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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 61 - A Catastrophe

'AH, madame!' exclaimed De Mesmai, whom experience among his countrywomen had taught that the dose of flattery could never be too strong for them, 'how much we are indebted to you! Such brilliancy of instrumental execution, and such a voice ! My friend, Major Stuart, will allow—or rather will be compelled to admit—that you far excel any other singer he has ever heard in Paris, Lisbon, or Madrid?'

Although this was not strictly true, Ronald of course replied in the affirmative. There is no flattery which can be too pointed for a Parisienne, who can hear, as mere matters of course, such observations as would bring the red blood rushing into the fair face of an English lady.

De Mesmai engrossed to himself nearly the whole conversation of the baroness, and they chatted away, with amazing volubility and merriment, on such light matters as the marriages, intrigues, and flirtations of one half of Paris,—the fashionable part at least,—while the petulant barony after various ineffectual attempts to interrupt their interesting tete-à-tete, abandoned the idea of doing so; and, while reconnoitring their position with watchful eyes, and listening with open ears, he gave Stuart a very long and very tiresome account of the learned society, to the affairs of which, since the peace of 1814, he had devoted his whole attention.

De Mesmai and the lady, or, to speak more correctly, the lady and De Mesmai, were seated on an opposite sofa, and so close that their dark hair almost mingled together,—this, too, before the eyes of the baron. They conversed in a low tone, which every instant swelled out into a laugh; and such glances of deep and hidden meaning were exchanged, that, had they been observed, they would have entirely discomposed old Clappourknuis's antiquarian discussions about ruins, medals, coins, MSS., etc., etc. Stuart thought his friend a very odd fellow, and certainly the free manners of the baroness did not heighten his opinion of Parisian wives.

Dinner was served up in excellent style, but what it consisted of has nothing to do with this history. There were enough and to spare of wonderful French dishes, which the Highlander had never seen before, and probably has never heard of since. Stuart having led the baroness to the dining-room, De Mesmai led her back again to the library, falling into the rear of the baron, who was borne thither in his arm-chair by six stout valets, with his gouty leg projecting like a bowsprit. In this trim, as host, he led the way from the table. Coffee and wine were awaiting them in the library, which was lighted up with wax candles placed in antique candelabras. The crimson curtains were drawn, and a cheerful fire blazed on the hearth and roared up the wide chimney. The old gilt volumes on the shelves, the steel arms and armour, the splendid picture-frames, the wine-decanters, the silver coffee-equipage, and everything else of metal or crystal, glittered in the ruddy light, and the baron's library appeared the most snug place imaginable.

Stuart, who had been accustomed to sit long at the mess-table,— rather a failing with the valiant ninety-twa,—was unable to adopt the foreign custom of taking coffee immediately after dinner. He therefore joined the baron in paying attention to a decanter of light French wine; but De Mesmai sipped the simple beverage, seated by madame at a side-table, where the coffee was served up, and his attentions became so very particular and decided, that in any house in Britain they must have ensured his exit by the window instead of the door. But the baron, although a very jealous husband, was a Frenchman, and consequently did not perceive anything very heinous in the attention paid to his wife by the gay guardsman ; yet he would rather have seen him lying at full length in the Morgue, than seated at the little side-table with the baroness.

But Monsieur le Baron, having dined to his entire satisfaction, was rather inclined to be in a good humour, and, after a time, he was obliging enough to place the high stuffed back of his easy-chair between himself and the tete-a-tete which his gay lady enjoyed with her still gayer cavalier.

Finding that Stuart was conversant with Père d' Orleans, the Histoire des Croisades of Pierre de Maimbourg, and other old authors,—thanks to the tawse of his dominie, the old minister of Lochisla,—the baron resolved to make a victim of him for the remainder of the evening, and bored him most unmercifully with long antiquarian and archaeological disquisitions, which were varied only by still more tedious accounts of his campaigns under Napoleon. He spent an hour in detailing enthusiastically the services and deeds of the Scots Guards in France, from the time that Alexander III. sent them to Saint Lewis for service in the Holy Land, down to the Battle of Pavia, where the Scottish corps threw themselves into a circle around FrancisI., and he was not captured by the enemy till only four of that brave band were left alive.

'And we are told in this book,' continued the prosy baron, laying his hand on a mighty tome of Philip de Commines,' we are told in this book that the life of Louis XL, when he was attacked by the rebellious Burgundians at Liege, was saved solely by the valour of the Scots Guards, who formed a rampart around him till the Burgundians were defeated.'

'Morbleu! monsieur,' said De Mesmai, who now joined them, as the baroness had withdrawn, 'the story of the duel between the Sieur de Vivancourt, of the regiment of Picardie, and the Scots Royal, is worth all that you will find in Philip—Philip—peste! I have forgotten his name. But I will wager a hundred napoleons to one that he does not relate a story by one half so good as that which I have heard from you, of the unpleasant manner in which the English widow of Monsieur of France, Louis XII., was surprised in a tete-à-tete with the Duke of Suffolk, in this very apartment, by the furious Duke de Valois, who compelled her to marry Suffolk upon the very instant,—ay, pardieu! at the very drum-head, as the saying is.' Certain associations occurring to the baron's mind made him colour, as he raised his eyes from his flannel-cased legs to the tall, erect, and soldier-like figure of De Mesmai. He glanced furtively at the chair of the baroness, but it was empty.

'Ay, Maurice, 'twas a strange affair that; but Monsieur of Valois should have given the English duke a year or two's residence in the Bastile for his presumption. The stone cages of Louis XI. were then in good condition, and should always have been tenanted by such blades as Monsieur of Suffolk.'

'You are very savage in disposition, monsieur, to talk of punishing so slight a faux pas so severely. But you will allow that a little gallantry is excusable here in our sunny clime of France.' The old man glanced keenly at the swaggering guardsman, and saw a strange smile on his face. ' A comfortable place this, faith!' he continued; 'and if these old walls could speak, they would tell strange tales of hatred and sorrow, joy and grief. Many a fair one's scruples have been routed by the coup-de-main of the stout gallants of the olden time. Monsieur le Baron must know that our friend Stuart admires this old house of Clugny amazingly. You cannot conceive the sensations of pleasure with which he viewed that gloomy court.'

These last observations were made by De Mesmai to serve an end of his own. It was the baron's hobby to have his house praised, and in return he invariably bored his visitors with a prolix account of it. Having, as he supposed, set fire to the train, De Mesmai retired to promenade in the garden with madame, while her husband plunged at once into the history of the Hotel de Clugny. He began with the time when its site was occupied by the palace of the Roman emperors in Gaul, the Palatium Thermarum, erected a.d. 300, from which date he traced its history down to Clovis, the founder of the French monarchy, thence to the time of Philip Augustus, who in 1218 bestowed it on one of his chamberlains. On the site of the Palatium Thermarum the Abbot of Clugny built the present hotel, which was finished and completed, as it stands at present, by Jacques d'Amboise in 1505. James V. of Scotland resided in it for some months after his marriage with the beautiful and unfortunate Madeline of France. From that period the indefatigable baron related its vicissitudes, and those of its several occupants, down to the days of the Revolution. He was just describing a celebrated conclave of that revolutionary body, the section Marat, who met in the apartment where they were then conversing, when, on looking round, he became suddenly aware that the baroness and De Mesmai were both absent. He changed colour, stopped in his history, and became much disturbed. 'Mon ami!' said he, 'where is the Captain de Mesmai?'—'I know not,' said Stuart, looking round with surprise, and missing him for the first time. 'He was here a moment since, and I did not see him leave the room. 'Diable/' growled the baron, grinding his teeth.

'He is probably in the garden enjoying a cigar. I observed him take from his pocket the silver case which he carries.'

'A silver case? Pooh! he got that from the baroness.' 'A handsome present.'

'Ah! she gained it at some lottery in the Palais Royal,' said the poor baron, making a desperate attempt to converse freely, while he rung a small hand-bell. 'Attendez, Jacques; tell madame we should be glad to have the honour of her company, because Monsieur Stuart marches tomorrow, and------ Ha! ha! what am I saying? You understand—be quick, Jacques,' he cried to the valet, who had appeared at his summons. 'She is either in her own apartment, or in some of the lower drawing-rooms.' His suspicions were still further aroused. Jacques returned in three minutes, saying that madame could not be found ; that she must have left the hotel, or be promenading in the garden.

'Mon Dieu!' roared the impetuous baron, gnashing his teeth at the astonished valet. 'Leave the room, rascal! What are you staring at? I am undone ! Hand the case, monsieur; these pistols—they are loaded. They are together—I knew it—in the garden. Sacre! I have long expected something of this kind. An assignation! the base minion! the worthless ribaud! I will have his blood! I will rip him up with my sabre! Tete Dieu! am I to be disgraced in my own house? Ha, ha! ho, ho!' and he laughed like a madman.

Stuart rose, feeling all the confusion and astonishment which a visitor might be supposed to experience at such a juncture. The baron seemed bursting with rage, and rolled about among the pillows of his easy-chair, making fruitless efforts to raise himself upon his gouty limbs ; and he raved and swore in the meantime like a maniac. At last, in the extremity of his distress, he implored Ronald to see if they were in the garden.

'How very foolish he is making himself appear !' thought Ronald, as he descended the lighted stairs, laughing at the ludicrous aspect of the baron in his cap, gown, and bandaged legs, and his weather-beaten visage flaming with the fury and exasperation into which he had lashed himself. Descending a stair in one of the octagon towers, he found himself in the garden. The night was very dark, the air was cold, and the trees, shrubbery, and bowers appeared to be involved in the deepest gloom. The darkness seemed greater, in consequence of his having just left the brilliantly-illuminated library, where old Clappourknuis sat growling like a bear with pain and anger. A curtain was drawn back from one of the windows of the hotel, and a stream of light falling across a walk of the garden revealed the figure of a female. It was the baroness, and Stuart advanced to meet her, feeling considerable reluctance to announce the rage, or hint at the suspicions, of her husband. His cogitations were cut short by the lady springing forward, and throwing herself into his arms. 'Maurice, man cher ami! how long you have kept me waiting!' she exclaimed, in a loud whisper. 'I have been here on this dreary walk nearly five minutes; and indeed—but one kiss, dear Maurice! and then —Oh! what is this? You have no moustaches. Ah, mon Dieu! what have I done?'

She had, when too late, discovered her mistake. At that moment a window of the library was dashed open, and the strange figure of the unfortunate archaeologist appeared with a pistol in each hand, threatening death and destruction to all. The light which shone into the garden revealed the scene on the walk,—the baroness hanging on the breast of Stuart, whom, as he was without his bonnet and plaid, she had mistaken for De Mesmai in the scarlet uniform of the garde-du-corps. Clappourknuis muttered a tremendous malediction, and fired both pistols into the walk. Ronald escaped death as narrowly as ever he did, even on any occasion in Spain, and the lady was in equal peril. One ball struck from her head the high comb which confined her hair, and the other whistled within an inch of Stuart's nose; after which it shattered a gigantic flower-pot close by. Diane uttered a shriek, and fled like a frightened hare from the garden; and, gaining her own apartment, shut herself up, and Stuart never beheld her again, 'Morbleu!' said the incorrigible De Mesmai, whom the destruction of the jar, and the consequent prostration of an immense American aloe, had revealed,' I was just looking for the baroness on the other side of the garden. Sacre! 'tis a most unlucky assignation this, and broken heads must follow! Ha, ha! how now, my most virtuous Scot, who will not dance with grisettes on Sunday, and yet make an assignation with a married lady in a garden, and at night! Where are all your precepts and fine sayings? Ho! ho! ho! Hark! how the baron storms and blasphemes, like any Cossack or pagan!'

'The fierce old madman!' exclaimed Ronald, enraged at his narrow escape. 'He was within a hair's breadth of shooting me through the head!' ' Rather unpleasant, after all your campaigning, to be shot in this way, like a crow,' replied the other, who was laughing so heartily that he clung to an apple-tree for support. How romantic! A touching interview in the dark,—the lady all sighs, and the gentleman all animation! By the bomb, 'tis superb! What a pity there was no moon! A silvery moon would have made the whole affair just as it should have been. But then this unpleasant discharge of small-arms——.'

'Dare you attempt to lay the blame of this matter on me?' asked Ronald indignantly. 'You are alone the cause of all this uproar. The baron has mistaken me for you.'

'And the baroness has done the same. Diable!'. 'What is to be done now?'—'Retreat without beat of drum, I suppose.'

'That would show but poor spirit, I think.'

'Eh bien! you are right. I will show face. The baron is only a man, and a man five feet high by six round the waist. I will brazen it out, and swear by a caisson of devils 'tis all a mistake. I will, by the bomb ! and could do so in the presence of his Jolliness the Pope. Vive la joie! Come with me, my friend, and I will explain all the uproar to this outrageous baron. I am used to squabbles of this kind, and will soothe his vivacity. Peste! what a hideous noise he makes!'

The baron had roared himself hoarse, and Jacques, with five other stout servants, had been barely able to keep him fast in his arm-chair, where he panted, kicked, and bellowed, swearing by everything in Heaven and on earth that he would pistol De Mesmai, slay his wife, and murder them all. He would get a lettre de cachet,—forgetting that the days of such matters had happily passed away,—and immure them all in the dungeons of the Bastile. He would rouse the powers of darkness to revenge him ! At last a terrible fit of the gout fairly stopped his clamour, and he was borne off to bed, speechless and in imminent danger. The baroness appeared no more, and De Mesmai, the cause of the whole disturbance, sat with perfect nonchalance, with his legs stretched out before the library fire, a glass of wine in one hand and twirling a moustache with the other, while swearing to Stuart by the bomb that he had never heard such an outcry before. 'Positively, my friend,' said he, 'had I carried off the baroness in a chaise and four, en route for Calais or Brussels, he could not have made a greater noise. Peste! I believe I am entitled to demand satisfaction for this annoyance. I shall certainly consult some of ours to-morrow, and hear what ought to be done.'

It was evident that they would see the baroness no more that night, and the domestics of the establishment eyed them with strange looks ; for though they were accustomed to the irascible temper of the baron, they were puzzled to account for such a sudden disturbance.

Stuart urged the impropriety of remaining longer, and they rose to withdraw. He looked at his watch: it was verging on midnight, and it •was requisite that he should return to Clichy forthwith, if he would be with the regiment when under arms at daylight. On leaving, they walked for some time along one of the boulevards, talking over the affair of the H6tel de Clugny. De Mesmai did not attempt to exculpate himself, but laughed without ceremony at Stuart, who made some animadversions on his conduct. ''Tis all a matter of opinion,' said he, shrugging his shoulders, 'all; and you must know the proverb—"L'opinion est la reine du monde." 'Tis very true; so let us say no more, my friend.'

When near the Place Victoire, they parted. De Mesmai had lodgings in one of the handsomest houses of the Place, although his company of the garde-du-corps was always quartered at the chateau. On taking leave, they shook hands heartily, and then parted, but without exhibiting much concern, although each knew that he would never meet the other again. But as soldiers, accustomed for years to march from town to town, they were used to partings, and so bade each other adieu with happy sang froid.

Ronald never heard of De Mesmai again, and I am therefore unable to acquaint the reader how he settled matters with the baron, or if he married the fashionable widow of the Rue de Rivoli.

The streets were silent, and the night was dark. A cold and high wind swept along the desolate thoroughfares, and had extinguished many of the oil lamps, leaving many places involved in obscurity and gloom. It is not surprising, therefore, that Stuart should have mistaken his way. The dawn surprised him somewhere on the skirts of the town, and he had, consequently, to traverse nearly the whole of Paris to find the Champs Elysees. There he got his horse from the batman, in whose charge it had been left, and in three minutes he was away at full gallop for Clichy. He dashed along the Boulevard de la Madeleine, the Rue de la Martin, of St. Croix, and Clichy, and soon the fields were around him, bordering the road, while the spires and the streets of Paris were far behind, sinking in the distance.

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