Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter III


" What 's this? treason, an ambush!" exclaimed Kehlmark, assuming a puzzled air.

"Our young people of the guild of St. Cecile, our Harmonic Society, who come to bid you welcome, Count," the farmer of Les Pèlerins explained with ceremony.

Kehlmark's eyes flashed furtively:

"Another time, I will show you my studio. Let us go and receive them," he said, turning back and hastening down the grand staircase, happy enough, it seemed, at this diversion, which caused the crafty Claudie however to fret inwardly.

The Govaertzes and the others followed him downstairs into the extensive orange-house, the large glass doors of which had been opened by order of the still invisible Blandine.

The musicians of the guild had drawn themselves up in a half-circle at the foot of the flight of steps. They blew with all the force of their lungs into the wide-bellied trumpets, and hammered away conscientiously at the asses' skin of their drums.

All wore, with some differences, the picturesque costume of the youth of the country. With many, their toggery over-worn and even patched, contracted more verdigris and stew than the over-new clothes of the guests. There were some whose dress was in frank disorder; they were without vest, in shirt sleeves, and, with their blouse wide-open, displayed their huge necks as low down as the origin of the pectoral muscles.

They were, almost all of them, tall, sturdy boys, fine strapping dark fellows, recruited from all the castes of the island, from the farms of Zoudbertinge as well as the kennels of Klaarvatsch. The guild, being of a very democratic nature, mingled the sons of the most respectable citizens with the male offspring of plunderers of wrecks and shore vagabonds.

The youngest of these grandsons of wreckers, urchins with rough-tossed hair, wild but brilliant eyes, faces brown as those of Guido's [1] angels, and stout-limbed already, with their breeches held up by rope in place of braces, and ending at the knees in a band adorned with thorns and dead leaves, filled the office of torch-bearers, for a tip of a few coppers. And under pretence of reviving the brightness of their light, but in reality for amusement, they would, every now and then, turn their lanterns upside down, and bespatter the ground with burning tongues of resin, to extinguish which they would then trample under foot, without fear of burning their bare soles that had become as hard as iron.

In honour of the Dykgrave, the St. Cecile guild played very old native tunes, which harmonised in an indescribable manner with the perfumed warmth of the evening. One of them especially, saddened Henry and astonished him in a delightful manner by a melody, plaintive as the ebb-tide, as the gust of wind on the heather, and the imitative sing-saws that the dikemen chaunt when driving piles in the river bed. These workingmen, or rather the heads of gangs, sing these monotonous refrains to put heart into their men as they toil. Each man harnessed to a rope, they simultaneously raise in the air the heavy ram, and then let it fall again. Their legs bend, their bodies stoop, and their haunches regain the upward position in cadence. The same air is to be heard on board fishing-sloops. Sea-faring men take their instrument with them, and with rhapsodies and bucolic songs, beguile the often wearisome hours and the flat calms of the open sea, adapting their plaintive and languishing refrain to the panting rhythm of the waves.

One of the youths, a pupil of the music school at Upperzyde, had transcribed this song for the fanfare. The little bugle-player shrilled out this somewhat hoarse melody to an accompaniment of trumpets and trombones, recalling the deep bass of the rolling surge.

Kehlmark noted the bugle-player, a youth taller and better formed than his companions of his own age. He had rounded hips, an amber-like complexion, eyes of velvet under long black lashes, red, fleshy lips, nostrils dilated as by some mysterious sensual olfactiveness and thick black hair. His wretched costume fitted him well, adhering to his limbs like fur to the elastic body of a cat. His body, with its graceful twisting and balancing, seemed to follow the sound-waves of the music, and he performed on the spot a very slow dance, comparable to the trembling of aspens on those summer nights, when the breeze is reduced to a gentle zephyr that only plants may breathe. The sculptural contour of this young rustic, who united the muscular relief of his compeers to a certain correctness of outline, recalled exactly to Kehlmark the Pipe player of Frans Hals. This youth seemed to him a wonderful living picture of the canvas in the Upperzyde museum. His heart tightened; he held his breath, a prey to overpowering emotion.

Michel Govaertz, having noticed the attention which the Dykgrave bestowed on the young soloist, seized the opportunity of the pause which followed, to accost the latter and led him by the ear, so roughly as to risk bruising it, towards Kehlmark.

Nothing could justly render the expression, at once piteous, scared, and rapt, of the young bugle-player, when thus suddenly confronted with the Dykgrave. It seemed as though in his eyes and on his lips was concentrated all the sublime distress of a martyr.

"Count," exclaimed the coarse-grained man, sneeringly, "this is my son Guidon, the scapegrace of whom I spoke to you just now." Making the youth turn round, he continued, "This is the companion of the rascals of Klaarvatsch, a hopeless idler, a good-for-nothing, who combines perhaps all the throat-qualities of finches and larks, but who possesses none of those merits which I looked for in a boy of my blood. Ah! day-dreaming, whistling, cooing in the void, gaping at gulls, lying at full length on his back or basking in the sun like seals on a sand bank, that is what suits him! Just imagine, since his birth he has never been of use to us. As he did not help us at all on the farm I thought of making a sailor of him, and I got him enrolled as cabin boy on a fishing smack. In vain! After three days a boat returning to the port brought him back. In the midst of the tacking he would stop short to look at the clouds and the waves. His heedlessness and negligence cost him some severe drubbings, but blows no more got the better of him than remonstrances and exhortations. Weary of the struggle, I was obliged to take him back and put him to half-a-wake work. Now he looks after the cows and sheep on the moors of Klaarvatsch, with those lousy little beggars who are bearing this evening the torches for the Guild. Well-built as you see him, Sir, is it not a shame P And with all that a cry-baby! He begins to bray, feels ill, when a pig is killed at the fair, or when the butcher marks with red chalk the backs of those sheep that are to be converted into mutton! Guidon is a girl spoiled. My real boy is our Claudie. Ah! she's the sort of girl to get through work for you!"

"It is a pity; he has in spite of that a very intelligent air," remarked the Dykgrave, with as much indifference as possible. "And he plays the bugle admirably too! Why don't you make him seriously a musician?"

"Oh, yes! Now, you're joking, Count. He is incapable of sticking to anything profitable. Upon my honour, so as to get rid of him, I have already tried to hand him over to the mountebanks. Perhaps he'd have made a good buffoon. Meanwhile, he's nothing but a source of damage and slights to me. Thus, he has taken it into his head to scrawl over with charcoal the newly whitewashed walls of the farm under pretext of drawing our cattle!"

"Would he then have any talent for painting?" suggested Kehlmark, with a bored air, affecting even to suppress a yawn.

Guidon's comrades made a circle around the Govaertzes and Kehlmark, amusing themselves with the confusion of the little shepherd-lad, thus placed by his own father on the stool of repentance. The scamps fluttered about, and gave each other elbow digs in the ribs, emphasising, with laughter and murmurs, the complaints which the Burgomaster made about his son.

Together with Guidon, Henry felt himself the object of all this bantering. Claudie regarded her brother with harsh and malevolent looks. Henry guessed that the Burgomaster disparaged and decried his boy thus in order to flatter Claudie, his favourite. Between this rough, mannish girl and the almost refined young peasant, the incompatibility was bound to be extremely irritating. It occurred to Henry that there must be violent quarrels at the fireside of the Govaertzes, and he felt a singular tightness of heart at the thought. Claudie, too, seemed to him visibly provoked by the attention shown by the Dykgrave to this child who was repudiated, put under the ban, and living almost on the outskirts of the family.

"Listen, Burgomaster, we'll talk about it again some other time!" Kehlmark resumed. "It may be possible after all to make something of your wayward boy."

Words, non-committal enough, and pledging him to nothing, but, in speaking them, Henry could scarcely refrain from turning his eyes an instant towards the shepherd-lad, and in this look the latter read, or at least thought he read, a promise something more serious than was contained in the words themselves. The poor youngster felt joy full of hope and of comforting augury. No one had ever looked at him in such a way, or rather, he had never seen so much kindness in a face. But perhaps, the troublesome youth only deceived himself! The Count would have indeed been foolish to take an interest in a fellow so badly recommended by the farmer of "Les Pèlerins." Who would think of embarrassing himself with such savage stock, a weed of such ill-growth?

"If only Claudie doesn't tell him too much ill of me!" mused the little shepherd fellow, alarmed at seeing the Dykgrave carried off and taken aside by the terrible sister. But Kehlmark withdrew in order to give orders to Blandine. The musicians were supplied with drink. When the Count returned to toast their healths, how did it happen that he omitted to chink his glass against that held out to him —Oh so devotedly!— by the Burgomaster's son? The latter experienced a moment of sadness, but recollected immediately the tender look of a few moments before. He left the drinkers, to wander through the rooms and, in his turn, admire the pictures. Although ostensibly engaged in paying court to the buxom Claudie, Henry more than once glanced furtively at the young bugle-player of the Guild. He caught the youth's expression, at once reflective and ecstatic, before Conradin and Frederick, which his sister had just looked at with the interest only of a reader of police-court cases, or celebrated torture-scenes.

With glasses of full measure the Dykgrave had done honour to the rough serenaders. He even seemed to them a trifle tipsy, but this was a matter not at all likely to shock them, for the natives of Smaragdis were deep drinkers like most men of the north.

The company, happy to disport themselves, spread out over the gardens and along the shore, which soon resounded with rough gambols and careless clamouring. The hurlyburly even startled a couple of gulls in the trees on the Dike, and Kehlmark, walking up and down with Claudie on the sea-front of the terrace, watched the poor birds frantically revolving for some time, with cries of distress, around the lamp of the lighthouse, and felt for them a sentiment of poetic commiseration, the existence of which his companion did not for a moment suspect. What correlation did he imagine existed between their savage wildness and his own secret anguish. But he quickly roused himself to rattle out a number of empty nothings to the Burgomaster's daughter.

However, the brotherhood of the Guild called for their little bugler, and as he lingered long in the apartments, before the pictures, they went off there to get him, and dragged him away, do what he would, to the extremity of the park. No doubt Henry in his own mind exaggerated their teasing humour towards the young Govaertz, for, as he walked with Claudie, he seemed strangely drawn in the direction of their noisy groups. His approach quietened them and cut short the "ragging" which they were about to inflict upon their victim. Yet, a sort of bashfulness, or fear of men's opinion, prevented Kehlmark from interfering directly in favour of his protégé; he turned away and even refrained from speaking to him, but in romping with Claudie he raised his voice, and Guidon artlessly imagined that the Count wished him to hear. At last, the band decided to return to the village. The drum beat the retreat. After a last gathering on the grass, the little barefooted boys of Klaarvatsch ran off to relight their torches. The musicians assumed the head of the procession. The Count conducted them as far as the main gates, and there stood watching them, as to the measured sounds of their favourite march they disappeared down the great elm plantation stretching from the chateau to the village.

Claudie, skipping on to her father's arm, praised the Count of the Dyke to him, or rather lauded his fortune and his luxury, but without as yet confessing to the farmer the great project her mind had conceived.

Little Guidon, with head erect, played his part with unusual bravery. Whilst his bugle seemed to challenge the stars, he was all the time thinking of the master of Escal-Vigor. In the echoes of his music he seemed to hear again the gentle tones of the Dykgrave's voice, and even to see something of his profound look in the velvety darkness. Strange contradiction: notwithstanding this enthusiasm, the poor boy felt his heart swell, his throat tighten, and his eyes ready for tears—and were they sometimes cries of distress, or appeals for help, that his instrument addressed to his distant protector, who still heard them not less overcome with sympathetic distress, long after they died away beneath the exceptionally solemn elms?

  1. Guido Reni, known as Guido, celebrated Italian artist, (1572-1642) born at Bologna. He excelled in grace, expression, and colouring, and is unsurpassed in elegance of touch and correctness of drawing. He painted mostly scriptural or mythological subjects.