Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 6

The Windmill

There was between Nantes and Rennes an established service of three stage-coaches weekly in each direction, which for a sum of twenty-four livres — roughly, the equivalent of an English guinea — would carry you the seventy and odd miles of the journey in some fourteen hours. Once a week one of the diligences going in each direction would swerve aside from the highroad to call at Gavrillac, to bring and take letters, newspapers, and sometimes passengers. It was usually by this coach that Andre–Louis came and went when the occasion offered. At present, however, he was too much in haste to lose a day awaiting the passing of that diligence. So it was on a horse hired from the Breton arme that he set out next morning; and an hour’s brisk ride under a grey wintry sky, by a half-ruined road through ten miles of flat, uninteresting country, brought him to the city of Rennes.

He rode across the main bridge over the Vilaine, and so into the upper and principal part of that important city of some thirty thousand souls, most of whom, he opined from the seething, clamant crowds that everywhere blocked his way, must on this day have taken to the streets. Clearly Philippe had not overstated the excitement prevailing there.

He pushed on as best he could, and so came at last to the Place Royale, where he found the crowd to be most dense. From the plinth of the equestrian statue of Louis XV, a white-faced young man was excitedly addressing the multitude. His youth and dress proclaimed the student, and a group of his fellows, acting as a guard of honour to him, kept the immediate precincts of the statue.

Over the heads of the crowd Andre–Louis caught a few of the phrases flung forth by that eager voice.

“It was the promise of the King . . . It is the King’s authority they flout . . . They arrogate to themselves the whole sovereignty in Brittany. The King has dissolved them . . . These insolent nobles defying their sovereign and the people . . . ”

Had he not known already, from what Philippe had told him, of the events which had brought the Third Estate to the point of active revolt, those few phrases would fully have informed him. This popular display of temper was most opportune to his need, he thought. And in the hope that it might serve his turn by disposing to reasonableness the mind of the King’s Lieutenant, he pushed on up the wide and well-paved Rue Royale, where the concourse of people began to diminish. He put up his hired horse at the Come de Cerf, and set out again, on foot, to the Palais de Justice.

There was a brawling mob by the framework of poles and scaffoldings about the building cathedral, upon which work had been commenced a year ago. But he did not pause to ascertain the particular cause of that gathering. He strode on, and thus came presently to the handsome Italianate palace that was one of the few public edifices that had survived the devastating fire of sixty years ago.

He won through with difficulty to the great hall, known as the Salle des Pas Perdus, where he was left to cool his heels for a full half-hour after he had found an usher so condescending as to inform the god who presided over that shrine of Justice that a lawyer from Gavrillac humbly begged an audience on an affair of gravity.

That the god condescended to see him at all was probably due to the grave complexion of the hour. At long length he was escorted up the broad stone staircase, and ushered into a spacious, meagrely furnished anteroom, to make one of a waiting crowd of clients, mostly men.

There he spent another half-hour, and employed the time in considering exactly what he should say. This consideration made him realize the weakness of the case he proposed to set before a man whose views of law and morality were coloured by his social rank.

At last he was ushered through a narrow but very massive and richly decorated door into a fine, well-lighted room furnished with enough gilt and satin to have supplied the boudoir of a lady of fashion.

It was a trivial setting for a King’s Lieutenant, but about the King’s Lieutenant there was — at least to ordinary eyes — nothing trivial. At the far end of the chamber, to the right of one of the tall windows that looked out over the inner court, before a goat-legged writing-table with Watteau panels, heavily encrusted with ormolu, sat that exalted being. Above a scarlet coat with an order flaming on its breast, and a billow of lace in which diamonds sparkled like drops of water, sprouted the massive powdered head of M. de Lesdiguieres. It was thrown back to scowl upon this visitor with an expectant arrogance that made Andre–Louis wonder almost was a genuflexion awaited from him.

Perceiving a lean, lantern-jawed young man, with straight, lank black hair, in a caped riding-coat of brown cloth, and yellow buckskin breeches, his knee-boots splashed with mud, the scowl upon that august visage deepened until it brought together the thick black eyebrows above the great hooked nose.

“You announce yourself as a lawyer of Gavrillac with an important communication,” he growled. It was a peremptory command to make this communication without wasting the valuable time of a King’s Lieutenant, of whose immense importance it conveyed something more than a hint. M. de Lesdiguieres accounted himself an imposing personality, and he had every reason to do so, for in his time he had seen many a poor devil scared out of all his senses by the thunder of his voice.

He waited now to see the same thing happen to this youthful lawyer from Gavrillac. But he waited in vain.

Andre–Louis found him ridiculous. He knew pretentiousness for the mask of worthlessness and weakness. And here he beheld pretentiousness incarnate. It was to be read in that arrogant poise of the head, that scowling brow, the inflexion of that reverberating voice. Even more difficult than it is for a man to be a hero to his valet — who has witnessed the dispersal of the parts that make up the imposing whole — is it for a man to be a hero to the student of Man who has witnessed the same in a different sense.

Andre–Louis stood forward boldly — impudently, thought M. de Lesdiguieres.

“You are His Majesty’s Lieutenant here in Brittany,” he said — and it almost seemed to the august lord of life and death that this fellow had the incredible effrontery to address him as one man speaking to another. “You are the dispenser of the King’s high justice in this province.”

Surprise spread on that handsome, sallow face under the heavily powdered wig.

“Is your business concerned with this infernal insubordination of the canaille?” he asked.

“It is not, monsieur.”

The black eyebrows rose. “Then what the devil do you mean by intruding upon me at a time when all my attention is being claimed by the obvious urgency of this disgraceful affair?”

“The affair that brings me is no less disgraceful and no less urgent.”

“It will have to wait!” thundered the great man in a passion, and tossing back a cloud of lace from his hand, he reached for the little silver bell upon his table.

“A moment, monsieur!” Andre–Louis’ tone was peremptory. M. de Lesdiguieres checked in sheer amazement at its impudence. “I can state it very briefly . . . ”

“Haven’t I said already . . . ”

“And when you have heard it,” Andre–Louis went on, relentlessly, interrupting the interruption, “you will agree with me as to its character.”

M. de Lesdiguieres considered him very sternly.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Andre–Louis Moreau.”

“Well, Andre–Louis Moreau, if you can state your plea briefly, I will hear you. But I warn you that I shall be very angry if you fail to justify the impertinence of this insistence at so inopportune a moment.”

“You shall be the judge of that, monsieur,” said Andre–Louis, and he proceeded at once to state his case, beginning with the shooting of Mabey, and passing thence to the killing of M. de Vilmorin. But he withheld until the end the name of the great gentleman against whom he demanded justice, persuaded that did he introduce it earlier he would not be allowed to proceed.

He had a gift of oratory of whose full powers he was himself hardly conscious yet, though destined very soon to become so. He told his story well, without exaggeration, yet with a force of simple appeal that was irresistible. Gradually the great man’s face relaxed from its forbidding severity. Interest, warming almost to sympathy, came to be reflected on it.

“And who, sir, is the man you charge with this?”

“The Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr.”

The effect of that formidable name was immediate. Dismayed anger, and an arrogance more utter than before, took the place of the sympathy he had been betrayed into displaying.

“Who?” he shouted, and without waiting for an answer, “Why, here’s impudence,” he stormed on, “to come before me with such a charge against a gentleman of M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s eminence! How dare you speak of him as a coward. . . . ”

“I speak of him as a murderer,” the young man corrected. “And I demand justice against him.”

“You demand it, do you? My God, what next?”

“That is for you to say, monsieur.”

It surprised the great gentleman into a more or less successful effort of self-control.

“Let me warn you,” said he, acidly, “that it is not wise to make wild accusations against a nobleman. That, in itself, is a punishable offence, as you may learn. Now listen to me. In this matter of Mabey — assuming your statement of it to be exact — the gamekeeper may have exceeded his duty; but by so little that it is hardly worth comment. Consider, however, that in any case it is not a matter for the King’s Lieutenant, or for any court but the seigneurial court of M. de La Tour d’Azyr himself. It is before the magistrates of his own appointing that such a matter must be laid, since it is matter strictly concerning his own seigneurial jurisdiction. As a lawyer you should not need to be told so much.”

“As a lawyer, I am prepared to argue the point. But, as a lawyer I also realize that if that case were prosecuted, it could only end in the unjust punishment of a wretched gamekeeper, who did no more than carry out his orders, but who none the less would now be made a scapegoat, if scapegoat were necessary. I am not concerned to hang Benet on the gallows earned by M. de La Tour d’Azyr.”

M. de Lesdiguieres smote the table violently. “My God!” he cried out, to add more quietly, on a note of menace, “You are singularly insolent, my man.”

“That is not my intention, sir, I assure you. I am a lawyer, pleading a case — the case of M. de Vilmorin. It is for his assassination that I have come to beg the King’s justice.”

“But you yourself have said that it was a duel!” cried the Lieutenant, between anger and bewilderment.

“I have said that it was made to appear a duel. There is a distinction, as I shall show, if you will condescend to hear me out.”

“Take your own time, sir!” said the ironical M. de Lesdiguieres, whose tenure of office had never yet held anything that remotely resembled this experience.

Andre–Louis took him literally. “I thank you, sir,” he answered, solemnly, and submitted his argument. “It can be shown that M. de Vilmorin never practised fencing in all his life, and it is notorious that M. de La Tour d’Azyr is an exceptional swordsman. Is it a duel, monsieur, where one of the combatants alone is armed? For it amounts to that on a comparison of their measures of respective skill.”

“There has scarcely been a duel fought on which the same trumpery argument might not be advanced.”

“But not always with equal justice. And in one case, at least, it was advanced successfully.”

“Successfully? When was that?”

“Ten years ago, in Dauphiny. I refer to the case of M. de Gesvres, a gentleman of that province, who forced a duel upon M. de la Roche Jeannine, and killed him. M. de Jeannine was a member of a powerful family, which exerted itself to obtain justice. It put forward just such arguments as now obtain against M. de La Tour d’Azyr. As you will remember, the judges held that the provocation had proceeded of intent from M. de Gesvres; they found him guilty of premeditated murder, and he was hanged.”

M. de Lesdiguieres exploded yet again. “Death of my life!” he cried. “Have you the effrontery to suggest that M. de La Tour d’Azyr should be hanged? Have you?”

“But why not, monsieur, if it is the law, and there is precedent for it, as I have shown you, and if it can be established that what I state is the truth — as established it can be without difficulty?”

“Do you ask me, why not? Have you temerity to ask me that?”

“I have, monsieur. Can you answer me? If you cannot, monsieur, I shall understand that whilst it is possible for a powerful family like that of La Roche Jeannine to set the law in motion, the law must remain inert for the obscure and uninfluential, however brutally wronged by a great nobleman.”

M. de Lesdiguieres perceived that in argument he would accomplish nothing against this impassive, resolute young man. The menace of him grew more fierce.

“I should advise you to take yourself off at once, and to be thankful for the opportunity to depart unscathed.”

“I am, then, to understand, monsieur, that there will be no inquiry into this case? That nothing that I can say will move you?”

“You are to understand that if you are still there in two minutes it will be very much the worse for you.” And M. de Lesdiguieres tinkled the silver hand-bell upon his table.

“I have informed you, monsieur, that a duel — so-called — has been fought, and a man killed. It seems that I must remind you, the administrator of the King’s justice, that duels are against the law, and that it is your duty to hold an inquiry. I come as the legal representative of the bereaved mother of M. de Vilmorin to demand of you the inquiry that is due.”

The door behind Andre–Louis opened softly. M. de Lesdiguieres, pale with anger, contained himself with difficulty.

“You seek to compel us, do you, you impudent rascal?” he growled. “You think the King’s justice is to be driven headlong by the voice of any impudent roturier? I marvel at my own patience with you. But I give you a last warning, master lawyer; keep a closer guard over that insolent tongue of yours, or you will have cause very bitterly to regret its glibness.” He waved a jewelled, contemptuous hand, and spoke to the usher standing behind Andre. “To the door!” he said, shortly.

Andre–Louis hesitated a second. Then with a shrug he turned. This was the windmill, indeed, and he a poor knight of rueful countenance. To attack it at closer quarters would mean being dashed to pieces. Yet on the threshold he turned again.

“M. de Lesdiguieres,” said he, “may I recite to you an interesting fact in natural history? The tiger is a great lord in the jungle, and was for centuries the terror of lesser beasts, including the wolf. The wolf, himself a hunter, wearied of being hunted. He took to associating with other wolves, and then the wolves, driven to form packs for self-protection, discovered the power of the pack, and took to hunting the tiger, with disastrous results to him. You should study Buffon, M. de Lesdiguieres.”

“I have studied a buffoon this morning, I think,” was the punning sneer with which M. de Lesdiguieres replied. But that he conceived himself witty, it is probable he would not have condescended to reply at all. “I don’t understand you,” he added.

“But you will, M. de Lesdiguieres. You will,” said Andre–Louis, and so departed.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29