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   Chapter 19 CHIQUITA’S DECLARATION OF LOVE

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 16217

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


A compact crowd filled the Place de Greve, despite the early hour indicated by the clock of the Hotel de Ville.

The tall buildings on the eastern side of the square threw their shadows more than half-way across it, and upon a sinister-looking wooden framework, which rose several feet above the heads of the populace, and bore a number of ominous, dull red stains. At the windows of the houses surrounding the crowded square, a few heads were to be seen looking out from time to time, but quickly drawn back again as they perceived that the interesting performance, for which all were waiting, had not yet begun. Clinging to the transverse piece of the tall stone cross, which stood at that side of the open square nearest the river, was a forlorn, little, ragged boy, who had climbed up to it with the greatest difficulty, and was holding on with all his might, his arms clasped round the cross-piece and his legs round the upright, in a most painful and precarious position. But nothing would have induced him to abandon it, so long as he could possibly maintain himself there, no matter at what cost of discomfort, or even actual distress, for from it he had a capital view of the scaffold, and all its horribly fascinating details-the wheel upon which the criminal was to revolve, the coil of rope to bind him to it, and the heavy bar to break his bones.

If any one among the anxious crowd of spectators, however, had carefully studied the small, thin countenance of the child perched up on the tall stone cross, he would have discovered that its expression was by no means that of vulgar curiosity. It was not simply the fierce attractions of an execution that had drawn thither this wild, weird-looking young creature, with his sun-burned complexion, great, flashing, dark eyes, brilliant white teeth, unkempt masses of thick, black hair, and slender brown hands-which were convulsively clinging to the rough, cold stone. The delicacy of the features would seem to indicate a different sex from the dress-but nobody paid any attention to the child, And all eyes were turned towards the scaffold, or the direction from which the cart bearing the condemned criminal was to come. Among the groups close around the scaffold were several faces we have seen before; notably, the chalky countenance and fiery red nose of Malartic, and the bold profile of Jacquemin Lampourde, also several of the ruffians engaged in the abduction of Isabelle, as well as various other habitues of the Crowned Radish. The Place de Greve, to which sooner or later they were all pretty sure to come and expiate their crimes with their lives, seemed to exercise a singular fascination over murderers, thieves, and criminals of all sorts, who invariably gathered in force to witness an execution. They evidently could not resist it, and appeared to find a fierce satisfaction in watching the terrible spectacle that they themselves would some day probably furnish to the gaping multitude. Then the victim himself always expected his friends' attendance-he would be hurt and disappointed if his comrades did not rally round him at the last. A criminal in that position likes to see familiar faces in the throng that hems him in. It gives him courage, steadies his nerves.

He cannot exhibit any signs of cowardice before those who appreciate true merit and bravery, according to his way of thinking, and pride comes to his aid. A man will meet death like a Roman under such circumstances, who would be weak as a woman if he were despatched in private.

The criminal to be executed on that occasion was a thief, already notorious in Paris for his daring and dexterity, though he had only been there a few months. But, unfortunately for himself-though very much the reverse for the well-to-do citizens of the capital in general-he had not confined himself to his legitimate business. In his last enterprise-breaking into a private dwelling to gain possession of a large sum of money that was to be kept there for a single night-he had killed the master of the house, who was aroused by his entrance; and, not content to stop there, had also brutally murdered his wife, as she lay quietly sleeping in her bed-like a tiger, that has tasted blood and is wild for more. So atrocious a crime had roused the indignation of even his own unscrupulous, hardened companions, and it was not long ere his hiding-place was mysteriously revealed, and he was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. Now he was to pay the penalty of his guilt.

As the fatal hour approached, a carriage drove down along the quay, turned into the Place de Greve, and attempted to cross it; but, becoming immediately entangled in the crowd, could make little or no progress, despite the utmost exertions of the majestic coachman and attendant lackeys to induce the people to make way for it, and let it pass.

But for the grand coat of arms and ducal coronet emblazoned on the panels, which inspired a certain awe as well as respect in the motley throng of pedestrians, the equipage would undoubtedly have been roughly dealt with-but as it was, they contented themselves with resolutely and obstinately barring its passage, after it had reached the middle of the square. The indignant coachman did not dare to urge his spirited horses forward at all hazards, ruthlessly trampling down the unlucky individuals who happened to be directly in his way, as he would certainly have done in any ordinary crowd, for the canaille, that filled the Place de Greve to overflowing, was out in too great force to be trifled with-so there was nothing for it but patience.

"These rascals are waiting for an execution, and will not stir, nor let us stir, until it is over," said a remarkably handsome young man, magnificently dressed, to his equally fine looking, though more modestly attired friend, who was seated beside him in the luxurious carriage. "The devil take the unlucky dog who must needs be broken on the wheel just when we want to cross the Place de Greve. Why couldn't he have put it off until to-morrow morning, I should like to know!"

"You may be sure that the poor wretch would be only too glad to do so if he could," answered the other, "for the occasion is a far more serious matter to him than to us."

"The best thing we can do under the circumstances, my dear de Sigognac, is to turn our heads away if the spectacle is too revolting-though it is by no means easy, when something horrible is taking place close at hand. Even Saint Augustine opened his eyes in the arena at a loud cheer from the people, though he had vowed to himself beforehand to keep them closed."

"At all events, we shall not be detained here long," rejoined de Sigognac, "for there comes the prisoner. See, Vallombreuse, how the crowd gives way before him, though it will not let us move an inch."

A rickety cart, drawn by a miserable old skeleton of a horse, and surrounded by mounted guards, was slowly advancing through the dense throng towards the scaffold. In it were a venerable priest, with a long white beard, who was holding a crucifix to the lips of the condemned man, seated beside him, the executioner, placed behind his victim, and holding the end of the rope that bound him, and an assistant, who was driving the poor old horse. The criminal, whom every one turned to gaze at, was no other than our old acquaintance, Agostino, the brigand.

"Why, what is this!" cried de Sigognac, in great surprise. "I know that man-he is the fellow who stopped us on the highway, and tried to frighten us with his band of scarecrows, as poor Matamore called them. I told you all about it when we came by the place where it happened."

"Yes, I remember perfectly," said Vallombreuse; "it was a capital story, and I had a good laugh over it. But it would seem that the ingenious rascal has been up to something more serious since then-his ambition has probably been his ruin. He certainly is no coward-only look what a good face he puts on it."

Agostino, holding his head proudly erect, but a trifle paler than usual perhaps, seemed to be searching for some on

e in the crowd. When the cart passed slowly in front of the stone cross, he caught sight of the little boy, who had not budged from his excessively uncomfortable and wearisome position, and a flash of joy shone in the brigand's eyes, a slight smile parted his lips, as he made an almost imperceptible sign with his head, and said, in a low tone, "Chiquita!"

"My son, what was that strange word you spoke?" asked the priest. "It sounded like an outlandish woman's name. Dismiss all such subjects from your mind, and fix your thoughts on your own hopes of salvation, for you stand on the threshold of eternity."

"Yes, my father, I know it but too well, and though my hair is black and my form erect, whilst you are bowed with age, and your long beard is white as snow, you are younger now than I-every turn of the wheels, towards that scaffold yonder, ages me by ten years."

During this brief colloquy the cart had made steady progress, and in a moment more had stopped at the foot of the rude wooden steps that led up to the scaffold, which Agostino ascended slowly but unfalteringly-preceded by the assistant, supported by the priest, and followed by the executioner. In less than a minute he was firmly bound upon the wheel, and the executioner, having thrown off his showy scarlet cloak, braided with white, and rolled up his sleeves, stooped to pick up the terrible bar that lay at his feet. It was a moment of intense horror and excitement. An anxious curiosity, largely mixed with dread, oppressed the hearts of the spectators, who stood motionless, breathless, with pale faces, and straining eyes fixed upon the tragic group on the fatal scaffold. Suddenly a strange stir ran through the crowd-the child, who was perched up on the cross, had slipped quickly down to the ground, and gliding like a serpent through the closely packed throng, reached the scaffold, cleared the steps at a bound, and appeared beside the astonished executioner, who was just in the act of raising the ponderous bar to strike, with such a wild, ghastly, yet inspired and noble countenance-lighted up by a strength of will and purpose that made it actually sublime-that the grim dealer of death paused involuntarily, and withheld the murderous blow about to fall.

"Get out of my way, thou puppet!" he roared in angry tones, as he recovered his sang-froid, "or thou wilt get thy accursed head smashed."

But Chiquita paid no attention to him-she did not care whether she was killed too, or not. Bending over Agostino, she passionately kissed his forehead, whispered "I love thee!"-and then, with a blow as swift as lightning, plunged into his heart the knife she had reclaimed from Isabelle. It was dealt with so firm a hand, and unerring an aim, that death was almost instantaneous-scarcely had Agostino time to murmur "Thanks."

With a wild burst of hysterical laughter the child sprang down from the scaffold, while the executioner, stupefied at her bold deed, lowered his now useless club; uncertain whether or not he should proceed to break the bones of the man already dead, and beyond his power to torture.

"Well done, Chiquita, well done, and bravely!" cried Malartic-who had recognised her in spite of her boy's clothes-losing his self-restraint in his admiration. The other ruffians, who had seen Chiquita at the Crowned Radish, and wondered at and admired her courage when she stood against the door and let Agostino fling his terrible navaja at her without moving a muscle, now grouped themselves closely together so as to effectually prevent the soldiers from pursuing her. The fracas that ensued gave Chiquita time to reach the carriage of the Duke of Vallombreuse-which, taking advantage of the stir and shifting in the throng, was slowly making its way out of the Place de Greve. She climbed up on the step, and catching sight of de Sigognac within, appealed to him, in scarcely audible words, as she panted and trembled-"I saved your Isabelle, now save me!"

Vallombreuse, who had been very much interested by this strange and exciting scene, cried to the coachman, "Get on as fast as you can, even if you have to drive over the people."

But there was no need-the crowd opened as if by magic before the carriage, and closed again compactly after it had passed, so that Chiquita's pursuers could not penetrate it, or make any progress-they were completely baffled, whichever way they turned. Meanwhile the fugitive was being rapidly carried beyond their reach. As soon as the open street was gained, the coachman had urged his horses forward, and in a very few minutes they reached the Porte Saint Antoine. As the report of what had occurred in the Place de Greve could not have preceded them, Vallombreuse thought it better to proceed at a more moderate pace-fearing that their very speed might arouse suspicion-and gave orders accordingly; as soon as they were fairly beyond the gate he took Chiquita into the carriage-where she seated herself, without a word, opposite to de Sigognac. Under the calmest exterior she was filled with a preternatural excitement-not a muscle of her face moved; but a bright flush glowed on her usually pale cheeks, which gave to her magnificent dark eyes-now fixed upon vacancy, and seeing nothing that was before them-a marvellous brilliancy. A complete transformation had taken place in Chiquita-this violent shock had torn asunder the childish chrysalis in which the young maiden had lain dormant-as she plunged her knife into Agostino's heart she opened her own. Her love was born of that murder-the strange, almost sexless being, half child, half goblin, that she had been until then, existed no longer-Chiquita was a woman from the moment of that heroic act of sublime devotion. Her passion, that had bloomed out in one instant, was destined to be eternal-a kiss and a stab, that was Chiquita's love story.

The carriage rolled smoothly and swiftly on its way towards Vallombreuse, and when the high, steep roof of the chateau came in sight the young duke said to de Sigognac, "You must go with me to my room first, where you can get rid of the dust, and freshen up a bit before I present you to my sister-who knows nothing whatever of my journey, or its motive. I have prepared a surprise for her, and I want it to be complete-so please draw down the curtain on your side, while I do the same on mine, in order that we may not be seen, as we drive into the court, from any of the windows that command a view of it. But what are we to do with this little wretch here?"

Chiquita, who was roused from her deep reverie by the duke's question, looked gravely up at him, and said, "Let some one take me to Mlle. Isabelle-she will decide what is to be done with me."

With all the curtains carefully drawn down the carriage drove over the drawbridge and into the court. Vallombreuse alighted, took de Sigognac's arm, and led him silently to his own apartment, after having ordered a servant to conduct Chiquita to the presence of the Comtesse de Lineuil. At sight of her Isabelle was greatly astonished, and, laying down the book she was reading, fixed upon the poor child a look full of interest, affection, and questioning.

Chiquita stood silent and motionless until the servant had retired, then, with a strange solemnity, which was entirely new in her, she went up to Isabelle, and timidly taking her hand, said:

"My knife is in Agostino's heart. I have no master now, and I must devote myself to somebody. Next to him who is dead I love you best of all the world. You gave me the pearl necklace I wished for, and you kissed me. Will you have me for your servant, your slave, your dog? Only give me a black dress, so that I may wear mourning for my lost love-it is all I ask. I will sleep on the floor outside your door, so that I shall not be in your way. When you want me, whistle for me, like this,"-and she whistled shrilly-"and I will come instantly. Will you have me?"

In answer Isabelle drew Chiquita into her arms, pressed her lips to the girl's forehead warmly, and thankfully accepted this soul, that dedicated itself to her.

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