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All For One (Chapter Four)
4. The Comte de la Fère in hiding
The lunatic Ravaillac claimed he was working unaided when he assassinated Henri IV, but no one believed him. While Henri was popular with the masses, he angered many fanatics from both sides of the religious debate, and Ravaillac was not the first man to attempt assassination, just the last one. Many suspected a Spanish hand in the regicide. Paris was about to explode. In order to prevent civil war, both the Jesuits and the Huguenots praised the late king, and after days of the most horrendous torture, Ravaillac still insisted that he acted alone. Perhaps the pride of the French nation just couldn’t stomach the idea of their mighty Henri cut down by a simple man, and hoped to find a greater conspiracy where there was none.
On the day of his execution, Ravaillac was taken to the Place de Grève to be tortured. Situated on the Right Bank across from the Île de la Citè, the Place de Grève was called the “burning chamber” on account of the enduring stench of burning flesh. In front of an immense crowd, a scaffold was erected. Ravaillac was scalded with boiling oil, molten lead and burning sulphur, followed by pincers shredding his flesh. Ravaillac’s limbs were attached to four horses that pulled in each direction. Even under these horrendous conditions, Ravaillac lasted for an hour and a half before he finally died.
Within the crowd, watching the spectacle was the Comte de la Fère. He was astonished by the rabidity of the crowd. As Ravaillac expired, the crowd fell on the regicide and hacked his body apart with sticks, knives or anything they could find. He watched as people paraded limbs through the street. They lit a bonfire and tossed pieces of his body on the blaze. He swore he even saw a woman gnawing on the murder’s flesh. Thoroughly nauseated, the Comte de la Fère made his way far from the spectacle.
He had only recently arrived in Paris. After that horrible day in the woods, he had fled rather than watch the woman whom he both cherished and detested slowly strangle to death. As soon as he was away he realized he made a mistake, but he couldn’t go back and see his handiwork, so he went to find her brother, the priest. He was no longer living in the village, so de la Fère traced their steps back to Flanders. Once across the border, their steps become all too apparent. The small village of Lille knew all about the priest and his “sister.” The priest had returned home after the wedding.
Olivier made inquires and found the convent at Templemar. She was a young adept there for a few years before she ran away with the priest. It turned out that the young man she claimed to be her brother was not related to her at all. She seduced him, another lie. How horrible it must have been for the young priest to marry them. He wondered if the boy was even still a priest, and if not, was his marriage even legal? The sisters directed him to speak to a man named Jacques, who was the executioner of Lille. He found the young man and treated him to a meal. They talked about the young Anne de Breuil.
The executioner’s thick hands ripped apart the small capon in front of him. “So she is dead?” he asked.
“Yes,” Olivier replied.
“I can not say that I grieve to hear this news,” he growled.
“I understand that you were the one to brand her,” Olivier said.
“Yes,” he replied, “as well as my brother.”
“Yes,” Jacques said sadly, “my brother was the priest that she led astray.”
Olivier leaned in. “I’ve been looking for him.”
Sorrow crept into Jacques’ eyes. “My brother is no longer with us. After that woman married you, he hung himself.”
Olivier shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Jacques said. He took a sip of his wine. “So you hung her.”
“Yes I did.”
“What did you hang her for?”
Olivier brow furrowed. “Pardon me?
“For what crime did you hang her for?” Jacques repeated
Olivier was confused. He felt the situation rather spoke for itself. “She was a thief.”
“And she was punished for being a thief,” Jacques said. “I branded her. Don’t mistake me, I wished her dead, but what action did she do to warrant an execution?”
“I discovered the brand on her shoulder,” Olivier said.
“And for that, you killed her?”
The executioner gazed at him for a while and Olivier was confused. What did it matter? “You killed her because she humiliated you.”
The Comte puffed up his chest. “It is my right, as Comte…”
“You think so,” the execution interrupted. “Do you know why I am an executioner?”
Olivier wondered why he was suddenly being questioned. “Why?”
“Because criminals must be punished, but only when they have committed a crime. You can’t just go and execute innocent people.”
“She was far from innocent,” Olivier spat.
“Of that I have no doubt, but rules have to be followed,” Jacques said. “Procedures have to be respected. The law is not for people to simply ignore. You didn’t hang her because she was a thief. You hung her because your pride was shattered. It was a crime of passion. That was not execution. That was murder.”
“Murder?” Olivier said.
“Very much so. A man kills his wife. What separates you from the lowest of vagabonds in Paris?”
Olivier seethed. “I will not stand for such insults.”
“Or what?” Jacques said casually. “You’ll hang me as well? This is not France, de la Fère.”
Olivier eye widened.
“Oh yes, I know who you are,” Jacques said. “Many of us know who you are. Tell me this, what stops me from killing you right now?”
“Are you threatening me?
Jacques shook his head. “Not at all, merely making a point, that’s all. I could easily kill you. I have been trained, and it is my profession to kill. But if I killed you now, it would be murder. No. I can not entirely blame you for the death of this woman. Had she committed a serious crime and had a trial, then I would chop her head off myself, but to do so beyond the scope of the law is not right.”
Their conversation apparently over, Olivier paid for their meals and headed on his way. But before he left, a question struck him.
“You are an executioner here in Flanders, correct?” he asked.
“Then why did she have the mark of France on her?”
Jacques was silent. Olivier continued.
“If she were tried and condemned here in Lille, then she would have the Flemish mark on her, isn’t that so?” he asked. He received silence in return. “She was never condemned here, was she?” he accused. “You branded her because you were forced to brand your brother. If it had not been your brother, would you have done it?”
Jacques was silent. “It was no less than she deserved.”
“And you will lecture me on justice,” he said in disgust.
As he stormed away, he contemplated what the executioner said. Was he a murderer? The more he contemplated the situation the more he felt he had acted rashly. He should have listened to her story; maybe he could have found it within himself to forgive her. Did her crime, committed so long ago, really affect him? Hadn’t he given her a clean slate? Hadn’t she wanted for nothing after she married her? He wanted to blame Jacque of Lille. If he hadn’t overstepped his bounds and branded her, he would have never known his wife was a thief. She would still be alive. He knew that was a mere excuse, for he was to blame for his own wretchedness.
He made his way home, but his home felt empty. He felt cheated out of his happiness, yet he knew he had brought his own misery upon himself. He was filled with remorse, and guilt gnawed at him, with the only relief found at the bottom of a bottle.
He knew that he would have to deal with his staff. He couldn’t really arrive back at his house without his wife. He thought of a plan. When he arrived back at the house, he ordered his staff to pack the clothing of both him and his wife. He told them that they decided to ride to Calais, and on a whim they’ve decided to spend the next month in London. Loaded with baggage, he set off for Paris. When he reached Amiens, he donated all of Anne’s clothes to a church. In two weeks he would write a letter to the staff informing them of the storm the struck the Channel and tragically took the lives of the Comte and Comtesse de la Fère. All of his goods and property would therefore become property of the crown, except for the gold he took from the house, and he took it all. He also took a few personal mementos. He took with him a portrait of his grandfather, a small chest with family documents and his grandfather’s ancient sword.
He arrived in Paris amidst the chaos following the King’s assassination. After witnessing the spectacle of Ravaillac’s execution, he crossed over the Pont Notre-Dame. The bridge was wooden and had houses built on either border of the bridge. Olivier didn’t quite understand the concept of building houses on top of bridges. The view would be wonderful, but every time a drop of rain felt, you risked your home to a flood. He wandered past the great Cathedral of Notre Dame and continued west to the furthest point of the Île de la Cité. He found himself at the Pont Neuf watching the Seine flow beneath him. He was no better than Ravaillac, a murder. He hated who he was. He thought about his life. As the Comte de la Fère he wanted for nothing. He never had to lift a finger. What had that prepared him for? His pockets were full, but what of his soul?
His feet found himself at the office of François de Guillon, sieur des Essarts, captain of the King’s Guards. He decided that it was time to stop being served and to begin to serve someone else. He inhaled to summon courage and stepped into the building.
Des Essarts came into the foyer to meet him. François de Guillon was an older man, with graying hair. He favored his left leg, his right being injured during the Siege of Arras.
“I wish to enlist,” Olivier said.
Des Essarts gave the youth an appraising look. “I see. Do you have experience?”
“Experience in what?” Olivier asked.
Des Essarts laughed. “In anything.”
“I’m willing to learn.”
“Can you ride?”
“Can you fight?”
Des Essarts looked him over. “Why do you wish to be a guard?”
“Today I saw the regicide executed,” Olivier said. “I thought about the King. He was a good man. I wish I could have saved him.”
Des Essarts nodded. “As do I. Very well. What is your name?”
Olivier opened his mouth to speak, but shut it quickly.?
“You do have a name, correct?” des Essarts asked.
“I do, but I hesitate to mention it,” de la Fère said.
“Let me guess,” des Essarts said, “You’re a second or third son. You will inherit absolutely nothing, yet you do not wish to embarrass your family name by taking such a menial job.”
It wasn’t the truth, but it was good enough for the Comte de la Fère. He came from a noble family indeed. His grandfather Enguerrand de la Fère fought in the battle of Marignan with François I and was award the order of Saint Michael. His late mother was maid of honor to the Queen Regent herself. “Yes,” he said, “You are correct.”
“It’s not uncommon,” replied des Essarts. “A very familiar practice. You will therefore wish to take a nom de guerre, will you not?”
“Very well. What shall we call you?”
Olivier thought for a moment, and then said one word: “Athos.” It felt right. From that moment on, he was no longer Olivier, the Comte de la Fère. The Comte de la Fère was dead.
“The same as the mountain?”
“I see you have a sword,” des Essarts said. Athos fingered the weapon. It was an heirloom, given to his grandfather from the King. He wore it for honor, and he did not know he would ever have to use it. The blade had grown rusty. His father prepared him for the Navy, and not for the Guards.
“Then bring your sword tomorrow, Athos,” des Essarts said, “for your training begins.”
- All For One (Chapter Three)
The next chapter in the Three Musketeers prequel
- All For One (Chapter Five)
The next chapter in the Three Musketeers prequel