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   Chapter 1 CASTLE MISERY

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 29973

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Upon the southern slope of one of those barren hills that rise abruptly here and there in the desolate expanse of the Landes, in South-western France, stood, in the reign of Louis XIII, a gentleman's residence, such as abound in Gascony, and which the country people dignify by the name of chateau.

Two tall towers, with extinguisher tops, mounted guard at the angles of the mansion, and gave it rather a feudal air. The deep grooves upon its facade betrayed the former existence of a draw-bridge, rendered unnecessary now by the filling up of the moat, while the towers were draped for more than half their height with a most luxuriant growth of ivy, whose deep, rich green contrasted happily with the ancient gray walls.

A traveller, seeing from afar the steep pointed roof and lofty towers standing out against the sky, above the furze and heather that crowned the hill-top, would have pronounced it a rather imposing chateau-the residence probably of some provincial magnate; but as he drew near would have quickly found reason to change his opinion. The road which led to it from the highway was entirely overgrown with moss and weeds, save a narrow pathway in the centre, though two deep ruts, full of water, and inhabited by a numerous family of frogs, bore mute witness to the fact that carriages had once passed that way.

The roof, of dark red tiles, was disfigured by many large, leprous-looking, yellow patches, while in some places the decayed rafters had given way, leaving formidable gaps. The numerous weather-cocks that surmounted the towers and chimneys were so rusted that they could no longer budge an inch, and pointed persistently in various directions. The high dormer windows were partially closed by old wooden shutters, warped, split, and in every stage of dilapidation; broken stones filled up the loop-holes and openings in the towers; of the twelve large windows in the front of the house, eight were boarded up; the remaining four had small diamond-shaped panes of thick, greenish glass, fitting so loosely in their leaden frames that they shook and rattled at every breath of wind; between these windows a great deal of the stucco had fallen off, leaving the rough wall exposed to view.

Above the grand old entrance door, whose massive stone frame and lintel retained traces of rich ornamentation, almost obliterated by time and neglect, was sculptured a coat of arms, now so defaced that the most accomplished adept in heraldry would not be able to decipher it. Only one leaf of the great double door was ever opened now, for not many guests were received or entertained at the chateau in these days of its decadence. Swallows had built their nests in every available nook about it, and but for a slender thread of smoke rising spirally from a chimney at the back of this dismal, half-ruined mansion, the traveller would have surely believed it to be uninhabited. This was the only sign of life visible about the whole place, like the little cloud upon the mirror from the breath of a dying man, which alone gives evidence that he still lives.

Upon pushing open the practicable leaf of the great worm-eaten door, which yielded reluctantly, and creaked dolefully as it turned upon its rusty hinges, the curious visitor entered a sort of portico, more ancient than the rest of the building, with fine, large columns of bluish granite, and a lofty vaulted roof. At the point of intersection of the arches was a stone shield, bearing the same coat of arms that was sculptured over the entrance without. This one was in somewhat better preservation than the other, and seemed to bear something resembling three golden storks (cigognes) on an azure field; though it was so much in shadow, and so faded and dingy, that it was impossible to make it out clearly. Fastened to the wall, at a convenient height from the ground, were great iron extinguishers, blackened by the smoke from torches in long by-gone years, and also iron rings, to which the guests' horses were made fast in the olden times, when the castle was in its glory. The dust that lay thick upon them now showed that it was long since they had been made use of.

From this portico-whence a door on either side opened into the main building; one leading into a long suite of apartments on the ground floor, and the other into what had probably been a guard-room-the explorer passed into an interior court, dismal, damp, and bare. In the corners nettles and various rank weeds were growing riotously amid the great heaps of rubbish fallen from the crumbling cornice high above, and grass had sprung up everywhere in the crevices of the stone pavement. Opposite the entrance a flight of dilapidated, shaky steps, with a heavy stone balustrade, led down into a neglected garden, which was gradually becoming a perfect thicket. Excepting in one small bed, where a few cabbages were growing, there was no attempt at cultivation, and nature had reasserted her rights everywhere else in this abandoned spot, taking, apparently, a fierce delight in effacing all traces of man's labour. The fruit trees threw out irregular branches without fear of the pruning knife; the box, intended to form a narrow border to the curiously shaped flower-beds and grass-plots, had grown up unchecked into huge, bushy shrubs, while a great variety of sturdy weeds had usurped the places formerly devoted to choice plants and beautiful, fragrant flowers. Brambles, bristling with sharp thorns, which had thrown their long, straggling arms across the paths, caught and tried to hold back any bold adventurer who attempted to penetrate into the mysterious depths of this desolate wilderness. Solitude is averse to being surprised in dishabille, and surrounds herself with all sorts of defensive obstacles.

However, the courageous explorer who persisted in following the ancient, overgrown alley, and was not to be daunted by formidable briers that tore his hands and clothing, nor low-hanging, closely interlaced branches that struck him smart blows in the face as he forced his way through them, would have reached at last a sort of rocky niche, fancifully arranged as a grotto. Besides the masses of ivy, iris and gladiolus, that had been carefully planted long ago in the interstices of the rock, it was draped with a profusion of graceful wild vines and feathery ferns, which half-veiled the marble statue, representing some mythological divinity, that still stood in this lonely retreat. It must have been intended for Flora or Pomona, but now there were tufts of repulsive, venomous-looking mushrooms in the pretty, graceful, little basket on her arm, instead of the sculptured fruit or flowers that should have filled it. Although her nose was broken, and her fair body disfigured by many dark stains, and overgrown in part with clinging mosses, it could still plainly be seen that she had once been very lovely. At her feet was a marble basin, shaped like a shell, half full of discoloured, stagnant water; the lion's head just above it, now almost entirely concealed by a thick curtain of leaves, no longer poured forth the sparkling stream that used to fall into it with a musical murmur. This little grotto, with its fountain and statue, bore witness to former wealth; and also to the aesthetic taste of some long-dead owner of the domain. The marble goddess was in the Florentine style of the Renaissance, and probably the work of one of those Italian sculptors who followed in the train of del Rosso or Primaticcio, when they came to France at the bidding of that generous patron of the arts, Francis I; which time was also, apparently, the epoch of the greatest prosperity of this noble family, now so utterly fallen into decay.

Behind the grotto rose a high wall, built of stone, crumbling and mouldy now, but still bearing some broken remains of trellis-work, evidently intended to be covered with creepers that would entirely conceal the wall itself with a rich tapestry of verdure. This was the limit of the garden; beyond stretched the wide expanse of the sandy, barren Landes, flecked here and there with patches of scanty heather, and scattered groves of pine trees.

Turning back towards the chateau it became apparent that this side of it was even more neglected and ruinous than the one we have already described; the recent poverty-stricken owners having tried to keep up appearances as far as possible, and concentrated their efforts upon the front of their dilapidated abode. In the stable, where were stalls for twenty horses, a miserable, old, white pony stood at an empty manger, nibbling disconsolately at a scanty truss of hay, and frequently turning his sunken, lack-lustre eyes expectantly towards the door. In front of an extensive kennel, where the lord of the manor used to keep a whole pack of hounds, a single dog, pathetically thin, lay sleeping tranquilly and soundly, apparently so accustomed to the unbroken solitude of the place that he had abandoned all habits of watchfulness.

Entering the chateau the visitor found himself in a broad and lofty hall, containing a grand old staircase, with a richly carved, wooden balustrade-a good deal broken and defaced now, like everything else in this doleful Castle Misery. The walls had been elaborately frescoed, representing colossal figures of Hercules supporting brackets upon which rested the heavily ornamented cornice. Springing from it fantastic vines climbed upward on the arched ceiling, and above them the blue sky, faded and dingy, was grotesquely variegated with dark spots, caused by the water filtering through from the dilapidated roof. Between the oft-repeated figures of Hercules were frescoed niches, wherein heads of Roman emperors and other illustrious historical characters had been depicted in glowing tints; but all were so vague and dim now that they were but the ghosts of pictures, which should be described with the shadows of words-ordinary terms are too substantial to apply to them. The very echoes in this deserted hall seemed startled and amazed as they repeated and multiplied the unwonted sound of footsteps.

A door near the head of the first flight of stairs opened into what had evidently been the great banqueting hall in the old days when sumptuous repasts and numerous guests were not uncommon things in the chateau. A huge beam divided the lofty ceiling into two compartments, which were crossed at regular intervals by smaller joists, richly carved, and retaining some traces of gilding. The spaces between had been originally of a deep blue tint, almost lost now under the thick coating of dust and spiders' webs that no housemaid's mop ever invaded. Above the grand old chimney-piece was a noble stag's head, with huge, spreading antlers, and on the walls hung rows of ancient family portraits, so faded and mouldy now that most of the faces had a ghastly hue, and at night, by the dim, flickering lamp-light, they looked like a company of spectres. Nothing in the world is sadder than a collection of old portraits hanging thus, neglected and forgotten, in deserted halls-representations, half obliterated themselves, of forms and faces long since returned to dust. Yet these painted phantoms were most appropriate inhabitants of this desolate abode; real living people would have seemed out of place in the death-stricken house.

In the middle of the room stood an immense dining-table of dark, polished wood, much worm-eaten, and gradually falling into decay. Two tall buffets, elaborately carved and ornamented, stood on opposite sides of the room, with only a few odd pieces of Palissy ware, representing lizards, crabs, and shell-fish, reposing on shiny green leaves, and two or three delicate wine-glasses of quaint patterns remaining upon the shelves where gold and silver plate used to glitter in rich profusion, as was the mode in France. The handsome old chairs, with their high, carved backs and faded velvet cushions, that had been so firm and luxurious once, were tottering and insecure; but it mattered little, since no one ever came to sit in them now round the festive board, and they stood against the wall in prim order, under the rows of family portraits.

A smaller room opened out of this one, hung round with faded, moth-eaten tapestry. In one corner stood a large bed, with four tall, twisted columns and long, ample curtains of rich brocade, which had been delicate green and white, but now were of a dingy, yellowish hue, and cut completely through from top to bottom in every fold. An ebony table, with some pretty gilded ornaments still clinging to it, a mirror dim with age, and two large arm-chairs, covered with worn and faded embroidery, that had been wrought by the fair fingers of some noble dame long since dead and forgotten, completed the furniture of this dismal chamber.

In these two rooms were the latticed windows seen in the front of the chateau, and over them still hung long sweeping curtains, so tattered and moth-eaten that they were almost falling to pieces. Profound silence reigned here, unbroken save by occasional scurrying and squeaking of mice behind the wainscot, the gnawing of rats in the wall, or the ticking of the death-watch.

From the tapestried chamber a door opened into a long suite of deserted rooms, which were lofty and of noble proportions, but devoid of furniture, and given up to dust, spiders, and rats. The apartments on the floor above them were the home of great numbers of bats, owls, and jackdaws, who found ready ingress through the large holes in the roof. Every evening they flew forth in flocks, with much flapping of wings, and weird, melancholy cries and shrieks, in search of the food not to be found in the immediate vicinity of this forlorn mansion.

The apartments on the ground floor contained nothing but a few bundles of straw, a heap of corn-cobs, and some antiquated gardening implements. In one of them, however, was a rude bed, covered with a single, coarse blanket; presumably that of the only domestic remaining in the whole establishment.

It was from the kitchen chimney that the little spiral of smoke escaped which was seen from without. A few sticks were burning in the wide, old-fashioned fireplace, but the flames looked pale under the bright light that streamed down upon them through the broad, straight flue. The pot that hung from the clumsy iron crane was boiling sleepily, and if the curious visitor could have peeped into it he would have seen that the little cabbage bed in the garden had contributed of its produce to the pot-au-feu. An old black cat was sitting as close to the fire as he could without singeing his whiskers, and gravely watching the simmering pot with longing eyes. His ears had been closely cropped, and he had not a vestige of a tail, so that he looked like one of those grotesque Japanese chimeras that everybody is familiar with. Upon the table, near at hand, a white plate, a tin drinking cup, and a china dish, bearin

g the family arms stamped in blue, were neatly arranged, evidently in readiness for somebody's supper. For a long time the cat remained perfectly motionless, intently watching the pot which had almost ceased to boil as the fire got low, and the silence continued unbroken; but at last a slow, heavy step was heard approaching from without, and presently the door opened to admit an old man, who looked half peasant, half gentleman's servant. The black cat immediately quitted his place by the fire and went to meet him; rubbing himself against the newcomer's legs, arching his back and purring loudly; testifying his joy in every way possible to him.

"Well, well, Beelzebub," said the old man, bending down and stroking him affectionately, "are you really so glad to see me? Yes, I know you are, and it pleases me, old fellow, so it does. We are so lonely here, my poor young master and I, that even the welcome of a dumb beast is not to be despised. They do say that you have no soul, Beelzebub, but you certainly do love us, and understand most times what we say to you too." These greetings exchanged, Beelzebub led the way back to the fire, and then with beseeching eyes, looking alternately from the face of his friend to the pot-au-feu, seemed mutely begging for his share of its contents. Poor Beelzebub was growing so old that he could no longer catch as many rats and mice as his appetite craved, and he was evidently very hungry.

Pierre, that was the old servant's name, threw more wood on the smouldering fire, and then sat down on a settle in the chimney corner, inviting his companion-who had to wait still for his supper as patiently as he might-to take a seat beside him. The firelight shone full upon the old man's honest, weather-beaten face, the few scattered locks of snow-white hair escaping from under his dark blue woollen cap, his thick, black eyebrows and deep wrinkles. He had the usual characteristics of the Basque race; a long face, hooked nose, and dark, gipsy-like complexion. He wore a sort of livery, which was so old and threadbare that it would be impossible to make out its original colour, and his stiff, soldier-like carriage and movements proclaimed that he had at some time in his life served in a military capacity. "The young master is late to-night," he muttered to himself, as the daylight faded. "What possible pleasure can he find in these long, solitary rambles over the dunes? It is true though that it is so dreary here, in this lonely, dismal house, that any other place is preferable."

At this moment a joyous barking was heard without, the old pony in the stable stamped and whinnied, and the cat jumped down from his place beside Pierre and trotted off towards the door with great alacrity. In an instant the latch was lifted, and the old servant rose, taking off his woollen cap respectfully, as his master came into the kitchen. He was preceded by the poor old dog, trying to jump up on him, but falling back every time without being able to reach his face, and Beelzebub seemed to welcome them both-showing no evidence of the antipathy usually existing between the feline and canine races; on the contrary, receiving Miraut with marks of affection which were fully reciprocated.

The Baron de Sigognac, for it was indeed the lord of the manor who now entered, was a young man of five or six and twenty; though at first sight he seemed much older, because of the deep gravity, even sadness, of his demeanour; the feeling of utter powerlessness which poverty brings having effectually chased away all the natural piety and light-heartedness of youth. Dark circles surrounded his sunken eyes, his cheeks were hollow, his mustache drooped in a sorrowful curve over his sad mouth. His long black hair was negligently pushed back from his pale face, and showed a want of care remarkable in a young man who was strikingly handsome, despite his doleful desponding expression. The constant pressure of a crushing grief had drawn sorrowful lines in a countenance that a little animation would have rendered charming. All the elasticity and hopefulness natural to his age seemed to have been lost in his useless struggles against an unhappy fate. Though his frame was lithe, vigorous, and admirably proportioned, all his movements were slow and apathetic, like those of an old man. His gestures were entirely devoid of animation, his whole expression inert, and it was evidently a matter of perfect indifference to him where he might chance to find himself at home, in his dismal chateau, or abroad in the desolate Landes.

He had on an old gray felt hat, much too large for him, with a dingy, shabby feather, that drooped as if it felt heartily ashamed of itself, and the miserable condition to which it was reduced. A broad collar of guipure lace, ragged in many places, was turned down over a just-au-corps, which had been cut for a taller and much stouter man than the slender, young baron. The sleeves of his doublet were so long that they fell over his hands, which were small and shapely, and there were large iron spurs on the clumsy, old-fashioned riding-boots he wore. These shabby, antiquated clothes had belonged to his father; they were made according to the fashion that prevailed during the preceding reign; and the poor young nobleman, whose appearance in them was both ridiculous and touching, might have been taken for one of his own ancestors. Although he tenderly cherished his father's memory, and tears often came into his eyes as he put on these garments that had seemed actually a part of him, yet it was not from choice that young de Sigognac availed himself of the paternal wardrobe. Unfortunately he had no other clothes, save those of his boyhood, long ago outgrown, and so he was thankful to have these, distasteful as they could not fail to be to him. The peasants, who had been accustomed to hold them in respect when worn by their old seignior, did not think it strange or absurd to see them on his youthful successor; just as they did not seem to notice or be aware of the half-ruined condition of the chateau. It had come so gradually that they were thoroughly used to it, and took it as a matter of course. The Baron de Sigognac, though poverty-stricken and forlorn, was still in their eyes the noble lord of the manor; the decadence of the family did not strike them at all as it would a stranger; and yet it was a grotesquely melancholy sight to see the poor young nobleman pass by, in his shabby old clothes, on his miserable old pony, and followed by his forlorn old dog.

The baron sat down in silence at the table prepared for him, having recognised Pierre's respectful salute by a kindly gesture. The old servant immediately busied himself in serving his master's frugal supper; first pouring the hot soup-which was of that kind, popular among the poor peasantry of Gascony, called "garbure"-upon some bread cut into small pieces in an earthen basin, which he set before the baron; then, fetching from the cupboard a dish of bacon, cold, and cooked in Gascon fashion, he placed that also upon the table, and had nothing else to add to this meagre repast. The baron ate it slowly, with an absent air, while Miraut and Beelzebub, one on each side of him, received their full share from his kind hand.

The supper finished, he fell into a deep reverie. Miraut had laid his head caressingly upon his master's knee, and looked up into his face with loving, intelligent eyes, somewhat dimmed by age, but still seeming to understand his thoughts and sympathize with his sadness. Beelzebub purred loudly meantime, and occasionally mewed plaintively to attract his attention, while Pierre stood in a respectful attitude, cap in hand, at a little distance, motionless as a statue, waiting patiently until his master's wandering thoughts should return. By this time the darkness had fallen, and the flickering radiance from the few sticks blazing in the great fireplace made strange effects of light and shade in the spacious old kitchen. It was a sad picture; this last scion of a noble race, formerly rich and powerful, left wandering like an uneasy ghost in the castle of his ancestors, with but one faithful old servant remaining to him of the numerous retinue of the olden times; one poor old dog, half starved, and gray with age, where used to be a pack of thirty hounds; one miserable, superannuated pony in the stable where twenty horses had been wont to stand; and one old cat to beg for caresses from his hand.

At last the baron roused himself, and signed to Pierre that he wished to retire to his own chamber; whereupon the servant lighted a pine knot at the fire, and preceded his master up the stairs, Miraut and Beelzebub accompanying them. The smoky, flaring light of the torch made the faded figures on the wall seem to waver and move as they passed through the hall and up the broad staircase, and gave a strange, weird expression to the family portraits that looked down upon this little procession as it moved by below them. When they reached the tapestried chamber Pierre lighted a little copper lamp, and then bade the baron good-night, followed by Miraut as he retraced his steps to the kitchen; but Beelzebub, being a privileged character, remained, and curled himself up comfortably in one of the old arm-chairs, while his master threw himself listlessly into the other, in utter despair at the thought of his miserable loneliness, and aimless, hopeless life. If the chamber seemed dreary and forlorn by day, it was far more so by night. The faded figures in the tapestry had an uncanny look; especially one, a hunter, who might have passed for an assassin, just taking aim at his victim. The smile on his startlingly red lips, in reality only a self-satisfied smirk, was fairly devilish in that light, and his ghastly face horribly life-like. The lamp burned dimly in the damp heavy air, the wind sighed and moaned along the corridors, and strange, frightful sounds came from the deserted chambers close at hand. The storm that had long been threatening had come at last, and large, heavy rain-drops were driven violently against the window-panes by gusts of wind that made them rattle loudly in their leaden frames. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole sash would give way before the fiercer blasts, as though a giant had set his knee against it, and was striving to force an entrance. Now and again, when the wind lulled for a moment while it gathered strength for a fresh assault, the horrid shriek of an owl would be heard above the dashing of the rain that was falling in torrents.

The master of this dismal mansion paid little attention to this lugubrious symphony, but Beelzebub was very uneasy, starting up at every sound, and peering into the shadowy corners of the room, as if he could see there something invisible to human eyes. The baron took up a little book that was lying upon the table, glanced at the familiar arms stamped upon its tarnished cover, and opening it, began to read in a listless, absent way. His eyes followed the smooth rhythm of Ronsard's ardent love-songs and stately sonnets, but his thoughts were wandering far afield, and he soon threw the book from him with an impatient gesture, and began slowly unfastening his garments, with the air of a man who is not sleepy, but only goes to bed because he does not know what else to do with himself, and has perhaps a faint hope of forgetting his troubles in the embrace of Morpheus, most blessed of all the gods. The sand runs so slowly in the hour-glass on a dark, stormy night, in a half-ruined castle, ten leagues away from any living soul.

The poor young baron, only surviving representative of an ancient and noble house, had much indeed to make him melancholy and despondent. His ancestors had worked their own ruin, and that of their descendants, in various ways. Some by gambling, some in the army, some by undue prodigality in living-in order that they might shine at court-so that each generation had left the estate more and more diminished. The fiefs, the farms, the land surrounding the chateau itself, all had been sold, one after the other, and the last baron, after desperate efforts to retrieve the fallen fortunes of the family-efforts which came too late, for it is useless to try to stop the leaks after the vessel has gone down-had left his son nothing but this half-ruined chateau and the few acres of barren land immediately around it. The unfortunate child had been born and brought up in poverty. His mother had died young, broken-hearted at the wretched prospects of her only son; so that he could not even remember her sweet caresses and tender, loving care. His father had been very stern with him; punishing him severely for the most trivial offences; yet he would have been glad now even of his sharp rebukes, so terribly lonely had he been for the last four years; ever since his father was laid in the family vault. His youthful pride would not allow him to associate with the noblesse of the province without the accessories suitable to his rank, though he would have been received with open arms by them, so his solitude was never invaded. Those who knew his circumstances respected as well as pitied the poor, proud young baron, while many of the former friends of the family believed that it was extinct; which indeed it inevitably would be, with this its only remaining scion, if things went on much longer as they had been going for many years past.

The baron had not yet removed a single garment when his attention was attracted by the strange uneasiness of Beelzebub, who finally jumped down from his arm-chair, went straight to one of the windows, and raising himself on his hind legs put his fore-paws on the casing and stared out into the thick darkness, where it was impossible to distinguish anything but the driving rain. A loud howl from Miraut at the same moment proclaimed that he too was aroused, and that something very unusual must be going on in the vicinity of the chateau, ordinarily as quiet as the grave. Miraut kept up persistently a furious barking, and the baron gave up all idea of going to bed. He hastily readjusted his dress, so that he might be in readiness for whatever should happen, and feeling a little excited at this novel commotion.

"What can be the matter with poor old Miraut? He usually sleeps from sunset to sunrise without making a sound, save his snores. Can it be that a wolf is prowling about the place?" said the young man to himself, as he buckled the belt of his sword round his slender waist. A formidable weapon it was, that sword, with long blade, and heavy iron scabbard.

At that moment three loud knocks upon the great outer door resounded through the house. Who could possibly have strayed here at this hour, so far from the travelled roads, and in this tempest that was making night horrible without? No such thing had occurred within the baron's recollection. What could it portend?

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