A Nose for Mystery

Paris, 1641

The slow night watch at la Porte de Montmartre, one of the city’s many gates, was interrupted by the arrival of a man whose cape and broad, white-plumed hat identified him as a former member of the King’s Musketeers. His wide steps and easy confidence belied his age of no more than two and twenty years. The two soldiers on duty, Master Sergeant Jean-Pierre and young private Gaston, snapped to attention on his approach.

“Bonsoir, good sir!” hailed the sergeant with glad recognition of the man approaching them. Private Gaston did not speak but stood at attention with his mouth agape and his eyes wide.

“Good evening, Sergeant. I see I have beaten curfew yet again,” the newcomer replied with a good-natured tone. But his voice acquired the touch of sharp-edged steel as he turned to the private.

“Is there something amiss, monsieur?”

The private still stared, entranced until Sergeant Jean-Pierre poked him in the ribs with a sharp elbow.

“No, sir,” he stammered, while his face turned red.

“I’m relieved to hear it, for I have no time to tarry. Here, take these with my thanks for keeping such a lonely watch.” 

With these words, the man dug two coins from his purse and handed them to the soldiers, who accepted them gratefully. Then he called, “Au revoir, my friends,” and he stalked off into the darkness. The cob nails of his boots sounded on the paving stones while his cape swirled behind him. In a moment, he turned a corner and was lost from view. When he was gone, the sergeant turned to his hapless partner.

“You witless whelp!” He cuffed the private roughly on one ear. “The deadliest swordsman in all of France and you risk insulting him by staring in that way!”

“But Sergeant, his nose . . . I mean, I had heard that it was large, but—”

“But no buts! Had you been an officer or a gentleman and worth his time you would probably be lying on the ground, either dead, dying, or inordinately lucky he was in a forgiving mood and left you only wounded.” The sergeant looked in the direction in which the stranger had disappeared. “No one, but no one, gives insult to Cyrano de Bergerac!”

The subject of the sergeant’s admiration walked swiftly through the city’s dark and empty streets, chaffing at the lateness of the hour. As if reading his thoughts, church bells throughout Paris, led by the sonorous peals of the bells of Notre Dame from its island in the Seine, chimed the hour of ten and start of curfew. From a distance, he heard the sound of massive wood and iron gates closing and walling off the city for the night. Had it not been for his horse throwing a shoe two miles short of the city he would have been on time for his meeting with Cheveau, his loyal manservant. At this meeting, the result of months of intrigue, Cheveau was to deliver to his master hard-won proof of a certain government minister’s plottings. Cyrano himself had been on the road a week, ensuring their snare was complete.

It was good to return home to Paris, the jewel of Europe. Cyrano drew a deep breath as he strode through the streets, savoring the many scents and flavors carried by the night air. The summer thus far had been warm but not so hot as to cause the air to reek with sewage and waste. His harsh footsteps became quiet as cobblestones of the major streets gave way to packed dirt of the lesser avenues. Cyrano looked up and saw the sky was pocked with stars shining brightly between multistoried buildings of wattle and daub that crowded the streets and turned them into darkened canyons.

Shouts and cries reached Cyrano’s ears as he drew close to Le Coq en Vin, the tavern on the narrow and twisting Rue de Ronsard where he was to meet Cheveau, and Cyrano quickened his already fast pace. He turned a corner and saw a small group of people clustered on the street under the tavern’s sign. Curfew is no barrier to a crowd’s curiosity. They moved aside in deference to his approach, and Cyrano saw in the light spilling from the tavern windows the body of a man lying on the pavement.

It was Cheveau.

Cyrano knelt beside him. Madame Blanc, the wife of the tavern owner, held Cheveau’s head cradled in her lap. She looked up at him with pity on her face. “Oh, Monsieur de Bergerac, I fear you are too late.”

The little man stirred at the sound of his patron’s name. His eyes opened but could not focus. “Master, are you there?”

Cyrano drew off his gauntlet and took Cheveau’s hand in his. “Yes, my friend. I am here, but woefully tardy, and for that, I apologize with all my heart.”

The dying man summoned his remaining strength. His eyes cleared and fixed on the other’s face. “No, my master. It is I who must apologize. I let down my guard for a minute as I left the tavern for a breath of air, and three men, who must have been waiting for such a moment, attacked me. I held my own, until one drew a poniard, slipped behind my guard, and did stab me from behind.”

Cyrano swore beneath his breath, and a murmur passed through the listening crowd, shocked at the perfidy of such a cowardly act.

Cyrano’s face darkened as pain wracked Cheveau’s body.

“Steady, my old friend. Steady.”

Cheveau, clearly moments from death, motioned for Cyrano to lean closer, and he whispered his last words.

“Master, they have taken the papers.” With that, the little man’s eyes rolled back, and he breathed his last.

Cyrano gripped Cheveau’s hand one last time and then laid the dead man’s hands across his chest and gently closed Cheveau’s eyes. As he performed these last acts for his friend, his attention was drawn to traces of a light-colored, clay-like soil on Cheveau’s tunic and pantaloons. It was of a decidedly lighter hue than the compact soil with which the narrow street was lined. With delicate fingers, he pinched some of the substance and held it to his prodigious nose. Then he touched a fingertip to his tongue, considered its taste a moment, and nodded.

Cyrano de Bergerac rose to his full height and let his piercing gaze sweep the gathered crowd. “Whosoever did witness this cowardly act and is willing to stand in court and identify the villains who did commit it shall be doing our king justice and myself a great service. On whom may I depend?”

Such was the power of his speech and their respect for his person that several of those assembled answered as one.

“I will.”

“As will I!”

“And I.” This last was said with quiet firmness by Madame Blanc from where she knelt in the street. She had combed Cheveau’s hair with her fingers and straightened his clothes, giving him a dignity in death that he lacked in life. Cyrano looked down at her, and his angry visage softened. He removed his feathered hat with a sweep and bowed.

“Madame, women such as you are the beating heart of all that is noble in France.”

He straightened, replaced his hat with a flourish, and turned again to the crowd.

“In a matter of minutes the night watch should arrive. See that they receive an accurate accounting of what has happened.” He turned to a boy whom he had observed watching him. “You, young sir. Will you grant me a favor?”

The boy’s eyes grew wide that the great Cyrano should address him. “Yes, m’lord,” he stammered. Cyrano reached into his purse and removed a coin and presented it to the boy.

“I need you to deliver a message. Run, young man. Run as swiftly as your legs can carry you to the barracks of the King’s Musketeers. You know where that is?”

“I do.”

“It is past curfew. Can you slip through the streets without being hindered?”

The boy gave a grin full of crooked teeth. “They haven’t caught me yet.”

Cyrano laughed. “Good for you, my lad! When you get there, ring the bell, pound the door, raise the alarm, and present my compliments to Captain d’Artagnan. Tell him that I ask him to venture forth with some of his fellow Musketeers to the Rue des Gobelins, where I shall await them.”

“But how shall they find you?”

“Tell d’Artagnan that he shall find me by my mark. Now go!” The boy took off running down the Rue de Ronsard. Cyrano made to leave in the opposite direction, but as he did, a man touched his arm.

“And you, monsieur? What is it that you go to do?”

Artwork by Casey Robin

Cyrano de Bergerac smiled a tight, deadly smile that chilled the onlookers. He drew his rapier, held it up, and let the torch light glimmer upon the famous blade. The man who asked the question paled and drew back.

“I go, good sir, to see justice is done.” And with that, he turned and ran off into the night with his gleaming sword raised over his head and his cape billowing behind.

In the storeroom of a tapestry millhouse on the Rue des Gobelins, where the air was filled with the pungent odor of raw wool, a man dressed all in black—but for a white cravat—sat in a chair. Somewhere in the distance, a clock chimed midnight. A single candle guttered on a nearby desk, flickering from a draft of unknown origin. Its flame, the only source of light in the room, provided scant illumination to the cavernous space. Count de Soisson, for it was none other than that infamous rogue, drummed his fingers on the desk, crossed and uncrossed his legs, and stared at the outside door, willing it to open and put an end to his waiting.

Ten long minutes later, his patience was rewarded as the door crashed open and three men hurried inside, with one, after a final look outside, closing the door behind them. The candle threatened to extinguish but then regained itself.

The men assembled themselves before the man in black, and they held their doffed caps in front of them.

“Were you followed?” The count’s voice was sharp and curt.

“No, Your Honor. We did as instructed and returned by way of many streets and side alleys.”

“And did you retrieve the packet?”

After an exchange of worried looks, the man standing in the middle ventured to speak for them. He reached into his tunic and brought forth a small bundle of papers, tied together with a blue ribbon, which he handed to the man.

“Here they are, m’lord.”

The man in black studied their faces. His eyes seemed to pierce their thoughts and extract that which they were loath to admit.


Their spokesman looked for support among his companions but found none, for they had managed to move back from their hapless colleague a small but telling distance.

“M’lord,” the man stammered. “We, that is, I found it necessary to kill him.”

“So?” Again the cold words cut through the air.

“It is too dangerous for me to continue working here in the mill. I must flee the city, or I will be hanged for murder.”

“Oh, I doubt very much that you shall hang.”

Hope dawned in the man’s eyes. “Not hang, m’lord?”

“No, I believe that for low-life vermin such as you, the mallet is the prescribed method of execution. After all, there’s no reason to waste good rope on the likes of you, when a simple sledge will do.” With that callous remark, the Count turned to the desk, untied the ribbon, and began examining the papers bound within.

Then, as if conjured by magic, a gold coin tumbled out of the darkness overhead and landed on the desk with a ringing chime. As the coin spun and settled, it caught the light from the candle and gleamed as if grateful in response. The man in black and his minions seemed hypnotized by the sight and sound until a boisterous voice called out from the darkness.

“That, sir, should pay for rope enough to hang the four of you!”

The Count de Soisson leapt to his feet and drew his rapier. Four pairs of eyes searched the shadows in vain, not knowing from whence came the voice.

Then came the sound of a creaking rope and the rustle of a cape, and down from the storeroom rafters swung Cyrano de Bergerac, resembling nothing less than an avenging angel swooping down from heaven itself. He landed with cat-like ease on the floor and with one fluid motion released the rope and drew his rapier.

He ignored the three ruffians who were sidling toward the door and addressed himself instead to the man in black and gave a theatrical bow.

“Well, Count de Soisson, we meet again.”

The count’s lip curled.

“Bah! My men assured me they had not been followed.”

Cyrano’s teeth shone white in the candlelight. “Nor were they. I had no need to follow them, for I already knew from whence they came and to where they would, like rats seeking their nest, return. I had only to wait for them to lead me to the specific building and room, and as you see, they were kind enough to oblige me.”

“How did you come by this knowledge?”

“It is simple. I followed my nose.”

“I fail to understand of what help that ugly, ridiculous appendage of yours could provide.”

Cyrano’s eyes narrowed. “Count de Soisson, all the effluence in all the sewers of Paris cannot mask your traitorous stench.” He pointed his sword at the count. “Now, villain. Do you surrender?”

“Never!” The count set himself en guard and faced Cyrano.

“Good! You should know that it shall give me great satisfaction to kill you and cheat the hangman of his fees. Defend thyself if thou can, you cur!” And with those words, Cyrano sprang to the attack.

The count was well trained in the deadly art of dueling and had bested and killed a score of men in such encounters, but he was no match for the greatest swordsman in all of France. Cyrano played with him as a cat plays with a captive bird. Giving him hope one second, dashing it another. Faster and faster the blades flew and the sound of their clashing filled the room. Perspiration beaded the brow of Count de Roget, and his chest began to heave with effort.

Cyrano, by contrast, was nonchalance made manifest. He affected to yawn at the battle’s sharpest moments and once, when the count lost the grip on his rapier, Cyrano stepped back and allowed him to regain possession of his blade rather than pressing the advantage, a gallantry his opponent would scarce have offered had the situation been reversed.

The candle flickered wildly, and Cyrano cast a quick glance toward the door. As expected, the count’s men were slipping away, unwilling to join their master in what looked to be certain death.

A minute later, the door opened again, and the three ruffians filed back in, this time each accompanied by a sword at their back, swords held by members of the King’s Musketeers. Their commander, a powerfully built man of thirty years, stepped in and surveyed the ongoing fight with a practiced eye.

Cyrano called to him without missing a beat in the deadly dance in which he and his enemy were engaged.

“D’Artagnan, you arrive at an opportune time!”

“How is that, my friend?”

“I am endeavoring to decide if I should take this scoundrel in the heart or in the throat. A touch to the heart would kill him faster than he deserves, but should I skewer him in the throat and let him bleed to death with exquisite slowness, this room would reek of blood for days, something I doubt the mill owner would appreciate.”

D’Artagnan replied in the same offhand manner of his friend. “A difficult decision indeed, but one that is no longer yours to make.”

“How so?” asked Cyrano, parrying a thrust with ease.

“The cardinal wishes the count to be taken alive. He has valuable information that the cardinal is most anxious to obtain.” D’Artagnan walked over to the table. He gave a brief examination of the papers and then retied their ribbon and placed the bundle within his tunic.

Cyrano protested. “But he caused the murder of Cheveau! It is my right to take his life in return. I must have satisfaction.”

“Nonetheless, Cyrano, I must ask you both to put down your swords.”

Seemingly forgotten in the exchange was the count who was growing visibly weaker.

“What say you, Count de Soisson?” asked Cyrano with solicitude. “Would you care to retire from the field?”

“Never!” cried the count, his voice hoarse with fatigue. “I will not be taken alive.”

“There, you see?” called Cyrano. “He wants me to kill him. It would be churlish of me to refuse, no?”

“Consider, Cyrano, the favor you would do him by killing him. You know the methods by which the cardinal’s inquisitors work.”

Cyrano gave his friend’s words some thought, and no sooner had he made his decision than it was done. In an instant, he redoubled his efforts, driving the count until his back was pressed against the wall. Then Cyrano lunged with a killing stroke aimed at the count’s heart. But at the last moment, he changed the course of his blade and sank it deep into the count’s shoulder.

The count gave a cry of pain and dropped his sword. Cyrano turned his blade within the wound. “That is for Cheveau,” he whispered. The count cried out again, and fainting, fell senseless to the floor.

Later, long past midnight in the comfortable sanctuary of Le Coq en Vin, Cyrano sat at a table with d’Artagnan, sharing a bottle of wine in memory of Cheveau and a mutton pie in consideration of their stomachs. It was long past curfew, and the tavern’s windows were shuttered against the night. The door opened only on the arrival of one of d’Artagnan’s men, who informed his captain that the Count de Soisson’s wounds were dressed and that he was even then being taken across the Seine to the Palais-Cardinal to await his interrogation. A considerate commander, d’Artagnan invited the young Musketeer, with the improbable name of Xavier, to sit and join them. Xavier, scarcely eighteen and only six months a Musketeer, gladly accepted, as he was eager to pose a question that had been gnawing at him.

“If you please, Captain d’Artagnan, what were those marks on the walls you followed that led us to the storeroom? While I can read and write, I did not recognize the script.”

His tablemates exchanged smiles as the captain answered. “Those are signs only a Gascon can read, my young friend. Monsieur de Bergerac, though born here in Paris, was raised in Gascogne, which, as you know, is my place of birth as well.

Cyrano raised his glass. “To Gascogne!” D’Artagnan raised his and they met with a clang. Both men drank.

“But now it is my turn to ask a question,” said d’Artagnan, as he emptied the bottle into their glasses. “How did you know where those ruffians would be? And don’t give me any nonsense about following your nose.”

“Oh but I did.”

“Did what?”

“I followed my nose, or at least so to speak.” Cyrano speared the last piece of mutton pie and placed it on the wooden plate in front of him. “Did you have an opportunity to notice the light-colored dust on Cheveau’s tunic and pantaloons?”

D’Artagnan acknowledged he had not.

“Ah, but I did, and I recognized what it was, after I used my nose to ascertain its odor and my tongue to determine its taste.”

“And what did the odor and taste tell you, other than it was dirt?”

“It told me it was fuller’s earth.”

“Ah, but of course,” replied d’Artagnan, suddenly understanding.

Young Xavier looked from one to the other, suspecting a joke was being played upon him. Finally, unable to resist any longer, he asked, “What is fuller’s earth, and why should it be significant?”

It was Cyrano who deigned to reply. “Fuller’s earth is a particular type of clay that, when combined with urine, is used by wool workers to remove the oil from raw wool. In all of Paris, there is but one neighborhood where fuller’s earth will be found in abundance, and that is along the Rue des Gobelins, where the wool and tapestry guilds ply their trade.”

D’Artagnan shook his head in amazement at his friend’s acumen. “It is no wonder that sly fox, the cardinal, asked you to retire from the Musketeers and serve as his confidential agent—Ow!” His words were cut off by a sharp look and a sharper kick under the table from Cyrano followed by a quick nod toward their young companion. D’Artagnan attempted to cover up his slip of the tongue by changing the subject. He stood and raised his glass, and the others followed suit. “To our king, our country, and to Cyrano de Bergerac, the greatest swordsman in France!”

Cyrano considered before joining them in the toast. Was it proper protocol to drink when the toast honors you? Then he decided he could not deny the truth of the toast and drank his wine with pleasure.

Andrew MacRae