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Royal Magazine, August 1900

The Red Owl

by Rafael Sabatini

My Lord Cardinal was beside himself with passion. His face was livid; his dark eyes seemed full of uncanny yellow flames, and his long, white fingers kept tugging at his stiff grey beard, which almost seemed to bristle as I watched him.

"I will find the hound," he muttered. "I will find him if every house in Paris has to be torn from its foundation!"

I had earned during my thirty years of life the reputation of a brave man, quick alike with sword and tongue—but upon this occasion I fear me that I belied my reputation.

In a moment of levity, spurred by the praises of Richelieu, which I had heard fall from the lips of one of those cardinalists whom I hated, I had dared to vent my feelings in a poetic satire of twenty stanzas. I had called my poem "The Red Owl," and albeit my craft as a poet was of a sorry character, the secret detestation in which the Cardinal was held by many of those who cringed in fear about him, rendered my verses more than acceptable. Before a week was spent they were lisped by every court-gallant and guffawed over by every soldier, whilst within the month there was not a scullion in the whole of Paris who did not know them by heart.

The affair grew serious. An ill-advised dog of a musician, named Rouget, set an air to them as harsh and discordant as the words themselves; nevertheless—so inexplicable a thing is public taste—that air was being yelled in every wine-shop, and hummed in every ante-chamber.

The storm had burst the night before. His Eminence was playing chess with the King at the Louvre. With one of his bishops he had imperilled Louis' queen, and as he lay back in his chair to await the Royal move, some pestilent croaker must perforce pass under the window singing that infernal song.

The Cardinal pricked up his ears at the sound, then turning to Saint Simon who stood at his elbow:

"What is this new air that seems so much in vogue at present?"

A dead silence followed the question, during which the twitching of St. Simon's face was fearful to look upon. Then a page who stood by the door was apparently taken ill. He clapped his hand to his mouth, from which there came a stifling gurgle, He staggered, caught his foot on something, and crashed against an ornamental suit of armour, dragging it with him to the ground. Not content with the noise he had made in falling, he lay on his back emitting shriek after shriek of wild, unearthly laughter.

Nothing is so contagious as mirth. In the twinkling of an eye the train which that accursed page had fired wrought irreparable damage, and the suppressed merriment of the company spluttered for a moment, then exploded.

Now, whatever Richelieu may have been, he was not a fool. His piercing eye scanned each distorted face with a look of contempt, which told me that he had more than half guessed the riddle of their amusement.

It is a mystery to me how I contrived to remain in the room without betraying myself by my sober countenance. Fortunately the Cardinal's scrutiny of those about him was brief and contemptuously careless.

Without a word he calmly turned his attention once more to the chess-board, and waited for the King to move. But when the game was over, he got himself a copy of the verses in one of those mysterious and far-reaching ways at his command.

Next day I was visited by a lieutenant of Richelieu's Guards with a message from His Eminence that I was to attend him at once at the Palais Cardinal.

Albeit we were in June, a cold shiver ran through me at the summons, which I dared not disobey.

And that is how I came to find myself in the unenviable position whereof I write, face to face with the irate Cardinal, who threatened to have the author of the verses I had written broken on the wheel.

It restored in part my courage to find that I was unsuspected, and that Richelieu had merely sent for me in the hope that what he pleased to term my astuteness would aid him in his search for the culprit. I may mention that he held a great opinion of my judgment ever since I had unmasked that plot against his life which is known as the "Conspiracy of Pont St. Michel"; for, at the time of that conspiracy, I had held a lieutenancy in his guards which I had since relinquished in order to accept the commission in the dragoons which the King had graciously accorded me.

It was owing in a measure to that erstwhile appointment of mine in his guards that His Eminence still continued to honour me by employing my services. I had it in my heart to wish, as I stood before him now, that I had left the conspirators to carry out their work unmolested, for I knew him too well to expect mercy for the poor poet who had held him up to ridicule, and struck so deeply at his pride.

"Have you read the verses?" Richelieu inquired suddenly, holding up a copy of the fateful manuscript.

"I have not, Your Eminence," I answered without a blush.

"Then do so, Rouvroy," he said, "if you have the patience, which indeed, I doubt in a man of your taste. They are abominable drivel. I can understand the popularity they have attained in the wine shops, for I could swear that they were written by some drunken soldier, and, what is more, written when he was drunk, if one may judge by the stumbling rhythm."

My blood boiled at the sneers he thus launched upon my work, and in the heat of the moment I so forgot myself as to remark:

"I thought them smooth enough, your Eminence."

He eyed me for a second in blank surprise.

"I understood you to say that you had not read them," he remarked coldly.

The sweat seemed to burst through every pore of my body as I realised how unhappy had been my remark.

"But I have heard them sung in the streets, Monsigneur," I hastened to explain.

"Ah, true, true," he murmured; "and you told me nothing of it, Rouvroy! That was unkind of you; we might have had this fatuous minstrel ornamenting Montfauçon, or pondering over some fanciful translation of the 'De Profundis' in a dungeon of the Bastille, ere now—eh?" he cried with a chuckle that made my flesh creep. "But never fear, Rouvroy, we shall have him yet—this writer of epics—and when we have him"—his tone became a snarl, and his hands tightened viciously over the manuscript he held—"we will break him on the wheel—will we not, Chevalier?"

"Indeed I trust so, your Eminence," I answered with a shudder.

Thereafter he questioned me closely concerning the poem, and he seemed disappointed to find that I could throw no light upon the matter. In truth, what with his questions and his disappointment he angered me not a little, and had my position in the matter been a less delicate one, I should have asked him whether he desired to insult me by counting me among the spies he told me that he had at work. As it was I deemed it best to preserve a smiling countenance, until, in the end, he grew sick of my ignorance, and dismissed me, giving me his ring to kiss, and murmuring a valedictory "benedicat vos."

Now, albeit, when I left the Palais Cardinal my thoughts were gloomy enough, in the evening I found myself making merry with half-a-dozen roysterers at Valençon's, and turning my interview with Richelieu into a pretty story, which provoked many an uproarious burst of laughter.

And when I depicted the Cardinal's rage (without yet betraying my authorship), my uncle, the Duc de St. Simon, who was present, was the only one who took no part in the hilarity my narrative excited. On the contrary, his stern face became sterner as we became more boisterous.

He took an early opportunity of speaking to me alone, and then I noticed that there was an ominous solemnity in his manner.

"Claude," he said, laying his hand upon my shoulder, "you were unwise to write that satire, but you must be mad to make a jest of your interview with the Cardinal. 'Tis a sorry business, nephew, and I marvel greatly that you have the heart to laugh and make merry over it when at any moment your life may pay the penalty."

"'Tis a bad philosophy, monsieur, that teaches us to brood to-day over the thought of a possible death to-morrow, and one which a soldier cannot understand."

"A plague on your philosophy, sir," he answered with a grimace. "What philosophy was it made a poet of you? The Cardinal's spies," he continued, "are at work in every quarter. At any instant you may stand revealed to His Eminence as the author of 'L'Hibou Rouge.' What then, my friend, eh?"

And he made a significant and discomposing gesture by drawing his fingers gently across his throat. I shuddered despite myself, noting which:

"You may indeed tremble, nephew," he cried; "but harkee! Last night when that disastrous affair occurred at the Louvre"—and at the memory of it he could not repress a smile—"I foresaw what would ensue, and determined to send you a journey, which you must indeed undertake if you wish to escape the gallows. A trusty messenger is required to carry certain documents and a verbal message to His Majesty, Gutave Adolphe of Sweden. I obtained leave from the King two hours ago to entrust you with the mission."

A cry of joy escaped me.

"Your Grace has saved me!" I exclaimed.

"I sincerely hope so. You will start to-morrow, as early as you choose. Come to my hotel at noon, and I will give you your orders, and an escort of six troopers. You can send them back when you reach Stockholm. As for yourself, you will no doubt find sufficient interest at the Swedish court to detain you there until this affair is forgotten, or until I summon you to Paris. You understand?"

"Perfectly. How can I show my gratitude?"

He gazed at me for a moment with a twinkle in his roguish old eye.

"Hum—by writing no more poetry," he answered drily.

When a few moments later I rejoined Valençon and the others I was as blithe as a lark at dawn. Now when a man is merry he is wont to be thirsty besides; and as my joy was great so was my thirst excessive. Hence the events of that night are involved in a nebulous atmosphere which does not permit my retrospective glance to behold them over clearly.

Suffice it that after we had pledged every man and woman our memories could hit upon as deserving of a toast, and drunk confusion to "The Red Owl," by which sobriquet my lord Cardinal was now popularly known, I took my leave, and set out afoot and with unsteady gait to find my way home and prepare for the morrow's journey.

But the wine had drowned my wit so utterly that, as I stumbled up the Rue St. Antoine, I raised my voice and sang à pleine gorge the first lines of my satire.

There's an owl from church,
That hath found a perch
On the back of the royal throne,
With a crafty head
And a robe of red,
And a dismally hooting tone.

Then, as I paused for breath, I was startled to hear a deep voice take up the thread of my song.

All honest folk pray
That this red owl may
To the devil take flight ere long.
To hang him we hope,
With a good stout rope
On his gibbet at Montfauçon!

A moment later a tall and gaily dressed cavalier, in whom I recognised my friend De Merval, stood beside me, and pausing in his vociferations, greeted me with a hearty laugh.

I took him by the arm, and having grown thirsty again, I dragged him to the nearest cabaret, and there, over a bottle of red Anjou, I let my tongue run wild. I remember that he asked me if I knew the author of the song, to which I answered that the Cardinal would give his ears to know as much as I did on that score.

I dimly recollect that as I made this foolish statement the knave who was attending to our wants bent over the table, and eyed me for a moment with great scrutiny, then asked me bluntly if I were in earnest. Naturally I grew angry that a tavern servant should dare to join in the conversation of gentlemen, and ordered him away with small waste of compliments. But as the knave stirred not fast enough to please my mood, I hurled a bottle at him, then springing up with my sword already half unsheathed, I would have made short work of him had not de Merval caught me in his arms. And as he bore me forcibly out into the street, he stilled my frantic struggles by whispering in my ear:

"Be calm, Rouvroy! 'Tis Moinier, the Cardinal's spy!"

The words fell on me like icy water upon an overheated man. I realised fully what a fool I was for having let such words be overheard, and I shudder to think of what I might have added had not Moinier's excessive eagerness checked the tide of conversation.

It need, therefore, cause no wonder that I was at my uncle's hotel at an earlier hour next day than the one which he had appointed, nor yet that I effected my departure from Paris without taking leave of my Lord Cardinal.

I did not breathe freely until I was out of France, for at every moment I expected to be confronted with some potent messenger who would bid me return to Paris and acquaint His Eminence with the meaning of those rash words spoken in the presence of Moinier.

But—as I afterwards learnt—it was not until twenty-four hours after my departure, and when I was already well beyond pursuit, that the Cardinal was informed of my absence. The letters which I received at Stockholm from my uncle gave me certain tidings concerning Richelieu's attitude, calculated to quench any eagerness of mine to return. Indeed, I might have been well content with the Swedish Court, and minded to remain there for many a day, as St. Simon advised, had it not been for Antoinette de Rémy, whom I had left in Paris.

As it was, home-sickness beset me after two months absence, and I spent my days in endless sighings over the portrait of my lady, and vaguely wondered as to what she thought of my sudden disappearance—for in my haste I had dared to indulge in no leave-taking. I had sent her a message by my faithful friend Gaston de Brissac—the one man in all Paris who, besides my uncle, knew me for the author of "The Red Owl." But to that message no answer came to me at Stockholm, and this lack of news of her I loved, was proving a somewhat heavy burden to my spirit.

I knew not how much longer I should have endured my banishment, had not at last a letter reached me, brought by a gentleman of the court of Louis XIII, who chanced to journey to Stockholm some three months after my arrival there. The letter ran as follows:

"MY BELOVED CLAUDE,—Why am I without news of you? Why do you not come to me? I am in despair. My father has promised my hand to Monsieur de Chevalier Gaston de Brissac, and I am being forced into this hateful marriage. If you have not forgotten me, as they say; if you still love me, tarry not, but come at once and rescue your distressed—ANTOINETTE."

I set the letter on the table and pinned it there with my clenched hand, whilst I turned the strange news over in my mind.

Brissac, of all men! …Brissac, who, for all his sins—and they were numerous indeed—I had loved and trusted as my dearest friend! Brissac knew how my affection stood. He would not serve a friend so scurvy a trick.

Moreover, it was preposterous that the Comte de Rémy should compel his daughter to wed Brissac—Brissac the duellist, the gamester, the libertine, the pauper.

This much I said to M. de Presnil.

"From what I have observed, Chevalier," he answered, "I gather that Brissac is possessed of some secret concerning M. de Rémy—the Count was ever a plotter, with an unhealthy penchant towards Orleans."

"Pardieu!" I ejaculated. "I understand. Brissac has forced the Count to give him his daughter in marriage in exchange for his silence. I left Paris, M. de Presnil, because I was possessed of certain information, which my uncle informs me, my Lord Cardinal will drag from me by torture if he can seize me. But as God lives, Monsieur, I shall be back in Paris before the month is out—Cardinal or no Cardinal."

I left Stockholm that very night, and a week later I set sail from Gottenburg. Another week and I was landed at Antwerp. Then away—as fast as whip and spur could drive horseflesh—for Paris. Madly I went, through Termonde, Ninove, Valenciennes, Cambrai and St. Quentin, nourished by a fever of haste that made me crave but scant food or rest.

And so it befell that on the nineteenth day after my departure from Stockholm, I drew rein—grimy with sweat and dust, haggard, parched and travel worn—at the gates of the Hotel St. Simon in the Rue St. Honoré. Yet when in answer to my inquiries, a lacquey informed that M. le Duc was in the library with the Chevalier de Brissac, I forgot fatigue and grime, and more like one freshly out of bed than from the saddle, I bounded up the stairs, shaking a cloud of dust from my boots at every stride. I paused a moment outside the library to prepare myself for what must inevitably follow; then turning the handle without warning, I opened the door and entered.

My uncle and M. de Brissac were seated at a table with a backgammon board between them, intent upon the game.

"What the—" began my uncle peevishly; then, recognising his nephew behind my mask of dust—"Claude!" he gasped, digging his hands into his portly sides, and bending upon me a look of ineffable surprise. "What new folly is this?"

"'Tis no folly, sir," I answered, with a certain dignity in my meekness. "My honour demanded my immediate return."

De Brissac, upon whose face I kept my eyes, paled slightly at the words, and drummed absently with his fingers upon the table.

"Your honour?" echoed my uncle. "Faugh! What of your life? Have you forgotten the dangers that threaten you in Paris?"

I needed no further invitation to explain, and this I did as succinctly as I might, yet without restraining one jot of the bitter scorn and contempt for de Brissac which rose to my lips. More than once he sought to interrupt my narrative, but my uncle prevailed upon him to be patient to the end.

When I had done, I drew from my pocket the letter that I had received from Antoinette, and handed it to the Duke as proof of what I stated.

St. Simon took the paper from my hand, and in silence he perused it. Then bending upon de Brissac a look of utter loathing, he bade him leave the house.

De Brissac took up his hat, and pressing it well over his brows—"I shall not go," he said in a cold, formal voice, "until I have received from M. de Rouvroy satisfaction for the insult offered me."

"To demand satisfaction, and not to render it, have I travelled to Paris and jeopardised my liberty," I answered with equal loftiness. "I am at your service, M. de Brissac."

He laughed, and tossed his handsome head disdainfully. Then suddenly he appeared to ponder.

"Stay, M. de Rouvroy," he murmured. "Since you put it that way, I don't think that I shall fight."

"Not fight?" I cried.

"You ask me for satisfaction. I have none to give, and I will not risk the penalty of the edict for killing you."

From other lips this would have sounded boastful and indecent, but de Brissac's swordsmanship was so far famed a thing that even he himself could not make pretence of ignoring it, and when he spoke of dealing death, it seemed a natural enough assertion to which past victories had given him the right.

"Hound!" I cried, beside myself with fury, and had not St. Simon got in the way I should have flung myself upon him.

"Steady, fool," snarled de Brissac. "I have a deadler weapon for you than my sword. Monseigneur has a score to settle with you for running away. He will thank anyone for the news of your return, and—Mortdieu!—he will be still more grateful for such information as I might impart to him concerning the author of a famous lampoon." He laughed harshly, then, doffing his hat, he bowed mockingly before us.

"Adieu, Messieurs!" he murmured. "There is a word that I would whisper in the shaveling's ear. 'Tis but a name. The name of the man who wrote the immortal lines of "The Red Owl."

But this was more than I could brook. Mad with rage, I drew before my uncle could interfere.

"You Judas!" I cried. "Look to yourself!"

The Duke no longer sought to hinder me. He realised that I had no alternative. For a moment de Brissac still hesitated.

"M. de Rouvroy," he expostulated, with an effrontery that was past crediting, "believe me this is unwise. Let us rather—"

"As God lives, sir," I broke in, "if you do not draw, I'll kill you as you stand."

He saw the madness in my eyes, and knew that I was in earnest. He shrugged his shoulders and cast his cloak from him. The next moment there was the clash of our meeting blades.

With the first few passes I grew calmer, and for some moments I fought mechanically, a dull despair creeping into my heart with the reflection that do what I would, Antoinette must lose her only protector. I had no doubt as to the issue. I might fence closely for a while and keep his point well checked, but soon I would tire; my parries would grow wider, and then—the end.

It may seem strange to some that, realising all this, I had insisted upon fighting. But the law of the code of honour by which I had lived left me no alternative.

Then, of a sudden, I waxed fierce and desperate. Why despond? This was not playing the man! My fury was soon apparent in my fencing. I pressed him hard, and he gave way before me. Madly I followed him, and I had all but had him with a quick thrust in low quarte. He parried with more vigour than caution, and for a second he was uncovered. I saw the opening and lunged with my whole weight and to my fullest stretch—forgetting it was a polished floor we trod—and as I lunged I slipped. My left knee struck the floor, and simultaneously my sword—from which my eyes had been diverted—seemed caught in mid-air.

I saved myself with my left hand from rolling over sideways, then, as I looked up, Expecting at any moment the coup de grace, there was a topple and a crash, and de Brissac was down, too, upon his knees, with my sword transfixing him from breast to back. My uncle explained to me afterwards that, upon seeing me slip, de Brissac had lowered his blade, and that owing to the shadow which he cast in front of him, he only discovered when it was too late that in spite of my mishap, my right arm maintained the rigid attitude of the lunge.

Bewildered by this sudden ending—which seemed to me like an intervention of Heaven—I withdrew my sword, and, flinging it from me, I caught de Brissac in my arms as he fell forward swooning.

In the silence we raised him, and laid him gently upon a couch. Whilst I unfastened his doublet, and vainly attempted to staunch the blood with my kerchief, my uncle turned to go for assistance.

An exclamation escaped his lips as he did so, which caused me to look round. For a moment I believed my over-wrought mind had conjured up a phantom to dismay me, as, framed in the doorway, I beheld a tall and well-known figure in scarlet robes. A pair of glittering eyes met my astonished gaze, and seemed to fascinate me.

'Twas my uncle's voice that broke the spell at last.

"What intrusion is this?" he queried proudly. "Mort de ma vie, Monseigneur, is not a man's house his own?"

"You are somewhat brusque and hasty in your speeches, Duke," said Richelieu—for, by the Mass! 'twas he. "News was brought me half-an-hour ago of the arrival in Paris of my honoured friend, M. le Chevalier de Rouvroy. His sudden return causes me as great joy as did his abrupt departure give me pain, and"—his voice was now cold and harsh—"I hastened hither to welcome him."

His restless eye, which had kept travelling from St. Simon to me, and ever and anon to the figure on the couch, was now bent full upon me.

"It is regrettable that I did not arrive a moment earlier, so that this tragedy might have been averted." Then, suddenly recognising the face of him who lay upon the couch, "What!" he exclaimed in astonishment, "de Brissac fallen at last! Ma vie, M. de Rouvroy, you have wasted no time since your return."

His tone had become a snarl, and I read my doom in it. I had killed a man, and His Eminence might, in virtue of his edict, have me hanged for it, if it so pleased him. He would offer me my life, I thought, in exchange for the author of "The Red Owl," and whether I gave him the information or held my peace it would all be one.

Suddenly de Brissac stirred and clutched my arm w ith his hand, striving to raise himself.

"Ah," he muttered in a faint voice, "Monseigneur has come to me. I may die content."

I turned to him once more, and for the first time gave serious attention to his wound. At a glance I saw that he was dying.

"Aye," he said with a bitter smile, "de Brissac has fought his last fight. Diable, but I deserved a better end than to be spitted by accident. But wait, I have not done yet." Then raising his voice slightly and at great cost, "Monseigneur," he called, turning his eyes towards Richelieu, "will you deign to approach? There is something that I would say to you concerning "The Red Owl."

The Cardinal started eagerly at the words, then moved to the side of the dying man.

St. Simon shot a sharp, eloquent glance at me as I stood there, mute and despairing, to hear my death sentence. Then de Brissac's low voice broke the silence.

"I was to have married Mademoiselle de Rémy," he began. "My friend, Claude de Rouvroy, learnt this at Stockholm. He loved the lady, and she loved him. He hastened to Paris to expostulate with me, arriving to-night and meeting me here. I would not listen to his pleading, and so he swore that since I had thus betrayed his friendship and his trust, he would no longer shield me at his own cost and at the peril of his life."

My uncle started violently forward, but fortunately the Cardinal's back was towards him, and Richelieu noted not the movement.

"He was about to visit Your Eminence," de Brissac pursued—his voice growing weaker and his breath coming in quick, short gasps—"to tell you s omething which he alone could tell. He wished to give you the name of the author of "The Red Owl." I barred his way, sword in hand. He defended himself, and retribution has overtaken me."

Again he paused, and the Cardinal's impassive face bent lower.

"Who wrote the poem?" he inquired in a curious voice.

"I did," replied Brissac, in clear, distinct tones; then his head sank back, and again he swooned.

I stood like one turned to stone, and it is a marvel that I did not betray myself when the Cardinal addressed to me some words wherein he lauded my former self-sacrifice, which had made me suffer banishment in order to shield a friend.

Slowly I realised how much de Brissac's falsehood meant to me. I was no longer a fugitive from the Cardinal's vengeance. I might go about freely and fearlessly as I had done before I wrote those accursed lines, and I might marry Antoinette upon the morrow if I chose. If ever a lie stood to a man's credit in the Book of Judgment, surely 'twas that magnanimous lie of the dying duellist.

When the Cardinal was gone, and I had no longer a part to act, I flung myself upon my knees beside the couch, and took de Brissac's hand in mine. He opened his eyes, and as they met my gaze, he attempted to smile.

"Forgive me, Gaston," I cried.

"Claude, dear friend," he murmured, "do you forgive me my treason towards you."

He raised himself by a last supreme effort.

"Farewell Claude! Farewell Duke!" he said. Then, as he sank back again—"Ma vie," he cried, with something between a laugh and a sob in his voice, "I may have lived like a blackguard, but I die a gentleman!"

And thus he passed.

This story appears on The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini web site.
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