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The Return of the Comte de la Fere

by Monsieur de Tréville

 

Autres histoires par M. de Tréville:
The Secret of Athos
For Him the Bells Tolled
Dead Men Don’t Duel

On a cool, but not unusually cold, autumn afternoon before the Musketeers went to besiege La Rochelle, there was a knock on the door of Athos’s apartment. His servant Grimaud answered it and escorted an excited d’Artagnan, wearing his uniform as a guardsman, to him.

“Welcome, my young friend. What brings you here today?”

“I have some news you will want to hear. We must talk. In PRIVATE,” he emphasized.

With a hand signal Athos sent Grimaud away. Sensing urgency in the other man’s voice, he sat upright.

“I am not sure if you have heard the news, but the Comte de la Fere is here in Paris.”

“The Comte de la Fere?”

“Yes, after several years absence from his estates, due to which he was generally presumed to be dead, the comte was recognized as he traveled through the region, and he was reinstalled in his ancestral home. For the first time since his recognition and return he has come to Paris at the urging of a noble friend of his. He is staying at the latter’s town house in the city.”

“You have more information related to this?” Athos demanded.

“Of course. When I got the first word of the story, which is quite fantastic, I searched for more facts. Because it is a fascinating tale people are ever so eager to talk about it. The fuller details have followed the count here from the province of Berry.”

“And?” Athos asked with a hint of impatience.

“The facts coming from the count’s native region are as follows. A few years ago he and his young bride went out riding. The count returned later in the day, but she was not with him. The next morning he was gone as well, having apparently left during the night, and he did not return. The following day his retainers searched the area around the chateau, but they found no sign of either of them. They broadened the search over the next several weeks, enlisting farmers, villagers, and others, and bringing in soldiers to help them scour the rest of the county. They looked everywhere, including in the densest woods, but found nothing even after going outside the county and getting aid from the Comte de la Fere’s neighbors. There was no sign of man, woman, or beast. After a month everyone was totally perplexed by the way they had vanished and extremely saddened because the count was greatly loved by his subjects. The search was suspended.”

“Go on, please.”

D’Artagnan stopped to catch his breath.

“The count’s closest friends and adherents concluded that his wife must have been taken by bandits, and that he had gathered the money they demanded for her release and then went to meet them during the night. But instead of letting the countess go, they took the money and him as well. Nothing else seemed possible,” d’Artagnan continued. ‘They waited for a new ransom demand to secure the freedom of both him and her. But, when after several months it was not made people began to suspect that both the count and his wife were dead. The couple had no children, so there were no direct heirs. The nearest male relation was a distant cousin of the Comte de la Fere, but he was not willing to take the title given the circumstances, and also because he greatly admired the missing count and was eager for his return, as slim as the possibility seemed. So he agreed, in exchange for a reasonable sum per month as a salary, to administer the de la Fere lands and properties until such time as the count himself returned. He has been by all accounts an extremely faithful steward, spending no more than necessary on various items and enhancements, and paying himself no more than what all observers agree is appropriate given his own efforts on the count’s behalf. As time went on, others tried to persuade him that he should formally inherit the title and the property, but he continually argued that more time was needed.”

“And then?” Athos said, rubbing his chin.

“Several months ago a man in old, plain clothing was seen, riding through the nearest village on a very ordinary horse, by some of the missing count’s people who were there to buy supplies for the chateau. One of them, an old woman from the kitchens, noticed the resemblance between the rider and her missing master and shouted out, ‘My God, it is the Comte de la Fere!!’ Those with her stopped, stared, and then took up the cry. Soon it resounded through the entire village.”

“Yes,” Athos observed, “people will quickly believe what they want to believe, even when there is little, or in some cases no, evidence to support it. If the people from the estate were extremely loyal to the count, they would have been overjoyed to have him return to them.”

“So it seems, Athos.”

“Have you seen this person since he has arrived here? Does he resemble the Comte de la Fere?” There was a curious inflection in Athos’s voice when he asked the second question.

“I made it my point to catch a glimpse of him as he left his friend’s residence. The man does in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to the Comte de la Fere, allowing for changes that may have occurred in the intervening years,” d’Artagnan said as he continued this game of verbal cat and mouse with Athos.

“Getting back to the resurrection in Berry, then what happened?” Athos asked the types of questions a lawyer or policeman might put to a witness.

“Well, the crowd in the village practically carried him on their shoulders back to the chateau. However, his cousin, who was administering his estate, the comte’s adherents, and his oldest friends were more hesitant to jump to conclusions. They questioned him closely and also watched his every move. When asked about his disappearance, he said over and over again that he had been found one day very far from the county lying unconscious on the side of the road. He said he remembered nothing else. Nothing of his earlier life, nothing of his wife, nothing of how he came to that particular place was known to him. His memory of past events was completely blank. All he knew was that when he was discovered there he had a terrific headache, and that the people who found him nursed him back to health and fed and clothed him until he was well enough to go on his way, which after some weeks he did. He said that he worked various odd jobs after that, not knowing how he knew how to do them, to make money to survive.”

“And this satisfied them???” Athos asked.

“By no means,” d’Artagnan replied. “Those who knew de la Fere well and felt responsible for the county or were loyal to the comte in one way or another still put him to various tests. When he was restored to the de la Fere chateau, some of his most faithful friends and retainers, including his former nursemaid, were brought to view him. They were startled by his appearance and resoundingly said that he must be the count. His actions and manners were essentially those of a nobleman. He knew how to behave, how to dine, how to drink, and many of the most obvious things that a nobleman would know.”

“And the people who knew the real Comte de la Fere well before he vanished were finally convinced?”

“Athos, as far as I know the answer to that question is ‘Yes.’ Between the extreme willingness of those who knew him earlier to have the comte return to them, the man’s strong resemblance to the comte, his ability to within certain bounds carry himself as a nobleman, and the related willingness of people to fully accept the asserted total loss of memory as the reason why the man could not recall various people, past events, or how to do certain things, he convinced them.”

“Oh, my,” was the answer.

“Athos, I must report for duty shortly. But before I go, would you tell me the fuller details of your disappearance some years ago?”

“Alright, I think you deserve to know these things.” He paused for a moment, not troubled but merely trying to recall certain details. “I have already told you that when I was riding that day with my wife she fell from her horse and the fleur de lis branded on her shoulder—the mark of a criminal--was then revealed to me. I hanged her immediately from the nearest tree. Of course, I was deeply shamed because I had married her, had brought dishonor on my family, and that it had all ended in such a horrible way. I grabbed the bridle of her horse, which was a fine steed, and tied it in the woods near the chateau where it might feed. When I returned to my house I sent for her supposed brother—I believe I mentioned him to you once before—so that I could hang him as well but he was already gone. That night I grabbed certain belongings, some of which you see around me here, and slipped away. First though I retrieved her mount, which I sold as I neared Paris because I needed the money. At such a distance from Berry, it would never be linked to me. As soon as I reached the city I sold my own charger, as magnificent a horse as I have ever owned, because I did not want it to be recognized. Monsieur de Treville, who knew me personally and agreed to help me hide from my past, took me in the company of musketeers as a private soldier named Athos.”

“But how did your wife survive?”

“Good God, how would I know? She is demon from Hell that has multiple lives! Probably the Devil himself came up from Hades to cut the rope she was hanging from, took her down with him to the netherworld to convalesce, and then refurbished her to soil Mankind further with her foul presence. One way or another she lived and completely disappeared right afterward, just as I did. Until you told me the story of your Milady de Winter, I thought the creature was dead.”

“Athos, I realize that this is difficult for you. But I hope I have told you all that I can about the strange reappearance of the Comte de la Fere and the surrounding details. I thought you should know as soon as possible.”

“Yes, forgive me if I am somewhat perturbed. This is not only most surprising but extremely complicated because now he, she, and I are all in the same city. Although thankfully Milady does not know that I am still alive. You did right to investigate the return of the Comte de la Fere and to bring me the fullest details you could find. Your loyalty to me is invaluable.”

D’Artagnan bowed humbly to Athos.

“Well, I’m off then to report for duty before Monsieur des Essarts marks me absent.”

“Yes, good day, my friend” was the answer, as Athos rose and went to the window to stare outside.

D’Artagnan was a busy man the next several weeks, attending to his own duties and also gathering information for Athos about the newly arrived comte, who was the toast of Paris. Milady de Winter was gone from the city at the time and was not seen for the next several weeks.

Meanwhile, Athos’s conscience, given his complete information about this peculiar situation, weighed heavily on him. Although he was normally unperturbable, the recent events perturbed him greatly. After considerable thought he sent a message to the supposed Comte de la Fere asking for an audience. A brief reply stated that the comte was unfortunately too busy to meet with him.

Given the gravity of the situation, Athos came to speak to me.

“Monsieur de Treville, I require your assistance in a certain matter,” he began in my office. I noticed that he was ill at ease.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“It is urgent that I discuss a certain matter with this Comte de la Fere who is now in Paris. I sent him a letter saying that I wished to speak with him, but he declined to meet with me. I suspect that he is not interested in meeting with a musketeer he does not know.”

“Yes, I heard of his arrival here. What can I do for you?”

“I believe that a note coming from you, Monsieur de Treville, given your importance at court, asking that he meet with me will make him change his mind. I suspect he will view me as your emissary, bearing information from you to him.”

“Consider it done! I will have it sent immediately. Can you tell me what this is about?”

“Sir, at this time I cannot. But let me assure you that it is a matter of life and death.”

“That is good enough for me. If you require anything further on this matter, you have but to ask.” I shook Athos’s hand and ushered him out.

My note did the trick. The Comte de la Fere replied directly to me that he would welcome a visit by Monsieur Athos in two days, at his friend’s house in the city, at one in the afternoon.

In full uniform, Athos arrived at the appointed time and was shown in directly to see the comte. The latter remained seated without rising to greet the musketeer.

“Good day, Monsieur. Thank you for seeing me.” Athos began.

“Good day, Monsieur Athos. I believe you bring me a message from your commander?” he glanced casually at the musketeer, focusing primarily on his uniform. The man’s height and weight were similar to Athos’s own and, as d’Artagnan had earlier reported to his friend, there was a strong facial resemblance between the two of them as well.

“Not exactly. I need to speak to you about another important matter.”

“What could a common soldier have to say to a nobleman?” was the reply. The man wore the finest clothing.

“I believe that if you hear me out you will find that I am a rather uncommon soldier.”

“Yes, yes, I know that you are in the company of Musketeers, who are the King’s bodyguards--the veritable elite of the military of the kingdom. But you are a common soldier with no rank nonetheless. Come to the point here, my time is valuable. What do you want?”

“I came here to tell you that you are in the gravest possible danger.”

“How so?”

“Because by pretending to be the Comte de la Fere, you will sooner or later, and I suspect that it will be quite soon, come to the attention of a most terrible enemy who will stop at nothing to kill you.”

“I pretend nothing, Sir. I AM the Comte de la Fere.”

“You most assuredly are not the comte.”

“What makes you say that??” the other inquired.

“Because I AM the Comte de la Fere!” Athos told him.

The pretend comte rose from his chair and took a close look at Athos for the first time.

“Well, there is somewhat of a resemblance,” he said dismissively.

“I was going to say the same thing to you, Monsieur,” Athos replied with disdain. “Listen to me, and listen carefully! If I wanted to I could effortlessly and painfully, in regards to you, unmask you because I know what the people in my household, my tenants, and the nearby villages would do when they found out that you are an impostor.” Athos said sternly. “I could easily convince those who knew me intimately in the past that I am the comte. There are events and details from my life that only I and certain people, and in each case only one other person, know, going back to my childhood. Your little charade claiming that your memory was wiped totally clean would no longer protect you from the truth.”

“Monsieur, let me pretend for the moment that I actually believe you,” the other man said stroking his brow. “So, then why are you living on a soldier’s meager pay in Paris under an assumed name if you are an important nobleman? Why are you not enjoying the riches of the de la Fere’s at your chateau? If I, for the sake of argument, am willing to accept the premise that you, and not I, are truly the Comte de la Fere, then you must have a very important reason to keep your identity concealed. So important that you would surely not go to Berry and resurface as the comte. Logically, I, given all these conditions, have nothing to fear from you in terms of any attempts by you to personally unmask me.”

A sour look came over Athos’s face. He stepped to one side to seat himself in a chair.

“I did not give you permission to sit down,” came the words from the other man’s mouth.

In response, Athos remained standing. “Alright, if you insist I will, for the time being, continue to play this child’s game with you! But let me assure you that the sole reason that I came here today was to warn you.”

“So,” the other man said after some reflection, “you believe that you are actually the comte, and you have come here to threaten me because I sit again at my chateau after a long absence. Let me assure you, Monsieur Athos or whoever you really are, that the Comte de la Fere is not easily frightened, especially by someone who lives in a world of fairy tales. I will do everything necessary to protect myself from you and punish you if you try to harm me.”

“I am tired of this foolishness! If you will not listen to me then you are completely on your own. Like Pontius Pilate, I wash my hands of YOU,” Athos growled. “Whatever happens after this point in time, happens. But, for what it is worth, I have a clear conscience in this matter because I did what I could to save YOU.”

The musketeer turned quickly and left the building.

On his side, the false Comte de la Fere was taken aback by the meeting, even though he firmly held his ground during it. He quickly added to his retinue as bodyguards, given that Athos was a musketeer, several very fine swordsmen who had been members at one time or another of the Cardinal’s guard.

A week after the extraordinary meeting between Athos and his doppelganger, Milady de Winter was seen again in Paris.

Three days later two shots were fired at the man claiming to be de la Fere as he walked down a Paris street in broad daylight. One of them slightly wounded one of his retainers. In response he quickly left Paris with his entourage and returned to his chateau in Berry, which was soon heavily guarded.

But not before he made his own inquiries. His agents told him that at the time of the assassination attempt Athos, as well as his three closest friends, who far and away would have been the men most likely to help him in such an attack if he was behind it, were all on duty at the Louvre or elsewhere.

Because of the notoriety surrounding the Comte de la Fere, further news quickly filtered back to Paris from the provinces. About two weeks after his return to his estate, he was out riding one day with six bodyguards and members of his household on a road surrounded by woods. As his entourage made a sharp turn, a number of hooded horsemen darted out from the trees in front of them. His bodyguards and retainers drew their pistols quickly and exchanged shots with attackers. Two of the attackers went down, and one of the bodyguards was mortally wounded in the gunfire. The man riding next to the comte had a ball go through his sleeve near his elbow but it did not strike his body. The comte’s men formed a circle around him and the two parties then crossed swords. In close combat several men on both sides were slightly injured, but no one was killed. After several minutes, as the comte’s party got the better of the combat, the hooded horsemen fled, taking one of their own, who had been hit by a pistol round, with them.

One of the attackers lay dead on the road with a ball in his head. When he was unmasked no one recognized him, immediately or thereafter as the locals came to view him in the village at the comte’s request. There was nothing on his person or his clothing which provided any information about him.

More former soldiers, with no connection to the King’s Musketeers, were taken on as bodyguards.

A month later the comte was attacked again in a completely different manner. While in his manor house, apparently safe in his bedchamber in the middle of the night with rings of guards stationed within and without to protect him, a trusted servant entered his bedchamber. The guards at the door of the room knew the man well and gave him access. The slight, middle aged man drew a hidden dagger as soon as he closed the door to the room. As it happened that night, the comte was having trouble sleeping and rose from his bed just as the assassin came toward him. His movement was a 90 degree turn clockwise, because, as was the custom at the time, people slept sitting up rather than lying down and he was on the left side, from the attacker’s perspective, of the bed. Instead of taking the victim in the heart, as he intended to do, the assassin’s dagger stroke hit the lord of the manor a glancing blow on the outside of his left arm.

“Murder, Murder!!” he yelled as he grappled with the rather feeble man whose advantage had been negated by the rising of his victim. In the give and take the killer gave him no more wounds with his dagger before the two closest bodyguards entered the chamber. The one who was slightly quicker to respond was in front of his compatriot and gave the attacker not one but two fatal sword thrusts. The murderer fell to the floor and died almost instantly.

This raised the entire household, and the building and grounds were thoroughly searched by parties of armed men with lanterns while the claimant to the title of the Comte de la Fere was secured inside by his bodyguards. No other immediate threats were found.

Regarding the assassin, it was learned through a search of his room in the building that he had a large sum of money that he had apparently received recently. People in the village saw him talking in its dark corners in hushed tones the week prior to the attack with two men they had never seen before. This established without a doubt that he was a paid assassin.

Two weeks after this incident at the de la Fere chateau, Athos met with d’Artagnan in a tavern in Paris. In a low voice they discussed the latest information about the man who called himself the Comte de la Fere, including the two most recent attempts on his life.

It was after midnight when, due to the many questions Athos posed to his friend who was his agent in the gathering of intelligence on subject, the pair left the establishment as it closed and walked down the dark, largely empty streets toward their lodgings. They had been drinking wine but given all that had happened in the last several weeks, they made sure that they were not affected by it.

When they were a distance from the inn where they had been drinking, three men sprang out of the darkness in front of them and drew their swords.

“Give us your purses,” the robbers demanded.

“Damn you, try and take them from us!” Athos replied, as he and d’Artagnan unsheathed their rapiers.

Another four swordsmen appeared behind them, blocking what they perceived to be the intended retreat of Athos and d’Artagan. The soldiers heard the second group of attackers come toward them and Athos immediately shouted, “d’Artagnan, back to back!”

And so they arrayed themselves. In the fractional moon light that evening, the swords of their multiple assailants, as well as those of Athos and d’Artagnan, glistened as they moved about.

Athos soon disarmed the attacker to his right, who retreated from the combat, perhaps momentarily, hoping that he might retrieve his rapier later and rejoin the fight.

On the other side to the fray, d’Artagnan faced four men who quickly attempted to gain an advantage over him by forming a semi-circle and extending it around both his flanks. He thrusted, jabbed, and on occasion slashed furiously, to keep his attackers at bay. After a few moments the young Gascon gave the assailant at his far left a minor wound in the knee. The man went down, but only briefly. Still, d’Artagnan was hard pressed by the other three men until the fourth returned to the fray.

Having disabled the man on the right, Athos went after the opponent directly in front of him. The musketeer’s rapier behaved like it never had before. His adversary, who based on his swordsmanship was quite proficient, did all that he could to ward off the blade that came at him from seemingly everywhere. But Athos soon wounded him with a thrust through his sword arm. The man winced in pain and backed away from the fight as his companion to his right moved to aid him. As he retreated, he stepped on something that made a metallic sound. Athos gave the attacker to his far left a good kick which sent him sprawling. He gave an equally good kick to the man who had been on his right, who was trying to recover his blade. For the time being he left the man in front of him, who was recovering from a serious wound, be. The battle was over on the one side.

Athos turned about and faced the four swordsmen who were attacking d’Artagnan. Stepping to his young friend’s side, he immediately engaged the wounded man on the far left. The fellow quickly received a sword thrust in the shoulder which made him drop his blade and leave the melee. Athos kicked it into the darkness. Next, he threatened the right flank of the three remaining attackers. The one who was nearest him moved a step back. In the process he exposed the man on his left to Athos’s blade.

D’Artagnan gave his assailant on the far right, who had also moved back somewhat, a wound on his right side, near the stomach. He cried out in pain and stepped further back, at which time the young soldier gave the man in front of him his full attention. Just as d’Artagnan gave this fellow a minor wound in the thigh, Athos drove the man he was fighting back even further. Seeing an opening, he lunged at the man opposite d’Artagnan and gave him a further, although again slight, wound. This man started to retreat and the unwounded fellow in front of Athos also moved away from the fight. They covered their two compatriots on that side of the combat who were already leaving the battle.

Turning, Athos saw that the three assailants who he had already dealt with had slipped away in the darkness. Covered with sweat, Athos and the young Gascon stopped to take a breath. Adrenalin still rushed through their bodies.

“Are you wounded, d’Artagnan?”

“My God, yes I am. I have two slight grazing cuts on my sword arm. I was so absorbed with the fighting that I never noticed them. And you?”

“No, apparently not,” he said running his hands over his body. “But it looks that my purse was cut off or fell off during the fighting.”

“There it is,” D’Artagnan pointed at it on the ground, in the area where Athos had fought the set of three attackers initially.

“So that’s what the one brigand stepped on when he went to help his friend. These are very curious robbers, who when free to retreat fail to take my purse with them.”

“Indeed. There is something very strange here. If you go out from your lodgings, day or night, you must make sure that Aramis, Porthos, or I is with you.”

“I agree.”

There was a second, different type of attack several days later. Athos, Aramis, and Porthos walked in the early evening down an uncrowded but not empty street to an inn to dine together. Suddenly, a group of men swinging wooden cudgels and clubs charged at them from around the corner of a house to their left. Fortunately, Porthos was on Athos’s left.

The giant musketeer countercharged the attackers. After he knocked a weapon from his hand, he grabbed the man in the lead by his clothing and picked him up off the ground. Porthos held him parallel to the street, as if he were carrying a log, and knocked down the second row of assailants as he stepped forward, which caused him to advance through the group of assailants. This gave Athos and Aramis a moment to draw their swords and pull their daggers from their belts.

The remaining men came around either side of Porthos and into the main street. Porthos threw the man he carried on top of the ones scattered on the ground and drew his own weapons as he turned. The attacking force was now caught between their intended victims.

Aramis slashed one adversary across the cheek with his sword. The man yelped and fled. Athos wounded another one in the hand, and he dropped his club. Porthos lunged and ran a third combatant through the flesh of the outside of his buttocks. That man flung his cudgel at Athos, knocking him temporarily to the ground.

The men Porthos had bowled over rose and advanced on the musketeers, which gave their comrades in the street time to turn and run.

“Look out, Porthos,” Aramis shouted as Athos rose. As Porthos turned to face the latest danger, this group of attackers all threw their weapons at him. He was hit by several of them, knocking him down, and one of them bounced of his frame and went crashing into Aramis, who as a consequence dropped his sword. The last of the attackers then left the field of battle.

Once they righted themselves and recovered their weapons, Aramis and Porthos were all for pursuing the fleeing brigands.

“Gentleman, hold,” Athos called out. “We have no idea what may come next so we must stay together.”

The musketeers abandoned the idea of dining out and returned instead to Athos’s lodgings. Grimaud was sent out to obtain dinner for them while they opened a bottle of wine.

“Well, unlike the other evening, there was no attempt to disguise that as a robbery,” Athos observed.

“Agreed, that was an attack pure and simple and surely the two incidents are related,” Aramis concluded.

“Starting now we carry not only a sword and dagger, but pistols as well.” Porthos’s demand was agreed to by the other two.

But nothing further happened in Paris, and all was quiet, as far as Athos knew, in Berry.

Unbeknown to him, at that time the man posing as the Comte de la Fere decided to come back to Paris, unannounced and under heavy guard.

When Grimaud answered a knock on the door a few days later, the impostor asked,

“May I come in? I would like to speak to your master.”

“You? Here? You’re the last person I expected to see again face to face!” Athos said as he sprang to his feet. He motioned for the Grimaud to leave them, which the servant did. The musketeer’s sword was in easy reach and two pistols were next to it.

“Monsieur le Comte de la Fere,” the other man said to Athos’s great surprise, “I have come here to apologize. My bodyguards are down with my carriage. I have given them strict instructions that we are not to be interrupted. They on their part will guarantee that no one enters the building and tries to harm me or you.”

“Please continue,” Athos said as he seated himself again. The other man remained standing. He was wearing a splendid red doublet, and he had a white scarf made of the finest silk tied around his neck that hung down in front of him.

“I presume you have been keeping an eye on me, even outside of Paris, just as I, from a distance, have had people watching you.”

“No one sent by me has literally been watching you, but friends of mine have relayed to me information about you.”

“So, you know that I was attacked once here and twice again after I returned to your ancestral home?”

“Yes.”

“After the attempt on my life in Paris, my bodyguards told me that they believed that you were not responsible. They knew you as a man of honor who would, if necessary, deal with me personally and quite directly.”

“This is true,” the musketeer responded.

“But at first I would not listen. After the third attempt on my life, I decided to strike against you.”

“So it was you!”

“Yes, Monsieur, I was responsible for both of the recent attacks on you.”

Athos flashed the man an angry look.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“It was a combination of several things. What my own guards originally said to me, the fact that you warned me beforehand, which would not have been in your interest if you wanted me dead, and finally because there were no further assassination attempts after I hired criminals to attack you.”

“I see. You may sit down if you like,” Athos responded.

“Thank you, Monsieur le Comte.” He took a chair.

“Now, tell me, just who and what are you?”

“I am Marcel Evreux, an actor by trade. In my own estimation I am not a terrible actor, but I recognize that I am also not highly skilled. For example, I have never graced the stage in Paris or in any of the largest theaters in the country. The troupes I belonged to travelled mostly through the south and the center of France. I was almost penniless and out of work because the acting company that I had been with disbanded in Berry not far from your chateau. As I imagine you have heard, as I rode through a nearby village some of your servants mistook me for you.”

“Yes, that is known to me. Then what happened?” Athos inquired.

“Well, I saw it as an opportunity. I have played a nobleman on the stage before, so I can ape the mannerisms, and if I may say so, the arrogance of the nobility.”

“You have already said so, therefore you need not ask me for my permission to say it,” Athos answered flatly.

“At first I thought it would be a short engagement. If the people said I was the comte, I would install myself in your place, set aside money and valuables day by day, and then flee under the cover of night once, to use the language of the theater, the audience tired of my performance or I tired of the role. But they didn’t. Everyone was delighted by my return. People were so happy that the comte was back with them, that they were willing to accept my claim that my memory had been totally wiped clean as an excuse for anything. Even the fact that I could not handle a sword at all well or shoot a pistol with any accuracy was explained away by it. So was my failure to recognize your oldest friends and servants or to know what your favorite foods and wines were. To them, I must surely have been struck by some great malady of the brain, otherwise why would I be wandering around with only a few pistoles almost within sight of the chateau, when I could return to it and restore myself to great riches?”

“On my side,” Evreux continued, “I think I played the part well. If I had quickly tried to turn your assets into cash, it would have aroused suspicion. But I squirreled away small amounts now and again, as the tenants paid rents and such. You see, I only wanted to build up a modest sum to restart my life. I knew this charade would not continue forever. And I made sure to reward the people around me, apologizing for my absence and that I had not been there in the recent past to help this one or that one during some calamity, to recognize the loyal service of others, or give them gifts at the times when it was customary.”

“Extraordinary. I see that you have been enjoying my family’s wealth,” Athos remarked, looking again at his fine suit of clothes.

“Yes, I have clothed myself rather nicely. And the chateau has an excellent wine cellar, as you well know, which has been quite useful for the dinner parties I have thrown. I also spent fairly lavishly when I was here some weeks ago. But I did it because I felt it went with the part, given the circumstances. As I have already said, beyond that I was putting aside only a reasonable amount for when I disappeared again.”

“How good of you,” Athos said dryly.  “Nonetheless, now you are here, and you are apologizing, which you might have done by sending me a letter or by sending me an emissary.”

“Monsieur, I assure you that I am sorry for all that I have done, and that I do not hold you responsible for the attacks on me. I came partly because I wanted to apologize to you in person,” the actor said.

“In my coach I have brought along several bags of cash out of the money I set aside from the de la Fere estate. My man will bring them up to you shortly, if you will allow it,” he continued. Athos nodded in agreement. “If I still suspected you, why would I bring you funds that you could use in further plots against my life? I am sure they will come in handy, because since you left Berry you have been living on a soldier’s pay and that cannot be easy, even if you keep to the lifestyle of a soldier.”

Evreux rose from his seat and went to the window. After tapping on the glass he motioned to one of his retainers, a feeble, elderly, unarmed man. This fellow soon knocked on Athos’s door, which the musketeer, standing back from the entrance near his sword, motioned for the actor to open.

“I give you my word that the man is unarmed.”

After inspecting the new visitor, Athos signaled for him to put the bag down on the table. Without closing the door he went out a second and then a third time to bring up two more bags of money.

Athos certainly welcomed these new funds. He planned to put them aside as a reserve for emergencies, such as if he lost a considerable sum gambling, rather than to use the money to cover his usual expenses.

“Furthermore, Monsieur, I recognize that I am, as you warned me, in great danger. Someone is trying to kill me. Would you help me?”

“Now I see the other reason for your visit! You want ME, after you tried to have ME killed, to help YOU out of the predicament that YOU created!!”

“It is as your lordship states,” Evreux said meekly, after being allowed to regain his seat. “Can you explain to me just who or what is working against me?

“There are certain details you need not know and that on my side I will not reveal. Let me tell you that around the time I vanished I created a most terrible enemy. You cannot imagine how wicked and resourceful this fiend is. This person will stop at nothing to kill the Comte de la Fere out of revenge and for other reasons. When you took on your latest role, you had no idea what you unleashed upon yourself.”

“What am I to do? I don’t want to be murdered,” Evreux pleaded.

“After all that has happened, why should I help you? I should leave you to your own devices, to face a certain death.”

“But, Monsieur, that is beyond cruel.”

“No it is not. In this case the punishment surely fits the crime. You masquerade as me for financial gain, and then you send killers to attack me!”

“Please, Sir, I beg you to help me!”

“Damn you to hell, and beyond! If your enemy was anyone else, I would not lift a finger to save you.” Athos paused for a moment. “But, I simply cannot allow this monster to ruin another life. Given the enormous weight on the one side of the scale, you are most fortunate, Evreux, that it tips in your favor.”

“There is only one way out of this for you,” Athos, who had been thinking about the other man’s quandary the entire time, remarked. “You must die.”

There was a further conversation between them before the actor left Athos’s rooms. He and his party swiftly left Paris, but instead of returning to the house of the de la Fere’s, they went to the chateau of a noble neighbor after sending word ahead. They stayed there for a day. Then the coach, accompanied by a party of horseman, left in the middle of the night. A few hours later Evreux with his four most able bodyguards rode away in the opposite direction. They headed back to the de la Fere estate while the coach and riders drove many leagues to Brittany without stopping. After two nights Evreux and his bodyguards left for Paris.

During the evening of their first day in the city, Evreux and two of his men entered the Three Eagles tavern while his other two guards stationed themselves in front of the building across the street. The tavern was quite crowded at that hour, with various soldiers, in and out of uniform, as well as ordinary folk washing away their worries with wine. There were some empty seats on the side of one table. The three gentlemen who sat on the other side motioned for the recent entrants to sit down, given how few places were available, after they inquired if those seats were unoccupied.

The newcomers ordered wine. When the first bottle was finished, they ordered more. The men across from them drank with equal gusto. After about an hour, Evreux reached for his wine, but managed to knock it over, spilling it on table and onto the left arm of the man directly across from him which rested there.

“Damn,” the fellow cried out examining the red stains on his doublet and white shirt, “look what you have done.”

The serving girls backed away from the table.

“Monsieur, it was an accident.”

“If people were more careful, these accidents would not happen. Now you have ruined my new clothing.”

If one of the people at the other tables would have come closer and carefully examined the offended party’s garments, which none of them did because they knew that an argument was brewing, they would have noticed that the man’s clothes showed signs of wear.

“If you would not have had your arm all over the table, like some mannerless peasant, the wine would not have gotten on you,” Evreux retorted.

“Peasant? I am one of the King’s Musketeers!” were the other man’s hot words.

“If you think I am impressed by that, you are greatly mistaken. I am the Comte de la Fere and far more than your social equal.”

“For your sake, it would better for you if you were my equal with a sword.”

“Oh, is your rapier as sharp as your tongue?” was Evreux’s cold reply.

“That you will soon find out. I demand satisfaction,” the musketeer answered.

“As you wish.”

The six men stepped out of the tavern. It was soon arranged that the next night at eight they would meet behind the Carmelite convent. Only the two principals would cross swords. The other four, acting as their seconds, would be there only to insure that the event was conducted according to the rules of honor.

As soon as the details were fixed, Evreux and his party walked away.

The man whose clothing had been soiled by the wine walked in the opposite direction from the tavern, accompanied by his two friends.  

On the next night at the predetermined hour, Evreux and his two seconds strolled down the lane to the rear of the convent. The opposing party arrived at the same time. All six men solemnly nodded to each other. Evreux’s group stepped to one side. The musketeer and his friends went to the other. The musketeer took off his cloak and doublet and handed them to the taller of his seconds, who gently put them on the grass. The soldier unsheathed his rapier and prepared himself by bending, moving his arms about, and thrusting with his blade. The man pretending to be the Comte de la Fere went through roughly the same motions.

Although it was dark at that hour, the moon was almost full, providing ample light for this affair of honor. If the night had not been well light, the seconds would never have agreed to this time for such an encounter.

After the preparations were over, the two principals approached each other. The soldier stood to the north, his adversary to the south. Their seconds stationed themselves to the east and the west.

“Are you ready, Monsieur?” he asked his opponent with a salute.

“I am,” the other saluted in return.

“Then on-guard,” the musketeer said as moved a step nearer.

The actor advanced toward him and for a while took the role of the aggressor. After a few minutes the musketeer, who had ably defended himself, went on the attack when it suited him. A skilled swordsman would have noticed that his offensive efforts were half-hearted.  None of his strokes injured the other duelist.

After that they crossed rapiers in a cautious manner for several minutes, as both men fought warily. Then the musketeer went on the offensive. His blade flashed as he came at his opponent, who tried to defend himself. He slashed at the other man from left to right with his rapier, and then he delivered a thrust at the chest. In the less than perfect light, it appeared to find its mark.

With little noise the one duelist crumpled to the ground. Aramis stepped back from his opponent after the seemingly fatal thrust. He took his cloak and doublet from the hands of d’Artagnan and Porthos. Etiquette demanded that one did not gloat at the end of an affair of honor, especially if the other man was killed, so Aramis moved away with no reaction.

Evreux’s seconds came to his side

“The comte appears to be dead,” they said gravely.

It was never good to remain on the ground of a fatal duel. Aramis, Porthos, and d’Artagnan quickly blended into the darkness. The other men took the reputed Comte de la Fere’s body away, now faced with the more complicated task of dealing with his death.

Even more so than usual after a duel with fatalities, on the next day the word flew around Paris that the only recently rediscovered comte had been killed by a musketeer whom he had offended in a tavern the previous evening.

His seconds quickly arranged for a coffin, appropriately weighted, to be buried in the crypt of a church in the city. A stone tablet was paid for and soon laid in the church marking the demise of the Comte de la Fere, with his correct birth date and his supposed death date, and including some details about his life.

In reality, after a bit of prearranged choreography, Aramis and Marcel Evreux had performed some play acting in the Three Eagles tavern that evening. And Aramis’s sword thrust on the following night went between Evreux’s body and his left arm. Given how well they played their parts, it would have been impossible for anyone watching who did not know the script to conclude that a rapier thrust had not gone through the middle of the latter man’s chest.

Evreux’s seconds were paid handsomely for their part in this little farce, and they never said a contradictory word about it. Even after making various, detailed inquiries, Milady de Winter was satisfied that the Comte de la Fere was dead.

Marcel Evreux mounted a swift horse, whose saddlebags were loaded with the money he still had, after he was dragged away from behind the convent that night. He rode at great speed to the south, accompanied by the two bodyguards who had waited for him the previous night across from the Three Eagles. They had three additional horses so they could remount and make even better time. After a journey of many leagues, the last two guards were also paid well to forget anything they knew.

Evreux continued on alone to his native Marseille and used the money that remained from his greatest role, as the Comte de la Fere, to open a theater there. He disguised himself by gaining weight and through other tricks which were known to actors, so that his appearance changed. Once he established himself in the south of France, the actor sent a letter to Athos, written in code, to let him know that he was safe. He wrote several plays over the next few years. None of them eclipsed the works of the Englishman, Shakespeare, but they were of reasonable quality and between producing and acting in them he had a fairly comfortable existence for the rest of his life.

Thus ended a most singular incident in which a man seemingly returned from the dead needed to die to escape from certain death.

 


 

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