Book 2 Chapter 5 Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

Dressed in the close-fitting suit of a bygone age, all black, from flat velvet cap to rosetted shoes, his face whitened and a slight up-curled moustache glued to his upper lip, a small-sword at his side and a guitar slung behind him, Scaramouche surveyed himself in a mirror, and was disposed to be sardonic—which was the proper mood for the part.

He reflected that his life, which until lately had been of a stagnant, contemplative quality, had suddenly become excessively active. In the course of one week he had been lawyer, mob-orator, outlaw, property-man, and finally buffoon. Last Wednesday he had been engaged in moving an audience of Rennes to anger; on this Wednesday he was to move an audience of Guichen to mirth. Then he had been concerned to draw tears; to-day it was his business to provoke laughter. There was a difference, and yet there was a parallel. Then as now he had been a comedian; and the part that he had played then was, when you came to think of it, akin to the part he was to play this evening. For what had he been at Rennes but a sort of Scaramouche—the little skirmisher, the astute intriguer, spattering the seed of trouble with a sly hand? The only difference lay in the fact that to-day he went forth under the name that properly described his type, whereas last week he had been disguised as a respectable young provincial attorney.

He bowed to his reflection in the mirror.

“Buffoon!” he apostrophized it. “At last you have found yourself. At last you have come into your heritage. You should be a great success.”

Hearing his new name called out by M. Binet, he went below to find the company assembled, and waiting in the entrance corridor of the inn.

He was, of course, an object of great interest to all the company. Most critically was he conned by M. Binet and mademoiselle; by the former with gravely searching eyes, by the latter with a curl of scornful lip.

“You’ll do,” M. Binet commended his make-up. “At least you look the part.”

“Unfortunately men are not always what they look,” said Climene, acidly.

“That is a truth that does not at present apply to me,” said Andre-Louis. “For it is the first time in my life that I look what I am.”

Mademoiselle curled her lip a little further, and turned her shoulder to him. But the others thought him very witty—probably because he was obscure. Columbine encouraged him with a friendly smile that displayed her large white teeth, and M. Binet swore yet once again that he would be a great success, since he threw himself with such spirit into the undertaking. Then in a voice that for the moment he appeared to have borrowed from the roaring captain, M. Binet marshalled them for the short parade across to the market-hall.

The new Scaramouche fell into place beside Rhodomont. The old one, hobbling on a crutch, had departed an hour ago to take the place of doorkeeper, vacated of necessity by Andre-Louis. So that the exchange between those two was a complete one.

Headed by Polichinelle banging his great drum and Pierrot blowing his trumpet, they set out, and were duly passed in review by the ragamuffins drawn up in files to enjoy so much of the spectacle as was to be obtained for nothing.

Ten minutes later the three knocks sounded, and the curtains were drawn aside to reveal a battered set that was partly garden, partly forest, in which Climene feverishly looked for the coming of Leandre. In the wings stood the beautiful, melancholy lover, awaiting his cue, and immediately behind him the unfledged Scaramouche, who was anon to follow him.

Andre-Louis was assailed with nausea in that dread moment. He attempted to take a lightning mental review of the first act of this scenario of which he was himself the author-in-chief; but found his mind a complete blank. With the perspiration starting from his skin, he stepped back to the wall, where above a dim lantern was pasted a sheet bearing the brief outline of the piece. He was still studying it, when his arm was clutched, and he was pulled violently towards the wings. He had a glimpse of Pantaloon’s grotesque face, its eyes blazing, and he caught a raucous growl:

“Climene has spoken your cue three times already.”

Before he realized it, he had been bundled on to the stage, and stood there foolishly, blinking in the glare of the footlights, with their tin reflectors. So utterly foolish and bewildered did he look that volley upon volley of laughter welcomed him from the audience, which this evening packed the hall from end to end. Trembling a little, his bewilderment at first increasing, he stood there to receive that rolling tribute to his absurdity. Climene was eyeing him with expectant mockery, savouring in advance his humiliation; Leandre regarded him in consternation, whilst behind the scenes, M. Binet was dancing in fury.

“Name of a name,” he groaned to the rather scared members of the company assembled there, “what will happen when they discover that he isn’t acting?”

But they never did discover it. Scaramouche’s bewildered paralysis lasted but a few seconds. He realized that he was being laughed at, and remembered that his Scaramouche was a creature to be laughed with, and not at. He must save the situation; twist it to his own advantage as best he could. And now his real bewilderment and terror was succeeded by acted bewilderment and terror far more marked, but not quite so funny. He contrived to make it clearly appear that his terror was of some one off the stage. He took cover behind a painted shrub, and thence, the laughter at last beginning to subside, he addressed himself to Climene and Leandre.

“Forgive me, beautiful lady, if the abrupt manner of my entrance startled you. The truth is that I have never been the same since that last affair of mine with Almaviva. My heart is not what it used to be. Down there at the end of the lane I came face to face with an elderly gentleman carrying a heavy cudgel, and the horrible thought entered my mind that it might be your father, and that our little stratagem to get you safely married might already have been betrayed to him. I think it was the cudgel put such notion in my head. Not that I am afraid. I am not really afraid of anything. But I could not help reflecting that, if it should really have been your father, and he had broken my head with his cudgel, your hopes would have perished with me. For without me, what should you have done, my poor children?”

A ripple of laughter from the audience had been steadily enheartening him, and helping him to recover his natural impudence. It was clear they found him comical. They were to find him far more comical than ever he had intended, and this was largely due to a fortuitous circumstance upon which he had insufficiently reckoned. The fear of recognition by some one from Gavrillac or Rennes had been strong upon him. His face was sufficiently made up to baffle recognition; but there remained his voice. To dissemble this he had availed himself of the fact that Figaro was a Spaniard. He had known a Spaniard at Louis le Grand who spoke a fluent but most extraordinary French, with a grotesque excess of sibilant sounds. It was an accent that he had often imitated, as youths will imitate characteristics that excite their mirth. Opportunely he had bethought him of that Spanish student, and it was upon his speech that to-night he modelled his own. The audience of Guichen found it as laughable on his lips as he and his fellows had found it formerly on the lips of that derided Spaniard.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Binet—listening to that glib impromptu of which the scenario gave no indication—had recovered from his fears.

“Dieu de Dieu!” he whispered, grinning. “Did he do it, then, on purpose?”

It seemed to him impossible that a man who had been so terror-stricken as he had fancied Andre-Louis, could have recovered his wits so quickly and completely. Yet the doubt remained.

To resolve it after the curtain had fallen upon a first act that had gone with a verve unrivalled until this hour in the annals of the company, borne almost entirely upon the slim shoulders of the new Scaramouche, M. Binet bluntly questioned him.

They were standing in the space that did duty as green-room, the company all assembled there, showering congratulations upon their new recruit. Scaramouche, a little exalted at the moment by his success, however trivial he might consider it to-morrow, took then a full revenge upon Climene for the malicious satisfaction with which she had regarded his momentary blank terror.

“I do not wonder that you ask,” said he. “Faith, I should have warned you that I intended to do my best from the start to put the audience in a good humour with me. Mademoiselle very nearly ruined everything by refusing to reflect any of my terror. She was not even startled. Another time, mademoiselle, I shall give you full warning of my every intention.”

She crimsoned under her grease-paint. But before she could find an answer of sufficient venom, her father was rating her soundly for her stupidity—the more soundly because himself he had been deceived by Scaramouche’s supreme acting.

Scaramouche’s success in the first act was more than confirmed as the performance proceeded. Completely master of himself by now, and stimulated as only success can stimulate, he warmed to his work. Impudent, alert, sly, graceful, he incarnated the very ideal of Scaramouche, and he helped out his own native wit by many a remembered line from Beaumarchais, thereby persuading the better informed among the audience that here indeed was something of the real Figaro, and bringing them, as it were, into touch with the great world of the capital.

When at last the curtain fell for the last time, it was Scaramouche who shared with Climene the honours of the evening, his name that was coupled with hers in the calls that summoned them before the curtains.

As they stepped back, and the curtains screened them again from the departing audience, M. Binet approached them, rubbing his fat hands softly together. This runagate young lawyer, whom chance had blown into his company, had evidently been sent by Fate to make his fortune for him. The sudden success at Guichen, hitherto unrivalled, should be repeated and augmented elsewhere. There would be no more sleeping under hedges and tightening of belts. Adversity was behind him. He placed a hand upon Scaramouche’s shoulder, and surveyed him with a smile whose oiliness not even his red paint and colossal false nose could dissemble.

“And what have you to say to me now?” he asked him. “Was I wrong when I assured you that you would succeed? Do you think I have followed my fortunes in the theatre for a lifetime without knowing a born actor when I see one? You are my discovery, Scaramouche. I have discovered you to yourself. I have set your feet upon the road to fame and fortune. I await your thanks.”

Scaramouche laughed at him, and his laugh was not altogether pleasant.

“Always Pantaloon!” said he.

The great countenance became overcast. “I see that you do not yet forgive me the little stratagem by which I forced you to do justice to yourself. Ungrateful dog! As if I could have had any purpose but to make you; and I have done so. Continue as you have begun, and you will end in Paris. You may yet tread the stage of the Comedie Francaise, the rival of Talma, Fleury, and Dugazon. When that happens to you perhaps you will feel the gratitude that is due to old Binet, for you will owe it all to this soft-hearted old fool.”

“If you were as good an actor on the stage as you are in private,” said Scaramouche, “you would yourself have won to the Comedie Francaise long since. But I bear no rancour, M. Binet.” He laughed, and put out his hand.

Binet fell upon it and wrung it heartily.

“That, at least, is something,” he declared. “My boy, I have great plans for you—for us. To-morrow we go to Maure; there is a fair there to the end of this week. Then on Monday we take our chances at Pipriac, and after that we must consider. It may be that I am about to realize the dream of my life. There must have been upwards of fifteen louis taken to-night. Where the devil is that rascal Cordemais?”

Cordemais was the name of the original Scaramouche, who had so unfortunately twisted his ankle. That Binet should refer to him by his secular designation was a sign that in the Binet company at least he had fallen for ever from the lofty eminence of Scaramouche.

“Let us go and find him, and then we’ll away to the inn and crack a bottle of the best Burgundy, perhaps two bottles.”

But Cordemais was not readily to be found. None of the company had seen him since the close of the performance. M. Binet went round to the entrance. Cordemais was not there. At first he was annoyed; then as he continued in vain to bawl the fellow’s name, he began to grow uneasy; lastly, when Polichinelle, who was with them, discovered Cordemais’ crutch standing discarded behind the door, M. Binet became alarmed. A dreadful suspicion entered his mind. He grew visibly pale under his paint.

“But this evening he couldn’t walk without the crutch!” he exclaimed. “How then does he come to leave it there and take himself off?”

“Perhaps he has gone on to the inn,” suggested some one.

“But he couldn’t walk without his crutch,” M. Binet insisted.

Nevertheless, since clearly he was not anywhere about the market-hall, to the inn they all trooped, and deafened the landlady with their inquiries.

“Oh, yes, M. Cordemais came in some time ago.”

“Where is he now?”

“He went away again at once. He just came for his bag.”

“For his bag!” Binet was on the point of an apoplexy. “How long ago was that?”

She glanced at the timepiece on the overmantel. “It would be about half an hour ago. It was a few minutes before the Rennes diligence passed through.”

“The Rennes diligence!” M. Binet was almost inarticulate. “Could he... could he walk?” he asked, on a note of terrible anxiety.

“Walk? He ran like a hare when he left the inn. I thought, myself, that his agility was suspicious, seeing how lame he had been since he fell downstairs yesterday. Is anything wrong?”

M. Binet had collapsed into a chair. He took his head in his hands, and groaned.

“The scoundrel was shamming all the time!” exclaimed Climene. “His fall downstairs was a trick. He was playing for this. He has swindled us.”

“Fifteen louis at least—perhaps sixteen!” said M. Binet. “Oh, the heartless blackguard! To swindle me who have been as a father to him—and to swindle me in such a moment.”

From the ranks of the silent, awe-stricken company, each member of which was wondering by how much of the loss his own meagre pay would be mulcted, there came a splutter of laughter.

M. Binet glared with blood-injected eyes.

“Who laughs?” he roared. “What heartless wretch has the audacity to laugh at my misfortune?”

Andre-Louis, still in the sable glories of Scaramouche, stood forward. He was laughing still.

“It is you, is it? You may laugh on another note, my friend, if I choose a way to recoup myself that I know of.”

“Dullard!” Scaramouche scorned him. “Rabbit-brained elephant! What if Cordemais has gone with fifteen louis? Hasn’t he left you something worth twenty times as much?”

M. Binet gaped uncomprehending.

“You are between two wines, I think. You’ve been drinking,” he concluded.

“So I have—at the fountain of Thalia. Oh, don’t you see? Don’t you see the treasure that Cordemais has left behind him?”

“What has he left?”

“A unique idea for the groundwork of a scenario. It unfolds itself all before me. I’ll borrow part of the title from Moliere. We’ll call it ‘Les Fourberies de Scaramouche,’ and if we don’t leave the audiences of Maure and Pipriac with sides aching from laughter I’ll play the dullard Pantaloon in future.”

Polichinelle smacked fist into palm. “Superb!” he said, fiercely. “To cull fortune from misfortune, to turn loss into profit, that is to have genius.”

Scaramouche made a leg. “Polichinelle, you are a fellow after my own heart. I love a man who can discern my merit. If Pantaloon had half your wit, we should have Burgundy to-night in spite of the flight of Cordemais.”

“Burgundy?” roared M. Binet, and before he could get farther Harlequin had clapped his hands together.

“That is the spirit, M. Binet. You heard him, landlady. He called for Burgundy.”

“I called for nothing of the kind.”

“But you heard him, dear madame. We all heard him.”

The others made chorus, whilst Scaramouche smiled at him, and patted his shoulder.

“Up, man, a little courage. Did you not say that fortune awaits us? And have we not now the wherewithal to constrain fortune? Burgundy, then, to... to toast ‘Les Fourberies de Scaramouche.’”

And M. Binet, who was not blind to the force of the idea, yielded, took courage, and got drunk with the rest.