They were, thought Andre-Louis, as he sat down to breakfast with them behind the itinerant house, in the bright sunshine that tempered the cold breath of that November morning, an odd and yet an attractive crew. An air of gaiety pervaded them. They affected to have no cares, and made merry over the trials and tribulations of their nomadic life. They were curiously, yet amiably, artificial; histrionic in their manner of discharging the most commonplace of functions; exaggerated in their gestures; stilted and affected in their speech. They seemed, indeed, to belong to a world apart, a world of unreality which became real only on the planks of their stage, in the glare of their footlights. Good-fellowship bound them one to another; and Andre-Louis reflected cynically that this harmony amongst them might be the cause of their apparent unreality. In the real world, greedy striving and the emulation of acquisitiveness preclude such amity as was present here.
They numbered exactly eleven, three women and eight men; and they addressed each other by their stage names: names which denoted their several types, and never—or only very slightly—varied, no matter what might be the play that they performed.
"We are," Pantaloon informed him, "one of those few remaining staunch bands of real players, who uphold the traditions of the old Italian Commedia dell' Arte. Not for us to vex our memories and stultify our wit with the stilted phrases that are the fruit of a wretched author's lucubrations. Each of us is in detail his own author in a measure as he develops the part assigned to him. We are improvisers—improvisers of the old and noble Italian school."
"I had guessed as much," said Andre-Louis, "when I discovered you rehearsing your improvisations."
"I have observed, young sir, that your humour inclines to the pungent, not to say the acrid. It is very well. It is I suppose, the humour that should go with such a countenance. But it may lead you astray, as in this instance. That rehearsal—a most unusual thing with us—was necessitated by the histrionic rawness of our Leandre. We are seeking to inculcate into him by training an art with which Nature neglected to endow him against his present needs. Should he continue to fail in doing justice to our schooling... But we will not disturb our present harmony with the unpleasant anticipation of misfortunes which we still hope to avert. We love our Leandre, for all his faults. Let me make you acquainted with our company."
And he proceeded to introduction in detail. He pointed out the long and amiable Rhodomont, whom Andre-Louis already knew.
"His length of limb and hooked nose were his superficial qualifications to play roaring captains," Pantaloon explained. "His lungs have justified our choice. You should hear him roar. At first we called him Spavento or Epouvapte. But that was unworthy of so great an artist. Not since the superb Mondor amazed the world has so thrasonical a bully been seen upon the stage. So we conferred upon him the name of Rhodomont that Mondor made famous; and I give you my word, as an actor and a gentleman—for I am a gentleman, monsieur, or was—that he has justified us."
His little eyes beamed in his great swollen face as he turned their gaze upon the object of his encomium. The terrible Rhodomont, confused by so much praise, blushed like a schoolgirl as he met the solemn scrutiny of Andre-Louis.
"Then here we have Scaramouche, whom also you already know. Sometimes he is Scapin and sometimes Coviello, but in the main Scaramouche, to which let me tell you he is best suited—sometimes too well suited, I think. For he is Scaramouche not only on the stage, but also in the world. He has a gift of sly intrigue, an art of setting folk by the ears, combined with an impudent aggressiveness upon occasion when he considers himself safe from reprisals. He is Scaramouche, the little skirmisher, to the very life. I could say more. But I am by disposition charitable and loving to all mankind."
"As the priest said when he kissed the serving-wench," snarled Scaramouche, and went on eating.
"His humour, like your own, you will observe, is acrid," said Pantaloon. He passed on. "Then that rascal with the lumpy nose and the grinning bucolic countenance is, of course, Pierrot. Could he be aught else?"
"I could play lovers a deal better," said the rustic cherub.
"That is the delusion proper to Pierrot," said Pantaloon, contemptuously. "This heavy, beetle-browed ruffian, who has grown old in sin, and whose appetite increases with his years, is Polichinelle. Each one, as you perceive, is designed by Nature for the part he plays. This nimble, freckled jackanapes is Harlequin; not your spangled Harlequin into which modern degeneracy has debased that first-born of Momus, but the genuine original zany of the Commedia, ragged and patched, an impudent, cowardly, blackguardly clown."
"Each one of us, as you perceive," said Harlequin, mimicking the leader of the troupe, "is designed by Nature for the part he plays."
"Physically, my friend, physically only, else we should not have so much trouble in teaching this beautiful Leandre to become a lover. Then we have Pasquariel here, who is sometimes an apothecary, sometimes a notary, sometimes a lackey—an amiable, accommodating fellow. He is also an excellent cook, being a child of Italy, that land of gluttons. And finally, you have myself, who as the father of the company very properly play as Pantaloon the roles of father. Sometimes, it is true, I am a deluded husband, and sometimes an ignorant, self-sufficient doctor. But it is rarely that I find it necessary to call myself other than Pantaloon. For the rest, I am the only one who has a name—a real name. It is Binet, monsieur.
"And now for the ladies... First in order of seniority we have Madame there." He waved one of his great hands towards a buxom, smiling blonde of five-and-forty, who was seated on the lowest of the steps of the travelling house. "She is our Duegne, or Mother, or Nurse, as the case requires. She is known quite simply and royally as Madame. If she ever had a name in the world, she has long since forgotten it, which is perhaps as well. Then we have this pert jade with the tip-tilted nose and the wide mouth, who is of course our soubrette Columbine, and lastly, my daughter Climene, an amoureuse of talents not to be matched outside the Comedie Francaise, of which she has the bad taste to aspire to become a member."
The lovely Climene—and lovely indeed she was—tossed her nut-brown curls and laughed as she looked across at Andre-Louis. Her eyes, he had perceived by now, were not blue, but hazel.
"Do not believe him, monsieur. Here I am queen, and I prefer to be queen here rather than a slave in Paris."
"Mademoiselle," said Andre-Louis, quite solemnly, "will be queen wherever she condescends to reign."
Her only answer was a timid—timid and yet alluring—glance from under fluttering lids. Meanwhile her father was bawling at the comely young man who played lovers—"You hear, Leandre! That is the sort of speech you should practise."
Leandre raised languid eyebrows. "That?" quoth he, and shrugged. "The merest commonplace."
Andre-Louis laughed approval. "M. Leandre is of a readier wit than you concede. There is subtlety in pronouncing it a commonplace to call Mlle. Climene a queen."
Some laughed, M. Binet amongst them, with good-humoured mockery.
"You think he has the wit to mean it thus? Bah! His subtleties are all unconscious."
The conversation becoming general, Andre-Louis soon learnt what yet there was to learn of this strolling band. They were on their way to Guichen, where they hoped to prosper at the fair that was to open on Monday next. They would make their triumphal entry into the town at noon, and setting up their stage in the old market, they would give their first performance that same Saturday night, in a new canevas—or scenario—of M. Binet's own, which should set the rustics gaping. And then M. Binet fetched a sigh, and addressed himself to the elderly, swarthy, beetle-browed Polichinelle, who sat on his left.
"But we shall miss Felicien," said he. "Indeed, I do not know what we shall do without him."
"Oh, we shall contrive," said Polichinelle, with his mouth full.
"So you always say, whatever happens, knowing that in any case the contriving will not fall upon yourself."
"He should not be difficult to replace," said Harlequin.
"True, if we were in a civilized land. But where among the rustics of Brittany are we to find a fellow of even his poor parts?" M. Binet turned to Andre-Louis. "He was our property-man, our machinist, our stage-carpenter, our man of affairs, and occasionally he acted."
"The part of Figaro, I presume," said Andre-Louis, which elicited a laugh.
"So you are acquainted with Beaumarchais!" Binet eyed the young man with fresh interest.
"He is tolerably well known, I think."
"In Paris, to be sure. But I had not dreamt his fame had reached the wilds of Brittany."
"But then I was some years in Paris—at the Lycee of Louis le Grand. It was there I made acquaintance with his work."
"A dangerous man," said Polichinelle, sententiously.
"Indeed, and you are right," Pantaloon agreed. "Clever—I do not deny him that, although myself I find little use for authors. But of a sinister cleverness responsible for the dissemination of many of these subversive new ideas. I think such writers should be suppressed."
"M. de La Tour d'Azyr would probably agree with you—the gentleman who by the simple exertion of his will turns this communal land into his own property." And Andre-Louis drained his cup, which had been filled with the poor vin gris that was the players' drink.
It was a remark that might have precipitated an argument had it not also reminded M. Binet of the terms on which they were encamped there, and of the fact that the half-hour was more than past. In a moment he was on his feet, leaping up with an agility surprising in so corpulent a man, issuing his commands like a marshal on a field of battle.
"Come, come, my lads! Are we to sit guzzling here all day? Time flees, and there's a deal to be done if we are to make our entry into Guichen at noon. Go, get you dressed. We strike camp in twenty minutes. Bestir, ladies! To your chaise, and see that you contrive to look your best. Soon the eyes of Guichen will be upon you, and the condition of your interior to-morrow will depend upon the impression made by your exterior to-day. Away! Away!"
The implicit obedience this autocrat commanded set them in a whirl. Baskets and boxes were dragged forth to receive the platters and remains of their meagre feast. In an instant the ground was cleared, and the three ladies had taken their departure to the chaise, which was set apart for their use. The men were already climbing into the house on wheels, when Binet turned to Andre-Louis.
"We part here, sir," said he, dramatically, "the richer by your acquaintance; your debtors and your friends." He put forth his podgy hand.
Slowly Andre-Louis took it in his own. He had been thinking swiftly in the last few moments. And remembering the safety he had found from his pursuers in the bosom of this company, it occurred to him that nowhere could he be better hidden for the present, until the quest for him should have died down.
"Sir," he said, "the indebtedness is on my side. It is not every day one has the felicity to sit down with so illustrious and engaging a company."
Binet's little eyes peered suspiciously at the young man, in quest of irony. He found nothing but candour and simple good faith.
"I part from you reluctantly," Andre-Louis continued. "The more reluctantly since I do not perceive the absolute necessity for parting."
"How?" quoth Binet, frowning, and slowly withdrawing the hand which the other had already retained rather longer than was necessary.
"Thus," Andre-Louis explained himself. "You may set me down as a sort of knight of rueful countenance in quest of adventure, with no fixed purpose in life at present. You will not marvel that what I have seen of yourself and your distinguished troupe should inspire me to desire your better acquaintance. On your side you tell me that you are in need of some one to replace your Figaro—your Felicien, I think you called him. Whilst it may be presumptuous of me to hope that I could discharge an office so varied and so onerous..."
"You are indulging that acrid humour of yours again, my friend," Binet interrupted him. "Excepting for that," he added, slowly, meditatively, his little eyes screwed up, "we might discuss this proposal that you seem to be making."
"Alas! we can except nothing. If you take me, you take me as I am. What else is possible? As for this humour—such as it is—which you decry, you might turn it to profitable account."
"In several ways. I might, for instance, teach Leandre to make love."
Pantaloon burst into laughter. "You do not lack confidence in your powers. Modesty does not afflict you."
"Therefore I evince the first quality necessary in an actor."
"Can you act?"
"Upon occasion, I think," said Andre-Louis, his thoughts upon his performance at Rennes and Nantes, and wondering when in all his histrionic career Pantaloon's improvisations had so rent the heart of mobs.
M. Binet was musing. "Do you know much of the theatre?" quoth he.
"Everything," said Andre-Louis.
"I said that modesty will prove no obstacle in your career."
"But consider. I know the work of Beaumarchais, Eglantine, Mercier, Chenier, and many others of our contemporaries. Then I have read, of course, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, besides many other lesser French writers. Of foreign authors, I am intimate with the works of Gozzi, Goldoni, Guarini, Bibbiena, Machiavelli, Secchi, Tasso, Ariosto, and Fedini. Whilst of those of antiquity I know most of the work of Euripides, Aristophanes, Terence, Plautus..."
"Enough!" roared Pantaloon.
"I am not nearly through with my list," said Andre-Louis.
"You may keep the rest for another day. In Heaven's name, what can have induced you to read so many dramatic authors?"
"In my humble way I am a student of man, and some years ago I made the discovery that he is most intimately to be studied in the reflections of him provided for the theatre."
"That is a very original and profound discovery," said Pantaloon, quite seriously. "It had never occurred to me. Yet is it true. Sir, it is a truth that dignifies our art. You are a man of parts, that is clear to me. It has been clear since first I met you. I can read a man. I knew you from the moment that you said 'good-morning.' Tell me, now: Do you think you could assist me upon occasion in the preparation of a scenario? My mind, fully engaged as it is with a thousand details of organization, is not always as clear as I would have it for such work. Could you assist me there, do you think?"
"I am quite sure I could."
"Hum, yes. I was sure you would be. The other duties that were Felicien's you would soon learn. Well, well, if you are willing, you may come along with us. You'd want some salary, I suppose?"
"If it is usual," said Andre-Louis.
"What should you say to ten livres a month?"
"I should say that it isn't exactly the riches of Peru."
"I might go as far as fifteen," said Binet, reluctantly. "But times are bad."
"I'll make them better for you."
"I've no doubt you believe it. Then we understand each other?"
"Perfectly," said Andre-Louis, dryly, and was thus committed to the service of Thespis.