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A Dog of Flanders, and Other Stories. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 65

I.

YES, I shall be shot at dawn. So they say,

All for a branch of lilac. You do not believe? Chut! Men have been shot many a time for as little. A glance, a smile, a tear, a withered flower. So little. And yet so much when they are a woman’s. So much. All one’s present, all one’s past, all one’s future.

There is the lilac—look! There is no colour, no fragrance, no loveliness in it now. It is so pale, so faded, so scentless. So faded—just like a love that is dead.

People say that men cannot love in these days. It is a lie. Rich men—perhaps not. But the poor!—Then, women do not care for that.

You asked me my story. Why? To have a history is a luxury for the rich. What use can one be to the page: 66 poor? If they tell it, who listens? And I have been very poor, always. Yet I was happy till that lilac blossomed one fair spring day.

I am a comedian. My mother was one before me. My father—oh, ta‐ta‐ta! That is another luxury for the wealthy.

My mother was quite obscure always. A little humble player. She passed with a little wandering troupe, at certain seasons, from town to town, from province to province.

I remember, when I was very small, being carried on her shoulders or about her waist along the dusty roads, and catching at the butterflies in the sunshine as we went.

I was a little, round, brown, mischievous child—very ugly, I am sure, as I am now and have ever been. But to her, no doubt—dear soul!—I had beauty.

I must have plagued her sorely, always on the move as she was; but she never made me think myself a nuisance. However tired she might be, she was never too tired to romp and gambol with me. Poor little white, bright, thin‐cheeked mother! I see her now, dancing in her spangles with the red paint on, and the bird‐like eyes of her always seeking the plump, rough boy who only pulled her dress to pieces when he was hungry, or pommeled her with his sunburnt fists when page: 67 he was cross and tired. And he was often both tired and hungry: that I remember also. But it was not her fault. Poor little mother! She would have danced her feet to the bone to keep me like a baby prince, if it had been possible for dancing to have brought in wealth.

Poor little mother! She had a heavy fall from some scaffolding when I was five years old; but I can see her now, as though it were yesterday, in her scarlet bodice and her silvered skirts, running off the stage the moment she was free to take me in her arms and cover me with kisses.

And, as I remember her, I think she must have been full of grace—such grace as a bird’s is on a bough full of summer leaf; but if I am right, the people whom she danced for were wrong, for the public never saw anything particular in her, and she died as she had lived—a strolling player to the last.

“Piccinino” was the last word she spoke; Piccinino was the name she always called me; Piccinino I remained. I must have had some other name, of course, that the law gave me. But the law and I were never close friends, and I never asked my debts to it.

The little troupe of comedians whom my mother had been associated with were very good to me. There is so very much goodness in all Bohemians. page: 68 They are always kindly, generous, sympathetic, compassionate. I was a little motherless, penniless, desolate wretch of five years old; ugly, too—brown and ugly, as you see me now, very much. I have had a face too good for comedy, too good to make the people laugh, for it ever to have been anything except grotesque and unlovely. But they were as good to me as though I had been beautiful to the sight and had inherited a patrimony.

The old men and the young, the heldames and the pretty women of the little company, vied with each other in charity and hospitality. True, they were all very poor, but what they had they never grudged to me. They took me with them everywhere, and never even dreamed of turning off the cost and trouble of me upon that bitter stepmother—the state.

As I grew older I took to the stage myself. I could not have imagined life lived to any other music than that of the little shrill reed‐pipe and deep‐rolling drum, that had drowned my first cries at my birth; and had awakened my laughter so many and many a time later on, that it seemed to me that their cheery sounds were as needful to all sense of existence as was the very light of the sun itself.

There were little things that a child could do, little parts that a child could play, and these I had and page: 69 these I did almost from the time my mother left me alone in the world. They said I did them well. I do not know about that. I only know that the boards of our little travelling theatre always seemed the natural home to me, and that I was never afraid of the innumerable eyes of the largest audience: they always seemed to me the eyes of friends—of the only friends that I had upon earth.

It was so pleasant, too, to make them laugh. I, a little child, a little ugly fellow, whom the children of the towns and villages hooted as I passed up their streets, could hold all these mature men and women, all these fathers of families and grandsires and granddames, shaking and shouting with laughter at the pranks of my mirth and my talent. It was my revenge, and it was sweet to me. Those children who hooted me, who sometimes stoned me, who called me “mountebank,” and yelled at me for my ugliness,—they could not make their elders laugh at will. But I could.

I did not bear the children, my foes, any malice. I was what they called good‐tempered, and whether I were on or off the stage I was gay at heart almost always at that time, and every other time indeed till that lilac blossomed two years ago.

It was a merry life we led. Very poor, oh yes, and hard in many ways. We had to tramp in all weathers page: 70 from place to place, timing ourselves to reach this hamlet or that town by such and such a saint’s day or festivity. We had to sleep very often in haylofts or even in cattle‐sheds, for usually such taverns as we alone could afford to go to were full to overflowing at any feast‐time or market‐season. At other periods, too, we did not always make enough to leave anything to be divided amongst ourselves after all expenses of setting up and lighting our little portable playhouse were paid; and old Vico Mathurin, our head and chief, was as honest as the day, and would cheat no man of a sou though he starved for it.

But what did that matter? We were a cheerful little fraternity, loving one another, only vying with each other in good‐natured rivalry; and always ready, each of us, to make the best of all chances and all circumstances. We often thought, as we went through the towns, how much happier and freer we were than those were who dwelt in them, bound to one spot, mewed under one roof, seeing one landscape always, looking always to find a grave in the self‐same place where they were born, whilst we went and came as we chose, never tarried long enough in one place to grow weary of it, seldom saw the fruit ripen on the same trees where we saw it blossom, and had nothing between us and the width of the skies.

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I dare say the townspeople pitied us as homeless vagrants. No doubt. But we never pitied ourselves. So we must have been happy? Wisely or unwisely?

I was but a little creature when I went first on the stage, but I was born a Bohemian, and I was content—more than content, full of joy—as I pattered along by Vico Mathurin’s side, my little bare feet deep in the summer dust or splashing into puddles of the autumn rain.

Full of joy, for Mathurin would pat me on the head and prophesy wondrous things of my talent; and then pretty, blue‐eyed Euphrasie would kiss me and weave the roadside grasses into crowns for me, and big Francisque, her lover, would raise me for a ride on his stout shoulder; and ever and again a lark would sing, or a rabbit would scud across the path, or an old peasant would drop me a handful of mulberries or a clump of honeycomb wrapped in a green leaf; or some other little homely, innocent, simple pleasure would blossom in my way as the country wild‐flowers sprang up beneath my steps.

In the winter, it is true, it was more severe. Winter tries hardly all the wandering races: if the year were all summer, all the world would be Bohemians.

But even in the winter there was so much that page: 72 was mirthful and pleasant one could not be sad or despondent. Usually in the winter we tarried in some southerly town; and if one were cold, some good creature sitting at her chestnut‐stall in the street would be sure to thrust some fine nuts smoking into my hands with a smile, or pretty Euphrasie would catch me in her arms and warm my cheek upon her beating heart; and then big Francisque would pretend a ferocious jealousy, and take a terrible vengeance by pelting me with gilded gingerbreads from the fairy booths until I cried for quarter, while Vico Mathurin, the gentle good old man, would, if he had a chance to do so unperceived, slip his share of the frugal meal into my plate, and make believe that some friend at a wineshop had so feasted him at breakfast that he had no appetite nor power left for more. Ah, dear people, dear people! are you with the dead? I wonder. I shall know soon.

So my childhood and boyhood went away very happily. Poverty I did not mind, for it was a poverty so contented and mirthful, and I had never known anything else; and ugliness I did not regret, for they all told me that my physiognomy was the most ductile and expressive for the comic mummeries which were the special vein of my stage‐talent.

Only now and then, when the little dark‐eyed girls page: 73 of some religious procession with their white lilies and their upraised crosses shrank a little from me under their white clouds of muslin,—only then did I wish that I were straight of feature and comely to the eye, as most lads were.

“It is stupid to be as ugly as that,” said one little pretty, fair creature to me once on a confirmation‐day, pushing me aside in the street on to the sharp‐set stones of the roadway. I stumbled and I winced, she was so fair and angel‐like.

But that night she came, my little angel, still with her white rosebuds on her yellow curls, to the theatre which we had set up in the market‐place—came with her parents, who were rich tanners in the town. I saw her; I saw nothing but her: she laughed, she cried, she applauded: she was scarlet with wonder, beside herself with glee.

They told me—Mathurin and Francisque, my teachers and masters—that I had never played so well, so wonderfully for my years, as I played that night. I laughed as I heard them, an hysterical, choking laugh, I remember, not seeing them, only seeing in the sea of faces one little golden head crowned with white rosebuds.

“Ask her now if it be stupid to be ugly,” I said to them; then I fainted.

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You do not care to hear all this. What does it matter? Whether I suffered or enjoyed, loved or hated, is of no consequence to any one. The dancing‐dog suffers intensely beneath the scourge of the stick, and is capable of intense attachment to any one who is merciful enough not to beat him; but the dancing‐dog and his woe and his love are nothing to the world: I was as little.

There is nothing more terrible, nothing more cruel, than the waste of emotion, the profuse expenditure of fruitless pain, which every hour, every moment, as it passes, causes to millions of living creatures. If it were of any use who would mind? But it is all waste, frightful waste, to no end, to no end.

I wander: I cannot help it. I must tell of myself in my own way, or not at all.

Thus I grew up with these gay, kindly, tendersouled people, who were outcasts in the sight of most men. When I was about fifteen years of age the old man died—died of cold, I believe. He gave his little scaldino and his one thick cloak to warm the feet of a poor young creature who had hardly recovered from child‐birth, and who lay shivering on a bed of straw in a wayside hut; and having done this, saying nothing to any one, he lay shivering all night in his garret in a bitter frost, page: 75 till his heart ceased its slow gentle beating for ever,

His loss broke up the little troop. Its members held loosely together for a while, but the keystone which had united the whole had fallen when Mathurin died, and the several pieces of the little structure dropped asunder one by one. Francisque and Euphrasie bethought themselves late in the day of getting the sanction of priests on their love, and wedded one another and went somewhere southward, I forget whither, and together opened a café and flower‐shop, thinking it time to get a roof over their heads and a place in the reputable world as middle age crept upon them. The others all went right and left, east and west, as they would. I went first with some, then with others.

Euphrasie would have had me go to live with them and help to plant her flower seeds and bind up her carnations, but I would not leave the old ways of the old life. A roof?—what could that matter to me, young and strong and gifted with one talent, as all people said?

Besides, I had been born a Bohemian: the wanderer’s, the stroller’s blood was in me strong and ardent. I loved the freedom and the change—ay, I loved the very risks and deprivations—of the career I had always followed, and I was resolved that there should page: 76 never be any music sweeter in my ear than the sounds of the old reed‐pipe and the brazen drum which had greeted my young senses in my cradle. I was eighteen: I was full of health and strength. I had a talent that at least was good for this—to make the people laugh. I do not need to say I had no fear of the future: I loved the career of a comedian, and I would not have exchanged its gayety and carelessness and freedom for anything—nay, not for an empire.

My early instructor, Mathurin, although he had remained an obscure stroller to the last, had been a man of accurate judgment and of genuine taste. He had reared me to discern the difference between a graceful fooling and a witless buffoonery: he had taught me to aim always at raising the pure mirth and the happy glee of the populace by legitimate means, and not by the vile medium of obscene jests and of lascivious side‐play. I was a comic actor, as he had been: yes, but this I can say, as he did before me—that never by me were the people the worse for the laughter I raised.

What does that matter, either? you say. Not much to any one; only, when one is to die at break of day, it is not unpleasant to remember that no girl’s mind was the baser, no man’s impulses were the lewder, for the way one has followed one’s art.

page: 77

I joined various troops of wandering players after the old band broke up at Mathurin’s death. I was successful, in my way, with the people. I never attracted notice enough to be called to any city or sought by any impresario.

I do not think I was ever coarse enough for the famous theatres. Nay, I speak in sober earnest, not in any irony. The taste of cities requires indecent gesture, and sees no point in a jest unless it have some foul meaning hidden in its équivoque. Now, my fooling was cleanly and honest in its mirth—simple, I dare say, but, as far as I could make it, harmless. When the tired hordes of the labouring classes and the stupid, open‐mouthed peasantry crammed the wooden booth to overflowing, and laughed at me till they lifted the canvas roofing with the loud gusts of their expanding lungs, they were never the worse for that momentary oblivion of their hunger and travail—never:—that I know.

So I spent my life for ten years—spent it till that lilac bloomed.

Oh, do not think I was a saint. I had plenty of follies, plenty of sins. I loved a draught of wine, a fling at dominoes, a kiss of ripe lips, a dance with limber limbs: I loved all these as well as any man, and had my share of them. But what I would page: 78 say is, that in my art I always tried to do good. Vico Mathurin had always led me to see that any career may be ennobled by the leading of it, and he had always held that though the world may rate it low, the art of the comic player may have a noble aim if it aspire ever to make the weary and overtasked multitude forget for a little season the gall of heavy harness and the toil of flinty roads.

“See you here,” he would say to me many a time when I was a boy. “These people come and look at us and hearken to us, and laugh and are glad for a little space: then, when they go back into their cabins or their attics, some little trill of our song will stay on their famished lips, some little bubble of laughter at the memory of one of our jokes will remain with them amidst their poverty and their hard work; and these will be like a stray sunbeam in a cellar in the darkness of their lot. Think of that, think of that, Piccinino, and it will not hurt you when any scoffer casts at you, as a term of scorn, your title of strolling player.”

And these words of my dear old master abode with me always, and as far as I could I trod closely in his footsteps; and in many places where he had been known the people welcomed me and loved me a little for his sake.

I never left France: we who speak only to the page: 79 populace cannot go where the populace have another tongue than ours. But France is so wide, and I was for ever on the move—in the north for the harvest, in the centre for the vintage, in the south for the winter season; going whithersoever there was a festival or a bridal or a great market, or a holiday of any sort that made the townsfolk or the villagers in festal trim and in the mood to smile.

When I sit in the gloom here I see all the scenes of that pleasant life pass like pictures before me.

No doubt I was often hot, often cold, often footsore, often ahungered and athirst: no doubt: but all that has faded now. I only see the old, lost, unforgotten brightness; the sunny roads, with the wild poppies blowing in the wayside grass; the quaint little red roofs and peaked towers that were thrust upward out of the rolling woods; the clear blue skies, with the larks singing against the sun; the quiet, cool, moss‐grown towers, with old dreamy bells ringing sleepily above them; the dull casements opening here and there to show a rose like a girl’s cheek, and a girl’s face like the rose; the little wineshops buried in their climbing vines and their tall, many‐coloured hollyhocks, from which sometimes a cheery voice would cry, “Come, stay for a stoup of wine, and pay us with a song.”

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Then, the nights when the people flocked to us, and the little tent was lighted, and the women’s and the children’s mirth rang out in peals of music; and the men vied with each other as to which should bear each of us off to have bed and board under the cottage roof, or in the old mill‐house, or in the weaver’s garret; the nights when the homely supper‐board was brightened and thought honoured by our presence; when we told the black‐eyed daughter’s fortunes, and kept the children round‐eyed and flushing red with wonder at strange tales, and smoked within the leaf‐hung window with the father and his sons; and then went out, quietly, alone in the moonlight, and saw the old cathedral white and black in the shadows and the light; and strayed a little into its dim aisles, and watched the thorn‐crowned God upon the cross, and in the cool, fruit‐scented air, in the sweet silent dusk, moved softly with noiseless footfall and bent head, as though the dead were there.

Ah, well! they are all gone, those days and nights. Begrudge me not their memory. I am ugly, and very poor, and of no account; and I die at sunrise, so they say. Let me remember whilst I can: it is all oblivion there. So they say.

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