THE STORY OF A CHILD
By Pierre Loti
Translated by Caroline F. Smith
There is to-day a widely spread new interest in child life, a desire to get nearer to children and understand them. To be sure child study is not new; every wise parent and every sympathetic teacher has ever been a student of children; but there is now an effort to do more consciously and systematically what has always been done in some way.
In the few years since this modern movement began much has been accomplished, yet there is among many thoughtful people a strong reaction from the hopes awakened by the enthusiastic heralding of the newer aspects of psychology. It had been supposed that our science would soon revolutionize education; indeed, taking the wish for the fact, we began to talk about the new and the old education (both mythical) and boast of our millennium. I would not underrate the real progress, the expansion of educational activities, the enormous gains made in many ways; but the millennium! The same old errors meet us in new forms, the old problems are yet unsolved, the waste is so vast that we sometimes feel thankful that we cannot do as much as we would, and that Nature protects children from our worst mistakes.
What is the source of this disappointment? Is it not that education, like all other aspects of life, can never be reduced to mere science? We need science, it must be increasingly the basis of all life; but exact science develops very slowly, and meantime we must live. Doubtless the time will come when our study of mind will have advanced so far that we can lay down certain great principles as tested laws, and thus clarify many questions. Even then the solution of the problem will not be in the enunciation of the theoretic principle, but will lie in its application to practice; and that application must always depend upon instinct, tact, appreciation, as well as upon the scientific law. Even the aid that science can contribute is given slowly; meanwhile we must work with these children and lift them to the largest life.
It is in relation to this practical work of education that our effort to study children gets its human value. There are always two points of view possible with reference to life. From the standpoint of nature and science, individuals count for little. Nature can waste a thousand acorns to raise one oak, hundreds of children may be sacrificed that a truth may be seen. But from the ethical and human point of view the meaning of all life is in each individual. That one child should be lost is a kind of ruin to the universe.
It is this second point of view which every parent and every teacher must take; and the great practical value of our new study of children is that it brings us into personal relation with the child world, and so aids in that subtle touch of life upon life which is the very heart of education.
It is therefore that certain phases of the study of child life have a high worth without giving definite scientific results. Peculiarly significant among these is the study of the autobiographies of childhood. The door to the great universe is always to the personal world. Each of us appreciates child life through his own childhood, and though the children with whom it is his blessed fortune to be associated. If then it is possible for him to know intimately another child through autobiography, one more window has been opened into the child world—one more interpretative unit is given him through which to read the lesson of the whole.
It is true, autobiographies written later in life cannot give us the absolute truth of childhood. We see our early experiences through the mists, golden or gray, of the years that lie between. It is poetry as well as truth, as Goethe recognized in the title of his own self-study. Nevertheless the individual who has lived the life can best bring us into touch with it, and the very poetry is as true as the fact because interpretative of the spirit.
It is peculiarly necessary that teachers harassed with the routine of their work, and parents distracted with the multitude of details of daily existence, should have such windows opened through which they may look across the green meadows and into the sunlit gardens of childhood. The result is not theories of child life but appreciation of children. How one who has read understandingly Sonva Kovalevsky's story of her girlhood could ever leave unanswered a child starving for love I cannot see. Mills' account of his early life is worth more than many theories in showing the deforming effect of an education that is formal discipline without an awakening of the heart and soul. Goethe's great study of his childhood and youth must give a new hold upon life to any one who will appreciatively respond to it.
A better illustration of the subtle worth of such literature, in developing appreciation of those inner deeps of child life that escape definition and evaporate from the figures of the statistician, could scarcely be found than Pierre Loti's "Story of a Child." There is hardly a fact in the book. It tells not what the child did or what was done to him, but what he felt, thought, dreamed. A record of impressions through the dim years of awakening, it reveals a peculiar and subtle type of personality most necessary to understand. All that Loti is and has been is gathered up and foreshadowed in the child. Exquisite sensitiveness to impressions whether of body or soul, the egotism of a nature much occupied with its own subjective feelings, a being atune in response to the haunting melody of the sunset, and the vague mystery of the seas, a subtle melancholy that comes from the predominance of feeling over masculine power of action, leading one to drift like Francesca with the winds of emotion, terrible or sweet, rather than to fix the tide of the universe in the centre of the forceful deed—all these qualities are in the dreams of the child as in the life of the man.
And the style?—dreamy, suggestive, melodious, flowing on and on with its exquisite music, wakening sad reveries, and hinting of gray days of wind and rain, when the gust around the house wails of broken hopes and ideals so long-deferred as to be half forgotten,—the minor sob of his music expresses the spirit of Loti as much as do the moods of the child he describes.
Such a type, like all others, has its strength and its weakness. Such a type, like all others, is implicitly in us all. Do we not know it—the haunting hunger for the permanence of impressions that come and go, which pulsates through the book till we can scarcely keep back the tears; the brooding over the two sombre mysteries—Death and Life (and which is the darker?); the sense of fate driving life on—the fate of a temperament that restlessly longs for new impressions and intense emotions, without the vigor of action that cuts the Gordian knot of fancy and speculation with the swift sword-stroke of an heroic deed.
It is fortunate that the translator has caught the subtle charm of Loti's style, so difficult to render in another speech, in an amazing degree. This is peculiarly necessary here, for accuracy of translation means giving the delicate changes of color and elusive chords of music that voice the moods and impressions of which the book is made.
Let us read the revelation of this book not primarily to condemn or praise, or even to estimate and define, but to appreciate. If it be true that no one ever looked into the Kingdom of Heaven except through the eyes of a little child, if it be true that the eyes of every unspoiled child are such a window, take the vision and be thankful. If, perchance, this window should open toward strange abysses that reach vaguely away, or upon dark meadows that lie ghost-like in the mingled light, if out of the abyss rises, undefined, the vast, dim shape of the mystery, and wakens in us the haunting memories of dead yesterdays and forgotten years, if we seem carried past the day into the gray vastness that is beyond the sunset and before the dawn, let us recognize that the mystery or mysteries, the annunciation of the Infinite is a little child.
EDWARD HOWARD GRIGGS.
TO HER MAJESTY ELIZABETH, QUEEN OF ROUMANIA.
I am almost too old to undertake this book, for a sort of night is falling about me; where shall I find the words vital and young enough for the task?
To-morrow, at sea, I will commence it; at least I will endeavor to put into it all that was best of myself at a time when as yet there was nothing very bad.
So that romantic love may find no place in it, except in the illusory form of a vision, I will end it at an early age.
And to the sovereign lady whose suggestion it was that I write it, I offer it as a humble token of my respect and admiration.
THE STORY OF A CHILD.
It is with some degree of awe that I touch upon the enigma of my impressions at the commencement of my life. I am almost doubtful whether they had reality within my own experience, or whether they are not, rather, recollections mysteriously transmitted—I feel an almost sacred hesitation when I would fathom their depths.
I came forth from the darkness of unconsciousness very gradually, for my mind was illumined only fitfully, but then by outbursts of splendor that compelled and fascinated my infant gaze. When the light was extinguished, I lapsed once more into the non-consciousness of the new-born animal, of the tiny plant just germinating.
The history of my earliest years is that of a child much indulged and petted to whom nothing of moment happened; and into whose narrow, protected life no jarring came that was not foreseen, and the shock of which was not deadened with solicitous care. In my manners I was always very tractable and submissive. That I may not make my recital tedious, I will note without continuity and without the proper transitions those moments which are impressed upon my mind because of their strangeness, those moments that are still so vividly remembered, although I have forgotten many poignant sorrows, many lands, adventures, and places.
I was at that time like a fledgling swallow living high up in a niche in the eaves, who from time to time peeps out over the top of its nest with its little bright eyes. With the eyes of imagination it sees into the deeps of space, although to the actual vision only a courtyard and street are visible; and it sees into depths which it will presently need to journey through. It was during such moments of clairvoyance that I had a vision of the infinity of which before my present life I was a part. Then, in spite of myself, my consciousness flagged, and for days together I lived the tranquil, subconscious life of early childhood.
At first my mind, altogether unimpressed and undeveloped, may be compared to a photographer's apparatus fitted with its sensitized glass. Objects insufficiently lighted up make no impression upon the virgin plates; but when a vivid splendor falls upon them, and when they are encircled by disks of light, these once dim objects now engrave themselves upon the glass. My first recollections are of bright summer days and sparkling noon times,—or more truly, are recollections of the light of wood fires burning with great ruddy flames.
As if it were yesterday I recall the evening when I suddenly discovered that I could run and jump; and I remember that I was intoxicated by the delicious sensation almost to the point of falling.
This must have been at about the commencement of my second winter. At the sad hour of twilight I was in the dining-room of my parents' house, which room had always seemed a very vast one to me. At first, I was quiet, made so, no doubt, by the influence of the environing darkness, for the lamp was not yet lighted. But as the hour for dinner approached, a maid-servant came in and threw an armful of small wood into the fireplace to reanimate the dying fire. Immediately there was a beautiful bright light, and the leaping flames illuminated everything, and waves of light spread to the far part of the room where I sat. The flames danced and leaped with a twining motion ever higher and higher and more gayly, and the tremulous shadows along the wall ran to their hiding-places—oh! how quickly I arose overwhelmed with admiration for I recollect that I had been sitting at the feet of my great-aunt Bertha (at that time already very old) who half dozed in her chair. We were near a window through which the gray night filtered; I was seated upon one of those high, old-fashioned foot-stools with two steps, so convenient for little children who can from that vantage ground put their heads in grandmother's or grand-aunt's lap, and wheedle so effectually.
I arose in ecstasy, and approached the flames; then in the circle of light which lay upon the carpet I began to walk around and around and to turn. Ever faster and faster I went, until suddenly I felt an unwonted elasticity run through my limbs, and in a twinkling I invented a new and amusing style of motion; it was to push my feet very hard against the floor, and then to lift them up together suddenly for a half second. When I fell, up I sprang and recommenced my play. Bang! Bang! With every increasing noise I went against the floor, and at last I began to feel a singular but agreeable giddiness in my head. I knew how to jump! I knew how to run!
I am convinced that that is my earliest distinct recollection of great joyousness.
"Dear me! What is the matter with the child this evening?" asked my great-aunt Bertha, with some anxiety. And I hear again the unexpected sound of her voice.
But I still kept on jumping. Like those tiny foolish moths which of an evening revolve about the light of a lamp, I went around in the luminous circle which widened and retracted, ever taking form from the wavering light of the flames. And I remember all of this so vividly that my eyes can still see the smallest details of the texture of the carpet which was the scene of the event. It was of durable stuff called home-spun, woven in the country by native weavers. (Our house was still furnished as it had been in my maternal grandmother's time, as she had arranged it after she had quitted the Island, and come to the mainland.—A little later I will speak of this Island which had already a mysterious attraction for my youthful imagination.—It was a simple country house, notable for its Huguenot austerity; and it was a home where immaculate cleanliness and extreme order were the sole luxuries.)
In the circle of light, which grew ever more and more narrow, I still jumped; but as I did so I had thoughts that were of an intensity not habitual with me. At the same time that my tiny limbs discovered their power, my spirit also knew itself; a burst of light overspread my mind where dawning ideas still showed forth feebly. And it is without doubt to the inner awakening that this fleeting moment of my life owes its existence, owes undoubtedly its permanency in memory. But vainly I seek for the words, that seem ever to escape me, through which to express my elusive emotions. . . . Here in the dining-room I look about and see the chairs standing the length of the wall, and I am reminded of the aged grandmother, grand-aunts and aunts who always come at a certain hour and seat themselves in them. Why are they not here now? At this moment I would like to feel their protecting presence about me. Probably they are upstairs in their rooms on the second floor; between them and me there is the dim stairway, the stairway that I people with shadowy beings the thought of which makes me tremble. . . . And my mother? I would wish most especially for her, but I know that she has gone out, gone out into the long streets which in my imagination have no end. I had myself gone to the door with her and had asked her: "When returnest thou?" And she had promised me that she would return speedily. Later they told me that when I was a child I would never permit any members of the family to leave the house to go walking or visiting without first obtaining their assurance of a speedy homecoming. "You will come back soon?" I would say, and I always asked the question anxiously, as I followed them to the door.
My mother had departed, and it gave my heart a feeling of heaviness to know that she was out. Out in the streets! I was content not to be there where it was cold and dark, where little children so easily lost their way,—how snug it was to be within doors before the fire that warmed me through and through; how nice it was to be at home! I had never realized it until this evening—doubtless it was my first distinct feeling of attachment to hearth and home, and I was sadly troubled at the thought of the immense, strange world lying beyond the door. It was then that I had, for the first time, a conscious affection for my aged aunts and grand-aunts, who cared for me in infancy, whom I longed to have seated around me at this dim, sad, twilight hour.
In the meantime the once bright and playful flames had died down, the armful of wood was consumed, and as the lamp was not lighted, the room was quite dark. I had already stumbled upon the home-spun carpet, but as I had not hurt myself, I recommenced my amusing play. For an instant I thought to experience a new but strange joy by going into the shadowy and distant recesses of the room; but I was overtaken there by an indefinable terror of something which I cannot name, and I hastily took refuge in the dim circle of light and looked behind me with a shudder to see whether anything had followed me from out of those dark corners. Finally the flames died away entirely, and I was really afraid; aunt Bertha sat motionless upon her chair, and although I felt that her eyes were upon me I was not reassured. The very chairs, the chairs ranged about the room, began to disquiet me because their long shadows, that stretched behind them exaggerating the height of ceiling and length of wall, moved restlessly like souls in the agonies of death. And especially there was a half-open door that led into a very dark hall, which in its turn opened into a large empty parlor absolutely dark. Oh! with what intensity I fixed my eyes upon that door to which I would not for the world have turned my back!
This was the beginning of those daily winter-evening terrors which in that beloved home cast such a gloom over my childhood.
What I feared to see enter that door had no well defined form, but the fear was none the less definite to me: and it kept me standing motionless near the dead fire with wide open eyes and fluttering heart. When my mother suddenly entered the room by a different door, oh! how I clung to her and covered my face with her dress: it was a supreme protection, the sanctuary where no harm could reach me, the harbor of harbors where the storm is forgotten. . . .
At this instant the thread of recollection breaks, I can follow it no farther.
After the ineffaceable impression left by that first fright and that first dance before the winter fire many months passed during which no other events were engraven upon my memory, and I relapsed into a twilight state similar to that at the commencement of my life. But the mental dimness was pierced now and again with a bright light; as the gray of early morning is tinged by the rose-color of dawning.
I believe that the impressions which succeeded were those of the summer time, of the great sun and nature. I recall feeling an almost delicious terror when one day I found myself alone in the midst of tall June grasses that grew high as my head. But here the secret working of self consciousness is almost too entangled with the things of the past for me to explain it.
We were visiting at a country place called Limoise, a place that at later time played a great part in my life. It belonged to neighbors and friends, the D——s, whose house in town was directly next to ours. Perhaps I had visited Limoise the preceding summer, but at that time I was very like a cocoon before it has crawled from its silken wrapping. The day that I now refer to is the one in which I was able to reflect for the first time, in which I first knew the sweetness of reverie.
I have forgotten our departure, the carriage ride and our arrival. But I remember distinctly that late one hot afternoon, as the sun was setting, I found myself alone in a remote part of a deserted garden. The gray walls overgrown with ivy and mosses separated its grove of trees from the moorland and the rocky country round about it. For me, brought up in the city, the old and solitary garden, where even the fruit trees were dying from old age, had all the mystery and charm of a primeval forest. I crossed a border of box, and I was in the midst of a large uncultivated tract filled with climbing asparagus and great weeds. Then I cowered down, as is the fashion of little children, that I might be more effectually hidden by what hid me sufficiently already, and I remained there motionless with eyes dilated and with quickening spirit, half afraid, half enraptured. The feeling that I experienced in the presence of these unfamiliar things was one of reflection rather than of astonishment. I knew that the bright green vegetation closing in about me was every where in no less measure than in the heart of this forest, and emotions, sad and weird and vague took possession of me and affrighted but fascinated me. That I might remain hidden as long as possible I crouched lower and still lower, and I felt the joy a little Indian boy feels when he is in his beloved forest.
Suddenly I heard someone call: "Pierre! Pierre! Dear Pierre!" I did not reply, but instead lay as close as possible to the ground, and sought to hide under the weeds and the waving branches of the asparagus.
Still I heard: "Pierre, Pierre." It was Lucette; I knew her voice, and from the mockery of her tone I felt sure that she had spied me. But I could not see her although I looked about me very carefully: no one was visible!
With peals of laughter she continued to call, and her voice grew merrier and merrier. Where can she be? thought I.
Ah! At last I spied her perched upon the twisted branch of a tree that was overhung with gray moss!
I was fairly caught and I came out of my green hiding place.
As I rose I gazed over the wild and flowering things, and saw the corner of the old moss-grown wall that enclosed the garden. That wall was destined to be at a later time a very familiar haunt of mine, for on the Thursday holidays during my college life I spent many a happy hour sitting upon it contemplating the peaceful and quiet country, and there I mused, to the chirping accompaniment of the crickets, of those distant countries fairer and sunnier than my own. And upon that summer day those gray and crumbling stones, defaced by the sun and weather, and overgrown with mosses, gave me for the first time an indefinable impression of the persistence of things; a vague conception of existences antedating my own, in times long past.
Lucette D——, my elder by eight or ten years, seemed to me already a grown person. I cannot recall the time when I did not know her. Later I came to love her as a sister, and her early death in her prime was one of the first real griefs of my boyhood.
And the first recollection I have of her is as I saw her in the branches of the old pear tree. Her image doubtless begets a vividness from the two new emotions with which it is blended: the enchanting uneasiness I felt at the invasion of green nature and the melancholy reverie that took possession of me as I contemplated the old wall, type of ancient things and olden times.
I will now endeavor to explain the impression that the sea made upon me at our first brief and melancholy encounter, which took place at twilight upon the evening of my arrival at the Island.
Notwithstanding the fact that I could scarcely see it, it had so remarkable an effect on me that in a single moment it was engraven upon my memory forever. I feel a retrospective shudder run through me when my spirit broods upon the recollection.
We had but newly arrived at this village near St. Ongeoise where my parents had rented a fisherman's house for the bathing season. I knew that we had come here for something called the sea, but I had had no glimpse of it (a line of dunes hid it from me because of my short stature), and I was extremely impatient to become acquainted with it; therefore after dinner, as night was falling, I went alone to seek this mysterious thing.
The air was sharp and biting, and unlike any I had experienced, and from behind the hillocks of sand, along which the path led, there came a faint but majestic noise. Everything affrighted me, the unfamiliar way, the twilight falling from the overcast sky, and the loneliness of this part of the village. But inspired by one of those great and sudden resolutions, that come sometimes to the most timid, I went forward with a firm step.
Suddenly I stopped overcome and almost paralyzed by fear, for something took shape before me, something dark and surging sprang up from all sides at the same time and it seemed to stretch out endlessly. It was something so vast and full of motion that I was seized with a deadly vertigo—it was the sea of my imagining! Without a moment's hesitation, without asking how this knowledge had been wrought, without astonishment even, I recognized it and I trembled with a great emotion. It was so dark a green as to be almost black; to me it seemed unstable, perfidious, all ingulfing, always turbulent, and of a sinister, menacing aspect. Above it, in harmony with it, stretched the gray and lowering sky.
And far away, very far away, upon the immeasurable distant horizon I perceived a break between the sky and the waters, and a pale yellow light showed through this cleft.
Had I been to the sea before to recognize it thus quickly? Perhaps I had, but without being conscious of it, for when I was about five or six months old I had been brought to the Island by my great aunt, my grandmother's sister; or perhaps because it had played so great a part in my sea-faring ancestors' lives I was born with a nascent conception of it and its immensity.
We communed together a moment, one with the other—I was deeply fascinated. At our first encounter I am sure I had a nebulous presentiment that I would one day go to it in spite of my hesitation, in spite of all the efforts put forth to hold me back,—and the emotion that overwhelmed me in the presence of the sea was not only one of fear, but I felt also an inexpressible sadness, and I seemed to feel the anguish of desolation, bereavement and exile. With downcast mien, and with hair blown about by the wind, I turned and ran home. I was in the extreme haste to be with my mother; I wished to embrace her and to cling close to her; I desired to be with her so that she might console me for the thousand indefinite, anticipated sorrows that surged through my heart at the sight of those green waters, so vast and so deep.
My mother!—I have already mentioned her two or three times in the course of this recital, but without stopping to speak of her at length. It seems that at first she was no more to me than a natural and instinctive refuge where I ran for shelter from all terrifying and unfamiliar things, from all the dark forebodings that had no real cause.
But I believe she took on reality and life for the first time in the burst of ineffable tenderness which I felt when one May morning she entered my room with a bouquet of pink hyacinths in her hand; she brought in with her as she came a ray of sunlight.
I was convalescing from one of the maladies peculiar to children,—measles or whooping cough, I know not which,—and I had been ordered to remain in bed and to keep warm. By the rays of light that filtered in through the closed shutters I divined the springtime warmth and brightness of the sun and air, and I felt sad that I had to remain behind the curtains of my tiny white bed; I wished to rise and go out; but most of all I had a desire to see my mother.
The door opened and she entered, smiling. Ah, I remember it so well! I recall so distinctly how she looked as she stood upon the threshold of the door. And I remember that she brought in with her some of the sunlight and balminess of the spring day.
I see again the expression of her face as she looked at me; and I hear the sound of her voice, and recall the details of her beloved dress that would look funny and old-fashioned to me now. She had returned from her morning shopping, and she wore a straw hat trimmed with yellow roses and a shawl of lilac barege (it was the period of the shawl) sprinkled with tiny bouquets of violets. Her dark curls (the poor beloved curls to-day, alas! so thin and white) were at this time without a gray hair. There was about her the fragrance of the May day, and her face as it looked that morning with its broad brimmed hat is still distinctly present with me. Besides the bouquet of pink hyacinths, she had brought me a tiny watering-pot, an exact imitation in miniature of the crockery ones so much used by the country people.
As she leaned over my bed to embrace me I felt as if every wish was gratified. I no longer had a desire to weep, nor to rise from my bed, nor to go out. She was with me and that sufficed—I was consoled, tranquillized, and re-created by her gracious presence.
I was, I think, a little more than three years old at this time, and my mother must have been about forty-two years of age; but I had not the least notion of age in regard to her, and it had never occurred to me to wonder whether she was young or old; nor did I realize until a later time that she was beautiful. No, at this period that she was her own dear self was enough; to me she was in face and form a person so apart and so unique that I would not have dreamed of comparing her with any one else. From her whole being there emanated such a joyousness, security and tenderness, and so much goodness that from thence was born my understanding of faith and prayer.
I would that I could speak hallowed words to the first blessed form that I find in the book of memory. I would it were possible that I could greet my mother with words filled with the meaning I wish to convey. They are words which cause bountiful tears to flow, but tears fraught with I know not how much of the sweetness of consolation and joy, words that are ever, and in spite of everything, filled with the hope of an immortal reunion.
And since I have touched upon this mystery that has had such an influence upon my soul, I will here set down that my mother alone is the only person in the world of whom I have the feeling that death cannot separate me. With other human beings, those whom I have loved with all my heart and soul, I have tried to imagine a hereafter, a to-morrow in which there shall be no to-morrow; but no, I cannot! Rather I have always had a horrible consciousness of our nothingness—dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Because of my mother alone have I been able to keep intact the faith of my early days. It still seems to me that when I have finished playing my poor part in life, when I no longer run in the overgrown paths that lead to the unattainable, when I am through amusing humanity with my conceits and my sorrows, I will go there where my mother, who has gone before me, is, and she will receive me; and the smile of serenity that she now wears in my memory will have become one of triumphant realization.
True, I see that distant region only dimly, and it has no more substance than a pale gray vision; my words, however intangible and elusive, give too definite a form to my dreamy conceptions. But still (I speak as a little child, with the child's faith), but still I always think of my mother as having, in that far off place, preserved her earthly aspect. I think of her with her dear white curls and the straight lines of her beautiful profile that the years may have impaired a little, but which I still find perfect. The thought that the face of my mother shall one day disappear from my eyes forever, that it is no more than combined elements subject to disintegration, and that she will be lost in the universal abyss of nothingness, not only makes my heart bleed, but it causes me to revolt as at something unthinkable and monstrous; it cannot be! I have the feeling that there is about her something which death cannot touch.
My love for my mother (the only changeless love of my life) is so free from all material feeling that that alone gives me an inexplicable hope, almost gives me a confidence in the immortality of the soul.
I cannot very well understand why the vision of my mother near my bed of sickness should that morning have impressed me so vividly, for she was nearly always with me. It all seems very mysterious; it is as if at that particular moment she was for the first time revealed to me.
And why among the treasured playthings of my childhood has the tiny watering-pot taken on the value and sacred dignity of a relic? So much so indeed, that when I am far distant on the ocean, in hours of danger, I think of it with tenderness, and see it in the place where it has lain for years, in the little bureau, never opened, mixed in with broken toys; and should it disappear I would feel as if I had lost an amulet that could not be replaced.
And the simple shawl of lilac barege, found recently among some old clothing laid aside to be given to the poor, why have I put it away as carefully as if it were a priceless object? Because in its color (now faded), in its quaint Indian pattern and tiny bouquets of violets, I still find an emanation from my mother; I believe that I borrow therefrom a holy calm and sweet confidence that is almost a faith. And mingled in with the other feelings there is perhaps a melancholy regret for those May mornings of long ago that seemed so much brighter than are those of to-day.
Truly I fear this book, the most personal I have ever written, will weary many.
In transcribing these memories in the calm of middle life, so favorable to reverie, I had constantly present in my thought the lovely queen to whom I would dedicate this book; it is as if I were writing her a long letter with the full assurance of being understood in all those sacred matters to which words give but an inadequate expression.
Perhaps you will understand also, my dear unknown readers, who with kindly sympathy have followed me thus far; and all those who cherish, or who have been cherished by their mothers will not smile at the childish things written down here.
But this chapter will certainly seem ridiculous to those who are strangers to an all absorbing love, they will not be able to imagine that I have a deep pity to exchange for their cynical smiles.
Before I finish writing of the confused memories I have of the commencement of my life I wish to speak of another ray of sunshine—a sad ray this time,—that has left an ineffaceable impression upon me, and the meaning of which will never be clear to me.
Upon a Sunday, after we had returned from church, the ray appeared to me. It came through a half-open window and fell into the stairway, and as it lengthened itself upon the whiteness of the wall it took on a peculiar, weird shape.
I had returned from church with my mother and as I mounted the stairs I took her hand. The house was filled with a humming silence peculiar to the noontime of very hot summer days (it was August or September). Following the habit of our country the shutters were half closed making indoors, during the heated period of the day, a sort of twilight.
As I entered the house there came to me an appreciation of the stillness of Sunday that in the country and in peaceful byways of little towns is like the peace of death. But when I saw the ray of sunlight fall obliquely through the staircase window, I had a feeling more poignant than ordinary sorrow; I had a feeling altogether incomprehensible and absolutely new in which there seemed infused a conception of the brevity of life's summers, their rapid flight and the incomputable ages of the sun. But other elements still more mysterious, that it would be impossible for me to explain even vaguely, entered therein.
I wish to add to the history of this ray of sunshine the sequel that is intimately connected with it. Years passed; I became a man, and after having been among many people and experienced many adventures I lived for an autumn and winter in an isolated house in an unfrequented part of Stamboul. It was there that every evening at approximately the same hour, a ray of sunlight came in through the window and fell obliquely on the wall and lit up the niche (hollowed out of the stone wall) in which I had placed an Athenian vase. And I never saw that ray of sunlight without thinking of the one I had seen upon that Sunday of long ago; nor without having the same, precisely the same sad emotion, scarcely diminished by time, and always full of the same mystery. And when I had to leave Turkey, when I was obliged to quit my dangerous but adored lodgings in Stamboul, with all my busy and hurried preparations for departure there was mingled this strange regret: never more should I see the oblique ray of sunshine come into the stairway window and fall upon the niche in the wall where the Greek vase stood.
Perhaps under all of this there may have been, if not recollections of a previous personal experience, at least the reflected inchoate thoughts of ancestors which I am unable in any clearer way to bring out of darkness. But enough! I must say no more, for I again find myself in the land of vague fancy, gliding phantoms and illusive nothings.
For this almost unintelligible chapter there is no excuse that I can offer, save that I have written it with the greatest frankness and sincerity.
And I now recall the impressions of springtime, all the fresh splendor of May; and I remember vividly the lonely road called the Fountain road.
(As I am endeavoring to put my recollections into some sort of order I think that at this time I must have been about five years old.)
I was old enough at any rate to take walks with my father and my sister, and I went out with them this dewy morning. I was in ecstasy to see that everything had become so green, to see the budding foliage and the tasselled shrubs and hedges. Along the sides of the road the grass was all the same length, and the flowers in the grass with their exquisite mingling of the red of the geranium and the blue of the speedwell, made the whole earth seem a great bouquet. As I plucked the flowers I scarcely knew which way to run; in my eagerness I trod upon them and my legs became wet from the dew—I marvelled at all the richness at my disposal, and I longed to take great armfuls of the flowers and carry them away with me.
My sister, who had gathered a sprig of hawthorn, one of iris and some long sheath-like grasses leaned towards me, and took my hand, and said: "You have enough for the present; you see, dear, that we could never gather all of them."
But I did not heed, so absolutely intoxicated was I with the magnificence about me, the like of which I did not recall ever to have seen before.
That was the beginning of those almost daily excursions that I took with my father and sister, and that I kept up for so long a time (almost to my boarding-school days). It is through them that I became so well acquainted with the surrounding country and with the varieties of flowers found there. Poor fields and meadows of my native country! So monotonous, so flat, one so like another; fields of hay and daisies where in childhood I would disappear from sight and hide under the green vegetation. Fields of corn and paths bordered with hawthorn, I love you all in spite of your monotony!
Toward the west, in the far distance, my eyes sought for a glimpse of the sea. Sometimes when we had gone a long way there would appear upon the horizon, among the other lines there, a straight bluish one; it was the sea; and it lured me to it finally as a great and patient lover lures, who sure of his power is willing to wait.
My sister and my brother, of whom I have not spoken before, were considerably older than I; it seemed almost as if we belonged to different generations. For that reason they petted me even more than did my father and mother, my grandmother and aunts; and as I was the only child among them I was cherished like a little hot-house plant, I was too tenderly guarded and remained all too unacquainted with thorns and brambles.
Someone has advanced the theory that those persons endowed with a gift for painting (either with color or with words) probably belong to a half-blind species; accustomed to living in a partial light, in a sort of misty grayness, they turn their gaze inward; and when by chance they do look out their impressions are ten times more vivid than are those of ordinary people.
To me that seems a little paradoxical.
But it is true that sometimes an enveloping darkness aids one to clearer vision; as in a panorama building, for example, where the obscurity about the entrance prepares one better for the climax, and gives the scene depicted a more real and vivid appearance.
In the course of my life I would without doubt have been less impressed by the ever shifting phantasmagoria of existence had I not begun my journey in a place almost without distinctive color, in a tranquil corner of the most commonplace little town, receiving an education austerely pious; and where my longest journey was bounded by the forests of Limoise (as wonderful to me as a primeval forest) and by the shores of the island of Oleron, that seemed very immense when I went to it to visit my aged aunts.
But after all is said, it was in the yard about our house that I passed the happiest of my summers—it seemed to me that that was my particular kingdom, and I adored it.
It was in truth a beautiful yard, much more sunny and airy than the majority of city gardens. Its long avenue of green and flowery branches, that overtopped the heads of the neighboring fruit trees, was bordered on the south by a low and ancient wall over which grew roses and honeysuckles. The long leafy avenue gave the impression of great depth, and its perspective melted into a bower of vines and jasmine bushes that in turn became a great verdant place, which came to an end at a storehouse of ancient construction, whose gray stones were hidden under ivy vines.
Ah! How I loved that garden, and how much I still love it!
I believe the keenest, earliest memories are of the beautiful long summer evenings. Oh! the return from a walk during those long, clear twilights that certainly were more delicious than are those of to-day. What joy to re-enter that yard which the thorn-apples and the honeysuckles filled with the sweetest odor, to enter and see from the gate all the long avenue of tangled greenness. Through an opening in a bower of Virginia Creeper I could see the rosy splendor of the setting sun; and somewhat removed in the gathering shadows of the foliage, there were distinguishable three or four persons. The persons, it is true, were very quiet and they were dressed in black, but they were nevertheless very reassuring to me, very familiar and very much beloved: they were the forms of mother, grandmother and aunts. Then I would run to them hastily and throw myself upon their laps, and that was always one of the happiest moments of my day.
In the month of March, as the shadows of twilight gathered, two little children were seated very close together upon a low footstool—two little ones, between the ages of five and six, dressed in short trousers with white pinafores over them, as was the fashion of the time. After having played wildly they were now quietly amusing themselves with paper and pencils. The dim light seemed to fill them with a vague fear, and it troubled their spirits.
Of the two children only one was drawing—it was I. The other, a friend invited over for the day, an exceptional thing, was watching me with great attention. With some difficulty (trusting me meantime) he followed the fantastic movements of my pencil whose intention I took care to explain to him at some length. And my oral interpretation was necessary, for I was busy executing two drawings that I entitled respectively, "The Happy Duck" and "The Unhappy Duck."
The room in which we were seated must have been furnished about the year 1805, at the time of the marriage of my now-very-old grandmother, who still occupied it, and who this evening was seated in the chair of the Directory period; she was singing to herself and she took no notice of us.
My memories of my grandmother are indistinct for her death occurred shortly after this time; but as I will never again, in the course of this recital, have a more vivid impression of her, I will here insert what I know of her history.
It seems that in the stress of all sorts of troubles she had been a brave and noble mother. After reverses that were so general in those days, after losing her husband at the Battle of Trafalgar, and her elder son at the shipwreck of the Medusa, she went resolutely to work to educate her younger son, my father, until such time as he should be able to support himself. At about her eightieth year (which was not far distant when I came into the world) the senility of second childhood had set in; at that time I knew nothing about the tragedy of the loss of memory and I could not realize the vacancy of her mind and soul.
She would often stand for a long time before a mirror and talk in a most amiable way to her own reflection, which she called, "my good neighbor" or "my dear neighbor." It was also her mania to sing with a most excessive ardor the Marseillaise, the Parisiennes, the "Song of Farewell," and all the noble songs of the transition time, which had been the rage in her young womanhood.
During these exciting times she had lived quietly, and had occupied herself entirely with her household cares and her son's education. For that reason it seems the more singular that from her disordered mind, just about as it was to take its journey into complete darkness and to become disintegrated through death, there should come this tardy echo of that tempestuous time.
I enjoyed listening to her very much and often I would laugh, but without any irreverence, and I never was the least afraid of her. She was extremely lovely and had delicate and regular features, and her expression was very sweet. Her abundant hair was silver-gray, and upon her cheeks there was a color similar to that of a faded rose leaf, a color which the old people of that generation often retained into extreme old age. I remember that she usually wore a red cashmere shawl about her shoulders, and that she always had on an old-fashioned cap trimmed with green ribbons. There was something very modest and gentle and pleasing about her still graceful little body.
Her room, where I liked to come to play because it was so large and sunny, was furnished as simply as a Presbyterian parsonage: the waxed walnut furniture was of the Directory period, the large bed had a canopy of thick, red, cotton stuff and the walls were painted an ochre yellow; and upon them in gilt frames, slightly tarnished, were hung water colors representing vases of flowers. I very soon discovered that this room was furnished in a very simple and old-fashioned way, and I thought to myself that the good old grandmother who sang so constantly must be much poorer than my other grandmother, who was younger by twenty years, and who always dressed in black—which last matter seemed an elegant distinction to me.
But to return to my drawings! I think that the pictures of those two ducks, occupying such different stations in life, were the first I ever drew.
At the bottom of the picture called "The Happy Duck" I had drawn a tiny house, and near the duck himself there was a large, kind woman who was calling him to her so that she might give him food.
"The Unhappy Duck," on the other hand, was swimming about solitary and alone on a sort of hazy sea, which I had represented by drawing two or three straight lines, and in the distance one could see the outline of a gloomy shore. The thin paper, a leaf torn from a book, had print on the reverse side, and the letters showed through in grayish flecks and gave the curious impression as of clouds in the sky. And that little drawing, with less form than a school-boy's blackboard scrawl, was completely transfigured by those gray spots, and because of them it took on for me a deep and dreadful significance. Aided by the dim light in the room the pictured scene became a vision that faded away into the distance like the pale surface of the sea. I was terrified at my own work; I was astonished to find in it those things that I had not put there; to discover in it those things which elsewhere had given me such a well remembered anguish.
"Oh!" I said with exaltation to my young companion, who did not understand anything of what was going forward, "Oh!" I exclaimed with a voice full of emotion, "you may see it; I cannot bear to look at it!" I covered the picture with my hands, but nevertheless I peeped at it very often; and it was so vividly impressed upon my mind that I can still recall it as it appeared to me transfigured: a gleam of light lay upon the horizon of that sea so awkwardly represented, the heavens appeared to be filled with rain, and it seemed to be a dreary winter evening in which there was a fierce wind blowing.
The "Unhappy Duck" solitary, far away from his family and friends was making his way toward the foggy shore over which there hung an air of extreme sadness and desolation. And certainly for one fleeting moment I had a prescience of those heartaches that I was to know later in the course of my sailor life. I seemed to have a presentiment of those stormy December evenings when my boat was to enter, to take shelter until the morning, one of those uninhabited bays upon the coast of Brittany; more particularly I had a prescience of those twilights of the Antarctic winter when, in about the latitude of Magellan, we were to go in search of protection towards those sterile shores that are as inhospitable and as absolutely deserted as the waters surrounding them.
The vision faded and I once more found myself in my grandmother's large room enveloped in the shadows of the evening. My grandmother was singing, and I was again a tiny being who had seen nothing of the large world, who had fears without knowing wherefore, and who did not even know the cause of the tears that he shed.
Since then I have often observed that the rudimentary scrawls made by children, and which as representations are incorrect and inadequate, impress them much more than do the able and correct drawing of adults. For although theirs are incomplete they add to them a thousand things of their own seeing and imagining; and they add to them also the thousand things that grow in the deep subsoil of their consciousness—the things which no brush would be able to paint.
Upon the second floor, above the room occupied by my poor old grandmother, who sang the Marseillaise so constantly, in that part of the house overlooking the yard and the gardens, lived my great-aunt Bertha.
From her windows, across the houses and the walls covered with roses and jasmine, one could see the ramparts of the town. They were so near to us that their old trees were visible; and beyond them lay those great plains of our country called prees (prairies) all so alike, and as monotonous as the neighboring seas. From the window one also saw the river. At full tide, when it almost overflowed its banks, it looked, as it wound along through the green meadows, like silver lace; and the large and small boats that passed in the far distance mounted upon this silver thread toward the harbor and from there sailed out into the great sea.
As this was our only glimpse of real country the windows in my aunt Bertha's room had always a great attraction for me. Especially had they in the evening at sunset, for from them I could watch the sun sink mysteriously behind the prairies. Oh! those sunsets that I saw from my aunt Bertha's windows, what ecstasy overcast with melancholy they awakened in me! The winter sunsets seen through the closed windows were a pale rose color. Those of summer time, upon stormy evenings, after a hot, bright day, I contemplated from the open window, and as I did so I would breathe in the sweet odors given out by the jasmine blossoms growing on the wall: it seems to me that there are no such sunsets now as there were then. When the sunsets were notably splendid and unusual, if I was not in the room, aunt Bertha, who never missed one, would call out hastily: "Dearie! Dearie! Come quickly!" From any corner of the house I heard that call and understood it, and I went swift as a hurricane and mounted the stairs four steps at a time. I mounted the more rapidly because the stairway had already begun to fill with dread shadows; and in the turnings and corners I saw the imaginary forms of ghosts and monsters that at nightfall always pursued me as I ran up the stairs.
My aunt Bertha's room, with its simple white muslin curtains, was as modest as my grandmother's. The walls, covered with an old-fashioned paper in vogue at the commencement of the century, were ornamented with water colors similar to those in my grandmother's room. The picture that I looked at most often was a pastel after Raphael of a virgin in white, blue and rose color. The rays of the setting sun always fell upon this picture (I have already said the hour of sunset was the time I preferred most to be in this room). This virgin was very much like my aunt Bertha; in spite of the great difference in their ages, one was struck with the resemblance between the straight lines and regularity of their profiles.
On this same floor, but upon the street side, lived my other grandmother (the one who always dressed in black) and her daughter, my aunt Claire, the person in the house who petted me most.
Upon winter evenings, after I had been to my aunt Bertha's room to see the sunset, it was my custom to go to them. I usually found them together in my grandmother's room and I would seat myself near the fire in a little chair placed there for me. But the twilight hour spent with them was always a disturbing one. . . . After all the amusements, all the day's running and playing, to sit in the dusk almost motionless upon my tiny chair, with eyes wide open, uneasily watching for the least change in the shadows, especially on that side of the room where the door opened on the dim stairway, was very painful to me. . . . I am sure that if my grandmother and aunt had known of the melancholy and terrors which the twilight induced in me, they would have spared me by lighting the lamp, but they did not know my sufferings; and it was the custom of the aged persons by whom I was surrounded, to sit tranquilly at nightfall in their accustomed places without having need for a lighted lamp. As it grew darker one or the other, grandmother or aunt, would draw her chair closer to me, and when I had that protection about me I felt completely happy and reassured and would say: "Please tell me stories about the Island."
The Island, that is the Island of Oleron, was my mother's native place, my grandmother's and aunt's also, which they had quitted twenty years before my birth to establish themselves upon the main land. The Island, or the least thing that came from it, had a singular charm for me.
It was quite near us, for from a garret window at the top of the house we could, upon a very clear day, see the extreme end of its extensive plain; it appeared a little bluish line against a still paler one which was the arm of the ocean separating us from it. . . . To get to it we had to take a long journey in wretched country wagons and in sailing boats; and often our boat had to make its way there in the teeth of a strong gale. At this time in the village of St. Pierre Oleron I had three old aunts who lived very modestly upon the revenues of their salt marshes (the remains of a once great inheritance), and their annual rents which the peasants still paid with sacks of wheat. . . . When I went to visit them at St. Pierre there was for me a certain joy, mingled with many kinds of conflicting emotions, which I cannot explain, in trying to picture to myself their once great station.
The Huguenot austerity of their manners, their mode of life, their house and their furniture all belonged to a past time, to a bygone generation. The sea surrounded and isolated us, and the wind constantly swept over the moorland and over the great stretches of sandy beach.
My nurse was also from the Island, of a Huguenot family, which descending from father to son had been with us for a long time; and she would say: "At home, on the Island," in such a way that with a wave of emotion I understood her great homesickness for it.
We had about us a number of little articles that had come from there, and which had places of honor in our home. We had some black pebbles large as cannon-balls, that had been chosen from the thousands lying on the Long-Beach because centuries of washing had polished and rounded them exquisitely. These pebbles always played an important part every winter evening, for with the greatest regularity the old people would put them into the chimney-place where a wood fire blazed and crackled; afterwards they slipped them into calico bags of a flowered pattern, also brought from the Island, and took them to bed where they served to keep their feet warm during the night.
In our cellar we had wooden props and firkins, and also a number of straight elm poles for holding the washing which had been cut from the choicest young trees in my grandmother's forest. I had the greatest veneration for all these things. I knew that my grandmother no longer owned the forests, nor the salt marshes, nor the vineyards; for I had heard them say that she had sold them one at a time to put the money into investments upon the mainland; and that an incompetent notary by his bad investments had greatly reduced her income.
When I went to the Island and the old salt makers and vine dressers, who had at one time worked for our family, still loyal and respectful called me "our little master," I knew they did so out of pure politeness and altogether in deference to our past grandeur.
I regretted that I could not spend my life in tending the vineyards and the harvests, the occupations of several of my ancestors. Such a life seemed a much more desirable one to me than my own which was passed in a house in town.
The stories of the Island that my grandmother and aunt Claire related to me were generally of the happenings of their own childhood, a childhood that seemed so very far away that to me it had no more reality than a dream.
There were stories of grandfathers, long dead; of great-uncles whom I had never known, dead also for many years. When my aunt told me their names and described them to me I would abandon myself to reverie. There was in particular a grandfather Samuel who had preached at the time of the religious persecution, whom I thought an extraordinarily interesting person.
I did not care whether the stories were different or not, and I would ask for the same ones over and over. Often they told me stories of journeys they had taken on the little donkeys that played such an important part in the lives of the people of St. Pierre. They would ride upon them to visit distant properties and vineyards; to get to these it was often necessary to travel along the sands of the Long-Beach, and sometimes of an evening during these expeditions terrible storms would burst upon the travellers and compel them to take shelter for the night in the inns and farmhouses.
And as I sat in the darkness that no longer had terrors for me, my imagination busy with the things and peoples of other days, tinkle, tinkle would go the dinner bell; then I rose and jumped for joy, and we would go down to the dining-room together and find all the family gathered there in the bright gay room: then I would run to my mother and in an excess of emotion hide my face in her dress.
Gaspard was a little crop-eared dog who was saved from absolute homeliness by the vivacious and kindly expression of his eyes. I do not now recall how he came to domesticate himself with us, but I do know that I loved him very tenderly.
One winter afternoon, when he and I were out for a walk, he ran away from me. I consoled myself, however, by saying that he would certainly return to the house alone, and I went home in a happy frame of mind. But when night came and he was still absent I grew very heavy of heart.
My parents had at dinner that evening an accomplished violinist and they had given me permission to remain up later than usual so that I might hear him. The first sweep of his bow which preluded I know not what slow and desolate movement, sounded to me like an invocation to those dark woodland paths in which, in the deeps of night, one feels that he is lost and abandoned; as the musician played I had a vision of Gaspard mistaking his way at the cross-roads because of the rain, and I saw him take an unfamiliar path that led forever away from friends and home. Then my tears began to flow, but no one perceived them; and as I wept the violin continued to fill the silence with its sad wailing, and it seemed to get a response from bottomless abysses inhabited by phantoms to which I could give neither a form nor name.
That was my introduction to reverie awaking music, and years passed before I again experienced such sensations, for the little piano pieces that I began to play for myself soon after this (in a remarkable way for a child of my age they said) sounded to me only like sweet, rhythmical noise.
I wish now to speak of the anguish caused by a story that was read to me. (I seldom read for myself, and in fact I disliked books very much.)
A very disobedient little boy who had run away from his family and his native land, years later, after the death of his parents and his sister, returned alone to visit his parental home. This took place in November, and naturally the author described the dull gray sky and spoke of the bleak wind that blew the few remaining leaves from the trees.
In a deserted garden, in an arbor stripped of all its green, the prodigal son in stooping down found among the autumn leaves a bluish bead that had lain there since the time he had played in the bower with his sister.
Oh! at that point I begged them to cease reading, for I felt the sobs coming. I could see, see vividly, that solitary garden, that leafless old arbor, and half-hidden under the reddish leaves I saw that blue bead, souvenir of the dead sister. . . . It depressed me dreadfully and gave me a conception of that inevitable fading away of everything and every one, of the great universal change that comes to all.
It is strange that my tenderly guarded infancy should have been so full of sad emotions and morbid reflections.
I am sure that the sad days and happenings were rare, and that I lived the joyous and careless life of other children; but just because the happy days were so habitual to me they made no impression upon my mind, and I can no longer recall them.
My memories of the summer time are so similar that they break with the splendor of the sun into the dark places and things of my mind.
And always the great heat, the deep blue skies, the sparkling sand of the beach and the flood of light upon the white lime walls of the cottages of the little villages upon the "Island" induced in me a melancholy and sleepiness which I afterwards experienced with even greater intensity in the land of the Turk.
"And at midnight there was a cry made: Behold, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. . . . And they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
"But he answered and said, Verily, I say unto you, I know you not.
"Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."
After reading these verses in a loud voice, my father closed the Bible; in the room where we were assembled there was a sound of chairs being moved and we all went down upon our knees to pray. Following the usage in old Huguenot families, it was our custom to have prayers just before retiring to our rooms for the night.
"And the door was shut. . . ." Although I still knelt I no longer heard the prayer, for the foolish virgins appeared to me. They were enveloped in white veils that billowed about them as they stood before the door holding in their hands the little lamps whose flickering flames were so soon to be extinguished, leaving them in the gloom without before that closed door, closed against them irrevocably and forever. . . . And a time could come then when it would be too late; when the Saviour weary of our trespassing would no longer listen to our supplications! I had never thought that that was possible. And a fear more terrifying and awful than any I had ever known before completely overwhelmed me at the thought of eternal damnation. . . .
* * * * *
For a long time, for many weeks and months, the parable of the foolish virgins haunted me. And every evening, when darkness came, I would repeat to myself the words that sounded so beautiful and yet so dismaying: "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." If he should come to-night, was ever my thought, I would be awakened by a noise as of the sound of rushing waters, by the blare of the trumpet of the angel of the Lord announcing the terrifying approach of the end of the world. And I could never go to sleep until I had said a long prayer in which I commended myself to the mercy of my Saviour.
I do not believe there was ever a little child who had a more sensitive conscience than I; about everything I was so morbidly scrupulous that I was often misunderstood by those who loved me best, a thing that caused me the most poignant heartaches. I remember having been tormented for days merely because in relating something I had not reported it precisely as it had happened. And to such a point did I carry my squeamishness of conscience that when I had finished with my recital or statement I would murmur in a low voice, in the tone of one who tells over his beads, these words: "After all, perhaps I do not remember just exactly how it was." When I think of the thousand remorses and fears which my trifling wrong doings caused me, and which from my sixth to my eighth year cast a gloom over my childhood, I feel a sort of retrospective depression.
At that period if any one asked me what I hoped to be in the future, when a man, without hesitation I would answer: "I expect to be a minister,"—and to me the religious vocation seemed the very grandest one. And those about me would smile and without doubt they thought, inasmuch as I too wished it, that it was the best career for me.
In the evening, especially at night, I meditated constantly of that hereafter which to pronounce the name of filled me with terror: eternity. And my departure from this earth,—this earth which I had scarcely seen, of which I had seen no more than the tiniest and most colorless corner—seemed to me a thing very near at hand. With a blending of impatience and mortal fear I thought of myself as soon to be clothed in a resplendent white robe, as soon to be seated in a great splendor of light among the multitude of angels and chosen ones around the throne of the Blessed Lamb; I saw myself in the midst of a great moving orb that, to the sound of music, oscillated slowly and continuously in the infinite void of heaven.
"Once upon a time a little girl when she opened a large fruit that had come from the colonies, a big creature came out of it, a green creature, and it bit her and that made her die."
It was my little friend Antoinette (she was six and I seven) who was telling me the story which had been suggested to her because we were about to break and divide an apricot between us. We were at the extreme end of her garden in the lovely month of June under a branching apricot tree. We sat very close together upon the same stool in a house about as big as a bee-hive, which we had built for our exclusive use out of old planks. Our dwelling was covered with pieces of foreign matting that had come from the Antilles packed about some boxes of coffee. The sunbeams pierced the roof, which was of a coarse straw-colored material, and the warm breeze that stirred the leaves of the trees about us made the sunlight dance as it fell upon our faces and aprons. (During at least two summers it had been our favorite amusement to build, in isolated nooks, houses like the one described in Robinson Crusoe, and thus hidden away we would sit together and chat.) In the story of the little girl who was bitten by the big creature this phrase, "a very large fruit from the colonies," had suddenly plunged me into a reverie. And I had a vision of trees, of strange fruits, and of forests filled with marvelously colored birds. Ah! how much those magical but disturbing words, "the colonies" conveyed to me in my childhood. To me they meant at that time all tropical and distant countries, which I invariably thought of as filled with giant palms, exquisite flowers, strange black people and great animals. Although my ideas were so confused I had an almost true conception, amounting to an intuition, of their mournful splendor and their enervating melancholy.
I think that I saw a palm for the first time in an illustrated book called the "Young Naturalists," by Madame Ulliac-Tremadeure; the book was one of my New Year's gifts, and I read some parts of it upon New Year's evening. (Green-house palms had not at that time been brought to our little town.)
The illustrator had placed two of these unfamiliar trees at the edge of a sea-shore along which negroes were passing. Recently I was curious enough to hunt in the little yellow, faded book for that picture, and truly I wonder how that illustration had the power to create the very least of my dreams unless it were that my immature mind was already leavened by the memory of memories.
"The colonies!" Ah! how can I give an adequate idea of all that awoke in my mind at the sound of these words? A fruit from there, a bird or a shell, had instantly the greatest charm for me.
There were a number of things from the tropics in little Antoinette's home: a parrot, birds of many colors in a cage, and collections of shells and insects. In one of her mamma's bureau drawers I had seen quaint necklaces of fragrant berries; in the garret, where we sometimes rummaged, we found skins of animals and peculiar bags and cases upon which could still be made out the names of towns in the Antilles; and a faint tropical odor scented the entire house.
Antoinette's garden, as I have said, was separated from ours by a very low wall overgrown with roses and jasmine. And the very old pomegranate tree growing there spread its branches into our yard, and at the blooming season its coral-red petals were scattered upon our grass.
Often we spoke from one house to the other:
"Can I come over and play with you?" I would ask. "Will your mamma allow me?"
"No, because I have been naughty and I am being punished." (That happened very often.)—Such an answer always grieved me a great deal; but I must confess that it was more on account of my disappointment over the parrot and the tropical things than because of her punishment.
Little Antoinette had been born in the colonies, but, curiously enough, she never seemed to value that fact, and they had very little charm for her, indeed she scarcely remembered them. I would have given everything I possessed in the world to have seen, if only for the briefest time, one of those distant countries, inaccessible to me, as I well knew.
With a regret that was almost anguish I thought, alas! that in my life as minister, live as long as I might, I would never, never see those enchanting lands.
I will now describe a game that gave Antoinette and me the greatest pleasure during those two delicious summers.
We pretended to be two caterpillars, and we would creep along the ground upon our stomachs and our knees and hunt for leaves to eat. After having done that for some time we played that we were very very sleepy, and we would lie down in a corner under the trees and cover our heads with our white aprons—we had become cocoons. We remained in this condition for some time, and so thoroughly did we enter into the role of insects in a state of metamorphosis, that any one listening would have heard pass between us, in a tone of the utmost seriousness, conversations of this nature:
"Do you think that you will soon be able to fly?"
"Oh yes! I'll be flying very soon; I feel them growing in my shoulders now . . . they'll soon unfold." ("They" naturally referred to wings.)
Finally we would wake up, stretch ourselves, and without saying anything we conveyed by our manner our astonishment at the great transformation in our condition. . . .
Then suddenly we began to run lightly and very nimbly in our tiny shoes; in our hands we held the corners of our pinafores which we waved as if they were wings; we ran and ran, and chased each other, and flew about making sharp and fantastic curves as we went. We hastened from flower to flower and smelled all of them, and we continually imitated the restlessness of giddy moths; we imagined too that we were imitating their buzzing when we exclaimed: "Hou ou ou!" a noise we made by filling the cheeks with air and puffing it out quickly through the half-closed mouth.
The butterflies, the poor butterflies that have gone out of fashion in these days, played, I am ashamed to say, a large part in my life during my childhood, as did also the flies, beetles and lady-bugs and all the insects that are found upon flowers and in the grass. Although it gave me a great deal of pain to kill them, I was making a collection of them, and I was almost always seen with a butterfly net in my hand. Those flying about in our yard, that had strayed our way from the country, were not very beautiful it must be confessed, but I had the garden and woods of Limoise which all the summer long was a hunting-ground ever full of surprises and wonders.
But the caricatures by Topffer upon this subject made me thoughtful; and when Lucette one day caught me with several butterflies in my hat, and in her incomparably mocking voice called me, "Mr. Cryptogram," I was much humiliated.
The poor old grandmother who sang so constantly was dying.
We were all standing about her bed at nightfall one spring evening. She had been ailing scarcely more than forty-eight hours; but the doctor said that on account of her great age she could not rally, and he pronounced her end to be very near.
Her mind had become clear; she no longer mistook our names, and in a sweet calm voice she begged us to remain near her—it was doubtless the voice of other days, the one that I had never heard before.
As I stood close to my father's side I turned my eyes from my dying grandmother, and they wandered about the room with its old-fashioned furniture. I looked especially at the pictures of bouquets in vases that hung upon the wall. Oh! those poor little water colors in my grandmother's room, how ingenuous they were! They all bore this inscription: "A Bouquet for my mother," and under this there was a little verse of four lines dedicated to her which I could now read and understand. These works of art had been painted by my father in his early boyhood, and he had presented them to his mother upon each joyful anniversary. The poor, unpretentious little pictures bore testimony to the humble life of those early days, and they spoke of the sacred intimacy of mother and son,—they had been painted during the time which followed those great ordeals, the wars, the English invasion and the burning over of the country by the enemy. For the first time I realized that my grandmother too had been young; that, without doubt, before the trouble with her head, my father had loved her as I loved my mamma, and I felt that he would sorrow greatly when he lost her; I felt sorry for him and I was also full of remorse because I had laughed at her singing, and had been amused when she spoke to her image reflected in the looking-glass.
They sent me down stairs. On different pretexts, the reason for which I did not understand, they kept me away from the room until the day was over; then they took me to the house of our friends, the D——s, where I was to have dinner with Lucette.
When, at about half past eight, I returned home with my nurse, I insisted upon going straight to my grandmother's room.
When I entered I was struck with the order and the air of profound peace that pervaded the room. My father was sitting motionless at the head of the bed—he was in the shadow, the open curtains were draped with great precision, and on the pillow, just in its middle, was the head of my sleeping grandmother; her whole position had about it something very regular—something that suggested eternal rest.
My mother and sister were seated beside a chiffonier near the door, from which place they had kept watch over my grandmother during her illness. As soon as I entered they signalled to me with their hands as if to say: "Softly, softly, make no noise; she is asleep." The shade of their lamp threw a vivid light upon the material they were busied with, a number of little silk squares, brown, yellow, gray, etc., that I recognized as pieces of their old dresses and hat ribbons.
At first I thought that they were working upon things which it is customary to prepare for people about to die; but when I, in a very low voice and with some uneasiness, questioned them about it, they explained that they were making sachets which were to be sold for charity.
I said that I wished to bid grandmother good night before retiring, and they allowed me to go towards the bed; but before I reached the middle of the room they, after glancing quickly at each other, changed their minds.
"No, no," they said in a very low voice, "come back, you might disturb her."
But before they spoke I came to a halt of myself, I was overwhelmed with terror—I understood.
Although fear kept me fixed to the spot I noted with astonishment that my grandmother was not at all disagreeable to look at; I had never before seen a dead person, and I had imagined until then, that when the spirit took its departure all that remained was a grinning, hideous skeleton. On the contrary my grandmother had upon her face an extremely sweet and tranquil smile; she was as beautiful as ever, and her face appeared to be rejuvenated and filled with a holy peace.
Then there passed through my mind one of those sad flashes which sometimes come to little children and permit them to see for a moment into hidden depths, and I reflected: How can grandmother be in heaven, how am I to understand the division of the one body into two parts, for that which was left for interment, was it not my grandmother herself, ah! was it not she even to the very expression that she bore in life?
After that I stole away with a bruised heart and downcast spirit, not daring to ask a question of any one, fearful lest what I had so unerringly divined would be confirmed, I did not wish to hear the dread and terrible word pronounced. . . .
* * * * *
For a long time thereafter little silken sachet bags were always associated in my mind with the idea of death.
I still have in my memory, almost agonizing impressions of a serious illness which I had when I was about eight years old. Those about me called it scarlet fever, and its very name seemed to have a diabolical quality.
I had the fever in March, which was cold and blustering and dreary that year, and every evening as night fell, if by chance my mother was not near me, a great sadness would overwhelm my soul. (It was an oppression coming on at twilight, from which animals, and beings with a temperament like mine suffer almost equally.)
My curtains were kept open, and I always had a view of the pathetic looking little table with its cups of gruel and bottles of medicines. And as I gazed at these things, so suggestive of sickness, they took on strange shapes in the darkness of the silent room,—and at such times there passed through my head a procession of grotesque, hideous and alarming images.
Upon two successive evenings at dusk there appeared to me, in the half delirium of fever, two persons who caused me the most extreme terror.
The first one was an old woman, hump-backed and very ugly, but with a fascinating ugliness, who without my hearing her open the door, without my seeing any one rise to meet her, stole noiselessly to my side. She departed, however, without speaking to me; but as she turned to go her hump became visible, and I saw that there was an opening in it, and there popped out from this hole the green head of a parrot which the old woman carried in her hump. This creature called out, "Cuckoo," in a thin, squeaking, far-away voice, and then withdrew again into the frightful old hag's hump. Oh! when I heard that "Cuckoo!" a cold perspiration formed on my forehead; but suddenly the woman disappeared and then I realized that it was only a dream.
The next evening a tall thin man, clothed in the black dress of a minister, appeared to me. He did not come near me, but kept close to the wall and whirled, with body all bent over, rapidly and noiselessly about the room. His miserable, thin legs and the gown of his dress stood out stiff and straight as he turned quickly. And—most horrible of all—he had for a head the skull of a large white bird with a long beak, which was a monstrous exaggeration of a sea-mew's skull, bleached by the sun and wind and waves, that I had the previous summer found upon the beach at the Island. (I believe this old man's visit coincided with the time when I was worst, almost in danger.) After he had made one or two revolutions about the room, he quickly and silently began to rise from the floor. Ever moving his thin legs he reached the cornice, then higher and higher still he rose, above the pictures and the looking-glasses, until he was lost to sight in the twilight shadows that lay near the ceiling.
And for two or three years after this event the faces of those visions haunted me. On winter evenings I thought of them with a shudder as I mounted the stairway, which at that period it was not customary to light. "If they should be there," I would say to myself; "suppose one of them is lying in wait to pursue me, and stretch out their hands and try to catch me by the legs."