The showman, Fire-Eater—for that was his name—looked like a wicked man, especially with his black beard that covered his chest and legs like an apron. On the whole, however, he had not a bad heart. In proof of this, when he saw poor Pinocchio brought before him, struggling and screaming "I will not die, I will not die!" he was quite moved and felt very sorry for him. He tried to hold out, but after a little he could stand it no longer and he sneezed violently. When he heard the sneeze, Harlequin, who up to that moment had been in the deepest affliction and bowed down like a weeping willow, became quite cheerful and, leaning towards Pinocchio, he whispered to him softly:
"Good news, brother. The showman has sneezed and that is a sign that he pities you, and consequently you are saved."
Most men, when they feel compassion for somebody, either weep or at least pretend to dry their eyes. Fire-Eater, on the contrary, whenever he was really overcome, had the habit of sneezing.
After he had sneezed, the showman, still acting the ruffian, shouted to Pinocchio:
"Have done crying! Your lamentations have given me a pain in my stomach. I feel a spasm that almost—Etchoo! etchoo!" and he sneezed again twice.
"Bless you!" said Pinocchio.
"Thank you! And your papa and your mamma, are they still alive?" asked Fire-Eater.
"Papa, yes; my mamma I have never known."
"Who can say what a sorrow it would be for your poor old father if I were to have you thrown amongst those burning coals! Poor old man! I pity him! Etchoo! etchoo! etchoo!" and he sneezed again three times.
"Bless you" said Pinocchio.
"Thank you! All the same, some compassion is due to me, for as you see I have no more wood with which to finish roasting my mutton, and, to tell you the truth, under the circumstances you would have been of great use to me! However, I have had pity on you, so I must have patience. Instead of you I will burn under the spit one of the puppets belonging to my company. Ho there, gendarmes!"
At this call two wooden gendarmes immediately appeared. They were very long and very thin, and had on cocked hats, and held unsheathed swords in their hands.
The showman said to them in a hoarse voice:
"Take Harlequin, bind him securely, and then throw him on the fire to burn. I am determined that my mutton shall be well roasted."
Only imagine that poor Harlequin! His terror was so great that his legs bent under him, and he fell with his face on the ground.
At this agonizing sight Pinocchio, weeping bitterly, threw himself at the showman's feet and, bathing his long beard with his tears, he began to say, in a supplicating voice:
"Have pity, Sir Fire-Eater!"
"Here there are no sirs," the showman answered severely.
"Have pity, Sir Knight!"
"Here there are no knights!"
"Have pity, Commander!"
"Here there are no commanders!"
"Have pity, Excellence!"
Upon hearing himself called Excellence the showman began to smile and became at once kinder and more tractable. Turning to Pinocchio, he asked:
"Well, what do you want from me?"
"I implore you to pardon poor Harlequin."
"For him there can be no pardon. As I have spared you he must be put on the fire, for I am determined that my mutton shall be well roasted."
"In that case," cried Pinocchio proudly, rising and throwing away his cap of bread crumb—"in that case I know my duty. Come on, gendarmes! Bind me and throw me amongst the flames. No, it is not just that poor Harlequin, my true friend, should die for me!"
These words, pronounced in a loud, heroic voice, made all the puppets who were present cry. Even the gendarmes, although they were made of wood, wept like two newly born lambs.
Fire-Eater at first remained as hard and unmoved as ice, but little by little he began to melt and to sneeze. And, having sneezed four or five times, he opened his arms affectionately and said to Pinocchio:
"You are a good, brave boy! Come here and give me a kiss."
Pinocchio ran at once and, climbing like a squirrel up the showman's beard, he deposited a hearty kiss on the point of his nose.
"Then the pardon is granted?" asked poor Harlequin in a faint voice that was scarcely audible.
"The pardon is granted!" answered Fire-Eater; he then added, sighing and shaking his head:
"I must have patience! Tonight I shall have to resign myself to eat the mutton half raw; but another time, woe to him who displeases me!"
At the news of the pardon the puppets all ran to the stage and, having lighted the lamps and chandeliers as if for a full-dress performance, they began to leap and to dance merrily. At dawn they were still dancing.