Chapter II. What he did
He returned to the Tadcaster Inn,
It struck half-past six. It was a little before twilight.
Master Nicless stood on his doorstep.
He had not succeeded, since the morning, in extinguishing the terror which still showed on his scared face.
He perceived Ursus from afar.
“Well!” he cried.
“Is Gwynplaine coming back? It is full time. The public will soon be coming. Shall we have the performance of ‘The Laughing Man’ this evening?”
“I am the laughing man,” said Ursus.
And he looked at the tavern-keeper with a loud chuckle.
Then he went up to the first floor, opened the window next to the sign of the inn, leant over towards the placard about Gwynplaine, the laughing man, and the bill of “Chaos Vanquished;” unnailed the one, tore down the other, put both under his arm, and descended.
Master Nicless followed him with his eyes.
“Why do you unhook that?”
Ursus burst into a second fit of laughter.
“Why do you laugh?” said the tavern-keeper.
“I am re-entering private life.”
Master Nicless understood, and gave an order to his lieutenant, the boy Govicum, to announce to every one who should come that there would be no performance that evening. He took from the door the box made out of a cask, where they received the entrance money, and rolled it into a corner of the lower sitting-room.
A moment after, Ursus entered the Green Box.
He put the two signs away in a corner, and entered what he called the woman’s wing.
Dea was asleep.
She was on her bed, dressed as usual, excepting that the body of her gown was loosened, as when she was taking her siesta.
Near her Vinos and Fibi were sitting – one on a stool, the other on the ground – musing. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, they had not dressed themselves in their goddesses’ gauze, which was a sign of deep discouragement. They had remained in their drugget petticoats and their dress of coarse cloth.
Ursus looked at Dea.
“She is rehearsing for a longer sleep,” murmured he.
Then, addressing Fibi and Vinos, –
“You both know all. The music is over. You may put your trumpets into the drawer. You did well not to equip yourselves as deities. You look ugly enough as you are, but you were quite right. Keep on your petticoats. No performance to-night, nor to-morrow, nor the day after to-morrow. No Gwynplaine. Gwynplaine is clean gone.”
Then he looked at Dea again.
“What a blow to her this will be! It will be like blowing out a candle.”
He inflated his cheeks.
“Puff! nothing more.”
Then, with a little dry laugh, –
“Losing Gwynplaine, she loses all. It would be just as if I were to lose Homo. It will be worse. She will feel more lonely than any one else could. The blind wade through more sorrow than we do.”
He looked out of the window at the end of the room.
“How the days lengthen! It is not dark at seven o’clock. Nevertheless we will light up.”
He struck the steel and lighted the lamp which hung from the ceiling of the Green Box.
Then he leaned over Dea.
“She will catch cold; you have unlaced her bodice too low. There is a proverb, –
“‘Though April skies be bright,
Keep all your wrappers tight.'”
Seeing a pin shining on the floor, he picked it up and pinned up her sleeve. Then he paced the Green Box, gesticulating.
“I am in full possession of my faculties. I am lucid, quite lucid. I consider this occurrence quite proper, and I approve of what has happened. When she awakes I will explain everything to her clearly. The catastrophe will not be long in coming. No more Gwynplaine. Good-night, Dea. How well all has been arranged! Gwynplaine in prison, Dea in the cemetery, they will be vis-à-vis! A dance of death! Two destinies going off the stage at once. Pack up the dresses. Fasten the valise. For valise, read coffin. It was just what was best for them both. Dea without eyes, Gwynplaine without a face. On high the Almighty will restore sight to Dea and beauty to Gwynplaine. Death puts things to rights. All will be well. Fibi, Vinos, hang up your tambourines on the nail. Your talents for noise will go to rust, my beauties; no more playing, no more trumpeting ‘Chaos Vanquished’ is vanquished. ‘The Laughing Man’ is done for. ‘Taratantara’ is dead. Dea sleeps on. She does well. If I were she I would never awake. Oh! she will soon fall asleep again. A skylark like her takes very little killing. This comes of meddling with politics. What a lesson! Governments are right. Gwynplaine to the sheriff. Dea to the grave-digger. Parallel cases! Instructive symmetry! I hope the tavern-keeper has barred the door. We are going to die to-night quietly at home, between ourselves – not I, nor Homo, but Dea. As for me, I shall continue to roll on in the caravan. I belong to the meanderings of vagabond life. I shall dismiss these two women. I shall not keep even one of them. I have a tendency to become an old scoundrel. A maidservant in the house of a libertine is like a loaf of bread on the shelf. I decline the temptation. It is not becoming at my age. Turpe senilis amor. I will follow my way alone with Homo. How astonished Homo will be! Where is Gwynplaine? Where is Dea? Old comrade, here we are once more alone together. Plague take it! I’m delighted. Their bucolics were an encumbrance. Oh! that scamp Gwynplaine, who is never coming back. He has left us stuck here. I say ‘All right.’ And now ’tis Dea’s turn. That won’t be long. I like things to be done with. I would not snap my fingers to stop her dying – her dying, I tell you! See, she awakes!”
Dea opened her eyelids; many blind persons shut them when they sleep. Her sweet unwitting face wore all its usual radiance.
“She smiles,” whispered Ursus, “and I laugh. That is as it should be.”
Dea called, –
“Fibi! Vinos! It must be the time for the performance. I think I have been asleep a long time. Come and dress me.”
Neither Fibi nor Vinos moved.
Meanwhile the ineffable blind look of Dea’s eyes met those of Ursus. He started.
“Well!” he cried; “what are you about? Vinos! Fibi! Do you not hear your mistress? Are you deaf? Quick! the play is going to begin.”
The two women looked at Ursus in stupefaction.
Ursus shouted, –
“Do you not hear the audience coming in? – Fibi, dress Dea. – Vinos, take your tambourine.”
Fibi was obedient; Vinos, passive. Together, they personified submission. Their master, Ursus, had always been to them an enigma. Never to be understood is a reason for being always obeyed. They simply thought he had gone mad, and did as they were told. Fibi took down the costume, and Vinos the tambourine.
Fibi began to dress Dea. Ursus let down the door-curtain of the women’s room, and from behind the curtain continued, –
“Look there, Gwynplaine! the court is already more than half full of people. They are in heaps in the passages. What a crowd! And you say that Fibi and Vinos look as if they did not see them. How stupid the gipsies are! What fools they are in Egypt! Don’t lift the curtain from the door. Be decent. Dea is dressing.”
He paused, and suddenly they heard an exclamation, –
“How beautiful Dea is!”
It was the voice of Gwynplaine.
Fibi and Vinos started, and turned round. It was the voice of Gwynplaine, but in the mouth of Ursus.
Ursus, by a sign which he made through the door ajar, forbade the expression of any astonishment.
Then, again taking the voice of Gwynplaine, –
Then he replied in his own voice, –
“Dea an angel! You are a fool, Gwynplaine. No mammifer can fly except the bats.”
And he added, –
“Look here, Gwynplaine! Let Homo loose; that will be more to the purpose.”
And he descended the ladder of the Green Box very quickly, with the agile spring of Gwynplaine, imitating his step so that Dea could hear it.
In the court he addressed the boy, whom the occurrences of the day had made idle and inquisitive.
“Spread out both your hands,” said he, in a loud voice.
And he poured a handful of pence into them.
Govicum was grateful for his munificence.
Ursus whispered in his ear, –
“Boy, go into the yard; jump, dance, knock, bawl, whistle, coo, neigh, applaud, stamp your feet, burst out laughing, break something.”
Master Nicless, saddened and humiliated at seeing the folks who had come to see “The Laughing Man” turned back and crowding towards other caravans, had shut the door of the inn. He had even given up the idea of selling any beer or spirits that evening, that he might have to answer no awkward questions; and, quite overcome by the sudden close of the performance, was looking, with his candle in his hand, into the court from the balcony above.
Ursus, taking the precaution of putting his voice between parentheses fashioned by adjusting the palms of his hands to his mouth, cried out to him, –
“Sir! do as your boy is doing – yelp, bark, howl.”
He re-ascended the steps of the Green Box, and said to the wolf, –
“Talk as much as you can.”
Then, raising his voice, –
“What a crowd there is! We shall have a crammed performance.”
In the meantime Vinos played the tambourine. Ursus went on, –
“Dea is dressed. Now we can begin. I am sorry they have admitted so many spectators. How thickly packed they are! – Look, Gwynplaine, what a mad mob it is! I will bet that to-day we shall take more money than we have ever done yet. – Come, gipsies, play up, both of you. Come here. – Fibi, take your clarion. Good. – Vinos, drum on your tambourine. Fling it up and catch it again. – Fibi, put yourself into the attitude of Fame. – Young ladies, you have too much on. Take off those jackets. Replace stuff by gauze. The public like to see the female form exposed. Let the moralists thunder. A little indecency. Devil take it! what of that? Look voluptuous, and rush into wild melodies. Snort, blow, whistle, flourish, play the tambourine. – What a number of people, my poor Gwynplaine!”
He interrupted himself.
“Gwynplaine, help me. Let down the platform.” He spread out his pocket-handkerchief. “But first let me roar in my rag,” and he blew his nose violently as a ventriloquist ought. Having returned his handkerchief to his pocket, he drew the pegs out of the pulleys, which creaked as usual as the platform was let down.
“Gwynplaine, do not draw the curtain until the performance begins. We are not alone. – You two come on in front. Music, ladies! turn, turn, turn. – A pretty audience we have! the dregs of the people. Good heavens!”
The two gipsies, stupidly obedient, placed themselves in their usual corners of the platform. Then Ursus became wonderful. It was no longer a man, but a crowd. Obliged to make abundance out of emptiness, he called to aid his prodigious powers of ventriloquism. The whole orchestra of human and animal voices which was within him he called into tumult at once.
He was legion. Any one with his eyes closed would have imagined that he was in a public place on some day of rejoicing, or in some sudden popular riot. A whirlwind of clamour proceeded from Ursus: he sang, he shouted, he talked, he coughed, he spat, he sneezed, took snuff, talked and responded, put questions and gave answers, all at once. The half-uttered syllables ran one into another. In the court, untenanted by a single spectator, were heard men, women, and children. It was a clear confusion of tumult. Strange laughter wound, vapour-like, through the noise, the chirping of birds, the swearing of cats, the wailings of children at the breast. The indistinct tones of drunken men were to be heard, and the growls of dogs under the feet of people who stamped on them. The cries came from far and near, from top to bottom, from the upper boxes to the pit. The whole was an uproar, the detail was a cry. Ursus clapped his hands, stamped his feet, threw his voice to the end of the court, and then made it come from underground. It was both stormy and familiar. It passed from a murmur to a noise, from a noise to a tumult, from a tumult to a tempest. He was himself, any, every one else. Alone, and polyglot. As there are optical illusions, there are also auricular illusions. That which Proteus did to sight Ursus did to hearing. Nothing could be more marvellous than his facsimile of multitude. From time to time he opened the door of the women’s apartment and looked at Dea. Dea was listening. On his part the boy exerted himself to the utmost. Vinos and Fibi trumpeted conscientiously, and took turns with the tambourine. Master Nicless, the only spectator, quietly made himself the same explanation as they did – that Ursus was gone mad; which was, for that matter, but another sad item added to his misery. The good tavern-keeper growled out, “What insanity!” And he was serious as a man might well be who has the fear of the law before him.
Govicum, delighted at being able to help in making a noise, exerted himself almost as much as Ursus. It amused him, and, moreover, it earned him pence.
Homo was pensive.
In the midst of the tumult Ursus now and then uttered such words as these: – “Just as usual, Gwynplaine. There is a cabal against us. Our rivals are undermining our success. Tumult is the seasoning of triumph. Besides, there are too many people. They are uncomfortable. The angles of their neighbours’ elbows do not dispose them to good-nature. I hope the benches will not give way. We shall be the victims of an incensed population. Oh, if our friend Tom-Jim-Jack were only here! but he never comes now. Look at those heads rising one above the other. Those who are forced to stand don’t look very well pleased, though the great Galen pronounced it to be strengthening. We will shorten the entertainment; as only ‘Chaos Vanquished’ was announced in the playbill, we will not play ‘Ursus Rursus.’ There will be something gained in that. What an uproar! O blind turbulence of the masses. They will do us some damage. However, they can’t go on like this. We should not be able to play. No one can catch a word of the piece. I am going to address them. Gwynplaine, draw the curtain a little aside. – Gentlemen.” Here Ursus addressed himself with a shrill and feeble voice, –
“Down with that old fool!”
Then he answered in his own voice, –
“It seems that the mob insult me. Cicero is right: plebs fex urbis. Never mind; we will admonish the mob, though I shall have a great deal of trouble to make myself heard. I will speak, notwithstanding. Man, do your duty. Gwynplaine, look at that scold grinding her teeth down there.”
Ursus made a pause, in which he placed a gnashing of his teeth. Homo, provoked, added a second, and Govicum a third.
Ursus went on, –
“The women are worse than the men. The moment is unpropitious, but it doesn’t matter! Let us try the power of a speech; an eloquent speech is never out of place. Listen, Gwynplaine, to my attractive exordium. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a bear. I take off my head to address you. I humbly appeal to you for silence.” Ursus, lending a cry to the crowd, said, “Grumphll!”
Then he continued, –
“I respect my audience. Grumphll is an epiphonema as good as any other welcome. You growlers. That you are all of the dregs of the people, I do not doubt. That in no way diminishes my esteem for you. A well-considered esteem. I have a profound respect for the bullies who honour me with their custom. There are deformed folks amongst you. They give me no offence. The lame and the humpbacked are works of nature. The camel is gibbous. The bison’s back is humped. The badger’s left legs are shorter than the right, That fact is decided by Aristotle, in his treatise on the walking of animals. There are those amongst you who have but two shirts – one on his back, and the other at the pawnbroker’s. I know that to be true. Albuquerque pawned his moustache, and St. Denis his glory. The Jews advanced money on the glory. Great examples. To have debts is to have something. I revere your beggardom.”
Ursus cut short his speech, interrupting it in a deep bass voice by the shout, –
And he answered in his politest accent, –
“I admit it. I am a learned man. I do my best to apologize for it. I scientifically despise science. Ignorance is a reality on which we feed; science is a reality on which we starve. In general one is obliged to choose between two things – to be learned and grow thin, or to browse and be an ass. O gentlemen, browse! Science is not worth a mouthful of anything nice. I had rather eat a sirloin of beef than know what they call the psoas muscle. I have but one merit – a dry eye. Such as you see me, I have never wept. It must be owned that I have never been satisfied – never satisfied – not even with myself. I despise myself; but I submit this to the members of the opposition here present – if Ursus is only a learned man, Gwynplaine is an artist.”
He groaned again, –
And resumed, –
“Grumphll again! it is an objection. All the same, I pass it over. Near Gwynplaine, gentlemen and ladies, is another artist, a valued and distinguished personage who accompanies us – his lordship Homo, formerly a wild dog, now a civilized wolf, and a faithful subject of her Majesty’s. Homo is a mine of deep and superior talent. Be attentive and watch. You are going to set Homo play as well as Gwynplaine, and you must do honour to art. That is an attribute of great nations. Are you men of the woods? I admit the fact. In that case, sylvæ sunt consule digna. Two artists are well worth one consul. All right! Some one has flung a cabbage stalk at me, but did not hit me. That will not stop my speaking; on the contrary, a danger evaded makes folks garrulous. Garrula pericula, says Juvenal. My hearers! there are amongst you drunken men and drunken women. Very well. The men are unwholesome. The women are hideous. You have all sorts of excellent reasons for stowing yourselves away here on the benches of the pothouse – want of work, idleness, the spare time between two robberies, porter, ale, stout, malt, brandy, gin, and the attraction of one sex for the other. What could be better? A wit prone to irony would find this a fair field. But I abstain. ‘Tis luxury; so be it, but even an orgy should be kept within bounds. You are gay, but noisy. You imitate successfully the cries of beasts; but what would you say if, when you were making love to a lady, I passed my time in barking at you? It would disturb you, and so it disturbs us. I order you to hold your tongues. Art is as respectable as debauch. I speak to you civilly.”
He apostrophized himself, –
“May the fever strangle you, with your eyebrows like the beard of rye.”
And he replied, –
“Honourable gentlemen, let the rye alone. It is impious to insult the vegetables, by likening them either to human creatures or animals. Besides, the fever does not strangle. ‘Tis a false metaphor. For pity’s sake, keep silence. Allow me to tell you that you are slightly wanting in the repose which characterizes the true English gentleman. I see that some amongst you, who have shoes out of which their toes are peeping, take advantage of the circumstance to rest their feet on the shoulders of those who are in front of them, causing the ladies to remark that the soles of shoes divide always at the part at which is the head of the metatarsal bones. Show more of your hands and less of your feet. I perceive scamps who plunge their ingenious fists into the pockets of their foolish neighbours. Dear pickpockets, have a little modesty. Fight those next to you if you like; do not plunder them. You will vex them less by blackening an eye, than by lightening their purses of a penny. Break their noses if you like. The shopkeeper thinks more of his money than of his beauty. Barring this, accept my sympathies, for I am not pedantic enough to blame thieves. Evil exists. Every one endures it, every one inflicts it. No one is exempt from the vermin of his sins. That’s what I keep saying. Have we not all our itch? I myself have made mistakes. Plaudite, cives.”
Ursus uttered a long groan, which he overpowered by these concluding words, –
“My lords and gentlemen, I see that my address has unluckily displeased you. I take leave of your hisses for a moment. I shall put on my head, and the performance is going to begin.”
He dropt his oratorical tone, and resumed his usual voice.
“Close the curtains. Let me breathe. I have spoken like honey. I have spoken well. My words were like velvet; but they were useless. I called them my lords and gentlemen. What do you think of all this scum, Gwynplaine? How well may we estimate the ills which England has suffered for the last forty years through the ill-temper of these irritable and malicious spirits! The ancient Britons were warlike; these are melancholy and learned. They glory in despising the laws and contemning royal authority. I have done all that human eloquence can do. I have been prodigal of metonymics, as gracious as the blooming cheek of youth. Were they softened by them? I doubt it. What can affect a people who eat so extraordinarily, who stupefy themselves by tobacco so completely that their literary men often write their works with a pipe in their mouths? Never mind. Let us begin the play.”
The rings of the curtain were heard being drawn over the rod. The tambourines of the gipsies were still. Ursus took down his instrument, executed his prelude, and said in a low tone: “Alas, Gwynplaine, how mysterious it is!” then he flung himself down with the wolf.
When he had taken down his instrument, he had also taken from the nail a rough wig which he had, and which he had thrown on the stage in a corner within his reach. The performance of “Chaos Vanquished” took place as usual, minus only the effect of the blue light and the brilliancy of the fairies. The wolf played his best. At the proper moment Dea made her appearance, and, in her voice so tremulous and heavenly, invoked Gwynplaine. She extended her arms, feeling for that head.
Ursus rushed at the wig, ruffled it, put it on, advanced softly, and holding his breath, his head bristled thus under the hand of Dea.
Then calling all his art to his aid, and copying Gwynplaine’s voice, he sang with ineffable love the response of the monster to the call of the spirit. The imitation was so perfect that again the gipsies looked for Gwynplaine, frightened at hearing without seeing him.
Govicum, filled with astonishment, stamped, applauded, clapped his hands, producing an Olympian tumult, and himself laughed as if he had been a chorus of gods. This boy, it must be confessed, developed a rare talent for acting an audience.
Fibi and Vinos, being automatons of which Ursus pulled the strings, rattled their instruments, composed of copper and ass’s skin – the usual sign of the performance being over and of the departure of the people.
Ursus arose, covered with perspiration. He said, in a low voice, to Homo, “You see it was necessary to gain time. I think we have succeeded. I have not acquitted myself badly – I, who have as much reason as any one to go distracted. Gwynplaine may perhaps return to-morrow. It is useless to kill Dea directly. I can explain matters to you.”
He took off his wig and wiped his forehead.
“I am a ventriloquist of genius,” murmured he. “What talent I displayed! I have equalled Brabant, the engastrimist of Francis I. of France. Dea is convinced that Gwynplaine is here.”
“Ursus,” said Dea, “where is Gwynplaine?”
Ursus started and turned round. Dea was still standing at the back of the stage, alone under the lamp which hung from the ceiling. She was pale, with the pallor of a ghost.
She added, with an ineffable expression of despair, –
“I know. He has left us. He is gone. I always knew that he had wings.”
And raising her sightless eyes on high, she added, –
“When shall I follow?”