FROM THE FRENCH
Translated by WALTER LEARNED, with fifty pen-and-ink drawings by ALBERT E. STERNER, and an introduction by BRANDER MATTHEWS
NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS, FRANKLIN SQUARE 1891
Copyright, 1890, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved.
THE CAPTAIN'S VICES
A VOLUNTARY DEATH
A DRAMATIC FUNERAL
THE SABOTS OF LITTLE WOLFF
THE FOSTER SISTER
MY FRIEND MEURTRIER
The conte is a form of fiction in which the French have always delighted and in which they have always excelled, from the days of the jongleurs and the trouveres, past the periods of La Fontaine and Voltaire, down to the present. The conte is a tale, something more than a sketch, it may be, and something less than a short story. In verse it is at times but a mere rhymed anecdote, or it may attain almost to the direct swiftness of a ballad. The Canterbury Tales are contes, most of them, if not all; and so are some of the Tales of a Wayside Inn. The free-and-easy tales of Prior were written in imitation of the French conte en vers; and that, likewise, was the model of more than one of the lively narrative poems of Mr. Austin Dobson.
No one has succeeded more abundantly in the conte en vers than M. Coppee. Where was there ever anything better of its kind than L'Enfant de la Balle?—that gentle portrait of the Infant Phenomenon, framed in a chain of occasional gibes at the sordid ways of theatrical managers and at their hostility towards poetic plays. Where is there anything of a more simple pathos than L'Epave?—that story of a sailor's son whom the widowed mother strives vainly to keep from the cruel waves that killed his father. (It is worthy of a parenthesis that although the ship M. Coppee loves best is that which sails the blue shield of the City of Paris, he knows the sea also, and he depicts sailors with affectionate fidelity.) But whether at the sea-side by chance, or more often in the streets of the city, the poet seeks out for the subject of his story some incident of daily occurrence made significant by his interpretation; he chooses some character common-place enough, but made firmer by conflict with evil and by victory over self. Those whom he puts into his poems are still the humble, the forgotten, the neglected, the unknown; and it is the feelings and the struggles of these that he tells us, with no maudlin sentimentality, and with no dead set at our sensibilities. The sub-title Mrs. Stowe gave to Uncle Tom's Cabin would serve to cover most of M. Coppee's contes either in prose or verse; they are nearly all pictures of life among the lowly. But there is no forcing of the note in his painting of poverty and labor; there is no harsh juxtaposition of the blacks and the whites. The tone is always manly and wholesome.
La Marchande de Journaux and the other little masterpieces of story-telling in verse are unfortunately untranslatable, as are all poems but a lyric or two, now and then, by a happy accident. A translated poem is a boiled strawberry, as some one once put it brutally. But the tales which M. Coppee has written in prose—a true poet's prose, nervous, vigorous, flexible, and firm—these can be Englished by taking thought and time and pains, without which a translation is always a betrayal. Ten of these tales have been rendered into English by Mr. Learned; and the ten chosen for translation are among the best of the two score and more of M. Coppee's contes en prose. These ten tales are fairly representative of his range and variety. Compare, for example, the passion in "The Foster Sister," pure, burning and fatal, with the Black Forest naivete of "The Sabots of Little Wolff." Contrast the touching pathos of "The Substitute," poignant in his magnificent self-sacrifice, by which the man who has conquered his shameful past goes back willingly to the horrible life he has fled from that he may save from a like degradation and from an inevitable moral decay the one friend he has in the world, all unworthy as this friend is—contrast this with the story of the gigantic deeds "My Friend Meurtrier" boasts about unceasingly, not knowing that he has been discovered in his little round of daily domestic duties, making the coffee of his good old mother and taking her poodle out for a walk.
Among these ten there are tales of all sorts, from the tragic adventure of "An Accident" to the pendent portraits of the "Two Clowns," cutting in its sarcasm, but not bitter—from "The Captain's Vices," which suggests at once George Eliot's Silas Marner and Mr. Austin Dobson's Tale of Polypheme, to the sombre revery of the poet "At Table," a sudden and searching light cast on the labor and misery which underlies the luxury of our complex modern existence. Like "At Table," "A Dramatic Funeral" is a picture more than it is a story; it is a marvellous reproduction of the factitious emotion of the good-natured stage folk, who are prone to overact even their own griefs and joys. "A Dramatic Funeral" seems to me always as though it might be a painting of M. Jean Beraud, that most Parisian of artists, just as certain stories of M. Guy de Maupassant inevitably suggest the bold freedom of M. Forain's sketches in black-and-white.
An ardent admirer of the author of the stories in The Odd Number has protested to me that M. Coppee is not an etcher like M. de Maupassant, but rather a painter in water-colors. And why not? Thus might we call M. Alphonse Daudet an artist in pastels, so adroitly does he suggest the very bloom of color. No doubt M. Coppee's contes have not the sharpness of M. de Maupassant's, nor the brilliancy of M. Daudet's—but what of it? They have qualities of their own; they have sympathy, poetry, and a power of suggesting pictures not exceeded, I think, by those of either M. de Maupassant or M. Daudet. M. Coppee's street views in Paris, his interiors, his impressionist sketches of life under the shadows of Notre Dame, are convincingly successful. They are intensely to be enjoyed by those of us who take the same keen delight in the varied phases of life in New York. They are not, to my mind, really rivalled either by those of M. de Maupassant, who is a Norman by birth and a nomad by choice, or by those of M. Daudet, who is a native of Provence, although now for thirty years a resident of Paris. M. Coppee is a Parisian from his youth up, and even in prose he is a poet; perhaps this is why his pictures of Paris are unsurpassable in their felicity and in their verity.
It may be fancy, but I seem to see also a finer morality in M. Coppee's work than in M. de Maupassant's or in M. Daudet's or in that of almost any other of the Parisian story-tellers of to-day. In his tales we breathe a purer moral atmosphere, more wholesome and more bracing. It is not that M. Coppee probably thinks of ethics rather than aesthetics; in this respect his attitude is undoubtedly that of the others; there is no sermon in his song—or at least none for those who will not seek it for themselves; there is never a hint of a preachment. But for all that I have found in his work a trace of the tonic morality which inheres in Moliere, for example, also a Parisian by birth, and also in Rabelais, despite his disguising grossness. This finer morality comes possibly from a wider and a deeper survey of the universe; and it is as different as possible from the morality which is externally applied and which always punishes the villain in the fifth act.
It is of good augury for our own letters that the best French fiction of to-day is getting itself translated in the United States, and that the liking for it is growing apace. Fiction is more consciously an art in France than anywhere else—perhaps partly because the French are now foremost in nearly all forms of artistic endeavor. In the short story especially, in the tale, in the conte, their supremacy is incontestable; and their skill is shown and their aesthetic instinct exemplified partly in the sense of form, in the constructive method, which underlies the best short stories, however trifling these may appear to be, and partly in the rigorous suppression of non-essentials, due in a measure, it may be, to the example of Merimee. That is an example we in America may study to advantage; and from the men who are writing fiction in France we may gain much. From the British fiction of this last quarter of the nineteenth century little can be learned by any one—less by us Americans in whom the English tradition is still dominant. When we look to France for an exemplar we may find a model of value, but when we copy an Englishman we are but echoing our own faults. "The truth is," said Mr. Lowell in his memorable essay On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners—"the truth is that we are worth nothing except so far as we have disinfected ourselves of Anglicism."
THE CAPTAIN'S VICES.
It is of no importance, the name of the little provincial city where Captain Mercadier—twenty-six years of service, twenty-two campaigns, and three wounds—installed himself when he was retired on a pension.
It was quite like all those other little villages which solicit without obtaining it a branch of the railway; just as if it were not the sole dissipation of the natives to go every day, at the same hour, to the Place de la Fontaine to see the diligence come in at full gallop, with its gay cracking of the whips and clang of bells.
It was a place of three thousand inhabitants—ambitiously denominated souls in the statistical tables—and was exceedingly proud of its title of chief city of the canton. It had ramparts planted with trees, a pretty river with good fishing, a church of the charming epoch of the flamboyant Gothic, disgraced by a frightful station of the cross, brought directly from the quarter of Saint Sulpice. Every Monday its market was gay with great red and blue umbrellas, and countrymen filled its streets in carts and carriages. But for the rest of the week it retired with delight into that silence and solitude which made it so dear to its rustic population. Its streets were paved with cobble-stones; through the windows of the ground-floor one could see samplers and wax-flowers under glass domes, and, through the gates of the gardens, statuettes of Napoleon in shell-work. The principal inn was naturally called the Shield of France; and the town-clerk made rhymed acrostics for the ladies of society.
Captain Mercadier had chosen that place of retreat for the simple reason that he had been born there, and because, in his noisy childhood, he had pulled down the signs and plugged up the bell-buttons. He returned there to find neither relations, nor friends, nor acquaintances; and the recollections of his youth recalled only the angry faces of shop-keepers who shook their fists at him from the shop-doors, a catechism which threatened him with hell, a school which predicted the scaffold, and, finally, his departure for his regiment, hastened by a paternal malediction.
For the Captain was not a saintly man; the old record of his punishment was black with days in the guard-house inflicted for breaches of discipline, absences from roll-calls, and nocturnal uproars in the mess-room. He had often narrowly escaped losing his stripes as a corporal or a sergeant, and he needed all the chance, all the license of a campaigning life to gain his first epaulet. Firm and brave soldier, he had passed almost all his life in Algiers at that time when our foot soldiers wore the high shako, white shoulder-belts and huge cartridge-boxes. He had had Lamoriciere for commander. The Due de Nemours, near whom he received his first wound, had decorated him, and when he was sergeant-major, Pere Bugrand had called him by his name and pulled his ears. He had been a prisoner of Abd-el-Kader, bearing the scar of a yataghan stroke on his neck, of one ball in his shoulder and another in his chest; and notwithstanding absinthe, duels, debts of play, and almond-eyed Jewesses, he fairly won, with the point of the bayonet and sabre, his grade of captain in the First Regiment of Sharp-shooters.
Captain Mercadier—twenty-six years of service, twenty-two campaigns, and three wounds—had just retired on his pension, not quite two thousand francs, which, joined to the two hundred and fifty francs from his cross, placed him in that estate of honorable penury which the State reserves for its old servants.
His entry into his natal city was without ostentation. He arrived one morning on the imperiale of the diligence, chewing an extinguished cigar, and already on good terms with the conductor, to whom, during his journey, he had related the passage of the Porte de Fer; full of indulgence, moreover, for the distractions of his auditor, who often interrupted the recital by some oath or epithet addressed to the off mare. When the diligence stopped he threw on the sidewalk his old valise, covered with railway placards as numerous as the changes of garrison that its proprietor had made, and the idlers of the neighborhood were astonished to see a man with a decoration—a rare thing in the province—offer a glass of wine to the coachman at the bar of an inn near by.
He installed himself at once. In a house in the outskirts, where two captive cows lowed, and fowls and ducks passed and repassed through the gate-way, a furnished chamber was to let. Preceded by a masculine-looking woman, the Captain climbed the stair-way with its great wooden balusters, perfumed by a strong odor of the stable, and reached a great tiled room, whose walls were covered with a bizarre paper representing, printed in blue on a white background and repeated infinitely, the picture of Joseph Poniatowski crossing the Elster on his horse. This monotonous decoration, recalling nevertheless our military glories, fascinated the Captain without doubt, for, without concerning himself with the uncomfortable straw chairs, the walnut furniture, or the little bed with its yellowed curtain, he took the room without hesitation. A quarter of an hour was enough to empty his trunk, hang up his clothes, put his boots in a corner, and ornament the wall with a trophy composed of three pipes, a sabre, and a pair of pistols. After a visit to the grocer's, over the way, where he bought a pound of candles and a bottle of rum, he returned, put his purchase on the mantle-shelf, and looked around him with an air of perfect satisfaction. And then, with the promptitude of the camp, he shaved without a mirror, brushed his coat, cocked his hat over his ear, and went for a walk in the village in search of a cafe.
It was an inveterate habit of the Captain to spend much of his time at a cafe. It was there that he satisfied at the same time the three vices which reigned supreme in his heart—tobacco, absinthe, and cards. It was thus that he passed his life, and he could have drawn a plan of all the places where he had ever been stationed by their tobacco shops, cafes, and military clubs. He never felt himself so thoroughly at ease as when sitting on a worn velvet bench before a square of green cloth near a heap of beer-mugs and saucers. His cigar never seemed good unless he struck his match under the marble of the table, and he never failed, after hanging his hat and his sabre on a hat-hook and settling himself comfortably, by unloosing one or two buttons of his coat, to breathe a profound sigh of relief, and exclaim,
"That is better!"
His first care was, therefore, to find an establishment which he could frequent, and after having gone around the village without finding anything that suited him, he stopped at last to regard with the eye of a connoisseur the Cafe Prosper, situated at the corner of the Place du Marche and the Rue de la Pavoisse.
It was not his ideal. Some of the details of the exterior were too provincial: the waiter, in his black apron, for example, the little stands in their green frames, the footstools, and the wooden tables covered with waxed cloth. But the interior pleased the Captain. He was delighted upon his entrance by the sound of the bell which was touched by the fair and fleshy dame du comptoir, in her light dress, with a poppy-colored ribbon in her sleek hair. He saluted her gallantly, and believed that she sustained with sufficient majesty her triumphal place between two piles of punch-bowls properly crowned by billiard-balls. He ascertained that the place was cheerful, neat, and strewn evenly with yellow sand. He walked around it, looking at himself in the glasses as he passed; approved the panels where guardsmen and amazons were drinking champagne in a landscape filled with red holly-hocks; called for his absinthe, smoked, found the divan soft and the absinthe good, and was indulgent enough not to complain of the flies who bathed themselves in his glass with true rustic familiarity.
Eight days later he had become one of the pillars of the Cafe Prosper.
They soon learned his punctual habits and anticipated his wishes, while he, in turn, lunched with the patrons of the place—a valuable recruit for those who haunted the cafe, folks oppressed by the tedium of a country life, for whom the arrival of that new-comer, past master in all games, and an admirable raconteur of his wars and his loves, was a true stroke of good-fortune. The Captain himself was delighted to tell his stories to folks who were still ignorant of his repertoire. There were fully six months before him in which to tell of his games, his feats, his battles, the retreat of Constantine, the capture of Bou-Maza, and the officers' receptions with the concomitant intoxication of rum-punch.
Human weakness! He was by no means sorry, on his part, to be something of an oracle; he from whom the sub-lieutenants, new-comers at Saint-Cyr, fled dismayed, fearing his long stories.
His usual auditors were the keeper of the cafe, a stupid and silent beer-cask, always in his sleeved vest, and remarkable only for his carved pipe; the bailiff, a scoffer, dressed invariably in black, scorned for his inelegant habit of carrying off what remained of his sugar; the town-clerk, the gentleman of acrostics, a person of much amiability and a feeble constitution, who sent to the illustrated journals solutions of enigmas and rebuses; and, lastly, the veterinary surgeon of the place, the only one who, from his position of atheist and democrat, was allowed to contradict the Captain. This practitioner, a man with tufted whiskers and eye-glasses, presided over the radical committee of electors, and when the cure took up a little collection among his devotees for the purpose of adorning his church with some frightful red and gilded statues, denounced, in a letter to the Siecle, the cupidity of the Jesuits.
The Captain having gone out one evening for some cigars after an animated political discussion, the aforesaid veterinary grumbled to himself certain phrases of heavy irritation concerning "coming to the point," and "a mere fencing-master," and "cutting a figure." But as the object of these vague menaces suddenly returned, whistling a march and beating time with his cane, the incident was without result.
In short, the group lived harmoniously together, and willingly permitted themselves to be presided over by the new-comer, whose white beard and martial bearing were quite impressive. And the small city, proud of so many things, was also proud of its retired Captain.
Perfect happiness exists nowhere, and Captain Mercadier, who believed that he had found it at the Cafe Prosper, soon recovered from his illusion.
For one thing, on Mondays, the market-day, the Cafe Prosper was untenantable.
From early morning it was overrun with truck-peddlers, farmers, and poultrymen. Heavy men with coarse voices, red necks, and great whips in their hands, wearing blue blouses and otter-skin caps, bargaining over their cups, stamping their feet, striking their fists, familiar with the servant, and bungling at billiards.
When the Captain came, at eleven o'clock, for his first glass of absinthe, he found this crowd gathered, and already half-drunk, ordering a quantity of lunches. His usual place was taken, and he was served slowly and badly. The bell was continually sounding, and the proprietor and the waiter, with napkins under their arms, were running distractedly hither and thither. In short, it was an ill-omened day, which upset his entire existence.
Now, one Monday morning, when he was resting quietly at home, being sure that the cafe would be much too full and busy, the mild radiance of the autumn sun persuaded him to go down and sit upon the stone seat by the side of the house. He was sitting there, depressed and smoking a damp cigar, when he saw coming down the end of the street—it was a badly paved lane leading out into the country—a little girl of eight or ten, driving before her a half-dozen geese.
As the Captain looked carelessly at the child he saw that she had a wooden leg.
There was nothing paternal in the heart of the soldier. It was that of a hardened bachelor. In former days, in the streets of Algiers, when the little begging Arabs pursued him with their importunate prayers, the Captain had often chased them away with blows from his whip; and on those rare occasions when he had penetrated the nomadic household of some comrade who was married and the father of a family, he had gone away cursing the crying babies and awkward children who had touched with their greasy hands the gilding on his uniform.
But the sight of that particular infirmity, which recalled to him the sad spectacle of wounds and amputations, touched, on that account, the old soldier. He felt almost a constriction of the heart at the sight of that sorry creature, half-clothed in her tattered petticoats and old chemise, bravely running along behind her geese, her bare foot in the dust, and limping on her ill-made wooden stump.
The geese, recognizing their home, turned into the poultry-yard, and the little one was about to follow them when the Captain stopped her with this question:
"Eh! little girl, what's your name?"
"Pierette, monsieur, at your service," she answered, looking at him with her great black eyes, and pushing her disordered locks from her forehead.
"You live in this house, then? I haven't seen you before."
"Yes, I know you pretty well, though, for I sleep under the stairs, and you wake me up every evening when you come home."
"Is that so, my girl? Ah, well, I must walk on my toes in future. How old are you?"
"Nine, monsieur, come All-Saints day."
"Is the landlady here a relative of yours?"
"No, monsieur, I am in service."
"And they give you?"
"Soup, and a bed under the stairs."
"And how came you to be lame like that, my poor little one?"
"By the kick of a cow when I was five."
"Have you a father or mother?"
The child blushed under her sunburned skin. "I came from the Foundling Hospital," she said, briefly. Then, with an awkward courtesy, she passed limping into the house, and the Captain heard, as she went away on the pavement of the court, the hard sound of the little wooden leg.
Good heavens! he thought, mechanically walking towards his cafe, that's not at all the thing. A soldier, at least, they pack off to the Invalides, with the money from his medal to keep him in tobacco. For an officer, they fix up a collectorship, and he marries somewhere in the provinces. But this poor girl, with such an infirmity,—that's not at all the thing!
Having established in these terms the injustice of fate, the Captain reached the threshold of his dear cafe, but he saw there such a mob of blue blouses, he heard such a din of laughter and click of billiard-balls, that he returned home in very bad humor.
His room—it was, perhaps, the first time that he had spent in it several hours of the day—looked rather shabby. His bed-curtains were the color of an old pipe. The fireplace was heaped with old cigar-stumps, and one could have written his name in the dust on the furniture. He contemplated for some time the walls where the sublime lancer of Leipsic rode a hundred times to a glorious death. Then, for an occupation, he passed his wardrobe in review. It was a lamentable series of bottomless pockets, socks full of holes, and shirts without buttons.
"I must have a servant," he said.
Then he thought of the little lame girl.
"That's what I'll do. I'll hire the next little room; winter is coming, and the little thing will freeze under the stairs. She will look after my clothes and my linen and keep the barracks clean. A valet, how's that?"
But a cloud darkened the comfortable picture. The Captain remembered that quarter-day was still a long way off, and that his account at the Cafe Prosper was assuming alarming proportions.
"Not rich enough," he said to himself. "And in the mean time they are robbing me down there. That is positive. The board is too high, and that wretch of a veterinary plays bezique much too well. I have paid his way now for eight days. Who knows? Perhaps I had better put the little one in charge of the mess, soup au cafe in the morning, stew at noon, and ragout every evening—campaign life, in fact. I know all about that. Quite the thing to try."
Going out he saw at once the mistress of the house, a great brutal peasant, and the little lame girl, who both, with pitchforks in their hands, were turning over the dung-heap in the yard.
"Does she know how to sew, to wash, to make soup?" he asked, brusquely.
"Does she know a little of all that?"
"Of course. She came from an asylum where they learn how to take care of themselves."
"Tell me, little one," added the Captain, speaking to the child, "I am not scaring you—no? Well, my good woman, will you let me have her? I want a servant."
"If you will support her."
"Then that is finished. Here are twenty francs. Let her have to-night a dress and a shoe. To-morrow we'll arrange the rest."
And, with a friendly tap on Pierette's cheek, the Captain went off, delighted that everything was concluded. Possibly he thought he would have to cut off some glasses of beer and absinthe, and be cautious of the veterinary's skill at bezique. But that was not worth speaking of, and the new arrangement would be quite the thing.
Captain, you are a coward!
Such was the apostrophe with which the caryatides of the Cafe Prosper hereafter greeted the Captain, whose visits became rarer day by day.
For the poor man had not seen all the consequences of his good action. The suppression of his morning absinthe had been sufficient to cover the modest expense of Pierette's keeping, but how many other reforms were needed to provide for the unforeseen expenses of his bachelor establishment! Full of gratitude, the little girl wished to prove it by her zeal. Already the aspect of his room was changed. The furniture was dusted and arranged, the fireplace cleaned, the floor polished, and spiders no longer spun their webs over the deaths of Poniatowski in the corner. When the Captain came home the inviting odor of cabbage-soup saluted him on the staircase, and the sight of the smoking plates on the coarse but white table-cloth, with a bunch of flowers and polished table-ware, was quite enough to give him a good appetite. Pierette profited by the good-humor of her master to confess some of her secret ambitions. She wanted andirons for the fireplace, where there was now always a fire burning, and a mould for the little cakes that she knew how to make so well. And the Captain, smiling at the child's requests, but charmed with the homelike atmosphere of his room, promised to think of it, and on the morrow replaced his Londres by cigars for a sou each, hesitated to offer five points at ecarte, and refused his third glass of beer or his second glass of chartreuse.
Certainly the struggle was long; it was cruel. Often, when the hour came for the glass that was denied him by economy, when thirst seized him by the throat, the Captain was forced to make an heroic effort to withdraw his hand already reaching out towards the swan's beak of the cafe; many times he wandered about, dreaming of the king turned up and of quint and quatorze. But he almost always courageously returned home; and as he loved Pierette more through every sacrifice that he made for her, he embraced her more fondly every day. For he did embrace her. She was no longer his servant. When once she stood before him at the table, calling him "Monsieur," and so respectful in her bearing, he could not stand it, but seizing her by her two hands, he said to her, eagerly:
"First embrace me, and then sit down and do me the pleasure of speaking familiarly, confound it!"
And so to-day it is accomplished. Meeting a child has saved that man from an ignominious age.
He has substituted for his old vices a young passion. He adores the little lame girl who skips around him in his room, which is comfortable and well furnished.
He has already taught Pierette to read, and, moreover, recalling his calligraphy as a sergeant-major, he has set her copies in writing. It is his greatest joy when the child, bending attentively over her paper, and sometimes making a blot which she quickly licks up with her tongue, has succeeded in copying all the letters of an interminable adverb in ment. His uneasiness is in thinking that he is growing old and has nothing to leave his adopted child.
And so he becomes almost a miser; he theorizes; he wishes to give up his tobacco, although Pierette herself fills and lights his pipe for him. He counts on saving from his slender income enough to purchase a little stock of fancy goods. Then when he is dead she can live an obscure and tranquil life, hanging up somewhere in the back room of the small shop an old cross of the Legion of Honor, her souvenir of the Captain.
Every day he goes to walk with her on the rampart. Sometimes they are passed by folks who are strangers in the village, who look with compassionate surprise at the old soldier, spared from the wars, and the poor lame child. And he is moved—oh, so pleasantly, almost to tears—when one of the passers-by whispers, as they pass:
"Poor father! Yet how pretty his daughter is."
The night was clear and glittering with stars, and there was a crowd upon the market-place. They crowded in gaping delight around the tent of some strolling acrobats, where red and smoking lanterns lighted the performance which was just beginning. Rolling their muscular limbs in dirty wraps, and decorated from head to foot with tawdry ruffles of fur, the athletes—four boyish ruffians with vulgar heads—were ranged in line before the painted canvas which represented their exploits; they stood there with their heads down, their legs apart, and their muscular arms crossed upon their chests. Near them the marshal of the establishment, an old sub-officer, with the drooping mustache of a brandy-drinker, belted in at the waist, a heart of red cloth on his leather breastplate, leaned on a pair of foils. The feminine attraction, a rose in her hair, with a man's overcoat protecting her against the freshness of the evening air over her ballet-dancer's dress, played at the same time the cymbals and the big bass-drum a desperate accompaniment to three measures of a polka, always the same, which were murdered by a blind clarionet player; and the ringmaster, a sort of Hercules with the face of a galley-slave, a Silenus in scarlet drawers, roared out his furious appeal in a loud voice. Mixed with the crowd of loafers, soldiers, and women, I regarded the abject spectacle with disgust—the last vestige of the olympic games.
Suddenly the music ceased, and the crowd broke into roars of laughter. The clown had just made his appearance.
He wore the ordinary costume of his kind, the short vest and many-colored stockings of the peasants of the opera comique, the three horns turned backward, the red wig with its turned-up queue and its butterfly on the end. He was a young man, but alas, his face, whitened with flour, was already seamed with vice. Planting himself before the public, and opening his mouth in a silly grin, he showed bleeding gums almost devoid of teeth. The ringmaster kicked him violently from behind.
"Come in," he said, tranquilly.
Then the traditional dialogue, punctuated by slaps in the face, began between the mountebank and his clown, and the entire audience applauded these souvenirs of the classic farce, fallen from the theatre to the stage of the mountebank, and whose humor, coarse but pungent, seemed a drunken echo of the laughter of Moliere. The clown exerted his low talent, throwing out at each moment some low jest, some immodest pun, to which his master, simulating a prudish indignation, responded by thumps on the head. But the adroit clown excelled in the art of receiving affronts. He knew to perfection how to bend his body like a bow under the impulse of a kick, and having received on one cheek a full-armed blow, he stuffed his tongue at once in that cheek and began to whine until a new blow passed the artificial swelling into the other cheek. Blows showered on him as thick as hail, and, disappearing under a shower of slaps, the flour on his face and the red powder of his wig enveloped him like a cloud. At last he exhausted all his resources of low scurrility, ridiculous contortions, grotesque grimaces, pretended aches, falls at full length, etc., till the ringmaster, judging this gratuitous show long enough, and that the public were sufficiently fascinated, sent him off with a final cuff.
Then the music began again with such violence that the painted canvas trembled. The clown, having seized the sticks of a drum fixed on one of the beams of the scaffolding, mingled a triumphant rataplan with the bombardment of the bass-drum, the cracked thunder of the cymbals, and the distracted wail of the clarionet. The ringmaster, roaring again with his heavy voice, announced that the show was about to begin, and, as a sign of defiance, he threw two or three old fencing-gloves among his fellow-wrestlers. The crowd rushed into the tent, and soon only a small group of loungers remained in front of the deserted stage.
I was just going off, when I noticed by my side an old woman who looked with strange persistence at the empty stage where the red lights were still burning. She wore the linen bonnet and the crossed fichu of the poorer class of women, and her whole appearance was that of neatness and honesty. Asking myself what powerful interest could hold her in such a place, I looked at her with more attention, and I saw that her eyes were full of tears, and that her hands, which she had crossed over her breast, were trembling with emotion.
"What is the matter with you?" I said, coming near to her, impelled by an instinctive sympathy.
"The matter, good sir?" cried the old woman, bursting into tears. "Passing by this market-place—oh, quite by chance, I tell you (I have no heart for pleasure)—passing before that dreadful tent, I have just seen in the wretch who has received all those blows my only son, sir, my sole child! It is the grief of my life, do you see? I never knew what had become of him since—oh, since my poor husband sent him away to sea as a cabin-boy. He was apprenticed to an ironmonger, sir. He robbed his master—he, the son of two honest people. As for me, I would have pardoned him. You know what mothers are. But my man, when they came and told him that his son had stolen, he was like a madman. It was that that killed him, I am sure. I have never seen the unhappy child again. For five years I have heard nothing from him. I sought to deceive myself. I said experience will reform him, and there—there—just now—"
And the poor old woman sobbed in a pitiful way. A crowd had formed. It was no longer to me that she spoke; it was not to the crowd; it was to herself, to the bitterness of her own heart.
"He, my Adrien, the child that I nourished at my own breast, a mountebank in a travelling theatre! struck and insulted before the whole world! He, whom I saved at four when he was so ill, a clown in a tent! He, the beautiful baby of whom I was so proud, whom I made the neighbors admire when he was so small that he rolled naked on my knee, holding his little foot in his hand!"
Suddenly at this point in her heart-breaking monologue the old woman perceived the crowd listening to her. She looked on the spectators in astonishment, as one who starts from sleep. She recognized me who had questioned her, and became frightfully pale.
"What have I said?" she stammered. "Let me pass." And brusquely putting us aside with an imperious gesture, she went off with a rapid step, and disappeared in the night.
The adventure made a lively impression on me. I thought often of it, and after that, when I saw before my eyes some wretched and degraded creature, some woman of the street, trailing her light silk skirts in the flare of a gas-jet, some drunken idler leaning on the bar of a cafe and bending his bloated face over his glass of absinthe, I have thought, "Is it possible that that being can ever have been a little child?"
Now, some little time after that rencontre—let us be careful not to indicate the date—I was taken into a gallery of the Chamber of Deputies to be present at a sensational sitting. The law that they were discussing on that day is of no importance, but it was the old and tedious story: a Ministerial candidate, formerly in the Opposition, proposed to strike a blow at some liberty—I don't know what—which he had formerly demanded with virulence and force. And, more than that, the man in power was going to forfeit his word to the tribune. In good French that is called "to betray," but in parliamentary language they employ the phrase, "accomplish a change of base." Opinion was divided, the majority uncertain; and upon his speech would depend the political future of the speaker. Therefore, on that day, the legislators were in their places, and the Chamber did not resemble, as usual, a class of noisy boys presided over by a master without authority. The lunch-counter was deserted, and the deputies of the Centre themselves were not absorbed in their personal correspondence.
The orator mounted the tribune. He had the commonplace figure of a verbose orator: bold eye, protruding lips, as enlarged by the abuse of words. He began by fingering his notes with an important air, tasting the glass of sweetened water, and settling himself in his place; then he started a babble of words without sense, with the nauseous facility of the bar; misusing vague ideas, abstract terms, and words in ly and ion, stereotyped words, and ready-made phrases. A flattering murmur greeted the end of his exordium; for the French people in general, and the political world in particular, manifest a depraved taste for that sort of eloquence. Encouraged, the fine speaker entered the heart of his subject, and cynically sang his recantation. He abjured none of his opinions, he repudiated none of his acts; he would always remain liberal (a blow on his chest), but that which was good yesterday might be dangerous to-day; truth on the other side of the Alps, error on this side. The forbearance of the Government was abused. And he threatened the assembly; became prophet; let loose the dogs of war. He even risked a bit of poetry, flourished old metaphors, which were worn out in the time of Cicero, and compared by turn, in the same phrase, his political career to a pilot, a steed, and a torch. So much poetry could only accentuate his success. There was a salvo of bravos, and the Opposition grumbled, foreseeing their defeat. Violent interruptions broke forth: furious voices recalled the orator's past life, and threw as insults his former professions in his face. He was unmoved, and stood with a disdainful air, which was very effective. Then the bravos redoubled, and he smiled vaguely, thinking, no doubt, of the proof-sheets of the Officiel, where he could by-and-by insert in the margin, without too much exaggeration, "profound sensation" and "prolonged applause." Then, when quiet was re-established, sure of his success, he affected a serene majesty. He took up again his discourse, soaring like a goose, launching out with high doctrine, citing Royer-Collard.
But I heard no more. The scandalous spectacle of that political mountebank, who sacrificed eternal principles to the interests of the day, recalled to my memory the tent of the acrobats. The cold rhetoric of that harangue, vibrating with neither truth nor emotion, recalled to me the patter, learned by heart, of the powdered clown on the stage. The superb air which the orator assumed under the rain of reproaches and insults singularly resembled the indifference of the clown to the loud slaps on his face. Those sonorous phrases, whose echoes had just died away, sounded as false as a strolling band. The word "liberty" rolled like the bass-drum, "public interests" and "welfare of the State" clanged discordantly like the cymbals, and when the comedian spoke of his "patriotism" I almost heard the couac of a clarionet.
A long uproar woke me from my revery. The speech was finished, and the orator, having descended from the rostrum, was receiving congratulations. They were about to vote: the urns were being passed around, but the result was certain, and the crowd of tribunes was already dispersing.
As I went across the vestibule I saw an elderly lady dressed in black. She was dressed like a wealthy bourgeoise and appeared radiant. I stopped one of the well-groomed little chaps whom one sees trotting around in the Ministerial corridors. I knew him slightly, and I asked him who that lady was.
"The mother of the orator," he replied, with official emotion. "She must be very proud."
Very proud! The old mother who wept so bitterly in the market-place was not that; and if the mother of his future Excellency had reflected, she would have regretted—she too—the time when her boy was very small, and rolled naked on her knee, holding his little foot in his hand.
But, bah! everything is relative, even shame.
A VOLUNTARY DEATH.
I knew the poet Louis Miraz very well, in the old times in the Latin Quarter, where we used to take our meals together at a cremerie on the Rue de Seine, kept by an old Polish woman whom we nicknamed the Princess Chocolawska, on account of the enormous bowl of creme and chocolate which she exposed daily in the show-window of her shop. It was possible to dine there for ten sous, with "two breads," an "ordinaire for thirty centimes," and a "small coffee."
Some who were very nice spent a sou more for a napkin.
Besides some young men who were destined to become geniuses, the ordinary guests of the cremerie were some poor compatriots of the proprietress, who had all to some extent commanded armies. There was, above all, an imposing and melancholy old fellow with a white beard, whose old befrogged cloak, shabby boots, and old hat, which looked as if snails had crawled over it, presented a poem of misery, and whom the other Poles treated with a marked respect, for he had been a dictator for three days.
It was, moreover, at the Princess Chocolawska's that I knew a singular fool, who gained his bread by giving German lessons, and declared himself a convert to Buddhism. On the mantle of the miserable room, where he lived with a milliner of Saint-Germain, was enthroned an ugly little Buddha in jade, fixing his hypnotized eyes on his navel, and holding his great toes in his hands. The German professor accorded to the idol the most profound veneration, but on the epoch of quarter-day he was sometimes forced to carry him to the Mont-de-piete, upon which he fell into a state of sombre chagrin, and did not recover his serenity until he was able to make amends for his impious act. He never failed, moreover, to renew his avowals in prosperous times, and finally to take his god out of pawn.
As to Louis Miraz, he had the deep eyes, the pale complexion, and the long and dishevelled hair of all those young men who come to town in third-class carriages to conquer glory, who spend more for midnight oil than for beefsteaks, and who, rich already with some manuscripts, have thrown out to great Paris from the height of some hill in its environs the classic defiance of Rastignac. At that time my hair was archaic enough in length to grease the collar of my coat. Thus we were made to understand each other, and Louis Miraz soon took me to his attic-room in the Rue des Quatre-Vents, where he dragged two thousand alexandrines over me.
Seriously, they were fresh and charming verses, with the inspiration of spring-tide, having the perfume of the first lilacs, and Forest Birds (the title of that collection of poems which Louis Miraz published a little while after he read them to me) will retain a place among the volumes in the first rank of belles-lettres, by the side of those poets of a single book—of the Daudet of the Amoureuses, for example.
For Miraz wrote no more verse. A young eaglet seeking the upper air, he made his eyrie on the summit of Montmartre, and for quite a while we lost sight of him. Then I found his name again in Sunday journals and reviews, when he began to write those short and exquisite sketches which have made his reputation. Thus five years passed, when I met him one day in the editor's office of a journal for which I worked.
* * * * *
Each of us was as much pleased as the other at thus meeting again; and after the first "What, is that you? Is that you?" we stood facing each other, shaking hands, and exposing, in a laugh of cordial delight, our teeth, which in old times we used to exercise on the same crust of poverty. He had not changed. He had not even sacrificed his long hair, which he threw back with the graceful movement of a horse who tosses his mane. Only he had the clear complexion and calm eye of a contented man, and his slim figure was clad in most fashionable costume.
"We won't drift apart again, will we?" said he, affectionately, taking me by the arm; and he led me out in the boulevard, where the April sun gilded the young leaves of the plane-trees.
Ah, happy day! How we exhausted the "Don't you remembers?" "Do you remember the fried eggs which tasted of straw, and the dreadful rice-milk of the Princess Chocolawska? and the melancholy air of the old dictator? and the German who used to pawn his god every three months?" At last those days of hardship were finished. He had from afar applauded my success, as I had watched his. But one thing I did not know, and that was that he had married a woman whom he adored, and that he had a charming little girl.
"Come and see them; you shall dine with me."
I let myself be persuaded, and he carried me down to the Enclos des Ternes, where he lived in a cottage among the trees. There everything made you welcome. No sooner had we opened the door of the garden than a young dog frisked about our feet.
"Down, Gavroche! He will soil your clothes."
But at the sound of the bell Madame Miraz appeared at the steps with her little daughter in her arms. An imposing and beautiful blond, her well-moulded figure wrapped in a blue gown.
"Put on a plate more. I've an old comrade with me."
And the happy father, keeping his hat on his head and carrying his little girl, showed me all over his establishment—the dining-room, brightened by light bits of faience, the study, abounding in books, with its window opening out on the green turf, so that a puff of wind had strewn with rose-leaves the printer's proofs which were scattered on the table.
"This is only a beginning, you know. It wasn't so long ago that we were working for three sous a line."
And while I luxuriated under a blossoming Judas-tree which I saw in the garden, Miraz, at ease in his home, had slipped into his working-vest, put on his slippers, and, lying on his sofa, caught little Helen in his arms to toss her in the air—"Houp la! Houp la!"
I do not remember ever to have had a more perfect impression of contentment. We dined pleasantly—two good courses, that was all; a dinner without pretence, where we served ourselves with the pepper-mill. The charming Madame Miraz presided with her bright smile, having her child by her side in a high-chair. She spoke but little, but her sweet and intelligent attention followed our light and paradoxical chat, the good-humored fooling of men of letters; and at the dessert she took a rose from the bouquet which ornamented the table, and placed it in her hair near her ear with a supreme grace. She was indeed that lovely and silent friend whom a dreamer requires.
We took our coffee in the study—they intended to furnish the salon very soon with the price of a story to be published by Levy—then, as the evening was cool, a fire of sticks and twigs was built, and while we smoked, Miraz and I, recalling old memories, the mistress of the house, holding on her knees little Helen, now ready for bed, made her repeat "Our Father" and "Hail Mary," which the little one lisped, rubbing her little feet together before the warm flame.
* * * * *
We saw each other again, often at first, then less frequently, the difficult and complicated life of literary labor taking us each his own way. So the years passed. We met, shook hands. "Everything going well?" "Splendidly." And that was all. Then, later, I found the name of Louis Miraz but rarely in the journals and periodicals. "Happy man; he is resting," I said to myself, remembering that he was spoken of as having made a small fortune. Finally, last autumn, I learned that he was seriously ill.
I hurried to see him. He still lived at the Enclos des Ternes; but on this sombre day of the last of November the little house seemed cold, and looked naked among the leafless trees. It seemed to me shrunken and diminished, like everything that we have not seen for a long time.
The dog was probably dead, for his bark no longer answered the sound of the bell when I passed the little gate and entered the garden, all strewn with dead leaves where the night's frost had withered the last chrysanthemums.
It was not Madame Miraz—she was absent—it was Helen who received me, Helen, who had grown to be a great girl of fourteen, with an awkward manner. She opened for me the door of her father's study, and brusquely lifting her great black eyelashes, turned on me a timid and distressed glance.
I found Miraz huddled in an easy-chair in the corner of the fireplace, wrapped in a sort of bed-gown, with gray locks streaking his long hair; and by the cold, clammy hand which he reached towards me, by the pallid face which he turned upon me, I knew that he was lost. Horrible! I found in my unhappy comrade that worn and ruined look which used to strike us formerly among the poor Poles of the cremerie.
"Ah, well, old man, things are not going well?"
"Deucedly bad, my boy," he answered, with a heart-breaking smile. "I am going out stupidly with consumption, as they do in the fifth act, you know, when the venerable doctor, with a head like Beranger, feels the first walking gentleman's pulse, and lifts his eyes towards heaven, saying, 'The death-struggle approaches!' Only the difference is that with me it continues; it will not conclude, the death-struggle. Smoke away; that doesn't disturb me," he added, seeing me put my cigar one side, his cough sounding like a death-rattle.
I tried to find encouraging words. I talked with him, holding him by the hand and patting him affectionately on the shoulder; but my voice had in my own ears the empty hollowness of deceit, and Miraz, looking at me, seemed to pity my efforts.
I was silent.
"Look," said he, pointing to his table; "see my work-bench. For six months I have not been able to write."
It was true. Nothing could be more sad than that heap of papers covered with dust, and in an old Roman plate there was a bundle of pens, crusted with ink, and like those trophies of rusty foils which hang on the walls of old fencers.
I made a new attempt to revive him. Die! at his age. Nonsense! He wasn't taking care of himself. He must pass the winter in the South, drink a good draught of sunlight. He could. He was easy in his money matters.
But he stopped me, putting his hand on my arm.
"Listen," he said, gravely, "we have seen each other seldom, but you are my oldest, perhaps my best, friend. You have proved me pen in hand. Well, I am going to tell you something in confidence, for you to keep to yourself, unless it may serve on some occasion to discourage the young literary aspirants who bring their manuscripts to you—always a praiseworthy action. Yes, I have been successful. Yes, I have been paid a franc a line. Yes, I have made money, and there in that drawer are a certain number of yellow, green, and red papers from which a bit is clipped every six months, and which represent three or four thousand francs of income. It is rare in our profession, and to gain that poor hoard I have been obliged—I, a poet—to imitate the unsociable virtues of a bourgeois, know how to deny a jewel to my wife, a dress to my daughter. At last I have that money. And I often said to myself, if I should die their bread is assured, and here is a little marriage portion for Helen! And I was content—I was proud!—for I know them, the stories of our widows and our orphans, the fourpenny help of the government, the tobacco shops for six hundred francs in the province, and, if the daughter is intelligent and pretty like mine, the dramatic author, an old friend of the father, who advises her to enter the Conservatoire, and who makes of her—mercy of God! that shall never be. But for all that, my boy, it is necessary that I should not linger. Sickness is expensive, and already it has been necessary to sell one or two bonds from that drawer. To seek the sunlight, as you suggest, to bask like a lizard at Cannes or at Menton, one more bond must go, and there would not be enough to last to the end, if I should wait for seven or eight years more, now that I can no longer write. Happily, there is nothing to fear. But what I have suffered since I have been incapable of writing, and have felt my hoard of gold shrink and diminish in my hand like the Magic Skin of Balzac, is frightful. Now you understand me, do you not? and you will no longer bid me take care of myself. No; if you still pray to God, ask him to send me speedily to the undertaker's."
* * * * *
Fifteen days later some thirty of us followed the hearse which carried Louis Miraz to the Cemetery Montmartre. It had snowed the day before, and Doctor Arnould, the old frequenter of painters' studios, the friend and physician of the dead man, walking behind me, called in his brusque voice,
"Very commonplace, but always terrible the contrast: a burial in the snow—black on white. The Funeral of the Poor, by the late Vigneron, isn't to be ridiculed. Brr!"
At last we came to the edge of the grave. The place and the time were sad. Under a cloudy sky the little yew-trees, swayed by the wind, threw down their burdens of melted snow. The by-standers had formed a circle, and were watching the grave-diggers, who were lowering the coffin by cords. Near a cross-bearer, whose short surplice permitted the bottom of his trousers to be seen, the priest waited with a finger in his book; and, having grasped the rim of his hat under his left arm, the orator of the Society of Men of Letters already held in his black-gloved hand the funeral oration, hastily patched up by the aid of a comrade over a couple of glasses at the corner of a cafe table.
Suddenly, as the priest began his Latin prayers, Doctor Arnould seized me by the arm and whispered in my ear,
"You know that he killed himself?"
I looked at him with astonishment. But he pointed to the group in black, composed of Madame Miraz and her daughter, who were sobbing under their long veils and clasping each other in a tragic embrace, and he added,
"For them. Yes, for six months he threw all his medicines in the fire, and designedly committed all sorts of imprudences. He confessed it to me before his death. I had not understood it at all—I, who had expected to prolong his life at least three years by creosote. At last the other night, when it was freezing cold, he left his window open, as if by forgetfulness, and was taken with bleeding at the lungs. Yes, that he might leave bread for those two women. The cure does not dream that he is blessing a suicide. But what of it, my good fellow? Miraz is in the paradise of the brave. The details of such a death. Eh? It is tougher than the passage of the Bridge of Arcole."
A DRAMATIC FUNERAL.
For twenty-five years he had played the role of the villain at the Boulevard du Crime,[A] and his harsh voice, his nose like an eagle's beak, his eye with its savage glitter, had made him a good player of such parts. For twenty-five years, dressed in the cloak and encircled by the fawn-colored leather belt of Mordaunt, he had retreated with the step of a wounded scorpion before the sword of D'Artagnan; draped in the dirty Jewish gown of Rodin, he had rubbed his dry hands together, muttering the terrible "Patience, patience!" and, curled on the chair of the Duc d'Este, he had said to Lucretia Borgia, with a sufficiently infernal glance, "Take care and make no mistake. The flagon of gold, madame." When, preceded by a tremolo, he made his entry in the scene, the third gallery trembled, and a sigh of relief greeted the moment when the first walking gentleman at last said to him: "Between us two, now," and immolated him for the grand triumph of virtue.
[Footnote A: A nickname given to the Boulevard du Temple, on account of the numerous melodramatic theatres situated there.]
But this sort of success, which is only betrayed by murmurs of horror, is not of the kind to make a dramatic career seductive; and besides the old actor had always hidden in a corner of his heart the bucolic ideal which is in the heart of almost all artists. He sighed for an old age of leisure, and the comfortable dignity of a retired shopkeeper; the house in the country, where he could live with his family, with melons, under an arbor; cakes and wine in the winter evenings; his daughter a scholar in a convent; his son in the uniform of the Polytechnique; and the cross of the Legion.
Now, when we had occasion to know him, he had already nearly realized his dreams.
After the failure of the theatre where he had been for a long time engaged, some capitalists had thought of him to put the enterprise on its feet again. With his systematic habits, his good sense, his thorough and practical knowledge of the business, and a sufficiently correct literary instinct, he became an excellent manager. He was the owner of stocks and a villa at Montmorency; his son was a student at Sainte-Barbe, and his daughter had just come out of Les Oiseaux; and if the malice of small newspapers had retarded his nomination in the Legion of Honor by recalling every year, about the first of January, his old ranting on the stage, when he played formerly the villains' parts, he could yet hope that it would not be long before the red ribbon would flourish in his button-hole. He had still preserved some of the habits of a strolling player, such as being very familiar with everybody, and dyeing his mustaches; but as he was, on the whole, good, honest, and serviceable, he conquered the esteem and friendship of those with whom he came in contact.
So it was with sincere grief that the whole dramatic world learned one day the terrible sorrow which had smitten that excellent man. His daughter, a girl of seventeen, had died suddenly of brain-fever.
We knew how he adored the child; how he had brought her up in the strictest principles of family and religion, far from the theatre, something as Triboulet hid his daughter Blanche in the little house of the cul-de-sac Bucy. We understood that all the hopes and ambitions of the man rested on the head of that charming girl, who, near all the corruption of the theatre, had grown up in innocence and purity, as one sees sometimes in the scanty grass of the faubourgs a field-flower spring up by the door of a hovel.
We were among the first at the funeral, to which we had been summoned by a black-bordered billet.
A crowd of the people of the neighborhood encumbered the street before the house of the dead, attracted by the pomps of the first-class funeral ordered by the old comedian, who had preserved the taste of the mise en scene even in his grief. The magnificent hearse and cumbrous mourning-coaches were already drawn up to the sidewalk, and under the door, and in the shade of the heavy fringed and silvered draperies, amid the twinkling of burning candles, between two priests reading prayers in their Prayer-books, the form of the massive coffin could be seen under its white cloth, covered with Parma violets.
As we walked among the crowd we noticed the groups formed of those who, like us, were waiting the departure of the cortege. There were almost all the actors, men and women, of Paris, who had come to pay their last respects to the daughter of their comrade. Undoubtedly nothing could be more natural; but we experienced not the less a strange sensation on seeing, around the coffin of that pure young girl who had breathed away her last breath in a prayer, the gathering of all those faces marked by the brand of the theatre.
They were all there: the stars, the comedians, the lovers, the traitors; nobody was lacking: soubrettes, duennas, coquettes, first walking ladies. Wearing a sack-coat and a felt hat on his long gray hair, the superb adventurer of all the cloak and sword dramas leaned against the shutter of a shop in his familiar attitude, and crossed his arms to show his handsome hands; while a little old fellow with the wrinkled face of a clown spoke to him briskly in the broad, harsh voice which had so often made us explode with laughter. By the side of the aged first young man, who, pinched in his scanty frock-coat, and with trousers trailing under foot, twirled in his gloved hands his locks of over-black hair, stood a great handsome fellow, beautiful as a model, who had not been able to renounce even for that day his eccentricities of costume, and strutted in a black velvet cape and the boots of an equerry. Oh, how sad, tired, and old they seemed in the gray light of that winter morning, all those pathetic heads, graceful or laughable, which we were only in the habit of seeing when transfigured by the prestige of the stage. Chins had become blue-black under too frequent shaving; hair thin and dry under the hot iron of the hair-dresser; skins rough under the injurious action of unguents and vinegar; eyes dull, burned by the glare of foot-lights—blinded, almost fixed, like those of an owl in the sunlight.
The women were especially to be pitied. Obliged by the occasion to rise at a very early hour, and not having had the time for a careful and minute toilet, they gathered in groups of four or five, chilled and shivering in their fur mantles, muffs, and triple black veils. Notwithstanding the hasty rouge and powder of the morning, they were unrecognizable, and it required an effort of imagination to find in them a memory of that sublime seraglio of the Parisian theatres, exposed every evening to the desires of several thousand men. On all of these charming types appeared the mark of weariness and age. Some ossified into faded skeletons, others grew dull with an unhealthy weight of fat; wrinkles crossed the foreheads and starred the temples; lips were livid and eyes circled with dark rings; the complexions were particularly frightful—that uniform tint, morbid and sickly, the work of rouge and grease-paints. That heavy woman, with the head and neck of a farmer's wife (one almost sees a basket on her shoulder), is the terrible and fatal queen of grand, romantic dramas; and that small blonde and pale creature, so faded under her laces, and who would have completely filled a music-teacher's carrying roll, was the artless young woman whom all the vaudevillists married at the denouement of their pieces. There were the dying glances of the lorette in the hospital, the pose of the old copyist of the Louvre, and the theatrical sneer.
Soon the cabs drove up with the functionaries connected with the administration of the theatre, in black hats and coats, with an official air of sadness; young reporters, the outflow of journalism, staring at everybody and taking notes; dramatic authors, Monday feuilletonists—in short, all of those nocturnal beings, tired and worn-out, who are properly called the actives of Paris.
The groups became more compact, and talked animatedly. Old friends found each other; they shook hands, and, in view of the circumstances, smiled cordially, while the women saluted each other through their veils.
In passing, we could catch fragments of conversation like this:
"When will the affair begin?"
"Were you at the opening of the Varietes yesterday?"
Theatrical terms were heard—"My talents," "My charms," "My physique." Some business, even, was done. A new manager was quite surrounded; an old actress organized her benefit.
Suddenly there was a movement in the crowd. The undertaker's men had just placed the coffin in the hearse, and the young girls of the Sisterhood of the Virgin, to which the dead girl had belonged, arranged themselves in two lines, in their white veils, at the sides of the funeral-car. Preceded by the master of ceremonies, in silk stockings and a wand of office in his hand, the poor father appeared on the pavement in full mourning, with a white cravat, broken down by grief and sustained by his friends.
The procession set out and came to the parish church, fortunately near.
There was a grand mass, with music which was not finished. It was too warm in the church stuffed with people, and the inattention was general. Men who recognized each other saluted with a light movement of the head; conversation was exchanged in a low voice; some young actors struck attitudes for the benefit of the women, and the pious responded to Dominus Vobiscum droned by the priest. At the elevation, from behind the altar, rang out a magnificent Pie Jesu, sung by a celebrated baritone, who had never put in his voice so much amorous languor. Outside the church-yard the small boys of the quarter stood on tiptoe, and, hanging on to the railings, pointed out the celebrities with their fingers.
The office finished, the long defile commenced; and every one went to the entrance of the church to sprinkle some drops of holy-water on the bier, and press the hand of the old actor, who, broken by grief, and having hardly strength to hold his hat, leaned against a pillar.
That was the most horrible moment.
Carried away by the habit of playing up to the situation, all these theatrical people put into the token of sympathy which they gave to their friend the character of their employment. The star advanced gravely, and with a three-quarter inclination of his head flashed out the "Look of Fate." The old tragedian with a gray beard assumed a stoical expression, and did not forget to "vibrate" in pronouncing a masculine "Courage!" The clown approached with a short, trotting step, and shaking his head until his cheeks trembled, he murmured, "My poor old fellow." And the fairy queen, with the sensibility of a sensitive female, threw herself impulsively on the neck of the unhappy father, who, with swollen face, bloodshot eyes, and hanging lip, blackened his face and his gloved hands with the dye of his mustache, diluted by tears.
And all the time, a few steps from this grotesque and sinister scene, we could see—last word of this antithesis—the white figures of the young girls of the sisterhood, kneeling on the chairs nearest the coffin of their companion, and who undoubtedly were beseeching God, in their naive and original prayers, to grant her the paradise of their dreams: a pretty paradise in the Jesuitical style, all in carved and gilded wood, and many-colored marble, where one could see at the end a tableau in a transparent light; the Virgin crowned with stars, with a serpent under her feet, while little cherubs suspended in mid-air over her head an azure streamer flaming with these words: "Ecce Regina Angelorum."
He was scarcely ten years old when he was first arrested as a vagabond.
He spoke thus to the judge:
"I am called Jean Francois Leturc, and for six months I was with the man who sings and plays upon a cord of catgut between the lanterns at the Place de la Bastille. I sang the refrain with him, and after that I called, 'Here's all the new songs, ten centimes, two sous!' He was always drunk, and used to beat me. That is why the police picked me up the other night. Before that I was with the man who sells brushes. My mother was a laundress; her name was Adele. At one time she lived with a man on the ground-floor at Montmartre. She was a good work-woman and liked me. She made money because she had for customers waiters in the cafes, and they use a good deal of linen. On Sundays she used to put me to bed early so that she could go to the ball. On week-days she sent me to Les Freres, where I learned to read. Well, the sergeant-de-ville whose beat was in our street used always to stop before our windows to talk with her—a good-looking chap, with a medal from the Crimea. They were married, and after that everything went wrong. He didn't take to me, and turned mother against me. Every one had a blow for me, and so, to get out of the house, I spent whole days in the Place Clichy, where I knew the mountebanks. My father-in-law lost his place, and my mother her work. She used to go out washing to take care of him; this gave her a cough—the steam.... She is dead at Lamboisiere. She was a good woman. Since that I have lived with the seller of brushes and the catgut scraper. Are you going to send me to prison?"
He said this openly, cynically, like a man. He was a little ragged street-arab, as tall as a boot, his forehead hidden under a queer mop of yellow hair.
Nobody claimed him, and they sent him to the Reform School.
Not very intelligent, idle, clumsy with his hands, the only trade he could learn there was not a good one—that of reseating straw chairs. However, he was obedient, naturally quiet and silent, and he did not seem to be profoundly corrupted by that school of vice. But when, in his seventeenth year, he was thrown out again on the streets of Paris, he unhappily found there his prison comrades, all great scamps, exercising their dirty professions: teaching dogs to catch rats in the the sewers, and blacking shoes on ball nights in the passage of the Opera—amateur wrestlers, who permitted themselves to be thrown by the Hercules of the booths—or fishing at noontime from rafts; all of these occupations he followed to some extent, and, some months after he came out of the house of correction, he was arrested again for a petty theft—a pair of old shoes prigged from a shop-window. Result: a year in the prison of Sainte Pelagie, where he served as valet to the political prisoners.
He lived in much surprise among this group of prisoners, all very young, negligent in dress, who talked in loud voices, and carried their heads in a very solemn fashion. They used to meet in the cell of one of the oldest of them, a fellow of some thirty years, already a long time in prison and quite a fixture at Sainte Pelagie—a large cell, the walls covered with colored caricatures, and from the window of which one could see all Paris—its roofs, its spires, and its domes—and far away the distant line of hills, blue and indistinct upon the sky. There were upon the walls some shelves filled with volumes and all the old paraphernalia of a fencing-room: broken masks, rusty foils, breast-plates, and gloves that were losing their tow. It was there that the "politicians" used to dine together, adding to the everlasting "soup and beef," fruit, cheese, and pints of wine which Jean Francois went out and got by the can—a tumultuous repast interrupted by violent disputes, and where, during the dessert, the "Carmagnole" and "Ca Ira" were sung in full chorus. They assumed, however, an air of great dignity on those days when a newcomer was brought in among them, at first entertaining him gravely as a citizen, but on the morrow using him with affectionate familiarity, and calling him by his nickname. Great words were used there: Corporation, Responsibility, and phrases quite unintelligible to Jean Francois—such as this, for example, which he once heard imperiously put forth by a frightful little hunchback who blotted some writing-paper every night:
"It is done. This is the composition of the Cabinet: Raymond, the Bureau of Public Instruction; Martial, the Interior; and for Foreign Affairs, myself."
His time done, he wandered again around Paris, watched afar by the police, after the fashion of cockchafers, made by cruel children to fly at the end of a string. He became one of those fugitive and timid beings whom the law, with a sort of coquetry, arrests and releases by turn—something like those platonic fishers who, in order that they may not exhaust their fish-pond, throw immediately back in the water the fish which has just come out of the net. Without a suspicion on his part that so much honor had been done to so sorry a subject, he had a special bundle of memoranda in the mysterious portfolios of the Rue de Jerusalem. His name was written in round hand on the gray paper of the cover, and the notes and reports, carefully classified, gave him his successive appellations: "Name, Leturc;" "the prisoner Leturc," and, at last, "the criminal Leturc."
He was two years out of prison, dining where he could, sleeping in night lodging-houses and sometimes in lime-kilns, and taking part with his fellows in interminable games of pitch-penny on the boulevards near the barriers: He wore a greasy cap on the back of his head, carpet slippers, and a short white blouse. When he had five sous he had his hair curled. He danced at Constant's at Montparnasse; bought for two sous to sell for four at the door of Bobino, the jack of hearts or the ace of clubs serving as a countermark; sometimes opened the door of a carriage; led horses to the horse-market. From the lottery of all sorts of miserable employments he drew a goodly number. Who can say if the atmosphere of honor which one breathes as a soldier, if military discipline might not have saved him. Taken, in a cast of the net, with some young loafers who robbed drunkards sleeping on the streets, he denied very earnestly having taken part in their expeditions. Perhaps he told the truth, but his antecedents were accepted in lieu of proof, and he was sent for three years to Poissy. There he made coarse playthings for children, was tattooed on the chest, learned thieves' slang and the penal-code. A new liberation, and a new plunge into the sink of Paris; but very short this time, for at the end of six months at the most he was again compromised in a night robbery, aggravated by climbing and breaking—a serious affair, in which he played an obscure role, half dupe and half fence. On the whole his complicity was evident, and he was sent for five years at hard labor. His grief in this adventure was above all in being separated from an old dog which he had found on a dung-heap, and cured of the mange. The beast loved him.
Toulon, the ball and chain, the work in the harbor, the blows from a stick, wooden shoes on bare feet, soup of black beans dating from Trafalgar, no tobacco money, and the terrible sleep in a camp swarming with convicts; that was what he experienced for five broiling summers and five winters raw with the Mediterranean wind. He came out from there stunned, was sent under surveillance to Vernon, where he worked some time on the river. Then, an incorrigible vagabond, he broke his exile and came again to Paris. He had his savings, fifty-six francs, that is to say, time enough for reflection. During his absence his former wretched companions had dispersed. He was well hidden, and slept in a loft at an old woman's, to whom he represented himself as a sailor, tired of the sea, who had lost his papers in a recent shipwreck, and who wanted to try his hand at something else. His tanned face and his calloused hands, together with some sea phrases which he dropped from time to time, made his tale seem probable enough.
One day when he risked a saunter in the streets, and when chance had led him as far as Montmartre, where he was born, an unexpected memory stopped him before the door of Les Freres, where he had learned to read. As it was very warm the door was open, and by a single glance the passing outcast was able to recognize the peaceable school-room. Nothing was changed: neither the bright light shining in at the great windows, nor the crucifix over the desk, nor the rows of benches with the tables furnished with ink-stands and pencils, nor the table of weights and measures, nor the map where pins stuck in still indicated the operations of some ancient war. Heedlessly and without thinking, Jean Francois read on the blackboard the words of the Evangelist which had been set there as a copy:
"Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."
It was undoubtedly the hour for recreation, for the Brother Professor had left his chair, and, sitting on the edge of a table, he was telling a story to the boys who surrounded him with eager and attentive eyes. What a bright and innocent face he had, that beardless young man, in his long black gown, and white necktie, and great ugly shoes, and his badly cut brown hair streaming out behind! All the simple figures of the children of the people who were watching him seemed scarcely less childlike than his; above all when, delighted with some of his own simple and priestly pleasantries, he broke out in an open and frank peal of laughter which showed his white and regular teeth, a peal so contagious that all the scholars laughed loudly in their turn. It was such a sweet, simple group in the bright sunlight, which lighted their dear eyes and their blond curls.
Jean Francois looked at them for some time in silence, and for the first time in that savage nature, all instinct and appetite, there awoke a mysterious, a tender emotion. His heart, that seared and hardened heart, unmoved when the convict's cudgel or the heavy whip of the watchman fell on his shoulders, beat oppressively. In that sight he saw again his infancy; and closing his eyes sadly, the prey to torturing regret, he walked quickly away.
Then the words written on the blackboard came back to his mind.
"If it wasn't too late, after all!" he murmured; "if I could again, like others, eat honestly my brown bread, and sleep my fill without nightmare! The spy must be sharp who recognizes me. My beard, which I shaved off down there, has grown out thick and strong. One can burrow somewhere in the great ant-hill, and work can be found. Whoever is not worked to death in the hell of the galleys comes out agile and robust, and I learned there to climb ropes with loads upon my back. Building is going on everywhere here, and the masons need helpers. Three francs a day! I never earned so much. Let me be forgotten, and that is all I ask."
He followed his courageous resolution; he was faithful to it, and after three months he was another man. The master for whom he worked called him his best workman. After a long day upon the scaffolding, in the hot sun and the dust, constantly bending and raising his back to take the hod from the man at his feet and pass it to the man over his head, he went for his soup to the cook-shop, tired out, his legs aching, his hands burning, his eyelids stuck with plaster, but content with himself, and carrying his well-earned money in a knot in his handkerchief. He went out now without fear, since he could not be recognized in his white mask, and since he had noticed that the suspicious glances of the policeman were seldom turned on the tired workman. He was quiet and sober. He slept the sound sleep of fatigue. He was free!
At last—oh, supreme recompense!—he had a friend!
He was a fellow-workman like himself, named Savinien, a little peasant with red lips who had come to Paris with his stick over his shoulder and a bundle on the end of it, fleeing from the wine-shops and going to mass every Sunday. Jean Francois loved him for his piety, for his candor, for his honesty, for all that he himself had lost, and so long ago. It was a passion, profound and unrestrained, which transformed him by fatherly cares and attentions. Savinien, himself of a weak and egotistical nature, let things take their course, satisfied only in finding a companion who shared his horror of the wine-shop. The two friends lived together in a fairly comfortable lodging, but their resources were very limited. They were obliged to take into their room a third companion, an old Auvergnat, gloomy and rapacious, who found it possible out of his meagre salary to save something with which to buy a place in his own country. Jean Francois and Savinien were always together. On holidays they together took long walks in the environs of Paris, and dined under an arbor in one of those small country inns where there are a great many mushrooms in the sauces and innocent rebusses on the napkins. There Jean Francois learned from his friend all that lore of which they who are born in the city are ignorant: learned the names of the trees, the flowers, and the plants; the various seasons for harvesting; he heard eagerly the thousand details of a laborious country life—the autumn sowing, the winter chores, the splendid celebrations of harvest and vintage days, the sound of the mills at the water-side, and the flails striking the ground, the tired horses led to water, and the hunting in the morning mist; and, above all, the long evenings around the fire of vine-shoots, that were shortened by some marvellous stories. He discovered in himself a source of imagination before unknown, and found a singular delight in the recital of events so placid, so calm, so monotonous.
One thing troubled him, however: it was the fear lest Savinien might learn something of his past. Sometimes there escaped from him some low word of thieves' slang, a vulgar gesture—vestiges of his former horrible existence—and he felt the pain one feels when old wounds re-open; the more because he fancied that he sometimes saw in Savinien the awakening of an unhealthy curiosity. When the young man, already tempted by the pleasures which Paris offers to the poorest, asked him about the mysteries of the great city, Jean Francois feigned ignorance and turned the subject; but he felt a vague inquietude for the future of his friend.
His uneasiness was not without foundation. Savinien could not long remain the simple rustic that he was on his arrival in Paris. If the gross and noisy pleasures of the wine-shop always repelled him, he was profoundly troubled by other temptations, full of danger for the inexperience of his twenty years. When spring came he began to go off alone, and at first he wandered about the brilliant entrance of some dancing-hall, watching the young girls who went in with their arms around each others' waists, talking in low tones. Then, one evening, when lilacs perfumed the air and the call to quadrilles was most captivating, he crossed the threshold, and from that time Jean Francois observed a change, little by little, in his manners and his visage. He became more frivolous, more extravagant. He often borrowed from his friend his scanty savings, and he forgot to repay. Jean Francois, feeling that he was abandoned, jealous and forgiving at the same time, suffered and was silent. He felt that he had no right to reproach him, but with the foresight of affection he indulged in cruel and inevitable presentiments.
One evening, as he was mounting the stairs to his room, absorbed in his thoughts, he heard, as he was about to enter, the sound of angry voices, and he recognized that of the old Auvergnat who lodged with Savinien and himself. An old habit of suspicion made him stop at the landing-place and listen to learn the cause of the trouble.
"Yes," said the Auvergnat, angrily, "I am sure that some one has opened my trunk and stolen from it the three louis that I had hidden in a little box; and he who has done this thing must be one of the two companions who sleep here, if it were not the servant Maria. It concerns you as much as it does me, since you are the master of the house, and I will drag you to the courts if you do not let me at once break open the valises of the two masons. My poor gold! It was here yesterday in its place, and I will tell you just what it was, so that if we find it again nobody can accuse me of having lied. Ah, I know them, my three beautiful gold pieces, and I can see them as plainly as I see you! One piece was more worn than the others; it was of greenish gold, with a portrait of the great emperor. The other was a great old fellow with a queue and epaulettes; and the third, which had on it a Philippe with whiskers, I had marked with my teeth. They don't trick me. Do you know that I only wanted two more like that to pay for my vineyard? Come, search these fellows' things with me, or I will call the police! Hurry up!" "All right," said the voice of the landlord; "we will go and search with Maria. So much the worse for you if we find nothing, and the masons get angry. You have forced me to it."
Jean Francois' soul was full of fright. He remembered the embarrassed circumstances and the small loans of Savinien, and how sober he had seemed for some days. And yet he could not believe that he was a thief. He heard the Auvergnat panting in his eager search, and he pressed his closed fists against his breast as if to still the furious beating of his heart.
"Here they are!" suddenly shouted the victorious miser. "Here they are, my louis, my dear treasure; and in the Sunday vest of that little hypocrite of Limousin! Look, landlord, they are just as I told you. Here is the Napoleon, the man with a queue, and the Philippe that I have bitten. See the dents? Ah, the little beggar with the sanctified air. I should have much sooner suspected the other. Ah, the wretch! Well, he must go to the convict prison."
At this moment Jean Francois heard the well-known step of Savinien coming slowly up the stairs.
He is going to his destruction, thought he. Three stories. I have time!
And, pushing open the door, he entered the room, pale as death, where he saw the landlord and the servant stupefied in a corner, while the Auvergnat, on his knees, in the disordered heap of clothes, was kissing the pieces of gold.
"Enough of this," he said, in a thick voice; "I took the money, and put it in my comrade's trunk. But that is too bad. I am a thief, but not a Judas. Call the police; I will not try to escape, only I must say a word to Savinien in private. Here he is."
In fact, the little Limousin had just arrived, and seeing his crime discovered, believing himself lost, he stood there, his eyes fixed, his arms hanging.
Jean Francois seized him forcibly by the neck, as if to embrace him; he put his mouth close to Savinien's ear, and said to him in a low, supplicating voice,
Then turning towards the others:
"Leave me alone with him. I tell you I won't go away. Lock us in if you wish, but leave us alone."
With a commanding gesture he showed them the door. They went out.
Savinien, broken by grief, was sitting on the bed, and lowered his eyes without understanding anything.
"Listen," said Jean Francois, who came and took him by the hands. "I understand! You have stolen three gold pieces to buy some trifle for a girl. That costs six months in prison. But one only comes out from there to go back again, and you will become a pillar of police courts and tribunals. I understand it. I have been seven years at the Reform School, a year at Sainte Pelagie, three years at Poissy, five years at Toulon. Now, don't be afraid. Everything is arranged. I have taken it on my shoulders."
"It is dreadful," said Savinien; but hope was springing up again in his cowardly heart.
"When the elder brother is under the flag, the younger one does not go," replied Jean Francois. "I am your substitute, that's all. You care for me a little, do you not? I am paid. Don't be childish—don't refuse. They would have taken me again one of these days, for I am a runaway from exile. And then, do you see, that life will be less hard for me than for you. I know it all, and I shall not complain if I have not done you this service for nothing, and if you swear to me that you will never do it again. Savinien, I have loved you well, and your friendship has made me happy. It is through it that, since I have known you, I have been honest and pure, as I might always have been, perhaps, if I had had, like you, a father to put a tool in my hands, a mother to teach me my prayers. It was my sole regret that I was useless to you, and that I deceived you concerning myself. To-day I have unmasked in saving you. It is all right. Do not cry, and embrace me, for already I hear heavy boots on the stairs. They are coming with the posse, and we must not seem to know each other so well before those chaps."
He pressed Savinien quickly to his breast, then pushed him from him, when the door was thrown wide open.
It was the landlord and the Auvergnat, who brought the police. Jean Francois sprang forward to the landing-place, held out his hands for the handcuffs, and said, laughing, "Forward, bad lot!"
To-day he is at Cayenne, condemned for life as an incorrigible.
When the maitre d'hotel—oh, what a respectable paunch in an ample kerseymere vest! What a worthy and red face, well framed by white whiskers! (an English physique, I assure you)—when the imposing maitre d'hotel opened with two raps the door of the salon, and announced in his musical bass voice, at the same time sonorous and respectful, "The dinner of madame la comtesse is served," hats were hung on the corners of brackets, while the more distinguished of the guests offered their arms to the ladies, and all passed into the dining-room, silent, almost meditative, like a procession.
The table glittered. What flowers! What lights! Each guest found his place without difficulty. As soon as he had read his name on the glazed card, a grand lackey in silk stockings pushed gently behind him a luxurious chair embroidered with a count's coronet. Fourteen at the table, not more: four young women in full toilets, and ten men belonging to the aristocracy of blood or of merit, who had put on that evening all their orders in honor of a foreign diplomat sitting at the right hand of the mistress of the house. Clusters of jewelled decorations hung from button-holes, plaques of diamonds glittered in the lapel of one or two black coats, a heavy commander's cross sparkled on the starched front of a general with a red cravat. As to the ladies, they bore all the splendors of their jewel-boxes.