Those who travel in public conveyances know that the persons thus united by chance do not immediately have anything to say to one another; unless under special circumstances, conversation rarely begins until they have gone some distance. This period of silence is employed as much in mutual examination as in settling into their places. Minds need to get their equilibrium as much as bodies. When each person thinks he has discovered the age, profession, and character of his companions, the most talkative member of the company begins, and the conversation gets under way with all the more vivacity because those present feel a need of enlivening the journey and forgetting its tedium.
That is how things happen in French stage-coaches. In other countries customs are very different. Englishmen pique themselves on never opening their lips; Germans are melancholy in a vehicle; Italians too wary to talk; Spaniards have no public conveyances; and Russians no roads. There is no amusement except in the lumbering diligences of France, that gabbling and indiscreet country, where every one is in a hurry to laugh and show his wit, and where jest and epigram enliven all things, even the poverty of the lower classes and the weightier cares of the solid bourgeois. In a coach there is no police to check tongues, and legislative assemblies have set the fashion of public discussion. When a young man of twenty-two, like the one named Georges, is clever and lively, he is much tempted, especially under circumstances like the present, to abuse those qualities.
In the first place, Georges had soon decided that he was the superior human being of the party there assembled. He saw in the count a manufacturer of the second-class, whom he took, for some unknown reason, to be a chandler; in the shabby young man accompanied by Mistigris, a fellow of no account; in Oscar a ninny, and in Pere Leger, the fat farmer, an excellent subject to hoax. Having thus looked over the ground, he resolved to amuse himself at the expense of such companions.
“Let me see,” he thought to himself, as the coucou went down the hill from La Chapelle to the plain of Saint–Denis, “shall I pass myself off for Etienne or Beranger? No, these idiots don’t know who they are. Carbonaro? the deuce! I might get myself arrested. Suppose I say I’m the son of Marshal Ney? Pooh! what could I tell them? — about the execution of my father? It wouldn’t be funny. Better be a disguised Russian prince and make them swallow a lot of stuff about the Emperor Alexander. Or I might be Cousin, and talk philosophy; oh, couldn’t I perplex ’em! But no, that shabby fellow with the tousled head looks to me as if he had jogged his way through the Sorbonne. What a pity! I can mimic an Englishman so perfectly I might have pretended to be Lord Byron, travelling incognito. Sapristi! I’ll command the troops of Ali, pacha of Janina!”
During this mental monologue, the coucou rolled through clouds of dust rising on either side of it from that much travelled road.
“What dust!” cried Mistigris.
“Henry IV. is dead!” retorted his master. “If you’d say it was scented with vanilla that would be emitting a new opinion.”
“You think you’re witty,” replied Mistigris. “Well, it is like vanilla at times.”
“In the Levant —” said Georges, with the air of beginning a story.
“‘Ex Oriente flux,’” remarked Mistigris’s master, interrupting the speaker.
“I said in the Levant, from which I have just returned,” continued Georges, “the dust smells very good; but here it smells of nothing, except in some old dust-barrel like this.”
“Has monsieur lately returned from the Levant?” said Mistigris, maliciously. “He isn’t much tanned by the sun.”
“Oh! I’ve just left my bed after an illness of three months, from the germ, so the doctors said, of suppressed plague.”
“Have you had the plague?” cried the count, with a gesture of alarm. “Pierrotin, stop!”
“Go on, Pierrotin,” said Mistigris. “Didn’t you hear him say it was inward, his plague?” added the rapin, talking back to Monsieur de Serizy. “It isn’t catching; it only comes out in conversation.”
“Mistigris! if you interfere again I’ll have you put off into the road,” said his master. “And so,” he added, turning to Georges, “monsieur has been to the East?”
“Yes, monsieur; first to Egypt, then to Greece, where I served under Ali, pacha of Janina, with whom I had a terrible quarrel. There’s no enduring those climates long; besides, the emotions of all kinds in Oriental life have disorganized my liver.”
“What, have you served as a soldier?” asked the fat farmer. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-nine,” replied Georges, whereupon all the passengers looked at him. “At eighteen I enlisted as a private for the famous campaign of 1813; but I was present at only one battle, that of Hanau, where I was promoted sergeant-major. In France, at Montereau, I won the rank of sub-lieutenant, and was decorated by — there are no informers here, I’m sure — by the Emperor.”
“What! are you decorated?” cried Oscar. “Why don’t you wear your cross?”
“The cross of ‘ceux-ci’? No, thank you! Besides, what man of any breeding would wear his decorations in travelling? There’s monsieur,” he said, motioning to the Comte de Serizy. “I’ll bet whatever you like —”
“Betting whatever you like means, in France, betting nothing at all,” said Mistigris’s master.
“I’ll bet whatever you like,” repeated Georges, incisively, “that monsieur here is covered with stars.”
“Well,” said the count, laughing, “I have the grand cross of the Legion of honor, that of Saint Andrew of Russia, that of the Prussian Eagle, that of the Annunciation of Sardinia, and the Golden Fleece.”
“Beg pardon,” said Mistigris, “are they all in the coucou?”
“Hey! that brick-colored old fellow goes it strong!” whispered Georges to Oscar. “What was I saying? — oh! I know. I don’t deny that I adore the Emperor —”
“I served under him,” said the count.
“What a man he was, wasn’t he?” cried Georges.
“A man to whom I owe many obligations,” replied the count, with a silly expression that was admirably assumed.
“For all those crosses?” inquired Mistigris.
“And what quantities of snuff he took!” continued Monsieur de Serizy.
“He carried it loose in his pockets,” said Georges.
“So I’ve been told,” remarked Pere Leger with an incredulous look.
“Worse than that; he chewed and smoked,” continued Georges. “I saw him smoking, in a queer way, too, at Waterloo, when Marshal Soult took him round the waist and flung him into his carriage, just as he had seized a musket and was going to charge the English —”
“You were at Waterloo!” cried Oscar, his eyes stretching wide open.
“Yes, young man, I did the campaign of 1815. I was a captain at Mont–Saint-Jean, and I retired to the Loire, after we were all disbanded. Faith! I was disgusted with France; I couldn’t stand it. In fact, I should certainly have got myself arrested; so off I went, with two or three dashing fellows — Selves, Besson, and others, who are now in Egypt — and we entered the service of pacha Mohammed; a queer sort of fellow he was, too! Once a tobacco merchant in the bazaars, he is now on the high-road to be a sovereign prince. You’ve all seen him in that picture by Horace Vernet — ‘The Massacre of the Mameluks.’ What a handsome fellow he was! But I wouldn’t give up the religion of my fathers and embrace Islamism; all the more because the abjuration required a surgical operation which I hadn’t any fancy for. Besides, nobody respects a renegade. Now if they had offered me a hundred thousand francs a year, perhaps — and yet, no! The pacha did give me a thousand talari as a present.”
“How much is that?” asked Oscar, who was listening to Georges with all his ears.
“Oh! not much. A talaro is, as you might say, a five-franc piece. But faith! I got no compensation for the vices I contracted in that God-forsaken country, if country it is. I can’t live now without smoking a narghile twice a-day, and that’s very costly.”
“How did you find Egypt?” asked the count.
“Egypt? Oh! Egypt is all sand,” replied Georges, by no means taken aback. “There’s nothing green but the valley of the Nile. Draw a green line down a sheet of yellow paper, and you have Egypt. But those Egyptians — fellahs they are called — have an immense advantage over us. There are no gendarmes in that country. You may go from end to end of Egypt, and you won’t see one.”
“But I suppose there are a good many Egyptians,” said Mistigris.
“Not as many as you think for,” replied Georges. “There are many more Abyssinians, and Giaours, and Vechabites, Bedouins, and Cophs. But all that kind of animal is very uninteresting, and I was glad enough to embark on a Genoese polacca which was loading for the Ionian Islands with gunpowder and munitions for Ali de Tebelen. You know, don’t you, that the British sell powder and munitions of war to all the world, — Turks, Greeks, and the devil, too, if the devil has money? From Zante we were to skirt the coasts of Greece and tack about, on and off. Now it happens that my name of Georges is famous in that country. I am, such as you see me, the grandson of the famous Czerni–Georges who made war upon the Porte, and, instead of crushing it, as he meant to do, got crushed himself. His son took refuge in the house of the French consul at Smyrna, and he afterwards died in Paris, leaving my mother pregnant with me, his seventh child. Our property was all stolen by friends of my grandfather; in fact, we were ruined. My mother, who lived on her diamonds, which she sold one by one, married, in 1799, my step-father, Monsieur Yung, a purveyor. But my mother is dead, and I have quarrelled with my step-father, who, between ourselves, is a blackguard; he is still alive, but I never see him. That’s why, in despair, left all to myself, I went off to the wars as a private in 1813. Well, to go back to the time I returned to Greece; you wouldn’t believe with what joy old Ali Tebelen received the grandson of Czerni–Georges. Here, of course, I call myself simply Georges. The pacha gave me a harem —”
“You have had a harem?” said Oscar.
“Were you a pacha with many tails?” asked Mistigris.
“How is it that you don’t know,” replied Georges, “that only the Sultan makes pachas, and that my friend Tebelen (for we were as friendly as Bourbons) was in rebellion against the Padishah! You know, or you don’t know, that the true title of the Grand Seignior is Padishah, and not Sultan or Grand Turk. You needn’t think that a harem is much of a thing; you might as well have a herd of goats. The women are horribly stupid down there; I much prefer the grisettes of the Chaumieres at Mont–Parnasse.”
“They are nearer, at any rate,” said the count.
“The women of the harem couldn’t speak a word of French, and that language is indispensable for talking. Ali gave me five legitimate wives and ten slaves; that’s equivalent to having none at all at Janina. In the East, you must know, it is thought very bad style to have wives and women. They have them, just as we have Voltaire and Rousseau; but who ever opens his Voltaire or his Rousseau? Nobody. But, for all that, the highest style is to be jealous. They sew a woman up in a sack and fling her into the water on the slightest suspicion — that’s according to their Code.”
“Did you fling any in?” asked the farmer.
“I, a Frenchman! for shame! I loved them.”
Whereupon Georges twirled and twisted his moustache with a dreamy air.
They were now entering Saint–Denis, and Pierrotin presently drew up before the door of a tavern where were sold the famous cheese-cakes of that place. All the travellers got out. Puzzled by the apparent truth mingled with Georges’ inventions, the count returned to the coucou when the others had entered the house, and looked beneath the cushion for the portfolio which Pierrotin told him that enigmatical youth had placed there. On it he read the words in gilt letters: “Maitre Crottat, notary.” The count at once opened it, and fearing, with some reason, that Pere Leger might be seized with the same curiosity, he took out the deed of sale for the farm at Moulineaux, put it into his coat pocket, and entered the inn to keep an eye on the travellers.
“This Georges is neither more nor less than Crottat’s second clerk,” thought he. “I shall pay my compliments to his master, whose business it was to send me his head-clerk.”
From the respectful glances of Pere Leger and Oscar, Georges perceived that he had made for himself two fervent admirers. Accordingly, he now posed as a great personage; paid for their cheese-cakes, and ordered for each a glass of Alicante. He offered the same to Mistigris and his master, who refused with smiles; but the friend of Ali Tebelen profited by the occasion to ask the pair their names.
“Oh! monsieur,” said Mistigris’ master, “I am not blessed, like you, with an illustrious name; and I have not returned from Asia —”
At this moment the count, hastening into the huge inn-kitchen lest his absence should excite inquiry, entered the place in time to hear the conclusion of the young man’s speech.
“— I am only a poor painter lately returned from Rome, where I went at the cost of the government, after winning the ‘grand prix’ five years ago. My name is Schinner.”
“Hey! bourgeois, may I offer you a glass of Alicante and some cheese-cakes?” said Georges to the count.
“Thank you,” replied the latter. “I never leave home without taking my cup of coffee and cream.”
“Don’t you eat anything between meals? How bourgeois, Marais, Place Royale, that is!” cried Georges. “When he ‘blagued’ just now about his crosses, I thought there was something in him,” whispered the Eastern hero to the painter. “However, we’ll set him going on his decorations, the old tallow-chandler! Come, my lad,” he added, calling to Oscar, “drink me down the glass poured out for the chandler; that will start your moustache.”
Oscar, anxious to play the man, swallowed the second glass of wine, and ate three more cheese-cakes.
“Good wine, that!” said Pere Leger, smacking his lips.
“It is all the better,” said Georges, “because it comes from Bercy. I’ve been to Alicante myself, and I know that this wine no more resembles what is made there than my arm is like a windmill. Our made-up wines are a great deal better than the natural ones in their own country. Come, Pierrotin, take a glass! It is a great pity your horses can’t take one, too; we might go faster.”
“Forward, march!” cried Pierrotin, amid a mighty cracking of whips, after the travellers were again boxed up.
It was now eleven o’clock. The weather, which had been cloudy, cleared; the breeze swept off the mists, and the blue of the sky appeared in spots; so that when the coucou trundled along the narrow strip of road from Saint–Denis to Pierrefitte, the sun had fairly drunk up the last floating vapors of the diaphanous veil which swathed the scenery of that famous region.
“Well, now, tell us why you left your friend the pacha,” said Pere Leger, addressing Georges.
“He was a very singular scamp,” replied Georges, with an air that hid a multitude of mysteries. “He put me in command of his cavalry — so far, so good —”
“Ah! that’s why he wears spurs,” thought poor Oscar.
“At that time Ali Tebelen wanted to rid himself of Chosrew pacha, another queer chap! You call him, here, Chaureff; but the name is pronounced, in Turkish, Cosserew. You must have read in the newspapers how old Ali drubbed Chosrew, and soundly, too, faith! Well, if it hadn’t been for me, Ali Tebelen himself would have bit the dust two days earlier. I was at the right wing, and I saw Chosrew, an old sly-boots, thinking to force our centre — ranks closed, stiff, swift, fine movement a la Murat. Good! I take my time; then I charge, double-quick, and cut his line in two — you understand? Ha! ha! after the affair was over, Ali kissed me —”
“Do they do that in the East?” asked the count, in a joking way.
“Yes, monsieur,” said the painter, “that’s done all the world over.”
“After that,” continued Georges, “Ali gave me yataghans, and carbines, and scimetars, and what-not. But when we got back to his capital he made me propositions, wanted me to drown a wife, and make a slave of myself — Orientals are so queer! But I thought I’d had enough of it; for, after all, you know, Ali was a rebel against the Porte. So I concluded I had better get off while I could. But I’ll do Monsieur Tebelen the justice to say that he loaded me with presents — diamonds, ten thousand talari, one thousand gold coins, a beautiful Greek girl for groom, a little Circassian for a mistress, and an Arab horse! Yes, Ali Tebelen, pacha of Janina, is too little known; he needs an historian. It is only in the East one meets with such iron souls, who can nurse a vengeance twenty years and accomplish it some fine morning. He had the most magnificent white beard that was ever seen, and a hard, stern face —”
“But what did you do with your treasures?” asked farmer Leger.
“Ha! that’s it! you may well ask that! Those fellows down there haven’t any Grand Livre nor any Bank of France. So I was forced to carry off my windfalls in a felucca, which was captured by the Turkish High–Admiral himself. Such as you see me here today, I came very near being impaled at Smyrna. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Monsieur de Riviere, our ambassador, who was there, they’d have taken me for an accomplice of Ali pacha. I saved my head, but, to tell the honest truth, all the rest, the ten thousand talari, the thousand gold pieces, and the fine weapons, were all, yes all, drunk up by the thirsty treasury of the Turkish admiral. My position was the more perilous because that very admiral happened to be Chosrew pacha. After I routed him, the fellow had managed to obtain a position which is equal to that of our Admiral of the Fleet —”
“But I thought he was in the cavalry?” said Pere Leger, who had followed the narrative with the deepest attention.
“Dear me! how little the East is understood in the French provinces!” cried Georges. “Monsieur, I’ll explain the Turks to you. You are a farmer; the Padishah (that’s the Sultan) makes you a marshal; if you don’t fulfil your functions to his satisfaction, so much the worse for you, he cuts your head off; that’s his way of dismissing his functionaries. A gardener is made a prefect; and the prime minister comes down to be a foot-boy. The Ottomans have no system of promotion and no hierarchy. From a cavalry officer Chosrew simply became a naval officer. Sultan Mahmoud ordered him to capture Ali by sea; and he did get hold of him, assisted by those beggarly English — who put their paw on most of the treasure. This Chosrew, who had not forgotten the riding-lesson I gave him, recognized me. You understand, my goose was cooked, oh, brown! when it suddenly came into my head to claim protection as a Frenchman and a troubadour from Monsieur de Riviere. The ambassador, enchanted to find something to show him off, demanded that I should be set at liberty. The Turks have one good trait in their nature; they are as willing to let you go as they are to cut your head off; they are indifferent to everything. The French consul, charming fellow, friend of Chosrew, made him give back two thousand of the talari, and, consequently, his name is, as I may say, graven on my heart —”
“What was his name?” asked Monsieur de Serizy; and a look of some surprise passed over his face as Georges named, correctly, one of our most distinguished consul-generals who happened at that time to be stationed at Smyrna.
“I assisted,” added Georges, “at the execution of the Governor of Smyrna, whom the Sultan had ordered Chosrew to put to death. It was one of the most curious things I ever saw, though I’ve seen many, — I’ll tell you about it when we stop for breakfast. From Smyrna I crossed to Spain, hearing there was a revolution there. I went straight to Mina, who appointed me as his aide-decamp with the rank of colonel. I fought for the constitutional cause, which will certainly be defeated when we enter Spain — as we undoubtedly shall, some of these days —”
“You, a French soldier!” said the count, sternly. “You show extraordinary confidence in the discretion of those who are listening to you.”
“But there are no spies here,” said Georges.
“Are you aware, Colonel Georges,” continued the count, “that the Court of Peers is at this very time inquiring into a conspiracy which has made the government extremely severe in its treatment of French soldiers who bear arms against France, and who deal in foreign intrigues for the purpose of overthrowing our legitimate sovereigns.”
On hearing this stern admonition the painter turned red to his ears and looked at Mistigris, who seemed dumfounded.
“Well,” said Pere Leger, “what next?”
“If,” continued the count, “I were a magistrate, it would be my duty to order the gendarmes at Pierrefitte to arrest the aide-decamp of Mina, and to summon all present in this vehicle to testify to his words.”
This speech stopped Georges’ narrative all the more surely, because at this moment the coucou reached the guard-house of a brigade of gendarmerie — the white flag floating, as the orthodox saying is, upon the breeze.
“You have too many decorations to do such a dastardly thing,” said Oscar.
“Never mind; we’ll catch up with him soon,” whispered Georges in the lad’s ear.
“Colonel,” cried Leger, who was a good deal disturbed by the count’s outburst, and wanted to change the conversation, “in all these countries where you have been, what sort of farming do they do? How do they vary the crops?”
“Well, in the first place, my good fellow, you must understand, they are too busy cropping off each others’ heads to think much of cropping the ground.”
The count couldn’t help smiling; and that smile reassured the narrator.
“They have a way of cultivating which you will think very queer. They don’t cultivate at all; that’s their style of farming. The Turks and the Greeks, they eat onions or rise. They get opium from poppies, and it gives them a fine revenue. Then they have tobacco, which grows of itself, famous latakiah! and dates! and all kinds of sweet things that don’t need cultivation. It is a country full of resources and commerce. They make fine rugs at Smyrna, and not dear.”
“But,” persisted Leger, “if the rugs are made of wool they must come from sheep; and to have sheep you must have fields, farms, culture —”
“Well, there may be something of that sort,” replied Georges. “But their chief crop, rice, grows in the water. As for me, I have only been along the coasts and seen the parts that are devastated by war. Besides, I have the deepest aversion to statistics.”
“How about the taxes?” asked the farmer.
“Oh! the taxes are heavy; they take all a man has, and leave him the rest. The pacha of Egypt was so struck with the advantages of that system, that, when I came away he was on the point of organizing his own administration on that footing —”
“But,” said Leger, who no longer understood a single word, “how?”
“How?” said Georges. “Why, agents go round and take all the harvests, and leave the fellahs just enough to live on. That’s a system that does away with stamped papers and bureaucracy, the curse of France, hein?”
“By virtue of what right?” said Leger.
“Right? why it is a land of despotism. They haven’t any rights. Don’t you know the fine definition Montesquieu gives of despotism. ‘Like the savage, it cuts down the tree to gather the fruits.’ They don’t tax, they take everything.”
“And that’s what our rulers are trying to bring us to. ‘Tax vobiscum,’ — no, thank you!” said Mistigris.
“But that is what we are coming to,” said the count. “Therefore, those who own land will do well to sell it. Monsieur Schinner must have seen how things are tending in Italy, where the taxes are enormous.”
“Corpo di Bacco! the Pope is laying it on heavily,” replied Schinner. “But the people are used to it. Besides, Italians are so good-natured that if you let ’em murder a few travellers along the highways they’re contented.”
“I see, Monsieur Schinner,” said the count, “that you are not wearing the decoration you obtained in 1819; it seems the fashion nowadays not to wear orders.”
Mistigris and the pretended Schinner blushed to their ears.
“Well, with me,” said the artist, “the case is different. It isn’t on account of fashion; but I don’t want to be recognized. Have the goodness not to betray me, monsieur; I am supposed to be a little painter of no consequence — a mere decorator. I’m on may way to a chateau where I mustn’t rouse the slightest suspicion.”
“Ah! I see,” said the count, “some intrigue — a love affair! Youth is happy!”
Oscar, who was writhing in his skin at being a nobody and having nothing to say, gazed at Colonel Czerni–Georges and at the famous painter Schinner, and wondered how he could transform himself into somebody. But a youth of nineteen, kept at home all his life, and going for two weeks only into the country, what could he be, or do, or say? However, the Alicante had got into his head, and his vanity was boiling in his veins; so when the famous Schinner allowed a romantic adventure to be guessed at in which the danger seemed as great as the pleasure, he fastened his eyes, sparkling with wrath and envy, upon that hero.
“Yes,” said the count, with a credulous air, “a man must love a woman well to make such sacrifices.”
“What sacrifices?” demanded Mistigris.
“Don’t you know, my little friend, that a ceiling painted by so great a master as yours is worth its weight in gold?” replied the count. “If the civil list paid you, as it did, thirty thousand francs for each of those rooms in the Louvre,” he continued, addressing Schinner, “a bourgeois — as you call us in the studios — ought certainly to pay you twenty thousand. Whereas, if you go to this chateau as a humble decorator, you will not get two thousand.”
“The money is not the greatest loss,” said Mistigris. “The work is sure to be a masterpiece, but he can’t sign it, you know, for fear of compromising her.”
“Ah! I’d return all my crosses to the sovereigns who gave them to me for the devotion that youth can win,” said the count.
“That’s just it!” said Mistigris, “when one’s young, one’s loved; plenty of love, plenty of women; but they do say: ‘Where there’s wife, there’s mope.’”
“What does Madame Schinner say to all this?” pursued the count; “for I believe you married, out of love, the beautiful Adelaide de Rouville, the protegee of old Admiral de Kergarouet; who, by the bye, obtained for you the order for the Louvre ceilings through his nephew, the Comte de Fontaine.”
“A great painter is never married when he travels,” said Mistigris.
“So that’s the morality of studios, is it?” cried the count, with an air of great simplicity.
“Is the morality of courts where you got those decorations of yours any better?” said Schinner, recovering his self-possession, upset for the moment by finding out how much the count knew of Schinner’s life as an artist.
“I never asked for any of my orders,” said the count. “I believe I have loyally earned them.”
“‘A fair yield and no flavor,’” said Mistigris.
The count was resolved not to betray himself; he assumed an air of good-humored interest in the country, and looked up the valley of Groslay as the coucou took the road to Saint–Brice, leaving that to Chantilly on the right.
“Is Rome as fine as they say it is?” said Georges, addressing the great painter.
“Rome is fine only to those who love it; a man must have a passion for it to enjoy it. As a city, I prefer Venice — though I just missed being murdered there.”
“Faith, yes!” cried Mistigris; “if it hadn’t been for me you’d have been gobbled up. It was that mischief-making tom-fool, Lord Byron, who got you into the scrape. Oh! wasn’t he raging, that buffoon of an Englishman?”
“Hush!” said Schinner. “I don’t want my affair with Lord Byron talked about.”
“But you must own, all the same, that you were glad enough I knew how to box,” said Mistigris.
From time to time, Pierrotin exchanged sly glances with the count, which might have made less inexperienced persons than the five other travellers uneasy.
“Lords, pachas, and thirty-thousand-franc ceilings!” he cried. “I seem to be driving sovereigns. What pourboires I’ll get!”
“And all the places paid for!” said Mistigris, slyly.
“It is a lucky day for me,” continued Pierrotin; “for you know, Pere Leger, about my beautiful new coach on which I have paid an advance of two thousand francs? Well, those dogs of carriage-builders, to whom I have to pay two thousand five hundred francs more, won’t take fifteen hundred down, and my note for a thousand for two months! Those vultures want it all. Who ever heard of being so stiff with a man in business these eight years, and the father of a family? — making me run the risk of losing everything, carriage and money too, if I can’t find before tomorrow night that miserable last thousand! Hue, Bichette! They won’t play that trick on the great coach offices, I’ll warrant you.”
“Yes, that’s it,” said the rapin; “‘your money or your strife.’”
“Well, you have only eight hundred now to get,” remarked the count, who considered this moan, addressed to Pere Leger, a sort of letter of credit drawn upon himself.
“True,” said Pierrotin. “Xi! xi! Rougeot!”
“You must have seen many fine ceilings in Venice,” resumed the count, addressing Schinner.
“I was too much in love to take any notice of what seemed to me then mere trifles,” replied Schinner. “But I was soon cured of that folly, for it was in the Venetian states — in Dalmatia — that I received a cruel lesson.”
“Can it be told?” asked Georges. “I know Dalmatia very well.”
“Well, if you have been there, you know that all the people at that end of the Adriatic are pirates, rovers, corsairs retired from business, as they haven’t been hanged —”
“Uscoques,” said Georges.
Hearing the right name given, the count, who had been sent by Napoleon on one occasion to the Illyrian provinces, turned his head and looked at Georges, so surprised was he.
“The affair happened in that town where they make maraschino,” continued Schinner, seeming to search for a name.
“Zara,” said Georges. “I’ve been there; it is on the coast.”
“You are right,” said the painter. “I had gone there to look at the country, for I adore scenery. I’ve longed a score of times to paint landscape, which no one, as I think, understands but Mistigris, who will some day reproduce Hobbema, Ruysdael, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, and others.”
“But,” exclaimed the count, “if he reproduces one of them won’t that be enough?”
“If you persist in interrupting, monsieur,” said Oscar, “we shall never get on.”
“And Monsieur Schinner was not addressing himself to you in particular,” added Georges.
“‘Tisn’t polite to interrupt,” said Mistigris, sententiously, “but we all do it, and conversation would lose a great deal if we didn’t scatter little condiments while exchanging our reflections. Therefore, continue, agreeable old gentleman, to lecture us, if you like. It is done in the best society, and you know the proverb: ‘we must ‘owl with the wolves.’”
“I had heard marvellous things of Dalmatia,” resumed Schinner, “so I went there, leaving Mistigris in Venice at an inn —”
“‘Locanda,’” interposed Mistigris; “keep to the local color.”
“Zara is what is called a country town —”
“Yes,” said Georges; “but it is fortified.”
“Parbleu!” said Schinner; “the fortifications count for much in my adventure. At Zara there are a great many apothecaries. I lodged with one. In foreign countries everybody makes a principal business of letting lodgings; all other trades are accessory. In the evening, linen changed, I sat in my balcony. In the opposite balcony I saw a woman; oh! such a woman! Greek — that tells all! The most beautiful creature in the town; almond eyes, lids that dropped like curtains, lashes like a paint-brush, a face with an oval to drive Raffaelle mad, a skin of the most delicious coloring, tints well-blended, velvety! and hands, oh! —”
“They weren’t made of butter like those of the David school,” put in Mistigris.
“You are always lugging in your painting,” cried Georges.
“La, la!” retorted Mistigris; “‘an ounce o’ paint is worth a pound of swagger.’”
“And such a costume! pure Greek!” continued Schinner. “Conflagration of soul! you understand? Well, I questioned my Diafoirus; and he told me that my neighbor was named Zena. Changed my linen. The husband, an old villain, in order to marry Zena, paid three hundred thousand francs to her father and mother, so celebrated was the beauty of that beautiful creature, who was truly the most beautiful girl in all Dalmatia, Illyria, Adriatica, and other places. In those parts they buy their wives without seeing them —”
“I shall not go there,” said Pere Leger.
“There are nights when my sleep is still illuminated by the eyes of Zena,” continued Schinner. “The husband was sixty-nine years of age, and jealous! not as a tiger, for they say of a tiger, ‘jealous as a Dalmatian’; and my man was worse than A Dalmatian, one Dalmatian — he was three and a half Dalmatians at the very least; he was an Uscoque, tricoque, archicoque in a bicoque of a paltry little place like Zara —”
“Horrid fellow, and ‘horrider bellow,’” put in Mistigris.
“Ha! good,” said Georges, laughing.
“After being a corsair, and probably a pirate, he thought no more of spitting a Christian on his dagger than I did of spitting on the ground,” continued Schinner. “So that was how the land lay. The old wretch had millions, and was hideous with the loss of an ear some pacha had cut off, and the want of an eye left I don’t know where. ‘Never,’ said the little Diafoirus, ‘never does he leave his wife, never for a second.’ ‘Perhaps she’ll want your services, and I could go in your clothes; that’s a trick that has great success in our theatres,’ I told him. Well, it would take too long to tell you all the delicious moments of that lifetime — to wit, three days — which I passed exchanging looks with Zena, and changing linen every day. It was all the more violently titillating because the slightest motion was significant and dangerous. At last it must have dawned upon Zena’s mind that none but a Frenchman and an artist was daring enough to make eyes at her in the midst of the perils by which she was surrounded; and as she hated her hideous pirate, she answered my glances with delightful ogles fit to raise a man to the summit of Paradise without pulleys. I attained to the height of Don Quixote; I rose to exaltation! and I cried: ‘The monster may kill me, but I’ll go, I’ll go!’ I gave up landscape and studied the ignoble dwelling of the Uscoque. That night, changed linen, and put on the most perfumed shirt I had; then I crossed the street, and entered —”
“The house?” cried Oscar.
“The house?” echoed Georges.
“The house,” said Schinner.
“Well, you’re a bold dog,” cried farmer Leger. “I should have kept out of it myself.”
“Especially as you could never have got through the doorway,” replied Schinner. “So in I went,” he resumed, “and I found two hands stretched out to meet mine. I said nothing, for those hands, soft as the peel of an onion, enjoined me to silence. A whisper breathed into my ear, ‘He sleeps!’ Then, as we were sure that nobody would see us, we went to walk, Zena and I, upon the ramparts, but accompanied, if you please, by a duenna, as hideous as an old portress, who didn’t leave us any more than our shadow; and I couldn’t persuade Madame Pirate to send her away. The next night we did the same thing, and again I wanted to get rid of the old woman, but Zena resisted. As my sweet love spoke only Greek, and I Venetian, we couldn’t understand each other, and so we quarrelled. I said to myself, in changing linen, ‘As sure as fate, the next time there’ll be no old woman, and we can make it all up with the language of love.’ Instead of which, fate willed that that old woman should save my life! You’ll hear how. The weather was fine, and, not to create suspicion, I took a turn at landscape — this was after our quarrel was made up, you understand. After walking along the ramparts for some time, I was coming tranquilly home with my hands in my pockets, when I saw the street crowded with people. Such a crowd! like that for an execution. It fell upon me; I was seized, garroted, gagged, and guarded by the police. Ah! you don’t know — and I hope you never may know — what it is to be taken for a murderer by a maddened populace which stones you and howls after you from end to end of the principal street of a town, shouting for your death! Ah! those eyes were so many flames, all mouths were a single curse, while from the volume of that burning hatred rose the fearful cry: ‘To death! to death! down with the murderer!’”
“So those Dalmatians spoke our language, did they?” said the count. “I observe you relate the scene as if it happened yesterday.”
Schinner was nonplussed.
“Riot has but one language,” said the astute statesman Mistigris.
“Well,” continued Schinner, “when I was brought into court in presence of the magistrates, I learned that the cursed corsair was dead, poisoned by Zena. I’d liked to have changed linen then. Give you my word, I knew nothing of that melodrama. It seems the Greek girl put opium (a great many poppies, as monsieur told us, grow about there) in the pirate’s grog, just to make him sleep soundly and leave her free for a little walk with me, and the old duenna, unfortunate creature, made a mistake and trebled the dose. The immense fortune of that cursed pirate was really the cause of all my Zena’s troubles. But she explained matters so ingenuously that I, for one, was released with an injunction from the mayor and the Austrian commissary of police to go back to Rome. Zena, who let the heirs of the Uscoque and the judges get most of the old villain’s wealth, was let off with two years’ seclusion in a convent, where she still is. I am going back there some day to paint her portrait; for in a few years, you know, all this will be forgotten. Such are the follies one commits at eighteen!”
“And you left me without a sou in the locanda at Venice,” said Mistigris. “And I had to get from Venice to Rome by painting portraits for five francs apiece, which they didn’t pay me. However, that was my halcyon time. I don’t regret it.”
“You can imagine the reflections that came to me in that Dalmatian prison, thrown there without protection, having to answer to Austrians and Dalmatians, and in danger of losing my head because I went twice to walk with a woman. There’s ill-luck, with a vengeance!”
“Did all that really happen to you?” said Oscar, naively.
“Why shouldn’t it happen to him, inasmuch as it had already happened during the French occupation of Illyria to one of our most gallant officers of artillery?” said the count, slyly.
“And you believed that artillery officer?” said Mistigris, as slyly to the count.
“Is that all?” asked Oscar.
“Of course he can’t tell you that they cut his head off — how could he?” said Mistigris. “‘Dead schinners tell no tales.’”
“Monsieur, are there farms in that country?” asked Pere Leger. “What do they cultivate?”
“Maraschino,” replied Mistigris — “a plant that grows to the height of the lips, and produces a liqueur which goes by that name.”
“Ah!” said Pere Leger.
“I only stayed three days in the town and fifteen in prison,” said Schinner, “so I saw nothing; not even the fields where they grow the maraschino.”
“They are fooling you,” said Georges to the farmer. “Maraschino comes in cases.”
“‘Romances alter cases,’” remarked Mistigris.
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 16:28