Bacq

The Count of Monte Fato

Chapitre 8.  Carnival in Galadrona: Finale, or La Draga è Mobile


Arafrantz and Réginard saw no more dragons that day, nor the Count either.  The two friends resolved to profit to the utmost from the Count’s generosity.  In the evening, they took the Count’s eagle to the Teatro Alqualonde, to see a performance of Rohirrini’s Dwarfana in Umbari.  Arafrantz and Réginard installed themselves in the Count’s loggia.  In the middle of a delightful chorus wherein the Corsairs rejoiced at the large number of Dwarvish slaves they had managed to procure for their master Elessardo, the Countess G arrove in her loggia and directed her lorgnette towards the loggia of the Count.  She seemed so taken aback at the presence there of Arafrantz and Réginard, that it would have been cruelty to keep her in suspense; so the friends made their way to her loggia, avoiding with difficulty to bump into the prostitutes, singers, and retired eagles that had made the hallway their redoubt.

“Eh bien,” said the Countess as soon as the usual pleasantries had been exchanged.  “It seems that you have had no business so hasty as to make the acquaintance of the new Jared Hasselhoff,* and that there you are, the best friends in the world?”

“Without that we be so advanced in the Count’s intimacy,” replied Arafrantz, “I cannot deny, madame la comtesse, that we have taken advantage of his graciousness all day.  After inviting us to nuncheon, he accompanied us to an execution, and thereafter granted us the liberty of his eagle.”

“You know him then?”

“Yes and no.”

“I see that you have spent too much time in the company of us elves,” said the Countess.  “Will you not tell me the story?”

“Wait at least until the story has achieved its dénouement.”

“What is his name?”

“The Count of Monte Fato, simply.”

“And who presented you to him?”

“He presented himself to us.”

“And did you meet the lovely spider-woman?”

“No, though I think we heard her sing.  Sad and sweet was the sound of her voice in the clear night air.”

“He is a count, then?”

“A count of Gondor.”

“We could with difficulty find him other than charming,” interposed Réginard.  “A friend of years innumerable would not have done for us what he has done – and that with a grace, a delicacy, and a courtesy that indicate veritably a man who lives in both worlds, and over both the Seen and the Unseen has great power – the power of affability.”  (Meanwhile, the heroine was apparently dying – which was odd, given that the work was a comedy and we were still in the first act.)

“Allons,” said the Countess with a laugh.  “You will see that my vampire is quite simply some nouveau riche who wants to buy forgiveness for his millions, and will have taken the spittoon of Véantour, that he might avoid the palantir of Marcel Marceau.”  (The heroine was not dying after all; only slightly inebriated.)

“He has most generously offered us three windows on Piazza de’ Caliquendi,” said Arafrantz.

“By the négligée of Luthienne!” exclaimed the Countess. “Do you know how much one window costs on that square?  4546646444 maiars!  Is he then a Dark Lord, that man?  Does the island of Monte Fato bring in so much revenue?”

“Monte Fato does not earn the Count a bilbacco. He bought it on a whim.”

“The fact is,” said Réginard, “that he seemed a bit eccentric.  If he lived in Annuminas and frequented our spectacles, I would say he was some buffoon or merry-andrew who strikes a pose, or some poor devil who had read too many romances of M. Trolquien; this morning he let out two or three sallies worthy of the bel esprit Turin Turambard, except that he doesn’t wear spats.”

At this moment, a new visitor arrived in the Countess’s loggia, and the friends withdrew.  (The bass-baritone was pawing the mezzo disgustingly.)

The next morning, Réginard had a dragon-costume custom-made.  He looked remarkably elegant in it, for it went admirably well with his hat.  Arafrantz complimented him on his scales, and Réginard smiled with unequivocal satisfaction.  At this moment, the Count of Monte Fato entered.  After graciously allowing them the use of his eagle for the duration of their stay (for he possessed at least half a dozen), and receiving their profuse thanks with almost Elvish complaisance, he proceeded to speak of literature, art, science, and the wings of Balrogues with an extreme facility, and without the least pretension.  Réginard found the Count’s manners delightful, and considered that only his wide range of knowledge disqualified him from being a veritable gentilhobbite.  

The Count having made his excuses and departed, the friends resumed their airborne pursuit of the ravishing dragon-ladies.  There was much exchange of bouquets, Greek fire, and raw lembasagna, and much snickering and meeping. Réginard had so much success that the draguine removed one of her wings.  On arriving at their tree-hotel, Réginard announced to Arafrantz that he intended to write the lady a letter the next day.  Arafrantz promised that he could have the eagle to himself the next day; he knew his worthy friend’s lack of discretion well enough to be sanguine of learning of the smallest details of Réginard’s adventure.  

Arafrantz spent the rest of the day reading the brilliant oeuvre of Louis, Nymphs and Their Ways: L’Après-Love-life of a Faun.  That evening, Réginard bounded into the room, mechanically shaking a piece of paper.

“She replied?” asked Arafrantz.

“Read,” replied Réginard in a voice impossible to describe.  Arafrantz took the billet-doux and read:

“Trewesday evening, at seven o’clock, dismount your eagle at Via Casarrondo, and follow the Lottolorian dragon who will seize your phial.  When you arrive on the first step of the Church of San Bingo, be sure, that she may recognize you, to wear a white feather in your hat and hum Bombadillo’s aria about the badger.”

“I’d say this has the aspect of a highly agreeable adventure,” observed Arafrantz.

“I believe so as well; but I fear you will go alone to the ball of the Duke Fighetto.”

“MHmm,” muttered Arafrantz, noncommittally.

“And there is no question but that my lady is of the highest aristocracy,” continued Réginard.  “Her Sindarin is exquisite, without a single sylvanism even in the liquid mutation – and you know how poorly educated are the elves of mezzo cito” (for so the bourgeoisie are designated).

“You have met your destiny,” said Arafrantz, returning the billet-doux.

“Laugh all you want; but I think I’m in love.  I adore Galadrona, and I’m developing a marked interest in archaeology.”

“At this rate, I expect that after two or three such adventures you will become a leading member of the Accademia Sindarina dell’Arte.”

After dinner, the Count of Monte Fato was announced.  For two days the Annuminasians had not seen him; an affair, said Orlando, detained him in Galadriella’s palace; he had only been back for an hour.

The Count was charming; either he was on his guard, or the occasion did not awaken in him the acerb fibres that certain circumstances had previously made resound two or three times in his bitter words.  This man was for Arafrantz as enigmatic as a Balrogue draped in shadow, or an illegible manuscript of Trolquien.  The Count could not doubt that Arafrantz had recognized him; and yet, not a single word seemed to indicate that he recalled seeing him elsewhere.  Arafrantz, for his part, maintained silence for fear of being disagreeable to one who had showered him and Réginard with kindnesses, lest such disagreeability be repaid by having all the baguettes of Boucquelande melted in his stomach.

The Count had come to give the friends the key to his loggia in the Teatro Alqualonde.  Arafrantz and Réginard made the usual objections, but the Count would hear none of it: he was going to attend a performance at the Teatro Perianno, so the loggia at the Alqualonde would be wasted, did they not accede.  They acceded.

Arafrantz had little by little become accustomed to the Count’s pallour, which was his sole defect – or perhaps his principal quality.  Veritable hero of Byrogond as the Count was, Arafrantz could not – we will not say “see” – but even imagine him without representing that face above the shoulders of Aldarion or under the fur hat of Guimly.  Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; the bitter recollection of some unutterable wrong sat upon his brow, and strength and the most exquisite manicure were in his hands, and he had an eye that was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, and the black slit of its pupil opened upon an abysm.  His face bore a haughty and mocking expression that gave to his words a striking character, which engraved them upon the memory of those who listened, as deep as the runes of power on the sceptre of the Emperor beyond the sea, or as the wine-cellars of Sauron in the profound abysms under the earth.  Réginard did not stint in his admiration for such a man; Arafrantz was less enthusiastic, but experienced nonetheless the influence that every superior man – especially one possessing the Ruling Ring – exercises over all those who surround him.  In reality, by one final resemblance to the Byrogondian hero, the Count possessed the gift of fascination.  Yet, Arafrantz had no desire to be in Annuminas when the Count would grace it with his terrifying presence, coming to triumph over the Shiré when all was won.

At the Teatro Alqualonde, they again met the Countess.  Arafrantz resolutely steered the conversation away from the Count, saying that such matters were best left for daylight, and dwelt instead on his friend’s good fortune with the draguine.  They parted during the chorus of Ents, promising to meet at Duke Fighetto’s ball.

Finally Tuesday arrived, the last and most uproarious day of carnival.  On Tuesday the theatres open at eight in the morning, and the bordelli even earlier; for at eight of the evening Lent arrives, and with it a steady diet of lembasagna and water.  The festival attained the level of a bacchanal or an orgy, and rare was the elf-maiden who remained a maiden at the end of it.  Arafrantz and Réginard exchanged fistfuls of arquenpierres with the other eagles and with pedestrians who perched upon the treetops, nimbly avoiding the eagles’ claws – without that the least debate or skirmish arose therefrom.  The Galadrini (for so the wood-elves call themselves) are an excellent people in that regard; the author has spent five or six years in Lottaloria, and does not recall having ever seen a solemnity disrupted by a single one of the murders that are always a corollary of such celebrations in the Shiré.
 
After the eagle-races had concluded with the joyous call, “The Eagles are coming!” resounding from the canopies of Galadrona, Réginard and Arafrantz separated; the former making his way to the Church of San Bingo, while the latter watched the carnival reach its peak in a reciprocal lighting and extinguishing of phials, that the lights where all other lights go out might themselves go out, and that no jealous spouse might behold anything other than comme il faut.  Then carnival came to an end, and the Galadrini  made lamentation for its fall; Arafrantz caught its name among the sweet sad words he could not understand. Perhaps never in his life had Arafrantz known such an abrupt change from gaiety to sadness; it seemed as if some Balrogues of the night had, with their fiery breath, changed Galadrona into a little bit of Mordor.  It was with some difficulty that Arafrantz’s eagle, or rather the Count’s, reached the palace of Duke Fighetto in the glowering gloom.

The ducal palace is one of the most charming flets in Lottaloria; Fighetto’s wife, the Duchess Alatara – one of the last heiresses of the house of Amrotto – does the honours in a perfect fashion: it results that the feasts he gives are of a middle-earthian fame, and put those of Celeborno firmly in the shade.  (It did not help matters that Celeborno was widely believed to be unable to provide satisfaction even to his wife, let alone his putative mistress.)

Fighetto was mildly chagrined to learn that Réginard had been delayed by an assignation.  “It’s a bad night to be late!” he observed to the Countess, who had arriven on the arm of Faelone.

“On the contrary, I find it a charming night,” smiled the Countess, vaguely not winking at Arafrantz.

“I am not speaking of those present, who only run one danger: the men of falling madly in love with you, and the women of suffering an atalantée of jealousy.  I speak of those who tiptoe on the treetops of Galadrona.”

“Eh bien!” replied the Countess.  “Those who tiptoe on the treetops of Galadrona will suffer the accidents of eagles, says the proverb. Who would be so foolish as to allow the Viscount to do such a thing?”  She looked at Arafrantz, and there was no hint of a wink.

“I might as well have sought to stay the course of Guaihiro in the eagle-race this afternoon,” replied Arafrantz.  “Once Réginard sets his mind (or what he has of one) on an amorous adventure, not the long wisdom of Bilbon himself could dissuade him.”

Just then, a domestic arrived and announced “a Hobbite clad in Orc-gear handed me a letter from the Viscount de Pérégrin to the Baron d’Imrahil.”

Arafrantz seized the letter and read:

“Dear friend,

As soon as you receive this, oblige me by taking from my portefeuille the letter of credit.  Run to Dorthonia’s house and take four thousand certar and give them to the porter.

PS.I believe now to lottalorian vanditti.

Your friend,

REGINARD DE PEREGRIN”

This note was underwritten in a foreign hand:

“Se alle sei della mattina le Quattro mille certar non sono nelle mie mani, alla sette il conte Reginardo avràú cessato di vivere.  Et earello endorenna utulien.

LUIGI VANYA. »

“Trasque de Morgot!” thought Arafrantz, and, after making his apologies, he immediately mounted the Count’s eagle and sped back to the hotel.  Inspecting Réginard’s portefeuille, he found that between the two of them, he and Réginard only had three thousand and nineteen certar.  It was true that Arafrantz could count on the generosity of the Dorthonia family, and he was about to fly back to Fighetto’s ducal palace (where the charming sylvan moneylender was telling an exceedingly amusing story about Durin’s bane), when suddenly a luminous idea traversed his spirit, and he summoned Orlando and inquired whether the Count was chez lui. Orlando replied that he was.

“Then I beg you to ring his door-warbler and ask his permission to present myself to him without delay.”

Orlando hastened to execute this directive, and returned promptly, saying, “The Count awaits your Excellency.”

Arafrantz flew with winged speed into the Count’s apartments.  

“What good wind brings you here?” inquired the Count.  “Would you care for supper?  Would you like a Ring?”

“No, I have come to speak about a serious matter.  Are we alone?”

“Perfectly,” replied the Count.

“Read.”

The Count read the ransom note.  “Do you have the necessary amount?”

“Yes, except for nine hundred and eighty-three certar.”

The Count fiddled in his portefeuille, and handed Arafrantz the Golden Fleece.  “This should approximately cover the deficit.”

After profusely thanking the Count, Arafrantz looked at him fixedly and asked, “Is it really necessary to pay this amount?”

“The postscript is precise,” said the Count.

“It seems to me that if you wished, you could greatly simplify the negotiation,” said Arafrantz.

“What influence do you expect me to have on a vanditto?”

“Did you not save Pippino’s life?”

“Who told you that?” said the Count, astounded.

“A little bird who was leading a guided tour at the Teleporneum.”

The Count muttered something about trasque aux ravens.  “And you will accompany me?”

“If my presence isn’t disagreeable.”

“Not in the least; a little promenade in the Mirquewoudain countryside can only do us good, and the wild game is quite spectacular.  Now where is the man who brought you the letter?”

“Down in the street.”

The Count went to the window that gave onto the street, and whistled.  “Minno!” he called, in the voice one uses with one of the lower domestics in those unfortunate cases when a Ringwraith or Fantôme is not available to discharge the unpleasant task of addressing such canaille.  

The messenger, a surly, grimy-faced and black-handed hobbite dressed in long hairy breeches of some unclean beast-fell and a tunic of dirty leather, obeyed without question.

“Oh, it’s you, Pippino,” said the Count.  “I dispense you from your vow not to wash for a year if I saved your life.  Please feel free to break that vow.  Water hot would indeed be of great benefit to your aesthetical quality.”

“If your Excellency commands it, I am your slave,” replied Pippino.

“That is an excellent way for a young fellow like yourself to talk,” said the Count.  “Now: answer my questions.”

Pippino glanced nervously at Arafrantz, and sniffed.

“You can speak in front of his Excellency, he is my friend; and indeed, if you do your life will be longer and healthier than if you do not,” said the Count affably.  “With your permission, then: how did the Viscount Réginard de Pérégrin fall into Luigi Vanya’s hands?”

“Your Excellency, the Arnorian’s eagle crossed paths several times with that of Dragontina, the chief’s mistress, and it amused her to make sweet eyes in his direction – all this with her lover’s consent.  The funny thing is: he thought she was disguised as a dragon … while not realizing that Luigi Vanya was disguised as the eagle.”

The Count laughed.

“My friend was captured by a dragon?” exclaimed Arafrantz in the greatest horror.

“Your Excellency need not be concerned,” said Pippino.  “She never eats hostages.  Dragontina told the Viscount that she liked being ridden, he mounted her, and the affair might have become a matter for the guardians of public morals, if Dragontina had not taken to the air and transported the Arnorian to Dol Gouldour, where he remains.  They had a rather diverting exchange: Dragontina told the prisoner, ‘Now we will find out what you know,’ and he replied, ‘I assure you, madame, that I know absolutely nothing.’”

“An amusing story, no?” sallied the Count.

“I’m sure I would find it immeasurably droll, had it happened to someone other than poor Réginard, who never cheated at cards in his life,” said Arafrantz.

“Do not be troubled,” said the Count.  “Not only will we rescue your friend, but we will visit a highly picturesque part of Mirquewoude.  Come now; our eagle awaits.”

“You have one already prepared?” said Arafrantz, amazed.

“Yes,” said the Count.  “You see, I am a highly capricious nature.  At any time of the day or night, even when I am asleep, if sleep it can be called by Men, I suddenly get the whim to go to any part of the world, and I go.”

The Count rang a bell, and a Phantôme appeared.  “Take my eagle out of the flet,” said the Count. “No need to awaken the eagle-driver: Gali will drive.”

In one minute, the eagle was ready. The Count and Arafrantz mounted in back; Pippino sat next to Gali in front, and the eagle launched into the air au galop.  They flew over the Strada Finrodorio and past the Forum of the Mallorni, and then crossed the Riviera, and departed from decent places where there is siesta.

“This is good territory for spider-hunting, if we had time,” said the Count, pointing at some rather quaint and rustic cobwebs.  Arafrantz did not reply.  

Shortly the eagle arrove at a forest of dark fir, where the trees waged war with one another, and their branches rotted and withered.  There on a stony height stood a black tower with a battlemented wall, three great tiers of cunning masonry, and a few impaled heads with long elf-hair.  At the front was a small lodging for the sallow half-Orc who served as concierge.  Pippino knocked; the concierge made a few difficulties until the Count grasped the Ring that hung from a pendant around his neck; and the concierge immediately gibbered in terror.  

The Count smiled with amused detachment.  “Take care of my eagle,” he told the concierge, and he and Arafrantz dismounted, followed by Gali and Pippino.  They entered a vaguely spidery lair.

“Hola!” cried a sentinel.

“Melons,” said Pippino, who knew the correct reply.

The sentinel led them up a steep and winding stairway that ascended and ascended and ascended up to the roof of the third and highest tier, turned into a turret, and ascended up yet another stairway and through a trap-door, until they reached the abode where Luigi Vanya toiled in pursuit of evil.  At the moment, he was busily playing pyramid solitaire with the skulls of his enemies.  His followers were in various states of intoxication.  Graffiti in Vanya-Orkish Creole adorned the walls, along with a red V for Vanya.

As soon as the Count and Arafrantz entered, the vanditti rose and grabbed their weapons, shouting “Forth Vanyinghi!”

“Hola!” cried another sentry.  Wearily, the Count turned him into a frog.

“This is not quite the welcome we expected,” he told Luigi Vanya, as Gali kicked over the pyramid, stopping briefly to gnaw at some of the contents.  “We are the Count of Monte Fato.”

“Put down your weapons!” ordered Luigi Vanya, making an imperative gesture with one hand, while with the other he removed his hat respectfully.  “Pardon, monsieur le comte,” he said.  “But I was so far from expecting this visit, that I took you for yet another entish vendetta attempt.”

“You have, it seems, a short memory indeed,” said the Count.  “For you forget not only faces, but binding promises sworn upon the Precious.” He held aloft the Ring, and a terrible light shone therefrom and illumined the entire fortress, showing precisely how badly written the graffiti were.

“Which conditions have I forgotten, Master?” said Vanya.

“That not only my person, but that of my friends is sacred.”

“When have I done tha…”

“Did you not kidnap Réginard, vicomte de Pérégrin?  Eh bien,” continued the Count in a voice that abashed and terrified the bandit chief, so that he could do nothing but grovel on the ground and whimper nice master, “this young man is one of my friends, this young man lodges at my tree-hotel, this young man was flying over the treetops of Lottaloria on my eagle, and yet, I repeat, you have kidnapped him as if he were le premier venu and held him for ransom, sending this letter” – he contemptuously tossed the ransom note at Vanya – “to my friend the Baron d’Imrahil.  Unless you make immediate reparation for this affront” – he again held up the Ring, and one or two thunderclaps resounded through the hall – “I shall take this Ring and command you to leap from a precipice; and you will obey.  For such would be my command.”

Luigi Vanya turned to his band, who withered before his gaze as the Two Cheeses withered under the absinthe of Ungolianne.  “Why did none of you inform me that the prisoner was a friend of the Count, who holds the power of life and death in his hand?  By the sword of Turin! If I thought any of you knew that the young man was a friend of His Excellency, I would hurt him with nasty cruel steel!”

At this, Luigi became aware of Arafrantz’s presence, and said, anxiously, “Your Excellency is not alone?”

“I am with the person to whom the ransom note was addressed, and to whom I wanted to show that Luigi Vanya is a faithful servant and not a master’s bane.”

‘Be welcome among us, your Excellency,” said Luigi, rising from the ground and stepping forward to greet Arafrantz.  “I will make up for this error in any way I can; not for the glittering caves of Alcarrondo nor for the favors of Lutienna would I that similar thing had happened.”

“Two things I ask as wergild: your hat, and the release of my friend,” replied Arafrantz.

Luigi immediately handed Arafrantz his grey fedora, made by elven crafts in the Elder Days.  Arafrantz bowed.  “And my friend?” he inquired.

“I hope that nothing happened to him,” said the Count, fingering his Ring in a faintly menacing way.

“I will announce to him myself that he is free,” said Vanya.  He led them through a secret door, cleverly disguised as a Valinorean pointy-eared huorn-cactus.  There they saw Réginard, draped in a greyish-green cloak borrowed from one of the bandits, losing badly in a game of whist against his guard, a large black Orc with hairy arms and foul breath and two eyes made out of coal.

Luigi Vanya looked at Réginard with a certain admiration, for few even of the bandits had ever dared play whist against Eustachio Clarenzio Skrubbloûc.  He went up to the prisoner and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Why the Morgot are you interrupting my game?” grumbled Réginard.  “I only have an hour and a half before you execute me; the least you could do is let me finish my game in peace first.  Trasque de Sauron!  Last night I dreamed that I was dancing the brequedanse de Gandault with the Countess G at Fighetto’s ball.  Then, when I woke, this fellow challenged me to a game of whist, and by Morgot, I mean to win the game yet,” he said, lamely playing the deuce of clubs.  He yawned wearily.

“I have come to tell you that you are free,” said Luigi.

“My ransom is paid then, I suppose,” said Réginard, as Eustachio won yet another hand and proceeded to write in his diary.

“No, someone whose wish I could not refuse has come to claim you.”

“That someone is bien aimable!” exclaimed Réginard.  “Was that you, Arafrantz?”

“Not I, but the Count of Monte Fato,” said Arafrantz, not without irony.

“Par Érou, monsieur le comte,” said Réginard, adjusting his cravat and his sleeves, « you are really precious, first for the affair of the eagle, and now for this, and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Hurin and Turin and Jean-Pierre Elfeaux and Béren himself were assembled together for a game of boules, yet you would be victorious over them."  He extended his hand to the Count, who shuddered a moment to take it, yet took it nonetheless.  Vanya looked on, stupefied to see a prisoner who could not be bothered to tremble before him; as for Arafrantz, he was delighted that Réginard had been able to uphold the Arnorian honour even before a bandit.

“If we hurry,” said Arafrantz, we can still make it to the ball at Dorthonia’s, and you can resume your brequedanse.”

“Yes, my eagle awaits,” said the Count.  “You may go back to your pyramid, Vanya.  “But I recommend you improve the aesthetics of this place.”

Réginard, followed by Arafrantz and the Count, exited the trap-door and headed for the guardroom where the Count’s eagle was being fed some unclean beast.  As they walked, the entire band remained standing, with their hats in one hand and their spears, which they banged against their shields, in the other.  “Westu Monte Fato halo!” they cried.  Vanya accompanied them.

When they arrived at the guardroom, Vanya bowed and said, “Messieurs!  This offer will perhaps not be very attractive, but should you wish to make me a second visit, you would be welcome.”

“Monsieur, I find the prisons of Dol-Gouldour de fort mauvais goût,” drawled Réginard.  “The torments of the Orcs, ça assomme, enfin.  In short, your palazzo is deathly dull.”

Luigi Vanya looked terribly embarrassed.

Arafrantz bowed and said tactfully, “As soon as we have finished saving the world, we will be pleased to.  And your pyramid was exquisite.”

Réginard lit a cigar with Luigi’s torch, and they parted.  The eagle, egged on by Gali, sped like the night wind visible, and by two o’clock the three entered the palace of Fighetto. Their arrival was a nine-day wonder, and the Orc-gear given them by Vanya immediately became a rage.

“Madame,” said the Viscount de Pérégrin advancing towards the Countess G, "yesterday you were good enough to promise me a brequedanse, and I come a bit late to claim that promise; but my friend will testify that it was not my fault: I was detained by some dragons and Orcs.”  And with that the music began, and Réginard danced a dance with the Countess, whereof Gandault himself would have been proud.

As he looked on in very mild jealousy, Arafrantz recalled the singular shudder that had passed through the Count when he had been in some way forced to shake hands with Réginard.




~~~

The next day, Réginard and Arafrantz betook themselves early to the Count’s chambers, that the Viscount de Pérégrin might express the depth of his gratitude.

“Monsieur le comte,” said Réginard, “I am no poet, despite all the efforts of my tutors, nor am I skilled in verse, beyond perhaps a comic and slightly off-color rhyme at a soirée – so I cannot express my meaning as I ought.  It should be an operatic aria.  What I mean is that I will never forget how you came to my aid, and will always remember that I owe you my life, more or less.”

“My dear neighbour,” replied the Count with a laugh, “you greatly exaggerate your obligations towards me.  I have merely spared you the expense of some four thousand certar, and all you owe me is a tiny economy in your travelling expenses and voilà tout; you can see that it is hardly worth the bother of mentioning.”

“Nevertheless, I hold you to be my liege-lord, whether you claim it or no.  If there is any way I can assist you, your wish is to me as a command.  My father, the Count de Pérégrin, who is of sudfarthingois origin, holds a high position in Arnor and in Rivendeau, and I place myself and all who love me at your disposal.  Little service, no doubt, will such a great man of the world and bel esprit as yourself think to find in so abominably poor a whist-player as myself; yet such as it is, I will offer it, in payment of what I obstinately persist in calling my debt.”  Réginard drew his sword, beautifully decorated with a carving of the Luthienne de Milo, and laid it at the Count’s feet.

A pale smile, like a gleam of cold champagne on a winter’s soirée, passed over the foreign aristocrat’s face. “Eh bien,” said he, “I avow, monsieur de Pérégrin, that I expected your offer and accept it gladly.  I had already singled you out in order to ask you a great service.”

“Which?”

“I do not know Annuminas, I have never been to Annuminas.  I would indeed have gone long ago, had I any relations there to introduce me to the monde.”

“Really!” cried Réginard.  “You have been able to live up to now without having been to Annuminas, or even possessing any acquaintances there?  It is incredible!  A man like you!”

“And yet, it is so,” said the Count.  “But as I recognize in myself no other merit than to be able to compete in affluence with M. Lathschpelle or M. Angbando, and I do not go to Annuminas to play the Bourse, that little circumstance held me back.  Now your offer has decided me.  Do you engage, M. de Pérégrin” (the Count accompanied these words with a singular smile, not unlike that of the Bouche de Sauron), “do you engage, while I am in Arnor, to open for me the gates of a world to which I am as foreign as a Druadain or a Calorminois?”

“Oh, as for that, my dear Count, à merveilles and with pleasure!” said Réginard.  “And all the more willingly since I am engaged to an alliance with a very agreeable family that possesses the best possible relations with le monde annuminasien.”

“I cannot imagine a better occasion for realizing certain projects on which I’ve been ruminating for quite some time,” said the Count with an almost Orkish nonchalance.  Arafrantz regarded the Count in an attempt to perceive in his physiognomy some indication of the designs he had in mind, but it was difficult to penetrate the soul of that man, when he veiled it with a smile and a ring.

“My address is rue Baguechotte, No. 3.  But are these not plans built upon air, like the lamented Church of St. Ménétarmeau, which was defaced by wayward eagles?” said Réginard.

“Vous êtes un ninnihammier de premier ordre, vicomte,” said the Count with amiable amusement.

« But when will you be in Annuminas? » asked Réginard.

“But when will you be there yourself?” returned the Count.

“In three weeks, by the Fête du Ring at the latest.  I’m leaving more or less immediately.”

“Eh bien, I will give you three months, but by Naréal I shall arrive without fail.  Will you expect me at Rue Baguechotte, No. 3” (he removed his watch from his pocket and glanced at it) “at 10:13 a.m. on the second of Naréal?”

“A merveilles!” exclaimed Réginard.  “Nuncheon will be ready, and I will order the most exquisite mushrooms for the occasion.”

“Excellent,” said the Count, writing a note in fiery tengouards, and then turning to Arafrantz.  “And you, monsieur le baron, are you leaving as well?”

“Yes, for the elvishly lovely city of Escargot, where the canals reflect the shimmering palace of the doge and the Cathedral of the Sacred Snail,” replied Arafrantz.  “I must drop out of the story, for la narrative irrelevancy, c’est moi,” he added, with the farsightedness of his kindred.  

“Say not so, monsieur,” protested the Count.  “You have yet to play a minor role in one of my projects.”

“Vous me faites là, monsieur le comte, one of those consolations that, were they not ridiculous, would be sublime, » returned Arafrantz.

“Bon voyage, messieurs,” said the Count, extending a hand to each of the young friends.

It was the first time that Arafrantz touched the hand of that man. The hand had only four fingers, but they were, Arafrantz esteemed, more than sufficient; for as he grasped it he felt a thin piercing chill, and he saw to his astonishment that the hand glowed with a pale light, although it was black and yet burned like fire.  

“It is decided, then?” said Réginard.  “10:13 a.m. on the second Naréal, at Rue Baguechotte, No. 3?”

“It is decided,” replied the Count, suppressing a barely perceptible shudder at the mention of that place.  With that, the two Arnorians bowed and left the Count’s apartments.

~~~

“I confess that I am concerned that the Count has made a rendezvous with you in Annuminas,” said Arafrantz when they were alone.

“Why so?” askd Réginard.  “I’ve always observed you to be rather cold towards the Count, but on his part, I have always found him one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wit and the perfect taste in cigars and cognac of the Elder Race.  Do you have anything in particular against him?””

“Perhaps,” said Arafrantz.

“Have you seen him before now?”

“Yes, but in other guise than we saw him here. But I will say no more unless you swear by the breasts of Luthienne never to repeat a word to living man.”

Réginard complied, and Arafrantz related everything about his dealings with the Count heretofore: the hashberry, the statues, and the colloquy at the Teleporneum.

“My friend, I fail to see anything reprehensible in what you have told me,” said Réginard when Arafrantz had concluded.

“He comes out of the class of nouveau riches, and I’ve never heard anything good about such people,” said Arafrantz, somewhat tactlessly given Réginard’s rather modern pedigree.  “Moreover, he began speaking in the style of one of the Lottalorians, but then his voice changed, or I at last understood it … He evidently knows something, and more than pleases me; but that is no reason why you should assist him in realizing the projects on which he has ruminated for some time, as he puts it.”

“Non, I am not in accord with that.  If he were an enemy, his cigars would feel fairer and taste fouler.”
 
“But the Balrogue, the Fantômes, the vanditti?” insisted Arafrantz.  “Is it not an occasion for pause when one’s host makes use of the powers of darkness?”

“So do all great lords, if they are wise and have a taste for the mildly exotic,” replied Réginard.  

“But the bandits of Luigi Vanya kidnap in order to steal.  What do you say of the Count’s influence over such douimmerlaïcs?”

“I say, my friend, that according to all probability I owe my life to that influence, or at the very least four thousand certar, a price for which certainly no one would have appraised me in Arnor, which goes to show that in Doriat, Turin has less esteem than in Nargue-le-Rond,” laughed Réginard.

“Who is this Count?” persisted Arafrantz.  “In what far time and place did he enter the world, and when will he leave it?  Whence does he come, what language does he speak, how did he obtain the remarkable power that he wields with an even more remarkable insouciance?”

“When you had recourse to the Count on my behalf, did he not use his powers to aid me?  Did he ask who I was, where I dwelt, whether my passport was in order, what business took me away east of Brie, whether I had learnt the lore of the living creatures?  He did not.  And the purpose that takes him to Arnor is pure benevolence; he hopes to compete for the prize Sandihomme, which is as you know the prize that the Baron Sandihomme awards each year for acts of remarkable virtue.  Yet you ask me to begrudge him an introduction into Annuminasian society.  Your attitude is emphatically not as sure as the speech of the Shiré.”

It had to be admitted that reason was on the side of Réginard.  Arafrantz said no more.

*A notoriously witty vampire.