This cloud of dust betokened the approach of a traveler. Travelers had been rare that season on the highway between Paris and Provins.
The heart of the innkeeper rejoiced. Turning to Dame Perigord, his wife, he said, stroking his white apron,—
“St. Denis! make haste and spread the cloth. Add a bottle of Charlevoix to the table. This traveler, who rides so fast, by his pace must be a monseigneur.”
Truly the traveler, clad in the uniform of a musketeer, as he drew up to the door of the hostelry, did not seem to have spared his horse. Throwing his reins to the landlord, he leaped lightly to the ground. He was a young man of four and twenty, and spoke with a slight Gascon accent.
“I am hungry, morbleu! I wish to dine!”
The gigantic innkeeper bowed and led the way to a neat apartment, where a table stood covered with tempting viands. The musketeer at once set to work. Fowls, fish, and pates disappeared before him. Perigord sighed as he witnessed the devastations. Only once the stranger paused.
“Wine!” Perigord brought wine. The stranger drank a dozen bottles. Finally he rose to depart. Turning to the expectant landlord, he said,—
“To whom, your highness?” said Perigord anxiously.
“To his Eminence!”
“Mazarin?” ejaculated the innkeeper.
“The same. Bring me my horse,” and the musketeer, remounting his favorite animal, rode away.
The innkeeper slowly turned back into the inn. Scarcely had he reached the courtyard before the clatter of hoofs again called him to the doorway. A young musketeer of a light and graceful figure rode up.
“Parbleu, my dear Perigord, I am famishing. What have you got for dinner?”
“Venison, capons, larks, and pigeons, your excellency,” replied the obsequious landlord, bowing to the ground.
“Enough!” The young musketeer dismounted, and entered the inn. Seating himself at the table replenished by the careful Perigord, he speedily swept it as clean as the first comer.
“Some wine, my brave Perigord,” said the graceful young musketeer, as soon as he could find utterance.
Perigord brought three dozen of Charlevoix. The young man emptied them almost at a draught.
“By-by, Perigord,” he said lightly, waving his hand, as, preceding the astonished landlord, he slowly withdrew.
“But, your highness,—the bill,” said the astounded Perigord.
“Ah, the bill. Charge it!”
“The same. Adieu, my good Perigord.” And the graceful stranger rode away. An interval of quiet succeeded, in which the innkeeper gazed woefully at his wife. Suddenly he was startled by a clatter of hoofs, and an aristocratic figure stood in the doorway.
“Ah,” said the courtier good-naturedly. “What, do my eyes deceive me? No, it is the festive and luxurious Perigord. Perigord, listen. I famish. I languish. I would dine.”
The innkeeper again covered the table with viands. Again it was swept clean as the fields of Egypt before the miraculous swarm of locusts. The stranger looked up.
“Bring me another fowl, my Perigord.”
“Impossible, your excellency; the larder is stripped clean.”
“Another flitch of bacon, then.”
“Impossible, your highness; there is no more.”
“Well, then, wine!”
The landlord brought one hundred and forty-four bottles. The courtier drank them all.
“One may drink if one cannot eat,” said the aristocratic stranger good-humoredly.
The innkeeper shuddered.
The guest rose to depart. The innkeeper came slowly forward with his bill, to which he had covertly added the losses which he had suffered from the previous strangers.
“Ah, the bill. Charge it.”
“Charge it! to whom?”
“To the King,” said the guest.
“What! his Majesty?”
“Certainly. Farewell, Perigord.”
The innkeeper groaned. Then he went out and took down his sign. Then remarked to his wife,—
“I am a plain man, and don’t understand politics. It seems, however, that the country is in a troubled state. Between his Eminence the Cardinal, his Majesty the King, and her Majesty the Queen, I am a ruined man.”
“Stay,” said Dame Perigord, “I have an idea.”
“And that is”—
“Become yourself a musketeer.”
On leaving Provins the first musketeer proceeded to Nangis, where he was reinforced by thirty-three followers. The second musketeer, arriving at Nangis at the same moment, placed himself at the head of thirty-three more. The third guest of the landlord of Provins arrived at Nangis in time to assemble together thirty-three other musketeers.
The first stranger led the troops of his Eminence.
The second led the troops of the Queen.
The third led the troops of the King.
The fight commenced. It raged terribly for seven hours. The first musketeer killed thirty of the Queen’s troops. The second musketeer killed thirty of the King’s troops. The third musketeer killed thirty of his Eminence’s troops.
By this time it will be perceived the number of musketeers had been narrowed down to four on each side.
Naturally the three principal warriors approached each other.
They simultaneously uttered a cry.
They fell into each other’s arms.
“And it seems that we are fighting against each other, my children,” said the Count de la Fere mournfully.
“How singular!” exclaimed Aramis and D’Artagnan.
“Let us stop this fratricidal warfare,” said Athos.
“We will!” they exclaimed together.
“But how to disband our followers?” queried D’Artagnan.
Aramis winked. They understood each other. “Let us cut ’em down!”
They cut ’em down. Aramis killed three. D’Artagnan three. Athos three.
The friends again embraced. “How like old times!” said Aramis. “How touching!” exclaimed the serious and philosophic Count de la Fere.
The galloping of hoofs caused them to withdraw from each other’s embraces. A gigantic figure rapidly approached.
“The innkeeper of Provins!” they cried, drawing their swords.
“Perigord! down with him!” shouted D’Artagnan.
“Stay,” said Athos.
The gigantic figure was beside them. He uttered a cry.
“Athos, Aramis, D’Artagnan!”
“Porthos!” exclaimed the astonished trio.
“The same.” They all fell in each other’s arms.
The Count de la Fere slowly raised his hands to heaven. “Bless you! Bless us, my children! However different our opinion may be in regard to politics, we have but one opinion in regard to our own merits. Where can you find a better man than Aramis?”
“Than Porthos?” said Aramis.
“Than D’Artagnan?” said Porthos.
“Than Athos?” said D’Artagnan.
The King descended into the garden. Proceeding cautiously along the terraced walk, he came to the wall immediately below the windows of Madame. To the left were two windows, concealed by vines. They opened into the apartments of La Valliere.
The King sighed.
“It is about nineteen feet to that window,” said the King. “If I had a ladder about nineteen feet long, it would reach to that window. This is logic.”
Suddenly the King stumbled over something. “St. Denis!” he exclaimed, looking down. It was a ladder, just nineteen feet long.
The King placed it against the wall. In so doing, he fixed the lower end upon the abdomen of a man who lay concealed by the wall. The man did not utter a cry or wince. The King suspected nothing. He ascended the ladder.
The ladder was too short. Louis the Grand was not a tall man. He was still two feet below the window.
“Dear me!” said the King.
Suddenly the ladder was lifted two feet from below. This enabled the King to leap in the window. At the farther end of the apartment stood a young girl, with red hair and a lame leg. She was trembling with emotion.
“Ah, my God, mademoiselle.”
“Ah, my God, sire.”
But a low knock at the door interrupted the lovers. The King uttered a cry of rage; Louise one of despair. The door opened and D’Artagnan entered.
“Good-evening, sire,” said the musketeer.
The King touched a bell. Porthos appeared in the doorway.
“Arrest M. D’Artagnan.”
Porthos looked at D’Artagnan, and did not move.
The King almost turned purple with rage. He again touched the hell. Athos entered. “Count, arrest Porthos and D’Artagnan.”
The Count de la Fere glanced at Porthos and D’Artagnan, and smiled sweetly.
“Sacre! Where is Aramis?” said the King violently.
“Here, sire,” and Aramis entered.
“Arrest Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan.”
Aramis bowed and folded his arms.
Aramis did not move.
The King shuddered and turned pale. “Am I not King of France?”
“Assuredly, sire, but we are also, severally, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan, and Athos.”
“Ah!” said the King.
“What does this mean?”
“It means, your Majesty,” said Aramis, stepping forward, “that your conduct as a married man is highly improper. I am an abbé, and I object to these improprieties. My friends here, D’Artagnan, Athos, and Porthos, pure-minded young men, are also terribly shocked. Observe, sire, how they blush!”
Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan blushed.
“Ah,” said the King thoughtfully. “You teach me a lesson. You are devoted and noble young gentlemen, but your only weakness is your excessive modesty. From this moment I make you all marshals and dukes, with the exception of Aramis.”
“And me, sire?” said Aramis.
“You shall be an archbishop!”
The four friends looked up and then rushed into each other’s arms. The King embraced Louise de la Valliere, by way of keeping them company. A pause ensued. At last Athos spoke,—
“Swear, my children, that, next to yourselves, you will respect—the King of France; and remember that ‘Forty years after’ we will meet again.”