London Magazine, August 1908
The Act of Sequestration
by Rafael Sabatini
When Monsieur des Charolles first heard the rumour that the Mayor of Argentan was paying addresses to his sister, he smiled his disdainful unbelief of so monstrous a contingency. But rumour oft repeated, however monstrous the facts it bruits, has a way of undermining incredulity and compelling attention. On the fifth occasion that the story was borne him, des Charolles still smiled, but no longer scornfully. It was with a grim set of the lips that boded ill for the Mayor should the rumour be proven true, that the member of the chètive noblesse of Normandy reached for his hat with the determination of at once repairing to his sister and obtaining from her lips the denial of this vile tale.
Ordinarily, des Charolles was a man of peace, whom the library afforded more joys than the manége. It was by virtue of this strain in his character that he had made over by deed of gift to his only sisterwhose business capabilities were of the highest orderthe family estates of Bar-le-Roi and Antonville, retaining for himself no more than the Château des Charolles and its contiguous lands. From the splendid management of Eugénie des Charolles it had resulted that now, after five years of her dominion, the rent-rolls of Bar-le-Roi amounted to almost twice the handsome figure at which they had stood when handed over to her care.
The deed of gift by which des Charolles had transferred these estates to his sister contained the proviso that upon her death they should pass on to the heir-at-law. That Eugénie should ever marry had never entered his calculations; for the consideration that she had reached the age of forty-five, and lacked such charms as are looked for by discriminating men in the women they would espouse, seemed to assure her immunity from such an accident.
It now entered into Carolle's speculation that it was not impossible that a man of the base quality of Prèvitaeuthe Mayormight be willing to take to his arms the withered bride for the sake of the fat rent-rolls that were her portion. But the next moment he was laughing at such fears. It was a preposterous old wives' tale. Old maids may be foolish, and a woman of forty-five may fall an easy prey to a designing man, but his sister, Eugénie des Charolles, surely did not belong to that base category.
He had all but set his mind at rest by the time that he reached Bar-le-Roi. And when a servant informed him that mademoiselle was in the garden, he hastened to her with a light step and a bright smile of greeting. But that step of his grew of a sudden heavy as he crossed the terrace, the smile froze on his lips, and his glance hardened with anger as they lighted on the obese figure of the elderly Prèviteau, tricked out like any gallant of the Louvre in splendid silks and fluttering ribbons, pacing, with such sprightliness as an elephant might effect, beside Eugénie des Charolles.
Charolles' voice came harsh and sudden to break upon that touching idyl of autumnal love.
They started round at the call, and some of the colour fled from the Mayor's pendulous cheeks at the sight of that tall, commanding figure, whose eyes were bent so sternly upon him. He made a deep obeisance, like that of some fat taverner welcoming a noble guest, and remained apart whilst Eugénie went forward to greet her brother.
"Thatthatman!" quoth des Charolles, his finger raised to point, his lip curling in a scorn ineffable. "What makes he here?"
She bridled at the contempt implicit in his question.
"It is Monsieur Prèviteau, the Mayor of Argentan," she answered, her thin lips compressed, her gaunt cheeks flushed. "You know him, Henri?"
"I know himyes," he answered, his iciness increasing under this evidence that there was some truth in the vile rumour for whose refutation he was come. "I know Gilles, the taverner of the Three Pigeons; Antoine, the ostler at the same resort. I know Prudhomme, the spicer of the Rue Cracquemart; Mauxcorne, the saddler of the Place de l'Avoine; but I should not look to find any of them in your rose-garden with you at Bar-le-Roi."
The Mayor shivered in the background. He would have effaced himself, had there been a way, from the eyes of that dreadful man who ranked him so brutally with taverners and ostlers, saddlers and spicers.
But Eugénie drew herself upa lean, arrogant, masterful old maid.
"I hardly understand you, Henri," she told him, "unless your aim be to insult this gentleman. And that were ill-advised, for Monsieur Prèviteau has done me the honour to ask me to be his wife."
Years seemed to fall of a sudden from the quiet, studious Charolles; and the man who now faced those lovers was the fire-eating Charolles, who had lent a hand at the siege of La Rochelle some twenty years ago.
"Par le mort Dieu!" he roared. And he took a step in the direction of the Mayor, who simultaneously took a step backward. "This insult" he began. But his sister barred his way and his words.
"Insult?" she interrupted, with a fine hauteur. "What is this babble of insult? I account Monsieur Prèviteau's suit so far from insulting that I have consented to become his wife."
Charolles fell back. Some of the colour left his cheeks, and, open-mouthed, he gaped at his sister. In the background, Prèviteau, taking some courage from his air of discomfiture, and bethinking him, too, that as a gallant, rake-helly young lover, it was time for him to take a hand in the affair, stepped forward with an outward boldness that was second only to his inward misgivings.
"You will please to remember, Monsieur des Charolles, that your sister is of an age to direct her own affairs," was his unhappy remonstrance.
"By God, yes!" roared Charolles, choking with a sudden laughter that was particularly unpleasant. "None will gainsay you in the matter of her age. But that she should lack the wit to fathom this monstrous suit of yours, Monsieur le Maire, serves to show how little wisdom has come to her with years, and how much she is in need of my assistance."
"Neither do I need your assistance nor desire your presence!" was mademoiselle's angry rejoinder. "Let me beg you that you will set a term to this visit before I summon my grooms to drive you from my house!"
"From your house?" quoth he, in stupefaction. "And since when have I ceased to be the head of the family of Charolles?? Since when has it ceased to be my house?"
"Since by the deed of gift you made it over to me with all the lands of Bar-le-Roi and Antonville," she answered him.
He had hardly considered the full force of this until that moment, and for an instant he was staggered by it. Then his anger welled up hotter than it had been.
"And do you," he asked stormily"do you, who have considered all this, fail to perceive that such is the very reason why you are sought in marriage by this toad?"
"Sir, you insult both the lady and me!" put in the Mayor with a portentous dignity.
"I shall hope to insult you further!" blazed back the nobleman. "Shame on you, you fat vassal, to come here tricked out like a harlequin in a blaze of colour to do this disgraceful wooing, your second wife not three months dead! Have you considered that, Eugènie? Woman, what illusions can remain you? Do you not see that it is the enjoyment of Bar-le-Roi and Antonville that is coveted by this greasy rascal? Or do you imagine that you who at your best, with but half the years that you now reckon, had not beauty enough to get you a lover, can do so now? Does your mirror tell you no truths, foolish old woman?"
"These brutalities" she began.
"Are not a little distasteful to me," he assured her, "yet do they seem the only means by which I can bring you to a sense of your position."
A wiser woman might have been swayed by him. But where shall we find a woman of forty-five with a first lover who is wise? Of these was not Eugènie des Charolles. The chance of marriage had come to her at last, and upon marriage was she bent. Of that firm resolve she gave her brother the most unequivocal assurance.
It calmed him to the point of coldness, and this, coming instead of the fresh burst of passion she had looked for, filled heras it did her loverwith a curious apprehension.
"Monsieur le Maire," said Charolles, "you have here an illustration of the futility of attempting to reason with a headstrong woman. Let me hope that with a man of your undoubted good sense I shall prevail better."
But Prèviteau was not minded to wait for Charolles' arguments. He felt that he must appear the cur that at heart he was did he not support Eugènie's firmness with a firmness no less emphatic.
"Monsieur des Charolles," he interrupted, "I beg that you will spare me any reasonings. I am fully resolved to wed your sister; and it is in consideration of this fact that I am willing to overlook and to forget thethe unseemly expressions of which you have made use, and thethe flagrant injustice which you have done the sincerity of my affections."
Charolles perceived that here deeds, not words, had become necessary. He shrugged his shoulders, peeled the glove from his left hand, and stepping close up to Prèvitaeu, he flicked the man's heavy nose with the fingers of it.
"To the insult of my expressions, which you so nobly incline to overlook, let me add the insult of this blow," said he. "I shall wait to hear from you."
By his lights he had adopted the only course that remained to save his family from ridiculeto kill the Mayor. But the Mayor was none so easily led to the slaughter.
He turned a sickly green, and his knees trembled under his large bulk. Thus for a moment; then he recovered. He bowed with a ludicrous attempt at ceremoniousness.
"I am desolated, Monsieur des Charolles," said he, "that even in this small measure I must deny you the satisfaction you seek, It would little become me to break the law of which I am the upholder and administrator in Argentan. I beg, monsieur, that you will bear in mind His Eminence's edict."
Hat on head, a contemptuous smile on his lips, Charolles moved his eyes to his sister's flushed and angry countenance.
"You hear him?" he asked pregnantly. "You hear this hot-blooded, gallant lover of yours, this plump Cupid, this fair Adonis, this passionate Corydon?"
Then, with a sudden gust of anger, he turned once more upon the Mayor.
"You hound!" he rasped. "You miserable, pitiful cur, who shield yourself behind edicts, and have the effrontery to seek in marriage the daughter of Gaston des Charolles, hear me now! Pursue, if you dare, the perilous road of this wooing; but be warned that on the day you publish the banns of this marriageon that same day, as Heaven is my witness, I shall seek you out and kill you!"
And with that Henri des Charolles turned on his heel, and, without word of farewell, took his departure.
That night the Mayor of Argentan slept ill. He wondered whether even the rich prosperity of Bar-le-Roi were worth the risk which its acquisition carried. A nature of less cupidity would have abandoned the suit. But the Mayor was a mighty covetous man. Much thought brought some counsel. His life had been threatened. He would appeal to the Cardinal for protection against the brawler. And so he did. That very day he indited a letter as bulky and ponderous as his own gross personality, and dispatched it by a special courier to His Eminence Cardinal Jules Mazarin.
And thus it was that the affair came into the hands of Bernouin, who was nominally the Cardinal's valet, but in reality his secret agent and most trusted ambassador.
Bernouin was on the point of starting for Brittany to convey to the seneschal of that province certain acts of sequestration of the estates of some misguided nobles who had been concerned in one of the treasons of that weak-kneed, busy plotter Gaston d'Orlèans.
To Bernouin, Mazarin entrusted the letter from Prèviteau, desiring him to sift the matter in passing and to make his report.
So it befell that one Sundayabout a month after the stormy interview at Bar-le-Roisleek-headed, black-eyed Bernouin rode quietly up to the inn of the Three Pigeons at Argentan, and requested a room. He ordered supper, and it was his intention to leave his business with the Mayor to wait until morning. It was a hot night, and Bernouin sat with open windows. And presently, just as he was helping himself to a fat slice from the breast of a juicy capon, there came from without a sudden roar for help, succeeded by a thunder of shouts, and, dominating all, the clash of steel.
Now it was not the nature of Bernouin to let such sounds go unheeded. His master had an edict against the display of naked swords in the street, and, as his master's representative, it was his duty to inquire into this affair below. He gathered up his hat, and, with his sword tucked like a cane under his arm, he darted down the stairs and out of the inn. The shouts had subsided, but the ring of steel was still there to guide his steps, and presently he came upon the scene of action.
A tall and seemingly agile gentleman had his back to the wall, and was stubbornly fighting against three others, one of whom was remarkable for his portliness of frame and wheeziness of breath.
Now, let his master make what rules he liked against brawling, Bernouin was a very human man, and he played a pretty rapier, which accomplishment he was never weary of displaying. In a trice he had bared his sword, tossed the scabbard from him, and ranged himself alongside the tall man. He announced his arrival by playfully pricking the corpulent gentleman about the bodymost tempting of buttsand then, whilst his victim fell back shrieking that he was slain, he turned aside a stroke which one of the others aimed at the man he had elected to support, and returned the lunge with a lightning reposte that transfixed the fellow's sword-arm.
"To me!" roared he, whom Bernouin had befriended. "Charolles! Charolles!"
At mention of that name, the valet halted on the verge of pursuing the last of the opposing party. He would have questioned the tall man, but suddenly there came the tramp of approaching feet. The fat man, with a roar of triumph, turned about and came upon them now with a posse of soldiers at his heels.
"To the corps-de-garde with them!" he shrieked, "Assassins!"
"Monsieur," said Charolles to Bernouin, "I thank you for your gallant aid. Here is no more to be done. I beg that you will save yourself while there is time."
But Bernouin had other notions. The corps-de-garde of Argentan had few terrors for him. At his nod the prison doors should open.
"It is too late," he rejoined. "I am afraid, monsieur, that we are to be companions in bad fortune, even as we were just now in good."
"At least," laughed Charolles, "it would seem that I could not be in better company."
Bernouin bowed in the gloom, but his bow lacked grace, for a rough hand fell upon his shoulder, and a pike-butt was thrust between his legs to trip him up. Soldiers surrounded them now, and plucked their weapons from them. On the skirts of that military crowd hung the fat Mayor, now howling with the pain of his trivial wound, now bellowing unnecessary orders to the young officer in charge of the gens d'armes.
Thus Bernouin and des Charolles were hurried away to prison, and in a dim and dirty cell they were lodged together, there to lie until morning, when, they were told, the Mayor should deal with them.
Charolles snorted scornfully as the door closed upon them.
"The Mayor shall deal with us," he snarled. "Monstrous! The man with whom I fought in the streets to-night is to oppose us in open court to-morrow!
"Was that obese person the Mayor of Argentan?" asked Bernouin, marvelling how strangely Fate had brought him into the very affair that he was charged to investigate.
"Ay, the Mayor and a couple of his knaves. He has had himself so attended for the past month, and never stirs forth without a bodyguard. But I had passed him my word that on the day of the announcement of the banns of his marriage to my sister I would kill him, and so, bodyguard or not, I set about keeping my word to-night."
"Crèdieu!" swore Bernouin softly, "you are a stout man, Monsieur des Charolles. When I came to your rescue I accounted you the attacked party. Am I inquisitive in seeking to know more of the quarrel that lay between you?"
"By the assistance you so gallantly rendered me you have acquired every right. For a man should know in what quarrel he stands embroiled." And with that Charolles gave him the story of what had passeda story that shed a new light on the matter contained in the Mayor's letter to Mazarin. Charolles was a gentleman, and Bernouin might not doubt the truth of his assertions. But he was at liberty to doubt his conclusions in one respect.
"You are assured, Monsieur des Charolles," he asked, "that the Mayor is actuated solely by cupidity in this suit of his?"
"By what else could he be actuated?"
"Why, there have been marriagesat least, so I have heard tellfounded upon natural affection. Might not the Mayor be stirred by love of mademoiselle your sister?"
Charolles stared at him in the dim light of the smoky lamp which had been left them.
"I would to Heaven that you could see mademoiselle my sister, monsieur!" he cried. "That should be assurance enough for any man."
The door opened, and a soldier entered to know if they would have supper sent for. Bernouin rose, a slim figure, not over tall, and dressed entirely in black as was his wont and as became his position. There was nothing about him that was impressive save those eyes of his and the set of his lips, which had a commanding way.
"You will do me the kindness to ask the officer in charge to step in here," he said quietly.
The soldier stared at him.
"But certainly, monseigneur," said he, with a mock respect. "Shall I say that it is the King of France, or only the Sultan of Turkey?"
"You will say that one his prisoners requests his immediate presence. And you will do that, or I give you my word of honour you shall be flogged out of your worthless senses in the morning."
The tone was one that impressed Charolles no less than it did the soldier. Whilst this latter went upon his errand, the former turned to Bernouin with eager inquiries, which the Cardinal's valet quietly nipped.
"I am about to leave you, Monsieur des Charolles," he answered coolly, "but I may be able to assist you. I promise that you shall hear from me before very long, and I beg that you will do nothing until you do. Here comes the officer. Monsieur, good-night!"
In answer to the lieutenant's surprised and supercilious
inquiries Bernouin handed him a small sheet of parchment,
on which he read:
Be it known by these presents that the bearer is in my service, and that whatsoever he shall do I shall account well done. I charge all loyal subjects of His Majesty to aid and further him in whatsoever purpose he may require their aid, and I warn those that would hinder him that they doso at their peril.JULES MAZARIN
Beside the Cardinal's signature was his seal, and he had been a bold man that did not bow low, as did now the lieutenant before the plenipotentiary who was the bearer of such credentials.
"You will kindly inform Monsieur the Mayor that I escaped," said Bernouin. "No more than that, as you value your position, nor will you any way allow it to transpire that I am His Eminence's agent."
The officer bowed again, and, within five minutes, to the entire mystification of Charolles, Bernouin was on his way back to the Three Pigeons to finish his interrupted supper.
Next morning, arrayed in a coat gayer than usual, and with a brown wig to cover his sleek head, lest the Mayor should otherwise have recognised one of his last night's assailants, Bernouin waited upon Prèviteau. Very obsequiously was Mazarin's emissary received by the Mayor, and very soon was he hearing once more the story of the feud betwixt Prèviteau and the Sieur des Charolles.
Bernouin was all affability and graciousness. He evinced the keenest desire to assist the Mayor against this brutality on the part of Charolles, but he deprecated his failure to see a way by which it might be accomplished.
"I fear, monsieur," he ended, "that there is no ground upon which His Eminence would be justified in taking action."
"But consider, monsieur," cried the Mayor, who was very pale as a result of the fright Bernouin's scratch had occasioned him last night"consider that I go in danger of my life. Charolles has threatened to kill me."
"Unfortunately the law of France does not allow a man to be punished for his intentions. We must wait, monsieur."
"In God's name, what must we wait for?" gasped the Mayor.
"For Monsieur des Charolles to kill you. Then there will be a clear case of murder against him."
The Mayor bounded from his chair, his eyes protruding from their puffy sockets.
"You make a mock of me, monsieur," he cried.
"Ah, but no! I state facts. If you knew of any other crime on this man's partif, for instance, he had ever been implicated in any treasonable dealingswe should be able to rid you of him."
The Mayor's eyes suddenly narrowed. Guile entered his rascally soul. It was misfortune that he should know of no treason, but it was by no means a misfortune that might not be remedied. He had heard some rumours once. He had disbelieved them then, Why should he not believe them nownow that it would fall in so well with his own interests? Why not, indeed? To that temptation he succumbed, being the grossly unscrupulous self-seeker that he was.
"I know him for a traitor of the very blackest!" he burst out.
Bernouin turned, his air suddenly alert. He smelt the lie as though it had been a concrete thing. Here was a noose by which this fat rascal of a Mayor might hang himself most speedily.
"Tell me of it," he begged. And the Mayor told him. Such a tale was that! It would have hanged a dozen men if it had held together a little better, But, being impromptu and unconsidered, it implicated nobody but the Mayorand him with a monstrous falsehood.
"Set it in writing," said Bernouin quickly. "Affirm the truth of it upon oath, and this Charolles is a broken man."
"You promise me that?" cried the Mayor, scarce believing so much good fortune. And Bernouin grinly promised it him, asking where this Charolles might be. Upon hearing from Prèviteau that he was in prison, Bernouin advised his immediate enlargement.
"Such a state of things might give this document of yours a savour of vindictiveness," was his explanation. And the Mayor, rubbing his fat hands, chuckled at Bernouin's shrewdness, and promised to follow his advice.
Bernouin left Argentan bearing with him the Mayor's signed accusation of Charolles. He returned within a week, and he waited upon the Mayor with a bundle of papers and parchments of a very legal aspect tucked under his arm.
"Monsieur," said he, "I have the pleasure to announce to you that you have won. It but remains for me to set the law in motion."
"What have you accomplished, my friend?" asked the Mayor. "What have you there?"
"I have here an act of sequestration, by virtue of which the entire Charolles estates, comprising the Château des Charolles and the demesnes of Bar-le-Roi and Antonville, are confiscate to the Crown. It is thus that His Eminence deals with traitors."
Prèviteau stared at the valet from out of a face that had grown pale and seemed of a sudden aged by years.
"But, monsieur," he gasped, "you cannot be aware that the demesnes of Bar-le-Roi and Antonville are the property, by deed of gift from Monsieur des Charolles, of Mademoiselle des Charolles, his sister."
Bernouin affected a pitying concern,"Hèlas!" he sighed, "it is the way in this world that the innocent shall be involved in the punishment of the guilty. Of such a transaction as you mention the Crown could take no cognisance, for where there is seqestration for treason the whole family must suffer."
He paused a moment. Then:
"Monsieur, I observe your concern," said he, "and I honour you for the nobility of heart which it displays. But since I understand that you are about to wed Mademoiselle des Charolles, it is fortunate that her future is assured her."
"You understand amiss, monsieur," cried the Mayor, his colour returning with a rush. "Such was, indeed, the state of things, but I have concluded that with the brother opposed to me, as is the Sieur des Charolles, there could be no hope of happiness in such a union, and so I had already determined to release the lady from her promise to me. I was on the point of so writing to her when you arrived." He paused a moment. "I have a favour to ask," said he presently. "That you delay the execution of that act for tweny-four hours lest she should do me the injustice to suppose thatthat her altered fortunes have induced this change in me."
This promise Bernouin gave him. Then, having made his adieux, he withdrew.
On the stairs his gravity deserted him utterly, and he burst into a laugh, which he suddenly suppressed lest the echo of it should reach the ears of Prèviteau.
On the morrow he repaired to the Château des Charolles, and greeted its master with a question as to whether he had received any communication from Prèviteau.
"My sister has had a letter," answered Charolles. "Can it be that you have had a hand in this mystery? I beg that you will come with me."
Bernouin was ushered into the library, where he beheld a tall, elderly lady, whose eyes were red from weeping, yet whose bearing was haughty and frigid. He bowed. She ignored him.
"Eugènie," said Charolles, "here is a gentleman who may be able to explain your letter from Prèviteau."
"The only possible explanation is a further revelation of brutalities on your part, which Monsieur Prèviteau here assigns as the reason for his withdrawal. You may have the satisfaction of knowing, Henri, that you have ruined my life."
Henri made a gesture of impatience, and turned to Bernouin.
"You have a communication to make me, monsieur?" he inquired.
"A week ago," said the valet, "Monsieur Prèviteau, in casting about him for means to encompass your destruction, hit upon the expedient of sending His Eminence, by my hand, a document signed and sworn to, testifying to certain treasons in which you had been implicated."
"I?" roared Charolles. "But it is an infamous falsehood! What"
"Hear me through, I beg," Bernouin interrupted. "As a consequence of this, I returned yesterday, and I was able to inform the Mayor of Argentan that I had here"and he raised the formidable mass of tape-bound documents"an act of sequestration, by virtue of which your entire estates of Charolles, Bar-le-Roi and Antonville became the property of the Crown."
"My God," cried Charolles, whilst his sister looked up with an air of one thunderstruck. "Does His Eminence proceed to these extremes on the unsupported word of such a knave as this? But" And then his rage passed from this to another aspect of the subject. He wheeled sharply round, and faced his sister. "Are you convinced now, Eugènie, of why you were wooed? Do you realise what manner of knave was that who deserted you so soon as he learnt our destitution?"
The poor woman bent her head. Two tears trickled down her withered cheeks.
"I am punished," she muttered brokenly. "God has punished my vanity, and I have wrought the ruin of my house."
"Had you not better look at the matters contained in the act of sequestration?" suggested Bernouin quietly, as he set the mass of parchments on the table.
With trembling fingers Charolles untied the fastenings of the package. Its bulk swelled up, and it fell open. He turned some sheets over, then he looked at Bernouin. Then he continued his search. At last
"Is this a jest, monsieur?" he roared. "The papers are all blank."
Bernouin shrugged his shoulders, and his thin lips smiled.
"You behold," said he, “the act of sequestration. Are you not content? It sufficed the Mayor, who saw no more than the outside of the package. Should it not suffice you, who have seen the inside?"
Then Charolles understood, and his burst of relieved laughter brought his sister to his side. She looked at the papers and at Bernouin's face, and the matter grew clear to her. She turned to her brother.
"Henri," she said, in a concentrated voice. "You will kill this base-born Prèviteau?"
"Pish!" said he. "Think of the edict. We are well rid of him, little sister." And he affectionately slipped his arm round the waist of the old maid whose first lover was likely to be her last.