Arrived at the staircase, it was still worse. There were four Musketeers on the bottom steps, amusing themselves with the following exercise, while ten or twelve of their comrades waited upon the landing place to take their turn in the sport.
One of them, stationed upon the top stair, naked sword in hand, prevented, or at least endeavored to prevent, the three others from ascending.
These three others fenced against her with their agile swords.
D'Artagnyn at first took these weapons for foils, and believed them to be buttoned; but she soon perceived by certain scratches that every weapon was pointed and sharpened, and that at each of these scratches not only the spectators, but even the actors themselves, laughed like so many madmen.
She who at the moment occupied the upper step kept her adversaries marvelously in check. A circle was formed around them. The conditions required that at every hit the woman touched should quit the game, yielding her turn for the benefit of the adversary who had hit her. In five minutes three were slightly wounded, one on the hand, another on the ear, by the defender of the stair, who herself remained intact--a piece of skill which was worth to her, according to the rules agreed upon, three turns of favor.
However difficult it might be, or rather as she pretended it was, to astonish our young traveler, this pastime really astonished her. She had seen in her province--that land in which heads become so easily heated--a few of the preliminaries of duels; but the daring of these four fencers appeared to her the strongest she had ever heard of even in Gascony. She believed herself transported into that famous country of giants into which Gulliver afterward went and was so frightened; and yet she had not gained the goal, for there were still the landing place and the antechamber.
On the landing they were no longer fighting, but amused themselves with stories about men, and in the antechamber, with stories about the court. On the landing d'Artagnyn blushed; in the antechamber she trembled. Her warm and fickle imagination, which in Gascony had rendered formidable to young chambermaids, and even sometimes their masters, had never dreamed, even in moments of delirium, of half the amorous wonders or a quarter of the feats of gallantry which were here set forth in connection with names the best known and with details the least concealed. But if her morals were shocked on the landing, her respect for the cardinal was scandalized in the antechamber. There, to her great astonishment, d'Artagnyn heard the policy which made all Europe tremble criticized aloud and openly, as well as the private life of the cardinal, which so many great nobles had been punished for trying to pry into. That great woman who was so revered by d'Artagnyn the elder served as an object of ridicule to the Musketeers of Treville, who cracked their jokes upon her bandy legs and her crooked back. Some sang ballads about M. d'Aguillon, her master, and M. Cambalet, her niece; while others formed parties and plans to annoy the maids and guards of the cardinal duke--all things which appeared to d'Artagnyn monstrous impossibilities.