Sunday, September 20, 2015

The duc de Bellegarde's Ball: Chaper II

Chapter II: End of the Ball

As Guy and Signoret stood in the courtyard, Guy noticed the Contessa and her dwarf ascending the main stair. Hmmm. Going to join the Duc? Finding them en flagrante delecto could be embarrassing but that may provide just the leverage we need. “Let’s follow them,” Guy said.

They followed the pair up the main stair and saw them go down a corridor where the Contessa entered a private bedroom. L’Omino remained outside, presumably on guard. But as they watched, they saw him alternately peak through the keyhole and listen at the door. Soon, Guy noticed the Duchess ascending the main stair. He told Signoret to warn the dwarf, but the Jesuit righteously replied, “Let the sinners harvest the fruits of their own evil.”

“Then keep watch and if I can’t distract the Duchess, then do something.” Guy adjusted his hat, then slowly descended the main stair towards the Duchess. Meanwhile, Signoret darted down a narrow passage and used a servants’ stair to reach a new location to keep the dwarf under observation.
As he reached the Duchess, Guy sketched a deep bow. Exerting all his charm, courtly flattery, and etiquette, he told the Duchess that he must have become lost; he complimented the Duchess on her dress and hair; and he asked her if she could show him the way to the ballroom. “And then Your Grace, perhaps you will make this evening complete by allowing me the honor of a dance with a graceful Duchess.”
Anne de Bueil-Fontaine, duchess de Bellegarde

The Duchess agreed to show Guy the ballroom and the two danced. Afterwards Guy offered to fetch the Duchess some refreshments and they stepped through the French Doors onto the terrace and out into the garden.

“It is a shame that the fireworks are over so soon. Did you have a chance to see them, Monseiur?”

“I was looking for a higher vantage point when I saw you,” Guy said. “And I do not regret the fireworks.”

The Duchess fanned herself as she said, “Are you a friend of my husband?”

“I have not had that honor,” said Guy.

“Then I am fortunate to have met you first,” she said as she smiled at Guy.

Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of the Chevalier de Branville. “De Bourges is not what he seems, your grace. He has certain nefarious connections." Guy made an inarticulate objection.

“Has not your name been linked to that of the Duke, or should I say, der Landgrave DeMainz?”

“Nefarious? Sir, you insult me.” Guy nearly lost his temper at the untimely interruption and nearly lost his composure to Branville’s cutting wit.

“Then you deny knowing DeMainz?”

“I know you Branville. Does that add to my ‘nefarious connections?’ Why the very notion. I have a cousin who is a Jesuit priest and another who is a King’s Musketeer.”

“You see, Your Grace. De Bourges has a number of interesting ties.”

“Speaking of interesting ties, perhaps Her Grace would be interested in your ties Branville. That woman you were screaming at by Saint Catherine’s Fountain, was she perhaps your fiancée?”

“Say what you will Branville, I am discrete. Saint Catherine’s Fountain and right outside a church too.” Guy shook his head slowly as he made a tsking sound.

The Duchess, unamused by Branville, dismissed him. Guy said, “I am sorry you had to see such a scene Your Grace. I can leave if I have distressed you.”

“Branville has distressed me, not you Monsieur. But let us go somewhere for a more private, or shall we say more discrete discussion.” To which, Guy raised one eyebrow.

Father Signoret walked towards the dwarf, “I’ve been watching you little man. What mischief is in your devilish heart?”
L'Omino the Dwarf

“I know your kind, Black Crow,” said L’Omino.

“And I know your kind,” Signoret said.

“All your kind are alike,” L’Omino said. “You sneak priests and your damned Inquisition are out to get me. Just like you did my cousin Jacomo.”

“Your cousin got what he deserved,” Signoret said as he started to leave. But out of the corner of his eye he saw the dwarf stealthily creeping forwards with a dagger hidden behind his back. The fighting priest whipped out his rapier.

The dwarf loudly cried out, “Please don’t kill me. Mercy! Mercy! Ow! Oh! That hurts! Mercy! Please don’t beat me! Mercy!”

The door opened and the Contessa emerged, in some disarray. “Mistress save me from this cruel priest!”

“How dare you beat my dwarf! And what’s this?” She pointed to a cut on the dwarf’s cheek from which blood was flowing.

“That’s where he hit me with his sharp sword Mistress.”

Signoret, stood silent thinking, But I didn’t hit him.

The Contessa scolded the Jesuit priest at length for harming her “poor, dear, little L’Omino,” while behind her back, the dwarf made faces at the Jesuit.

Signoret continued explaining, but it was only when he was finally able to draw the Contessa’s attention to the dwarf as he again made a face, that he seemed to be believed by the Contessa.

“Naughty, naughty L’Omino,” she scolded. “I shall have to punish you.”

Beyond the Contessa, Signoret saw his cousin, Guy with the Duchess as they ascended the stair.
“I leave your dwarf to you. I must be going,” Signoret said as he quickly walked towards his cousin.
Seeing his approach, Guy gracefully asked the Duchess if he could have a brief word with his cousin. “I wouldn’t want him to worry and start looking for me.” She agreed and Guy stepped away. Father Signoret quickly informed him of recent events with the dwarf and the Contessa. Then the Jesuit warned Guy to be chaste and careful.

“I’m always careful cousin,” Guy said as he took the Duchesses arm and the two continued up the stair.

The two swordsmen paused while the fireworks exploded overhead. But after a few minutes, Baron Villemorin leveled his blade and advanced on his opponent. Repeatedly he drove Michaud back to the edge of the riverwalk then allowed him to move back to the center of the path, toying with him as a cat toys with a mouse. Villemorin refused several opportunities to wound his opponent so that he could time his hits to an explosion of fireworks. Twice he succeeded and Michaud bled from his shoulder and leg as Gaston watched.

After the second blow, Paulin cried, “Finish him! Finish him off!” But Gaston intervened saying that he must see whether his principal was able to continue the duel.

Quietly he said to Michaud, “Fall down you idiot! Next time fall down at his first pass.”

“Surely that would be dishonorable?” Michaud protested.

“There is no honor in this,” said Gaston.

As he impatiently waited for his cousin, Father Signoret was approached by one of the Spaniards he had seen earlier. The Spaniard introduced himself as Don Martin Santiago de Rodriguez y Alta-Marino. Don Martin tried to get Signoret to tell him about Lieutenant Thibeault, but the wily Jesuit revealed nothing.

Signoret excused himself and searched for Guy’s friend, Madame de Combalet. When he found her, he returned immediately to the conversation they had left on the theological and philosophical view of violence. He justified his beliefs with the jus bellum iustum, the Tomasine Just War doctrine articulated by Thomas Aquinas. Impressed by the Jesuit’s scholarly erudition, she mentioned that, “Aside from certain discussions with my uncle, I have seldom heard such conversations outside of Madam Rambouillet’s salon. Its blue draped walls are the scene of more intelligent discussions than are found in most of the universities of Paris.” Having impressed Madame de Combalet, Father Signoret bid her adieu to look for Gaston or for some sign of Guy.

Gaston roughly bandaged Michaud’s wounds. In the end the little fat man had finally fallen, though whether from strategy or exhaustion, even Gaston could not have said. Gaston confirmed that Villemorin considered his honor to have been satisfied. “A most honorable affair, my lord. I’ve seldom seen so much honor…except when butchering a lamb.” But the Baron refused to rise to the bait and despite his brother’s objections, he led Paulin away. The duel over, Gaston arranged for some servants to take Michaud to a sofa to rest while a physician was sent for. 

As he returned from ordering the servants, Gaston’s gaze crossed that of an elegantly dressed courtier who he recognized: Isidore Lafontaine Sieur Le Roulle. Gaston knew Lafontaine was a notable duelist and a member of the Fratellanza di Giganti, the largest Italian Fencing school in Paris and one of the busiest schools. On this occasion, Lafontaine was dressed as a courtier and had eschewed the black tabard that the members of the school wore like a uniform. The Fratellanza di Giganti maintained a long and intense feud with the Fraternité Sainct-Didier, and Gaston gently rubbed his thumb over the crest of the Fraternité that he wore pinned to his hat as he smiled coldly at Lafontaine.
Lafontaine turned and walked away. Gaston continued across the antechamber, where he paused to allow a soft-handed gentleman with a plate of food to pass by, only to see the same gentleman bump into a thin and sinister looking young man who wore a long rapier with a cross guard hilt beneath the cloak of a Knight of Malta. In the collision, the gentleman spilled his food on himself provoking a string of curses which he directed at the Knight.

“God’s Bones! Damme sir if you cannot watch where you are going. This room is far too crowded. S’Blood! This suit is new today and now it is ruined.”
Phillipe de Saint-Cassien, Chevalier de Didonne aka Brother Phillipe

The knight responded calmly, “You blaspheme sir! Moreover, the fault was entirely yours. If you find this room too crowded for your tastes, you may find that the garden is less crowded and there is still a bit of a moon to see by so that I may instruct you on how a Christian gentleman should properly conduct himself.”

Gaston followed to observe the affair. This duel was the antithesis of the previous one. The Knight was skilled in the aggressive Italian style and he wasted no time in running his opponent through the breast. The Knight then knelt with his sword upright in front of him as he prayed over his fallen foe, who mumbled a few words and then died.

Father Signoret found Gaston, arriving just in time to see the Knight wipe his sword off on the body of his opponent, don his black cloak with the Maltese cross in white, and walk away without a backwards glance. “What happened?” asked Signoret.

“A sinner has gone to his judgment. The Knight objected to his oaths,” Gaston said sarcastically. “He tried to say something there at the end, perhaps to confess, but he wasn’t able.”

The Jesuit said, “So he’ll burn in hell with the other blasphemers.”

Gaston glanced back at Father Signoret, but said nothing as he walked away. The Jesuit went up to the victor and introduced himself. He learned that the other man was indeed a Knight of Malta, named Phillipe de Saint-Cassien, Chevalier de Didonne. Brother Phillipe, as he suggested the Jesuit call him, told Signoret that he had recently returned to Paris after finishing a tour of duty, during which he had served under the command of the Spanish Capitan-General, Pietro di Leyva. “With God’s grace, we were able to smite the infidel destroying a Turkish fleet near Alexandria. And now I have returned to France to aid the Grand Prior. One day, God willing, I hope to return with a host of Christian knights to smite the infidel an even greater blow.”

The Jesuit praised the Knights of Malta and complemented Brother Phillipe on his crusading zeal and invited him to dinner the next evening, which Brother Phillipe conditionally accepted, “If the God Lord allows.” 

As Gaston stepped out of the garden, he nearly ran into a nobleman who stepped in his path. The man’s features looked familiar, but his name was unknown to Gaston.

Don Martin Santiago de Rodriguez y Alta-Marino

The man said, in heavily accented French, “I am Don Martin Santiago de Rodriguez y Alta-Marino. And you should know that the vizcaina you bear has a long and honorable history. It has been to the new world and back…And it should not be in the hands of some common soldier. It was my father’s blade. And you killed him.  

Gaston stared coldly at Don Martin as he considered his next words. Then said, “He was in my way…and I was in a hurry. I’ve been a soldier for more than sixteen years, Monsieur. I’ve killed many fathers. Spaniards among them.” Don Martin stood without replying, so Gaston turned and walked away.

Guy had used his courtly flattery and flirtation to distract the Duchess. The distraction succeeded, though, as Guy gathered up his clothes and prepared to tip-toe out of her bedroom, he thought, perhaps that succeeded too well. As he headed towards the door, the Duchess said that he should use the window. Guy bowed in assent, then took one perfect rose from a nearby vase and placed it behind her ear as he asked her to stand there in the moonlight so he could take one perfect image with him. Then he nimbly descended the Trellis.

Below, Gaston and Chancie waited. Chancie drawled, “Oooh Guy, wherever have you been? Why, you’ve missed a button!” Chancie added with amusement. “We-ell, I think we had best be leaving. May I offer you a ride home?”

“Most kind,” said Guy.

“And on the way, you must tell me all about what you have been up to!”
Vicomte "Chancie" de Chambre

The three friends, along with the Vicomete de Chambre, rode away from the Hôtel de Bellegarde. As they went, Signoret told Gaston that a Spanish nobleman, Don Martin, was interested in him. “Asked many questions about you, but I managed not to tell him anything of importance.”

Gaston said, “He claimed to recognize my main gauche.” Gaston asked Guy if he knew anything about the Spaniard, but Guy did not, nor did Chancie.

As the clock on the Bastille struck five in the morning, the coach halted along the rue Saint Antoine not far from the Fountain of Saint Catherine. The coach was next to the construction site for the new Jesuit chapel. The site was a maze of wooden scaffolding, festooned with ropes, block, and tackle and stacks of building supplies: bricks, stone, and lumber. In the street was a pyramid of stone blocks that formed the base for a massive crane. 

As soon as the coach stopped, a troop of dark cloaked men ran forward. Several men stuck staves between the spokes of the wheels or placed stones to block them to prevent the coach’s departure. “Oh Guy,” Chancie said, “This looks exciting.” 

To Guy’s surprise the band said, “Turn over the message you won’t be killed!”

“You must have mistaken us for the King’s messengers,” Chancie drawled.

Guy said, “As you can see, we just came from a court ball. We don’t have it with us.” 

While Guy had been talking, Gaston and Signoret had quietly stepped out on the other side of the coach. They were confronted by eight swordsmen whose identities were hidden by the darkness and the shadow of their black cloaks. Giving their opponents no time to coordinate their actions, the soldier and the priest drew their swords and sprang into motion thrusting and slashing their way through their adversaries. As he fought, Signoret yelled loudly for the watch. Gaston commanded, “Keep your backs to the coach! Don’t let them get behind you.” 

“Stay in the coach, Chancie” Guy ordered. “You don’t have a sword.”

“What and miss the fun?” Chancie asked?

Gaston was facing four swordsmen, none too skilled but the four together could be dangerous. They hesitantly attacked, but Gaston brushed their thrusts aside and launched a devastating attack of his own. His aggressive assault quickly overpowered his adversaries. Three fell to his blade. Then he disarmed their leader and called on him to surrender. But though unarmed, he refused. So Gaston punched him in the face with the hilt of his sword, knocking him unconscious.

On the other side of the carriage, Chancie and Guy faced four of the black clad duelists. Guy was armed with his rapier but Chancie only with his cane. Behind them they heard the clash of blades from Gaston and Signoret. No help from them for now, Guy thought. And at any moment these four will be reinforced by those others. I must act quickly. Guy cut his way, one, two, three through the weaker swordsmen. Chancie was faced by a more skilled opponent and though the Vicomte surprised his adversary with the blade inside his cane to score first blood, soon Chancie was bleeding and being driven back by his foe. Having finished all three of his opponents, Guy moved to aid his friend the Vicomte. As he did so, Guy noticed a man watching the combat from the shadow of a pillar. The man’s features were completely disguised by the grotesque, long-nosed mask that he wore. The masked man noticed Guy’s regard and slowly retreated into the shadows.

Like Gaston, Signoret also faced four opponents, but schooled as he was in the Spanish style, the Jesuit was more concerned with protecting his flanks than attacking directly so he circled and parried waiting patiently until a an opponent made a mistake, then striking rapidly and precisely. One by one, his foes slowly fell until only the leader was left.

Gaston said, “Hurry up and finish your man, Priest. We need to go.”

As the Jesuit ran his blade through his final foe, Gaston charged around the coach towards the remaining attackers, who quickly fled. All their adversaries were fallen or dispersed.

Guy said, “Chancie, you’re bleeding.”

“My house is too nice Guy. No blood on my carpet Guy, promise me,” Chancie said. Then the Vicomte fainted. In the distance the friends heard the running footsteps of what must be the nightwatch.

“Time to go,” Guy said. As the driver freed the coach wheels, Guy and his cousin carefully lifted Chancie onto the bench seat on one side of the coach, while Gaston tossed his unconscious foe onto the floor.

In the kitchen of the Vicomte de Chambre, Gaston and Signoret stood looking down on the body of Gaston’s recent foe. Signoret pointed, “A black tabard, just like the others.”

Gaston said, “Fratellenza di Giganti. They like black.” Gaston picked up a bucket of water and tossed in on the unconscious swordsman who spluttered awake. “Who sent you and what do they want?” Gaston asked, quietly as he drew the short leaf-shaped blade that he kept in one boot. 

“You can kill me, but I won’t talk.”

“Admirable,” said Gaston, as he remembered that this swordsman had refused to surrender even when disarmed. He turned to the priest. 

“Allow me,” said Father Signoret. “As my friend says, your bravery is admirable. But what about your eternal soul. If you die without the last rites your soul will go to hell where you will suffer a thousand torments for all eternity. The plaything of each and every one of Satan’s devils.”

The swordsman paled at the thought, and he nervously told the Jesuit that he and his fellow students were from the Fratellanza di Giganti school and that they had been hired to waylay Guy de Bourges to recover a stolen message. He didn’t know the man who hired them for he kept his face hidden by a strange mask like those you sometimes see on stage. Gaston asked him to describe the mask, which he did. 

Signoret asked, “And what were paid for your ambush?” The swordsman said they had been offered money and a chance at revenge against Guy and Gaston who were members of a rival school, the Fraternité Sainct-Didier. Having learned what they could, they blindfolded the swordsman while they went out to the other room to tell Guy what they had learned. 

Guy was sitting on a small sofa sipping a fine wine. As the other two appeared, he said “Fabré is with Chancie. He is weak from loss of blood and was in some pain, but Fabré says the wounds should heal in time. He gave the Vicomte an herbal draft for the pain and to help him to sleep.”

Signoret told his cousin what they had learned from the swordsman. Gaston added “From the description, the mask worn by the ringleader was from the commedia dell'arte. I’d say it was the mask of Il Capitano. This mystery man has a sense of humor.”

Then Signoret and Guy discussed what to do with the captured swordsman. Guy did not want to risk dragging Chancie into a quarrel with the di Giganti and was concerned about what the captured swordsman might tell others. Gaston said, “He’s a brave man and I won’t kill him.”

“Of course not,” Guy said. “It never crossed my mind. But we can’t just let him go here. We need to take him somewhere, preferably while blindfolded, before we free him.”

“I know just the place,” Gaston said.

The swordsman agreed to give his parole and to wear a blindfold, so long as the priest gave his word that they wouldn’t murder him or allow him to die unshriven. Signoret agreed and told him to say ten Hail Marys, for his soul. 

A coach, stopped outside the door of the Fratellenza di Giganti. The coat-of-arms on its side was obscured by a cloak hanging from the inside. It was early morning and the school was not yet opened for students. A man wearing a blindfold and with a bruised and swollen jaw was pushed out of the coach which then raced away. The man stood there for perhaps as long as it might take to say ten Hail Marys, then he removed his blindfold and blinked in the bright morning sun.

The next day, a small package arrived at Guy’s apartment. Fabré brought the package to his master. “A package for you Monsieur Guy.”

Guy briefly examined the package, weighing it and looking at the wrapping, before opening it. Inside was an emerald ring inscribed with the words: Semper Fidelis. Guy pondered the words than said softly, “Always faithful. Interesting. I wonder how I should interpret this gift.”

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