The fête swelled, developed, became furious. Evening drew on, an obscure September evening. Booths set up on the parade exhaled an odour of cooked mussels mingled with the smell of bladderwrack and spawn, which was abundantly produced at the breakwater. Candles were lighted on stages and stalls. A mad cacophony of drums, cymbals, rommelpots and hoarse-throated buffoonery filled the air; the dancing booths resounded with hiccuppy accordions baffled by frantic outburst from fifes. The entertainments of the evening began in the booths of the wild beast tamers, and savage roarings made an echo to the sighing of the waves and harmonised with one knows not what human surge, what fleshly trepidation, what whirlwind of lust that was passing over the countryside.
Never had the sea been so phosphorescent. The fires of St. Elme clung under an inky sky, to the masts of the yachts and flag-bedecked barques.
For one moment, at the close of day, Escal-Vigor was seen brilliantly illuminated, like an edifice of emerald; then a veil of blood hovered over it on the side that faced towards the ocean.
Waves of men on the one hand, of women on the other, met on the outskirts of the villages. The women shouted out their coarse needs; the men, ape-like, gesticulated back their strong desire.
Guidon took leave at last of his comrades, the fellows of the wretched borough of Klaarvatsch. Being hustled, he hastened his steps in order to escape from the strange hurly-burly beginning to hem him in, and to regain Escal-Vigor. The thought of his friend came back to him, full of gentle reproach, of entreaty, and nostalgia. On his way through the crowd, meaning looks alarmed the truant; they pointed him out to each other with knowing winks and ominous whispers.
As he stopped to take breath, when he was clear of the pushing crowd and just as he was about to enter the elm-grove, twice a hundred years old, which led to the entrance of the Escal-Vigor park, a band of girls crossed his path, coming out of a side alley, and, calling him by name, enclosed him in their toils.
"Look here now at this great booby wandering about all alone on the road!"
"Oh, the pretty boy trying to hook it off!"
"Fie for shame! On a Fair day too!"
"By Saint Olfgar! Why the boy has got some down on his upper-lip and has never yet touched a girl! Ask his own sister!" exclaimed one of the party, who pressed upon him, using much inflammatory language with great volubility. They threatened to fumble him, they rubbed against him with significant movements of their buttocks, throwing their busts backwards; with loosened bodices and half-open mouth they resembled the corolla of a flower swooning beneath the sun.
"They are right, brotherkin," struck in Claudie, in a horribly wheedling manner, as she came to the front. "Thou hast long been a man. Fulfil thy duty as a gallant and make thy choice. What more is wanted to make thee decide. Here are ten sturdy companions who have waited for thee, the best looking in all these parts. Yet they're in no want of lovers. Hastn't thou heard them a-whinnying after them all day, throughout the countryside? But, at my recommendation, they've agreed to give thee the preference. None of them will obey any other summons until thou hast made up thy mind. And yet, I repeat, there abound this evening along the lanes sturdy and valiant cocks enough, who're panting after these dainty hens, and who'll feast finely on those whom thou may'st disdain. Come then, make up thy mind! To which one goes forth thy fancy as a new-made man? To whom the first-fruits of thy strength?"
The young man divined the sinister banter in the flattering words, the first she had addressed to him during the long months they had quarelled, and instead of replying to his sister, he hoped to wheedle the ten other females, sturdy young wenches of the type of Claudie, girls with full-fleshed throats and well-rounded rumps.
"Very sorry, my pretty girls, but I'm in a hurry; I'll be back immediately; I am waited for at the château."
"At the château!" they all cried out. "At the château. They have no need of thee there to-day."
"The Dykgrave will do very well without thy services. It is Fair-day to day and holiday for man and beast; for the masters as well as the servants."
"Pleasure before work!—Love before duty!"
"Besides he has enough to do with his Blandine, thy Dykgrave!" said Claudie in a tone, which revealed to Guidon the worst of the dilemma.
"When I assure you, my savoury chickens, that my presence there is indispensable; I'm already much behind time." Then he endeavoured to pass on with a hasty step.
"Tommy rot, my boy! They'll have to wait for thee a bit longer; still thou'st got to return with us to the village; thou'rt going to dance after that with all of us and then pick out one of us to take back with thee, with whom thou'lt have to act according to the fashion of the honest folk of Smaragdis. So now prove thyself a worthy Govaertz!"
But he continued to try and get himself away, whilst they ceased not to harass him, egged on by the irrepressible Claudie.
"Yes, yes, he'll have to go through it; he's going to pay his tribute like the others. To each man his duty, to each girl her due! Down with laggards! Thy master will wait well enough; an hour, more or less, won't change things much."
He struggled wildly, not without an angry impatience; but they were sturdy-built wenches and grew only the hotter over the business. The crosser he looked the harder they went for him.
"Be bold, girls; go for him you wenches! Can no-one get the great booby to dance?"
In the conflict, they scented the tight-strung maleness of the sap-filled youth, and his breathing, hurried by his exertions, rendered him still more savoury and appetising. They took liberties with him, while affecting to caress him; pressed their hands over his body, catching hold of him anyhow, anywhere, this one seizing an arm and another a leg. One girl made a girdle, and another a necklace for him, of her arms, but he still struggled on bravely, turning and twisting himself about desperately, and would certainly have escaped the outrageous hussies in the end, in spite of all their fierce efforts.
But his flight would have served Claudie's account even less than theirs. The young man's obstinate resistance enlightened her completely as to his coldness towards the sex. Landrillon had not, it was evident, invented anything. Her terrible jealousy was now transformed into virtuous contempt.
"He shall surrender. He must surrender!" she shouted. "If he will not belong to one of you, he shall be for all!"
"To the rescue,Landrillon!" she continued. For, in anticipation of an unequal struggle, in which the opposition might prove too strong for them, she had posted her accomplice in the thick-wooded copses hard by. "Come and give us a hand, Landrillon!"
It was about time: Guidon was on the point of escaping from his persecutors, leaving in their hands his vest and even a portion of his hose and breeches.
"Stop,Joseph!" jeered Landrillon, tripping him up.
Held down by the valet, who had taken him by the throat, Guidon defended himself as best he could, fought with his fists and feet, and even tried to bite.
"A piece of string!" demanded Landrillon. "The little wretch kicks like the devil! Let's fasten up his hands and feet."
For want of string, the harpies tore up their neckerchiefs. Their bodices ripped open left their throats and bosoms exposed, naked to the winds, hair hanging loose, bruised all over and with blood besmeared finger-nails, in the thick atmosphere of the wild wood borderland they might have passed for maenads.
"Let me go! Help!" cried the victim. Twice he broke his bonds. Blood flowed from his wrists and ankles.
Claudie, more ferocious than the others, but cooler and better advised, uttered a cry of triumph.
"I say, how about the strap which holds up his breeches!"
"Why, of course, they can come down now, right enough, " said the domestic sneeringly.
And she herself unclasped his waist-belt, with which Landrillon then tied strongly the sufferer's legs.
This time, Guidon, reduced to helplessness, lay there three parts clean naked; for the furies, not content with taking down his trousers, had torn his clothes to shreds. Then, at the instigation of Claudie, the claws of these harpies violated in turns the unhappy youth's unwilling and horror-stricken flesh.
Guidon at last fell silent. He wept; sought to straighten himself; his twistings became convulsions; he shook and trembled in spite of himself; his spasms changed to the rattle of agony and instead of youthful vigour they now drew out nothing but blood. What did it matter! The attempts recommenced. They swore to exhaust his strength, but, utterly out of breath over their shameful exertions, they now ceased their discordant outcries.
However, at the cries first uttered by the victim and his female tyrants, other villagers, male and female, had run from the cookshops and the dancing booths. Drunken and lewd-minded, as soon as they got an inkling of the affair going on, they applauded and rejoiced, finding the jest a right tasty one. They came in troops, made a circle, elbowing their way to have a better look. Couples who had gone aside, stopped their private sport to come and take part in the erotic clowning. Quite young urchins, the gutter-snipedom of Klaarvatsch, the torch-bearers at the serenades, lighted up the scene with their torches as they watched with wide agape mouth this atrocious mystery, whilst others mimicked its revolting indecency. Others still, summoned their friends like hyenas to the quarry, and, while the instruments continued their hoarse music, the laughing of this crowd mingled therewith like the outcries of unclean animals. The young males, who had been languishing for Claudie, seized now the chance to flatter her with their gross and lascivious motions, she mean while,with gesture and word, continuing to excite the maddened Corybantes. Were they going to tear him to pieces alive? Was he about to perish dissected under their nails?
Past ages had probably seen the distant ancestresses of these immolators rage thus against shipwrecked men and dance around a flaming pile of wreckage; and, in fabulous times, Saint Olfgar must have seen similar cannibal throats and eyes gloat over and mock at his agony.
Landrillon, now irrecoverably compromised, no longer observed any measure, but flying from one to another, related in his fashion the mysteries of Escal-Vigor, revealing to any who would listen to him the foul deeds of Guidon and his protector, thus thinking to enlist religion and good morals on his side; the obscene rascal became a dealer—out of justice, the crime an act of salubrity and public vindication. It sufficed for the wretch to utter a single word of accusation for the whole island to lose its self-control like drunken madmen.
Not a single one but would have given the culprit a kick in the back. But some now began to hold aloof; whilst others considered that he had not even yet had enough. "When you have finished him," Landrillon said to the females, "we'll chuck him into the sea."
"Yes, into the sea, with him, the infamous beast!"
They were about to carry him through the Fair, away over to the shore, when an unexpected diversion took place.