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The Three Musketeers by H. C. Branner

Translated by A. I. Roughton

We had made a dug-out together in John's large overgrown garden, and there we were sitting one March day allotting parts. Above us the barren fruit trees and bushes stretched their branches black in the mist, and the smell of raw earth and wet leaves was in our noses, buried beneath with a spirit lamp and three eggs in a pot. John sat on a box, Torben and I had to make do with the bare earth.

It was obvious that John had to be Athos. Torben and I both secretly hankered after being Athos, but we knew it was hopeless, because John WAS Athos, and Athos was John. To this day I still see the noble hero Athos as a redheaded thirteen year old boy with fair eyebrows and small light eyes almost an albino. Silently he would come striding along on his fat red bandy legs in socks, saying, "EN GARDE my friends", and standing with his sword; and at the name Mylady there would come a green glint in his eyes. For John was a woman hater like Athos, and like Athos he had deep and secret reasons for his woman hating. By devious means we managed to get out of him that there had once been someone called Madeleine, but we never went any deeper into it than that. For greatly though John wished himself dead, he still lived on for the sake of his honour and his revenge. On one occasion he took it upon himself to prove scientifically that women were not human beings. We sat round a table with a green cloth and a decanter and glasses. I was his opponent in the argument, and Torben was judge. "I can prove it like this..." said John sitting with a stony face, "How can you prove it...."—it still seems to me that he ended by proving that women were not human beings.

Torben and I fought for some time over the role of d'Artagnan, but in the end John interfered here too and made Torben Porthos. Torben refused for some time, but at last found himself inescapably in it and laid about him merrily. He was a fat boy with a cast in one eye, the only child of wealthy parents. Long before we others, he had a tailored suit and a Norfolk jacket. He usually overemphasised his fatness and his cast, showed off and played the fool, but sometimes a casual allusion would make him furious and he would gnash his teeth and attack us with a stick. I kept out of his way when he got like that, but John with his stony face would get hold of him, lay him on his back and sit astride him. Torben would kick furiously, till suddenly he was roaring with laughter and it was all a joke, even while his face was still swollen and streaked with misery. That was Torben. All things considered there was much to be said for his being Porthos quite apart from the similarity in the names.

"ERGO," said John looking at me with his inexorable eyes, "ERGO, you must be d'Artagnan."

ERGO I was d'Artagnan.

I was at that time a pale knock-kneed boy with sticking out ears and a fair head as smooth as an egg—I am afraid there was very little of the brave Gascon about my appearance. But I could conjure a thoroughbred stallion from a bicycle, I knew how to fill things to the brim with magic, how to smell out kidnappers and villains in disguise. For the rest I was always in love, dashed off blazing trails on my bicycle,—"Wild flies the hawk"—came home hinting darkly of assignations. The others tried to guess her name, and one name after another was suggested, for I was an adventurer with many lady loves. They knew perfectly well that it wasn't true, and I knew that they knew, but it was accepted all the same—we sat in the dug-out and grew hot in the head from talking about it. Torben made himself fat and squinting and laid about him with words which his parents would not have believed he knew, and John sat with his stone block of a heart and smiled bitterly, prophesying all the misery I might expect. So, taking all things into consideration perhaps I wasn't after all the worst d'Artagnan.

We felt the water in the saucepan, but it wouldn't get more than lukewarm, so in the end we made holes in the eggs and sucked them as they were, crushed the shells and shouted, "Each for all and All for each", said Sir, and My friend to one another. Then we went out into the rainy mist, drew our swords and swore.

Athos, Porthos, d'Artagnan.

At first nothing much happened. Over in the school the musketeers met every day in a corner of the playing field and smuggled little notes to one another. The pass code word for the day was written in them and the place where we should meet, sometimes there was also "Danger" or, "Be on the look-out, we are betrayed". For Cardinal Richelieu was sitting hidden somewhere, and his creatures in disguise were everywhere. In the afternoon we kept to the villa way, shouting and whistling in the twilight and creeping after people who looked as though they might be creatures. Afterwards we met and made our reports. We were breathless, our swords were drawn and our blood was up. But there were also days when we sat in the dug-out and just talked; about duels and travelling to England, robbing ladies and the torture chamber of the Bastille.

We could talk ourselves thus to complete despair. Then there were waste wet Sundays, when we pushed far out over the fields talking hopelessly about the wicked and cruelly beautiful Mylady. Porthos used strong language about her sex and laughed desperately till he got hiccups. Athos had a green glint in his eye—he wanted her drawn and quartered. But the young hero d'Artagnan nursed his longing like a stone in his heart and had imaginary meetings with her at an old oak in the wood...

Countess de la Fere, alias Mylady, had ringlets and brown eyes and hid her past of sin and shame under the very Danish name of Musse Mortensen. Athos' Mylady had been first Madeleine, and at first he called Musse "the new Mylady"—but the capital M could in any case stand for either. For a long time we used it as a password. "M," we said, when we met. Mylady was fourteen and two classes higher than Porthos and me, so we really scarcely existed for her. She only bothered about the big boys from the Senior School. During playtime we stood silent in a corner and watched her practice her seductive arts upon them, they were coarse and violent in their love and sometimes pulled her hair. But it was all feminine intrigue, said Athos. She had them in her toils, and on the way home we made a long detour and watched them crowding round her and ringing their bicycle bells and knocking each other into the gutter for her sake. She walked on the pavement and lured them all to destruction with her Mylady smile.

She must be rendered harmless, said Athos, and made us others say the same, so we sat in the dug-out and laid plans to kidnap and brand her. Athos would himself lay the glowing iron on her shoulder. But it was after all only words and phantasies, and at times we got sick of talking about it. It drove us up from the dug-out to lie upon our backs in the pale whispering spring grass staring up at the clouds and talking about it some more. And Porthos played the fool out of sheer despair, for what did Mylady care for us? We were small and insignificant, no one cared anything about us. For behind it all sat an unknown and all powerful Cardinal and pulled his threads, and even Mylady was only a pawn in his game. I stared up at the clouds with a heavy heart. Porthos hopped like a rabbit and barked like a dog. But Athos lay there with his red soldier's face and stuck to it that Mylady must be rendered harmless. He was like the Elder Cato.

So we set watch upon her house. She lived in a big house with a large garden and an open field round it. We dug a hole in the field and took it in turns to keep watch. "M," we said solemnly, every time we relieved one another and made a report. And there were a great many things to report. M. went out and came home again. A car drove up to the house. The postman came with a large yellow letter. M. appeared in the garden with her friend. M. put on the light in her room and drew the curtains. It was all observed by the eyes of an excited musketeer from the hole in the field and was written in the pocket log book and hidden in a cigar box in the dug-out. There were some important things too. One evening we saw M. waving a white silk handkerchief out of the window, perhaps to a lover sitting hidden in the garden. Another evening we stole right into the house and found a bit of paper on which something was written in pencil. The writing was nearly washed out by the rain, but it was made out to be many remarkable things.

One Sunday the Musketeers held a conference. The contents of the cigar box were brought out again and examined. Athos explained how they must be interpreted. "ERGO," said he, "That's what I think. What do you think my friends?" And we speculated and argued till our heads were nearly bursting and we were wild and furious. "To me, my friends," shouted I, d'Artagnan, and we lept upon our thoroughbreds and out into the woods. It was an April day with unsettled weather, we climbed a tall tree and let the storm carry us away. And from up there the young hero d'Artagnan deliberately dropped a little white card, which fluttered down between the tree trunks and remained hanging in a bush.

"Screwth!" shouted I aloud and tried to climb down after it, but Athos hold of it first. It was a visiting card with the name Musse Mortensen printed in fine italics—I had stolen it from the bag on her bicycle. And on the other side was written in red ink. "This evening at 7, at the big oak. M.".

"Unhappy d'Artagnan," said Athos as if he were reading from a book. "This I have long suspected, that you had fallen into this woman's toils."

"My lord," replied the young hero d'Artagnan and drew his sword. "You have no right to read my letters. You must give it back at once, or we two must cross swords."

"Come here, Porthos, we must disarm him," shouted the noble Athos. "That she-devil has already turned his head, he is no longer responsible for what he does." Three pairs of feet whirled wildly round in the dead leaves, dry twigs crackled—at last the young hero d'Artagnan stood without a sword. "My lord," said the noble Athos, "you must, until further notice, look on yourself as our prisoner. And now away to the great oak." The worst suspicions of the noble Athos were confirmed. In the bark of the great oak were carved the initials of d'Artagnan and Mylady and a heart with an arrow through it. A judgement seat was set up then and there. Athos walked up and down in front of the tree with folded arms. "Circumstances force us to act quickly," said he in his book language, "in the meantime I think that this woman has too powerful help to make it possible for us to carry out our plan of branding her as she deserves. So I suggest that we content ourselves with cutting her curls. That will in any case for a time hinder her from ensnaring honest men and bringing them to ruin. What do you think, my noble lords?"

Porthos thought the same, and I was a prisoner and madly in love, so my opinion didn't count. "Judgement has been given," declared Athos solemnly. "We come then to execution. Point A. Who shall carry out the sentence? Point B. Where, when and how?"

Point A was settled by drawing lots between Athos and Porthos. Porthos drew the long straw and should therefore have the honour of being allowed to cut off Mylady's curls. That is how it was interpreted by Athos. Porthos himself held that the long straw must mean he should not have to do it, but Athos was adamant. "The lot has fallen on you," he said, "the laws of the musketeers are unbreakable."

The execution was arranged for Wednesday evening at the time at which Mylady usually rode home alone after the dancing class at the school, I let myself be bullied into playing the role of traitor. On the last deserted bit of the way before reaching the house I was to overtake her on my bicycle and get into conversation with her. As we reached the gate Porthos was to jump out from an ambush wearing a mask and cut the curls with a pair of scissors. I had to pretend to defend her. Meanwhile Athos was to lie concealed in the ditch opposite and only join in if it became absolutely necessary. In the end I was just as eager as the others and was given my sword back. We stood up, crossed swords and shouted "M." and "Each for all and all for each!"

Wednesday evening I sat upon my bicycle and waited a little way from M's house. I stood alone and deserted at the corner of the path. My heart pounded alarmingly. Athos and Porthos were at their posts. M. appeared together with her friend, they parted company at the corner and shouted something about meeting tomorrow. Now she was coming. I could feel the beat of my blood in the backs of my eyes, every beat like a dancing veil of little black spots. SHE was coming, SHE, SHE. She was already beside me, with her unapproachable profile, she did not look at me. She didn't know me. We had never spoken to one another. It was all lies, the card, the assignations and the hero d'Artagnan. I felt so very small on my bicycle. But somehow or other I managed to push it forward and came alongside the mist with the paralysing brown eyes in its midst, and managed to say it.

"Good afternoon, Musse."

"Good afternoon," said Musse, looking straight ahead.

Pause. Two singing bicycle wheels and one unapproachable profile.

"Have you been to the dancing class?"

"Yes." My toes curled in my shoes.

"Are you going home now?"

To the latter she found no need to reply, since she was already there. She got off to undo the gate. A flood gate opened in the back of my head and everything merged in a swirling torrent—the railings— revolving bars—Musse—Mylady—Athos—Porthos—d'Artagnan and the scissors. I clutched desperately at a straw.

"Musse, do you know John Berthelsen?"

Mylady stood coolly surprised with her bicycle. "No," she said, "I don't."

"Yes, you do, you know him quite well." I insisted desperately. "The big redheaded boy in the Lower Fifth."

"No," said Mylady.

"Well, anyway he's dotty. Do you know what he is? He's a woman hater."

"Is he?" "He's a simply crazy, he goes round with a pair of scissors cutting girls' hair off. I just thought I'd tell you."

"Oh," said Mylady, "well, I must go in, good-bye."

She had already disappeared in the dusk, spots of light from her bicycle flashed upon the gravel path, disappeared and were lost. There was a deathly silence. Then Athos crawled out of the ditch and came across the road, stiffly and ominously on his red bandy legs.

"So that, my friend," said he, "is how you keep your path. Well, all is now lost—come forward, my good Porthos," he added turning towards a dark bush in the hedge behind, "all is lost."

There was a rustling in the bushes, a gulping and choking, but Porthos did not emerge. At last Athos went in and found him. He was lying doubled up among the bushes, black in the face with suppressed laughter. "Ha ha ha," he choked, "do you know him, the big red-headed one from...Ha, ha, ha." We had to help him to his feet and drag him out into the road. He hiccupped violently. "Shut up," said Athos, for at that moment a light appeared in Mylady's window. "Explain to me rather why you did not do your duty."

"Yes, but didn't you hear what he said?—hic—him, the big red... hic...he's completely crazy...hic...he is...hic."

"Shut up," said Athos. "It's absolutely no excuse for you that he failed too. You are a pair of miserable traitors, both of you."

We rode slowly away from the scene of the crime. "By the way it is a lie when she says she doesn't know me," said Athos suddenly. "It is a notorious barefaced lie. I have evidence to the contrary..."

And all the way home Athos described how he had recently overheard a conversation between M. and her girl friend. He had originally decided to say nothing about it, but since we had both now fallen into that she-devil's toils. Besides all was lost now for certain. Porthos and I peered at him from each side as he walked stiff-legged and made his report in a dry soldier's voice. M. and her friend had been sitting on the mound in M.'s garden, he had been lying under the hedge and heard everything. First they talked about Porthos, but not for very long. He was a clown, M. had said, a fat buffoon. They didn't bother about him...

"That's a lie," burst out Porthos.

"You may believe it or not, as you choose," said Athos inflexibly.

"Although you have betrayed your musketeer's honour, fortunately I have mine safe—then came d'Artagnan's turn—he was a very fine Cavalier, said Mylady, good enough to play around with. A harmless little boy..."

Porthos and I supported one another with our eyes and smiled uncertainly.

"And what about you?" asked Porthos sceptically, "what did she say about you?"

"Well, that's the thing," said Athos. "They talked about me for a long time. It seemed that Mylady hated me for one reason or another. She did not say anything nasty about me—on the contrary. But she hated me. She would know no peace until she had had her revenge, she said. She would give no reasons."

"Oh, that's love," said Porthos and winked at me. "She is in love with you."

Athos shrugged his shoulders. "Possibly."

We stood for a long time under the lamp at Athos' garden gate and went on talking about it. I could not allow myself to be pushed out of the field as Mylady's lover. There was the card and the heart on the tree, and finally it was me after all who had spoken to her. But that was no proof, said Athos. It seemed that Athos possessed proof about Mylady, but he would not say what it was—we could jolly well guess, he said. And we guessed and guessed, standing dead tired and pale in the green light of the street lamp. But we couldn't guess. Porthos showed the whites of his eyes, he hugged the lamp and pretending it was Mylady, ended by drawing something on the path with a twig and laughed aloud and whinnied like a horse. Then a window was slammed up, and Athos' father shouted out if we knew that it was nearly ten o'clock. We didn't know, we looked at one another in horror and beat it, each to his house with his heart in his mouth.

Next day Athos was in a frightfully bad temper. In play time he sat eating his lunch silently in a corner of the playground, and in the afternoon when we came to fetch him, he wouldn't come with us. He wouldn't go down in the dug-out, nor out to the post by Mylady's house, he didn't want to do anything. He had drawn the curtains in his room and was sitting brooding on a green plush sofa, his legs drawn up under him, his hands round his ankles. From time to time he grew overwhelmingly tired and had to fight to keep his eyes open. Porthos and I understood at once that it was again something to do with Mylady, but there was a lot of whispering in the dusk behind the shutters before we got out of him what had happened. He had eaten the laburnum seeds he had had lying about since last year. He had eaten them because it was his intention to die a stoic's death. The worst had happened, even he—Athos—had begun to doubt now. That Seductress had tried some new devilish trick and he was no longer sure of himself. As a man of honour there remained nothing for him but laburnum seeds. But it didn't seem that they had worked as intended— higher powers would not let him escape the lover's curse, he said. So now he might as well spill the beans and show us what he had seen this morning on his walk.

We got on our bicycles and rode slowly along the street, Athos in front, Porthos and I a little behind. At the corner of the market place there was a photographer's shop—there Athos stopped and propped his bicycle against the curb. He said nothing, and it wasn't necessary either. For in the middle of the window sat Mylady. She sat there with two ringlets hanging forward over her shoulders, one could see every hair. One could see the little soft hollows in her throat and the way she carried her head, and the dark curls above her brow and Oh! her paralysing brown eyes, which gazed straight through the heroes: Athos, Porthos and d'Artagnan. Our hearts sank, we felt sick and couldn't get our breath. Porthos smiled fatuously, Adios cleared his throat and pursed his lips. "To horse, my friends," shouted I at last and tore us away, we lept upon our thoroughbreds and dashed wildly home to the dug-out. Porthos and I went completely to pieces, took out and opened a bottle of fruit wine we had had standing a long time. "We are lost, my friends," I shouted, "we love her all three. In this red Spanish wine we will drink the toast which is death, the beautiful and deadly Mylady's health."

But Athos put down his glass. "Never," he said firmly, "our honour as Musketeers bids us fight to the last breath. Think of all the influencible souls which that woman will drag into misery with her portrait. There is only one way left to us now, and that we must do this very night. We must carry off the picture and rend it in pieces."

Porthos and I shouted intoxicated. "Hurrah! Health to Mylady's kidnapping." But a minute later we were in wild argument as to who had a right to the picture. Athos wanted to take it and burn it privately, he did not trust our strength of mind, and we did not trust him to burn it. We all three wanted the picture. "Well, we can duel about that later," said Athos finally and began to plan the carrying off in detail. Points A, B and C. A. Porthos must break open the cabinet with a crowbar. B. I must cut out the picture with a pocket knife and C. give it to Athos, who would stand a little way off and keep watch. Afterwards we should all fly in different directions to lead the Cardinal's creatures on a wild goose chase. Finally Athos made us swear an oath that we would give nothing away, not even in the torture chamber of the police. "With that we've thought of every possibility," he said and thought for a bit. "My friends, we meet half an hour before midnight..."

Every possibility had been thought of, but it didn't go quite after points A, B and C this time either. The undertaking was from the beginning so frightfully desperate. The Musketeers met, not half an hour, but three whole hours before midnight, because Porthos had been severely scolded by his father and had to be home by half past nine at latest. So we arrived at the photographer's corner and began operations in partial daylight. The market place was full of people, there was a parking place immediately opposite, and a large arc lamp was burning right above our heads as we stood and waited for a little darkness. "Go to it," said Athos.

The kidnapping might still have been successful in all its foolhardiness, if we hadn't bungled it. But at the noise of the crash Porthos lost his head, shoved the crowbar under his coat and bolted into a doorway. We stood there trembling for five minutes and then we tried again. With the same result. At the third attempt two policemen suddenly appeared round the corner of the house. They weren't two yards from us when we saw them. Athos stiffened at his post and never uttered a sound.

"What are you up to?" asked the policemen, and Athos said "Nothing." But Porthos turned pale, his mouth quivering as he stood there with the crowbar perfectly obvious.

"You'd better give that to me, young man," said one of the policemen and took it from him. They were very friendly and didn't say anything on the way to the police station. One walked between Athos and me, the other led the way with his hand on Porthos' shoulder in quite a friendly manner. Perhaps they reckoned that he was the most dangerous- -he after all was the one who had the crowbar and he looked the eldest in his Norfolk jacket. Nothing was said, but I dreaded the breaking of the silence.

It didn't go very well. Porthos burst into tears the minute he saw the blue light over the police station, and he was also immediately chosen to be taken to be interviewed by the chief constable, who was sitting ready behind his desk with gold-rimmed spectacles, and brushed back badger hair. Athos and I were not permitted to be present, we were put in a bare white room with a leather-covered bench against the wall. But by putting our ears against the door we could just hear most of what was going on inside. We could hear a typewriter tapping and Porthos' crying stopping and breaking out again at intervals, and the chief constable saying he should just be quiet. Nothing would happen to him if he made a clean breast of it...

"Yes, but it wasn't me..." sobbed Porthos, "it was him. John——him John Bertelsen...yes, the redheaded one...yes, he said he would burn it...Yes he did, because he was in love with her...I don't know, p'raps it's because he's crazy. He believes he's Athos...Yes, Athos from the three musketeers..."

Athos and I looked at one another.

"Ah! So that's the way the wind blows," whispered he. "Then we might as well confess everything. All is certainly lost."

But there wasn't much for us to confess. It appeared that the chief constable had found Porthos' explanation satisfactory. We only had to give our names, ages and address, together with our father's profession, then he pushed his chair back and looked at us. We were guilty of wanton destruction of property and attempted theft, he said, we really ought to be in approved schools. Under supervision. However, no further action would be taken in the matter, except that John as the leader would have to take a letter home with him. But our names were now on the police register and if at any future date we should come in conflict with the law, this matter would be taken into consideration, and then it would cost us dear...

This he said with a sharp gleam behind the gold-rimmed spectacles and finally asked John if it were true that he was going to burn the picture of the young lady? "Yes," said John. "But why? That you might want to steal it I can understand. But to burn it. What ever for?"

Athos cleared his throat. "I wanted to stop that woman from luring unsuspecting souls to ruin," he said.

There was a strange silence. The young policeman at the typewriter stopped his work and got suddenly behind the door into the waiting room. The chief constable had risen and was at standing with both hands on the desk, his whole face puckered up. "What?" he said.

"I wanted to prevent that woman..." began Athos again. "Ah," said the chief. He turned his back and pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose. "One minute," he said. And he was already behind the door with the other. It seemed that something had suddenly happened, we heard a tremendous cough. "You may go," they shouted out gruffly. "No further action will be taken in the matter."

Nor was there, not even the letter to Athos' father. But Porthos told everything when he got home. I think he confessed and cried for a long time in bed in the dark so that his parents had to comfort him and promise him the new bicycle he had long talked about. At any rate he turned up a few days later on a completely new bicycle with three speed and chromium plated wheels, but he didn't stop to let Athos and me look at it—in fact he pedalled all the faster and nodded curtly as he passed by. As far as I remember he never spoke to us after that. Perhaps that had been the price of the new bicycle.

Athos and I went on for sometime saying "Sir" and "My friend" to one another. Then we got tired of it and broke up the Musketeers' league.

And now it is twenty years ago...

 
 
 

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