Ainslee's, January 1901
The Marquis' Coach
by Rafael Sabatini
Paris had suddenly become unhealthy for the Chevalier Gaston de Brissac. Why this was so, it is not my present duty to chronicle. In passing, I may mention that André de St. Auger was abed with a nasty sword wound in that part of the body known to physicians as the right breast, but which Brissac would more significantly speak of as "low tierce."
Chance took him to Autune, in Provence. Chance led him to visit Antoine Moret.
With the fortune which his fatheran armorer of some reputewas said to have amassed during the siege of La Rochelle, Antoine Moret had withdrawn from Paris, and come to Autune, to build himself a square white house beyond the village, and dream himself a seigneur.
It was no more than natural that M. de Brissac, who had been one of old Moret's best customers in days gone bybefore the Cardinal made war upon duellistsshould, when he heard of Antione's so-called Château be curious to ascertain how the armorer's son bore the airs of a country gentleman.
Three months before Moret had married the daintiest maid Autune could boast of, and for a brief while life for him had lain along a rose-strewn path. Often as he looked into his wife's gentle eyes, and stroked the fair head that nestled to his breast, he had sighed the sigh of a heart that holds more joy than it can carry. Often he had murmured fearsidly and without attaching faith to themthat their happiness might be too great to endure.
And now the blow had fallen. Fallen with brutal suddenness. Come upon him like a thunderbolt out of a serene sky. His wife was gonestolen by the Marquis de Taillandier.
Thus was he found by M. de Brissac, and into the courtier's ear he poured the bitter story of his shame. He looked for sympathy. He found contempt.
"Ventegris, Master Moret," quoth Gaston, flashing a scornful eye upon the simpering fool, "can you do no more than sit and mope and groan like a newly-birched schoolboy when your wife has been stolen from you? Pardieu, meseems that one who can do so little to keep a wife has but scant right to wed one.
A dull flush showed through the tan on Moret's cheeks, and for a moment he forgot grief in resentment.
"I might have known it," he exclaimed. "Fool that I was to tell you of it! You are all alike, you fine gentlemen"
"And a bourgeois is always a bourgeois," Gaston broke in sharply. "Ever a clown with the body of an elephant and the heart of a rabbit. Pah! You make me sick!"
And before the fellow could stay him, Gaston took his plumed hat from the table and setting it jauntily upon his curls, strode gayly away.
But as he went forth it occurred to Brissac that he had been cruelthat he might have spoken softer words to the honest fool, and even proffered him assistance. Then realizing the drift his thoughts were taking, he laughed aloud. It was something for Brissac, the scoffer, to find himself wasting pity upon a man whose wife had been stolen.
Still, in the present instance, he felt a pity for Moret, despite himself. The fellow was so helpless, and Taillandier so powerful, that his sense of chivalry whichwhatever may have been his sinsever drove him to espouse the weaker cause, was strongly appealed to.
And presently, as chance would have it, the veriest accident came to decide the matter and to enlist the Chevalier in the service of Moret.
As he strode into the inn of the "Clef d'Or," where he had taken up his lodging, he was much surprised to find the common room occupied by a slender, over-dressed young man, all lace and fripperies, who carried with him an atmosphere of musk, and whose pose and gesturesas he conversed with the obsequious hostwould have been in better tune with the ante-chamber of the Luxembourg or a lady's boudoir, than the dingy common room of a country inn.
With increasing wonder, Gaston recognized in this pretty fellow the Vicomte de Vilmorin, a former acquaintance, andhe suddenly rememberedTaillandier's cousin. This Vilmorin was a proverbial coward who had fled from Paris a year before, and repaired to his estate in Provence, to hide the weals of a horsewhipping which he had receivedit was rumoredat the hands of the beautiful Mademoiselle de Grandcourt.
He raised his head languidly as Gaston entered, and their eyes met. He started slightly at the unexpected rencontre, and bit his lip in annoyance.
"Well met, Vicomte," cried Brissac. "You are the very man to give me certain information which I stand in need of."
Vilmorin eloquently professed his delight at an opportunity of serving M. de Brissac, and permitted himself to accept the chair which Gaston offered him.
"I was about to visit your worthy cousin, the Marquis de Taillandier," began Gaston, seating himself opposite to the Vicomte, and leaning his elbows upon the table. "I trust that he is well?"
"Hélas, monsieur, I grieve to say that he is not," Vilmorin replied. "He was thrown from his horse three nights ago and had the misfortune to break his arm."
"Three nights ago," mused Brissac. "Ah! that would be upon the occasion of the abduction of Madame Moret, would it not?"
The Vicomte started and changed color.
"You have heard of the affair?" he exclaimed.
"Yes," Brissac answered, easily; "I heard of it from the forlorn husband himself, and it is upon this very business that I desire to speak with you."
"You had much better see my cousin," cried Vilmorin in sudden alarm. There was a look in the duellist's eyes which he did not relish, and he made shift to rise, but Gaston stayed him by grasping his arm.
"I assure you, monsieur," he exclaimed in a voice that trembled slightly, "that I have no desire to rise. I am so delighted to have met you that."
"You overwhelm me, Vicomte," Gaston broke in ironically. "But we are straying from the subject. I am interested in Madame Moret, and I was about to visit your cousin, the Marquis, to discover the matter of the abduction. In the event of not finding him disposed to give me the satisfaction which I desire, it was my purpose to request him to take a turn upon the lawn with me. Since you tell me, however, that he has broken his arm, I am inclined to think that my visit would be both inopportune and useless. Therefore, my dear Vicomte,"and he smiled sweetly at the pale face of the craven before him"I will talk the matter over with you instead."
"But I assure you that I know nothing of it," Vilmorin stammered, "I am in total ignorance of my cousin's affairs."
"That, monsieur, is a circumstance, which for your sake I deeply regret," And he raised, as if by accident, the hand which held his glove. "Monsieur de Taillandier has interfered with me," he added grimly, "and as you well know, I do not suffer interference. Luckily for himself, he has broken his arm, and cannot fight. But unluckily for you," he continued, with a sigh and a regretful shake of his head, "you have not broken yours. Monsieur le Vicomte, I see nothing else for it but to request you to take your cousin's place."
"Butbut" stuttered the Vicomte, mopping the beads of perspiration from his brow, "this is an injustice. It is preposterous, monsieur! My cousin's escapades are no affair of mine!"
"Perhaps not. But he has broken his arm, and I cannot wait until it is mended. Believe me, Vicomte, it will grieve me beyond measure to visit your cousin's sins upon you, but you leave me no alternative. See! Those gentlemen are watching us. I shall be obliged to remove that fleck of dust from your face, unlessunless."
"Unless? Unless what, monsieur?" cried the other, excitedly.
"Unless you tell me what your cousin has done with Madame Moret, and where she is to be found."
The sunlight, coming through the window, fell athwart the room and was reflected upon the duellist's sword hilt with a brightness which dazzled Vilmorin's eyes, and drove terror into his heart. No more was needed. In a quavering tone he told his formidable antagonist that Françoise Moret was a prisoner in a house situated on the Tarbes road, at about two miles from the village, and within a hundred paces of the forest of Autune. Not only this, but he so minutely described the house and the postion of the room wherein she was confined, that Brissac could have no difficulty in hitting upon it.
Having obtained his solemn promise that he would make no mention of what had passed between them, and promising in return to kill him if he failed to keep his word, Gaston left the Vicomte to his own devices, and went in search of Moret.
The news he bore awakened the fellow's energies with a vengeance. He was for starting out, there and then, and go boldly to demand his wife. But Gastonwho had ascertained among other things that the house on the Tarbes road, which belonged to Taillandier, was guarded by six of the Marquis' bravos, prevailed upon him to wait until night had fallen, and unfolded a scheme which should succeed.
As ten was striking, they rode through the village, and taking the Tarbes road, they cantered briskly along in silence. They were both well armed, and the angry craving for vengeance in the one, coupled with the wild, adventurous spirit of the other, were like to bring about strange doings before morning.
The night was clear, andto Brissac's mind an unfortunate circumstancethe moon had risen. It was this that made him suddenly lead the way from the white, shining road into the shelter of the forests of Autune which they had been skirting. They drew rein at last where the trees came to an end, on the edge of a cornfield, and Gaston slipped down from his horse.
"That is the house," he said, pointing to a dark building at an easy stone's throw from where they stood. Moret assented with a grunt, and would have dismounted had not the Chevalier remonstrated. An altercation arose between them, for Brissac was as determined upon going alone as the armorer's son was upon accompanying him.
"Plague take your stupidity," cried Gaston, impatiently; "two will blunder matters. Leave it to me to get your wife out of the house!"
Antoine cursed and entreated in a breath, but to no purpose, and presently he was forced to bend his will and consent to remain.
Having divested himself of his cloak, so as to leave his arms free in case of need, Gaston stepped out alone into the road.
The armorer's son watched the slim, lithe figure, sharply outlined in the moonlight, as it moved away in the direction of the house; then, with a heart beating anxiously and a spirit chafing at the inaction imposed upon him, he settled down to wait events.
Upon reaching the house, and after looking cautiously about him, Gaston vaulted over the low wall which ran beside it, and made his way hurriedly to the field at the back. From the description which the Vicomte had given him, he had no difficulty in determining the window of the room she occupied. Picking up some loose clay, he began to pelt it, first with small pieces, then with larger ones, and at lastimpatient at receiving no answerhe let fly a handful, which rattled so loudly that he feared it must wake the household. But still there was no sign from the window, and Gaston cursed Madame Moret for a heavy sleeper.
Fully alive to the danger he ran were he detected, not only that of having to take his stand in an unequal combat, butwhat to his mind was still worseof seeing his plans frustrated, and Moret's wife more a prisoner then ever, Gaston could stand the delay no longer.
There was a pear tree in the corner by the wall, and close to this ran a shed from the roof of which a man of his stature might, by standing on tip-toe, contrive to reach the window. He would try. Wrapping the rope ladder, which he had brought with him, round his waist, he drew off his boots, and set himself to swarm the pear treewondering how many years had elapsed since this form of exercise had afforded him amusement.
From the tree it was an easy matter to drop on to the roof of the shed, and then make his way along, with his hands against the wall, until he reached the end of it. The window was not immediately above him, but slightly to the right, and although he stretched out until he stood in imminent danger of overbalancing himself, he could do no more than grasp the stone sill. The panes were beyond his reach.
He swore softly to himself for a moment or two, thendetermined that after coming thus far he would not go back empty-handedhe took a firm grip of the sill, and being strong in the arms, he drew himself up until his chin was on a level with it and his eyes were staring at the black glass. He wriggled his left forearm on to the stone so as to obtain a further support; then, as he looked down, he realized that it would be a miracle if he ever contrived to leap back on to the roof of the shed. The ground was fifteen feet beneath him, and looked a good twenty. To think of the drop was unpleasant; so raising his right hand, he began to scratch at the window, and presently to knock softly.
At last there was a movement within, and presently he distinguished something white; then a woman's face was pressed against the glass.
It occurred to him that a woman who was particularly anxious to return to her husband might easily let herself down by means of a twisted sheet, but he had no time wherein to follow such speculations just then. The strain was beginning to tell upon his left arm, and the perspiration was standing out on his forehead. He knew that he could not endure the position much longer. With his right hand, he signed frantically to her to open, and when at last she had done so, he waited not to answer her question as to what he sought, nor did he even look to see if she were pretty, but raising himself on his arms until his waist was against the sash, he flung himself forward and took a header into the room, alighting upon his hands.
In an instant he was standing upright before her, and gazing into the face, which even in that dim light he saw was a pale and handsome one, from which a pair of startled eyes returned his searching glance.
"Who are you?" she exclaimed. "What do you want?"
"Hush," he answered, mysteriously. "You may be overheard."
"It does not signify."
"To you perhaps not. But to me, who have come here to rescue you, and who may get a knife in my back at any moment, as my reward, it signifies much. Come," he added, peremptorily, beginning to unwind the rope ladder from his waist, "your husband is waiting for you, a hundred paces from here, and I have no desire to prolong my visit unnecessarily."
"My husband!" she echoed, mechanically.
Brissac paused to stare at her, and in his mind he approved of Taillandier's taste. She was unquestionably beautiful.
"Yes, woman, your husband," he answered testily, "Or do you imagine that I am come on my own account to steal you from the Marquis, as the Marquis stole you from that fool Moret."
He stooped to fasten the ends of the ladder to the frame of the window.
"You are mistaken," she said, "The Marquis did not steal me from that fool Moret."
"Ohé!" he ejaculated, with a whistle, "So, my pretty one, you came of your own free will, eh? Ma foi, I half guessed as much when I saw the window." Then dropping the rope, he turned to stare at her again, a doubt in his mind. "But what am I to do now?" he inquired in a puzzled way. "Shall I leave you here, or will you come with me?"
Her bosom was heaving beneath the thin white garment she wore, and her breathing was that of an excited person.
"I will come with you," she answered. "Wait."
She left his side, requesting him to remain at the window, and keep a sharp look-out, concealing himself if he saw any one approach.
He obeyed her. And through what seemed to him an houralthough in reality it was but some ten minuteshe remained where he was, his eyes and ears on the alert for the slightest movement below. At last he heard her treading softly behind him, and he felt a tap on the arm.
"I am ready," she said. She wore a long cloak, and the hood which was drawn over her head, masked her face in its shadow. He felt tempted to make some caustic remark concerning the alacrity with which she had prepared. But feeling that enough time had already been wasted, he flung out his ladder and assisted her to descend.
He paused for a moment, when they had reached the ground, to draw his boots on again. Then they set off round the house with stealthy speed, Gaston keeping a sharp look-out, his hand on his sword hilt. But nothing stirred, and he was able to congratulate himself upon the success of his undertaking.
As they drew near the wood, a horseman rode out leading another horse by the bridle. It was Moret, who came to meet them.
Shutting his ears to the rapturous words that fell from Antoine's lips, Brissac assisted his companion to mount in front of her husband, then leaping into his own saddle he turned his horse's head towards Autune.
"Allons, Moret," he cried. But a great oath was his answer.
"What baggage have we here?" thundered the armorer's son. "This is not my wife!"
Brissac turned in his saddle.
"Not your wife!" he echoed, with bated breath, "Not your wife! Then who, in Heaven's name, is it?"
There was a pause while Moret tore back the hood, the better to behold her face. When he spoke again it was in a voice from which all the former anger had gonea voice that shook with fear.
"Mon Dieu!" he cried, "is it possible?"
Gaston wheeled his horse around.
"Who is it?" he inquired, impatiently, for he saw that whoever it might be, Moret had recognized her.
"'Tis Madame la Marquise de Taillandier!" was the astounding answer.
For a moment there was silence, and Brissac's eyes rolled curiously. Then his long peal of boisterous laughter broke upon the stillness of the night.
"A wife for a wife," he roared, "Pardieu! 'tis a fair exchange." But his companion did not join him in his mirth .
Madame de Taillandier stared from one man to the other, and her indignation was aroused by Gaston's indecorous laughter. She was not accustomed to ridicule, and was on the point of telling him so when Brissac suddenly became serious of his own accord.
"Perhaps madame will be good enough to tell us what we are to do," he said. "If you desire to return, I do not doubt but that the ladder still hangs from the window. Perhaps it would be best to waste no time in availing ourselves of it before it is discovered and removed."
"No, monsieur," she answered quickly, "I shall not return. I gathered the nature of your mistake from what you told me. I gathered also that my husband had abducted Madame Moretand I make no doubt that it was in that pretty adventure he was rightly served with a broken arm. I came with you to learn more of this affair. If you are willing, gentlemen, we will proceed to Autune."
"But my wife!" cried Moret. "She is in yonder house. I shall not return without her."
"Your wife is not there, Master Moret," she said, "I can answer for that. And I think that I can also promise that your wife will be restored to her home to-morrow. So let us push on. I wish to hear this story from you, and also to give the Marquis a bad quarter of an hour when he hears of my room having been found empty and a rope ladder hanging from the window. He will perhaps know what it feels like to have one's wife stolen."
As they rode, much was explained by what the Marquise told them. A slight outbreak of smallpox had been discovered at the Château that evening, and although the Marquis had made light of it, and sworn that he would not move, Madame de Taillandier was of a different mind. She had a well-bred horror of such things, which determined her to leave the Château and repair to Taillandier's house on the other side of Autune.
"I make no doubt," she said, "that what that booby Vilmorin told you was true. Only, in his confusion, it appears to me that when he mentioned the second window from the left, he meant from any one looking from the house, whereas, you took the second window from the left when facing the house. The other window, as you would have seen had you but looked, is protected by iron bars. It is evident that upon learning my intentions," she concluded, turning to Moret, "he sent some one to take away your wife before I should arrive, and she is probably in the Château at present."
"Then Ventegris, I'll pay the Château a visit to-night!" ejaculated Moret. It had taken much to rouse him, but now that he was aroused he was bent on seeing the matter to an issue, blind to dangers which had formerly deterred him.
"It will be wiser to leave matters until morning and trust to me," the Marquise suggested.
They were within half a mile of Autune, and the Auberge de Navarre was just in front of them.
In consequence of the detour which they had made through the woods, the two men had not passed this inn on their way from Atune.
It was a small, wayside auberge, usually deserted at this time of night. As they rode up, however, they were surprised to see the light falling across the road from the open door, while from the yard came sounds of voices and of hammering.
Brissac and his companions moved to the other side of the road, and would have passed on in silence, but chancing to glance into the yard, Gaston saw something which made him draw rein.
In the middle of the quadrangle stood a coach, which evidently had sustained some damage, for three or four men were grouped round one of the wheels to which another was applying a hammer. But it was the man in the red velvet coat and plumed hat who stood holding a torch aloft, that attracted Brissac's attention and made him pause. There was something familiar about the pose of the figure.
Then, suddenly, Gaston started. The sound of the Vicomte de Vilmorin's shrill voice floated across to him.
"That will suffice, André. We shall be able to reach the Château."
In a moment the Chevalier had dismounted and was striding across the road. The Vicomte's words had given him some precious information.
The four men were still bending over the wheel talking amongst themselves. And so intent were they as to be unconscious of Brissac's approach until his hand rested upon Vilmorin's shoulder.
"Ha, Vicomte, an accident?"
Vilmorin bounded backwards as if he had been struck, and stood gaping and trembling, the very picture of abject terror. The men stared stupidly at the newcomer, but did not move.
"Our meetings are always opportune, Vicomte," murmured Gaston, with that sweet smile which Vilmorin most hated. "I am on my way back to Autune, weary after a somewhat long walk, and I find you with a coach. I trust that it will not inconvenience you to take me as far as the 'Clef d'Or' on your way through the village."
"II should be charmed," mumbled the Vicomte, " butbut, unfortunately, I am travelling in the opposite direction."
The men looked at the Vicomte in some surprise.
"'Tis a long way round to the Château by any other road save that which takes you through the village. You had better follow itmoreover, you would be obliging a friend."
"But the coach is full," shrieked Vilmorin, mad with rage and terror.
"Then, of course, I must crave the permission of your companions to travel on the box," was the ready answer, and stepping up to the vehicle, Gaston laid his hand upon the door. But Vilmorin was there before him, and caught him by the arm.
"You shall not! you shall not! Help, you knaves!" he cried, turning to the men.
They did not budge. When the coach came into the yard with a wobbling wheel, Vilmorin had alighted and closed the door, which had not since been opened. To them it seemed just now that the coach might contain something which should not be there. The coachman alone made shift to obey the Vicomte's summons, but at that moment he was seized from behind by Moret, who had come up with them.
Hurling the Vicomte aside, with an angry oath, Gaston wrenched the door open, and seizing a lantern from the ground, he held it so that the interior of the coach was lighted by its yellow rays. The men, craning their necks, saw what Gaston saw. And by the words which fell from their lips it was like to go hard with the Vicomte. Within the coach sat a woman securely pinioned and with a thick cloth tied about her face and gagging her.
There was a fierce cry behind him, and Brissac was thrust roughly back by Moret, who took the woman in his arms and lifted her to the ground. To cut her bonds and remove the cloth from her face was the work of an instant. Then, as the poor, frightened creature gave vent to a burst of hysterical sobbing, she was gathered close to her husband's breast, and words of comfort were whispered by a beloved voice.
In one of the rooms of the Château de Taillandier a tall, heavily-built man of florid countenance, paced up and down in an impatient fashion, glancing at the clock each time he turned and going ever and anon to the window. He was stripped of his doublet, and his right arm was thickly bandaged and carried in a sling.
"Ventegris!" he exclaimed, "what has happened to delay the fool? He should have been here four hours ago. I trust Madame la Marquise has not." He stopped to listen. "At last," he cried. as the rumble of wheels caught his ears. He stood at the window for a moment, then turning, he strode across to the door, and passed hurriedly out.
As the coach drew up at the foot of the terrace the Marquis had also reached the spot. The door swung open, and a man sprang lightly to the ground. He was taller than the Vicomte by two incheswhich the Marquis noted in a puzzled waybut as he raised his head and showed his face, Taillandier started forward in surprise.
"Brissac!" he gasped, incredulously. Before he could add more, the gay chevalier turned to assist his companion to alight.
"Vilmorin is indisposed," he said, "and so has been obliged to leave Autune somewhat suddenly. Being an old friend of his, I was glad to facilitate his departure by relieving him of the duty of accompanying this lady to the Château. The carriage met with an accident, otherwise it would have been here four hours ago, though possibly," he added, with a laugh, "its occupants might not have been the same."
The Marquis did not reply. His eyes were fastened upon the woman now standing beside Gaston. Surprise, anger, bewilderment were all mingled in his glance. At last Madame de Taillandier broke the silence.
"I could not endure the thought of leaving you here a sufferer, Henri," she murmured. "I have ventured in spite of the smallpox."
Taillandier scowled for a moment, then turning to the servant who stood by:
"Charles," he said, "escort Madame la Marquise indoors. I will see you presently, madame, if it be your pleasure to await me."
With an inclination of her head to Brissacwho answered it with a low bow, and a magnificent sweep of his plumed hatshe left them. When she was gone and they stood alone at some little distance from the coach, the Marquis turned furiously upon Gaston. "What does this mean, monsieur?"
"It means that that is the coach which should have brought you Monsieur le Vicomte de Vilmorin and Antoine Moret's wife," answered Brissac suavely. "Instead, it has brought you."
"A curse on what it has brought me," the Marquis broke in passionately. "What am I to understand?"
"You had much better ask your wife," suggested Gaston, naively.
"Do you dare to laugh at me?" roared Taillandier.
Brissac drew himself up with that formal hauteur he could so easily assume.
"I do not permit men to ask me what I dare," he said coldly. "And let me add that if your sword arm were not broken I should take the liberty of calling you a scoundrel."
"As it is, I shall await your return to Paris to impart the information to you. Good-night!"
And turning on his heel, he strode away with his hat slightly on one side, and the faintest suspicion of a swagger in his walk.
Taillandier called something after him, but receiving no answer, let fly a volley of imprecationsthen went within to interview the Marquise.
What passed between them was never clearly known, but the servant who assisted the Marquis to undress that night has been heard to say that his spirit was as badly broken as his arm.
Brissac left Autune next day. So did Moret and his wife.