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Harmsworth Magazine, September 1899

The Vicomte's Wager

The Story of how he made and lost it

by Rafael Sabatini

I

To honour the fair sex is the first law of chivalry—a law well understood by the gay roysterers seated around the Comte de St. Auban's generous board; for in a few short hours we had paid right loyal homage to woman by toasting every beauty at the court of France, and for that matter at every court of Europe.

I was young then—let this be my excuse—and I fear me I was vain and foolish. At least, I know that my reputation was not quite what a young man's reputation should be.

But on that night at St. Auban's, what little wit the gods had given me must have been smothered in the fumes of wine.

The conversation had assumed a character which I cannot recall in detail, but which had for scope the discussion of woman's beauty—a very fit and proper subject for half a score of idle young fops who knew no occupation save the study of fashion, gallantry and perfumery. I was appealed to for my opinion upon some question of feminine susceptibilities, and, with a boldness derived from much indulgence in the goblet at my elbow, I replied by a loud and lusty boast, that the woman was yet unborn that could withstand my personal charms and lover's wiles.

The burst of laughter which greeted this remark, instead of the silent awe to which I deemed it entitled, disconcerted me somewhat; but when the Chevaler de Brissac, leaning across the table, loudly anounced that he could find a lady who would be no more affected either by my personal beauty or charm of manner, than one of the marble statues in the Louvre, I became angry. Had it not been that de Brissac's fame as a swordsman was apt to make him in a degree respected, and cause one to think twice before saying that to him which would have been unhesitatingly said to another, I doubt not but that some smart witticisms would have been exchanged. But I washed down my annoyance with another goblet of Anjou, and sweetly desired him to name this modern Penelope.

"I will pledge her!" he cried, rising to his feet and lifting his glass on high, with fingers that shook ever so lightly. "I drink to the bright eyes of the Marquise de Grandcourt."

It was de règle that we should stand to pledge a lady, and so our chairs were pushed back, and several unsteady pairs of legs supported their owners' bodies, which swayed, some gracefully, some otherwise, as the toast was noisily responded to.

The Marquise de Grandcourt had the reputation of being as heartless as she was beautiful, and many were the ardent wooers whose discomfiture she had encompassed. I remember how upon many occasions, when I had met her at the Louvre, she had been wont to glance disdainfully at my brave apparel, and turn up her perfect nose as if my delicate perfumes of ambre and iris were offensive to her dainty nostrils. And as I remembered this I was inclined to regret the rashness of my boast.

Still, when presently I encountered de Brissac's sardonic smile, and heard him murmur in bantering tones, "Are you satisfied, Vicomte?" I laughed derisively.

"Satisfied? I am satisfied that what I have said is true, and I will prove my words."

"Or eat them," he added. "Chut, Vicomte, I'll wager you a hundred louis that not if you pester her with your scented attentions for a whole year, will you so much obtain her permission to kiss her finger tips."

"Bah!" I laughed, "a hundred louis would not pay the expenses of my wooing."

"If you require tempting, Vicomte," came St. Auban's voice from the head of the table, "I will gladly lay you a thousand louis."

"Done, with you!" I roared, utterly oblivious of the fact that if I were to employ every blandishment I could think of, towards every Hebrew gentleman of my acquaintance, I should not succeed in raising half the sum. "How long will you give me?"

"What say you to three months?"

"Three months!" I echoed, "Do you take me for a clown? I should indeed be a clumsy wooer could I not earn your money in a month."

"No, no," replied St. Auban generously, "there is no fairness in the arrangement. You have taken a good deal of wine, Vilmorin, and I think it would be better for me to repeat my proposals tomorrow, when your head is cool."

"La, la," I answered, quickly, for the smiling eyes that were turned upon me had aroused my temper, "Undeceive yourself, St. Auban. If you were half as sober as I am you would be less willing to put a thousand louis into my pocket."

The shout of laughter that applauded my courageous coxcombry well-nigh shook the glasses on the table.

"As you will," answered St. Auban, "'tis then a wager that within a month you will have conquered the heart of the Marquise de Grandcourt."

"Neither in one month nor twenty if I know the lady!" ejaculated de Brissac.

"Say you so, Chevalier?" I cried, springing to my feet, and angered by so much opposition. "Say you so? Then hear my answer. My name is not Camille de Vilmorin, if I do not bring the Marquise de Grandcourt on her knees to me—on her knees, mark you—before I am a month older. And failing to do so, I shall forfeit a thousand louis!"

With that I sat down amidst the wild vociferations of the assembled company, and emptied my newly filled bumper to quench the thirst which my vigorous speech had excited.

II

With an aching head and a sluggish mind did I set about recalling, next day, what had been said and done at the Comte de St. Auban's supper-table. But the memory of the whole evening was as blurred and confused as a quickly revolving wheel of many colours.

One thing, however, stood clearly defined before me, and sent a stab of regret through my heart—my drunken wager.

Misunderstand me not. I would scorn to appear before you in false colours, for, whatever may have been my sins, I never was a hypocrite, nor do I wish to be one now. My honour was not father to my regret, as it should have been. Like many of those who prate loudly of honour, and make it their most sacred oath, it seems to me now that I but understood the practice of that virtue dimly. My regret was born of a fear that I should fail to win my wager, and be called an idle boaster.

I met St. Auban and de Brissac at the levée in the Louvre that morning, and they smilingly inquired whether I had yet paid my addresses to the Marquise. My answer lacked much of that suave flippancy which I affected, and was unaccompanied by my wonted laugh.

It must have been my brusqueness upon this occasion which gave rise to the rumour amongst those who, having been present at St. Auban's supper-table, were privy to the wager—the affair was kept amomgst us in the profoundest secrecy—that I had no intention of paying court to the lady, or, in fact, of approaching her.

When I heard of this, two days later, my dormant energies were aroused, and, as ready money was an uncommonly absent commodity, I must perforce set to work without further dallying to bring the Marquise a-kneeling before me, or else resign myself to the sale of my horses and jewelry.

As a Vicomte de Vilmorin would cut but a sorry figure in the world without these accessories, the sacrifice was not to be thought of.

Therefore I set about discovering what manner of man the Marquise would consider as at all approaching her ideal. I soon gathered that if this living icicle had any penchant towards the opposite sex, it was for soldiers and warlike men. I winced at the information, for such men, in my estimation, always reeked of leather, and were prone to brusque, unseemly manners, which I had no stomach for emulating. That thousand louis, however, danced before my eyes like a tormenting sprite, and must be conquered.

I looked about me for a sombre suit that might have escaped the scent bottle, but, not finding any such within my wardrobe, I was forced to visit a tailor whom I honoured with my patronage, and who, in virtue of my handsome figure, was not too pressing in his demands for payment.

This commodious threader of needles sent me out into the world garbed in a sombre suit of velvet with silver lace, over which I buckled on a baldrick of embossed black leather, bearing a bronze-hilted rapier, of prodigious length, in a leathern scabbard.

Imagine me—whose baldricks had ever been of gaily coloured and richly embroidered silks, whose sword had been more hilt than blade, and all ablaze with jewels—thus fashioned, like some moping night bird, or some canting, moral-mongering follower of the English puritan Cromwell.

Nor was that all; for when, at home, I surveyed my appearance critically before a mirror, I cursed the smooth skin and meek expression of my girlish face, and, having got a servant to bring me a hot iron, I attempted, by an upward curling of my moustachios, to give them a warlike, bristling look, which might add ferocity to my otherwise gentle beauty.

When that was done, and I had pressed upon my locks a tall-crowned hat decorated by a single feather, I sallied forth a-wooing. And de Brissac, whom I met as I went, and who knew me not at the first glance, seeing me—the gay, roystering Vilmorin—thus spurred and booted, and begirt with such a sword, puffed out his cheeks in wonder, and asked me what adversary I was going to meet.

"There is no duel afoot," I answered, in stiff accents, born of the dignity borrowed from my raiment; "I am about to visit the Marquise."

"Then, by the Mass," he cried, eyeing me from hat to spurs in a sardonic fashion, "why come you not armed back and breast?"

But, heeding not his sarcastic allusion to my apparel, nor his parting request that I should present his compliments to the Marquise, I hurried on.

I found the lady whose favour had an intrinsic value for me surrounded by a group of lisping gallants, whom, but a few hours back, my finery would have extinguished wholly. As it was, they looked askance at me, and some who knew me marvelled greatly, no doubt, at the change which had been wrought, whilst some who knew me not eyed me in a supercilious fashion, as I might eye a lacquey.

But I threw back their scornful glances, and, clanking my scabbard, drew their attention to the length of my rapier, with a significance which they could not misinterpret, as I elbowed my way to the Marquise, to whom I made my courtliest bow.

"Monsieur le Vicomte," she murmured, when I had announced myself, "I cannot clearly recollect you. Is it long since last we met?"

"Some little time," I answered suavely, remembering that it was exactly a week, and praying to heaven that she might not remember it too.

We entered upon an interesting conversation, and it was not long ere I realised how well-advised I had been to clothe myself with such sobriety. For soon those gilded, lisping fops who stood about us began to move away, until at last the beautiful and greatly courted Marquise de Grandcourt and the warlike Vilmorin were left alone.

We discussed the men that filled the room, and, having ascertained that I was not likely to be overheard by any of my acquaintances, I launched forth upon a vigorous abuse of their effeminate dress and manners, whereat her glorious eyes sparkled with enthusiasm for a subject which, I soon discovered, she was herself never tired of expounding.

When I arose, at the end of an hour, "It does one good to see such a man," she said, "in these days of scented puppets."

And as I bent over her shapely hand, so white and slender, she murmured a wish that we might meet again—a wish that, for obvious reasons, found a fervent echo in my heart.

III

Such was the commencement of my courtship. And for a week it continued more or less as it had begun, save that each day my tongue shaped bolder words and my eyes more ardent glances, until the Marquise could have no doubt but that it was to her that my court was paid each time I visited the Louvre, and not to His Majesty.

It was then that, deeming matters to have gone far enough in this fashion, I bethought me to fill her boudoir with flowers, and letters couched in tender language, which, strange to tell, were all returned to me.

This set me pondering, and I concluded that perchance the Marquise, being a lady of exalted and fastidious tastes, cared not to be wooed in prose. So I hired me a poet, who wrote me odes and sonnets by the score, which I sent along with my floral offerings.

But here agin no better fortune met me; for, like the prose, the verses too were returned.

I cast about me for some new means through which to show her my devotion, and hit upon the idea of engaging some minstrels then performing at Court to serenade her. I paid them well, and bid them do their best. But either they ignored my injunctions, or else the lady had no more stomach for serenades by night than for elegant prose and tender verse by day; for of the three I sent, but one returned—and he with a broken head—to tell me that they had been set upon by her ladyship's servants, and that his companions had been carried home on shutters.

He cursed me roundly, and called me some names, which, out of pity for the fellow's lack of manners, I withhold. Suffice it to say that it cost me fifty louis—twenty-five of which I borrowed from a friendly Jew—to pacify him.

That night I slept but ill, for it seemed that my courtship took not a favourable turn, and as my busy thoughts were searching means wherein to mend affairs, they banished sleep.

But in those waking hours I determined upon a plan which must perforce succeed, and in accordance with which I boldly visited the Marquise upon the following day. I chose an early hour whereat she would have no visitors, and therein I was successful, for I found her alone and in a gracious mood.

I chided her gently for having treated my messengers with such scant compliment, whereat she looked regretful and cast down her eyes.

Noting my advantage, and deeming the citadel of her heart now ripe for storming, I knelt to her—as I had knelt to a score of women before her—and told her, in words that from much repetition had acquired an eloquent fluency, how deeply I loved—I who had never known before what it was to love.

She heard me through with a gentle hanging of her lovely head—a symptom which, experience told me, should augur well—and when for very want of breath I stopped, she laughed in tones that made me wonder had the long-concealed passion which she had fostered for me turned her head.

Thinking it must be so, and hearing already the chink of St. Auban's gold pieces in my pocket, I sprang joyfully to my feet, and, catching her round the waist, I awoke the echoes of the room with the sound of a hearty kiss.

Were I to live a hundred years, I shall still remember the change that came over her face, from which all colour fled, and the terrible look that flashed upon me from her eyes.

I liked it not, and, scenting danger, I became suddenly aware that it had grown late, and that I had an appointment at noon, which must perforce be kept.

I looked about me for my hat, and, having found it, I made shift to go,when suddenly she broke the painful, uncanny silence.

"Tarry a moment, monsieur," she cried, and methought her eyes had taken fire. "Tarry a moment, I am loth to part with you!"

Had I heard her aright? Did she desire my company, and were these signs of impending storm but affected, so that—womanlike—she might conceal her joy? Thinking it must be so, "I am your slave," I murmured, with a gallant bow, "your humble slave, Marquise. Command me as you will, and those others may wait."

She laughed curiously, and her eyes wandered towards a riding whip which lay at hand, and which had I seen betimes, mayhap I should have been more prudent.

"You have given me something, Monsieur," she said, "and as it hurts me to remain a debtor, I will give you something in return."

In vain did I protest that what I had given her was of no consequence, and required no payment. She was of a different mind.

"I will call again, Marquise," I exclaimed, "you can repay me then." And, knowing full well what was in store for me did I tarry, I stalked towards the door.

But she forestalled me, and barred my passage, whip in hand.

Seeing how matters stood, and having no illusions left, I deemed it best to grow dignified.

"I trust, madame," I ventured in my gentlest tones, fearing to arouse her anger further by any too great a show of firmness, "I trust that you will remember that I am a gentleman."

"I never knew it, sir," she thundered back, in withering accents, "and from what I know of you, I can but remember that you are a knave."

Had I lived to be knaved by a woman? Mordieu! she carried her jests somewhat far!

"Let me pass, madame," I exclaimed angrily, advancing towards her as I spoke.

But her hand went up, and the threatening whip checked my progress of a sudden. I deemed it best to effect a compromise.

"I assure you, Marquise—" I began; but she cut me short.

"I need no assurances from you, monsieur. You imagined that I was your dupe when first you came to me, tricked out in warlike feathers. You imagine that I scented not the coxcomb they masked—The roué, Vicomte de Vilmorin. How dull you were!"

And here again her laughter jarred upon my nerves.

"Deeming that you had made a deep impression, and that you had an easy conquest, you pestered me with your letters and your poems, and, lastly, with your musicians. Nor did you take warning when your offerings were returned, and your musicians carried hence with broken heads; but you must come here, to me, to offer me this crowning insult! You hound!"

And with that gentle apostrophe her whip came down about my shoulders, causing me to regret that I had not come to do my wooing arrayed in back and breast, as de Brissac had suggested.

This was a disillusionment! And, mordieu! what an arm she had; and yet, how beautiful she was!

Had I witnessed her thus chastising another I might have bent admiring eyes upon her; as it was, I withdrew into an angle of the chamber, so as to present as little surface as possible to her vindictive lash.

Huddled up in my corner, I shrilly denounced her as a coward.

But my loquacity only served to arouse her shrewish temper further, for, seizing me by the collar of my doublet, she dragged me forth from my shelter into the middle of the room, and there, despite my groans of pain and my entreaties, she did so mercilessly belabour me that the memory of it sets me writhing even now.

And when at last she paused, exhausted, and I, crushed alike in body and in soul, sank down upon the floor, a mass of aching bruises, she bent over me to whisper in my ear a piece of sound advice—"Next time your fancy leads you into a drunken wager, see that there be no listening servants."

How I reached home it matters not. Suffice it that by the aid of some kind soul I was enabled to crawl into my bed-chamber an hour or so after my interview with that fury in female form.

I penned a note to Monsieur de St. Auban, begging him to hold me excused from the revels he was holding that night, and alleging that a fall from my horse had injured me somewhat painfully.

I will not offend the nice sense of my readers by a recital of the humiliations that were put upon me by my erstwhile boon companions. Needless to say, I was too much the gentleman to smirch the fair name of the Marquise by recounting the story of her outrageous conduct towards me. But, despite my own reticence, the thing was known all over Paris the next day.

That gay city seemed to grow suddenly dull and uninteresting to me, and, after paying St. Auban in full, I deemed it best to leave court—at least for a while.

I have since lived the peaceful life of a country gentleman, which somehow seems to suit me better than the vicissitudes of a roysterer's career, and the consequence attendant on it.


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