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Gallantry by James Branch Cabell

Part 6 out of 6

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Chateauroux to enter.

"You will forgive us, your Highness?" asked the latter.

"You will forget?" murmured the Baroness.

"I shall do both," said the Grand Duke. "Bon voyage, mes enfants!"

And with a cracking of whips the carriage drove off.

"Victoria," said the plump little Grand Duke, in admiration, "you are a
remarkable woman. I think that I will walk for a while in the gardens, and
meditate upon the perfections of my wife."

VIII

He strolled in the direction of the woods. As he reached the summit of
a slight incline he turned and looked toward the road that leads from
Breschau to Vienna. A cloud of dust showed where the carriage had
disappeared.

"Ma foi!" said his Highness; "my wife has very fully proven her executive
ability. Beyond doubt, there is no person in Europe better qualified to
rule Noumaria as Regent."

LOVE'S ALUMNI: THE AFTERPIECE

_As Played at Ingilby, October 6, 1755_

"_Though marriage be a lottery, in which there are a wondrous many blanks,
yet there is one inestimable lot, in which the only heaven on earth is
written. Would your kind fate but guide your hand to that, though I were
wrapt in all that luxury itself could clothe me with, I still should envy
you._"

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

DUKE OF ORMSKIRK.
LOUIS DE SOYECOURT, formerly GRAND DUKE OF NOUMARIA, and now a tuner of
pianofortes.
DUC DE PUYSANGE.
DAMIENS, servant to Ormskirk.

In Dumb Show are presented LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE, CAPTAIN FRANCIS AUDAINE,
MR. GEORGE ERWYN, DUCHESS OF ORMSKIRK, DUCHESSE DE PUYSANGE, LADY HUMPHREY
DEGGE, MRS. AUDAINE, and MRS. ERWYN.

SCENE

The library, and afterward the dining-room, of Ormskirk's home at Ingilby,
in Westmoreland.

LOVE'S ALUMNI

_PROEM:-Wherein a Prince Serves His People_

The Grand Duke did not return to breakfast nor to dinner, nor, in point of
fact, to Noumaria. For the second occasion Louis de Soyecourt had vanished
at the spiriting of boredom; and it is gratifying to record that his
evasion passed without any train of turmoil.

The Grand Duchess seemed to disapprove of her bereavement, mildly, but only
said, "Well, after all--!"

She saw to it that the ponds about the palace were dragged conscientiously,
and held an interview with the Chief of Police, and more lately had herself
declared Regent of Noumaria.

She proved a capable and popular ruler, who when she began to take lovers
allowed none of them to meddle with politics: so all went well enough in
Noumaria, and nobody evinced the least desire to hasten either the maturity
of young Duke Anthony or the reappearance of his father.

I

Meantime had come to Ingilby, the Duke of Ormskirk's place in Westmoreland,
a smallish blue-eyed vagabond who requested audience with his Grace, and
presently got it, for the Duke, since his retirement from public affairs,
[Footnote: He returned to office during the following year, as is well
known, immediately before the attempted assassination of the French King,
in the January of 1757.] had become approachable by almost any member of
the public.

The man came Into the library, smiling, "I entreat your pardon, Monsieur
le Duc," he began, "that I have not visited you sooner. But in unsettled
times, you comprehend, the master of a beleaguered fortress is kept busy.
This poor fortress of my body has been of late most resolutely besieged by
poverty and hunger, the while that I have been tramping about Europe--in
search of Gaston. Now, they tell me, he is here."

The travesty of their five-year-old interview at Bellegarde so tickled
Ormskirk's fancy that he laughed heartily. "Damiens," said Ormskirk, to the
attendant lackey, "go fetch me a Protestant minister from Manneville, and
have a gallows erected in one of the drawing-rooms. I intend to pay off an
old score." Meantime he was shaking the little vagabond's hand, chuckling
and a-beam with hospitality.

"Your Grace--!" said Damiens, bewildered.

"Well, go, in any event," said Ormskirk. "Oh, go anywhere, man!--to the
devil, for instance."

His eyes, followed the retreating lackey. "As I suspect in the end you
will," Ormskirk said, inconsequently. "Still, you are a very serviceable
fellow, my good Damiens. I have need of you."

And with a shrug he now began, "Your Highness,--"

"Praise God, no!" observed the other, fervently.

And Ormskirk nodded his comprehension. "Monsieur de Soyecourt, then. Of
course, we heard of your disappearance, I have been expecting something of
the sort for years. And,--frankly, politics are often a nuisance, as both
Gaston and myself will willingly attest,--especially," he added, with a
grimace, "since war between France and England became inevitable through
the late happenings in India and Nova Scotia, and both our wives flatly
declined to let either of us take part therein,--for fear we might catch
our death of cold by sleeping in those draughty tents. Faith, you have
descended, sir, like an agreeable meteor, upon two of the most scandalously
henpecked husbands in all the universe. In fact, you will not find a
gentleman at Ingilby--save Mr. Erwyn, perhaps--but is an abject slave to
his wife, and in consequence most abjectly content."

"You have guests, then?" said de Soyecourt. "_Ma foi_, it is unfortunate. I
but desired to confer with Gaston concerning the disposal of Beaujolais and
my other properties in France since I find that the sensation of hunger,
while undoubtedly novel, is, when too long continued, apt to grow tiresome.
I would not willingly intrude, however--"

"Were it not for the fact that you are wealthy, and yet, so long as you
preserve your incognito, and remain legally dead, you cannot touch a penny
of your fortune! The situation is droll. We must arrange it. Meanwhile
you are my guest, and I can assure you that at Ingilby you will be to all
Monsieur de Soyecourt, no more and no less. Now let us see what can be done
about clothing Monsieur de Soyecourt for dinner--"

"But I could not consider--" Monsieur de Soyecourt protested.

"I must venture to remind you," the Duke retorted, "that dinner is almost
ready, and that Claire is the sort of housewife who would more readily
condone fratricide or arson than cold soup."

"It is odd," little de Soyecourt said, with complete irrelevance, "that in
the end I should get aid of you and of Gaston. And it is odd you should be
forgiving my bungling attempts at crime, so lightly--"

Ormskirk considered, a new gravity in his plump face. "Faith, but we find
it more salutary, in looking back, to consider some peccadilloes of our
own. And we bear no malice, Gaston and I,--largely, I suppose, because
contentment is a great encourager of all the virtues. Then, too, we
remember that to each of us, at the eleventh hour, and through no merit of
his own, was given the one thing worth while in life. We did not merit it;
few of us merit anything, for few of us are at bottom either very good or
very bad. Nay, my friend, for the most part we are blessed or damned as
Fate elects, and hence her favorites may not in reason contemn her victims.
For myself, I observe the king upon his throne and the thief upon his
coffin, in passage for the gallows; and I pilfer my phrase and I apply it
to either spectacle: _There, but for the will of God, sits John Bulmer_. I
may not understand, I may not question; I can but accept. Now, then, let us
prepare for dinner" he ended, in quite another tone.

De Soyecourt yielded. He was shown to his rooms, and Ormskirk rang for
Damiens, whom the Duke was sending into France to attend to a rather
important assassination.

II

At dinner Louis de Soyecourt made divers observations.

First Gaston had embraced him. "And the de Gatinais estates?--but beyond
question, my dear Louis! Next week we return to France, and the affair is
easily arranged. You may abdicate in due form, you need no longer skulk
about Europe disguised as a piano-tuner; it is all one to France, you
conceive, whether you or your son reign in Noumaria. You should have come
to me sooner. As for your having been in love with my wife, I could not
well quarrel with that, since the action would seriously reflect upon my
own taste, who am still most hideously in love with her."

Helene had stoutened. Monsieur de Soyecourt noted also that Helene's gold
hair was silvering now, as though Time had tangled cobwebs through it, and
that Gaston was profoundly unconscious of the fact. In Gaston's eyes she
was at the most seventeen. Well, Helene had always been admirable in her
management of all, and it would be diverting to see that youngest child of
hers.... Meanwhile it was diverting also to observe how conscientiously she
was exerting a good influence over Gaston: and de Soyecourt smiled to find
that she shook her head at Gaston's third glass, and that de Puysange did
not venture on a fourth. Victoria, to do her justice, had never meddled
with any of her husband's vices....

As for the Duchess of Ormskirk, Louis de Soyecourt had known from the
beginning--in comparative youthfulness,--that Claire would placidly order
her portion of the world as she considered expedient, and that Ormskirk
would travesty her, and somewhat bewilder her, and that in the ultimate
Ormskirk would obey her to the letter.

Captain Audaine Monsieur de Soyecourt considered at the start diverting,
and in the end a pompous bore. Yet they assured him that Audaine was
getting on prodigiously in the House of Commons, [Footnote: The Captain's
personal quarrel with the Chevalier St. George and its remarkable upshot,
at Antwerp, as well as the Captain's subsequent renunciation of Jacobitism,
are best treated of in Garendon's own memoirs.]--as, _ma foi_! he would
most naturally do, since his _metier_ was simply to shout well-rounded
common-places,--and the circumstance that he shouted would always attract
attention, while the fact that he shouted platitudes would invariably
prevent his giving offence. Lord Humphrey Degge was found a ruddy and
comely person, of no especial importance, but de Soyecourt avidly took note
of Mr. Erwyn's waistcoat. Why, this man was a genius! Monsieur de Soyecourt
at first glance decided. Staid, demure even, yet with a quiet prodigality
of color and ornament, an inevitableness of cut--Oh, beyond doubt, this man
was a genius!

As for the ladies at Ingilby, they were adjudged to be handsome women,
one and all, but quite unattractive, since they evinced not any excessive
interest in Monsieur de Soyecourt. Here was no sniff of future conquest,
not one side-long glance, but merely three wives unblushingly addicted to
their own husbands. _Eh bien_! these were droll customs!

Yet in the little man woke a vague suspicion, as he sat among these
contented folk, that, after all, they had perhaps attained to something
very precious of which his own life had been void, to a something of which
he could not even form a conception. Love, of course, he understood, with
thoroughness; no man alive had loved more ardently and variously than
Louis de Soyecourt. But what the devil! love was a temporary delusion, an
ingenious device of Nature's to bring about perpetuation of the species.
It was a pleasurable insanity which induced you to take part in a rather
preposterously silly and undignified action: and once this action was
performed, the insanity, of course, gave way to mutual tolerance, or to
dislike, or, more preferably, as de Soyecourt considered, to a courteous
oblivion of the past.

And yet when this Audaine, to cite one instance only, had vented some
particularly egregious speech that exquisite wife of his would merely
smile, in a fond, half-musing way. She had twice her husband's wit, and
was cognizant of the fact, beyond doubt; to any list of his faults and
weaknesses you could have compiled she indubitably might have added a dozen
items, familiar to herself alone: and with all this, it was clamant that
she preferred Audaine to any possible compendium of the manly virtues. Why,
in comparison, she would have pished at a seraph!--after five years of his
twaddle, mark you. And Helene seemed to be really not much more sensible
about Gaston....

It all was quite inexplicable. Yet Louis de Soyecourt could see that not
one of these folk was blind to his or her yoke-fellow's frailty, but that,
beside this something very precious to which they had attained, and
he had never attained, a man's foible, or a woman's defect, dwindled
into insignificance. Here, then, were people who, after five years'
consortment,--consciously defiant of time's corrosion, of the guttering-out
of desire, of the gross and daily disillusions of a life in common,
and even of the daily fret of all trivialities shared and diversely
viewed,--who could yet smile and say: "No, my companion is not quite the
perfect being I had imagined. What does it matter? I am content. I would
have nothing changed."

Well, but Victoria had not been like that. She let you go to the devil in
your own way, without meddling, but she irritated you all the while by
holding herself to a mark. She had too many lofty Ideas about her own
duties and principles,--much such uncompromising fancies as had led his
father to get rid of that little Nelchen.... No, there was no putting up
with these rigid virtues, day in and day out. These high-flown notions
about right and wrong upset your living, they fretted your luckless
associates.... These people here at Ingilby, by example, made no
pretensions to immaculacy; instead, they kept their gallant compromise
with imperfection; and they seemed happy enough.... There might be a moral
somewhere: but he could not find it.

CURTAIN

THE EPILOGUE

SPOKEN BY ORMSKIRK, WHO ENTERS IN A FRET

A thankless task! to come to you and mar
Your dwindling appetite for caviar,
And so I told him!
[_He calls within._
Sir, the critics sneer,
And swear the thing is "crude and insincere"!
"Too trivial"! or for an instant pause
And doubly damn with negligent applause!
Impute, in fine, the prowess of the Vicar
Less to repentance than to too much liquor!
Find Louis naught! de Gatinais inane!
Gaston unvital, and George Erwyn vain,
And Degge the futile fellow of Audaine!
Nay, sir, no Epilogue avails to save--
You're damned, and Bulmer's hooted as a knave.

[_He retires behind the curtain and is thrust out
again. He resolves to make the best of it._

The author's obdurate, and bids me say
That--since the doings of our far-off day
Smacked less of Hippocrene than of Bohea--
His tiny pictures of that tiny time
Aim little at the lofty and sublime,
And paint no peccadillo as a crime--
Since when illegally light midges mate,
Or flies purloin, or gnats assassinate,
No sane man hales them to the magistrate.

Or so he says. He merely strove to find
And fix a faithful likeness of mankind
About its daily business,--to secure
No full-length portrait, but a miniature,--
And for it all no moral can procure.

Let Bulmer, then, defend his old-world crew,
And beg indulgence--nay, applause--of you.

Grant that we tippled and were indiscreet,
And that our idols all had earthen feet;
Grant that we made of life a masquerade;
And swore a deal more loudly than we prayed;
Grant none of us the man his Maker meant,--
Our deeds, the parodies of our intent,
In neither good nor ill pre-eminent;
Grant none of us a Nero,--none a martyr,--
All merely so-so.
And _de te narratur_.

EXPLICIT

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