Herode was overjoyed, and his face shone like the full moon as he rubbed his hands together and grinned broadly in his exuberant delight; for the receipts were immense, and the cash-box was full to bursting. Everybody had rushed to the theatre to see and applaud the now famous Captain Fracasse—the capital actor and high-spirited gentleman—who feared neither cudgels nor swords; and had not shrunk from encountering the dreaded Duke of Vallombreuse, the terror of all the country round, in mortal combat, as the champion of offended beauty. Blazius, however, did not share the tyrant's raptures, but on the contrary foreboded no good from all this, for he feared, and not without reason, the vindictive character of the Duke of Vallombreuse, and was apprehensive that he would find some means of revenging himself for his defeat at de Sigognac's hands that would be detrimental to the troupe. "Earthen vessels," said he, "should be very careful how they get in the way of metal ones, lest, if they rashly encounter them, they be ignominiously smashed in the shock." But Herode, relying upon the support and countenance of the Baron de Sigognac and the Marquis de Bruyeres, laughed at his fears, and called him faint-heart, a coward, and a croaker.
When the comedians returned to their hotel, after the play was over, de Sigognac accompanied Isabelle to the door of her room, and, contrary to her usual custom, the young actress invited him to enter it with her. When they found themselves quite alone, and safe from all curious eyes, Isabelle turned to de Sigognac, took his hand in both of hers, and pressing it warmly said to him in a voice trembling with emotion,
"Promise me never to run such a fearful risk for my sake again, de Sigognac; promise me! Swear it, if you really do love me as you say."
"That is a thing I cannot do," the baron replied, "even to please you, sweet Isabelle! If ever any insolent fellow dares to show a want of proper respect for you, I shall surely chastise him for it, as I ought, be he what he may—duke, or even prince."
"But remember, de Sigognac, that I am nothing but an actress, inevitably exposed to affronts from the men that haunt the coulisses. It is the generally received opinion, which alas! is but too well justified by the usual ways of the members of my profession, that an actress is no better than she should be; in fine, not a proper character nor worthy of respect. From the moment that a woman steps upon the stage she becomes public property, and even if she be really pure and virtuous it is universally believed that she only affects it for a purpose. These things are hard and bitter, but they must be borne, since it is impossible to change them. In future trust to me, I pray you, to repel those who would force their unwelcome attentions upon me in the green-room, or endeavour to make their way into my dressing-room. A sharp rap over the knuckles with a corset board from me will be quite as efficacious as for you to draw your sword in my behalf."
"But I am not convinced," said de Sigognac, with a smile; "I must still believe, sweet Isabelle, that the sword of a chivalrous ally would be your best weapon of defence, and I beg you not to deprive me of the precious privilege of being your devoted knight and champion."
Isabelle was still holding de Sigognac's hand, and she now raised her lovely eyes, full of mute supplication, to meet his adoring gaze, hoping yet to draw from him, the much desired promise. But the baron was incorrigible; where honour was concerned he was as firm and unyielding as a Spanish hidalgo, and he would have braved a thousand deaths rather than have allowed an affront to the lady of his love to pass unpunished; he wished that the same deference and respect should be accorded to Isabelle upon the stage, as to a duchess in her drawing-room.
"Come, de Sigognac, be reasonable," pleaded the young actress, "and promise me not to expose yourself to such danger again for so frivolous a cause. Oh! what anxiety and anguish I endured as I awaited your return this morning. I knew that you had gone out to fight with that dreadful duke, who is held in such universal terror here; Zerbine told me all about it. Cruel that you are to torture my poor heart so! That is always the way with men; they never stop to think of what we poor, loving women must suffer when their pride is once aroused! off they go, as fierce as lions, deaf to our sobs and blind to our tears. Do you know, that if you had been killed I should have died too?"
The tears that filled Isabelle's eyes, and the excessive trembling of her voice, showed that she was in earnest, and that she had not even yet recovered her usual calmness and composure. More deeply touched than words can express by her emotion, and the love for himself it bore witness to, de Sigognac, encircling her slender form with the arm that was free, drew her gently to him, and softly kissed her fair forehead, whilst he could feel, as he pressed her to his breast, how she was panting and trembling. He held her thus tenderly embraced for a blissful few seconds of silent ecstasy, which a less respectful lover would doubtless have presumed upon; but he would have scorned to take advantage of the unreserved confidence bestowed upon him in a moment of such agitation and sorrowful excitement.
"Be comforted, dear Isabelle," said he at last, tenderly. "I was not killed you see, nor even hurt; and I actually wounded my adversary, though he does pass for a tolerably good swordsman hereabouts, I believe."
"Yes, I well know what a strong hand is yours, and what a brave, noble heart," Isabelle replied; "and I do not scruple to acknowledge that I love you for it with all my heart; feeling sure that you will respect my frank avowal, and not endeavour to take advantage of it. When I first saw you, de Sigognac, dispirited and desolate, in that dreary, half-ruined chateau, where your youth was passing in sadness and solitude, I felt a tender interest in you suddenly spring into being in my heart; had you been happy and prosperous I should have been afraid of you, and have shrunk timidly from your notice. When we walked together in that neglected garden, where you held aside the brambles so carefully for me to pass unscathed, you gathered and presented to me a little wild rose—the only thing you had to give me. As I raised it to my lips, before putting it in my bosom, and kissed it furtively under pretence of inhaling its fragrance, I could not keep back a tear that dropped upon it, and secretly and in silence I gave you my heart in exchange for it."
As these entrancing words fell upon his ear, de Sigognac impulsively tried to kiss the sweet lips so temptingly near his own, but Isabelle withdrew herself gently from his embrace; not with any show of excessive prudery, but with a modest timidity that no really gallant lover would endeavour to overcome by force.
"Yes, I love you, de Sigognac," she continued, in a voice that was heavenly sweet, "and with all my heart, but not as other women love; your glory is my aim, not my own pleasure. I am perfectly willing to be looked upon as your mistress; it is the only thing that would account satisfactorily to the world at large for your presence in this troupe of strolling players. And why should I care for slanderous reports, so long as I keep my own self-esteem, and know myself to be virtuous and true? If there were really a stain upon my purity it would kill me; I could not survive it. It is the princely blood in my veins doubtless that gives rise to such pride in me; very ridiculous, perhaps, in an actress, but such is my nature."
This enchanting avowal, which would not have taught anything new to a more conceited or bolder suitor, but was a wonderful revelation to de Sigognac, who had scarcely dared to hope that his passionate, devoted love might some day be returned, filled him with such rapturous, overwhelming delight, that he was almost beside himself. A burning flush overspread his usually pale face; he seemed to see flames before his eyes; there was a strange ringing in his ears, and his heart throbbed so violently that he felt half suffocated. Losing control of himself in this moment of ecstasy, so intense that it was not unmixed with pain, he suddenly seized Isabelle passionately in his arms, strained her trembling form convulsively to his heaving breast, and covered her face and neck with burning kisses. She did not even try to struggle against this fierce embrace, but, throwing her head back, looked fixedly at him, with eyes full of sorrow and reproach. From those lovely eyes, clear and pure as an angel's, great tears welled forth and rolled down over her blanched cheeks, and a suppressed sob shook her quivering frame as a sudden faintness seemed to come over her. The young baron, distracted at the sight of her grief, and full of keen self-reproach, put her gently down into a low, easy-chair standing near, and kneeling before her, took in both his own the hands that she abandoned to him, and passionately implored her pardon; pleading that a momentary madness had taken possession of him, that he repented of it bitterly, and was ready to atone for his offence by the most perfect submission to her wishes.
"You have hurt me sadly, my friend!" said Isabelle at last, with a deep-drawn sigh. "I had such perfect confidence in your delicacy and respect. The frank, unreserved avowal of my love for you ought to have been enough, and have shown you clearly, by its very openness, that I trusted you entirely. I believed that you would understand me and let me love you in my own way, without troubling my tenderness for you by vulgar transports. Now, you have robbed me of my feeling of security. I do not doubt your words, but I shall no longer dare to yield to the impulses of my own heart. And yet it was so sweet to me to be with you, to watch you, to listen to your dear voice, and to follow the course of your thoughts as I saw them written in your eyes. I wished to share your troubles and anxieties, de Sigognac, leaving your pleasures to others. I said to myself, among all these coarse, dissolute, presuming men that hover about us, there is one who is different—one who believes in purity, and knows how to respect it in the woman he honours with his love. I dared to indulge in a sweet dream—even I, Isabelle the actress, pursued as I am constantly by a gallantry that is odious to me—I dared to indulge in the too sweet dream of enjoying with you a pure mutual love. I only asked to be your faithful companion, to cheer and comfort you in your struggles with an adverse fate until you had reached the beginning of happiness and prosperity, and then to retire into obscurity again, when you had plenty of new friends and followers, and no longer needed me. You see that I was not very exacting."
"Isabelle, my adored Isabelle," cried de Sigognac, "every word that you speak makes me reproach myself more and more keenly for my fault, and the pain I have given you. Rest assured, my own darling, that you have nothing further to fear from me. I am not worthy to kiss the traces of your footprints in the dust; but yet, I pray you, listen to me! Perhaps you do not fully understand all my thoughts and intentions, and will forgive me when you do. I have nothing but my name, which is as pure and spotless as your sweet self, and I offer it to you, my own beloved Isabelle, if you will deign to accept it."
He was still kneeling at her feet, and at these ardently spoken words she leaned towards him, took his upraised face between her hands with a quick, passionate movement, and kissed him fervently on the lips; then she sprang to her feet and began, hurriedly and excitedly, pacing back and forth in the chamber.
"You will be my wife, Isabelle?" cried de Sigognac in agitated tones, thrilling in every nerve from the sweet contact of her pure, lovely mouth—fresh as a flower, ardent as a flame.
"Never, never," answered Isabelle, with a clear ring of rapture in her voice. "I will show myself worthy of such an honour by refusing it. I did mistake you for a moment, my dearest friend; I did mistake you; forgive me. Oh! how happy you have made me; what celestial joy fills my soul! You do respect and esteem me, then, to the utmost? Ah! de Sigognac, you would really lead me, as your wife, into the hall where all the portraits of your honoured ancestors would look down upon us? and into the chapel, where your dead mother lies at rest? I could meet fearlessly, my beloved, the searching gaze of the dead, from whom nothing is hidden; the crown of purity would not be wanting on my brow."
"But what!" exclaimed the young baron, "you say that you love me, Isabelle, with all that true, faithful heart of yours, yet you will not accept me! either as lover or husband?"
"You have offered me your name, de Sigognac, your noble, honoured name, and that is enough for me. I give it back to you now, after having cherished it for one moment in my inmost heart. For one instant I was your wife, and I will never, never be another's. While my lips were on yours I was saying yes to myself, and oh! I did not deserve such happiness. For you, my beloved, it would be a sad mistake to burden yourself with a poor little actress like me, who would always be taunted with her theatrical career, however pure and honourable it may have been. The cold, disdainful mien with which great ladies would be sure to regard me would cause you keen suffering, and you could not challenge THEM, you know, my own brave champion! You are the last of a noble race, de Sigognac, and it is your duty to build up your fallen house. When, by a tender glance, I induced you to quit your desolate home and follow me, you doubtless dreamed of a love affair of the usual sort, which was but natural; but I, looking into the future, thought of far other things. I saw you returning, in rich attire, from the court of your gracious sovereign, who had reinstated you in your rights, and given you an honourable office, suitable to your exalted rank. The chateau had resumed its ancient splendour. In fancy I tore the clinging ivy from its crumbling walls, put the fallen stones back in their places, restored the dilapidated roof and shattered window-panes, regilded the three storks on your escutcheon over the great entrance door, and in the grand old portico; then, having installed you in the renovated home of your honoured ancestors, I retired into obscurity, stifling a sigh as I bade you adieu, though sincerely rejoicing in your well merited good fortune."
"And your dream shall be accomplished, my noble Isabelle; I feel sure of it—but not altogether as you relate it to me; such an ending would be too sad and grievous. You shall be the first, you, my own darling, with this dear hand clasped in mine, as now, to cross the threshold of that blessed abode, whence ruin and desolation shall have disappeared, and have been replaced by prosperity and happiness."
"No, no, de Sigognac, it will be some great, and noble, and beautiful heiress, worthy of you in every way, who will accompany you then; one that you can present with just pride to all your friends, and of whom none can say, with a malicious smile, I hissed or applauded her at such a time and place."
"It is downright cruelty on your part to show your self so adorable, so worthy of all love and admiration, my sweet Isabelle, and at the same time to deprive me of every hope," said de Sigognac, ruefully; "to give one glimpse of heaven and then shut me out again; nothing could be more cruel. But I will not despair; I shall make you yield to me yet."
"Do not try, I beseech you," continued Isabelle, with gentle firmness, "for I never shall; I should despise myself if I did. Strive to be content, de Sigognac, with the purest, truest, most devoted love that ever filled a woman's heart, and do not ask for more. Is it such an unsatisfactory thing to you," she added, with a bright smile, "to be adored by a girl that several men have had the bad taste to declare charming? Why, even the Duke of Vallombreuse himself professes that he would be proud of it."
"But to give yourself to me so absolutely, and to refuse yourself to me as absolutely! to mingle such sweet and bitter drops in the same cup—honey and wormwood—and present it to my lips! only you, Isabelle, could be capable of such strange contradictions."
"Yes, I AM an odd girl," she replied, "and therein I resemble my poor mother; but such as I am you must put up with me. If you should persist in persecuting me, I know well how I could elude and escape you, and where I could hide myself from you so that you would never be able to find me. But there will be no need of that, we will not talk of it; our compact is made. Let it be as I say, de Sigognac, and let us be happy together while we may. It grows late now, and you must go to your own room; will you take with you these verses, of a part that does not suit me at all, and remodel them for me? they belong to a piece that we are to play very soon. Let me be your faithful little friend, de Sigognac, and you shall be my great, and well-beloved poet."
Isabelle, as she spoke, drew forth from a bureau a roll of manuscript, tied with a rose-coloured ribbon, which she gave to the baron with a radiant smile.
"Now kiss me, and go," she said, holding up her cheek for his caress. "You are going to work for me, and this is your reward. Good-night, my beloved, good-night."
It was long after he had regained the quiet of his own room ere de Sigognac could compose himself sufficiently to set about the light task imposed upon him by Isabelle. He was at once enchanted and cast down; radiant with joy, and filled with sorrow; in a seventh heaven of ecstasy, and in the depths of despair. He laughed and he wept alternately, swayed by the most tumultuous and contradictory emotions. The intense happiness of at last knowing himself beloved by his adored Isabelle made him exultant and joyful, while the terrible thought that she never would be his made his heart sink within him. Little by little, however, he grew calmer, as his mind dwelt lovingly upon the picture Isabelle had drawn of the Chateau de Sigognac restored to its ancient splendour, and as he sat musing he had a wonderful vision of it—so glowing and vivid that it was like reality. He saw before him the facade of the chateau, with its large windows shining in the sunlight, and its many weather-cocks, all freshly gilded, glistening against the bright blue sky, whilst the columns of smoke rising from every chimney, so long cold and unused, told of plenty and prosperity within, and his good faithful Pierre, in a rich new suit of livery, stood between Miraut and Beelzebub at the great entrance door awaiting him. He saw himself, in sumptuous attire, proudly leading his fair Isabelle by the hand towards the grand old home of his forefathers; his beautiful Isabelle, dressed like a princess, wearing ornaments bearing a device which seemed to be that of one of the greatest, most illustrious families of France, and with a ducal coronet upon her shapely head. But with it all she did not appear to be proud or haughty—she was just her own sweet, modest self—and in the hand that was free she carried the little wild rose, fresh as when it was first plucked, that he had given her, and from time to time raised and pressed it tenderly to her lips as she inhaled its fragrance; it seemed more precious to her than all the superb jewels that she wore. As they approached the chateau a most stately and majestic old man, whose breast was covered with orders, and whose face seemed not entirely unfamiliar to de Sigognac, stepped forth from the portico to meet and welcome them. But what greatly surprised him was that a remarkably handsome young man, of most proud and lofty bearing, accompanied the old prince, who closely resembled the Duke of Vallombreuse, and who smilingly advanced and offered a cordial salutation and welcome to Isabelle and himself. A great crowd of tenantry stationed near at hand hailed them with lusty cheers, making many demonstrations of hearty joy and delight, and his own happiness seemed to be complete. Suddenly the sound of a horn was heard, and at a little distance he saw the beautiful Yolande de Foix, radiant and charming as ever, riding slowly by—apparently returning from the chase. He followed her with his eyes admiringly, but felt no regret as her figure was lost to view amid the thick gorse bushes bordering the road down which she was going, and turned with ever increasing love and adoration to the sweet being at his side. The memory of the fair Yolande, whom he had once worshipped in a vague, boyish way, faded before the delicious reality of his passionate love for Isabelle; who satisfied so fully every requirement of his nature, and had so thoroughly healed the wound made by the scorn and ridicule of the other, that it seemed to be entirely forgotten then.
It was not easy for de Sigognac to rouse himself after this entrancing vision, which had been so startlingly real, and fix his attention upon the verses he had promised to revise and alter for Isabelle, but when at last he had succeeded, he threw himself into his task with enthusiasm, and wrote far into the night—inspired by the thought of the sweet lips that had called him her poet, and that were to pronounce the words he penned; and he was rewarded for his exertions by Isabelle's sweetest smile, and warmest praise and gratitude.
At the theatre the next evening the crowd was even greater than before, and the crush unprecedented. The reputation of Captain Fracasse, the valiant conqueror of the Duke of Vallombreuse; increased hourly, and began to assume a chimerical and fabulous character. If the labours of Hercules had been ascribed to him, there would have been some credulous ones to believe the tale, and he was endowed by his admirers with the prowess of a dozen good knights and brave, of the ancient times of chivalrous deeds. Some of the young noblemen of the place talked of seeking his acquaintance, and giving a grand banquet in his honour; more than one fair lady was desperately in love with him, and had serious thoughts of writing a billet-doux to tell him so. In short, he was the fashion, and everybody swore by him. As for the hero of a this commotion, he was greatly annoyed at being thus forcibly dragged forth from the obscurity in which he had desired to remain, but it was not possible to avoid it, and he could only submit. For a few moments he did think of bolting, and not making his appearance again upon the stage in Poitiers; but the remembrance of the disappointment it would be to the worthy tyrant, who was in an ecstasy of delight over the riches pouring into the treasury, prevented his carrying out this design. And, indeed, as he reminded himself, were not these honest comedians, who had rescued him from his misery and despair, entitled in all fairness to profit, so far as they could, by this unexpected and overwhelming favour which he had all unwittingly gained? So, resigning himself as philosophically as he could to his fate, he buckled his sword-belt, draped his cloak over his shoulder, put on his mask and calmly awaited his call to the stage.
As the receipts were so large, Herode, like a generous manager, had doubled the usual number of lights, so that the theatre was almost as radiant as if a flood of sunshine had been poured into it. The fair portion of the audience, hoping to attract the attention of the valiant Captain Fracasse, had arrayed themselves in all their splendour; not a diamond was left in its casket; they sparkled and flashed, every one, on necks and arms more or less white and round, and on heads more or less shapely, but all filled with an ardent desire to please the hero of the hour; so the scene was a brilliant one in every way. Only one box yet remained unoccupied, the best situated and most conspicuous in the whole house; every eye was turned upon it, and much wonder expressed at the apathy manifested by those who had secured it, for all the rest of the spectators had been long settled in their places. At length, just as the curtain was rising, a young lady entered and took her seat in the much observed box, accompanied by a gentleman of venerable and patriarchal appearance; apparently an indulgent old uncle, a slave to the caprices of his pretty niece, who had renounced his comfortable after-dinner nap by the fire, in order to obey her behest and escort her to the theatre. She, slender and erect as Diana, was very richly and elegantly dressed, in that peculiar and exquisite shade of delicate sea green which can be worn only by the purest blondes, and which seemed to enhance the dazzling whiteness of her uncovered shoulders, and the rounded, slender neck, diaphanous as alabaster, that proudly sustained her small, exquisitely poised head. Her hair, clustering in sunny ringlets round her brow, was like living gold, it made a glory round her head, and the whole audience was enraptured with her beauty, though an envious mask concealed so much of it; all, indeed, save the snow-white forehead, the round dimpled chin, the ripe red lips, whose tint was rendered yet more vivid by the contrast with the black velvet that shaded them, the perfect oval of the face, and a dainty little ear, pink as a sea-shell—a combination of charms worthy of a goddess, and which made every one impatient to see the radiant, beauteous whole. They were soon gratified; for the young deity, either incommoded by the heat, or else wishing to show a queenly generosity to the gazing throng, took off the odious mask, and disclosed to view a pair of brilliant eyes, dark and blue as lapis lazuli, shaded with rich golden fringes, a piquant, perfectly cut little nose, half Grecian, half aquiline, and cheeks tinged with a delicate flush that would have put a rose-leaf to shame. In fine, it was Yolande de Foix, more radiantly beautiful than ever, who, leaning forward in a negligent, graceful pose, looked nonchalantly about the house, not in the least discomposed by the many eyes fixed boldly and admiringly upon her. A loud burst of applause, that greeted the first appearance of the favourite actor, drew attention from her for a moment, as de Sigognac stalked forward upon the stage in the character of Captain Fracasse. As he paused, to wait until his admirers would allow him to begin his first tirade, he looked negligently round the eager audience, and when his eyes fell upon Yolande de Foix, sitting tranquil and radiant in her box, calmly surveying him with her glorious eyes, he suddenly turned dizzy and faint; the lights appeared first to blaze like suns, and then sink into darkness; the heads of the spectators seemed sinking into a dense fog; a cold perspiration started out on him from head to foot; he trembled violently, and felt as if his legs were giving way under him; composure, memory, courage, all seemed to have failed him, as utterly as if he had been struck by lightning.
Oh, shame! oh, rage! oh, too cruel stroke of fate! for him, a de Sigognac, to be seen by her—the haughty beauty that he used to worship from afar—in this grotesque array, filling so unworthy, so ridiculous a part, for the amusement of the gaping multitude! and he could not hide himself, he could not sink into the earth, away from her contemptuous, mocking gaze. He felt that he could not, would not bear it, and for a moment was upon the point of flying; but there seemed to be leaden soles to his shoes, which he could by no means raise from the ground. He was powerless to move hand or foot, and stood there in a sort of stupefaction; to the great astonishment of Scapin, who, thinking that he must have forgotten his part, whispered to him the opening phrases of his tirade. The public thought that their favourite actor desired another round of applause, and broke out afresh, clapping, stamping, crying bravo, making a tremendous racket, which little respite gave poor de Sigognac time to collect his scattered senses, and, with a mighty effort, he broke the spell that had bound him, and threw himself into his part with such desperation that his acting was more extravagant and telling than ever. It fairly brought down the house. The haughty Yolande herself could not forbear to smile, and her old uncle, thoroughly aroused, laughed heartily, and applauded with all his might. No one but Isabelle had the slightest idea of the reason of Captain Fracasse's unwonted fury—but she saw at once who was looking on, and knowing how sensitive he was, realized the effect it must infallibly produce upon him. She furtively watched the proud beauty as she modestly played her own part, and thought, not without a keen pang through her faithful, loving heart, that here would be a worthy mate for the Baron de Sigognac, when he had succeeded in re-establishing the lost splendour of his house. As to the poor young nobleman, he resolved not to glance once again at Yolande, lest he should be seized by a sudden transport of rage and do something utterly rash and disgraceful, but kept his eyes fixed, whenever he could, upon his sweet, lovely Isabelle. The sight of her dear face was balm to his wounded spirit—her love, of which he was now so blissfully sure, consoled him for the openly manifested scorn of the other, and from her he drew strength to go on bravely with his detested part.
It was over at last—the piece was finished—and when de Sigognac tore off his mask, like a man who is suffocating, his companions were alarmed at his altered looks. He was fairly livid, and let himself fall upon a bench standing near like a lifeless body. Seeing that he was very faint, Blazius hastened to fetch some wine—his sovereign remedy for every ill—but de Sigognac rejected it, and signed that he wanted water instead.
"A great mistake," said the pedant, shaking his head disapprovingly, "a sad mistake—water is only fit for frogs, and fish, and such-like cold-blooded creatures—it does not do for human beings at all. Every water-bottle should be labelled,'For external use only.' Why, I should die instantly if so much as a drop of the vile stuff found its way down my throat. Take my advice, Captain Fracasse, and let it alone. Here, have some of this good strong wine; it will set you right in a jiffy."
But de Sigognac would not be persuaded, and persisted in motioning for water. When it was brought, cool and fresh, he eagerly swallowed a large draught of the despised liquid, and found himself almost immediately revived by it—his face resuming a more natural hue, and the light returning to his eyes. When he was able to sit up and look about him again, Herode approached, in his turn, and said, "You played admirably this evening, and with wonderful spirit, Captain Fracasse, but it does not do to take too much out of yourself in this way—such violent exertions would quickly do for you. The comedian's art consists in sparing himself as much as possible, whilst producing striking effects; he should be calm amidst all his simulated fury, and cool in his apparently most burning rage. Never did actor play this part as superbly as you have done to-night—THAT I am bound to acknowledge—but this is too dear a price to pay for it."
"Yes, wasn't I absurd in it?" answered the baron bitterly. "I felt myself supremely ridiculous throughout—but especially when my head went through the guitar with which Leander was belabouring me."
"You certainly did put on the most comically furious airs imaginable," the tyrant replied, "and the whole audience was convulsed with laughter. Even Mlle. Yolande de Foix, that very great, and proud, and noble lady, condescended to smile. I saw her myself."
"It was a great honour for me assuredly," cried de Sigognac, with flaming cheeks, "to have been able to divert so great a lady."
"Pardon me, my lord," said the tyrant, who perceived the painful flush that covered the baron's face, "I should have remembered that the success which is so prized by us poor comedians, actors by profession, cannot but be a matter of indifference to one of your lordship's rank."
"You have not offended me, my good Herode," de Sigognac hastened to reply, holding out his hand to the honest tyrant with a genial smile, "whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. But I could not help remembering that I had dreamed of and hoped for very different triumphs from this."
Isabelle, who meantime had been dressing for the other piece, passed near de Sigognac just then, and gave him such an angelic look—so full of tenderness, sympathy, and passionate love—that he quite forgot the haughty Yolande, and felt really happy again. It was a divine balm, that healed his wounded pride—for the moment at least; but such wounds are all too apt to open and bleed again and again.
The Marquis de Bruyeres was at his post as usual, and though very much occupied in applauding Zerbine, yet found time to go and pay his respects to Mlle. Yolande de Foix. He related to her, without mentioning the baron's name, the affair of the duel between Captain Fracasse and the Duke of Vallombreuse saying that he ought to be able to give all the details of that famous encounter better than anybody else, since he had been present as one of the seconds.
"You need not be so mysterious about it," answered Yolande, "for it is not difficult to divine that your Captain Fracasse is no other than the Baron de Sigognac. Didn't I myself see him leaving his old owl-haunted towers in company with this little Bohemienne, who plays her part of ingenuous young girl with such a precious affectation of modesty?" she added, with a forced laugh. "And wasn't he at your chateau with these very players? Judging from his usual stupid, silly air, I would not have believed him capable of making such a clever mountebank, and such a faithful gallant."
As he conversed with Yolande, the marquis was looking about the house, of which he had a much better view than from his own place near the stage, and his attention was caught and fixed by the masked lady, whom he had not seen before, as his back was always turned to her box. Although her head and figure were much enveloped and disguised in a profusion of black laces, the attitude and general contour of this mysterious beauty seemed strangely familiar to him, and there was something about her that reminded him forcibly of the marquise, his own wife. "Bah!" said he to himself, "how foolish I am; she must be all safe at the Chateau de Bruyeres, where I left her." But at that very moment he caught sight of a diamond ring—a large solitaire, peculiarly set—sparkling on her finger, which was precisely like one that the Marquise de Bruyeres always wore.
A little troubled by this strange coincidence, he took leave abruptly of the fair Yolande and her devoted old uncle, and hastened to the masked lady's box. But, prompt as his movements had been, he was too late—the nest was empty—the bird had flown. The lady, whoever she might be, had vanished, and the suspicious husband was left in considerable vexation and perplexity. "Could it be possible," he murmured, as his doubts became almost certainty, "that she was sufficiently infatuated to fall in love with that miserable Leander, and follow him here? Fortunately I had the rascal thoroughly thrashed, so I am even with him, how ever it may be." This thought restored his ruffled serenity, and he made his way as fast as he could to the green-room, to rejoin the soubrette, who had been impatiently expecting him, and did not hesitate to rate him soundly for his unwonted delay.
When all was over, and Leander—who had been feeling excessively anxious about the sudden disappearance of his marquise—was free, he immediately repaired to the open square where he had been first bidden to meet the carriage sent to fetch him, and where he had found it awaiting him nightly ever since. The little page, who was there alone, put a letter and a small package into his hand, without a word, and then running swiftly away, before Leander had time to question him, vanished in the darkness. The note, which was signed simply Marie, was from the marquise, who said that she feared her husband's suspicions had been excited, and that it would no longer be safe for them to meet just then, bade him an affectionate farewell until it might be their good fortune to see each other again, expressed much regret at this unlucky contretemps, and begged him to accept the gold chain she sent therewith as a little souvenir, to remind him of the many happy hours they had spent together. Leander was at first very much vexed and disappointed, but was somewhat reconciled and consoled when he felt the weight of his golden treasure, and saw its length and thickness; and, on the whole, was rather glad to come off with such flying colours from an adventure that might have brought down a yet more severe punishment than that he had already received upon his devoted head.
When Isabelle regained her own room she found a very rich and elegant casket awaiting her there, which had been placed conspicuously on the dressing-table, where it could not fail to meet her eye the moment she entered the chamber. A folded paper was lying under one corner of the casket, which must have contained some very precious gems, for it was a real marvel of beauty itself. The paper was not sealed, and bore only these two words, evidently written by a weak and trembling hand, "For Isabelle." A bright flush of indignation overspread her sweet face when she perceived it, and without even yielding to her feminine curiosity so far as to open the richly carved and inlaid casket for a peep at its contents, she called for Maitre Bilot, and ordered him peremptorily to take it immediately out of her room, and give it back to whomsoever owned it, for she would not suffer it to remain where it was another minute. The landlord affected astonishment, and swore by all he held sacred that he did not know who had put the casket there, nor whose it was; though it must be confessed that he had his suspicions, and felt very sure that they were correct. In truth, the obnoxious jewel-case had been secretly placed upon Isabelle's table by old Mme. Leonarde, to whom the Duke of Vallombreuse had had recourse, in the hope that she might be able to aid him, and in the full belief, shared by her, that the superb diamonds which the beautiful casket contained would accomplish all that he desired with Isabelle. But his offering only served to rouse her indignation, and she spoke very severely to Maitre Bilot, commanding him to remove it instantly from her sight, and to be careful not to mention this fresh affront to Captain Fracasse. The worthy landlord could not help feeling enthusiastic admiration for the conduct of the young actress, who rejected jewels that would have made a duchess envious, and as he retired bowed to her as respectfully and profoundly as he would have done to a queen. After he had withdrawn and she was left alone, Isabelle, feeling agitated and feverish, opened her window for a breath of fresh air, and to cool her burning cheeks and brow. She saw a bright light issuing from a couple of windows in the mansion of the Duke of Vallombreuse—doubtless in the room where the wounded young nobleman lay—but the garden and the little alley beneath her seemed absolutely deserted. In a moment, however, she caught a low whisper from the latter, not intended for her ears, which said, "She has not gone to bed yet." She softly leaned out of her window—the room within was not lighted, so she could not be seen—and peering anxiously into the darkness thought she could distinguish two cloaked figures lurking in the alley, and farther away, near one end of it, a third one, apparently on the watch. They seemed to feel that they were observed, and all three presently slunk away and vanished, leaving Isabelle half in doubt as to whether they were the creatures of her excited imagination, or had been real men prowling there. Tired at last of watching, without hearing or seeing anything more, she withdrew from the window, closed and secured it softly, procured a light, saw that the great, clumsy bolt on her door was property adjusted, and made her preparations for bed; lying down at last and trying to sleep, for she was very tired, but haunted by vague fears and doubts that made her anxious and uneasy. She did not extinguish her light, but placed it near the bed, and strove to reassure herself and reason away her nameless terror; but all in vain. At every little noise—the cracking of the furniture or the falling of a cinder in the fire-place, she started up in fresh alarm, and could not close her eyes. High up in the wall of one side of her room was a small round window—a bull's eye—evidently intended to give light and air to some dark inner chamber or closet, which looked like a great black eye in the gray wall, keeping an unwinking watch upon her, and Isabelle found herself again and again glancing up at it with a shudder. It was crossed by two strong iron bars, leaving four small apertures, so that there could not possibly be any danger of intrusion from that quarter, yet she could not avoid feeling nervous about it, and at times fancied that she could see two gleaming eye-balls in its black depths. She lay for a long time perfectly motionless gazing at it, like one under a spell, and at last was paralyzed with horror when a head actually appeared at one of the four openings—a small, dark head, with wild, tangled elf-locks hanging about it; next came a long, thin arm with a claw-like hand, then the shoulder followed, and finally the whole body of a slender, emaciated little girl wriggled dexterously, though with much difficulty, through the narrow aperture, and the child dropped down upon the floor as lightly and noiselessly as a feather, a snow-flake, or a waft of thistle-down. She had been deceived by Isabelle's remaining so long perfectly quiet, and believed her asleep; but when she softly approached the bed, to make sure that her victim's slumber had not been disturbed by her own advent, an expression of extreme surprise was depicted on her face, as she got a full view of the head lying upon the pillow and the eyes fixed upon her in speechless terror. "The lady of the necklace!" she exclaimed aloud. "Yes, the lady of the necklace!" putting one hand, as she spoke, caressingly upon the string of pearl beads round her little, thin, brown neck. Isabelle, for her part, though half dead with fright, had recognised the little girl she had first seen at the Blue Sun inn, and afterwards on the road to the Chateau de Bruyeres, in company with Agostino, the brigand. She tried to cry out for help, but the child put her hand quickly and firmly over her mouth.
"Don't scream," she said reassuringly, "nothing shall hurt you. Chiquita promised that she would never kill nor harm the good, sweet lady, who gave her the pearls that she meant to steal."
"But what have you come in here for, my poor child?" asked Isabelle, gradually recovering her composure, but filled with surprise at this strange intrusion.
"To open the great bolt on your door there that you are so careful to close every night," answered Chiquita, in the most matter-of-fact way. "They chose me for it because I am such a good climber, and as thin and supple as a snake; there are not many holes that I cannot manage to crawl through."
"And why were you to open my door, Chiquita? so that thieves could come in and steal what few things I have here? There is nothing of value among them, I assure you."
"Oh, no!" Chiquita replied disdainfully, "it was to let the men in who were to carry you off."
"My God! I am lost!" cried poor Isabelle, wringing her hands in despair.
"Not at all," said Chiquita, "and you need not be so frightened. I shall just leave the bolt as it is, and they would not dare to force the door; it would make too much noise, and they would be caught at it; they're not so silly as that, never fear."
"But I should have shrieked at the top of my voice, and clung to the bedstead with all my might, if they had tried to take me," exclaimed Isabelle excitedly, "so that I would have been heard by the people in the neighbouring rooms, and I'm sure they would have come to my rescue."
"A good gag will stifle any shrieks," said Chiquita sententiously, with a lofty contempt for Isabelle's ignorance that was very amusing, "and a blanket rolled tightly about the body prevents any movements; that is an easy matter you see. They would have carried you off without the slightest difficulty, for the stable boy was bribed, and was to open the back door for them."
"Who has laid this wicked plot?" asked the poor, frightened, young girl, with a trembling voice, horror-stricken at the danger she had escaped.
"The great lord who has given them all such heaps of money; oh! such quantities of big gold pieces—by the handful," said Chiquita, her great dark eyes glittering with a fierce, covetous expression, strange and horrible to see in one so young. "But all the same, YOU gave me the pearls, and he shall not hurt you; he shall not have you if you don't want to go. I will tell them that you were awake, and there was a man in the room, so that I could not get in and open the door for them; they will all go away quietly enough; you need not be afraid. Now let me have one good look at you before I go—oh, how sweet and pretty you are—and I love you, yes, I do, ever so much; almost as much as Agostino. But what is this?" cried she suddenly, pouncing upon a knife that was lying on the table near the bed. "Why, you have got the very knife I lost; it was my father's knife. Well, you may keep it—it's a good one."
'When this viper bites you, make sure That you must die, for there's no cure.'
"See, this is the way to open it, and then you use it like this: strike from below upwards—the blade goes in better that way—and it's so sharp it will go through anything. Carry it in the bosom of your dress, and it is always ready; then if anybody bothers you, out with it, and paf! you have them ripped up in no time," and the strange, eerie little creature accompanied her words with appropriate gestures, by way of illustration. This extraordinary lesson in the art of using a knife, given in the dead of night, and under such peculiar circumstances, seemed like a nightmare to Isabelle.
"Be sure you hold the knife like this, do you see? tightly clasped in your fingers—as long as you have it no one can harm you, but you can hurt them. Now, I must go—adieu, and don't forget Chiquita."
So saying, the queer little elf pushed a table up to the wall under the bull's eye, mounted it, sprang up and caught hold of the iron bar with the agility of a monkey, swung herself up in some extraordinary fashion, wriggled through the small opening and disappeared, chanting in a rude measure, "Chiquita whisks through key-holes, and dances on the sharp points of spear-heads and the broken glass on garden walls, without ever hurting herself one bit—and nobody can catch her."
Isabelle, left alone, awaited the break of day with trembling impatience, unable to sleep after the fright and agitation she had experienced, and momentarily dreading some fresh cause of alarm; but nothing else happened to disturb her. When she joined her companions at breakfast, they were all struck with her extreme pallor, and the distressed expression of her countenance. To their anxious questions she replied by giving an account of her nocturnal adventure, and de Sigognac, furious at this fresh outrage, could scarcely be restrained from going at once to demand, satisfaction for it from the Duke of Vallombreuse, to whom he did not hesitate to attribute this villainous scheme.
"I think," said Blazius, when he could make himself heard, "that we had better pack up, and be off as soon as we can for Paris; the air is becoming decidedly unwholesome for us in this place."
After a short discussion all the others agreed with him, and it was decided that they should take their departure from Poitiers the very next day.
CHAPTER XI. THE PONT-NEUF
It would be too long and tedious to follow our comedians, step by step, on their way up to Paris, the great capital. No adventures worthy of being recorded here befell them; as they were in good circumstances financially, they could travel rapidly and comfortably, and were not again subjected to such hardships and annoyances as they had endured in the earlier stages of their long journey. At Tours and Orleans they stopped to give a few representations, which were eminently successful, and very satisfactory to the troupe as well as the public. No attempt being made to molest them in any way, Blazius after a time forgot his fears, which had been excited by the vindictive character of the Duke of Vallombreuse, but Isabelle could not banish from her memory the wicked plot to abduct her, and many times saw again in her dreams Chiquita's wild, weird face, with the long, tangled elf-locks hanging around it, just as it had appeared to her that dreadful night at the Armes de Frame, glaring at her with fierce, wolfish eyes. Then she would start up, sobbing and trembling, in violent agitation, and it required the most tender soothing from her companion, Zerbine, whose room she had shared ever since they quitted Poitiers, to quiet and reassure her. The soubrette, thoroughly enamoured of Isabelle as of old, was devoted to her, and took great delight in watching over and ministering to her; an own sister could not have been kinder or more affectionately considerate.
The only evidence that de Sigognac gave of the anxiety which he secretly felt, was his always insisting upon occupying the room nearest Isabelle's, and he used to lie down in his clothes, with his drawn sword on the bed beside him, so as to be ready in case of any sudden alarm. By day he generally walked on in advance of the chariot, taking upon himself the duty of a scout; redoubling his vigilance wherever there happened to be bushes, thickets, high walls, or lurking places of any kind, favourable to an ambuscade, near the roadside. If he perceived from afar a group of travellers approaching, whose appearance seemed to him in the least suspicious, he would instantly draw his sword and fall back upon the chariot, around which the tyrant, Scapin, Blazius and Leander formed an apparently strong guard; though, of the last two mentioned, one was incapacitated for active service by age, and the other was as timid as a hare. Some times, varying his tactics like a good general, who thinks of and provides against every emergency, the baron would constitute himself a rear guard, and follow the chariot at a little distance, keeping watch over the road behind them. But all his precautions were needless, for no attack was made upon the travellers, or any attempt to interfere with them, and they proceeded tranquilly on their way, "without let or hindrance." Although it was winter, the season was not a rigorous one, and our comedians, well fortified against the cold by plenty of warm clothing and good nourishing food, did not mind their exposure to the weather, and found their journey a very enjoyable affair. To be sure, the sharp, frosty air brought a more brilliant colour than usual into the cheeks of the fair members of the troupe, but no one could say that it detracted from their charms; and even when it extended, as it did sometimes, to their pretty little noses, it could not be found serious fault with, for everything is becoming to a young and beautiful woman.
At last they drew near to the capital—following the windings of the Seine, whose waters flow past royal palaces, and many another edifice of world-wide renown—and at four o'clock of a bright winter afternoon came in sight of its spires and domes. The smoke rising from its forest of chimneys hung over it in a semi-transparent cloud, through which the sun shone, round and red, like a ball of fire. As they entered the city by the Porte Saint Bernard, a glorious spectacle greeted their wondering eyes. In front of them Notre Dame stood out in bold relief, with its magnificent flying buttresses, its two stately towers, massive and majestic, and its slender, graceful spire, springing from the lofty roof at the point of intersection of the nave and transepts. Many other lesser towers and spires rose above churches and chapels that were lost amid the densely crowded houses all about them, but de Sigognac had eyes only for the grand old cathedral, which overwhelmed him with astonishment and delight. He would have liked to linger for hours and gaze upon that splendid triumph of architecture, but he needs must go forward with the rest, however reluctantly. The wonderful and unceasing whirl and confusion in the narrow, crowded streets, through which they made their way slowly, and not without difficulty, perplexed and distracted him, accustomed as he had been all his life to the vast solitude of the Landes, and the deathly stillness that reigned almost unbroken in his own desolate old chateau; it seemed to him as if a mill-wheel were running round and round in his head, and he could feel himself staggering like a drunken man. The Pont-Neuf was soon reached, and then de Sigognac caught a glimpse of the famous equestrian statue in bronze of the great and good king, Henri IV, which stands on its lofty pedestal and seems to be keeping guard over the splendid bridge, with its ever-rolling stream of foot-passengers, horsemen, and vehicles of every kind and description, from the superb court carriage to the huckster's hand-cart; but in a moment it was lost to view, as the chariot turned into the then newly opened Rue Dauphine. In this street was a fine big hotel, frequently patronized by ambassadors from foreign lands, with numerous retinues; for it was so vast that it could always furnish accommodations for large parties arriving unexpectedly. As the prosperous state of their finances admitted of their indulging in such luxury, Herode had fixed upon this house as their place of abode in Paris; because it would give a certain prestige to his troupe to be lodged there, and show conclusively that they were not mere needy, vagabond players, gaining a precarious livelihood in their wanderings through the provinces, but a company of comedians of good standing, whose talents brought them in a handsome revenue.
Upon their arrival at this imposing hostelry, they were first shown into an immense kitchen, which presented an animated, busy scene—a whole army of cooks bustling about the great roaring fire, and around the various tables, where all sorts of culinary rites were in active progress; while the mingling of savoury odours that pervaded the whole place so tickled the olfactory organs of Blazius, Herode, and Scapin, the gourmands of the troupe, that their mouths expanded into the broadest of grins, as they edged as near as possible to the numerous saucepans, etc., from which they issued. In a few moments a servant came to conduct them to the rooms that had been prepared for them, and just as they turned away from the blazing fire, round which they had gathered, to follow him, a traveller entered and approached it, whose face seemed strangely familiar to de Sigognac. He was a tall, powerful man, wearing large spurs, which rang against the stone floor at every step, and the great spots of mud—some of them not yet dry—with which he was bespattered from head to foot, showed that he must have been riding far and fast. He was a fierce-looking fellow, with an insolent, devil-may-care, arrogant sort of expression, and bold, swaggering gait, yet he started at sight of the young baron, and plainly shrunk from his eye; hastening on to the fire and bending over it, with his back turned to de Sigognac, under pretence of warming his hands. In vain did our hero try to recall when and where he had seen the man before, but he was positive that he had come in contact with him somewhere, and that recently; and he was conscious of a vague feeling of uneasiness with regard to him, that he could not account for. However, there was nothing for him to do but follow his companions, and they all went to their respective chambers, there to make themselves presentable for the meal to which they were shortly summoned, and which they thoroughly enjoyed, as only hungry travellers can. The fare was excellent, the wine capital, the dining-room well lighted, warm, and comfortable, and all were in high spirits; congratulating each other upon having happily reached the end of their long journey at last, and drinking to their own future success in this great city of Paris. They indulged in the flattering hope of producing a sensation here as well as at Poitiers, and even dared to dream of being commanded to appear before the court, and of being rewarded royally for their exertions to please. Only de Sigognac was silent and preoccupied, and Isabelle, whose thoughts were all of him, cast anxious glances at him, and wished that she could charm away his melancholy. He was seated at the other end of the table, and still puzzling over the face that he had seen in the kitchen, but he soon looked towards her, and caught her lovely eyes fixed upon him, with such an adorable expression of chaste love and angelic tenderness in their shadowy depths, that all thoughts save of her were at once banished from his mind. The warmth of the room had flushed her cheeks a little, her eyes shone like stars, and she looked wonderfully beautiful; the young Duke of Vallombreuse would have been more madly enamoured of her than ever if he could have seen her then. As for de Sigognac, he gazed at her with unfeigned delight, his dark, expressive eyes eloquent of adoring love and deep reverence. A new sentiment mingled with his passion now—ever since she had opened her heart to him, and let him see all its heavenly purity and goodness—which elevated, ennobled, and intensified it. He knew now the true, lofty beauty of her soul, that it was akin to the angels, and but for the keen, ever-increasing grief he suffered because of her firm refusal to give herself wholly to him, his happiness, in possessing her faithful, devoted love, would have been too perfect for this life of trials and sorrow.
When supper was over, de Sigognac accompanied Isabelle to the threshhold of her own room, and said ere he left her, "Be sure to fasten your door securely, my sweet Isabelle, for there are so many people about in a great hotel like this that one cannot be too careful."
"You need have no fears for me here, my dear baron," she replied; "only look at this lock, and you will be convinced of that. Why it is strong enough for a prison door, and the key turns thrice in it. And here is a great thick bolt besides—actually as long as my arm. The window is securely barred, and there is no dreadful bull's eye, or opening of any kind in the wall, to make me afraid. Travellers so often have articles of value with them that I suppose it is necessary for them to have such protections against thieves. Make yourself easy about me, de Sigognac! never was the enchanted princess of a fairy tale, shut up in her strong tower guarded by dragons, in greater security than am I in this fortress of mine."
"But sometimes it chances that the magic charms and spells, represented by these bolts and bars, are insufficient, my beloved Isabelle, and the enemy manages to force his way in, despite them all—and the mystic signs, phylacteries, and abracadabras into the bargain."
"Yes; but that is when the princess within secretly favours his efforts," said Isabelle, with a mischievous smile, "and in some mysterious way constitutes herself his accomplice; being tired of her seclusion, perhaps, or else in love with the bold intruder—neither of which is my case you know, de Sigognac! Surely if I'm not afraid—I, who am more timid than the trembling doe when she hears the dread sound of the hunter's horn and the baying of the hounds you should not fear—you, who are brave as Alexander the Great himself. Sleep in peace to-night, my friend, I pray you, and sleep soundly—not with one eye open, as you have done so often of late for my sake; and now, good night."
She held out to him a pretty little hand, white and soft enough to have belonged to a veritable princess, which he kissed as reverently as if it had been a queen's; then waited to hear her turn the big, clumsy, iron key three times in the lock—no easy task for her delicate fingers—and push home the heavy bolt. Breathing a fervent blessing upon her, he turned away reluctantly towards his own door. As he paused an instant before it he saw a shadow moving, turned round quickly, and caught sight of the very man he had been thinking of, and puzzling over, so much that evening—whose approach he had not heard at all—passing stealthily along the corridor, presumably on his way to his own room. Not an extraordinary circumstance, that; but the baron's suspicions were instantly aroused, and under pretext of trying to introduce his key into the lock, he furtively watched him the whole length of the passage, until a turn in it hid him from view, as he gained an unfrequented part of the house; a moment later, the sound of a door being softly opened and closed announced that he had probably reached his own chamber, and then all was still again.
"Now what does this mean?" said de Sigognac to himself, and haunted by a vague feeling of anxiety and uneasiness, he could not even bring himself to lie down upon his bed and rest his weary frame; so, after pacing restlessly about the room for a while, he concluded to occupy himself in writing a letter to his good old Pierre; he had promised to apprise him of his arrival in Paris. He was careful that the handwriting should be very large, clear, and distinct, for the faithful old servant was not much of a scholar, and addressed him as follows:
MY GOOD PIERRE:—Here I am at last, actually in Paris, the great capital, where, according to general belief, I am to fall in with some sort of good fortune or other, that will enable me to re-establish the ancient prosperity of my house—though in truth I cannot see where I am to look for it. However, some happy chance may bring me into relations with the court, and if I could only get to speak to the king—the great dispenser of all favours—the important and famous services rendered by my ancestors to his royal predecessors would surely incline him to listen to me with indulgence and interest. His gracious majesty could not, it seems to me, suffer a noble family, that had devoted all their possessions to the service of king and country, in many wars, to die out so miserably, if once he knew of it. Meantime, for want of other employment, I have taken to acting, and have made a little money thereby—part of which I shall send to you, as soon as I can find a good opportunity. It would have been better perhaps if I had enlisted as a soldier; but I could not give up my liberty, and however poverty-stricken a man may be, his pride revolts at the idea of putting himself under the orders of those whom his noble ancestors used to command. The only adventure worth relating that has befallen me since I left you was a duel that I fought at Poitiers, with a certain young duke, who is held to be invincible; but, thanks to your good instructions, I was able to get the better of him easily. I ran him through the right arm, and could just as well have run him through the body, and left him dead upon the field, for his defence was weak and insufficient—by no means equal to his attack, which was daring and brilliant, though very reckless—and several times he was entirely at my mercy, as he grew heated and angry. He has not been so thoroughly trained to preserve his sang-froid, whatever may happen, as I, and I now appreciate, for the first time, your wonderful patience and perseverance in making me a master of the noble art of fencing, and how valuable my proficiency in it will be to me. Your scholar does you honour, my brave Pierre, and I won great praise and applause for my really too easy victory. In spite of the constant novelty and excitement of my new way of life, my thoughts often return to dwell upon my poor old chateau, crumbling gradually into ruin over the tombs of my ancestors. From afar it does not seem so desolate and forlorn, and there are times when I fancy myself there once more, gazing up at the venerable family portraits, wandering through the deserted rooms, and I find a sort of melancholy pleasure in it. How I wish that I could look into your honest, sunburnt face, lighted up with the glad smile that always greeted me—and I am not ashamed to confess that I long to hear Beelzebub's contented purring, Miraut's joyful bark, and the loud whinnying of my poor old Bayard, who never failed to recognise my step. Are they all still alive—the good, faithful, affectionate creatures—and do they seem to remember me? Have you been able to keep yourself and them from starvation thus far? Try to hold out until my return, my good Pierre, so as to share my fate—be it bright or dark, happy or sad—that we may finish our days together in the place where we have suffered so much, yet which is so dear to us all. If I am to be the last of the de Sigognacs, I can only say, the will of God be done. There is still a vacant place left for me in the vault where my forefathers lie.
"BARON DE SIGOGNAC."
The baron sealed this letter with the ring bearing his family arms, which was the only jewel remaining in his possession; directed it, and put it into his portfolio, to wait until he should find an opportunity to forward it to Gascony. Although by this time it was very late, he could still hear the vague roar of the great city, which, like the sound of the ocean, never entirely ceases, and was so strange and novel to him, in contrast with the profound silence of the country that he had been accustomed to all his life long. As he sat listening to it, he thought he heard cautious footsteps in the corridor, and extinguishing his light, softly opened his door just a very little way, scarcely more than a crack—and caught a glimpse of a man, enveloped in a large cloak, stealing along slowly in the direction the other one had taken. He listened breathlessly until he heard him reach, and quietly enter, apparently the same door. A few minutes later, while he was still on the lookout, another one came creeping stealthily by, making futile efforts to stifle the noise of his creaking boots. His suspicions now thoroughly aroused, de Sigognac continued his watch, and in about half an hour came yet another—a fierce, villainous looking fellow, and fully armed, as every one of his predecessors had been also. This strange proceeding seemed very extraordinary and menacing to the baron, and the number of the men—four—brought to his mind the night attack upon him in the streets of Poitiers, after his quarrel with the Duke of Vallombreuse. This recollection was like a ray of light, and it instantly flashed upon him that the man he had seen in the kitchen was no other than one of those precious rascals, who had been routed so ignominiously—and these, without doubt, were his comrades. But how came they there? in the very house with him—not by chance surely. They must have followed him up to Paris, stage by stage, in disguise, or else keeping studiously out of his sight, Evidently the young duke's animosity was still active, as well as his passion, and he had not renounced his designs upon either Isabelle or himself. Our hero was very brave by nature, and did not feel the least anxiety about his own safety trusting to his good sword to defend himself against his enemies—but he was very uneasy in regard to his sweet Isabelle, and dreaded inexpressibly what might be attempted to gain possession of her. Not knowing which one of them the four desperadoes had in view now, he determined not to relax his vigilance an instant, and to take such precautions as he felt pretty sure would circumvent their plans, whatever they might be. He lighted all the candles there were in his room—a goodly number—and opened his door, so that they threw a flood of light on that of Isabelle's chamber, which was exactly opposite his own. Next he drew his sword, laid it, with his dagger, on a table he had drawn out in front of the door, and then sat down beside it, facing the corridor, to watch. He waited some time without hearing or seeing anything. Two o'clock had rung out from a neighbouring church tower when a slight rustling caught his listening ear, and presently one of the four rascals—the very man he had first seen—emerged from the shadow into the bright light streaming out into the passage from his open door. The baron had sprung to his feet at the first sound, and stood erect on the threshold, sword in hand, with such a lofty, heroic, and triumphant air, that Merindol—for it was he—passed quickly by, without offering to molest him, with a most deprecating, crestfallen expression; a laughable contrast to his habitual fierce insolence. His three doughty comrades followed in quick succession—but not one of them dared to attack de Sigognac, and they slunk out of sight as rapidly as possible. He saluted each one with a mocking gesture as he passed, and stood tranquilly watching them as long as he could see them. In a few minutes he had the satisfaction of hearing the stamping of horses' feet in the court-yard below, then the opening of the outer door to let them pass out into the street, and finally a great clattering of hoofs as they galloped off down the Rue Dauphine.
At breakfast the next morning the tyrant said to de Sigognac, "Captain, doesn't your curiosity prompt you to go out and look about you a little in this great city—one of the finest in the world, and of such high renown in history? If it is agreeable to you I will be your guide and pilot, for I have been familiar from my youth up with the rocks and reefs, the straits and shallows, the scyllas and charybdises of this seething ocean, which are often so dangerous—sometimes so fatal—to strangers, and more especially to inexperienced country people. I will be your Palinurus—but I promise you that I shall not allow myself to be caught napping, and so fall overboard, like him that Virgil tells us about. We are admirably located here for sight-seeing; the Pont-Neuf, which is close at hand, you know, is to Paris what the Sacra Via was to ancient Rome—the great resort and rallying place of high and low, great and small, noble men, gentlemen, bourgeois, working men, rogues and vagabonds. Men of every rank and profession under the sun are to be found gathered together at this general rendezvous."
"Your kind proposition pleases me greatly, my good Herode," de Sigognac replied, "and I accept it with thanks; but be sure to tell Scapin that he must remain here, and keep a sharp watch over all who come and go; and, above all, that he must not let any one gain access to Isabelle. The Duke of Vallombreuse has not given up his designs against her and me—I feel very anxious about her safety," and therewith he recounted the occurrences of the preceding night.
"I don't believe they would dare to attempt anything in broad daylight," said the tyrant; "still it is best to err on the safe side, and we will leave Scapin, Blazius and Leander to keep guard over Isabelle while we are out. And, by the way, I will take my sword with me, too, so that I can be of some assistance in case they should find an opportunity to fall upon you in the streets."
After having made every arrangement for Isabelle's safety, de Sigognac and his companion sallied forth into the Rue Dauphine, and turned towards the Pont-Neuf. It was quickly reached, and when they had taken a few steps upon it a magnificent view suddenly burst upon them, which held the young baron enthralled. In the immediate foreground, on the bridge itself, which was not encumbered with a double row of houses, like the Pont au Change and the Pont Saint Michel, was the fine equestrian statue of that great and good king, Henri IV, rivalling in its calm majesty the famous one of Marcus Aurelius, on the Capitoline Hill at Rome. A high railing, richly gilded, protected its pedestal from injury by mischievous street arabs, and the deep, strong tints of the bronze horse and rider stood out vigorously against the appropriate background formed by the distant hill-sides beyond the Pont Rouge. On the left bank of the river the spire of the venerable old church of Saint Germain des Pres pointed upwards from amid the houses that completely hemmed it in, and the lofty roof of the unfinished Hotel de Nevers towered conspicuously above all its surroundings. A little farther on was the only tower still standing of the famous, and infamous, Hotel de Nesle, its base bathed by the river, and though it was in a ruinous condition it still lifted itself up proudly above the adjacent buildings. Beyond it lay the marshy Grenouillere, and in the blue, hazy distance could be distinguished the three crosses on the heights of Calvary, or Mont-Valerien. The palace of the Louvre occupied the other bank right royally, lighted up by the brilliant winter sunshine, which brought out finely all the marvellous details of its rich and elaborate ornamentation. The long gallery connecting it with the Tuileries, which enabled the monarch to pass freely from his city palace to his country house, especially challenged their admiration; with its magnificent sculptures, its historical bas-reliefs and ornamented cornices, its fretted stonework, fine columns and pilasters, it rivalled the renowned triumphs of the best Greek and Roman architects. Beyond the gardens of the Tuileries, where the city ended, stood the Porte de la Conference, and along the river bank, outside of it, were the trees of Cours-la-Reine, the favourite promenade of the fashionable world, which was thronged of an afternoon with gay and luxurious equipages. The two banks, which we have thus hastily sketched, framed in the most animated scene imaginable; the river being covered with boats of all sorts and descriptions, coming and going, crossing and recrossing, while at the quay, beside the Louvre, lay the royal barges, rich with carving and gilding, and gay with bright-coloured awnings, and near at hand rose the historic towers of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois.
After gazing silently for a long time at this splendid view, de Sigognac turned away reluctantly at his companion's instance, and joined the little crowd already gathered round the "Samaritan," waiting to see the bronze figure surmounting the odd little hydraulic edifice strike the hour with his hammer on the bell of the clock. Meanwhile they examined the gilt bronze statue of Christ, standing beside the Samaritan, who was leaning on the curb of the well, the astronomic dial with its zodiac, the grotesque stone mask pouring out the water drawn up from the river below, the stout figure of Hercules supporting the whole thing, and the hollow statue, perched on the topmost pinnacle, that served as a weathercock, like the Fortune on the Dogana at Venice and the Giralda at Seville. As the hands on the clock-face at last pointed to ten and twelve respectively, the little chime of bells struck up a merry tune, while the bronze man with the hammer raised his ponderous arm and deliberately struck ten mighty blows, to the great delight of the spectators. This curious and ingenious piece of mechanism, which had been cunningly devised by one Lintlaer, a Fleming, highly amused and interested de Sigognac, to whom everything of the kind was absolutely new and surprising.
"Now," said Herode, "we will glance at the view from the other side of the bridge, though it is not so magnificent as the one you have already seen, and is very much shut in by the buildings on the Pont au Change yonder. However, there is the tower of Saint Jacques, the spire of Saint Mederic, and others too numerous to mention; and that is the Sainte Chapelle—a marvel of beauty, so celebrated, you know, for its treasures and relics. All the houses in that direction are new and handsome, as you see; when I was a boy I used to play at hop-scotch where they now stand. Thanks to the munificence of our kings, Paris is being constantly improved and beautified, to the great admiration and delight of everybody; more especially of foreigners, who take home wondrous tales of its splendour."
"But what astonishes me," said de Sigognac, "more even than the grandeur and sumptuousness of the buildings, both public and private, is the infinite number of people swarming everywhere—in the streets and open squares, and on the bridges—like ants when one has broken into an ant hill; they are all rushing distractedly about, up and down, back and forth, as if life and death depended upon their speed. How strange it is to think that every individual in this immense crowd must be lodged and fed—and what a prodigious amount of food and wine it must take to satisfy them all."
And indeed, it was not surprising that the great numbers of people, moving in every direction, should strike one unaccustomed to the crowded thoroughfares of large cities as extraordinary. On the Pont-Neuf an unceasing stream of vehicles rolled in each direction—fine carriages, richly decorated and gilded, drawn by two or four prancing horses, with lackeys in brilliant liveries clinging on behind, and stately coachmen on the box; less pretentious carriages with more quiet steeds and fewer servants; heavy carts laden with stone, wood, or wine-barrels, whose drivers swore loudly at the detentions they were frequently obliged to submit to, and which were unavoidable in such a crush of vehicles; and among them all, gentlemen on horseback, threading their way carefully in and out among the press of carts and carriages, and endeavouring to avoid coming in contact with their muddy wheels—not always successfully; while here and there a sedan chair crept slowly along, keeping upon the edge of the stream, so as not to be crushed; and the narrow, raised walk on either side was thronged with pedestrians. Presently a drove of cattle made its appearance on the bridge, and then the uproar and confusion became terrible indeed; horses, as well as foot-passengers, were frightened, and tried to run away from danger, requiring all the strength of their drivers to restrain them. Soon after that excitement was over a detachment of soldiers came marching along, with drums beating and colours flying, and everybody had to make way for the valiant sons of Mars, no matter at what inconvenience to themselves. And so it went on, one thing after another—a constant scene of bustle, hurry, and commotion. As de Sigognac and the tyrant strolled slowly along they were beset by beggars, more or less impudent and pertinacious, and by all sorts of odd characters, plying various extraordinary vocations for the amusement of the passers-by, for which they seemed to be liberally enough remunerated. Here was an improvisatore, singing, not unmelodiously, his rather clever verses; there a blind man, led by a stout, jolly-looking old woman, who recited his dolorous history in a whining voice, and appealed to the charity of the ever-changing multitude; farther on a charlatan, loudly claiming to be able to cure "all the ills that flesh is heir to" by his magical compound—and finding plenty of dupes; and next to him a man with a monkey, whose funny tricks caused much merriment. Suddenly a great tumult arose near the other end of the bridge, and in a moment a compact crowd had gathered around four men, who, with loud cries and imprecations, were fighting with swords—apparently with great fury, though in reality it was only a mock combat, probably intended to give a good chance to the thieves and pickpockets in the throng, with whom they were in league; such tactics being very common, as well as successful. By Herode's advice, de Sigognac refrained from mingling with the crowd immediately around the combatants, so he could not get a very good view of them; but he was almost sure that they were the very men he had met first in the streets of Poitiers, to their great discomfiture, and had seen again the previous night at the hotel in the Rue Dauphine, where they certainly had gained no advantage to make up for their former defeat. He communicated his suspicions to the tyrant, but the rascals had already slipped away, and it would have been as useless to attempt to find them in the throng as to look for a needle in a haystack.
"It certainly is possible," said Herode, thoughtfully, "that this quarrel was gotten up with a view to involving you in it, by some means or other, for we are undoubtedly followed and watched by the emissaries of the Duke of Vallombreuse. One of the scoundrels might have made believe that you were in the way, or that you had struck him, and falling upon you suddenly, before you had time to draw your sword, have given you a thrust that would have done for you; and if he failed to wound you mortally; the others could have pretended to come to their comrade's aid, and have completed the job—nothing would have been easier. Then they would have separated, and slipped away through the crowd, before any one could interfere with them, or else have stood their ground, and declared unanimously that they had been obliged to attack you in self defence. It is next to impossible in such cases to prove that the act was premeditated, and there is no redress for the unhappy victim of such a conspiracy."
"But I am loath to believe," said the brave, generous young baron, "that any gentleman could be capable of such an utterly base and unworthy act as this—what, send a set of hired ruffians to foully assassinate his rival! If he is not satisfied with the result of our first encounter, I am willing and ready to cross swords with him again and again, until one or the other of us is slain. That is the way that such matters are arranged among men of honour, my good Herode!"