"That's true," said he, quietly, "for my part I have never loved."
"Acknowledge, then, you stony heart," said d'Artagnan, "that you are wrong to be so hard upon us tender hearts."
"Tender hearts! Pierced hearts!" said Athos.
"What do you say?"
"I say that love is a lottery in which he who wins, wins death! You are very fortunate to have lost, believe me, my dear d'Artagnan. And if I have any counsel to give, it is, always lose!"
"She seemed to love me so!"
"She SEEMED, did she?"
"Oh, she DID love me!"
"You child, why, there is not a man who has not believed, as you do, that his mistress loved him, and there lives not a man who has not been deceived by his mistress."
"Except you, Athos, who never had one."
"That's true," said Athos, after a moment's silence, "that's true! I never had one! Let us drink!"
"But then, philosopher that you are," said d'Artagnan, "instruct me, support me. I stand in need of being taught and consoled."
"Consoled for what?"
"For my misfortune."
"Your misfortune is laughable," said Athos, shrugging his shoulders; "I should like to know what you would say if I were to relate to you a real tale of love!"
"Which has happened to you?"
"Or one of my friends, what matters?"
"Tell it, Athos, tell it."
"Better if I drink."
"Drink and relate, then."
"Not a bad idea!" said Athos, emptying and refilling his glass. "The two things agree marvelously well."
"I am all attention," said d'Artagnan.
Athos collected himself, and in proportion as he did so, d'Artagnan saw that he became pale. He was at that period of intoxication in which vulgar drinkers fall on the floor and go to sleep. He kept himself upright and dreamed, without sleeping. This somnambulism of drunkenness had something frightful in it.
"You particularly wish it?" asked he.
"I pray for it," said d'Artagnan.
"Be it then as you desire. One of my friends — one of my friends, please to observe, not myself," said Athos, interrupting himself with a melancholy smile, "one of the counts of my province — that is to say, of Berry — noble as a Dandolo or a Montmorency, at twenty-five years of age fell in love with a girl of sixteen, beautiful as fancy can paint. Through the ingenuousness of her age beamed an ardent mind, not of the woman, but of the poet. She did not please; she intoxicated. She lived in a small town with her brother, who was a curate. Both had recently come into the country. They came nobody knew whence; but when seeing her so lovely and her brother so pious, nobody thought of asking whence they came. They were said, however, to be of good extraction. My friend, who was seigneur of the country, might have seduced her, or taken her by force, at his will — for he was master. Who would have come to the assistance of two strangers, two unknown persons? Unfortunately he was an honorable man; he married her. The fool! The ass! The idiot!"
"How so, if he love her?" asked d'Artagnan.
"Wait," said Athos. "He took her to his chateau, and made her the first lady in the province; and in justice it must be allowed that she supported her rank becomingly."
"Well?" asked d'Artagnan.
"Well, one day when she was hunting with her husband," continued Athos, in a low voice, and speaking very quickly, "she fell from her horse and fainted. The count flew to her to help, and as she appeared to be oppressed by her clothes, he ripped them open with his ponaird, and in so doing laid bare her shoulder. d'Artagnan," said Athos, with a maniacal burst of laughter, "guess what she had on her shoulder."
"How can I tell?" said d'Artagnan.
"A FLEUR-DE-LIS," said Athos. "She was branded."
Athos emptied at a single draught the glass he held in his hand.
"Horror!" cried d'Artagnan. "What do you tell me?"
"Truth, my friend. The angel was a demon; the poor young girl had stolen the sacred vessels from a church."
"And what did the count do?"
"The count was of the highest nobility. He had on his estates the rights of high and low tribunals. He tore the dress of the countess to pieces; he tied her hands behind her, and hanged her on a tree."
"Heavens, Athos, a murder?" cried d'Artagnan.
"No less," said Athos, as pale as a corpse. "But methinks I need wine!" and he seized by the neck the last bottle that was left, put it to his mouth, and emptied it at a single draught, as he would have emptied an ordinary glass.
Then he let his head sink upon his two hands, while d'Artagnan stood before him, stupefied.
"That has cured me of beautiful, poetical, and loving women," said Athos, after a considerable pause, raising his head, and forgetting to continue the fiction of the count. "God grant you as much! Let us drink."
"Then she is dead?" stammered d'Artagnan.
"PARBLEU!" said Athos. "But hold out your glass. Some ham, my boy, or we can't drink."
"And her brother?" added d'Artagnan, timidly.
"Her brother?" replied Athos.
"Yes, the priest."
"Oh, I inquired after him for the purpose of hanging him likewise; but he was beforehand with me, he had quit the curacy the night before."
"Was it ever known who this miserable fellow was?"
"He was doubtless the first lover and accomplice of the fair lady. A worthy man, who had pretended to be a curate for the purpose of getting his mistress married, and securing her a position. He has been hanged and quartered, I hope."
"My God, my God!" cried d'Artagnan, quite stunned by the relation of this horrible adventure.
"Taste some of this ham, d'Artagnan; it is exquisite," said Athos, cutting a slice, which he placed on the young man's plate.
"What a pity it is there were only four like this in the cellar. I could have drunk fifty bottles more."
D'Artagnan could no longer endure this conversation, which had made him bewildered. Allowing his head to sink upon his two hands, he pretended to sleep.
"These young fellows can none of them drink," said Athos, looking at him with pity, "and yet this is one of the best!"