He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.
Sabatini’s opening line introducing his protagonist, Andre-Louis Moreau, ranks right up there with some of the best opening lines ever written. It is the foundation for all that comes after. What he does, how he thinks. He comes into his maturity on the cusp of the French Revolution when the storm clouds are gathering between the Third Estate (the ordinary people, the populace) and the Privileged Nobility who run rough shod over their lives and means. Justice, for the people, is a word with no meaning, an impotent waste of breath.
Andre’s birth, background and position are unique. He is neither nobleman nor populace but drifts somewhere in between.
When a nobleman, for no apparent reason,, announces himself the godfather of an infant fetched no man knew whence, and thereafter cares for the lad’s rearing and education, the most unsophisticated of country folk perfectly understand the situation.
Andre’s beloved childhood friend, like an only brother, is divinity student of Rennes, Philippe de Vilmorin, who is passionate about the enormous gulf between the classes. He and Andre, now a country lawyer, are members of a literary club who meet to discuss the “new philosophies” of social life.
Andre’s barbed wit — always playing Devil’s Advocate – does not endear him to the other intellectual youth. And, in fact, he does not even share their high ideals of political and social reform. But the face of Justice has a way of thrusting itself forward, and making personal what has before been only rhetoric.
A peasant of Gavrillac, named Mabey, had been shot dead that morning . . . by a gamekeeper of the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr . . . caught in the act of taking a pheasant from a snare, and the gamekeeper had acted under express orders from his master.
Infuriated by an act of tyranny . . . absolute and merciless, Phillippe seeks out his friend in order to help get justice through the intervention of Andre’s godfather, Quintin de Kercadiou, the Lord of Gavrillac, known to be a kind, humane, and simple man. Phillippe hopes to get at least some reparation for Mabey’s widow and orphans.
Andre warns his friend that, though he is at his service, it is a futile quest. Humane his godfather might be, but he is still of the rank of the Privileged and he would not go against his own kind, especially against a man so powerful as de Kercadiou’s longtime friend, the Marquis d’Azyr.
When Phillippe challenges Andre about his stand on the impossibility of improving the lot of the people, Andre replies:
When you say the people you mean, of course, the populace. Will you abolish it? That is the only way to ameliorate its lot, for as long as it remains populace its lot will be damnation.
When Andre’s prediction about the outcome with the Lord of Gavrillac proves to be correct, Phillippe decides to beard the lion in his den and is allowed an audience. Andre, who already questions this “unusual condescension” from the haughty Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr, accompanies him. They find the Marquis with his cousin and friend, the Chevalier de Chabrillane.
Though Phillippe speaks with passion and eloquence, asking the Marquis to show leniency, not by game laws, but by the laws of humanity, Andre begins to suspect d’Azyr’s motives in allowing the young divinity student even to present his case. Phillippe’s simplicity leads him like a lamb before this lion.
“What have I to do with the laws of humanity?” he wondered. M. (monsieur) de Vilmorin looked at him a moment in speechless amazement. “Nothing, M. le Marquis. I hope you will remember it in the hour when you may wish to appeal to those laws you now deride.”
Pretending to take this as a veiled threat, the nobleman draws Phillippe ever onward to voice opinions that border on insult. And the tall, slim, aristocratic Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr is known as the most dangerous swordsman in France.
Andre, frightened, tries to draw Phillippe away, to stop that voice filled with so much compassion, passion, and anger. But nothing can stop what has now been set in motion.
For the second time, the Marquis says:
M. l’abbe, you have a very dangerous gift of eloquence. I can conceive of men being swayed by it. Had you been born a gentleman, you would not so easily have acquired these false views you express.
M. de Vilmorin stared blankly, uncomprehending. In a slow, bewildered voice, he replies: “But I was born a gentleman. My race is as old, my blood as good as yours, monsieur.”
You have been deceived in that, I fear.Your sentiments betray the indiscretion of which madame your mother must have been guilty.
The brutally affronting words were sped beyond recall . . . a dead silence followed. M. de Vilmorin’s eyes remained fixed upon M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s, as if searching there for a meaning that eluded him. Quite suddenly he understood the vile affront. The blood leapt to his face, fire blazed in his gentle eyes . . . then, with an inarticulate cry . . . his open hand struck M. le Marquis full and hard upon his sneering face.
You realize, monsieur, what you have done,” said the Marquis. And you realize, of course, what must inevitably follow.
M. de Vilmorin had realized nothing. The poor young man acted upon impulse, upon the instinct of decency and honor, never counting the consequences.
Honor takes the bewildered youth to the dueling field, Andre-Louis, no less stunned, as his second. In vain does Andre-Louis cry out that Phillippe wears no sword. When told he could have a loan, he explains:
I mean, messieurs . . . that it is not his habit to wear a sword, that he has never worn one, that he is untutored in its uses. He is a seminarist . . . already half a priest . . .”
The encounter was very short . . . Andre-Lous sprang forward just in time to catch his friend’s body as it sank.
You have killed him! cried Andre-Louis
All along Andre had clung to the belief that d’Azyr’s honor as a gentleman and a renowned swordsman, against one so helpless, would mitigate his killer thrust to only wound.
“Of course . . . He had, as I told him, too dangerous a gift of eloquence.” And he turned away.
Still supporting the limp, draining body, the young man called to him:
Come back, you cowardly murderer, and make yourself quite safe by killing me, too . . . You did it because you feared him . . . Had you stabbed him in the back with a knife, you would have shown the courage of your vileness.
The Marquis took a step forward, holding his sword like a whip.
“No, No, Gervais!” cried his cousin. “Let be, in God’s name!”
“Let him come, monsieur!” raved Andre-Louis. “Let him complete his coward’s work on me, and thus make himself safe from a coward’s wages.”
But d’Azyr stops and turns, caught between anger and contempt. But as the greatest swordsman in France walks away, he fails to hear in the parting words of Andre-Louis Moreau — only a youthful country lawyer — En guarde!
To his friend as Andre kneels by his body, Andre swears an oath:
It was your eloquence he feared, Phillippe,” he said. “Then if I can get no justice for this deed, at least it shall be fruitless to him. The thing he feared in you, he shall fear in me . . . your voice shall find expression in my living tongue. That voice in you would never half so relentlessly have hounded him and his as it shall in me . . . “
Thus the stage is set. This hound of hell dogs the nobleman, becoming his true Nemesis. Andre-Louis Moreau, his sharp tongue and rapier wit oiled and honed by his new and dangerous gift of eloquence, often leaves the Marquis bleeding in his wake. And, like the fabled rascal and troublemaker Scaramouche (Scar-a-moosh), sticks a match to the powder keg that is France.