Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 44



TO find the vulnerable spot in Josiana, and to strike her there, was, for the causes we have just mentioned, the imperturbable determination of Barkilphedro. The wish, however, was not enough; the power to accomplish it was also necessary. How was he to set about it? That was the question.

Vulgar vagabonds set with care the scene of any wickedness they intend to commit. They do not feel themselves strong enough to seize the opportunity as it passes, to take possession of it by fair means or foul, and to constrain it to serve them. Cunning scoundrels disdain preliminary combinations; they start out to perform their villainies alone, after arming themselves thoroughly, prepared to avail themselves of any chances which may occur, and then, like Barkilphedro, await the opportunity. They know that a ready-made scheme runs the risk of fitting ill into the events which may present themselves. It is not thus that a man makes himself master of possibilities, and guides them as one pleases. You can make no arrangements with destiny; to-morrow will not obey you. There is a great want of discipline about chance; therefore they watch for it, and summon it suddenly, authoritatively, on the spot,—no plan, no sketch, no rough model, no ready-made shoe ill-fitting the unexpected; they plunge headlong into the dark. To turn to immediate and rapid profit any circumstance that can aid him is the quality which distinguishes the able scoundrel, and elevates the villain into the demon. To make yourself master of circumstances, that is true genius. The real scoundrel strikes you with the first stone he can pick up. Clever malefactors count on the unexpected, that strange accomplice in so many crimes; they grasp the incident and leap on it: there is no better Ars poetica for this species of talent. Meanwhile be sure with whom you have to deal; survey the ground carefully.

With Barkilphedro the ground was Queen Anne. Barkilphedro approached the queen, and so close that sometimes he fancied he heard the monologues of her Majesty. Sometimes he was present at conversations between the sisters; neither did they forbid his slipping in a word now and then. He profited by this to disparage himself,—a way of inspiring confidence. One day in the garden at Hampton Court, being behind the duchess, who was behind the queen, he heard Anne enunciate this sentiment:—

"Brute beasts are fortunate; they run no risk of going to hell."

"They are there already," replied Josiana.

This answer, which bluntly substituted philosophy for religion, displeased the queen. If, perchance, there was any meaning in the observation, Anne felt that she ought to appear shocked.

"My dear," said she to Josiana, "we talk of hell like a couple of fools. We had better ask Barkilphedro about it. He ought to know all about such things."

"As a devil?" said Josiana.

"As a beast," replied Barkilphedro, with a bow.

"Madam," said the queen to Josiana, "he is cleverer than we."

For a man like Barkilphedro to approach the queen was to obtain a hold on her. He could say, "I hold her." Now, he wanted a means of taking advantage of his power for his own benefit. He had a foothold in the court. To be settled there was a fine thing; no chance could now escape him. More than once he had made the queen smile maliciously. This was equivalent to having a license to shoot. But was there any preserved game? Did this license to shoot permit him to break the wing or the leg of one like the sister of her Majesty? The first point to make clear was, did the queen love her sister? One false step would lose all. Barkilphedro watched.

Before he plays, the player examines his cards. What trumps has he? Barkilphedro began by comparing the ages of the two women,—Josiana, twenty-three; Anne, forty-one. So far so good; he held trumps. The moment that a woman ceases to count her age by springs, and begins to count by winters, she becomes cross. A dull rancour possesses her against the age of which she carries the marks. Fresh-blown beauties, perfumes for others, are to such a one but thorns. Of the roses she feels but the prick. It seems as if all the freshness is stolen from her, and that beauty decreases in her because it increases in others.

To profit by this secret ill-humour, to deepen the furrows on the face of this woman of forty, who was a queen, seemed a good game for Barkilphedro. Envy excels in exciting jealousy, as a rat lures the crocodile from its hole. Barkilphedro fixed his wise gaze on Anne. He saw into the queen, as one sees into a stagnant pool. The marsh has its transparency. In dirty water we see vices; in muddy water we see stupidity. Anne's mind was like muddy water. Embryos of sentiments and larvae of ideas moved sluggishly about in her thick brain. They were not distinct; they had scarcely any outline,—but they were realities, though shapeless. The queen thought this; the queen desired that,—to decide what, was the difficulty. The confused transformations which go on in stagnant water are difficult to study. The queen though habitually reserved, sometimes made sudden and stupid revelations. It was on these that it was necessary to seize; he must take advantage of them on the moment. How did the queen feel towards the Duchess Josiana? Did she wish her good or evil? This was the problem. Barkilphedro set himself to solve it. This problem solved, he might venture further.

Divers chances served Barkilphedro,—his constant watchfulness above all. Anne was, on her husband's side, slightly related to the new Queen of Prussia, wife of the king with the hundred chamberlains. She had her portrait painted on enamel, after the process of Turquet, of Mayerne. This Queen of Prussia had also a younger illegitimate sister, the Baroness Drika. One day, in the presence of Barkilphedro, Anne asked the Prussian ambassador some question about this Drika.

"They say she is rich," the queen remarked.

"Very rich."

"She has palaces?"

"More magnificent than those of her sister, the queen."

"Whom will she marry?"

"A great lord, the Count Gormo."

"Is she pretty?"


"Is she young?"

"Very young."

"As beautiful as the queen?"

The ambassador lowered his voice, and replied, "Much more beautiful."

"How outrageous!" murmured Barkilphedro.

The queen was silent, then she muttered angrily, "These bastards!"

Barkilphedro noticed the plural.

Another time, when the queen was leaving the chapel, Barkilphedro kept close to her Majesty, behind the two grooms of the almonry. Lord David Dirry-Moir, as he passed down between the two lines of ladies created quite a sensation by his lordly appearance. As he passed there was a chorus of feminine exclamations,—

"How elegant! How gallant! What a noble air! How handsome!"

"How disagreeable!" grumbled the queen.

Barkilphedro overheard this; it satisfied him. He could hurt the duchess without displeasing the queen.

The first problem was solved; but now the second presented itself. What could he do to harm the duchess? What means did his wretched appointment offer to attain so difficult an object? Evidently none.