Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 1

Transition

“You may agree,” wrote Andre–Louis from Paris to Le Chapelier, in a letter which survives, “that it is to be regretted I should definitely have discarded the livery of Scaramouche, since clearly there could be no livery fitter for my wear. It seems to be my part always to stir up strife and then to slip away before I am caught in the crash of the warring elements I have aroused. It is a humiliating reflection. I seek consolation in the reminder of Epictetus (do you ever read Epictetus?) that we are but actors in a play of such a part as it may please the Director to assign us. It does not, however, console me to have been cast for a part so contemptible, to find myself excelling ever in the art of running away. But if I am not brave, at least I am prudent; so that where I lack one virtue I may lay claim to possessing another almost to excess. On a previous occasion they wanted to hang me for sedition. Should I have stayed to be hanged? This time they may want to hang me for several things, including murder; for I do not know whether that scoundrel Binet be alive or dead from the dose of lead I pumped into his fat paunch. Nor can I say that I very greatly care. If I have a hope at all in the matter it is that he is dead — and damned. But I am really indifferent. My own concerns are troubling me enough. I have all but spent the little money that I contrived to conceal about me before I fled from Nantes on that dreadful night; and both of the only two professions of which I can claim to know anything — the law and the stage — are closed to me, since I cannot find employment in either without revealing myself as a fellow who is urgently wanted by the hangman. As things are it is very possible that I may die of hunger, especially considering the present price of victuals in this ravenous city. Again I have recourse to Epictetus for comfort. ‘It is better,’ he says, ‘to die of hunger having lived without grief and fear, than to live with a troubled spirit amid abundance.’ I seem likely to perish in the estate that he accounts so enviable. That it does not seem exactly enviable to me merely proves that as a Stoic I am not a success.”

There is also another letter of his written at about the same time to the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr — a letter since published by M. Emile Quersac in his “Undercurrents of the Revolution in Brittany,” unearthed by him from the archives of Rennes, to which it had been consigned by M. de Lesdiguieres, who had received it for justiciary purposes from the Marquis.

“The Paris newspapers,” he writes in this, “which have reported in considerable detail the fracas at the Theatre Feydau and disclosed the true identity of the Scaramouche who provoked it, inform me also that you have escaped the fate I had intended for you when I raised that storm of public opinion and public indignation. I would not have you take satisfaction in the thought that I regret your escape. I do not. I rejoice in it. To deal justice by death has this disadvantage that the victim has no knowledge that justice has overtaken him. Had you died, had you been torn limb from limb that night, I should now repine in the thought of your eternal and untroubled slumber. Not in euthanasia, but in torment of mind should the guilty atone. You see, I am not sure that hell hereafter is a certainty, whilst I am quite sure that it can be a certainty in this life; and I desire you to continue to live yet awhile that you may taste something of its bitterness.

“You murdered Philippe de Vilmorin because you feared what you described as his very dangerous gift of eloquence, I took an oath that day that your evil deed should be fruitless; that I would render it so; that the voice you had done murder to stifle should in spite of that ring like a trumpet through the land. That was my conception of revenge. Do you realize how I have been fulfilling it, how I shall continue to fulfil it as occasion offers? In the speech with which I fired the people of Rennes on the very morrow of that deed, did you not hear the voice of Philippe de Vilmorin uttering the ideas that were his with a fire and a passion greater than he could have commanded because Nemesis lent me her inflaming aid? In the voice of Omnes Omnibus at Nantes my voice again — demanding the petition that sounded the knell of your hopes of coercing the Third Estate, did you not hear again the voice of Philippe de Vilmorin? Did you not reflect that it was the mind of the man you had murdered, resurrected in me his surviving friend, which made necessary your futile attempt under arms last January, wherein your order, finally beaten, was driven to seek sanctuary in the Cordelier Convent? And that night when from the stage of the Feydau you were denounced to the people, did you not hear yet again, in the voice of Scaramouche, the voice of Philippe de Vilmorin, using that dangerous gift of eloquence which you so foolishly imagined you could silence with a sword-thrust? It is becoming a persecution — is it not? — this voice from the grave that insists upon making itself heard, that will not rest until you have been cast into the pit. You will be regretting by now that you did not kill me too, as I invited you on that occasion. I can picture to myself the bitterness of this regret, and I contemplate it with satisfaction. Regret of neglected opportunity is the worst hell that a living soul can inhabit, particularly such a soul as yours. It is because of this that I am glad to know that you survived the riot at the Feydau, although at the time it was no part of my intention that you should. Because of this I am content that you should live to enrage and suffer in the shadow of your evil deed, knowing at last — since you had not hitherto the wit to discern it for yourself — that the voice of Philippe de Vilmorin will follow you to denounce you ever more loudly, ever more insistently, until having lived in dread you shall go down in blood under the just rage which your victim’s dangerous gift of eloquence is kindling against you.”

I find it odd that he should have omitted from this letter all mention of Mlle. Binet, and I am disposed to account it at least a partial insincerity that he should have assigned entirely to his self-imposed mission, and not at all to his lacerated feelings in the matter of Climene, the action which he had taken at the Feydau.

Those two letters, both written in April of that year 1789, had for only immediate effect to increase the activity with which Andre–Louis Moreau was being sought.

Le Chapelier would have found him so as to lend him assistance, to urge upon him once again that he should take up a political career. The electors of Nantes would have found him — at least, they would have found Omnes Omnibus, of whose identity with himself they were still in ignorance — on each of the several occasions when a vacancy occurred in their body. And the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr and M. de Lesdiguieres would have found him that they might send him to the gallows.

With a purpose no less vindictive was he being sought by M. Binet, now unhappily recovered from his wound to face completest ruin. His troupe had deserted him during his illness, and reconstituted under the direction of Polichinelle it was now striving with tolerable success to continue upon the lines which Andre–Louis had laid down. M. le Marquis, prevented by the riot from expressing in person to Mlle. Binet his purpose of making an end of their relations, had been constrained to write to her to that effect from Azyr a few days later. He tempered the blow by enclosing in discharge of all liabilities a bill on the Caisse d’Escompte for a hundred louis. Nevertheless it almost crushed the unfortunate and it enabled her father when he recovered to enrage her by pointing out that she owed this turn of events to the premature surrender she had made in defiance of his sound worldly advice. Father and daughter alike were left to assign the Marquis’ desertion, naturally enough, to the riot at the Feydau. They laid that with the rest to the account of Scaramouche, and were forced in bitterness to admit that the scoundrel had taken a superlative revenge. Climene may even have come to consider that it would have paid her better to have run a straight course with Scaramouche and by marrying him to have trusted to his undoubted talents to place her on the summit to which her ambition urged her, and to which it was now futile for her to aspire. If so, that reflection must have been her sufficient punishment. For, as Andre–Louis so truly says, there is no worse hell than that provided by the regrets for wasted opportunities.

Meanwhile the fiercely sought Andre–Louis Moreau had gone to earth completely for the present. And the brisk police of Paris, urged on by the King’s Lieutenant from Rennes, hunted for him in vain. Yet he might have been found in a house in the Rue du Hasard within a stone’s throw of the Palais Royal, whither purest chance had conducted him.

That which in his letter to Le Chapelier he represents as a contingency of the near future was, in fact, the case in which already he found himself. He was destitute. His money was exhausted, including that procured by the sale of such articles of adornment as were not of absolute necessity.

So desperate was his case that strolling one gusty April morning down the Rue du Hasard with his nose in the wind looking for what might be picked up, he stopped to read a notice outside the door of a house on the left side of the street as you approach the Rue de Richelieu. There was no reason why he should have gone down the Rue du Hasard. Perhaps its name attracted him, as appropriate to his case.

The notice written in a big round hand announced that a young man of good address with some knowledge of swordsmanship was required by M. Bertrand des Amis on the second floor. Above this notice was a black oblong board, and on this a shield, which in vulgar terms may be described as red charged with two swords crossed and four fleurs de lys, one in each angle of the saltire. Under the shield, in letters of gold, ran the legend:

                 BERTRAND DES AMIS

    Maitre en fait d’Armes des Academies du Roi

Andre–Louis stood considering. He could claim, he thought, to possess the qualifications demanded. He was certainly young and he believed of tolerable address, whilst the fencing-lessons he had received in Nantes had given him at least an elementary knowledge of swordsmanship. The notice looked as if it had been pinned there some days ago, suggesting that applicants for the post were not very numerous. In that case perhaps M. Bertrand des Amis would not be too exigent. And anyway, Andre–Louis had not eaten for four-and-twenty hours, and whilst the employment here offered — the precise nature of which he was yet to ascertain — did not appear to be such as Andre–Louis would deliberately have chosen, he was in no case now to be fastidious.

Then, too, he liked the name of Bertrand des Amis. It felicitously combined suggestions of chivalry and friendliness. Also the man’s profession being of a kind that is flavoured with romance it was possible that M. Bertrand des Amis would not ask too many questions.

In the end he climbed to the second floor. On the landing he paused outside a door, on which was written “Academy of M. Bertrand des Amis.” He pushed this open, and found himself in a sparsely furnished, untenanted antechamber. From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school.

“Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!. . . . So! Now the flanconnade — en carte. . . . And here is the riposte. . . . Let us begin again. Come! The ward of fierce. . . . Make the coupe, and then the quinte par dessus les armes. . . . O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.

“Remember: the hand in pronation, the elbow not too far out. That will do for to-day. On Wednesday we shall see you tirer au mur. It is more deliberate. Speed will follow when the mechanism of the movements is more assured.”

Another voice murmured in answer. The steps moved aside. The lesson was at an end. Andre–Louis tapped on the door.

It was opened by a tall, slender, gracefully proportioned man of perhaps forty. Black silk breeches and stockings ending in light shoes clothed him from the waist down. Above he was encased to the chin in a closely fitting plastron of leather, His face was aquiline and swarthy, his eyes full and dark, his mouth firm and his clubbed hair was of a lustrous black with here and there a thread of silver showing.

In the crook of his left arm he carried a fencing-mask, a thing of leather with a wire grating to protect the eyes. His keen glance played over Andre–Louis from head to foot.

“Monsieur?” he inquired, politely.

It was clear that he mistook Andre–Louis’ quality, which is not surprising, for despite his sadly reduced fortunes, his exterior was irreproachable, and M. des Amis was not to guess that he carried upon his back the whole of his possessions.

“You have a notice below, monsieur,” he said, and from the swift lighting of the fencing-master’s eyes he saw that he had been correct in his assumption that applicants for the position had not been jostling one another on his threshold. And then that flash of satisfaction was followed by a look of surprise.

“You are come in regard to that?”

Andre–Louis shrugged and half smiled. “One must live,” said he.

“But come in. Sit down there. I shall be at your. . . . I shall be free to attend to you in a moment.”

Andre–Louis took a seat on the bench ranged against one of the whitewashed walls. The room was long and low, its floor entirely bare. Plain wooden forms such as that which he occupied were placed here and there against the wall. These last were plastered with fencing trophies, masks, crossed foils, stuffed plastrons, and a variety of swords, daggers, and targets, belonging to a variety of ages and countries. There was also a portrait of an obese, big-nosed gentleman in an elaborately curled wig, wearing the blue ribbon of the Saint Esprit, in whom Andre–Louis recognized the King. And there was a framed parchment — M. des Amis’ certificate from the King’s Academy. A bookcase occupied one corner, and near this, facing the last of the four windows that abundantly lighted the long room, there was a small writing-table and an armchair. A plump and beautifully dressed young gentleman stood by this table in the act of resuming coat and wig. M. des Amis sauntered over to him — moving, thought Andre–Louis, with extraordinary grace and elasticity — and stood in talk with him whilst also assisting him to complete his toilet.

At last the young gentleman took his departure, mopping himself with a fine kerchief that left a trail of perfume on the air. M. des Amis closed the door, and turned to the applicant, who rose at once.

“Where have you studied?” quoth the fencing-master abruptly.

“Studied?” Andre–Louis was taken aback by the question. “Oh, at Louis Le Grand.”

M. des Amis frowned, looking up sharply as if to see whether his applicant was taking the liberty of amusing himself.

“In Heaven’s name! I am not asking you where you did your humanities, but in what academy you studied fencing.”

“Oh — fencing!” It had hardly ever occurred to Andre–Louis that the sword ranked seriously as a study. “I never studied it very much. I had some lessons in . . . in the country once.”

The master’s eyebrows went up. “But then?” he cried. “Why trouble to come up two flights of stairs?” He was impatient.

“The notice does not demand a high degree of proficiency. If I am not proficient enough, yet knowing the rudiments I can easily improve. I learn most things readily,” Andre–Louis commended himself. “For the rest: I possess the other qualifications. I am young, as you observe: and I leave you to judge whether I am wrong in assuming that my address is good. I am by profession a man of the robe, though I realize that the motto here is cedat toga armis.”

M. des Amis smiled approvingly. Undoubtedly the young man had a good address, and a certain readiness of wit, it would appear. He ran a critical eye over his physical points. “What is your name?” he asked.

Andre–Louis hesitated a moment. “Andre–Louis,” he said.

The dark, keen eyes conned him more searchingly.

“Well? Andre–Louis what?”

“Just Andre–Louis. Louis is my surname.”

“Oh! An odd surname. You come from Brittany by your accent. Why did you leave it?”

“To save my skin,” he answered, without reflecting. And then made haste to cover the blunder. “I have an enemy,” he explained.

M. des Amis frowned, stroking his square chin. “You ran away?”

“You may say so.

“A coward, eh?”

“I don’t think so.” And then he lied romantically. Surely a man who lived by the sword should have a weakness for the romantic. “You see, my enemy is a swordsman of great strength — the best blade in the province, if not the best blade in France. That is his repute. I thought I would come to Paris to learn something of the art, and then go back and kill him. That, to be frank, is why your notice attracted me. You see, I have not the means to take lessons otherwise. I thought to find work here in the law. But I have failed. There are too many lawyers in Paris as it is, and whilst waiting I have consumed the little money that I had, so that . . . so that, enfin, your notice seemed to me something to which a special providence had directed me.”

M. des Amis gripped him by the shoulders, and looked into his face.

“Is this true, my friend?” he asked.

“Not a word of it,” said Andre–Louis, wrecking his chances on an irresistible impulse to say the unexpected. But he didn’t wreck them. M. des Amis burst into laughter; and having laughed his fill, confessed himself charmed by his applicant’s fundamental honesty.

“Take off your coat,” he said, “and let us see what you can do. Nature, at least, designed you for a swordsman. You are light, active, and supple, with a good length of arm, and you seem intelligent. I may make something of you, teach you enough for my purpose, which is that you should give the elements of the art to new pupils before I take them in hand to finish them. Let us try. Take that mask and foil, and come over here.”

He led him to the end of the room, where the bare floor was scored with lines of chalk to guide the beginner in the management of his feet.

At the end of a ten minutes’ bout, M. des Amis offered him the situation, and explained it. In addition to imparting the rudiments of the art to beginners, he was to brush out the fencing-room every morning, keep the foils furbished, assist the gentlemen who came for lessons to dress and undress, and make himself generally useful. His wages for the present were to be forty livres a month, and he might sleep in an alcove behind the fencing-room if he had no other lodging.

The position, you see, had its humiliations. But, if Andre–Louis would hope to dine, he must begin by eating his pride as an hors d’oeuvre.

“And so,” he said, controlling a grimace, “the robe yields not only to the sword, but to the broom as well. Be it so. I stay.”

It is characteristic of him that, having made that choice, he should have thrown himself into the work with enthusiasm. It was ever his way to do whatever he did with all the resources of his mind and energies of his body. When he was not instructing very young gentlemen in the elements of the art, showing them the elaborate and intricate salute — which with a few days’ hard practice he had mastered to perfection — and the eight guards, he was himself hard at work on those same guards, exercising eye, wrist, and knees.

Perceiving his enthusiasm, and seeing the obvious possibilities it opened out of turning him into a really effective assistant, M. des Amis presently took him more seriously in hand.

“Your application and zeal, my friend, are deserving of more than forty livres a month,” the master informed him at the end of a week. “For the present, however, I will make up what else I consider due to you by imparting to you secrets of this noble art. Your future depends upon how you profit by your exceptional good fortune in receiving instruction from me.”

Thereafter every morning before the opening of the academy, the master would fence for half an hour with his new assistant. Under this really excellent tuition Andre–Louis improved at a rate that both astounded and flattered M. des Amis. He would have been less flattered and more astounded had he known that at least half the secret of Andre–Louis’ amazing progress lay in the fact that he was devouring the contents of the master’s library, which was made up of a dozen or so treatises on fencing by such great masters as La Bessiere, Danet, and the syndic of the King’s Academy, Augustin Rousseau. To M. des Amis, whose swordsmanship was all based on practice and not at all on theory, who was indeed no theorist or student in any sense, that little library was merely a suitable adjunct to a fencing-academy, a proper piece of decorative furniture. The books themselves meant nothing to him in any other sense. He had not the type of mind that could have read them with profit nor could he understand that another should do so. Andre–Louis, on the contrary, a man with the habit of study, with the acquired faculty of learning from books, read those works with enormous profit, kept their precepts in mind, critically set off those of one master against those of another, and made for himself a choice which he proceeded to put into practice.

At the end of a month it suddenly dawned upon M. des Amis that his assistant had developed into a fencer of very considerable force, a man in a bout with whom it became necessary to exert himself if he were to escape defeat.

“I said from the first,” he told him one day, “that Nature designed you for a swordsman. See how justified I was, and see also how well I have known how to mould the material with which Nature has equipped you.”

“To the master be the glory,” said Andre–Louis.

His relations with M. des Amis had meanwhile become of the friendliest, and he was now beginning to receive from him other pupils than mere beginners. In fact Andre–Louis was becoming an assistant in a much fuller sense of the word. M. des Amis, a chivalrous, open-handed fellow, far from taking advantage of what he had guessed to be the young man’s difficulties, rewarded his zeal by increasing his wages to four louis a month.

From the earnest and thoughtful study of the theories of others, it followed now — as not uncommonly happens — that Andre–Louis came to develop theories of his own. He lay one June morning on his little truckle bed in the alcove behind the academy, considering a passage that he had read last night in Danet on double and triple feints. It had seemed to him when reading it that Danet had stopped short on the threshold of a great discovery in the art of fencing. Essentially a theorist, Andre–Louis perceived the theory suggested, which Danet himself in suggesting it had not perceived. He lay now on his back, surveying the cracks in the ceiling and considering this matter further with the lucidity that early morning often brings to an acute intelligence. You are to remember that for close upon two months now the sword had been Andre–Louis’ daily exercise and almost hourly thought. Protracted concentration upon the subject was giving him an extraordinary penetration of vision. Swordsmanship as he learnt and taught and saw it daily practised consisted of a series of attacks and parries, a series of disengages from one line into another. But always a limited series. A half-dozen disengages on either side was, strictly speaking, usually as far as any engagement went. Then one recommenced. But even so, these disengages were fortuitous. What if from first to last they should be calculated?

That was part of the thought — one of the two legs on which his theory was to stand; the other was: what would happen if one so elaborated Danet’s ideas on the triple feint as to merge them into a series of actual calculated disengages to culminate at the fourth or fifth or even sixth disengage? That is to say, if one were to make a series of attacks inviting ripostes again to be countered, each of which was not intended to go home, but simply to play the opponent’s blade into a line that must open him ultimately, and as predetermined, for an irresistible lunge. Each counter of the opponent’s would have to be preconsidered in this widening of his guard, a widening so gradual that he should himself be unconscious of it, and throughout intent upon getting home his own point on one of those counters.

Andre–Louis had been in his time a chess-player of some force, and at chess he had excelled by virtue of his capacity for thinking ahead. That virtue applied to fencing should all but revolutionize the art. It was so applied already, of course, but only in an elementary and very limited fashion, in mere feints, single, double, or triple. But even the triple feint should be a clumsy device compared with this method upon which he theorized.

He considered further, and the conviction grew that he held the key of a discovery. He was impatient to put his theory to the test.

That morning he was given a pupil of some force, against whom usually he was hard put to it to defend himself. Coming on guard, he made up his mind to hit him on the fourth disengage, predetermining the four passes that should lead up to it. They engaged in tierce, and Andre–Louis led the attack by a beat and a straightening of the arm. Came the demi-contre he expected, which he promptly countered by a thrust in quinte; this being countered again, he reentered still lower, and being again correctly parried, as he had calculated, he lunged swirling his point into carte, and got home full upon his opponent’s breast. The ease of it surprised him.

They began again. This time he resolved to go in on the fifth disengage, and in on that he went with the same ease. Then, complicating the matter further, he decided to try the sixth, and worked out in his mind the combination of the five preliminary engages. Yet again he succeeded as easily as before.

The young gentleman opposed to him laughed with just a tinge of mortification in his voice.

“I am all to pieces this morning,” he said.

“You are not of your usual force,” Andre–Louis politely agreed. And then greatly daring, always to test that theory of his to the uttermost: “So much so,” he added, “that I could almost be sure of hitting you as and when I declare.”

The capable pupil looked at him with a half-sneer. “Ah, that, no,” said he.

“Let us try. On the fourth disengage I shall touch you. Allons! En garde!”

And as he promised, so it happened.

The young gentleman who, hitherto, had held no great opinion of Andre–Louis’ swordsmanship, accounting him well enough for purposes of practice when the master was otherwise engaged, opened wide his eyes. In a burst of mingled generosity and intoxication, Andre–Louis was almost for disclosing his method — a method which a little later was to become a commonplace of the fencing-rooms. Betimes he checked himself. To reveal his secret would be to destroy the prestige that must accrue to him from exercising it.

At noon, the academy being empty, M. des Amis called Andre–Louis to one of the occasional lessons which he still received. And for the first time in all his experience with Andre–Louis, M. des Amis received from him a full hit in the course of the first bout. He laughed, well pleased, like the generous fellow he was.

“Aha! You are improving very fast, my friend.” He still laughed, though not so well pleased, when he was hit in the second bout. After that he settled down to fight in earnest with the result that Andre–Louis was hit three times in succession. The speed and accuracy of the fencing-master when fully exerting himself disconcerted Andre–Louis’ theory, which for want of being exercised in practice still demanded too much consideration.

But that his theory was sound he accounted fully established, and with that, for the moment, he was content. It remained only to perfect by practice the application of it. To this he now devoted himself with the passionate enthusiasm of the discoverer. He confined himself to a half-dozen combinations, which he practised assiduously until each had become almost automatic. And he proved their infallibility upon the best among M. des Amis’ pupils.

Finally, a week or so after that last bout of his with des Amis, the master called him once more to practice.

Hit again in the first bout, the master set himself to exert all his skill against his assistant. But to-day it availed him nothing before Andre–Louis’ impetuous attacks.

After the third hit, M. des Amis stepped back and pulled off his mask.

“What’s this?” he asked. He was pale, and his dark brows were contracted in a frown. Not in years had he been so wounded in his self-love. “Have you been taught a secret botte?”

He had always boasted that he knew too much about the sword to believe any nonsense about secret bottes; but this performance of Andre–Louis’ had shaken his convictions on that score.

“No,” said Andre–Louis. “I have been working hard; and it happens that I fence with my brains.”

“So I perceive. Well, well, I think I have taught you enough, my friend. I have no intention of having an assistant who is superior to myself.”

“Little danger of that,” said Andre–Louis, smiling pleasantly. “You have been fencing hard all morning, and you are tired, whilst I, having done little, am entirely fresh. That is the only secret of my momentary success.”

His tact and the fundamental good-nature of M. des Amis prevented the matter from going farther along the road it was almost threatening to take. And thereafter, when they fenced together, Andre–Louis, who continued daily to perfect his theory into an almost infallible system, saw to it that M. des Amis always scored against him at least two hits for every one of his own. So much he would grant to discretion, but no more. He desired that M. des Amis should be conscious of his strength, without, however, discovering so much of its real extent as would have excited in him an unnecessary degree of jealousy.

And so well did he contrive that whilst he became ever of greater assistance to the master — for his style and general fencing, too, had materially improved — he was also a source of pride to him as the most brilliant of all the pupils that had ever passed through his academy. Never did Andre–Louis disillusion him by revealing the fact that his skill was due far more to M. des Amis’ library and his own mother wit than to any lessons received.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sabatini/rafael/scaramouche/book3.1.html

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