Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Fiction: by Stanley J. Weyman

On Thursday, as I began preparing the Friday Fiction post for this week, I noticed that I had not written up a few of the sessions for the next volume of tales. So while I labor to get that completed I will give you the inspiration for that session. Zaton's is an eatery and in formal gambling establishment in my setting. But it isn't a place I invented. It is from the novel, Under the Red Robe by  Stanley J. Weyman. It is set in roughly the same time period as The Three Musketeers, but the protagonist is not a King's Musketeer, but rather a down on his luck noble who works for the Cardinal - hence the red robe in the title. The book is well worth reading and the movie based on it is well worth watching and should serve as posts in their own right at another time. Weyman, though not as well known as Dumas, is the author of many romantic and cape and sword stories.

Here is the opening of Under the Red Robe, by Stanley J. Weyman.


‘Marked cards!’ 

There were a score round us when the fool, little knowing the man with whom he had to deal, and as little how to lose like a gentleman, flung the words in my teeth. He thought, I’ll be sworn, that I should storm and swear and ruffle it like any common cock of the hackle. But that was never Gil de Berault’s way. For a few seconds after he had spoken I did not even look at him. I passed my eye instead—smiling, BIEN ENTENDU—round the ring of waiting faces, saw that there was no one except De Pombal I had cause to fear; and then at last I rose and looked at the fool with the grim face I have known impose on older and wiser men. 

‘Marked cards, M. l’Anglais?’ I said, with a chilling sneer. ‘They are used, I am told, to trap players—not unbirched schoolboys.’ 

‘Yet I say that they are marked!’ he replied hotly, in his queer foreign jargon. ‘In my last hand I had nothing. You doubled the stakes. Bah, sir, you knew! You have swindled me!’ 

‘Monsieur is easy to swindle—when he plays with a mirror behind him,’ I answered tartly.

At that there was a great roar of laughter, which might have been heard in the street, and which brought to the table everyone in the eating-house whom his voice had not already attracted. But I did not relax my face. I waited until all was quiet again, and then waving aside two or three who stood between us and the entrance, I pointed gravely to the door. 

‘There is a little space behind the church of St Jacques, M. l’Etranger,’ I said, putting on my hat and taking my cloak on my arm. ‘Doubtless you will accompany me thither?’ 

He snatched up his hat, his face burning with shame and rage. 

‘With pleasure!’ he blurted out. ‘To the devil, if you like!’

I thought the matter arranged, when the Marquis laid his hand on the young fellow’s arm and checked him. 

‘This must not be,’ he said, turning from him to me with his grand, fine-gentleman’s air. ‘You know me, M. de Berault. This matter has gone far enough.’ 

‘Too far! M. de Pombal,’ I answered bitterly. ‘Still, if you wish to take your friend’s place, I shall raise no objection.’ 

‘Chut, man!’ he retorted, shrugging his shoulders negligently. ‘I know you, and I do not fight with men of your stamp. Nor need this gentleman.’ 

‘Undoubtedly,’ I replied, bowing low, ‘if he prefers to be caned in the streets.’ 

That stung the Marquis. 

‘Have a care! have a care!’ he cried hotly. ‘You go too far, M. Berault.’ 

‘De Berault, if you please,’ I objected, eyeing him sternly. ‘My family has borne the DE as long as yours, M. de Pombal.’ 

He could not deny that, and he answered, ‘As you please;’ at the same time restraining his friend by a gesture. ‘But none the less,’ he continued, ‘take my advice. The Cardinal has forbidden duelling, and this time he means it! You have been in trouble once and gone free. A second time it may fare worse with you. Let this gentleman go, therefore, M. de Berault. Besides—why, shame upon you, man!’ he exclaimed hotly; ‘he is but a lad!’ 

Two or three who stood behind me applauded that, But I turned and they met my eye; and they were as mum as mice. 

‘His age is his own concern,’ I said grimly. ‘He was old enough a while ago to insult me.’ 

‘And I will prove my words!’ the lad cried, exploding at last. He had spirit enough, and the Marquis had had hard work to restrain him so long. ‘You do me no service, M. de Pombal,’ he continued, pettishly shaking off his friend’s hand. ‘By your leave, this gentleman and I will settle this matter.’ 

‘That is better,’ I said, nodding drily, while the Marquis stood aside, frowning and baffled. ‘Permit me to lead the way.’ 

Zaton’s eating-house stands scarcely a hundred paces from St Jacques la Boucherie, and half the company went thither with us. The evening was wet, the light in the streets was waning, the streets themselves were dirty and slippery. There were few passers in the Rue St Antoine; and our party, which earlier in the day must have attracted notice and a crowd, crossed unmarked, and entered without interruption the paved triangle which lies immediately behind the church. I saw in the distance one of the Cardinal’s guard loitering in front of the scaffolding round the new Hotel Richelieu; and the sight of the uniform gave me pause for a moment. But it was too late to repent. 

The Englishman began at once to strip off his clothes. I closed mine to the throat, for the air was chilly. At that moment, while we stood preparing, and most of the company seemed a little inclined to stand off from me, I felt a hand on my arm, and turning, saw the dwarfish tailor at whose house, in the Rue Savonnerie, I lodged at the time. The fellow’s presence was unwelcome, to say the least of it; and though for want of better company I had sometimes encouraged him to be free with me at home, I took that to be no reason why I should be plagued with him before gentlemen. I shook him off, therefore, hoping by a frown to silence him. 

He was not to be so easily put down, however, and perforce I had to speak to him. 

‘Afterwards, afterwards,’ I said hurriedly. ‘I am engaged now. 

‘For God’s sake, don’t, sir!’ the poor fool cried, clinging to my sleeve. ‘Don’t do it! You will bring a curse on the house. He is but a lad, and—’ 

‘You, too!’ I exclaimed, losing patience. ‘Be silent, you scum! What do you know about gentlemen’s quarrels? Leave me; do you hear?’ 

‘But the Cardinal!’ he cried in a quavering voice. ‘The Cardinal, M. de Berault! The last man you killed is not forgotten yet. This time he will be sure to—’ 

‘Leave me, do you hear?’ I hissed. The fellow’s impudence passed all bounds. It was as bad as his croaking. ‘Begone!’ I added. ‘I suppose you are afraid that he will kill me, and you will lose your money.’ 

Frison fell back at that almost as if I had struck him, and I turned to my adversary, who had been awaiting my motions with impatience. God knows he did look young as he stood with his head bare and his fair hair drooping over his smooth woman’s forehead—a mere lad fresh from the college of Burgundy, if they have such a thing in England. I felt a sudden chill as I looked at him: a qualm, a tremor, a presentiment. What was it the little tailor had said? That I should—but there, he did not know. What did he know of such things? If I let this pass I must kill a man a day, or leave Paris and the eating-house, and starve. 

‘A thousand pardons,’ I said gravely, as I drew and took my place. ‘A dun. I am sorry that the poor devil caught me so inopportunely. Now however, I am at your service.’ 

He saluted and we crossed swords and began. But from the first I had no doubt what the result would be. The slippery stones and fading light gave him, it is true, some chance, some advantage, more than he deserved; but I had no sooner felt his blade than I knew that he was no swordsman. Possibly he had taken half-a-dozen lessons in rapier art, and practised what he learned with an Englishman as heavy and awkward as himself. But that was all. He made a few wild clumsy rushes, parrying widely. When I had foiled these, the danger was over, and I held him at my mercy. 

I played with him a little while, watching the sweat gather on his brow and the shadow of the church tower fall deeper and darker, like the shadow of doom, on his face. Not out of cruelty—God knows I have never erred in that direction!—but because, for the first time in my life, I felt a strange reluctance to strike the blow. The curls clung to his forehead; his breath came and went in gasps; I heard the men behind me and one or two of them drop an oath; and then I slipped—slipped, and was down in a moment on my right side, my elbow striking the pavement so sharply that the arm grew numb to the wrist. 

He held off. I heard a dozen voices cry, ‘Now! now you have him!’ But he held off. He stood back and waited with his breast heaving and his point lowered, until I had risen and stood again on my guard. 

‘Enough! enough!’ a rough voice behind me cried. ‘Don’t hurt the man after that.’ 

‘On guard, sir!’ I answered coldly—for he seemed to waver, and be in doubt. ‘It was an accident. It shall not avail you again.’ 

Several voices cried ‘Shame!’ and one, ‘You coward!’ But the Englishman stepped forward, a fixed look in his blue eyes. He took his place without a word. I read in his drawn white face that he had made up his mind to the worst, and his courage so won my admiration that I would gladly and thankfully have set one of the lookers-on—any of the lookers-on—in his place; but that could not be. So I thought of Zaton’s closed to me, of Pombal’s insult, of the sneers and slights I had long kept at the sword’s point; and, pressing him suddenly in a heat of affected anger, I thrust strongly over his guard, which had grown feeble, and ran him through the chest. 

When I saw him lying, laid out on the stones with his eyes half shut, and his face glimmering white in the dusk—not that I saw him thus long, for there were a dozen kneeling round him in a twinkling—I felt an unwonted pang. It passed, however, in a moment. For I found myself confronted by a ring of angry faces—of men who, keeping at a distance, hissed and cursed and threatened me, calling me Black Death and the like. 

They were mostly canaille, who had gathered during the fight, and had viewed all that passed from the farther side of the railings. While some snarled and raged at me like wolves, calling me ‘Butcher!’ and ‘Cut-throat!’ or cried out that Berault was at his trade again, others threatened me with the vengeance of the Cardinal, flung the edict in my teeth, and said with glee that the guard were coming—they would see me hanged yet. 

‘His blood is on your head!’ one cried furiously. ‘He will be dead in an hour. And you will swing for him! Hurrah!’ 

‘Begone,’ I said. 

‘Ay, to Montfaucon,’ he answered, mocking me. 

‘No; to your kennel!’ I replied, with a look which sent him a yard backwards, though the railings were between us. And I wiped my blade carefully, standing a little apart. For—well, I could understand it—it was one of those moments when a man is not popular. Those who had come with me from the eating-house eyed me askance, and turned their backs when I drew nearer; and those who had joined us and obtained admission were scarcely more polite. 

But I was not to be outdone in SANG FROID. I cocked my hat, and drawing my cloak over my shoulders, went out with a swagger which drove the curs from the gate before I came within a dozen paces of it. The rascals outside fell back as quickly, and in a moment I was in the street. Another moment and I should have been clear of the place and free to lie by for a while—when, without warning, a scurry took place round me. The crowd fled every way into the gloom, and in a hand-turn a dozen of the Cardinal’s guards closed round me.

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