~ or ~
Louise de La Vallière
By Alexandre Dumas
Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth
In Last Week’s Episode
The Marquise de Bellière brought her family wealth to Monsieur Fouquet’s mansion at Saint-Mandé as a contribution to stave off his ruin due to the financial demands of the king, but Fouquet refused to accept it until he was persuaded that Madame de Bellière truly loved him.
No Man’s Land
Meanwhile, Buckingham and de Wardes rode in apparent perfect harmony along the high road from Paris to Calais, behaving like old friends. Buckingham had made a hasty departure, saying no more than a brief farewell to most people; the visits to Monsieur and Madame, to the young queen and the queen mother had been almost perfunctory. This was partly due to the wise advice of the queen mother, who had hurried things along to spare him the pain of a protracted interview with Monsieur, and most particularly with Madame.
Buckingham embraced de Guiche and Raoul, assuring the first of every respect, and the second of a constant friendship that was bound to triumph over every obstacle and be shaken by neither distance nor time.
The baggage carts had already gone on ahead; Buckingham planned to leave in the evening in a carriage followed by the rest of his household. At first, de Wardes resented the appearance of being included among the Englishman’s retainers and sought with his subtle mind for some suitably insulting way of declaring his independence, but no opportunity arose and he was forced to bear the burden of the offense in seething surliness. Those nobles to whom he might have complained on the basis of his injured honor would have simply pointed to the duke’s honorable treatment of him, while complaints to old soldiers were merely shrugged off with a reminder about the king’s decree forbidding duels. His other countrymen, and there were more than a few, who might have shared his resentment out of national pride or Christian self-righteousness, declined to get involved from fear of disgrace; they weren’t about to get into an international quarrel that seemed likely to turn into a pointless massacre.
The result was that, when the time came, de Wardes packed his saddlebags, took two horses, and, followed by a single lackey, rode for the city gates behind Buckingham’s carriage.
When the duke saw him, he treated his adversary as he would his oldest friend, invited him into the exquisite carriage, sat him down on his best sable throw, offered him a selection of sweets, and began to converse. He spoke of the Court without mentioning Madame; of Monsieur without mentioning his wife; of the king without mentioning his sister-in-law; of the queen mother without mentioning her daughter-in-law; and of the King of England without mentioning his sister. He spoke of the friends and acquaintances of himself and his guest without ever mentioning anyone or anything controversial. So, the journey, which was taken in easy stages, was actually quite charming. It seemed as if Buckingham, truly French in spirit and education,28 was genuinely pleased in his choice of traveling companion.
Fine meals were served at every stop, fine horses were raced in the fields that bordered the high road, and hares were hunted across the meadows, for Buckingham had brought his fine greyhounds. Such was the daily itinerary. The duke’s progress was a bit like the beautiful river of the Seine that winds through France in a thousand amorous meanders before finally reaching the sea.
Nonetheless, now that the duke was leaving France, it was her newly adopted daughter whom he’d escorted to Paris that he regretted most, and his every thought of her was a sorrow. And when, despite himself, he let his thoughts dwell on his regrets, de Wardes left him entirely to his reveries. This consideration might have moved Buckingham to reconsider his attitude toward his adversary if the latter, while staying silent, had done so without a sarcastic look and a wicked smile. But instinctive hatred is incurable, and nothing extinguishes it; ashes might be thrown for a while over the embers, but underneath the embers burn all the hotter.
After having exhausted every distraction the journey could provide, they finally reached Calais, arriving at the end of the sixth day. The day before, some of the duke’s men had ridden ahead and hired a cargo barge to carry the party out to Buckingham’s yacht, which had been keeping station just off the coast, tacking back and forth as close as it dared, raising and lowering its tired white wings two or three cannon-shots out from the jetty. This bark stood ready to transport all the duke’s livestock and equipment.
The horses were embarked first, hoisted from the barge to the deck of the ship in special paniers carefully made to hold them so that, even if they panicked, they couldn’t injure themselves, and they were brought aboard without ruffling their coats. Eight horses, still swaddled in their paniers, filled most of the hold. It’s well known that in short crossings, the whole journey horses will tremble and refuse to eat even when offered the food they love the best.
After that, trip by trip the rest of the duke’s baggage was embarked on the yacht, until the crew returned to say that all was ready for departure, and they could leave as soon as he and the French gentleman were ready to bid each other adieu. No one imagined that the French gentleman might have any account to settle with milord duke other than one of friendship. Buckingham sent word to the yacht’s captain to make all ready, but said that since the sea was beautiful and the sky promised a lovely sunset, he intended to enjoy an evening walk along the beach before departing after nightfall.
Besides, he added, since he had such excellent company, he wasn’t in the slightest hurry to depart. And saying this, he gestured toward the magnificent red sunset on the horizon, crowned by towering clouds rising above the sun’s disk, like a mountain range piled peak upon peak toward the zenith. This soaring range was dyed at the base by a ruddy hue, dimming into opal and mother-of-pearl as it rose toward the peaks. Beneath it, the sea was tinted with the same reflection, and on each blue wave danced a bright point like a ruby flashing from the pommel of a blade.
The warm evening breeze wafted that salty perfume so dear to dreamy imaginations, the east wind sighing harmoniously, and in the offing the yacht turned broadside to profile itself in black against the dying light, its rigging picking up the purple of the sky, lateen sails curving like the wings of a gull as if for the sole purpose of being admired.
On shore, a crowd of curious locals gaped at the duke’s gilded servants, his valets and secretaries, and could scarcely tell them from the lord and his friend. Buckingham, dressed simply in a gray satin half-cloak and a doublet of violet velvet, edged with neither embroidery nor lace, his hat pulled down over his eyes, stood out no more than de Wardes, dressed all in black like a prosecutor.
The duke’s people had been told to keep a boat at the jetty awaiting the pleasure of their master, who would board at a time of his and his friend’s choosing. “Wait till then, no matter what you see,” he said, making the order a firm command.
After strolling a few paces along the beach, Buckingham said to de Wardes, “I think, Monsieur, we’re coming to our final farewell. As you can see, the tide is on the make; in ten minutes this sand will be under the waves and we won’t be able to find solid footing.”
“Milord, I am at your service, but….”
“But we’re still on the soil of the King of France, aren’t we?”
“Well, come along! There, as you can see, is a sandy little isle surrounded by water, but the water is rising, and the islet is shrinking from moment to moment. That island is a sort of no man’s land, belonging to no one but God. Do you see it there?”
“I see it. But I don’t see how we can reach it without getting our feet wet.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it’s big enough for our purpose; the waves pass around it but spare its summit, giving us enough of a stage for our scene. What do you think?”
“I’m satisfied with any place where my sword can meet yours, Milord.”
“Well, then, let’s go! I’m desolate about your wet feet, Monsieur de Wardes, but you have to be able to tell the king, ‘Sire, I fought no duel on Your Majesty’s soil.’ It may be splitting hairs, but since the rise of Port Royal29 you French are swimming in such subtleties. However, it adds charm to your national wit, so who can complain? Now, if you please, Monsieur de Wardes, let’s make haste, for the tide’s coming in with the night.”
“If I go no faster, Milord, it’s only so I don’t get ahead of Your Grace. Have you reached the dry sandbar, Monsieur le Duc?”
“Yes, just made it. Look over there, the damned fools are getting worried that we’re going to drown ourselves and are thinking of coming after us in the boat. Look how it dances on the waves! But the sight is making me seasick; do you mind if I face away from them?”
“I must point out, Milord, that if you turn your back on them, you’ll be facing the setting sun.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, its light is growing dim and soon will be gone.”
“As Milord wishes, but I desire no special advantage.”
“I know that, Monsieur de Wardes, and I appreciate your consideration. Shall we remove our doublets?”
“I think so, Milord.”
“It will make matters easier.”
“Ready when you are.”
“Be frank, Monsieur de Wardes, would you rather not fight on this wet sand? Or do you feel like we’re still too much on French territory? We could fight on my yacht, or even take this matter to England.”
“This will do fine, Milord; only I have the honor to point out that the sea is rising, and unless we hurry….”
Buckingham nodded, took off his doublet, and cast it on the sand. De Wardes did the same. Their figures, white as two ghosts to those watching them from the shore, stood out against the darkening purple of the sky.
“Faith, Monsieur le Duc, we can hardly move in this wet sand,” said de Wardes. “Are your feet sinking into it like mine?”
“Up to my ankles,” said Buckingham. “The sea is upon us.”
“It is. To it, then.” And de Wardes drew his sword.
The duke did the same. “Monsieur de Wardes,” he said, “a final word, if you please. I fight you, not only because I dislike you, but because you offended my heart by mocking a passion I still feel, a passion so strong I’m willing to die for it. Frankly, Monsieur de Wardes, you’re a bad man, and I’m going to do my best to kill you. I’m convinced that if I don’t, you’ll do harm to my friends, and so you must die. And that, Monsieur de Wardes, is all I have to say.” And Buckingham raised his sword in a salute.
“And I, Milord, have this to say to you: I didn’t hate you before, but now that you see through into my soul, I hate you forever, and will do whatever I can to see you dead.” And de Wardes raised his own sword in salute.
A moment later they touched steel, and twin lightnings flashed in the falling night.
Their blades circled, feeling each other out, engaging and disengaging. They were both skilled fencers, and their first passes had no success.
The night was coming in fast, and in the gloom their moves were based more on instinct than information.
Suddenly de Wardes felt his steel strike; he’d pierced Buckingham’s shoulder. The duke dropped his point as he grunted in pain.
“Touché, Milord. No?” said de Wardes, taking a step back.
“Yes, Monsieur. But it’s nothing.”
“Maybe, but you dropped your guard.”
“Only briefly, at the touch of the cold metal, but I’m fine. We’ll continue, Monsieur, if you please.”
And, raising his point, he beat the count’s blade, disengaged to the inside, and slid his point into his opponent’s chest. “Touché for me,” he said.
“Not at all,” said de Wardes, holding his ground.
“One hates to be contrary, but your shirt is red with blood,” said Buckingham.
“Then,” de Wardes said furiously, “take this!” And with a sudden lunge, he impaled Buckingham’s forearm. The blade passed between the two long bones.
Buckingham felt his right arm go numb, but as the sword dropped from his right hand he seized the hilt with his left, and before de Wardes could free his own blade, the duke ran him through the chest.
De Wardes staggered, then folded at the knees, and, leaving his sword still impaled in the duke’s arm, he collapsed into the water, now red with more than just a reflection from the sunset. De Wardes wasn’t dead, but felt death reaching out for him as the rising tide rolled him in the waves.
The duke felt the threat as well. With a grating effort and a cry of pain, he pulled the blade from his arm, gasped, and then said to de Wardes, “Are you dead, Count?”
“No,” de Wardes replied, his voice choked with blood rising from his lungs, “not quite.”
“What shall we do? Do you think you can walk?”
Buckingham raised him to one knee. “Impossible,” de Wardes replied, then fell back into the water. “Call your people,” he choked, “or let me drown.”
“Holà!” called Buckingham. “Hey, on the boat! Come, and quickly! Swim if you must!”
The boatmen dug in their oars, but the sea was rising faster than they could row. Buckingham saw a wave crest over de Wardes, and desperately, using his uninjured left arm, he tried to lift the count’s upper body out of the water. The next wave tugged at him but couldn’t quite pull him under. Buckingham started to drag him toward shore, but that meant leaving the height of the sandbar, and the next wave tumbled them into the surf. It washed them onto the beach, and then, ebbing, left them lying on the strand.
De Wardes was unconscious. At that moment four of the duke’s sailors, who understood the peril and had thrown themselves into the sea, slogged forth from the waves near the duke. They were horrified at the sight of their master, covered in blood that dyed the water at their feet, and tried to lift him.
“No!” said the duke. “Put me down! Help the count.”
“Death to that Frenchman!” cried the English sailors.
“Wretched tars!” snapped the duke, struggling to his feet, and pointing at them in a majestic gesture that spattered them with blood. “Do as I say! Monsieur de Wardes onto dry land, Monsieur de Wardes to safety, or I’ll see you all hanged!”
Meanwhile, the boat had arrived. The duke’s secretary and his steward leapt over the side and splashed toward the count. He showed no signs of life.
“I commit this man to your care, and do it well, if you want to keep your heads,” said the duke. “Carry Monsieur de Wardes ashore!”
The count was lifted and carried above the tide line.
A few passersby and five or six fishermen had gathered above the line of wrack, attracted by the novel spectacle of two gentlemen dueling in water up to their knees. The fishermen, seeing a group of men carrying a wounded man toward them, came down onto the beach. The Englishmen set the wounded man down among them just as he was reopening his eyes. The sand and salt water had gotten into his wounds and he gasped in terrible pain.
The duke’s secretary drew a purse from his pouch and handed it to the most capable looking fisherman. “On the behalf of my master, Milord the Duke of Buckingham,” he said, “take the best possible care of Monsieur le Comte de Wardes.”
And he returned, with the crew, to the boat, which Buckingham had boarded with great difficulty, though only once he was sure de Wardes was out of danger.
By this time, it was high tide, and the waves were washing the hats, sashes, and embroidered doublets of the duke and de Wardes ashore. De Wardes was mistakenly wrapped in the duke’s doublet and was carried carefully into the town.
Notes on the Text of Devil’s Dance
28. FRENCH IN SPIRIT AND EDUCATION: French perhaps in spirit, but as to education the second Duke of Buckingham studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, where one of his mathematics teachers was Thomas Hobbes.
29. PORT ROYAL: The abbey of Port Royal in Paris was the center of Jansenism, one of the leading Catholic theological movements of 17th-century France. The Jansenists were ascetics who insisted that only divine grace could mitigate original sin and the darker side of human nature. Many in the Catholic hierarchy, particularly the Jesuits, considered Jansenism heresy, albeit of a mild sort.
ALEXANDRE DUMAS’ MUSKETEERS CYCLE
Devil’s Dance is part of a series. Everyone has heard of The Three Musketeers and its heroes d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, but what’s less well known nowadays is that Dumas followed up his greatest novel with a series of sequels that are just as great. Your Cheerful Editor Lawrence Ellsworth has been compiling all-new contemporary translations of these novels, and the entire series, when complete, will fill nine volumes:
- The Three Musketeers, Book One
- The Red Sphinx, Book Two
- Twenty Years After, Book Three
- Blood Royal, Book Four
- Between Two Kings, Book Five
- Court of Daggers, Book Six
- Devil’s Dance, Book Seven
- Shadow of the Bastille, Book Eight
- The Man in the Iron Mask, Book Nine
The first five volumes are already in print and available from Pegasus Books, while Court of Daggers is now available as an independent publication. Each week now brings a new episode in the serialization of Book Seven, Devil’s Dance. Welcome, cavaliers, and enjoy the ride!
Copyright © 2023 Lawrence Schick. All rights reserved.