Book II - The Buskin
The Comic Muse
The company's entrance into the township of Guichen, if not exactly triumphal, as Binet had expressed the desire that it should be, was at least sufficiently startling and cacophonous to set the rustics gaping. To them these fantastic creatures appeared -- as indeed they were -- beings from another world.
First went the great travelling chaise, creaking and groaning on its way, drawn by two of the Flemish horses. It was Pantaloon who drove it, an obese and massive Pantaloon in a tight-fitting suit of scarlet under a long brown bed-gown, his countenance adorned by a colossal cardboard nose. Beside him on the box sat Pierrot in a white smock, with sleeves that completely covered his hands, loose white trousers, and a black skull-cap. He had whitened his face with flour, and he made hideous noises with a trumpet.
On the roof of the coach were assembled Polichinelle, Scaramouche, Harlequin, and Pasquariel. Polichinelle in black and white, his doublet cut in the fashion of a century ago, with humps before and behind, a white frill round his neck and a black mask upon the upper half of his face, stood in the middle, his feet planted wide to steady him, solemnly and viciously banging a big drum. The other three were seated each at one of the corners of the roof, their legs dangling over. Scaramouche, all in black in the Spanish fashion of the seventeenth century, his face adorned with a pair of mostachios, jangled a guitar discordantly. Harlequin, ragged and patched in every colour of the rainbow, with his leather girdle and sword of lath, the upper half of his face smeared in soot, clashed a pair of cymbals intermittently. Pasquariel, as an apothecary in skull-cap and white apron, excited the hilarity of the onlookers by his enormous tin clyster, which emitted when pumped a dolorous squeak.
Within the chaise itself, but showing themselves freely at the windows, and exchanging quips with the townsfolk, sat the three ladies of the company. Climene, the amoureuse, beautifully gowned in flowered satin, her own clustering ringlets concealed under a pumpkin-shaped wig, looked so much the lady of fashion that you might have wondered what she was dong in that fantastic rabble. Madame, as the mother, was also dressed with splendour, but exaggerated to achieve the ridiculous. Her headdress was a monstrous structure adorned with flowers, and superimposed by little ostrich plumes. Columbine sat facing them, her back to the horses, falsely demure, in milkmaid bonnet of white muslin, and a striped gown of green and blue.
The marvel was that the old chaise, which in its halcyon days may have served to carry some dignitary of the Church, did not founder instead of merely groaning under that excessive and ribald load.
Next came the house on wheels, led by the long, lean Rhodomont, who had daubed his face red, and increased the terror of it by a pair of formidable mostachios. He was in long thigh-boots and leather jerkin, trailing an enormous sword from a crimson baldrick. He wore a broad felt hat with a draggled feather, and as he advanced he raised his great voice and roared out defiance, and threats of blood-curdling butchery to be performed upon all and sundry. On the roof of this vehicle sat Leandre alone. He was in blue satin, with ruffles, small sword, powdered hair, patches and spy-glass, and red-heeled shoes: the complete courtier, looking very handsome. The women of Guichen ogled him coquettishly. He took the ogling as a proper tribute to his personal endowments, and returned it with interest. Like Climene, he looked out of place amid the bandits who composed the remainder of the company.
Bringing up the rear came Andre-Louis leading the two donkeys that dragged the property-cart. He had insisted upon assuming a false nose, representing as for embellishment that which he intended for disguise. For the rest, he had retained his own garments. No one paid any attention to him as he trudged along beside his donkeys, an insignificant rear guard, which he was well content to be.
They made the tour of the town, in which the activity was already above the normal in preparation for next week's fair. At intervals they halted, the cacophony would cease abruptly, and Polichinelle would announce in a stentorian voice that at five o'clock that evening in the old market, M. Binet's famous company of improvisers would perform a new comedy in four acts entitled, "The Heartless Father."
Thus at last they came to the old market, which was the groundfloor of the town hall, and open to the four winds by two archways on each side of its length, and one archway on each side of its breadth. These archways, with two exceptions, had been boarded up. Through those two, which gave admission to what presently would be the theatre, the ragamuffins of the town, and the niggards who were reluctant to spend the necessary sous to obtain proper admission, might catch furtive glimpses of the performance.
That afternoon was the most strenuous of Andre-Louis' life, unaccustomed as he was to any sort of manual labour. It was spent in erecting and preparing the stage at one end of the market-hall; and he began to realize how hard-earned were to be his monthly fifteen livres. At first there were four of them to the task -- or really three, for Pantaloon did no more than bawl directions. Stripped of their finery, Rhodomont and Leandre assisted Andre-Louis in that carpentering. Meanwhile the other four were at dinner with the ladies. When a half-hour or so later they came to carry on the work, Andre-Louis and his companions went to dine in their turn, leaving Polichinelle to direct the operations as well as assist in them.
They crossed the square to the cheap little inn where they had taken up their quarters. In the narrow passage Andre-Louis came face to face with Climene, her fine feathers cast, and restored by now to her normal appearance
"And how do you like it?" she asked him, pertly.
He looked her in the eyes. "It has its compensations," quoth he, in that curious cold tone of his that left one wondering whether he meant or not what he seemed to mean.
She knit her brows. "You... you feel the need of compensations already?"
"Faith, I felt it from the beginning," said he. "It was the perception of them allured me."
They were quite alone, the others having gone on into the room set apart for them, where food was spread. Andre-Louis, who was as unlearned in Woman as he was learned in Man, was not to know, upon feeling himself suddenly extraordinarily aware of her femininity, that it was she who in some subtle, imperceptible manner so rendered him.
"What," she asked him, with demurest innocence, "are these compensations?"
He caught himself upon the brink of the abyss.
"Fifteen livres a month," said he, abruptly.
A moment she stared at him bewildered. He was very disconcerting. Then she recovered.
"Oh, and bed and board," said she. "Don't be leaving that from the reckoning, as you seem to be doing; for your dinner will be going cold. Aren't you coming?"
"Haven't you dined?" he cried, and she wondered had she caught a note of eagerness.
"No," she answered, over her shoulder. "I waited."
"What for?" quoth his innocence, hopefully.
"I had to change, of course, zany," she answered, rudely. Having dragged him, as she imagined, to the chopping-block, she could not refrain from chopping. But then he was of those who must be chopping back.
"And you left your manners upstairs with your grand-lady clothes, mademoiselle. I understand."
A scarlet flame suffused her face. "You are very insolent," she said, lamely.
"I've often been told so. But I don't believe it." He thrust open the door for her, and bowing with an air which imposed upon her, although it was merely copied from Fleury of the Comedie Francaise, so often visited in the Louis le Grand days, he waved her in. "After you, ma demoiselle." For greater emphasis he deliberately broke the word into its two component parts.
"I thank you, monsieur," she answered, frostily, as near sneering as was possible to so charming a person, and went in, nor addressed him again throughout the meal. Instead, she devoted herself with an unusual and devastating assiduity to the suspiring Leandre, that poor devil who could not successfully play the lover with her on the stage because of his longing to play it in reality.
Andre-Louis ate his herrings and black bread with a good appetite nevertheless. It was poor fare, but then poor fare was the common lot of poor people in that winter of starvation, and since he had cast in his fortunes with a company whose affairs were not flourishing, he must accept the evils of the situation philosophically.
"Have you a name?" Binet asked him once in the course of that repast and during a pause in the conversation.
"It happens that I have," said he. "I think it is Parvissimus.
"Parvissimus?" quoth Binet. "Is that a family name?"
"In such a company, where only the leader enjoys the privilege of a family name, the like would be unbecoming its least member. So I take the name that best becomes in me. And I think it is Parvissimus -- the very least."
Binet was amused. It was droll; it showed a ready fancy. Oh, to be sure, they must get to work together on those scenarios.
"I shall prefer it to carpentering," said Andre-Louis. Nevertheless he had to go back to it that afternoon, and to labour strenuously until four o'clock, when at last the autocratic Binet announced himself satisfied with the preparations, and proceeded, again with the help of Andre-Louis, to prepare the lights, which were supplied partly by tallow candles and partly by lamps burning fish-oil.
At five o'clock that evening the three knocks were sounded, and the curtain rose on "The Heartless Father."
Among the duties inherited by Andre-Louis from the departed Felicien whom he replaced, was that of doorkeeper. This duty he discharged dressed in a Polichinelle costume, and wearing a pasteboard nose. It was an arrangement mutually agreeable to M. Binet and himself. M. Binet -- who had taken the further precaution of retaining Andre-Louis' own garments -- was thereby protected against the risk of his latest recruit absconding with the takings. Andre-Louis, without illusions on the score of Pantaloon's real object, agreed to it willingly enough, since it protected him from the chance of recognition by any acquaintance who might possibly be in Guichen.
The performance was in every sense unexciting; the audience meagre and unenthusiastic. The benches provided in the front half of the market contained some twenty-seven persons: eleven at twenty sous a head and sixteen at twelve. Behind these stood a rabble of some thirty others at six sous apiece. Thus the gross takings were two louis, ten livres, and two sous. By the time M. Binet had paid for the use of the market, his lights, and the expenses of his company at the inn over Sunday, there was not likely to be very much left towards the wages of his players. It is not surprising, therefore, that M. Binet's bonhomie should have been a trifle overcast that evening.
"And what do you think of it?" he asked Andre-Louis, as they were walking back to the inn after the performance.
"Possibly it could have been worse; probably it could not," said he.
In sheer amazement M. Binet checked in his stride, and turned to look at his companion.
"Huh!" said he. "Dieu de Dien! But you are frank."
"An unpopular form of service among fools, I know."
"Well, I am not a fool," said Binet.
"That is why I am frank. I pay you the compliment of assuming intelligence in you, M. Binet."
"Oh, you do?" quoth M. Binet. "And who the devil are you to assume anything? Your assumptions are presumptuous, sir." And with that he lapsed into silence and the gloomy business of mentally casting up his accounts.
But at table over supper a half-hour later he revived the topic.
"Our latest recruit, this excellent M. Parvissimus," he announced, "has the impudence to tell me that possibly our comedy could have been worse, but that probably it could not." And he blew out his great round cheeks to invite a laugh at the expense of that foolish critic.
"That's bad," said the swarthy and sardonic Polichinelle. He was grave as Rhadamanthus pronouncing judgment. "That's bad. But what is infinitely worse is that the audience had the impudence to be of the same mind."
"An ignorant pack of clods," sneered Leandre, with a toss of his handsome head.
"You are wrong," quoth Harlequin. "You were born for love, my dear, not criticism."
Leandre -- a dull dog, as you will have conceived -- looked contemptuously down upon the little man. "And you, what were you born for?" he wondered.
"Nobody knows," was the candid admission. "Nor yet why. It is the case of many of us, my dear, believe me."
"But why" -- M. Binet took him up, and thus spoilt the beginnings of a very pretty quarrel -- "why do you say that Leandre is wrong?"
"To be general, because he is always wrong. To be particular, because I judge the audience of Guichen to be too sophisticated for 'The Heartless Father.'"
"You would put it more happily," interposed Andre-Louis -- who was the cause of this discussion -- "if you said that 'The Heartless Father' is too unsophisticated for the audience of Guichen."
"Why, what's the difference?" asked Leandre.
"I didn't imply a difference. I merely suggested that it is a happier way to express the fact."
"The gentleman is being subtle," sneered Binet.
"Why happier?" Harlequin demanded.
"Because it is easier to bring 'The Heartless Father' to the sophistication of the Guichen audience, than the Guichen audience to the unsophistication of 'The Heartless Father.'"
"Let me think it out," groaned Polichinelle, and he took his head in his hands.
But from the tail of the table Andre-Louis was challenged by Climene who sat there between Columbine and Madame.
"You would alter the comedy, would you, M. Parvissimus?" she cried.
He turned to parry her malice.
"I would suggest that it be altered," he corrected, inclining his head.
"And how would you alter it, monsieur?"
"I? Oh, for the better."
"But of course!" She was sleekest sarcasm. "And how would you do it?"
"Aye, tell us that," roared M. Binet, and added: "Silence, I pray you, gentlemen and ladies. Silence for M. Parvissimus."
Andre-Louis looked from father to daughter, and smiled. "Pardi!" said he. "I am between bludgeon and dagger. If I escape with my life, I shall be fortunate. Why, then, since you pin me to the very wall, I'll tell you what I should do. I should go back to the original and help myself more freely from it."
"The original?" questioned M. Binet -- the author.
"It is called, I believe, 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' and was written by Moliere."
Somebody tittered, but that somebody was not M. Binet. He had been touched on the raw, and the look in his little eyes betrayed the fact that his bonhomme exterior covered anything but a bonhomme.
"You charge me with plagiarism," he said at last; "with filching the ideas of Moliere."
"There is always, of course," said Andre-Louis, unruffled, "the alternative possibility of two great minds working upon parallel lines."
M. Binet studied the young man attentively a moment. He found him bland and inscrutable, and decided to pin him down.
"Then you do not imply that I have been stealing from Moliere?"
"I advise you to do so, monsieur," was the disconcerting reply.
M. Binet was shocked.
"You advise me to do so! You advise me, me, Antoine Binet, to turn thief at my age!"
"He is outrageous," said mademoiselle, indignantly.
"Outrageous is the word. I thank you for it, my dear. I take you on trust, sir. You sit at my table, you have the honour to be included in my company, and to my face you have the audacity to advise me to become a thief -- the worst kind of thief that is conceivable, a thief of spiritual things, a thief of ideas! It is insufferable, intolerable! I have been, I fear, deeply mistaken in you, monsieur; just as you appear to have been mistaken in me. I am not the scoundrel you suppose me, sir, and I will not number in my company a man who dares to suggest that I should become one. Outrageous!"
He was very angry. His voice boomed through the little room, and the company sat hushed and something scared, their eyes upon Andre-Louis, who was the only one entirely unmoved by this outburst of virtuous indignation.
"You realize, monsieur," he said, very quietly, "that you are insulting the memory of the illustrious dead?"
"Eh?" said Binet.
Andre-Louis developed his sophistries.
"You insult the memory of Moliere, the greatest ornament of our stage, one of the greatest ornaments of our nation, when you suggest that there is vileness in doing that which he never hesitated to do, which no great author yet has hesitated to do. You cannot suppose that Moliere ever troubled himself to be original in the matter of ideas. You cannot suppose that the stories he tells in his plays have never been told before. They were culled, as you very well know -- though you seem momentarily to have forgotten it, and it is therefore necessary that I should remind you -- they were culled, many of them, from the Italian authors, who themselves had culled them Heaven alone knows where. Moliere took those old stories and retold them in his own language. That is precisely what I am suggesting that you should do. Your company is a company of improvisers. You supply the dialogue as you proceed, which is rather more than Moliere ever attempted. You may, if you prefer it - though it would seem to me to be yielding to an excess of scruple - go straight to Boccaccio or Sacchetti. But even then you cannot be sure that you have reached the sources."
Andre-Louis came off with flying colours after that. You see what a debater was lost in him; how nimble he was in the art of making white look black. The company was impressed, and no one more that M. Binet, who found himself supplied with a crushing argument against those who in future might tax him with the impudent plagiarisms which he undoubtedly perpetrated. He retired in the best order he could from the position he had taken up at the outset.
"So that you think," he said, at the end of a long outburst of agreement, "you think that our story of 'The Heartless Father' could be enriched by dipping into 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' to which I confess upon reflection that it may present certain superficial resemblances?"
"I do; most certainly I do -- always provided that you do so judiciously. Times have changed since Moliere." It was as a consequence of this that Binet retired soon after, taking Andre-Louis with him. The pair sat together late that night, and were again in close communion throughout the whole of Sunday morning.
After dinner M. Binet read to the assembled company the amended and amplified canevas of "The Heartless Father," which, acting upon the advice of M. Parvissimus, he had been at great pains to prepare. The company had few doubts as to the real authorship before he began to read; none at all when he had read. There was a verve, a grip about this story; and, what was more, those of them who knew their Moliere realized that far from approaching the original more closely, this canevas had drawn farther away from it. Moliere's original part -- the title role -- had dwindled into insignificance, to the great disgust of Polichinelle, to whom it fell. But the other parts had all been built up into importance, with the exception of Leandre, who remained as before. The two great roles were now Scaramouche, in the character of the intriguing Sbrigandini, and Pantaloon the father. There was, too, a comical part for Rhodomont, as the roaring bully hired by Polichinelle to cut Leandre into ribbons. And in view of the importance now of Scaramouche, the play had been rechristened "Figaro-Scaramouche."
This last had not been without a deal of opposition from M. Binet. But his relentless collaborator, who was in reality the real author -- drawing shamelessly, but practically at last upon his great store of reading -- had overborne him.
"You must move with the times, monsieur. In Paris Beaumarchais is the rage. 'Figaro' is known to-day throughout the world. Let us borrow a little of his glory. It will draw the people in. They will come to see half a 'Figaro' when they will not come to see a dozen 'Heartless Fathers.' Therefore let us cast the mantle of Figaro upon some one, and proclaim it in our title."
"But as I am the head of the company... " began M. Binet, weakly.
"If you will be blind to your interests, you will presently be a head without a body. And what use is that? Can the shoulders of Pantaloon carry the mantle of Figaro? You laugh. Of course you laugh. The notion is absurd. The proper person for the mantle of Figaro is Scaramouche, who is naturally Figaro's twin-brother."
Thus tyrannized, the tyrant Binet gave way, comforted by the reflection that if he understood anything at all about the theatre, he had for fifteen livres a month acquired something that would presently be earning him as many louis.
The company's reception of the canevas now confirmed him, if we except Polichinelle, who, annoyed at having lost half his part in the alterations, declared the new scenario fatuous.
"Ah! You call my work fatuous, do you?" M. Binet hectored him.
"Your work?" said Polichinelle, to add with his tongue in his cheek: "Ah, pardon. I had not realized that you were the author."
"Then realize it now."
"You were very close with M. Parvissimus over this authorship," said Polichinelle, with impudent suggestiveness.
"And what if I was? What do you imply?"
"That you took him to cut quills for you, of course."
"I'll cut your ears for you if you're not civil," stormed the infuriated Binet.
Polichinelle got up slowly, and stretched himself.
"Dieu de Dieu!" said he. "If Pantaloon is to play Rhodomont, I think I'll leave you. He is not amusing in the part." And he swaggered out before M. Binet had recovered from his speechlessness.