Chapter VII. Why Should a Gold Piece Lower Itself by Mixing with a Heap of Pennies?
An event happened.
The Tadcaster Inn became more and more a furnace of joy and laughter. Never was there more resonant gaiety. The landlord and his boy were become insufficient to draw the ale, stout, and porter. In the evening in the lower room, with its windows all aglow, there was not a vacant table. They sang, they shouted; the great old hearth, vaulted like an oven, with its iron bars piled with coals, shone out brightly. It was like a house of fire and noise.
In the yard – that is to say, in the theatre – the crowd was greater still.
Crowds as great as the suburb of Southwark could supply so thronged the performances of “Chaos Vanquished” that directly the curtain was raised – that is to say, the platform of the Green Box was lowered – every place was filled. The windows were alive with spectators, the balcony was crammed. Not a single paving-stone in the paved yard was to be seen. It seemed paved with faces.
Only the compartment for the nobility remained empty.
There was thus a space in the centre of the balcony, a black hole, called in metaphorical slang, an oven. No one there. Crowds everywhere except in that one spot.
One evening it was occupied.
It was on a Saturday, a day on which the English make all haste to amuse themselves before the ennui of Sunday. The hall was full.
We say hall. Shakespeare for a long time had to use the yard of an inn for a theatre, and he called it hall.
Just as the curtain rose on the prologue of “Chaos Vanquished,” with Ursus, Homo, and Gwynplaine on the stage, Ursus, from habit, cast a look at the audience, and felt a sensation.
The compartment for the nobility was occupied. A lady was sitting alone in the middle of the box, on the Utrecht velvet arm-chair. She was alone, and she filled the box. Certain beings seem to give out light. This lady, like Dea, had a light in herself, but a light of a different character.
Dea was pale, this lady was pink. Dea was the twilight, this lady, Aurora. Dea was beautiful, this lady was superb. Dea was innocence, candour, fairness, alabaster – this woman was of the purple, and one felt that she did not fear the blush. Her irradiation overflowed the box, she sat in the midst of it, immovable, in the spreading majesty of an idol.
Amidst the sordid crowd she shone out grandly, as with the radiance of a carbuncle. She inundated it with so much light that she drowned it in shadow, and all the mean faces in it underwent eclipse. Her splendour blotted out all else.
Every eye was turned towards her.
Tom-Jim-Jack was in the crowd. He was lost like the rest in the nimbus of this dazzling creature.
The lady at first absorbed the whole attention of the public, who had crowded to the performance, thus somewhat diminishing the opening effects of “Chaos Vanquished.”
Whatever might be the air of dreamland about her, for those who were near she was a woman; perchance too much a woman.
She was tall and amply formed, and showed as much as possible of her magnificent person. She wore heavy earrings of pearls, with which were mixed those whimsical jewels called “keys of England.” Her upper dress was of Indian muslin, embroidered all over with gold – a great luxury, because those muslin dresses then cost six hundred crowns. A large diamond brooch closed her chemise, the which she wore so as to display her shoulders and bosom, in the immodest fashion of the time; the chemisette was made of that lawn of which Anne of Austria had sheets so fine that they could be passed through a ring. She wore what seemed like a cuirass of rubies – some uncut, but polished, and precious stones were sewn all over the body of her dress. Then, her eyebrows were blackened with Indian ink; and her arms, elbows, shoulders, chin, and nostrils, with the top of her eyelids, the lobes of her ears, the palms of her hands, the tips of her fingers, were tinted with a glowing and provoking touch of colour. Above all, she wore an expression of implacable determination to be beautiful. This reached the point of ferocity. She was like a panther, with the power of turning cat at will, and caressing. One of her eyes was blue, the other black.
Gwynplaine, as well as Ursus, contemplated her.
The Green Box somewhat resembled a phantasmagoria in its representations. “Chaos Vanquished” was rather a dream than a piece; it generally produced on the audience the effect of a vision. Now, this effect was reflected on the actors. The house took the performers by surprise, and they were thunderstruck in their turn. It was a rebound of fascination.
The woman watched them, and they watched her.
At the distance at which they were placed, and in that luminous mist which is the half-light of a theatre, details were lost and it was like a hallucination. Of course it was a woman, but was it not a chimera as well? The penetration of her light into their obscurity stupefied them. It was like the appearance of an unknown planet. It came from a world of the happy. Her irradiation amplified her figure. The lady was covered with nocturnal glitterings, like a milky way. Her precious stones were stars. The diamond brooch was perhaps a pleiad. The splendid beauty of her bosom seemed supernatural. They felt, as they looked upon the star-like creature, the momentary but thrilling approach of the regions of felicity. It was out of the heights of a Paradise that she leant towards their mean-looking Green Box, and revealed to the gaze of its wretched audience her expression of inexorable serenity. As she satisfied her unbounded curiosity, she fed at the same time the curiosity of the public.
It was the Zenith permitting the Abyss to look at it.
Ursus, Gwynplaine, Vinos, Fibi, the crowd, every one had succumbed to her dazzling beauty, except Dea, ignorant in her darkness.
An apparition was indeed before them; but none of the ideas usually evoked by the word were realized in the lady’s appearance.
There was nothing about her diaphanous, nothing undecided, nothing floating, no mist. She was an apparition; rose-coloured and fresh, and full of health. Yet, under the optical condition in which Ursus and Gwynplaine were placed, she looked like a vision. There are fleshy phantoms, called vampires. Such a queen as she, though a spirit to the crowd, consumes twelve hundred thousand a year, to keep her health.
Behind the lady, in the shadow, her page was to be perceived, el mozo, a little child-like man, fair and pretty, with a serious face. A very young and very grave servant was the fashion at that period. This page was dressed from top to toe in scarlet velvet, and had on his skull-cap, which was embroidered with gold, a bunch of curled feathers. This was the sign of a high class of service, and indicated attendance on a very great lady.
The lackey is part of the lord, and it was impossible not to remark, in the shadow of his mistress, the train-bearing page. Memory often takes notes unconsciously; and, without Gwynplaine’s suspecting it, the round cheeks, the serious mien, the embroidered and plumed cap of the lady’s page left some trace on his mind. The page, however, did nothing to call attention to himself. To do so is to be wanting in respect. He held himself aloof and passive at the back of the box, retiring as far as the closed door permitted.
Notwithstanding the presence of her train-bearer, the lady was not the less alone in the compartment, since a valet counts for nothing.
However powerful a diversion had been produced by this person, who produced the effect of a personage, the dénouement of “Chaos Vanquished” was more powerful still. The impression which it made was, as usual, irresistible. Perhaps, even, there occurred in the hall, on account of the radiant spectator (for sometimes the spectator is part of the spectacle), an increase of electricity. The contagion of Gwynplaine’s laugh was more triumphant than ever. The whole audience fell into an indescribable epilepsy of hilarity, through which could be distinguished the sonorous and magisterial ha! ha! of Tom-Jim-Jack.
Only the unknown lady looked at the performance with the immobility of a statue, and with her eyes, like those of a phantom, she laughed not. A spectre, but sun-born.
The performance over, the platform drawn up, and the family reassembled in the Green Box, Ursus opened and emptied on the supper-table the bag of receipts. From a heap of pennies there slid suddenly forth a Spanish gold onza. “Hers!” cried Ursus.
The onza amidst the pence covered with verdigris was a type of the lady amidst the crowd.
“She has paid an onza for her seat,” cried Ursus with enthusiasm.
Just then, the hotel-keeper entered the Green Box, and, passing his arm out of the window at the back of it, opened the loophole in the wall of which we have already spoken, which gave a view over the field, and which was level with the window; then he made a silent sign to Ursus to look out. A carriage, swarming with plumed footmen carrying torches and magnificently appointed, was driving off at a fast trot.
Ursus took the piece of gold between his forefinger and thumb respectfully, and, showing it to Master Nicless, said, –
“She is a goddess.”
Then his eyes falling on the carriage which was about to turn the corner of the field, and on the imperial of which the footmen’s torches lighted up a golden coronet, with eight strawberry leaves, he exclaimed, –
“She is more. She is a duchess.”
The carriage disappeared: The rumbling of its wheels died away in the distance.
Ursus remained some moments in an ecstasy, holding the gold piece between his finger and thumb, as in a monstrance, elevating it as the priest elevates the host.
Then he placed it on the table, and, as he contemplated it, began to talk of “Madam.”
The innkeeper replied, –
“She was a duchess.” Yes. They knew her title. But her name? Of that they were ignorant. Master Nicless had been close to the carriage, and seen the coat of arms and the footmen covered with lace. The coachman had a wig on which might have belonged to a Lord Chancellor. The carriage was of that rare design called, in Spain, cochetumbon, a splendid build, with a top like a tomb, which makes a magnificent support for a coronet. The page was a man in miniature, so small that he could sit on the step of the carriage outside the door. The duty of those pretty creatures was to bear the trains of their mistresses. They also bore their messages. And did you remark the plumed cap of the page? How grand it was! You pay a fine if you wear those plumes without the right of doing so. Master Nicless had seen the lady, too, quite close. A kind of queen. Such wealth gives beauty. The skin is whiter, the eye more proud, the gait more noble, and grace more insolent. Nothing can equal the elegant impertinence of hands which never work. Master Nicless told the story of all the magnificence, of the white skin with the blue veins, the neck, the shoulders, the arms, the touch of paint everywhere, the pearl earrings, the head-dress powdered with gold; the profusion of stones, the rubies, the diamonds.
“Less brilliant than her eyes,” murmured Ursus.
Gwynplaine said nothing.
“And do you know,” said the tavern-keeper, “the most wonderful thing of all?”
“What?” said Ursus.
“I saw her get into her carriage.”
“She did not get in alone.”
“Some one got in with her.”
“The king,” said Ursus.
“In the first place,” said Master Nicless, “there is no king at present. We are not living under a king. Guess who got into the carriage with the duchess.”
“Jupiter,” said Ursus.
The hotel-keeper replied, –
Gwynplaine, who had not said a word, broke silence.
“Tom-Jim-Jack!” he cried.
There was a pause of astonishment, during which the low voice of Dea was heard to say, –
“Cannot this woman be prevented coming.”