Open main menu

CHAPTER VIII.


NOT ONLY HAPPINESS, BUT PROSPERITY.


HOW many true things are told in stories! The burn of the invisible fiend who touches you is remorse for a wicked thought.

In Gwynplaine these evil thoughts never came to fruition; so he felt no remorse. Sometimes he felt regret. A few vague compunctions of conscience, what was that? Nothing. Their happiness was complete; so complete, that they were no longer poor, even.

From 1689 to 1704 a great change had taken place. It sometimes happened, in the year 1704 that an immense van drawn by two sturdy horses made its appearance about nightfall in some small village on the sea-coast. This van resembled the hull of a vessel turned upside down, the keel serving for a roof, and the deck, placed upon four wheels, for a floor. The wheels were all of the same size, and as high as wagon-wheels. Wheels, pole, and van were all painted green, with a rhythmical gradation of shades, which ranged from bottle-green for the wheels, to apple-green for the roofing. This colour attracted attention to the establishment, which was known on all fair-grounds as The Green Box. The Green Box had but two windows, one at each end, and at the back there was a door with steps that let down. On the roof, from a pipe painted green like the rest, smoke arose. This moving house was always newly varnished and washed. In front, on a sort of platform, fastened to the van, behind the horses, and beside an old man who held the reins and guided the team, two gipsy women, dressed as goddesses, sounded their trumpets. The wonder with which the villagers regarded this gorgeous establishment was overwhelming.

This was the old van of Ursus, with its proportions augmented by success, and changed from a wretched box into a fine travelling show. A kind of animal, between dog and wolf, was chained under the van; this was Homo. The old coachman who drove the horses was the philosopher himself. Whence came his improvement from the shabby box to the Olympic caravan? From this,—Gwynplaine had become famous.

It was with a correct idea of what would succeed best among men that Ursus had said to Gwynplaine: "Your fortune is made." Ursus, it may be remembered, had made Gwynplaine his pupil. Unknown people had worked upon his face; he, on the other hand, had worked upon his mind; and as soon as the growth of the child warranted it, he had brought him out on the stage,—that is to say, he had produced him in front of the van.

The effect of Gwynplaine's appearance had been surprising. The passers-by were immediately struck with wonder. Never had anything been seen to be compared to this extraordinary imitation of laughter. They were ignorant how the miracle of infectious hilarity had been obtained. Some believed it to be natural, others declared it to be artificial; and all these conjectures added to the reality; so that everywhere, at every cross-road on the journey, at all the fair-grounds and fêtes, crowds rushed to see Gwynplaine. Thanks to this great attraction, there had come into the poor purse of the wanderers first a shower of farthings, then of pennies, and finally of shillings. The curiosity of one place satisfied, they passed on to another. Rolling does not enrich a stone, but it enriches a caravan; and year by year, from city to city, with the increased growth of Gwynplaine's stature and ugliness, the good fortune predicted by Ursus had come.

"What a good turn they did you after all, my boy," said Ursus.

This good fortune enabled Ursus, who acted as business manager to have the chariot of his dreams constructed,—that is to say, a caravan large enough to carry a theatre, and thus sow science and art in the highways. Moreover, Ursus had been able to add to the troupe composed of himself, Homo, Gwynplaine, and Dea, two horses and two women, who were the goddesses of the troupe, as we have just said, and also its servants. A mythological frontispiece was, in those days, of great service to a travelling show.

"We are a wandering temple," said Ursus.

These two gipsies, picked up by the philosopher from among the vagabondage of cities and suburbs, were ugly and young, and were called, by order of Ursus, one Phœbe, and the other Venus. For these read Fibi and Vinos, that we may conform to English pronunciation. Phœbe cooked; Venus scrubbed the temple. Moreover, on days of performance they dressed Dea. Mountebanks have to appear in public as well as princes; and on these occasions Dea was arrayed, like Fibi, and Vinos, in a Florentine petticoat of flowered stuff, and a woman's jacket, which, having no sleeves, left the arms bare. Ursus and Gwynplaine wore men's jackets and long loose trousers, like sailors on board a man-of-war. Gwynplaine had, besides, for his work and for his feats of strength, round his neck and over his shoulders, a leather esclavine. He took care of the horses. Ursus and Homo took care of each other.

Dea, being used to the Green Box, moved about the interior of the wheeled house with almost as much ease and safety as a person who could see. In the back part of this new and imposing establishment, in the corner to the right of the door, stood the old van, securely fastened to the floor. This now served as a sleeping apartment and dressing-room for Gwynplaine and Ursus. In the opposite corner was the kitchen.

No vessel could be more precise and compact in its arrangements than the interior of the Green Box. Everything connected with it had been planned with remarkable foresight and care. The caravan was divided into three compartments, partitioned off from one another. These communicated by open spaces without doors, but were hung with curtains. The compartment in the rear belonged to the men, the compartment in front to the women, the compartment in the middle, separating the two sexes, was the stage. The musical instruments and the stage properties were kept in the kitchen. A loft under the arch of the roof held the scenery, and on opening a trap-door lamps appeared, which did wonders in the way of lighting the stage!

Ursus was the poet of these representations; he wrote the pieces. He had a diversity of talents; he was clever at sleight-of-hand. Besides the voices he imitated, he produced all sorts of unexpected effects,—sudden alternations of light and darkness, spontaneous formations of figures or words,—as he willed, on the wall; also vanishing figures in chiaroscuro, wonders amidst which he seemed to meditate, unmindful of the crowd who marvelled at him.

One day Gwynplaine said to him: "Father, you look like a sorcerer!"

And Ursus replied, "Then I look, perhaps, like what I am."

The Green Box, built on a model conceived by Ursus, contained this stroke of ingenuity: between the fore and hind wheels, the central panel of the left side turned on hinges by the aid of chains and pulleys, and could be let down at will like a drawbridge. As it dropped, it set at liberty three legs also on hinges, which supported the panel and converted it into a sort of platform. The opening thus made disclosed the stage, which was enlarged by the platform in front. This opening looked for all the world like a "mouth of hell," in the words of the itinerant Puritan preachers, who turned away from it with horror. It was, perhaps, for some such impious invention that Solon kicked out Thespis.

For all that, Thespis has lasted much longer than is generally supposed. The travelling theatre is still in existence. It was on these stages on wheels that the ballets and dances of Amner and Pilkington were performed in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the pastorals of Gilbert Colin in France; and in Flanders, at the annual fairs, the double choruses of Clement, called Non Papa; in Germany, the "Adam and Eve" of Theiles; and, in Italy, the Venetian exhibitions of Animuccia and of Ca-Fossis, the "Silvæ" of Gesualdo, prince of Venosa, the "Satyr," of Laura Guidiccioni, the "Despair of Philene," and the "Death of Ugolino," by Vincent Galileo, father of the astronomer, in which Vincent Galileo sang his own music, and accompanied himself on his viol de gamba; as well as all the first attempts of the Italian opera, which, from 1580, substituted free inspiration for the madrigal style.

The chariot, which carried Ursus, Gwynplaine, and their fortunes, and in front of which Fibi and Vinos trumpeted like figures of Fame, played its part in this great Bohemian and literary brotherhood. Thespis would no more have disowned Ursus, than Congrio would have disowned Gwynplaine.

On arriving at open spaces in towns or villages, Ursus, in the intervals between the tootings of Fibi and Vinos, gave instructive explanations concerning the trumpetings. "This symphony is Gregorian," he would exclaim, "citizens and townsmen; the Gregorian form of worship, this great progress, has had to contend in Italy with the Ambrosial ritual, and in Spain with the Mozarabic ceremonial, and has achieved its triumph over them with difficulty." After which the Green Box drew up in some place chosen by Ursus, and evening having come, and the panel stage having been let down, the theatre opened and the performance began.

The scenery of the Green Box represented a landscape, painted by Ursus; and as he knew nothing about painting, it could, if need be, represent a cave just as well as a landscape. The curtain was quite a gorgeous silk affair, with large plaids of contrasting colours.

The public stood outside, in the street, forming a semicircle round the stage, exposed to the wind and weather,—an arrangement which made rain even less desirable for theatres in those days than now. When they could, they acted in an inn yard, on which occasions the windows of the different stories served as boxes for the spectators. The theatre being better protected, the audience was a better paying one.

Ursus was everywhere,—in the piece, in the company, in the kitchen, in the orchestra. Vinos beat the drum, handling the sticks with great dexterity. Fibi played on the morache, a kind of guitar. The wolf had been promoted to be a utility gentleman, and played his little parts as occasion required. Often when they appeared side by side on the stage, Ursus in his tightly laced bear's skin. Homo with his wolf's skin fitting still better, one could hardly tell which was the beast. This flattered Ursus.