Read CHAPTER XXX - A DUCAL DISPUTATION of Doom Castle , free online book, by Neil Munro, on ReadCentral.com.

If Count Victor, buried among cobwebs in the fosse, stung by cold till he shivered as in a quartan ague, suffering alternately the chagrin of the bungler self-discovered and the apprehension of a looming fate whose nature could only be guessed at, was in a state unenviable, Argyll himself was scarcely less unhappy.  It was not only that his Chamberlain’s condition grieved him, but that the whole affair put him in a quandary where the good citizen quarrelled in him with another old Highland gentleman whose code of morals was not in strict accord with written statutes.  He had studied the Pandects at Utrecht, but also he had been young there, and there was a place (if all tales be true) on the banks of the Yssel River where among silent polders a young Scot had twice at least fought with the sword upon some trivial matter of debate with Netherlanders of his college.  And then he knew his Chamberlain.  About Simon MacTaggart Argyll had few illusions, though they perhaps made all the difference in his conduct to the gentleman in question.  That MacTaggart should have brought upon himself a tardy retribution for acts more bold than scrupulous was not to be wondered at; that the meeting with Count Victor was honourably conducted, although defective in its form, was almost certain; but here the assailant was in his custody, and whether he liked it or not he must hand him over to the law.

His first impulse had been to wash his hands of all complicity in the Frenchman’s fate by sending him straightway to the common town tolbooth, pending his trial in the ordinary course; but he hesitated from an intuition that the step would find no favour in the eyes of his Duchess, who had her own odd prejudices regarding Sim MacTaggart, and an interest in Count Victor none the less ardent because it was but a day or two old.

“A man!  Archie, every bit of him!” she had said at the conclusion of last evening’s entertainment; and though without depreciating his visitor he had attempted to convince her that her estimate ran the risk of being prejudiced by her knowledge of the quixotic mission the foreigner was embarked on, she had refused to see in Count Victor’s accent, face, and carriage anything but the most adorable character.  She ever claimed a child’s attribute of attraction or repulsion on mere instinct to and from men’s mere exteriors, and her husband knew it was useless to expect any approval from her for any action that might savour of the slightest harshness to the foreigner.

But above all he feared-he dreaded-something else.  Simon MacTaggart was to him more than a servant; he knew many of his failings, but seemed to tolerate them because he also, like Count Victor, had learned not to expect too much from human nature.  But it was ever his fear that his lenience for the sins and follies of his Chamberlain would some day suffer too hard a strain, and lead to that severance that in the case of old friends and familiars was his Grace’s singular terror in life.

The day passed heavily for Argyll.  Many a time he looked out of his window into the fosse slow drifting full of snow; and though he could not from that point see the cell-door of his prisoner, his fancy did enough to feed his unhappiness.  Vainly he paced his library, vainly sought the old anodyne-the blessed anodyne of books; he was consumed with impatience to consult with his wife, and she, fragile always, and fatigued by last evening’s gaieties, was still asleep.

He went for the twentieth time into the room where the Chamberlain was lying.  The doctor, a lank, pock-pitted embodiment of mad chirurgy from books and antique herbal delusions inherited from generations of simple healers, mixed noxious stuff in a gallipot and plumed himself upon some ounces of gore drawn from his victim.  Clysters he prated on; electuaries; troches; the weed that the Gael of him called slanlus or “heal-all;” of unguents loathsomely compounded, but at greatest length and with fullest rapture of his vile phlebotomy.

“Six ounces, your Grace!” he cried gleefully, in a laughable high falsetto, holding up the bowl with trembling fingers as if he proffered for the ducal cheer the very flagon of Hebe.

Argyll shuddered.

“I wish to God, Dr. Madver,” said he, “your practice in this matter of blood-letting may not be so much infernal folly.  Why! the man lost all he could spare before he reached you.”

And there, unconscious, Simon MacTaggart slept, pale as parchment, fallen in at the jaw, twitching a little now and then at the corners of the mouth, otherwise inert and dead.  Never before had his master seen him off his guard-never, that is to say, without the knowledge that he was being looked at-and if his Grace had expected that he should find any grosser man than he knew revealed, he was mistaken.  ’Twas a child that slept-a child not unhappy, at most only indifferent to everything with that tremendous naïveté of the dead and of the soundly sleeping-that great carelessness that comes upon the carcass when the soul’s from home.  If he had sinned a million times,-let the physiognomists say what they will!-not a line upon his face betrayed him, for there the ideals only leave their mark, and his were forever impeccable.

His coat hung upon the back of a chair, and his darling flageolet had fallen out of the pocket and lay upon the floor.  Argyll picked it up and held it in his hand a while, looking upon it with a little Contempt, and yet with some kindness.

“Fancy that!” he said more to himself than to the apothecary; “the poor fellow must have his flageloet with him even upon an affair of this kind.  It beats all!  My dear man of moods! my good vagabond! my windlestraw of circumstance! constant only to one ideal-the unattainable perfection in a kind of roguish art.  To play a perfect tune in the right spirit he would sacrifice everything, and yet drift carelessly into innumerable disgraces for mere lack of will to lift a hand.  I daresay sometimes Jean is in the rights of it after all-his gifts have been his curse; wanting his skill of this simple instrument that was for ever to himself and others an intoxication, and wanting his outward pleasing form, he had been a good man to the very marrow.  A good man!  H’m!  Ay! and doubtless an uninteresting one.  Doctor! doctor! have you any herb for the eyesight?”

“Does your Grace have a dimness?  I know a lotion-”

“Dimness! faith! it is the common disease, and I suffer it with the rest.  Sometimes I cannot see the length of my nose.”

“The stomach, your Grace; just the stomach,” cried the poor leech.  “My own secret preparation-”

“Your own secret preparation, doctor, will not, I am sure, touch the root of this complaint or the devil himself is in it.  I can still see-even at my age-the deer on Tom-a-chrochair, and read the scurviest letters my enemies send me, but my trouble is that I cannot understand the flageolet.”

“The flageolet, your Grace,” said MacIver bewildered.  “I thought you spoke of your eyesight.”

“And so I did.  I cannot see through the mysteries of things; I cannot understand why man should come into the world with fingers so apt to fankle that he cannot play the finest tunes all the time and in the best of manners.  These, however, are but idle speculations, beyond the noble jurisdiction of the chymist.  And so you think our patient will make a good recovery?”

“With care, your Grace; and the constant use of my styptic, a most elegant nostrum, your Grace, that has done wonders in the case of a widow up the glen.”

“This folly of a thing they call one’s honour,” said the Duke, “has made a great deal of profitable trade for your profession?”

“I have no cause of complaint, your Grace,” said the doctor complacently, “except that nowadays honour nor nothing else rarely sends so nice a case of hemorrhage my way.  An inch or two to the left and Mr. MacTaggart would have lifted his last rents.”

Argyll grimaced with distaste at the idea.

“Poor Sim!” said he.  “And my tenants would have lost a tolerable agent, though I might easily find one to get more money out of them.  Condemn that Frenchman!  I wish the whole race of them were at the devil.”

“It could never have been a fair fight this,” said the doctor, spreading a plaster.

“There never was a fair fight,” said Argyll, “or but rarely, and then neither of the men was left to tell the tale.  The man with most advantages must ever win.”

“The other had them all here,” said the doctor, “for the Chamberlain was fighting with an unhealed wound in his right arm.”

“A wounded arm!” cried Argyll.  “I never heard of that.”

It was a wound so recent, the doctor pointed out, that it made the duel madness.  He turned over the neck of his patient’s shirt and showed the cicatrice, angry and ugly.  “A stab, too!” said he.

“A stab?” said the Duke.

“A stab with a knife or a thrust with a sword,” said the doctor.  “It has gone clean through the arm and come out at the back.”

“Gad! this is news indeed!  What does it mean?  It’s the reason for the pallour and the abstraction of some days back, for which I put the blame upon some love-affair of his.  He never breathed a word of it to me, nor I suppose to you?”

“It has had no attention from me or any one else,” said the doctor; “but the wound seems to have healed of itself so far without anything being done for it.”

“So that a styptic-even the famous styptic-can do no more wonders than a good constitution after all.  Poor Sim, I wonder what folly this came of.  And yet-to look at him there-his face so gentle, his brow so calm, his mouth-ah, poor Sim!”

From a distant part of the house a woman’s voice arose, crying, “Archie, Archi-e-e!” in a lingering crescendo:  it was the Duchess, and as yet she had not heard of the day’s untoward happenings.  He went out and told her gently.  “And now,” he went on when her agitation had abated, “what of our Chevalier?”

“Well!” said she, “what of him?  I hope he is not to suffer for this, seeing MacTaggart is going to get better, for I should dearly like to have him get some return for his quest.”

“Would you, indeed?” said the Duke.  “H’m,” and stared at her.  “The Count is at this moment cooling his heels in the fosse cell.”

“That is hard!” said she, reddening.

“But what would you, my dear?  I am still as much the representative of the law as ever, and am I to connive at such outrages under my own windows because the chief offender is something of a handsome young gentleman who has the tact to apologise for a disturbance in my domestic affairs that must, as he puts it, be disconcerting to a man at my age?  A man of my age-there’s France!-toujours la politesse, if you please!  At my age!  Confound his impudence!”

The Duchess could not suppress a smile.

“At his age, my dear,” said she, “you had the tact to put so obvious a thing differently or leave it alone.”

“Not that I heed his impudence,” said the Duke hastily; “that a man is no longer young at sixty is the most transparent of facts.”

“Only he does not care to have it mentioned too unexpectedly.  Oh, you goose!” And she laughed outright, then checked herself at the recollection of the ailing Chamberlain.

“If I would believe myself as young as ever I was, my dear lass,” said he, “credit me it is that it is more to seem so in the eyes of yourself,” and he put his arm around her waist.

“But still,” said she after a little-“still the unlucky Frenchman is in the fosse more for his want of tact, I fear, than for his crime against the law of the land.  Who pinked-if that’s the nasty word-who pinked the Dutchman in Utrecht?-that’s what I should like to know, my dear Justice Shallow.”

“This is different, though; he came here for the express purpose-”

“Of quarrelling with the Chamberlain!”

“Well, of quarrelling with somebody, as you know,” said the nobleman hesitatingly.

“I am sorry for MacTaggart,” said the Duchess, “really sorry, but I cannot pretend to believe he has been very ill done by-I mean unjustly done by.  I am sure my Frenchman must have had some provocation, and is really the victim.”

“You-that is we-know nothing about that, my dear,” said Argyll.

“I cannot be mistaken; you would be the first at any other time to admit that I could tell whether a man was good or evil on a very brief acquaintance.  With every regard for your favour to the Chamberlain, I cannot stand the man.  If my instinct did not tell me he was vicious, my ears would, for I hear many stories little to his credit.”

“And yet a brave man, goodwife, a faithful servant and an interesting fellow.  Come now!  Jean, is it not so?”

She merely smiled, patting his ruffles with delicate fondling fingers.  It was never her habit to argue with her Duke.

“What!” he cried smilingly, “none of that, but contradict me if you dare.”

“I never contradict his Grace the Duke of Argyll,” said she, stepping back and sweeping the floor with her gown in a stately courtesy; “it is not right, and it is not good for him-at his age.”

“Ah, you rogue!” he cried, laughing.  “But soberly now, you are too hard on poor Sim.  It is the worst-the only vice of good women that they have no charity left for the imperfect either of their own sex or of mine.  Let us think what an atom of wind-blown dust is every human being at the best, bad or good in his blood as his ancestry may have been, kind or cruel, straight or crooked, pious or pagan, admirable or evil, as the accidents of his training or experience shall determine.  As I grow older I grow more tolerant, for I have learned that my own scanty virtues and graces are no more my own creation than the dukedom I came into from my father-or my red hair.”

“Not red, Archie,” said the Duchess, “not red, but reddish fair; in fact, a golden;” and she gently pulled a curl upon his temple.  “What about our Frenchman?  Is he to lie in the fosse till the Sheriff sends for him or till the great MacCailen Mor has forgiven him for telling him he was a little over the age of thirty?”

“For once, my dear, you cannot have your way,” said the Duke firmly.  “Be reasonable!  We could not tolerate so scandalous an affair without some show of law and-”

“Tolerate!” said the Duchess.  “You are very hard on poor Montaiglon, Archie, and all because he fought a duel with a doubtful gentleman who will be little the worse for it in a week or two.  Let us think,” she went on banteringly-“let us think what an atom of wind-blown dust is every human being at the best, admirable or evil as his training-”

Her husband stopped her with a kiss.

“No more of that, Jean; the man must thole his trial, for I have gone too far to draw back even if I had the will to humour you.”

There was one tone of her husband’s his wife knew too decisive for her contending with, and now she heard it.  Like a wise woman, she made up her mind to say no more, and she was saved an awkward pause by an uproar in the fosse.  Up to the window where those two elderly lovers had their kindly disputation came the sound of cries.  Out into the dusk of the evening Argyll thrust his head and asked an explanation.

“The Frenchman’s gone!” cried somebody.

He drew in his head, with a smile struggling on his countenance.

“You witch!” said he, “you must have your own way with me, even if it takes a spell!”