THE COMIC MUSE
The company's entrance into the township of Guichen, if not exactly
triumphal, as Binet had expressed the desire that it should be, was
at least sufficiently startling and cacophonous to set the rustics
gaping. To them these fantastic creatures appeared - as indeed they
were - beings from another world.
First went the great travelling chaise, creaking and groaning on its
way, drawn by two of the Flemish horses. It was Pantaloon who drove
it, an obese and massive Pantaloon in a tight-fitting suit of scarlet
under a long brown bed-gown, his countenance adorned by a colossal
cardboard nose. Beside him on the box sat Pierrot in a white smock,
with sleeves that completely covered his hands, loose white trousers,
and a black skull-cap. He had whitened his face with flour, and he
made hideous noises with a trumpet.
On the roof of the coach were assembled Polichinelle, Scaramouche,
Harlequin, and Pasquariel. Polichinelle in black and white, his
doublet cut in the fashion of a century ago, with humps before and
behind, a white frill round his neck and a black mask upon the upper
half of his face, stood in the middle, his feet planted wide to
steady him, solemnly and viciously banging a big drum. The other
three were seated each at one of the corners of the roof, their legs
dangling over. Scaramouche, all in black in the Spanish fashion of
the seventeenth century, his face adorned with a pair of mostachios,
jangled a guitar discordantly. Harlequin, ragged and patched in
every colour of the rainbow, with his leather girdle and sword of
lath, the upper half of his face smeared in soot, clashed a pair of
cymbals intermittently. Pasquariel, as an apothecary in skull-cap
and white apron, excited the hilarity of the onlookers by his
enormous tin clyster, which emitted when pumped a dolorous squeak.
Within the chaise itself, but showing themselves freely at the
windows, and exchanging quips with the townsfolk, sat the three
ladies of the company. Climene, the amoureuse, beautifully gowned
in flowered satin, her own clustering ringlets concealed under a
pumpkin-shaped wig, looked so much the lady of fashion that you
might have wondered what she was dong in that fantastic rabble.
Madame, as the mother, was also dressed with splendour, but
exaggerated to achieve the ridiculous. Her headdress was a
monstrous structure adorned with flowers, and superimposed by little
ostrich plumes. Columbine sat facing them, her back to the horses,
falsely demure, in milkmaid bonnet of white muslin, and a striped
gown of green and blue.
The marvel was that the old chaise, which in its halcyon days may
have served to carry some dignitary of the Church, did not founder
instead of merely groaning under that excessive and ribald load.
Next came the house on wheels, led by the long, lean Rhodomont, who
had daubed his face red, and increased the terror of it by a pair
of formidable mostachios. He was in long thigh-boots and leather
jerkin, trailing an enormous sword from a crimson baldrick. He wore
a broad felt hat with a draggled feather, and as he advanced he
raised his great voice and roared out defiance, and threats of
blood-curdling butchery to be performed upon all and sundry. On
the roof of this vehicle sat Leandre alone. He was in blue satin,
with ruffles, small sword, powdered hair, patches and spy-glass, and
red-heeled shoes: the complete courtier, looking very handsome. The
women of Guichen ogled him coquettishly. He took the ogling as a
proper tribute to his personal endowments, and returned it with
interest. Like Climene, he looked out of place amid the bandits who
composed the remainder of the company.
Bringing up the rear came Andre-Louis leading the two donkeys that
dragged the property-cart. He had insisted upon assuming a false
nose, representing as for embellishment that which he intended for
disguise. For the rest, he had retained his own garments. No one
paid any attention to him as he trudged along beside his donkeys,
an insignificant rear guard, which he was well content to be.
They made the tour of the town, in which the activity was already
above the normal in preparation for next week's fair. At intervals
they halted, the cacophony would cease abruptly, and Polichinelle
would announce in a stentorian voice that at five o'clock that
evening in the old market, M. Binet's famous company of improvisers
would perform a new comedy in four acts entitled, "The Heartless
Thus at last they came to the old market, which was the groundfloor
of the town hall, and open to the four winds by two archways on each
side of its length, and one archway on each side of its breadth.
These archways, with two exceptions, had been boarded up. Through
those two, which gave admission to what presently would be the
theatre, the ragamuffins of the town, and the niggards who were
reluctant to spend the necessary sous to obtain proper admission,
might catch furtive glimpses of the performance.
That afternoon was the most strenuous of Andre-Louis' life,
unaccustomed as he was to any sort of manual labour. It was spent
in erecting and preparing the stage at one end of the market-hall;
and he began to realize how hard-earned were to be his monthly
fifteen livres. At first there were four of them to the task - or
really three, for Pantaloon did no more than bawl directions.
Stripped of their finery, Rhodomont and Leandre assisted Andre-Louis
in that carpentering. Meanwhile the other four were at dinner with
the ladies. When a half-hour or so later they came to carry on the
work, Andre-Louis and his companions went to dine in their turn,
leaving Polichinelle to direct the operations as well as assist in
They crossed the square to the cheap little inn where they had
taken up their quarters. In the narrow passage Andre-Louis came
face to face with Climene, her fine feathers cast, and restored by
now to her normal appearance
"And how do you like it?" she asked him, pertly.
He looked her in the eyes. "It has its compensations," quoth he,
in that curious cold tone of his that left one wondering whether he
meant or not what he seemed to mean.
She knit her brows. "You... you feel the need of compensations
"Faith, I felt it from the beginning," said he. "It was the
perception of them allured me."
They were quite alone, the others having gone on into the room set
apart for them, where food was spread. Andre-Louis, who was as
unlearned in Woman as he was learned in Man, was not to know, upon
feeling himself suddenly extraordinarily aware of her femininity,
that it was she who in some subtle, imperceptible manner so rendered
"What," she asked him, with demurest innocence, "are these
He caught himself upon the brink of the abyss.
"Fifteen livres a month," said he, abruptly.
A moment she stared at him bewildered. He was very disconcerting.
Then she recovered.
"Oh, and bed and board," said she. "Don't be leaving that from
the reckoning, as you seem to be doing; for your dinner will be
going cold. Aren't you coming?"
"Haven't you dined?" he cried, and she wondered had she caught a
note of eagerness.
"No," she answered, over her shoulder. "I waited."
"What for?" quoth his innocence, hopefully.
"I had to change, of course, zany," she answered, rudely. Having
dragged him, as she imagined, to the chopping-block, she could not
refrain from chopping. But then he was of those who must be
"And you left your manners upstairs with your grand-lady clothes,
mademoiselle. I understand."
A scarlet flame suffused her face. "You are very insolent," she
"I've often been told so. But I don't believe it." He thrust open
the door for her, and bowing with an air which imposed upon her,
although it was merely copied from Fleury of the Comedie Francaise,
so often visited in the Louis le Grand days, he waved her in.
"After you, ma demoiselle." For greater emphasis he deliberately
broke the word into its two component parts.
"I thank you, monsieur," she answered, frostily, as near sneering
as was possible to so charming a person, and went in, nor addressed
him again throughout the meal. Instead, she devoted herself with
an unusual and devastating assiduity to the suspiring Leandre, that
poor devil who could not successfully play the lover with her on
the stage because of his longing to play it in reality.
Andre-Louis ate his herrings and black bread with a good appetite
nevertheless. It was poor fare, but then poor fare was the common
lot of poor people in that winter of starvation, and since he had
cast in his fortunes with a company whose affairs were not
flourishing, he must accept the evils of the situation
"Have you a name?" Binet asked him once in the course of that repast
and during a pause in the conversation.
"It happens that I have," said he. "I think it is Parvissimus.
"Parvissimus?" quoth Binet. "Is that a family name?"
"In such a company, where only the leader enjoys the privilege of a
family name, the like would be unbecoming its least member. So I
take the name that best becomes in me. And I think it is Parvissimus
- the very least."
Binet was amused. It was droll; it showed a ready fancy. Oh, to be
sure, they must get to work together on those scenarios.
"I shall prefer it to carpentering," said Andre-Louis. Nevertheless
he had to go back to it that afternoon, and to labour strenuously
until four o'clock, when at last the autocratic Binet announced
himself satisfied with the preparations, and proceeded, again with
the help of Andre-Louis, to prepare the lights, which were supplied
partly by tallow candles and partly by lamps burning fish-oil.
At five o'clock that evening the three knocks were sounded, and the
curtain rose on "The Heartless Father."
Among the duties inherited by Andre-Louis from the departed Felicien
whom he replaced, was that of doorkeeper. This duty he discharged
dressed in a Polichinelle costume, and wearing a pasteboard nose.
It was an arrangement mutually agreeable to M. Binet and himself. M.
Binet - who had taken the further precaution of retaining Andre-Louis'
own garments - was thereby protected against the risk of his latest
recruit absconding with the takings. Andre-Louis, without illusions
on the score of Pantaloon's real object, agreed to it willingly
enough, since it protected him from the chance of recognition by any
acquaintance who might possibly be in Guichen.
The performance was in every sense unexciting; the audience meagre
and unenthusiastic. The benches provided in the front half of the
market contained some twenty-seven persons: eleven at twenty sous
a head and sixteen at twelve. Behind these stood a rabble of some
thirty others at six sous apiece. Thus the gross takings were two
louis, ten livres, and two sous. By the time M. Binet had paid for
the use of the market, his lights, and the expenses of his company
at the inn over Sunday, there was not likely to be very much left
towards the wages of his players. It is not surprising, therefore,
that M. Binet's bonhomie should have been a trifle overcast that
"And what do you think of it?" he asked Andre-Louis, as they were
walking back to the inn after the performance.
"Possibly it could have been worse; probably it could not," said he.
In sheer amazement M. Binet checked in his stride, and turned to
look at his companion.
"Huh!" said he. "Dieu de Dien! But you are frank."
"An unpopular form of service among fools, I know."
"Well, I am not a fool," said Binet.
"That is why I am frank. I pay you the compliment of assuming
intelligence in you, M. Binet."
"Oh, you do?" quoth M. Binet. "And who the devil are you to assume
anything? Your assumptions are presumptuous, sir." And with that
he lapsed into silence and the gloomy business of mentally casting
up his accounts.
But at table over supper a half-hour later he revived the topic.
"Our latest recruit, this excellent M. Parvissimus," he announced,
"has the impudence to tell me that possibly our comedy could have
been worse, but that probably it could not." And he blew out his
great round cheeks to invite a laugh at the expense of that foolish
"That's bad," said the swarthy and sardonic Polichinelle. He was
grave as Rhadamanthus pronouncing judgment. "That's bad. But what
is infinitely worse is that the audience had the impudence to be of
the same mind."
"An ignorant pack of clods," sneered Leandre, with a toss of his
"You are wrong," quoth Harlequin. "You were born for love, my dear,
Leandre - a dull dog, as you will have conceived - looked
contemptuously down upon the little man. "And you, what were you
born for?" he wondered.
"Nobody knows," was the candid admission. "Nor yet why. It is the
case of many of us, my dear, believe me."
"But why" - M. Binet took him up, and thus spoilt the beginnings of
a very pretty quarrel - "why do you say that Leandre is wrong?"
"To be general, because he is always wrong. To be particular,
because I judge the audience of Guichen to be too sophisticated
for 'The Heartless Father.'"
"You would put it more happily," interposed Andre-Louis - who was
the cause of this discussion - "if you said that 'The Heartless
Father' is too unsophisticated for the audience of Guichen."
"Why, what's the difference?" asked Leandre.
"I didn't imply a difference. I merely suggested that it is a
happier way to express the fact."
"The gentleman is being subtle," sneered Binet.
"Why happier?" Harlequin demanded.
"Because it is easier to bring 'The Heartless Father' to the
sophistication of the Guichen audience, than the Guichen audience
to the unsophistication of 'The Heartless Father.'"
"Let me think it out," groaned Polichinelle, and he took his head
in his hands.
But from the tail of the table Andre-Louis was challenged by Climene
who sat there between Columbine and Madame.
"You would alter the comedy, would you, M. Parvissimus?" she cried.
He turned to parry her malice.
"I would suggest that it be altered," he corrected, inclining his
"And how would you alter it, monsieur?"
"I? Oh, for the better."
"But of course!" She was sleekest sarcasm. "And how would you do it?"
"Aye, tell us that," roared M. Binet, and added: "Silence, I pray
you, gentlemen and ladies. Silence for M. Parvissimus."
Andre-Louis looked from father to daughter, and smiled. "Pardi!"
said he. "I am between bludgeon and dagger. If I escape with my
life, I shall be fortunate. Why, then, since you pin me to the very
wall, I'll tell you what I should do. I should go back to the
original and help myself more freely from it."
"The original?" questioned M. Binet - the author.
"It is called, I believe, 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' and was written
Somebody tittered, but that somebody was not M. Binet. He had been
touched on the raw, and the look in his little eyes betrayed the
fact that his bonhomme exterior covered anything but a bonhomme.
"You charge me with plagiarism," he said at last; "with filching the
ideas of Moliere."
"There is always, of course," said Andre-Louis, unruffled, "the
alternative possibility of two great minds working upon parallel
M. Binet studied the young man attentively a moment. He found him
bland and inscrutable, and decided to pin him down.
"Then you do not imply that I have been stealing from Moliere?"
"I advise you to do so, monsieur," was the disconcerting reply.
M. Binet was shocked.
"You advise me to do so! You advise me, me, Antoine Binet, to turn
thief at my age!"
"He is outrageous," said mademoiselle, indignantly.
"Outrageous is the word. I thank you for it, my dear. I take you
on trust, sir. You sit at my table, you have the honour to be
included in my company, and to my face you have the audacity to
advise me to become a thief - the worst kind of thief that is
conceivable, a thief of spiritual things, a thief of ideas! It is
insufferable, intolerable! I have been, I fear, deeply mistaken
in you, monsieur; just as you appear to have been mistaken in me.
I am not the scoundrel you suppose me, sir, and I will not number
in my company a man who dares to suggest that I should become one.
He was very angry. His voice boomed through the little room, and
the company sat hushed and something scared, their eyes upon
Andre-Louis, who was the only one entirely unmoved by this outburst
of virtuous indignation.
"You realize, monsieur," he said, very quietly, "that you are
insulting the memory of the illustrious dead?"
"Eh?" said Binet.
Andre-Louis developed his sophistries.
"You insult the memory of Moliere, the greatest ornament of our
stage, one of the greatest ornaments of our nation, when you suggest
that there is vileness in doing that which he never hesitated to do,
which no great author yet has hesitated to do. You cannot suppose
that Moliere ever troubled himself to be original in the matter of
ideas. You cannot suppose that the stories he tells in his plays
have never been told before. They were culled, as you very well
know - though you seem momentarily to have forgotten it, and it is
therefore necessary that I should remind you - they were culled,
many of them, from the Italian authors, who themselves had culled
them Heaven alone knows where. Moliere took those old stories and
retold them in his own language. That is precisely what I am
suggesting that you should do. Your company is a company of
improvisers. You supply the dialogue as you proceed, which is
rather more than Moliere ever attempted. You may, if you prefer it
- though it would seem to me to be yielding to an excess of scruple
- go straight to Boccaccio or Sacchetti. But even then you cannot
be sure that you have reached the sources."
Andre-Louis came off with flying colours after that. You see what
a debater was lost in him; how nimble he was in the art of making
white look black. The company was impressed, and no one more that
M. Binet, who found himself supplied with a crushing argument
against those who in future might tax him with the impudent
plagiarisms which he undoubtedly perpetrated. He retired in the
best order he could from the position he had taken up at the outset.
"So that you think," he said, at the end of a long outburst of
agreement, "you think that our story of 'The Heartless Father'
could be enriched by dipping into 'Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,' to
which I confess upon reflection that it may present certain
"I do; most certainly I do - always provided that you do so
judiciously. Times have changed since Moliere." It was as a
consequence of this that Binet retired soon after, taking
Andre-Louis with him. The pair sat together late that night, and
were again in close communion throughout the whole of Sunday morning.
After dinner M. Binet read to the assembled company the amended and
amplified canevas of "The Heartless Father," which, acting upon the
advice of M. Parvissimus, he had been at great pains to prepare.
The company had few doubts as to the real authorship before he began
to read; none at all when he had read. There was a verve, a grip
about this story; and, what was more, those of them who knew their
Moliere realized that far from approaching the original more closely,
this canevas had drawn farther away from it. Moliere's original
part - the title role - had dwindled into insignificance, to the
great disgust of Polichinelle, to whom it fell. But the other parts
had all been built up into importance, with the exception of Leandre,
who remained as before. The two great roles were now Scaramouche,
in the character of the intriguing Sbrigandini, and Pantaloon the
father. There was, too, a comical part for Rhodomont, as the
roaring bully hired by Polichinelle to cut Leandre into ribbons.
And in view of the importance now of Scaramouche, the play had been
This last had not been without a deal of opposition from M. Binet.
But his relentless collaborator, who was in reality the real author
- drawing shamelessly, but practically at last upon his great store
of reading - had overborne him.
"You must move with the times, monsieur. In Paris Beaumarchais is
the rage. 'Figaro' is known to-day throughout the world. Let us
borrow a little of his glory. It will draw the people in. They
will come to see half a 'Figaro' when they will not come to see a
dozen 'Heartless Fathers.' Therefore let us cast the mantle of
Figaro upon some one, and proclaim it in our title."
"But as I am the head of the company... " began M. Binet, weakly.
"If you will be blind to your interests, you will presently be a
head without a body. And what use is that? Can the shoulders of
Pantaloon carry the mantle of Figaro? You laugh. Of course you
laugh. The notion is absurd. The proper person for the mantle of
Figaro is Scaramouche, who is naturally Figaro's twin-brother."
Thus tyrannized, the tyrant Binet gave way, comforted by the
reflection that if he understood anything at all about the theatre,
he had for fifteen livres a month acquired something that would
presently be earning him as many louis.
The company's reception of the canevas now confirmed him, if we
except Polichinelle, who, annoyed at having lost half his part in
the alterations, declared the new scenario fatuous.
"Ah! You call my work fatuous, do you?" M. Binet hectored him.
"Your work?" said Polichinelle, to add with his tongue in his cheek:
"Ah, pardon. I had not realized that you were the author."
"Then realize it now."
"You were very close with M. Parvissimus over this authorship," said
Polichinelle, with impudent suggestiveness.
"And what if I was? What do you imply?"
"That you took him to cut quills for you, of course."
"I'll cut your ears for you if you're not civil," stormed the
Polichinelle got up slowly, and stretched himself.
"Dieu de Dieu!" said he. "If Pantaloon is to play Rhodomont, I
think I'll leave you. He is not amusing in the part." And he
swaggered out before M. Binet had recovered from his speechlessness.