On the Burden of Reputation
Many fear their reputation,
few their conscience.
Both riders enter Boulogne-sur-Mer by the round towers, on foot, with both of their horses by the rein. The dark, ominous clouds covered the sky as the gentle rain covered their clothes and saddles. Father and son, after being rejected with all due policy, went to the fortified city in search for a dry bed and a warm dinner.
"Such a shame they didn't want to take the risk, M. le comte," the young man said, smiling beneath the wide brim of his travel hat. He was deliriously happy because he didn't have to part ways with this man who has been his compass all his life.
The woebegone expression on that old, but still strong, man was a clear indication of his obvious obliviousness of his travel companion's feelings. Raoul noticed, by the way M. le comte pressed his lips together until they were a thin bloodless line, that there was hurry on this travel. That made him wonder, not for the first time since they left Bragelonne, what pressing need spurred this man to leave his home, specially in such a long trip.
Any other day, his eyes would travel to the Count's shadow, but that shadow was absent. Raoul felt restless because Grimaud was his assurance on the Count's well being; that old, silent, stubborn, but kind servant was always there, ready to give his sweat, his hands and his life to his master. Only by force majeure, his tutor consented to be bereft of his mute companion, one of those occasions was Raoul's first campaign, five years ago.
In short, Grimaud was not here, and Raoul refused to let this most important man wander around French land without someone to look after him. Even when the most heated battles were on the other extreme of the reign.
"What is a real shame, Bragelonne," those words were given after a long period of reflection as the Count scraped off the mud from his boots by la Porte des Dunes, "is that you decided to follow me here when you could spend your leave at home, or better yet, in Paris."
The mention of home, be understood the little county of Bragelonne, made Raoul's head float on the sweet memory of Louise de la Vallière. His heart beat tenderly at the memory of her blond hair and her meek, blue eyes. Being at home and unable to pay her a visit was cruel and unusual punishment; Raoul understand the reasons behind that prohibition, but that didn't make it less harsh. It was better to avoid that topic.
"Paris is not very welcoming these days," Raoul said, following his example.
The young Viscount suffered the close scrutiny of the Count. The question was there, Raoul could feel it, and the need to rebel against it was growing slowly, but steadily. How horrible it is to grow up!
"Since I know your manners since you were a baby, Raoul," his voice, his loving voice, could barely cover the displeasure of those news, "I wish for a better explanation so I can comprehend that statement."
Raoul closed his eyes and repressed a sigh the best he could. How can he explain to this man his situation? To this man, God help him! A man whose best friends still consider him the paramount of all manly virtues, a man who made his way through nobility as a pilot do through a friendly port, the only man that could outwit a procurator, Raoul knew it by first-hand. And of all these feats, the most impressive was the first one. The Viscount has not as many friends but even de Guiche had some tricky qualities that breed contempt on Raoul and, just like the other Inseparables, the son of Garamont was his fire forged brother. Propheta in sua patria honorem non habet (1), said the Bible but, as far as Raoul could see, the Count was the exception of that rule.
Yes, he was waiting, and the fact he needed to state such condition was proof enough of his impatience. Raoul was torn between his habitude to obey his commands and the heavy weight on his heart. Paris and its denizens believe not on his reputation; and the Viscount's filial affection suffered from that slandering.
Drunkenness was the first charge thrown to Raoul's face. First in jest, almost in awe; then, when words failed to stop that characterization, they delved more and more in contempt. If the opportunity arises, and it had to be a real big occasion, Raoul had to be honest, M. le comte still could drink for six men. This charge cannot be refused and his defense must be presented in more vigorous ways.
But to present such defense would mean to uphold another charge: that the Count used to be a quarrelsome hoodlum, a devoted seeker of duels and gratuitous brawls. M. du Vallon —Raoul still found hard to call him 'baron'— made pretty clear with his stories, some of which the young Viscount had hear in his knees, that they were a group of hotheaded daredevils on their young days. The fact their legend survived the years was enough proof of the zest that the Four Inseparable put into each one of these fights.
Since Raoul knew well those defects on his tutor's character, he could endure all with good face and a faint smile. He knew that M. le comte, Athos for another name, was not a saint, just a good, but perfectible man, one who raised him and made him a honorable man; one who tried over the years to correct his ways for Raoul's sake. People would always talk bad, no matter how much M. Olivier Count de la Fère, Count de Bragelonne, Knight of the Holy Spirit, and Knight of the Garter, had fought against his demons every day to give a better example to the youngster at his side.
Heroes are not the ones who wear you out with their superiority, but those who give you example on how to steer your life. Raoul was not ashamed of this Athos, elder and wiser. He was avoiding Paris because a woman's mouth had planted a doubt in his mind; and the troublesome deduction of the syllogism she brought to moot was robbing his sleep.
"I've given voice to my misfortune with too much confidence to someone who I should love, to please you," Raoul tried to explain, not too sure if he could carry on with that feeling, "And that person, knowing my obscure birth, and even more, familiar with your life and deeds, propounded to put a question to you."
The Count's mind was as sharp as a tack, he needed no more references to know about who they were talking about. A quick flash of wrath —one worthy to be sport on Zeus Almighty's gaze— was it up behind those blue eyes, but it was quickly extinguished by a tide of paternal anxiety.
Ask him about Marie Michon, the Duchess of Chevreuse whispered to Raoul while they both were on her boudoir, away from prying eyes and overzealous ears, that whisper was superfluous and brought with him the air of the Eden. That was the voice that tempted Eve. Find out if he has the authority to prohibit you from courting your chosen one.
A voice came from the belfry, warning the people on the market to seek for shelter. The storm was coming faster than expected, but the two travelers didn't mind his advice.
Heavy raindrops hit the walls of the old fortification.
"We will never find a best time for confidences, Bragelonne," the man once called Athos said with a small, sad smile. "Ask your question."
To ask that question would be a true act of ingratitude. This man was no saint, as it have been stated previously, but he was his father, even before the papers were signed; He was his father on his bedside, on his illness, on his mischiefs, on his triumphs and on his failures; he was guide on his first shaky steps, his lead on his first rides, his teacher on his first sword thrusts. His reputation and his past sins were not of Raoul's concern.
"I need no proof of Heaven," Raoul said, meeting those distressed eyes, "once I have been loved on Earth."
Blasts of rain were hosing their legs but when the Count let go the reins and opened his arms wide, Raoul felt he need no other shelter. He hugged him with the certainty that death came to every man in this land of God and he felt his own disquiet melted on that aroma of leather and horse sweat. His head rested on his father's left shoulder, his favorite spot since he was a boy and the regular beat of the heart beneath it brought peace to his mind.
And as that word left his lips, Raoul realized he had made another decision: His visits to Madame de Chevreuse were over. Oh, Raoul knew he owed her! She put him on the right way to become a good soldier, but his debt was greater with the Count who put him in the best way to be a man.
Would he earn a reputation of being ungrateful? Perhaps, but his hero also had bad reputation and there was not a best man on French soil.
Then so be it.
(1) A prophet hath no honour in his own country, John 4:44