The Realm, September 1904
The Devourer of Hearts
by Rafael Sabatini
She came upon me unexpectedly as I was walking in my garden at Choisy, bewailing the Autumn that swooped down apace like a bird of prey to devour my cherished blossoms. The rumble of a coach heralded her coming, and as in my curiosity I craned my neck to see who my visitor might be, out stepped Léonie herself, as beautiful a thing, I'll swear, as any of God's making. She came to me all smiles and archness; and in that sisterly manner which she was wont to assume toward me, but which of a certainty she had refrained from adopting had she guessed how deeply it hurt, she announced that she had need of my assistance. I swore myself her humblest slave as ever, and she proceeded:
"I have been to the King, Guy," she cried, "and my intercessions have won Lawrence's pardon. See," and she drew from some mysterious corner of her gown a portentous parchment. "Here is the Royal warrant. His Majesty's sole condition is that the Vicomte shall absent himself from France for three years, until Castelnaudary and this rebellion be forgotten."
"His Majesty is very clement," said I. "But thenyou interceded."
She laughed coyly, and her blue eyes flashed me a well-pleased glancefor, bon Dieu! she was the vainest beauty in all Paris.
"I shall carry him this pardon myself," she continued. "The poor boy is hiding somewhere in Languédoc, and we must find him, Guy."
We?" quoth I. "What companions have you chosen?"
At that she felt confused, but only for a moment. Presently her eyes were raised to mine again, and she was smiling in allurement.
"I came to ask you to go with me, Guy. You see I am all alone, with the exception of Madame la Comtesse, who is much too enfeebled to undertake the journey. Then, too, on such an errand a male escort is of necessity, and my brother is with his regiment."
"But, Léonie," I cried aghast, "bethink you what you are proposing. What will the world say? Mademoiselle de Montivry has left Paris under the escort of Guy de Chatellerault. A fine story that, on my life!"
"What shall it signify what the world says? I go to my affianced husband, and when I return it shall be as his wife, and so sheltered from evil tongues."
I vow I turned pale at that. That some day she would wed the Vicomte I knew, just as I knew that some day I must die. The thing had been arranged while she was in her swaddling clothes, and she had been educated to the idea ever since she had begun to grow into the lovely creature that she had become. She did not love the Vicomteindeed, she scarcely knew him, for she had not seen him half-a-dozen times all her life. But her marriage to him she looked upon as an inevitable something that must come to her with womanhood. It I seem to suggest that she did not love him because she did not know him, let me hasten to disabuse your mind. Because she did not know him she did not hate him.
No worse, perhaps, than most courtiers of the days of Louis XIII, yet I vow he was as bad as any, and the scandals that attached to his name defied all reckoning. Since his father's death his indiscretions had grown more flagrant, until in the end His Majesty had banished him for a spell from Court. Smarting under the indignity, he had offered his sword to the Duke of Orleans and had fought at Castelnaudary among the Spanish riff-raff that Gaston had brought into that field of scurvy memory. Proscribed and hunted as were his fellow-rebels, from Montmorency downward, his fateso richly deservedhad been a source of unrest to that angel, Léonie, until in the end she had interceded and won his pardon from Louis.
That her wedding should be accelerated by the very facts that should have retarded it, shocked me inexpressibly. I was filled with a dull anger against Villebon, against her, against myself; and that anger, to my shame I write it, found expression. I had known her from childhood; we had been as brother and sister, until it had come to me to alter the relationship. That was two years ago, and since then I had made love to her desperately, ardently, passionatelybut, alack, fruitlessly! Ever had she chid me for my gentle ways, my slender frame, my dainty hands. I was a man of songs, she had said, of pretty utterances; whilst her loverbut that she was already affiancedmust have been a man of action; a hero of great deeds; the victor of a hundred combats. This I cast back at her now in my reply.
"What shall a writer of verses do upon such an enterprise?" I asked her bitterly. "You will require a paladin for your escort."
"But no," said she, ignoring the ungenerous quality of my words, "there will be no fighting."
At that my manner grew yet worse. I was brusque as any clown. I bade herthe precise words I have mercifully forgottenseek elsewhere for a protector. But when I had done she nestled up to me; her eyes raised to mine, and her hand was laid caressingly upon my arm, so that all my harshness fell from me on the instant.
"That is unlike you, Guy," said she. "Are my troubles of so little account to youyou who call yourself my friend?" I humbly craved forgiveness, and swore my readiness to do whatever she might command me.
"Now you are the Guy I know. The dear, kind, gentle Guy who is my friend." She moved a step or two away from me. "When you are so I have a kindness for you," she said.
"Yes," I rejoined, my bitterness returning, "such a kindness as have I for my roses when they bloom." And I waved an angry hand over a faded bush.
"And were I not affianced to M. de Villebon" She stopped short, and over her shoulder she threw me a glance from eyes that laughed at once in mockery and affection.
"Léonie!" I cried, and in an instant I was beside her. I caught her in my arms and held her there with a force that must have hurt, whilst into her ear I poured once more the story of my love for her. I reminded her that this Villebon was nothing to her; that she did not love him; that she would never love himyet was I gentleman enough even in my madness to say nothing of those ugly tales that all Paris was reciting touching the Vicomte's disreputable adventures.
At last she broke from me, and confronted me panting, an angry spot of red on either cheek. Then she smiled wistfully.
"You have told me all, Guy, have you not?" she asked softly. "And we will speak of it no moreis it not so, my friend? You have confessed. I absolve you, and here make you your act of contrition and sin no more, for if you do I may not even count you my friend. And so I value your friendship, Guy. But love"she sighed"it is something that I think will never come to me; which, after all, is very well, for I am to marry M. de Villebon. You'll not desert me, Guy?"
What could I answer? What could any man answer who truly loved with a devotion that amounted almost to aweas true love should do. I promised that I would allow my folly to transpire no more. I would curb and suppress it, and she might count upon me to help her find the worthless Vicomte to whom she was betrothed.
On the morrow we started for the Southshe in her coach, attended by her maid; I on horseback, with my servant Charlot riding at my heels. Yesterday's scene seemed all forgotten by her, and when she saw me booted and spurred for the journey, encased in a jerkin of leather and with a great sword girt to me, she laughed and made a mock of my warlike trappings and the martial air which she swore I had put on with this grim raiment. I suffered her jests in silence; I even smiled when she called me Duguesclin: for all that the gibe cut me sorely.
Some slight adventures had we when we came into Languédoc, and during the diligent search I instituted for M. de Villebon, owing to the suspicions of the peasantry, who were one and all for the Duke Gaston, and who doubted the intentions of our quest for one of his adherents. At last, however, success attended my efforts, and I gleaned the information that at Les Martyrsa little village on the spurs of the CevennesI should probably find him we sought.
Thither we rode, therefore, and we gained the place one evening at dusk. We repaired to the Auberge Béarnaisethe only hostelry of any consequence in the only street of that hill-side village. We proceeded with caution, and it was not until we had seated ourselves to sup in the common-roomthere was no otherthat I thought it well to broach the matter which had brought us. Such knowledge as they might have they were inclined to deal with as a snail with its horns.
There were four men in the room, sitting over by the chimney with the landlord, and by way of introduction I called upon the host to lay a couple of his best bottles at their disposal. It was done with alacrity, and, having thus gained their good favour, I engaged those burly, evil-looking mountain men in conversation. I touched in passing upon the state of France and the late disturbances, and I spoke of the Cardinal with a grimace, of the King with a sneer, and of Gaston with a sigh and an adjective of praise. My manner gradually thawed them, and when presently I grew bolder in my allusions, to the point, I'll swear, of being guilty of high treason, an air of utter good-fellowship settled over us.
Mademoiselle supped in silence, but her glance of approval was encouraging. She had been kinder to me of late; for perhaps she had come to see that when the occasion demanded it I could become, to some extent at least, the man of action that she chid me for not being.
Deeming them ripe at last, I touched more closely upon the business that had brought us, informing them that we were in quest of a gentleman who had followed the fortunes of Gaston into the disastrous field of Castelnaudary, and whom we desired to equip with the means of taking himself into safety beyond Pyrenees.
"If you were to tell us his name, Monsieur," said Dangeau, the landlord, "we might assist you." He was a superior fellow, this Dangeau, a man of speech and manners somewhat above his station, and no doubt a man of much consequence upon that countryside, holding himself in high esteem.
"It is Monsieur le Vicomte Laurence de Villebon whom we are seeking," said I, and had I cast a bomb into their midst it could not have surprised them more. Seeing them start, and noting the significant glances that passed between them"Clearly, my masters," I added, "the name is not unknown to you."
"It is not indeed, Monsieur," returned Dangeau, with a greater cordiality than he had yet shown us, "and if your friend be the Vicomte, you are very welcome."
A girl who had entered the common-room at that moment, hearing the words, stood still to survey us. She was a handsome wench, strongly resembling Dangeau. She was tall, with a shapely length of limb and an admirably poised head, richly crowned with soft, lustrous black hair. Black, too, and remarkable were her eyes, and as I now returned her glance it crossed my mind that one might travel far before chancing upon her equal in looks and grace. That air of superiority to the surroundings that I had remarked in Dangeau was carried in her to the point almost of aloofness.
"These voyageurs," said the landlord to the girl, "are friends of M. le Vicomte." The girl continued to stare at us in a fashion that showed me plainly her manners were far below the level of her grand air.
"I am charmed, M. l'Hote," said I, "to discover that we have fallen among people who appear no less friendly disposed to him. Where, sir, can I find the Vicomte?"
He seemed on point of answering, when suddenly the girl set her hand on his arm.
"Are you satisfied that we can trust them?" she inquired.
"Ah," quoth Dangeau, taking a deep breath. Then to me"Monsieur will forgive me, for you must appreciate the dangers. Can you give me any proof of your attachment to M. le Vicomte? What is your precise relationship with him?"
"This lady, Master Dangeau," I announced, "is the Vicomte's betrothed, and she has journeyed into Languédoc to wed him and to go with him into exile."
Now if awhile ago the mention of Villebon's name had sown surprise amongst them, the effect it had produced was as nothing compared with the disorder into which this fresh announcement appeared to throw them. Again there were gasps and glances exchanged, whilst the girl's great eyes seemed to dilate, though otherwise she remained erect and cold. Then Dangeau exploded.
"It is a lie!" he shouted, bringing down his fist upon the table so violently that a jug of wine was overset into my lap. That said, he eyed me a moment with deepening suspicion, and as I essayed to rise he thrust me back into my chair. "Look to the door, Pierre," he called to one of the four ruffians. "We have spies amongst us, it seems, but, by God, we shall know how to deal with them."
"When you have recovered the use of your wits," said I, coolly mopping the wine from my haut-de-chausses, "perhaps you will explain how I have provoked this thunderstorm?"
"You need explanations, do you?" he sneered. "You have told, me plainly enough that it is for no friendly purpose that you seek the Vicomte. Bah! I know you well enough. The province is infested by spies of your kidney, lending themselves to the work of trapping these poor fugitives. You played your rôle finely, and had you not overshot the mark, you had duped us. But when you present your companion as the Vicomte's betrothed, you go too far; for the Vicomte's future wife, my master, stands there."
And he pointed to his daughter. There was a sudden catch in Mademoiselle's breath as she rose to her feet, but the swiftness with which she grasped the situation and the calm with which she spoke amazed me.
"Since that is so, Monsieur, our journey has indeed been wasted, and nothing remains for us but to withdraw, regretting the intrusion."
The words were ill-timed, and they added fuel to the host's suspicions.
"Withdraw?" he roared. "By the Mass, you shall not stir foot from here until it please me, and it is more than likely you'll never stir at all. We have a short way with spies. Here, my lads, lay hands on these friends of my Lord Cardinal."
Mademoiselle grew pale at that for all her spirit, and her eyes that were turned toward me said, as plainly as if she had spoken: "If only you were a man of action, my poor Guy!" And be it that that glance spurred me to it, or be it that the latest militant instincts of my blood welled up to meet the occasion a man of action I became. I had risen now, and picking up a three-legged stoolfor my sword I realised would avail me little in the rough-and-tumble that was like to followI waved it lustily.
"Let but a finger be laid on Mademoiselle, and I'll brain the man that dares it," I threatened.
There was a short laugh from one of them, and he sprang toward me. I have a notion that I closed my eyesfor I was new to skull-cracking, and haply a trifle squeamish. But I brought my stool down with a sickening crash upon his stupid head, and felled him. Again I raised that improvised battle-axe, and this time, with eyes wide open that I might not err, I caught another ruffian, who had set hands upon Léonie, so well gauged a blow that he staggered backwards, and throwing up his arms dropped full length, whilst the blood, streaming from a gash in his forehead, seemed to cover his face in an instant.
With a moan of horror Mademoiselle shrank back against the wall and put her hands to her eyes. Isuddenly transformed into a very Jupiter tonansstood my ground defiantly, ready to launch that thunderbolt of a stool upon the next who should try conclusions with me. Then suddenly old Dangeau seized a musketoon that had stood in a corner, and it would have fared ill with me but that before he could raise it to his shoulder a cry from his daughter arrested him. The door had been pushed open, and on the threshold stood the Vicomte de Villebon himself. A pause fell upon all present, as with a look of the profoundest amazement the Vicomte advanced into the room, his eyes devouring Léonie. It was he who broke at last the silence that now reigned.
"You here, Mademoiselle!" he exclaimed.
"As you perceive, Monsieur," said she very quietly, her face giving no sign of concern beyond its extreme pallor. "If you have any influence with these good people, perhaps you will give yourself the trouble of prevailing upon them not to cut our throats."
"But what has happened?" he inquired, and in the place of the easy, graceful dignity that was usually his, his bearing was now a mixture of bewilderment and sheepishness.
"These people," Dangeau explained in truculent accents, "came here to seek you, but they introduced themselves with the falsehood that this lady is your affianced wife."
"It is a falsehood, is it not, Laurence?" cried the girl, stepping close up to him, and putting the question in beseeching accents.
"Oh ça, my dear Sophie," he laughed brazenly, as who would say: "How could it be other than false?" Then to Dangeau"Let me have a word in private with these good friends of mine," said he, his attempt at jauntiness failing miserably. "They were well-intentioned in the statement that they made; for that they may have transcended accuracy in their zeal to discover me."
Scarcely believing my ears, I looked at Léonie. She was smiling curiously.
"If you are playing fast and loose with us," began Dangeau, his brow black with menace. But the Vicomte, drawing himself up with an assumption of his usual arrogance, cut him short
"Monsieur," said he, "what I have pledged my word to do I do."
But when presently we threethe Vicomte, Mademoiselle and Iwere in an inner room, Villebon's words were less high-sounding.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "to you it will be clear that this undignified position in which you find me has been forced upon me by necessity. My marrying this girl is a matter too preposterous for consideration."
"Ah," said she coldly, "and the breaking of that child's heart no doubt a matter too insignificant to need consideration either."
At that his manner became suddenly offensive.
"Why are you come to Languédoc, Mademoiselle?" he demanded insolentlyso insolently that I had visions of resuming my performances with the three-legged stool.
"To drive a bargain with you, M. le Vicomte," she answered, a note of anger ringing in her voice as well. "Tell mehow came you into such relations with that girl?"
Villebon, the devourer of hearts, answered her with easy flippancy and an expressive shrug.
"Faut s'amuser," he declared. "It was so dull and ennuyant hiding from the King's gentlemen."
Léonie demanded details, and he afforded them. It was just such a story as I had expected to hear. Dalliance was to the Vicomte as the breath of his nostrilsa necessity of life. The trouble that in Paris it had visited upon him had not taught him any salutary lesson; in the provinces he had resumed the pastime, and heaven alone knows how many banal affairs he had not scattered in his passage through Languédoc. But here at this inn at Les Martyrs he had entered upon one that was to bring him more serious consequences. Whilst in hiding there, protected by this staunch Orléaniste, Dangeau, he had amused himself by making love to Sophie. To him it could be no more than amusement; but it was an amusement of which the poor girl not being a fine lady of Courtknew nothing. To her it was a serious matter, and she accepted each well-worn phrase of gallantry in its literal sense, as a true expression of sentiment. Realising at last the indiscretion of his behaviour, Villebon had sought to beat a retreat. But at the first sign of this, old Dangeau had stepped forward. He had observed, and in his simplicity taken as earnest the Vicomte's wooing of his daughterfor those montagnards of Languédoc have a curious ignorance of the distinctions of rank that prevail in other provincesand he was not minded that this debonair young rebel should break his daughter's heart. He had protested against the Vicomte's departure; he had reasoned with him touching Sophie, and I am satisfied that the musketoon was advanced as a weighty piece of logic. Moreover, Villebon realised that Dangeau might even avenge himself by delivering him up to the King, and he had no appetite for being broken on the wheel, so that out of fear he had temporised by a promise to marry Sophie so soon as he might conveniently do so.
"But," the Vicomte concluded, with a deprecatory smile, "you will agree, Mademoiselle, that it were a heavy price to pay for the amusement of expressing a few pretty sentiments."
"I own it heavy, but you must pay it, Monsieur," she said, whereat I stared at her in my amazement.
"'Tis a good jest, that," he laughed, displaying his fine teeth.
"It is no jest at all, Monsieur."
His jaw dropped, and he eyed her in bewilderment, sobered by her sternness.
"But, Mademoiselle, I am betrothed to you!"
"We will not speak of that again, if you please," she answered coldly. And, ashamed, he hung his head, realising that indeed for one who had promised marriage to Dangeau's daughter to speak of being betrothed to Mademoiselle de Montivry was an insolence too gross.
They wrangled awhile after that: she telling him that he must wed the girl, he laughing the notion to scorn.
"You pledged your word," she cried at last, burning with indignationfor she was beginning to know this very choice Vicomte. "In my hearing you renewed the pledge. Will you be dishonoured?"
At that he abandoned mockery, and grew solemn as a father-confessor. He expostulated with her, whereupon she turned to threats and to the bargain which she had come to drive with him.
"Monsieur de Villebon," said she, "at Jarnages, this afternoon, we passed a company of the King's dragoons. They are closing round this part of the Cevennes, and at this hour your escape will already be impossible. By morning you will be a prisoner. Your fate you can guess, Monsieur."
He turned pale at that. On the battlefield he may have been brave as a lion; but the thought of the wheel gave his stomach an unpleasant turn.
"Now, Monsieur, attend to this. I have it in my power to save your life. I can open a way for you into Spain, and within three years I can promise your return to France, where you shall find your estates unsequestrated. But before I do this for you I will see you wedded to Sophie Dangeau."
"How will you fulfil all these fine promises?" he asked, amazed.
"I do not lie, Monsieur. I have said that I can do it. Be that sufficient. Will you accept my conditions, or will you be taken to Toulouse and the scaffold? Resolve yourself."
For all that his heart was numb with fear, he still sought to temporise. But Mademoiselle was obdurate. When he advanced that Sophie was not a wife he could take to Paris, she answered him that there was no need for it. Indeed, Paris would be unhealthy for him for years to come. There was his estate in Picardy. Let him take her there when he returned from Spain, and let him spend the first year of their wedded life in preparing her to become a creditable Vicomtesse. In the end the gallant Villebon was beaten and forced to yield.
He was barely in time, for scarcely had he accepted Léonie's terms when the door opened to admit Dangeau, with a scared face.
"Les Martyrs is surrounded by dragoons, Vicomte," he announced.
"Trust to me," said Léonie. Then turning to Dangeau"The Vicomte," she informed him, "is safe, but he will be compelled to start at sunrise for Spain. Your daughter, he will tell you, goes with him as his wife. There is no time to lose, and you had best send for Monsieur le Curé at once."
While the priest was being sought the dragoons arrived, and the officer in command entered the inn and formally arrested Villebon. But Mademoiselle took the Captain aside, with the result that five minutes later he desired the mystified Vicomte to be in readiness to start for Spain at daybreak under his escort.
We saw the nuptials solemnised that night, and when as day was breaking the troop was ready to conduct the Vicomte across the border, Léonie took him aside.
"So far I have done what I promised," she said, "and you may rest assured that I shall keep my word till the end. When the three years of your exile are at an end you shall receive a pardon warranting your return to France. But this I promise you only on condition that you are good to that child, and that you make her a worthy husband. Fail me in that, and you are not likely to see France again as long as you live."
Solemnly he swore to resign himself to what he now accounted his destiny. With that oath he took his leave of Léonie and accompanied by his wife he set out in the charge of the dragoons.
When at last he was gone
"An eventful night, Guy, was it not?" quoth Léonie. "And I think that we both acquitted ourselves well. I have wronged you in the past, my friend, for you fought like a lion."
"The greatest fight was yourson that girl's behalf," I answered.
"Nay, Guy, not on her behalf; on my own. It was my liberty from Villebon which I was fighting for."
"You are wonderful, Léonie," I cried, adding with a sigh"I wish with all my heart that I had not promised you a week ago, in my garden at Choisy, n ever to speak of love again."
She looked at me for a moment with a smile so tender and kind that a doubt surged wildly through my mind. Then holding out both hands to me she turned my doubts to certainty.
"We will go back to your garden at Choisy, Guy; and if you should elect to break your promise, I'll think you none the less a very gallant gentleman."