D’Artagnan, pummeled by the flow of the man’s generous talk, could only swallow, and smile, and manage to speak in a small voice. “I’m not hungry,” he said. “I mean, not that hungry, though your bread smells very good.” And though he was aware that he should, truly, exploit this opening and find out what he could about the death of the armorer, he could not bring himself to do it. He’d feel as if he were taking advantage of a kind, generous family. “And I was . . . thinking of buying some, only I was listening to you speak, you know . . . our tongue, and I forgot . . .”
The baker smiled. “Buy it, were you? With what coin? No, please, don’t tell me more lies, lad, there is no need.”
The huge hand grabbed D’Artagnan by the shoulder. “You’re hardly older than my own son, and even if you’re more sturdily built, I know what you eat like at your age. I tell you what, if you’d do us the honor.” As he spoke he pulled D’Artagnan into the shop and closed the door behind him. “If you’re not that hungry, just come and give us the pleasure of your company, Gascon to Gascon, and eat at our table tonight.”
To that, there was nothing D’Artagnan could oppose and he let himself be led, by the shoulder, through the dark doorway at the back into a small, crowded kitchen where there stood what seemed to be an overflow of flour barrels, other barrels and bundles of miscellaneous supplies, a small, dark wooden table, and a huge hearth, at which a dark, plump woman worked.
She turned at their entrance and seemed to take it as normal that her husband should come in with some waif off the street. The two children, boy and girl, were already seated side by side at the table, with a bowl of soup and a piece of bread in hand, and squirmed aside to make space for D’Artagnan as a matter of course.
D’Artagnan wondered whether the baker did this every day and how many waifs he fed. As he took his place beside them, he found a piece of bread and a bowl, overflowing with vegetable soup with some small pieces of what appeared to be pork dropped in, were set in front of him.
He watched as the baker sat and talked to his wife of how much they’d sold and of what type of bread, while she served him and then herself, from a large pot of soup she’d set in the middle of the table.
D’Artagnan had resolved, before he ever sat down, that he would eat little, and show no unusual enthusiasm for the food. Part of this was his pride, revolting at his pretending to be a mere homeless, rootless Gascon waif in Paris. The other part of it was his absolute certainty that these people—no matter the actual facts of the matter—should need the food more than he did. He had his commission as a guard, after all, as well as his career, which he was sure would be long and illustrious. He aimed for nothing else than the post Monsieur de Treville held.
And while he had absolutely no idea what ambitions lay in the future of a baker in Paris, he was sure they would be more limited than his. So, with absolute certainty that he would not let himself eat too much of these poor people’s food, he took a mouthful from his spoon.
The flavor exploded in his mouth, like a surprise, bringing with it the tastes of his childhood but much improved, unexpectedly sweeter, one playing off the other. He saw the baker looking at him, and he swallowed hastily, before taking another spoonful, feeling suddenly more ravenous than ever.
The baker laughed. “Cooks well, doesn’t she, my Adele?” He half embraced his wife, who made a playful motion to swat him away. “Eat what you will, lad,” he said. “There is plenty, and it is a compliment to the house.”
And D’Artagnan, not able to protest against the commands of his body, ate a full two bowls and a full half-loaf of the crusty, dark bread, before he could slow down. And wished he could, on some excuse, take this food back to his comrades. Though he could well imagine the reaction of aristocratic Athos faced with dark peasant bread and vegetable-heavy soup.
He was so amused by this image that it shocked him as the baker said, “Have you a job? Or do you want me to look about for one for you? We don’t need help at the shop right now, as it happens, but I’m sure—”
“Oh, no,” D’Artagnan said, quickly, fearful that he would find himself helped to a job as he’d found himself helped to food, and thereby forced to live a double life for the rest of his time in Paris, standing guard at night and working during the day in a bakery, and possibly, eventually, keeping a wife and children in each place. “Oh, no,” he said. “It is not like that. My father . . . you see . . .” and deciding, quickly, to go on a variance of his real story. “My father used to be in service with Monsieur de Treville, you know, as his valet, and he sent me with a letter to Monsieur de Treville’s valet, as used to be his apprentice. Only though they want me to work for them, they don’t have need of me right now, so they said as I could start tomorrow. It’s just the last week has been rough.”
The baker nodded. “Monsieur de Treville will look after you, right enough,” he said. “And most of his staff are from our land.” He smiled slightly at D’Artagnan, “So you were lost, were you? Or exploring Paris?”
D’Artagnan decided this was the time, if ever, to bring the subject around to what he needed to know. “Well, the thing is,” he said. And managed to look embarrassed, which in fact he was, though not over what he appeared to be. “I heard that there had been a murder this way. Some musketeer’s servant was caught at it, I heard at Monsieur de Treville’s. And of course, well . . .” He shrugged. “I’ve never been anywhere anyone was murdered. My village was not that big.”
The baker smiled, but something like a shadow passed his eyes. “You are lucky,” he said. “Being of a generation from Gascony which didn’t see enough death.” Then shrugged. “Not that I’m sure that the musketeer’s servant did it, mind.”
“But, dear,” his wife put in. “Everyone says as he was caught, with the sword in his hand, and his arm all over blood.”
“Adele,” her husband said, looking at her seriously, but with the twinkle of humor in his eyes. “I saw the boy taken, as did you, with all those guards around him. There was no blood on him, not even a few drops as someone will have if they stab any person or animal nearby. And the other thing is, they said he was unconscious, and what musketeer’s servant would fall unconscious after stabbing someone. For you’re not going to tell me he collapsed at the sight of blood, because that I won’t believe. Always pulling their swords in and out of their sheaths, are those musketeers, and I wouldn’t trust them for a moment, be it with my food or with my daughter, but murderers . . . that they’re not.” He smiled at D’Artagnan, suddenly and startlingly. “Overgrown boys, all of them. Much mischief, and all that, but also high ideals, and wanting to rescue others. Not the stuff of which murderers are made.”
D’Artagnan, stunned by the idea that anyone could call Athos—Athos!—an overgrown boy, and imagining the response of Alexandre, Count de la Fere, no matter how submerged under his nom de guerre, to such an assessment of his character, could not find words to speak, and before he could, the boy, Xavier, said, “Only they say he’d lost consciousness at a hammer that fell from the overhead rack and hit him on the head.”
The baker snorted. “Yes, and that’s likely enough, isn’t it? Xavier, you’ve been in the shop, as have I. There are no hammers on the racks, overhead. Only swords and such. Besides, as high as those racks are, if a hammer had hit the boy on the head, he’d not be unconscious, he’d be dead, and his brain, likely as not, splattered all over the floor.”
“Yes, but . . .” Xavier said. “Something must have happened.”
“Ah, you see,” the baker said, and then suddenly, “What is your name, son?” to D’Artagnan.
“Henri,” D’Artagnan said and then, acutely aware that to pronounce his father’s family name would give away his true origin, “Henri Bayard.”
“Well, Henri, what I say is that we don’t know the half of the story, and that it will all become clear in time, and it is none of our business. You and Xavier might find all this very exciting, and stuff to dream on. But the thing is . . .” He shrugged. “Murderers are not usually grabbed at the scene of the crime like that. It’s not usually that simple, is it?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” D’Artagnan said, startled at his own capacity for lying. “I’ve never been close enough to a murder to . . . to observe it.”
“And lucky you should count yourself.”
“But then . . .” D’Artagnan said, contriving to seem disappointed—which he was. Or at least frustrated at his inability to question the man. “But then you don’t believe this was done by the musketeer’s servant?”
The baker shrugged. “No. Or at least, I don’t believe it was, though sometimes people do things you don’t expect and would never have thought of them. But why Boniface, such a nice young man, with a sunny disposition—oh, light with his fingers, but everyone must have a failing—should feel the need to murder the armorer is quite beyond my reckoning. You see . . .” He shrugged. “He came around to the armorer’s a lot. Monsieur Langelier, in fact, had plans for him.”
“Plans?” D’Artagnan asked, shocked. Almost as shocked as to find that here Mousqueton went by Boniface, his name before he had become Porthos’s servant.
“Well . . .” The baker smiled. “Ah well. That is probably all ruined now, because her brother would never allow it, not and have to pay out money from what—I hear—is already a much eaten inheritance for her dowry. But you see, besides his son and heir, the armorer has a daughter.”
“Faustine,” Belle said, and giggled, as if the name itself were very funny.
“Aye, Faustine, twenty-five if she’s a day, and no one has ever looked at her twice.”
“She has cross-eyes,” Belle said, and made a face.
“Now, child,” her mother said, mildly. “That is not charitable.”
“Neither is she. Temper like a viper and a tongue like the devil,” Belle said.
“Well, and all that might be true,” the baker said. “But Langelier always said she would have a good enough dowry, something, you know, to start a shop, or to buy a house, or to do with what she wanted. She and her husband. And a boy like Boniface, well set up and kind, even if he was a musketeer’s servant . . . well . . . And eventually the musketeer might make something of himself too—not to mention that half of them are grand seigneurs, noblemen in disguise, here to escape some debt or work out some crime . . . well, Boniface would be all right, might still be, I daresay. And Langelier thought, what with all that, he couldn’t do better than marry him to his Faustine. So he’d been talking to him, slow like, leading him gently by the reins, as it were.” He broke another piece of bread and bit into it. “You see, the young man never had money for the sword repairs his master asked for, and so he was in obligation to Langelier . . .”
D’Artagnan saw it, perhaps too well. He’d seen Mousqueton with Hermengarde, the little palace maid, and he knew how attached they were. Would Mousqueton’s temper flare if he felt he was being blackmailed into marrying the cross-eyed viper? “But at Monsieur de Treville’s,” he said, hesitantly, “they say that he is . . . that is, that he is friends with a maid at the palace.”
“That would be Hermengarde,” the baker’s wife said and shook her head.
“Ah, yes, Hermengarde,” her husband said. “Cute little thing, Hermengarde, but . . . well . . . you know, like us. Starting out on her own with nothing to call her own besides whatever education she brought from her father’s house, which will not be much, and her palace connections, but that just makes her a devilishly uncomfortable wife, because she’ll never be home.
“No, they couldn’t tie the knot, Hermengarde and Boniface. Not that they needed to, because Langelier wanted Boniface for his daughter and his son, Pierre, wanted Hermengarde for his own.”
“Seems odd,” D’Artagnan said, and though the innocence of the words might be a put-on, the frown that accompanied them was quite genuine. “That they are . . . friends and being courted by siblings.”
The baker laughed. “Odder things have happened, my boy. It has long been my experience that with whomever you might be friends as a youth, in the end you marry the woman who will be best for you as a wife. And though that was not needed for me, not with my Adele, and my baking skills and the little bit I had set aside, sometimes the better woman for someone is the one who brings money with her. Because money can buy freedom and security.”
“But . . .” D’Artagnan said, and the protest was genuine, wrung from his still-romantic heart, a protest against life in general, as well as against forced marriages. His lovely Constance, the woman he was sure he loved like no other, was married to a man she didn’t love and whom, as far as D’Artagnan could discover, she had never loved. “But . . .” He shook his head. “What about love?”
The baker shrugged. “Well, if you are lucky you will love the woman who is best for you.”
“But not always,” his wife said, frowning slightly. “And a bad woman will ruin you faster than anything else.”
D’Artagnan looked at her, startled. “So you agree with Monsieur—with your husband, that . . . that they would in the end have married the children of the armorer?”
“Monsieur Ferrant,” the plump Adele put in. “And yes, of a certainty they would. For what else is there, when you need to eat? And what woman wants to bring children into the world without a certainty for their future? They would have married the Langelier children, and been . . . if not happy, resigned to their life as siblings-in-law. Others have in the—”