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London Magazine, May< 1905

The Captain of the Guard

by Rafael Sabatini

Sleek, black-haired Bernouin, with his bright, observant eyes and his thin-lipped, circumspect mouth, stood at his window, gazing idly across the courtyard of the Palais Cardinal.

The afternoon sun, falling athwart the quadrangle, whilst leaving his window in the shade, illumined the interior of Captain d'Attignac's room opposite, and revealed to the eyes of Bernouin that worthy gentleman writing busily. Now, for all that the Cardinal's valet was no spy, yet it had long been his habit—and who am I that I should cast a stone at it?—to observe all things that were to be observed. And so, since chance and the afternoon sun revealed to him the Captain of the Guard at a time when the Captain did not dream himself observed, Bernouin concluded that to neglect the opportunity would be unworthy of a man of sense. That Captain d'Attignac should write at all was in itself a fact to be remarked, but that when he had written he should take up his hat, and carefully conceal the letter he had penned in the lining, was a matter that struck Bernouin as curious. Then d'Attignac went to the door, opened it, and appeared to call; which done, he went back to his table and sat down again. A few seconds later his door was opened, and into his room stepped a soldier of the Guard, who saluted and stood hat in hand, awaiting. In this new-comer, Bernouin recognised a dull-witted clod from Béarn named Barseau.

And now the Captain's behaviour grew singular to a degree. He was not famed for affability, yet he waved the Guardsman to a chair; and when the fellow was seated he pointed with his pen to the table, saying something as he did so; and Barseau placed his hat there. Beside it stood a little bowl of goldfish. For some moments Attignac wrote assiduously, and Bernouin asked himself what little comedy he might be about. At last he stopped, and, without looking up, put out his hand for the sandbox; and so clumsy was he that in taking it up his elbow caught the glass bowl, and shot its contents into Barseau's hat. In the hat, on the table, and on the floor itself Bernouin could see the flashing of the leaping, wriggling fish. Barseau was on his feet grabbing at and catching them, only to find himself empty-handed, again and again to grab and catch. In this manner one by one they were got back into the bowl, which Attignac had righted, and in which there was still some water left.

The Captain appeared to be uttering endless regrets. Barseau was ruefully shaking his sodden castor, its beautiful red feather turned limp. Then Attignac rose to the occasion, and, snatching the dripping thing from from the fellow's hand, he pressed upon him his own hat, which lay close by, and which Bernouin remembered had a letter in the lining. Barseau protested, but the Captain was inexorable in his generosity; and so, with Attignac's hat on his head, and Attignac's second letter in his pocket, Barseau presently quitted the Captain's room.

"Odd!" muttered Bernouin. "I wonder now—I wonder—" He paused, turned abruptly from the window, and as abruptly left his room; for Bernouin had a passion for unravelling mysteries; and here was one that gave fair promise of being interesting.

He overtook Barseau almost at the Palace gates.

"Hi, Barseau! Monsieur Barseau! A word with you."

The Guardsman turned, a sharp answer that he was in haste trembling on his lips. But when he saw who it was that called, he left the words unspoken, for in common with many another stout fellow he stood in awe of this lean, quiet man with the pale face and the keen eyes.

"I was on my way to the Guardroom to inquire for you," said the valet, who had learnt, in the Cardinal's service, to lie with easy dignity. "Will you step into my room? I have something to say to you."

The tone, though free from menace, was of a vagueness that filled the poor Béarnais soldier with uneasiness. He muttered something touching his errand for Captain d'Attignac, but Bernouin peremptorily swept the objection aside; the message could wait a few moments. Indeed, he hinted that it might be necessary to find another messenger, whereat with tremblings of spirit, but never another word of protest, Barseau went with him. As they moved down the long, gloomy gallery, Bernouin made a sign to a couple of idling Guardsmen, who at once started to follow them. This Barseau observed, and his uneasiness grew apace. The valet ushered him into his room, and, closing the door, he left the two attendant Guardsmen without. Barseau uncovered his head, for Bernouin was not a person to be lightly treated, and stood waiting in an attitude of exceeding humility.

"I am desolated to say, Monsieur Barseau," the valet began, "that there is a very grave charge proferred against one of His Eminence's Guards, whilst the evidence we have gathered points strongly to you." The Guardsman started. "It is so grave a matter that I hardly dare disclose it to you yet; since, should I find you not to be the culprit, it will be as well that you should remain in ignorance of the affair."

"But, Monsieur Bernouin, unless I know with what I am charged, how can I defend myself? My conscience, I assure you, is clear, and makes me no reproaches."

"I am glad, sir. His Eminence has left me to sift the matter; and there is one simple method by which I can deal with you, and ascertain your innocence. Will you do me the favour to tell me where you were to be found at ten o'clock last night?"

"At ten o'clock? I was at the Green Pillar Inn in the Rue St. Honoré."

"Ah!" And Bernouin's face took on a smile of encouragement. "Come, monsieur, that is good news! There were, no doubt, others with you who can prove this?"

"But certainly, Monsieur Bernouin."

"Do me the favour to sit down at that table and write out the statement you have just made to me, and the names of those who were present—the names of, say, four or five of them."

Deeply puzzled, Barseau put his hat on a chair, and sat down to do Bernouin's bidding. Whilst he wrote, the valet opened the door and bade the two Guardsmen enter. When Barseau had written, and before he had time to rise, "Messieurs," said Bernouin to the two soldiers, "take Monsieur Barseau into that alcove, and wait there until I call you." Then, turning to Barseau, "I shall lay this before His Eminence, and I hope within a few moments to inform you that you are cleared of all suspicion. Take him away, messieurs."

When the door of the alcove had closed upon them, Bernouin took up the hat from the chair, where it had been left, and, pulling down the lining, he set himself to seek the letter he had seen concealed there. He had need to look closely, for the paper which he ultimately found was so thin and small that it would certainly have escaped the notice of any man not acquainted with its existence.

On this scrap of paper, which bore no superscription, Bernouin read:

"Mazarin has been warned that at the masque at the Hôtel de Liancourt to-night the plotters will meet. He knows the password that will gain admittance to the chamber set aside for them, and it is his intention to attend. He will wear a green domino and a black mask. The occasion should be propitious."

Bernouin took a deep breath and sat still a moment. Mazarin had suspected that the Frondeur supporters of the Duke of Beaufort were meditating something to gain their champion's enlargement from Vincennes; and it had not surprised him when he learned that the conspirators had arranged a meeting. In resolving to himself attend it, he had for object to ascertain who were the ringleaders, that he might draw their fangs. He had been far, however, from suspecting that his being made acquainted with that meeting was but the part of a deep-laid scheme for his own undoing, as this letter now made clear to Bernouin.

The valet wondered for whom this letter might be intended, but, remembering the other missive which he knew Barseau to be the bearer of, he saw that this would not be difficult to ascertain. Deep in thought, the valet sat a while, pondering what course he should take.

His first impulse was to go straight to Mazarin, and lay the letter and the facts before him. But, upon second thoughts, he resolved to act on his own initiative.

He thought, too, of d'Attignac, this upstart who owed his position to the Cardinal's favour; and he cursed him for a foul, ungrateful traitor to have so projected selling his master. And then, in a flash, a measure of poetic justice suggested itself.

Acting upon this, he replaced the letter in the lining of Barseau's hat, and put the hat on the chair where the Guardsman had left it. That done, he strode over to the door of the alcove, and threw it open.

"Monsieur Barseau, you may come out," said he pleasantly. "I rejoice to inform you that His Eminence is satisfied that you are not the man we are seeking."

Barseau, who had spent a very uncomfortable quarter of an hour, allowed the joy occasioned by this prompt release to shine on his honest, stupid countenance as he took his leave of Bernouin.

"You said something of an errand," murmured the valet. "I trust we have not unconscionably detained you. To whom are you bound?"

"To Monsieur le Marquis de St. Marcel with a letter from Captain d'Attignac."

Again expressing the hope that the delay would give rise to no inconvenience, and promising forthwith to explain matters to Attignac, Bernouin dismissed him, and repaired, as he had said, to the Captain's quarters.

D'Attignac received him cavalierly. He accounted himself a very exalted personage, whose dignity it would ill become to sort with lackeys, even where it was a question of His Eminence's body-servant. Bernouin was distant yet respectful as he delivered the Captain a fictitious order from the Cardinal. This message enjoined Attignac to set out at once for Choisy, and there receive at the Hôtel de Connétable certain documents that would be handed him by a gentleman from Béarn. The name Bernouin could not disclose; but the matter, he urged, was of the greatest moment, and His Eminence required a trusted messenger. Attignac's brows went up in dignified astonishment.

"Why," he inquired, "did not His Eminence send for me and give me his commands in person?"

"Is it for me to explain His Eminence's motives?" Bernouin reproved him. "The matter is pressing, and Monseigneur expects you to start without losing an instant. Should you be the first to reach Choisy, His Eminence wishes you to await the arrival of the gentleman in question."

With that he left Attignac and repaired to the Cardinal's ante-chamber, so that, should the Captain seek His Eminence before setting out, Bernouin might intercept him. But from the windows which overlooked the courtyard the valet had the satisfaction of watching Attignac's departure some ten minutes after their interview.

Satisfied that he was gone, Bernouin quitted the ante-room, and presently he rode out himself, armed, cloaked, and booted. He trotted briskly up the Rue St. Honoré, and then down a side-street towards the river, which he crossed by the Pont Neuf, making his way to the Rue Serpente—a dismal, narrow lane off the Rue de la Harpe. Before a dingy hostelry, choicely named the Devil's Tavern, he drew rein and entered. Crossing the common-room with the assured step that bespeaks acquaintance with the surroundings, he opened a door and descended a short flight of steps into an unclean hole of a room where two men were blaspheming over three dirty dice.

They sorted well with their surroundings, did these two; and it was a matter for some marvelling that a man of so fastidious and scrupulous an exterior as Bernouin should smile so affably upon beholding them.

"Ah, you are there, Pistache," he exclaimed; and at the sound of his voice one of the men—the taller, fiercer, and more unkempt—sprang up and removed his dirty hat. "I was afraid you might be absent. I need you and a friend you can trust."

Pistache bowed and pointed with his thumb to his companion. "There is Grégoire here. He will follow me to the death," he said grandiloquently.

Grégoire bowed as he pocketed the dice, and Bernouin acknowledged the bow by a brief nod.

"Buckle on your swords," said the valet sharply. "I am in haste. At the corner of the Rue de la Harpe you will find a groom with two horses. The word is 'Choisy.' Utter it, and he will surrender you the reins. Mount and ride back in this direction; then follow me—but at a distance. Come, bestir yourselves."

"I thirst," growled Pistache. "A stirrup of Red Anjou ere we—"

"Ouside!" thundered Bernouin. "Have I not said that I am in haste? To-night you shall have the wherewithal to drink yourselves as full as a Spanish wine-skin. There are ten pistoles for each of you when the business is over; and no risk to speak of. Now be off."

The mention of the gold showed the advisability of swift obedience, and out they went with a fine swagger and a majestic flutter of their tattered cloaks.

About an hour later Bernouin pulled up before the sign of the Connétable at Choisy, and waited for them to come up with him ere he dismounted. He sat with hat thrust forward, and his cloak well across his face, concealing it.

"Pistache," said he shortly, "you will enter the common-room with Grégoire, and you will sit drinking a stoup until I call you or until you hear a smash in the inner room. Thereupon you will come to me immediately. You understand?"

Pistache protested with many a tavern oath that he was all comprehension, and Bernouin got down and entered the inn. He called for a jug of wine for his attendants, and requested the host to lead him to the gentleman lately arrived from Paris, whereupon he was ushered into the presence of the waiting Attignac, in the chamber beyond the common-room. The unsuspecting Captain bowed,

"I understand that you have letters for His Eminence," said he.

"That may be," replied Bernouin, thickening his voice. "But you will forgive me if I hesitate to deliver them to a traitor, to the man who conspires with the Marquis de St. Marcel against the hand that pays him."

"Par le mort Dieu!" swore Attignac, setting hand to his sword; " you are over well informed to live."

A burst of laughter answered him from the folds of the masking cloak.

"I am right, then, in my surmise," said the valet, "and you are clearly the very man I want. Put up your sword, sir; I did but seek to ascertain that you were indeed he of whom St. Marcel had spoken to me."

His mouth agape, and his sword half drawn, d'Attignac stood, looking very foolish.

"The blow," said Bernouin, "is, I have just been informed, to be struck to-night at the Hôtel de Liancourt, whither His Eminence is being lured. Monsieur, I have no letters for Mazarin. That was my pretext to gain this interview; for if the conspirators have resolved to go to extremes I would humbly offer myself as the instrument of vengeance. I have my reasons."

Before proceeding to deal with Attignac it was Bernouin's object to gain comfirmation of his suspicion that it was the Cardinal's life that was threatened. From what he had said—although much he could not understand—Attignac could not doubt that this man was one of them. Else how came he so well informed?

"You are singularly correct in your surmise, monsieur," said he. "Mazarin is doomed. But for the rest, another hand is to have the honour of despatching him. It is the task Monsieur de St. Marcel reserves for himself. My God! You!"

The cloak had fallen from Bernouin's face. He had hitched it from his shoulders; and as it fell about his feet he kicked it clear of him, and drew his sword to defend himself against the Captain's furious onslaught.

"Fool!" sneered the valet; "you lack even the discretion of a plotter. Fie, Monsieur d'Attignac! To blab so weighty a matter in a roadside tavern to a stranger who does not show his face! I blush for you!"

"As God lives you shall bleed for it! I'll kill you!" bellowed the Captain of the Guard. But scarcely was the boast uttered than he realised how fraught with difficulties was its fulfilment. For by a smart turn of the wrist Bernouin had counter-parried his deadliest botte, and got inside his guard in a disconcerting manner. Why he had not pushed the advantage to the end, Attignac could not understand; but he did understand that this fellow. whom he had regarded as a mere man of costumes and pomades, was a fencer of an awe-inspiring calibre. A feinte and a lunge drove him back until he was shouldering the wall, and Bernouin, as he advanced, took up with his left hand a large earthenware jug that stood upon the table.

"Voyons," he sneered, "I could cut you into ribbons, you boaster, were I so minded. But I have a better purpose for you. I mean to employ you in the saving of His Eminence's life to-night." With that he flung the jug into the fireplace, where it fell with a crash.

As promptly as though they had stood waiting for the signal—as indeed they had, alarmed by the ring of steel—the door was flung open. and Bernouin's tatterdemalions rushed in, their rapiers drawn, to his assistance.

"Do not hurt him," cried the valet sharply. "Beat the sword from his hand. Pshaw! Stand aside, fools," he commanded, noting the rough manner in which they went about it. He made a thrust, which the Captain parried; then, instead of disengaging, he continued the stroke, as if no parry had been offered, until his hilt struck his opponent's and forced his sword so that it pointed upwards. Suddenly putting forward his left hand, he seized Attignac's rapier by the quillons, and before the Captain could tighten his hold he had wrenched the weapon from his grasp.

"Now take him and truss him up," said Bernouin quietly, and they obeyed, the Captain too demoralised to offer them resistance.

At the Hôtel de Liancourt that night the twelve conspirators who had the slaying of Mazarin for scope were on the very tiptoe of expectation. Some anxiety, too, was theirs. Would he come? they asked one another, fearful lest some contretemps should yet thwart so excellently contrived an opportunity. Meanwhile the fiddlers fiddled blithely, the maskers stepped the coranto with verve and sprightliness, the air was heavy with the scent of ambergris, and little was there to indicate that that merry scene was but as the fine linen that hides a cancer.

At nine o'clock, during a pause in the dancing, a stir ran through the assemblage, and the eyes of those present were drawn to a couple of fresh arrivals. They were both men of tall, imposing figures, to which the long, flowing garments added height. One of these wore a green domino and a black mask; the other a black domino edged with white, and a black velvet visor.

Their arrival seemed as a signal for the twelve plotters to pass one by one from the ballroom and repair to the chamber which was to be the scene of the projected drama. The last to enter was St. Marcel himself.

"Messieurs," he said softly, "they are coming."

"You are sure there is no mistake, Marquis?" inquired a cautious one.

"Perfectly. I stood close beside them a moment ago, and I heard Bernouin whisper 'This way, Eminence,' to his companion, In five minutes, gentlemen, France will be rid of this foreign adventurer. God give me strength and accuracy!"

The twelve stood grouped in the middle of the room as the door opened, and they were quietly joined by the victim and his companion. One of the conspirators detached himself from the group, and went to secure the door.

"Messieurs," came St. Marcel's harsh voice, "but twelve of us were bidden to attend here, and I count fourteen. There are spies among us, it would seem." He was close to the green domino by now. "I need not trouble you to unmask, for there are two men present who do not wear the badge."

Bernouin, looking about him, observed that on each man's shoulder a ribbon of crimson silk was shown.

"Tuez!" cried a voice. "Kill the interlopers!"

"That is well said," St. Marcel made answer, "and may France be as easily rid of all interlopers!"

His arm was suddenly raised, and in his hand glittered a steel which a moment later was buried in the breast of the green domino. The tall figure swayed a second; then, as the murderer withdrew his dagger and plunged it in a second time, that tall, imposing figure suddenly collapsed, and sank in a heap on to the floor without so much as a cry.

But a cry there was from Bernouin, who, shouting that murder was being done, sprang to the door of the chamber to escape. After him, in swift strides, came St. Marcel, his reeking poniard upraised again. And into the middle of Bernouin's back that blade descended, there to be snapped by the shirt of mail the valet had seen fit to don ere he entered that murderous company.

"Tenez!" exclaimed the Marquis; "this dog is armed, The door, Flamand!"

But Bernouin caught Flamand in his strong, nervous grip. He took him by the throat with both hands, and, dragging him from the door, he flung him in the middle of the room.

St. Marcel now had the valet by the shoulders, but he lacked the strength to hold him. He had wrenched the door open, and his voice sounded to alarm.

"To me!" he shouted. "To the rescue. Á moi, Brulin!"

Now, Brulin was the sergeant of His Eminence's Guard, and that Bernouin should call him thus told the company that soldiers were at hand. With quaking hearts they stood, to hear the regular tramp of the Guards approaching by the gallery, and knew themselves trapped. St. Marcel made an attempt to rouse their drooping spirits. Ignoring Bernouin—for of what account was the life of a lackey?—he turned to them and removed his mask.

"What does it signify, gentlemen, that we be taken? Our task is done. They cannot restore life to that carrion; and if they hang us for this night's work, we shall be but martyrs in a noble cause, and we shall have for consolation and reward the knowledge that we have rid France of that plague."

And he pointed to the weltering body on the floor.

Then Brulin, the sergaent, appeared on the threshold; and, at his heels, a company in blue and silver, numbering a full score.

"What is afoot, Monsieur Bernouin?" he inquired.

"Murder has been done!" cried the valet.

"Not murder, sir—justice," St. Marcel amended. "There, Brulin, lies he who was your master; and I, Eustace de St. Marcel, have killed him!"

"Arrest him!" said Brulin shortly; and two of his followers—the whole company was now ranged inside the chamber—advanced to seize the Marquis.

The door had been closed, but now it was flung open suddenly; and a stalwart Swiss stepped forward, to electrify the company with the announcement:

"His Eminence, my Lord Cardinal!"

St. Marcel caught his breath. His face turned grey, and it seemed to him that his pulses had stopped, frozen by the sight of Mazarin himself, towering upon the threshold with questioning eyes. His fine, majestic figure was arrayed in his scarlet robes, and on his lofty Italian countenance sat a grim look of scorn and mockery.

"Who is that you have murdered, St. Marcel?" he demanded coldly. Then more sharply he added: "Remove his visor, one of you. Let us look at his face."

A Guardsman stooped to do his bidding; and every man present, forgetting almost his own desperate condition in the excitement of that moment, craned forward to behold the face of the dead.

And at the sight disclosed by the removal of the mask and the uncovering of the head, a shudder ran through their ranks and then a cry of astonishment. For the countenance, distorted, in part by a hideous death grin, in part by the cruel choke-pear with which he had been gagged, was that of Attignac, the Captain of the Guard, their fellow-conspirator and the Judas who had sold his master.

Mazarin looked on unmoved, his face an expressionless mask, whilst in the lines of Bernouin's thin mouth lurked the faintest smile of contempt.

The Cardinal understood the fate that had been prepared for him as he noticed on the body the domino he was to have worn, as he saw the gag which had kept d'Attignac silent, and the fellow's arms strapped to his sides, whilst dummies filled the sleeves of his domino. It had been a cunningly contrived justice.

"I know not, St. Marcel, what motives actuated you to slay poor Attignac," said Mazarin. "But this I know; that you are very like to hang for it. As for you others, if any one of you sees the outside of the Bastille within these next ten years he will be singularly fortunate. Come, Bernouin, attend me!"

And, turning on his heel, he passed out, calm and stately, leaving them to ruminate upon the fact that no fame of a great conspiracy would attach to them, no glamour of martyrdom be shed upon their punishment. France would account them no more than the perpatrators of a vulgar murder.

And as Bernouin, reflecting upon this, followed His Eminence down the steps of the Hôtel de Liancourt, it occurred to him that in the matter of administering poetic justice he might yet learn something from my Lord Cardinal.

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