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Blade of the Gascon

by W. C. CLARKE

CHAPTER I
Dawn and a Gascon

THE rapier of the Chevalier accomplished a masterly parry.

The French maître d'armes, Le Flamand, had tried his special foyne thrust at the head, puzzling in its jerky time-movement. It had proven fatal on other fields.

Yet the Chevalier solved the stroke in the quick heart-beat of its apt performance. Imperturbably he developed his parry's consummation into reversal of the point and thrust in his turn.

The French master reeled back with a disabled sword-arm.

"Magician!" he gasped, eyes wide with amazement.

The young poet, Du Brullier, who seconded the Chevalier, waved him aside to the attending physicians.

"Gascon magic, monsieur!" affirmed the poet-second, his eyes twinkling.

The Chevalier was from Gascony. As he drove the point of his rapier into the soft turf to cleanse it of its stain, although he looked pensively out upon the fair River Seine, his spirit felt elated.

Shortly before, dawn had broken over the Place des Terraux, where the duels of this Gascon with the four foremost fencing masters of Paris were taking place.

As the Chevalier so ably had defeated his first antagonist, he heard, among the plaudits of the onlooking gallants, the acclaim of no less a personage than Prince Gaston, brother to the King of France.

Now there seemed to be some question of precedence among the remaining opponents of the Gascon. The poet stifled a gTeat yawn.

"If I were not so drowsy, Chevalier, I could write a sonnet praising this fair dawn ... or love, and so win fame, he murmured.

"Would you rise so early to write of love—for mere fame, my poet?" the Chevalier gibed.

"Ha!" quoth the poet. "'Tis true fame has ever been a step beyond me or, overlooked, behind me. Yet I am no pawner of others' ideas. My originality is my own, not pilfered. So I will put aside that hackneyed thing termed ‘love' and write of that unknown event at court—the dawn.

"But come, Chevalier, your next opponent waits. It is the Spaniard, de Limia. By Bacchus, I will drink a tun of wine after the meetings; it will make me dry to see you cut them down. There'll be Homeric laughter at the hotels tonight!"

His second and third antagonists were defeated by the Gascon in inimitable manner, both retiring with minor wounds.

NOW Prince Gaston countenanced the proceedings in pure spleen against the Cardinal Richelieu, for whom he had bitter hatred and a wholesome fear. As usual half-drunken, he slyly applauded the Chevalier for breaking the edicts of His Eminence against dueling, the while cautioning his attendant favorite gentleman, the Duke de Puylaurens, to keep a keen watch for the guards of that dignitary.

"'Sdeath!" exclaimed the prince. "Note the quick, sure turn of the Gascon's leg. A thing of beauty to behold."

"The man is using methods of all schools," agreed Puylaurens. "Watch the careless handling of his blade, his seeming indifference. The apparent weak points in his defense are but to draw on his attacker."

Gaston was no mean swordsman himself. "He is a master of timing," he muttered. "His point is so late in parry as to barely put aside the opposing blade; he escapes by the barest fraction the thrust. Yet he toys with them. It is worth staying up till dawn to see. 'Sdeath! I am becoming sober. Who and what is the fellow?"

Puylaurens eyed the prince, calculatingly. His voice fawned.

"Recall, monseigneur, I brought you to this new sensation. He terms himself 'The Chevalier'. Some time since he opened a salle d'armes in the fashionable Rue de Bethisy, with no pupils. Without warning, he challenged the four most prominent fencing masters in Paris, undertaking to defeat them all with the rapier in a single evening, or forfeit a hundred louis to each master!"

The duke pressed shaking hand to aching forehead, and sighed, resignedly, under his breath. Being favorite gentleman to the brother to a king entailed being a fountain-head of information, and drinking a fountain-head of wine upon all occasions. Yet, withal, he thought complacently, there were compensations.

"The evening arrived," he continued, noting Gaston's interest. "Before half the nobles of Paris this unknown Gascon, by this or that trick of fence, conquered the four maestros. The thing was uncanny. In a night the Chevalier's salle d'armes became the vogue—his sword the most famous in Paris.

"Owing to our absence from Paris, monseigneur, we missed that night but we are here for this dawn. The four fencing masters attributed their defeat to the fact that buttoned foils were used. They challenged the Gascon to naked points and he had the effrontery to accept. Hence the meeting in this secluded spot.

"But see now, he faces the Italian." A breath of premonition seemed to overtake the favorite. "Somehow I like not his assurance. He cannot always conquer. Fifty louis, monseigneur, the Gascon meets his fate," the duke ended, eagerly.

"Taken." Gaston's smile was cunning. "And if he wins, we have good use for a famous sword—if we can save him from the Cardinal and the Bastille."

THE fourth, and remaining, challenger of the Chevalier was no less a master than the Italian, Caizo, the "lamer of men," credited with the crippling of half the male population of Milan—a pleasing myth. But the man was truly expert in the "coup de Jarnac"—a left-handed drawing cut at the inside of the knee. To him the Chevalier paid the tribute of close attention as they fought. For the first time he lost some of his jaunty manner.

To meet the justly feared attack of the Italian master, he again changed his style of fence, holding his point far forward—so loosely, it seemed, a breath might dislodge it- But 'twas no insensate thing, that point, pregnantly become a wall of steel, against which the Italian used his bag of tricks in vain. As for the Chevalier, it contented him, for the moment, to remain strictly upon the defensive. Despite his incredible exertions, he seemed iron-sinewed and scarcely breathed.

Finally, exasperated, Caizo snarled out:

"Watch your knee, monsieur!"

"It comes! It comes! The 'Jarnac'!" whispered the onlookers with bated breath.

The flicker of a smile crossed the Gascon's face, as he replied.

"Try your botte, maestro. 'Tis all you have remaining. As I parry I will take you in the right leg, in my turn."

"Horns of Panurge!" lisped the poet. "Is the man omnipotent?"

An evil gleam appeared in the eyes of the Italian. He seemed veritably to tie himself into a knot of muscle and, from a bewildering stance, uncoiling, shot forth his famous "falso manco" stroke, with extremely sudden virulence, knowing if his disdainful antagonist improvised a parry, he was lost. It was a supreme effort, gallantly essayed.

But the Gascon met the thrust intelligently. The eye could not well follow the parry or the counter-stroke. Vet out of the melee there came the flickering of a blade, tossed high in the air, and the cursing Italian, disarmed, held his right leg by his hand where it had been stricken.

Across his face a deathly pallor spread. A paroxysm of fear shook him. That he should be lamed for life as he had often those others!

"Maestro," the Chevalier declared, "you are a gallant fighter, although somewhat merciless I hear. My steel cut no artery. 'Tis but a flesh wound. Yet spare your next opponent for the clemency."

The poet flung his beaver high in the air and his frank shout rang out, in defiance of the occasion's etiquette.

"The man's a paladin," he asserted, joyously. "I'll immortalize him in verse All Paris shall hear."

"If that drunken ass brays too loud, make him the fifth to feel your blade today, monsieur," admonished Prince Gaston who approached the Chevalier. "We owe you thanks for rare entertainment, yet there are still the cardinal's edicts." Gaston laughed, dryly, and continued. "You may well need a friend at court, shortly. Count upon me."

The Chevalier bowed, in apparent gratitude.

"Monseigneur, you h...

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