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   Chapter 4 AN ADVENTURE WITH BRIGANDS

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 25553

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Let us return now to the little girl we left feigning to sleep soundly upon a settle in the kitchen. There was certainly something suspicious about the fierce way in which she eyed Isabelle's pearl necklace, and her little bit of clever acting afterwards. As soon as the door had closed upon the comedians she slowly opened her large, dark eyes, looked sharply round the great, dim kitchen, and when she found that nobody was watching her, slipped quietly down from the bench, threw back her hair with a quick movement of the head peculiar to her, crept softly to the door, which she cautiously unlatched, and escaped into the open air without making any more sound than a shadow, then walked slowly and listlessly away until she had turned a corner and was out of sight of the house, when she set off running as fleetly as a deer pursued by the hounds-jumping over the frequent obstacles in her path with wonderful agility, never stumbling, and flying along, with her black hair streaming out behind her, like some wild creature of the desolate pine barrens through which she was skilfully threading her way.

She reached at last a little knoll, crowned by a group of pine trees crowded closely together, and dashing up the steep bank with undiminished speed came to a sudden stop in the very middle of the grove. Here she stood still for a moment, peering anxiously about her, and then, putting two fingers in her mouth, gave three shrill whistles, such as no traveller in those desolate regions can hear without a shudder. In an instant what seemed to be a heap of pine twigs stirred, and a man emerging from beneath them rose slowly to his feet at a little distance from the child.

"Is it you, Chiquita?" he asked. "What news do you bring? You are late. I had given over expecting you to-night, and gone to sleep."

The speaker was a dark, fierce-looking fellow of about five and twenty, with a spare, wiry frame, brilliant black eyes, and very white teeth-which were long and pointed like the fangs of a young wolf. He looked as if he might be a brigand, poacher, smuggler, thief, or assassin-all of which he had been indeed by turns. He was dressed like a Spanish peasant, and in the red woollen girdle wound several times around his waist was stuck a formidable knife, called in Spain a navaja. The desperadoes who make use of these terrible weapons usually display as many red stripes, cut in the steel, upon their long pointed blades as they have committed murders, and are esteemed by their companions in proportion to the number indicated by this horrible record. We do not know exactly how many of these scarlet grooves adorned Agostino's navaja, but judging by the savage expression of his countenance, and the fierce glitter of his eye, we may safely suppose them to have been creditably numerous.

"Well, Chiquita," said he, laying his hand caressingly on the child's head, "and what did you see at Maitre Chirriguirri's inn?"

"A great chariot full of people came there this afternoon," she answered. "I saw them carry five large chests into the barn, and they must have been very heavy, for it took two men to lift them."

"Hum!" said Agostino, "sometimes travellers put stones into their boxes to make them seem very weighty and valuable, and deceive the inn-keepers."

"But," interrupted the child eagerly, "the three young ladies had trimmings of gold on their clothes; and one of them, the prettiest, had round her neck a row of round, shining, white things, and oh! they were so beautiful!" and she clasped her hands in an ecstasy of admiration, her voice trembling with excitement.

"Those must be pearls," muttered Agostino to himself, "and they will be worth having-provided they are real-but then they do make such perfect imitations now-a-days, and even rich people are mean enough to wear them."

"My dear Agostino, my good Agostino," continued Chiquita, in her most coaxing tones, and without paying any attention to his mutterings, "will you give me the beautiful, shining things if you kill that lady?"

"They would go so well with your rags and tatters!" he answered mockingly.

"But I have so often kept watch for you while you slept, and I have run so far to tell you when any one was coming, no matter how cold it was, nor how my poor, bare feet ached-and I have never once kept you waiting for your food, when I used to carry it to you in your hiding places, even when I was bad with the fever, or my teeth chattering with the chill, and I so weak that I could hardly drag myself along. Oh Agostino! do remember what I have done for you, and let me have the beautiful, shining things."

"Yes, you have been both brave and faithful, Chiquita, I admit; but we have not got the wonderful necklace yet, you know. Now, tell me, how many men were there in the party."

"Oh! a great many. A big, tall man with a long beard; an old, fat man-one that looked like a fox-two thin men, and one that looked like a gentleman, though his clothes were very old and shabby."

"Six men," said Agostino, who had counted them on his fingers as she enumerated them, and his face fell. "Alas! I am the only one left of our brave band now; when the others were with me we would not have minded double the number. Have they arms, Chiquita?"

"The gentleman has a sword, and so has the tall, thin man-a very long one."

"No pistols or guns?"

"I didn't see any," answered Chiquita, "but they might have left them in the chariot, you know; only Maitre Chirriguirri or Mionnette would have been sure to send you word if they had, and they said nothing to me about them."

"Well, we will risk it then, and see what we can do," said Agostino resolutely. "Five large, heavy chests, gold ornaments, a pearl necklace! they certainly are worth trying for."

The brigand and his little companion then went to a secret place in the thick pine grove, and set to work industriously, removing a few large stones, a quantity of branches, and finally the five or six boards they had concealed, disclosing a large hole that looked like a grave. It was not very deep, and Agostino, jumping down into it, stooped and lifted out what seemed to be a dead body-dressed in its usual every-day clothes-which he flung down upon the ground beside the hole. Chiquita, who did not appear to be in the least agitated or alarmed by these mysterious proceedings, seized the figure by the feet, with the utmost sang-froid, and dragged it out of Agostino's way, with a much greater degree of strength than could have been expected from such a slight, delicate little creature. Agostino continued his work of exhumation until five other bodies lay beside the first one-all neatly arranged in a row by the little girl, who seemed to actually enjoy her lugubrious task. It made a strange picture in the weird light of the nearly full moon, half veiled by driving clouds-the open grave, the bodies lying side by side under the dark pine trees, and the figures of Agostino and Chiquita bending over them. But the tragic aspect of the affair soon changed to a comic one; for when Agostino placed the first of the bodies in an upright position it became apparent that it was only a sort of a scarecrow-a rude figure intended to frighten timid traveller-which being skilfully disposed at the edge of the grove, partly hidden among the trees, looked at a little distance exactly like a brigand-gun and all. Indeed it really was dressed in the garments of one of his old comrades, who had paid the penalty of his crimes on the gallows. He apostrophized the figure as he arranged it to his liking, calling it by name, relating some of the brave deeds of its prototype, and bewailing the sad fate that had left him to ply his nefarious trade single-handed, with a rude eloquence that was not wanting in pathos. Returning to where the others lay, he lifted up one which he reminded Chiquita, represented her father-whose valour and skill he eulogized warmly-whilst the child devoutly made the sign of the cross as she muttered a prayer. This one being put in position, he carried the remaining figures, one by one, to the places marked for them, keeping up a running commentary upon the ci-devant brigands whose representatives they were, and calling them each repeatedly by name, as if there were a certain sad satisfaction in addressing them in the old, familiar way.

When this queer task was completed, the bandit and his faithful little companion, taking advantage of a flood of moonlight as the clouds drifted away before the wind, went and stood on the road-not very far from their retreat-by which our travellers were to pass, to judge of the effect of their group of brigands. It was really very formidable, and had often been of great service to the bold originator of the plan; for on seeing so numerous a band apparently advancing upon them, most travellers took to their heels, leaving the coveted spoils behind them for Agostino to gather up at his leisure.

As they slowly returned to the pine grove he said to the child, who was clinging to his arm affectionately as she walked beside him, "The first stage of their journey to-morrow is a long one, and these people will be sure to start in good season, so that they will reach this spot just at the right time for us-in the uncertain light of the dawn. In the darkness of night our brigands yonder could not be seen, and in broad daylight the ruse would be apparent; so we are in luck, Chiquita! But now for a nap-we have plenty of time for it, and the creaking of the wheels will be sure to wake us." Accordingly Agostino threw himself down upon a little heap of pine branches and heather, Chiquita crept close to him, so that the large cloak with which he had covered himself might protect her also from the chilly night air, and both were soon sound asleep.

It was so early when our travellers were roused from their slumbers and told that it was time for them to resume their journey, by the treacherous landlord of the Blue Sun Inn, that it seemed to them like the middle of the night; to they arranged themselves as comfortably as they could in the great, roomy chariot, and despite the loud creaking and groaning that accompanied its every movement as it went slowly lumbering along, and the shrill cries of the driver to his oxen, they were all soon asleep again, excepting de Sigognac, who walked beside the chariot, lost in thoughts of Isabelle's beauty, grace and modesty, and adorable goodness, which seemed better suited to a young lady of noble birth than a wandering actress. He tormented himself with trying to devise some means to induce her to reciprocate the ardent love that filled his heart for her, not for an instant suspecting that it was already a fait accompli, and that the sweet, pure maiden had given him, unasked, her gentle, faithful heart. The bashful young baron imagined all sorts of romantic and perilous incidents in which he might constitute himself her knight and protector, and show such brave and tender devotion to her as he had read of in the old books of chivalry; and which might lead up to the avowal he was burning to make, yet dared not. It never occurred to him that the look in his dark eyes whenever they rested on her face, the tone of his voice when he addressed her, the deep sighs he vainly sought to stifle, and the tender, eager care with which he strove to anticipate her every wish had spoken for him, as plainly as any words could do; and that, though he had not dared to breathe one syllable of his passionate love to Isabelle, she knew it, rejoiced in it, and was proud of it, and that it filled her with a delicious, rapturous joy, such as she had never felt before, or even dreamed of.

The morning began to break-the narrow band of pale light on the horizon, which was growing rapidly brighter and assuming a rosy tinge, was reflected here and there in the little pools of water that shone like bits of a broken mirror scattered over the ground-distant sounds were heard, and columns of smoke rising into the still morning air proved that even in this desolate, God-forsaken part of the Landes there were human habitations to be found. Stalking along with giant strides on the highest part of some rising ground not very far off was a grotesque figure, clearly defined against the bright eastern sky, which would have been a puzzle to a stranger, but was a familiar sight to de Sigognac-a shepherd mounted on his high stilts, such as are to be met with everywhere throughout the Landes.

But the young baron was too much absorbed in his own engrossing thoughts to take any note of his surroundings as he kept pace with the slow-moving chariot, until his eye was caught and his attention fixed by a strange little point of light,

glittering among the sombre pines that formed the dense grove where we left Agostino and Chiquita sleeping. He wondered what it could be-certainly not a glow-worm, the season for them was past long ago-and he watched it as he advanced towards it with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Approaching nearer he caught a glimpse of the singular group of figures lurking among the trees, and at first feared an ambuscade; but finding that they continued perfectly motionless he concluded that he must have been mistaken, and that they were only old stumps after all; so he forbore to arouse the comedians, as he had for a moment thought of doing.

A few steps farther and suddenly a loud report was heard from the grove, a bullet sped through the air, and struck the oxen's yoke-happily without doing any damage, further than causing the usually quiet, steady-going beasts to swerve violently to one side-when fortunately a considerable heap of sand prevented the chariot's being overturned into the ditch beside the road. The sharp report and violent shock startled the sleeping travellers in the chariot, and the younger women shrieked wildly in their terror, whilst the duenna, who had met with such adventures before, slipped the few gold pieces she had in her purse into her shoe. Beside the chariot, from which the actors were struggling to extricate themselves, stood Agostino-his cloak wrapped around his left arm and the formidable navaja in his right hand-and cried in a voice of thunder, "Your money or your lives! Resistance is useless! At the first sign of it my band will fire upon you."

Whilst the bandit was shouting out these terrible words, de Sigognac had quietly drawn his sword, and as he finished attacked him furiously. Agostino skilfully parried his thrusts, with the cloak on his left arm, which so disposed made an excellent shield, and watched his opportunity to give a murderous stab with his navaja, which indeed he almost succeeded in doing; a quick spring to one side alone saved the baron from a wound which must have been fatal, as the brigand threw the knife at him with tremendous force, and it flew through the air and fell ringing upon the ground at a marvellous distance, instead of piercing de Sigognac's heart. His antagonist turned pale, for he was quite defenceless, having depended entirely upon his trusty navaja, which had never failed him before, and he very well knew that his vaunted band could not come to his rescue. However, he shouted to them to fire, counting upon the sudden terror that command would inspire to deliver him from his dilemma; and, indeed, the comedians, expecting a broadside, did take refuge behind the chariot, whilst even our brave hero involuntarily bent his head a little, to avoid the shower of bullets.

Meantime Chiquita, who had breathlessly watched all that passed from her hiding place among some furze bushes close at hand, when she saw her friend in peril, crept softly forth, glided along on the ground like a snake until she reached the knife, lying unnoticed where it had fallen, and, seizing it, in one instant had restored it to Agostino, She looked like a little fury as she did so, and if her strength had been equal to her ferocity she would have been a formidable foe.

Agostino again aimed his navaja at the baron, who was at that moment off his guard, and would not perhaps have escaped the deadly weapon a second time if it had been hurled at him from that skilful hand, but that a grasp of iron fastened upon the desperado's wrist, just in time to defeat his purpose. He strove in vain to extricate his right arm from the powerful grip that held it like a vice-struggling violently, and writhing with the pain it caused him-but he dared not turn upon this new assailant, who was behind him, because de Sigognac would have surely scored his back for him; and he was forced to continue parrying his thrusts with his left arm, still protected by the ample cloak firmly wound around it. He soon discovered that he could not possibly free his right hand, and the agony became so great that his fingers could no longer keep their grasp of the knife, which fell a second time to the ground.

It was the tyrant who had come to de Sigognac's rescue, and now suddenly roared out in his stentorian voice, "What the deuce is nipping me? Is it a viper? I felt two sharp fangs meet in the calf of my leg."

It was Chiquita, who was biting his leg like a dog, in the vain hope of making him turn round and loose his hold upon Agostino; but the tyrant shook her off with a quick movement, that sent her rolling in the dust at some distance, without relinquishing his captive, whilst Matamore dashed forward and picked up the navaja, which he shut together and put into his pocket.

Whilst this scene was enacting the sun had risen, and poured a flood of radiance upon the earth in which the sham brigands lost much of their life-like effect. "Ha, ha!" laughed the peasant, "it would appear that those gentlemen's guns take a long time to go off; they must be wet with dew. But whatever may be the matter with them they are miserable cowards, to stand still there at a safe distance and leave their chief to do all the fighting by himself."

"There is a good reason for that," answered Matamore, as he climbed up the steep bank to them, "these are nothing but scarecrows." And with six vigorous kicks he sent the six absurd figures rolling in every direction, making the most comical gestures as they fell.

"You may safely alight now, ladies," said the baron, reassuringly, to the trembling actresses, "there's nothing more to fear; it was only a sham battle after all."

In despair at his overwhelming defeat, Agostino hung his head mournfully, and stood like a statue of grief, dreading lest worse still should befall him, if the comedians, who were in too great force for him to attempt to struggle any longer against them, decided to take him on to the next town and deliver him over to the jailor to be locked up, as indeed he richly deserved. His faithful little friend, Chiquita, stood motionless at his side, as downcast as himself. But the farce of the false brigands so tickled the fancy of the players that it seemed as if they never would have done laughing over it, and they were evidently inclined to deal leniently with the ingenious rascal who had devised it. The tyrant, who had loosened, but not quitted, his hold upon the bandit, assumed his most tragic air and voice, and said to him, "You have frightened these ladies almost to death, you scoundrel, and you richly deserve to be strung up for it; but if, as I believe, they will consent to pardon you-for they are very kind and good--I will not take you to the lock-up. I confess that I do not care to furnish a subject for the gallows. Besides, your stratagem is really very ingenious and amusing-a capital farce to play at the expense of cowardly travellers-who have doubtless paid you well for the entertainment, eh? As an actor, I appreciate the joke, and your ingenuity inclines me to be indulgent. You are not simply and brutally a robber, and it would certainly be a pity to cut short such a fine career."

"Alas!" answered Agostino mournfully, "no other career is open to me, and I am more to be pitied than you suppose. I am the only one left of a band formerly as complete as yours; the executioner has deprived me of my brave comrades one by one, and now I am obliged to carry on my operations entirely alone-dressing up my scarecrows, as your friend calls them, and assuming different voices to make believe that I am supported by a numerous company. Ah! mine is a sad fate; and then my road is such a poor one-so few travellers come this way-and I have not the means to purchase a better one. Every good road is owned by a band of brigands, you know. I wish that I could get some honest work to do, but that is hopeless; who would employ such a looking fellow as I am? all in rags and tatters, worse than the poorest beggar. I must surely have been born under an unlucky star. And now this attempt has failed, from which I hoped to get enough to keep us for two months, and buy a decent cloak for poor Chiquita besides; she needs it badly enough, poor thing! Yesterday I had nothing to eat, and I had to tighten my belt to sustain my empty stomach. Your unexpected resistance has taken the very bread out of my mouth; and since you would not let me rob you, at least be generous and give me something."

"To be sure," said the tyrant, who was greatly amused; "as we have prevented your successfully plying your trade we certainly do owe you an indemnity. Here, take these two pistoles to drink our healths with."

Isabelle meantime sought in the chariot for a piece of new woollen stuff she happened to have with her, which was soft and warm, and gave it to Chiquita, who exclaimed, "Oh! but it is the necklace of shining white things that I want."

Kind Isabelle immediately unclasped it, and then fastened it round the slender neck of the child, who was so overwhelmed with delight that she could not speak. She silently rolled the smooth, white beads between her little brown fingers in a sort of mute ecstasy for a few moments, then suddenly raising her head and tossing back her thick black hair, she fixed her sparkling eyes on Isabelle, and said in a low, earnest voice, "Oh! you are very, very good, and I will never, never kill you." Then she ran swiftly back to the pine grove, clambered up the steep bank, and sat down to admire and enjoy her treasure. As to Agostino, after making his best bow, and thanking the tyrant for his really princely munificence, he picked up his prostrate comrades, and carried them back to be buried again until their services should be needed on some, he hoped, more auspicious occasion.

The driver, who had deserted his oxen and run to hide himself among the furze bushes at the beginning of the affray, returned to his post when he saw that all danger was over, and the chariot once more started upon its way-the worthy duenna having taken her doubloons out of her shoes and restored them to her purse, which was then deposited in the depths of a mysterious pocket.

"You behaved like a real hero of romance," Isabelle said in an undertone to de Sigognac, "and I feel that under your protection we can travel securely; how bravely you attacked that bandit single-handedly when you had every reason to believe that he was supported by an armed band."

"You overestimate my little exploit," the baron replied modestly, "there was no danger worth mentioning," then sinking his voice to a whisper, "but to protect you I would meet and conquer giants, put to flight a whole host of Saracens, attack and destroy dragons and horrid monsters; I would force my way through enchanted forests filled with snares and perils, such as we read of, and even descend into hell itself, like Aeneas of old. In your dear service the most difficult feats would be easy; your beautiful eyes inspire me with indomitable courage, and your sweet presence, or even the bare thought of you, seems to endue me with a super-human strength."

This was, perhaps, rather exaggerated, but perfectly sincere, and Isabelle did not doubt for a moment that de Sigognac would be able to accomplish fabulous deeds of prowess in her honour and for her sake; and she was not so very far wrong, for he was becoming hourly more passionately enamoured of her, and ardent young lovers are capable of prodigies of valour, inspired by the fair objects of their adoration.

Serafina, who had overheard some of the baron's impassioned words, could not repress a scornful smile; so many women are apt to find the fervid protestations of lovers, when addressed to others than themselves, supremely ridiculous, yet they joyfully receive the very same protestations, without detecting anything in the least absurd in them when whispered into their own ears. For a moment she was tempted to try the power of her many charms, which she believed to be irresistible, with the young baron, and win him away from Isabelle; but this idea was speedily rejected, for Serafina held beauty to be a precious gem that should be richly set in gold-the gem was hers, but the golden setting was lamentably wanting, and poor de Sigognac could not possibly furnish it. So the accomplished coquette decided not to interfere with this newly-born love affair, which was "all very well for a simple-minded young girl like Isabelle," she said to herself, with a disdainful smile and toss of the head.

Profound silence had fallen upon the party after the late excitement, and some of them were even growing sleepy again, when several hours later the driver suddenly called out, "There is the Chateau de Bruyeres."

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