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CELEBRATED CRIMES VOLUME 7, Part 2

By Alexander Dumas, Pere




THE COUNTESS DE SAINT-GERAN



About the end of the year 1639, a troop of horsemen arrived, towards
midday, in a little village at the northern extremity of the province
of Auvergne, from the direction of Paris.  The country folk assembled
at the noise, and found it to proceed from the provost of the mounted
police and his men.  The heat was excessive, the horses were bathed
in sweat, the horsemen covered with dust, and the party seemed on its
return from an important expedition.  A man left the escort, and
asked an old woman who was spinning at her door if there was not an
inn in the place.  The woman and her children showed him a bush
hanging over a door at the end of the only street in the village, and
the escort recommenced its march at a walk.  There was noticed, among
the mounted men, a young man of distinguished appearance and richly
dressed, who appeared to be a prisoner.  This discovery redoubled the
curiosity of the villagers, who followed the cavalcade as far as the
door of the wine-shop.  The host came out, cap in hand, and the
provost enquired of him with a swaggering air if his pothouse was
large enough to accommodate his troop, men and horses.  The host
replied that he had the best wine in the country to give to the
king's servants, and that it would be easy to collect in the
neighbourhood litter and forage enough for their horses.  The provost
listened contemptuously to these fine promises, gave the necessary
orders as to what was to be done, and slid off his horse, uttering an
oath proceeding from heat and fatigue.  The horsemen clustered round
the young man: one held his stirrup, and the provost deferentially
gave way to him to enter the inn first.  No, more doubt could be
entertained that he was a prisoner of importance, and all kinds of
conjectures were made.  The men maintained that he must be charged
with a great crime, otherwise a young nobleman of his rank would
never have been arrested; the women argued, on the contrary, that it
was impossible for such a pretty youth not to be innocent.

Inside the inn all was bustle: the serving-lads ran from cellar to
garret; the host swore and despatched his servant-girls to the
neighbours, and the hostess scolded her daughter, flattening her nose
against the panes of a downstairs window to admire the handsome
youth.

There were two tables in the principal eating-room.  The provost took
possession of one, leaving the other to the soldiers, who went in
turn to tether their horses under a shed in the back yard; then he
pointed to a stool for the prisoner, and seated himself opposite to
him, rapping the table with his thick cane.

"Ouf!" he cried, with a fresh groan of weariness, "I heartily beg
your pardon, marquis, for the bad wine I am giving you!"

The young man smiled gaily.

"The wine is all very well, monsieur provost," said he, "but I cannot
conceal from you that however agreeable your company is to me, this
halt is very inconvenient; I am in a hurry to get through my
ridiculous situation, and I should have liked to arrive in time to
stop this affair at once."

The girl of the house was standing before the table with a pewter pot
which she had just brought, and at these words she raised her eyes on
the prisoner, with a reassured look which seemed to say, "I was sure
that he was innocent."

"But," continued the marquis, carrying the glass to his lips, "this
wine is not so bad as you say, monsieur provost."

Then turning to the girl, who was eyeing his gloves and his ruff--

"To your health, pretty child."

"Then," said the provost, amazed at this free and easy air, "perhaps
I shall have to beg you to excuse your sleeping quarters."

"What!" exclaimed the marquis, "do we sleep here?"

"My lord;" said the provost, "we have sixteen long leagues to make,
our horses are done up, and so far as I am concerned I declare that I
am no better than my horse."

The marquis knocked on the table, and gave every indication of being
greatly annoyed.  The provost meanwhile puffed and blowed, stretched
out his big boots, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.  He
was a portly man, with a puffy face, whom fatigue rendered singularly
uncomfortable.

"Marquis," said he, "although your company, which affords me the
opportunity of showing you some attention, is very precious to me,
you cannot doubt that I had much rather enjoy it on another footing.
If it be within your power, as you say, to release yourself from the
hands of justice, the sooner you do so the better I shall be pleased.
But I beg you to consider the state we are in.  For my part, I am
unfit to keep the saddle another hour, and are you not yourself
knocked up by this forced march in the great heat?"

"True, so I am," said the marquis, letting his arms fall by his side.

"Well, then, let us rest here, sup here, if we can, and we will start
quite fit in the cool of the morning."

"Agreed," replied the marquis; "but then let us pass the time in a
becoming manner.  I have two pistoles left, let them be given to
these good fellows to drink.  It is only fair that I should treat
them, seeing that I am the cause of giving them so much trouble."

He threw two pieces of money on the table of the soldiers, who cried
in chorus, "Long live M. the marquis!"  The provost rose, went to
post sentinels, and then repaired to the kitchen, where he ordered
the best supper that could be got.  The men pulled out dice and began
to drink and play.  The marquis hummed an air in the middle of the
room, twirled his moustache, turning on his heel and looking
cautiously around; then he gently drew a purse from his trousers
pocket, and as the daughter of the house was coming and going, he
threw his arms round her neck as if to kiss her, and whispered,
slipping ten Louis into her hand--

"The key of the front door in my room, and a quart of liquor to the
sentinels, and you save my life."

The girl went backwards nearly to the door, and returning with an
expressive look, made an affirmative sign with her hand.  The provost
returned, and two hours later supper was served.  He ate and drank
like a man more at home at table than in the saddle.  The marquis
plied him with bumpers, and sleepiness, added to the fumes of a very
heady wine, caused him to repeat over and over again--

"Confound it all, marquis, I can't believe you are such a blackguard
as they say you are; you seem to me a jolly good sort."

The marquis thought he was ready to fall under the table, and was
beginning to open negotiations with the daughter of the house, when,
to his great disappointment, bedtime having come, the provoking
provost called his sergeant, gave him instructions in an undertone,
and announced that he should have the honour of conducting M. the
marquis to bed, and that he should not go to bed himself before
performing this duty.  In fact, he posted three of his men, with
torches, escorted the prisoner to his room, and left him with many
profound bows.

The marquis threw himself on his bed without pulling off his boots,
listening to a clock which struck nine.  He heard the men come and go
in the stables and in the yard.

An hour later, everybody being tired, all was perfectly still.  The
prisoner then rose softly, and felt about on tiptoe on the
chimneypiece, on the furniture, and even in his clothes, for the key
which he hoped to find.  He could not find it.  He could not be
mistaken, nevertheless, in the tender interest of the young girl, and
he could not believe that she was deceiving him.  The marquis's room
had a window which opened upon the street, and a door which gave
access to a shabby gallery which did duty for a balcony, whence a
staircase ascended to the principal rooms of the house.  This gallery
hung over the courtyard, being as high above it as the window was
from the street.  The marquis had only to jump over one side or the
other: he hesitated for some time, and just as he was deciding to
leap into the street, at the risk of breaking his neck, two taps were
struck on the door.  He jumped for joy, saying to himself as he
opened, "I am saved!"  A kind of shadow glided into the room; the
young girl trembled from head to foot, and could not say a word.  The
marquis reassured her with all sorts of caresses.

"Ah, sir," said she, "I am dead if we are surprised."

"Yes," said the marquis, "but your fortune is made if you get me out
of here."

"God is my witness that I would with all my soul, but I have such a
bad piece of news----"

She stopped, suffocated with varying emotions.  The poor girl had
come barefooted, for fear of making a noise, and appeared to be
shivering.

"What is the matter?" impatiently asked the marquis.

"Before going to bed," she continued, "M. the provost has required
from my father all the keys of the house, and has made him take a
great oath that there are no more.  My father has given him all:
besides, there is a sentinel at every door; but they are very tired;
I have heard them muttering and grumbling, and I have given them more
wine than you told me."

"They will sleep," said the marquis, nowise discouraged, "and they
have already shown great respect to my rank in not nailing me up in
this room."

"There is a small kitchen garden," continued the girl, "on the side
of the fields, fenced in only by a loose hurdle, but----"

"Where is my horse?"

"No doubt in the shed with the rest."

"I will jump into the yard."

"You will be killed."

"So much the better!"

"Ah monsieur marquis, what have, you done?" said the young girl with
grief.

"Some foolish things! nothing worth mentioning; but my head and my
honour are at stake.  Let us lose no time; I have made up my mind."

"Stay," replied the girl, grasping his arm; "at the left-hand corner
of the yard there is a large heap of straw, the gallery hangs just
over it--"

"Bravo!  I shall make less noise, and do myself less mischief."  He
made a step towards the door; tie girl, hardly knowing what she was
doing, tried to detain him; but he got loose from her and opened it.

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