Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


A Dog of Flanders, and Other Stories. Ouida, 1839–1908.
previous
next
page: 100

III.

WELL, we tarried in that place until all the blossoms of the lilacs had died off, and above the low stone walls, and between the gables of the streets, and in the gardens slanting to the water’s edge, there flowered in their stead the tall silver lilies and the radiant roses of the summer‐time.

My lilac bough was withered and colourless as dust, but in its stead there budded for me the wonder‐flower of a supreme happiness. She came oftentimes to our play‐house with some of the townspeople, and I thought, or cheated myself into thinking, that after she had seen me act she grew to despise me less.

The nights she was not there I played ill, very ill, I know: our chief rated me gravely many a time. But when she was there, though I saw nothing of any audience, save only the bright ring of her hair in the page: 101 lamplight, that glistened like the nimbus about the heads of saints, I know that I performed my part with a fire and a soul in me which were wholly inspired by her.

“If he were not so uncertain he would be an artist fit even for Paris,” I heard the folk say round me; and my old chief said so likewise.

I laughed to myself and felt heartsick; it was horrible to have one’s skill, one’s brain, one’s strength, one’s life, all ruled by the presence or absence of one human creature.

And yet so it was. If I could make her mouth part with mirth or fill her eyes with wondering concern at the humour or the pathos of my representation, I became for the time a great artist. If she were not before me, the whole place was empty; I was dull, lifeless, stupid, and I dragged my limbs with effort through the allotted part until the play was over.

But she was often there. In common with the other players, I had a right to admit some one when I would to the theatre free, and every morning she found a pass upon her little deal table, with some simple gift of flowers or fruit or other trifles, such as I could afford to get with the poor pittance which was all to which my share in the profits of our representations ever amounted.

page: 102

She took all I offered, and I was more than repaid whenever she gave me in return a saucy nod, a sunny smile. Sometimes she would deny me these, and pass me by with a little shudder of aversion, or affect not even to see me standing in her path.

I could not resent it; I had no title; I knew full well she thought me too grotesque and ugly for any female thing to smile on twice in the same day. I was content if she would let me follow her without rebuke, or gaze at her without her putting her hands before her eyes, as though to screen them from some sight repulsive to her. For this she did often, and then would laugh with sauciest merriment at my misery, so that I never rightly knew whether she hated me or no.

Until one day. It had been very warm. There was no wind to cool the air. The yellow sun scorched that old dark, cool street into an amber glare, and turned the dusky, sombre shadows to a russet gold.

The little sad caged birds opened their bills thirstily and gasped. The red carnations in the window embrasures drooped sadly, and the dogs crept faint and fevered into the shelter of every jutting doorway or projecting gallery of the ancient houses. Between the roofs shone the blue cloudless sky. I can see the quiver of the white dusty trees against it. I can hear the slow page: 103 indolent murmur of the unseen river far below. I can smell the sickly heavy odour of the parched lilies in the heat. All the blinds and shutters were closed. No one was astir. The whole place seemed to sleep.

I only was awake and out—I only, who felt neither heat nor cold, knew neither day nor night, but only looked up at that one little casement in the roof to see the sunbeams illumine a girl’s hand passing amidst the threads, or to watch the moonbeams slanting in their purity upon the dark closed lattice where she slept.

I was out in the burning noontide, pacing to and fro on the stony way, lest by any chance she might be there, at the window, at her work. Long I stayed in vain, moving up and down in the shadowless heat on the other side of the street, as my custom was.

The garret window was empty, and the flowers in it, my flowers, were dead. I had others in my hand, screened with wet leaves from the searching sun‐rays. I waited for her to come to the lattice ere I should lay them down, as my wont was, in the entrance, upon the basin scooped above the bench in the stone wall to hold the holy water.

But instead of leaning above there, high up against the heavens, she came toward me—came down the street, drooping in the heat as the roses drooped.

page: 104

She had been out with some lace to the market‐square.

She and I were all alone, facing one another suddenly in the silent, sultry, sleepy noon beneath the eaves of the old houses. She had a kirtle of green, I remember, and a bodice of white; and she had sheltered her bright hair and her little yellow kerchief with some broad woven green leaves. She looked herself like a flower blossoming out from the gray wrinkled square stones of the pavement.

It might be the heat, it might be her fatigue, it might be—I know not. Her face was paler than its wont, and her eyes were softer. I cannot tell what it was: something gave me voice, and I spoke—spoke as I gave her my poor little gift.

I knew how foolish it was: I knew how mad it was. I knew no woman could ever look on me with any sentiment perhaps except disgust—with nothing more than pity at the most. I knew a man’s heart might break for ever and no creature see aught except a jest in his despair if he were vilely‐featured and poor of habit and estate, as I was.

And yet I spoke, borne out of myself and swept away upon a flood of words, irresistibly, senselessly, I know not how, as some impulse would impel me on the stage sometimes, so that in the torrent of my page: 105 speech the hearers would be carried away, and forget that he who moved them was but an ugly, poor, and nameless comic player. I could not hope to move her thus, and yet I spoke. It would end all, I thought. I must do so, I knew. And yet I spoke in the old dim, quiet street, with no listeners anywhere except the dusky carnations drooping in the heat.

What I said I cannot tell, but I prayed to her as men should only pray to their God, they say. I did not ask her for any love in answer: I might as soon have dreamed of asking for the sun in heaven. But I begged for a little pity, for a little patience: it was a crime, I knew, for any creature ugly and poor as I to speak of love at all to any woman.

When my heart had spent itself and my voice had died on my parched dry lips, I grew cold with deadly fear. I listened for her laughter, her cruel, sweet, merciless, childlike, mocking laughter.

Instead, she was quite silent. Then suddenly she trembled and grew pale, and was so still—so still. I heard the loud heavy beating of my own heart in the silence: that was all the sound there was.

Suddenly she looked at me, and her mouth quivered, and she drew her breath with a little, low, quick sob.

“I am all alone,” she murmured, half with laughter, half with tears—“I am all alone!”

page: 106

What could I think?

I was so ugly, so grotesque, so poor, so utterly deserted by all fortune; and yet the gray street, the yellow light, the red carnations nodding at the window, the hard blue sky, with the white thirsty leaves painted on it, all went round with me in a blind, sickly whirl. It was impossible!—and yet she looked at me and laughed a little, with her own old, sweet scorn at my madness, though her tears were falling.

“Yes, do you hear?” she said low in her throat, so softly, and yet with such a pretty petulance. “Do you hear? You are so ugly, so absurd: you have a mouth like a frog and eyes like a fish, and yet you are good—you can say beautiful things, and—I am all alone!”

And then I knew her meaning. Ah, God! If only I could have died that day, when heaven itself seemed open to me!

Was it all a lie, then? I often wonder.

Nay, not all, I think. Perhaps not any of it. She was very young, and she was very poor, and she was weary of her life; and even such a one as I was welcome to her, since I loved her with such utter passion, and could give her freedom, as she thought. Nay, I would not think it a lie—then.

She never loved me. But she knew that I loved her, and perhaps the woe of my words had moved her page: 107 to compassion; and perhaps she thought, “Better go with this poor fool and roam the world, and be a little glad, than waste all my fair years in loneliness, losing my sight over the cobwebs of laces that I only weave for other women’s wear.”

Perhaps, too, she had heard the people say that I had genius, and might make a name for myself in the great cities of the earth some day; and so it seemed to her that even my poor life might become worth the sharing; and she surely knew that any harvest it might ever reap upon the fields of wealth and fame would be garnered for her only, and into her lap only poured.

Or perhaps she did not reason at all, did not at all reflect, but only felt—felt some new impulse, vague and childish, stir at her heart on hearing how I loved her—as never surely woman yet was loved by man—and so leaned toward me and took the gift I gave, and wept a little, and then softly laughed, not rightly knowing what she wished, nor looking to the future.

Yes, that is likeliest. Yes, I would not think all was a lie—then.

Well, I married her. Do you know what life was to me then? A paradise—a fool’s paradise, doubtless, but one without cloud, or stain, or fear, or regret upon it whilst it lasted.

page: 108

She loved me!

So she had said, so she had proved. It seemed so marvellous to me! Day and night I thanked Heaven for it, for in Heaven I believed—now. What but a God—pure and perfect as the priests said—could create such a creature as this?

She seemed so wonderful to me, this white and golden thing, with her snowy limbs, and rosy lips, and her smile like the sunlight, which yet were all mine—only mine. When I looked at her in the first faint morning light and watched her soft still slumber, I used to think that this must be a dream—this wondrous ecstasy of mine, this intoxication of possession.

What was I, a man so poor, so ill‐favoured, so grotesque, so destitute of any charm or grace which could win love, that I should have been able to touch and gather such a rare blossom as this was to bloom upon my heart?

With every night that fell, with every day that dawned, I blessed the sacred chances which had led my footsteps thither in the month of lilacs.

All the while I kept the dear branch by me, dead and scentless and without colour as it was.

It would have seemed no miracle to me if any morning I had found it bloom with fresh bud and leaf, for page: 109 that would have been not more miraculous than was the beauty and the joy into which my life had suddenly burst forth.

I do not know if ever she quite knew how much I loved her.

Poor men cannot show their love in those symbols of rich gifts which women most value and most easily read. No doubt it seems hard and cold in us that we do not lavish on our best beloved all that her heart craves: no doubt it seems to a young, thoughtless female creature that it is not so much the power lacking as the will when we forbear to hang her neck with gems and fill her hand with gold. And when not only do we fail in that, but when we are even powerless to feed the bright lips we kiss with any save the scantiest fare, and stretch the fair limbs we cherish on any save the poorest bed of straw,—then, I dare say, it seems to her that if we truly loved we should discover some means, by some periling of our body or our soul, to bestow on her the luxuries she craves.

No doubt it seems so. And I was very poor. I could not change the manner of my life. The only talent that I had was my talent on the stage, and though I had some true dramatic power in me, I was obscure and nameless, and could not, in a day nor page: 110 in a year, change my estate. The simple folk of the provinces applauded me, it is true, but to win applause in Paris!—one must be very great for that.

I had always loved the old life, as I say.

It had always seemed to me the freest and the gladdest that a man born of the people could enjoy or could desire. But now it seemed to me to alter, some way. It was not fit for her, and it would not give me what I wished for her.

To tramp all along the sun‐baked roads had been for me no hardship; to be hungry and suffer thirst had been to me small pain; to go to roost in some straw‐yard or cattle‐shed no difficult matter when the taverns were all full. The rough jests, the rude revelries, the drinking bouts, and the wine‐shop supper‐tables,—these had all been welcome enough to me at the end of a long day’s travel afoot.

But now—she was so young, so fair to see, so delicate of frame, so precious to me, that it was horrible to me to make her toil along the stony shadowless highways, to lay down her dainty body on a truss of hay, to see the glances of my comrades light on her, and to hear the jests of the drunkards soil her ear. It poisoned the old life to me.

I had never wanted anything easier, choicer, better in any manner, for myself; but for her—for her, for page: 111 the first time, I envied others; for her I looked with jealousy on the snow‐white villas set within their gardens, and the gilded balconies of the pretty houses in the streets, and the silken standards fluttering from the gray towers of the nobles’ châteaux, as we passed by them in our route.

Perhaps I should not have felt this had she herself been contented with the life. But she was not.

When we give a woman a great love she so often repays us by teaching us discontent!

Nay, I do not blame the woman. A man should not take his heart in his hand to her, unless in the other hand he can take also idols of gold and silver.

Before the lilac had dropped across the path I had only noticed the different way of life of the rich to draw pleasure from it.

It had afforded me many pretty pictures as I had looked at it from the outside, and I had never felt any desire to look at it more closely, or to be angered with it because I stood without. When I had looked through the gilt gateways into some rose‐pleasaunce, where the great ladies sauntered and pretty children played, I had always felt glad that there were people so happy as that, and had passed on the better for the sight. But now, when I saw such things, I only felt, “Why has my darling not such rose‐gardens as these, page: 112 and why should her children be born and nurtured in poverty instead of wealth?”

I did what I could to soften what seemed for such a one as she the hardness and privations of our lot.

I was able to hire an old mule, which I could lead across the fields and along the highlands where the stones and the sun had so sorely tried her. By doing some turn at hand‐labour in the towns where we tarried, such as hewing wood or weeding garden‐plats, or fetching heavy weights, I was able also to get a little chamber for her in some quiet place away from the boisterous life of the taverns. Sometimes some one among the audiences would take some special interest in my performance, and ask me what I would choose that he should give me—a bottle of wine, a supper at the restaurant, a bundle of cigars?—and then I would thank him and decline them all, and in their stead select some basket of rich fruit or some cluster of rare flowers, and depart with it gratefully, and take it home to her and enjoy her innocent surprise.

I did what I could—indeed I did what I could—but then that uttermost was so little.

The love‐gifts of one who is poor must always seem so small. How can it be otherwise?

What a rich man can do every hour with a mere sign of the hand, a mere stroke of the pen, a poor page: 113 man can only do so slowly, so labouriously—in such niggardly, foolish fashion, no doubt it seems—once a year maybe, on a fête‐day. And that only by sore hard work of body and of mind; for when it is difficult to get enough even to live on, look you, how can one have surplus to spare for roses, and trinkets, and all pretty trifles such as pretty women love?

It is impossible. But then that very impossibility looks so harsh, so narrow, so miserly, beside the easy lavishness of love that has gold at its call. A woman can hardly believe that you care for her unless, at her bidding, you know how to make all impossibilities possible.

And how can one be a magician without gold? I have heard that in old times there were men who spent their years and lost their wits trying always to transmute base metals, by fire and chemistry, into gold. I am very sure that they would never have thought of it unless some woman whom they loved had first wailed in their ear for some jewel they were too poor to be able to gain for her.

I do not know what she could have expected in my life. I had never, from the first, disguised to her how poor and often hard it was. But she had seen it from the outside, and, I suppose, she had anticipated more merriment and variety from it. At any rate, she was disap‐ page: 114 pointed, and nothing I could do would avail to render her content. One thing, indeed, she was very restless for, which I denied,—the sole denial I ever gave her of any wish she had. She desired to go upon the boards herself. Some of my comrades told her, thoughtlessly, that it was a sin, with such a face as hers, to sit behind the scenes in lieu of passing before them to delight an audience. And she would fain have gone. But I—I told her bitterly, the only time that ever I spoke violently to her, that I would sooner slay her with my own hand than see her give her loveliness to the lewd public gaze.

Ay, so I felt. For I loathed to see even the passers‐by on the high‐road glance freely at her. I could have struck to earth even my best friend amongst our own company when over‐easily he parried jests and exchanged gay phrases with her.

“You are a simpleton, Piccinino,” the chief of my troop said to me. “Chance has given you, in your wife, a lantern of Aladdin. But in lieu of using the brightness of your lamp to get you gold, you hide it and bury it in your bosom.”

I understood him: he never said it twice to me. Nor were we ever after friends.

My comrades did not regard me with all their old careless amity,—any one of them.

page: 115

“Have a care!” I heard them say one to another. “Our old dancing‐dog, Piccinino, can growl—ay, and bite, too, it seems. One used to be able to plague him on all sides: he never turned; but now——”

And yet I do not think that I was jealous of her in any foolish or barbarous manner then. I begrudged her no pleasure that came through others. I would have had her happy at any privation to me of body or of mind. I loved her to trick out her delicate beauty in all the fantasies she would, and make it radiant in the eyes of all men. But when a man is as ugly as I am, and regards the creature that he loves as I regarded her, with breathless adoration, as a thing sent by Heaven and too perfect to tarry long with him on earth, he cannot choose but bitterly resent any glance or any phrase which would seem to treat a possession so sacred as though it were a thing of mere beauty or rarity, to be admired and coveted by any chance observer. There are countries, I have heard, where women go always thickly veiled, hiding their beauty from all men’s eyes save those of husband or father. I do not wish that it were so in France: I would not desire that the loveliness God has given to be the delight of his creatures should be secreted from view, casting none of its light or glory on surrounding page: 116 objects. But, surely, if a man may not gaze at the stars without a reverent awe, much less should he be permitted to examine with a curious stare, or accost with familiar speech, one of those beings whose outward beauty was meant as the reflection of an inward purity and sacredness. Therefore it was that I watched closely all who came near her, seeking to shield her from all obtrusive looks or words, even such as she herself might not have noticed or understood. And sometimes, not knowing why I so acted, she would be impatient or angry, and perhaps go away and be silent or petulant, like a spoiled child when it is denied. But then she had so many other moods, when she would sing and laugh and be gay! Yes, I think she was not otherwise than happy then.

It was midwinter when a great thing happened to me,—a wonder which I had all my life dreamed of as a glory quite impossible to ever fall to such a one as myself. Whilst we were in the central provinces, playing in a little town at the Noël season, a man from Paris, owning a theatre there,—it was the theatre of the Folies‐Marigny,—saw me act in our wooden booth, and thought so much of it, that he sought me out at the close of the performance.

“You are a fine actor,” he said. “Has no one ever found that out before now, that you stroll about with page: 117 a wooden show? Come with me and I will make you known in Paris.”

I could not believe my ears. Yet he was quite serious, and had meant every word he had said. I closed with his offer, dizzy with astonishment at such fulfilment of my most golden dream; and then I went and told her.

She threw her arms round my throat and kissed me many times.

“Ah, now I shall be very happy!” she cried. “To be in the world at last!”

And then she fell to a thousand pretty schemes for feasts and ornaments and all sorts of brilliancies, as though I had become possessor of some vast estate. But I had no thought to check her ecstasies or teach her reason. I was too full of triumph, for her sake, myself.

I was so proud and glad that night! My head was so light that I was in amity with all creation.

I bought a simple little supper and a stoup of Burgundy, and called my comrades in to rejoice with us; and I purchased for her some bright gilded papers of sugared meats, and a stove‐forced rose, and a thread of amber beads, for she was a very child in all these things; and my new chief joined with us, and we kept the night right joyously.

It was the old Nuit des Rois I knew, and all the page: 118 town was dancing and feasting, and there were not beneath its many roofs any group gladder or gayer than the light‐hearted people who gathered in my attic under the eaves, by the light of one little lamp.

The Burgundy wine was good, and she looked so fair with the snow‐born rose red in her breast, and I knew that all men envied me; and we laughed long and lightly, and my heart was fearless and content as we drank our pledge to the Future.

Ah, Heaven! the old saw may well say that the gods make us blind ere they drive our stumbling fools’ feet to our bitter fools’ end.

Well, that same week we went to Paris. There I played under my new master: there I won success—in a humble manner.

It was a little theatre, of no great account, and its patrons came chiefly from students and artists and sewing‐girls, and their like,—merry people and poor. Still, it was a theatre of Paris, a public of Paris: it was a theatre, too, of fixed position and name, builded of wood and stone and iron; and such a change was in itself eminence for me, Piccinino, a strolling droll, who had never played under any better roof than a sheet of canvas, which blew to and fro as it would in all the four winds of the air.

It was eminence for me, and might lead—who could page: 119 say?—to great things—to the greatest, perhaps. It was so much to have one’s foot planted at all, one’s voice at all heard, amidst the busy throng and the loud clamours of the capital.

Certes, the theatre was every night filled from floor to roof, so I cannot doubt that I did, in a measure, stand well with this volatile, critical, hard‐to‐win public of Paris. They applauded me to the echo, and for a season I dreamed golden dreams. Truly, I was not myself altogether so much at ease as I had been under the old, malleable, mutable roof, which had often, indeed, been in holes, through which the rains had dropped, but which also had been so easily taken down, folded up, and borne whithersoever one would, where the life of the hour might promise the best.

I had been a country stroller always. I knew nothing of the great city: the streets seemed to pen me in a prison, and the sea of gas to suffocate me. But, still, I was making money: I was making also—in a minor way, indeed, but still surely—a histrionic repute. I had ambition,—for her,—and so, when I drank a pint of red wine, I still pledged, with firm heart, my future.

She was so well content too.

We had a little bright rose‐and‐white room, gilded like a sweetmeat box, set very high under the glittering page: 120 zinc roof of a house of many stories, shut in a narrow passage‐way amongst many other buildings, close against the theatre.

It was terribly dear, and no bigger than a hazel‐nut, and hot and stifling always, being so high above the roof.

But she thought it a paradise—a paradise, because above the stove there was a mirror, and opposite on the street, far down below, there was a busy café that was thronged the whole day long; and beneath, on the ground‐floor, was a great magazine of laces and shawls and such‐like fineries, into which the keepers thereof let her peep from time to time, and even handle the precious stuffs, for sake of her fair eyes.

She thought it a paradise, I say; but I—I thought wistfully, many and many a time, of our old clean, bare, wind‐swept attics, with their empty walls, and their quaint lattices, and their shadowy eaves, and the little ancient towns where the old belfry bells were ringing in the quiet provinces far away.

I had always been in the air, you see—in the sun and the rain, and the open weather: even when I had played, it had been under a tent, where every breeze that blew stirred the awning above my head, and made the little round coloured lamps flicker and grow brighter and duller by turns. I had led a hardy, free, page: 121 open‐air life, and the imprisonment of a city—even of such a city as Paris—was, in a manner, grievous to me.

Not that I ever let her think so. Oh no: it would have been very selfish. She was so content.

When I came home from the day‐business of the stage at noon, I would find her always looking down into the street below, leaning her little soft face on her hands, and watching the tide of life in the café opposite. It was always full, as I said: there was a barrack hard by, and the place was always gay with uniforms and noisy with the clatter and clash of steel, as the officers ate and drank at the tables in front of the doors, under the gilded scrollwork and the green shutters.

It was a pretty scene: it was no wonder that she watched it; and no doubt I seemed to her a brute, and a fool to boot, when I pulled her, one day, from her favourite seat and drew the sun‐blinds sharply. I could not bear the lewd bold looks those soldiers cast up at her.

She broke out into a low piteous sobbing, and wailed wearily to know what had she done. I kissed her, and knelt to her, and besought her pardon, and blamed my jealous passion, and cursed the world which was not worthy of a look from her.

And then she laughed—no doubt I seemed a fool page: 122 to her—such a fool, good God!—and shut her hands upon my mouth to silence me, and broke from me and threw the shutter open wide again, laughing still, to get her way thus wilfully.

The cuirassiers in the courtyard of the café down beneath laughed too. A man poor and ugly and jealous—jealous of his wife—is a thing ridiculous to all, no doubt.

They thought me jealous, and they laughed, those handsome, careless, gay youngsters, drinking their breakfast wines under the green vine‐leaves and the gold scrollwork; but their thought did me wrong. I was never jealous then: jealousy can only be born of suspicion, and I had in her a spotless, implicit, perfect faith, to which suspicion was impossible.

But she was to me so sacred and so precious, that a light look or a loose word cast at her cut me like a sword. The face that had first looked on me amidst the lilac‐blossoms always seemed to me a thing of sanctity, a gift of Heaven. I would fain have had the city crowds bend before it as reverently as the poor peasants bend before the images of Mary.

I was never jealous. It had seemed wonderful to me that she could give her beauty to any creature so ungainly in person and so ill‐favoured by fortune as myself—a miracle, indeed, for which I thanked Heaven page: 123 daily. But that, having thus bestowed herself, she would be faithless, was a thought against her of which I never once was guilty. I am thankful to remember that—now.

Thankful to have been a dolt, a fool, a madman? you will say. Ah, well! it is our moments of blindness and of folly that are the sole ones of happiness for all of us on earth. We only see clearly, I think, when we have reached the depths of woe.

The time went by in Paris, and I was successful in my own small way, and she was happy. I am sure she was happy—then. She was very young and very ignorant, and the little suppers at some cheap restaurant in the woods, the simple ornaments and dresses I could alone afford her, the mere sense of the stir and glow and glitter and change that were all around, sufficed to amuse her and keep her contented—then.

Besides, she had also what is very dear to every female thing—she had admiration everywhere, from the errand boys who cried aloud her praises in street slang, to the titled soldiers who doffed their caps to her from the café‐court below, and would, no doubt, have heaped upon her flowers and bonbons, and jewels and rare gifts, had I not stood betwixt her and their smiles.

page: 124

They jeered at me and jested about me many a time I knew, but I turned a deaf ear: for her sake I would not be embroiled; and though very surely they despised me—me, the poor, ugly comedian who owned a thing so fair—yet they did not openly provoke me.

The grief I had—and it was one I could not change—was that I was compelled to leave her so often in solitude.

With rehearsal and performance the theatre usurped almost all the hours. But I made her chamber as bright as it was possible, and bands played and troops passed by, and showmen exhibited their tricks, and churchmen defiled with banners and crucifixes all day long through the busy street below: she said it was amusement enough to watch it all, and she told me she was content, and I had no suspicion. She said she was so well pleased sitting there at the little window among the plants of musk and the red geranium blossoms, watching that stream of street‐life, which seemed to me so tawdry, so dusty, so deafening, but which, I know well, almost always seems paradise to women, who are seldom poets, and who are almost never, one may say, artists.

All this while I gave offence and even, in some sense, lost friends in many quarters, because I kept page: 125 her thus sacredly and would have none of the women of our stage associate with her. I have often thought since that this was wrong and harsh in me.

What right had I to judge? Priestly benison had never hallowed my poor mother’s loves, and yet a gentler and truer little soul never dwelt in human body. What right had I to judge?

This poor, gay, frail, light‐hearted sisterhood, which had been about me always—had I not seen in it sacrifice, tenderness, generosity, even heroism, many and many a time, from the first days of my orphanage, when the blue‐eyed Euphrasie had sold her necklace of beads to get my motherless mouth bread by the weary wayside?

Had I not beheld, time out of mind, a stanch patience under poverty and ill‐usage, a cheery contentment under all the evils of adversity, a genuine mirth that laughed through tears, a tender goodness to all comrades in misfortune,—all these virtues and others likewise in those dear friends of my childhood and manhood whom I banned from her because their life was defiled by one frailty?

Yes: it was harsh in me, and presumptuous and ungrateful: that I knew too late; and yet it was because I held my lustre lily so soilless that I could not bear a profane breath to stir the air it dwelt in.

page: 126

Well, if this were sin in me—sin of ingratitude and of pharisaism,—it has been punished.

So our life in Paris went by until the weeks grew into months, and in all the gardens of the city, and all about the palaces, and in the parks and woods, the lilac‐trees were blossoming with the sweet odours that seemed born to me of paradise.

It might be foolish,—for I was quite poor still, since the expenses of my new and greater life were more than equal to its profits,—but I spent many silver pieces to fill her little chamber every day freshly with endless masses, white and purple, of those flowers all the while they lasted. They were to me the symbol of the greatest happiness that ever man had known on earth.

I loved them so well that I was almost superstitious about them; and when they were faded and had lost their colour, I hardly liked to cast them aside to go into the dust‐cart; and when their fallen petals strewed by millions the green paths through the woods and on the edge of the river, I could never crush them as I passed along without regret.

When the last lilac‐blossom had died that spring, the troop with which I was associated had offers made to it which its leader deemed too advantageous to reject. His lease of the theatre in Paris had expired page: 127 in the first days of May, and with the beginning of the month he changed his quarters and took us eastward to the little town of Spa, where lucrative promises had tempted him to pass the season.

I knew it well. In the old times, with my dear old Mathurin, we had often passed through it on our way from Lorraine and Luxembourg to play at the various kermesses of the pretty hill hamlets of the Meuse district and the villages and bourgs of the wide Flemish plains farther northward.

But that had been many years before, and then we had set up our littie wooden and leathern booth humbly in some retired quarter, where the poor people of the place could come to us, for we had no means or hopes of attracting the rich, gay crowd of foreign residents. The wood‐carvers and wood‐cutters from all the villages round about had used to throng to us; but the mass of fashion and frivolity that scattered its gold in the town we had never approached in any way, we, simple strollers, playing in a tent which any one might enter for a few centimes a head.

But now it was all different.

I had an established repute, if not a very great one: I belonged to a settled management; I had the aroma of Paris upon my name; I played at the theatre which all the fashionable guests frequented; and I could page: 128 afford to dwell, no longer at some miserable tavern in a stifling lane, half stable and half wine‐shop, but in a cheery and sunshiny little apartment that looked out upon the trees of the avenue of Marteau.

My spirits rose as I came once more amongst the woods and fields, and heard the waters brawl and murmur their pleasant song over the stones. The unaccustomed life of the great city had stifled and depressed me, but in this mountain air I could breathe again.

I was even childishly happy: I could have sung aloud in very gaiety of heart to the chiming bells of the Flemish teams and the carillons of the churches. The leaves, the streams, the hills, the skies, all seemed to sparkle and to smile. It was warm and light and fresh: the woods were full of wild flowers, the fields were green with the long hay‐grasses, the sweet smell of the firs came into the valley on every breath that blew. Ah God! how happy I felt!

In the oldest part of the little place there lived an old man and his wife, who maintained themselves by painting fans and silk‐reels and bonbon‐boxes and the like toys, such as are made in that neighbourhood.

They had been good to me when I had come page: 129 thither, a mere lad, with Mathurin. I went to see them, and took her with me. They would scarce believe that the boy Piccinino whom they had known, could be an artist great enough to be playing to all the nobles and gentry in the theatre in the town, which, to them, appeared the grandest building of the sort that any kingdom in the universe could hold.

These old people looked long and with devout eyes of wonder at the young beauty of my wife.

“Thou art a happy soul, Piccinino,” said the old man, heartily; and would make a present to her‐though I knew he could ill afford it—of a little black fan on which he had just painted with much grace and truthfulness a group of white and purple violets.

The old woman looked up sharply through her spectacles, and said nothing.

“What will she care for it?—it is not jewelled and gilded,” she muttered, as she went on with her spinning in the doorway in the sun.

I have often wondered since how it is that the eyes of women at a glance read the souls of other women, so cruelly, as it seems to us, and yet so surely.

It was a pretty little fan: it had cost him much labour, though it could only have sold for a franc or two. It was a plaything as graceful as if it had been encrusted with diamonds—more so, I think, for the page: 130 old man had studied the forest flowers till he could portray them to the very life.

But a few days later the kindly little gift was lost: she dropped it from the balcony, and it fell shivered to atoms on the ground.

I reproached her gently for her carelessness.

“To give thee the fan,” I urged, “he will, I know well, have to go for many a day without a bit of meat to boil with his beans and lentils in the soup‐pot.”

She only laughed.

“It was worth nothing,” she answered me.

I picked up the poor little broken plaything in the street below, and put the pieces aside and kept them. It was only the carelessness of her youth and of her sex, I told myself. But for the first time that day there seemed to me a dissonance in the chiming bells and the murmuring streams, a shadow on the sparkling sunshine, a taint in the sweet young summer odours of the wood‐clothed hills.

Why should she value my love, I thought, more than the little broken fan? It was hardly worth more to her in any sense of wealth.

previous
next