Isabelle, who chanced to sit down near her, cast many pitying glances upon this forlorn little figure, but took care not to disturb the quiet sleep she seemed to be enjoying in her uncomfortable resting-place. After a little, when she had turned to speak to Serafina, who sat beside her, the child woke with a start, and pushing back the mass of dishevelled hair revealed a sad little face, so thin that the cheek bones were painfully prominent, and pale to ghastliness. A pair of magnificent, dark brown eyes, with heavy sweeping lashes, looked preternaturally large in her woe-begone little countenance, and at this moment were filled with wondering admiration, mingled with fierce covetousness, as she stared at Serafina's mock jewels—and more especially at Isabelle's row of pearl beads. She seemed fairly dazzled by these latter, and gazed at them fixedly in a sort of ecstasy—having evidently never seen anything like them before, and probably thinking they must be of immense value. Occasionally her eyes wandered to the dresses of the two ladies, and at last, unable to restrain her ardent curiosity any longer, she put out her little brown hand and softly felt of Isabelle's gown, apparently finding exquisite delight in the mere contact of her finger-tips with the smooth, glossy surface of the silk. Though her touch was so light Isabelle immediately turned towards the child and smiled upon her encouragingly, but the poor little vagabond, finding herself detected, in an instant had assumed a stupid, almost idiotic look—with an instinctive amount of histrionic art that would have done honour to a finished actress. Then dropping her eyelids and leaning her shoulders against the hard back of the wooden settle she seemed to fall into a deep sleep, with her head bent down upon her breast in the old attitude.
Meanwhile Maitre Chirriguirri had been talking long and loudly about the choice delicacies he could have set before his guests if they had only come a day or two earlier, and enumerating all sorts of fine dishes—which doubtless had existed only in his own very vivid imagination—though he told a high-sounding story about the noblemen and grandees who had supped at his house and devoured all these dainties only yesterday. When at length the flow of his eloquence was checked by a display of ferocity on the part of the tyrant, and he was finally brought to the point, he acknowledged that he could only give them some of the soup called garbure—with which we have already made acquaintance at the Chateau de Sigognac, some salt codfish, and a dish of bacon; with plenty of wine, which according to his account was fit for the gods. Our weary travellers were so hungry by this time that they were glad of even this frugal fare, and when Mionnette, a gaunt, morose-looking creature, the only servant that the inn could boast, announced that their supper was ready in an adjoining room, they did not wait to be summoned a second time.
They were still at table when a great barking of dogs was heard without, together with the noise of horses' feet, and in a moment three loud, impatient knocks upon the outer door resounded through the house. Mionnette rushed to open it, whereupon a gentleman entered, followed by a number of dogs, who nearly knocked the tall maid-servant over in their eagerness to get in, and rushed into the dining-room where our friends were assembled, barking, jumping over each other, and licking off the plates that had been used and removed to a low side table, before their master could stop them. A few sharp cuts with the whip he held in his hand distributed promiscuously among them, without distinction between the innocent and the guilty ones, quieted this uproar as if by magic, and the aggressive hounds, taking refuge under the benches ranged along the walls, curled themselves round on the floor and went comfortably to sleep, or lay panting, with their red tongues hanging out of their mouths and heads reposing on their fore-paws—not daring to stir.
The obstreperous dogs thus disposed of, the cavalier advanced into the room, with the calm assurance of a man who feels perfectly at his ease; his spurs ringing against the stone floor at every step. The landlord followed him obsequiously, cap in hand, cringing and bowing in most humble fashion—having entirely laid aside his boasting air and evidently feeling very ill at ease—this being a personage of whom he stood in awe. As the gentleman approached the table he politely saluted the company, before turning to give his orders to Maitre Chirriguirri, who stood silently awaiting them.
The newcomer was a handsome man of about thirty, with curly light hair, and a fair complexion, somewhat reddened by exposure to the sun. His eyes were blue, and rather prominent, his nose slightly retroussi; his small blond mustache was carefully turned up at the ends, and scarcely shaded a well-formed but sensual mouth, below which was a small, pointed beard—called a royal in those days, an imperial in these. As he took off his broad felt hat, richly ornamented with long sweeping plumes, and threw it carelessly down on one of the benches, it was seen that his smooth, broad forehead was snowy white, and the contrast with his sunburnt cheeks was not by any means displeasing. Indeed it was a very handsome, attractive face, in which an expression of frank gaiety and good humour tempered the air of pride that pervaded it.
The dress of this gay cavalier was extremely rich and elegant; almost too much so for the country. But when we say that the marquis—for such was his title—had been following the hounds in company with the beautiful Yolande de Foix, we feel that his costume, of blue velvet elaborately decorated with silver braid, is fully accounted for. He was one of the gallants that shone at court in Paris—where he was in the habit of spending a large portion of every year—and he prided himself on being one of the best dressed noblemen in France.
His order to the obsequious landlord was in few words. "I want some broth for my dogs, some oats for my horses, a piece of bread and a slice of ham for myself, and something or other for my grooms"—and then he advanced smilingly to the table and sat down in a vacant place beside the pretty soubrette, who, charmed with such a gay, handsome seignior, had been pleased to bestow a languishing glance and a brilliant smile upon him.
Maitre Chirriguirri hastened to fetch what he had demanded, while the soubrette, with the grace of a Hebe, filled his glass to the brim with wine; which he accepted with a smile, and drank off at a single draught. For a few minutes he was fully occupied in satisfying his hunger—which was veritably that of a hunter—and then looking about him at the party assembled round the table, remarked the Baron de Sigognac, with whom he had a slight acquaintance, seated beside the fair Isabelle—in whose company indeed he had seen him already once before that day. The two young people were talking together in low tones, and quite absorbed in each other; but the language of their eyes was unmistakable, and the marquis smiled to himself as he took note of what he supposed to be a very promising intrigue—wherein he did the youthful pair great injustice. As a thorough man of the world he was not at all surprised at finding de Sigognac with this band of vagabond players, from such a motive, and the half-pitying contempt he had formerly felt for the shabby, retiring young baron was straightway changed to a certain admiration and respect by this evidence of his gallantry. When he caught his eye he made a little gesture of recognition and approval—to show that he understood and appreciated his position—but paid no further attention to him, evidently meaning to respect his incognito, and devoted himself to the soubrette. She received his high-flown compliments with peals of laughter, and paid him back in his own coin with considerable wit and much merriment, to the great delight of the marquis—who was always delighted to meet with any adventure of this sort.
Wishing to pursue this one, which opened so well, he declared loudly that he was passionately fond of the theatre, and complained pathetically of being deprived altogether of this, his favourite amusement, in the country; then addressing himself to the tyrant he asked whether the troupe had any pressing engagements that would prevent their turning aside a little from the usual route to visit the Chateau de Bruyeres and give one of their best plays there—it would be an easy matter to rig up a theatre for them in the great hall or the orangery.
The tyrant hastened to reply that nothing could be easier, and that the troupe, one of the best that had ever travelled through the provinces, was entirely at his lordship's disposition—"from the king to the soubrette"—he added, with a broad grin.
"That is capital," said the marquis, "and as to money matters, you can arrange them to suit yourself. I should not think of bargaining with the votaries of Thalia—a muse so highly favoured by Apollo, and as eagerly sought after, and enthusiastically applauded, at the court of his most gracious majesty as in town and country everywhere."
After arranging the necessary preliminaries, the marquis, who had meantime surreptitiously squeezed the soubrette's hand under the table, rose, called his dogs together, put on his hat, waved his hand to the company in token of adieu, and took his departure amid much barking and commotion—going directly home, in order to set on foot his preparations to receive the comedians on the morrow at his chateau.
As it was growing late, and they were to make an early start the next morning, our tired travellers lost no time in going to rest; the women in a sort of loft, where they had to make themselves as comfortable as they could with the bundles of straw that were to serve them for beds, whilst the men slept on the benches in the room where they had supped.
CHAPTER IV. AN ADVENTURE WITH BRIGANDS
Let us return now to the little girl we left feigning to sleep soundly upon a settle in the kitchen. There was certainly something suspicious about the fierce way in which she eyed Isabelle's pearl necklace, and her little bit of clever acting afterwards. As soon as the door had closed upon the comedians she slowly opened her large, dark eyes, looked sharply round the great, dim kitchen, and when she found that nobody was watching her, slipped quietly down from the bench, threw back her hair with a quick movement of the head peculiar to her, crept softly to the door, which she cautiously unlatched, and escaped into the open air without making any more sound than a shadow, then walked slowly and listlessly away until she had turned a corner and was out of sight of the house, when she set off running as fleetly as a deer pursued by the hounds—jumping over the frequent obstacles in her path with wonderful agility, never stumbling, and flying along, with her black hair streaming out behind her, like some wild creature of the desolate pine barrens through which she was skilfully threading her way.
She reached at last a little knoll, crowned by a group of pine trees crowded closely together, and dashing up the steep bank with undiminished speed came to a sudden stop in the very middle of the grove. Here she stood still for a moment, peering anxiously about her, and then, putting two fingers in her mouth, gave three shrill whistles, such as no traveller in those desolate regions can hear without a shudder. In an instant what seemed to be a heap of pine twigs stirred, and a man emerging from beneath them rose slowly to his feet at a little distance from the child.
"Is it you, Chiquita?" he asked. "What news do you bring? You are late. I had given over expecting you to-night, and gone to sleep."
The speaker was a dark, fierce-looking fellow of about five and twenty, with a spare, wiry frame, brilliant black eyes, and very white teeth—which were long and pointed like the fangs of a young wolf. He looked as if he might be a brigand, poacher, smuggler, thief, or assassin—all of which he had been indeed by turns. He was dressed like a Spanish peasant, and in the red woollen girdle wound several times around his waist was stuck a formidable knife, called in Spain a navaja. The desperadoes who make use of these terrible weapons usually display as many red stripes, cut in the steel, upon their long pointed blades as they have committed murders, and are esteemed by their companions in proportion to the number indicated by this horrible record. We do not know exactly how many of these scarlet grooves adorned Agostino's navaja, but judging by the savage expression of his countenance, and the fierce glitter of his eye, we may safely suppose them to have been creditably numerous.
"Well, Chiquita," said he, laying his hand caressingly on the child's head, "and what did you see at Maitre Chirriguirri's inn?"
"A great chariot full of people came there this afternoon," she answered. "I saw them carry five large chests into the barn, and they must have been very heavy, for it took two men to lift them."
"Hum!" said Agostino, "sometimes travellers put stones into their boxes to make them seem very weighty and valuable, and deceive the inn-keepers."
"But," interrupted the child eagerly, "the three young ladies had trimmings of gold on their clothes; and one of them, the prettiest, had round her neck a row of round, shining, white things, and oh! they were so beautiful!" and she clasped her hands in an ecstasy of admiration, her voice trembling with excitement.
"Those must be pearls," muttered Agostino to himself, "and they will be worth having—provided they are real—but then they do make such perfect imitations now-a-days, and even rich people are mean enough to wear them."
"My dear Agostino, my good Agostino," continued Chiquita, in her most coaxing tones, and without paying any attention to his mutterings, "will you give me the beautiful, shining things if you kill that lady?"
"They would go so well with your rags and tatters!" he answered mockingly.
"But I have so often kept watch for you while you slept, and I have run so far to tell you when any one was coming, no matter how cold it was, nor how my poor, bare feet ached—and I have never once kept you waiting for your food, when I used to carry it to you in your hiding places, even when I was bad with the fever, or my teeth chattering with the chill, and I so weak that I could hardly drag myself along. Oh Agostino! do remember what I have done for you, and let me have the beautiful, shining things."
"Yes, you have been both brave and faithful, Chiquita, I admit; but we have not got the wonderful necklace yet, you know. Now, tell me, how many men were there in the party."
"Oh! a great many. A big, tall man with a long beard; an old, fat man—one that looked like a fox—two thin men, and one that looked like a gentleman, though his clothes were very old and shabby."
"Six men," said Agostino, who had counted them on his fingers as she enumerated them, and his face fell. "Alas! I am the only one left of our brave band now; when the others were with me we would not have minded double the number. Have they arms, Chiquita?"
"The gentleman has a sword, and so has the tall, thin man—a very long one."
"No pistols or guns?"
"I didn't see any," answered Chiquita, "but they might have left them in the chariot, you know; only Maitre Chirriguirri or Mionnette would have been sure to send you word if they had, and they said nothing to me about them."
"Well, we will risk it then, and see what we can do," said Agostino resolutely. "Five large, heavy chests, gold ornaments, a pearl necklace! they certainly are worth trying for."
The brigand and his little companion then went to a secret place in the thick pine grove, and set to work industriously, removing a few large stones, a quantity of branches, and finally the five or six boards they had concealed, disclosing a large hole that looked like a grave. It was not very deep, and Agostino, jumping down into it, stooped and lifted out what seemed to be a dead body—dressed in its usual every-day clothes—which he flung down upon the ground beside the hole. Chiquita, who did not appear to be in the least agitated or alarmed by these mysterious proceedings, seized the figure by the feet, with the utmost sang-froid, and dragged it out of Agostino's way, with a much greater degree of strength than could have been expected from such a slight, delicate little creature. Agostino continued his work of exhumation until five other bodies lay beside the first one—all neatly arranged in a row by the little girl, who seemed to actually enjoy her lugubrious task. It made a strange picture in the weird light of the nearly full moon, half veiled by driving clouds—the open grave, the bodies lying side by side under the dark pine trees, and the figures of Agostino and Chiquita bending over them. But the tragic aspect of the affair soon changed to a comic one; for when Agostino placed the first of the bodies in an upright position it became apparent that it was only a sort of a scarecrow—a rude figure intended to frighten timid traveller—which being skilfully disposed at the edge of the grove, partly hidden among the trees, looked at a little distance exactly like a brigand—gun and all. Indeed it really was dressed in the garments of one of his old comrades, who had paid the penalty of his crimes on the gallows. He apostrophized the figure as he arranged it to his liking, calling it by name, relating some of the brave deeds of its prototype, and bewailing the sad fate that had left him to ply his nefarious trade single-handed, with a rude eloquence that was not wanting in pathos. Returning to where the others lay, he lifted up one which he reminded Chiquita, represented her father—whose valour and skill he eulogized warmly—whilst the child devoutly made the sign of the cross as she muttered a prayer. This one being put in position, he carried the remaining figures, one by one, to the places marked for them, keeping up a running commentary upon the ci-devant brigands whose representatives they were, and calling them each repeatedly by name, as if there were a certain sad satisfaction in addressing them in the old, familiar way.
When this queer task was completed, the bandit and his faithful little companion, taking advantage of a flood of moonlight as the clouds drifted away before the wind, went and stood on the road—not very far from their retreat—by which our travellers were to pass, to judge of the effect of their group of brigands. It was really very formidable, and had often been of great service to the bold originator of the plan; for on seeing so numerous a band apparently advancing upon them, most travellers took to their heels, leaving the coveted spoils behind them for Agostino to gather up at his leisure.
As they slowly returned to the pine grove he said to the child, who was clinging to his arm affectionately as she walked beside him, "The first stage of their journey to-morrow is a long one, and these people will be sure to start in good season, so that they will reach this spot just at the right time for us—in the uncertain light of the dawn. In the darkness of night our brigands yonder could not be seen, and in broad daylight the ruse would be apparent; so we are in luck, Chiquita! But now for a nap—we have plenty of time for it, and the creaking of the wheels will be sure to wake us." Accordingly Agostino threw himself down upon a little heap of pine branches and heather, Chiquita crept close to him, so that the large cloak with which he had covered himself might protect her also from the chilly night air, and both were soon sound asleep.
It was so early when our travellers were roused from their slumbers and told that it was time for them to resume their journey, by the treacherous landlord of the Blue Sun Inn, that it seemed to them like the middle of the night; to they arranged themselves as comfortably as they could in the great, roomy chariot, and despite the loud creaking and groaning that accompanied its every movement as it went slowly lumbering along, and the shrill cries of the driver to his oxen, they were all soon asleep again, excepting de Sigognac, who walked beside the chariot, lost in thoughts of Isabelle's beauty, grace and modesty, and adorable goodness, which seemed better suited to a young lady of noble birth than a wandering actress. He tormented himself with trying to devise some means to induce her to reciprocate the ardent love that filled his heart for her, not for an instant suspecting that it was already a fait accompli, and that the sweet, pure maiden had given him, unasked, her gentle, faithful heart. The bashful young baron imagined all sorts of romantic and perilous incidents in which he might constitute himself her knight and protector, and show such brave and tender devotion to her as he had read of in the old books of chivalry; and which might lead up to the avowal he was burning to make, yet dared not. It never occurred to him that the look in his dark eyes whenever they rested on her face, the tone of his voice when he addressed her, the deep sighs he vainly sought to stifle, and the tender, eager care with which he strove to anticipate her every wish had spoken for him, as plainly as any words could do; and that, though he had not dared to breathe one syllable of his passionate love to Isabelle, she knew it, rejoiced in it, and was proud of it, and that it filled her with a delicious, rapturous joy, such as she had never felt before, or even dreamed of.
The morning began to break—the narrow band of pale light on the horizon, which was growing rapidly brighter and assuming a rosy tinge, was reflected here and there in the little pools of water that shone like bits of a broken mirror scattered over the ground—distant sounds were heard, and columns of smoke rising into the still morning air proved that even in this desolate, God-forsaken part of the Landes there were human habitations to be found. Stalking along with giant strides on the highest part of some rising ground not very far off was a grotesque figure, clearly defined against the bright eastern sky, which would have been a puzzle to a stranger, but was a familiar sight to de Sigognac—a shepherd mounted on his high stilts, such as are to be met with everywhere throughout the Landes.
But the young baron was too much absorbed in his own engrossing thoughts to take any note of his surroundings as he kept pace with the slow-moving chariot, until his eye was caught and his attention fixed by a strange little point of light, glittering among the sombre pines that formed the dense grove where we left Agostino and Chiquita sleeping. He wondered what it could be—certainly not a glow-worm, the season for them was past long ago—and he watched it as he advanced towards it with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Approaching nearer he caught a glimpse of the singular group of figures lurking among the trees, and at first feared an ambuscade; but finding that they continued perfectly motionless he concluded that he must have been mistaken, and that they were only old stumps after all; so he forbore to arouse the comedians, as he had for a moment thought of doing.
A few steps farther and suddenly a loud report was heard from the grove, a bullet sped through the air, and struck the oxen's yoke—happily without doing any damage, further than causing the usually quiet, steady-going beasts to swerve violently to one side—when fortunately a considerable heap of sand prevented the chariot's being overturned into the ditch beside the road. The sharp report and violent shock startled the sleeping travellers in the chariot, and the younger women shrieked wildly in their terror, whilst the duenna, who had met with such adventures before, slipped the few gold pieces she had in her purse into her shoe. Beside the chariot, from which the actors were struggling to extricate themselves, stood Agostino—his cloak wrapped around his left arm and the formidable navaja in his right hand-and cried in a voice of thunder, "Your money or your lives! Resistance is useless! At the first sign of it my band will fire upon you."
Whilst the bandit was shouting out these terrible words, de Sigognac had quietly drawn his sword, and as he finished attacked him furiously. Agostino skilfully parried his thrusts, with the cloak on his left arm, which so disposed made an excellent shield, and watched his opportunity to give a murderous stab with his navaja, which indeed he almost succeeded in doing; a quick spring to one side alone saved the baron from a wound which must have been fatal, as the brigand threw the knife at him with tremendous force, and it flew through the air and fell ringing upon the ground at a marvellous distance, instead of piercing de Sigognac's heart. His antagonist turned pale, for he was quite defenceless, having depended entirely upon his trusty navaja, which had never failed him before, and he very well knew that his vaunted band could not come to his rescue. However, he shouted to them to fire, counting upon the sudden terror that command would inspire to deliver him from his dilemma; and, indeed, the comedians, expecting a broadside, did take refuge behind the chariot, whilst even our brave hero involuntarily bent his head a little, to avoid the shower of bullets.
Meantime Chiquita, who had breathlessly watched all that passed from her hiding place among some furze bushes close at hand, when she saw her friend in peril, crept softly forth, glided along on the ground like a snake until she reached the knife, lying unnoticed where it had fallen, and, seizing it, in one instant had restored it to Agostino, She looked like a little fury as she did so, and if her strength had been equal to her ferocity she would have been a formidable foe.
Agostino again aimed his navaja at the baron, who was at that moment off his guard, and would not perhaps have escaped the deadly weapon a second time if it had been hurled at him from that skilful hand, but that a grasp of iron fastened upon the desperado's wrist, just in time to defeat his purpose. He strove in vain to extricate his right arm from the powerful grip that held it like a vice—struggling violently, and writhing with the pain it caused him—but he dared not turn upon this new assailant, who was behind him, because de Sigognac would have surely scored his back for him; and he was forced to continue parrying his thrusts with his left arm, still protected by the ample cloak firmly wound around it. He soon discovered that he could not possibly free his right hand, and the agony became so great that his fingers could no longer keep their grasp of the knife, which fell a second time to the ground.
It was the tyrant who had come to de Sigognac's rescue, and now suddenly roared out in his stentorian voice, "What the deuce is nipping me? Is it a viper? I felt two sharp fangs meet in the calf of my leg."
It was Chiquita, who was biting his leg like a dog, in the vain hope of making him turn round and loose his hold upon Agostino; but the tyrant shook her off with a quick movement, that sent her rolling in the dust at some distance, without relinquishing his captive, whilst Matamore dashed forward and picked up the navaja, which he shut together and put into his pocket.
Whilst this scene was enacting the sun had risen, and poured a flood of radiance upon the earth in which the sham brigands lost much of their life-like effect. "Ha, ha!" laughed the peasant, "it would appear that those gentlemen's guns take a long time to go off; they must be wet with dew. But whatever may be the matter with them they are miserable cowards, to stand still there at a safe distance and leave their chief to do all the fighting by himself."
"There is a good reason for that," answered Matamore, as he climbed up the steep bank to them, "these are nothing but scarecrows." And with six vigorous kicks he sent the six absurd figures rolling in every direction, making the most comical gestures as they fell.
"You may safely alight now, ladies," said the baron, reassuringly, to the trembling actresses, "there's nothing more to fear; it was only a sham battle after all."
In despair at his overwhelming defeat, Agostino hung his head mournfully, and stood like a statue of grief, dreading lest worse still should befall him, if the comedians, who were in too great force for him to attempt to struggle any longer against them, decided to take him on to the next town and deliver him over to the jailor to be locked up, as indeed he richly deserved. His faithful little friend, Chiquita, stood motionless at his side, as downcast as himself. But the farce of the false brigands so tickled the fancy of the players that it seemed as if they never would have done laughing over it, and they were evidently inclined to deal leniently with the ingenious rascal who had devised it. The tyrant, who had loosened, but not quitted, his hold upon the bandit, assumed his most tragic air and voice, and said to him, "You have frightened these ladies almost to death, you scoundrel, and you richly deserve to be strung up for it; but if, as I believe, they will consent to pardon you—for they are very kind and good—-I will not take you to the lock-up. I confess that I do not care to furnish a subject for the gallows. Besides, your stratagem is really very ingenious and amusing—a capital farce to play at the expense of cowardly travellers—who have doubtless paid you well for the entertainment, eh? As an actor, I appreciate the joke, and your ingenuity inclines me to be indulgent. You are not simply and brutally a robber, and it would certainly be a pity to cut short such a fine career."
"Alas!" answered Agostino mournfully, "no other career is open to me, and I am more to be pitied than you suppose. I am the only one left of a band formerly as complete as yours; the executioner has deprived me of my brave comrades one by one, and now I am obliged to carry on my operations entirely alone—dressing up my scarecrows, as your friend calls them, and assuming different voices to make believe that I am supported by a numerous company. Ah! mine is a sad fate; and then my road is such a poor one—so few travellers come this way—and I have not the means to purchase a better one. Every good road is owned by a band of brigands, you know. I wish that I could get some honest work to do, but that is hopeless; who would employ such a looking fellow as I am? all in rags and tatters, worse than the poorest beggar. I must surely have been born under an unlucky star. And now this attempt has failed, from which I hoped to get enough to keep us for two months, and buy a decent cloak for poor Chiquita besides; she needs it badly enough, poor thing! Yesterday I had nothing to eat, and I had to tighten my belt to sustain my empty stomach. Your unexpected resistance has taken the very bread out of my mouth; and since you would not let me rob you, at least be generous and give me something."
"To be sure," said the tyrant, who was greatly amused; "as we have prevented your successfully plying your trade we certainly do owe you an indemnity. Here, take these two pistoles to drink our healths with."
Isabelle meantime sought in the chariot for a piece of new woollen stuff she happened to have with her, which was soft and warm, and gave it to Chiquita, who exclaimed, "Oh! but it is the necklace of shining white things that I want."
Kind Isabelle immediately unclasped it, and then fastened it round the slender neck of the child, who was so overwhelmed with delight that she could not speak. She silently rolled the smooth, white beads between her little brown fingers in a sort of mute ecstasy for a few moments, then suddenly raising her head and tossing back her thick black hair, she fixed her sparkling eyes on Isabelle, and said in a low, earnest voice, "Oh! you are very, very good, and I will never, never kill you." Then she ran swiftly back to the pine grove, clambered up the steep bank, and sat down to admire and enjoy her treasure. As to Agostino, after making his best bow, and thanking the tyrant for his really princely munificence, he picked up his prostrate comrades, and carried them back to be buried again until their services should be needed on some, he hoped, more auspicious occasion.
The driver, who had deserted his oxen and run to hide himself among the furze bushes at the beginning of the affray, returned to his post when he saw that all danger was over, and the chariot once more started upon its way—the worthy duenna having taken her doubloons out of her shoes and restored them to her purse, which was then deposited in the depths of a mysterious pocket.
"You behaved like a real hero of romance," Isabelle said in an undertone to de Sigognac, "and I feel that under your protection we can travel securely; how bravely you attacked that bandit single-handedly when you had every reason to believe that he was supported by an armed band."
"You overestimate my little exploit," the baron replied modestly, "there was no danger worth mentioning," then sinking his voice to a whisper, "but to protect you I would meet and conquer giants, put to flight a whole host of Saracens, attack and destroy dragons and horrid monsters; I would force my way through enchanted forests filled with snares and perils, such as we read of, and even descend into hell itself, like Aeneas of old. In your dear service the most difficult feats would be easy; your beautiful eyes inspire me with indomitable courage, and your sweet presence, or even the bare thought of you, seems to endue me with a super-human strength."
This was, perhaps, rather exaggerated, but perfectly sincere, and Isabelle did not doubt for a moment that de Sigognac would be able to accomplish fabulous deeds of prowess in her honour and for her sake; and she was not so very far wrong, for he was becoming hourly more passionately enamoured of her, and ardent young lovers are capable of prodigies of valour, inspired by the fair objects of their adoration.
Serafina, who had overheard some of the baron's impassioned words, could not repress a scornful smile; so many women are apt to find the fervid protestations of lovers, when addressed to others than themselves, supremely ridiculous, yet they joyfully receive the very same protestations, without detecting anything in the least absurd in them when whispered into their own ears. For a moment she was tempted to try the power of her many charms, which she believed to be irresistible, with the young baron, and win him away from Isabelle; but this idea was speedily rejected, for Serafina held beauty to be a precious gem that should be richly set in gold—the gem was hers, but the golden setting was lamentably wanting, and poor de Sigognac could not possibly furnish it. So the accomplished coquette decided not to interfere with this newly-born love affair, which was "all very well for a simple-minded young girl like Isabelle," she said to herself, with a disdainful smile and toss of the head.
Profound silence had fallen upon the party after the late excitement, and some of them were even growing sleepy again, when several hours later the driver suddenly called out, "There is the Chateau de Bruyeres."
CHAPTER V. AT THE CHATEAU DE BRUYERES
The extensive domain of the Marquis de Bruyeres was situated just upon the edge of the Landes, and consisted mostly of productive, highly-cultivated land—the barren sand reaching only to the boundary wall of the great park that surrounded the chateau. An air of prosperity pervaded the entire estate, in pleasing contrast with the desolate region of country close at hand. Outside the park wall was a broad, deep ditch, filled with clear water and spanned by a handsome stone bridge, wide enough for two carriages abreast, which led to the grand entrance gates. These were of wrought iron, and quite a marvel of delicate workmanship and beauty. There was a good deal of gilding about them, and the lofty apex bore a marquis's crown above a shield supported by two naked savages, upon which the de Bruyeres arms were richly emblazoned—it was an entrance worthy of a royal demesne. When our party paused before it, in the course of the morning, a servant in a rich, showy livery was slowly opening the folding leaves of the magnificent gates, so as to admit them into the park. The very oxen hesitated ere they took their slow way through it, as if dazzled by so much splendour, and ashamed of their own homeliness—the honest brutes little suspecting that the wealthy nobleman's pomp and glitter are derived from the industry of the lowly tillers of the soil. It certainly would seem as if only fine carriages and prancing horses should be permitted to pass through such a portal as this, but the chariot of Thespis, no matter how humble, is privileged, and not only enters, but is welcome everywhere.
A broad avenue led from the bridge to the chateau, passing by carefully clipped shrubbery, whence marble statues peeped out here and there, and a beautiful garden, with flower-beds ingeniously laid out in geometrical patterns, and brilliant with well contrasted colours. The narrow walks among them were bordered with box, and strewn with fine sand of various tints, and several little fountains threw up their sparkling jets among the flowers. In the centre of the garden was a magnificent fountain, with a large, oblong, marble basin, and a Triton, on a high pedestal, pouring water from a shell. A row of yews, skilfully trimmed into pyramids, balls, and various fanciful shapes, and placed at regular distances on each side of the grand avenue, extended from the entrance gates to the chateau, their sombre hue contrasting well with the brighter green of the foliage behind them. Everything was in the most perfect order; not a leaf out of place, nor a particle of dust to be seen anywhere, as if the gardeners had just freshly washed and trimmed every tree, shrub, and plant under their care.
All this magnificence astonished and delighted the poor comedians, who rarely gained admission to such an abode as this. Serafina, affecting indifference, but noting everything carefully from under her lowered eye-lashes, promised herself to supplant the soubrette in the marquis's favour, feeling that this great seignior was her own legitimate prey, and ought to have devoted himself to her in the first place, instead of weakly yielding to the vulgar blandishments of the pretty waiting-maid, as he should no longer be permitted to do—if she had any power.
Meanwhile the soubrette, feeling sure of her conquest, had given herself up to castle-building with all the fervour Of her ardent southern nature. Isabelle, who was not preoccupied by any ambitious projects, turned her head now and then to glance and smile tenderly at de Sigognac, who was sitting in the chariot behind her and who she knew must be feeling acutely the painful contrast between this splendid estate and his own desolate, half-ruined chateau. Her loving heart ached for him, and her eyes spoke sweetest sympathy to the poor young nobleman, reduced so low a fortune, yet so worthy of a better fate.
The tyrant was deep in thought, trying to decide how, much he might venture to demand for the services of his troupe, and mentally increasing the amount at every step, as new glories disclosed themselves to his wondering eyes. The pedant was looking forward impatiently to the copious draughts of generous wine he felt sure of enjoying in the splendid chateau that was now in full view, and Leander, striving to smooth his slightly dishevelled locks with a dainty little tortoise-shell pocket-comb, was wondering, with a fluttering heart, whether a fair marquise dwelt within those walls, and would gaze down upon him from one of those windows as he alighted—indulging in high hopes of the impression he should make upon her susceptible heart.
The Chateau de Bruyeres, which had been entirely rebuilt in the preceding reign, was a noble structure, of immense size, three stories in height, and enclosing a large interior court. It was built of red brick, with elaborate, white stone facings. There were many pretty balconies with sculptured stone railings, and large, clear panes of glass—an unusual luxury at that epoch—in the numerous lofty windows, through which the rich hangings within were visible; and a projecting porch, reached by an imposing flight of broad stone steps, in the centre of the facade, marked the main entrance. The high, steep roof was of slate, in several shades, wrought into a quaint, pretty pattern, and the groups of tall chimneys were symmetrically disposed and handsomely ornamented. There was a look of gaiety and luxury about this really beautiful chateau which gave the idea of great prosperity, but not the slightest approach to vulgar pretension. There was nothing meretricious or glaring; everything was substantial and in perfect taste, and an indescribably majestic, dignified air, if we may be allowed the expression, pervaded the whole establishment, which spoke of ancient wealth and nobility under all this modern splendour.
Behind the chateau, its gardens and terraces, was a veritable forest of lofty, venerable trees, forming the magnificent park, which was of great extent, and for centuries had been the pride of the Bruyeres.
Although our high-minded young hero had never been envious of any one in his life, he could not altogether suppress the melancholy sigh with which he remembered that in former years the de Sigognacs had stood higher than the de Bruyeres in the province, and had taken precedence of them at court; nor could he help contrasting in his own mind this fresh, new chateau, replete with every beauty and luxury that a cultivated taste could devise and plentiful wealth procure, with his own desolate, dilapidated mansion—the home of owls and rats—which was gradually but surely crumbling into dust, and a keen pang shot through his heart at the thought. He recalled the dreary, solitary, hopeless life he had led there, and said to himself that the Marquis de Bruyeres ought to be a very happy man, with so much to make his existence delightful. The stopping of the chariot at the foot of the broad stone steps in the front of the chateau aroused him from his reverie; he dismissed as quickly as he could the sad thoughts that had engrossed him, endeavoured to dismiss also the dark shadow from his brow, and jumping lightly to the ground turned and held out his hand to help Isabelle to descend, before any one else could offer her that little service.
The Marquis de Bruyeres, who had seen the chariot advancing slowly up the avenue, stood in the porch to receive them. He was superbly dressed, and looked very handsome, as both Serafina and the soubrette secretly remarked. He descended two or three steps as the chariot stopped, and welcomed his guests with a friendly wave of the hand—doing them as much honour as if they had been of his own rank—which act of courtesy, let us hasten to explain, was because of the Baron de Sigognac's presence among them; but for that they would not have been brought to the main entrance at all.
At this moment the wily soubrette, seeing her opportunity for a bold stroke, prepared to alight; and as de Sigognac was fully occupied with Isabelle, and nobody else thought of paying any attention to her—for she always jumped to the ground as lightly as a bird, disdaining assistance—she hesitated for a moment, with an adorable little air of timidity, and then raised an appealing glance to the marquis. He could not resist it, and, rushing down the steps to her aid, held out both hands to her. With wonderful art the clever little actress managed to slip and lose her balance, so as to fall into his extended arms, clasping him around the neck as she did so.
"Pardon me, my lord," said she, breathlessly, to the marquis, feigning a confusion she was far from really feeling, "I thought I was going to fall, and grasped your collar, just as a drowning man clutches at the nearest object. A fall is a bad omen, you know, as well as a serious matter, for a poor actress."
"Permit me to look upon this little accident as a favour," the marquis replied, giving her a most significant glance, and lightly pressing her yielding form in his arms before he released her.
Serafina had watched this little by-play out of the corner of her eye, though her face was apparently turned away from them, and she bit her lip till it bled, with vexation; so after all the soubrette had succeeded, by an abominably bold action, in compelling the marquis to neglect her betters and give his warmest welcome to a low intrigante, said the "leading lady" to herself, swelling with righteous indignation, and abusing the offender roundly in her thoughts—wishing that she could do it aloud, and expose her outrageous, unmannerly artifice.
"Jean," said the marquis to a servant in livery who stood near, "have this chariot taken into the court, and see that the decorations, scenery, etc., are carefully put in some convenient place; have the luggage of these ladies and gentlemen carried to the rooms that I ordered to be made ready for them, and take care that they have everything they want;" then in a lower tone, but very emphatically, "I desire that they should be treated with the utmost courtesy and respect."
These orders being given, the marquis gravely ascended the steps, followed by the comedians, and having consigned them to his major-domo to show them to their respective rooms and make them comfortable, he gracefully bowed and left them; darting an admiring glance at the soubrette as he did so, which she acknowledged by a radiant smile, that Serafina, raging inwardly, pronounced "abominably bold."
The chariot meantime had made its way into a back court, accompanied by the tyrant, the pedant and Scapin, who superintended the unloading of the various articles that would be needed—a strange medley, which the supercilious servants of the chateau, in their rich liveries, handled with a very lofty air of contempt and condescension, feeling it quite beneath their dignity to wait upon a band of strolling players. But they dared not rebel, for the marquis had ordered it, and he was a severe master, as well as a very generous one.
The major-domo, however, conducted his charges to their appointed chambers with as profound an air of respect as if they had been real princes and princesses; for the marquis himself had visited the left wing of the chateau, where they were to be lodged, had specified the room for each guest, and ordered that they should want for nothing—a very unusual proceeding on his part, as he was in the habit of leaving all such minor details to his trusty major-domo. A beautiful chamber, hung with tapestry which represented the loves of Cupid and Psyche, was given to the soubrette, the pretty, dainty, blue one to Isabelle, and the luxurious red one to Serafina, whilst the more sober brown one was assigned to the duenna. The Baron de Sigognac was installed in a magnificent apartment, whose panelled walls were covered with richly embossed Spanish leather. It was close to Isabelle's room—a delicate attention on the part of the marquis. This superb chamber was always reserved for his most honoured guests, and in giving it to our young hero he desired to testify that he recognised and appreciated his rank, though he religiously respected his incognito.
When de Sigognac was left alone, and at liberty to think over quietly the odd situation in which he found himself, he looked at his magnificent surroundings with surprise as well as admiration—for he had never in his life seen, or even imagined, such splendour and luxury. The rich glowing colours of the chimerical flowers and foliage embossed on a golden ground of the Spanish leather on the walls, the corresponding tints in the frescoed ceiling and the heavy, silken hangings at the windows and doors and round the bed, the elaborately carved and gilded furniture, the luxurious easy-chairs and sofas, the large mirrors with bevelled edges, and the dainty dressing-table, lavishly furnished with all the accessories of the toilet, with its oval glass draped with lace which was tied back with knots of gay ribbon, certainly did make up a charming whole, and the wood fire burning brightly in the open fireplace gave a cheerful, cosy air to it all.
Our poor young baron blushed painfully as he caught sight of his own figure in one of the long mirrors—his shabby, ill-fitting clothes looked so sadly out of place amidst all this magnificence—and for the first time in his life he felt ashamed of his poverty. Highly unphilosophical this, but surely excusable in so young a man as our hero. With a natural desire to improve his forlorn appearance if he could, he unpacked the scanty supply of clothing that his faithful Pierre had put up for him—hoping that he might come across something a little less thread-bare than the suit he actually had on his back—but the inspection was not satisfactory, and he groaned as he discarded one faded, shabby garment after another. The linen was not any better—worn so that it was thin everywhere, with numerous darns and patches, and many holes, he could not find a single shirt that was whole and in good condition. He was so absorbed in this melancholy inspection that he did not hear a low knock at the door, nor notice that it was slowly pushed open, having been already ajar, to admit the stout person of Blazius, who approached him with many bows and flourishes, though entirely unobserved. When the pedant reached his side de Sigognac was just holding up before him a shirt that had as many openings as the rose window of a cathedral, and slowly shaking his head as he gazed at it, with an expression of utter discouragement.
"Body of Bacchus!" exclaimed the pedant—his voice, so close at hand, startling the astonished baron, who had believed himself alone, and safe from intrusion—"that shirt has verily a valiant and triumphant air. It looks as if it had been worn by Mars himself in battle, so riddled has it been by lances, spears, darts, arrows, and I know not what besides. Don't be ashamed of it, Baron!—these holes are honourable to you. Many a shirt of fine linen, ruffled and embroidered, according to the latest fashion, disguises the graceless person of some rascally parvenu—and usurer as well perhaps—who usurps the place of his betters. Several of the great heroes, of immortal fame, had not a shirt to their backs—Ulysses, for example, that wise and valiant man, who presented himself before the beautiful Princess Nausicaa, with no other covering than a bunch of sea-weed—as we are told, in the Odyssey, by the grand old bard, Homer."
"Unfortunately," de Sigognac replied, "there is no point of resemblance, my dear Blazius, between me and the brave King of Ithaca, save the lack of linen. I have done no deeds of valour to shed a lustre over MY poverty. I have had no chance to make myself famous, and I fear that the poets will never celebrate my praises in glowing hexameters. But, jesting aside, I must confess that I do feel greatly annoyed at being forced to appear in this guise here. The Marquis de Bruyeres recognised me, though he made no sign, and he may betray my secret."
"It is a pity," said the pedant in reply, "but there's a remedy for every ill under the sun, save death, according to the old saying, and if you will permit me, I think that I can help you out of this awkward dilemma. We, poor players, shadows of real men and women, phantoms of personages of every degree, from the highest to the lowest, have the means necessary for assuming almost any character, you know. As 'costumier' of the troupe I am accustomed to make all sorts of transformations, and can turn a miserable vagabond into an Alexander, or a vulgar wench into a princess. Now, if you are not too proud, I will exercise my poor skill in your lordship's service. Since you have been willing to join our company for this journey, do not disdain to make use of our resources, such as they are, and put aside these ill-fitting garments, which disguise your natural advantages, and make you feel ill at ease. Most fortunately I happen to have in reserve a handsome suit of black velvet, which has not the least of a theatrical air about it, and has never been used; any gentleman could wear it, and unless I am much mistaken it will fit you capitally. I have also the fine linen shirt, silk stockings, shoes—with broad buckles, and cloak to go with it—there is nothing wanting, not even the sword."
"Oh! as to that," cried de Sigognac, with a gesture expressive of all that pride of birth which no misfortunes could crush, "I have my father's sword."
"True," answered Blazius, "and guard it sacredly, my lord! for a sword is a faithful friend—defender of its master's life and honour. IT does not abandon him in times of peril and disaster, like the false friends who cling only to prosperity. Our stage swords have neither edge nor point, for they are only intended for show; the wounds they make disappear suddenly when the curtain falls, without the aid of the surgeon with his instruments and lint. That trusty sword of yours you can depend upon in any emergency, and I have already seen it doing good service in our behalf. But permit me to go and fetch the things I spoke of; I am impatient to see the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis."
Having thus spoken, in the theatrical way that had become habitual with him, the worthy pedant quitted the room, and soon reappeared, carrying a large package, which he deposited on the table in the centre of the chamber.
"If your lordship will accept an old actor as valet-de-chambre," he said, rubbing his hands joyfully together, "I will beautify you in no time. All the ladies will be sure to fall in love with you, for—with no disrespect to the larder at the Chateau de Sigognac be it said—you have fasted so much in your lonely life there that it has made you most interestingly slender and pale—just what the dear creatures delight in. They would not listen to a word from a stout lover, even if the diamonds and pearls of the fairy tale dropped from his lips whenever he spoke. That is the sole reason for my want of success with the fair sex, and I long ago deserted the shrine of Venus for the worship of Bacchus. A big paunch is not amiss among the devotees of that merry god, for it bears witness to plentiful libations."
Thus running on gaily, the worthy pedant strove to amuse the melancholy young nobleman, while he deftly performed his duties as valet; and they were very quickly completed, for the requirements of the stage necessitate great dexterity on the part of the actors to make the metamorphoses frequently needed with sufficient promptness and rapidity. Charmed with the result of his efforts he led de Sigognac up to one of the large mirrors, wherein, upon raising his eyes, he saw a figure which, at the first glance, he thought must be that of some person who had entered the room without his knowledge, and turned to ask who the intruder was—but there was no stranger there, and he discovered that it was his own reflection—so changed that he was mute with astonishment. A young, handsome, richly-dressed de Sigognae stood before him, and a radiant smile parted his lips and lighted up his face as he gazed at his own image, which perfected the really marvellous transformation. Blazius, standing near, contemplated his work with undisguised pride and satisfaction, changing his position several times so as to get different views, as a sculptor might who had just put the finishing touches to his statue altogether to his liking.
"When you have made your way at court, my lord, and regained the position held by your ancestors, as I hope and expect that you will do, I shall pray you to give me a refuge for my old age in your household, and make me intendant of your lordship's wardrobe," said he, with a profound bow to the baron.
"I will not forget your request, my good Blazius, even though I fear that I shall never be able to comply with it," de Sigognae answered with a melancholy smile. "You, my kind friend, are the first human being that has ever asked a favour of me."
"After our dinner, which we are to have very shortly, we are to consult with his lordship, the marquis, as to what play shall be given this evening, and learn from him where we are to rig our theatre. You will pass for the poet of the troupe; it is by no means an unheard-of thing for men of learning and position to join a band of players thus—either for the fun of the thing, and in hope of adventures, or for the love of a young and beautiful actress. I could tell you of several notable instances; and it is thought to be rather to a man's credit than otherwise in fashionable circles. Isabelle is a very good pretext for you; she is young, beautiful, clever, modest, and virtuous. In fact many an actress who takes like her the role of the ingenuous young girl is in reality all that she personates, though a frivolous and frequently licentious public will not credit it for a moment."
Herewith the pedant discreetly retired, having accomplished, to his great satisfaction, what he had really feared to propose to the young baron, for whom he had conceived a very warm affection.
Meanwhile the elegant Leander, indulging in delightful dreams of the possible fair chatelaine who was to fall a victim to his charms, was making his careful toilet—arraying himself in his most resplendent finery, scrupulously kept for grand occasions—convinced that great good fortune awaited him, and determined to carry the noble lady's heart by storm.
As to the actresses, to whom the gallant marquis, with princely munificence, had sent several pieces of rich stuffs and silks, it is needless to say that they spared no pains to make themselves as charming as possible, and obeyed the summons to dinner radiant with smiles and in high good humour—excepting indeed the fair Serafina, who was inwardly consumed with envy and spite, but careful to conceal it from all beholders.
The marquis, who was of an ardent, impatient nature, made his appearance in the dining-room before they had quite finished the sumptuous repast which had been served to them; he would not allow them to rise, but seated himself at the table with them, and when the last course had been removed, asked the tyrant to be good enough to give him a list of the plays they were in the habit of acting, so that he might select one for the evening's entertainment. But so many were enumerated that his lordship found it not easy to make a choice, and expressed his desire to have the tyrant's ideas upon the subject.
"There is one piece we often play," Herode said, "which never fails to please, and is so full of good-natured fun and nonsense that it keeps the audience in a roar of laughter from the beginning to the end."
"Let us have that one, by all means," the marquis exclaimed; "and pray what is the name of this delightful play?"
"The Rodomontades of Captain Matamore."
"A capital title, upon my word! and has the soubrette a good part in it?" asked his lordship, with a languishing glance at her.
"The most racy, mischievous role imaginable," said Herode warmly, "and she plays it to perfection—it is her chef d'oeuvre. She is always applauded to the echo in it."
At this high praise from the manager, Zerbine—for such was the soubrette's name—tried her best to get up a becoming blush, but in vain. Modesty she had none, and the tint she would fain have called into requisition at that moment was not contained in any of her numerous rouge-pots. So she cast down her eyes, thereby displaying to advantage the length and thickness of her jet-black lashes, and raised her hand with a deprecating gesture, which called attention to its pretty, taper fingers and rosy nails. The marquis watched he admiringly, and she certainly was very charming in her way. He did not vouchsafe even a glance to the other two young actresses—refraining from testifying any marked admiration for Isabelle because of the prior claim of the Baron de Sigognac—though he was secretly very much delighted with her sweet, refined style of beauty, and the quiet dignity and grace of her deportment. Serafina, who was naturally indignant that the marquis had not even asked if there was a part for her in the piece to be performed, accused him in her heart of being no gentleman, and of having very low, vulgar tastes, but she was the only one of the party that felt any dissatisfaction.
Before the marquis left them he said to Herode, "I have given orders to have the orangery cleared so that our theatre can be arranged there; they are carrying planks, trestles, benches, hangings, and all other needful articles in there now. Will you kindly superintend the workmen, who are new to this sort of business? They will obey your orders as they would my own."
Accordingly the tyrant, Blazius and Scapin repaired to the orangery, which was at a little distance from the chateau and admirably calculated for the purpose it was now to serve, and where they found everything necessary to convert it into a temporary theatre.
Whilst this work is going forward we will make our amiable, indulgent readers acquainted with the fair mistress of the chateau—having heretofore forgotten to mention that the Marquis de Bruyeres was a married man; he thought of it so seldom himself that we may surely be pardoned for this omission. As can be readily imagined, from our last remark, love had not been the moving cause in this union. Adjoining estates, which, united in one, formed a noble domain, and equality of rank had been the chief considerations. After a very brief honeymoon, during which they had become painfully aware of a total want of congeniality, the marquis and marquise—like well-bred people, making no outcry about their matrimonial failure—had tacitly agreed to live amicably under the same roof, but entirely independent of each other—he to go his way and she hers, with perfect freedom. They always treated each other in public, and indeed whenever they chanced to meet, with the greatest courtesy, and might easily have been mistaken by a casual observer for an unusually happy and united pair. Mme. la Marquise occupied a sumptuous suite of apartments in the chateau, which her husband never thought of entering without first sending to ascertain whether it would be convenient for madame to receive him, like a formal visitor. But we will avail ourselves of the time-honoured privilege of authors, and make our way into the noble chatelaine's bed-chamber, without any form or ceremony—feeling sure of not disturbing its fair occupant, since the writer of a romance wears upon his finger the wonder-working ring of Gyges, which renders him invisible.
It was a large, lofty room, hung with superb tapestry representing the adventures of Apollo, and exhibiting every luxury that wealth could procure. Here also a bright wood fire was, burning cheerily, and the Marquise de Bruyeres sat before her dressing table, with two maids in attendance upon her, absorbed in the all-important business of putting the finishing touches to her extremely becoming as well as effective toilet. Mme. la Marquise was a handsome brunette, whose embonpoint, which had succeeded to the slender outline of early youth, had added to her beauty; her magnificent black hair, which was one of her ladyship's greatest charms, was dressed in the most elaborate fashion—an intricate mass of glossy braids, puffs and curls, forming a lofty structure, and ornamented with a large bow of crimson ribbon, while one long curl fell upon her fair neck, making it look all the whiter by contrast. Her dress of crimson silk, cut very low, displayed to advantage—the plump, dimpled shoulders, and her snowy bosom, and from a band of black velvet round her throat was suspended a heart-shaped locket, set with superb rubies and brilliants. A white satin petticoat covered with priceless old lace, over which the crimson silk gown, open in front, was looped high upon the hips, and then swept back in a long, ample, richly trimmed train, completed the elegant toilet of Mme. la Marquise. Jeanne, the favourite maid and confidante, held open the box of tiny black, "muoches"—without which no fashionable lady of that epoch considered herself fully equipped—while the marquise placed one, with most happy effect, near the corner of her rather pretty mouth, and then hesitated some time before she could decide where to put the other, which she held ready on the tip of her forefinger. The two maids stood motionless, breathlessly watching their mistress, as if fully impressed with the importance of this grave question, until at last the little black star found a resting-place just above the edge of the crimson silk bodice, to the left—indicating, in the accepted hieroglyphics of that age of gallantry, that he who aspired to the lips of the fair wearer must first win her heart.
After a last lingering look in the mirror Mme. la Marquise rose and walked slowly towards the fire, but suddenly, remembering that there was yet one adornment wanting, turned back, and took from a beautiful casket standing open on the toilet-table, a large, thick watch—called in those days a Nuremberg egg—which was curiously enamelled in a variety of bright colours, and set with brilliants. It hung from a short, broad chain of rich workmanship, which she hooked into her girdle, near another chain of the same description, from which depended a small hand-mirror in a pretty gold frame.
"Madame is looking her loveliest to-day," said Jeanne in flattering tones; "her hair is dressed to perfection, and her gown fits like a glove."
"Do you really think so?" asked her mistress languidly, and with affected indifference. "It seems to me, on the contrary, that I am positively hideous. My eyes are sunken, and this colour makes me look immensely stout. I have half a mind to exchange this dress for a black one now. What do you think, Jeanne? Black makes people look slender, they say."
"If madame insists upon it I can quickly make the exchange; but it would be a sad pity not to wear such an elegant and becoming costume as madame has on now."
"Well, let it be then; but it will be all your fault, Jeanne, if I fail to receive as much admiration as usual this evening. Do you know whether the marquis has invited many people to come and see this play?"
"Yes, madame, several messengers have been sent off on horseback in different directions, and there will be sure to be a large gathering—they will come from all the chateaux within driving distance—for such an occasion as this is rare, here in the depths of the country."
"You are right," said Mme. la Marquise, with a deep sigh, which was almost a groan; "we are buried alive in this dreary place. And what about these players?—have you seen them, Jeanne?—are there any handsome young actors among them?"
"I have only had a glimpse of them, madame, and such people are so painted and fixed up, they say, that it is hard to tell what they really do look like; but there was one slender young man, with long, black curls and a very good figure, who had quite a grand air."
"That must be the lover, Jeanne, for it is always the best looking young actor in the troupe who takes that part. It would be ridiculous, you know, to have a stout old codger, or a very ugly man, or even an awkward one, making declarations of love, and going down on their knees, and all that sort of thing—it would not do at all, Jeanne!"
"No, madame, it would not be very nice," said the maid with a merry laugh, adding shrewdly, "and although it seems to make very little difference what husbands may be like, lovers should always be everything that is charming."
"I confess that I have a weakness for those stage gallants," Mme. la Marquise said with a little sigh, "they are so handsome, and so devoted—they always use such beautiful language, and make such graceful gestures—they are really irresistible. I cannot help feeling vexed when their impassioned appeals are received coldly, and they are driven to despair, as so often happens in plays; I would like to call them to me and try to console them, the bewitching creatures!"
"That is because madame has such a kind heart that she can't bear to see any one suffer without trying to help and comfort them," said the specious Jeanne. "Now I am of quite a different mind—nothing I would like better than to flout a sentimental suitor; fine words would not gain any favour with me—I should distrust them."
"Oh! you don't understand the matter, Jeanne! You have not read as many romances, or seen as many plays as I have. Did you say that young actor was very handsome?"
"Mme. la Marquise can judge for herself," answered the maid, who had gone to the window, "for he is just crossing the court this blessed minute, on his way to the orangery, where they are rigging up their theatre."
Mme. la Marquise hastened to the window, and there was Leander in full view, walking along slowly, apparently lost in thought, and wearing a tender, sad expression, which he considered especially effective and interesting—as we have said, he never for a moment forgot his role. As he drew near he looked up, as by a sudden inspiration, to the very window where the marquise stood watching him, and instantly taking off his hat with a grand flourish, so that its long feather swept the ground, made a very low obeisance, such as courtiers make to a queen; then drew himself up proudly to his full height, and darting an ardent glance of admiration and homage at the beautiful unknown, put on his broad felt hat again and went composedly on his way. It was admirably well done; a genuine cavalier, familiar with all the gallant usages in vogue at court, could not have acquitted himself better. Flattered by this mark of respect for her rank and admiration of her beauty, so gracefully tendered, Mme. la Marquise could not help acknowledging it by a slight bend of the head, and a little half suppressed smile. These favourable signs did not escape Leander, who, with his usual self-conceit, took a most exaggerated view of their import. He did not for a moment doubt that the fair mistress of the chateau—for he took it for granted it was she—had fallen violently in love with him, then and there; he felt sure that he had read it in her eyes and her smile. His heart beat tumultuously; he trembled with excitement; at last it had come! the dream of his life was to be accomplished; he, the poor, strolling player, had won the heart of a great lady; his fortune was made! He got through the rehearsal to which he had been summoned as best he might, and the instant it was over hastened back to his own room, to indite an impassioned appeal to his new divinity, and devise some means to insure its reaching her that same evening.
As everything was in readiness the play was to begin as soon as the invited guests had all assembled. The orangery had been transformed into a charming little theatre, and was brilliantly lighted by many clusters of wax candles. Behind the spectators the orange trees had been arranged in rows, rising one above the other, and filled the air with their delicious fragrance. In the front row of seats, which was composed of luxurious arm-chairs, were to be seen the beautiful Yolande de Foix, the Duchesse de Montalban, the Baronne d'Hagemeau, the Marquise de Bruyres, and many other titled dames, resplendent in gorgeous array, and vying with each other in magnificence and beauty. Rich velvets, brilliant satins, cloth of silver and gold, misty laces, gay ribbons, white feathers, tiaras of diamonds, strings of pearls, superb jewels, glittering in delicate shell-like ears, on white necks and rounded arms, were in profusion, and the scene would have graced the court itself. If the surpassingly lovely Yolande de Foix had not been present, several radiant mortal goddesses in the exceptionally brilliant assemblage might have made it difficult for a Paris to decide between their rival claims to the golden apple; but her beauty eclipsed them all, though it was rather that of the haughty Diana than the smiling Venus. Men raved about her, declared her irresistible, worshipped at her shrine, but never dared aspire to her love; one scornful glance from her cold blue eyes effectually extinguished any nascent hope, and the cruel beauty punished presumption as relentlessly, and won and flung away hearts with as much nonchalance, as ever did her immortal prototype, the fair goddess of the chase.
How was this exquisite creature dressed? It would require more sang-froid than we are possessed of to venture upon a description of her perfect toilet; her raiment floated about her graceful form like a luminous cloud, in which one could think only of herself; we believe, however, that there were clusters of pearls nestling amid the bright curls that made an aureola—a veritable golden glory—about her beautiful head.
Behind these fair ladies sat or stood the nobles and gentlemen who had the honour of being their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Some were leaning forward to whisper soft nothings and dainty compliments into willing ears, others lounging and fanning themselves lazily with their broad felt hats, and others still standing in the background looking admiringly at the pretty group before them. The hum of conversation filled the air, and a slight impatience was just beginning to manifest itself among the waiting audience, when the traditional three knocks were heard, and all suddenly subsided into silence.
The curtain rose slowly and revealed a very pretty scene representing a public square where several streets met, surrounded by picturesque houses with small latticed windows, overhanging gables, high peaked roofs, and smoke curling upwards from the slender chimneys against the blue sky.
One of these houses had a practicable door and window, whilst two of those in the side scenes enjoyed equal advantages, and one of them was furnished with a balcony. A few trees were scattered about in front of the houses, and, though the painting was not of the highest order of scenic art, the general effect was very good, and won a round of applause from the aristocratic audience. The piece opens with a quarrel between the testy old bourgeois, Pandolphe, and his daughter, Isabelle, who, being in love with a handsome young suitor, obstinately refuses to obey her father's commands and marry a certain Captain Matamore, with whom he is perfectly infatuated. She is ably supported in her resistance by her pretty maid, Zerbine, who is well paid by Leander, the favoured lover, to espouse his cause. To all the curses and abuse that Pandolphe showers upon her, she answers gaily with the most exasperating and amusing impertinences, advising him to marry this fine captain himself if he is so fond of him; as for her part she will never suffer her dear, beautiful mistress to become the wife of that horrid old codger, that abominable bully, that detestable scarecrow! Whereupon Pandolphe, furiously angry, orders her into the house, so that he may speak to his daughter alone; and when she refuses to obey, and defies him to make her, he takes her by the shoulders and attempts to force her to go, but she, bending forward with admirable elasticity, from the waist only, at each vigorous effort of his, stands her ground and does not budge one inch from her place, breaking into peals of laughter at every fresh attempt, and accompanying it all with an irresistibly saucy, comical by-play, that wins her round after round of enthusiastic applause—whilst the Marquis de Bruyeres, enchanted with her spirited acting, congratulates himself anew upon the happy chance that threw this charming creature in his way.
Another character now enters upon the scene, looking cautiously about him at every step, as if he feared an unpleasant surprise. This is Leander, the horror of fathers, husbands, and guardians, the delight of wives, daughters, and wards—in one word, the lover—the very beau-ideal of a lover; young, handsome, ardent, ready for anything, winning over strict old duennas, bribing pert waiting-maids, climbing up rope-ladders, overcoming every obstacle to reach the fair mistress of his affections, and kneeling at her feet to pour out burning protestations of love and devotion, that no mortal woman could ever resist. Suddenly perceiving that Pandolphe is here, where he only expected to find Isabelle, Leander stops and throws himself into an attitude, which he has frequently practised before the mirror, and which, he flatters himself, shows his handsome person to great advantage; standing with his weight thrown upon the left leg, the right one advanced and slightly bent at the knee; one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other stroking his chin, so as to make the big diamond on his finger flash in the light, and a slight smile playing about his lips. He really did look very handsome as he stood there, and was greatly admired by all the ladies—even the haughty Yolande herself not disdaining to smile upon him approvingly. Profiting by the opportunity that this pause gave him, Leander fixed his eyes upon the Marquise de Bruyeres, with such a look of passionate entreaty and admiration that she blushed crimson in spite of herself under his ardent gaze; then he turned reluctantly towards Isabelle, with an absent, indifferent air, which he intended should indicate to the fair object of his aspirations the difference between real and simulated passion.
When Pandolphe becomes aware of the presence of Leander he is more furious than ever, and hustles his daughter and her maid into the house as quickly as possible, not, however, without Zerbine's finding means to take from Leander a note for Isabelle, which she slips into the pocket of her coquettish little apron. The young man, left alone with the irate father, assures him in the most respectful manner that his intentions are honourable; that he asks the hand of his fair daughter in marriage; that he is of gentle birth, has an ample fortune, and is in high favour at court; that nothing could ever induce him to give up Isabelle; he is ready to risk everything to win her, for he loves her better than his life—delicious words, which the young girl listens to with rapture from her balcony, whence she makes little signs of approval and encouragement to her lover, quite unknown to the stern father, whose back is turned to her, and who believes her safely locked up in the house. Despite the mellifluous eloquence of the ardent young suitor Pandolphe remains obstinate and unmoved, and swears, by all the gods that either he will have Captain Matamore for his son-in-law, or his refractory daughter shall be shut up in a convent and forced to become a nun. Off he bustles in hot haste to find a notary and have the contract of marriage drawn without further delay.
As soon as he is out of sight Leander tries to persuade Isabelle—who is still in her balcony, her father having carried off the key of the street door in his pocket—to consent to fly from such persecution, and accompany him to the cell of a certain holy hermit whom he knows, and who is always willing and ready to marry runaway couples like themselves, whose loves are thwarted by tyrannical parents. But the young girl answers modestly, yet firmly, that, although she wishes nothing so earnestly as to be permitted to bestow her hand upon her faithful Leander, who already has her heart, she cannot disobey her father, for that she, like all dutiful daughters, is in duty bound to respect and submit to the commands of the author of her being; but she promises never to marry the detested Captain Matamore—she will go into the convent rather than listen to him for a moment. Unable to shake her decision Leander then retires to devise plans, with the aid of his clever valet, to overcome the formidable obstacles in his way—more than ever determined not to give up the fair Isabelle, and promising her to return in the evening and report progress.
Isabelle retires from her balcony and closes her window, and a moment after Captain Matamore strides fiercely upon the stage—his appearance is greeted with peals of laughter—his tall, attenuated figure is encased in an absurd costume, in which the bright red and yellow stripes of his tunic meet in points in front and behind, whilst they run spirally round his long, thin arms and legs, producing the most preposterously comical effect imaginable; a stiffly-starched ruff, immensely broad, encircles his neck, upon which his head seems to be set, like that of John the Baptist on the charger; a large felt hat, turned up at one side, and ornamented with a huge tuft of red and yellow feathers, is stuck jauntily on his head, and a short cloak of the same colour, fastened round his neck and thrown back from his shoulders, floats behind him. He wears an enormous sword, whose heavily weighted hilt keeps the point always raised and standing out prominently behind him, whilst from it dangles a clever imitation of a spider's web—a convincing proof of how much he is in the habit of making use of this formidable weapon. Closely followed by his valet, Scapin, who is in imminent danger of having an eye put out by the end of his master's big sword, he marches several times around the stage, taking preternaturally long strides, rolling his eyes about fiercely, twisting the long ends of his huge mustache, and indulging in a variety of ridiculous gestures indicative of exaggerated rage and fury, which are irresistibly funny—all the more so because there is nothing whatever to provoke this display of ferocity. Finally he stops in front of the footlights, strikes an attitude, and delivers himself thus: "For to-day, Scapin, I am willing to let my man-killer here have a little rest, so that there may be an opportunity to get all its recent victims decently buried, in the cemeteries I contribute so largely towards filling. When a man has performed such feats of courage and carnage as I have—killing my hundreds single-handed, while my dastardly comrades trembled with fear, or turned and fled from the foe—to say nothing of my daily affairs of honour, now that the wars are over—he may assuredly indulge himself occasionally in milder amusements. Besides, the whole civilized world, having now been subjugated by my good sword, no longer offers any resistance to my indomitable arm, and Atropos, the eldest of the dread Parcae sisters, has sent word to me that the fatal scissors, with which she cuts the threads of human lives, have become so dulled by the great amount of work my trusty blade has given her to do with them, that she has been obliged to send them to Vulcan to be sharpened, and she begs for a short respite. So you see, Scapin, I must put force upon myself and restrain my natural ardour—refrain for a time from wars, massacres, sacking of cities, stand-up fights with giants, killing of monsters and dragons, like Theseus and Hercules of glorious memory, and all the other little pastimes which usually occupy my good sword and me. I will take my ease now for a brief period, and Death may enjoy a short rest too. But to whom did my worthy prototype, Mars, the great god of war, devote HIS leisure hours? in whose sweet society did HE find delight? Ask Venus, the immortal goddess of love and beauty, who had the good taste to prefer a warlike man to all others, and lent a willing ear to the suit of my valiant predecessor. So I, following his illustrious example, condescend to turn my attention for the moment to the tender sex, and pay my court to the fair Isabelle, the young and beautiful object of my ardent love. Being aware that Cupid, with all his assurance, would not dare to aim one of his golden-tipped arrows at such an all-conquering hero as my unworthy self, I have given him a little encouragement; and, in order that the shaft may penetrate to the generous lion's heart that beats in this broad breast, I have laid aside the world-famed coat of mail—made of the rings given to me by goddesses, empresses, queens, infantas, princesses, and great ladies of every degree, my illustrious admirers the world over—which is proof against all weapons, and has so often saved my life in my maddest deeds of daring."
"All of which signifies," interrupts the valet, who had listened to this high-blown tirade with ill-concealed impatience, "as far as my feeble intellect can comprehend such magnificent eloquence, that your most redoubtable lordship has fallen in love with some young girl hereabouts, like any ordinary mortal."
"Really, Scapin," says Matamore, with good-humoured condescension, "you have hit the nail upon the head—you are not so stupid after all, for a valet. Yes, I have fallen in love, but do not imagine for a moment that my courage will suffer diminution on that account. It was all very well for Samson to allow his hair to be cut off, and for Alcides to handle the distaff at the bidding of his mistress; but Delilah would not have dared to touch one hair of my head, and Omphale should have pulled off my boots for me—at the least sign of revolt I would have given her worse to do: cleaning the skin of the Nemaean lion, for instance, when I brought it home all fresh and bleeding, just as I had torn it from the quivering carcass. The thought that has lately occurred to me, that I have subjugated only half of the human race, is humiliating. Women, by reason of their weakness, escape me; I cannot treat them as I do my masculine opponents—cut their throats, run them through the body, or hew off their arms and legs; I must lay siege to their hearts, and conquer them in that way. It is true that I have stormed and taken a greater number of such fair citadels than there are drops of water in the ocean, or stars in the sky—why, I sleep on a mattress stuffed with thousands of beautiful curls and tresses of every shade, light and dark, golden and jet-black, which are among my most treasured trophies. Juno herself has made overtures to me, but I turned a deaf ear to her blandishments, finding her charms rather too ripe for my taste; I prefer the first flush of youthful beauty; it is a pure and innocent maiden that I would honour with my notice now, but she repulses me—that I should live to say it!—she dares to repulse me. I cannot permit such an impertinence on her part, and the fair Isabelle must humbly sue to me for pardon, and herself bringing the golden keys of the citadel of her heart, upon a salver of silver, offer them to me upon her bended knees, with streaming eyes and dishevelled tresses, begging for grace and favour in my sight. Go now, and summon the fortress to surrender—this house contains the rebellious fair."
But doors and windows remain inexorably closed, and no notice is taken of the valet's thundering knocks and mocking summons to surrender; secure in the strength of their bolts and bars, the garrison, which consists of Isabelle and her maid, vouchsafes no reply. Matamore, becoming more enraged at each vain attempt to gain a response from his fair enemy, stamps about the stage, roaring out his defiance, threatening to sack and burn the place, pouring out volleys of remarkable oaths, and lashing himself into such a fury that he actually foams at the mouth. When his valet at length, after many vain efforts, is able to gain a hearing, and tells him of his formidable rival, Leander, and how he has already won the lady's heart, all his rage is turned against that fortunate suitor, of whom he vows that he will make mince-meat as soon as he can lay hands on him. At this very moment Leander himself returns, and Scapin points him out to his master as he approaches, adding that he will keep a sharp look-out for the police while Matamore is giving him his quietus. But the cowardly braggadocio would fain withdraw, now that the enemy is actually in sight, and is only restrained from flight by his servant, who pushes him forward directly in Leander's path.
Seeing that escape is impossible, Matamore settles his hat firmly on his head, twists the long ends of his mustache, puts his hand on the hilt of his big sword, and advances threateningly towards Leander—but it is pure bravado, for his teeth are chattering with fear, and his long, thin legs waver and tremble under him visibly, like reeds shaken by the wind. Only one hope remains to him—that of intimidating Leander by loud threats and ferocious gestures, if, by a happy chance, he be a fellow of his own kidney. So in a terrible voice he addresses him thus: "Sir, do you know that I am the great Captain Matamore of the celebrated house of Cuerno de Cornazan, and allied to the no less illustrious family of Escobombardon de la Papirontonda? I am a descendant, on my mother's side, of the famous Antacus, the ancient hero and giant."
"Well, you may be a descendant of the man in the moon for all that I care," answers Leander, with a disdainful shrug of the shoulders; "what the devil have I to do with such absurd stuff and nonsense?"
"Blood and bones! thunder and Mars! You see, sir, you shall see, and that very quickly, what you have to do with it, unless you take yourself off in the twinkling of an eye. I will give you one minute's grace, for your extreme youth touches me, so take to your heels and fly while there is yet time. Observe me well! I am the terror of the whole world—my path is marked with graves—my own shadow scarcely dares to follow me into the perils I delight in. If I enter a besieged city, it is by the breach—when I quit it I pass under a triumphal arch; if I cross a river, it is one of blood, and the bridge is made of the bodies of my adversaries. I can toss a knight and his horse, both, weighted with armour, high into the air. I can snap elephants' bones, as you would pipe-stems. When great Mars himself chances to meet me on the battle-field he turns and flees, dreading the weight of my arm. My prowess is so well known, and the terror I inspire so great, that no one dares to meet me face to face, and I never see anything but the backs of my retreating foes."
"Is it so? well, you shall meet ME face to face. Take THAT, and see how you like it!" says Leander laughing merrily, and giving him a sounding slap on one cheek which almost knocks the poor devil over, and is instantly followed by an equally hearty one on the other, to restore his equilibrium.
During this scene Isabelle and Zerbine come out upon the balcony. The mischievous soubrette goes into convulsions of laughter, whilst her mistress nods encouragingly to Leander. Meantime Pandolphe, accompanied by the notary, turns the corner of one of the streets and enters the square just in time to see Leander's extraordinary exploit, whereat he is horrified and amazed. The valiant captain bellows like a bull, shrieks out the most frightful threats and curses, vowing all sorts of vengeance, and making prodigious efforts to draw his big sword, so that he may forthwith set about cutting up his unmannerly assailant into mince-meat. He tugs and strains until he is red in the face, but his "man-killer" cannot be induced to quit the scabbard and Leander, growing impatient, follows up his first attack with a vigorous, well directed kick, which sends the unlucky bully flying to the other side of the stage, where he falls all in a heap and rolls in the dust. The handsome, young gallant then bows gracefully to Isabelle and retires from the scene.
Captain Matamore meanwhile lies sprawling on the ground, making ludicrous and ineffectual efforts to regain his feet. Pandolphe and Scapin go to his assistance, and when they have hauled him up, and he has made sure that Leander is no longer present, he roars out in a voice of thunder: "Scapin, quick, hoop me with iron bands or I shall burst! I am in such a rage! I shall explode like a bomb! and you, treacherous blade, do YOU play me false at such a moment? Is it thus you reward me for having always tried to slake your insatiable thirst with the blood of the bravest and noblest? I don't know why I have not already broken you into a thousand pieces, as you so richly deserve—false, ungrateful weapon that you are! But stay—was it to teach me that it is unworthy of the true warrior to desert his post?—or forget his sterner duties in the soft delights of love?—was it for that you refused to leap from your scabbard as of old? It is true, alas! that thus far this week I have not defeated a single army—I have killed neither ogre nor dragon—I have not furnished his usual rations to Death—and in consequence my trusty blade has rusted in the scabbard—that I should live to say it! rusted!—and I have been forced to submit to insults, and even blows, before the very eyes of my mistress. What a lesson! Henceforth I shall make it a rule to kill at least three men every morning before I break my fast, so as to be sure that my good sword plays freely—keep me in mind, Scapin, do you hear?"