If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
It is March 1625. Winter continues, little abated the approaching spring and its promise of impending warmth. Snow flurries are replaced icy rain, drenching the city in slush and laborers hired by the prévôt des marchands watch the Seine to prevent damage to the city’s bridges once the spring flood brings snags and other flotsam down the mighty river.
Easter approaches, the most important holiday in Christendom, and the Foire Saint-Germain prepares to end its annual run, but the fair and its artisans remains a popular attraction for the nobles and wealthy bourgeoisis of Paris, and for the thieves and magsmen who prey upon them.
The King’s Players continue their run at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, drawing crowds every night to witness the antics of the Three Farceurs in a pastoral comedy.
Word of the ill-health of King James contributes a sense of urgency and imminence to the negotiations between the French and English crowns for the marriage of princesse Henriette Marie to the Prince of Wales; the dowry to be paid to the English crown is expected to support the campaign underway by the mercenary graf von Manstein to retake the Palatinate and restore James’ eldest daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick V to the Imperial electorate, while the French need English ships to harry the Spanish as the siege against Genoa falters for lack of control of the sea.
The Constable of France, the duc de Lesdiguières, and the combined Franco-Savoyard army are unable to press their advantage against the Genoese as the Spanish control the sea routes in and out of the Ligurian city, and sickness is taking its toll on the massed troops. Meanwhile the Spanish took the initiative, seizing the Îles d’Hyères off the coast of Provence and threatening trade along France’s Mediterranean coast. The duc de Guise returned to the province, but it’s expected that the planned Franco-Dutch naval expedition against the Genoese and the Spanish may be suspended in order to wage a campaign against the Huguenot strongholds in the west of France instead.
Regiments which pass the winter under-strength are beginning to recruit and train new soldiers, to fill out their ranks in preparation for the coming spring and summer.
All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant
Heedless of season or strife, the company of King’s Musketeers serves His Most Christian Majesty, Louis XIII, protecting the crown residence and the royal person. The Musketeers turn in the rotation of the king’s guards is up this month, but Sergeant Riordan O’Neill enjoys a day-off from standing at attention and doing his best to remain invisible among the royal and noble personages who frequent the Louvre.
Leaving the hôtel de Tréville under scudding grey clouds, wrapped in a warm cloak against the chill air, the Irish ex-patriot musketeer decides to savor the delights of the fair, in particular the wealthy ladies known to tread the wooden walkways set among the artisans’ stalls. Along the way he spies two men, conspicuous in their attempts to remain inconspicuous, lurking in an alley not far from the fair. Noting their attempt to remain unnoticed, the musketeer sergeant decides to take a close look. The two men are dressed in workman’s clothes, shabby and plain, and in vain they try to discourage O’Neill’s attention, but as the burly musketeer remains unmoved and unmoving, one of them finally asks if he’s connected to the guards of the Six Guilds – the artists’ guild of Paris hires armed men to enforce its monopoly against painters from outside Paris, he explains, and they have three of their master’s paintings to deliver to the fair. After O’Neill replies that he’s nothing to do with the guilds, one of the men shakes a small handful of sous in his hand, asking if the musketeer will help them get the paintings to their master’s stall. Smiling at the handful of copper coins in the apprentice’s hands, the musketeer sergeant demurs and continues on his way, leaving the two to smuggle the contraband artwork on their own.
Arriving at the fair, O’Neill walks among the stalls, taking in the wares of the painters, mercers, whitesmiths, lace-makers, and other artisans as well as the many well-born, or at least well-dressed, ladies and gentlemen searching for fripperies and baubles to mark their station. Rounding a corner, the musketeer spies a high wire strung over the stalls, with a black-clad and -masked acrobat balancing above the crowd. He realizes the acrobat stands frozen, however, as a group of three young dandies toss a hat back and forth, hazing the wire-walker. An older man, simply dressed and hatless, curses the three as he attempts to get the hat back and stop the dandies’ horseplay.
The musketeer sergeant doesn’t hesitate for a moment, drawing his rapier and spearing the hat as it flies through of the air. O’Neill is immediately confronted by one of the dandies, a well-dressed, sneering young man with hands on his hips demanding the return of ‘his’ hat; his two companions join him, one a husky blond dressed more simply than his companions, the other tall and athletically built, expensively dressed and perhaps a bit younger than the other two – the latter seems to be watching the conversation carefully, leading O’Neill to believe this young man is not French but rather a foreigner like himself.
O’Neill, smiling, returns the hat to the older man, and offers to settle the difference of opinion over the hat’s ownership by a ‘fencing lesson’ with the sneering fop; the latter appears willing, but his blond companion tugs at his sleeve and suggests they leave instead, and after a smirk from the leader of the trio, the threesome disappear into the crowd of the fair.
With the hazing ended, the acrobat crosses the wire without incident. A woman rushes up, hastily dressed and partially made-up for the stage; O’Neill notes that she is quite attractive, and listens as she speaks rapidly in Italian to the other performer. The musketeer discovers that the acrobat is not a boy, but the younger sister of the actress. The elder girl rattles off profuse thanks in French thickly seasoned with Italian, then hustles off with the girl; the older man adds his as well when they are joined by two more men, one handsome and simply dressed, the other a well-dressed but rather ugly fellow who is unmistakeably a nobleman. The simply dressed man introduces himself as the leader of the troupe, Gianbattista di Onda, and adds his sincere thanks to O’Neill to the praise of the others. The nobleman, introduced as the seigneur de Racan by di Onda, softly stutters praise for the musketeer and invites him to be his guest at a performance at the hôtel de Bourgogne that evening. O’Neill is invited to watch di Onda’s troupe perfrom on the stage at the fair in the meantime; the actors present a standard commedia dell’arte concoction, though the players themselves are quite good, especially the lovely actress who expressed her thanks to the musketeer.
As O’Neill watches the performance, a snowball whips past his head; he looks around, but is unable to locate the perpetrator of the affront.
After the commedia performance, the musketeer wanders a bit more, checking out the women visiting the fair. Noticing one particularly lovely lady escorted only by a maid and a young servant boy, he introduces himself and inquires if she has an escort. With a warm smile she replies that she does, if she could locate him, and graciously thanks the musketeer for his offer. A little later O’Neills sees her talking to a nobleman; the two appear to exchange words, and the nobleman shoots the musketeer a glance before they leave the fair.
After purchasing a small lace stachel to give as a gift to a woman – which woman remains to be seen – O’Neill returns to the hôtel de Tréville. He engages another musketeer, Ferusac, one of his fellow sergeants, in some practice fencing, and recounts the events of his day. In a weary, rasping voice the veteran musketeer warns O’Neill not to chase women above his station.
A Night at the
Arriving at the theatre freshly groomed and with his lackey, Jean-Luc, in tow, O’Neill discovers Racan holding court outside the theatre, surrounded by admirers asking about his next play or folio of poetry. Racan glowingly introduces the musketeer as a “lover and protector of the arts,” which arouses both the curiosity and the admiration of the playwright’s fans.
Escorted into a box where di Onda is waiting, O’Neill watches the theatre-goers thronging the floor or preening in the boxes. He recognizes the powerful duc de Nevers in one of the boxes closest to the stage, escorted by a young woman who appears to be his daughter. The musketeer also spots the young actress from the fair, on the arm of a fat nobleman in another box; they briefly catch one another’s eyes, but a glance is all they can exchange as she is escorted into a carriage by the nobleman after the show.
Parting from Racan and di Onda, O’Neill makes his way across the city to his lodgings in the Latin Quarter, followed by his lackey with a lantern in his hand. As they make their way toward the bridges crossing the Seine, the musketeer sees a flicker of light from an alley off the Rue de Reynard, followed by a hoarse cry. Keeping Jean-Luc back, he draws his rapier and main-gauche, and moves quietly down the alley.
Rounding a corner he sees a small courtyard. Two men lie on the ground, one face-down in a pool of blood which looks black in the flickering light of a torch waved back and forth by a servant over another man, lying on the ground, propped on one elbow, his doublet stained with blood. Two duelists stand over the wounded man, one dressed all in black, polishing his sword with a piece of fabric which appears cut from the dead man’s cloak, the other, an obese man dressed in expensive clothes, is hastily putting on a broadbrimmed hat; O’Neill notices that the fat man is wearing a secrete, a small steel skullcap designed to protect the head, while the clothing worn by the man in black reminds the Irish musketeer of the habits of the knights of Malta. Two more servants with lanterns in their hands stand nearby.
The servant with the torch is frantically trying to protect his master, crying, “Blackguards! Murderers!” When O’Neill steps into the light, the man in black turns to face him. “This is not your affair,” he says. “Move along.” The torch-bearing servant, seeing the musketeer, cries out, “They killed my master! He’s wearing a mail-shirt, and a helmet!” gesturing at the fat man with the torch.
The man in black apprently decides that enough is enough and urges his companion to leave. “But it’s not finished,” the fat man hisses through clenched teeth. Glancing down at the bleeding man, the other replies, “It’s finished.” The two duelists depart, followed by their servants; O’Neill sees the man in black looking back as the musketeer taps his sword in his hand defiantly.
After the pair leaves, the servant and O’Neill’s lackey pick up the wounded man while O’Neill hefts the dead man onto his shoulders, and the party makes its way through the cold, dark streets to the nearby church of Saint Mederic, on the Rue Saint Martin. A priest is roused and a surgeon summoned, but the wounded man, whom the servant calls the sieur de Gercourt, expires before help can arrive. Unable to do more, O’Neill and his lackey continue their journey to the musketeer’s lodgings in the auberge de Cygne Noir.