THE NAKED SWORD
A man who has been posting all day long, and changing the air he breathes every half hour, who is well pleased with himself, and has nothing on earth to trouble him, and who sits alone by a fire in a comfortable chair after having eaten a hearty supper, may be pardoned if he takes an accidental nap.
I had filled my fourth glass when I fell asleep. My head, I daresay, hung uncomfortably; and it is admitted that a variety of French dishes is not the most favorable precursor to pleasant dreams.
I had a dream as I took mine ease in mine inn on this occasion. I fancied myself in a huge cathedral, without light, except from four tapers that stood at the corners of a raised platform hung with black, on which lay, draped also in black, what seemed to me the dead body of the Countess de St. Alyre. The place seemed empty, it was cold, and I could see only (in the halo of the candles) a little way round.
The little I saw bore the character of Gothic gloom, and helped my fancy to shape and furnish the black void that yawned all round me. I heard a sound like the slow tread of two persons walking up the flagged aisle. A faint echo told of the vastness of the place. An awful sense of expectation was upon me, and I was horribly frightened when the body that lay on the catafalque said (without stirring), in a whisper that froze me, "They come to place me in the grave alive; save me."
I found that I could neither speak nor move. I was horribly frightened.
The two people who approached now emerged from the darkness. One, the Count de St. Alyre, glided to the head of the figure and placed his long thin hands under it. The white-faced Colonel, with the scar across his face, and a look of infernal triumph, placed his hands under her feet, and they began to raise her.
With an indescribable effort I broke the spell that bound me, and started to my feet with a gasp.
I was wide awake, but the broad, wicked face of Colonel Gaillarde was staring, white as death, at me from the other side of the hearth. "Where is she?" I shuddered.
"That depends on who she is, Monsieur," replied the Colonel, curtly.
"Good heavens!" I gasped, looking about me.
The Colonel, who was eyeing me sarcastically, had had his demitasse of café noir, and now drank his tasse, diffusing a pleasant perfume of brandy.
"I fell asleep and was dreaming," I said, lest any strong language, founded on the rôle he played in my dream, should have escaped me. "I did not know for some moments where I was."
"You are the young gentleman who has the apartments over the Count and Countess de St. Alyre?" he said, winking one eye, close in meditation, and glaring at me with the other.
"I believe so—yes," I answered.
"Well, younker, take care you have not worse dreams than that some night," he said, enigmatically, and wagged his head with a chuckle. "Worse dreams," he repeated.
"What does Monsieur the Colonel mean?" I inquired.
"I am trying to find that out myself," said the Colonel; "and I think I shall. When I get the first inch of the thread fast between my finger and thumb, it goes hard but I follow it up, bit by bit, little by little, tracing it this way and that, and up and down, and round about, until the whole clue is wound up on my thumb, and the end, and its secret, fast in my fingers. Ingenious! Crafty as five foxes! wide awake as a weasel! Parbleu! if I had descended to that occupation I should have made my fortune as a spy. Good wine here?" he glanced interrogatively at my bottle.
"Very good," said I. "Will Monsieur the Colonel try a glass?"
He took the largest he could find, and filled it, raised it with a bow, and drank it slowly. "Ah! ah! Bah! That is not it," he exclaimed, with some disgust, filling it again. "You ought to have told me to order your Burgundy, and they would not have brought you that stuff."
I got away from this man as soon as I civilly could, and, putting on my hat, I walked out with no other company than my sturdy walking-stick. I visited the inn-yard, and looked up to the windows of the Countess's apartments. They were closed, however, and I had not even the unsubstantial consolation of contemplating the light in which that beautiful lady was at that moment writing, or reading, or sitting and thinking of—anyone you please.
I bore this serious privation as well as I could, and took a little saunter through the town. I shan't bore you with moonlight effects, nor with the maunderings of a man who has fallen in love at first sight with a beautiful face. My ramble, it is enough to say, occupied about half an hour, and, returning by a slight détour, I found myself in a little square, with about two high gabled houses on each side, and a rude stone statue, worn by centuries of rain, on a pedestal in the center of the pavement. Looking at this statue was a slight and rather tall man, whom I instantly recognized as the Marquis d'Harmonville: he knew me almost as quickly. He walked a step towards me, shrugged and laughed:
"You are surprised to find Monsieur Droqville staring at that old stone figure by moonlight. Anything to pass the time. You, I see, suffer from ennui, as I do. These little provincial towns! Heavens! what an effort it is to live in them! If I could regret having formed in early life a friendship that does me honor, I think its condemning me to a sojourn in such a place would make me do so. You go on towards Paris, I suppose, in the morning?"
"I have ordered horses."
"As for me I await a letter, or an arrival, either would emancipate me; but I can't say how soon either event will happen."
"Can I be of any use in this matter?" I began.
"None, Monsieur, I thank you a thousand times. No, this is a piece in which every rôle is already cast. I am but an amateur, and induced solely by friendship, to take a part."
So he talked on, for a time, as we walked slowly toward the Belle Étoile, and then came a silence, which I broke by asking him if he knew anything of Colonel Gaillarde.
"Oh! yes, to be sure. He is a little mad; he has had some bad injuries of the head. He used to plague the people in the War Office to death. He has always some delusion. They contrived some employment for him—not regimental, of course—but in this campaign Napoleon, who could spare nobody, placed him in command of a regiment. He was always a desperate fighter, and such men were more than ever needed."
There is, or was, a second inn in this town called l'Écu de France. At its door the Marquis stopped, bade me a mysterious good-night, and disappeared.
As I walked slowly toward my inn, I met, in the shadow of a row of poplars, the garçon who had brought me my Burgundy a little time ago. I was thinking of Colonel Gaillarde, and I stopped the little waiter as he passed me.
"You said, I think, that Colonel Gaillarde was at the Belle Étoile for a week at one time."
"Is he perfectly in his right mind?"
The waiter stared. "Perfectly, Monsieur."
"Has he been suspected at any time of being out of his mind?"
"Never, Monsieur; he is a little noisy, but a very shrewd man."
"What is a fellow to think?" I muttered, as I walked on.
I was soon within sight of the lights of the Belle Étoile. A carriage, with four horses, stood in the moonlight at the door, and a furious altercation was going on in the hall, in which the yell of Colonel Gaillarde out-topped all other sounds.
Most young men like, at least, to witness a row. But, intuitively, I felt that this would interest me in a very special manner. I had only fifty yards to run, when I found myself in the hall of the old inn. The principal actor in this strange drama was, indeed, the Colonel, who stood facing the old Count de St. Alyre, who, in his traveling costume, with his black silk scarf covering the lower part of his face, confronted him; he had evidently been intercepted in an endeavor to reach his carriage. A little in the rear of the Count stood the Countess, also in traveling costume, with her thick black veil down, and holding in her delicate fingers a white rose. You can't conceive a more diabolical effigy of hate and fury than the Colonel; the knotted veins stood out on his forehead, his eyes were leaping from their sockets, he was grinding his teeth, and froth was on his lips. His sword was drawn in his hand, and he accompanied his yelling denunciations with stamps upon the floor and flourishes of his weapon in the air.
The host of the Belle Étoile was talking to the Colonel in soothing terms utterly thrown away. Two waiters, pale with fear, stared uselessly from behind. The Colonel screamed and thundered, and whirled his sword. "I was not sure of your red birds of prey; I could not believe you would have the audacity to travel on high roads, and to stop at honest inns, and lie under the same roof with honest men. You! you! both—vampires, wolves, ghouls. Summon the gendarmes, I say. By St. Peter and all the devils, if either of you try to get out of that door I'll take your heads off."
For a moment I had stood aghast. Here was a situation! I walked up to the lady; she laid her hand wildly upon my arm. "Oh! Monsieur," she whispered, in great agitation, "that dreadful madman! What are we to do? He won't let us pass; he will kill my husband."
"Fear nothing, Madame," I answered, with romantic devotion, and stepping between the Count and Gaillarde, as he shrieked his invective, "Hold your tongue, and clear the way, you ruffian, you bully, you coward!" I roared.
A faint cry escaped the lady, which more than repaid the risk I ran, as the sword of the frantic soldier, after a moment's astonished pause, flashed in the air to cut me down.