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( Originally Published 1909 )
Forever memorable as an illustration of the manners of the French court in the fourteenth century stands a terrible accident that happened in Paris on the Christmas eve of 1393. All through the Christmas ceremonies of the preceding week riot had run unchecked. The wildest spirits of the French court had been given a free rein. One mad prank had followed another, until it might seem that imagination had been exhausted in the effort at inventing new follies.
But this would have been reckoning without Sir Hugonin de Guisay. Sir Hugonin was known as the maddest of the mad. The reckless and the ungodly loved and admired him as much as the sober and the godly hated and despised him. From his height as a nobleman of the French court he looked down with contempt on "the common people,"tradesmen, mechanics, laborers and servants. He found a cruel pleasure in accosting harmless folk of this sort in the public streets, pricking them with his spurs, lashing them with his whip, and ordering them together with a silk rope. The king himself would lead them into the hall.
"Excellent !" cried the king and all the courtiers, save only Sir Evan de Foix.
Sir Evan seems to have been the one man of the party who had preserved a glimmer of common sense. He pointed out that they were about to rush into a room full of lights. Being all bound together, no one could say what disaster might not befall.
"Sire," he pleaded, "it is certain that if one of us catches fire, the whole number, including your Majesty, will be as so many roast chestnuts."
Then up spoke the reckless Sir Hugonin. "Who is to set us on fire?" he asked. "Where is there the traitor that would not be careful when the safety of the king is at stake?"
Sir Evan's fears could not be set at rest. But when he found that the counsels of Sir Hugonin were bound to prevail he suggested that at least all due precautions should be taken.
"Let His Majesty be prevailed upon at least to give orders that nobody bearing a torch shall approach US."
"That shall be done at once," said Charles. Instantly sending for the chief officer in charge of the hall he gave instructions that all the torch bearers should be collected together on one side of the room, and that under no pretence should any of them apto creep on their hands and feet in the gutters.
"Bark, dog, bark!" he would cry as he cracked his whip in the air.
To please him the victims had to bow-wow and growl like curs ere this polite and pleasant gentleman would allow them to rise from their degraded position.
On this particular Christmas Eve Sir Hugonin had a proposal to make. He suggested that, in order to continue the festivities, a mock marriage should be celebrated between a gentleman and a lady of the court. The proposal was accepted with shouts of joy. A young couple were chosen to stand up before a pretended priest, and to go through the form of the wedding service.
Just as the ceremony was nearing its end Sir Hugonin asked the king and four of his courtiers,madcaps all of them and all of them members of the proudest families in France,-to withdraw with him for a moment. He had a fresh proposal to make. It happened that at this time all Paris had gone wild over the dancing bears brought into the capital by strolling performers. Hugonin's plan was that he and the king, and the four courtiers, should disguise themselves as dancing bears. A pot of tar and a quantity of tow were ready at hand to transform them into fair imitations of the bears in the players' booths. Then the five courtiers were to be bound proach a party of savage men who were about to enter and perform a dance. These orders having been given the dancers entered.
They were greeted with a roar of laughter and cheers. The mimic bears followed their leader around the hall saluting the ladies as they passed them; and leaping and dancing for the amusement of the crowd.
"Who are they?" cried the spectators, eager to penetrate the disguise.
Now just at this moment it unfortunately happened that the Duke of Orleans made his appearance at the doors of the hall. He knew nothing of what had been going on behind the scenes. He was attended by six torchbearers, who in obedience to orders, should not have been admitted into the dance-hall. But the Duke of Orleans was the king's brother. It was hard to dictate to the first prince of the blood. He could scarcely be included in any general order. So he was allowed to pass in with his companions.
"Who are they?" he exclaimed, taking up the cry that was ringing around the hall. "Well, we shall soon find out."
Snatching a brand from one of his torchbearers he peered into the faces of the dancers, seeking to identify them. Coming at last to Sir Evan de Foix, he shouted out his name, and caught him by the arm. Sir Evan tried to shake himself free. But the Duke d not loosen his hold. Just then some one jostled his elbows and the torch he held in his hand was brought into sudden contact with the tarry tow that did duty as a bearskin. In one moment Sir Evan was blazing from head to foot. In another moment the whole group of knights were aflame. Their frantic struggles served only to draw them more closely together within the silken rope that bound them.
Luckily for the king he had detached himself from the group, having stopped on his rounds to talk to the Duchess de Berri. When first the alarm was given he would have rushed to help his companions, but the duchess, guessing it was the king under this disguise, threw her arms around him and forcibly detained him.
"Sire," she said, "do you not see that your companions are burning to death, and that nothing could save you if you went near them in that dress?"
Meanwhile, one of the maskers had wrenched himself free from his companions. This was the young Lord of Nantouillet, famous for strength, agility and presence of mind, possessed, moreover, of a pow erful jaw and a splendid set of teeth. He bit through the silken rope that enmeshed him, wrenched it off, and then rushed through the hall and flung himself, like a blazing comet, through a window that opened into the yard below. Luckily he had remembered that underneath the window stood a cistern full of water. Plunging headlong into this impromptu bathtub he emerged, black, burnt and sizzling, but saved.
As for his companions, they were now whirling hither and thither through a horrified mob of spectators, who trampled over each other in their eagerness to escape contact with the blaze. Shrieking, praying, cursing, the doomed four fought with the flames and with one another. Women fainted; men who had never faltered in the fiercest battle sickened at the frightful spectacle. Eager as they would have been to assist their friends, the men knew only too well that no human arm could offer assistance.
All Paris had been aroused by the tumult and now crowded around the palace gates. At last the flames burned out. The four maskers lay, a charred and writhing heap, upon the floor of the dance-hall. One was a mere cinder. Another survived until daybreak. Still another died at noon the next day. The fourth lived on through three days of agony. This was Sir Hugonin himself.
Small pity did he get from the mechanics and tradesmen of Paris!
"Bark, dog, bark!" was the cry with which they greeted the charred and mangled corpse when it was borne through the streets to its final resting place in the cemetery.