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   Chapter 3 THE BLUE SUN INN

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 14425

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


It was in front of the largest house in a wretched little hamlet that the weary oxen drawing the chariot of Thespis stopped of their own accord. The wooden sign that creaked distractingly as it swung to and fro at every breath of wind bore a large, blue sun, darting its rays, after the most approved fashion, to the utmost dimensions of the board on which it was painted. Rather an original idea, one would say, to have a blue orb of day instead of a golden one-such as adorned so many other inns on the great post-road-but originality had had nothing whatever to do with it. The wandering painter who produced this remarkable work of art happened to have no vestige of any colour but blue left upon his palette, and he discoursed so eloquently of the superiority of this tint to all others that he succeeded in persuading the worthy innkeeper to have an azure sun depicted on his swinging sign. And not this one alone had yielded to his specious arguments, for he had painted blue lions, blue cocks, blue horses, on various signs in the country round, in a manner that would have delighted the Chinese-who esteem an artist in proportion to the unnaturalness of his designs and colouring.

The few scrawny, unwholesome-looking children feebly playing in the muddy, filthy, little street, and the prematurely old, ghastly women standing at the open doors of the miserable thatched huts of which the hamlet was composed, were but too evidently the wretched victims of a severe type of malarial fever that prevails in the Landes. They were truly piteous objects, and our travellers were glad to take refuge in the inn-though it was anything but inviting-and so get out of sight of them.

The landlord, a villainous looking fellow, with an ugly crimson scar across his forehead, who rejoiced in the extraordinary name of Chirriguirri, received them with many low obeisances, and led the way into his house, talking volubly of the excellent accommodations to be found therein.

The Baron de Sigognac hesitated ere he crossed the threshold, though the comedians had all drawn back respectfully to allow him to precede them. His pride revolted at going into such a place in such company, but one glance from Isabelle put everything else out of his head, and he entered the dirty little inn at her side with an air of joyful alacrity. In the happy kingdom of France the fortunate man who escorted a pretty woman, no matter where, needed not to fear ridicule or contumely, and was sure to be envied.

The large low room into which Maitre Chirriguirri ushered the party, with much ceremony and many bows, was scarcely so magnificent as he had given them reason to expect, but our strolling players had long ago learned to take whatever came in their way without grumbling, and they seated themselves quietly on the rude wooden settles ranged round a rough, stone platform in the centre of the apartment, upon which a few sticks of wood were blazing the smoke escaping through an opening in the roof above. From an iron bar which crossed this opening a strong chain was suspended, and fastened to it was the crane, so that it hung at the proper height over the fire-for this was the kitchen as well as the reception room. The low ceiling was blackened with the smoke that filled the upper part of the room and escaped slowly through the hole over the fire, unless a puff of wind drove it back again. A row of bright copper casseroles hanging against the wall-like the burnished shields along the sides of the ancient triremes, if this comparison be not too noble for such a lowly subject-gleamed vaguely in the flashing of the red fire-light, and a large, half-empty wine-skin lying on the floor in one corner looked like a beheaded body carelessly flung down there. Certainly not a cheerful looking place, but, the fire being newly replenished burned brightly, and our weary travellers were glad to bask in its genial warmth.

At the end of one of the wooden benches a little girl was sitting, apparently sound asleep. She was a poor, thin, little creature, with a mass of long, tangled, black hair, which hung down over her face and almost concealed it, as she sat with her head drooping forward on her breast. Her scanty clothing was tattered and dirty, her feet and poor, thin, little legs brown and bare, and covered with scratches-some still bleeding which bore witness to much running through the thorny furze thickets.

Isabelle, who chanced to sit down near her, cast many pitying glances upon this forlorn little figure, but took care not to disturb the quiet sleep she seemed to be enjoying in her uncomfortable resting-place. After a little, when she had turned to speak to Serafina, who sat beside her, the child woke with a start, and pushing back the mass of dishevelled hair revealed a sad little face, so thin that the cheek bones were painfully prominent, and pale to ghastliness. A pair of magnificent, dark brown eyes, with heavy sweeping lashes, looked preternaturally large in her woe-begone little countenance, and at this moment were filled with wondering admiration, mingled with fierce covetousness, as she stared at Serafina's mock jewels-and more especially at Isabelle's row of pearl beads. She seemed fairly dazzled by these latter, and gazed at them fixedly in a sort of ecstasy-having evidently never seen anything like them before, and probably thinking they must be of immense value. Occasionally her eyes wandered to the dresses of the two ladies, and at last, unable to restrain her ardent curiosity any longer, she put out her little brown hand and softly felt of Isabelle's gown, apparently finding exquisite delight in the mere contact of her finger-tips with the smooth, glossy surface of the silk. Though her touch was so light Isabelle immediately turned towards the child and smiled upon her encouragingly, but the poor little vagabond, finding herself detected, in an instant had assumed a stupid, almost idiotic look-with an instinctive amount of histrionic art that would have done honour to a finished actress. Then dropping her eyelids and leaning her shoulders against the hard back of the wooden settle she seemed to fall into a deep sleep, with her head bent down upon her breast in the old attitude.

Meanwhile Maitre Chirriguirri had been talking long and loudly about the choice delicacies he could have set before his guests if they had only come a day or two earlier, and enumerating all sorts of fine dishes-which doubtless had existed only in his own very vivid imagination-though he told a high-sounding story about the noblemen and grandees who had supped at his house and devoured all these dainties only yesterday. When at length the flow of his eloquence was checked by a display of ferocity on the part of the tyrant, and he was finally brought to the point, he acknowledged that he could only give them some of the soup called garbure-with which we have already made acquaintance at the Chateau de Sigognac, some salt codfish, and a dish of bacon; with plenty of wine, which according to his account was fit for the gods. Our weary travellers were so hungry by this time that they were glad of even this frugal fare, and when Mionnette, a gaun

t, morose-looking creature, the only servant that the inn could boast, announced that their supper was ready in an adjoining room, they did not wait to be summoned a second time.

They were still at table when a great barking of dogs was heard without, together with the noise of horses' feet, and in a moment three loud, impatient knocks upon the outer door resounded through the house. Mionnette rushed to open it, whereupon a gentleman entered, followed by a number of dogs, who nearly knocked the tall maid-servant over in their eagerness to get in, and rushed into the dining-room where our friends were assembled, barking, jumping over each other, and licking off the plates that had been used and removed to a low side table, before their master could stop them. A few sharp cuts with the whip he held in his hand distributed promiscuously among them, without distinction between the innocent and the guilty ones, quieted this uproar as if by magic, and the aggressive hounds, taking refuge under the benches ranged along the walls, curled themselves round on the floor and went comfortably to sleep, or lay panting, with their red tongues hanging out of their mouths and heads reposing on their fore-paws-not daring to stir.

The obstreperous dogs thus disposed of, the cavalier advanced into the room, with the calm assurance of a man who feels perfectly at his ease; his spurs ringing against the stone floor at every step. The landlord followed him obsequiously, cap in hand, cringing and bowing in most humble fashion-having entirely laid aside his boasting air and evidently feeling very ill at ease-this being a personage of whom he stood in awe. As the gentleman approached the table he politely saluted the company, before turning to give his orders to Maitre Chirriguirri, who stood silently awaiting them.

The newcomer was a handsome man of about thirty, with curly light hair, and a fair complexion, somewhat reddened by exposure to the sun. His eyes were blue, and rather prominent, his nose slightly retroussi; his small blond mustache was carefully turned up at the ends, and scarcely shaded a well-formed but sensual mouth, below which was a small, pointed beard-called a royal in those days, an imperial in these. As he took off his broad felt hat, richly ornamented with long sweeping plumes, and threw it carelessly down on one of the benches, it was seen that his smooth, broad forehead was snowy white, and the contrast with his sunburnt cheeks was not by any means displeasing. Indeed it was a very handsome, attractive face, in which an expression of frank gaiety and good humour tempered the air of pride that pervaded it.

The dress of this gay cavalier was extremely rich and elegant; almost too much so for the country. But when we say that the marquis-for such was his title-had been following the hounds in company with the beautiful Yolande de Foix, we feel that his costume, of blue velvet elaborately decorated with silver braid, is fully accounted for. He was one of the gallants that shone at court in Paris-where he was in the habit of spending a large portion of every year-and he prided himself on being one of the best dressed noblemen in France.

His order to the obsequious landlord was in few words. "I want some broth for my dogs, some oats for my horses, a piece of bread and a slice of ham for myself, and something or other for my grooms"-and then he advanced smilingly to the table and sat down in a vacant place beside the pretty soubrette, who, charmed with such a gay, handsome seignior, had been pleased to bestow a languishing glance and a brilliant smile upon him.

Maitre Chirriguirri hastened to fetch what he had demanded, while the soubrette, with the grace of a Hebe, filled his glass to the brim with wine; which he accepted with a smile, and drank off at a single draught. For a few minutes he was fully occupied in satisfying his hunger-which was veritably that of a hunter-and then looking about him at the party assembled round the table, remarked the Baron de Sigognac, with whom he had a slight acquaintance, seated beside the fair Isabelle-in whose company indeed he had seen him already once before that day. The two young people were talking together in low tones, and quite absorbed in each other; but the language of their eyes was unmistakable, and the marquis smiled to himself as he took note of what he supposed to be a very promising intrigue-wherein he did the youthful pair great injustice. As a thorough man of the world he was not at all surprised at finding de Sigognac with this band of vagabond players, from such a motive, and the half-pitying contempt he had formerly felt for the shabby, retiring young baron was straightway changed to a certain admiration and respect by this evidence of his gallantry. When he caught his eye he made a little gesture of recognition and approval-to show that he understood and appreciated his position-but paid no further attention to him, evidently meaning to respect his incognito, and devoted himself to the soubrette. She received his high-flown compliments with peals of laughter, and paid him back in his own coin with considerable wit and much merriment, to the great delight of the marquis-who was always delighted to meet with any adventure of this sort.

Wishing to pursue this one, which opened so well, he declared loudly that he was passionately fond of the theatre, and complained pathetically of being deprived altogether of this, his favourite amusement, in the country; then addressing himself to the tyrant he asked whether the troupe had any pressing engagements that would prevent their turning aside a little from the usual route to visit the Chateau de Bruyeres and give one of their best plays there-it would be an easy matter to rig up a theatre for them in the great hall or the orangery.

The tyrant hastened to reply that nothing could be easier, and that the troupe, one of the best that had ever travelled through the provinces, was entirely at his lordship's disposition-"from the king to the soubrette"-he added, with a broad grin.

"That is capital," said the marquis, "and as to money matters, you can arrange them to suit yourself. I should not think of bargaining with the votaries of Thalia-a muse so highly favoured by Apollo, and as eagerly sought after, and enthusiastically applauded, at the court of his most gracious majesty as in town and country everywhere."

After arranging the necessary preliminaries, the marquis, who had meantime surreptitiously squeezed the soubrette's hand under the table, rose, called his dogs together, put on his hat, waved his hand to the company in token of adieu, and took his departure amid much barking and commotion-going directly home, in order to set on foot his preparations to receive the comedians on the morrow at his chateau.

As it was growing late, and they were to make an early start the next morning, our tired travellers lost no time in going to rest; the women in a sort of loft, where they had to make themselves as comfortable as they could with the bundles of straw that were to serve them for beds, whilst the men slept on the benches in the room where they had supped.

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