Monday, 10 November 2014

Tales from the Crowned Radish: The Love of Chevalier Malartic

A few posts ago, I promised that if you were all very good, I’d post the next of my new adventures of Malartic and Lampourde, stol- uh, I mean adapted from the pages of Captain Fracasse by Theophile Gaultier.

Having scoured the news sites, I’ve been unable to find solid evidence pointing to a correlation between people who read this blog, and those who are on trial for crimes against humanity in the Hague.  As a result, I have decided to post the first part of my next story.

It includes a line that may well be my very favourite out of all those that I have ever written and can still remember (somewhere out there, there’s a Venn diagram showing the relationship between the two groups).  I’m not telling you which it is.  I don’t want to prejudice your opinions.
 So without further ado, here it is.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The Love of the Chevalier Malartic  (Part 1)

Early one evening, Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde arrived at the entrance to The Crowned Radish, that notorious den of thieves and ne’er-do-wells deep in the worst part of Louis the Thirteenth’s capital.  Drawing the dagger that always hung at the back of his belt, he used the pommel to strike the door just so.  In response to this code, the door was opened, and he passed into the dimly-lit, smoky interior, the buzz of voices and the singing of lewd songs spilling out to meet him.
            He nodded and smiled at some of those he saw, touching his hat respectfully to a few others as he crossed the taproom to his usual table.  He stopped short though when he saw that, against all use and custom, it was already occupied.  Irritation mingled with anticipation at the thought of a fight, but these were dispelled a moment later when he saw that the occupant was his friend, colleague and partner in crime, the ashy-skinned, red-nosed Chevalier Malartic.
            Lampourde blinked in astonishment.  In all their long association, he could not recall a single time that Malartic had arrived at The Crowned Radish before him.  Usually he would have a couple of hours to sit in solitude and drink, or join one of the many games of skill and chance that were going on at all hours of the day and night, before his curious-looking cohort appeared.  Tonight though, for the very first time, Malartic had preceded him.
            “What the devil are you doing here at this hour?”  Lampourde was in many things a creature of habit, and this disruption to his usual routine had soured his mood.
            Malartic had been sitting hunched over a cup of wine, but now he looked up, and his expression was one of such abject misery that Lampourde was suddenly ashamed of his annoyance, and instead sat down next to his friend.
            “S’blood!  What on Earth’s the matter?”
            Malartic sighed deeply, taking a long draught of wine before he spoke.  “Lampourde, I have a problem.”
            “Oh?  Are you wounded?”
            “No, it’s not that.”
            “Creditors then?  Your landlord is after the rent?”
            “It’s not that either.  I’m paid up for the next month.”
            “You’re out of money.  This is what comes of paying rent in advance!  No matter, I can pay for a meal, and tonight we’ll go and find work.”
            “I’m not out of money!”
            “You haven’t got the pox have you?”
            “Then what’s the matter?”
            “I… I’m in love.”
            Lampourde stared at him for a second.  “In love?”
            “Are you certain?  Perhaps it’s indigestion?”
            “I tell you I’m in love!!!”  Malartic slammed his hand down on the table angrily, his pale cheeks taking on a very slight pinkishness which signified what in other men would have been crimson fury.  The raised voice and the crash of his fist on the table brought all nearby conversations to an end, men turning to look, already halfway to their feet.  When they saw that no brawl was about to erupt and that the watch hadn’t broken down the door, they slowly relaxed, two dozen hands gently releasing the grips of knives, daggers, pistols and swords.  Gradually the dull hum of conversation built up to its previous level.
            “Very well.  If you say you’re in love, then you’re in love.  But why is it a problem?”
            Malartic looked straight at him.  “Lampourde, would you say I am a brave man?”
            “Of course!  You’ll happily face down three strong ruffians without a thought, and musket balls are of no more account to you than buzzing flies.”
            “And you would say that I’m skilful?  Cunning?”
            “Naturally.  You’re expert with sword and pistol, you climb like a monkey and walk silently as a shadow.  Your schemes are subtle and ingenious and have only been known to fail but once, and that through no true fault of your own.”
            “Indeed, and yet before a single woman, I am a bumbling, helpless coward.”
            “But surely it can’t be as bad as all that?”
            “Lampourde, I am not, I hope, lacking in self-respect.  I am a man aware of his own qualities and his own faults.  Overall I am satisfied with myself, but I will honestly confess, without any maudlin self-pity, that my appearance is one calculated to engender curiosity rather than admiration.”
            “I would agree that your appearance is perhaps unconventional…”
            “I am ugly, Lampourde, and I don’t mind saying it.  I rarely mind other people saying it.  One must always resent an insult, but it is hard to challenge a man for speaking the inarguable truth.”
            “Supposing that to be the case, physical looks are not everything.  In all other respects you are quite the dashing cavalier, the sort that women love.”
            “Not this one.”
            “She is completely unaware of my existence.”
            Lampourde nodded.  “A fault in her character that we shall endeavour to correct.”
            Malartic sighed.  “Impossible.”
            “Nonsense.  Who is this divine creature that has pierced the heart of the Chevalier Malartic, where three score soldiers, villains and watchmen have failed?”
            “Annette…”  The word was like a prayer on the ashy-faced swordsman’s lips.  “The daughter of a tailor on the Rue de Ferrault.”
            “And she has rejected your advances?”
            “She didn’t even notice them.  I was reduced to a mumbling imbecile in her presence.  She treated me kindly, and asked me to leave.  I think she thought me drunk.”
            “I see.”  Lampourde took a long draught of wine, frowning in concentration.  He suddenly snorted in self-derision.  “You are not the only imbecile my friend!  The answer is of course obvious, as I should have seen immediately.  We must merely apply our usual methods to ourselves, and mingle business with pleasure.”
            Malartic frowned at him.  “What do you mean?”
            “This wonderful woman truly has paralysed your wits hasn’t she?  Have you not been hired more than once before by some love-struck swain to kidnap the object of his desire, so that he could sweep in and pluck her from your arms, paying you well to make him seem an invincible hero?”
            His friend stared at him.  “Yes, of course!”
            “The solution is simple then.  I shall play the evil villain who seizes and whisks away this girl, for who dares contemplate what foul purpose.  Having held her for some short time in a convenient and secure location, I shall be foiled by the peerless courage and undefeatable blade of the noble Malartic!”
            “This woman, unless her heart is carved from granite, will be filled with gratitude for her deliverance and suffused with wonder for your superlative skill and courage.  Why, if we two can’t stage the greatest sham battle in the history of swordsmanship, we should become farmers immediately!”
            “Excellent!  My dear friend, I will be for ever in your debt.”  Malartic paused, a thoughtful look crossing his curiously hued face.  “Naturally I’ll pay.”
            “What?  Don’t be an idiot.  This isn’t business, it’s a favour for a friend!”
            “That you will be performing when you could be out earning your keep in our usual way.  No Lampourde, I insist that I shall be allowed to pay you the usual fee for work of this kind.”
           The fiercely moustachioed swordsman nodded reluctantly.  “Very well then.  I will accept the coin, but under protest.”
            “Protest noted and overridden.”  Malartic drew a purse from his doublet, peered inside, and then passed it to his comrade.  “That should come to about the correct amount.”  Lampourde peered into it as well, and grunted his agreement.  The landlord brought a fresh bottle of wine, and the two set themselves to planning the job.

The next day, a man dressed in his finest, with his hat brushed and his moustache trimmed, waxed and curled had entered a small tailor’s shop on the Rue de Ferrault on the pretext of buying a new pair of gloves.  Had it been any other, he could have been said to be pale with trepidation.  As this was the Chevalier Malartic, it was impossible to tell, but this hero of duels, ambushes, skirmishes and brawls was inwardly trembling and terrified.  He had managed to sustain a brief, stammering conversation with the pleasant young woman who’d helped her father attend to his needs, and thanking her profusely, he had left.  He immediately fled to the nearest tavern to purchase a volume of tonic for the steadying of his palpitating heart.
            Here, while he waited for his trembling limbs to still, he informed the men waiting there that he had discovered that the girl lived above the shop with her father and mother, but that she would be going shopping later that day.
            “She barely looked at me,” he complained.  “Oh,” he continued bitterly, “and she has a suitor.”
            “Bah!”  Lampourde dismissed this with a wave of his hand.  “This little nothing will pale in comparison with the hero who rescues her from the clutches of kidnappers and criminals!  Put him out of your mind.  And if you can’t do that, we can always kill him.”
            “Perhaps we should leave that as a back-up plan.  You’re confident that you can spirit her away unharmed?”
            Lampourde gave him a reproachful look.  “I’m no amateur.  Espron here isn’t exactly a novice either.”  The other man, a thin, wiry ruffian with a scarred face, who acted as an occasional accomplice to the two criminals, nodded.
          “Very well.  I leave everything in your capable hands.  Just… just be careful.  Don’t hurt her at all.”
            Lampourde smiled.  “Relax my friend.  Nothing will go wrong.”
To be continued...

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