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Bardelys the Magnificent

1. The Wager
Speak of the Devil," whispered La Fosse in my ear, and, moved by the words
and by the significance of his glance, I turned in my chair.
The door had opened, and under the lintel stood the thick-set figure of the Comte
de Chatellerault. Before him a lacquey in my escutcheoned livery of red-and-gold
was receiving, with back obsequiously bent, his hat and cloak.
A sudden hush fell upon the assembly where a moment ago this very man had
been the subject of our talk, and silenced were the wits that but an instant since
had been making free with his name and turning the Languedoc courtship - from
which he was newly returned with the shame of defeat - into a subject for
heartless mockery and jest. Surprise was in the air for we had heard that
Chatellerault was crushed by his ill-fortune in the lists of Cupid, and we had not
looked to see him joining so soon a board at which - or so at least I boasted -
mirth presided.
And so for a little space the Count stood pausing on my threshold, whilst we
craned our necks to contemplate him as though he had been an object for
inquisitive inspection. Then a smothered laugh from the brainless La Fosse
seemed to break the spell. I frowned. It was a climax of discourtesy whose
impression I must at all costs efface.
I leapt to my feet, with a suddenness that sent my chair gliding a full half-yard
along the glimmering parquet of the floor, and in two strides I had reached the
Count and put forth my hand to bid him welcome. He took it with a leisureliness
that argued sorrow. He advanced into the full blaze of the candlelight, and
fetched a dismal sigh from the depths of his portly bulk.
"You are surprised to see me, Monsieur le Marquis," said he, and his tone
seemed to convey an apology for his coming - for his very existence almost.
Now Nature had made my Lord of Chatellerault as proud and arrogant as Lucifer
- some resemblance to which illustrious personage his downtrodden retainers
were said to detect in the lineaments of his swarthy face. Environment had added
to that store of insolence wherewith Nature had equipped him, and the King's
favour - in which he was my rival - had gone yet further to mould the peacock
attributes of his vain soul. So that this wondrous humble tone of his gave me
pause; for to me it seemed that not even a courtship gone awry could account for
it in such a man.
 
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