"Perhaps Leander will return before long," says the valet; "suppose we all help you to draw your 'TRUSTY BLADE,' so that you may be ready for him."
Matamore, accordingly, plants himself firmly, holding the scabbard in both hands, Scapin seizes the handle of the sword, Pandolphe clasps him firmly round the waist, the notary tries to do as much by Pandolphe's stout person, and they all pull and pull. For some time the rusty old sword resists all their efforts, but at last yields suddenly, and the three fall in a confused heap on the ground, with legs and arms waving wildly in the air, while Matamore tumbles the other way, still clinging to the now empty scabbard. Picking himself up as quickly as possible he seizes his big sword, which has dropped from the valet's hand, and waving it triumphantly says with stem emphasis, "Now Leander's fate is sealed! There is but one way for him to escape certain death. He must emigrate to some distant planet. If he be sufficiently fool-hardy to remain on this globe I will find him, no matter in what distant land he strives to hide himself, and transfix him with this good sword—unless indeed he be first turned to stone by the terrible Medusa-like power of my eye."
In spite of all that he has witnessed, the obstinate old father still feels unbounded faith in Matamore's valour, and persists in his lamentable intention to bestow the hand of his fair daughter upon this magnificent hero. Poor Isabelle bursts into tears, and declares that she prefers the convent to such a fate. Zerbine loudly swears that this marriage shall never take place, and tries to console her weeping mistress. Matamore attributes this rather discouraging demonstration on the part of Isabelle to an excess of maidenly modesty, not doubting her penchant for himself, though he acknowledges that he has not yet properly paid his court, nor shown himself in all his glory to her—this last from prudential motives, fearing lest she might be dangerously dazzled and overwhelmed if he should burst upon her too suddenly in the full splendour of his heroic character, remembering, and taking warning by, the sad and terrible fate that befell Semele, when Jupiter, reluctantly yielding to her wishes, appeared before her with all the insignia of his majesty.
Isabelle and her maid withdrew from the balcony, without taking any further notice of the valiant Matamore; but he, undaunted, wishing to play the lover after the most approved fashion, plants himself resolutely under her window and sends Scapin to fetch a guitar; upon which he thrums awkwardly for a while, and then accompanies it with his voice, in an attempt at a Spanish love song, which sounds much like the nocturnal caterwauling of a disconsolate tabby than anything else we can compare it to. A dash of cold water, mischievously thrown down on him by Zerbine under pretext of watering the plants in the balcony, does not extinguish his musical ardour. "A gentle shower from the sweet eyes of my Isabelle, moved to tears by this plaintive melody," says he, "for it is universally conceded that I excel in music as in arms, and wield the lyre as skilfully as the sword."
Unfortunately for him, Leander suddenly reappears, and highly indignant that this miserable rascal should presume to serenade HIS mistress, snatches the guitar from his hands and begins whacking him over the head with it, so furiously that it is quickly broken through, and slipping over the unhappy serenader's head remains fixed round his neck, so that he is completely at the mercy of his assailant. Holding fast to the handle of the guitar, Leander hauls him about the stage, banging him against the side-scenes, dragging him forward to the footlights—making the most absurd scene imaginable—and finally, letting go of him suddenly, sends him sprawling on the ground. Fancy the ridiculous appearance of the unfortunate bully, who looked as if he had put his head through a frying-pan!
But his miseries are not yet at an end. Leander's valet had been arranging a clever little plot to prevent the fulfilment of the proposed marriage between Isabelle and Captain Matamore. At his instigation, a certain Doralice, very pretty and coquettish, makes her appearance, accompanied by a fierce-looking brother—represented by Herode—carrying two immensely long rapiers under his arm, and evidently "spoiling for a fight." The young lady complains that she has been shamefully jilted by Captain Matamore, who has deserted her for Isabelle, the daughter of a certain Pandolphe, and demands instant reparation for this outrage, adding that her brother is ready to exact it at the point of the sword, or avenge the insult by taking the life of the heartless villain who has trifled with her youthful affections.
"Make haste to give this rascal his quietus," says Pandolphe to his future son-in-law; "it will be only child's play for you, who have fearlessly encountered, single-handed, a whole army of Saracens."
Very reluctantly, and after many most absurd grimaces, Matamore crosses swords with Doralice's ferocious brother, but he trembles so that the latter, with one quick movement, sends his weapon flying out of his hand, and chastises him with the flat of his sword until he roars for mercy.
To cap the climax, Mme. Leonarde comes upon the scene, mopping her streaming eyes with an enormous pocket-handkerchief, sighing and sobbing, and bewailing herself. She goes straight to Pandolphe and shows him a written promise of marriage, over Matamore's signature, cleverly counterfeited; whereupon the poor wretch, convicted of such abominable and complicated perfidy, is assailed with a new shower of blows and curses, and finally condemned, by the unanimous vote of all present, to marry old Mme. Leonarde—who has made herself as hideous as possible—as a fitting punishment for all his deviltries, rodomontades, and cowardice. Pandolphe, thoroughly disgusted with Matamore at last, makes no further objections to Leander's suit, and the curtain falls as he gives his consent to the marriage of the two young lovers.
This bouffonnade, being played with great spirit, was enthusiastically applauded. The gentlemen were charmed with the mischievous, coquettish soubrette, who was fairly radiant with beauty that evening; the ladies were greatly pleased with Isabelle's refinement and modesty; whilst Matamore received the well merited encomiums of all. It would have been impossible to find, even in the great Parisian theatres, an actor better fitted for the part he had played so admirably. Leander was much admired by all the younger ladies, but the gentlemen agreed, without a dissenting voice, that he was a horridly conceited coxcomb. Wherever he appeared indeed this was the universal verdict, with which he was perfectly content—caring far more for his handsome person, and the effect it produced upon the fair sex, than for his art; though, to do him justice, he was a very good actor. Serafina's beauty did not fail to find admirers, and more than one young gentleman swore by his mustache that she was an adorable creature—quite regardless of the displeasure of the fair ladies within hearing.
During the play, de Sigognac, hidden in the coulisses, had enjoyed intensely Isabelle's charming rendering of her part, though he was more than a little jealous of the favour she apparently bestowed upon Leander—and especially at the tender tone of her voice whenever she spoke to him—not being yet accustomed to the feigned love-making on the stage, which often covers profound antipathies and real enmity. When the play was over, he complimented the young actress with a constrained, embarrassed air, which she could not help remarking, and perfectly understood.
"You play that part admirably, Isabelle! so well that one might almost think there was some truth in it."
"Is it not my duty to do so?" she asked smilingly, secretly pleased at his displeasure; "did not the manager engage me for that?"
"Doubtless," de Sigognac replied, "but you seemed to be REALLY in love with that conceited fellow, who never thinks of anything but his own good looks, and how to display them to the best advantage."
"But the role required it. You surely would not have had me play it as if he disgusted me! besides, did I not preserve throughout the quiet demeanour of a well-bred, respectable girl? If I failed in that you must tell me how and where, so that I may endeavour to correct it in future."
"Oh no! you appeared from the beginning to the end like a modest, retiring, young lady—no, there is no fault to be found with you in that respect; your acting was inimitable—so graceful, lady-like, and easy—but withal so true to nature that it was almost too real."
"My dear baron, they are putting out the lights; everybody has gone but ourselves, and we shall be left in the dark if we don't make haste. Be good enough to throw this cloak around my shoulders and accompany me to the chateau."
De Sigognac acquitted himself of this novel duty with less awkwardness than might have been expected, though his hands trembled a little, and he felt an almost irresistible desire to take her into his arms as he wrapped the mantle round her slender form; but he restrained himself, and respectfully offering his arm led her out of the orangery, which by this time was entirely deserted. It was, as we have said, at a little distance from the chateau, and on the level of the park, lower than the mansion, which stood on a high terrace, with a handsome stone balustrade at the edge, supporting at regular intervals large vases filled with blooming plants, in the pretty Italian fashion. A broad, easy flight of stone steps led up to the terrace, affording in their ascent a most imposing view of the chateau, which loomed up grandly against the evening sky. Many of the windows on this side were lighted, whilst the others glistened brightly as the silvery moon-beams struck upon them—as did also the dewdrops on the shrubbery and the grass-plots—as if a shower of diamonds had fallen on this favoured spot. Looking towards the park, the long vistas cut through the wood, losing themselves in the hazy blue of the distance, called to mind Breughel's famous picture of Paradise, or else disclosed the far-away gleam of a marble statue, or the spray of a misty fountain sparkling in the moonlight.
Isabelle and de Sigognac slowly ascended the broad steps, pausing frequently to turn and look back at this enchanting scene, and charmed with the beauty of the night walked for a little while to and fro upon the terrace before retiring to their rooms. As they were in full sight of the windows, and it was not yet very late, the modest young girl felt that there could be no impropriety in this little indulgence; and besides, the baron's extreme timidity was very reassuring to her, and she knew that he would not presume upon the favour accorded to him. He had not made a formal avowal of his love to her, but she was as well aware of it as if he had, and also of his profound respect for her, which sentiment is indeed always an accompaniment of a worthy passion. She knew herself beloved—the knowledge was very sweet to her—and she felt herself safe from all fear of offence in the company of this honourable gentleman and true lover. With the delicious embarrassment of nascent, unavowed love, this young couple wandering by moonlight in a lonely garden, side by side, arm in arm, only exchanged the most insignificant, commonplace remarks; but if no undercurrent was betrayed by actual words, the trembling, voices, long pauses, stifled sighs, and low, confidential tones told of strong emotions beneath this quiet surface.
The chamber assigned to the beautiful Yolande de Foix, near that of Mme. la Marquise, was on this side of the chateau, overlooking the park, and after she had dismissed her maid, she went to the window to look out once more upon the exceeding beauty of the night, and caught sight of de Sigognac and Isabelle, pacing slowly back and forth on the terrace below, without any other company than their own shadows. Assuredly the disdainful Yolande, haughty as a goddess, could never have felt anything but scorn for our poor young baron, past whom she had sometimes flashed in a whirlwind of light and noise in the chase, and whom she had so recently cruelly insulted; but still it displeased her to see him devoting himself thus to a beautiful young girl, to whom he was undoubtedly making love at that very moment. She had regarded him as her own humble vassal—for she had not failed to read the passionate admiration in his eyes whenever they met her own—and could not brook his shaking off his allegiance thus; her slaves ought to live and die in her service, even though their fidelity were never rewarded by a single smile. She watched them, with a frowning brow, until they disappeared, and then sought her conch in anything but a tranquil mood, haunted by the lover-like pair that had so roused her wrath, and still kept her long awake.
De Sigognac escorted Isabelle to the door of her chamber, where he bade her good-night, and as he turned away towards his own, saw, at the end of the corridor, a mysterious looking individual closely wrapped in a large cloak, with one end thrown over the shoulder in Spanish fashion, and so drawn up round his face that only the eyes were visible; a slouch hat concealed his forehead, so that he was completely disguised, yet he drew back hurriedly into a dark corner when de Sigognac turned towards him, as if to avoid his notice. The baron knew that the comedians had all gone to their rooms already, and besides, it could not be one of them, for the tyrant was much larger and taller, the pedant a great deal stouter, Leander more slender, Matamore much thinner, and Scapin of quite a different make. Not wishing to appear curious, or to annoy the unknown in any way, de Sigognac hastened to enter his own room—not however without having observed that the door of the tapestry-hung chamber stood ajar. When he had closed his, he heard stealthy footsteps approaching, and presently a bolt shot home softly, then profound silence.
About an hour later, Leander opened his door as quietly as possible, looked carefully to see if the corridor was empty, and then, stepping as lightly and cautiously as a gipsy performing the famous egg-dance, traversed its whole length, reached the staircase, which he descended as noiselessly as the phantoms in a haunted castle, and passed out into the moonlight; he crept along in the shadow of the wall and of some thick shrubbery, went down the steps into the park, and made his way to a sort of bower, where stood a charming statue of the mischievous little god of love, with his finger on his lip—an appropriate presiding genius of a secret rendezvous, as this evidently must be. Here he stopped and waited, anxiously watching the path by which he had come, and listening intently to catch the first sound of approaching footsteps.
We have already related how Leander, encouraged by the smile with which Mme. la Marquise acknowledged his salutation, and convinced that she was smitten with his beauty and grace, had made bold to address a letter to her, which he bribed Jeanne to place secretly upon her mistress's toilet-table, where she would be sure to see it. This letter we copy here at length, so as to give an idea of the style of composition employed by Leander in addressing the great ladies of whose favours he boasted so loudly.
"Madame, or rather fair goddess of beauty, do not blame anything but your own incomparable charms for this intrusion upon you. I am forced by their radiance to emerge from the deep shadow in which I should remain shrouded, and approach their dazzling brilliancy—just as the dolphins are attracted from the depths of ocean, by the brightness of the fisherman's lanterns, though they are, alas! to find destruction there, and perish by the sharp harpoons hurled pitilessly at them with unerring aim. I know but too well that the waves will be reddened by my blood; but as I cannot live without your favour, I do not fear to meet death thus. It may be strangely audacious, on my part to pretend to the privileges of gods and demi-gods—to die by your fair hand—but I dare to aspire to it; being already in despair, nothing worse can come to me, and I would rather incur your wrath than your scorn, or your disdain. In order to direct the fatal blow aright, the executioner must look upon his victim, and I shall have, in yielding up my life under your fair, cruel hand, the supreme delight of being for one blissful moment the object of your regard. Yes, I love you, madame! I adore you! And if it be a crime, I cannot repent of it. God suffers himself to be adored; the stars receive the admiration of the humblest shepherd; it is the fate of all such lofty perfection as yours to, be beloved, adored, only by inferior beings, since it has not its equal upon earth, nor scarcely indeed in heaven. I, alas! am but a poor, wandering actor, yet were I a haughty duke or prince, my head would not be on a level with your beauteous feet, and there would be, all the same, between your heavenly height and my kneeling adoration, as great a distance as from the soaring summit of the loftiest Alp to the yawning abyss far, far below. You must always stoop to reach a heart that adores you. I dare to say, madame, that mine is as proud as it is tender, and she who would deign not to repulse it, would find in it the most ardent love, the most perfect delicacy, the most absolute respect, and unbounded devotion. Besides, if such divine happiness be accorded me, your indulgence would not have to stoop so low as you might fancy. Though reduced by an adverse destiny and the jealous hatred of one of the great ones of the earth, who must be nameless, to the dire necessity of hiding myself under this disguise, I am not what I seem. I do not need to blush for my birth—rather I may glory in it. If I dared to betray the secrecy imposed upon me, for reasons of state, I could prove to you that most illustrious blood runs in my veins. Whoever may love me, noble though she be, will not degrade herself. But I have already said too much—my lips are sealed. I shall never be other than the humblest, most devoted of your slaves; even though, by one of those strange coincidences that happen sometimes in real life, I should come to be recognised by all the world as a king's son. If in your great goodness you will condescend to show me, fair goddess of beauty, by the slightest sign, that my boldness has not angered you, I shall die happy, consumed by the burning brightness of your eyes upon the funeral pyre of my love."
How would Mme. la Marquise have received this ardent epistle? which had perhaps done him good service already more than once. Would she have looked favourably upon her humble suitor?—who can tell?—for the feminine heart is past comprehension. Unfortunately the letter did not reach her. Being entirely taken up with great ladies, Leander overlooked their waiting-maids, and did not trouble himself to show them any attentions or gallantries—wherein he made a sad mistake—for if the pistoles he gave to Jeanne, with his precious epistle, had been supplemented by a few kisses and compliments, she would have taken far more pains to execute his commission. As she held the letter carelessly in her hand, the marquis chanced to pass by, and asked her idly what she had got there.
"Oh! nothing much," she answered scornfully, "only a note from Mr. Leander to Mme. la Marquise."
"From Leander? that jackanapes who plays the lover in the Rodomontades of Captain Matamore? What in the world can HE have to say to Mme. la Marquise? Doubtless he asks for a gratuity!"
"I don't think so," said the spiteful waiting-maid; "when he gave me this letter he sighed, and rolled up his eyes like a love-sick swain."
"Give me the letter," said the marquis, "I will answer it—and don't say anything about it to your mistress. Such chaps are apt to be impertinent—they are spoiled by admiration, and sometimes presume upon it."
The marquis, who dearly loved a joke, amused himself by answering Leander's extraordinary epistle with one in much the same style—written in a delicate, lady-like hand upon perfumed paper, and sealed with a fanciful device—altogether a production well calculated to deceive the poor devil, and confirm him in his ridiculous fancies. Accordingly, when he regained his bed-chamber after the play was over, he found upon his dressing-table a note addressed to himself. He hastened to open it, trembling from head to foot with excitement and delight, and read as follows: "It is true, as you say so eloquently—too eloquently for my peace of mind—that goddesses can only love mortals. At eleven o'clock, when all the world is sunk in slumber, and no prying human eyes open to gaze upon her, Diana will quit her place in the skies above and descend to earth, to visit the gentle shepherd, Endymion—not upon Mount Latmus, but in the park—at the foot of the statue of silent love. The handsome shepherd must be sure to have fallen asleep ere Diana appears, so as not to shock the modesty of the immortal goddess—who will come without her cortege of nymphs, wrapped in a cloud and devoid of her silvery radiance."
We will leave to the reader's imagination the delirious joy that filled to overflowing the foolish heart of the susceptible Leander, who was fooled to the top of his bent, when he read this precious note, which exceeded his wildest hopes. He immediately began his preparations to play the part of Endymion—poured a whole bottle of perfume upon his hair and hands, chewed a flower of mace to make his breath sweet, twisted his glossy curls daintily round his white fingers—though not a hair was awry—and then waited impatiently for the moment when he should set forth to seek the rendezvous at the foot of the statue of silent love—where we left him anxiously awaiting the arrival of his goddess. He shivered nervously from excitement, and the penetrating chilliness of the damp night air, as he stood motionless at the appointed spot. He trembled at the falling of a leaf—the crackling of the gravel under his feet whenever he moved them sounded so loud in his ears that he felt sure it would be heard at the chateau. The mysterious darkness of the wood filled him with awe, and the great, black trees seemed like terrible genii, threatening him. The poor wretch was not exactly frightened, but not very far from it. Mme. la Marquise was tardy—Diana was leaving her faithful Endymion too long cooling his heels in the heavy night dew. At last he thought he heard heavy footsteps approaching,—but they could not be those of his goddess—he must be mistaken—goddesses glide so lightly over the sward that not even a blade of grass is crushed beneath their feet—and, indeed, all was silent again.
"Unless Mme. la Marquise comes quickly, I fear she will find only a half-frozen lover, instead of an ardent, impatient one," murmured Leander with chattering teeth; and even as the words escaped him four dark shadows advanced noiselessly from behind upon the expectant gallant. Two of these shadows, which were the substantial bodies of stout rascals in the service of the Marquis de Bruyeres, seized him suddenly by the arms, which they held pinioned closely to his sides, while the other two proceeded to rain blows alternately upon his back—keeping perfect time as their strokes fell thick and fast. Too proud to run the risk of making his woes public by an outcry, their astonished victim took his punishment bravely—without making a sound. Mutius Scaevola did not bear himself more heroically while his right hand lay among the burning coals upon the altar in the presence of Porsenna, than did Leander under his severe chastisement. When it was finished the two men let go of their prisoner, all four saluted him gravely, and retired as noiselessly as they had come, without a single word being spoken.
What a terrible fall was this! that famous one of Icarus himself, tumbling down headlong from the near neighbourhood of the sun, was not a greater. Battered, bruised, sore and aching all over, poor Leander, crestfallen and forlorn, limping painfully, and suppressing his groans with Spartan resolution, crept slowly back to his own room; but so overweening as his self-conceit that he never even suspected that a trick had been played upon him. He said to himself that without doubt Mme. la Marquise had been watched and followed by her jealous husband, who had overtaken her before she reached the rendezvous in the park, carried her back to the chateau by main strength, and forced her, with a poniard at her throat, to confess all. He pictured her to himself on her knees, with streaming eyes, disordered dress and dishevelled hair, imploring her stem lord and master to be merciful—to have pity upon her and forgive her this once—vowing by all she held sacred never to be faithless to him again, even in thought. Suffering and miserable as he was after his tremendous thrashing, he yet pitied and grieved over the poor lady who had put herself in such peril for his sake, never dreaming that she was in blissful ignorance of the whole affair, and at that very moment sleeping peacefully in her luxurious bed. As the poor fellow crept cautiously and painfully along the corridor leading to his room and to those of the other members of the troupe he had the misfortune to be detected by Scapin, who, evidently on the watch for him, was peeping out of his own half-open door, grinning, grimacing, and gesticulating significantly, as he noted the other's limping gait and drooping figure.
In vain did Leander strive to straighten himself up and assume a gay, careless air; his malicious tormentor was not in the least taken in by it.
The next morning the comedians prepared to resume their journey; no longer, however, in the slow-moving, groaning ox-cart, which they were glad, indeed, to exchange for the more roomy, commodious vehicle that the tyrant had been able to hire for them—thanks to the marquis's liberality—in which they could bestow themselves and their belongings comfortably, and to which was harnessed four stout draught horses.
Leander and Zerbine were both rather late in rising, and the last to make their appearance—the former with a doleful countenance, despite his best efforts to conceal his sufferings under a cheerful exterior, the latter beaming with satisfaction, and with smiles for everybody. She was decidedly inclined to be munificent towards her companions, and bestow upon them some of the rich spoils that had fallen plentifully to her share—taking quite a new position among them—even the duenna treating her with a certain obsequious, wheedling consideration, which she had been far from ever showing her before. Scapin, whose keen observation nothing ever escaped, noticed that her box had suddenly doubled in weight, by some magic or other, and drew his own conclusions therefrom. Zerbine was a universal favourite, and no one begrudged her her good fortune, save Serafina, who bit her lip till it bled, and murmured indignantly, "Shameless creature!" but the soubrette pretended not to hear it, content for the moment with the signal humiliation of the arch-coquette.
At last the new Thespian chariot was ready for a start, and our travellers bade adieu to the hospitable chateau, where they had been so honourably received and so generously treated, and which they all, excepting poor Leander, quitted with regret. The tyrant dwelt upon the bountiful supply of pistoles he had received; the pedant upon the capital wines of which he had drunk his fill; Matamore upon the enthusiastic applause that had been lavished upon him by that aristocratic audience; Zerbine upon the pieces of rich silk, the golden necklaces and other like treasures with which her chest was replete—no wonder that it was heavy—while de Sigognac and Isabelle, thinking only of each other, and happy in being together, did not even turn their heads for one last glimpse of the handsome Chateau de Bruyere.
CHAPTER VI. A SNOW-STORM AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
As may be readily supposed, the comedians were well satisfied with the kind treatment they had received during their brief sojourn at the Chateau de Bruyeres; such a piece of good fortune did not often fall to their lot, and they rejoiced in it exceedingly. The tyrant had distributed among them each one's share of the marquis's liberal remuneration for their services, and it was wonderfully pleasant to them to have broad pieces in the purses usually so scantily supplied, and not infrequently quite empty. Zerbine, who was evidently rejoicing over some secret source of satisfaction, accepted good-naturedly all the taunts and jokes of her companions upon the irresistible power of her charms. She was triumphant, and could afford to be laughed at—indeed, joined heartily in the general merriment at her own expense—while Serafina sulked openly, with "envy, hatred, and malice" filling her heart. Poor Leander, still smarting from his severe beating, sore and aching, unable to find an easy position, and suffering agonies from the jolting of the chariot, found it hard work to join in the prevailing gaiety.
When he thought no one was looking at him, he would furtively rub his poor, bruised shoulders and arms with the palm of his hand, which stealthy manoeuvre might very readily have passed unobserved by the rest of the company, but did not escape the wily valet, who was always on the lookout for a chance to torment Leander; his monstrous self-conceit being intensely exasperating to him. A harder jolt than usual having made the unfortunate gallant groan aloud, Scapin immediately opened his attack, feigning to feel the liveliest commiseration for him.
"My poor Leander, what is the matter with you this morning? You moan and sigh as if you were in great agony! Are you really suffering so acutely? You seem to be all battered and bruised, like the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, after he had capered stark naked, for a love penance, among the rocks in the Sierra Morena, in humble imitation of his favourite hero, Amadis de Gaul. You look as if you had not slept at all last night, and had been lying upon hard sticks, rods, or clubs, instead of in a soft, downy bed, such as were given to the rest of us in the fine chateau yonder. Tell us, I pray you, did not Morpheus once visit you all the night through?"
"Morpheus may have remained shut up in his cavern, but Cupid is a wanderer by night, who does not need a lantern to find the way to those fortunate individuals he favours with a visit," Leander replied, hoping to divert attention from the tell-tale bruises, that he had fancied were successfully concealed.
"I am only a humble valet, and have had no experience in affairs of gallantry. I never paid court to a fine lady in my life; but still, I do know this much, that the mischievous little god, Cupid, according to all the poets, aims his arrows at the hearts of those he wishes to wound, instead of using his bow upon their backs."
"What in the world do you mean?" Leander interrupted quickly, growing seriously uneasy at the turn the conversation was taking.
"Oh! nothing; only that I see, in spite of all your efforts to hide it with that handkerchief knotted so carefully round your neck, that you have there on the back of it a long, black mark, which to-morrow will be indigo, the day after green, and then yellow, until it fades away altogether, like any other bruise—a black mark that looks devilishly like the authentic flourish which accompanies the signature of a good, stout club on a calf's skin—or on vellum, if that term pleases you better."
"Ah! my good Scapin, you do not understand such matters," Leander replied, a scarlet flush mounting to the very roots of his hair, and at his wits' ends to know how to silence his tormentor; "doubtless some dead and gone beauty, who loved me passionately during her lifetime, has come back and kissed me there while I was sleeping; as is well known, the contact of the lips of the dead leave strange, dark marks, like bruises, on human flesh, which the recipient of the mysterious caress is astonished to find upon awaking."
"Your defunct beauty visited you and bestowed her mysterious caress very apropos," remarked Scapin, incredulously; "but I would be willing to take my oath that yonder vigorous kiss had been imprinted upon your lily-white neck by the stinging contact of a stout club."
"Unmannerly jester and scoffer that you are! is nothing sacred to you?" broke in Leander, with some show of heat.
"You push my modesty too far. I endeavoured delicately to put off upon a dead beauty what I should have ascribed to a living one. Ignorant and unsophisticated though you claim to be, have you never heard of kisses so ardent that such traces of them are left?—where pearly teeth have closed upon the soft flesh, and made their mark on the white skin?"
"Memorem dente notam," interrupted the pedant, charmed to have a chance to quote Horace.
"This explanation appears to me very judicious," Scapin said; then, with a low bow to the pedant, "and is sustained by unquestionable if incomprehensible authority; but the mark is so long that this nocturnal beauty of yours, dead or alive, must have had in her lovely mouth that famous tooth which the three Gorgon sisters owned among them, and passed about from one to the other."
This sally was followed by a roar of laughter, and Leander, beside himself with rage, half rose, to throw himself upon Scopin, and chastise him then and there for his insufferable impertinence; but he was so stiff and sore from his own beating, and the pain in his back, which was striped like a zebra's, was so excruciating, that he sank back into his place with a suppressed groan, and concluded to postpone his revenge to some more convenient season. Herode and Blazius, who were accustomed to settle such little disputes, insisted upon their making up their differences, and a sort of reconciliation took place-Scapin promising never to allude to the subject again, but managing to give poor Leander one or two more digs that made him wince even as he did so.
During this absurd altercation the chariot had been making steady progress, and soon arrived at an open space where another great post-road crossed the one they were following, at right angles. A large wooden crucifix, much the worse for long exposure to the weather, had been erected upon a grassy mound at the intersection of the two highways. A group, consisting of two men and three mules, stood at its foot, apparently awaiting some one's arrival. As they approached, one of the mules, as if weary of standing still, impatiently shook its head, which was gaily decorated with bright, many-coloured tufts and tassels, and set all the little silver bells about it ringing sharply. Although a pair of leather blinkers, decked with gay embroidery, effectually prevented its seeing to the right or to the left, it evidently was aware of the approach of the chariot before the men's senses had given them any intimation of it.
"The Colonelle shakes her ear-trumpets and shows her teeth," said one of them; "they cannot be far off now."
In effect, after a very few minutes the chariot was seen approaching, and presently rolled into the open space. Zerbine, who sat in front, glanced composedly at the little group of men and mules standing there, without betraying any surprise at seeing them.
"By Jove! those are fine beasts yonder," exclaimed the tyrant, "splendid Spanish mules, especially that foremost one; they can easily do their fifteen or twenty leagues a day, I'll venture, and if we were mounted on the like we should soon find ourselves in Paris. But what the devil are they doing in this lonely place? it must be a relay, waiting for some rich seignior travelling this way."
"No," said the duenna, "that foremost mule is intended for a lady—don't you see the cushions and housings?"
"In that case," he replied, "there must be an abduction in the wind; those two equerries, in gray liveries, certainly have a very mysterious, knowing sort of an air."
"Perhaps you are right," said Zerbine, demurely, with a significant little smile and shrug.
"Can it be possible that the lady is among us?" asked Scapin; "one of the men is coming this way by himself, as if he desired to parley before resorting to violence."
"Oh! there'll be no need," said Serafina, casting a scornful glance at the soubrette, who returned it with interest.
"There are bold creatures that go of their own accord, without waiting to be carried off."
"And there are others who are NOT carried off, that would like to be," retorted the soubrette, "but the desire is not sufficient; a few charms are needed too."
At this point the equerry who had advanced to meet the chariot made a sign to them to stop, and, cap in hand, politely asked if Mlle. Zerbine was among them. The soubrette herself answered this inquiry in the affirmative, and sprang to the ground as lightly as a bird.
"Mademoiselle, I am at your disposal," said the equerry to her, in a respectful and gallant tone. Zerbine shook out her skirts, adjusted her wraps, and then, turning towards the comedians, delivered this little harangue: "My dear comrades, I pray you pardon me for quitting you in this unceremonious manner. There are times when Opportunity offers itself suddenly for our acceptance, and we must seize it without delay, or lose it altogether; he would be a fool who let it slip through his fingers, for once relinquished it returns not again. The face of Fortune, which until now has always frowned upon me, at last vouchsafes me a smile, and I am delighted to enjoy its brightness, even though it may prove to be only fleeting. In my humble role of soubrette, I could not aspire to, or expect to receive, the admiration of rich lords and gentlemen—that is for my betters; and now that a happy chance has thrown such an unhoped-for piece of good luck in my way, you will not blame me, I am confident, for gladly accepting it. Let me take my belongings then—which are packed in the chariot with the others—and receive my adieux. I shall be sure to rejoin you some day, sooner or later, at Paris, for I am a born actress; the theatre was my first love, and I have never long been faithless to it."
The two men accordingly, aided by the comedians, took Zerbine's boxes out of the chariot, and adjusted them carefully on the pack-mule. The soubrette made a sweeping curtsey to her friends in the chariot, and threw a kiss to Isabelle from her finger tips, then, aided by one of the equerries, sprang to her place behind him, on the back of the Colonelle, as lightly and gracefully as if she had been taught the art of mounting in an equestrian academy, nodded a last farewell, and striking the mule sharply with the high heel of her pretty little shoe, set off at a round pace.
"Good-bye, and good luck to you, Zerbine," cried the comedians heartily, one and all; save only Serafina, who was more furiously angry with her than ever.
"This is an unfortunate thing for us," said the tyrant regretfully, "a serious loss. I wish with all my heart that we could have kept that capital little actress with us; we shall not easily find any one to replace her, even in Paris; she is really incomparable in her own role—but she was not in any way bound to stay with us a moment longer than she chose. We shall have to substitute a duenna, or a chaperon, for the soubrette in our pieces for the present; it will be less pleasing of course, but still Mme. Leonarde here is a host in herself, and we shall manage to get on very nicely, I dare say."
The chariot started on its way again as he spoke, at rather a better pace than the lumbering old ox-cart. They were travelling through a part of the country now which was a great contrast to the desolate Landes. To the Baron de Sigognac, who had never been beyond their desolate expanse before, it was a revelation, and he could not sufficiently admire the richness and beauty of this region. The productive, red soil was highly cultivated—not an inch of ground neglected—comfortable, often handsome, stone houses scattered along their route at frequent intervals, and surrounded by large, luxuriant gardens, spoke of a well-to-do population. On each side of the broad, smooth road was a row of fine trees, whose falling leaves lay piled upon the ground in yellow heaps, or whirled in the wind before de Sigognac and Isabelle, as they walked along beneath their spreading branches, finding the exercise a welcome relief after sitting for a long time in the chariot in rather a cramped position. One day as they were walking thus side by side, de Sigognac said to his fair companion, "I wish you would tell me, Isabelle, how it has happened that you, with all the characteristics of a lady of lofty lineage in the innate modesty and dignity of your manners, the refinement and purity of your language, the incomparable grace of your carriage, the elevation of your sentiments upon all subjects, to say nothing of the delicate, aristocratic type of your beauty—should have become a member of a wandering band of players like this—good, honest people no doubt, but not of the same rank or race as yourself."
"Don't fancy that I am a princess in disguise, or a great lady reduced to earn my living in this way," she replied, with an adorable smile, "merely because of some good qualities you think you have discovered in me. The history of my life is a very simple, uneventful one, but since you show such kind interest in me I will gladly relate it to you. So far from being brought down to the station I occupy by some grievous catastrophe or romantic combination of adverse circumstances, I was born to the profession of an actress—the chariot of Thespis was, so to say, my birthplace. My mother, who was a very beautiful woman and finished actress, played the part of tragic princess. She did not confine her role to the theatre, but exacted as much deference and respect from those around her when off the stage, as she received upon it, until she came to consider herself a veritable princess. She had all the majesty and grace of one, and was greatly admired and courted, but never would suffer any of the gallants, who flutter about pretty actresses like moths around a candle, to approach her—holding herself entirely above them, and keeping her good name unsullied through everything. An account of this unusual conduct on the part of a beautiful young actress chanced to reach the ears of a certain rich and powerful prince, who was very much struck and interested by it, and immediately sought an introduction to my mother. As his actual rank and position equalled hers of imaginary princess, she received his attentions with evident pleasure. He was young, handsome, eloquent, and very much in love with her—what wonder then that she yielded at last to his impassioned entreaties, and gave herself to him, though, because of his high station, he could not do as his heart dictated, and make her his wife. They were very happy in each other's love, and after I was born my young father was devoted to me."
"Ah!" interrupted de Sigognac, eagerly, "that explains it all; princely blood does flow in your veins. I knew it—was sure of it!"
"Their happiness continued," resumed Isabelle, "until reasons of state made it necessary for him to tear himself away from her, to go on a diplomatic mission to one of the great capitals of Europe; and ere his return to France an illustrious marriage had been arranged for him by his family, with the sanction of royalty, which he found it impossible to evade. In these cruel circumstances he endeavoured to do everything in his power to soften the pain of this rupture to my poor mother—himself almost broken-hearted at being forced to leave her—and made every possible arrangement for her comfort and well-being; settling a generous income on her, and providing lavishly for my maintenance and education. But she would accept nothing from him—she could not receive his money without his love—'all or nothing' was her motto; and taking me with her she fled from him, successfully concealing her place of refuge. She soon after joined a band of players travelling through the provinces, and resumed her old role; but her heart was broken, and she gradually faded away, dying at last when I was only about seven years old. Even then I used to appear upon the stage in parts suitable to my age. I was a precocious little thing in many ways. My mother's death caused me a grief far more acute than most children, even a good deal older than I was then, are capable of feeling. How well I remember being punished because I refused to act the part of one of Medea's children, the day after she died. But my grief was not very long-lived—I was but a child after all, and the actors and actresses of the troupe were so good to me, always petting me, and devising all sorts of ways to please and divert me—theatrical people are proverbially kind to comrades in distress, you know. The pedant, who belonged to our company, and looked just as old and wrinkled then as he does now, took the greatest interest in me, constituted himself my master, and taught me thoroughly and indefatigably all the secrets of the histrionic art—taking unwearied pains with me. I could not have had a better teacher; perhaps you do not know that he has a great reputation, even in Paris. You will wonder that a man of his fame and attainments should be found in a strolling company of players like this, but his unfortunate habits of intemperance have been the cause of all his troubles. He was professor of elocution in one of the celebrated colleges, holding an enviable and lucrative position, but lost it because of his inveterate irregularities. He is his own worst enemy, poor Blazius! In the midst of all the confusion and serious disadvantages of a vagabond life, I have always been able to hold myself somewhat apart, and remain pure and innocent. My companions, who have known me from babyhood, look upon me as a sister or daughter, and treat me with invariable affection and respect; and as for the men of the outside world who haunt the coulisses, and seem to think that an actress is public property, off the stage as well as upon it, I have thus far managed to keep them at a distance—continuing in real life my role of modest, ingenuous, young girl, without hypocrisy or false pretensions."
Thus, as they strolled along together, and could talk confidentially without fear of listeners, Isabelle related the story of her life to de Sigognac, who was a most attentive and delighted listener, and ever more and more charmed with his fair divinity.
"And the name of the prince," said he, after a short pause, "do you remember it?"
"I fear that it might be dangerous to my peace to disclose it," she replied; "but it is indelibly engraven upon my memory."
"Are there any proofs remaining to you of his connection with your mother?"
"I have in my possession a seal-ring bearing his coat of arms" Isabelle answered; "it is the only jewel of all he had lavished upon her that my mother kept, and that entirely on account of the associations connected with it, not for its intrinsic value, which is small. If you would like to see it I will be very glad to show it to you some day."
It would be too tedious to follow our travellers step by step on their long journey, so we will skip over a few days—which passed quietly, without any incidents worth recording—and rejoin them as they were drawing near to the ancient town of Poitiers. In the meantime their receipts had not been large, and hard times had come to the wandering comedians. The money received from the Marquis de Bruyeres had all been spent, as well as the modest sum in de Sigognac's purse-who had contributed all that he possessed to the common fund, in spite of the protestations of his comrades in distress. The chariot was drawn now by a single horse-instead of the four with which they had set off so triumphantly from the Chateau de Bruyeres—and such a horse! a miserable, old, broken-down hack, whose ribs were so prominent that he looked as if he lived upon barrel-hoops instead of oats and hay; his lack-lustre eyes, drooping head, halting gait, and panting breath combined to make him a most pitiable object, and he plodded on at a snail's pace, looking as if he might drop down dead on the road at any moment. Only the three women were in the chariot—the men all walking, so as to relieve their poor, jaded beast as much as possible. The weather was bitterly cold, and they wrapped their cloaks about them and strode on in silence, absorbed in their own melancholy thoughts.
Poor de Sigognac, well-nigh discouraged, asked himself despondingly whether it would not have been better for him to have remained in the dilapidated home of his fathers, even at the risk of starving to death there in silence and seclusion, than run the risk of such hardships in company with these Bohemians. His thoughts flew back to his good old Pierre, to Bayard, Miraut, and Beelzebub, the faithful companions of his solitude; his heart was heavy within him, and at the sudden remembrance of his dear old friends and followers his throat contracted spasmodically, and he almost sobbed aloud; but he looked back at Isabelle, wrapped in her cloak and sitting serenely in the front of the chariot, and took fresh courage, feeling glad that he could be near her in this dark hour, to do all that mortal man, struggling against such odds, could compass for her comfort and protection. She responded to his appealing glance with a sweet smile, that quickened his pulses and sent a thrill of joy through every nerve. She did not seem at all disheartened or cast down by the greatness of their misery. Her heart was satisfied and happy; why should she be crushed by mere physical suffering and discomforts? She was very brave, although apparently so delicate and fragile, and inspired de Sigognac, who could have fallen down and worshipped her as he gazed up into her beautiful eyes, with some of her own undaunted courage.
The great, barren plain they were slowly traversing, with a few dreary skeletons of misshapen old trees scattered here and there, and not a dwelling in sight, was not calculated to dissipate the melancholy of the party. Save one or two aged peasants trudging listlessly along, bending under the weight of the fagots they carried on their backs, they had not seen a human being all day long. The spiteful magpies, that seemed to be the only inhabitants of this dreary waste, danced about in front of them, chattering and almost laughing at them, as if rejoicing in and making fun of their miseries. A searching north wind, that penetrated to the very marrow in their bones, was blowing, and the few white flakes that flew before it now and then were the avantcouriers of the steady fall of snow that began as nightfall approached.
"It would appear," said the pedant, who was walking behind the chariot trying to find shelter from the icy wind, "that the celestial housewife up above has been plucking her geese, and is shaking the feathers out of her apron down upon us. She might a great deal better send us the geese themselves. I for one would be glad enough to eat 114 them, without being very particular as to whether they were done to a turn, and without sauce or seasoning either."
"Yes, so would I, even without salt," added the tyrant, "for my stomach is empty. I could welcome now an omelette such as they gave us this morning, and swallow it without winking, though the eggs were so far gone that the little chicks were almost ready to peep."
By this time de Sigognac also had taken refuge behind the chariot—Isabelle having been driven from her seat in front to a place in the interior by the increasing violence of the storm-and Blazius said to him, "This is a trying time, my lord, and I regret very much that you should have to share our bad fortune; but I trust it will be only of brief duration, and although we do get on but slowly, still every step brings us nearer to Paris."
"I was not brought up in the lap of luxury," de Sigognac answered, "and I am not a man to be frightened by a few snowflakes and a biting wind; but it is for these poor, suffering women that I am troubled; they are exposed to such severe hardships—cold, privations, fatigue—and we cannot adequately shelter and protect them, do what we will."
"But you must remember that they are accustomed to roughing it, my dear baron, and what would be simply unendurable to many of their sex, who have never been subjected to such tests, they meet bravely, and make light of, in a really remarkable manner."
The storm grew worse and worse; the snow, driven with great force by the wind, penetrated into the chariot where Isabelle, Serafina, and Mme. Leonarde had taken refuge among the luggage, in spite of all that could be done to keep it out, and had soon covered their wraps with a coating of white. The poor horse was scarcely able to make any headway at all against the wind and snow; his feet slipped at every step, and he panted painfully. Herode went to his head, and took hold of the bridle with his strong hand to lead him and try to help him along, while the pedant, de Sigognac, and Scapin put their shoulders to the wheels at every inequality in the road and whenever he paused or stumbled badly, and Leander cracked the whip loudly to encourage the poor beast; it would have been downright cruelty to strike him. As to Matamore, he had lingered behind, and they were expecting every moment to see his tall, spare figure emerge from the gloom with rapid strides and rejoin them. Finally the storm became so violent that it was impossible to face it any longer; and though it was so important that they should reach the next village before the daylight was all gone, they were forced to halt, and turn the chariot, with its back to the wind. The poor old horse, utterly exhausted by this last effort, slipped and fell, and without making any attempt to rise lay panting on the ground. Our unhappy travellers found themselves in a sad predicament indeed—wet, cold, tired and hungry, all in the superlative degree—blinded by the driving snow, and lost, without any means of getting on save their own powers of locomotion, in the midst of a great desert—for the white covering which now lay upon everything had obliterated almost all traces of the road; they did not know which way to turn, or what to do. For the moment they all took refuge in the chariot, until the greatest violence of the tempest should be over, huddled close together for warmth, and striving not to lose heart entirely. Presently the wind quieted down all of a sudden, as if it had expended its fury and wanted to rest; but the snow continued to fall industriously, though noiselessly, and as far as the eye could reach through the gathering darkness the surface of the earth was white, as if it had been wrapped in a winding sheet.
"What in the world has become of Matamore?" cried Blazius suddenly; "has the wind carried him off to the moon I wonder?"
"Yes; where can he be?" said the tyrant, in an anxious tone; "I can't see him anywhere—I thought he was among us; perhaps he is lying asleep among the stage properties at the back of the chariot; I have known him curl himself down there for a nap before now. Holloa! Matamore! where are you? wake up and answer us!" But no Matamore responded, and there was no movement under the great heap of scenery, and decorations of all sorts, stowed away there.
"Holloa! Matamore!" roared Herode again, in his loudest tones, which might have waked the seven sleepers in their cavern, and roused their dog too.
"We have not seen him here in the chariot at all today," said one of the actresses; "we thought he was walking with the others."
"The deuce!" exclaimed Blazius, "this is very strange. I hope no accident has happened to the poor fellow."
"Undoubtedly he has taken shelter in the worst of the storm on the lee side of the trunk of a tree somewhere," said de Sigognac, "and will soon come up with us."
After a short discussion, it was decided to wait where they were a few minutes longer, and then if he did not make his appearance go in search of him. They anxiously watched the way by which they had come, but no human form appeared on the great expanse of white, and the darkness was falling rapidly upon the earth, as it does after the short days of December. The distant howling of a dog now came to their ears, to add to the lugubrious effect of their surroundings, but they were all so troubled at the strange absence of their comrade that their own individual miseries were for the moment forgotten. The doleful howling, so far away at first, gradually became louder, until at last a large, black dog came in sight, and sitting down upon the snow, still a long distance from them, raised his head so that his muzzle pointed upward to the sky and howled, as if in the greatest distress.
"I'm afraid something terrible has happened to our poor Matamore," cried the tyrant, and his voice trembled a little; "that dog howls as if for a death."
At this speech the two young women turned even paler than they had been before, if that were possible, and made the sign of the cross devoutly, while Isabelle murmured a prayer.
"We must go in search of him without a moment's delay," said Blazius, "and take the lantern with us; it will as a guiding star to him if he has wandered off from the road, as is very probable, with everything covered with snow like this."
They accordingly lighted their horn lantern, and set off with all possible speed—the tyrant, Blazius, and de Sigognac—whilst Scapin and Leander remained with the three women in the chariot. The dog, meantime, kept up his dismal howling without a moment's intermission as the three men hastened towards him. The darkness and the newfallen snow, which had completely obliterated all traces of footsteps, made the task of looking for the missing actor a very difficult one, and after walking nearly a mile without seeing a sign of him, they began to fear that their search would prove fruitless. They kept calling, "Matamore! Matamore!" but there was no reply, nothing to be heard but the howling of the large black dog, at intervals now, or the scream of an owl, disturbed by the light of the lantern. At last de Sigognac, with his penetrating vision, thought he could make out a recumbent figure at the foot of a tree, a little way off from the road, and they all pressed forward to the spot he indicated.
It was indeed poor Matamore, sitting on the ground, with his back against the tree, and his long legs, stretched out in front of him, quite buried under the snow; he did not stir at the approach of his comrades, or answer their joyful shout of recognition, and when Blazius, alarmed at this strange apathy, hastened forward and threw the light of the lantern upon his face, he had nearly let it fall from fright at what it revealed. Poor Matamore was dead, stiff and stark, with wide-open, sunken eyes staring out vaguely into the darkness, and his ghastly face wearing that pinched, indescribable expression which the mortal puts on when the spirit that dwelt within has fled. The three who had found him thus were inexpressibly shocked, and stood for a moment speechless and motionless, in the presence of death. The tyrant was the first to recover himself, and hoping that some sign of life might yet remain he stooped and took the cold hand into his, and essayed to find a pulse at the wrist—in vain! it was still and icy. Unwilling yet to admit that the vital spark was extinct, he asked Blazius for his gourd, which he always carried with him, and endeavoured to pour a few drops of wine into his mouth—in vain! the teeth were tightly locked together, and the wine trickled from between his pale lips, and dropped slowly down upon his breast.
"Leave him in peace! do not disturb these poor remains!" said de Sigognac in trembling tones; "don't you see that he is dead?" "Alas! you are right," Blazius added, "he is dead; dead as Cheops in the great pyramid. Poor fellow! he must have been confused by the blinding snow, and unable to make his way against that terrible wind, turned aside and sat down under this tree, to wait until its violence should be spent; but he had not flesh enough on his bones to keep them warm, and must have been quickly frozen through and through. He has starved himself more than ever lately, in hopes of producing a sensation at Paris, and he was thinner than any greyhound before. Poor Matamore! thou art out of the way of all trouble now; no more blows, and kicks, and curses for thee, my friend, whether on or off the stage, and thou wilt be laughed at no more forever."
"What shall we do about his body?" interrupted the more practical tyrant. "We cannot leave it here for dogs, and wolves, and birds of prey to devour—though indeed I almost doubt whether they would touch it, there is so little flesh upon his bones."
"No, certainly, we cannot leave him here," Blazius replied; "he was a good and loyal comrade; he deserves better of us than that; we will not abandon him, poor Matamore! He is not heavy; you take his head and I will take his feet, and we will carry him to the chariot. To-morrow morning we will bury him as decently as we can in some quiet, retired spot, where he will not be likely to be disturbed. Unfortunately we cannot do better for him than that, for we, poor actors, are excluded by our hard-hearted and very unjust step-mother, the church, from her cemeteries; she denies us the security and comfort of being laid to rest for our last long sleep in consecrated ground. After having devoted our lives to the amusement of the human race—the highest as well as the more lowly among them, and faithful sons and daughters of holy church too—we must be thrown into the next ditch when the end comes, like dead dogs and horses. Now, Herode, are you ready? and will you, my lord, lead the way with the lantern?"
The mournful little procession moved slowly forward; the howling dog was quiet at last, as if his duty was done, and a deathlike stillness prevailed around them. It was well that there were no passers-by at that hour; it would have been a strange sight, almost a frightful one, for any such, for they might well have supposed that a hideous crime had been committed; the two men bearing the dead body away at night, lighted by the third with his lantern, which threw their shadows, long, black and misshapen, upon the startling whiteness of the snow, as they advanced with measured tread. Those who had remained with the chariot saw from afar the glimmer of de Sigognac's lantern, and wondered why they walked so slowly, not perceiving at that distance their sad burden. Scapin and Leander hastened forward to meet them, and as soon as they got near enough to see them distinctly the former shouted to them—"Well, what is the matter? why are you carrying Matamore like that? is he ill, or has he hurt himself?"
"He is not ill," answered Blazius, quietly, as they met, "and nothing can ever hurt him again—he is cured forever of the strange malady we call life, which always ends in death."
"Is he really dead?" Scapin asked, with a sob he did not even try to suppress, as he bent to look at the face of the poor comic actor, for he had a tender heart under his rough exterior, and had cherished a very sincere affection for poor Matamoie.
"Very dead indeed, for he is frozen as well," Blazius replied, in a voice that belied the levity of his words.
"He has lived! as they always say at the end of a tragedy," said Herode; "but relieve us, please, it is your turn now; we have carried the poor fellow a long way, and it is well for us that he is no heavier."
Scapin took Herode's place, reverently and tenderly, while Leander relieved the pedant—though this office was little to his taste—and they resumed their march, soon reaching the chariot. In spite of the cold and snow, Isabelle and Serafina sprang to the ground to meet them, but the duenna did not leave her seat—with age had come apathy, and selfishness had never been wanting. When they saw poor Matamore stiff and motionless, and were told that he was dead, the two young women were greatly shocked and moved, and Isabelle, bursting into tears, raised her pure eyes to heaven and breathed a fervent prayer for the departed soul.
And now came the question, what was to be done? The village for which they were bound was still a league away; but they could not stay where they were all night, and they decided to go on, even if they had to abandon the chariot and walk—anything would be better than freezing to death like poor Matamore. But after all, things were not at such a desperate pass as they supposed; the long rest, and a good feed of oats that Scapin had been thoughtful enough to give their tired horse, had so revived the poor old beast that he seemed to be ready and willing to go forward again—so their most serious difficulty was removed. Matamore's body was laid in the chariot, and carefully covered with a large piece of white linen they fortunately happened to have among their heterogeneous belongings, the women resumed their seats, not without a slight shudder as they thought of their ghastly companion, and the men walked—Scapin going in front with the lantern, and Herode leading the horse. They could not make very rapid progress, but at the end of two hours perceived—oh, welcome sight!—the first straggling houses of the village where they were to spend the night. At the noise of the approaching vehicle the dogs began to bark furiously, and more than one nightcapped head appeared at the windows as they passed along through the deserted street—so the pedant was able to ask the way to the inn, which proved to be at the other end of the hamlet—and the worn-out old horse had to make one more effort; but he seemed to feel that the stable, where he should find shelter, rest and food, was before him, and pushed on with astonishing alacrity.
They found it at last—the inn—with its bunch of holly for a sign. It looked a forlorn place, for travellers did not usually stop over night in this small, unimportant village; but the comedians were not in a mood to be fastidious, and would have been thankful for even a more unpromising house of entertainment than this one. It was all shut up for the night, with not a sign of life to be seen, so the tyrant applied himself diligently to pounding on the door with his big fists, until the sound of footsteps within, descending the stairs, showed that he had succeeded in rousing somebody. A ray of light shone through the cracks in the rickety old door, then it was cautiously opened just a little, and an aged, withered crone, striving to protect the flame of her flaring candle from the wind with one skinny hand, and to hold the rags of her most extraordinary undress together with the other, peered out at them curiously. She was evidently just as she had turned out of her bed, and a more revolting, witch-like old hag it would be hard to find; but she bade the belated travellers enter, with a horrible grimace that was intended for a smile, throwing the door wide open, and telling them they were welcome to her house as she led the way into the kitchen. She kindled the smouldering embers on the hearth into a blaze, threw on some fresh wood, and then withdrew to mount to her chamber and make herself a little more presentable—having first roused a stout peasant lad, who served as hostler, and sent him to take the chariot into the court, where he was heard directly unharnessing the weary horse and leading him into the stable.
"We cannot leave poor Matamore's body in the chariot all night, like a dead deer brought home from the chase," said Blazius; "the dogs out there in the court might find it out. Besides, he had been baptized, and his remains ought to be watched with and cared for, like any other good Christian's."
So they brought in the sad burden tenderly, laid it on the long table, and covered it again carefully with the white linen cloth. When the old woman returned, and saw this strange and terrible sight, she was frightened almost to death, and, throwing herself on her knees, began begging volubly for mercy—evidently taking the troupe of comedians for a band of assassins, and the dead man for their unfortunate victim. It was with the greatest difficulty that Isabelle finally succeeded in calming and reassuring the poor, distracted, old creature, who was beside herself with terror, and made her listen to the story of poor Matamore's death. When, at last, she fully understood the true state of the case, she went and fetched more candles, which she lighted and disposed symmetrically about the dead body, and kindly offered to sit up and watch it with Mme. Leonarde—also to do all that was necessary and usual for it—adding that she was always sent for in the village when there was a death, to perform those last, sad offices. All this being satisfactorily arranged—whereat they were greatly relieved—the weary travellers were conducted into another room, and food was placed before them; but the sad scenes just enacted had taken away their appetites, though it was many long hours since they had eaten. And be it here recorded that Blazius, for the first time in his life, forgot to drink his wine, though it was excellent, and left his glass half full. He could not have given a more convincing proof of the depth and sincerity of his grief.
Isabelle and Serafina spent the night in an adjoining chamber, sharing the one small bed it contained, and the men lay down upon bundles of straw that the stable-boy brought in for them. None of them slept much—being haunted by disturbing dreams inspired by the sad and trying events of the previous day—and all were up and stirring at an early hour, for poor Matamore's burial was to be attended to. For want of something more appropriate the aged hostess and Mme. Leonarde had enveloped the body in an old piece of thick canvass—still bearing traces of the foliage and garlands of flowers originally painted in bright colours upon it—in which they had sewed it securely, so that it looked not unlike an Egyptian mummy. A board resting on two cross pieces of wood served as a bier, and, the body being placed upon it, was carried by Herode, Blazius, Scapin and Leander. A large, black velvet cloak, adorned with spangles, which was used upon the stage by sovereign pontiffs or venerable necromancers, did duty as a pall—not inappropriately surely. The little cortege left the inn by a small door in the rear that opened upon a deserted common, so as to avoid passing through the street and rousing the curiosity of the villagers, and set off towards a retired spot, indicated by the friendly old woman, where no one would be likely to witness or interfere with their proceedings. The early morning was gray and cold, the sky leaden—no one had ventured abroad yet save a few peasants searching for dead wood and sticks, who looked with suspicious eyes upon the strange little procession making its way slowly through the untrodden snow, but did not attempt to approach or molest it. They reached at last the lonely spot where they were to leave the mortal remains of poor Matamore, and the stable-boy, who had accompanied them carrying a spade, set to work to dig the grave. Several carcasses of animals lay scattered about close at hand, partly hidden by the snow—among them two or three skeletons of horses, picked clean by birds of prey; their long heads, at the end of the slender vertebral columns, peering out horribly at them, and their ribs, like the sticks of an open fan stripped of its covering, appearing above the smooth white surface, bearing each one its little load of snow. The comedians observed these ghastly surroundings with a shudder, as they laid their burden gently down upon the ground, and gathered round the grave which the boy was industriously digging. He made but slow progress, however, and the tyrant, taking the spade from him, went to work with a will, and had soon finished the sad task. Just at the last a volley of stones suddenly startled the little group, who, intent upon the mournful business in hand, had not noticed the stealthy approach of a considerable number of peasants.
These last had been hastily summoned by their friends who had first perceived the mysterious little funeral procession, without priest, crucifix, or lighted tapers, and taken it for granted that there must be something uncanny about it.
They were about to follow up the shower of stones by a charge upon the group assembled round the open grave, when de Sigognac, outraged at this brutal assault, whipped out his sword, and rushed upon them impetuously, striking some with the flat of the blade, and threatening others with the point; while the tyrant, who had leaped out of the grave at the first alarm, seized one of the cross pieces of the improvised bier, and followed the baron into the thick of the crowd, raining blows right and left among their cowardly assailants; who, though they far outnumbered the little band of comedians, fled before the vigorous attack of de Sigognac and Herode, cursing and swearing, and shouting out violent threats as they withdrew. Poor Matamore's humble obsequies were completed without further hindrance. When the first spadeful of earth fell upon his body the pedant, with great tears slowly rolling down his cheeks, bent reverently over the grave and sighed out, "Alas! poor Matamore!" little thinking that he was, using the very words of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, when he apostrophized the skull of Yorick, an ancient king's jester, in the famous tragedy of one Shakespeare—a poet of great renown in England, and protege of Queen Elizabeth.
The grave was filled up in silence, and the tyrant—after having trampled down the snow for some distance around it, so that its exact whereabouts might not be easy to find in case the angry peasants should come back to disturb it—said as they turned away, "Now let us get out of this place as fast as we can; we have nothing more to do here, and the sooner we quit it the better. Those brutes that attacked us may return with reinforcements—indeed I think it more than likely that they will—in which case your sword, my dear baron, and my stick might not be enough to scatter them again. We don't want to kill any of them, and have the cries of widows and orphans resounding in our ears; and besides, it might be awkward for us if we were obliged to do it in self-defence, and then were hauled up before the local justice of peace to answer for it."
There was so much good sense in this advice that it was unanimously agreed to follow it, and in less than an hour, after having settled their account at the inn, they, were once more upon the road.
CHAPTER VII. CAPTAIN FRACASSE
The comedians pushed forward at first as rapidly as the strength of their horse—resuscitated by a night's rest in a comfortable stable, and a generous feed of oats—would allow; it being important to put a good distance between themselves and the infuriated peasants who had been repulsed by de Sigognac and the tyrant. They plodded on for more than two leagues in profound silence, for poor Matamore's sad fate weighed heavily upon their hearts, and each one thought, with a shudder, that the day might come when he too would die, and be buried secretly and in haste, in some lonely and neglected spot by the roadside, wherever they chanced to be, and there abandoned by his comrades.
At last Blazius, whose tongue was scarcely ever at rest, save when he slept, could restrain it no longer, and began to expatiate upon the mournful theme of which all were thinking, embellishing his discourse with many apt quotations, apothegms and maxims, of which in his role of pedant he had an ample store laid up in his memory. The tyrant listened in silence, but with such a scowling, preoccupied air that Blazius finally observed it, and broke off his eloquent disquisition abruptly to inquire what he was cogitating so intently.
"I am thinking about Milo, the celebrated Crotonian," he replied, "who killed a bullock with one blow of his fist, and devoured it in a single day. I always have admired that exploit particularly, and I feel as if I could do as much myself to-day."
"But as bad luck will have it," said Scapin, putting in his oar, "the bullock is wanting."
"Yes," rejoined the tyrant, "I, alas! have only the fist and the stomach. Oh! thrice happy the ostrich, that, at a pinch, makes a meal of pebbles, bits of broken glass, shoe-buttons, knife-handles, belt-buckles, or any such-like delicacies that come in its way, which the poor, weak, human stomach cannot digest at all. At this moment I feel capable of swallowing whole that great mass of scenery and decorations in the chariot yonder. I feel as if I had as big a chasm in me as the grave I dug this morning for poor Matamore, and as if I never could get enough to fill it. The ancients were wise old fellows; they knew what they were about when they instituted the feasts that always followed their funerals, with abundance of meats and all sorts of good things to eat, washed down with copious draughts of wine, to the honour of the dead and the great good of the living. Ah! if we only had the wherewithal now to follow their illustrious example, and accomplish worthily that philosophical rite, so admirably calculated to stay the tears of mourners and raise their drooping spirits."
"In other words," said Blazius, "you are hankering after something to eat. Polyphemus, ogre, Gargantua, monster that you are! you disgust me."
"And you," retorted the tyrant, "I know that you are hankering after something to drink. Silenus, hogshead, wine-bottle, sponge that you are! you excite my pity."
"How delightful it would be for us all if you both could have your wish," interposed Scapin, in a conciliatory tone.
"Look, yonder by the roadside is a little grove, capitally situated for a halting-place. We might stop there for a little, ransack the chariot to find whatever fragments may yet remain in it of our last stock of provisions, and gathering them all up take our breakfast, such as it may be, comfortably sheltered from this cold north wind on the lee side of the thicket there. The short halt will give the poor old horse a chance to rest, and we meantime, while we are breakfasting, can discuss at our leisure some expedients for supplying our immediate needs, and also talk over our future plans and prospects—which latter, it seems to me, look devilishly dark and discouraging."
"Your words are golden, friend Scapin," the pedant said, "let us by all means gather up the crumbs that are left of former plenty, though they will be but few and musty, I fear. There are still, however, two or three bottles of wine remaining—the last of a goodly store—enough for us each to have a glass. What a pity that the soil hereabouts is not of that peculiar kind of clay upon which certain tribes of American savages are said to subsist, when they have been unlucky in their hunting and fishing, and have nothing better to eat."
They accordingly turned the chariot off from the road into the edge of the thicket, unharnessed the horse, and left him free to forage for himself; whereupon he began to nibble, with great apparent relish, at the scattered spears of grass peeping up here and there through the snow. A large rug was brought from the chariot and spread upon the ground in a sheltered spot, upon which the comedians seated themselves, in Turkish fashion, in a circle, while Blazius distributed among them the sorry rations he had managed to scrape together; laughing and jesting about them in such an amusing manner that all were fain to join in his merriment, and general good humour prevailed. The Baron de Sigognac, who had long, indeed always, been accustomed to extreme frugality, in fact almost starvation, and found it easier to bear such trials with equanimity than his companions, could not help admiring the wonderful way in which the pedant made the best of a really desperate situation, and found something to laugh at and make merry over where most people would have grumbled and groaned, and bewailed their hard lot, in a manner to make themselves, and all their companions in misery, doubly unhappy. But his attention was quickly absorbed in his anxiety about Isabelle, who was deathly pale, and shivering until her teeth chattered, though she did her utmost to conceal her suffering condition, and to laugh with the rest. Her wraps were sadly insufficient to protect her properly from such extreme cold as they were exposed to then, and de Sigognac, who was sitting beside her, insisted upon sharing his cloak with her—though she protested against his depriving himself of so much of it—and beneath its friendly shelter gently drew her slender, shrinking form close to himself, so as to impart some of his own vital warmth to her. She could feel the quickened beating of his heart as he held her respectfully, yet firmly and tenderly, embraced, and he was soon rewarded for his loving care by seeing the colour return to her pale lips, the happy light to her sweet eyes, and even a faint flush appear on her delicate cheeks.
While they were eating—or rather making believe to eat their make-believe breakfast—a singular noise was heard near by, to which at first they paid no particular attention, thinking it was the wind whistling through the matted branches of the thicket, if they thought of it at all; but presently it grew louder, and they could not imagine what it proceeded from. It was a sort of hissing sound, at once shrill and hoarse, quite impossible to describe accurately.
As it grew louder and louder, and seemed to be approaching them, the women manifested some alarm.
"Oh!" shrieked Serafina "I hope it's not a snake; I shall die if it is; I am so terrified by the horrid, crawling creatures."
"But it can't possibly be a snake," said Leander, reassuringly; "in such cold weather as this the snakes are all torpid and lying in their holes underground, stiffer than so many sticks."
"Leander is right," added the pedant, "this cannot be a snake; and besides, snakes never make such a sound as that at any time. It must proceed from some wild creature of the wood that our invasion has disturbed; perhaps we may be lucky enough to capture it and find it edible; that would be a piece of good fortune, indeed, quite like a fairy-tale."
Meantime Scapin was listening attentively to the strange, incomprehensible sound, and watching keenly that part of the thicket from which it seemed to come. Presently a movement of the underbrush became noticeable, and just as he motioned to the company to keep perfectly quiet a magnificent big gander emerged from the bushes, stretching out his long neck, hissing with all his might, and waddling along with a sort of stupid majesty that was most diverting—closely followed by two geese, his good, simple-minded, confiding wives, in humble attendance upon their infuriated lord and master.
"Don't stir, any of you," said Scapin, under his breath, and I will endeavour to capture this splendid prize"—with which the clever scamp crept softly round behind his companions, who were still seated in a circle on the rug, so lightly that he made not the slightest sound; and while the gander—who with his two followers had stopped short at sight of the intruders—was intently examining them, with some curiosity mingled with his angry defiance, and apparently wondering in his stupid way how these mysterious figures came to be in that usually deserted spot, Scapin succeeded, by making a wide detour, in getting behind the three geese unseen, and noiselessly advancing upon them, with one rapid, dexterous movement, threw his large heavy cloak over the coveted prize. In another instant he had the struggling gander, still enveloped in the cloak, in his arms, and, by compressing his neck tightly, quickly put an end to his resistance—and his existence at the same time; while his two wives, or rather widows, rushed back into the thick underbrush to avoid a like fate, making a great cackling and ado over the terrible catastrophe that had befallen their quondam lord and master.
"Bravo, Scapin! that was a clever trick indeed," cried Herode; "it throws those you are so often applauded for on the stage quite into the shade—a masterpiece of strategy, friend Scapin!—for, as is well known, geese are by nature very vigilant, and never caught off their guard—of which history gives us a notable instance, in the watchfulness of the sacred geese of the Capitol, whose loud cackling in the dead of night at the stealthy approach of the Gauls woke the sleeping soldiers to a sense of their danger just in time to save Rome. This splendid big fellow here saves us—after another fashion it is true, but one which is no less providential."
The goose was plucked and prepared for the spit by Mme. Leonarde, while Blazius, the tyrant, and Leander busied themselves in gathering together a goodly quantity of dead wood and twigs, and laying them ready to light in a tolerably dry spot. Scapin, with his large clasp-knife, cut a straight, strong stick, stripped off the bark for a spit, and found two stout forked branches, which he stuck firmly into the ground on each side of the fire so that they would meet over it. A handful of dry straw from the chariot served as kindling, and they quickly had a bright blaze, over which the goose was suspended, and being duly turned and tended by Scapin, in a surprisingly short space of time began to assume a beautiful light brown hue, and send out such a savoury delicious odour that the tyrant sprang up and strode away from its immediate vicinity, declaring that if he remained near it the temptation to seize and swallow it, spit and all, would surely be too strong for him. Blazius had fetched from the chariot a huge tin platter that usually figured in theatrical feasts, upon which the goose, done to a turn, was finally placed with all due ceremony, and a second breakfast was partaken of, which was by no means a fallacious, chimerical repast like the first. The pedant, who was an accomplished carver, officiated in that capacity on this auspicious occasion; begging the company, as he did so, to be kind enough to excuse the unavoidable absence, which he deeply regretted, of the slices of Seville oranges that should have formed a part of the dish—being an obligatory accessory of roast goose—and they with charming courtesy smilingly expressed their willingness to overlook for this once such a culinary solecism.
"Now," said Herode, when nothing remained of the goose but its well-picked bones, "we must try to decide upon what is best to be done. Only three or four pistoles are left in the exchequer, and my office as treasurer bids fair to become a sinecure. We have been so unfortunate as to lose two valuable members of the troupe, Zerbine and poor Matamore, rendering many of our best plays impossible for us, and at any rate we cannot give dramatic representations that would bring in much money here in the fields, where our audience would be mainly composed of crows, jackdaws, and magpies—who could scarcely be expected to pay us very liberally for our entertainment. With that poor, miserable, old horse there, slowly dying between the shafts of our chariot, hardly able to drag one foot after another, we cannot reasonably expect to reach Poitiers in less than two days—if we do then—and our situation is an unpleasantly tragic one, for we run the risk of being frozen or starved to death by the wayside; fat geese, already roasted, do not emerge from every thicket you know."
"You state the case very clearly," the pedant said as he paused, "and make the evil very apparent, but you don't say a word about the remedy."
"My idea is," rejoined Herode, "to stop at the first village we come to and give an entertainment. All work in the fields is at a standstill now, and the peasants are idle in consequence; they will be only too delighted at the prospect of a little amusement. Somebody will let us have his barn for our theatre, and Scapin shall go round the town beating the drum, and announcing our programme, adding this important clause, that all those who cannot pay for their places in money may do so in provisions. A fowl, a ham, or a jug of wine, will secure a seat in the first row; a pair of pigeons, a dozen eggs, or a loaf of bread, in the second, and so on down. Peasants are proverbially stingy with their money, but will be liberal enough with their provisions; and though our purse will not be replenished, our larder will, which is equally important, since our very lives depend upon it. After that we can push on to Poitiers, and I know an inn-keeper there who will give us credit until we have had time to fill our purse again, and get our finances in good order."
"But what piece can we play, in case we find our village?" asked Scapin. "Our repertoire is sadly reduced, you know. Tragedies, and even the better class of comedies, would be all Greek to the stupid rustics, utterly ignorant as they are of history or fable, and scarcely even understanding the French language. The only thing to give them would be a roaring farce, with plenty of funny by-play, resounding blows, kicks and cuffs, ridiculous tumbles, and absurdities within their limited comprehension. The Rodomontades of Captain Matamore would be the very thing; but that is out of our power now that poor Matamore is dead."
When Scapin paused, de Sigognac made a sign with his hand that he wished to speak, and all the company turned respectfully towards him to listen to what he had to say. A little flush spread itself over his pale countenance, and it was only after a brief but sharp struggle with himself that he opened his tightly compressed lips, and addressed his expectant audience, as follows: "Although I do not possess poor Matamore's talent, I can almost rival him in thinness, and I will take his role, and do the best I can with it. I am your comrade, and I want to do my part in this strait we find ourselves in. I should be ashamed to share your prosperity, as I have done, and not aid you, so far as lies in my power, in your adversity, and this is the only way in which I can assist you. There is no one in the whole world to care what may become of the de Sigognacs; my house is crumbling into dust over the tombs of my ancestors; oblivion covers my once glorious name, and the arms of my family are almost entirely obliterated above the deserted entrance to the Chateau de Sigognac. Perhaps I may yet see the three golden storks shine out brilliantly upon my shield, and life, prosperity, and happiness return to the desolate abode where my sad, hopeless youth was spent. But in the meantime, since to you I owe my escape from that dreary seclusion, I beg you to accept me freely as your comrade, and my poor services as such; to you I am no longer de Sigognac."
Isabelle had laid her hand on his arm at his first sentence, as soon as she comprehended what he meant to say, to try to stop him, and here she made another effort to interrupt; but for once he would not heed her, and continued, "I renounce my title of baron for the present; I fold it up and put it away at the bottom of my portmanteau, like a garment that is laid aside. Do not make use of it again, I pray you; we will see whether under a new name I may not succeed in escaping from the ill fortune that has thus far pursued me as the Baron de Sigognac. Henceforth then I take poor Matamore's place, and my name is Captain Fracasse."
"Bravo! Vive Captain Fracasse!" cried they all, with enthusiasm, "may applause greet and follow him wherever he goes."
This sudden move on de Sigognac's part, at which the comedians were greatly astonished, as well as deeply touched, was not so unpremeditated as it seemed; he had been thinking about it for some time. He blushed at the idea of being a mere parasite, living upon the bounty of these honest players—who shared all they had with him so generously, and without ever making him feel, for a moment, that he was under any obligation to them, but—rather that he was conferring an honour upon them—he deemed it less unworthy a gentleman to appear upon the stage and do his part towards filling the common purse than to be their pensioner in idleness; and after all, there was no disgrace in becoming an actor. The idea of quitting them and going back to Sigognac had indeed presented itself to his mind, but he had instantly repulsed it as base and cowardly—it is not in the hour of danger and disaster that the true soldier retires from the ranks. Besides, if he had wished to go ever so much, his love for Isabelle would have kept him near her; and then, though he was not given to day-dreams, he yet fancied that wonderful adventures, sudden changes, and strokes of good fortune might possibly be awaiting him in the mysterious future, into which he fain would peer, and he would inevitably lose the chance of them all if he returned to his ruinous chateau.
Everything being thus satisfactorily arranged, the old horse was harnessed up again, and the chariot moved slowly forward on its way. Their good meal had revived everybody's drooping spirits, and they all, excepting the duenna and Serafina, who never walked if they could possibly help it, trudged cheerily along, laughing and talking as they went.
Isabelle had taken de Sigognac's offered arm, and leaned on it proudly, glancing furtively up into his face, whenever he was looking away from her, with eyes full of tenderness and loving admiration, never suspecting, in her modesty, that it was for love of her that he had decided to turn actor—a thing so revolting, as she knew, to his pride as a gentleman. He was a hero in her eyes, and though she wished to reproach him for his hasty action, which she would have prevented if she could, she had not the heart to find fault with him for his noble devotion to the common cause after all. Yet she would have done anything, suffered everything herself, to have saved him this humiliation; hers being one of those true, loyal hearts that forget themselves in their love, and think only of the interests and happiness of the being beloved. She walked on beside him until her strength was exhausted, and then returned to her place in the chariot, giving him a look so eloquent of love and admiration, as he carefully drew her wraps about her, that his heart bounded with joy, and he felt that no sacrifice could be too great which was made for her sweet sake.
In every direction around them, as far as the eye could reach, the snow-covered country was utterly devoid of town, village, or hamlet; not a sign of life was anywhere to be seen.
"A sorry prospect for our fine plan," said the pedant, after a searching examination of their surroundings, "and I very much fear that the plentiful store of provisions Herode promised us will not be forthcoming. I cannot see the smoke of a single chimney, strain my eyes as I will, nor the weather-cock on any village spire."
"Have a little patience, Blazius!" the tyrant replied. "Where people live too much crowded together the air becomes vitiated, you know, and it is very salubrious to have the villages situated a good distance apart."
"What a healthy part of the country this must be then the inhabitants need not to fear epidemics—for to begin with there are no inhabitants. At this rate our Captain Fracasse will not have a chance very soon to make his debut."
By this time it was nearly dark, the sky was overcast with heavy leaden clouds, and only a faint lurid glow on the horizon in the west showed where the sun had gone down. An icy wind, blowing full in their faces, and the hard, frozen surface of the snow, made their progress both difficult and painful. The poor old horse slipped at every step, though Scapin was carefully leading him, and staggered along like a drunken man, striking first against one shaft and then against the other, growing perceptibly weaker at every turn of the wheels behind him. Now and again he shook his head slowly up and down, and cast appealing glances at those around him, as his trembling legs seemed about to give way under him. His hour had come—the poor, old horse! and he was dying in harness like a brave beast, as he was. At last he could no more, and falling heavily to the ground gave one feeble kick as he stretched himself out on his side, and yielded up the ghost. Frightened by the sudden shock, the women shrieked loudly, and the men, running to their assistance, helped them to clamber out of the chariot. Mme. Leonarde and Serafina were none the worse for the fright, but Isabelle had fainted quite away, and de Sigognac, lifting her light weight easily, carried her in his arms to the bank at the side of the road, followed by the duenna, while Scapin bent down over the prostrate horse and carefully examined his ears.