Thursday, 18 September 2014

At the Sign of the Crowned Radish: Part 1

I have mentioned before my love of historical swashbuckling novels, such as those of Dumas, Perez-Reverte and Weyman.  A while ago, I read one first published back in 1863; Captain Fracasse by Th√©ophile Gautier.  Set in France in the 1620s, it follows the adventures of the young and impoverished Baron de Sigognac as he travels to Paris to make his fortune, falling in love and joining a troupe of travelling actors in the process.  There is a beautiful heroine, wicked villain, duels, chases, a happy ending and all the usual stuff that goes to make up one of these books.

I have to say though that I didn’t particularly enjoy it.  It’s fairly turgid stuff, with a hero who’s sickeningly noble and practically invulnerable, the heroine is as virtuously wet as they come, and generally there are few memorable characters, and only a couple of memorable situations.

However, there are two exceptions to this which made the book readable.  These are a pair of secondary antagonists, criminals hired by the primary villain to assassinate the hero, and when this fails, to kidnap the heroine.  Eventually she is rescued and good triumphs over evil, but the two criminals are still alive at the end of the book.  These two are the loquacious, punctilious swordsman and assassin Jacquemin Lampourde, and his comrade the weird-looking Chevalier Malartic.  As I said, they were the only real redeeming feature of the book, reminding me very much of two of my favourite fantasy characters, Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser.  I like them so much that once I’d finished the book I started pondering the idea of doing a Flashman, and writing some stories following their career beyond the end of Captain Fracasse.  This idea bubbled around in my brain for ages, but I’ve now got several ideas for stories starring the two, and I’ve started writing one of them.  The first part is posted below, entirely free of charge.  I’ll upload the rest of it in my next post.  I’ve tried to imitate to some extent the style of Captain Fracasse, although this may be toned down a bit in successive drafts.

All feedback is welcome, so please enjoy the first instalment of my new adventures of Malartic and Lampourde:

At the Sign of The Crowned Radish.  (Part 1)

If in this year of our Lord sixteen twenty-five, you were to visit the greatest city in the greatest kingdom in the world, that is to say Paris, you would find a great many inns and taverns offering hospitality to the fortunate traveller who has come to this, the very birthplace of honour and glory.
            Here there are hostels and eateries unsurpassed for the congeniality of their hosts, the sumptuousness of their fare and the exquisiteness of their wines, and the weary pilgrim can consider himself most fortunate to encounter them.
            The same cannot be said for that infamous den of thieves and rascals, The Crowned Radish.  If an unfortunate wayfarer found himself beneath this sign at the waning of the day, he would find the door locked and the windows shuttered.  Through the gaps around these openings light would shine out, and the sounds of merriment, revelry and drunkenness would be clearly audible.
            If such a traveller were to knock at the door, he would wait in vain for an answer.  If he were patient, some other soul would eventually happen that way, and taking the pommel of a sword or dagger, knock on the old, peeling wood just so and quickly be given admittance.  Our hypothetical wanderer, being nimble and quick, might be able to step through the door after such a person before the portal is shut once more, finally allowed into the light and warmth within.
            A hearty fire roars in a stone hearth close to the bar, where a man of imposing aspect and impressive girth casts a tender but watchful eye over his many guests.  The room is filled with many small tables, and every single one is crowded with men who drink, talk, gamble, sing uproarious and bawdy songs, or submit themselves to the ministrations of harlots.  The air is thick with smoke, song and the smell of unwashed bodies.
           Did we say that every single table is fully occupied?  A thousand pardons messieurs, that is not strictly so, for at one table placed by the wall furthest from the door, a man sits alone, nodding acknowledgement to acquaintances and occasionally taking a long, slow sip of the fine, sweet wine that is served to only a very few select customers.  Our traveller, having noticed this man would see a tall, fierce-looking fellow, dressed tolerably well, a waistcoat of buff leather over his doublet.  His broad-brimmed hat, somewhat battered, the plume a little dusty and faded, lies on the table, and over the plain wooden chair hangs a sword-belt bearing rapier and dagger, both well-used and well-looked after.
            The hair, worn shoulder-length as is the fashion, is dark, with a few silver threads running through it, but the pointed beard and fiercely upturned, wickedly pointed mustachios are as yet untouched by advancing age.  Although he sits alone, there are two glasses on the table, and an empty chair next to him, although every other in the taproom is in use, and others are standing.  No-one bothers asking if the chair is free; they already know the answer.  This man is Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde, and the chair is for his comrade, colleague and alter-ego Malartic, who, since he isn’t already present, very soon will be.
            Indeed, even as our traveller gazes on this instigator of nocturnal duels and twilight skirmishes, hired killer, amateur gambler, experienced drunkard, occasional thief and professional kidnapper, that private knock known only to members of this exclusive club is heard from the other side of the door, and it is opened to admit the Chevalier Malartic himself.
            The Chevalier (so-called, but not in actuality), is a man of remarkable appearance, with skin of an ashy paleness which contrasts sharply with the bright, almost fluorescent ruddiness of his nose, bespeaking a veteran of many successful campaigns again the contents of a great many bottles, barrels and casks.  The nose makes the face behind it seem even whiter, while the paleness of the face makes the nose seem to glow.  His eyes are small, dark and slightly aslant, and his expression is one of permanent cunning.  It might be expected that Malartic would be sensitive to remarks upon his somewhat strange appearance, but he takes them good-humouredly if they are offered, which is seldom nowadays, for he has gained the considerable respect of his peers for his honourable conduct, unwillingness in the face of torture to betray his colleagues in iniquity, and his apparently limitless capacity for drink.
            Despite his equanimity, it should not be supposed that Malartic is unable to resent any insult that he deems to be beyond the pale.  It is widely accepted amongst the clientele of the Crowned Radish that as a swordsman Malartic is second only to Lampourde, and even then by barely a snake’s whisker.
            Malartic crosses the room, greeting acquaintances, smiling at jests and exchanging pleasantries.  He strides over to the empty seat opposite Lampourde, and without a word sits as his colleague pours him a glass of the fine, sweet wine.  Where Lampourde holds the glass to the light, appreciating the colour before taking in the scent, analysing and savouring it, finally taking a sip and allowing it to play about his mouth, extracting every last mote of enjoyment and tantalising every sense, Malartic throws his drink back, barely giving it time to touch the sides of his throat as he swallows it down.  He does so with quite as much enjoyment and satisfaction as his friend and leans back in his chair with a contended sigh, angling his rapier beneath his seat.
            At this point, our traveller is identified as a stranger and an intruder, and the barman spares no time in ejecting him forcibly back onto the street.  We shall allow him to go, and linger to hear what these two dubious heroes of Louis’s great capital have to say.
Indeed, the two said very little for some time.  They finished the bottle, and then lit their pipes, leaning back and smoking contentedly for several minutes without uttering a sound.
            Eventually, Malartic removed his pipe, and without glancing at his companion, said, “I hear that you lost three louis at cards last night.”
            Lampourde shrugged.  “I play for the enjoyment, not for the winning.”
            “Just as well really.  Three louis though!”  He glanced at his friend and raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “I take it you killed somebody.” 
It wasn’t posed as a question, but Lampourde nodded.  “A Comte.  I forget his name.  I could have done with you.  He had two lackeys with clubs, and I only had Espron with me to distract them.”
“At least it was a challenge then.”
Lampourde curled a disdainful lip.  “I had been told that the baron was a skilful and courageous man.  To give him his due, it took twenty seconds to wound him, and ten more to kill him, but he blubbed like a child before he died.”
He glanced at his ashy-faced cohort and nodded at Malartic’s doublet.  “That’s new.  You’ve had employment of your own?”
“Just a kidnap, and truth be told the girl wanted to go.  It was all we could do to stop her climbing down the ladder herself.  I had to remind her to struggle, for appearance’s sake.  Her nurse was watching you see.”
“Ah, one of those.”
“Another one.  We delivered her to her young gentleman.  I imagine that in a day or two, they’ll turn up back at her house with a tale of how he rescued her.  Then they’ll be allowed to marry or something.  That’s normally how these things go.”
“Don’t you worry that word will get around about how easy it was to defeat you and rescue your charge?  Hardly good for business.”
Malartic shrugged.  “The people who need to know me know me, and know me well enough to know that I know what I’m doing.”
Lampourde nodded, and took another long draw at his pipe, leaning back and blowing a plume of smoke upwards, admiring the curling tendrils in the flickering lantern light.
“It strikes me,” he said at last, “that with my three louis elsewhere, I shall have to look for work again.  Tonight very probably. My landlord has reminded me about the rent twice this week.”
Malartic chewed his pipe for a few seconds, pondering this.  “Kill him.”
“Kill him?  My landlord?  My friend, one cannot go about killing landlords.  Society would collapse!”
“Not necessarily.”
“Besides, I am convinced that he’s never held a sword in his life.  It would be beneath my dignity, and unworthy of my skill.”
“Most likely true.  Then you must find work.”
They sat in silence until they had finished their pipes, and then both stood.  There was an unspoken assumption that Malartic would join Lampourde, and no-one was surprised as they both left, slipping out through the door into the night.
The traditional place to go was the statue at the end of the Pont Neuf, where people would come to buy the services of desperate and dangerous men, and it was in this direction that they turned.  However, they had gone barely fifteen yards from the door of the Crowned Radish, when a figure stepped from the shadows.
“I am looking for Maitre Lampourde.”
Lampourde whirled, hand dropping to his hilt, while just as swiftly, and quite automatically, Malartic turned on his heel, bringing himself back to back with his ally, sword already half-drawn and ready for an attack from behind.
The man appeared to be alone.  With Malartic continuing to watch the rear, and his hand still on his sword, Lampourde stared at the man.
“I am Lampourde.”
The man stepped closer, and in the gloom, the swordsman could make out rich clothing, mostly swathed in a broad, dark cloak.  The man’s hat was pulled low over his eyes, and a scarf muffled his lower face, hiding his identity.
“I-“ the man hesitated, “I wish to hire your services.”
“And I wish to be hired, but whether or not our desires are mutually compatible depends entirely upon what you wish to hire me for.”
The cloaked, masked figure seemed to hesitate.  “I, um, I need somebody, uh, I need them wounded.”
Lampourde blinked.  “Wounded?  I am normally engaged to kill, not wound.  Lots of people can wound.  Go and find one of them.”
“No!”  The man gave a start of alarm.  “No, you have been recommended as one of the best swordsman in Paris.”  Lampourde gave a small bow of acknowledgement.  “And I need to make sure that this man is only wounded.”
“I see.  And how would you like this person wounded?”
“Not badly!  Um, I mean, it needs to be quite bad, but not very bad.  Bad enough to stop him fighting for a little while, but don’t damage him!”
The swordsman frowned.  “I can’t very well wound him without damaging him.”
“Oh, right, yes.  Well try not to damage him too much.  But enough to wound him, of course.”
“I see…”
“Maybe in the arm?”
“The arm?”
“Yes.  Maybe a slash to the arm, or a thrust.  Something non-permanent.”
“Non-permanent? You have sought out Jacquemin Lampourde, in order to inflict a non-damaging, non-permanent wound on someone?”
The cloaked figure nodded.  “Yes.”
Lampourde sighed.  “And the name of the man I am to ‘wound’?”
“The Marquis D’Allembret.  You’ll find him tomorrow night, outside the Red Cockerel, on the Rue de Mantelle.”
“A Marquis?  This man is a swordsman?”
“Oh, yes.  Yes, quite a good one really.”
“Really?”  Lampourde began to grow interested.  “A foe worthy of the steel of Jacquemin Lampourde?”
The man drew himself up a little.  “I should think so, yes.”
“Very well, I shall do this thing.  And the money?”
“50 sous?”
“Monsieur, to wound a man as specifically as you have requested is no mean feat, especially given his prowess with a sword.   It would be very easy to overdo it and kill this man in the heat of combat, or only inflict a tiny scratch that may not fit your purpose.  50 sous is hardly sufficient recompense for that skill.”
“Eighty then?”
“For four livre, I think that I can ‘wound’ a man.”  Lampourde didn’t bother to disguise his disdain at the word ‘wound’.  “The Red Cockerel you say?”
“Yes, at about ten o’clock.  He will have a couple of friends with him.”
“And these friends, they are to be wounded as well?”
“No!  That is, not if you can help it.  And…um…”
“Yes… ah, tell Monsieur D’Allembret that the Comte De Forchers sends his compliments.”
“The Comte de Forchers?  Is that who is providing the 4 livres?”
“Yes.  Yes it is.  Now I must go.”
“Monsieur, do not think that I doubt for a single second your honour and honesty, but I require payment in advance.  Once such a job has been done, it is often hard to find one’s employer, while you clearly known where to find me.”
The figure hesitated, then reached into his cloak, and brought out a purse of fine leather, embossed with a heraldic device.  From this he counted 4 livres, which he handed to the swordsman.
“And to keep at bay this man’s friends, and any servants, I shall require my colleague here as well.  I’ve no doubt that these men won’t require much of his great skill, but there may be several of them, and thus he will require 4 livres as well.”
The cloaked man muttered what sounded like a curse, but nonetheless another four livres were forthcoming, and handed to Malartic, who took them with a low bow.
“Remember, outside the Red Cockerel at ten o’clock tomorrow!” the man said fervently.
“I have not forgotten monsieur,” Lampourde replied.  “You have engaged the services of Malartic and Lampourde.  There is now nothing on earth that will stand between this man and his… wounding.”  This last word was said with a slight sigh, but the cloaked figure appeared satisfied, and without another word turned and hurried off into the darkness.
The next evening found the two lounging against a wall opposite the Red Cockerel.  They stood in comfortable silence as the shadows lengthened and the sky grew dark, and Lampourde lit his pipe, the smoke rising in large puffs.  They had arrived considerably before time, partly to ensure that they didn’t miss their quarry, and partly to scout out the surrounding area and make certain that their routes of retreat were clear and well-known, just in case.  Both of them were old hands at this game and highly confident in their own abilities, but it never paid to be careless and they knew of more than one man who’d gone to the scaffold through lack of preparation.
            At almost exactly ten o’clock, the doors to the tavern opened and a group of three well-dressed young men strolled out.  Malartic was watching them carefully, and thought he detected a distinct nervousness in the mien of one of them, a foppish-looking boy with long blonde hair who glanced around anxiously as he exited the hostelry.  Lampourde pulled his scarf up over his mouth and pulled down his hat, Malartic following suit.  With a slight sigh of weary determination, Malartic pushed himself off the wall, loosening his sword in its sheath, his companion a pace behind.
            “Your pardon sirs,” Lampourde said as he approached.  The young fop gave a great start, spinning to face him.  His friends turned more calmly, frowning.
            “Be gone vagabond!” one of them snapped, gesturing imperiously.  You’ll get no alms from us!”
            Lampourde bowed.  “Indeed not monsieur, and you sorely mistake me if that’s what your lordship thinks my esteemed colleague and I have approached you in search of.  Indeed, I strongly resent the term ‘vagabond’ in reference to myself and my companion.  We are craftsmen of the highest stamp, artists and masters of our chosen profession.  We are rogues, I freely confess, but we take our roguery very seriously, and act within the strictest bounds of honour.”  They stared in astonishment as he continued his speech.  “You can clearly observe that we have not simply fallen on you from the shadows, but approach you in the open as honest criminals and, if you will allow me, I shall inform you exactly why we have been obliged to interrupt your evening in this inconvenient manner.”
            “Well then?” the young gentleman said, slightly amused despite himself.  “What is it?”
            “I am in search of his lordship Monsieur D’Allembret.  Is one of you this fine gentleman?”
            “I-I am…” the fop replied, pale and stuttering.
            “I am afraid, “Lampourde continued with every sign of sincere regret, “that we must accost your lordship, and injure you, at the request of his Excellency the Comte de Forchers, who presents his compliments to you.”
            “What?!” one of the two friends exclaimed.  He looked at D’Allembret.  “It’s exactly as you said then!  The villainous coward!”  He turned back to Lampourde.  “If you’ve been hired to do this, I’ll hire you not to.  How much?”
            The swordsman bowed.  “You are very kind monsieur, but alas having been engaged to do this thing, I perforce must do it, and do it to the very best of my ability.  I would request that you and your friend step aside, so that we may conclude this disagreeable business as quickly as possible.”
            “I will not bigod!” the youth cried, putting his hand on the hilt of his rapier.  “We will not permit this outrage.”
            Lampourde bowed again.  “I understand of course, and so I shall direct you to my companion here, while I perform my duty.”  He turned to D’Allembret.  “I must ask you to draw your sword monsieur.”
            Trembling, the young noble did so.  With an angry shout, his two friends did likewise.  Faster still were Malartic and Lampourde, whose blades were in their hands before the pair of noblemen had theirs half out of their scabbards. The two gentlemen had barely come on guardbefore they found the rapier of the Chevalier Malartic flickering before them, driving both of them back with a series of darting thrusts and small slashes, leaving Lampourde to concentrate on their true target.
            With the clash of steel sure to draw unwanted attention, Lampourde lost no time in coming on guard and attacking.  The young fop let out a yelp, his sword almost knocked from his limp, pale hand at the first contact of blades.
            “No!  Wait, I’ve-” his word turned into a shriek of pain as Lampourde beat aside his blade with a flick of his own, lunging straight in over the nobleman’s guard and thrusting his point into the flesh of the youth’s bicep, twitching his blade upwards as he recovered to inflict a long, shallow slash.
            Blood immediately soaked the velvet of the fop’s double sleeve, and the jewelled rapier clattered to the floor as the noble staggered back, clutching at his arm.  “You moron, you’ve killed me!” he wailed, his eyes widened at the spreading crimson stain.
            “Nonsense!” Lampourde replied, taken aback somewhat by the ease with which he had accomplished his mission.  “I was paid to wound, and wound is all I’ve done.  Monsieur, you are facing Jacquemin Lampourde, and when I am engaged to wound and not to kill, your life is as safe with me as with your dearest love, if not safer, for there is not the slightest chance that I might kill you by accident.  However, now that I have completed my commission, I must bid you a good evening.”  He gave his best courtly bow, turned on his heel and walked calmly off into the darkness.  Malartic, who, having driven the young noble’s two friends back several yards had kept them pinned in place with a dazzling display of swordsmanship, inflicting no injury but giving not an inch of ground, leapt back out of the reach of their swords, bowed low to the two of them and followed his companion into the night.
To be continued…

Copyright Thomas Jones 2014

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