La Mole proceeded along the Rue de l’Astruce, the wide Rue Saint Honoré, the Rue des Prouvelles, and soon found himself on the Place des Halles. Near the ancient fountain, at the place which is at the present time called the Carreau des Halles, was an octagon stone building, surmounted by a vast wooden lantern, which was again surmounted by a pointed roof, on the top of which was a weathercock. This wooden lantern had eight openings, traversed, as that heraldic piece which they call the fascis traverses the field of blazonry, by a kind of wooden wheel, which was divided in the middle, in order to admit in the holes cut in it for that purpose the head and hands of such sentenced person or persons as were exposed at one or more of these eight openings.

This singular arrangement, which had nothing like it in the surrounding buildings, was called the pillory.

An ill-constructed, irregular, crooked, one-eyed, limping house, the roof spotted with moss like a leper’s skin, had, like a toadstool, sprung up at the foot of this species of tower.

This house was the executioner’s.

A man was exposed, and was thrusting out his tongue at the passers-by; he was one of the robbers who had been following his profession near the gibbet of Montfaucon, and had by ill luck been arrested in the exercise of his functions.

Coconnas believed that his friend had brought him to see this singular spectacle, and he joined the crowd of sightseers who were replying to the patient’s grimaces by vociferations and gibes.

Coconnas was naturally cruel, and the sight very much amused him, only he would have preferred that instead of gibes and vociferations they had thrown stones at a convict so insolent as to thrust out his tongue at the noble lords that condescended to visit him.

So when the moving lantern was turned on its base, in order to show the culprit to another portion of the square, and the crowd followed, Coconnas would have accompanied them, had not La Mole checked him, saying, in a low tone:

“We did not come here for this.”

“Well, what did we come for, then?” asked Coconnas.

“You will see,” replied La Mole.

The two friends had got into the habit of addressing each other with the familiar “thee” and “thou” ever since the morning of that famous night when Coconnas had tried to thrust his poniard into La Mole’s vitals. And he led Coconnas directly to a small window in the house which abutted on the tower; a man was leaning on the window-sill.

“Aha! here you are, gentlemen,” said the man, raising his blood-red cap, and showing his thick black hair, which came down to his eyebrows. “You are welcome.”

“Who is this man?” inquired Coconnas, endeavoring to recollect, for it seemed to him he had seen that face during one of the crises of his fever.

“Your preserver, my dear friend,” replied La Mole; “he who brought to you at the Louvre that refreshing drink which did you so much good.”

“Oho!” said Coconnas; “in that case, my friend”—

And he held out his hand to him.

But the man, instead of returning the gesture, drew himself up and withdrew from the two friends just the distance occupied by the curve of his body.

“Sir!” he said to Coconnas, “thanks for the honor you wish to confer on me, but it is probable that if you knew me you would not do so.”

“Faith!” said Coconnas, “I declare that, even if you were the devil himself, I am very greatly obliged to you, for if it had not been for you I should be dead at this time.”

“I am not exactly the devil,” replied the man in the red cap; “but yet persons are frequently found who would rather see the devil than me.”

“Who are you, pray?” asked Coconnas.

“Sir,” replied the man, “I am Maître Caboche, the executioner of the provostry of Paris”—

“Ah”— said Coconnas, withdrawing his hand.

“You see!” said Maître Caboche.

“No, no; I will touch your hand, or may the devil fetch me! Hold it out”—

“Really?”

“Wide as you can.”

“Here it is.”

“Open it — wider — wider!”

And Coconnas took from his pocket the handful of gold he had prepared for his anonymous physician and placed it in the executioner’s hand.

“I would rather have had your hand entirely and solely,” said Maître Caboche, shaking his head, “for I do not lack money, but I am in need of hands to touch mine. Never mind. God bless you, my dear gentleman.”

“So then, my friend,” said Coconnas, looking at the executioner with curiosity, “it is you who put men to the rack, who break them on the wheel, quarter them, cut off heads, and break bones. Aha! I am very glad to have made your acquaintance.”

“Sir,” said Maître Caboche, “I do not do all myself; just as you noble gentlemen have your lackeys to do what you do not choose to do yourself, so have I my assistants, who do the coarser work and despatch clownish fellows. Only when, by chance, I have to do with folks of quality, like you and your companion, for instance, ah! then it is another thing, and I take a pride in doing everything myself, from first to last — that is to say, from the first putting of the question, to the decapitation.”

In spite of himself, Coconnas felt a shudder pervade his veins, as if the brutal wedge was pressing his leg — as if the edge of the axe was against his neck.

La Mole, without being able to account for it, felt the same sensation.

But Coconnas overcame the emotion, of which he was ashamed, and desirous of taking leave of Maître Caboche with a jest on his lips, said to him:

“Well, master, I hold you to your word, and when it is my turn to mount Enguerrand de Marigny’s gallows or Monsieur de Nemours’s scaffold you alone shall lay hands on me.”

“I promise you.”

“Then, this time here is my hand, as a pledge that I accept your promise,” said Coconnas.

And he offered the executioner his hand, which the latter touched timidly with his own, although it was evident that he had a great desire to grasp it warmly.

At this light touch Coconnas turned rather pale; but the same smile lingered on his lips, while La Mole, ill at ease, and seeing the crowd turn as the lantern did and come toward them, touched his cloak.

Coconnas, who in reality had as great a desire as La Mole to put an end to this scene, which by the natural bent of his character he had delayed longer than he would have wished, nodded to the executioner and went his way.

“Faith!” said La Mole, when he and his companion had reached the Croix du Trahoir, “I must confess we breathe more freely here than in the Place des Halles.”

“Decidedly,” replied Coconnas; “but I am none the less glad at having made Maître Caboche’s acquaintance. It is well to have friends everywhere.”

“Even at the sign of the Belle Étoile,” said La Mole, laughing.

“Oh! as for poor Maître La Hurière,” said Coconnas, “he is dead and dead again. I saw the arquebuse spitting flame, I heard the thump of the bullet, which sounded as if it had struck against the great bell of Notre–Dame, and I left him stretched out in the gutter with streams of blood flowing from his nose and mouth. Taking it for granted that he is a friend, he is a friend we shall have in the next world.”

Thus chatting, the two young men entered the Rue de l’Arbre Sec and proceeded toward the sign of the Belle Étoile, which was still creaking in the same place, still presenting to the traveller its astronomic hearth and its appetizing inscription. Coconnas and La Mole expected to find the house in a desperate state, the widow in mourning, and the little ones wearing crêpe on their arms; but to their great astonishment they found the house in full swing of activity, Madame La Hurière mightily resplendent, and the children gayer than ever.

“Oh, the faithless creature!” cried La Mole; “she must have married again.”

Then addressing the new Artémise:

“Madame,” said he, “we are two gentlemen, acquaintances of poor Monsieur La Hurière. We left here two horses and two portmanteaus which we have come to claim.”

“Gentlemen,” replied the mistress of the house, after she had tried to bring them to her recollection, “as I have not the honor of knowing you, with your permission I will go and call my husband. Grégoire, ask your master to come.”

Grégoire stepped from the first kitchen, which was the general pandemonium, into the second, which was the laboratory where Maître La Hurière in his life-time had been in the habit of concocting the dishes which he felt deserved to be prepared by his clever hands.

“The devil take me,” muttered Coconnas, “if it does not make me feel badly to see this house so gay when it ought to be so melancholy. Poor La Hurière!”

“He tried to kill me,” said La Mole, “but I pardon him with all my heart.”

La Mole had hardly uttered these words when a man appeared holding in his hand a stew-pan, in the bottom of which he was browning some onions, stirring them with a wooden spoon.

La Mole and Coconnas gave vent to a cry of amazement.

As they did so the man lifted his head and, replying by a similar cry, dropped his stew-pan, retaining in his hand only his wooden spoon.

In nomine Patris,” said the man, waving his spoon as he would have done with a holy-water sprinkler, “et Filii, et Spiritus sancti”—

“Maître La Hurière!” exclaimed the two young men.

“Messieurs de Coconnas and de la Mole!” cried La Hurière.

“So you are not dead?” asked Coconnas.

“Why! can it be that you are alive?” asked the landlord.

“Nevertheless, I saw you fall,” said Coconnas, “I heard the crash of the bullet, which broke something in you, I don’t know what. I left you lying in the gutter, with blood streaming out of your nose, out of your mouth, and even out of your eyes.”

“All that is as true as the gospel, Monsieur de Coconnas. But the noise you heard was the bullet striking against my sallat, on which fortunately it flattened itself; but the blow was none the less severe, and the proof of it,” added La Hurière, lifting his cap and displaying a pate as bald as a man’s knee, “is that as you see I have not a spear of hair left.”

The two young men burst out laughing when they saw his grotesque appearance.

“Aha! you laugh, do you?” said La Hurière, somewhat reassured, “you do not come, then, with any evil intentions.”

“Now tell us, Maître La Hurière, are you entirely cured of your bellicose inclinations?”

“Faith, that I am, gentlemen; and now”—

“Well, and now”—

“Now I have vowed not to meddle with any other fire than that in my kitchen.”

“Bravo!” cried Coconnas, “see how prudent he is! Now,” added the Piedmontese, “we left in your stables two horses, and in your rooms two portmanteaus.”

“Oh, the devil!” replied the landlord, scratching his ear.

“Well?”

“Two horses, you say?”

“Yes, in your stable.”

“And two portmanteaus?”

“Yes, in the rooms we had.”

“The truth is, don’t you see — you thought I was dead, didn’t you?”

“Certainly we did.”

“You will agree that as you were mistaken, I also might be.”

“What? In believing that we also were dead? You were perfectly free.”

“Now that’s it. You see, as you died intestate,” continued Maître La Hurière.

“Go on”—

“I believed something, I was mistaken, I see it now”—

“Tell us, what was it you believed?”

“I believed that I might consider myself your heir.”

“Oho!” exclaimed the two young men.

“Nevertheless, I could not be more grateful to find that you are alive, gentlemen.”

“So you sold our horses, did you?” asked Coconnas.

“Alas!” cried La Hurière.

“And our portmanteaus?” insisted La Mole.

“Oh! your portmanteaus? Oh, no,” cried La Hurière, “only what was in them.”

“Now look here, La Mole,” persisted Coconnas, “it seems to me that this is a bold rascal; suppose we disembowel him!”

This threat seemed to have great effect on Maître La Hurière, who stammered out these words:

“Well, gentlemen, I rather think the affair can be arranged.”

“Listen!” said La Mole, “I am the one who has the greatest cause of complaint against you.”

“Certainly, Monsieur le Comte, for I recollect that in a moment of madness I had the audacity to threaten you.”

“Yes, with a bullet which flew only a couple of inches above my head.”

“Do you think so?”

“I am certain of it.”

“If you are certain of it, Monsieur de la Mole,” said La Hurière, picking up his stew-pan with an innocent air, “I am too thoroughly at your service to give you the lie.”

“Well,” said La Mole, “as far as I am concerned I make no demand upon you.”

“What, my dear gentleman”—

“Except”—

“Aïe! aïe!” groaned La Hurière.

“Except a dinner for myself and my friends every time I find myself in your neighborhood.”

“How is this?” exclaimed La Hurière in an ecstasy. “I am at your service, my dear gentleman; I am at your service.”

“So it is a bargain, is it?”

“With all my heart — and you, Monsieur de Coconnas,” continued the landlord, “do you agree to the bargain?”

“Yes; but, like my friend, I must add one small condition.”

“What is that?”

“That you restore to Monsieur de la Mole the fifty crowns which I owe him, and which I put into your keeping.”

“To me, sir? When was that?”

“A quarter of an hour before you sold my horse and my portmanteau.”

La Hurière showed that he understood.

“Ah! I remember,” said he; and he stepped toward a cupboard and took out from it, one after the other, fifty crowns, which he brought to La Mole.

“Very well, sir,” said that gentleman; “very well. Serve me an omelet. The fifty crowns are for Grégoire.”

“Oh!” cried La Hurière; “in truth, my dear gentlemen, you are genuine princes, and you may count on me for life and for death.”

“If that is so,” said Coconnas, “make us the omelet we want, and spare neither butter nor lard.”

Then looking at the clock,

“Faith, you are right, La Mole,” said he, “we still have three hours to wait, and we may as well be here as anywhere else. All the more because, if I am not mistaken, we are already half way to the Pont Saint Michel.”

And the two young men went and sat down at table in the very same room and at the very same place which they had occupied during that memorable evening of the twenty-sixth of August, 1572, when Coconnas had proposed to La Mole to play each against the other the first mistress which they should have!

Let us grant for the honor of the morality of our two young men that neither of them this evening had the least idea of making such a proposition to his companion.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37