Scaramouche - A Romance Of The French Revolution (Book II - The Buskin)
by Rafael Sabatini
BOOK II - THE BUSKIN
I The Trespassers
II The service Of Thespis
III The Comic Muse
IV Exit Monsieur Parvissmus
V Enter Scaramouche
VII The Conquest Of Nantes
VIII The Dream
IX The Awakening
XI The Fracas At The Theatre Feydau
Chapter I. The Trespassers
Coming presently upon the Redon road, Andre-Louis, obeying instinct rather than reason, turned his face to the south, and plodded wearily and mechanically forward. He had no clear idea of whither he was going, or of whither he should go. All that imported at the moment was to put as great a distance as possible between Gavrillac and himself.
He had a vague, half-formed notion of returning to Nantes; and there, by employing the newly found weapon of his oratory, excite the people into sheltering him as the first victim of the persecution he had foreseen, and against which he had sworn them to take up arms. But the idea was one which he entertained merely as an indefinite possibility upon which he felt no real impulse to act.
Meanwhile he chuckled at the thought of Fresnel as he had last seen him, with his muffled face and glaring eyeballs. "For one who was anything but a man of action," he writes, "I felt that I had acquitted myself none so badly." It is a phrase that recurs at intervals in his sketchy "Confessions." Constantly is he reminding you that he is a man of mental and not physical activities, and apologizing when dire necessity drives him into acts of violence. I suspect this insistence upon his philosophic detachment—for which I confess he had justification enough—to betray his besetting vanity.
With increasing fatigue came depression and self-criticism. He had stupidly overshot his mark in insultingly denouncing M. de Lesdiguieres. "It is much better," he says somewhere, "to be wicked than to be stupid. Most of this world's misery is the fruit not as priests tell us of wickedness, but of stupidity." And we know that of all stupidities he considered anger the most deplorable. Yet he had permitted himself to be angry with a creature like M. de Lesdiguieres—a lackey, a fribble, a nothing, despite his potentialities for evil. He could perfectly have discharged his self-imposed mission without arousing the vindictive resentment of the King's Lieutenant.
He beheld himself vaguely launched upon life with the riding-suit in which he stood, a single louis d'or and a few pieces of silver for all capital, and a knowledge of law which had been inadequate to preserve him from the consequences of infringing it.
He had, in addition—but these things that were to be the real salvation of him he did not reckon—his gift of laughter, sadly repressed of late, and the philosophic outlook and mercurial temperament which are the stock-in-trade of your adventurer in all ages.
Meanwhile he tramped mechanically on through the night, until he felt that he could tramp no more. He had skirted the little township of Guichen, and now within a half-mile of Guignen, and with Gavrillac a good seven miles behind him, his legs refused to carry him any farther.
He was midway across the vast common to the north of Guignen when he came to a halt. He had left the road, and taken heedlessly to the footpath that struck across the waste of indifferent pasture interspersed with clumps of gorse. A stone's throw away on his right the common was bordered by a thorn hedge. Beyond this loomed a tall building which he knew to be an open barn, standing on the edge of a long stretch of meadowland. That dark, silent shadow it may have been that had brought him to a standstill, suggesting shelter to his subconsciousness. A moment he hesitated; then he struck across towards a spot where a gap in the hedge was closed by a five-barred gate. He pushed the gate open, went through the gap, and stood now before the barn. It was as big as a house, yet consisted of no more than a roof carried upon half a dozen tall, brick pillars. But densely packed under that roof was a great stack of hay that promised a warm couch on so cold a night. Stout timbers had been built into the brick pillars, with projecting ends to serve as ladders by which the labourer might climb to pack or withdraw hay. With what little strength remained him, Andre-Louis climbed by one of these and landed safely at the top, where he was forced to kneel, for lack of room to stand upright. Arrived there, he removed his coat and neckcloth, his sodden boots and stockings. Next he cleared a trough for his body, and lying down in it, covered himself to the neck with the hay he had removed. Within five minutes he was lost to all worldly cares and soundly asleep.
When next he awakened, the sun was already high in the heavens, from which he concluded that the morning was well advanced; and this before he realized quite where he was or how he came there. Then to his awakening senses came a drone of voices close at hand, to which at first he paid little heed. He was deliciously refreshed, luxuriously drowsy and luxuriously warm.
But as consciousness and memory grew more full, he raised his head clear of the hay that he might free both ears to listen, his pulses faintly quickened by the nascent fear that those voices might bode him no good. Then he caught the reassuring accents of a woman, musical and silvery, though laden with alarm.
"Ah, mon Dieu, Leandre, let us separate at once. If it should be my father..."
And upon this a man's voice broke in, calm and reassuring:
"No, no, Climene; you are mistaken. There is no one coming. We are quite safe. Why do you start at shadows?"
"Ah, Leandre, if he should find us here together! I tremble at the very thought."
More was not needed to reassure Andre-Louis. He had overheard enough to know that this was but the case of a pair of lovers who, with less to fear of life, were yet—after the manner of their kind—more timid of heart than he. Curiosity drew him from his warm trough to the edge of the hay. Lying prone, he advanced his head and peered down.
In the space of cropped meadow between the barn and the hedge stood a man and a woman, both young. The man was a well-set-up, comely fellow, with a fine head of chestnut hair tied in a queue by a broad bow of black satin. He was dressed with certain tawdry attempts at ostentatious embellishments, which did not prepossess one at first glance in his favour. His coat of a fashionable cut was of faded plum-coloured velvet edged with silver lace, whose glory had long since departed. He affected ruffles, but for want of starch they hung like weeping willows over hands that were fine and delicate. His breeches were of plain black cloth, and his black stockings were of cotton—matters entirely out of harmony with his magnificent coat. His shoes, stout and serviceable, were decked with buckles of cheap, lack-lustre paste. But for his engaging and ingenuous countenance, Andre-Louis must have set him down as a knight of that order which lives dishonestly by its wits. As it was, he suspended judgment whilst pushing investigation further by a study of the girl. At the outset, be it confessed that it was a study that attracted him prodigiously. And this notwithstanding the fact that, bookish and studious as were his ways, and in despite of his years, it was far from his habit to waste consideration on femininity.
The child—she was no more than that, perhaps twenty at the most —possessed, in addition to the allurements of face and shape that went very near perfection, a sparkling vivacity and a grace of movement the like of which Andre-Louis did not remember ever before to have beheld assembled in one person. And her voice too—that musical, silvery voice that had awakened him—possessed in its exquisite modulations an allurement of its own that must have been irresistible, he thought, in the ugliest of her sex. She wore a hooded mantle of green cloth, and the hood being thrown back, her dainty head was all revealed to him. There were glints of gold struck by the morning sun from her light nut-brown hair that hung in a cluster of curls about her oval face. Her complexion was of a delicacy that he could compare only with a rose petal. He could not at that distance discern the colour of her eyes, but he guessed them blue, as he admired the sparkle of them under the fine, dark line of eyebrows.
He could not have told you why, but he was conscious that it aggrieved him to find her so intimate with this pretty young fellow, who was partly clad, as it appeared, in the cast-offs of a nobleman. He could not guess her station, but the speech that reached him was cultured in tone and word. He strained to listen.
"I shall know no peace, Leandre, until we are safely wedded," she was saying. "Not until then shall I count myself beyond his reach. And yet if we marry without his consent, we but make trouble for ourselves, and of gaining his consent I almost despair."
Evidently, thought Andre-Louis, her father was a man of sense, who saw through the shabby finery of M. Leandre, and was not to be dazzled by cheap paste buckles.
"My dear Climene," the young man was answering her, standing squarely before her, and holding both her hands, "you are wrong to despond. If I do not reveal to you all the stratagem that I have prepared to win the consent of your unnatural parent, it is because I am loath to rob you of the pleasure of the surprise that is in store. But place your faith in me, and in that ingenious friend of whom I have spoken, and who should be here at any moment."
The stilted ass! Had he learnt that speech by heart in advance, or was he by nature a pedantic idiot who expressed himself in this set and formal manner? How came so sweet a blossom to waste her perfumes on such a prig? And what a ridiculous name the creature owned!
Thus Andre-Louis to himself from his observatory. Meanwhile, she was speaking.
"That is what my heart desires, Leandre, but I am beset by fears lest your stratagem should be too late. I am to marry this horrible Marquis of Sbrufadelli this very day. He arrives by noon. He comes to sign the contract—to make me the Marchioness of Sbrufadelli. Oh!" It was a cry of pain from that tender young heart. "The very name burns my lips. If it were mine I could never utter it—never! The man is so detestable. Save me, Leandre. Save me! You are my only hope."
Andre-Louis was conscious of a pang of disappointment. She failed to soar to the heights he had expected of her. She was evidently infected by the stilted manner of her ridiculous lover. There was an atrocious lack of sincerity about her words. They touched his mind, but left his heart unmoved. Perhaps this was because of his antipathy to M. Leandre and to the issue involved.
So her father was marrying her to a marquis! That implied birth on her side. And yet she was content to pair off with this dull young adventurer in the tarnished lace! It was, he supposed, the sort of thing to be expected of a sex that all philosophy had taught him to regard as the maddest part of a mad species.
"It shall never be!" M. Leandre was storming passionately. "Never! I swear it!" And he shook his puny fist at the blue vault of heaven —Ajax defying Jupiter. "Ah, but here comes our subtle friend..." (Andre-Louis did not catch the name, M. Leandre having at that moment turned to face the gap in the hedge.) "He will bring us news, I know."
Andre-Louis looked also in the direction of the gap. Through it emerged a lean, slight man in a rusty cloak and a three-cornered hat worn well down over his nose so as to shade his face. And when presently he doffed this hat and made a sweeping bow to the young lovers, Andre-Louis confessed to himself that had he been cursed with such a hangdog countenance he would have worn his hat in precisely such a manner, so as to conceal as much of it as possible. If M. Leandre appeared to be wearing, in part at least, the cast-offs of nobleman, the newcomer appeared to be wearing the cast-offs of M. Leandre. Yet despite his vile clothes and viler face, with its three days' growth of beard, the fellow carried himself with a certain air; he positively strutted as he advanced, and he made a leg in a manner that was courtly and practised.
"Monsieur," said he, with the air of a conspirator, "the time for action has arrived, and so has the Marquis...That is why."
The young lovers sprang apart in consternation; Climene with clasped hands, parted lips, and a bosom that raced distractingly under its white fichu-menteur; M. Leandre agape, the very picture of foolishness and dismay.
Meanwhile the newcomer rattled on. "I was at the inn an hour ago when he descended there, and I studied him attentively whilst he was at breakfast. Having done so, not a single doubt remains me of our success. As for what he looks like, I could entertain you at length upon the fashion in which nature has designed his gross fatuity. But that is no matter. We are concerned with what he is, with the wit of him. And I tell you confidently that I find him so dull and stupid that you may be confident he will tumble headlong into each and all of the traps I have so cunningly prepared for him."
"Tell me, tell me! Speak!" Climene implored him, holding out her hands in a supplication no man of sensibility could have resisted. And then on the instant she caught her breath on a faint scream. "My father!" she exclaimed, turning distractedly from one to the other of those two. "He is coming! We are lost!"
"You must fly, Climene!" said M. Leandre.
"Too late!" she sobbed. "Too late! He is here."
"Calm, mademoiselle, calm!" the subtle friend was urging her. "Keep calm and trust to me. I promise you that all shall be well."
"Oh!" cried M. Leandre, limply. "Say what you will, my friend, this is ruin—the end of all our hopes. Your wits will never extricate us from this. Never!"
Through the gap strode now an enormous man with an inflamed moon face and a great nose, decently dressed after the fashion of a solid bourgeois. There was no mistaking his anger, but the expression that it found was an amazement to Andre-Louis.
"Leandre, you're an imbecile! Too much phlegm, too much phlegm! Your words wouldn't convince a ploughboy! Have you considered what they mean at all? Thus," he cried, and casting his round hat from him in a broad gesture, he took his stand at M. Leandre's side, and repeated the very words that Leandre had lately uttered, what time the three observed him coolly and attentively.
"Oh, say what you will, my friend, this is ruin—the end of all our hopes. Your wits will never extricate us from this. Never!"
A frenzy of despair vibrated in his accents. He swung again to face M. Leandre. "Thus," he bade him contemptuously. "Let the passion of your hopelessness express itself in your voice. Consider that you are not asking Scaramouche here whether he has put a patch in your breeches. You are a despairing lover expressing..."
He checked abruptly, startled. Andre-Louis, suddenly realizing what was afoot, and how duped he had been, had loosed his laughter. The sound of it pealing and booming uncannily under the great roof that so immediately confined him was startling to those below.
The fat man was the first to recover, and he announced it after his own fashion in one of the ready sarcasms in which he habitually dealt.
"Hark!" he cried, "the very gods laugh at you, Leandre." Then he addressed the roof of the barn and its invisible tenant. "Hi! You there!"
Andre-Louis revealed himself by a further protrusion of his tousled head.
"Good-morning," said he, pleasantly. Rising now on his knees, his horizon was suddenly extended to include the broad common beyond the hedge. He beheld there an enormous and very battered travelling chaise, a cart piled up with timbers partly visible under the sheet of oiled canvas that covered them, and a sort of house on wheels equipped with a tin chimney, from which the smoke was slowly curling. Three heavy Flemish horses and a couple of donkeys—all of them hobbled—were contentedly cropping the grass in the neighbourhood of these vehicles. These, had he perceived them sooner, must have given him the clue to the queer scene that had been played under his eyes. Beyond the hedge other figures were moving. Three at that moment came crowding into the gap—a saucy-faced girl with a tip-tilted nose, whom he supposed to be Columbine, the soubrette; a lean, active youngster, who must be the lackey Harlequin, and another rather loutish youth who might be a zany or an apothecary.
All this he took in at a comprehensive glance that consumed no more time than it had taken him to say good-morning. To that good-morning Pantaloon replied in a bellow:
"What the devil are you doing up there?"
"Precisely the same thing that you are doing down there," was the answer. "I am trespassing."
"Eh?" said Pantaloon, and looked at his companions, some of the assurance beaten out of his big red face. Although the thing was one that they did habitually, to hear it called by its proper name was disconcerting.
"Whose land is this?" he asked, with diminishing assurance.
Andre-Louis answered, whilst drawing on his stockings. "I believe it to be the property of the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr."
"That's a high-sounding name. Is the gentleman severe?"
"The gentleman," said Andre-Louis, "is the devil; or rather, I should prefer to say upon reflection, that the devil is a gentleman by comparison.
"And yet," interposed the villainous-looking fellow who played Scaramouche, "by your own confessing you don't hesitate, yourself, to trespass upon his property."
"Ah, but then, you see, I am a lawyer. And lawyers are notoriously unable to observe the law, just as actors are notoriously unable to act. Moreover, sir, Nature imposes her limits upon us, and Nature conquers respect for law as she conquers all else. Nature conquered me last night when I had got as far as this. And so I slept here without regard for the very high and puissant Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr. At the same time, M. Scaramouche, you'll observe that I did not flaunt my trespass quite as openly as you and your companions."
Having donned his boots, Andre-Louis came nimbly to the ground in his shirt-sleeves, his riding-coat over his arm. As he stood there to don it, the little cunning eyes of the heavy father conned him in detail. Observing that his clothes, if plain, were of a good fashion, that his shirt was of fine cambric, and that he expressed himself like a man of culture, such as he claimed to be, M. Pantaloon was disposed to be civil.
"I am very grateful to you for the warning, sir..." he was beginning.
"Act upon it, my friend. The gardes-champetres of M. d'Azyr have orders to fire on trespassers. Imitate me, and decamp."
They followed him upon the instant through that gap in the hedge to the encampment on the common. There Andre-Louis took his leave of them. But as he was turning away he perceived a young man of the company performing his morning toilet at a bucket placed upon one of the wooden steps at the tail of the house on wheels. A moment he hesitated, then he turned frankly to M. Pantaloon, who was still at his elbow.
"If it were not unconscionable to encroach so far upon your hospitality, monsieur," said he, "I would beg leave to imitate that very excellent young gentleman before I leave you."
"But, my dear sir!" Good-nature oozed out of every pore of the fat body of the master player. "It is nothing at all. But, by all means. Rhodomont will provide what you require. He is the dandy of the company in real life, though a fire-eater on the stage. Hi, Rhodomont!"
The young ablutionist straightened his long body from the right angle in which it had been bent over the bucket, and looked out through a foam of soapsuds. Pantaloon issued an order, and Rhodomont, who was indeed as gentle and amiable off the stage as he was formidable and terrible upon it, made the stranger free of the bucket in the friendliest manner.
So Andre-Louis once more removed his neckcloth and his coat, and rolled up the sleeves of his fine shirt, whilst Rhodomont procured him soap, a towel, and presently a broken comb, and even a greasy hair-ribbon, in case the gentleman should have lost his own. This last Andre-Louis declined, but the comb he gratefully accepted, and having presently washed himself clean, stood, with the towel flung over his left shoulder, restoring order to his dishevelled locks before a broken piece of mirror affixed to the door of the travelling house.
He was standing thus, what time the gentle Rhodomont babbled aimlessly at his side when his ears caught the sound of hooves. He looked over his shoulder carelessly, and then stood frozen, with uplifted comb and loosened mouth. Away across the common, on the road that bordered it, he beheld a party of seven horsemen in the blue coats with red facings of the marechaussee.
Not for a moment did he doubt what was the quarry of this prowling gendarmerie. It was as if the chill shadow of the gallows had fallen suddenly upon him.
And then the troop halted, abreast with them, and the sergeant leading it sent his bawling voice across the common.
"Hi, there! Hi!" His tone rang with menace.
Every member of the company—and there were some twelve in all —stood at gaze. Pantaloon advanced a step or two, stalking, his head thrown back, his manner that of a King's Lieutenant.
"Now, what the devil's this?" quoth he, but whether of Fate or Heaven or the sergeant, was not clear.
There was a brief colloquy among the horsemen, then they came trotting across the common straight towards the players' encampment.
Andre-Louis had remained standing at the tail of the travelling house. He was still passing the comb through his straggling hair, but mechanically and unconsciously. His mind was all intent upon the advancing troop, his wits alert and gathered together for a leap in whatever direction should be indicated.
Still in the distance, but evidently impatient, the sergeant bawled a question.
"Who gave you leave to encamp here?"
It was a question that reassured Andre-Louis not at all. He was not deceived by it into supposing or even hoping that the business of these men was merely to round up vagrants and trespassers. That was no part of their real duty; it was something done in passing —done, perhaps, in the hope of levying a tax of their own. It was very long odds that they were from Rennes, and that their real business was the hunting down of a young lawyer charged with sedition. Meanwhile Pantaloon was shouting back.
"Who gave us leave, do you say? What leave? This is communal land, free to all."
The sergeant laughed unpleasantly, and came on, his troop following.
"There is," said a voice at Pantaloon's elbow, "no such thing as communal land in the proper sense in all M. de La Tour d'Azyr's vast domain. This is a terre censive, and his bailiffs collect his dues from all who send their beasts to graze here."
Pantaloon turned to behold at his side Andre-Louis in his shirt-sleeves, and without a neckcloth, the towel still trailing over his left shoulder, a comb in his hand, his hair half dressed.
"God of God!" swore Pantaloon. "But it is an ogre, this Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr!"
"I have told you already what I think of him," said Andre-Louis. "As for these fellows you had better let me deal with them. I have experience of their kind." And without waiting for Pantaloon's consent, Andre-Louis stepped forward to meet the advancing men of the marechaussee. He had realized that here boldness alone could save him.
When a moment later the sergeant pulled up his horse alongside of this half-dressed young man, Andre-Louis combed his hair what time he looked up with a half smile, intended to be friendly, ingenuous, and disarming.
In spite of it the sergeant hailed him gruffly: "Are you the leader of this troop of vagabonds?"
"Yes...that is to say, my father, there, is really the leader." And he jerked a thumb in the direction of M. Pantaloon, who stood at gaze out of earshot in the background. "What is your pleasure, captain?"
"My pleasure is to tell you that you are very likely to be gaoled for this, all the pack of you." His voice was loud and bullying. It carried across the common to the ears of every member of the company, and brought them all to stricken attention where they stood. The lot of strolling players was hard enough without the addition of gaolings.
"But how so, my captain? This is communal land free to all."
"It is nothing of the kind."
"Where are the fences?" quoth Andre-Louis, waving the hand that held the comb, as if to indicate the openness of the place.
"Fences!" snorted the sergeant. "What have fences to do with the matter? This is terre censive. There is no grazing here save by payment of dues to the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr."
"But we are not grazing," quoth the innocent Andre-Louis.
"To the devil with you, zany! You are not grazing! But your beasts are grazing!"
"They eat so little," Andre-Louis apologized, and again essayed his ingratiating smile.
The sergeant grew more terrible than ever. "That is not the point. The point is that you are committing what amounts to a theft, and there's the gaol for thieves."
"Technically, I suppose you are right," sighed Andre-Louis, and fell to combing his hair again, still looking up into the sergeant's face. "But we have sinned in ignorance. We are grateful to you for the warning." He passed the comb into his left hand, and with his right fumbled in his breeches' pocket, whence there came a faint jingle of coins. "We are desolated to have brought you out of your way. Perhaps for their trouble your men would honour us by stopping at the next inn to drink the health of...of this M. de La Tour d' Azyr, or any other health that they think proper."
Some of the clouds lifted from the sergeant's brow. But not yet all.
"Well, well," said he, gruffly. "But you must decamp, you understand." He leaned from the saddle to bring his recipient hand to a convenient distance. Andre-Louis placed in it a three-livre piece.
"In half an hour," said Andre-Louis.
"Why in half an hour? Why not at once?"
"Oh, but time to break our fast."
They looked at each other. The sergeant next considered the broad piece of silver in his palm. Then at last his features relaxed from their sternness.
"After all," said he, "it is none of our business to play the tipstaves for M. de La Tour d'Azyr. We are of the marechaussee from Rennes." Andre-Louis' eyelids played him false by flickering. "But if you linger, look out for the gardes-champetres of the Marquis. You'll find them not at all accommodating. Well, well —a good appetite to you, monsieur," said he, in valediction.
"A pleasant ride, my captain," answered Andre-Louis.
The sergeant wheeled his horse about, his troop wheeled with him. They were starting off, when he reined up again.
"You, monsieur!" he called over his shoulder. In a bound Andre-Louis was beside his stirrup. "We are in quest of a scoundrel named Andre-Louis Moreau, from Gavrillac, a fugitive from justice wanted for the gallows on a matter of sedition. You've seen nothing, I suppose, of a man whose movements seemed to you suspicious?"
"Indeed, we have," said Andre-Louis, very boldly, his face eager with consciousness of the ability to oblige.
"You have?" cried the sergeant, in a ringing voice. "Where? When?"
"Yesterday evening in the neighbourhood of Guignen..."
"Yes, yes," the sergeant felt himself hot upon the trail.
"There was a fellow who seemed very fearful of being recognized...a man of fifty or thereabouts..."
"Fifty!" cried the sergeant, and his face fell. "Bah! This man of ours is no older than yourself, a thin wisp of a fellow of about your own height and of black hair, just like your own, by the description. Keep a lookout on your travels, master player. The King's Lieutenant in Rennes has sent us word this morning that he will pay ten louis to any one giving information that will lead to this scoundrel's arrest. So there's ten louis to be earned by keeping your eyes open, and sending word to the nearest justices. It would be a fine windfall for you, that."
"A fine windfall, indeed, captain," answered Andre-Louis, laughing.
But the sergeant had touched his horse with the spur, and was already trotting off in the wake of his men. Andre-Louis continued to laugh, quite silently, as he sometimes did when the humour of a jest was peculiarly keen.
Then he turned slowly about, and came back towards Pantaloon and the rest of the company, who were now all grouped together, at gaze.
Pantaloon advanced to meet him with both hands out-held. For a moment Andre-Louis thought he was about to be embraced.
"We hail you our saviour!" the big man declaimed. "Already the shadow of the gaol was creeping over us, chilling us to the very marrow. For though we be poor, yet are we all honest folk and not one of us has ever suffered the indignity of prison. Nor is there one of us would survive it. But for you, my friend, it might have happened. What magic did you work?"
"The magic that is to be worked in France with a King's portrait. The French are a very loyal nation, as you will have observed. They love their King—and his portrait even better than himself, especially when it is wrought in gold. But even in silver it is respected. The sergeant was so overcome by the sight of that noble visage—on a three-livre piece—that his anger vanished, and he has gone his ways leaving us to depart in peace."
"Ah, true! He said we must decamp. About it, my lads! Come, come..."
"But not until after breakfast," said Andre-Louis. "A half-hour for breakfast was conceded us by that loyal fellow, so deeply was he touched. True, he spoke of possible gardes-champetres. But he knows as well as I do that they are not seriously to be feared, and that if they came, again the King's portrait—wrought in copper this time—would produce the same melting effect upon them. So, my dear M. Pantaloon, break your fast at your ease. I can smell your cooking from here, and from the smell I argue that there is no need to wish you a good appetite."
"My friend, my saviour!" Pantaloon flung a great arm about the young man's shoulders. "You shall stay to breakfast with us."
"I confess to a hope that you would ask me," said Andre-Louis.
Chapter II. the Service Of The Thespis
They were, thought Andre-Louis, as he sat down to breakfast with them behind the itinerant house, in the bright sunshine that tempered the cold breath of that November morning, an odd and yet an attractive crew. An air of gaiety pervaded them. They affected to have no cares, and made merry over the trials and tribulations of their nomadic life. They were curiously, yet amiably, artificial; histrionic in their manner of discharging the most commonplace of functions; exaggerated in their gestures; stilted and affected in their speech. They seemed, indeed, to belong to a world apart, a world of unreality which became real only on the planks of their stage, in the glare of their footlights. Good-fellowship bound them one to another; and Andre-Louis reflected cynically that this harmony amongst them might be the cause of their apparent unreality. In the real world, greedy striving and the emulation of acquisitiveness preclude such amity as was present here.
They numbered exactly eleven, three women and eight men; and they addressed each other by their stage names: names which denoted their several types, and never—or only very slightly—varied, no matter what might be the play that they performed.
"We are," Pantaloon informed him, "one of those few remaining staunch bands of real players, who uphold the traditions of the old Italian Commedia dell' Arte. Not for us to vex our memories and stultify our wit with the stilted phrases that are the fruit of a wretched author's lucubrations. Each of us is in detail his own author in a measure as he develops the part assigned to him. We are improvisers—improvisers of the old and noble Italian school."
"I had guessed as much," said Andre-Louis, "when I discovered you rehearsing your improvisations."
"I have observed, young sir, that your humour inclines to the pungent, not to say the acrid. It is very well. It is I suppose, the humour that should go with such a countenance. But it may lead you astray, as in this instance. That rehearsal—a most unusual thing with us—was necessitated by the histrionic rawness of our Leandre. We are seeking to inculcate into him by training an art with which Nature neglected to endow him against his present needs. Should he continue to fail in doing justice to our schooling...But we will not disturb our present harmony with the unpleasant anticipation of misfortunes which we still hope to avert. We love our Leandre, for all his faults. Let me make you acquainted with our company."
And he proceeded to introduction in detail. He pointed out the long and amiable Rhodomont, whom Andre-Louis already knew.
"His length of limb and hooked nose were his superficial qualifications to play roaring captains," Pantaloon explained. "His lungs have justified our choice. You should hear him roar. At first we called him Spavento or Epouvapte. But that was unworthy of so great an artist. Not since the superb Mondor amazed the world has so thrasonical a bully been seen upon the stage. So we conferred upon him the name of Rhodomont that Mondor made famous; and I give you my word, as an actor and a gentleman—for I am a gentleman, monsieur, or was—that he has justified us."
His little eyes beamed in his great swollen face as he turned their gaze upon the object of his encomium. The terrible Rhodomont, confused by so much praise, blushed like a schoolgirl as he met the solemn scrutiny of Andre-Louis.
"Then here we have Scaramouche, whom also you already know. Sometimes he is Scapin and sometimes Coviello, but in the main Scaramouche, to which let me tell you he is best suited—sometimes too well suited, I think. For he is Scaramouche not only on the stage, but also in the world. He has a gift of sly intrigue, an art of setting folk by the ears, combined with an impudent aggressiveness upon occasion when he considers himself safe from reprisals. He is Scaramouche, the little skirmisher, to the very life. I could say more. But I am by disposition charitable and loving to all mankind."
"As the priest said when he kissed the serving-wench," snarled Scaramouche, and went on eating.
"His humour, like your own, you will observe, is acrid," said Pantaloon. He passed on. "Then that rascal with the lumpy nose and the grinning bucolic countenance is, of course, Pierrot. Could he be aught else?"
"I could play lovers a deal better," said the rustic cherub.
"That is the delusion proper to Pierrot," said Pantaloon, contemptuously. "This heavy, beetle-browed ruffian, who has grown old in sin, and whose appetite increases with his years, is Polichinelle. Each one, as you perceive, is designed by Nature for the part he plays. This nimble, freckled jackanapes is Harlequin; not your spangled Harlequin into which modern degeneracy has debased that first-born of Momus, but the genuine original zany of the Commedia, ragged and patched, an impudent, cowardly, blackguardly clown."
"Each one of us, as you perceive," said Harlequin, mimicking the leader of the troupe, "is designed by Nature for the part he plays."
"Physically, my friend, physically only, else we should not have so much trouble in teaching this beautiful Leandre to become a lover. Then we have Pasquariel here, who is sometimes an apothecary, sometimes a notary, sometimes a lackey—an amiable, accommodating fellow. He is also an excellent cook, being a child of Italy, that land of gluttons. And finally, you have myself, who as the father of the company very properly play as Pantaloon the roles of father. Sometimes, it is true, I am a deluded husband, and sometimes an ignorant, self-sufficient doctor. But it is rarely that I find it necessary to call myself other than Pantaloon. For the rest, I am the only one who has a name—a real name. It is Binet, monsieur.
"And now for the ladies... First in order of seniority we have Madame there." He waved one of his great hands towards a buxom, smiling blonde of five-and-forty, who was seated on the lowest of the steps of the travelling house. "She is our Duegne, or Mother, or Nurse, as the case requires. She is known quite simply and royally as Madame. If she ever had a name in the world, she has long since forgotten it, which is perhaps as well. Then we have this pert jade with the tip-tilted nose and the wide mouth, who is of course our soubrette Columbine, and lastly, my daughter Climene, an amoureuse of talents not to be matched outside the Comedie Francaise, of which she has the bad taste to aspire to become a member."
The lovely Climene—and lovely indeed she was—tossed her nut-brown curls and laughed as she looked across at Andre-Louis. Her eyes, he had perceived by now, were not blue, but hazel.
"Do not believe him, monsieur. Here I am queen, and I prefer to be queen here rather than a slave in Paris."
"Mademoiselle," said Andre-Louis, quite solemnly, "will be queen wherever she condescends to reign."
Her only answer was a timid—timid and yet alluring—glance from under fluttering lids. Meanwhile her father was bawling at the comely young man who played lovers—"You hear, Leandre! That is the sort of speech you should practise."
Leandre raised languid eyebrows. "That?" quoth he, and shrugged. "The merest commonplace."
Andre-Louis laughed approval. "M. Leandre is of a readier wit than you concede. There is subtlety in pronouncing it a commonplace to call Mlle. Climene a queen."
Some laughed, M. Binet amongst them, with good-humoured mockery.
"You think he has the wit to mean it thus? Bah! His subtleties are all unconscious."
The conversation becoming general, Andre-Louis soon learnt what yet there was to learn of this strolling band. They were on their way to Guichen, where they hoped to prosper at the fair that was to open on Monday next. They would make their triumphal entry into the town at noon, and setting up their stage in the old market, they would give their first performance that same Saturday night, in a new canevas—or scenario—of M. Binet's own, which should set the rustics gaping. And then M. Binet fetched a sigh, and addressed himself to the elderly, swarthy, beetle-browed Polichinelle, who sat on his left.
"But we shall miss Felicien," said he. "Indeed, I do not know what we shall do without him."
"Oh, we shall contrive," said Polichinelle, with his mouth full.
"So you always say, whatever happens, knowing that in any case the contriving will not fall upon yourself."
"He should not be difficult to replace," said Harlequin.
"True, if we were in a civilized land. But where among the rustics of Brittany are we to find a fellow of even his poor parts?" M. Binet turned to Andre-Louis. "He was our property-man, our machinist, our stage-carpenter, our man of affairs, and occasionally he acted."
"The part of Figaro, I presume," said Andre-Louis, which elicited a laugh.
"So you are acquainted with Beaumarchais!" Binet eyed the young man with fresh interest.
"He is tolerably well known, I think."
"In Paris, to be sure. But I had not dreamt his fame had reached the wilds of Brittany."
"But then I was some years in Paris—at the Lycee of Louis le Grand. It was there I made acquaintance with his work."
"A dangerous man," said Polichinelle, sententiously.
"Indeed, and you are right," Pantaloon agreed. "Clever—I do not deny him that, although myself I find little use for authors. But of a sinister cleverness responsible for the dissemination of many of these subversive new ideas. I think such writers should be suppressed."
"M. de La Tour d'Azyr would probably agree with you—the gentleman who by the simple exertion of his will turns this communal land into his own property." And Andre-Louis drained his cup, which had been filled with the poor vin gris that was the players' drink.
It was a remark that might have precipitated an argument had it not also reminded M. Binet of the terms on which they were encamped there, and of the fact that the half-hour was more than past. In a moment he was on his feet, leaping up with an agility surprising in so corpulent a man, issuing his commands like a marshal on a field of battle.
"Come, come, my lads! Are we to sit guzzling here all day? Time flees, and there's a deal to be done if we are to make our entry into Guichen at noon. Go, get you dressed. We strike camp in twenty minutes. Bestir, ladies! To your chaise, and see that you contrive to look your best. Soon the eyes of Guichen will be upon you, and the condition of your interior to-morrow will depend upon the impression made by your exterior to-day. Away! Away!"
The implicit obedience this autocrat commanded set them in a whirl. Baskets and boxes were dragged forth to receive the platters and remains of their meagre feast. In an instant the ground was cleared, and the three ladies had taken their departure to the chaise, which was set apart for their use. The men were already climbing into the house on wheels, when Binet turned to Andre-Louis.
"We part here, sir," said he, dramatically, "the richer by your acquaintance; your debtors and your friends." He put forth his podgy hand.
Slowly Andre-Louis took it in his own. He had been thinking swiftly in the last few moments. And remembering the safety he had found from his pursuers in the bosom of this company, it occurred to him that nowhere could he be better hidden for the present, until the quest for him should have died down.
"Sir," he said, "the indebtedness is on my side. It is not every day one has the felicity to sit down with so illustrious and engaging a company."
Binet's little eyes peered suspiciously at the young man, in quest of irony. He found nothing but candour and simple good faith.
"I part from you reluctantly," Andre-Louis continued. "The more reluctantly since I do not perceive the absolute necessity for parting."
"How?" quoth Binet, frowning, and slowly withdrawing the hand which the other had already retained rather longer than was necessary.
"Thus," Andre-Louis explained himself. "You may set me down as a sort of knight of rueful countenance in quest of adventure, with no fixed purpose in life at present. You will not marvel that what I have seen of yourself and your distinguished troupe should inspire me to desire your better acquaintance. On your side you tell me that you are in need of some one to replace your Figaro—your Felicien, I think you called him. Whilst it may be presumptuous of me to hope that I could discharge an office so varied and so onerous..."
"You are indulging that acrid humour of yours again, my friend," Binet interrupted him. "Excepting for that," he added, slowly, meditatively, his little eyes screwed up, "we might discuss this proposal that you seem to be making."
"Alas! we can except nothing. If you take me, you take me as I am. What else is possible? As for this humour—such as it is—which you decry, you might turn it to profitable account."
"In several ways. I might, for instance, teach Leandre to make love."
Pantaloon burst into laughter. "You do not lack confidence in your powers. Modesty does not afflict you."
"Therefore I evince the first quality necessary in an actor."
"Can you act?"
"Upon occasion, I think," said Andre-Louis, his thoughts upon his performance at Rennes and Nantes, and wondering when in all his histrionic career Pantaloon's improvisations had so rent the heart of mobs.
M. Binet was musing. "Do you know much of the theatre?" quoth he.
"Everything," said Andre-Louis.
"I said that modesty will prove no obstacle in your career."
"But consider. I know the work of Beaumarchais, Eglantine, Mercier, Chenier, and many others of our contemporaries. Then I have read, of course, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, besides many other lesser French writers. Of foreign authors, I am intimate with the works of Gozzi, Goldoni, Guarini, Bibbiena, Machiavelli, Secchi, Tasso, Ariosto, and Fedini. Whilst of those of antiquity I know most of the work of Euripides, Aristophanes, Terence, Plautus..."
"Enough!" roared Pantaloon.
"I am not nearly through with my list," said Andre-Louis.
"You may keep the rest for another day. In Heaven's name, what can have induced you to read so many dramatic authors?"
"In my humble way I am a student of man, and some years ago I made the discovery that he is most intimately to be studied in the reflections of him provided for the theatre."
"That is a very original and profound discovery," said Pantaloon, quite seriously. "It had never occurred to me. Yet is it true. Sir, it is a truth that dignifies our art. You are a man of parts, that is clear to me. It has been clear since first I met you. I can read a man. I knew you from the moment that you said 'good-morning.' Tell me, now: Do you think you could assist me upon occasion in the preparation of a scenario? My mind, fully engaged as it is with a thousand details of organization, is not always as clear as I would have it for such work. Could you assist me there, do you think?"
"I am quite sure I could."
"Hum, yes. I was sure you would be. The other duties that were Felicien's you would soon learn. Well, well, if you are willing, you may come along with us. You'd want some salary, I suppose?"
"If it is usual," said Andre-Louis.
"What should you say to ten livres a month?"
"I should say that it isn't exactly the riches of Peru."
"I might go as far as fifteen," said Binet, reluctantly. "But times are bad."
"I'll make them better for you."
"I've no doubt you believe it. Then we understand each other?"
"Perfectly," said Andre-Louis, dryly, and was thus committed to the service of Thespis.
Chapter III. The Comic Muse
The company's entrance into the township of Guichen, if not exactly triumphal, as Binet had expressed the desire that it should be, was at least sufficiently startling and cacophonous to set the rustics gaping. To them these fantastic creatures appeared—as indeed they were—beings from another world.
First went the great travelling chaise, creaking and groaning on its way, drawn by two of the Flemish horses. It was Pantaloon who drove it, an obese and massive Pantaloon in a tight-fitting suit of scarlet under a long brown bed-gown, his countenance adorned by a colossal cardboard nose. Beside him on the box sat Pierrot in a white smock, with sleeves that completely covered his hands, loose white trousers, and a black skull-cap. He had whitened his face with flour, and he made hideous noises with a trumpet.
On the roof of the coach were assembled Polichinelle, Scaramouche, Harlequin, and Pasquariel. Polichinelle in black and white, his doublet cut in the fashion of a century ago, with humps before and behind, a white frill round his neck and a black mask upon the upper half of his face, stood in the middle, his feet planted wide to steady him, solemnly and viciously banging a big drum. The other three were seated each at one of the corners of the roof, their legs dangling over. Scaramouche, all in black in the Spanish fashion of the seventeenth century, his face adorned with a pair of mostachios, jangled a guitar discordantly. Harlequin, ragged and patched in every colour of the rainbow, with his leather girdle and sword of lath, the upper half of his face smeared in soot, clashed a pair of cymbals intermittently. Pasquariel, as an apothecary in skull-cap and white apron, excited the hilarity of the onlookers by his enormous tin clyster, which emitted when pumped a dolorous squeak.
Within the chaise itself, but showing themselves freely at the windows, and exchanging quips with the townsfolk, sat the three ladies of the company. Climene, the amoureuse, beautifully gowned in flowered satin, her own clustering ringlets concealed under a pumpkin-shaped wig, looked so much the lady of fashion that you might have wondered what she was dong in that fantastic rabble. Madame, as the mother, was also dressed with splendour, but exaggerated to achieve the ridiculous. Her headdress was a monstrous structure adorned with flowers, and superimposed by little ostrich plumes. Columbine sat facing them, her back to the horses, falsely demure, in milkmaid bonnet of white muslin, and a striped gown of green and blue.
The marvel was that the old chaise, which in its halcyon days may have served to carry some dignitary of the Church, did not founder instead of merely groaning under that excessive and ribald load.
Next came the house on wheels, led by the long, lean Rhodomont, who had daubed his face red, and increased the terror of it by a pair of formidable mostachios. He was in long thigh-boots and leather jerkin, trailing an enormous sword from a crimson baldrick. He wore a broad felt hat with a draggled feather, and as he advanced he raised his great voice and roared out defiance, and threats of blood-curdling butchery to be performed upon all and sundry. On the roof of this vehicle sat Leandre alone. He was in blue satin, with ruffles, small sword, powdered hair, patches and spy-glass, and red-heeled shoes: the complete courtier, looking very handsome. The women of Guichen ogled him coquettishly. He took the ogling as a proper tribute to his personal endowments, and returned it with interest. Like Climene, he looked out of place amid the bandits who composed the remainder of the company.
Bringing up the rear came Andre-Louis leading the two donkeys that dragged the property-cart. He had insisted upon assuming a false nose, representing as for embellishment that which he intended for disguise. For the rest, he had retained his own garments. No one paid any attention to him as he trudged along beside his donkeys, an insignificant rear guard, which he was well content to be.
They made the tour of the town, in which the activity was already above the normal in preparation for next week's fair. At intervals they halted, the cacophony would cease abruptly, and Polichinelle would announce in a stentorian voice that at five o'clock that evening in the old market, M. Binet's famous company of improvisers would perform a new comedy in four acts entitled, "The Heartless Father."
Thus at last they came to the old market, which was the groundfloor of the town hall, and open to the four winds by two archways on each side of its length, and one archway on each side of its breadth. These archways, with two exceptions, had been boarded up. Through those two, which gave admission to what presently would be the theatre, the ragamuffins of the town, and the niggards who were reluctant to spend the necessary sous to obtain proper admission, might catch furtive glimpses of the performance.
That afternoon was the most strenuous of Andre-Louis' life, unaccustomed as he was to any sort of manual labour. It was spent in erecting and preparing the stage at one end of the market-hall; and he began to realize how hard-earned were to be his monthly fifteen livres. At first there were four of them to the task—or really three, for Pantaloon did no more than bawl directions. Stripped of their finery, Rhodomont and Leandre assisted Andre-Louis in that carpentering. Meanwhile the other four were at dinner with the ladies. When a half-hour or so later they came to carry on the work, Andre-Louis and his companions went to dine in their turn, leaving Polichinelle to direct the operations as well as assist in them.
They crossed the square to the cheap little inn where they had taken up their quarters. In the narrow passage Andre-Louis came face to face with Climene, her fine feathers cast, and restored by now to her normal appearance.
"And how do you like it?" she asked him, pertly.
He looked her in the eyes. "It has its compensations," quoth he, in that curious cold tone of his that left one wondering whether he meant or not what he seemed to mean.
She knit her brows. "You...you feel the need of compensations already?"
"Faith, I felt it from the beginning," said he. "It was the perception of them allured me."
They were quite alone, the others having gone on into the room set apart for them, where food was spread. Andre-Louis, who was as unlearned in Woman as he was learned in Man, was not to know, upon feeling himself suddenly extraordinarily aware of her femininity, that it was she who in some subtle, imperceptible manner so rendered him.
"What," she asked him, with demurest innocence, "are these compensations?"
He caught himself upon the brink of the abyss.
"Fifteen livres a month," said he, abruptly.
A moment she stared at him bewildered. He was very disconcerting. Then she recovered.
"Oh, and bed and board," said she. "Don't be leaving that from the reckoning, as you seem to be doing; for your dinner will be going cold. Aren't you coming?"
"Haven't you dined?" he cried, and she wondered had she caught a note of eagerness.
"No," she answered, over her shoulder. "I waited."
"What for?" quoth his innocence, hopefully.
"I had to change, of course, zany," she answered, rudely. Having dragged him, as she imagined, to the chopping-block, she could not refrain from chopping. But then he was of those who must be chopping back.
"And you left your manners upstairs with your grand-lady clothes, mademoiselle. I understand."
A scarlet flame suffused her face. "You are very insolent," she said, lamely.
"I've often been told so. But I don't believe it." He thrust open the door for her, and bowing with an air which imposed upon her, although it was merely copied from Fleury of the Comedie Francaise, so often visited in the Louis le Grand days, he waved her in. "After you, ma demoiselle." For greater emphasis he deliberately broke the word into its two component parts.
"I thank you, monsieur," she answered, frostily, as near sneering as was possible to so charming a person, and went in, nor addressed him again throughout the meal. Instead, she devoted herself with an unusual and devastating assiduity to the suspiring Leandre, that poor devil who could not successfully play the lover with her on the stage because of his longing to play it in reality.
Andre-Louis ate his herrings and black bread with a good appetite nevertheless. It was poor fare, but then poor fare was the common lot of poor people in that winter of starvation, and since he had cast in his fortunes with a company whose affairs were not flourishing, he must accept the evils of the situation philosophically.
"Have you a name?" Binet asked him once in the course of that repast and during a pause in the conversation.
"It happens that I have," said he. "I think it is Parvissimus."
"Parvissimus?" quoth Binet. "Is that a family name?"
"In such a company, where only the leader enjoys the privilege of a family name, the like would be unbecoming its least member. So I take the name that best becomes in me. And I think it is Parvissimus —the very least."
Binet was amused. It was droll; it showed a ready fancy. Oh, to be sure, they must get to work together on those scenarios.
"I shall prefer it to carpentering," said Andre-Louis. Nevertheless he had to go back to it that afternoon, and to labour strenuously until four o'clock, when at last the autocratic Binet announced himself satisfied with the preparations, and proceeded, again with the help of Andre-Louis, to prepare the lights, which were supplied partly by tallow candles and partly by lamps burning fish-oil.
At five o'clock that evening the three knocks were sounded, and the curtain rose on "The Heartless Father."
Among the duties inherited by Andre-Louis from the departed Felicien whom he replaced, was that of doorkeeper. This duty he discharged dressed in a Polichinelle costume, and wearing a pasteboard nose. It was an arrangement mutually agreeable to M. Binet and himself. M. Binet—who had taken the further precaution of retaining Andre-Louis' own garments—was thereby protected against the risk of his latest recruit absconding with the takings. Andre-Louis, without illusions on the score of Pantaloon's real object, agreed to it willingly enough, since it protected him from the chance of recognition by any acquaintance who might possibly be in Guichen.
The performance was in every sense unexciting; the audience meagre and unenthusiastic. The benches provided in the front half of the market contained some twenty-seven persons: eleven at twenty sous a head and sixteen at twelve. Behind these stood a rabble of some thirty others at six sous apiece. Thus the gross takings were two louis, ten livres, and two sous. By the time M. Binet had paid for the use of the market, his lights, and the expenses of his company at the inn over Sunday, there was not likely to be very much left towards the wages of his players. It is not surprising, therefore, that M. Binet's bonhomie should have been a trifle overcast that evening.
"And what do you think of it?" he asked Andre-Louis, as they were walking back to the inn after the performance.
"Possibly it could have been worse; probably it could not," said he.
In sheer amazement M. Binet checked in his stride, and turned to look at his companion.
"Huh!" said he. "Dieu de Dien! But you are frank."
"An unpopular form of service among fools, I know."
"Well, I am not a fool," said Binet.
"That is why I am frank. I pay you the compliment of assuming intelligence in you, M. Binet."
"Oh, you do?" quoth M. Binet. "And who the devil are you to assume anything? Your assumptions are presumptuous, sir." And with that he lapsed into silence and the gloomy business of mentally casting up his accounts.
But at table over supper a half-hour later he revived the topic.
"Our latest recruit, this excellent M. Parvissimus," he announced, "has the impudence to tell me that possibly our comedy could have been worse, but that probably it could not." And he blew out his great round cheeks to invite a laugh at the expense of that foolish critic.
"That's bad," said the swarthy and sardonic Polichinelle. He was grave as Rhadamanthus pronouncing judgment. "That's bad. But what is infinitely worse is that the audience had the impudence to be of the same mind."
"An ignorant pack of clods," sneered Leandre, with a toss of his handsome head.
"You are wrong," quoth Harlequin. "You were born for love, my dear, not criticism."
Leandre—a dull dog, as you will have conceived—looked contemptuously down upon the little man. "And you, what were you born for?" he wondered.
"Nobody knows," was the candid admission. "Nor yet why. It is the case of many of us, my dear, believe me."
"But why,"—M. Binet took him up, and thus spoilt the beginnings of a very pretty quarrel—"why do you say that Leandre is wrong?"
"To be general, because he is always wrong. To be particular, because I judge the audience of Guichen to be too sophisticated for 'The Heartless Father.'"
"You would put it more happily," interposed Andre-Louis—who was the cause of this discussion—"if you said that 'The Heartless Father' is too unsophisticated for the audience of Guichen."
"Why, what's the difference?" asked Leandre.
"I didn't imply a difference. I merely suggested that it is a happier way to express the fact."
"The gentleman is being subtle," sneered Binet.
"Why happier?" Harlequin demanded.
"Because it is easier to bring 'The Heartless Father' to the sophistication of the Guichen audience, than the Guichen audience to the unsophistication of 'The Heartless Father.'"
"Let me think it out," groaned Polichinelle, and he took his head in his hands.
But from the tail of the table Andre-Louis was challenged by Climene who sat there between Columbine and Madame.
"You would alter the comedy, would you, M. Parvissimus?" she cried.
He turned to parry her malice.
"I would suggest that it be altered," he corrected, inclining his head.
"And how would you alter it, monsieur?"
"I? Oh, for the better."
"But of course!" She was sleekest sarcasm. "And how would you do it?"
"Aye, tell us that," roared M. Binet, and added: "Silence, I pray you, gentlemen and ladies. Silence for M. Parvissimus."
Andre-Louis looked from father to daughter, and smiled. "Pardi!" said he. "I am between bludgeon and dagger. If I escape with my life, I shall be fortunate. Why, then, since you pin me to the very wall, I'll tell you what I should do. I should go back to the original and help myself more freely from it."
"The original?" questioned M. Binet—the author.
"It is called, I believe, 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' and was written by Moliere."
Somebody tittered, but that somebody was not M. Binet. He had been touched on the raw, and the look in his little eyes betrayed the fact that his bonhomme exterior covered anything but a bonhomme.
"You charge me with plagiarism," he said at last; "with filching the ideas of Moliere."
"There is always, of course," said Andre-Louis, unruffled, "the alternative possibility of two great minds working upon parallel lines."
M. Binet studied the young man attentively a moment. He found him bland and inscrutable, and decided to pin him down.
"Then you do not imply that I have been stealing from Moliere?"
"I advise you to do so, monsieur," was the disconcerting reply.
M. Binet was shocked.
"You advise me to do so! You advise me, me, Antoine Binet, to turn thief at my age!"
"He is outrageous," said mademoiselle, indignantly.
"Outrageous is the word. I thank you for it, my dear. I take you on trust, sir. You sit at my table, you have the honour to be included in my company, and to my face you have the audacity to advise me to become a thief—the worst kind of thief that is conceivable, a thief of spiritual things, a thief of ideas! It is insufferable, intolerable! I have been, I fear, deeply mistaken in you, monsieur; just as you appear to have been mistaken in me. I am not the scoundrel you suppose me, sir, and I will not number in my company a man who dares to suggest that I should become one. Outrageous!"
He was very angry. His voice boomed through the little room, and the company sat hushed and something scared, their eyes upon Andre-Louis, who was the only one entirely unmoved by this outburst of virtuous indignation.
"You realize, monsieur," he said, very quietly, "that you are insulting the memory of the illustrious dead?"
"Eh?" said Binet.
Andre-Louis developed his sophistries.
"You insult the memory of Moliere, the greatest ornament of our stage, one of the greatest ornaments of our nation, when you suggest that there is vileness in doing that which he never hesitated to do, which no great author yet has hesitated to do. You cannot suppose that Moliere ever troubled himself to be original in the matter of ideas. You cannot suppose that the stories he tells in his plays have never been told before. They were culled, as you very well know—though you seem momentarily to have forgotten it, and it is therefore necessary that I should remind you—they were culled, many of them, from the Italian authors, who themselves had culled them Heaven alone knows where. Moliere took those old stories and retold them in his own language. That is precisely what I am suggesting that you should do. Your company is a company of improvisers. You supply the dialogue as you proceed, which is rather more than Moliere ever attempted. You may, if you prefer it —though it would seem to me to be yielding to an excess of scruple —go straight to Boccaccio or Sacchetti. But even then you cannot be sure that you have reached the sources."
Andre-Louis came off with flying colours after that. You see what a debater was lost in him; how nimble he was in the art of making white look black. The company was impressed, and no one more that M. Binet, who found himself supplied with a crushing argument against those who in future might tax him with the impudent plagiarisms which he undoubtedly perpetrated. He retired in the best order he could from the position he had taken up at the outset.
"So that you think," he said, at the end of a long outburst of agreement, "you think that our story of 'The Heartless Father' could be enriched by dipping into 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' to which I confess upon reflection that it may present certain superficial resemblances?"
"I do; most certainly I do—always provided that you do so judiciously. Times have changed since Moliere." It was as a consequence of this that Binet retired soon after, taking Andre-Louis with him. The pair sat together late that night, and were again in close communion throughout the whole of Sunday morning.
After dinner M. Binet read to the assembled company the amended and amplified canevas of "The Heartless Father," which, acting upon the advice of M. Parvissimus, he had been at great pains to prepare. The company had few doubts as to the real authorship before he began to read; none at all when he had read. There was a verve, a grip about this story; and, what was more, those of them who knew their Moliere realized that far from approaching the original more closely, this canevas had drawn farther away from it. Moliere's original part—the title role—had dwindled into insignificance, to the great disgust of Polichinelle, to whom it fell. But the other parts had all been built up into importance, with the exception of Leandre, who remained as before. The two great roles were now Scaramouche, in the character of the intriguing Sbrigandini, and Pantaloon the father. There was, too, a comical part for Rhodomont, as the roaring bully hired by Polichinelle to cut Leandre into ribbons. And in view of the importance now of Scaramouche, the play had been rechristened "Figaro-Scaramouche."
This last had not been without a deal of opposition from M. Binet. But his relentless collaborator, who was in reality the real author —drawing shamelessly, but practically at last upon his great store of reading—had overborne him.
"You must move with the times, monsieur. In Paris Beaumarchais is the rage. 'Figaro' is known to-day throughout the world. Let us borrow a little of his glory. It will draw the people in. They will come to see half a 'Figaro' when they will not come to see a dozen 'Heartless Fathers.' Therefore let us cast the mantle of Figaro upon some one, and proclaim it in our title."
"But as I am the head of the company..." began M. Binet, weakly.
"If you will be blind to your interests, you will presently be a head without a body. And what use is that? Can the shoulders of Pantaloon carry the mantle of Figaro? You laugh. Of course you laugh. The notion is absurd. The proper person for the mantle of Figaro is Scaramouche, who is naturally Figaro's twin-brother."
Thus tyrannized, the tyrant Binet gave way, comforted by the reflection that if he understood anything at all about the theatre, he had for fifteen livres a month acquired something that would presently be earning him as many louis.
The company's reception of the canevas now confirmed him, if we except Polichinelle, who, annoyed at having lost half his part in the alterations, declared the new scenario fatuous.
"Ah! You call my work fatuous, do you?" M. Binet hectored him.
"Your work?" said Polichinelle, to add with his tongue in his cheek: "Ah, pardon. I had not realized that you were the author."
"Then realize it now."
"You were very close with M. Parvissimus over this authorship," said Polichinelle, with impudent suggestiveness.
"And what if I was? What do you imply?"
"That you took him to cut quills for you, of course."
"I'll cut your ears for you if you're not civil," stormed the infuriated Binet.
Polichinelle got up slowly, and stretched himself.
"Dieu de Dieu!" said he. "If Pantaloon is to play Rhodomont, I think I'll leave you. He is not amusing in the part." And he swaggered out before M. Binet had recovered from his speechlessness.
Chapter IV. Exit Monsieur Parvissimus
At four o'clock on Monday afternoon the curtain rose on "Figaro-Scaramouche" to an audience that filled three quarters of the market-hall. M. Binet attributed this good attendance to the influx of people to Guichen for the fair, and to the magnificent parade of his company through the streets of the township at the busiest time of the day. Andre-Louis attributed it entirely to the title. It was the "Figaro" touch that had fetched in the better-class bourgeoisie, which filled more than half of the twenty-sous places and three quarters of the twelve-sous seats. The lure had drawn them. Whether it was to continue to do so would depend upon the manner in which the canevas over which he had laboured to the glory of Binet was interpreted by the company. Of the merits of the canevas itself he had no doubt. The authors upon whom he had drawn for the elements of it were sound, and he had taken of their best, which he claimed to be no more than the justice due to them.
The company excelled itself. The audience followed with relish the sly intriguings of Scaramouche, delighted in the beauty and freshness of Climene, was moved almost to tears by the hard fate which through four long acts kept her from the hungering arms of the so beautiful Leandre, howled its delight over the ignominy of Pantaloon, the buffooneries of his sprightly lackey Harlequin, and the thrasonical strut and bellowing fierceness of the cowardly Rhodomont.
The success of the Binet troupe in Guichen was assured. That night the company drank Burgundy at M. Binet's expense. The takings reached the sum of eight louis, which was as good business as M. Binet had ever done in all his career. He was very pleased. Gratification rose like steam from his fat body. He even condescended so far as to attribute a share of the credit for the success to M. Parvissimus.
"His suggestion," he was careful to say, by way of properly delimiting that share, "was most valuable, as I perceived at the time."
"And his cutting of quills," growled Polichinelle. "Don't forget that. It is most important to have by you a man who understands how to cut a quill, as I shall remember when I turn author."
But not even that gibe could stir M. Binet out of his lethargy of content.
On Tuesday the success was repeated artistically and augmented financially. Ten louis and seven livres was the enormous sum that Andre-Louis, the doorkeeper, counted over to M. Binet after the performance. Never yet had M. Binet made so much money in one evening—and a miserable little village like Guichen was certainly the last place in which he would have expected this windfall.
"Ah, but Guichen in time of fair," Andre-Louis reminded him. "There are people here from as far as Nantes and Rennes to buy and sell. To-morrow, being the last day of the fair, the crowds will be greater than ever. We should better this evening's receipts."
"Better them? I shall be quite satisfied if we do as well, my friend."
"You can depend upon that," Andre-Louis assured him. "Are we to have Burgundy?"
And then the tragedy occurred. It announced itself in a succession of bumps and thuds, culminating in a crash outside the door that brought them all to their feet in alarm.
Pierrot sprang to open, and beheld the tumbled body of a man lying at the foot of the stairs. It emitted groans, therefore it was alive. Pierrot went forward to turn it over, and disclosed the fact that the body wore the wizened face of Scaramouche, a grimacing, groaning, twitching Scaramouche.
The whole company, pressing after Pierrot, abandoned itself to laughter.
"I always said you should change parts with me," cried Harlequin. "You're such an excellent tumbler. Have you been practising?"
"Fool!" Scaramouche snapped. "Must you be laughing when I've all but broken my neck?"
"You are right. We ought to be weeping because you didn't break it. Come, man, get up," and he held out a hand to the prostrate rogue.
Scaramouche took the hand, clutched it, heaved himself from the ground, then with a scream dropped back again.
"My foot!" he complained.
Binet rolled through the group of players, scattering them to right and left. Apprehension had been quick to seize him. Fate had played him such tricks before.
"What ails your foot?" quoth he, sourly.
"It's broken, I think," Scaramouche complained.
"Broken? Bah! Get up, man." He caught him under the armpits and hauled him up.
Scaramouche came howling to one foot; the other doubled under him when he attempted to set it down, and he must have collapsed again but that Binet supported him. He filled the place with his plaint, whilst Binet swore amazingly and variedly.
"Must you bellow like a calf, you fool? Be quiet. A chair here, some one."
A chair was thrust forward. He crushed Scaramouche down into it.
"Let us look at this foot of yours."
Heedless of Scaramouche's howls of pain, he swept away shoe and stocking.
"What ails it?" he asked, staring. "Nothing that I can see." He seized it, heel in one hand, instep in the other, and gyrated it. Scaramouche screamed in agony, until Climene caught Binet's arm and made him stop.
"My God, have you no feelings?" she reproved her father. "The lad has hurt his foot. Must you torture him? Will that cure it?"
"Hurt his foot!" said Binet. "I can see nothing the matter with his foot—nothing to justify all this uproar. He has bruised it, maybe..."
"A man with a bruised foot doesn't scream like that," said Madame over Climene's shoulder. "Perhaps he has dislocated it."
"That is what I fear," whimpered Scaramouche.
Binet heaved himself up in disgust.
"Take him to bed," he bade them, "and fetch a doctor to see him."
It was done, and the doctor came. Having seen the patient, he reported that nothing very serious had happened, but that in falling he had evidently sprained his foot a little. A few days' rest and all would be well.
"A few days!" cried Binet. "God of God! Do you mean that he can't walk?"
"It would be unwise, indeed impossible for more than a few steps."
M. Binet paid the doctor's fee, and sat down to think. He filled himself a glass of Burgundy, tossed it off without a word, and sat thereafter staring into the empty glass.
"It is of course the sort of thing that must always be happening to me," he grumbled to no one in particular. The members of the company were all standing in silence before him, sharing his dismay. "I might have known that this—or something like it—would occur to spoil the first vein of luck that I have found in years. Ah, well, it is finished. To-morrow we pack and depart. The best day of the fair, on the crest of the wave of our success—a good fifteen louis to be taken, and this happens! God of God!"
"Do you mean to abandon to-morrow's performance?"
All turned to stare with Binet at Andre-Louis.
"Are we to play 'Figaro-Scaramouche' without Scaramouche?" asked Binet, sneering.
"Of course not." Andre-Louis came forward. "But surely some rearrangement of the parts is possible. For instance, there is a fine actor in Polichinelle."
Polichinelle swept him a bow. "Overwhelmed," said he, ever sardonic.
"But he has a part of his own," objected Binet.
"A small part, which Pasquariel could play."
"And who will play Pasquariel?"
"Nobody. We delete it. The play need not suffer."
"He thinks of everything," sneered Polichinelle. "What a man!"
But Binet was far from agreement. "Are you suggesting that Polichinelle should play Scaramouche?" he asked, incredulously.
"Why not? He is able enough!"
"Overwhelmed again," interjected Polichinelle.
"Play Scaramouche with that figure?" Binet heaved himself up to point a denunciatory finger at Polichinelle's sturdy, thick-set shortness.
"For lack of a better," said Andre-Louis.
"Overwhelmed more than ever." Polichinelle's bow was superb this time. "Faith, I think I'll take the air to cool me after so much blushing."
"Go to the devil," Binet flung at him.
"Better and better." Polichinelle made for the door. On the threshold he halted and struck an attitude. "Understand me, Binet. I do not now play Scaramouche in any circumstances whatever." And he went out. On the whole, it was a very dignified exit.
Andre-Louis shrugged, threw out his arms, and let them fall to his sides again. "You have ruined everything," he told M. Binet. "The matter could easily have been arranged. Well, well, it is you are master here; and since you want us to pack and be off, that is what we will do, I suppose."
He went out, too. M. Binet stood in thought a moment, then followed him, his little eyes very cunning. He caught him up in the doorway. "Let us take a walk together, M. Parvissimus," said he, very affably.
He thrust his arm through Andre-Louis', and led him out into the street, where there was still considerable movement. Past the booths that ranged about the market they went, and down the hill towards the bridge. "I don't think we shall pack to-morrow," said M. Binet, presently. "In fact, we shall play to-morrow night."
"Not if I know Polichinelle. You have..."
"I am not thinking of Polichinelle."
"Of whom, then?"
"I am flattered, sir. And in what capacity are you thinking of me?" There was something too sleek and oily in Binet's voice for Andre-Louis' taste.
"I am thinking of you in the part of Scaramouche."
"Day-dreams," said Andre-Louis. "You are amusing yourself, of course."
"Not in the least. I am quite serious."
"But I am not an actor."
"You told me that you could be."
"Oh, upon occasion...a small part, perhaps..."
"Well, here is a big part—the chance to arrive at a single stride. How many men have had such a chance?"
"It is a chance I do not covet, M. Binet. Shall we change the subject?" He was very frosty, as much perhaps because he scented in M. Binet's manner something that was vaguely menacing as for any other reason.
"We'll change the subject when I please," said M. Binet, allowing a glimpse of steel to glimmer through the silk of him. "To-morrow night you play Scaramouche. You are ready enough in your wits, your figure is ideal, and you have just the kind of mordant humour for the part. You should be a great success."
"It is much more likely that I should be an egregious failure."
"That won't matter," said Binet, cynically, and explained himself. "The failure will be personal to yourself. The receipts will be safe by then."
"Much obliged," said Andre-Louis.
"We should take fifteen louis to-morrow night."
"It is unfortunate that you are without a Scaramouche," said Andre-Louis.
"It is fortunate that I have one, M. Parvissimus."
Andre-Louis disengaged his arm. "I begin to find you tiresome," said he. "I think I will return."
"A moment, M. Parvissimus. If I am to lose that fifteen louis... you'll not take it amiss that I compensate myself in other ways?"
"That is your own concern, M. Binet."
"Pardon, M. Parvissimus. It may possibly be also yours." Binet took his arm again. "Do me the kindness to step across the street with me. Just as far as the post-office there. I have something to show you."
Andre-Louis went. Before they reached that sheet of paper nailed upon the door, he knew exactly what it would say. And in effect it was, as he had supposed, that twenty louis would be paid for information leading to the apprehension of one Andre-Louis Moreau, lawyer of Gavrillac, who was wanted by the King's Lieutenant in Rennes upon a charge of sedition.
M. Binet watched him whilst he read. Their arms were linked, and Binet's grip was firm and powerful.
"Now, my friend," said he, "will you be M. Parvissimus and play Scaramouche to-morrow, or will you be Andre-Louis Moreau of Gavrillac and go to Rennes to satisfy the King's Lieutenant?"
"And if it should happen that you are mistaken?" quoth Andre-Louis, his face a mask.
"I'll take the risk of that," leered M. Binet. "You mentioned, I think, that you were a lawyer. An indiscretion, my dear. It is unlikely that two lawyers will be in hiding at the same time in the same district. You see it is not really clever of me. Well, M. Andre-Louis Moreau, lawyer of Gavrillac, what is it to be?"
"We will talk it over as we walk back," said Andre-Louis.
"What is there to talk over?"
"One or two things, I think. I must know where I stand. Come, sir, if you please."
"Very well," said M. Binet, and they turned up the street again, but M. Binet maintained a firm hold of his young friend's arm, and kept himself on the alert for any tricks that the young gentleman might be disposed to play. It was an unnecessary precaution. Andre-Louis was not the man to waste his energy futilely. He knew that in bodily strength he was no match at all for the heavy and powerful Pantaloon.
"If I yield to your most eloquent and seductive persuasions, M. Binet," said he, sweetly, "what guarantee do you give me that you will not sell me for twenty louis after I shall have served your turn?"
"You have my word of honour for that." M. Binet was emphatic.
Andre-Louis laughed. "Oh, we are to talk of honour, are we? Really, M. Binet? It is clear you think me a fool."
In the dark he did not see the flush that leapt to M. Binet's round face. It was some moments before he replied.
"Perhaps you are right," he growled. "What guarantee do you want?"
"I do not know what guarantee you can possibly give."
"I have said that I will keep faith with you."
"Until you find it more profitable to sell me."
"You have it in your power to make it more profitable always for me to keep faith with you. It is due to you that we have done so well in Guichen. Oh, I admit it frankly."
"In private," said Andre-Louis.
M. Binet left the sarcasm unheeded.
"What you have done for us here with 'Figaro-Scaramouche,' you can do elsewhere with other things. Naturally, I shall not want to lose you. That is your guarantee."
"Yet to-night you would sell me for twenty louis."
"Because—name of God!—you enrage me by refusing me a service well within your powers. Don't you think, had I been entirely the rogue you think me, I could have sold you on Saturday last? I want you to understand me, my dear Parvissimus."
"I beg that you'll not apologize. You would be more tiresome than ever."
"Of course you will be gibing. You never miss a chance to gibe. It'll bring you trouble before you're done with life. Come; here we are back at the inn, and you have not yet given me your decision."
Andre-Louis looked at him. "I must yield, of course. I can't help myself."
M. Binet released his arm at last, and slapped him heartily upon the back. "Well declared, my lad. You'll never regret it. If I know anything of the theatre, I know that you have made the great decision of your life. To-morrow night you'll thank me."
Andre-Louis shrugged, and stepped out ahead towards the inn. But M. Binet called him back.
He turned. There stood the man's great bulk, the moonlight beating down upon that round fat face of his, and he was holding out his hand.
"M. Parvissimus, no rancour. It is a thing I do not admit into my life. You will shake hands with me, and we will forget all this."
Andre-Louis considered him a moment with disgust. He was growing angry. Then, realizing this, he conceived himself ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as that sly, scoundrelly Pantaloon. He laughed and took the outstretched hand. "No rancour?" M. Binet insisted.
"Oh, no rancour," said Andre-Louis.
Chapter V. Enter Scarmouche
Dressed in the close-fitting suit of a bygone age, all black, from flat velvet cap to rosetted shoes, his face whitened and a slight up-curled moustache glued to his upper lip, a small-sword at his side and a guitar slung behind him, Scaramouche surveyed himself in a mirror, and was disposed to be sardonic—which was the proper mood for the part.
He reflected that his life, which until lately had been of a stagnant, contemplative quality, had suddenly become excessively active. In the course of one week he had been lawyer, mob-orator, outlaw, property-man, and finally buffoon. Last Wednesday he had been engaged in moving an audience of Rennes to anger; on this Wednesday he was to move an audience of Guichen to mirth. Then he had been concerned to draw tears; to-day it was his business to provoke laughter. There was a difference, and yet there was a parallel. Then as now he had been a comedian; and the part that he had played then was, when you came to think of it, akin to the part he was to play this evening. For what had he been at Rennes but a sort of Scaramouche—the little skirmisher, the astute intriguer, spattering the seed of trouble with a sly hand? The only difference lay in the fact that to-day he went forth under the name that properly described his type, whereas last week he had been disguised as a respectable young provincial attorney.
He bowed to his reflection in the mirror.
"Buffoon!" he apostrophized it. "At last you have found yourself. At last you have come into your heritage. You should be a great success."
Hearing his new name called out by M. Binet, he went below to find the company assembled, and waiting in the entrance corridor of the inn.
He was, of course, an object of great interest to all the company. Most critically was he conned by M. Binet and mademoiselle; by the former with gravely searching eyes, by the latter with a curl of scornful lip.
"You'll do," M. Binet commended his make-up. "At least you look the part."
"Unfortunately men are not always what they look," said Climene, acidly.
"That is a truth that does not at present apply to me," said Andre-Louis. "For it is the first time in my life that I look what I am."
Mademoiselle curled her lip a little further, and turned her shoulder to him. But the others thought him very witty—probably because he was obscure. Columbine encouraged him with a friendly smile that displayed her large white teeth, and M. Binet swore yet once again that he would be a great success, since he threw himself with such spirit into the undertaking. Then in a voice that for the moment he appeared to have borrowed from the roaring captain, M. Binet marshalled them for the short parade across to the market-hall.
The new Scaramouche fell into place beside Rhodomont. The old one, hobbling on a crutch, had departed an hour ago to take the place of doorkeeper, vacated of necessity by Andre-Louis. So that the exchange between those two was a complete one.
Headed by Polichinelle banging his great drum and Pierrot blowing his trumpet, they set out, and were duly passed in review by the ragamuffins drawn up in files to enjoy so much of the spectacle as was to be obtained for nothing.
Ten minutes later the three knocks sounded, and the curtains were drawn aside to reveal a battered set that was partly garden, partly forest, in which Climene feverishly looked for the coming of Leandre. In the wings stood the beautiful, melancholy lover, awaiting his cue, and immediately behind him the unfledged Scaramouche, who was anon to follow him.
Andre-Louis was assailed with nausea in that dread moment. He attempted to take a lightning mental review of the first act of this scenario of which he was himself the author-in-chief; but found his mind a complete blank. With the perspiration starting from his skin, he stepped back to the wall, where above a dim lantern was pasted a sheet bearing the brief outline of the piece. He was still studying it, when his arm was clutched, and he was pulled violently towards the wings. He had a glimpse of Pantaloon's grotesque face, its eyes blazing, and he caught a raucous growl:
"Climene has spoken your cue three times already."
Before he realized it, he had been bundled on to the stage, and stood there foolishly, blinking in the glare of the footlights, with their tin reflectors. So utterly foolish and bewildered did he look that volley upon volley of laughter welcomed him from the audience, which this evening packed the hall from end to end. Trembling a little, his bewilderment at first increasing, he stood there to receive that rolling tribute to his absurdity. Climene was eyeing him with expectant mockery, savouring in advance his humiliation; Leandre regarded him in consternation, whilst behind the scenes, M. Binet was dancing in fury.
"Name of a name," he groaned to the rather scared members of the company assembled there, "what will happen when they discover that he isn't acting?"
But they never did discover it. Scaramouche's bewildered paralysis lasted but a few seconds. He realized that he was being laughed at, and remembered that his Scaramouche was a creature to be laughed with, and not at. He must save the situation; twist it to his own advantage as best he could. And now his real bewilderment and terror was succeeded by acted bewilderment and terror far more marked, but not quite so funny. He contrived to make it clearly appear that his terror was of some one off the stage. He took cover behind a painted shrub, and thence, the laughter at last beginning to subside, he addressed himself to Climene and Leandre.
"Forgive me, beautiful lady, if the abrupt manner of my entrance startled you. The truth is that I have never been the same since that last affair of mine with Almaviva. My heart is not what it used to be. Down there at the end of the lane I came face to face with an elderly gentleman carrying a heavy cudgel, and the horrible thought entered my mind that it might be your father, and that our little stratagem to get you safely married might already have been betrayed to him. I think it was the cudgel put such notion in my head. Not that I am afraid. I am not really afraid of anything. But I could not help reflecting that, if it should really have been your father, and he had broken my head with his cudgel, your hopes would have perished with me. For without me, what should you have done, my poor children?"
A ripple of laughter from the audience had been steadily enheartening him, and helping him to recover his natural impudence. It was clear they found him comical. They were to find him far more comical than ever he had intended, and this was largely due to a fortuitous circumstance upon which he had insufficiently reckoned. The fear of recognition by some one from Gavrillac or Rennes had been strong upon him. His face was sufficiently made up to baffle recognition; but there remained his voice. To dissemble this he had availed himself of the fact that Figaro was a Spaniard. He had known a Spaniard at Louis le Grand who spoke a fluent but most extraordinary French, with a grotesque excess of sibilant sounds. It was an accent that he had often imitated, as youths will imitate characteristics that excite their mirth. Opportunely he had bethought him of that Spanish student, and it was upon his speech that to-night he modelled his own. The audience of Guichen found it as laughable on his lips as he and his fellows had found it formerly on the lips of that derided Spaniard.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Binet—listening to that glib impromptu of which the scenario gave no indication—had recovered from his fears.
"Dieu de Dieu!" he whispered, grinning. "Did he do it, then, on purpose?"
It seemed to him impossible that a man who had been so terror-stricken as he had fancied Andre-Louis, could have recovered his wits so quickly and completely. Yet the doubt remained.
To resolve it after the curtain had fallen upon a first act that had gone with a verve unrivalled until this hour in the annals of the company, borne almost entirely upon the slim shoulders of the new Scaramouche, M. Binet bluntly questioned him.
They were standing in the space that did duty as green-room, the company all assembled there, showering congratulations upon their new recruit. Scaramouche, a little exalted at the moment by his success, however trivial he might consider it to-morrow, took then a full revenge upon Climene for the malicious satisfaction with which she had regarded his momentary blank terror.
"I do not wonder that you ask," said he. "Faith, I should have warned you that I intended to do my best from the start to put the audience in a good humour with me. Mademoiselle very nearly ruined everything by refusing to reflect any of my terror. She was not even startled. Another time, mademoiselle, I shall give you full warning of my every intention."
She crimsoned under her grease-paint. But before she could find an answer of sufficient venom, her father was rating her soundly for her stupidity—the more soundly because himself he had been deceived by Scaramouche's supreme acting.
Scaramouche's success in the first act was more than confirmed as the performance proceeded. Completely master of himself by now, and stimulated as only success can stimulate, he warmed to his work. Impudent, alert, sly, graceful, he incarnated the very ideal of Scaramouche, and he helped out his own native wit by many a remembered line from Beaumarchais, thereby persuading the better informed among the audience that here indeed was something of the real Figaro, and bringing them, as it were, into touch with the great world of the capital.
When at last the curtain fell for the last time, it was Scaramouche who shared with Climene the honours of the evening, his name that was coupled with hers in the calls that summoned them before the curtains.
As they stepped back, and the curtains screened them again from the departing audience, M. Binet approached them, rubbing his fat hands softly together. This runagate young lawyer, whom chance had blown into his company, had evidently been sent by Fate to make his fortune for him. The sudden success at Guichen, hitherto unrivalled, should be repeated and augmented elsewhere. There would be no more sleeping under hedges and tightening of belts. Adversity was behind him. He placed a hand upon Scaramouche's shoulder, and surveyed him with a smile whose oiliness not even his red paint and colossal false nose could dissemble.
"And what have you to say to me now?" he asked him. "Was I wrong when I assured you that you would succeed? Do you think I have followed my fortunes in the theatre for a lifetime without knowing a born actor when I see one? You are my discovery, Scaramouche. I have discovered you to yourself. I have set your feet upon the road to fame and fortune. I await your thanks."
Scaramouche laughed at him, and his laugh was not altogether pleasant.
"Always Pantaloon!" said he.
The great countenance became overcast. "I see that you do not yet forgive me the little stratagem by which I forced you to do justice to yourself. Ungrateful dog! As if I could have had any purpose but to make you; and I have done so. Continue as you have begun, and you will end in Paris. You may yet tread the stage of the Comedie Francaise, the rival of Talma, Fleury, and Dugazon. When that happens to you perhaps you will feel the gratitude that is due to old Binet, for you will owe it all to this soft-hearted old fool."
"If you were as good an actor on the stage as you are in private," said Scaramouche, "you would yourself have won to the Comedie Francaise long since. But I bear no rancour, M. Binet." He laughed, and put out his hand.
Binet fell upon it and wrung it heartily.
"That, at least, is something," he declared. "My boy, I have great plans for you—for us. To-morrow we go to Maure; there is a fair there to the end of this week. Then on Monday we take our chances at Pipriac, and after that we must consider. It may be that I am about to realize the dream of my life. There must have been upwards of fifteen louis taken to-night. Where the devil is that rascal Cordemais?"
Cordemais was the name of the original Scaramouche, who had so unfortunately twisted his ankle. That Binet should refer to him by his secular designation was a sign that in the Binet company at least he had fallen for ever from the lofty eminence of Scaramouche.
"Let us go and find him, and then we'll away to the inn and crack a bottle of the best Burgundy, perhaps two bottles."
But Cordemais was not readily to be found. None of the company had seen him since the close of the performance. M. Binet went round to the entrance. Cordemais was not there. At first he was annoyed; then as he continued in vain to bawl the fellow's name, he began to grow uneasy; lastly, when Polichinelle, who was with them, discovered Cordemais' crutch standing discarded behind the door, M. Binet became alarmed. A dreadful suspicion entered his mind. He grew visibly pale under his paint.
"But this evening he couldn't walk without the crutch!" he exclaimed. "How then does he come to leave it there and take himself off?"
"Perhaps he has gone on to the inn," suggested some one.
"But he couldn't walk without his crutch," M. Binet insisted.
Nevertheless, since clearly he was not anywhere about the market-hall, to the inn they all trooped, and deafened the landlady with their inquiries.
"Oh, yes, M. Cordemais came in some time ago."
"Where is he now?"
"He went away again at once. He just came for his bag."
"For his bag!" Binet was on the point of an apoplexy. "How long ago was that?"
She glanced at the timepiece on the overmantel. "It would be about half an hour ago. It was a few minutes before the Rennes diligence passed through."
"The Rennes diligence!" M. Binet was almost inarticulate. "Could he...could he walk?" he asked, on a note of terrible anxiety.
"Walk? He ran like a hare when he left the inn. I thought, myself, that his agility was suspicious, seeing how lame he had been since he fell downstairs yesterday. Is anything wrong?"
M. Binet had collapsed into a chair. He took his head in his hands, and groaned.
"The scoundrel was shamming all the time!" exclaimed Climene. "His fall downstairs was a trick. He was playing for this. He has swindled us."
"Fifteen louis at least—perhaps sixteen!" said M. Binet. "Oh, the heartless blackguard! To swindle me who have been as a father to him—and to swindle me in such a moment."
From the ranks of the silent, awe-stricken company, each member of which was wondering by how much of the loss his own meagre pay would be mulcted, there came a splutter of laughter.
M. Binet glared with blood-injected eyes.
"Who laughs?" he roared. "What heartless wretch has the audacity to laugh at my misfortune?"
Andre-Louis, still in the sable glories of Scaramouche, stood forward. He was laughing still.
"It is you, is it? You may laugh on another note, my friend, if I choose a way to recoup myself that I know of."
"Dullard!" Scaramouche scorned him. "Rabbit-brained elephant! What if Cordemais has gone with fifteen louis? Hasn't he left you something worth twenty times as much?"
M. Binet gaped uncomprehending.
"You are between two wines, I think. You've been drinking," he concluded.
"So I have—at the fountain of Thalia. Oh, don't you see? Don't you see the treasure that Cordemais has left behind him?"
"What has he left?"
"A unique idea for the groundwork of a scenario. It unfolds itself all before me. I'll borrow part of the title from Moliere. We'll call it 'Les Fourberies de Scaramouche,' and if we don't leave the audiences of Maure and Pipriac with sides aching from laughter I'll play the dullard Pantaloon in future."
Polichinelle smacked fist into palm. "Superb!" he said, fiercely. "To cull fortune from misfortune, to turn loss into profit, that is to have genius."
Scaramouche made a leg. "Polichinelle, you are a fellow after my own heart. I love a man who can discern my merit. If Pantaloon had half your wit, we should have Burgundy to-night in spite of the flight of Cordemais."
"Burgundy?" roared M. Binet, and before he could get farther Harlequin had clapped his hands together.
"That is the spirit, M. Binet. You heard him, landlady. He called for Burgundy."
"I called for nothing of the kind."
"But you heard him, dear madame. We all heard him."
The others made chorus, whilst Scaramouche smiled at him, and patted his shoulder.
"Up, man, a little courage. Did you not say that fortune awaits us? And have we not now the wherewithal to constrain fortune? Burgundy, then, to...to toast 'Les Fourberies de Scaramouche.'"
And M. Binet, who was not blind to the force of the idea, yielded, took courage, and got drunk with the rest.
Chapter VI. Climene
Diligent search among the many scenarios of the improvisers which have survived their day, has failed to bring to light the scenario of "Les Fourberies de Scaramouche," upon which we are told the fortunes of the Binet troupe came to be soundly established. They played it for the first time at Maure in the following week, with Andre-Louis—who was known by now as Scaramouche to all the company, and to the public alike—in the title-role. If he had acquitted himself well as Figaro-Scaramouche, he excelled himself in the new piece, the scenario of which would appear to be very much the better of the two.
After Maure came Pipriac, where four performances were given, two of each of the scenarios that now formed the backbone of the Binet repertoire. In both Scaramouche, who was beginning to find himself, materially improved his performances. So smoothly now did the two pieces run that Scaramouche actually suggested to Binet that after Fougeray, which they were to visit in the following week, they should tempt fortune in a real theatre in the important town of Redon. The notion terrified Binet at first, but coming to think of it, and his ambition being fanned by Andre-Louis, he ended by allowing himself to succumb to the temptation.
It seemed to Andre-Louis in those days that he had found his real metier, and not only was he beginning to like it, but actually to look forward to a career as actor-author that might indeed lead him in the end to that Mecca of all comedians, the Comedie Francaise. And there were other possibilities. From the writing of skeleton scenarios for improvisers, he might presently pass to writing plays of dialogue, plays in the proper sense of the word, after the manner of Chenier, Eglantine, and Beaumarchais.
The fact that he dreamed such dreams shows us how very kindly he had taken to the profession into which Chance and M. Binet between them had conspired to thrust him. That he had real talent both as author and as actor I do not doubt, and I am persuaded that had things fallen out differently he would have won for himself a lasting place among French dramatists, and thus fully have realized that dream of his.
Now, dream though it was, he did not neglect the practical side of it.
"You realize," he told M. Binet, "that I have it in my power to make your fortune for you."
He and Binet were sitting alone together in the parlour of the inn at Pipriac, drinking a very excellent bottle of Volnay. It was on the night after the fourth and last performance there of "Les Feurberies." The business in Pipriac had been as excellent as in Maure and Guichen. You will have gathered this from the fact that they drank Volnay.
"I will concede it, my dear Scaramouche, so that I may hear the sequel."
"I am disposed to exercise this power if the inducement is sufficient. You will realize that for fifteen livres a month a man does not sell such exceptional gifts as mine.
"There is an alternative," said M. Binet, darkly.
"There is no alternative. Don't be a fool, Binet."
Binet sat up as if he had been prodded. Members of his company did not take this tone of direct rebuke with him.
"Anyway, I make you a present of it," Scaramouche pursued, airily. "Exercise it if you please. Step outside and inform the police that they can lay hands upon one Andre-Louis Moreau. But that will be the end of your fine dreams of going to Redon, and for the first time in your life playing in a real theatre. Without me, you can't do it, and you know it; and I am not going to Redon or anywhere else, in fact I am not even going to Fougeray, until we have an equitable arrangement."
"But what heat!" complained Binet, "and all for what? Why must you assume that I have the soul of a usurer? When our little arrangement was made, I had no idea how could I?—that you would prove as valuable to me as you are? You had but to remind me, my dear Scaramouche. I am a just man. As from to-day you shall have thirty livres a month. See, I double it at once. I am a generous man."
"But you are not ambitious. Now listen to me, a moment."
And he proceeded to unfold a scheme that filled Binet with a paralyzing terror.
"After Redon, Nantes," he said. "Nantes and the Theatre Feydau."
M. Binet choked in the act of drinking. The Theatre Feydau was a sort of provincial Comedie Francaise. The great Fleury had played there to an audience as critical as any in France. The very thought of Redon, cherished as it had come to be by M. Binet, gave him at moments a cramp in the stomach, so dangerously ambitious did it seem to him. And Redon was a puppet-show by comparison with Nantes. Yet this raw lad whom he had picked up by chance three weeks ago, and who in that time had blossomed from a country attorney into author and actor, could talk of Nantes and the Theatre Feydau without changing colour.
"But why not Paris and the Comedie Francaise?" wondered M. Binet, with sarcasm, when at last he had got his breath.
"That may come later," says impudence.
"Eh? You've been drinking, my friend."
But Andre-Louis detailed the plan that had been forming in his mind. Fougeray should be a training-ground for Redon, and Redon should be a training-ground for Nantes. They would stay in Redon as long as Redon would pay adequately to come and see them, working hard to perfect themselves the while. They would add three or four new players of talent to the company; he would write three or four fresh scenarios, and these should be tested and perfected until the troupe was in possession of at least half a dozen plays upon which they could depend; they would lay out a portion of their profits on better dresses and better scenery, and finally in a couple of months' time, if all went well, they should be ready to make their real bid for fortune at Nantes. It was quite true that distinction was usually demanded of the companies appearing at the Feydau, but on the other hand Nantes had not seen a troupe of improvisers for a generation and longer. They would be supplying a novelty to which all Nantes should flock provided that the work were really well done, and Scaramouche undertook—pledged himself—that if matters were left in his own hands, his projected revival of the Commedia dell' Arte in all its glories would exceed whatever expectations the public of Nantes might bring to the theatre.
"We'll talk of Paris after Nantes," he finished, supremely matter-of-fact, "just as we will definitely decide on Nantes after Redon."
The persuasiveness that could sway a mob ended by sweeping M. Binet off his feet. The prospect which Scaramouche unfolded, if terrifying, was also intoxicating, and as Scaramouche delivered a crushing answer to each weakening objection in a measure as it was advanced, Binet ended by promising to think the matter over.
"Redon will point the way," said Andre-Louis, "and I don't doubt which way Redon will point."
Thus the great adventure of Redon dwindled to insignificance. Instead of a terrifying undertaking in itself, it became merely a rehearsal for something greater. In his momentary exaltation Binet proposed another bottle of Volnay. Scaramouche waited until the cork was drawn before he continued.
"The thing remains possible," said he then, holding his glass to the light, and speaking casually, "as long as I am with you."
"Agreed, my dear Scaramouche, agreed. Our chance meeting was a fortunate thing for both of us."
"For both of us," said Scaramouche, with stress. "That is as I would have it. So that I do not think you will surrender me just yet to the police."
"As if I could think of such a thing! My dear Scaramouche, you amuse yourself. I beg that you will never, never allude to that little joke of mine again."
"It is forgotten," said Andre-Louis. "And now for the remainder of my proposal. If I am to become the architect of your fortunes, if I am to build them as I have planned them, I must also and in the same degree become the architect of my own."
"In the same degree?" M. Binet frowned.
"In the same degree. From to-day, if you please, we will conduct the affairs of this company in a proper manner, and we will keep account-books."
"I am an artist," said M. Binet, with pride. "I am not a merchant."
"There is a business side to your art, and that shall be conducted in the business manner. I have thought it all out for you. You shall not be troubled with details that might hinder the due exercise of your art. All that you have to do is to say yes or no to my proposal."
"Ah? And the proposal?"
"Is that you constitute me your partner, with an equal share in the profits of your company."
Pantaloon's great countenance grew pale, his little eyes widened to their fullest extent as he conned the face of his companion. Then he exploded.
"You are mad, of course, to make me a proposal so monstrous."
"It has its injustices, I admit. But I have provided for them. It would not, for instance, be fair that in addition to all that I am proposing to do for you, I should also play Scaramouche and write your scenarios without any reward outside of the half-profit which would come to me as a partner. Thus before the profits come to be divided, there is a salary to be paid me as actor, and a small sum for each scenario with which I provide the company; that is a matter for mutual agreement. Similarly, you shall be paid a salary as Pantaloon. After those expenses are cleared up, as well as all the other salaries and disbursements, the residue is the profit to be divided equally between us."
It was not, as you can imagine, a proposal that M. Binet would swallow at a draught. He began with a point-blank refusal to consider it.
"In that case, my friend," said Scaramouche, "we part company at once. To-morrow I shall bid you a reluctant farewell."
Binet fell to raging. He spoke of ingratitude in feeling terms; he even permitted himself another sly allusion to that little jest of his concerning the police, which he had promised never again to mention.
"As to that, you may do as you please. Play the informer, by all means. But consider that you will just as definitely be deprived of my services, and that without me you are nothing—as you were before I joined your company."
M. Binet did not care what the consequences might be. A fig for the consequences! He would teach this impudent young country attorney that M. Binet was not the man to be imposed upon.
Scaramouche rose. "Very well," said he, between indifference and resignation. "As you wish. But before you act, sleep on the matter. In the cold light of morning you may see our two proposals in their proper proportions. Mine spells fortune for both of us. Yours spells ruin for both of us. Good-night, M. Binet. Heaven help you to a wise decision."
The decision to which M. Binet finally came was, naturally, the only one possible in the face of so firm a resolve as that of Andre-Louis, who held the trumps. Of course there were further discussions, before all was settled, and M. Binet was brought to an agreement only after an infinity of haggling surprising in one who was an artist and not a man of business. One or two concessions were made by Andre-Louis; he consented, for instance, to waive his claim to be paid for scenarios, and he also consented that M. Binet should appoint himself a salary that was out of all proportion to his deserts.
Thus in the end the matter was settled, and the announcement duly made to the assembled company. There were, of course, jealousies and resentments. But these were not deep-seated, and they were readily swallowed when it was discovered that under the new arrangement the lot of the entire company was to be materially improved from the point of view of salaries. This was a matter that had met with considerable opposition from M. Binet. But the irresistible Scaramouche swept away all objections.
"If we are to play at the Feydau, you want a company of self-respecting comedians, and not a pack of cringing starvelings. The better we pay them in reason, the more they will earn for us."
Thus was conquered the company's resentment of this too swift promotion of its latest recruit. Cheerfully now—with one exception—they accepted the dominance of Scaramouche, a dominance soon to be so firmly established that M. Binet himself came under it.
The one exception was Climene. Her failure to bring to heel this interesting young stranger, who had almost literally dropped into their midst that morning outside Guichen, had begotten in her a malice which his persistent ignoring of her had been steadily inflaming. She had remonstrated with her father when the new partnership was first formed. She had lost her temper with him, and called him a fool, whereupon M. Binet—in Pantaloon's best manner—had lost his temper in his turn and boxed her ears. She piled it up to the account of Scaramouche, and spied her opportunity to pay off some of that ever-increasing score. But opportunities were few. Scaramouche was too occupied just then. During the week of preparation at Fougeray, he was hardly seen save at the performances, whilst when once they were at Redon, he came and went like the wind between the theatre and the inn.
The Redon experiment had justified itself from the first. Stimulated and encouraged by this, Andre-Louis worked day and night during the month that they spent in that busy little town. The moment had been well chosen, for the trade in chestnuts of which Redon is the centre was just then at its height. And every afternoon the little theatre was packed with spectators. The fame of the troupe had gone forth, borne by the chestnut-growers of the district, who were bringing their wares to Redon market, and the audiences were made up of people from the surrounding country, and from neighbouring villages as far out as Allaire, Saint-Perrieux and Saint-Nicholas. To keep the business from slackening, Andre-Louis prepared a new scenario every week. He wrote three in addition to those two with which he had already supplied the company; these were "The Marriage of Pantaloon," "The Shy Lover," and "The Terrible Captain." Of these the last was the greatest success. It was based upon the "Miles Gloriosus" of Plautus, with great opportunities for Rhodomont, and a good part for Scaramouche as the roaring captain's sly lieutenant. Its success was largely due to the fact that Andre-Louis amplified the scenario to the extent of indicating very fully in places the lines which the dialogue should follow, whilst here and there he had gone so far as to supply some of the actual dialogue to be spoken, without, however, making it obligatory upon the actors to keep to the letter of it.
And meanwhile as the business prospered, he became busy with tailors, improving the wardrobe of the company, which was sorely in need of improvement. He ran to earth a couple of needy artists, lured them into the company to play small parts—apothecaries and notaries—and set them to beguile their leisure in painting new scenery, so as to be ready for what he called the conquest of Nantes, which was to come in the new year. Never in his life had he worked so hard; never in his life had he worked at all by comparison with his activities now. His fund of energy and enthusiasm was inexhaustible, like that of his good humour. He came and went, acted, wrote, conceived, directed, planned, and executed, what time M. Binet took his ease at last in comparative affluence, drank Burgundy every night, ate white bread and other delicacies, and began to congratulate himself upon his astuteness in having made this industrious, tireless fellow his partner. Having discovered how idle had been his fears of performing at Redon, he now began to dismiss the terrors with which the notion of Nantes had haunted him.
And his happiness was reflected throughout the ranks of his company, with the single exception always of Climene. She had ceased to sneer at Scaramouche, having realized at last that her sneers left him untouched and recoiled upon herself. Thus her almost indefinable resentment of him was increased by being stifled, until, at all costs, an outlet for it must be found.
One day she threw herself in his way as he was leaving the theatre after the performance. The others had already gone, and she had returned upon pretence of having forgotten something.
"Will you tell me what I have done to you?" she asked him, point-blank.
"Done to me, mademoiselle?" He did not understand.
She made a gesture of impatience. "Why do you hate me?"
"Hate you, mademoiselle? I do not hate anybody. It is the most stupid of all the emotions. I have never hated—not even my enemies."
"What Christian resignation!"
"As for hating you, of all people! Why...I consider you adorable. I envy Leandre every day of my life. I have seriously thought of setting him to play Scaramouche, and playing lovers myself."
"I don't think you would be a success," said she.
"That is the only consideration that restrains me. And yet, given the inspiration that is given Leandre, it is possible that I might be convincing."
"Why, what inspiration do you mean?"
"The inspiration of playing to so adorable a Climene."
Her lazy eyes were now alert to search that lean face of his.
"You are laughing at me," said she, and swept past him into the theatre on her pretended quest. There was nothing to be done with such a fellow. He was utterly without feeling. He was not a man at all.
Yet when she came forth again at the end of some five minutes, she found him still lingering at the door.
"Not gone yet?" she asked him, superciliously.
"I was waiting for you, mademoiselle. You will be walking to the inn. If I might escort you..."
"But what gallantry! What condescension!"
"Perhaps you would prefer that I did not?"
"How could I prefer that, M. Scaramouche? Besides, we are both going the same way, and the streets are common to all. It is that I am overwhelmed by the unusual honour."
He looked into her piquant little face, and noted how obscured it was by its cloud of dignity. He laughed.
"Perhaps I feared that the honour was not sought."
"Ah, now I understand," she cried. "It is for me to seek these honours. I am to woo a man before he will pay me the homage of civility. It must be so, since you, who clearly know everything, have said so. It remains for me to beg your pardon for my ignorance."
"It amuses you to be cruel," said Scaramouche. "No matter. Shall we walk?"
They set out together, stepping briskly to warm their blood against the wintry evening air. Awhile they went in silence, yet each furtively observing the other.
"And so, you find me cruel?" she challenged him at length, thereby betraying the fact that the accusation had struck home.
He looked at her with a half smile. "Will you deny it?"
"You are the first man that ever accused me of that."
"I dare not suppose myself the first man to whom you have been cruel. That were an assumption too flattering to myself. I must prefer to think that the others suffered in silence."
"Mon Dieu! Have you suffered?" She was between seriousness and raillery.
"I place the confession as an offering on the altar of your vanity."
"I should never have suspected it."
"How could you? Am I not what your father calls a natural actor? I was an actor long before I became Scaramouche. Therefore I have laughed. I often do when I am hurt. When you were pleased to be disdainful, I acted disdain in my turn."
"You acted very well," said she, without reflecting.
"Of course. I am an excellent actor."
"And why this sudden change?"
"In response to the change in you. You have grown weary of your part of cruel madam—a dull part, believe me, and unworthy of your talents. Were I a woman and had I your loveliness and your grace, Climene, I should disdain to use them as weapons of offence."
"Loveliness and grace!" she echoed, feigning amused surprise. But the vain baggage was mollified. "When was it that you discovered this beauty and this grace, M. Scaramouche?"
He looked at her a moment, considering the sprightly beauty of her, the adorable femininity that from the first had so irresistibly attracted him.
"One morning when I beheld you rehearsing a love-scene with Leandre."
He caught the surprise that leapt to her eyes, before she veiled them under drooping lids from his too questing gaze.
"Why, that was the first time you saw me."
"I had no earlier occasion to remark your charms."
"You ask me to believe too much," said she, but her tone was softer than he had ever known it yet.
"Then you'll refuse to believe me if I confess that it was this grace and beauty that determined my destiny that day by urging me to join your father's troupe."
At that she became a little out of breath. There was no longer any question of finding an outlet for resentment. Resentment was all forgotten.
"But why? With what object?"
"With the object of asking you one day to be my wife."
She halted under the shock of that, and swung round to face him. Her glance met his own without, shyness now; there was a hardening glitter in her eyes, a faint stir of colour in her cheeks. She suspected him of an unpardonable mockery.
"You go very fast, don't you?" she asked him, with heat.
"I do. Haven't you observed it? I am a man of sudden impulses. See what I have made of the Binet troupe in less than a couple of months. Another might have laboured for a year and not achieved the half of it. Shall I be slower in love than in work? Would it be reasonable to expect it? I have curbed and repressed myself not to scare you by precipitancy. In that I have done violence to my feelings, and more than all in using the same cold aloofness with which you chose to treat me. I have waited—oh! so patiently— until you should tire of that mood of cruelty."
"You are an amazing man," said she, quite colourlessly.
"I am," he agreed with her. "It is only the conviction that I am not commonplace that has permitted me to hope as I have hoped."
Mechanically, and as if by tacit consent, they resumed their walk.
"And I ask you to observe," he said, "when you complain that I go very fast, that, after all, I have so far asked you for nothing."
"How?" quoth she, frowning.
"I have merely told you of my hopes. I am not so rash as to ask at once whether I may realize them."
"My faith, but that is prudent," said she, tartly.
It was his self-possession that exasperated her; for after that she walked the short remainder of the way in silence, and so, for the moment, the matter was left just there.
But that night, after they had supped, it chanced that when Climene was about to retire, he and she were alone together in the room abovestairs that her father kept exclusively for his company. The Binet Troupe, you see, was rising in the world.
As Climene now rose to withdraw for the night, Scaramouche rose with her to light her candle. Holding it in her left hand, she offered him her right, a long, tapering, white hand at the end of a softly rounded arm that was bare to the elbow.
"Good-night, Scaramouche," she said, but so softly, so tenderly, that he caught his breath, and stood conning her, his dark eyes aglow.
Thus a moment, then he took the tips of her fingers in his grasp, and bowing over the hand, pressed his lips upon it. Then he looked at her again. The intense femininity of her lured him on, invited him, surrendered to him. Her face was pale, there was a glitter in her eyes, a curious smile upon her parted lips, and under its fichu-menteur her bosom rose and fell to complete the betrayal of her.
By the hand he continued to hold, he drew her towards him. She came unresisting. He took the candle from her, and set it down on the sideboard by which she stood. The next moment her slight, lithe body was in his arms, and he was kissing her, murmuring her name as if it were a prayer.
"Am I cruel now?" she asked him, panting. He kissed her again for only answer. "You made me cruel because you would not see," she told him next in a whisper.
And then the door opened, and M. Binet came in to have his paternal eyes regaled by this highly indecorous behaviour of his daughter.
He stood at gaze, whilst they quite leisurely, and in a self-possession too complete to be natural, detached each from the other.
"And what may be the meaning of this?" demanded M. Binet, bewildered and profoundly shocked.
"Does it require explaining?" asked Scaramouche. "Doesn't it speak for itself—eloquently? It means that Climene and I have taken it into our heads to be married."
"And doesn't it matter what I may take into my head?"
"Of course. But you could have neither the bad taste nor the bad heart to offer any obstacle."
"You take that for granted? Aye, that is your way, to be sure—to take things for granted. But my daughter is not to be taken for granted. I have very definite views for my daughter. You have done an unworthy thing, Scaramouche. You have betrayed my trust in you. I am very angry with you."
He rolled forward with his ponderous yet curiously noiseless gait. Scaramouche turned to her, smiling, and handed her the candle.
"If you will leave us, Climene, I will ask your hand of your father in proper form."
She vanished, a little fluttered, lovelier than ever in her mixture of confusion and timidity. Scaramouche closed the door and faced the enraged M. Binet, who had flung himself into an armchair at the head of the short table, faced him with the avowed purpose of asking for Climene's hand in proper form. And this was how he did it:
"Father-in-law," said he, "I congratulate you. This will certainly mean the Comedie Francaise for Climene, and that before long, and you shall shine in the glory she will reflect. As the father of Madame Scaramouche you may yet be famous."
Binet, his face slowly empurpling, glared at him in speechless stupefaction. His rage was the more utter from his humiliating conviction that whatever he might say or do, this irresistible fellow would bend him to his will. At last speech came to him.
"You're a damned corsair," he cried, thickly, banging his ham-like fist upon the table. "A corsair! First you sail in and plunder me of half my legitimate gains; and now you want to carry off my daughter. But I'll be damned if I'll give her to a graceless, nameless scoundrel like you, for whom the gallows are waiting already."
Scaramouche pulled the bell-rope, not at all discomposed. He smiled. There was a flush on his cheeks and a gleam in his eyes. He was very pleased with the world that night. He really owed a great debt to M. de Lesdiguieres.
"Binet," said he, "forget for once that you are Pantaloon, and behave as a nice, amiable father-in-law should behave when he has secured a son-in-law of exceptionable merits. We are going to have a bottle of Burgundy at my expense, and it shall be the best bottle of Burgundy to be found in Redon. Compose yourself to do fitting honour to it. Excitations of the bile invariably impair the fine sensitiveness of the palate."
Chapter VII. The Conquest Of Nantes
The Binet Troupe opened in Nantes—as you may discover in surviving copies of the "Courrier Nantais"—on the Feast of the Purification with "Les Fourberies de Scaramouche." But they did not come to Nantes as hitherto they had gone to little country villages and townships, unheralded and depending entirely upon the parade of their entrance to attract attention to themselves. Andre-Louis had borrowed from the business methods of the Comedie Francaise. Carrying matters with a high hand entirely in his own fashion, he had ordered at Redon the printing of playbills, and four days before the company's descent upon Nantes, these bills were pasted outside the Theatre Feydau and elsewhere about the town, and had attracted —being still sufficiently unusual announcements at the time— considerable attention. He had entrusted the matter to one of the company's latest recruits, an intelligent young man named Basque, sending him on ahead of the company for the purpose.
You may see for yourself one of these playbills in the Carnavalet Museum. It details the players by their stage names only, with the exception of M. Binet and his daughter, and leaving out of account that he who plays Trivelin in one piece appears as Tabarin in another, it makes the company appear to be at least half as numerous again as it really was. It announces that they will open with "Les Fourberies de Scaramouche," to be followed by five other plays of which it gives the titles, and by others not named, which shall also be added should the patronage to be received in the distinguished and enlightened city of Nantes encourage the Binet Troupe to prolong its sojourn at the Theatre Feydau. It lays great stress upon the fact that this is a company of improvisers in the old Italian manner, the like of which has not been seen in France for half a century, and it exhorts the public of Nantes not to miss this opportunity of witnessing these distinguished mimes who are reviving for them the glories of the Comedie de l'Art. Their visit to Nantes—the announcement proceeds—is preliminary to their visit to Paris, where they intend to throw down the glove to the actors of the Comedie Francaise, and to show the world how superior is the art of the improviser to that of the actor who depends upon an author for what he shall say, and who consequently says always the same thing every time that he plays in the same piece.
It is an audacious bill, and its audacity had scared M. Binet out of the little sense left him by the Burgundy which in these days he could afford to abuse. He had offered the most vehement opposition. Part of this Andre-Louis had swept aside; part he had disregarded.
"I admit that it is audacious," said Scaramouche. "But at your time of life you should have learnt that in this world nothing succeeds like audacity."
"I forbid it; I absolutely forbid it," M. Binet insisted.
"I knew you would. Just as I know that you'll be very grateful to me presently for not obeying you."
"You are inviting a catastrophe."
"I am inviting fortune. The worst catastrophe that can overtake you is to be back in the market-halls of the country villages from which I rescued you. I'll have you in Paris yet in spite of yourself. Leave this to me."
And he went out to attend to the printing. Nor did his preparations end there. He wrote a piquant article on the glories of the Comedie de l'Art, and its resurrection by the improvising troupe of the great mime Florimond Binet. Binet's name was not Florimond; it was just Pierre. But Andre-Louis had a great sense of the theatre. That article was an amplification of the stimulating matter contained in the playbills; and he persuaded Basque, who had relations in Nantes, to use all the influence he could command, and all the bribery they could afford, to get that article printed in the "Courrier Nantais" a couple of days before the arrival of the Binet Troupe.
Basque had succeeded, and, considering the undoubted literary merits and intrinsic interest of the article, this is not at all surprising.
And so it was upon an already expectant city that Binet and his company descended in that first week of February. M. Binet would have made his entrance in the usual manner—a full-dress parade with banging drums and crashing cymbals. But to this Andre-Louis offered the most relentless opposition.
"We should but discover our poverty," said he. "Instead, we will creep into the city unobserved, and leave ourselves to the imagination of the public."
He had his way, of course. M. Binet, worn already with battling against the strong waters of this young man's will, was altogether unequal to the contest now that he found Climene in alliance with Scaramouche, adding her insistence to his, and joining with him in reprobation of her father's sluggish and reactionary wits. Metaphorically, M. Binet threw up his arms, and cursing the day on which he had taken this young man into his troupe, he allowed the current to carry him whither it would. He was persuaded that he would be drowned in the end. Meanwhile he would drown his vexation in Burgundy. At least there was abundance of Burgundy. Never in his life had he found Burgundy so plentiful. Perhaps things were not as bad as he imagined, after all. He reflected that, when all was said, he had to thank Scaramouche for the Burgundy. Whilst fearing the worst, he would hope for the best.
And it was very much the worst that he feared as he waited in the wings when the curtain rose on that first performance of theirs at the Theatre Feydau to a house that was tolerably filled by a public whose curiosity the preliminary announcements had thoroughly stimulated.
Although the scenario of "Lee Fourberies de Scaramouche" has not apparently survived, yet we know from Andre-Louis' "Confessions" that it is opened by Polichinelle in the character of an arrogant and fiercely jealous lover shown in the act of beguiling the waiting-maid, Columbine, to play the spy upon her mistress, Climene. Beginning with cajolery, but failing in this with the saucy Columbine, who likes cajolers to be at least attractive and to pay a due deference to her own very piquant charms, the fierce humpbacked scoundrel passes on to threats of the terrible vengeance he will wreak upon her if she betrays him or neglects to obey him implicitly; failing here, likewise, he finally has recourse to bribery, and after he has bled himself freely to the very expectant Columbine, he succeeds by these means in obtaining her consent to spy upon Climene, and to report to him upon her lady's conduct.
The pair played the scene well together, stimulated, perhaps, by their very nervousness at finding themselves before so imposing an audience. Polichinelle was everything that is fierce, contemptuous, and insistent. Columbine was the essence of pert indifference under his cajolery, saucily mocking under his threats, and finely sly in extorting the very maximum when it came to accepting a bribe. Laughter rippled through the audience and promised well. But M. Binet, standing trembling in the wings, missed the great guffaws of the rustic spectators to whom they had played hitherto, and his fears steadily mounted.
Then, scarcely has Polichinelle departed by the door than Scaramouche bounds in through the window. It was an effective entrance, usually performed with a broad comic effect that set the people in a roar. Not so on this occasion. Meditating in bed that morning, Scaramouche had decided to present himself in a totally different aspect. He would cut out all the broad play, all the usual clowning which had delighted their past rude audiences, and he would obtain his effects by subtlety instead. He would present a slyly humorous rogue, restrained, and of a certain dignity, wearing a countenance of complete solemnity, speaking his lines drily, as if unconscious of the humour with which he intended to invest them. Thus, though it might take the audience longer to understand and discover him, they would like him all the better in the end.
True to that resolve, he now played his part as the friend and hired ally of the lovesick Leandre, on whose behalf he came for news of Climene, seizing the opportunity to further his own amour with Columbine and his designs upon the money-bags of Pantaloon. Also he had taken certain liberties with the traditional costume of Scaramouche; he had caused the black doublet and breeches to be slashed with red, and the doublet to be cut more to a peak, a la Henri III. The conventional black velvet cap he had replaced by a conical hat with a turned-up brim, and a tuft of feathers on the left, and he had discarded the guitar.
M. Binet listened desperately for the roar of laughter that usually greeted the entrance of Scaramouche, and his dismay increased when it did not come. And then he became conscious of something alarmingly unusual in Scaramouche's manner. The sibilant foreign accent was there, but none of the broad boisterousness their audiences had loved.
He wrung his hands in despair. "It is all over!" he said. "The fellow has ruined us! It serves me right for being a fool, and allowing him to take control of everything!"
But he was profoundly mistaken. He began to have an inkling of this when presently himself he took the stage, and found the public attentive, remarked a grin of quiet appreciation on every upturned face. It was not, however, until the thunders of applause greeted the fall of the curtain on the first act that he felt quite sure they would be allowed to escape with their lives.
Had the part of Pantaloon in "Les Fourberies" been other than that of a blundering, timid old idiot, Binet would have ruined it by his apprehensions. As it was, those very apprehensions, magnifying as they did the hesitancy and bewilderment that were the essence of his part, contributed to the success. And a success it proved that more than justified all the heralding of which Scaramouche had been guilty.
For Scaramouche himself this success was not confined to the public. At the end of the play a great reception awaited him from his companions assembled in the green-room of the theatre. His talent, resource, and energy had raised them in a few weeks from a pack of vagrant mountebanks to a self-respecting company of first-rate players. They acknowledged it generously in a speech entrusted to Polichinelle, adding the tribute to his genius that, as they had conquered Nantes, so would they conquer the world under his guidance.
In their enthusiasm they were a little neglectful of the feelings of M. Binet. Irritated enough had he been already by the overriding of his every wish, by the consciousness of his weakness when opposed to Scaramouche. And, although he had suffered the gradual process of usurpation of authority because its every step had been attended by his own greater profit, deep down in him the resentment abode to stifle every spark of that gratitude due from him to his partner. To-night his nerves had been on the rack, and he had suffered agonies of apprehension, for all of which he blamed Scaramouche so bitterly that not even the ultimate success—almost miraculous when all the elements are considered—could justify his partner in his eyes.
And now, to find himself, in addition, ignored by this company—his own company, which he had so laboriously and slowly assembled and selected among the men of ability whom he had found here and there in the dregs of cities was something that stirred his bile, and aroused the malevolence that never did more than slumber in him. But deeply though his rage was moved, it did not blind him to the folly of betraying it. Yet that he should assert himself in this hour was imperative unless he were for ever to become a thing of no account in this troupe over which he had lorded it for long months before this interloper came amongst them to fill his purse and destroy his authority.
So he stepped forward now when Polichinelle had done. His make-up assisting him to mask his bitter feelings, he professed to add his own to Polichinelle's acclamations of his dear partner. But he did it in such a manner as to make it clear that what Scaramouche had done, he had done by M. Binet's favour, and that in all M. Binet's had been the guiding hand. In associating himself with Polichinelle, he desired to thank Scaramouche, much in the manner of a lord rendering thanks to his steward for services diligently rendered and orders scrupulously carried out.
It neither deceived the troupe nor mollified himself. Indeed, his consciousness of the mockery of it but increased his bitterness. But at least it saved his face and rescued him from nullity—he who was their chief.
To say, as I have said, that it did not deceive them, is perhaps to say too much, for it deceived them at least on the score of his feelings. They believed, after discounting the insinuations in which he took all credit to himself, that at heart he was filled with gratitude, as they were. That belief was shared by Andre-Louis himself, who in his brief, grateful answer was very generous to M. Binet, more than endorsing the claims that M. Binet had made.
And then followed from him the announcement that their success in Nantes was the sweeter to him because it rendered almost immediately attainable the dearest wish of his heart, which was to make Climene his wife. It was a felicity of which he was the first to acknowledge his utter unworthiness. It was to bring him into still closer relations with his good friend M. Binet, to whom he owed all that he had achieved for himself and for them. The announcement was joyously received, for the world of the theatre loves a lover as dearly as does the greater world. So they acclaimed the happy pair, with the exception of poor Leandre, whose eyes were more melancholy than ever.
They were a happy family that night in the upstairs room of their inn on the Quai La Fosse—the same inn from which Andre-Louis had set out some weeks ago to play a vastly different role before an audience of Nantes. Yet was it so different, he wondered? Had he not then been a sort of Scaramouche—an intriguer, glib and specious, deceiving folk, cynically misleading them with opinions that were not really his own? Was it at all surprising that he should have made so rapid and signal a success as a mime? Was not this really all that he had ever been, the thing for which Nature had designed him?
On the following night they played "The Shy Lover" to a full house, the fame of their debut having gone abroad, and the success of Monday was confirmed. On Wednesday they gave "Figaro-Scaramouche," and on Thursday morning the "Courrier Nantais" came out with an article of more than a column of praise of these brilliant improvisers, for whom it claimed that they utterly put to shame the mere reciters of memorized parts.
Andre-Louis, reading the sheet at breakfast, and having no delusions on the score of the falseness of that statement, laughed inwardly. The novelty of the thing, and the pretentiousness in which he had swaddled it, had deceived them finely. He turned to greet Binet and Climene, who entered at that moment. He waved the sheet above his head.
"It is settled," he announced, "we stay in Nantes until Easter."
"Do we?" said Binet, sourly. "You settle everything, my friend."
"Read for yourself." And he handed him the paper.
Moodily M. Binet read. He set the sheet down in silence, and turned his attention to his breakfast.
"Was I justified or not?" quoth Andre-Louis, who found M. Binet's behaviour a thought intriguing.
"In coming to Nantes?"
"If I had not thought so, we should not have come," said Binet, and he began to eat.
Andre-Louis dropped the subject, wondering.
After breakfast he and Climene sallied forth to take the air upon the quays. It was a day of brilliant sunshine and less cold than it had lately been. Columbine tactlessly joined them as they were setting out, though in this respect matters were improved a little when Harlequin came running after them, and attached himself to Columbine.
Andre-Louis, stepping out ahead with Climene, spoke of the thing that was uppermost in his mind at the moment.
"Your father is behaving very oddly towards me," said he. "It is almost as if he had suddenly become hostile."
"You imagine it," said she. "My father is very grateful to you, as we all are."
"He is anything but grateful. He is infuriated against me; and I think I know the reason. Don't you? Can't you guess?"
"I can't, indeed."
"If you were my daughter, Climene, which God be thanked you are not, I should feel aggrieved against the man who carried you away from me. Poor old Pantaloon! He called me a corsair when I told him that I intend to marry you."
"He was right. You are a bold robber, Scaramouche."
"It is in the character," said he. "Your father believes in having his mimes play upon the stage the parts that suit their natural temperaments."
"Yes, you take everything you want, don't you?" She looked up at him, half adoringly, half shyly.
"If it is possible," said he. "I took his consent to our marriage by main force from him. I never waited for him to give it. When, in fact, he refused it, I just snatched it from him, and I'll defy him now to win it back from me. I think that is what he most resents."
She laughed, and launched upon an animated answer. But he did not hear a word of it. Through the bustle of traffic on the quay a cabriolet, the upper half of which was almost entirely made of glass, had approached them. It was drawn by two magnificent bay horses and driven by a superbly livened coachman.
In the cabriolet alone sat a slight young girl wrapped in a lynx-fur pelisse, her face of a delicate loveliness. She was leaning forward, her lips parted, her eyes devouring Scaramouche until they drew his gaze. When that happened, the shock of it brought him abruptly to a dumfounded halt.
Climene, checking in the middle of a sentence, arrested by his own sudden stopping, plucked at his sleeve.
"What is it, Scaramouche?"
But he made no attempt to answer her, and at that moment the coachman, to whom the little lady had already signalled, brought the carriage to a standstill beside them. Seen in the gorgeous setting of that coach with its escutcheoned panels, its portly coachman and its white-stockinged footman—who swung instantly to earth as the vehicle stopped—its dainty occupant seemed to Climene a princess out of a fairy-tale. And this princess leaned forward, with eyes aglow and cheeks aflush, stretching out a choicely gloved hand to Scaramouche.
"Andre-Louis!" she called him.
And Scaramouche took the hand of that exalted being, just as he might have taken the hand of Climene herself, and with eyes that reflected the gladness of her own, in a voice that echoed the joyous surprise of hers, he addressed her familiarly by name, just as she had addressed him.
CHAPTER VIII. THE DREAM
"The door," Aline commanded her footman, and "Mount here beside me," she commanded Andre-Louis, in the same breath.
"A moment, Aline."
He turned to his companion, who was all amazement, and to Harlequin and Columbine, who had that moment come up to share it. "You permit me, Climene?" said he, breathlessly. But it was more a statement than a question. "Fortunately you are not alone. Harlequin will take care of you. Au revoir, at dinner."
With that he sprang into the cabriolet without waiting for a reply. The footman closed the door, the coachman cracked his whip, and the regal equipage rolled away along the quay, leaving the three comedians staring after it, open-mouthed...Then Harlequin laughed.
"A prince in disguise, our Scaramouche!" said he.
Columbine clapped her hands and flashed her strong teeth. "But what a romance for you, Climene! How wonderful!"
The frown melted from Climene's brow. Resentment changed to bewilderment.
"But who is she?"
"His sister, of course," said Harlequin, quite definitely.
"His sister? How do you know?"
"I know what he will tell you on his return."
"Because you wouldn't believe him if he said she was his mother."
Following the carriage with their glance, they wandered on in the direction it had taken. And in the carriage Aline was considering Andre-Louis with grave eyes, lips slightly compressed, and a tiny frown between her finely drawn eyebrows.
"You have taken to queer company, Andre," was the first thing she said to him. "Or else I am mistaken in thinking that your companion was Mlle. Binet of the Theatre Feydau."
"You are not mistaken. But I had not imagined Mlle. Binet so famous already."
"Oh, as to that..." mademoiselle shrugged, her tone quietly scornful. And she explained. "It is simply that I was at the play last night. I thought I recognized her."
"You were at the Feydau last night? And I never saw you!"
"Were you there, too?"
"Was I there!" he cried. Then he checked, and abruptly changed his tone. "Oh, yes, I was there," he said, as commonplace as he could, beset by a sudden reluctance to avow that he had so willingly descended to depths that she must account unworthy, and grateful that his disguise of face and voice should have proved impenetrable even to one who knew him so very well.
"I understand," said she, and compressed her lips a little more tightly.
"But what do you understand?"
"The rare attractions of Mlle. Binet. Naturally you would be at the theatre. Your tone conveyed it very clearly. Do you know that you disappoint me, Andre? It is stupid of me, perhaps; it betrays, I suppose, my imperfect knowledge of your sex. I am aware that most young men of fashion find an irresistible attraction for creatures who parade themselves upon the stage. But I did not expect you to ape the ways of a man of fashion. I was foolish enough to imagine you to be different; rather above such trivial pursuits. I conceived you something of an idealist."
"So I perceive. But you misled me. You talked so much morality of a kind, you made philosophy so readily, that I came to be deceived. In fact, your hypocrisy was so consummate that I never suspected it. With your gift of acting I wonder that you haven't joined Mlle. Binet's troupe."
"I have," said he.
It had really become necessary to tell her, making choice of the lesser of the two evils with which she confronted him.
He saw first incredulity, then consternation, and lastly disgust overspread her face.
"Of course," said she, after a long pause, "that would have the advantage of bringing you closer to your charmer."
"That was only one of the inducements. There was another. Finding myself forced to choose between the stage and the gallows, I had the incredible weakness to prefer the former. It was utterly unworthy of a man of my lofty ideals, but—what would you? Like other ideologists, I find it easier to preach than to practise. Shall I stop the carriage and remove the contamination of my disgusting person? Or shall I tell you how it happened?"
"Tell me how it happened first. Then we will decide."
He told her how he met the Binet Troupe, and how the men of the marechaussee forced upon him the discovery that in its bosom he could lie safely lost until the hue and cry had died down. The explanation dissolved her iciness.
"My poor Andre, why didn't you tell me this at first?"
"For one thing, you didn't give me time; for another, I feared to shock you with the spectacle of my degradation."
She took him seriously. "But where was the need of it? And why did you not send us word as I required you of your whereabouts?"
"I was thinking of it only yesterday. I have hesitated for several reasons."
"You thought it would offend us to know what you were doing?"
"I think that I preferred to surprise you by the magnitude of my ultimate achievements."
"Oh, you are to become a great actor?" She was frankly scornful.
"That is not impossible. But I am more concerned to become a great author. There is no reason why you should sniff. The calling is an honourable one. All the world is proud to know such men as Beaumarchais and Chenier."
"And you hope to equal them?"
"I hope to surpass them, whilst acknowledging that it was they who taught me how to walk. What did you think of the play last night?"
"It was amusing and well conceived."
"Let me present you to the author."
"You? But the company is one of the improvisers."
"Even improvisers require an author to write their scenarios. That is all I write at present. Soon I shall be writing plays in the modern manner."
"You deceive yourself, my poor Andre. The piece last night would have been nothing without the players. You are fortunate in your Scaramouche."
"In confidence—I present you to him."
"You—Scaramouche? You?" She turned to regard him fully. He smiled his close-lipped smile that made wrinkles like gashes in his cheeks. He nodded. "And I didn't recognize you!"
"I thank you for the tribute. You imagined, of course, that I was a scene-shifter. And now that you know all about me, what of Gavrillac? What of my godfather?"
He was well, she told him, and still profoundly indignant with Andre-Louis for his defection, whilst secretly concerned on his behalf.
"I shall write to him to-day that I have seen you."
"Do so. Tell him that I am well and prospering. But say no more. Do not tell him what I am doing. He has his prejudices too. Besides, it might not be prudent. And now the question I have been burning to ask ever since I entered your carriage. Why are you in Nantes, Aline?"
"I am on a visit to my aunt, Mme. de Sautron. It was with her that I came to the play yesterday. We have been dull at the chateau; but it will be different now. Madame my aunt is receiving several guests to-day. M. de La Tour d'Azyr is to be one of them."
Andre-Louis frowned and sighed. "Did you ever hear, Aline, how poor Philippe de Vilmorin came by his end?"
"Yes; I was told, first by my uncle; then by M. de La Tour d'Azyr, himself."
"Did not that help you to decide this marriage question?"
"How could it? You forget that I am but a woman. You don't expect me to judge between men in matters such as these?"
"Why not? You are well able to do so. The more since you have heard two sides. For my godfather would tell you the truth. If you cannot judge, it is that you do not wish to judge." His tone became harsh. "Wilfully you close your eyes to justice that might check the course of your unhealthy, unnatural ambition."
"Excellent!" she exclaimed, and considered him with amusement and something else. "Do you know that you are almost droll? You rise unblushing from the dregs of life in which I find you, and shake off the arm of that theatre girl, to come and preach to me."
"If these were the dregs of life I might still speak from them to counsel you out of my respect and devotion Aline." He was very, stiff and stern. "But they are not the dregs of life. Honour and virtue are possible to a theatre girl; they are impossible to a lady who sells herself to gratify ambition; who for position, riches, and a great title barters herself in marriage."
She looked at him breathlessly. Anger turned her pale. She reached for the cord.
"I think I had better let you alight so that you may go back to practise virtue and honour with your theatre wench."
"You shall not speak so of her, Aline."
"Faith, now we are to have heat on her behalf. You think I am too delicate? You think I should speak of her as a..."
"If you must speak of her at all," he interrupted, hotly, "you'll speak of her as my wife."
Amazement smothered her anger. Her pallor deepened. "My God!" she said, and looked at him in horror. And in horror she asked him presently: "You are married—married to that—?"
"Not yet. But I shall be, soon. And let me tell you that this girl whom you visit with your ignorant contempt is as good and pure as you are, Aline. She has wit and talent which have placed her where she is and shall carry her a deal farther. And she has the womanliness to be guided by natural instincts in the selection of her mate."
She was trembling with passion. She tugged the cord.
"You will descend this instant!" she told him fiercely. "That you should dare to make a comparison between me and that..."
"And my wife-to-be," he interrupted, before she could speak the infamous word. He opened the door for himself without waiting for the footman, and leapt down. "My compliments," said he, furiously, "to the assassin you are to marry." He slammed the door. "Drive on," he bade the coachman.
The carriage rolled away up the Faubourg Gigan, leaving him standing where he had alighted, quivering with rage. Gradually, as he walked back to the inn, his anger cooled. Gradually, as he cooled, he perceived her point of view, and in the end forgave her. It was not her fault that she thought as she thought. Her rearing had been such as to make her look upon every actress as a trull, just as it had qualified her calmly to consider the monstrous marriage of convenience into which she was invited.
He got back to the inn to find the company at table. Silence fell when he entered, so suddenly that of necessity it must be supposed he was himself the subject of the conversation. Harlequin and Columbine had spread the tale of this prince in disguise caught up into the chariot of a princess and carried off by her; and it was a tale that had lost nothing in the telling.
Climene had been silent and thoughtful, pondering what Columbine had called this romance of hers. Clearly her Scaramouche must be vastly other than he had hitherto appeared, or else that great lady and he would never have used such familiarity with each other. Imagining him no better than he was, Climene had made him her own. And now she was to receive the reward of disinterested affection.
Even old Binet's secret hostility towards Andre-Louis melted before this astounding revelation. He had pinched his daughter's ear quite playfully. "Ah, ah, trust you to have penetrated his disguise, my child!"
She shrank resentfully from that implication.
"But I did not. I took him for what he seemed."
Her father winked at her very solemnly and laughed. "To be sure, you did. But like your father, who was once a gentleman, and knows the ways of gentlemen, you detected in him a subtle something different from those with whom misfortune has compelled you hitherto to herd. You knew as well as I did that he never caught that trick of haughtiness, that grand air of command, in a lawyer's musty office, and that his speech had hardly the ring or his thoughts the complexion of the bourgeois that he pretended to be. And it was shrewd of you to have made him yours. Do you know that I shall be very proud of you yet, Climene?"
She moved away without answering. Her father's oiliness offended her. Scaramouche was clearly a great gentleman, an eccentric if you please, but a man born. And she was to be his lady. Her father must learn to treat her differently.
She looked shyly—with a new shyness—at her lover when he came into the room where they were dining. She observed for the first time that proud carriage of the head, with the chin thrust forward, that was a trick of his, and she noticed with what a grace he moved —the grace of one who in youth has had his dancing-masters and fencing-masters.
It almost hurt her when he flung himself into a chair and exchanged a quip with Harlequin in the usual manner as with an equal, and it offended her still more that Harlequin, knowing what he now knew, should use him with the same unbecoming familiarity.
Chapter IX. The Awakening
"Do you know," said Climene, "that I am waiting for the explanation which I think you owe me?"
They were alone together, lingering still at the table to which Andre-Louis had come belatedly, and Andre-Louis was loading himself a pipe. Of late—since joining the Binet Troupe—he had acquired the habit of smoking. The others had gone, some to take the air and others, like Binet and Madame, because they felt that it were discreet to leave those two to the explanations that must pass. It was a feeling that Andre-Louis did not share. He kindled a light and leisurely applied it to his pipe. A frown came to settle on his brow.
"Explanation?" he questioned presently, and looked at her. "But on what score?"
"On the score of the deception you have practised on us—on me."
"I have practised none," he assured her.
"You mean that you have simply kept your own counsel, and that in silence there is no deception. But it is deceitful to withhold facts concerning yourself and your true station from your future wife. You should not have pretended to be a simple country lawyer, which, of course, any one could see that you are not. It may have been very romantic, but...Enfin, will you explain?"
"I see," he said, and pulled at his pipe. "But you are wrong, Climene. I have practised no deception. If there are things about me that I have not told you, it is that I did not account them of much importance. But I have never deceived you by pretending to be other than I am. I am neither more nor less than I have represented myself."
This persistence began to annoy her, and the annoyance showed on her winsome face, coloured her voice.
"Ha! And that fine lady of the nobility with whom you are so intimate, who carried you off in her cabriolet with so little ceremony towards myself? What is she to you?"
"A sort of sister," said he.
"A sort of sister!" She was indignant. "Harlequin foretold that you would say so; but he was amusing himself. It was not very funny. It is less funny still from you. She has a name, I suppose, this sort of sister?"
"Certainly she has a name. She is Mlle. Aline de Kercadiou, the niece of Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac."
"Oho! That's a sufficiently fine name for your sort of sister. What sort of sister, my friend?"
For the first time in their relationship he observed and deplored the taint of vulgarity, of shrewishness, in her manner.
"It would have been more accurate in me to have said a sort of reputed left-handed cousin."
"A reputed left-handed cousin! And what sort of relationship may that be? Faith, you dazzle me with your lucidity."
"It requires to be explained."
"That is what I have been telling you. But you seem very reluctant with your explanations."
"Oh, no. It is only that they are so unimportant. But be you the judge. Her uncle, M. de Kercadiou, is my godfather, and she and I have been playmates from infancy as a consequence. It is popularly believed in Gavrillac that M. de Kercadiou is my father. He has certainly cared for my rearing from my tenderest years, and it is entirely owing to him that I was educated at Louis le Grand. I owe to him everything that I have—or, rather, everything that I had; for of my own free will I have cut myself adrift, and to-day I possess nothing save what I can earn for myself in the theatre or elsewhere."
She sat stunned and pale under that cruel blow to her swelling pride. Had he told her this but yesterday, it would have made no impression upon her, it would have mattered not at all; the event of to-day coming as a sequel would but have enhanced him in her eyes. But coming now, after her imagination had woven for him so magnificent a background, after the rashly assumed discovery of his splendid identity had made her the envied of all the company, after having been in her own eyes and theirs enshrined by marriage with him as a great lady, this disclosure crushed and humiliated her. Her prince in disguise was merely the outcast bastard of a country gentleman! She would be the laughing-stock of every member of her father's troupe, of all those who had so lately envied her this romantic good fortune.
"You should have told me this before," she said, in a dull voice that she strove to render steady.
"Perhaps I should. But does it really matter?"
"Matter?" She suppressed her fury to ask another question. "You say that this M. de Kercadiou is popularly believed to be your father. What precisely do you mean?"
"Just that. It is a belief that I do not share. It is a matter of instinct, perhaps, with me. Moreover, once I asked M. de Kercadiou point-blank, and I received from him a denial. It is not, perhaps, a denial to which one would attach too much importance in all the circumstances. Yet I have never known M de Kercadiou for other than a man of strictest honour, and I should hesitate to disbelieve him —particularly when his statement leaps with my own instincts. He assured me that he did not know who my father was."
"And your mother, was she equally ignorant?" She was sneering, but he did not remark it. Her back was to the light.
"He would not disclose her name to me. He confessed her to be a dear friend of his."
She startled him by laughing, and her laugh was not pleasant.
"A very dear friend, you may be sure, you simpleton. What name do you bear?"
He restrained his own rising indignation to answer her question calmly: "Moreau. It was given me, so I am told, from the Brittany village in which I was born. But I have no claim to it. In fact I have no name, unless it be Scaramouche, to which I have earned a title. So that you see, my dear," he ended with a smile, "I have practised no deception whatever."
"No, no. I see that now." She laughed without mirth, then drew a deep breath and rose. "I am very tired," she said.
He was on his feet in an instant, all solicitude. But she waved him wearily back.
"I think I will rest until it is time to go to the theatre." She moved towards the door, dragging her feet a little. He sprang to open it, and she passed out without looking at him.
Her so brief romantic dream was ended. The glorious world of fancy which in the last hour she had built with such elaborate detail, over which it should be her exalted destiny to rule, lay shattered about her feet, its debris so many stumbling-blocks that prevented her from winning back to her erstwhile content in Scaramouche as he really was.
Andre-Louis sat in the window embrasure, smoking and looking idly out across the river. He was intrigued and meditative. He had shocked her. The fact was clear; not so the reason. That he should confess himself nameless should not particularly injure him in the eyes of a girl reared amid the surroundings that had been Climene's. And yet that his confession had so injured him was fully apparent.
There, still at his brooding, the returning Columbine discovered him a half-hour later.
"All alone, my prince!" was her laughing greeting, which suddenly threw light upon his mental darkness. Climene had been disappointed of hopes that the wild imagination of these players had suddenly erected upon the incident of his meeting with Aline. Poor child! He smiled whimsically at Columbine.
"I am likely to be so for some little time," said he, "until it becomes a commonplace that I am not, after all, a prince.
"Not a prince? Oh, but a duke, then—at least a marquis."
"Not even a chevalier, unless it be of the order of fortune. I am just Scaramouche. My castles are all in Spain."
Disappointment clouded the lively, good-natured face.
"And I had imagined you..."
"I know," he interrupted. "That is the mischief." He might have gauged the extent of that mischief by Climene's conduct that evening towards the gentlemen of fashion who clustered now in the green-room between the acts to pay their homage to the incomparable amoureuse. Hitherto she had received them with a circumspection compelling respect. To-night she was recklessly gay, impudent, almost wanton.
He spoke of it gently to her as they walked home together, counselling more prudence in the future.
"We are not married yet," she told him, tartly. "Wait until then before you criticize my conduct."
"I trust that there will be no occasion then," said he.
"You trust? Ah, yes. You are very trusting."
"Climene, I have offended you. I am sorry."
"It is nothing," said she. "You are what you are." Still was he not concerned. He perceived the source of her ill-humour; understood, whilst deploring it; and, because he understood, forgave. He perceived also that her ill-humour was shared by her father, and by this he was frankly amused. Towards M. Binet a tolerant contempt was the only feeling that complete acquaintance could beget. As for the rest of the company, they were disposed to be very kindly towards Scaramouche. It was almost as if in reality he had fallen from the high estate to which their own imaginations had raised him; or possibly it was because they saw the effect which that fall from his temporary and fictitious elevation had produced upon Climene.
Leandre alone made himself an exception. His habitual melancholy seemed to be dispelled at last, and his eyes gleamed now with malicious satisfaction when they rested upon Scaramouche, whom occasionally he continued to address with sly mockery as "mon prince."
On the morrow Andre-Louis saw but little of Climene. This was not in itself extraordinary, for he was very hard at work again, with preparations now for "Figaro-Scaramouche" which was to be played on Saturday. Also, in addition to his manifold theatrical occupations, he now devoted an hour every morning to the study of fencing in an academy of arms. This was done not only to repair an omission in his education, but also, and chiefly, to give him added grace and poise upon the stage. He found his mind that morning distracted by thoughts of both Climene and Aline. And oddly enough it was Aline who provided the deeper perturbation. Climene's attitude he regarded as a passing phase which need not seriously engage him. But the thought of Aline's conduct towards him kept rankling, and still more deeply rankled the thought of her possible betrothal to M. de La Tour d'Azyr.
This it was that brought forcibly to his mind the self-imposed but by now half-forgotten mission that he had made his own. He had boasted that he would make the voice which M. de La Tour d'Azyr had sought to silence ring through the length and breadth of the land. And what had he done of all this that he had boasted? He had incited the mob of Rennes and the mob of Nantes in such terms as poor Philippe might have employed, and then because of a hue and cry he had fled like a cur and taken shelter in the first kennel that offered, there to lie quiet and devote himself to other things—self-seeking things. What a fine contrast between the promise and the fulfilment!
Thus Andre-Louis to himself in his self-contempt. And whilst he trifled away his time and played Scaramouche, and centred all his hopes in presently becoming the rival of such men as Chenier and Mercier, M. de La Tour d'Azyr went his proud ways unchallenged and wrought his will. It was idle to tell himself that the seed he had sown was bearing fruit. That the demands he had voiced in Nantes for the Third Estate had been granted by M. Necker, thanks largely to the commotion which his anonymous speech had made. That was not his concern or his mission. It was no part of his concern to set about the regeneration of mankind, or even the regeneration of the social structure of France. His concern was to see that M. de La Tour d'Azyr paid to the uttermost liard for the brutal wrong he had done Philippe de Vilmorin. And it did not increase his self-respect to find that the danger in which Aline stood of being married to the Marquis was the real spur to his rancour and to remembrance of his vow. He was—too unjustly, perhaps—disposed to dismiss as mere sophistries his own arguments that there was nothing he could do; that, in fact, he had but to show his head to find himself going to Rennes under arrest and making his final exit from the world's stage by way of the gallows.
It is impossible to read that part of his "Confessions" without feeling a certain pity for him. You realize what must have been his state of mind. You realize what a prey he was to emotions so conflicting, and if you have the imagination that will enable you to put yourself in his place, you will also realize how impossible was any decision save the one to which he says he came, that he would move, at the first moment that he perceived in what direction it would serve his real aims to move.
It happened that the first person he saw when he took the stage on that Thursday evening was Aline; the second was the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr. They occupied a box on the right of, and immediately above, the stage. There were others with them—notably a thin, elderly, resplendent lady whom Andre-Louis supposed to be Madame la Comtesse de Sautron. But at the time he had no eyes for any but those two, who of late had so haunted his thoughts. The sight of either of them would have been sufficiently disconcerting. The sight of both together very nearly made him forget the purpose for which he had come upon the stage. Then he pulled himself together, and played. He played, he says, with an unusual nerve, and never in all that brief but eventful career of his was he more applauded.
That was the evening's first shock. The next came after the second act. Entering the green-room he found it more thronged than usual, and at the far end with Climene, over whom he was bending from his fine height, his eyes intent upon her face, what time his smiling lips moved in talk, M. de La Tour d'Azyr. He had her entirely to himself, a privilege none of the men of fashion who were in the habit of visiting the coulisse had yet enjoyed. Those lesser gentlemen had all withdrawn before the Marquis, as jackals withdraw before the lion.
Andre-Louis stared a moment, stricken. Then recovering from his surprise he became critical in his study of the Marquis. He considered the beauty and grace and splendour of him, his courtly air, his complete and unshakable self-possession. But more than all he considered the expression of the dark eyes that were devouring Climene's lovely face, and his own lips tightened.
M. de La Tour d'Azyr never heeded him or his stare; nor, had he done so, would he have known who it was that looked at him from behind the make-up of Scaramouche; nor, again, had he known, would he have been in the least troubled or concerned.
Andre-Louis sat down apart, his mind in turmoil. Presently he found a mincing young gentleman addressing him, and made shift to answer as was expected. Climene having been thus sequestered, and Columbine being already thickly besieged by gallants, the lesser visitors had to content themselves with Madame and the male members of the troupe. M. Binet, indeed, was the centre of a gay cluster that shook with laughter at his sallies. He seemed of a sudden to have emerged from the gloom of the last two days into high good-humour, and Scaramouche observed how persistently his eyes kept flickering upon his daughter and her splendid courtier.
That night there, were high words between Andre-Louis and Climene, the high words proceeding from Climene. When Andre-Louis again, and more insistently, enjoined prudence upon his betrothed, and begged her to beware how far she encouraged the advances of such a man as M. de La Tour d'Azyr, she became roundly abusive. She shocked and stunned him by her virulently shrewish tone, and her still more unexpected force of invective.
He sought to reason with her, and finally she came to certain terms with him.
"If you have become betrothed to me simply to stand as an obstacle in my path, the sooner we make an end the better."
"You do not love me then, Climene?"
"Love has nothing to do with it. I'll not tolerate your insensate jealousy. A girl in the theatre must make it her business to accept homage from all."
"Agreed; and there is no harm, provided she gives nothing in exchange."
White-faced, with flaming eyes she turned on him at that.
"Now, what exactly do you mean?"
"My meaning is clear. A girl in your position may receive all the homage that is offered, provided she receives it with a dignified aloofness implying clearly that she has no favours to bestow in return beyond the favour of her smile. If she is wise she will see to it that the homage is always offered collectively by her admirers, and that no single one amongst them shall ever have the privilege of approaching her alone. If she is wise she will give no encouragement, nourish no hopes that it may afterwards be beyond her power to deny realization."
"How? You dare?"
"I know my world. And I know M. de La Tour d'Azyr," he answered her. "He is a man without charity, without humanity almost; a man who takes what he wants wherever he finds it and whether it is given willingly or not; a man who reckons nothing of the misery he scatters on his self-indulgent way; a man whose only law is force. Ponder it, Climene, and ask yourself if I do you less than honour in warning you."
He went out on that, feeling a degradation in continuing the subject.
The days that followed were unhappy days for him, and for at least one other. That other was Leandre, who was cast into the profoundest dejection by M. de La Tour d'Azyr's assiduous attendance upon Climene. The Marquis was to be seen at every performance; a box was perpetually reserved for him, and invariably he came either alone or else with his cousin M. de Chabrillane.
On Tuesday of the following week, Andre-Louis went out alone early in the morning. He was out of temper, fretted by an overwhelming sense of humiliation, and he hoped to clear his mind by walking. In turning the corner of the Place du Bouffay he ran into a slightly built, sallow-complexioned gentleman very neatly dressed in black, wearing a tie-wig under a round hat. The man fell back at sight of him, levelling a spy-glass, then hailed him in a voice that rang with amazement.
"Moreau! Where the devil have you been hiding your-self these months?"
It was Le Chapelier, the lawyer, the leader of the Literary Chamber of Rennes.
"Behind the skirts of Thespis," said Scaramouche.
"I don't understand."
"I didn't intend that you should. What of yourself, Isaac? And what of the world which seems to have been standing still of late?"
"Standing still!" Le Chapelier laughed. "But where have you been, then? Standing still!" He pointed across the square to a café under the shadow of the gloomy prison. "Let us go and drink a bavaroise. You are of all men the man we want, the man we have been seeking everywhere, and—behold!—you drop from the skies into my path."
They crossed the square and entered the café.
"So you think the world has been standing still! Dieu de Dieu! I suppose you haven't heard of the royal order for the convocation of the States General, or the terms of them—that we are to have what we demanded, what you demanded for us here in Nantes! You haven't heard that the order has gone forth for the primary elections—the elections of the electors. You haven't heard of the fresh uproar in Rennes, last month. The order was that the three estates should sit together at the States General of the bailliages, but in the bailliage of Rennes the nobles must ever be recalcitrant. They took up arms actually—six hundred of them with their valetaille, headed by your old friend M. de La Tour d'Azyr, and they were for slashing us—the members of the Third Estate—into ribbons so as to put an end to our insolence." He laughed delicately. "But, by God, we showed them that we, too, could take up arms. It was what you yourself advocated here in Nantes, last November. We fought them a pitched battle in the streets, under the leadership of your namesake Moreau, the provost, and we so peppered them that they were glad to take shelter in the Cordelier Convent. That is the end of their resistance to the royal authority and the people's will."
He ran on at great speed detailing the events that had taken place, and finally came to the matter which had, he announced, been causing him to hunt for Andre-Louis until he had all but despaired of finding him.
Nantes was sending fifty delegates to the assembly of Rennes which was to select the deputies to the Third Estate and edit their cahier of grievances. Rennes itself was being as fully represented, whilst such villages as Gavrillac were sending two delegates for every two hundred hearths or less. Each of these three had clamoured that Andre-Louis Moreau should be one of its delegates. Gavrillac wanted him because he belonged to the village, and it was known there what sacrifices he had made in the popular cause; Rennes wanted him because it had heard his spirited address on the day of the shooting of the students; and Nantes—to whom his identity was unknown— asked for him as the speaker who had addressed them under the name of Omnes Omnibus and who had framed for them the memorial that was believed so largely to have influenced M. Necker in formulating the terms of the convocation.
Since he could not be found, the delegations had been made up without him. But now it happened that one or two vacancies had occurred in the Nantes representation; and it was the business of filling these vacancies that had brought Le Chapelier to Nantes.
Andre-Louis firmly shook his head in answer to Le Chapelier's proposal.
"You refuse?" the other cried. "Are you mad? Refuse, when you are demanded from so many sides? Do you realize that it is more than probable you will be elected one of the deputies, that you will be sent to the States General at Versailles to represent us in this work of saving France?"
But Andre-Louis, we know, was not concerned to save France. At the moment he was concerned to save two women, both of whom he loved, though in vastly different ways, from a man he had vowed to ruin. He stood firm in his refusal until Le Chapelier dejectedly abandoned the attempt to persuade him.
"It is odd," said Andre-Louis, "that I should have been so deeply immersed in trifles as never to have perceived that Nantes is being politically active."
"Active! My friend, it is a seething cauldron of political emotions. It is kept quiet on the surface only by the persuasion that all goes well. At a hint to the contrary it would boil over."
"Would it so?" said Scaramouche, thoughtfully. "The knowledge may be useful." And then he changed the subject. "You know that La Tour d'Azyr is here?"
"In Nantes? He has courage if he shows himself. They are not a docile people, these Nantais, and they know his record and the part he played in the rising at Rennes. I marvel they haven't stoned him. But they will, sooner or later. It only needs that some one should suggest it."
"That is very likely," said Andre-Louis, and smiled. "He doesn't show himself much; not in the streets, at least. So that he has not the courage you suppose; nor any kind of courage, as I told him once. He has only insolence."
At parting Le Chapelier again exhorted him to give thought to what he proposed. "Send me word if you change your mind. I am lodged at the Cerf, and I shall be here until the day after to-morrow. If you have ambition, this is your moment."
"I have no ambition, I suppose," said Andre-Louis, and went his way.
That night at the theatre he had a mischievous impulse to test what Le Chapelier had told him of the state of public feeling in the city. They were playing "The Terrible Captain," in the last act of which the empty cowardice of the bullying braggart Rhodomont is revealed by Scaramouche.
After the laughter which the exposure of the roaring captain invariably produced, it remained for Scaramouche contemptuously to dismiss him in a phrase that varied nightly, according to the inspiration of the moment. This time he chose to give his phrase a political complexion:
"Thus, O thrasonical coward, is your emptiness exposed. Because of your long length and the great sword you carry and the angle at which you cock your hat, people have gone in fear of you, have believed in you, have imagined you to be as terrible and as formidable as you insolently make yourself appear. But at the first touch of true spirit you crumple up, you tremble, you whine pitifully, and the great sword remains in your scabbard. You remind me of the Privileged Orders when confronted by the Third Estate."
It was audacious of him, and he was prepared for anything—a laugh, applause, indignation, or all together. But he was not prepared for what came. And it came so suddenly and spontaneously from the groundlings and the body of those in the amphitheatre that he was almost scared by it—as a boy may be scared who has held a match to a sun-scorched hayrick. It was a hurricane of furious applause. Men leapt to their feet, sprang up on to the benches, waving their hats in the air, deafening him with the terrific uproar of their acclamations. And it rolled on and on, nor ceased until the curtain fell.
Scaramouche stood meditatively smiling with tight lips. At the last moment he had caught a glimpse of M. de La Tour d'Azyr's face thrust farther forward than usual from the shadows of his box, and it was a face set in anger, with eyes on fire.
"Mon Dieu!" laughed Rhodomont, recovering from the real scare that had succeeded his histrionic terror, "but you have a great trick of tickling them in the right place, Scaramouche."
Scaramouche looked up at him and smiled. "It can be useful upon occasion," said he, and went off to his dressing-room to change.
But a reprimand awaited him. He was delayed at the theatre by matters concerned with the scenery of the new piece they were to mount upon the morrow. By the time he was rid of the business the rest of the company had long since left. He called a chair and had himself carried back to the inn in solitary state. It was one of many minor luxuries his comparatively affluent present circumstances permitted.
Coming into that upstairs room that was common to all the troupe, he found M. Binet talking loudly and vehemently. He had caught sounds of his voice whilst yet upon the stairs. As he entered Binet broke off short, and wheeled to face him.
"You are here at last!" It was so odd a greeting that Andre-Louis did no more than look his mild surprise. "I await your explanations of the disgraceful scene you provoked to-night."
"Disgraceful? Is it disgraceful that the public should applaud me?"
"The public? The rabble, you mean. Do you want to deprive us of the patronage of all gentlefolk by vulgar appeals to the low passions of the mob?"
Andre-Louis stepped past M. Binet and forward to the table. He shrugged contemptuously. The man offended him, after all.
"You exaggerate grossly—as usual."
"I do not exaggerate. And I am the master in my own theatre. This is the Binet Troupe, and it shall be conducted in the Binet way."
"Who are the gentlefolk the loss of whose patronage to the Feydau will be so poignantly felt?" asked Andre-Louis.
"You imply that there are none? See how wrong you are. After the play to-night M. le Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr came to me, and spoke to me in the severest terms about your scandalous outburst. I was forced to apologize, and..."
"The more fool you," said Andre-Louis. "A man who respected himself would have shown that gentleman the door." M. Binet's face began to empurple. "You call yourself the head of the Binet Troupe, you boast that you will be master in your own theatre, and you stand like a lackey to take the orders of the first insolent fellow who comes to your green-room to tell you that he does not like a line spoken by one of your company! I say again that had you really respected yourself you would have turned him out."
There was a murmur of approval from several members of the company, who, having heard the arrogant tone assumed by the Marquis, were filled with resentment against the slur cast upon them all.
"And I say further," Andre-Louis went on, "that a man who respects himself, on quite other grounds, would have been only too glad to have seized this pretext to show M. de La Tour d'Azyr the door."
"What do you mean by that?" There was a rumble of thunder in the question.
Andre-Louis' eyes swept round the company assembled at the supper-table. "Where is Climene?" he asked, sharply.
Leandre leapt up to answer him, white in the face, tense and quivering with excitement.
"She left the theatre in the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr's carriage immediately after the performance. We heard him offer to drive her to this inn."
Andre-Louis glanced at the timepiece on the overmantel. He seemed unnaturally calm.
"That would be an hour ago—rather more. And she has not yet arrived?"
His eyes sought M. Binet's. M. Binet's eyes eluded his glance. Again it was Leandre who answered him.
"Ah!" Andre-Louis sat down, and poured himself wine. There was an oppressive silence in the room. Leandre watched him expectantly, Columbine commiseratingly. Even M. Binet appeared to be waiting for a cue from Scaramouche. But Scaramouche disappointed him. "Have you left me anything to eat?" he asked.
Platters were pushed towards him. He helped himself calmly to food, and ate in silence, apparently with a good appetite. M. Binet sat down, poured himself wine, and drank. Presently he attempted to make conversation with one and another. He was answered curtly, in monosyllables. M. Binet did not appear to be in favour with his troupe that night.
At long length came a rumble of wheels below and a rattle of halting hooves. Then voices, the high, trilling laugh of Climene floating upwards. Andre-Louis went on eating unconcernedly.
"What an actor!" said Harlequin under his breath to Polichinelle, and Polichinelle nodded gloomily.
She came in, a leading lady taking the stage, head high, chin thrust forward, eyes dancing with laughter; she expressed triumph and arrogance. Her cheeks were flushed, and there was some disorder in the mass of nut-brown hair that crowned her head. In her left hand she carried an enormous bouquet of white camellias. On its middle finger a diamond of great price drew almost at once by its effulgence the eyes of all.
Her father sprang to meet her with an unusual display of paternal tenderness. "At last, my child!"
He conducted her to the table. She sank into a chair, a little wearily, a little nervelessly, but the smile did not leave her face, not even when she glanced across at Scaramouche. It was only Leandre, observing her closely, with hungry, scowling stare, who detected something as of fear in the hazel eyes momentarily seen between the fluttering of her lids.
Andre-Louis, however, still went on eating stolidly, without so much as a look in her direction. Gradually the company came to realize that just as surely as a scene was brooding, just so surely would there be no scene as long as they remained. It was Polichinelle, at last, who gave the signal by rising and withdrawing, and within two minutes none remained in the room but M. Binet, his daughter, and Andre-Louis. And then, at last, Andre-Louis set down knife and fork, washed his throat with a draught of Burgundy, and sat back in his chair to consider Climene.
"I trust," said he, "that you had a pleasant ride, mademoiselle."
"Most pleasant, monsieur." Impudently she strove to emulate his coolness, but did not completely succeed.
"And not unprofitable, if I may judge that jewel at this distance. It should be worth at least a couple of hundred louis, and that is a formidable sum even to so wealthy a nobleman as M. de La Tour d'Azyr. Would it be impertinent in one who has had some notion of becoming your husband, to ask you, mademoiselle, what you have given him in return?"
M. Binet uttered a gross laugh, a queer mixture of cynicism and contempt.
"I have given nothing," said Climene, indignantly.
"Ah! Then the jewel is in the nature of a payment in advance."
"My God, man, you're not decent!" M. Binet protested.
"Decent?" Andre-Louis' smouldering eyes turned to discharge upon M. Binet such a fulmination of contempt that the old scoundrel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Did you mention decency, Binet? Almost you make me lose my temper, which is a thing that I detest above all others!" Slowly his glance returned to Climene, who sat with elbows on the table, her chin cupped in her palms, regarding him with something between scorn and defiance. "Mademoiselle," he said, slowly, "I desire you purely in your own interests to consider whither you are going."
"I am well able to consider it for myself, and to decide without advice from you, monsieur."
"And now you've got your answer," chuckled Binet. "I hope you like it."
Andre-Louis had paled a little; there was incredulity in his great sombre eyes as they continued steadily to regard her. Of M. Binet he took no notice.
"Surely, mademoiselle, you cannot mean that willingly, with open eyes and a full understanding of what you do, you would exchange an honourable wifehood for...for the thing that such men as M. de La Tour d'Azyr may have in store for you?"
M. Binet made a wide gesture, and swung to his daughter. "You hear him, the mealy-mouthed prude! Perhaps you'll believe at last that marriage with him would be the ruin of you. He would always be there the inconvenient husband—to mar your every chance, my girl."
She tossed her lovely head in agreement with her father "I begin to find him tiresome with his silly jealousies," she confessed. "As a husband I am afraid he would be impossible."
Andre-Louis felt a constriction of the heart. But—always the actor—he showed nothing of it. He laughed a little, not very pleasantly, and rose.
"I bow to your choice, mademoiselle. I pray that you may not regret it."
"Regret it?" cried M. Binet. He was laughing, relieved to see his daughter at last rid of this suitor of whom he had never approved, if we except those few hours when he really believed him to be an eccentric of distinction. "And what shall she regret? That she accepted the protection of a nobleman so powerful and wealthy that as a mere trinket he gives her a jewel worth as much as an actress earns in a year at the Comedie Francaise?" He got up, and advanced towards Andre-Louis. His mood became conciliatory. "Come, come, my friend, no rancour now. What the devil! You wouldn't stand in the girl's way? You can't really blame her for making this choice? Have you thought what it means to her? Have you thought that under the protection of such a gentleman there are no heights which she may not reach? Don't you see the wonderful luck of it? Surely, if you're fond of her, particularly being of a jealous temperament, you wouldn't wish it otherwise?"
Andre-Louis looked at him in silence for a long moment. Then he laughed again. "Oh, you are fantastic," he said. "You are not real." He turned on his heel and strode to the door.
The action, and more the contempt of his look, laugh, and words stung M. Binet to passion, drove out the conciliatoriness of his mood.
"Fantastic, are we?" he cried, turning to follow the departing Scaramouche with his little eyes that now were inexpressibly evil. "Fantastic that we should prefer the powerful protection of this great nobleman to marriage with beggarly, nameless bastard. Oh, we are fantastic!"
Andre-Louis turned, his hand upon the door-handle. "No," he said, "I was mistaken. You are not fantastic. You are just vile—both of you." And he went out.
Chapter X. Contrition
Mlle. de Kercadiou walked with her aunt in the bright morning sunshine of a Sunday in March on the broad terrace of the Chateau de Sautron.
For one of her natural sweetness of disposition she had been oddly irritable of late, manifesting signs of a cynical worldliness, which convinced Mme. de Sautron more than ever that her brother Quintin had scandalously conducted the child's education. She appeared to be instructed in all the things of which a girl is better ignorant, and ignorant of all the things that a girl should know. That at least was the point of view of Mme. de Sautron.
"Tell me, madame," quoth Aline, "are all men beasts?" Unlike her brother, Madame la Comtesse was tall and majestically built. In the days before her marriage with M. de Sautron, ill-natured folk described her as the only man in the family. She looked down now from her noble height upon her little niece with startled eyes.
"Really, Aline, you have a trick of asking the most disconcerting and improper questions."
"Perhaps it is because I find life disconcerting and improper."
"Life? A young girl should not discuss life."
"Why not, since I am alive? You do not suggest that it is an impropriety to be alive?"
"It is an impropriety for a young unmarried girl to seek to know too much about life. As for your absurd question about men, when I remind you that man is the noblest work of God, perhaps you will consider yourself answered."
Mme. de Sautron did not invite a pursuance of the subject. But Mlle. de Kercadiou's outrageous rearing had made her headstrong.
"That being so," said she, "will you tell me why they find such an overwhelming attraction in the immodest of our sex?"
Madame stood still and raised shocked hands. Then she looked down her handsome, high-bridged nose.
"Sometimes—often, in fact, my dear Aline—you pass all understanding. I shall write to Quintin that the sooner you are married the better it will be for all."
"Uncle Quintin has left that matter to my own deciding," Aline reminded her.
"That," said madame with complete conviction, "is the last and most outrageous of his errors. Who ever heard of a girl being left to decide the matter of her own marriage? It is...indelicate almost to expose her to thoughts of such things." Mme. de Sautron shuddered. "Quintin is a boor. His conduct is unheard of. That M. de La Tour d'Azyr should parade himself before you so that you may make up your mind whether he is the proper man for you!" Again she shuddered. "It is of a grossness, of...of a prurience almost... Mon Dieu! When I married your uncle, all this was arranged between our parents. I first saw him when he came to sign the contract. I should have died of shame had it been otherwise. And that is how these affairs should be conducted."
"You are no doubt right, madame. But since that is not how my own case is being conducted, you will forgive me if I deal with it apart from others. M. de La Tour d'Azyr desires to marry me. He has been permitted to pay his court. I should be glad to have him informed that he may cease to do so."
Mme. de Sautron stood still, petrified by amazement. Her long face turned white; she seemed to breathe with difficulty.
"But...but... what are you saying?" she gasped.
Quietly Aline repeated her statement.
"But this is outrageous! You cannot be permitted to play fast-and-loose with a gentleman of M. le Marquis' quality! Why, it is little more than a week since you permitted him to be informed that you would become his wife!"
"I did so in a moment of...rashness. Since then M. le Marquis' own conduct has convinced me of my error."
"But—mon Dieu!" cried the Countess. "Are you blind to the great honour that is being paid you? M. le Marquis will make you the first lady in Brittany. Yet, little fool that you are, and greater fool that Quintin is, you trifle with this extraordinary good fortune! Let me warn you." She raised an admonitory forefinger. "If you continue in this stupid humour M. de La Tour d'Azyr may definitely withdraw his offer and depart in justified mortification."
"That, madame, as I am endeavouring to convey to you, is what I most desire."
"Oh, you are mad."
"It may be, madame, that I am sane in preferring to be guided by my instincts. It may be even that I am justified in resenting that the man who aspires to become my husband should at the same time be paying such assiduous homage to a wretched theatre girl at the Feydau."
"Is it not true? Or perhaps you do not find it strange that M. de La Tour d'Azyr should so conduct himself at such a time?"
"Aline, you are so extraordinary a mixture. At moments you shock me by the indecency of your expressions; at others you amaze me by the excess of your prudery. You have been brought up like a little bourgeoise, I think. Yes, that is it—a little bourgeoise. Quintin was always something of a shopkeeper at heart."
"I was asking your opinion on the conduct of M. de La Tour d'Azyr, madame. Not on my own."
"But it is an indelicacy in you to observe such things. You should be ignorant of them, and I can't think who is so...so unfeeling as to inform you. But since you are informed, at least you should be modestly blind to things that take place outside the...orbit of a properly conducted demoiselle."
"Will they still be outside my orbit when I am married?"
"If you are wise. You should remain without knowledge of them. It...it deflowers your innocence. I would not for the world that M. de La Tour d'Azyr should know you so extraordinarily instructed. Had you been properly reared in a convent this would never have happened to you."
"But you do not answer me, madame!" cried Aline in despair. "It is not my chastity that is in question; but that of M. de La Tour d'Azyr."
"Chastity!" Madame's lips trembled with horror. Horror overspread her face. "Wherever did you learn that dreadful, that so improper word?"
And then Mme. de Sautron did violence to her feelings. She realized that here great calm and prudence were required. "My child, since you know so much that you ought not to know, there can be no harm in my adding that a gentleman must have these little distractions."
"But why, madame? Why is it so?"
"Ah, mon Dieu, you are asking me riddles of nature. It is so because it is so. Because men are like that."
"Because men are beasts, you mean—which is what I began by asking you."
"You are incorrigibly stupid, Aline."
"You mean that I do not see things as you do, madame. I am not over-expectant as you appear to think; yet surely I have the right to expect that whilst M. de La Tour d'Azyr is wooing me, he shall not be wooing at the same time a drab of the theatre. I feel that in this there is a subtle association of myself with that unspeakable creature which soils and insults me. The Marquis is a dullard whose wooing takes the form at best of stilted compliments, stupid and unoriginal. They gain nothing when they fall from lips still warm from the contamination of that woman's kisses."
So utterly scandalized was madame that for a moment she remained speechless. Then—
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed. "I should never have suspected you of so indelicate an imagination."
"I cannot help it, madame. Each time his lips touch my fingers I find myself thinking of the last object that they touched. I at once retire to wash my hands. Next time, madame, unless you are good enough to convey my message to him, I shall call for water and wash them in his presence."
"But what am I to tell him? How...in what words can I convey such a message?" Madame was aghast.
"Be frank with him, madame. It is easiest in the end. Tell him that however impure may have been his life in the past, however impure he intend that it shall be in the future, he must at least study purity whilst approaching with a view to marriage a virgin who is herself pure and without stain."
Madame recoiled, and put her hands to her ears, horror stamped on her handsome face. Her massive bosom heaved.
"Oh, how can you?" she panted. "How can you make use of such terrible expressions? Wherever have you learnt them?"
"In church," said Aline.
"Ah, but in church many things are said that...that one would not dream of saying in the world. My dear child, how could I possibly say such a thing to M. le Marquis? How could I possibly?"
"Shall I say it?"
"Well, there it is," said Aline. "Something must be done to shelter me from insult. I am utterly disgusted with M. le Marquis —a disgusting man. And however fine a thing it may be to become Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr, why, frankly, I'd sooner marry a cobbler who practised decency."
Such was her vehemence and obvious determination that Mme. de Sautron fetched herself out of her despair to attempt persuasion. Aline was her niece, and such a marriage in the family would be to the credit of the whole of it. At all costs nothing must frustrate it.
"Listen, my dear," she said. "Let us reason. M. le Marquis is away and will not be back until to-morrow."
"True. And I know where he has gone—or at least whom he has gone with. Mon Dieu, and the drab has a father and a lout of a fellow who intends to make her his wife, and neither of them chooses to do anything. I suppose they agree with you, madame, that a great gentleman must have his little distractions." Her contempt was as scorching as a thing of fire. "However, madame, you were about to say?"
"That on the day after to-morrow you are returning to Gavrillac. M. de La Tour d'Azyr will most likely follow at his leisure."
"You mean when this dirty candle is burnt out?"
"Call it what you will." Madame, you see, despaired by now of controlling the impropriety of her niece's expressions. "At Gavrillac there will be no Mlle. Binet. This thing will be in the past. It is unfortunate that he should have met her at such a moment. The chit is very attractive, after all. You cannot deny that. And you must make allowances."
"M. le Marquis formally proposed to me a week ago. Partly to satisfy the wishes of the family, and partly..." She broke off, hesitating a moment, to resume on a note of dull pain, "Partly because it does not seem greatly to matter whom I marry, I gave him my consent. That consent, for the reasons I have given you, madame, I desire now definitely to withdraw."
Madame fell into agitation of the wildest. "Aline, I should never forgive you! Your uncle Quintin would be in despair. You do not know what you are saying, what a wonderful thing you are refusing. Have you no sense of your position, of the station into which you were born?"
"If I had not, madame, I should have made an end long since. If I have tolerated this suit for a single moment, it is because I realize the importance of a suitable marriage in the worldly sense. But I ask of marriage something more; and Uncle Quintin has placed the decision in my hands."
"God forgive him!" said madame. And then she hurried on: "Leave this to me now, Aline. Be guided by me—oh, be guided by me!" Her tone was beseeching. "I will take counsel with your uncle Charles. But do not definitely decide until this unfortunate affair has blown over. Charles will know how to arrange it. M. le Marquis shall do penance, child, since your tyranny demands it; but not in sackcloth and ashes. You'll not ask so much?"
Aline shrugged. "I ask nothing at all," she said, which was neither assent nor dissent.
So Mme. de Sautron interviewed her husband, a slight, middle-aged man, very aristocratic in appearance and gifted with a certain shrewd sense. She took with him precisely the tone that Aline had taken with herself and which in Aline she had found so disconcertingly indelicate. She even borrowed several of Aline's phrases.
The result was that on the Monday afternoon when at last M. de La Tour d'Azyr's returning berline drove up to the chateau, he was met by M. le Comte de Sautron who desired a word with him even before he changed.
"Gervais, you're a fool," was the excellent opening made by M. le Comte.
"Charles, you give me no news," answered M. le Marquis. "Of what particular folly do you take the trouble to complain?"
He flung himself wearily upon a sofa, and his long graceful body sprawling there he looked up at his friend with a tired smile on that nobly handsome pale face that seemed to defy the onslaught of age.
"Of your last. This Binet girl."
"That! Pooh! An incident; hardly a folly."
"A folly—at such a time," Sautron insisted. The Marquis looked a question. The Count answered it. "Aline," said he, pregnantly. "She knows. How she knows I can't tell you, but she knows, and she is deeply offended."
The smile perished on the Marquis' face. He gathered himself up.
"Offended?" said he, and his voice was anxious.
"But yes. You know what she is. You know the ideals she has formed. It wounds her that at such a time—whilst you are here for the purpose of wooing her—you should at the same time be pursuing this affair with that chit of a Binet girl."
"How do you know?" asked La Tour d'Azyr.
"She has confided in her aunt. And the poor child seems to have some reason. She says she will not tolerate that you should come to kiss her hand with lips that are still contaminated from...Oh, you understand. You appreciate the impression of such a thing upon a pure, sensitive girl such as Aline. She said—I had better tell you—that the next time you kiss her hand, she will call for water and wash it in your presence."
The Marquis' face flamed scarlet. He rose. Knowing his violent, intolerant spirit, M. de Sautron was prepared for an outburst. But no outburst came. The Marquis turned away from him, and paced slowly to the window, his head bowed, his hands behind his back. Halted there he spoke, without turning, his voice was at once scornful and wistful.
"You are right, Charles, I am a fool—a wicked fool! I have just enough sense left to perceive it. It is the way I have lived, I suppose. I have never known the need to deny myself anything I wanted." Then suddenly he swung round, and the outburst came. "But, my God, I want Aline as I have never wanted anything yet! I think I should kill myself in rage if through my folly I should have lost her." He struck his brow with his hand. "I am a beast!" he said. "I should have known that if that sweet saint got word of these petty devilries of mine she would despise me; and I tell you, Charles, I'd go through fire to regain her respect."
"I hope it is to be regained on easier terms," said Charles; and then to ease the situation which began to irk him by its solemnity, he made a feeble joke. "It is merely asked of you that you refrain from going through certain fires that are not accounted by mademoiselle of too purifying a nature."
"As to that Binet girl, it is finished—finished," said the Marquis.
"I congratulate you. When did you make that decision?"
"This moment. I would to God I had made it twenty-four hours ago. As it is-" he shrugged—"why, twenty-four hours of her have been enough for me as they would have been for any man—a mercenary, self-seeking little baggage with the soul of a trull. Bah!" He shuddered in disgust of himself and her.
"Ah! That makes it easier for you," said M. de Sautron, cynically.
"Don't say it, Charles. It is not so. Had you been less of a fool, you would have warned me sooner."
"I may prove to have warned you soon enough if you'll profit by the warning."
"There is no penance I will not do. I will prostrate myself at her feet. I will abase myself before her. I will make confession in the proper spirit of contrition, and Heaven helping me, I'll keep to my purpose of amendment for her sweet sake." He was tragically in earnest.
To M. de Sautron, who had never seen him other than self-contained, supercilious, and mocking, this was an amazing revelation. He shrank from it almost; it gave him the feeling of prying, of peeping through a keyhole. He slapped his friend's shoulder.
"My dear Gervais, here is a magnificently romantic mood. Enough said. Keep to it, and I promise you that all will presently be well. I will be your ambassador, and you shall have no cause to complain."
"But may I not go to her myself?"
"If you are wise you will at once efface yourself. Write to her if you will—make your act of contrition by letter. I will explain why you have gone without seeing her. I will tell her that you did so upon my advice, and I will do it tactfully. I am a good diplomat, Gervais. Trust me."
M. le Marquis raised his head, and showed a face that pain was searing. He held out his hand. "Very well, Charles. Serve me in this, and count me your friend in all things."
Chapter XI. The Fracas At The Theatre Feydau
Leaving his host to act as his plenipotentiary with Mademoiselle de Kercadiou, and to explain to her that it was his profound contrition that compelled him to depart without taking formal leave of her, the Marquis rolled away from Sautron in a cloud of gloom. Twenty-four hours with La Binet had been more than enough for a man of his fastidious and discerning taste. He looked back upon the episode with nausea—the inevitable psychological reaction—marvelling at himself that until yesterday he should have found her so desirable, and cursing himself that for the sake of that ephemeral and worthless gratification he should seriously have imperilled his chances of winning Mademoiselle de Kercadiou to wife. There is, after all, nothing very extraordinary in his frame of mind, so that I need not elaborate it further. It resulted from the conflict between the beast and the angel that go to make up the composition of every man.
The Chevalier de Chabrillane—who in reality occupied towards the Marquis a position akin to that of gentleman-in-waiting—sat opposite to him in the enormous travelling berline. A small folding table had been erected between them, and the Chevalier suggested piquet. But M. le Marquis was in no humour for cards. His thoughts absorbed him. As they were rattling over the cobbles of Nantes' streets, he remembered a promise to La Binet to witness her performance that night in "The Faithless Lover." And now he was running away from her. The thought was repugnant to him on two scores. He was breaking his pledged word, and he was acting like a coward. And there was more than that. He had led the mercenary little strumpet—it was thus he thought of her at present, and with some justice—to expect favours from him in addition to the lavish awards which already he had made her. The baggage had almost sought to drive a bargain with him as to her future. He was to take her to Paris, put her into her own furniture—as the expression ran, and still runs—and under the shadow of his powerful protection see that the doors of the great theatres of the capital should be opened to her talents. He had not—he was thankful to reflect—exactly committed himself. But neither had he definitely refused her. It became necessary now to come to an understanding, since he was compelled to choose between his trivial passion for her—a passion quenched already—and his deep, almost spiritual devotion to Mademoiselle de Kercadiou.
His honour, he considered, demanded of him that he should at once deliver himself from a false position. La Binet would make a scene, of course; but he knew the proper specific to apply to hysteria of that nature. Money, after all, has its uses.
He pulled the cord. The carriage rolled to a standstill; a footman appeared at the door.
"To the Theatre Feydau," said he.
The footman vanished and the berline rolled on. M. de Chabrillane laughed cynically.
"I'll trouble you not to be amused," snapped the Marquis. "You don't understand." Thereafter he explained himself. It was a rare condescension in him. But, then, he could not bear to be misunderstood in such a matter. Chabrillane grew serious in reflection of the Marquis' extreme seriousness.
"Why not write?" he suggested. "Myself, I confess that I should find it easier."
Nothing could better have revealed M. le Marquis' state of mind than his answer.
"Letters are liable both to miscarriage and to misconstruction. Two risks I will not run. If she did not answer, I should never know which had been incurred. And I shall have no peace of mind until I know that I have set a term to this affair. The berline can wait while we are at the theatre. We will go on afterwards. We will travel all night if necessary."
"Peste!" said M. de Chabrillane with a grimace. But that was all.
The great travelling carriage drew up at the lighted portals of the Feydau, and M. le Marquis stepped out. He entered the theatre with Chabrillane, all unconsciously to deliver himself into the hands of Andre-Louis.
Andre-Louis was in a state of exasperation produced by Climene's long absence from Nantes in the company of M. le Marquis, and fed by the unspeakable complacency with which M. Binet regarded that event of quite unmistakable import.
However much he might affect the frame of mind of the stoics, and seek to judge with a complete detachment, in the heart and soul of him Andre-Louis was tormented and revolted. It was not Climene he blamed. He had been mistaken in her. She was just a poor weak vessel driven helplessly by the first breath, however foul, that promised her advancement. She suffered from the plague of greed; and he congratulated himself upon having discovered it before making her his wife. He felt for her now nothing but a deal of pity and some contempt. The pity was begotten of the love she had lately inspired in him. It might be likened to the dregs of love, all that remained after the potent wine of it had been drained off. His anger he reserved for her father and her seducer.
The thoughts that were stirring in him on that Monday morning, when it was discovered that Climene had not yet returned from her excursion of the previous day in the coach of M. le Marquis, were already wicked enough without the spurring they received from the distraught Leandre.
Hitherto the attitude of each of these men towards the other had been one of mutual contempt. The phenomenon has frequently been observed in like cases. Now, what appeared to be a common misfortune brought them into a sort of alliance. So, at least, it seemed to Leandre when he went in quest of Andre-Louis, who with apparent unconcern was smoking a pipe upon the quay immediately facing the inn.
"Name of a pig!" said Leandre. "How can you take your ease and smoke at such a time?"
Scaramouche surveyed the sky. "I do not find it too cold," said he. "The sun is shining. I am very well here."
"Do I talk of the weather?" Leandre was very excited.
"Of what, then?"
"Of Climene, of course."
"Oh! The lady has ceased to interest me," he lied.
Leandre stood squarely in front of him, a handsome figure handsomely dressed in these days, his hair well powdered, his stockings of silk. His face was pale, his large eyes looked larger than usual.
"Ceased to interest you? Are you not to marry her?"
Andre-Louis expelled a cloud of smoke. "You cannot wish to be offensive. Yet you almost suggest that I live on other men's leavings."
"My God!" said Leandre, overcome, and he stared awhile. Then he burst out afresh. "Are you quite heartless? Are you always Scaramouche?"
"What do you expect me to do?" asked Andre-Louis, evincing surprise in his own turn, but faintly.
"I do not expect you to let her go without a struggle."
"But she has gone already." Andre-Louis pulled at his pipe a moment, what time Leandre clenched and unclenched his hands in impotent rage. "And to what purpose struggle against the inevitable? Did you struggle when I took her from you?"
"She was not mine to be taken from me. I but aspired, and you won the race. But even had it been otherwise where is the comparison? That was a thing in honour; this—this is hell."
His emotion moved Andre-Louis. He took Leandre's arm. "You're a good fellow, Leandre. I am glad I intervened to save you from your fate."
"Oh, you don't love her!" cried the other, passionately. "You never did. You don't know what it means to love, or you'd not talk like this. My God! if she had been my affianced wife and this had happened, I should have killed the man—killed him! Do you hear me? But you... Oh, you, you come out here and smoke, and take the air, and talk of her as another man's leavings. I wonder I didn't strike you for the word."
He tore his arm from the other's grip, and looked almost as if he would strike him now.
"You should have done it," said Andre-Louis. "It's in your part."
With an imprecation Leandre turned on his heel to go. Andre-Louis arrested his departure.
"A moment, my friend. Test me by yourself. Would you marry her now?"
"Would I?" The young man's eyes blazed with passion. "Would I? Let her say that she will marry me, and I am her slave."
"Slave is the right word—a slave in hell."
"It would never be hell to me where she was, whatever she had done. I love her, man, I am not like you. I love her, do you hear me?"
"I have known, it for some time," said Andre-Louis. "Though I didn't suspect your attack of the disease to be quite so violent. Well, God knows I loved her, too, quite enough to share your thirst for killing. For myself, the blue blood of La Tour d'Azyr would hardly quench this thirst. I should like to add to it the dirty fluid that flows in the veins of the unspeakable Binet."
For a second his emotion had been out of hand, and he revealed to Leandre in the mordant tone of those last words something of the fires that burned under his icy exterior. The young man caught him by the hand.
"I knew you were acting," said he. "You feel—you feel as I do."
"Behold us, fellows in viciousness. I have betrayed myself, it seems. Well, and what now? Do you want to see this pretty Marquis torn limb from limb? I might afford you the spectacle."
"What?" Leandre stared, wondering was this another of Scaramouche's cynicisms.
"It isn't really difficult provided I have aid. I require only a little. Will you lend it me?"
"Anything you ask," Leandre exploded. "My life if you require it."
Andre-Louis took his arm again. "Let us walk," he said. "I will instruct you."
When they came back the company was already at dinner. Mademoiselle had not yet returned. Sullenness presided at the table. Columbine and Madame wore anxious expressions. The fact was that relations between Binet and his troupe were daily growing more strained.
Andre-Louis and Leandre went each to his accustomed place. Binet's little eyes followed them with a malicious gleam, his thick lips pouted into a crooked smile.
"You two are grown very friendly of a sudden," he mocked.
"You are a man of discernment, Binet," said Scaramouche, the cold loathing of his voice itself an insult. "Perhaps you discern the reason?"
"It is readily discerned."
"Regale the company with it!" he begged; and waited. "What? You hesitate? Is it possible that there are limits to your shamelessness?"
Binet reared his great head. "Do you want to quarrel with me, Scaramouche?" Thunder was rumbling in his deep, voice.
"Quarrel? You want to laugh. A man doesn't quarrel with creatures like you. We all know the place held in the public esteem by complacent husbands. But, in God's name, what place is there at all for complacent fathers?"
Binet heaved himself up, a great towering mass of manhood. Violently he shook off the restraining hand of Pierrot who sat on his left.
"A thousand devils!" he roared; "if you take that tone with me, I'll break every bone in your filthy body."
"If you were to lay a finger on me, Binet, you would give me the only provocation I still need to kill you." Andre-Louis was as calm as ever, and therefore the more menacing. Alarm stirred the company. He protruded from his pocket the butt of a pistol—newly purchased. "I go armed, Binet. It is only fair to give you warning. Provoke me as you have suggested, and I'll kill you with no more compunction than I should kill a slug, which after all is the thing you most resemble—a slug, Binet; a fat, slimy body; foulness without soul and without intelligence. When I come to think of it I can't suffer to sit at table with you. It turns my stomach."
He pushed away his platter and got up. "I'll go and eat at the ordinary below stairs."
Thereupon up jumped Columbine.
"And I'll come with you, Scaramouche!" cried she.
It acted like a signal. Had the thing been concerted it couldn't have fallen out more uniformly. Binet, in fact, was persuaded of a conspiracy. For in the wake of Columbine went Leandre, in the wake of Leandre, Polichinelle and then all the rest together, until Binet found himself sitting alone at the head of an empty table in an empty room—a badly shaken man whose rage could afford him no support against the dread by which he was suddenly invaded.
He sat down to think things out, and he was still at that melancholy occupation when perhaps a half-hour later his daughter entered the room, returned at last from her excursion.
She looked pale, even a little scared—in reality excessively self-conscious now that the ordeal of facing all the company awaited her.
Seeing no one but her father in the room, she checked on the threshold.
"Where is everybody?" she asked, in a voice rendered natural by effort.
M. Binet reared his great head and turned upon her eyes that were blood-injected. He scowled, blew out his thick lips and made harsh noises in his throat. Yet he took stock of her, so graceful and comely and looking so completely the lady of fashion in her long fur-trimmed travelling coat of bottle green, her muff and her broad hat adorned by a sparkling Rhinestone buckle above her adorably coiffed brown hair. No need to fear the future whilst he owned such a daughter, let Scaramouche play what tricks he would.
He expressed, however, none of these comforting reflections.
"So you're back at last, little fool," he growled in greeting. "I was beginning to ask myself if we should perform this evening. It wouldn't greatly have surprised me if you had not returned in time. Indeed, since you have chosen to play the fine hand you held in your own way and scorning my advice, nothing can surprise me."
She crossed the room to the table, and leaning against it, looked down upon him almost disdainfully.
"I have nothing to regret," she said.
"So every fool says at first. Nor would you admit it if you had. You are like that. You go your own way in spite of advice from older heads. Death of my life, girl, what do you know of men?"
"I am not complaining," she reminded him.
"No, but you may be presently, when you discover that you would have done better to have been guided by your old father. So long as your Marquis languished for you, there was nothing you could not have done with the fool. So long as you let him have no more than your fingertips to kiss... ah, name of a name! that was the time to build your future. If you live to be a thousand you'll never have such a chance again, and you've squandered it, for what?"
Mademoiselle sat down.—"You're sordid," she said, with disgust.
"Sordid, am I?" His thick lips curled again. "I have had enough of the dregs of life, and so I should have thought have you. You held a hand on which to have won a fortune if you had played it as I bade you. Well, you've played it, and where's the fortune? We can whistle for that as a sailor whistles for wind. And, by Heaven, we'll need to whistle presently if the weather in the troupe continues as it's set in. That scoundrel Scaramouche has been at his ape's tricks with them. They've suddenly turned moral. They won't sit at table with me any more." He was spluttering between anger and sardonic mirth. "It was your friend Scaramouche set them the example of that. He threatened my life actually. Threatened my life! Called me...Oh, but what does that matter? What matters is that the next thing to happen to us will be that the Binet Troupe will discover it can manage without M. Binet and his daughter. This scoundrelly bastard I've befriended has little by little robbed me of everything. It's in his power to-day to rob me of my troupe, and the knave's ungrateful enough and vile enough to make use of his power.
"Let him," said mademoiselle contemptuously.
"Let him?" He was aghast. "And what's to become of us?"
"In no case will the Binet Troupe interest me much longer," said she. "I shall be going to Paris soon. There are better theatres there than the Feydau. There's Mlle. Montansier's theatre in the Palais Royal; there's the Ambigu Comique; there's the Comedie Francaise; there's even a possibility I may have a theatre of my own."
His eyes grew big for once. He stretched out a fat hand, and placed it on one of hers. She noticed that it trembled.
"Has he promised that? Has he promised?"
She looked at him with her head on one side, eyes sly and a queer little smile on her perfect lips.
"He did not refuse me when I asked it," she answered, with conviction that all was as she desired it.
"Bah!" He withdrew his hand, and heaved himself up. There was disgust on his face. "He did not refuse!" he mocked her; and then with passion: "Had you acted as I advised you, he would have consented to anything that you asked, and what is more he would have provided anything that you asked—anything that lay within his means, and they are inexhaustible. You have changed a certainty into a possibility, and I hate possibilities—God of God! I have lived on possibilities, and infernally near starved on them."
Had she known of the interview taking place at that moment at the Chateau de Sautron she would have laughed less confidently at her father's gloomy forebodings. But she was destined never to know, which indeed was the cruellest punishment of all. She was to attribute all the evil that of a sudden overwhelmed her, the shattering of all the future hopes she had founded upon the Marquis and the sudden disintegration of the Binet Troupe, to the wicked interference of that villain Scaramouche.
She had this much justification that possibly, without the warning from M. de Sautron, the Marquis would have found in the events of that evening at the Theatre Feydau a sufficient reason for ending an entanglement that was fraught with too much unpleasant excitement, whilst the breaking-up of the Binet Troupe was most certainly the result of Andre-Louis' work. But it was not a result that he intended or even foresaw.
So much was this the case that in the interval after the second act, he sought the dressing-room shared by Polichinelle and Rhodomont. Polichinelle was in the act of changing.
"I shouldn't trouble to change," he said. "The piece isn't likely to go beyond my opening scene of the next act with Leandre."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll see." He put a paper on Polichinelle's table amid the grease-paints. "Cast your eye over that. It's a sort of last will and testament in favour of the troupe. I was a lawyer once; the document is in order. I relinquish to all of you the share produced by my partnership in the company."
"But you don't mean that you are leaving us?" cried Polichinelle in alarm, whilst Rhodomont's sudden stare asked the same question.
Scaramouche's shrug was eloquent. Polichinelle ran on gloomily: "Of course it was to have been foreseen. But why should you be the one to go? It is you who have made us; and it is you who are the real head and brains of the troupe; it is you who have raised it into a real theatrical company. If any one must go, let it be Binet—Binet and his infernal daughter. Or if you go, name of a name! we all go with you!"
"Aye," added Rhodomont, "we've had enough of that fat scoundrel."
"I had thought of it, of course," said Andre-Louis. "It was not vanity, for once; it was trust in your friendship. After to-night we may consider it again, if I survive."
"If you survive?" both cried.
Polichinelle got up. "Now, what madness have you in mind?" he asked.
"For one thing I think I am indulging Leandre; for another I am pursuing an old quarrel."
The three knocks sounded as he spoke.
"There, I must go. Keep that paper, Polichinelle. After all, it may not be necessary."
He was gone. Rhodomont stared at Polichinelle. Polichinelle stared at Rhodomont.
"What the devil is he thinking of?" quoth the latter.
"That is most readily ascertained by going to see," replied Polichinelle. He completed changing in haste, and despite what Scaramouche had said; and then followed with Rhodomont.
As they approached the wings a roar of applause met them coming from the audience. It was applause and something else; applause on an unusual note. As it faded away they heard the voice of Scaramouche ringing clear as a bell:
"And so you see, my dear M. Leandre, that when you speak of the Third Estate, it is necessary to be more explicit. What precisely is the Third Estate?"
"Nothing," said Leandre.
There was a gasp from the audience, audible in the wings, and then swiftly followed Scaramouche's next question:
"True. Alas! But what should it be?"
"Everything," said Leandre.
The audience roared its acclamations, the more violent because of the unexpectedness of that reply.
"True again," said Scaramouche. "And what is more, that is what it will be; that is what it already is. Do you doubt it?"
"I hope it," said the schooled Leandre.
"You may believe it," said Scaramouche, and again the acclamations rolled into thunder.
Polichinelle and Rhodomont exchanged glances: indeed, the former winked, not without mirth.
"Sacred name!" growled a voice behind them. "Is the scoundrel at his political tricks again?"
They turned to confront M. Binet. Moving with that noiseless tread of his, he had come up unheard behind them, and there he stood now in his scarlet suit of Pantaloon under a trailing bedgown, his little eyes glaring from either side of his false nose. But their attention was held by the voice of Scaramouche. He had stepped to the front of the stage.
"He doubts it," he was telling the audience. "But then this M. Leandre is himself akin to those who worship the worm-eaten idol of Privilege, and so he is a little afraid to believe a truth that is becoming apparent to all the world. Shall I convince him? Shall I tell him how a company of noblemen backed by their servants under arms—six hundred men in all—sought to dictate to the Third Estate of Rennes a few short weeks ago? Must I remind him of the martial front shown on that occasion by the Third Estate, and how they swept the streets clean of that rabble of nobles—cette canaille noble..."
Applause interrupted him. The phrase had struck home and caught. Those who had writhed under that infamous designation from their betters leapt at this turning of it against the nobles themselves.
"But let me tell you of their leader—le pins noble de cette canaille, on bien le plus canaille de ces nobles! You know him —that one. He fears many things, but the voice of truth he fears most. With such as him the eloquent truth eloquently spoken is a thing instantly to be silenced. So he marshalled his peers and their valetailles, and led them out to slaughter these miserable bourgeois who dared to raise a voice. But these same miserable bourgeois did not choose to be slaughtered in the streets of Rennes. It occurred to them that since the nobles decreed that blood should flow, it might as well be the blood of the nobles. They marshalled themselves too—this noble rabble against the rabble of nobles— and they marshalled themselves so well that they drove M. de La Tour d'Azyr and his warlike following from the field with broken heads and shattered delusions. They sought shelter at the hands of the Cordeliers; and the shavelings gave them sanctuary in their convent—those who survived, among whom was their proud leader, M. de La Tour d'Azyr. You have heard of this valiant Marquis, this great lord of life and death?"
The pit was in an uproar a moment. It quieted again as Scaramouche continued:
"Oh, it was a fine spectacle to see this mighty hunter scuttling to cover like a hare, going to earth in the Cordelier Convent. Rennes has not seen him since. Rennes would like to see him again. But if he is valorous, he is also discreet. And where do you think he has taken refuge, this great nobleman who wanted to see the streets of Rennes washed in the blood of its citizens, this man who would have butchered old and young of the contemptible canaille to silence the voice of reason and of liberty that presumes to ring through France to-day? Where do you think he hides himself? Why, here in Nantes."
Again there was uproar.
"What do you say? Impossible? Why, my friends, at this moment he is here in this theatre—skulking up there in that box. He is too shy to show himself—oh, a very modest gentleman. But there he is behind the curtains. Will you not show yourself to your friends, M. de La Tour d'Azyr, Monsieur le Marquis who considers eloquence so very dangerous a gift? See, they would like a word with you; they do not believe me when I tell them that you are here."
Now, whatever he may have been, and whatever the views held on the subject by Andre-Louis, M. de La Tour d'Azyr was certainly not a coward. To say that he was hiding in Nantes was not true. He came and went there openly and unabashed. It happened, however, that the Nantais were ignorant until this moment of his presence among them. But then he would have disdained to have informed them of it just as he would have disdained to have concealed it from them.
Challenged thus, however, and despite the ominous manner in which the bourgeois element in the audience had responded to Scaramouche's appeal to its passions, despite the attempts made by Chabrillane to restrain him, the Marquis swept aside the curtain at the side of the box, and suddenly showed himself, pale but self-contained and scornful as he surveyed first the daring Scaramouche and then those others who at sight of him had given tongue to their hostility.
Hoots and yells assailed him, fists were shaken at him, canes were brandished menacingly.
"Assassin! Scoundrel! Coward! Traitor!"
But he braved the storm, smiling upon them his ineffable contempt. He was waiting for the noise to cease; waiting to address them in his turn. But he waited in vain, as he very soon perceived.
The contempt he did not trouble to dissemble served but to goad them on.
In the pit pandemonium was already raging. Blows were being freely exchanged; there were scuffling groups, and here and there swords were being drawn, but fortunately the press was too dense to permit of their being used effectively. Those who had women with them and the timid by nature were making haste to leave a house that looked like becoming a cockpit, where chairs were being smashed to provide weapons, and parts of chandeliers were already being used as missiles.
One of these hurled by the hand of a gentleman in one of the boxes narrowly missed Scaramouche where he stood, looking down in a sort of grim triumph upon the havoc which his words had wrought. Knowing of what inflammable material the audience was composed, he had deliberately flung down amongst them the lighted torch of discord, to produce this conflagration.
He saw men falling quickly into groups representative of one side or the other of this great quarrel that already was beginning to agitate the whole of France. Their rallying cries were ringing through the theatre.
"Down with the canaille!" from some.
"Down with the privileged!" from others.
And then above the general din one cry rang out sharply and insistently:
"To the box! Death to the butcher of Rennes! Death to La Tour d'Azyr who makes war upon the people!"
There was a rush for one of the doors of the pit that opened upon the staircase leading to the boxes.
And now, whilst battle and confusion spread with the speed of fire, overflowing from the theatre into the street itself, La Tour d'Azyr's box, which had become the main object of the attack of the bourgeoisie, had also become the rallying ground for such gentlemen as were present in the theatre and for those who, without being men of birth themselves, were nevertheless attached to the party of the nobles.
La Tour d'Azyr had quitted the front of the box to meet those who came to join him. And now in the pit one group of infuriated gentlemen, in attempting to reach the stage across the empty orchestra, so that they might deal with the audacious comedian who was responsible for this explosion, found themselves opposed and held back by another group composed of men to whose feelings Andre-Louis had given expression.
Perceiving this, and remembering the chandelier, he turned to Leandre, who had remained beside him.
"I think it is time to be going," said he.
Leandre, looking ghastly under his paint, appalled by the storm which exceeded by far anything that his unimaginative brain could have conjectured, gurgled an inarticulate agreement. But it looked as if already they were too late, for in that moment they were assailed from behind.
M. Binet had succeeded at last in breaking past Polichinelle and Rhodomont, who in view of his murderous rage had been endeavouring to restrain him. Half a dozen gentlemen, habitues of the green-room, had come round to the stage to disembowel the knave who had created this riot, and it was they who had flung aside those two comedians who hung upon Binet. After him they came now, their swords out; but after them again came Polichinelle, Rhodomont, Harlequin, Pierrot, Pasquariel, and Basque the artist, armed with such implements as they could hastily snatch up, and intent upon saving the man with whom they sympathized in spite of all, and in whom now all their hopes were centred.
Well ahead rolled Binet, moving faster than any had ever seen him move, and swinging the long cane from which Pantaloon is inseparable.
"Infamous scoundrel!" he roared. "You have ruined me! But, name of a name, you shall pay!"
Andre-Louis turned to face him. "You confuse cause with effect," said he. But he got no farther... Binet's cane, viciously driven, descended and broke upon his shoulder. Had he not moved swiftly aside as the blow fell it must have taken him across the head, and possibly stunned him. As he moved, he dropped his hand to his pocket, and swift upon the cracking of Binet's breaking cane came the crack of the pistol with which Andre-Louis replied.
"You had your warning, you filthy pander!" he cried. And on the word he shot him through the body.
Binet went down screaming, whilst the fierce Polichinelle, fiercer than ever in that moment of fierce reality, spoke quickly into Andre-Louis' ear:
"Fool! So much was not necessary! Away with you now, or you'll leave your skin here! Away with you!"
Andre-Louis thought it good advice, and took it. The gentlemen who had followed Binet in that punitive rush upon the stage, partly held in check by the improvised weapons of the players, partly intimidated by the second pistol that Scaramouche presented, let him go. He gained the wings, and here found himself faced by a couple of sergeants of the watch, part of the police that was already invading the theatre with a view to restoring order. The sight of them reminded him unpleasantly of how he must stand towards the law for this night's work, and more particularly for that bullet lodged somewhere in Binet's obese body. He flourished his pistol.
"Make way, or I'll burn your brains!" he threatened them, and intimidated, themselves without firearms, they fell back and let him pass. He slipped by the door of the green-room, where the ladies of the company had shut themselves in until the storm should be over, and so gained the street behind the theatre. It was deserted. Down this he went at a run, intent on reaching the inn for clothes and money, since it was impossible that he should take the road in the garb of Scaramouche.
End of Scaramouche (Book II - The Buskin) by Rafael Sabatini
Part 3 to follow in August