In the summer of the memorable year ----, but the date doesn't matter, Robichon and Quinquart both paid court to mademoiselle Brouette, Mademoiselle Brouette was a captivating actress, Robichon and Quinquart were the most comic of comedians, and all three were members of the Théâtre Suprême.
Robichon was such an idol of the public's that they used to laugh before he uttered the first word of his rôle; and Quinquart was so vastly popular that his silence threw the audience into convulsions.
Professional rivalry apart, the two were good friends, although they were suitors for the same lady, and this was doubtless due to the fact that the lady favoured the robust Robichon no more than she favoured the skinny Quinquart. She flirted with them equally, she approved them equally--and at last, when each of them had plagued her beyond endurance, she promised in a pet that she would marry the one that was the better actor. Tiens! Not a player on the stage, not a critic on the Press could quite make up his mind which the better actor was. Only Suzanne Brouette could have said anything so tantalising.
"But how shall we decide the point, Suzanne?" stammered Robichon helplessly. "Whose pronouncement will you accept?"
"How can the question be settled?" queried Quinquart, dismayed. "Who shall be the judge?"
"Paris shall be the judge," affirmed Suzanne. "We are the servants of the public--I will take the public's word!"
Of course she was as pretty as a picture, or she couldn't have done these things.
Then poor Quinquart withdrew, plunged in reverie. So did Robichon. Quinquart reflected that she had been talking through her expensive hat. Robichon was of the same opinion. The public lauded them both, was no less generous to one than to the other--to wait for the judgment of Paris appeared equivalent to postponing the matter _sine die_. No way out presented itself to Quinquart. None occurred to Robichon.
"Mon vieux," said the latter, as they sat on the terrace of their favourite café a day or two before the annual vacation, "let us discuss this amicably. Have a cigarette! You are an actor, therefore you consider yourself more talented than I. I, too, am an actor, therefore I regard you as less gifted than myself. So much for our artistic standpoints! But we are also men of the world, and it must be obvious to both of us that we might go on being funny until we reached our death-beds without demonstrating the supremacy of either. Enfin, our only hope lies in versatility--the conqueror must distinguish himself in a solemn part!" He viewed the other with complacence, for the quaint Quinquart had been designed for a droll by Nature.
"Right!" said Quinquart. He contemplated his colleague with satisfaction, for it was impossible to fancy the fat Robichon in tragedy.
"I perceive only one drawback to the plan," continued Robichon, "the Management will never consent to accord us a chance. Is it not always so in the theatre? One succeeds in a certain line of business and one must be resigned to play that line as long as one lives. If my earliest success had been scored as a villain of melodrama, it would be believed that I was competent to enact nothing but villains of melodrama; it happened that I made a hit as a comedian, wherefore nobody will credit that I am capable of anything but being comic."
"Same here!" concurred Quinquart. "Well, then, what do you propose?"
Robichon mused. "Since we shall not be allowed to do ourselves justice on the stage, we must find an opportunity off it!"
"A private performance? Good! Yet, if it is a private performance, how is Paris to be the judge?"
"Ah," murmured Robichon, "that is certainly a stumbling-block."
They sipped their apéritifs moodily. Many heads were turned towards the little table where they sat. "There are Quinquart and Robichon, how amusing they always are!" said passers-by, little guessing the anxiety at the laughter-makers' hearts.
"What's to be done?" sighed Quinquart at last.
Robichon shrugged his fat shoulders, with a frown.
Both were too absorbed to notice that, after a glance of recognition, one of the pedestrians had paused, and was still regarding them irresolutely. He was a tall, burly man, habited in rusty black, and the next moment, as if finding courage, he stepped forward and spoke:
"Gentlemen, I ask pardon for the liberty I take--impulse urges me to seek your professional advice! I am in a position to pay a moderate fee. Will you permit me to explain myself?"
"Monsieur," returned Robichon, "we are in deep consideration of our latest parts. We shall be pleased to give you our attention at some other time."
"Alas!" persisted the newcomer, "with me time presses. I, too, am considering my latest part--and it will be the only speaking part I have ever played, though I have been 'appearing' for twenty years."
"What? You have been a super for twenty years?" said Quinquart, with a grimace.
"No, monsieur," replied the stranger grimly. "I have been the public executioner; and I am going to lecture on the horrors of the post I have resigned."
The two comedians stared at him aghast. Across the sunlit terrace seemed to have fallen the black shadow of the guillotine.
"I am Jacques Roux," the man went on, "I am 'trying it on the dog' at Appeville-sous-Bois next week, and I have what you gentlemen call 'stage fright'--I, who never knew what nervousness meant before! Is it not queer? As often as I rehearse walking on to the platform, I feel myself to be all arms and legs--I don't know what to do with them. Formerly, I scarcely remembered my arms and legs; but, of course, my attention used to be engaged by the other fellow's head. Well, it struck me that you might consent to give me a few hints in deportment. Probably one lesson would suffice."
"Sit down," said Robichon. "Why did you abandon your official position?"
"Because I awakened to the truth," Roux answered. "I no longer agree with capital punishment: it is a crime that should be abolished."
"The scruples of conscience, hein?"
"That is it."
"Fine!" said Robichon. "What dramatic lines such a lecture might contain! And of what is it to consist?"
"It is to consist of the history of my life--my youth, my poverty, my experiences as Executioner, and my remorse."
"Magnificent!" said Robichon. "The spectres of your victims pursue you even to the platform. Your voice fails you, your eyes start from your head in terror. You gasp for mercy--and imagination splashes your outstretched hands with gore. The audience thrill, women swoon, strong men are breathless with emotion." Suddenly he smote the table with his big fist, and little Quinquart nearly fell off his chair, for he divined the inspiration of his rival. "Listen!" cried Robichon, "are you known at Appeville-sous-Bois?"
"My name is known, yes."
"Bah! I mean are you known personally, have you acquaintances there?"
"Oh, no. But why?"
"There will be nobody to recognize you?"
"It is very unlikely in such a place."
"What do you estimate that your profits will amount to?"
"It is only a small hall, and the prices are very cheap. Perhaps two hundred and fifty francs."
"And you are nervous, you would like to postpone your début?"
"I should not be sorry, I admit. But, again, why?"
"I will tell you why--I offer you five hundred francs to let me take your place!"
"Is it a bargain?"
"I do not understand!"
"I have a whim to figure in a solemn part. You can explain next day that you missed your train--that you were ill, there are a dozen explanations that can be made; you will not be supposed to know that I personated you--the responsibility for that is mine. What do you say?"
"It is worth double the money," demurred the man.
"Not a bit of it! All the Press will shout the story of my practical joke--Paris will be astounded that I, Robichon, lectured as Jacques Roux and curdled an audience's blood. Millions will speak of your intended lecture tour who otherwise would never have heard of it. I am giving you the grandest advertisement, and paying you for it, besides. Enfin, I will throw a deportment lesson in! Is it agreed?"
"Agreed, monsieur!" said Roux.
Oh, the trepidation of Quinquart! Who could eclipse Robichon if his performance of the part equalled his conception of it? At the theatre that evening Quinquart followed Suzanne about the wings pathetically. He was garbed like a buffoon, but he felt like Romeo. The throng that applauded his capers were far from suspecting the romantic longings under his magenta wig. For the first time in his life he was thankful that the author hadn't given him more to do.
And, oh, the excitement of Robichon! He was to put his powers to a tremendous test, and if he made the effect that he anticipated he had no fear of Quinquart's going one better. Suzanne, to whom he whispered his project proudly, announced an intention of being present to "see the fun." Quinquart also promised to be there. Robichon sat up all night preparing his lecture.
If you wish to know whether Suzanne rejoiced at the prospect of his winning her, history is not definite on the point; but some chroniclers assert that at this period she made more than usual of Quinquart, who had developed a hump as big as the Panthéon.
And they all went to Appeville-sous-Bois.
Though no one in the town was likely to know the features of the Executioner, it was to be remembered that people there might know the actor's, and Robichon had made up to resemble Roux as closely as possible. Arriving at the humble hall, he was greeted by the lessee, heard that a "good house" was expected, and smoked a cigarette in the retiring-room while the audience assembled.
At eight o'clock the lessee reappeared.
"All is ready, monsieur Roux," he said.
He saw Suzanne and Quinquart in the third row, and was tempted to wink at them.
"Ladies and gentlemen--"
All eyes were riveted on him as he began; even the voice of the "Executioner" exercised a morbid fascination over the crowd. The men nudged their neighbours appreciatively, and women gazed at him, half horrified, half charmed.
The opening of his address was quiet enough--there was even a humorous element in it, as he narrated imaginary experiences of his boyhood. People tittered, and then glanced at one another with an apologetic air, as if shocked at such a monster's daring to amuse them. Suzanne whispered to Quinquart: "Too cheerful; he hasn't struck the right note." Quinquart whispered back gloomily: "Wait; he may be playing for the contrast!"
And Quinquart's assumption was correct. Gradually the cheerfulness faded from the speaker's voice, the humorous incidents were past. Gruesome, hideous, grew the anecdotes, The hall shivered. Necks were craned, and white faces twitched suspensively. He dwelt on the agonies of the Condemned, he recited crimes in detail, he mirrored the last moments before the blade fell. He shrieked his remorse, his lacerating remorse. "I am a murderer," he sobbed; and in the hall one might have heard a pin drop.
There was no applause when he finished--that set the seal on his success; he bowed and withdrew amid tense silence. Still none moved in the hall, until, with a rush, the representatives of the Press sped forth to proclaim Jacques Roux an unparalleled sensation.
The triumph of Robichon! How generous were the congratulations of Quinquart, and how sweet the admiring tributes of Suzanne! And there was another compliment to come--nothing less than a card from the marquis de Thevenin, requesting an interview at his home.
"Ah!" exclaimed Robichon, enravished, "an invitation from a noble! That proves the effect I made, hein?"
"Who may he be?" inquired Quinquart. "I never heard of the marquis de Thevenin!"
"It is immaterial whether you have heard of him," replied Robichon. "He is a marquis, and he desires to converse with me! It is an honour that one must appreciate. I shall assuredly go."
And, being a bit of a snob, he sought a fiacre in high feather.
The drive was short, and when the cab stopped he was distinctly taken aback to perceive the unpretentious aspect of the nobleman's abode. It was, indeed, nothing better than a lodging. A peasant admitted him, and the room to which he was ushered boasted no warmer hospitality than a couple of candles and a decanter of wine. However, the sconces were massive silver. Monsieur le marquis, he was informed, had been suddenly compelled to summon his physician, and begged that monsieur Roux would allow him a few minutes' grace.
Robichon ardently admired the candlesticks, but began to think he might have supped more cozily with Suzanne.
It was a long time before the door opened.
The marquis de Thevenin was old--so old that he seemed to be falling to pieces as he tottered forward. His skin was yellow and shrivelled, his mouth sunken, his hair sparse and grey; and from this weird face peered strange eyes--the eyes of a fanatic.
"Monsieur, I owe you many apologies for my delay," he wheezed. "My unaccustomed exertion this evening fatigued me, and on my return from the hall I found it necessary to see my doctor. Your lecture was wonderful, monsieur Roux--most interesting and instructive; I shall never forget it."
Robichon bowed his acknowledgments.
"Sit down, monsieur Roux, do not stand! Let me offer you some wine. I am forbidden to touch it myself. I am a poor host, but my age must be my excuse."
"To be the guest of monsieur le marquis," murmured Robichon, "is a privilege, an honour, which--er--"
"Ah," sighed the Marquis. "I shall very soon be in the Republic where all men are really equals and the only masters are the worms. My reason for requesting you to come was to speak of your unfortunate experiences--of a certain unfortunate experience in particular. You referred in your lecture to the execution of one called 'Victor Lesueur.' He died game, hein?"
"As plucky a soul as I ever dispatched!" said Robichon, savouring the burgundy.
"Ah! Not a tremor? He strode to the guillotine like a man?"
"Like a hero!" said Robichon, who knew nothing about him.
"That was fine," said the Marquis; "that was as it should be! You have never known a prisoner to die more bravely?" There was a note of pride in his voice that was unmistakable.
"I shall always recall his courage with respect," declared Robichon, mystified.
"Did you respect it at the time?"
"Pardon, monsieur le marquis?"
"I inquire if you respected it at the time; did you spare him all needless suffering?"
"There is no suffering," said Robichon. "So swift is the knife that--" The host made a gesture of impatience. "I refer to mental suffering. Cannot you realise the emotions of an innocent man condemned to a shameful death!"
"Innocent! As for that, they all say that they are innocent."
"I do not doubt it. Victor, however, spoke the truth. I know it. He was my son."
"Your son?" faltered Robichon, aghast.
"My only son--the only soul I loved on earth. Yes; he was innocent, monsieur Roux. And it was you who butchered him--he died by your hands."
"I--I was but the instrument of the law," stammered Robichon. "I was not responsible for his fate, myself."
"You have given a masterly lecture, monsieur Roux," said the Marquis musingly; "I find myself in agreement with all that you said in it-- you are his murderer,' I hope the wine is to your taste, monsieur Roux? Do not spare it!"
"The wine?" gasped the actor. He started to his feet, trembling--he understood.
"It is poisoned," said the old man calmly, "In an hour you will be dead."
"Great Heavens!" moaned Robichon. Already he was conscious of a strange sensation--his blood was chilled, his limbs were weighted, there were shadows before his eyes.
"Ah, I have no fear of you!" continued the other; "I am feeble, I could not defend myself; but your violence would avail you nothing. Fight, or faint, as you please--you are doomed."
For some seconds they stared at each other dumbly--the actor paralysed by terror, the host wearing the smile of a lunatic. And then the "lunatic" slowly peeled court-plaster from his teeth, and removed features, and lifted a wig.
* * * * *
And when the whole story was published, a delighted Paris awarded the palm to Quinquart without a dissentient voice, for while Robichon had duped an audience, Quinquart had duped Robichon himself.
Robichon bought the silver candlesticks, which had been hired for the occasion, and he presented them to Quinquart and Suzanne on their wedding-day.