"He is stone dead," said he in despairing tones; "his ears are cold, and there is no pulsation in the auricular artery."
"Then I suppose we shall have to harness ourselves to the chariot in his place," broke in Leander dolefully, almost weeping. "Oh! cursed be the mad folly that led me to choose an actor's career."
"Is this a time to groan and bewail yourself?" roared the tyrant savagely, entirely out of patience with Leander's everlasting jeremiads; "for heaven's sake pluck up a little courage, and be a man! And now to consider what is to be done; but first let us see how our good little Isabelle is getting on; is she still unconscious? No; she opens her eyes, and there is the colour coming back to her lips; she will do now, thanks to the baron and Mme. Leonarde. We must divide ourselves into two bands; one will stay with the women and the chariot, the other will scour the country in search of aid. We cannot think of remaining here all night, for we should be frozen stiff long before morning. Come, Captain Fracasse, Leander, and Scapin, you three being the youngest, and also the fleetest of foot, off with you. Run like greyhounds, and bring us succour as speedily as may be. Blazius and I will meantime do duty as guardians of the chariot and its contents."
The three men designated signified their readiness to obey the tyrant, and set off across country, though not feeling at all sanguine as to the results of their search, for the night was intensely dark; but that very darkness had its advantages, and came to their aid in an unexpected manner, for though it effectually concealed all surrounding objects, it made visible a tiny point of light shining at the foot of a little hill some distance from the road.
"Behold," cried the pedant, "our guiding star! as welcome to us weary travellers, lost in the desert, as the polar star to the distressed mariner 'in periculo maris.' That blessed star yonder, whose rays shine far out into the darkness, is a light burning in some warm, comfortable room, which forms—Heaven be praised!—part of the habitation of human and civilized beings—not Laestrygon savages. Without doubt there is a bright fire blazing on the hearth in that cosy room, and over it hangs a famous big pot, from which issue puffs of a delicious odour—oh, delightful thought!—round which my imagination holds high revel, and in fancy I wash down with generous wine the savoury morsels from that glorious pot-au-feu."
"You rave, my good Blazius," said the tyrant, "the frost must have gotten into your brain—that makes men mad, they say, or silly. Yet there is some method in your madness, some truth in your ravings, for yonder light must indicate an inhabited dwelling. This renders a change in the plans for our campaign advisable. We will all go forward together towards the promised refuge, and leave the chariot where it is; no robbers will be abroad on such a night as this to interfere with its contents. We will take our few valuables—they are not so numerous or weighty but that we can carry them with us; for once it is an advantage that our possessions are few. To-morrow morning we will come back to fetch the chariot: now, forward, march!—and it is time, for I am nearly frozen to death."
The comedians accordingly started across the fields, towards the friendly light that promised them so much—Isabelle supported by de Sigognac, Serafina by Leander, and the duenna dragged along by Scapin; while Blazius and the tyrant formed the advance guard. It was not easy work; sometimes plunging into deep snow, more than knee high, as they came upon a ditch, hidden completely under the treacherously smooth white surface, or stumbling, and even falling more than once, over some unseen obstacle; but at length they came up to what seemed to be a large, low building, probably a farm-house, surrounded by stone walls, with a big gate for carts to enter. In the expanse of dark wall before them shone the light which had guided their steps, and upon approaching they found that it proceeded from a small window, whose shutters—most fortunately for them, poor, lost wanderers—had not yet been closed. The dogs within the enclosure, perceiving the approach of strangers, began to bark loudly and rush about the yard; they could hear them jumping up at the walls in vain efforts to get at the intruders. Presently the sound of a man's voice and footsteps mingled with their barking, and in a moment the whole establishment seemed to be on the alert.
"Stay here, all of you," said the pedant, halting at a little distance from the gate, "and let me go forward alone to knock for admission. Our numbers might alarm the good people of the farm, and lead them to fancy us a band of robbers, with designs upon their rustic Penates; as I am old, and inoffensive looking, they will not be afraid of me."
This advice was approved by all, and Blazius, going forward by himself, knocked gently at the great gate, which was first opened cautiously just a very little, then flung impetuously back; and then the comedians, from their outpost in the snow, saw a most extraordinary and inexplicable scene enacted before their astonished eyes. The pedant and the farmer who had opened the gate, after gazing at each other a moment intently, by the light of the lantern which the latter held up to see what manner of man his nocturnal visitor might be, and after exchanging rapidly a few words, that the others could not hear, accompanied by wild gesticulations, rushed into each other's arms, and began pounding each other heartily upon the back—mutually bestowing resounding accolades—as is the manner upon the stage of expressing joy at meeting a dear friend. Emboldened by this cordial reception, which yet was a mystery to them, the rest of the troupe ventured to approach, though slowly and timidly.
"Halloa! all of you there," cried the pedant suddenly, in a joyful voice, "come on without fear, you will be made welcome by a friend and a brother, a world-famed member of our profession, the darling of Thespis, the favourite of Thalia, no less a personage than the celebrated Bellombre—you all know his glorious record. Blessed is the happy chance that has directed our steps hither, to the philosophic retreat where this histrionic hero reposes tranquilly upon his laurels."
"Come in, I pray you, ladies and gentlemen," said Bellombre, advancing to meet them, with a graceful courtesy which proved that the ci-devant actor had not put aside his elegant, courtly manners when he donned his peasant dress.
"Come in quickly out of this biting wind; my dwelling is rude and homely, but you will be better off within it than here in the open air."
They needed no urging, and joyfully accepting his kind invitation followed their host into the house, charmed with this unhoped-for good fortune. Blazius and Bellombre were old acquaintances, and had formerly been members Of the same troupe; as their respective roles did not clash there was no rivalry between them, and they had become fast friends—being fellow worshippers at the shrine of the merry god of wine. Bellombre had retired from the stage some years before, when at his father's death he inherited this farm and a small fortune. The parts that he excelled in required a certain degree of youth, and he was not sorry to withdraw before wrinkles and whitening locks should make it necessary for him to abandon his favourite roles. In the world he was believed to be dead, but his splendid acting was often quoted by his former admirers—who were wont to declare that there had been nothing to equal it seen on the stage since he had made his last bow to the public.
The room into which he led his guests was very spacious, and served both as kitchen and sitting-room—there was also a large curtained bed standing in an alcove at the end farthest from the fire, as was not unusual in ancient farm-houses. The blaze from the four or five immense logs of wood heaped up on the huge andirons was roaring up the broad chimney flue, and filling the room with a bright, ruddy glow—a most welcome sight to the poor half-frozen travellers, who gathered around it and luxuriated in its genial warmth. The large apartment was plainly and substantially furnished, just as any well-to-do farmer's house might be, but near one of the windows stood a round table heaped up with books, some of them lying open as if but just put down, which showed that the owner of the establishment had not lost his taste for literary pursuits, but devoted to them his long winter evenings.
The cordiality of their welcome and the deliciously warm atmosphere in which they found themselves had combined to raise the spirits of the comedians—colour returned to pate faces, light to heavy eyes, and smiles to anxious lips—their gaiety was in proportion to the misery and peril from which they had just happily escaped, their hardships were all forgotten, and they gave themselves up entirely to the enjoyment of the hour. Their host had called up his servants, who bustled about, setting the table and making other preparations for supper, to the undisguised delight of Blazius, who said triumphantly to the tyrant, "You see now, Herode, and must acknowledge, that my predictions, inspired by the little glimmer of light we saw from afar, are completely verified—they have all come literally true. Fragrant puffs are issuing even now from the mammoth pot-au-feu there over the fire, and we shall presently wash down its savoury contents with draughts of generous wine, which I see already awaiting us on the table yonder. It is warm and bright and cosy in this room, and we appreciate and enjoy it all doubly, after the darkness and the cold and the danger from which we have escaped into the grateful shelter of this hospitable roof; and to crown the whole, our host is the grand, illustrious, incomparable Bellombre—flower and cream of all comedians, past, present and future, and best of good fellows."
"Our happiness would be complete if only poor Matamore were here," said Isabelle with a sigh.
"Pray what has happened to him?" asked Bellombre, who knew him by reputation.
The tyrant told him the tragic story of the snow-storm, and its fatal consequences. "But for this thrice-blessed meeting with my old and faithful friend here," Blazius added, "the same fate would probably have overtaken us ere morning—we should all have been found, frozen stiff and stark, by the next party of travellers on the post road."
"That would have been a pity indeed," Bellombre rejoined, and glancing admiringly at Isabelle and Serafina, added gallantly, "but surely these young goddesses would have melted the snow, and thawed the ice, with the fire I see shining in their sparkling eyes."
"You attribute too much power to our eyes," Scrafina made answer; "they could not even have made any impression upon a heart, in the thick, impenetrable darkness that enveloped us; the tears that the icy cold forced from them would have extinguished the flames of the most ardent love."
While they sat at supper, Blazius told their host of the sad condition of their affairs, at which he seemed no way surprised.
"There are always plenty of ups and downs in a theatrical career," he said—"the wheel of Fortune turns very fast in that profession; but if misfortunes come suddenly, so also does prosperity follow quickly in their train. Don't be discouraged!—things are brightening with you now. Tomorrow morning I will send one of my stout farm-horses to bring your chariot on here, and we will rig up a theatre in my big barn; there is a large town not far from this which will send us plenty of spectators. If the entertainment does not fetch as good a sum as I think it will, I have a little fund of pistoles lying idle here that will be entirely at your service, for, by Apollo! I would not leave my good Blazius and his friends in distress so long as I had a copper in my purse."
"I see that you are always the same warm-hearted, openhanded Bellombre as of old," cried the pedant, grasping the other's outstretched hand warmly; "you have not grown rusty and hard in consequence of your bucolic occupations."
"No," Bellombre replied, with a smile; "I do not let my brain lie fallow while I cultivate my fields. I make a point of reading over frequently the good old authors, seated comfortably by the fire with my feet on the fender, and I read also such new works as I am able to procure, from time to time, here in the depths of the country. I often go carefully over my own old parts, and I see plainly what a self-satisfied fool I was in the old days, when I was applauded to the echo every time I appeared upon the stage, simply because I happened to be blessed with a sonorous voice, a graceful carriage, and a fine leg; the doting stupidity of the public, with which I chanced to be a favourite, was the true cause of my success."
"Only the great Bellombre himself would ever be suffered to say such things as these of that most illustrious ornament of our profession," said the tyrant, courteously.
"Art is long, but life is short," continued the ci-devant actor, "and I should have arrived at a certain degree of proficiency at last perhaps, but—I was beginning to grow stout; and I would not allow myself to cling to the stage until two footmen should have to come and help me up from my rheumatic old knees every time I had a declaration of love to make, so I gladly seized the opportunity afforded me by my little inheritance, and retired in the height of my glory."
"And you were wise, Bellombre," said Blazius, "though your retreat was premature; you might have given ten years more to the theatre, and then have retired full early."
In effect he was still a very handsome, vigorous man, about whom no signs of age were apparent, save an occasional thread of silver amid the rich masses of dark hair that fell upon his shoulders.
The younger men, as well as the three actresses, were glad to retire to rest early; but Blazius and the tyrant, with their host, sat up drinking the latter's capital wine until far into the night. At length they, too, succumbed to their fatigue; and while they are sleeping we will return to the abandoned chariot to see what was going on there. In the gray light of the early morning it could be perceived that the poor old horse still lay just as he had fallen; several crows were flitting about, not yet venturing to attack the miserable carcass, peering at it suspiciously from a respectful distance, as if they feared some hidden snare. At last one, bolder than its fellows, alighted upon the poor beast's head, and was just bending over that coveted dainty, the eye—which was open and staring—when a heavy step, coming over the snow, startled him. With a croak of disappointment he quitted his post of vantage, rose heavily in the air, and flapped slowly off to a neighbouring tree, followed by his companions, cawing and scolding hoarsely. The figure of a man appeared, coming along the road at a brisk pace, and carrying a large bundle in his arms, enveloped in his cloak. This he put down upon the ground when he came up with the chariot, standing directly in his way, and it proved to be a little girl about twelve years old; a child with large, dark, liquid eyes that had a feverish light in them—eyes exactly like Chiquita's. There was a string of pearl beads round the slender neck, and an extraordinary combination of rags and tatters, held together in some mysterious way, hung about the thin, fragile little figure. It was indeed Chiquita herself, and with her, Agostino—the ingenious rascal, whose laughable exploit with his scarecrow brigands has been already recorded—who, tired of following a profession that yielded no profits, had set out on foot for Paris—where all men of talent could find employment they said—marching by night, and lying hidden by day, like all other beasts of prey. The poor child, overcome with fatigue and benumbed by the cold, had given out entirely that night, in spite of her valiant efforts to keep up with Agostino, and he had at last picked her up in his arms and carried her for a while—she was but a light burden—hoping to find some sort of shelter soon.
"What can be the meaning of this?" he said to Chiquita. "Usually we stop the vehicles, but here we are stopped by one in our turn; we must look out lest it be full of travellers, ready to demand our money or our lives."
"There's nobody in it," Chiquita replied, having peeped in under the cover.
"Perhaps there may be something worth having inside there," Agostino said; "we will look and see," and he proceeded to light the little dark lantern he always had with him, for the daylight was not yet strong enough to penetrate into the dusky interior of the chariot. Chiquita, who was greatly excited by the hope of booty, jumped in, and rapidly searched it, carefully directing the light of the lantern upon the packages and confused mass of theatrical articles stowed away in the back part of it, but finding nothing of value anywhere.
"Search thoroughly, my good little Chiquita!" said the brigand, as he kept watch outside, "be sure that you don't overlook anything."
"There is nothing here, absolutely nothing that is worth the trouble of carrying away. Oh, yes! here is a bag, with something that sounds like money in ft."
"Give it to me," cried Agostino eagerly, snatching it from her, and making a rapid examination of its contents; but he threw it down angrily upon the ground, exclaiming, "the devil take it! I thought we had found a treasure at last, but instead of good money there's nothing but a lot of pieces of gilded lead and such-like in it. But we'll get one thing out of this anyhow—a good rest inside here for you, sheltered from the wind and cold. Your poor little feet are bleeding, and they must be nearly frozen. Curl yourself down there on those cushions, and I will cover you with this bit of painted canvas. Now go to sleep, and I will watch while you have a nap; it is too early yet for honest folks to be abroad, and we shall not be disturbed." In a few minutes poor little Chiquita was sound asleep.
Agostino sat on the front seat of the chariot, with his navaja open and lying beside him, watching the road and the fields all about, with the keen, practised eye of a man of his lawless profession. All was still. No sound or movement any where, save among the crows. In spite of his iron will and constitution he began to feel an insidious drowsiness creeping over him, which he did not find it easy to shake off; several times his eyelids closed, and he lifted them resolutely, only to have them fall again in another instant. In fact he was just dropping into a doze, when he felt, as in a dream, a hot breath on his face, and suddenly waked to see two gleaming eyeballs close to his. With a movement more rapid than thought itself, he seized the wolf by the throat with his left hand, and picking up his navaja with the other, plunged it up to the hilt into the animal's breast. It must have gone through the heart, for he dropped down dead in the road, without a struggle.
Although he had gained the victory so easily over his fierce assailant, Agostino concluded that this was not a good place for them to tarry in, and called to Chiquita, who jumped up instantly, wide awake, and manifested no alarm at sight of the dead wolf lying beside the chariot.
"We had better move on," said he, "that carcass of the horse there draws the wolves; they are often mad with hunger in the winter time you know, and especially when there is snow on the ground. I could easily kill a pretty good number of them, but they might come down upon us by scores, and if I should happen to fall asleep again it would not be pleasant to wake up and find myself in the stomach of one of those confounded brutes. When I was disposed of they would make only a mouthful of you, little one! So come along, we must scamper off as fast as ever we can. That fellow there was only the advance guard, the others will not be far behind him—this carcass will keep them busy for a while, and give us time to get the start of them. You can walk now, Chiquita, can't you?"
"Yes, indeed," she replied cheerily, "that little nap has done me so much good. Poor Agostino! you shall not have to carry me again, like a great clumsy parcel. And Agostino," she added with a fierce energy, "when my feet refuse to walk or run in your service you must just cut my throat with your big knife there, and throw me into the next ditch. I will thank you for it, Agostino, for I could not bear to have your precious life in danger for the sake of poor, miserable little me." Thereupon this strange pair, both very fleet of foot, set off running, side by side, the brigand holding Chiquita by the hand, so as to give her all the aid and support he could, and they quickly passed out of sight. No sooner had they departed than the crows came swooping down from their perch in the nearest tree, and fell to fiercely upon their horrible feast, in which they were almost directly joined by several ravenous wolves—and they made such good use of their time, that in a few hours nothing remained of the poor old horse but his bones, his tail, and his shoes. When somewhat later the tyrant arrived, accompanied by one of Bellombre's farm-hands, leading the horse that was to take the chariot back with them, he was naturally astonished to find only the skeleton, with the harness and trappings, still intact, about it, for neither birds nor beasts had interfered with them, and his surprise was increased when he discovered the half-devoured carcass of the wolf lying under the chariot wheels. There also, scattered on the road, were the sham louis-d'or that did duty upon the stage when largesses were to be distributed; and upon the snow were the traces, clearly defined, of the footsteps of a man, approaching the chariot from the way it had come, and of those of the same man, and also of a child, going on beyond it.
"It would appear," said Herode to himself, "that the chariot of Thespis has received visitors, since we abandoned it, of more than one sort, and for my part I am very thankful to have missed them all. Oh, happy accident! that, when it happened, seemed to us so great a misfortune, yet is proven now to have been a blessing in disguise. And you, my poor old horse, you could not have done us a greater service than to die just when and where you did. Thanks to you we have escaped the wolves—two-legged ones, which are perhaps the most to be dreaded of all, as well as the ravenous brethren of this worthy lying here. What a dainty feast the sweet, tender flesh of those plump little pullets, Isabelle and Serafina, would have been for them, to say nothing of the tougher stuff the rest of us are made of. What a bountiful meal we should have furnished them—the murderous brutes!" While the tyrant was indulging in this soliloquy Bellombre's servant had detached the chariot from the skeleton of the poor old horse, and had harnessed to it, with considerable difficulty, the animal he had been leading, which was terrified at sight of the bleeding, mutilated carcass of the wolf lying on the snow, and the ghastly skeleton of its predecessor. Arrived at the farm, the chariot was safely stowed away under a shed, and upon examination it was found that nothing was missing. Indeed, something had been left there, for a small clasp-knife was picked up in it, which had fallen out of Chiquita's pocket, and excited a great deal of curiosity and conjecture. It was of Spanish make, and bore upon its sharp, pointed blade, a sinister inscription in that language, to this effect—
"When this viper bites you, make sure That you must die—for there is no cure."
No one could imagine how it had come there, and the tyrant was especially anxious to clear up the mystery that puzzled them all. Isabelle, who was a little inclined to be superstitious, and attach importance to omens, signs of evil, and such-like, felt troubled about it. She spoke Spanish perfectly, and understood the full force and significance of the strange inscription upon the wicked-looking blade of the tiny weapon.
Meantime, Scapin, dressed in his freshest and most gaudy costume, had marched into the neighbouring town, carrying his drum; he stationed himself in the large, public square, and made such good play with his drum-sticks that he soon had a curious crowd around him, to whom he made an eloquent address, setting forth in glowing terms the great attractions offered by "the illustrious comedians of Herode's celebrated troupe," who, "for this night only," would delight the public by the representation of that screaming farce, the Rodomontades of Captain Fracasse; to be followed by a "bewitching Moorish dance," performed by the "incomparable Mlle. Serafina." After enlarging brilliantly upon this theme, he added, that as they were "more desirous of glory than profit," they would be willing to accept provisions of all kinds, instead of coin of the realm, in payment of places, from those who had not the money to spare, and asked them to let all their friends know. This closing announcement made a great sensation among his attentive listeners, and he marched back to the farm, confident that they would have a goodly number of spectators. There he found the stage already erected in the barn, and a rehearsal in progress, which was necessary on de Sigognac's account.
Bellombre was instructing him in various minor details as the play went on, and for a novice he did wonderfully well—acting with much spirit and grace, showing decided talent, and remarkable aptitude. But it was very evident that he was greatly annoyed by some portions of the piece, and an angry flush mounted to the roots of his hair at the whacks and cuffs so liberally bestowed upon the doughty captain.
His comrades spared him as much as possible—feeling that it must be intensely repugnant to him—but he grew furious in spite of all his efforts to control his temper, and at each fresh attack upon him his flashing eyes and knitted brows betrayed the fierce rage he was in; then, suddenly remembering that his role required a very different expression of countenance, he would pull himself up, and endeavour to imitate that which Matamore had been wont to assume in this character. Bellombre, who was watching him critically, stopped him a moment, to say: "You make a great mistake in attempting to suppress your natural emotions; you should take care not to do it, for they produce a capital effect, and you can create a new type of stage bully; when you have gotten accustomed to this sort of thing, and no longer feel this burning indignation, you must feign it. Strike out in a path of your own, and you will be sure to attain success—far more so than if you attempt to follow in another's footsteps. Fracasse, as you represent him, loves and admires courage, and would fain be able to manifest it—he is angry with himself for being such an arrant coward. When free from danger, he dreams of nothing but heroic exploits and superhuman enterprises; but when any actual peril threatens him, his too vivid imagination conjures up such terrible visions of bleeding wounds and violent death that his heart fails him. Yet his pride revolts at the idea of being beaten; for a moment he is filled with rage, but his courage all disappears with the first blows he receives, and he finally shows himself to be the poltroon that he himself despises. This method it appears to me is far superior to the absurd grimaces, trembling legs, and exaggerated gestures, by which indifferent actors endeavour to excite the laughter of their audience—but meantime lose sight entirely of their art."
The baron gratefully accepted the veteran actor's advice, and played his part after the fashion indicated by him with so much spirit that all present applauded his acting enthusiastically, and prophesied its success. The performances were to begin at an early hour, and as the time approached, de Sigognac put on poor Matamore's costume, to which he had fallen heir, and which Mme. Leonarde had taken in hand and cleverly altered for him, so that he could get into it. He had a sharp struggle with his pride as be donned this absurd dress, and made himself ready for his debut as an actor, but resolutely repressed all rising regrets, and determined faithfully to do his best in the new role he had undertaken.
A large audience had gathered in the big barn, which was brilliantly lighted, and the representation began before a full house. At the end farthest from the stage, and behind the spectators, were some cattle in their stalls, that stared at the unwonted scene with an expression of stupid wonder in their great, soft eyes—the eyes that Homer, the grand old Greek poet, deemed worthy to supply an epithet for the beauteous orbs of majestic Juno herself—and in the midst of one of the most exciting parts of the play, a calf among them was moved to express its emotions by an unearthly groan, which did not in the least disconcert the audience, but had nearly been too much for the gravity of the actors upon the stage.
Captain Fracasse won much applause, and indeed acted his part admirably, being under no constraint; for he did not need to fear the criticism of this rustic audience as he would have done that of a more cultivated and experienced one; and, too, he felt sure that there could be nobody among the spectators that knew him, or anything about him. The other actors were also vigorously clapped by the toil-hardened hands of these lowly tillers of the soil—whose applause throughout was bestowed, Bellombre declared, judiciously and intelligently. Serafina executed her Moorish dance with a degree of agility and voluptuous grace that would have done honour to a professional ballet-dancer, or to a Spanish gipsy, and literally brought down the house.
But while de Sigognac was thus employed, far from his ancient chateau, the portraits of his ancestors that hung upon its walls were frowning darkly at the degeneracy of this last scion of their noble race, and a sigh, almost a groan, that issued from their faded lips, echoed dismally through the deserted house. In the kitchen, Pierre, with Miraut and Beelzebub on either side of him—all three looking melancholy and forlorn—sat thinking of his absent lord, and said aloud, "Oh, where is my poor, dear master now?" a big tear rolling down his withered cheek as he stooped to caress his dumb companions.
CHAPTER VIII. THE DUKE OF VALLOMBREUSE
The next morning Bellombre drew Blazius aside, and untying the strings of a long leathern purse emptied out of it into the palm of his hand a hundred pistoles, which he piled up neatly on the table by which they were standing; to the great admiration of the pedant, who thought to himself that his friend was a lucky fellow to be in possession of so large a sum—absolute wealth in his eyes. But what was his surprise when Bellombre swept them all up and put them into his own hands.
"You must have understood," he said, "that I did not bring out this money in order to torment you in like manner with Tantalus, and I want you to take it, without any scruples, as freely as it is given—or loaned, if you are too proud to accept a gift from an old friend. These pieces were made to circulate—they are round, you see—and by this time they must be tired of lying tied up in my old purse there. I have no use for them; there's nothing to spend them on here; the farm produces everything that is needed in my household, so I shall not miss them, and it is much better in every way that they should be in your hands."
Not finding any adequate reply to make to this astonishing speech, Blazius put the money into his pocket, and, after first administering to his friend a cordial accolade, grasped and wrung his hand with grateful fervour, while an inconvenient tear, that he had tried in vain to wink away, ran down his jolly red nose. As Bellombre had said the night before, affairs were brightening with the troupe; good fortune had come at last, and the hard times they had met and struggled against so bravely and uncomplainingly were among the things of the past. The receipts of the previous evening—for there had been some money taken in, as well as plentiful stores of edibles—added to Bellombre's pistoles, made a good round sum, and the chariot of Thespis, so deplorably bare of late, was now amply provisioned. Not to do things by halves, their generous host lent to the comedians two stout farm horses, with a man to drive them into Poitiers, and bring them back home again. They had on their gala-day harness, and from their gaudily-painted, high-peaked collars hung strings of tiny bells, that jingled cheerily at every firm, regular step of the great, gentle creatures. So our travellers set out in high feather, and their entry into Poitiers, though not so magnificent as Alexander's into Babylon, was still in very fine style indeed. As they threaded their way through the narrow, tortuous streets of that ancient town, the noise of their horses' iron shoes ringing out against the rough stone pavement, and the clatter of their wheels drew many inmates of the houses they passed to the windows, and a little crowd collected around them as they stood waiting for admission before the great entrance door of the Armes de France; the driver, meanwhile, cracking his whip till it sounded like a volley of musketry, to which the horses responded by shaking their heads, and making all the little bells about them jingle sharply and merrily. There was a wonderful difference between this and their arrival at the last inn they had stopped at—the night of the snow-storm—and the landlord, hearing such welcome sounds without, ran himself to admit his guests, and opened the two leaves of the great door, so that the chariot could pass into the interior court. This hotel was the finest in Poitiers, where all the rich and noble travellers were in the habit of alighting, and there was an air of gaiety and prosperity about it very pleasing to our comedians, in contrast with all the comfortless, miserable lodgings they had been obliged to put up with for a long time past. The landlord, whose double, or rather triple chin testified to bountiful fare, and the ruddy tints of his face to the excellence of his wines, seemed to be the incarnation of good humour.
He was so plump, so fresh, so rosy and so smiling, that it was a pleasure only to look at him. When he saw the tyrant, he fairly bubbled over with delight. A troupe of comedians always attracted people to his house, and brought him in a great deal of money; for the young men of leisure of the town sought their company, and were constantly drinking wine with the actors, and giving dainty little suppers, and treats of various kinds, to the actresses.
"You are heartily welcome, Seignior Herode! What happy chance brings you this way?" said the landlord, smilingly. "It is a long time since we have had the pleasure of seeing you at the Armes de France."
"So it is, Maitre Bilot," the tyrant answered; "but we cannot be giving our poor little performances always in the same place, you see; the spectators would become so familiar with all our tricks that they could do them themselves, so we are forced to absent ourselves for a while. And how are things going on here, now? Have you many of the nobility and gentry in town at present?"
"A great many, Seignior Herode, for the hunting is over, so they have come in from the chateaux. But they don't know what to do with themselves, for it is so dull and quiet here. People can't be eating and drinking all the time, and they are dying for want of a little amusement. You will have full houses."
"Well," rejoined the tyrant, "then please give us seven or eight good rooms, have three or four fat capons put down to roast, bring up, from that famous cellar of yours, a dozen of the capital wine I used to drink here—you know which I mean—and spread abroad the news of the arrival of Herode's celebrated troupe at the Armes de France, with a new and extensive repertoire, to give a few representations in Poitiers."
While this conversation was going on the rest of the comedians had alighted, and were already being conducted to their respective rooms by several servants. The one given to Isabelle was a little apart from the others—those in their immediate vicinity being occupied—which was not displeasing to the modest young girl, who was often greatly annoyed and embarrassed by the promiscuous, free-and-easy way of getting on, inseparable from such a Bohemian life. She always accepted the inevitable with a good grace, and never complained of the vexation she felt at being obliged to share her bed-chamber with Serafina or the duenna, or perhaps both; but it was a luxury she had scarcely dared to hope for to have her room entirely to herself, and moreover sufficiently distant from her companions to insure her a good deal of privacy.
In a marvellously short space of time the whole town had become acquainted with the news of the arrival of the comedians, and the young men of wealth and fashion began flocking to the hotel, to drink a bottle of Maitre Bilot's wine, and question him about the beauty and charms of the actresses; curling up the points of their mustaches as they did so with such an absurdly conceited, insolent air of imaginary triumph, that the worthy landlord could not help laughing in his sleeve at them as he gave his discreet, mysterious answers, accompanied by significant gestures calculated to turn the silly heads of these dandified young calves, and make them wild with curiosity and impatience.
Isabelle, when left alone, had first unpacked a portion of her clothing, and arranged it neatly on the shelves of the wardrobe in her room, and then proceeded to indulge in the luxury of a bath and complete change of linen. She took down her long, fine, silky hair, combed it carefully, and arranged it tastefully, with a pale blue ribbon entwined artistically in it; which delicate tint was very becoming to her, with her fair, diaphanous complexion, and lovely flush, like a rose-leaf, on her cheek. When she had put on the silvery gray dress, with its pretty blue trimmings, which completed her simple toilet, she smiled at her own charming reflection in the glass, and thought of a pair of dark, speaking eyes that she knew would find her fair, and pleasant to look upon. As she turned away from the mirror a sunbeam streamed in through her window, and she could not resist the temptation to open the casement and put her pretty head out, to see what view there might be from it. She looked down into a narrow, deserted alley, with the wall of the hotel on one side and that of the garden opposite on the other, so high that it reached above the tops of the trees within. From her window she could look down into this garden, and see, quite at the other end of it, the large mansion it belonged to, whose lofty, blackened walls testified to its antiquity. Two gentlemen were walking slowly, arm in arm, along one of the broad paths leading towards the house, engrossed in conversation; both were young and handsome, but they were scarcely of equal rank, judging by the marked deference paid by one, the elder, to the other.
We will call this friendly pair Orestes and Pylades for the present, until we ascertain their real names. The former was about one or two and twenty, and remarkably handsome and distinguished—strikingly so—with a very white skin, intensely black hair and eyes, a tall, slender, lithe figure, shown to advantage by the rich costume of tan-coloured velvet he wore; and well-formed feet, with high, arched insteps, small and delicate enough for a woman's—that more than one woman had envied him—encased in dainty, perfectly fitting boots, made of white Russia leather. From the careless ease of his manners, and the haughty grace of his carriage, one would readily divine that he was a great noble; one of the favoured few of the earth, who are sure of being well received everywhere, and courted and flattered by everybody. Pylades, though a good-looking fellow enough, with auburn hair and mustache, was not nearly so handsome or striking, either in face or figure, as his companion. They were talking of women; Orestes declaring himself a woman-hater from that time forward, because of what he was pleased to call the persecutions of his latest mistress, of whom he was thoroughly tired—no new thing with him—but who would not submit to be thrown aside, like a cast-off glove, without making a struggle to regain the favour of her ci-devant admirer. He was anathematizing the vanity, treachery, and deceitfulness of all women, without exception, from the duchess down to the dairy-maid, and declaring that he should renounce their society altogether for the future, when they reached the end of the walk, at the house, and turned about to pace its length again.
As they did so he chanced to glance upward, and perceived Isabelle at her window. He nudged his companion, to direct his attention to her, as he said, "Just look up at that window! Do you see the delicious, adorable creature there? She seems a goddess, rather than a mere mortal woman—Aurora, looking forth from her chamber in the East—with her golden brown hair, her heavenly countenance, and her sweet, soft eyes. Only observe the exquisite grace of her attitude—leaning slightly forward on one elbow, so as to bring into fine relief the shapely curves of her beautiful form. I would be willing to swear that hers is a lovely character—different from the rest of her sex. She is one by herself—a peerless creature—a very pearl of womanhood—a being fit for Paradise. Her face tells me that she is modest, pure, amiable, and refined. Her manners must be charming, her conversation fresh, sparkling, and elevating."
"The deuce!" exclaimed Pylades, laughingly, "what good eyes you must have to make out all that at such a distance! Now I see merely a woman at a window, who is rather pretty, to tell the honest truth, but not likely to possess half the perfections you so lavishly bestow upon her. Take care, or you will be in love with her directly."
"Oh! I'm that now, over head and ears. I must find out forthwith who she is, and what; but one thing is certain, mine she must be, though it cost me the half, nay, the whole of my fortune to win her, and there be a hundred rivals to overcome and slay ere I can carry her off from them in triumph."
"Come, come, don't get so excited," said Pylades, "you will throw yourself into a fever; but what has become of the contempt and hatred for the fair sex you were declaring so vehemently just now? The first pretty face has routed it all."
"But when I talked like that I did not know that this lovely angel existed upon earth, and what I said was an odious, outrageous blasphemy—a monstrous, abominable heresy—for which I pray that Venus, fair goddess of love and beauty, will graciously forgive me."
"Oh, yes! she'll forgive you fast enough, never fear, for she is always very indulgent to such hot-headed lovers as you are."
"I am going to open the campaign," said Orestes, "and declare war courteously on my beautiful enemy."
With these words he stopped short, fixed his bold eyes on Isabelle's face, took off his hat, in a gallant and respectful way, so that its long plume swept the ground, and wafted a kiss on the tips of his fingers towards the new object of his ardent admiration. The young actress, who saw this demonstration with much annoyance, assumed a cold, composed manner, as if to show this insolent fellow that he had made a mistake, drew back from the window, closed it, and let fall the curtain; all done calmly and deliberately, and with the frigid dignity with which she was wont to rebuke such overtures.
"There," exclaimed Pylades, "your Aurora is hidden behind a cloud; not very promising, that, for the rest of the day."
"I don't agree with you; I regard it, on the contrary, as a favourable augury that my little beauty has retired. Don't you know that when the soldier hides himself behind the battlements of the tower, it signifies that the besieger's arrow has hit him? I tell you she has mine now, sticking in under her left wing; that kiss will force her to think of me all night, if only to be vexed with me, and tax me with effrontery—a fault which is never displeasing to ladies, I find, though they do sometimes make a great outcry about it, for the sake of appearances. There is something between me and the fair unknown now; a very slight, almost imperceptible thread it may seem at present, but I will so manage as to make from it a rope, by which I shall climb up into her window."
"I must admit," rejoined Pylades respectfully, "that you certainly are wonderfully well versed in all the stratagems and ruses of love-making."
"I rather pique myself upon my accomplishments in that line, I will confess," Orestes said, laughingly; "but come, let's go in now; the little beauty was startled, and will not show herself at the window again just yet. This evening I shall begin operations in earnest." And the two friends turned about and strolled slowly back towards the house, which they presently entered, and disappeared from sight.
There was a large tennis-court not far from the hotel, which was wonderfully well suited to make a theatre of; so our comedians hired it, took immediate possession, set carpenters and painters to work, furbished up their own rather dilapidated scenery and decorations, and soon had a charming little theatre, in which all the numbered seats and boxes were eagerly snapped up, directly they were offered to "the nobility and gentry of Poitiers," who secured them for all the representations to be given by the troupe, so that success was insured. The dressing-room of the tennis players had to serve as green-room, and dressing-room as well for the comedians, large folding screens being disposed round the toilet tables of the actresses, so as to shut them off as much as possible from the gentlemen visitors always lounging there. Not a very agreeable arrangement for the former, but the best that could be done, and highly approved by the latter, of course.
"What a pity it is," said the tyrant to Blazius, as they were arranging what pieces they could play, seated at a window looking into the interior court of the Armes de France, "what a great pity it is that Zerbine is not with us here. She is almost worth her weight in gold, that little minx; a real treasure, so full of fun and deviltry that nobody can resist her acting; she would make any piece go off well—a pearl of soubrettes is Zerbine."
"Yes, she is a rare one," Blazius replied, with a deep sigh, "and I regret more and more every day our having lost her. The devil fly away with that naughty marquis who must needs go and rob us of our paragon of waiting-maids."
Just at this point they were interrupted by the noise of an arrival, and leaning out of the window saw three fine mules, richly caparisoned in the gay Spanish fashion, entering the court, with a great jingling of bells and clattering of hoofs. On the first one was mounted a lackey in gray livery, and well armed, who led by a long strap a second mule heavily laden with baggage, and on the third was a young woman, wrapped in a large cloak trimmed with fur, and with her hat, a gray felt with a scarlet feather, drawn down over her eyes, so as to conceal her face from the two interested spectators at the window above.
"I say, Herode," exclaimed the pedant, "doesn't all this remind you of something? It seems to me this is not the first time we have heard the jingling of those bells, eh?"
"By Saint Alipantin!" cried the tyrant, joyfully, "these are the very mules that carried Zerbine off so mysteriously. Speak of a wolf—"
"And you will hear the rustling of his wings," interrupted Blazius, with a peal of laughter. "Oh! thrice happy day!—day to be marked with white!—for this is really Mlle. Zerbine in person. Look, she jumps down from her mule with that bewitching little air peculiar to herself, and throws her cloak to that obsequious lackey with a nonchalance worthy of a princess; there, she has taken off her hat, and shakes out her raven tresses as a bird does its feathers; it delights my old eyes to see her again. Come, let's go down and welcome her."
So Blazius and his companions hastened down to the court, and met Zerbine just as she turned to enter the house.
The impetuous girl rushed at the pedant, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him heartily, crying, "I must kiss your dear, jolly, ugly old face, just the same as though it were young and handsome, for I am so glad, so very glad to see it again. Now don't you be jealous, Herode, and scowl as if you were just going to order the slaughter of the innocents; wait a minute! I'm going to kiss you, too; I only began with my dear old Blazius here because he's the ugliest."
And Zerbine loyally fulfilled her promise. Then giving a hand to each of her companions, went up-stairs between them to the room Maitre Bilot had ordered to be made ready for her. The moment she entered it she threw herself down into an arm-chair standing near the door, and began to draw long deep breaths, like a person who has just gotten rid of a heavy load.
"You cannot imagine," she said after a little, "how glad I am to get back to you again, though you needn't go and imagine that I am in love with your old phizes because of that; I'm not in love with anybody, Heaven be praised! I'm so joyful because I've gotten back into my own element once more. Everything is badly off out of its own element, you know. The water will not do for birds, nor the air for fishes. I am an actress by nature, and the atmosphere of the theatre is my native air; in it alone do I breathe freely; even its unpleasant odours are sweet to my nostrils. Real, everyday life seems very dull and flat. I must have imaginary love affairs to manage for other people, and take part in the whirl of romantic adventures to be found only on the stage, to keep me alive and happy. So I've come back to claim my old place again. I hope you haven't found any one else to fill it; though of course I know that you couldn't get anybody to really replace me. If you had I should scratch her eyes out, that I promise you, for I am a real little devil when my rights are encroached upon, though you might not think it."
"There's no need for you to show your prowess in that way," said the tyrant, "for we have not had any one to take your role, and we're delighted, overjoyed, to have you back again. If you had had some of the magic compound Apuleius tells us of, and had thereby changed yourself into a bird, to come and listen to what Blazius and I were saying a little while ago, you would have heard nothing but good of yourself—a rare thing that for listeners—and you would have heard some very enthusiastic praise besides."
"That's charming!" the soubrette exclaimed. "I see that you two are just the same good old souls as ever, and that you have missed your little Zerbine."
Several servants now came in, carrying trunks, boxes, portmanteaus, packages, no end of baggage, which Zerbine counted over and found correct; and when they had gone she opened two or three of the larger chests with the keys she had on a small silver ring. They were filled with all sorts of handsome things—silks and velvets, laces and jewels—and among the rest a long purse, crammed as full as it could hold of gold pieces, which Zerbine poured out in a heap on the table; seeming to take a childish delight in looking at and playing with her golden treasure, while laughing and chattering merrily all the time.
"Serafina would burst with rage and envy if she should see all this money," said she gaily, "so we will keep it out of her sight. I only show it to you to prove that I didn't need to return to my profession, but was actuated by a pure love of my art. As to you, my good old friends, if your finances happen to be not just as you could wish, put your paws into this and help yourselves; take just as much as ever they will hold."
The two actors thanked her heartily for her generous offer, but assured her that they were very well off, and in need of no assistance.
"Ah well!" said Zerbine, "it will be for another time then. I shall put it away in my strong box, and keep it for you, like a faithful treasurer."
"But surely you haven't abandoned the poor marquis," said Blazius, rather reproachfully. "Of course I know there was no question of his giving you up; you are not one of that sort. The role of Ariadne would not suit you at all; you are a Circe. Yet he is a splendid young nobleman-handsome, wealthy, amiable, and not wanting in wit."
"Oh! I haven't given him up; very far from it," Zerbine replied, with a saucy smile. "I shall guard him carefully, as the most precious gem in my casket. Though I have quitted him for the moment, he will shortly follow me."
"Fugax sequax, sequax fugax," the pedant rejoined; "these four Latin words, which have a cabalistic sound, not unlike the croaking of certain batrachians, and might have been borrowed, one would say, from the 'Comedy of the Frogs,' by one Aristophanes, an Athenian poet, contain the very pith and marrow of all theories of love and lovemaking; they would make a capital rule to regulate everybody's conduct—of the virile as well as of the fair sex."
"And what under the sun do your fine Latin words mean, you pompous old pedant?" asked Zerbine. "You have neglected to translate them, entirely forgetting that not everybody has been professor in a college, and knight of the ferule, like yourself."
"Their meaning," he replied, "may be expressed in this little couplet: 'If you fly from men, they'll be sure to pursue, But if you follow them, they will fly from you."
"Ha! ha!" laughed Zerbine, "that's a verse that ought to be set to music." And she began singing it to a merry tune at the top of her voice; a voice so clear and ringing that it was a pleasure to hear it. She accompanied her song with such an amusing and effective pantomime, representing flight and pursuit, that it was a pity she had not had a larger audience to enjoy it. After this outburst of merriment she quieted down a little, and gave her companions a brief, history of her adventures since she had parted from them, declaring that the marquis had invariably treated her with the courtesy and generosity of a prince. But in spite of it all she had longed for her old wandering life with the troupe, the excitement of acting, and the rounds of applause she never failed to win; and at last she confessed to the marquis that she was pining for her role of soubrette.
"'Very well,' he said to me, 'you can take your mules and your belongings and go in pursuit of the troupe, and I will shortly follow in pursuit of you. I have some matters to look after in Paris, that have been neglected of late, and I have been too long absent from the court. You will permit me to applaud you I suppose, and truth to tell I shall be very glad to enjoy your bewitching acting again.' So I told him I would look for him among the audience every evening till he made his appearance, and, after the most tender leave-taking, I jumped on my mule and caught you up here at the Armes de France, as you know."
"But," said Herode, "suppose your marquis should not turn up at all! you would be regularly sold."
This idea struck Zerbine as being so utterly absurd that she threw herself back and laughed until she had to hold her sides, and was fairly breathless. "The marquis not come!" she cried, when she could speak, "you had better engage rooms for him right away—not come! Why my fear was that he would overtake me on the road; you will see him very soon, I can guarantee. Ah! you abominable old bear! you doubt the power of my charms, do you? You're decidedly growing stupid, Herode, as you grow old; you used to be rather clever than otherwise."
At this moment appeared Leander and Scapin, who had heard of Zerbine's arrival from the servants, and came to pay their respects, soon followed by old Mme. Leonarde, who greeted the soubrette with as much obsequiousness as if she had-been a princess. Isabelle came also to welcome her, to the great delight of Zerbine, who was devotedly fond of her, and always trying to do something to please her. She now insisted upon presenting her with a piece of rich silk, which Isabelle accepted very reluctantly, and only when she found that the warm-hearted soubrette would be really wounded if she refused her first gift. Serafina had shut herself up in her own room, and was the only one that failed to come and bid Zerbine welcome. She could neither forget nor forgive the inexplicable preference of the Marquis de Bruyeres for her humble rival, and she called the soubrette all sorts of hard names in her wrath and indignation; but nobody paid any attention to her bad humour, and she was left to sulk in solitude.
When Zerbine asked why Matamore had not come to speak to her with the rest, they told her the sad story of his death, and also that the Baron de Sigognac now filled his role, under the name of Captain Fracasse.
"It will be a great honour for me to act with a gentleman whose ancestors figured honourably in the crusades," said she, "and I only hope that my profound respect for him will not overwhelm me, and spoil my acting; fortunately I have become pretty well accustomed to the society of people of rank lately."
A moment later de Sigognac knocked at the door, and came in to greet Zerbine, and courteously express his pleasure at her return. She rose as he approached, and making a very low curtsey, said, "This is for the Baron de Sigognac; and this is for my comrade, Captain Fracasse;" kissing him on both cheeks—which unexpected and unprecedented proceeding put poor de Sigognac completely out of countenance; partly because he was not used to such little theatrical liberties, but more, because he was ashamed to have such a thing happen in the presence of his pure and peerless Isabelle.
And now we will return to Orestes and Pylades, who, after their eventful promenade in the garden, were cosily dining together. The former, that is to say the young Duke of Vallombreuse, had scarcely eaten any dinner, and had even neglected his glass of wine, so preoccupied was he with thoughts of his lovely unknown. The Chevalier de Vidalinc, his friend and confidant, tried in vain to draw him into conversation; he replied only by monosyllables, or not at all, to the other's brilliant sallies. When the dessert had been put upon the table, and the servants had retired and left them alone, the chevalier said to the duke: "I am entirely at your service in this new affair, of course, ready to help you bag your bird in any way you please; shall I go and send out the beaters to drive it towards your nets?"
"No, indeed, you will do nothing of the kind; I shall go myself, for there is nothing I enjoy so much as the pursuit of game, of whatever sort it may be. I would follow a deer, or a pheasant, to the ends of the earth but what I would have it; how much more a divine creature like this. It is only after I have captured the flying prize that I lose all interest in it; so do not, I pray you, propose to deprive me of the delights of the chase; the more difficult it is the better I like it, the more fascinating I find it. The most annoying thing is that women are always so willing to be caught; if I could only find an obdurate, cruel fair one, who would fly from me in earnest, how I should adore her! but, alas! such an anomaly does not exist on this terraqueous globe."
"If I were not so well acquainted with your innumerable triumphs, I should be obliged to tax you with conceit," said Vidalinc, "but as it is I must admit that you are justified in what you say. But perhaps your wish may be gratified this time, for the young beauty certainly did seem to be very modest and retiring, as well as positively cold and forbidding in her manner of receiving your little act of gallantry."
"We will see about that, and without any delay. Maitre Bilot is always ready and glad to tell all he knows whenever he can secure a good listener, and he is sharp enough to find out very quickly pretty much all that's worth knowing about his guests in the hotel. Come, we'll go and drink a bottle of his best Madeira; I will draw him out, and get all the information he can give us about this fair inmate of his house."
A few minutes later the two young gentlemen entered the Armes de France, and asked for Maitre Bilot. The worthy landlord came forward at once, and himself conducted them into a cosy, well-lighted room on the ground floor, where a bright fire was burning cheerily; he took the old, dusty bottle, with cobwebs clinging about it, from the waiter's hands, drew the cork very carefully, and then poured the amber wine, as clear as a topaz, into the delicate Venetian glasses held out for it by the duke and his companion, with a hand as steady as if it bad been of bronze. In taking upon himself this office Maitre Bilot affected an almost religious solemnity, as though he were a priest of Bacchus, officiating at his altar, and about to celebrate the mysterious rites of the ancient worshippers of that merry god; nothing was wanting but the crown of vine leaves. He seemed to think that this ceremoniousness was a sort of testimony to the superior quality of the wine from his well-stocked cellar, which needed no recommendation, for it was really very good, worthy of even a royal table, and of wide-spread fame.
Maitre Bilot, having finished his little performance, was about to withdraw, when a significant glance from the duke made him pause respectfully on the threshold.
"Maitre Bilot," said he, "fetch a glass for yourself from the buffet there, and come and drink a bumper of this capital wine to my health."
This command, for such it was in reality, was instantly obeyed, and after emptying his glass at a single draught, the well-pleased landlord stood, with one hand resting on the table and his eyes fixed on the duke, waiting to see, what was wanted of him.
"Have you many strangers in your house now?" asked Vallombreuse, "and who and what are they?" Bilot was about to reply, but the young duke interrupted him, and continued, "But what's the use of beating about the bush with such a wily old miscreant as you are, Maitre Bilot? Who is the lady that has the room with a window, the third one from the corner, looking into my garden? Answer to the point, and you shall have a gold piece for every syllable."
"Under those conditions," said Bilot, with a broad grin, "one must be very virtuous indeed to make use of the laconic style so highly esteemed by the ancients. However, as I am devoted to your lordship, I will answer in a single word—Isabelle."
"Isabelle! a charming and romantic name. But do not confine yourself to such Lacedaemonian brevity, Maitre Bilot; be prolix! and relate to me, minutely, everything that you know about the lovely Isabelle."
"I am proud and happy to obey your lordship's commands," the worthy landlord answered, with a low bow; "my cellar, my kitchen, my tongue and myself are all at your lordship's disposition. Isabelle is an actress, belonging to the celebrated troupe of Seignior Herode, stopping at present at the Armes de France."
"An actress!" exclaimed the young duke, with an air of disappointment. "I should have taken her for a lady of rank, from her quiet, dignified mien, or at least a well-bred bourgeoise, rather than a member of a band of strolling players."
"Yes, your lordship is right; any one might think so, for her manners and appearance are very lady-like, and she has an untarnished reputation, despite the difficulties of her position. No one understands better how to keep all the gallants that hover about her at a respectful distance; she treats these would-be suitors for her favour with a cold, reserved, yet perfect politeness that there is no getting over."
"What you say pleases me," interrupted Vallombreuse, "for there is nothing I so thoroughly despise as a fortress that is ready to capitulate before the first assault has been made."
"It would need more than one to conquer this fair citadel, my lord, though you are a bold and successful captain, not used to encountering any serious resistance, and sweeping everything before you; and, moreover, it is guarded by the vigilant sentinel of a pure and devoted love."
"Oh ho! she has a lover then, this modest Isabelle!" cried the young duke, in a tone at once triumphant and annoyed, for though on the one side he had no faith in the steadfast virtue of any woman, on the other he was vexed to learn that he had a successful rival.
"I said love, not lover," continued the landlord with respectful persistency, "which is by no means the same thing. Your lordship is too well versed in such matters not to appreciate the difference. A woman that has one lover may have two, as the old song says; but a woman who loves, with a pure love, and has that love returned in every sense, it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to win away from it. She possesses already everything that you, my lord, or any one, could offer for her acceptance."
"You talk as if you had been studying the subject of love diligently—and Petrarch's sonnets as well; but notwithstanding all that, Maitre Bilot, I don't believe you thoroughly understand anything outside of your own wines and sauces, which, I am bound to admit, are always excellent. And pray, who is the favoured object of this Platonic attachment?"
"One of the members of the troupe," Bilot replied, "and it is not to be wondered at, for he's a handsome young fellow, and very different from the rest of them; far superior, more like a gentleman than an actor; and I shrewdly suspect he is one," added the landlord, with a knowing look.
"Well, now you must be happy!" said the Chevalier de Vidalinc to his friend. "Here are unexpected obstacles in plenty, and a perfect none-such of a prize. A virtuous actress is a rare phenomenon, not to be found every day in the week. You are in luck!"
"Are you sure," continued the young duke, still addressing the landlord, and without paying any attention to the last remark, "that this chaste Isabelle does not accord any privileges secretly to that conceited young jackanapes? I despise the fellow thoroughly, and detest him as well."
"Your lordship does not know her," answered Maitre Bilot, "or I should not need to declare, as I do, that she is as spotless as the ermine. She would rather die than suffer a stain upon her purity. It is impossible to see much of her without perceiving that; it shines out in everything that she says and does."
Hereupon a long discussion followed as to the best manner of conducting the attack upon this fair citadel, which the young nobleman became more and more determined to conquer, as new difficulties were suggested. The worthy landlord, who was a shrewd fellow and had made a just estimate of Isabelle's character, finished by advising his noble interlocutor to turn his attention to Serafina, "who was very charming, and not less beautiful than Isabelle, and who would be greatly pleased and flattered by his lordship's notice." This, because he felt sure that the duke would not succeed with Isabelle, in spite of his exalted rank, handsome person, and immense wealth, and he wished to spare him an inevitable disappointment.
"It is Isabelle that I admire, and will have," said Vallombreuse, in a dry tone that put an end to the discussion. "Isabelle, and no other, Maitre Bilot."
Then plunging his hand into his pocket, he drew forth a goodly number of gold pieces, and throwing them down carelessly on the table, said, "Pay yourself for the bottle of wine out of this, and keep the balance."
The landlord gathered up the louis with a deprecating air, and dropped them one by one into his purse. The two gentlemen rose, without another word, put on their broad, plumed hats, threw their cloaks on their shoulders, and quitted the hotel. Vallombreuse took several turns up and down the narrow alley between the Armes de France and his own garden wall, looking up searchingly at Isabelle's window every time he passed under it; but it was all for naught. Isabelle, now on her guard, did not approach the window again; the curtain was drawn closely over it, and not a sign visible from without that the room was occupied. Tired at last of this dull work, the duke slowly withdrew to his own mansion, feeling highly indignant that this inappreciative little actress should presume to slight the attentions of a great and powerful noble like himself; but he found some comfort in the thought that when she came to see and know him she could not long hold out against his numerous attractions. As to his rival—if the fellow ventured to interfere with him too much, he would quietly suppress him, by means of certain stout ruffians—professional cut-throats—he had in his employ, to do all that sort of work for him; his own dignity not allowing him to come into personal contact with such cattle as actors. Though Vallombreuse had not seen anything of Isabelle at her window, he himself had been closely watched, by jealous eyes, from a neighbouring casement that commanded the same view. They belonged to de Sigognac, who was greatly annoyed and incensed by the manoeuvres of this mysterious personage under Isabelle's window. A dozen times he was on the point of rushing down, sword in hand, to attack and drive away the impertinent unknown; but he controlled himself by a strong effort; for there was after all nothing in the mere fact of a man's promenading back and forth in a deserted alley to justify him in such an onslaught, and he would only bring down ridicule on himself; besides, the name of Isabelle might be dragged in—sweet Isabelle, who was all unconscious of the ardent glances directed at her window from below, as well as of the burning indignation, because of them, of her own true lover close at hand. But he promised himself to keep a watchful eye for the future upon this young gallant, and studied his features carefully, every time his face was raised towards Isabelle's window, so that he should be sure to recognise him when he saw him again.
Herode had selected for their first representation in Poitiers a new play, which all the comedians were very much occupied in learning and rehearsing, to be followed by the Rodomontades of Captain Fracasse, in which de Sigognac was to make his real debut before a real public having only acted as yet to an audience of calves, horned cattle, and peasants in Bellombre's barn. He was studying diligently under the direction of Blazius, who was more devoted to him than ever, and who had proposed something which was a most welcome suggestion to the sensitive young baron. This was for him to wear what is called a half-mask, which covers only the forehead and nose, but if arranged with skill alters entirely the wearer's appearance—so that his nearest friend would not recognise him—without interfering materially with his comfort. This idea de Sigognac hailed with delight, for it insured his preserving his incognito; the light pasteboard screen seemed to him like the closed visor of a helmet, behind which he need not shrink from facing the enemy—that is to stay the gazing crowd on the other side of the foot-lights. With it he would take merely the part of the unknown, concealed intelligence that directs the movements of the marionette, and the voice that makes it speak; only he should be within it, instead of behind the scenes pulling the strings—his dignity would have nothing to suffer in playing the game in that manner, and for this relief from a dreaded ordeal he was unspeakably thankful. Biatius, who never could take too much pains in the service of his dear baron, himself modelled and fashioned the little mask, very deftly, so as to make his stage physiognomy as unlike his real, every-day countenance as possible. A prominent nose, very red at the point, bushy, high-arched eyebrows, and an immensely heavy mustache drooping over his mouth, completely disguised the well-cut, regular features of the handsome young nobleman, and although in reality it only concealed the forehead and nose, yet it transfigured the whole face.
There was to be a dress rehearsal the evening before the first representation, so that they might judge of the general effect in their improvised theatre, and test its capabilities; and as the actresses could not very well go through the streets in full costume, they were to finish their toilets in the green-room, while the actor themselves ready for the stage in the small dressing-closets set aside for that purpose. All the gentlemen in Poitiers, young and old, were wild to penetrate into this temple, or rather sacristy, of Thalia, where the priestesses of that widely worshipped muse adorned themselves to celebrate her mysterious rites, and a great number of them had succeeded in gaining admittance. They crowded round the actresses, offering advice as to the placing of a flower or a jewel, handing the powder-box or the rouge-pot, presenting the little hand-mirror, taking upon themselves all such small offices with the greatest "empressement," and vying with each other in their gallant attendance upon the fair objects of their admiration; the younger and more timid among them holding a little aloof and sitting on the large chests scattered about, swinging their feet and twisting their mustaches, while they watched the proceedings of their bolder companions with envious eyes. Each actress had her own circle of admiring cavaliers about her, paying her high-flown compliments in the exaggerated language of the day, and doing their best to make themselves agreeable in every way they could think of. Zerbine laughed at them all, and made fun of them unmercifully, turning everything they said into ridicule; yet so coquettishly that they thought her bewitching, in spite of her sharp tongue, which was like a two-edged sword. Serafina, whose vanity was overweening, delighted in the fulsome homage paid to her charms, and smiled encouragingly upon her throng of admirers, but Isabelle, who was intensely annoyed at the whole thing, did not pay the slightest attention to them, nor even once raise her eyes to look at them; being apparently absorbed in the duties of her toilet, which she accomplished as quietly and modestly as possible—having left only the finishing touches to be given in that public place.
The Duke of Vallombreuse was careful, of course, not to miss this excellent opportunity, of which he had been informed by Maitre Bilot, to see Isabelle again, and entering the green-room in good season, followed by his friend Vidalinc, marched straight up to her toilet-table. He was enchanted to find that, on this close inspection, she was even more beautiful than he had supposed, and in his enthusiastic delight at this discovery could scarcely refrain from seizing her in his arms and declaring his passion there and then; only the presence of the crowd of lookers-on saved Isabelle from what would have been a most trying and painful scene.
The young duke was superbly dressed. He had spared no pains, for he wanted to dazzle Isabelle, and he certainly did look splendidly handsome. He wore a magnificent costume of rich white satin, slashed and trimmed with crimson, with many knots of ribbon about it fastened with diamond clasps, with broad ruffles of exquisitely fine lace at throat and wrists, with a wide belt of cloth of silver supporting his sword, and with perfumed gloves on the hands that held his white felt hat, with its long crimson feather. His wavy black hair fell around the perfect oval of his face, enhancing its smooth whiteness; a delicate mustache shaded, not concealed, his full red lips; his splendid, great black eyes flashed through their thick, silky fringes, and his neck, white and round as a marble column, rose from amid its surrounding of soft, priceless lace, proudly supporting his haughty, handsome head. Yet with all this perfection of outline and colouring, his appearance was not entirely pleasing; a repelling haughtiness shone out through the perfectly modelled features, and it was but too evident that the joys and sorrows of his fellow mortals would awaken no sympathy in the owner of that surpassingly handsome face and form. He believed that he was not made of common clay like other men, but was a being of a higher order, who condescended to mingle with his inferiors—a piece of fine porcelain amid homely vessels of coarser earthenware.
Vallombreuse stationed himself silently close beside the mirror on Isabelle's dressing-table, leaning one elbow on its frame all the other gallants respectfully making way for him—just where she could not possibly help seeing him whenever she looked in the glass; a skilful manoeuvre, which would surely have succeeded with any other than this modest young girl. He wished to produce an impression, before addressing a word to her, by his personal beauty, his lordly mien, and his magnificence of apparel. Isabelle, who had instantly recognised the audacious gallant of the garden, and who was displeased by the imperious ardour of his gaze, redoubled her reserve of manner, and did not lift her eyes to the mirror in front of her at all; she did not even seem to be aware that one of the handsomest young noblemen in all France was standing there before her, trying to win a glance from her lovely eyes—but then, she was a singular girl, this sweet Isabelle! At length, exasperated by her utter indifference, Vallombreuse suddenly took the initiative, and said to her, "Mademoiselle, you take the part of Sylvia in this new play, do you not?"
"Yes, sir," Isabelle answered curtly, without looking at him—not able to evade this direct question.
"Then never will a part have been so admirably played," continued the duke. "If it is poor your acting will make it excellent, if it is fine you will make it peerless. Ah! happy indeed the poet whose verses are intrusted to those lovely lips of yours."
These vague compliments were only such as admiring gallants were in the habit of lavishing upon pretty actresses, and Isabelle could not with any show of reason resent it openly, but she acknowledged it only by a very slight bend of the head, and still without looking up. At this moment de Sigognac entered the green-room; he was masked and in full costume, just buckling around his waist the belt of the big sword he had inherited from Matamore, with the cobweb dangling from the scabbard. He also marched straight up to Isabelle, and was received with a radiant smile.
"You are capitally gotten up," she said to him in a low, tone, so low that he had to bend down nearer her to hear, "and I am sure that no fierce Spanish captain ever had a more superbly arrogant air than you."
The Duke of Vallombreuse drew himself up to his full height, and looked this unwelcome new-comer over from head to foot, with an air of the coolest, most haughty disdain. "This must be the contemptible scoundrel they say she's in love with," he said to himself, swelling with indignation and spite—filled with amazement too—for he could not conceive of a woman's hesitating for an instant between the magnificent young Duke of Vallombreuse and this ridiculous play-actor. After the first rapid glance he made as if he did not perceive de Sigognac at all, no more than if he had been a piece of furniture standing there; for him Captain Fracasse was not a MAN, but a THING, and he continued to gaze fixedly at poor Isabelle—his eyes fairly blazing with passion—exactly as though no one was near. She, confused at last, and alarmed, blushed painfully, in spite of all her efforts to appear calm and unmoved, and hastened to finish what little remained to be done, so that she might make her escape, for she could see de Sigognac's hand close spasmodically on the handle of his sword, and, realizing how he must be feeling, feared an outbreak on his part. With trembling fingers she adjusted a little black "mouche" near the corner of her pretty mouth, and pushed back her chair preparatory to rising from it—having a legitimate cause for haste, as the tyrant had already more than once roared out from the stage door, "Mesdemoiselles, are you ready?"
"Permit me, mademoiselle," said the duke starting forward, "you have forgotten to put on an 'assassine,'" and touching the tip of his forefinger to his lips he plunged it into the box of patches standing open on the dressing-table, and brought one out on it. "Permit me to put it on for you—here, just above your snowy bosom; it will enhance its exquisite whiteness."
The action followed so quickly upon the words that Isabelle, terrified at this cruel effrontery, had scarcely time to start to one side, and so escape his profane touch; but the duke was not one to be easily balked in anything he particularly desired to do, and pressing nearer he again extended his hand towards Isabelle's white neck, and had almost succeeded in accomplishing his object, when his arm was seized from behind, and held firmly in a grasp of iron.
Furiously angry, he turned his head to see who had dared to lay hands upon his sacred person, and perceived that it was the odious Captain Fracasse.
"My lord duke," said he calmly, still holding his wrist firmly, "Mademoiselle is in need of no assistance from you, or any one else, in this matter." Then his grasp relaxed and he let go of the duke's arm.
Vallombreuse, who looked positively hideous at that moment, his face pale to ghastliness and disfigured by the rage he felt, grasped the hilt of his sword with the hand released by de Sigognac, and drew it partly out of its scabbard, as if he meant to attack him, his eyes flashing fire and every feature working in its frenzy—the baron meanwhile standing perfectly motionless, quietly awaiting the onset.
But ere he had touched him the duke stopped short; a sudden thought had extinguished his blazing fury like a douche of cold water; his self-control returned, his face resumed its wonted expression, the colour came to his lips, and his eyes showed the most icy disdain, the most supreme contempt that it could be possible for one human being to manifest for another. He had remembered just in time that he must not so greatly demean himself as to cross swords with a person of no birth, and an actor besides; all his pride revolted at the bare idea of such a thing. An insult coming from a creature so low in the social scale could not reach him. Does a gentleman declare war upon the mud that bespatters him? However, it was not in his character to leave an offence unpunished, no matter whence it proceeded, and stepping nearer to de Sigognac he said, "You impertinent scoundrel, I will have every bone in your body broken for you with cudgels, by my lackeys."
"You'd better take care what you do, my lord," answered the baron, in the most tranquil tone and with the most careless air imaginable, "you'd much better take care what you do! My bones are not so easily broken, but cudgels may be. I do not put up with blows anywhere but on the stage."
"However insolent you may choose to be, you graceless rascal, you cannot provoke me to do you so much honour as to attack you myself; that is too high an ambition for such as you to realize," said Vallombreuse, scornfully.
"We will see about that, my lord duke," de Sigognac replied; "it may happen that I, having less pride than yourself, will fight you, and conquer you, with my own hands."
"I do not dispute with a masker," said the duke shortly, taking Vidalinc's arm as if to depart.
"I will show you my face, duke, at a more fitting time and place," de Sigognac continued composedly, "and I think it will be still more distasteful to you than my false nose. But enough for the present. I hear the bell that summons me, and if I wait any longer here with you I shall miss my entry at the proper moment."
He turned on his heel and leisurely walked off, with admirable nonchalance, leaving the haughty duke very much disconcerted, and at a disadvantage, as indeed de Sigognac had cleverly managed that he should be throughout the brief interview.
The comedians were charmed with his courage and coolness, but, knowing his real rank, were not so much astonished as the other spectators of this extraordinary scene, who were both shocked and amazed at such temerity.
Isabelle was so terrified and excited by this fierce altercation that a deathly pallor had overspread her troubled face, and Zerbine, who had flown to her assistance, had to fetch some of her own rouge and bestow it plentifully upon the colourless lips and cheeks before she could obey the tyrant's impatient call, again resounding through the green-room.
When she tried to rise her trembling knees had nearly given way under her, and but for the soubrette's kind support she must have fallen to the floor. To have been the cause, though innocently, of a quarrel like this was a terrible blow to poor Isabelle sweet, pure, modest child that she was—for she knew that it is a dreadful thing for any woman to have her name mixed up in such an affair, and shrank from the publicity that could not fail to be given to it; besides, she loved de Sigognac with fervour and devotion, though she had never acknowledged it to him, and the thought of the danger to which he was exposed, of a secret attack by the duke's hired ruffians, or even of a duel with his lordship himself, drove her well-nigh frantic with grief and terror.
In spite of this untoward incident, the rehearsal went on, and very smoothly; the theatre was found to be all that they could desire, and everybody acted with much spirit. Even poor, trembling Isabelle did herself credit, though her heart was heavy within her; but for de Sigognac's dear sake, whose anxious glances she strove to meet with a reassuring smile, she succeeded in controlling her emotion, and felt inspired to do her very best. As to Captain Fracasse, excited by the quarrel, he acted superbly. Zerbine surpassed herself. Shouts of laughter and storms of clapping followed her animated words and gestures. From one corner, near the orchestra, came such vigorous bursts of applause, leading all the rest and lasting longer than any, that at last Zerbine's attention was attracted and her curiosity excited.
Approaching the foot-lights, in such a way as to make it appear part of her usual by-play, she peered over them and caught sight of her marquis, beaming with smiles and flushed from his violent efforts in her behalf.
"The marquis is here," she managed to whisper to Blazius, who was playing Pandolphe; "just look at him! how delighted he is, and how he applauds me—till he is actually red in the face, the dear man! So he admires my acting, does he? Well, he shall have a spicy specimen of it, then."
Zerbine kept her word, and, from that on to the end of the piece, played with redoubled spirit. She was never so sparkling, so bewitchingly coquettish, so charmingly mischievous before, and the delighted marquis was more fascinated than ever. The new play, entitled "Lygdamon et Lydias," and written by a certain Georges de Scudery (a gentleman who, after having served with honour in the French Guards, quitted the sword for the pen, which he wielded with equal success), was next rehearsed, and highly approved by all—without a single dissenting voice. Leander, who played the leading part of Lygdamon, was really admirable in it, and entertained high hopes of the effect he should produce upon the fair ladies of Poitiers and its environs.
But we will leave our comedians now, and follow the Duke of Vallombreuse and his devoted friend Vidalinc.
Quite beside himself with rage, the young duke, after the scene in the green-room in which he had played so unsatisfactory a part to himself, returned to his own home and there raved to Vidalinc about his revenge, threatening the insolent captain with all manner of punishments, and going on like a madman. His friend tried in vain to soothe him.
He rushed wildly around the room, wringing his hands, kicking the furniture about right and left, upsetting tables and arm-chairs, and finally, seizing a large Japanese vase, very curious and costly, threw it violently on the floor, where it broke into a thousand pieces.
"Oh!" he shrieked, "if I could only smash that abominable blackguard like this vase, trample him under foot as I do this debris, and then have the remains of him swept up and thrown out into the dust-heap, where he belongs. A miserable scoundrel, that dares to interpose between me, the Duke of Vallombreuse, and the object of my desires! If he were only a gentleman I would fight him, on foot or on horseback, with swords, daggers, pistols, anything in the shape of a weapon, until I had him down, with my foot on his breast, and could spit into the face of his corpse."
"Perhaps he is one," said Vidalinc; "his audacious defiance looks like it. You remember what Maitre Bilot told you about Isabelle's favoured lover? This must be the one, judging by his jealousy of you, and the agitation of the girl."
"Do you really mean what you say?" cried Vallombreuse, contemptuously. "What! a man of birth and condition mingle voluntarily and on terms of equality with these low buffoons of actors, paint his nose red, and strut about the stage, receiving cuffs and kicks from everybody? Oh no, Vidalinc, the thing is impossible."
"But just remember," persisted the chevalier, "that mighty Jove himself resorted to the expedient of adopting the shapes of various beasts, as well as birds, in his terrestrial love affairs, which was surely much more derogatory to the majesty of the king of the gods than to play in a comedy is to the dignity of a gentleman."
"Never mind," said the duke, as he rang a small hand bell sharply; "be he what he may, I intend first to have the scamp well punished in his character of play-actor; even though I should be obliged to chastise the gentleman afterward, if there prove to be one hidden behind that ridiculous mask—which idea I cannot credit."
"If there be one! There's no doubt of it, I tell you," rejoined his friend, with an air of conviction. "The more I think of it, the more positive I am of it. Why, his eyes shone like stars under his overhanging false eye-brows, and in spite of his absurd pasteboard nose he had a grand, majestic air about him that was very imposing, and would be utterly impossible to a low-born man."
"Well, so much the better," said Vallombreuse; "for if you are right, I can make his punishment twofold."
Meantime a servant, in rich livery, had entered, and after bowing low stood as motionless as a statue, with one hand on the knob of the door, awaiting his master's orders; which were presently given, as follows: "Go and call up Basque, Azolan, Merindol, and Labriche, if they have gone to bed; tell them to arm themselves with stout cudgels and go down to the tennis-court, find a dark corner near by and wait there, until the players come out, for a certain Captain Fracasse. They are to fall upon him and beat him until they leave him for dead upon the pavement, but to be careful not to kill him outright—it might be thought that I was afraid of him if they did, you know," in an aside to Vidalinc.
"I will be responsible for the consequences; and with every blow they are to cry, 'This is from the Duke of Vallombreuse,' so that he may understand plainly what it means."
This order, though of so savage and fierce a nature, did not seem to surprise the lackey, who, as he retired, assured his lordship, with an unmoved countenance and another low bow, that his commands should be immediately obeyed.
"I am sorry," said Vidalinc, after the servant had closed the door behind him, "that you mean to treat this man so roughly, for after all he showed a spirit superior to his position, and becoming a gentleman. Suppose you let me go and pick a quarrel with him, and kill him for you in a duel. All blood is red when it is shed, the lowly as well as the lofty, though they do pretend that the blood of the nobles is blue. I come of a good and ancient family, if not so high in rank as yours, and I have no fear of belittling myself in this affair. Only say the word, and I will go this instant, for this histrionic captain is, it seems to me, more worthy of the sword of a gentleman than the cudgels of your hired ruffians."