Novels by Eminent Hands, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Barbazure.

by G. P. R. Jeames, Esq., Etc.

I.

It was upon one of those balmy evenings of November, which are only known in the valleys of Languedoc and among the mountains of Alsace, that two cavaliers might have been perceived by the naked eye threading one of the rocky and romantic gorges that skirt the mountain-land between the Marne and the Garonne. The rosy tints of the declining luminary were gilding the peaks and crags which lined the path, through which the horsemen wound slowly; and as these eternal battlements with which Nature had hemmed in the ravine which our travellers trod, blushed with the last tints of the fading sunlight, the valley below was gray and darkling, and the hard and devious course was sombre in twilight. A few goats, hardly visible among the peaks, were cropping the scanty herbage here and there. The pipes of shepherds, calling in their flocks as they trooped homewards to their mountain villages, sent up plaintive echoes which moaned through those rocky and lonely steeps; the stars began to glimmer in the purple heavens spread serenely overhead and the faint crescent of the moon, which had peered for some time scarce visible in the azure, gleamed out more brilliantly at every moment, until it blazed as if in triumph at the sun’s retreat. ’Tis a fair land that of France, a gentle, a green, and a beautiful; the home of arts and arms, of chivalry and romance, and (however sadly stained by the excesses of modern times) ’twas the unbought grace of nations once, and the seat of ancient renown and disciplined valor.

And of all that fair land of France, whose beauty is so bright and bravery is so famous, there is no spot greener or fairer than that one over which our travellers wended, and which stretches between the good towns of Vendemiaire and Nivose. ’Tis common now to a hundred thousand voyagers: the English tourist, with his chariot and his Harvey’s Sauce, and his imperials; the bustling commis-voyageur on the roof of the rumbling diligence; the rapid malle-poste thundering over the chaussee at twelve miles an hour — pass the ground hourly and daily now: ’twas lonely and unfrequented at the end of that seventeenth century with which our story commences.

Along the darkening mountain-paths the two gentlemen (for such their outward bearing proclaimed them) caracoled together. The one, seemingly the younger of the twain, wore a flaunting feather in his barret-cap, and managed a prancing Andalusian palfrey that bounded and curveted gayly. A surcoat of peach-colored samite and a purfled doublet of vair bespoke him noble, as did his brilliant eye, his exquisitely chiselled nose, and his curling chestnut ringlets.

Youth was on his brow; his eyes were dark and dewy, like spring-violets; and spring-roses bloomed upon his cheek — roses, alas! that bloom and die with life’s spring! Now bounding over a rock, now playfully whisking off with his riding rod a floweret in his path, Philibert de Coquelicot rode by his darker companion.

His comrade was mounted upon a destriere of the true Norman breed, that had first champed grass on the green pastures of Aquitaine. Thence through Berry, Picardy, and the Limousin, halting at many a city and commune, holding joust and tourney in many a castle and manor of Navarre, Poitou, and St. Germain l’Auxerrois, the warrior and his charger reached the lonely spot where now we find them.

The warrior who bestrode the noble beast was in sooth worthy of the steed which bore him. Both were caparisoned in the fullest trappings of feudal war. The arblast, the mangonel, the demiculverin, and the cuissart of the period, glittered upon the neck and chest of the war-steed; while the rider, with chamfron and catapult, with ban and arriere-ban, morion and tumbrel, battle-axe and rifflard, and the other appurtenances of ancient chivalry, rode stately on his steel-clad charger, himself a tower of steel. This mighty horseman was carried by his steed as lightly as the young springald by his Andalusian hackney.

“’Twas well done of thee, Philibert,” said he of the proof-armor, “to ride forth so far to welcome thy cousin and companion in arms.”

“Companion in battledore and shuttlecock, Romane de Clos-Vougeot!” replied the younger Cavalier. “When I was yet a page, thou wert a belted knight; and thou wert away to the Crusades ere ever my beard grew.”

“I stood by Richard of England at the gates of Ascalon, and drew the spear from sainted King Louis in the tents of Damietta,” the individual addressed as Romane replied. “Well-a-day! since thy beard grew, boy, (and marry ’tis yet a thin one,) I have broken a lance with Solyman at Rhodes, and smoked a chibouque with Saladin at Acre. But enough of this. Tell me of home — of our native valley — of my hearth, and my lady-mother, and my good chaplain — tell me of HER, Philibert,” said the knight, executing a demivolt, in order to hide his emotion.

Philibert seemed uneasy, and to strive as though he would parry the question. “The castle stands on the rock,” he said, “and the swallows still build in the battlements. The good chaplain still chants his vespers at morn, and snuffles his matins at even-song. The lady-mother still distributeth tracts, and knitteth Berlin linsey-woolsey. The tenants pay no better, and the lawyers dun as sorely, kinsman mine,” he added with an arch look.

“But Fatima, Fatima, how fares she?” Romane continued. “Since Lammas was a twelvemonth, I hear nought of her; my letters are unanswered. The postman hath traversed our camp every day, and never brought me a billet. How is Fatima, Philibert de Coquelicot?”

“She is — well,” Philibert replied; “her sister Anne is the fairest of the twain, though.”

“Her sister Anne was a baby when I embarked for Egypt. A plague on sister Anne! Speak of Fatima, Philibert — my blue-eyed Fatima!”

“I say she is — well,” answered his comrade gloomily.

“Is she dead? Is she ill? Hath she the measles? Nay, hath she had the small-pox, and lost her beauty? Speak; speak, boy!” cried the knight, wrought to agony.

“Her cheek is as red as her mother’s, though the old Countess paints hers every day. Her foot is as light as a sparrow’s, and her voice as sweet as a minstrel’s dulcimer; but give me nathless the Lady Anne,” cried Philibert; “give me the peerless Lady Anne! As soon as ever I have won spurs, I will ride all Christendom through, and proclaim her the Queen of Beauty. Ho, Lady Anne! Lady Anne!” and so saying — but evidently wishing to disguise some emotion, or conceal some tale his friend could ill brook to hear — the reckless damoiseau galloped wildly forward.

But swift as was his courser’s pace, that of his companion’s enormous charger was swifter. “Boy,” said the elder, “thou hast ill tidings. I know it by thy glance. Speak: shall he who hath bearded grim Death in a thousand fields shame to face truth from a friend? Speak, in the name of heaven and good Saint Botibol. Romane de Clos-Vougeot will bear your tidings like a man!”

“Fatima is well,” answered Philibert once again; “she hath had no measles: she lives and is still fair.”

“Fair, ay, peerless fair; but what more, Philibert? Not false? By Saint Botibol, say not false,” groaned the elder warrior.

“A month syne,” Philibert replied, “she married the Baron de Barbazure.”

With that scream which is so terrible in a strong man in agony, the brave knight Romane de Clos-Vougeot sank back at the words, and fell from his charger to the ground, a lifeless mass of steel.

II.

Like many another fabric of feudal war and splendor, the once vast and magnificent Castle of Barbazure is now a moss-grown ruin. The traveller of the present day, who wanders by the banks of the silvery Loire, and climbs the steep on which the magnificent edifice stood, can scarcely trace, among the shattered masses of ivy-covered masonry which lie among the lonely crags, even the skeleton of the proud and majestic palace stronghold of the Barons of Barbazure.

In the days of our tale its turrets and pinnacles rose as stately, and seemed (to the pride of sinful man!) as strong as the eternal rocks on which they stood. The three mullets on a gules wavy reversed, surmounted by the sinople couchant Or; the well-known cognizance of the house, blazed in gorgeous heraldry on a hundred banners, surmounting as many towers. The long lines of battlemented walls spread down the mountain to the Loire, and were defended by thousands of steel-clad serving-men. Four hundred knights and six times as many archers fought round the banner of Barbazure at Bouvines, Malplaquet, and Azincour. For his services at Fontenoy against the English, the heroic Charles Martel appointed the fourteenth Baron Hereditary Grand Bootjack of the kingdom of France; and for wealth, and for splendor, and for skill and fame in war, Raoul, the twenty-eighth Baron, was in no-wise inferior to his noble ancestors.

That the Baron Raoul levied toll upon the river and mail upon the shore; that he now and then ransomed a burgher, plundered a neighbor, or drew the fangs of a Jew; that he burned an enemy’s castle with the wife and children within; — these were points for which the country knew and respected the stout Baron. When he returned from victory, he was sure to endow the Church with a part of his spoil, so that when he went forth to battle he was always accompanied by her blessing. Thus lived the Baron Raoul, the pride of the country in which he dwelt, an ornament to the Court, the Church, and his neighbors.

But in the midst of all his power and splendor there was a domestic grief which deeply afflicted the princely Barbazure. His lovely ladies died one after the other. No sooner was he married than he was a widower; in the course of eighteen years no less than nine bereavements had befallen the chieftain. So true it is, that if fortune is a parasite, grief is a republican, and visits the hall of the great and wealthy as it does the humbler tenements of the poor.

***

“Leave off deploring thy faithless, gad-about lover,” said the Lady of Chacabacque to her daughter, the lovely Fatima, “and think how the noble Barbazure loves thee! Of all the damsels at the ball last night, he had eyes for thee and thy cousin only.”

“I am sure my cousin hath no good looks to be proud of!” the admirable Fatima exclaimed, bridling up. “Not that I care for my Lord of Barbazure’s looks. MY heart, dearest mother, is with him who is far away!”

“He danced with thee four galliards, nine quadrilles, and twenty-three corantoes, I think, child,” the mother said, eluding her daughter’s remark.

“Twenty-five,” said lovely Fatima, casting her beautiful eyes to the ground. “Heigh-ho! but Romane danced them very well!”

“He had not the court air,” the mother suggested.

“I don’t wish to deny the beauty of the Lord of Burbazure’s dancing, mamma,” Fatima replied. “For a short, lusty man, ’tis wondrous how active he is; and in dignity the King’s Grace himself could not surpass him.”

“You were the noblest couple in the room, love,” the lady cried.

“That pea-green doublet, slashed with orange-tawny, those ostrich plumes, blue, red, and yellow, those party-colored hose and pink shoon, became the noble baron wondrous well,” Fatima acknowledged. “It must be confessed that, though middle-aged, he hath all the agility of youth. But alas, madam! The noble baron hath had nine wives already.”

“And your cousin would give her eyes to become the tenth,” the mother replied.

“My cousin give her eyes!” Fatima exclaimed. “It’s not much, I’m sure, for she squints abominably.” And thus the ladies prattled, as they rode home at night after the great ball at the house of the Baron of Barbazure.

The gentle reader, who has overheard their talk, will understand the doubts which pervaded the mind of the lovely Fatima, and the well-nurtured English maiden will participate in the divided feelings which rent her bosom. ’Tis true, that on his departure for the holy wars, Romane and Fatima were plighted to each other; but the folly of long engagements is proverbial; and though for many months the faithful and affectionate girl had looked in vain for news from him, her admirable parents had long spoken with repugnance of a match which must bring inevitable poverty to both parties. They had suffered, ’tis true, the engagement to subside, hostile as they ever were to it; but when on the death of the ninth lady of Barbazure, the noble baron remarked Fatima at the funeral, and rode home with her after the ceremony, her prudent parents saw how much wiser, better, happier for their child it would be to have for life a partner like the baron, than to wait the doubtful return of the penniless wanderer to whom she was plighted.

Ah! how beautiful and pure a being! how regardless of self! how true to duty! how obedient to parental command, is that earthly angel, a well-bred woman of genteel family! Instead of indulging in splenetic refusals or vain regrets for her absent lover, the exemplary Fatima at once signified to her excellent parents her willingness to obey their orders; though she had sorrows (and she declared them to be tremendous), the admirable being disguised them so well, that none knew they oppressed her. She said she would try to forget former ties, and (so strong in her mind was DUTY above every other feeling! — so strong may it be in every British maiden!) the lovely girl kept her promise. “My former engagements,” she said, packing up Romane’s letters and presents, (which, as the good knight was mortal poor, were in sooth of no great price)—“my former engagements I look upon as childish follies; — my affections are fixed where my dear parents graft them — on the noble, the princely, the polite Barbazure. ’Tis true he is not comely in feature, but the chaste and well-bred female knows how to despise the fleeting charms of form. ’Tis true he is old; but can woman be better employed than in tending her aged and sickly companion? That he has been married is likewise certain — but ah, my mother! who knows not that he must be a good and tender husband, who, nine times wedded, owns that, he cannot be happy without another partner?”

It was with these admirable sentiments the lovely Fatima proposed obedience to her parents’ will, and consented to receive the magnificent marriage-gift presented to her by her gallant bridegroom.

III.

The old Countess of Chacabacque had made a score of vain attempts to see her hapless daughter. Ever, when she came, the porters grinned at her savagely through the grating of the portcullis of the vast embattled gate of the Castle of Barbazure, and rudely bade her begone. “The Lady of Barbazure sees nobody but her confessor, and keeps her chamber,” was the invariable reply of the dogged functionaries to the entreaties of the agonized mother. And at length, so furious was he at her perpetual calls at his gate, that the angry Lord of Barbazure himself, who chanced to be at the postern, armed a cross-bow, and let fly an arblast at the crupper of the lady’s palfrey, whereon she fled finally, screaming, and in terror. “I will aim at the rider next time!” howled the ferocious baron, “and not at the horse!” And those who knew his savage nature and his unrivalled skill as a bowman, knew that he would neither break his knightly promise nor miss his aim.

Since the fatal day when the Grand Duke of Burgundy gave his famous passage of arms at Nantes, and all the nobles of France were present at the joustings, it was remarked that the Barbazure’s heart was changed towards his gentle and virtuous lady.

For the three first days of that famous festival, the redoubted Baron of Barbazure had kept the field against all the knights who entered. His lance bore everything down before it. The most famous champions of Europe, assembled at these joustings, had dropped, one by one, before this tremendous warrior. The prize of the tourney was destined to be his, and he was to be proclaimed bravest of the brave, as his lady was the fairest of the fair.

On the third day, however, as the sun was declining over the Vosges, and the shadows were lengthening over the plain where the warrior had obtained such triumphs; — after having overcome two hundred and thirteen knights of different nations, including the fiery Dunois, the intrepid Walter Manny, the spotless Bayard, and the undaunted Dugueselin, as the conqueror sat still erect on his charger, and the multitudes doubted whether ever another champion could be found to face him, three blasts of a trumpet were heard, faint at first, but at every moment ringing more clearly, until a knight in pink armor rode into the lists with his visor down, and riding a tremendous dun charger, which he managed to the admiration of all present.

The heralds asked him his name and quality.

“Call me,” said he, in a hollow voice, “the Jilted Knight.” What was it made the Lady of Barbazure tremble at his accents.

The knight refused to tell his name and qualities; but the companion who rode with him, the young and noble Philibert de Coquelicot, who was known and respected universally through the neighborhood, gave a warranty for the birth and noble degree of the Jilted Knight — and Raoul de Barbazure, yelling hoarsely for a two-hundred-and-fourteenth lance, shook the huge weapon in the air as though it were a reed, and prepared to encounter the intruder.

According to the wont of chivalry, and to keep the point of the spear from harm, the top of the unknown knight’s lance was shielded with a bung, which the warrior removed; and galloping up to Barbazure’s pavilion, over which his shield hung, touched that noble cognizance with the sharpened steel. A thrill of excitement ran through the assembly at this daring challenge to a combat a l’outrance. “Hast thou confessed, Sir Knight?” roared the Barbazure; “take thy ground, and look to thyself; for by heaven thy last hour is come!” “Poor youth, poor youth!” sighed the spectators; “he has called down his own fate.” The next minute the signal was given, and as the simoom across the desert, the cataract down the rock, the shell from the howitzer, each warrior rushed from his goal.

***

“Thou wilt not slay so good a champion?” said the Grand Duke, as at the end of that terrific combat the knight in rose armor stood over his prostrate foe, whose helmet had rolled off when he was at length unhorsed, and whose bloodshot eyes glared unutterable hate and ferocity on his conqueror.

“Take thy life,” said he who had styled himself the Jilted Knight; “thou hast taken all that was dear to me.” And the sun setting, and no other warrior appearing to do battle against him, he was proclaimed the conqueror, and rode up to the duchess’s balcony to receive the gold chain which was the reward of the victor. He raised his visor as the smiling princess guerdoned him — raised it, and gave ONE sad look towards the Lady Fatima at her side!

“Romane de Clos-Vougeot!” shrieked she, and fainted. The Baron of Barbazure heard the name as he writhed on the ground with his wound, and by his slighted honor, by his broken ribs, by his roused fury, he swore revenge; and the Lady Fatima, who had come to the tourney as a queen, returned to her castle as a prisoner.

(As it is impossible to give the whole of this remarkable novel, let it suffice to say briefly here, that in about a volume and a half, in which the descriptions of scenery, the account of the agonies of the baroness, kept on bread and water in her dungeon, and the general tone of morality, are all excellently worked out, the Baron de Barbazure resolves upon putting his wife to death by the hands of the public executioner.)

***

Two minutes before the clock struck noon, the savage baron was on the platform to inspect the preparation for the frightful ceremony of mid-day.

The block was laid forth — the hideous minister of vengeance, masked and in black, with the flaming glaive in his hand, was ready. The baron tried the edge of the blade with his finger, and asked the dreadful swordsman if his hand was sure? A nod was the reply of the man of blood. The weeping garrison and domestics shuddered and shrank from him. There was not one there but loved and pitied the gentle lady.

Pale, pale as a stone, she was brought from her dungeon. To all her lord’s savage interrogatories, her reply had been, “I am innocent.” To his threats of death, her answer was, “You are my lord; my life is in your hands, to take or to give.” How few are the wives, in our day, who show such angelic meekness! It touched all hearts around her, save that of the implacable Barbazure! Even the Lady Blanche, (Fatima’s cousin), whom he had promised to marry upon his faithless wife’s demise, besought for her kinswoman’s life, and a divorce; but Barbazure had vowed her death.

“Is there no pity, sir?” asked the chaplain who had attended her.

“No pity?” echoed the weeping serving-maid.

“Did I not aye say I would die for my lord?” said the gentle lady, and placed herself at the block.

Sir Raoul de Barbazure seized up the long ringlets of her raven hair. “Now!” shouted he to the executioner, with a stamp of his foot —“Now strike!”

The man (who knew his trade) advanced at once, and poised himself to deliver his blow: and making his flashing sword sing in the air, with one irresistible, rapid stroke, it sheared clean off the head of the furious, the bloodthirsty, the implacable Baron de Barbazure!

Thus he fell a victim to his own jealousy: and the agitation of the Lady Fatima may be imagined, when the executioner, flinging off his mask, knelt gracefully at her feet, and revealed to her the well-known features of Romane de Clos-Vougeot.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07