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A Dog of Flanders, and Other Stories. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 81

II.

I LED this life for ten years after the death of Vico Mathurin—led it happily, yes, very happily in the main, although at no time in it did I ever make money enough to pay for more than the simplest fare, the hardest couch, the thinnest draught of wine.

But happiness depends so much upon one’s self. That is a threadbare saying of the preachers. Yes, I know. But it is true, for all that.

So long as one has no regret, one can be happy; and as for me, I envied no man. This was ignorance, no doubt. If I had ever known what wealth and its powers and its pleasures were like, no doubt I should have hungered for them like the rest of men. But I had never known, and it was not in my nature merely to be jealous of possession. If I had been crippled, I should have passionately envied those who still walked at will straightly and swiftly whither they would. But it was not in me, whilst I could march as I pleased, strongly and fast, through the seeding grasses, over the sun‐swept plains, amongst the red and gold leaves of autumn, and over the white fields of the midwinter snows,—it was not in me then, I say, to envy the men page: 82 who rolled on wheels or were borne by horses. It was not in me: it would have seemed to me peevish, childish, ingrate, mean.

This was my ignorance, no doubt. Men, I have noticed, knowing much, do envy much—almost always.

One day in the early spring‐time, I came with my troop into a little town that stood on the Loire River—a little old, gray town, high on a rock, circled by crumbling walls, all blossoming everywhere just then with bud and leaf, all over its moat and its ramparts, in its streets and its casements: its very ditches were white with lilies‐of‐the‐valley, and its very roofs were yellow with flowering houseleeks, while at every nook and comer over the walls of its gardens the lilacs, white and purple, were in bloom. I can smell them now: in the ditch that they will bury me in, I shall smell them still, I think.

We entered the gates at high noon, and set up our play‐house in the market‐square.

The morrow would be a fête‐day, and the town was stirred from the gray torpor and stillness of its extreme old age, and was alive and gay with country‐people and its own small population, all afoot and thronging the wooden stalls of the fair, and the crooked steep alleys that crossed and recrossed each other up the slope of the place.

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As I went up one of these, bearing my share of the framework and the canvas of our play‐house, with the reed‐pipe and the old drum sounding merrily as ever before our tired steps, I heard a voice above me, the clear, high voice of a woman.

“How ugly he is, that one!” it cried with a laugh. “His face alone is a burlesque. He will make the very dogs in the streets die of laughter.”

“Hush!” said a voice that was lower in tone and fuller. “Who knows? He may hear. And he looks so weary and so tired!”

The other voice laughed on in its cruel and saucy glee:

“Pooh! He is too ugly to live! Why does God make such creatures?”

And across the eyes the fragrance of lilac in full blossom struck me a cool, refreshing blow.

She who spoke last had broken a branch of the sweet spring flower and cast it down to me in merry scorn, so that it fell across the timber on which my hands were clasped. There was a little saffron‐hued butterfly upon it, I remember, and one golden‐brown bee. The bee paused a moment upon my wrist and then flew from me; the butterfly remained upon the blossoms.

I looked up. An old man, a gardener, who had page: 84 chidden her and the bright creature who had thrown the sweet blossom and the harsh words at me, leaned over the old gray, moss‐grown wall. The lilac boughs were all about her—above, beneath, around. Her golden head glistened in the sunlight. She had a knot of lilacs in her breast.

Can I describe her? No: think of the woman who to you, above all others of her sex, has meant—Love.

She was but a young girl of the people, the orphan daughter of a poor wood‐carver, simply clad in the garb of her province, spending a momentary rest from her daily labour in leaning over the old garden wall to watch the strange strollers pass by with pipe and beat of drum; but to me she became the world.

It is so strange! We see a million faces, we hear a million voices, we meet a million women with flowers in their breasts and light in their fair eyes, and they do not touch us. Then we see one, and she holds for us life or death, and plays with them idly so often—as idly as a child with toys. She is not nobler, better or more beautiful than were all those we passed, and yet the world is empty to us without her.

I went on up the street. I held the bough of lilac in my hand.

Yes: this bough, poor faded, scentless thing! And that morning it was so bright, so full of odour, so page: 85 eagerly kissed by the butterfly and the bee. Two years ago, just two years ago! Are the lilacs in flower there, I wonder, now? Surely; and she gathers them and throws them to her lover. Why not?

Shall she think of the bough that is dead—of the bough that blossomed last season—so long ago, so long ago? No. The lilac flowers live but a day. But that brief day is longer than a woman’s memory, I think.

I went on up the street.

That night!—how I played I cannot tell. I did not know what I did. All about me was the smell of the lilac trees, and in the sea of faces below I looked only for hers. She was not there.

When the stage wanted me no longer, and the audience had flocked out, loud in eager praises of us, I shook myself free of all my comrades and of the hearty townsfolk, and went back to that little steep street full of the smell of the lilacs.

There was a clear, full moon. The lilacs were all colourless in it, and their scent was heavy on the wind. Some rill of water within the garden walls was falling with musical and even measure. An owl flew by me with swift white wing gleaming silver‐bright in the lustre of the stars. Why do I speak of these things? They are nothing now. And yet they are with me always.

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I walked there to and fro all night. At sunrise I went away ashamed.

What was a bough of lilac to make me a fool, thus?

At daybreak I asked a stone‐cutter, as he went by me to his work, who dwelt behind those old crumbling walls. He told me no one. They were the walls of an old monastic garden, into which any one might stray at pleasure. I asked him no more. I felt a strange silence and shyness upon me.

I went home to the little miserable tavern where my people had found lodging, and went up to my garret there, and looked at the lilac bough, and bent my head and kissed it foolishly. I felt as though it were my fate in some way.

I had placed it in water, and kept it in the shade, but already it had withered, and the yellow butterfly was dead.

All that day through I endeavoured to find the woman who had dropped it into my hands, but I had no success. It was a festal day, and the streets were full of people, bright with banners and streamers, crucifixes and images, white‐robed singing‐boys and gay little children with their heads crowned with spring flowers. But I did not light, amongst all the faces, on the face for which I sought. She page: 87 must have been there, but in some way or other she had escaped me.

Night came, and I went again upon the stage. I was still incessantly pursued by one image.

“What are you looking for, Piccinino?” my companions asked me.

I laughed stupidly, and answered them, “A bough of lilac.”

They stared, and thought me out of my wits, for all over the town, in the little gardens and in the shrubberies on the ramparts, and against the old stone gateways, the lilacs, white and purple, were in bloom, and amongst their tender green leafage the mated birds were nestling.

I went on the boards as usual. I remember well the little piece we performed that evening. It was a very simple little scene of humour, wherein I played the chief part—a part which always suited me—a poor cobbler, who, old and ugly and crippled, loves a young girl of his village, and is the butt and laughing‐stock of all the village youth for his misplaced and despised passion.

The part was a very droll one, and I was always accustomed to play it amidst shrieks of laughter from my audiences at the follies and presumptions of the old, crippled, ugly, withered shoemaker, who had page: 88 dared to lift his eyes and his thoughts to the loveliest and most mischievous maiden in his village.

This night, however, I played it in a different spirit. The sounds of those words, “How ugly he is!” were ringing in my ears, and my brain was giddy with them.

They shouted me a vociferous welcome when I appeared. I was popular in the place, and the piece was popular likewise. The presumption of emotion in any creature unlovely and aged has always been a favourite theme with the populace for gibes and mockery. It must seem very ridiculous, no doubt. And yet it is not the young, not the handsome, who feel most.

This night I played the part differently.

I did not know what possessed me. It had been a comic part always: I had always been a comic actor. Neither in the part nor in me had ever any one seen on the stage aught except farcical drolleries, absurd situations, ludicrous aspects. And yet that night suddenly I changed, and the part with me, and I was powerless to help it.

I was compelled by an impulse stronger than myself to transform the character into something higher, nobler, infinitely sadder than the poor old fool whom it had been my amusement to portray and theirs to applaud. I cannot tell how it was. I changed no page: 89 action, altered no single word, and yet the part I played ceased to be contemptible, farcical, absurd: it became full of pathos, dignity almost—I might say, of heroism. That poor old, feeble, ill‐favoured, poverty‐stricken man, had a heart that could love infinitely and infinitely despair—a heart which knew itself deeper and truer and keener in loyalty and suffering than any heart that beat around him with the joyous vain throbs of an exultant youth, and yet which only made him the standing jest of all his little world, the jeered‐at dotard mocked by the gay lips of the very creature for whom he would have died a thousand deaths.

That was how I read the character now: this was how I played it; and when my last words were spoken, I, looking for the first time that night on the crowd before me, saw that they were breathless, tremulous, very still—saw that I, their paid buffoon, their hired jester, had not made them laugh, but made them weep.

They did not know what ailed them, but by that strange tie which unites the actor with his audience, the vague and bitter pain in me communicated itself to them, and they wept where they had mocked, they sorrowed where they had scoffed.

“What possessed you, Piccinino?” my comrades said to me, clustering around when the piece was over. page: 90 “Who could have thought you had it in you? A part like that, too! Why, the people cried like children—all of them, old and young. What could possess you, eh?”

I laughed foolishly again, I know, for my own throat was husky and my own eyes were dim.

“It is all the fault of a branch of lilac,” I muttered to them, laughing off my folly. They must have thought me mad, I suppose. I thought myself so.

My chief came and stared at me curiously, then struck me a kindly blow upon the shoulders.

“Peste, Piccinino!” he swore with a good‐humoured oath of wonder, “you will be a tragic actor, after all, I should not be surprised. But another time do not make my whole house cry like women when we advertise a comic entertainment. Our trade is to make folk laugh: do not forget that, my friend, again.”

I was silent. I could not offer any explanation of what had so strangely and so unwontedly moved me.

It had all come of a branch of lilac. But then who would believe that? People never will believe what is true.

Well, it appeared later on that, although the impresario of our troupe of jesters had feared the anger of the audience for being mournful when we had promised to be gay, he had feared it needlessly. This little page: 91 piece, which my change of mood had changed from farce to poetry, pleased them none the less in its altered aspect. They knew me well, had known me when I was a little round, sunburnt child; and it was wonderful to these simple people that their odd, ugly old friend Piccinino should have any such powers in him.

“We knew he could always make us laugh, but he makes us weep too, the droll one! Who knows? He may be great one day. He may even go to Paris,” they said to one another as they left the theatre.

And they clustered round me and embraced me, and pressed me to go drink and smoke with them; but seeing that I was silent and in no mood for boisterous company, forbore to solicit me, and went away shaking their heads sadly, and yet proudly withal; for I was their old friend Piccinino: their graybeards had given me pears and peaches when I was a little lad; their elders had all seen me toddle by my poor mother’s side, holding on to her spangled skirts; and now I had genius, their wiseacres said, and genius was something very vague in their minds, very audacious, very terrible—an honour and yet a plague.

The next time we were to play that piece I would fain have had it changed and have gone back to my old fooling; but I was not master of the troupe, and page: 92 the townspeople, it seemed, clamoured for me, Piccinino, to play the part a second time with that new talent which time or chance, as they thought, had developed in me. So we played it.

Genius can do as it likes with its world, but we poor folk, who had only a little rifle of talent, for which we could not always even find any market at all,—we could only obey our little shred of the public obediently, and give it what it asked.

That night, when I went on the stage, I felt that she was there before I saw her—there amidst the populace, with that bright golden head of hers rising out from the sea of the swarthy peasant faces, and the sweet, saucy child’s eyes laughing upon me across the yellow smoky flicker of the dull oil lamps.

I saw her: I stammered, I stumbled, I felt blind and dizzy. My comrades playing with me hissed sharply in my ear, “What ails thee, Piccinino? Art mad, or drunk, or ill, or what?” They did not rouse me. I stood staring dully across the little play‐house.

The people grew angry at the pause and at the silence. Their favour was my daily bread; their wrath would be my ruin. Yet they did not stir me. I did not see them; I only saw the face that had laughed on me from the lilacs.

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Across the rising uproar in the tent there came to me a small, soft, silvery sound. It was the sound of her voice, and it murmured with a cruel glee,—

“So ugly and so stupid, too! That is surely too much in one creature!”

And then she laughed again, the pretty, babyish, mutinous laugh with which she had tossed me the lilac‐bough.

That one sound roused me, like a thorn thrust in an open wound. I rallied; I forced myself into the part I played; I knew little, nothing, all the time, of where I was or of what I did, and the audience was gone to me: I only saw one face. But to this one I played with all the soul that was in me; and they told me that I eclipsed myself,—that I held the people breathless and almost afraid. This, from my own knowledge, I cannot say, of course. I only know that they shouted for me, at the end, again and again; that, in their rude fashion, they did me all the homage they could; that they waved their kerchiefs and their caps at me; that they screamed their vivas at me until their lungs were weary; and that they clutched at me, with a hundred eager hands, to lead me out amidst them to the noisy honours of the tavern. But I shook myself free of them—churlishly, I fear—upon some plea of sickness, and got out alone, page: 94 and hid myself and watched the women depart from the wooden booth of the play‐house.

But I was too late. My kindly tormentors had robbed me of the only recompense I cared for. She was gone, and I could not tell whether or no I had gained my triumph there,—whether or no the sunny, cruel eyes had moistened into tears as the eyes of all the other women had done that night.

I went away sick at heart, despite that victory on which my old companions so generously felicitated me. A victory over these poor boors who knew not one letter from another! What was it worth?

In the great cities, no doubt, they would have hissed down my acting. For the first time, my career seemed miserable, and any successes in it seemed ridiculous either to seek or to prize. For, in imagination, I followed the bright creature to her home, and saw her unloose her thick light hair before her mirror, and heard her laugh in her solitude as she thought of me, an ugly wretch who fancied if ploughmen laughed at him, or kitchen‐wenches wept, that he had fame!

For the first time since I had awakened in my poor mother’s arms to the summons of the pipe and the drum, the life I had led seemed vile to me,—foolish and wretched, and of no result.

As I went home in the darkness, her laughter page: 95 seemed all about me,—in the leaves, in the fountains, in the little low winds, in the tremulous singing of the grass‐hidden insects.

All of them seemed to laugh at me with her laughter, and shout in chorus with all their tiny, tender voices, in a derision the more cruel because coming from things so slight and fair. “So ugly and so stupid too! Why does God make such creatures?”

Ah, why indeed? Often have I asked that also.

My story is nothing new, you see. It is such a common one. I was a fool.

That night my chief followed me up into the garret where I slept, and told me that he would give me some increase of payment, and that he thought that we might tarry full a month in this small town, since I was so popular with the people, and the district was in a manner rich; its tanners, its vine‐dressers, its husbandmen were well to do, and, for our country, it was populous, and from the many hamlets round there would be, most likely, audiences for us all the summer season through.

I did not question his judgment. I caught eagerly at his will to stay. For me, I knew the whole earth now only held one road worth the treading—the road where the lilacs blossomed.

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Well, we stayed on till the lilacs faded, as he had said, and long ere the month was out I had found her name and her dwelling. I do not care to say her name: let it die with me. After I saw her that first day it was always “She” in my thoughts. The world held for me only one woman.

She lived in a high old house, in a gray, dusky street, in the topmost corner of it, close against the sky. The old garden was near, and she went thither often. She had no friends. She got her bread by making lace. She sat at her lattice, with her golden hair bound up in the gold‐coloured kerchief, with her small rosy hands flying in and out among the bobbins, and the senseless pillow close‐pressed against the white warmth of her breast.

I have often watched her so, hidden myself in some old dark doorway or some crumbling arch opposite and far below. And all the time the lilacs were in blossom. She always had a great sweet cluster of them set in a brown, broken jar upon the stone sill of her window. And while I watched there below, the winds would shake some breath of their fragrance out to me, and the little blue butterflies would fly to and fro betwixt me and the lattice; and, like a fool, I would tell myself that she would hardly, sure, have flung me a bough of her page: 97 favourite flower if she had thought me so utterly hideous and ridiculous as her words had said.

I was very shy and silent. I had been bold enough in my day. I had never cared what audacious jest I passed, what careless impudence I attempted with any woman. My very knowledge of how absolutely I, poor and ill‐favoured, was nothing to all their sex, had made me reckless and dauntless in my ways with them.

Such kisses as I had ever tasted had all been bought; such lips as had smiled on me had only smiled because even my small guerdon was the only thing which stood between them and starvation: and although my memory of my mother had kept me less vicious than my mode of life might have made me, yet I had never been over‐modest where female creatures were in question. But with her,—I did not know what ailed me, I was so timid, so dumb‐stricken, so unlike what I had ever been.

Partly, no doubt, it was the knowledge of her scorn that silenced me. But chiefly it was that she had been to me, from the first instant I had seen her, a creature inexpressibly beautiful and full of sanctity, as far above me as though she had been a sovereign in her palace and amidst her guards, instead of a girl of the populace weaving lace at her casement in an attic.

All her people were dead. She was sixteen years page: 98 old, and she was poor. So much I learned. I had not courage to speak her name, or to ask much of her. I fancied every one must see the blood coming and going in my foolish face if I but spoke of her by chance to any neighbour.

One old woman, who had a fruit‐stall in the street, shrugged her shoulders and thrust out her mouth, and muttered some evil words against her, and would have told me something, I remember now, one day. But I knew what the venom of women was: I would not hear; I could not bear to look to play the spy on her. Otherwise, perhaps—— But it was not to be.

Men, when they stumble to their fate, are blind and deaf: it is the will of God.

She seemed to me to live quite innocently and most simply, for she, too, was very poor. Poverty for myself I had never esteemed as any sort of ill: I thought that in it men were healthy, strong, untempted, and most manlike. But it made my heart ache to watch that little bare chamber which was all her home.

She was so infinitely lovely, so golden‐bright, so rose‐like, so dainty in hue and shape, that it seemed to me she ought to be housed as graciously as a butterfly in a lily cup, as a little blue warbler in a summer nest of leaves.

She soon espied me where I kept my vigil. She page: 99 would laugh a little and glance at me with her sweet mischievous eyes, and now and then would nod her head with some charming little gesture, half of invitation, half of derision and disdain. And yet she was coy too.

She would take her way to mass in early morning, with a string of red dried berries round her throat for rosary, and would go counting them, with her white lids and her long dark eyelashes cast downward, nor look to right or left of her, seeming ever absorbed in earnest prayer.

God in heaven! who teaches women? This one had not fully spent her seventeenth year; she had been the child of poor labouring people, her father a hewer of wood, her mother a weaver of lace; she had seen naught of any world except this little one of the gray quiet old town set on the river‐rock; and yet who could have taught her any wile which she had not by nature of her sex’s science? No one—not even him by whom the mother of Cain was tempted, as priests say.

It is strange—strange and most terrible. And still I think they know not what they do. They are subtle for very play; they are cruel for mere sport; they devour what loves them by their simple instinct, as the young kitten dailies with its mouse.

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Others have said this all much better than I say it? Oh yes, no doubt—only to every man, when he suffers, it seems new, and he thinks no wound was ever yet so deep, or dealt in such utter wantonness, as his has been.

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