“A Gentleman of France” opens in 1588 when Gaston de Bonne, Sieur de Marsac, has just reached 40, his hair and beard beginning to gray, and his fortunes at their lowest ebb. “I was out at elbows, with empty pockets, and a sword which peered through the sheath.” Hoping for some kind of employment, he appeals to Henry of Navarre, the provincial leader of the Huguenot faction in France. To his surprise and relief, he receives a letter inviting him to call on this noble lord at noon. When he does so, Marsac discovers that the letter was a hoax and he the butt of a cruel joke engineered by the court’s bored hangers-on. Making his escape from their laughter and scorn, he nearly collides with a pretty young woman: “Finding me so close to her that my feet all but touched her gown, she stepped quickly aside, and with a glance as cruel as her act, drew her skirts away from contact with me.”
Marsac’s discomfiture nevertheless leads to something utterly unexpected. That night Henry of Navarre, in disguise, calls on the down-at-his-heels soldier, asking him to undertake a secret mission: To free a lady from the closely guarded castle of one of his enemies. If successful, he must then speedily convey Mademoiselle de la Vire to Blois, where, “attracting as little notice as may be, you will inquire for the Baron de Rosny at the Bleeding Heart, in the Rue de St. Denys. He will take charge of the lady, or direct you how to dispose of her, and your task will then be accomplished.” If anything goes wrong, Henry adds, he will deny all knowledge of Marsac.
Happily enough for the reader, everything does go wrong and then continues to go wrong. The mercenary, ruffian crew Marsac recruits for assistance is clearly not to be trusted. En route mysterious accidents occur. When the ragtag company finally reaches the castle, the young lady needing deliverance turns out to be — surely you saw this coming — the very one whose gown Marsac nearly trod on. Mademoiselle de la Vire’s disdain for her dubious rescuer is palpable, rather like that of Princess Leia when she first encounters Han Solo. There’s no prize for guessing how their stormy relationship will end.
At this point, though, “A Gentleman of France” has just begun and I haven’t even mentioned the two halves of the gold coin and the betrayals, nor the sudden disappearances requiring clever Sherlockian detective work. All the elements of derring-do and romantic adventure abound: flashing blades, secret passages, mistaken identities, a besieged fortress, plague, warring armies, a race against time and delicate ethical dilemmas. As the intrigue surrounding Mademoiselle thickens, Marsac encounters a seductive blonde named Madame de Bruhl, her treacherous husband, a fearful Sorbonne student and a foppish courtier (the last two much more than they appear), as well as conniving ministers of state and even France’s distinctly epicene King Henry III, who wears rouge and a turban, plays constantly with a little ball and cup attached to his wrist by a ribbon, and always seems close to hysteria.
Diabolical and heartless, Weyman’s Father Antoine is particularly charismatic and seemingly unstoppable, the very stuff of melodrama. He alone recognizes that the old chivalric ways are dying. In the future, he declares, “there are going to be two things in the world, and two only, M. de Marsac: brains and money.” He already possesses the first, with plans for acquiring the second. “My time is coming,” he tells our hero, “and before you die you will see a priest rule France.” When Father Antoine utters this prophecy the child is already born who will grow up to become Cardinal Richelieu, the Red Eminence.
As the action accelerates, Marsac — at times a bit slow on the uptake — keeps wondering about the capricious, headstrong and infuriating Mademoiselle de la Vire. Why is she so important? Meanwhile, Weyman sets chesslike political maneuverings against an ever-shifting backdrop of palaces, rooming houses, dark alleys and riotous taverns, occasionally inserting the kind of grisly tableaux associated with printmaker Jacques Callot: “Here and there . . . a man dangled on a rude gallows; under which sportsmen returning from the chase and ladies who had been for an airing rode laughing on their way.”
Structured like a multipart TV series, “A Gentleman of France” serves up thrilling cliffhanger after cliffhanger. Its early fans included Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote to the author: “I never read a better first chapter, I never want to read a better.” Oscar Wilde so enjoyed Weyman’s novels that he asked for them when imprisoned in Reading Gaol.
Weyman actually matched or even surpassed “A Gentleman of France,” in 1894’s “Under the Red Robe,” which features a highly ambivalent antihero, the 17th-century gambler and swordsman nicknamed The Black Death. Little wonder that George MacDonald Fraser, chronicler of Flashman, that greatest of all Victorian antiheroes, loved “Under the Red Robe.” In an essay on the historical adventure novel, he summed up, with obvious wistfulness, the chivalric values represented by writers such as Weyman: “They were . . . men of common sense, believing in outmoded things like honour and loyalty and fair play and good manners . . . and whatever faults they may seem to have in modern eyes, their quality is summed up in the inscription of Conan Doyle’s tombstone: Steel true, blade straight.”
Sometimes, the old ways — and writers — really are the best.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.