Queen of the Jesters/The Kingdom of Bourgorieau

pp. 203-219.


The Feast of the Precious Blood, on the fourth day of July, in the year 1763, sent many of Old Paris to the gardens of the Courtille des Porcherons, famous at that time for the great sign-board upon which Master Ramponeau, the host of the guinguette, was depicted, sitting astride a hogshead, and therefrom beckoning all the city to taste of his unsurpassable wines. Other courtilles, it is true, waged a good fight against the booths and bazaars of the Tambour Royal, as old Ramponeau's house was called; but the fame of his tavern was built upon the rock of a royal patronage, and rare was the day when some masquerader from the palace did not drive to that place of arbours and of shade in quest of adventure which should oil his tongue at Trianon. Thither, too, went the butter girls from the Quai de Gesvres, ready with their pretty patois to answer the dragoons of the guard—thither, as rumour said, Madame herself had gone under the escort of the Duc de Richelieu. Bourgeois or aristocrat, priest or clerk, student or philosopher, trooper or captain,—it mattered not in the gardens of Ramponeau. He had the same welcome for all—the same witty greeting, the same civility. And he knew more of the secrets of Paris than the Canons of Notre Dame themselves. “Oh, ce bon Ramponeau, comme il est drô1e,” said the women. The men spoke of his wines. There were no better in Paris. To drink them you could suffer even the music of Ramponeau's fiddler and the dust of the drive to the Porcherons.

The Feast of the Precious Blood was a day of sun and heat; but a cool breeze came up with the evening, and many masqueraders gathered at the hour of eight o'clock in the shady avenues of the Tambour Royal. Ramponeau, whose long neck twisted unrestingly in his greetings to this great man or to that, was hoarse with proclaiming the merits of his wine of Burgundy and of his Armagnac. The weary fiddler in the great tent beat his instrument savagely, as though angry with it and the world which compelled him. The jaded dancers had abandoned the more stately steps of the Basque for the fever of the Poitou jig. Everywhere in the cool of the gardens the lovers walked—here a wit of Trianon impatient at the slow understanding of a Corydon; there a dragoon, who told himself that the masked unknown who clung timorously to his arm must certainly be a duchess. Uniforms, gorgeous in gold and lace, were to be observed through a tracery of boughs and leaves still green—the scarlet of the gendarmerie, the blue of the Corsican legion, the towering brass helmets of Condé's men. Even cassocked priests took pleasure with circumspection, and drank the wines of Italy served from dainty flasks. So great was the press of aristocrat and of citizen that a table apart was a possession of great price. One man alone in all the throng commanded such a privilege and was not denied. He was Bourgorieau, the king's swordsman.

A man of small stature, slightly pock-marked yet pleasant of countenance, with a beard trimmed in the Spanish fashion, and a suit of violet cloth to cover a frame of iron,—such was Bourgorieau, the swordsman. Many turned to look at him when they passed, but none so long as to draw upon himself the gaze of one who was the master even of the masters of his art. At any other time, perhaps, in the garden of the Tuileries or the theatre of the palace, it had been possible to exchange a greeting with this man of Nantes, whose sword had cut for him such a broad road to fame. But at the Tambour Royal, such a thing was not to be thought of. Even Ramponeau would cease to twist his long neck, and to speak of Armagnac when he approached the arbour of wild roses before the doors of which the maître d'armes sat. Swaggering troopers ceased to swagger when they beheld the pock-marked face and the suit of violet. Even a dancing girl had not the temerity to thrust out her tambourine for the sous of Bourgorieau. He sat alone, silent, asking friendship of none nor seeking it.

It was seven o'clock when Bourgorieau entered the tavern of old Ramponeau; it was half past eight before he remembered that Javotte, his daughter, would be waiting for him in the little house upon the island of St. Louis. She would have supper prepared against his coming. He was not one who cared very much for the hospitality of taverns; nor would he have gone to the Tambour Royal at all had not the vanity of his art compelled him.' While men said that he was a sullen rogue who sat apart because of the grim shadows upon his life, he, in turn, was telling himself that it was good to observe the fear of his fellows and to assert, wherever it might be, that title of mastership which his sword had won for him so readily in Paris. For the poltroons who passed swiftly by his table he felt nothing but contempt; but the contempt was a thought of gain; and he reminded himself often that it would be a bad day for him when men ceased to remark his coming or to give him the chief seats in the guinguette. For the rest, the tipsy masquerader, the hollow wit, the glitter of colour and the music of fiddlers, he cared not at all. His life lay in his house, in the love of child and home. His arm had quivered many a time when he stood to the encounter and told himself that he might never see Javotte again. Yet the world said he did not know fear. He laughed at the world and kept his secret.

The tavern clock chimed the hour; the throng was increasing in the grove when the king's swordsman drained his glass of Chianti and began to feel in his pocket for a crown wherewith to pay the score of old Ramponeau. He was upon the point of rising from the table when an exclamation uttered by one who passed by caused him to look up quickly and to discover that he was no longer alone in the arbour. A young man, shabbily dressed in a suit of brown cloth and carrying a traveller's bundle upon his shoulder, had left the ranks of the masqueraders to trespass upon that forbidden ground which all Paris had conceded to the Kingdom of Bourgorieau. So quick had the action been, so little expected, that none put out a hand to touch the youth upon the shoulder or to tell him whither he went. Seeming to know nothing of the place or the people, the stranger advanced boldly to the sacred table, upon which he cast his bundle with the air of one very much fatigued. Then he fell rather than sat in the chair which awaited any person fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality of the maître d'armes. The half-suppressed exclamation of anger which the swordsman uttered was lost upon him. He saw nothing of the gaping amazement of those who stood in the shadow of the trees; he did not hear the words of sympathy and surprise which the women uttered.

“Ob, c'est ben,” he exclaimed, as he sat, and his idiom was that of Eastern France. “I have walked far, monsieur, and there is dust upon the road to Strasbourg. You will let me sit a little while at your table and drink a cup of wine with you?”

Bourgorieau looked upon the lad as upon some curiosity fallen from the heavens at his feet. His first thought had been to call for a cudgel and to thrash the impertinent fellow soundly; but the music of the young man's voice, his soft, pleasing, almost girlish face, his tremendous ignorance, stayed the other's hand. He glanced quickly to that place between the trees where the carousal was at its height, and saw that many waited for him to act. How if he did not humour them? he asked himself. It was a pleasing whim, this idea of suffering the stranger at his table. And if any came to question him he would know how to answer.

“So you are from Strasbourg, mon vieux,” he said, surprised not a little at the sound of his own voice, “and yet you come in by the Porte St. Denis?”

“I live by the lodge of Neuilly,” answered the youth, simply; “to-morrow, if all goes well, I shall see my home again—but first I have my work to do in Paris, and it is for that I am come to this tavern. Oh, surely, sir, these are very great people, and I shall hear from them of him whom I seek. Is not this the house of Maître Ramponeau, whom even the queen has honoured? They said so out yonder. “You will find him,” they said, and I know they speak well. To-morrow I shall go on again—the work will be done, it must be done, for God has willed it.”

He laid his head upon his arms wearily, as though all the light and music of the house could not keep sleep from his eyes. Bourgorieau knew not what chord of sympathy was struck at the note of the young man's voice, but somehow he began to think of Javotte waiting for him at home. He said that they would make a pretty pair—this curly headed lad of Strasbourg who talked so blithely of having work to do and the little maid of his own house who alone in all Paris could find love for him. He was half a mind to bid the stranger follow him to the island of St. Louis and there to share his supper; but first he asked a question, and the answer to it was a word to set him laughing as he had not laughed since he left the salle d'armes of old Andrea at Nantes.

“You say, lad, that you are looking for some one in Paris? Who is he that his business should bring him to this tavern?”

“I seek Bourgorieau, he whom they call the king's swordsman. You know him, monsieur?”

Bourgorieau leaned back in his chair and stared, open-mouthed, at the speaker.

“If I know him—what then?”

“Be so good as to tell me where I may find the man who murdered my father.”

Bourgorieau laughed so loudly that many came out of the grove to listen. “It is his son who has returned,” said some; others, that he had drunk overmuch Burgundy. But the stranger neither laughed with the maître d'armes nor observed those who watched him so curiously.

“I am Lucien,” he continued, “the son of Georges Duroc, who was killed in this tavern eight years ago, monsieur. I was a boy then, but to-day I am a man. I come to Paris to do the work appointed to me. Laugh as you please, I know well that God sends me here, and that my journey will not be in vain. To-morrow Bourgorieau will be dead and I shall be in my mother's house again.”

He spoke neither loudly nor with a boaster's voice. In his eyes there was a light as of a spiritual force working in his mind and creating visions for him. Bourgorieau laughed no longer. The frail and prettily rounded arms, the white skin, the gentle face of the youth were forgotten by him. He recalled, rather, the day when he had killed Georges Duroc in that very garden. Some trivial excuse of insult had served for the deed of that night. And this was the man's son—sent, as he said, by God to demand a reckoning. Bourgorieau tried to laugh scornfully at all superstitions. He told himself that he could fight this lad of Strasbourg with a bandage over his eyes. But his mouth was parched when he sought to answer the youth; and he called to one near him to send another flask of Chianti.

“So you are Lucien Duroc,” he said, when he had drunk a deep draught, “and you come here to settle with old Bourgorieau? Ma foi! you have a fine conceit, my friend.”

Lucien sipped at the wine offered to him and began to bind his bundle more securely.

“Monsieur,” he replied very earnestly, “you do not understand me; I do not know if I understand these things myself, for they are God's mysteries. It is true, as you say, that Maître Bourgorieau is the first blade in Paris; we have heard even in Strasbourg of the things he has done and the favour he has won. For myself, I have not held a sword in my hand but two or three times in all my life. How then, you ask, shall I bring such a one to his account? Sir, I know not what answer I can make if it be not to tell you of all the things I have heard and seen in the long nights of this last year at Strasbourg. Oh, monsieur, the gate of heaven has been opened for me, and I have heard the Divine voice commanding me that I should arise and go to Paris and do this thing. Often in my dreams have I heard the voices bidding me to leave the city and to delay no longer. 'Seek and you shall find, and the angels shall keep watch over you,' they said always. Sir, should I fear any man because I have listened to the message and have come here as I am commanded? Am I not right to say that to-morrow the justice of Heaven will fall upon him who killed my father, and that I shall go back to my mother's house and tell her to mourn no more for him whom we loved, but to be glad because justice has been done? I am young, and I know that my life is before me. I have seen gardens of flowers in my sleep, and have walked there with those who will be with me to my life's end. I have stood upon the banks of a great river, and the sweet breezes have blown upon my face, and I have heard the message that I shall follow the river to the new country of my dreams. Life is sweet to me, for I am young; but I shall not lose my life because God sends me to Paris; there is none that can harm me while I go to my duty and defend my father's honour. Think not, monsieur, that I boast when I say that to-morrow Bourgorieau will be dead. The king himself could not save him now; it is written in the book of fate, and no human hand shall blot that writing out.”

He rose from the table at the words and took up his bundle as though the rest were in itself the enemy of his mission. Bourgorieau, who had sat white and silent while he spoke, now awoke as from a spell and touched the speaker upon the arm.

“Sit,” he said in a low voice,—“sit and tell me more of these dreams of yours, my friend. Who knows that this meeting is not written also in the book you name!”

Lucien rested his bundle upon the table. Bourgorieau saw that his hands trembled; there was in his eyes the light of the mystic awakened, of the dreamer made strong by the fevers of dreams.

“What will it serve me to tell you if you cannot bring me face to face with the man I seek?” he asked.

“Has he no love of life too?” asked Bourgorieau, upon whose forehead heavy drops of sweat were starting. “Has he no home to which he would return; is there none there to welcome his coming or to mourn if he should not go back? Would you make me the servant of his murderer, Monsieur Lucien? Nay, how shall I answer to his child—how shall I tell her—?”

“You shall say that you are the servant of a servant of God, monsieur. Yet do not think that I compel you if your will is not in this matter. The same hand which beckoned me from Strasbourg will point the way still. I seek the aid of none—the friendship of none. I need no courage nor skill. To-morrow my work will be done, for the voices have promised so—to-morrow Paris will know of it. And the world will be a better world for the death of this man, monsieur.”

He bowed with the grace of one born to high place, and before the other could arrest him, disappeared in the grove. For many minutes after he had gone, Bourgorieau sat staring at the masqueraders as though some after-thought would send the youth back to him and permit that opportunity of defence and argument of which surprise had robbed him. But the throng passed on, the music of the fiddlers waxed more discordant, the laughter was shriller and more brutal; and still the old swordsman sat alone. There were moments, in truth, when he believed that he had dreamed of the youth's coming and of the words he remembered so distinctly. But this did not help him to shake off the strange foreboding which now began to possess him. It seemed to him that some miracle must have sent the lad to the gardens of the Tambour Royal. He recalled the boyish face, the dreamy eyes, the spiritual enthusiasm of Lucien's quest. He remembered his confession, that he knew nothing of the sword, and fell to uttering the names of those great fencers who had fallen in a brawl with the untutored or the unskilled. Minute by minute his fear magnified. How if this were, indeed, the justice of God come to overtake him, he asked himself. None had dared to tell him hitherto that Paris would be a better city for his death. The words which Lucien had uttered so solemnly echoed in his ears—“it is written in the book.” All the superstitions of the superstitious West crowded upon his mind. He laughed aloud to think of them, yet racked his brain the more for any omen of the past which would explain away the mystery of the night. When he left the garden at last, he staggered through the press blindly, caring nothing for the muttered curses which followed him. At the gate of the tavern he told himself that he was already a rich man, and had promised himself some day a home in Nantes among his own people and the children of his boyhood.

The great clock of Notre Dame was striking eleven when Bourgorieau crossed the moonlit Pont Mairie and beheld again the lamp set in the latticed window of his house upon the island. Crooked and gabled and lofty, the neighbour of the little church of Saint Louis of the Isle, leaning against other houses which had looked down upon the Paris of the dark ages, the tumbling building, nevertheless, was to him a palace of palaces. Here he could forget the intrigue of court and camp; the slights of those before whom he must cringe; the slanders of his unnumbered enemies. Here all pomp and ceremony were forgotten; here, it was not his to serve nor to remember the darker side of service. At this hour of night, the city around him was hushed in the silence of sleep. So clear was the sky that the stars seemed to have come down very near to the earth, and to hang like golden lamps in the grey vault of the night. The swirling river lapped rhythmically upon the piles of the old bridge. By here and there, a belated citizen clattered across the flags and went tipsily to his home. The guard paced his beat with measured and echoing steps.

QueenOfTheJesters 216--it is thou, dear father.jpg

"It is thou, Dear Father"

Bourgorieau stood for a long while watching the light in his house. He could see Javotte as she waited at the window; a childish figure, weary with the vigil. He knew that the sound of his steps would animate that figure presently, would bring laughter to the sleepy eyes. He pictured the moment when he would hold her in his arms and read the joy of love written upon her face; the face of the one being in Paris who was sad at his going; who counted the hours that should bring him back again. And watching her, he heard, as though a voice answered from the shadows, the words of Lucien Duroc in the gardens of Ramponeau, “Arise and go.” Even as the voices had spoken to the lad, so now they warned him. “To-morrow,” he said, “it would be too late. Javotte would wait at the window as of old time, but the vigil would be eternal. Never again would the joy of her love shine in the eyes of the child; never again—”

Bourgorieau hurried on. The guard standing in the shadow of the church heard a child's voice, sweet and melodious, above the murmur of the river,—

“It is thou, dear father; oh, how long I have watched for thee, how long—”

At ten o'clock upon the following morning, a horseman rode at a gallop into the great courtyard of Versailles. To the many who asked him, what news, he answered only, “He is gone; the wager is won.” But to the Duc de Richelieu who waited for him in the gardens of Trianon he told a better story.

“All Paris talks of nothing else,” he said. “The king must hear of it at once. Last night at the house of Ramponeau, Mademoiselle Corinne of the Hôtel Beautreillis wagered that she would drive Bourgorieau, the bully, from the city before twenty hours had passed. She dressed as a lad of Strasbourg and prated of a divine mission. This morning, the man set out for Nantes, taking his daughter with him. He will come here no more, Monsieur le Duc—Saint John, that I should be the first with such news—”

The duke stopped in his walk and gazed open-mouthed at the messenger.

“How—Bourgorieau is gone—you say he will not come back—”

“I say well, or if he come it will be his last visit. Paris knows now that he is a coward, and twenty blades will be ready for him. We live in a day of miracles, and this is one of them. But I go to the king lest others be before me. A thousand crowns—ma foi, she should have won ten thousand!”

Bourgorieau heard of the jest in his home at Nantes. He answered those who told him by showing them the house he had built and the garden he had planted. They heard Javotte singing there, yet wondered at his indifference.

“I care not,” he said, “for she who was sent came to me from God.”