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Fete Galante by Maurice Baring

To Cecilia Fisher

"The King said that nobody had ever danced as I danced to-night," said Columbine. "He said it was more than dancing, it was magic."

"It is true," said Harlequin, "you never danced like that before."

But Pierrot paid no heed to their remarks, and stared vacantly at the sky. They were sitting on the deserted stage of the grass amphitheatre where they had been playing. Behind them were the clumps of cypress trees which framed a vista of endless wooden garden and formed their drop scene. They were sitting immediately beneath the wooden framework made of two upright beams and one horizontal, which formed the primitive proscenium, and from which little coloured lights had hung during the performance. The King and Queen and their lords and ladies who had looked on at the living puppet show had all left the amphitheatre; they had put on their masks and their dominoes, and were now dancing on the lawns, whispering in the alleys and the avenues, or sitting in groups under the tall dark trees. Some of them were in boats on the lake, and everywhere one went, from the dark boscages, came sounds of music, thin, tinkling tunes played on guitars by skilled hands, and the bird-like twittering and whistling of flageolets.

"The King said I looked like a moon fairy," said Columbine to Pierrot. Pierrot only stared in the sky and laughed inanely. "If you persist in slighting me like this," she whispered in his ear, in a whisper which was like a hiss, "I will abandon you for ever. I will give my heart to Harlequin, and you shall never see me again." But Pierrot continued to stare at the sky, and laughed once more inanely. Then Columbine got up, her eyes flashing with rage; taking Harlequin by the arm she dragged him swiftly away. They danced across the grass semi-circle of the amphitheatre and up the steps away into the alleys. Pierrot was left alone with Pantaloon, who was asleep, for he was old and clowning fatigued him. Then Pierrot left the amphitheatre also, and putting a black mask on his face he joined the revellers who were everywhere dancing, whispering, talking, and making music in subdued tones. He sought out a long lonely avenue, in one side of which there nestled, almost entirely concealed by bushes and undergrowth, a round open Greek temple. Right at the end of the avenue a foaming waterfall splashed down into a large marble basin, from which a tall fountain rose, white and ghostly, and made a sobbing noise. Pierrot went towards the temple, then he turned back and walked right into the undergrowth through the bushes, and lay down on the grass, and listened to the singing of the night-jar. The whole garden that night seemed to be sighing and whispering; there was a soft warm wind, and a smell of mown hay in the air, and an intoxicating sweetness came from the bushes of syringa. Columbine and Harlequin also joined the revellers. They passed from group to group, with aimless curiosity, pausing sometimes by the artificial ponds and sometimes by the dainty groups of dancers, whose satin and whose pearls glimmered faintly in the shifting moonlight, for the night was cloudy. At last they too were tired of the revel, they wandered towards a more secluded place and made for the avenue which Pierrot had sought. On their way they passed through a narrow grass walk between two rows of closely cropped yew hedges. There on a marble seat a tall man in a black domino was sitting, his head resting on his hands; and between the loose folds of his satin cloak, one caught the glint of precious stones. When they had passed him Columbine whispered to Harlequin: "That is the King. I caught sight of his jewelled collar." They presently found themselves in the long avenue at the end of which were the waterfall and the fountain. They wandered on till they reached the Greek temple, and there suddenly Columbine put her finger on her lips. Then she led Harlequin back a little way and took him round through the undergrowth to the back of the temple, and, crouching down in the bushes, bade him look. In the middle of the temple there was a statue of Eros holding a torch in his hands. Standing close beside the statue were two figures, a man dressed as a Pierrot, and a beautiful lady who wore a grey satin domino. She had taken off her mask and pushed back the hood from her hair, which was encircled by a diadem made of something shining and silvery, and a ray of moonlight fell on her face, which was as delicate as the petal of a flower. Pierrot was masked; he was holding her hand and looking into her eyes, which were turned upwards towards his.

"It is the Queen!" whispered Columbine to Harlequin. And once more putting her finger on her lips, she deftly led him by the hand and noiselessly threaded her way through the bushes and back into the avenue, and without saying a word ran swiftly with him to the place where they had seen the King. He was still there, alone, his head resting upon his hands.

* * * * *

In the temple the Queen was upbraiding her lover for his temerity in having crossed the frontier into the land from which he had been banished for ever, and for having dared to appear at the court revel disguised as Pierrot. "Remember," she was saying, "the enemies that surround us, the dreadful peril, and the doom that awaits us." And her lover said: "What is doom, and what is death? You whispered to the night and I heard. You sighed and I am here!" He tore the mask from his face, and the Queen looked at him and smiled. At that moment a rustle was heard in the undergrowth, and the Queen started back from him, whispering: "We are betrayed! Fly!" And her lover put on his mask and darted through the undergrowth, following a path which he and no one else knew, till he came to an open space where his squire awaited him with horses, and they galloped away safe from all pursuit.

Then the King walked into the temple and led the Queen back to the palace without saying a word; but the whole avenue was full of dark men bearing torches and armed with swords, who were searching the undergrowth. And presently they found Pierrot who, ignorant of all that had happened, had been listening all night to the song of the night-jar. He was dragged to the palace and cast into a dungeon, and the King was told. But the revel did not cease, and the dancing and the music continued softly as before. The King sent for Columbine and told her she should have speech with Pierrot in his prison, for haply he might have something to confess to her. And Columbine was taken to Pierrot's dungeon, and the King followed her without her knowing it, and concealed himself behind the door, which he set ajar.

Columbine upbraided Pierrot and said: "All this was my work. I have always known that you loved the Queen. And yet for the sake of past days, tell me the truth. Was it love or a joke, such as those you love to play?"

Pierrot laughed inanely. "It was a joke," he said. "It is my trade to make jokes. What else can I do?"

"You love the Queen nevertheless," said Columbine, "of that I am sure, and for that I have had my revenge."

"It was a joke," said Pierrot, and he laughed again.

And though she talked and raved and wept, she could get no other answer from him. Then she left him, and the King entered the dungeon.

"I have heard what you said," said the King, "but to me you must tell the truth. I do not believe it was you who met the Queen in the temple; tell me the truth, and your life shall be spared."

"It was a joke," said Pierrot, and he laughed. Then the King grew fierce and stormed and threatened. But his rage and threats were in vain! for Pierrot only laughed. Then the King appealed to him as man to man and implored him to tell him the truth; for he would have given his kingdom to believe that it was the real Pierrot who had met the Queen and that the adventure had been a joke. Pierrot only repeated what he had said, and laughed and giggled inanely.

At dawn the prison door was opened and three masked men led Pierrot out through the courtyard into the garden. The revellers had gone home, but here and there lights still twinkled and flickered and a stray note or two of music was still heard. Some of the latest of the revellers were going home. The dawn was grey and chilly; they led Pierrot through the alleys to the grass amphitheatre, and they hanged him on the horizontal beam which formed part of the primitive proscenium where he and Columbine had danced so wildly in the night. They hanged him and his white figure dangled from the beam as though he were still dancing; and the new Pierrot, who was appointed the next day, was told that such would be the fate of all mummers who went too far, and whose jokes and pranks overstepped the limits of decency and good breeding.