A Leaf in the Storm; A Dog of Flanders and Other Stories/A Branch of Lilac
A BRANCH OF LILAC.
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 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 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. 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 beldames 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 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 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.
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 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 ginger-breads 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 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.
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 sticky 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, tender-souled 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, 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 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.
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 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 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 foot-sore, 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 dear blue skies, with the larks singing against the sun; the quiet, cool, moss-grown towns, 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."
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.
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 have 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 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 corner 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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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 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. "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 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 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 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 trifle 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.
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, 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 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.
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 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 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 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 dallies with its mouse.
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.
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 often-times to our play-house with some of the towns-people, 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 an audience, save only the bright ring of her hair in the 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.
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, 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.
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 vilely-featured and poor of habit and estate, as I was.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
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 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!"
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 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 me then? A paradise—a fool's paradise, doubtless, but one without cloud, or stain, or fear, or regret upon it whilst it lasted.
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 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 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 the first time, I envied others; for her I looked with jealousy on the snow-white villas set within the gardens, and the gilded balconies of the 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 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, 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 man can only do so slowly, so laboriously—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 disappointed, 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 I 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.
"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 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 Noel 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 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 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 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 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 hazelnut, and hot and stifling always, being so near the roof.
But she thought it a paradise—a paradise, because above the stove there was a mirror, and opposite in 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 caves, 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, 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 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 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 mad man? 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.
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 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 ten der 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.
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 these 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 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 little 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 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 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 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.
We were to stay in the town whilst its season lasted. This had scarcely begun when we entered it. There were very few persons arrived then, and I had plenty of leisure time, in which I took her to spend the hours in the shady alleys of the hills and under the deep foliage of the winding woodland roads, taking our noonday meal most often under the trees of Géronstère.
There were two or three of the artists of my company who used generally to go with us: one of them sang well—he was of the South. There were two young painters, brothers, poor but full of talent, and full of mirth and hope: these would accompany us also. We were a gay, light-hearted, merry little group enough, and raised the echoes of the rocks many a time with our part-singing, and many a time brought some great, white, mild-eyed bull from out the woods to gaze at us with grave eyes in amazement at our laughter.
They were happy times, full of harmless gaiety and blissful belief in the fortunes of the future, in that pleasantest season of the earliest summer, when the first dog-roses were budding on the briers, and the abundant dews of the morning silvered every blade of grass, and were shaken off in a million drops from every stem of cowslip or bough of hawthorn that one gathered. This was yet in earliest summer, whilst the visitors were still few in numbers, and all the green alleys and pretty promenades and shadowy bridle-paths seemed almost all our own, and the fresh mountain air blew through the place cool and strong, untainted by the perfumes and the powders and the bouquets and the wine-odours of fashion.
But very soon this changed. Very soon the avenue grew gay with equipages and riding-parties. Very soon the nobles and the idlers flocked into the little valley-town, and all was movement and colour and change from noon to midnight. Of course for the theatre I was glad: the house filled nightly; our bright little comic pieces charmed an idle audience of fainéants. I was well received and became popular, and disputed with the Redoute in power of attraction. Of course I was glad of this.
My impressario was well pleased with me, and offered me an increase of salary from midsummer. I even came to be noted enough for people to point me out when I passed into the paths or lingered to hear the music in the pretty Promenade des Sept Heures.
"There!" they would say to one another, "do you see him that quaint, misshapen, ugly fellow? That is Piccinino, the French player. Have you seen him in Le Chevreuil? Myself, I like him better than Ravel." Then would the other answer.
"Yes, he is clever, no doubt; but what an ugly beast! And that pretty creature—she is his wife they say."
And then they would laugh, and the music would seem all discord to me.
Not that I heeded the taunt about my ill looks: I had become long used to that. I knew so well that l was ugly: that could not wound me. It was the way in which they spoke of her, as if, because I was not handsome, I had no title to her. And indeed it seemed so to myself sometimes.
When I moved in the crowded alleys amidst those beaux messieurs dorés, it seemed to me that such a homely, ill-favoured brown bird as I was had no right to mate with that beautiful young golden oriole.
I knew they thought so: I wondered often if she did likewise.
So, though I had success and fair promise of the future from my present popularity, I was ill at ease now that the world had come about us, and that we could no more go and laugh and sing and drink our little cheap wine in the green woods by ourselves without meeting scores of brilliant, languid, graceful people, who stared at us coldly, and then turned aside and laughed.
Amongst these—we met him often—was a young noble of the southern provinces, the Marquis de Carolyié, a cavalry soldier and a man of wealth. He was as beautiful as a woman: he was beautiful living—and dead. I see his face now, there where the lilac flowers are.
What? I am alone in my cell, you say, and it is late in the autumn, and the lilac trees are all torn with shot and ploughed up with cannon-balls all over France, and will blossom no more this year, nor any other year, but are all killed—for ever, for ever!
You think that my brain wanders? It is not so. You cannot see the dead man's face, you cannot smell the lilac flowers, but I can. No, I am not mad. I am quite calm. I will tell you how it all happened. Let me go on in my own way.
This young Marquis de Carolyié came into the Ardennes with the midsummer. We saw him very often, a dozen times a day. Every one is always seeing every one else in Spa.
I held aloof as much as I could from the gay world. I had nothing in common with it, and no means to shine amidst it. Besides, every evening I was playing at the theatre; and as I knew no woman with whom to leave my wife, I took her with me to the playhouse, and whilst I was upon the stage she stayed in my dressing-chamber.
It was dull, I knew, very dull for her: she wanted to be at the Kursaal and at the balls, I knew, but none of the women there of any fair repute would have associated with her, a girl of the populace, the wife of a comic actor; and with those of light fame I would never let her exchange a word. So we went hardly at all into any of the resorts of the idle people, yet we saw them and they saw us in the promenades, by the bands of music and in the woods; and so we came a dozen times a day by chance across Carolyié's path, or he, by design, across ours.
He lodged at the D'Orange, and could have had no call to pass and repass, as he did, down our avenue; but this he would do, either riding or on foot, continually.
I noticed him at first for his great beauty: people as ugly as I am are sure to note any singular physical perfection. He rode in the steeplechases too, and won; he played recklessly at the tables, and won there also, because he could so well afford to lose; he was sought and adored by many of the elegant and weary women there; he was very rich and very attractive: he was a man, in a word, of whom the world always talked.
I ought to have said ere now that she had her first anger against me—or at least the first she showed—on the score of the gaming-tables. She had urged me with the prettiest and most passionate insistence to try and make my fortune in a night at the roulette-ball. And I had refused always.
I was no better than other men; I did not condemn what they did; but gaming had no charm for me, and it seemed to me that in one who had so little as I it would be utter madness to court ruin by staking that little on the chance of an ivory ball. And my resolve on this point was very bitter to her.
It seemed to her so cruel in me, when by one lucky hazard I might make in an hour as much as it took me years to earn. She wanted dresses, cachemires, laces, jewels, like those of the great ladies that she saw; she wanted to sweep along the grassy roads with carriage-horses in gilded harness and with chiming bells, like the aristocratic teams that trotted by; she wanted to go to the Redoute of an evening in trailing trains of velvet and of satin: she wanted, in a word, to be entirely other than she was. It is a disease, very common, no doubt, but it is mortal always.
She was a soft, dainty, mignonne thing, full of natural grace, though she had been but a little Loirais peasant-girl making lace in a garret: she would have taken kindly to affluence and luxury, and would have looked at home in them, no doubt. But how could I give her them? It was impossible.
I could not run the chance of fortune at the roulette-wheel when, if I had lost my little all, she would have been cast a beggar on the world.
So this was a difference and a barrier between us.
She would not pardon me, and I could not alter my resolve against my reason and my conscience.
But I think her thoughts were first drawn to Carolyié because she heard from some of our people how recklessly he played at nights, and how continually he won.
Well, one evening he came behind the scenes at our theatre. He knew our chief, it seemed, and was made welcome. He paid me many courteous compliments. He was so frank, so easy, so kindly in his ways, I could not choose but like him. Still, I shut the door of my dressing-room in his face.
She was there, making lace for herself, as her habit was, but whilst her hands moved with their old skill, the tears dropped on the network.
"It is so dull!" she murmured piteously. "It is so dull! You do not think of that, you! You are on the stage there, in the light, with all the people before you applauding you, and calling you on; but here! It is miserable, miserable! I can hear them laugh and shout and clap their hands, while I am all alone!"
I could not bear to see her so. I took blame to myself for my cruel carelessness. The next night I asked for a stage-box for her, and she passed the hours that I played in front. Whilst I was acting I saw Carolyié with her. It seemed that he had requested my chief to take him thither, which had been done. I joined them between the acts.
He told us that he was very weary of the daily round of gaieties, as they were called. He begged us to let him join us in our little breakfast parties in the woods. He had heard us singing often, he had said, and had longed to get away from his friends and join us and laugh with us. I assented willingly.
I liked the young man, and his gallant, gracious ways and candid eyes, that were blue as the corn flowers. I had no thought of any evil, and I had a perfect faith in her.
So the next day he went with us. But our breakfast parties were not the same—never quite the same.
He brought his carriage, with its four black horses with their Flemish collars and silver bells, and he would have us drive with him; and when the others came on foot, heated and dusty, and joined us at Géronstére, it was not quite the same. My comrades were never quite so merrily absurd in their vagaries, nor did the buffo songs sound ever quite so joyously as they had done when we had all walked up the hilly road together, shouting and rallying one another, and gathering ferns and foxgloves for our caps, like children out of school.
It was no fault of the Marquis de Carolyié; he was cordial and gay and familiar, as though he were a Bohemian like ourselves; but yet, with those horses champing in the background in their silver harness, with the champagne that he had brought superseding our cheap little thin wine, with the bearskins and tigerskins that his servants spread for our seats over the green hill-mosses;—with all this some subtle charm of mirth had fled, some sense of inequality, of difference, had arisen.
I think he must have found us nearly as dull as he said that his own great world was.
He took greatly to our company, however; he would forsake his own people for us always, whenever he could. He would fain have had us go in return to brilliant suppers and the like that he gave in his rooms at the D'Orange, and at which they said that he was accustomed to spare no extravagance. My fellow-artists went to them, but not I: I had no means to return such costly courtesies, and it had always been my habit to refuse what I could not repay.
They thought, no doubt, that I kept her away from jealous fear, but I had no feeling of the kind: that I swear. I liked the young man, and I had no suspicion of evil. It was only that I had always been in a manner proud amongst those whom birth and wealth made my superiors in station, and I could not become a debtor.
It seemed to me that it would have a very ill look if I, a man ugly and poor, and struggling in my first efforts after fame, should accept the gifts and banquets of this rich young aristocrat. I knew well how my companions would all laugh and sneer and shrug their shoulders, and mutter, "They ask Peccinino because his wife has a fair face; and the fool goes. Oh ho! he knows how his bread is buttered!"
I knew the sort of scoffs that they would surely cast; and I thought it worthy neither of her innocence nor of my honesty to incur them; so that I never broke bread with Carolyié once. But it was not because I ever had an evil thought of him.
Here again there arose matter of difference betwixt her and myself. She thought me harsh and cruel and tyrannous that I would not accept for myself or her the many brilliant offers of the young Marquis; and I—I could not tell her the real reasons which influenced me; I could not soil her ear with the things that mean, vile tongues would say; and so my motives doubtless seemed to her but poor ones, and perhaps she fancied that I crossed her will and denied her pleasure from sheer caprice or hardness.
For a while she reproached me bitterly; for many days she would upbraid me in her pretty and impetuous manner, with her petulant, childlike anger continually; she would take no enjoyment in any scheme that I proposed nor any toy I bought for her; she would tell me always that I hated to see her happy.
It was a cruel saying, for she knew, as God knew, that I would have laid down my life any day to give her joy. But she was disappointed, and blind to justice, and angered like a spoilt child that is denied a plaything; the glitter of the young man's gay and gracious life had dazzled her.
After a week or two had lapsed, however, she ceased to reproach me aloud.
She grew very silent, and seemed strangely softened into obedience to my desires on all subjects. She did not care to go out nearly so much as she used to do. It was with some trouble that I prevailed on her to go forth at the hours when the bands played.
She would sit all day long by the window of our little chalet in the Marteau Road, working at her lace, with a cluster of flowers on the table before her. She talked little; she did everything I asked her; she was often in reverie, musing, with a smile upon her lips, and when I spoke to her after some minutes' silence, she would start up as if awaking suddenly from a dream.
I thought she was not well, and grew anxious, but she assured me that she ailed nothing; and indeed I had never seen her sweet eyes clearer or the rose bloom brighter on her cheeks. I thought it was the mountain air perhaps which was too strong and made her listless.
Of course I had to leave her very often. I could not anyway avoid it. We were the only company at Spa: and to amuse the fastidious audience for which we played, we were obliged to change our little pieces almost every night.
This entailed on us great fatigue, and most of all on me, because the kind of pieces that we now performed were not such as I had acted in when I had gone about with my little wooden theatre; which, indeed, I had written chiefly myself. The studying so many new characters, and the rehearsal of them, occupied much of my day-time, and left me but little leisure as the season advanced.
Of an evening she would always go with me to the theatre, and sit in the little baignoire which they assigned her; occasionally, when I joined her in the entr'actes, I found Carolyié there, but not very often. He somewhat avoided me. I supposed that I might have given him some cause for offence in my persistent refusal of the many invitation which he had pressed upon me in the beginning of the summer.
Once, too, in quite the earliest days of his appearance there, he had sent her a magnificent bouquet of rare flowers; and I had taken him aside, and spoken to him frankly.
"You mean well and in all kindness, I know," I said to him, "but do nothing of this sort with us. Remember that what is a mere pretty grace of courtesy amongst your equals is to people poor and obscure as we are a debt that we can ill carry without losing the only honour that we have—our title to respect ourselves."
He had seemed moved, and had coloured a little, and had shaken my hand with cordiality. And from that time he had sent no gifts to her. But I fancied that to me he, on afterthought, resented the words I had spoken.
One night, when the summer was well advanced, I was to play in a quite new piece, in which it was thought that I should achieve a signal success.
There were some very great people at that time in Spa; for want of something to do they came to our little entertainments. The favour with which they received and spoke of me was something very promising, and made me more and more valued by my chief. On the whole, life was very good and pleasant to me at that time, and many whose words were of weight said that I should become with time and practice one of the best comedians of the country.
That night she pleaded that she was not quite well—she had a headache from the heat of the past day, and feared the suffocating atmosphere of the theatre.
She smiled and sang a little to herself, and told me she would sit by the open window in the little alcove which she had made peculiarly her own, and wait for me and hear the tidings of the night's triumphs when I returned.
I knew the theatre was oppressive at this season of the year, crowded nightly as it was, and I did not attempt to press her to accompany me.
I took her an immense knot of white roses which I had bought in the town. She set them in a large blue jar, and said their fragrance and freshness had already done her good. She kissed me, and threw her arms about my neck, and murmured, with a little tender laugh, "Au revoir, au revoir!" and then bade me go or I should be late.
I left her sitting in the window, the unlit lamp, with a small crucifix against it, on the table by her, with the jar of roses.
She had her frame and bobbins, and was working at her lace. She looked at me from the open lattice, and waved me a second adieu.
I had no thought, no suspicion. I only said to myself, "Surely she has learned to love me a little now."
It is an old old story, you will say. Yes, very old. I left her, and went to the theatre. I remember walking down the avenue in the brilliant sunlight. It had rained at noonday. It was a red and golden evening, very beautiful. The band was playing in the Place Royale. Every one was out. From the little gardens there were all sorts of sweet scents from roses and mignonettes and carnations, and all fragrant midsummer things that were growing in the warmth and the moisture. Clouds in all manner of lovely shapes swept above the green hills, and seemed to rest on them.
I saw the people go in and out of the gaming rooms. I pitied them for wasting this divine weather, which they were all free to enjoy as they would, in that feverish atmosphere. Amongst them there came out Carolyié. He appeared to avoid or not to see me; he passed by on the other side, and went on to dine at Baas-Cogez.
Some one near me said,
"What good-fortune that young man has! He wins every day. If he goes on like that one week more, he will break the bank."
"Because he wants nothing, he gets everything."
I heard, but I did not envy him: I envied no one. I would not have changed places with a king, though I was but a poor actor going to his work, to be shut up in a steaming theatre to amuse others with the tricks of gesture and of language. I would not have exchanged my lot for that of an emperor.
I was so happy that night, as I went on through the town, away from the smell of the gardens and woods, and the sounds of the music and the falling waters, and the singing of many little birds, into the dusky den where I dressed for my part in the playhouse!
The new piece was called Le Pot de Vin de Thibautin. It was very absurd and humorous, and yet graceful. I have never played in it since, and yet every line of it is burnt into my mind.
I had a fresh and genuine success in the part of Thibautin.
I was recalled five times, and the house, which was a full one, applauded me to the echo. A great duke who was there, a foreigner, came behind the scenes and gave me a gold snuff-box of his own, and spoke very high words of praise. I knew my future was sure: I had a reputation which would grow with every year in France. I went from the theatre a happy man.
It was still very warm—a beautiful dark, star-less night. The clouds were heavy: there was a sort of hush in the air. There was only just light enough in the little town to make deeper by contrast the circle of the hills. The flowers scented the air more strongly still than at sunset: they were heavy with great dews.
All was so quiet. Everyone was in the ballroom or the card-room. The casements stood wide open in the deserted houses. Here and there the little coloured lamps glimmered. Here and there a woman leaned from a balcony.
I went on down the avenue of Marteau.
In the stillness I could hear the brook running over the stones, and the rustle of the leaves in the water as the wind stirred them.
I looked up at the windows of my little rooms. The light shone through their green shutters. The vine that climbed around them was dark against the reflection. I looked up, and, though I had known little of God in the life that I had led, I blessed Him.
Yes, I blessed God that night.
I opened the door, and went up the stairs, and entered my own chamber. I looked for her in her accustomed place, near the lamp, in the alcove, where the great jar of white roses stood. She was not there.
I need not tell you any more, the story is so old, so old.
For many weeks after that night I knew nothing. I was mad, I believe. They say so. I cannot tell; I remember nothing; only that blank deserted room, and the great mass of white roses, and the lamp with the little crucifix under it, and the empty chair with the lace-work that had fallen beside it, all unfinished and untangled. I can see that always, always.
She had gone without any word or any sign; and yet it was all so plain. Everyone had foreseen it, so they said—everyone except myself.
From that night nothing more was ever seen or heard in that place of him or of her: the people of the house knew nothing; so at least they said. But on the floor, under the mirror, there was a torn letter, which had been forgotten or mislaid.
Not many words were in it, but they were words enough to tell me that when she had kissed me on the mouth, and smiled, and sent me on my way to play in my new part that evening at sunset, she had known that when the night fell she would betray me.
It is a woman's way, they say.
I might be really mad: they told me that I was; it may be so. I think it was quite late in autumn when I had any sense or consciousness of what I did or what I spoke. The place was all deserted, the woods were brown, the music was silent, the flowers were dead.
I awoke stupidly, as it were, but yet I was quite calm, and I knew what had chanced to me. It seemed to me that I had lived many years since that horrible night. My hair was gray. I felt feeble and grown old.
Life was ended for me, you know. I wondered why I was not dead as others were, and quiet in my grave.
When they let me go I walked out into the forsaken streets: they looked so strange—there was scarcely a soul in them, and the shutters of the houses were closed. I had only one idea—to follow them, to find them. And I had lost so much time: it was now nearly winter.
My chief and his troop had all gone, of course. What little money Ipeople had taken whilst I was unconscious. They told me I owed my life to charity. My life! I laughed aloud in their faces.
They were afraid of me: they thought I was mad still. But I was not. I knew what I did, and I had one fixed purpose left, which was quite clear to me, and for which alone I endured to live an hour.
I was a fool—oh yes!—and she was worthless. No doubt, no doubt. But then—I loved her.
Not that I ever dreamed of winning her back. Nay, do not think so base a thought of me. My life had been upright and without shame in the sight of men: I would not have stained it with any weakness so unmanly and so foul. But I had a purpose, and that one purpose gave me nerve and strength.
In the gray of the morning I left the town. I had not a coin in the world. My one little talent was killed in me. My career was gone. My dawning repute was already a thing of the past, forgotten by all men. You see she had destroyed all for me—utterly.
But no doubt she never counted the cost. They do not think, those fair, soft, smiling things.
When I had come into that valley I had had an honest past, a precious present, a hopeful future. When I left it———
Well, it matters not now. I died then. The bullets to-morrow for me can have no pain.
It signifies little to tell you how I have subsisted betwixt the time that I quitted the little town in the mountains, and this day when I lie under sentence of death.
My old career had become to me abhorrent, impossible. Such skill as I had been master of had perished out of me. If I had gone upon the stage, I could not have said a word nor moved a limb. The old pursuit, the old pleasure, familiar and dear to me from my childhood, was all withered up for ever.
Men have played—and women too, I know—a thousand times with hearts broken and bleeding, and the world has applauded them. But with me any talent I had ever possessed was gone for ever: to have passed within a playhouse would have made me mad, I think. That last night I had been so happy—that last night, in the fulness of my joy, I had blessed God!
I lived—no matter how. The life of a very wretched creature, but still not the life of a beggar. The manner of my existence from my birth up had taught me to live almost upon nothing, and had taught me also many ways of providing for myself such scanty daily bread as I was forced to eat.
All the winter long I sought for tidings of her—and him. But the land was wide, and months had gone by, and I had no knowledge of where he dwelt, and I gleaned nothing that was of any service to me.
When I reached Paris I abode there for a while. I reasoned that soon or late—being of fair fortune and of lofty rank—he would of a surety come thither. So I waited.
I waited all through the winter, but he did not come. I worked my way into his own south-country, and tried to find traces of him. I saw his great palace amongst pine forests, the palace as of a prince, but I learned that he had not been there for several seasons. He had deserted it almost utterly for the world of cities.
They said that he was in Italy.
I travelled thither, but there I was always too late: he had left each city before I entered it. It is no use to tell of all these wanderings, none of which bore any fruit.
Once, in Venice, I only missed him by a day: a gondolier told me that he had a woman with him fair as a rose.
Ah, God! that was in the sweet time of spring. Everywhere the lilacs were in flower.
I lived to hear that and to see the trees blossom. How can the bullets hurt me to-morrow?
Let me make an end quickly. I lived, wretchedly, indeed, but still I lived on: I would not lie down and die without my vengeance.
The summer came, and with summer, war. When it was declared I was on the frontier. I hastened into my own country as well as I could, being on foot always, and having to work my way from village to village, day by day.
I had lost everything. I had become feeble, stupid, dull: I was what they call a monomaniac, I think. I thought always I saw her face looking toward me amidst the lilac clusters. I never spoke to anyone of her, but that was what I saw, always.
I had lost all the mind I had ever had, and when I met any of my old comrades I shunned them.
Some of them wanted to pity me, to assist me. They meant well, no doubt, but I would sooner that they should have stabbed me. I avoided everyone and everything which could remind me of what I had been, and I was morose, and perhaps in a manner mad; I do not know.
But when I heard of war I seemed to myself to awake. It seemed to call to me like a living creature. I was good for nothing else, but I could still strike, I thought. Besides, I knew he was a soldier. It would go hard if I found him not somewhere in the mêlée.
And indeed I loved France: still, in the misery of my life, I loved her for all that I had had from her.
I loved her for her sunny roads, for her cheery laughter, for her vine-hung hamlets, for her contented poverty, for her gay sweet mirth, for her pleasant days, for her starry nights, for her little bright groups at the village fountain, for her old brown, humble peasants at her wayside crosses, for her wide, wind-swept plains all red with her radiant sunsets. She had given me beautiful hours; she is the mother of the poor, who sings to them so that they forget their hunger and their nakedness; she had made me happy in my youth. I was not ungrateful.
It was in the heats of September that I reached my country. It was just after the day of Sedan. I heard all along the roads, as I went, sad, sullen murmurs of our bitter disasters. It was not the truth exactly that was ever told at the poor wine shops and about the harvest-fields, but it was near enough to the truth to be horrible.
The blood-thirst which had been upon me ever since that night when I found her chair empty seemed to burn and seethe, till I saw nothing but blood—in the air, in the sun, in the water.
I had always been of a peaceful temper enough. I had always abhorred contention. I had lived quietly, in amity and agreement at all times with my fellow-creatures. It had used even to be a jest against me that if any man were to rob me I should only think of how best I could shield him from justice. But all that was changed.
I had become, as it were, a beast of prey. I wanted to kill, to appease the sickly hot thirst always in me. You do not know? Well, pray to God, if you have one, that you may never know.
No man, I think, is ever safe from coming to know it, if Fate so wills. A day can change us so that the very mother who bore us would not recognise her sons.
I hated myself, and yet I could not alter what I had become. If we are held accountable hereafter for such changes in us, it will be very unjust. We cannot escape from them.
By the time I reached the centre of France, they were everywhere forming new corps and bands of francs-tireurs. In one of these latter I enrolled myself. I was strong of body and of good height, though somewhat misshapen: they were glad of me. For me, I had only one idea—to strike for the country, and, soon or late, to reach him.
I fought several times, they said—well, I do not know. Probably I did, for I flew on them like a tiger—that I can remember—and of personal pain or peril I had never any consciousness. We lived in the woods. We hid by day: by night we scoured the country. We made fierce raids, we stopped convoys, we cut telegraph wires, we intercepted orderlies, we attacked and often routed the invaders' cavalry. We knew that if taken we should be hanged like common murderers for the guilt of patriotism, but I do not think any one of us ever paused for that: we only attacked them with the greater desperation.
Sometimes, in the forests or on the highway we would find the body of some of our comrades hung by the neck to a straight tree, though he had been taken fighting fairly for his country's sake: such a sight did not make us gentler. We poured out blood like water, and much of it was the proud blue blood of the old nobility. We should have saved France, I am sure, if there had been any one who had known how to consolidate and lead us. No one did; so it was all of no use.
Guerillas like us can do much, very much, but to do so much that it is victory we must have a genius amidst us. And we had none. If the First Bonaparte had been alive and with us, we should have chased the foe as Marius the Cimbri.
I think other nations will say so in the future: at the present they are all dazzled, they do not see clearly—they are all worshipping the rising sun. It is blood-red, and it blinds them.
In time it became known that I fought, they said, like ten men in one. They gave me an officer's grade in the real army. It was the doing of Gambetta, I believe.
For me it made no difference. Place, name, repute,—what could these be to me? I was dead—dead with my old life: it was a devil, I thought, that inhabited my body, and drank himself with blood into a likeness of humanity—as humanity is in war.
I was drafted from the free corps into the battalions of Bourbaki. I saw more service, hard service, and the Republic said that I did well. By my side there often fought, and often fell, old comrades of my own. The comedians and the artists did their full duty by France: the derided kingdom of Bohemia sent hundreds of its brightest leaders in loyal answer to the call of Death.
Well, all this while I never saw his face, though continually I searched for it, and for it alone, in the tempest of a charge and in the slaughter-heaps after battle.
"Is it a brother you seek always?" men asked me often, seeing how I would lift up face after face from amongst the dead upon a battle-field, and let each one drop, and go on again upon my quest. And I answered them always, "One closer than a brother."
For was he not?
But all this while I never saw his face.
France was a great sea in storm, on which the lives of all men were as frail boats tossing to their graves: some were blown east, some west: they passed each other in the endless night, and never knew, the tempest blew so strong.
One day there was a bitter strife. It was in the time of our last struggle. We were trying to cut our way through the iron wall that had raised itself round Paris.
We failed, as the world knows, but we strove hard that day. At least all those around me did, and for a little space we saw the granite mass roll back from us, and we thought that we had won.
In that moment, in the white thick shroud of smoke where I pressed forward on foot with my comrades of the line, there came on with us, in a beautiful fierce sweep, like lightning, a troop of horse half out to pieces, with many of its chargers riderless, and with its thinned ranks hidden in clouds of blinding dust.
But shattered though it was, it charged for us: it was one of the southern nobles' free corps of cavalry, the Cuirassiers of Corrèze.
Close against me a grey horse, shot through the body, reeled and fell: the rider of it sank an instant, then shook himself free and rose.
It was he—at last!
He knew me, and I him, even in that mad moment.
I sprang upon him like a beast; my sword was at his throat; the smoke was all around us; no one saw; he was disarmed and in my power.
My men shouted together, "En avant! en avant!" They thought they were victorious.
I heard, I remembered: he too fought for France. I dared not slay him. I let him go.
"Afterwards! afterwards!" I said in his ear. He knew well what I meant.
He caught a loose charger that galloped snorting by; he seized his fallen sabre; he swept onward with his troops; I charged in line with my own men. With the roar of the firing in my ear, and the shouts of our fancied triumph, I pressed onward and downward into the ranks of the enemy: then I dropped senseless.
When the surgeon found me at dawn the next day, I had no wound on me.
For the victory—it had lived only in vanquished soldiers' dreams, as all the victories of France have lived in this bitter season.
I woke to consciousness and to remembrance, saying again and again in my heart, "Afterwards! afterwards!"
The time soon came.
I saw him no more then. The Cuirassiers of Corrèze passed eastward. Those whom I served sent me into the capital. It was now the beginning of the new year.
There soon came to us that deadliest hour when all we had done and endured received as recompense the shame of the capitulation.
How long is it ago?—a day, a year?
I cannot tell. I was amongst those who held it a crime, an outrage, a betrayal. I did not pretend to have any knowledge, any statecraft, but I knew that, had I been a man in power there, sooner than sign the surrender I would have burned Paris as the Russians did Moscow.
There were many who thought as I did, but we were not asked, were not counted. We had but to hold our tongues, and stand quiet and see the Germans enter Paris.
Then you know this other war came, the civil war. I was in the capital still. It seemed to me that the people were in the right. I cannot argue, but I think so still. They might go ill to work unwisely perhaps, but they asked nothing unreasonable, and they were not at fault—in the commencement, at least.
When the strife and carnage had ceased, I felt very strange. I felt as men do who have been long in the great roar of a cataract, and who come suddenly again where all is quiet. The calm seems to daze them. So the stillness bewildered me.
I began to think that it had all been a dream, a nightmare; only I remembered so well the look of his eyes into mine when my steel was at his throat, and if I dropped asleep a while I always awoke muttering, "Afterwards! afterwards!"
At this time I often went and looked at the house where I had dwelt with her in Paris.
A shell had laid open the little rose-and-white room under the roof; the front and back walls had been torn away; I saw the day through them; some of the gilding of the mirror still clung there.
Another shell had struck the little gay theatre where I had played for the first and last time in Paris: it was now a blank and smoking ruin. And it had been such a little while ago!—Great Heaven!
At such times I asked myself why I had spared him.
I was dull and silent, and lived wholly to my self: all the people I had known were slain or had perished of want.
I made no new friends, I dwelt aloof. Nevertheless, the day came when I had to choose sides: whilst one lives at all on earth one cannot be a coward.
I chose the side of the people; I cast in my lot with them; I remained in Paris. They might be right, they might be wrong—I do not say; I knew they were my class, my kind, my brethren. I abided by their election.
The world will always say they were wrong because they failed: of course; but I think they were only wrong in this—that they tried a mighty experiment before the earth was ripe for it. It is fatal to be before your time—always.
But it was not because I thought them very right that I joined with them. I was no politician: I hardly asked them what they meant. I cast in my lot with theirs because I was of them, and because it would have seemed to me a cowardice to desert them.
All that horrible season went by slowly, slowly. It was but yesterday, you say: it seems a thousand years ago.
I was cooped up in the city: it was much worse than the first siege. I went out in many sorties. I made no doubt he was at Versailles, and every day that I arose and went into the air I said in my soul, "There will be no need to spare him—now."
On the bastions where the red flag was set, through the smoke of guns, I used to stand hour after hour, and look across at the woods of Versailles, and think to myself.
"If only we might meet once more—only once more!"
For I was free now: his brethren fought against mine. It was the thought that nerved my arm for the Commune.
I think it was with many as with me; or something like it.
I remember in that ghastly time seeing a woman put the match to a piece whose gunner had just dropped dead. She fired with sure aim: her shot swept straight into a knot of horsemen on the Neuilly road, and emptied more than one saddle.
"You have a good sight," I said to her.
"This winter," she said slowly, "my children have all died for want of food—one by one, the youngest first. Ever since then I want to hurt something—always. Do you understand?"
I did understand: I do not know if you do. It is just these things that make revolutions.
This is only away from us by a day or so, you say? It is strange: it seems to me half a lifetime.
It was a horrible season. The streets ran wine and blood. The populace was drunk, and savage in its drunkenness. The palaces were pillaged, the churches reeked with filth. I fought without the gates when I could: when I could not, I shut myself in my garret, so that I should not see or hear. So far as I had sense to feel, my heart was sick for France.
One day, when I was going from the fortifications through the by-streets to the place that sheltered me, I passed through a street which had been almost utterly destroyed by shell and fire.
The buildings were mere skeletons, the hearths and homes mere heaps of calcined dust. The rafters, the bricks, the iron girders, the rubble and the rubbish had fallen pell-mell amidst the broken mirrors, the shattered gilding, the scorched pictures: perhaps under the mountains of cinders and of ruin the charred bodies of the dwellers and the owners might be lying: no one knew.
It was all desolate, dark, unutterably miserable.
Yet amidst it all there was one lovely living thing, surrounded everywhere by devastation, but uncrushed, unharmed, untouched. In what had once been a green and cherished little garden there sprang upward a young lilac tree in full flower, fragrant, erect, wet with sweet dews, covered with blossoms—alone amidst the wreck.
For the first time since she had left me I fell on my knees and hid my face in my hands, and wept—as women weep.
Soon after that the end came.
Paris was on fire in a thousand places. They slew the hostages: they did strange and fearful things. You have seen them more clearly than I. I was in the midst of the smoke, of the violence, of the flames, of the bloodshed, of the ignorance, of the ferocity: I was too close to it all to judge any of it aright.
Evil had become their good; and yet in the beginning of the time the people had not been to blame.
From the day they put the old priests to death I would fight no more for the Commune.
But I knew that the Commune would fall, and so I would not forsake them. I think many felt as I did—detested the acts into which the people had plunged, but would not forsake them on the edge of ruin.
I would not fight again for them, but neither would I fight against them: I went forth into the streets and stood and looked.
It seemed hell itself. The sky was black: everything else was illumined by the fires.
The Versaillais were pouring in: I do not know how many hours or days had gone. It seemed to me all night—all one endless night that the endless flames illumined.
Little children ran past me with lighted brands in their hands, which they flung into houses or cellars, laughing all the while. Women, black with powder, with their hair loose and their breasts bare, streamed by me like furies, shrieking curses till the shot struck them and they dropped upon the stones.
From the windows, from the roofs, from the trees, the people fired upon the soldiery: the soldiery raked the streets with their fire in return, and stormed the dwellings, and threw the dead bodies out of the casements. The roads were wet everywhere with a tide of blood, always rising higher and higher: the corpses were strewn in all directions. Some lay in the aisles of the churches, some on the steps of the high altars. You know, you know: I need not tell it.
It will seem strange to you, but in all that horror I thought of the lilac tree: I went and looked for it.
The street behind, the street before, were both burning. In the little garden there had been a bitter strife: the dead lay there in pools of blood by scores.
But the little lilac was still erect, its green boughs and its sweet blossoms blowing in the wind.
There were some little birds that had their young in a nest in the lilac boughs. They were uneasy; they twittered and fluttered about amongst the leaves. It was so dark they thought that it was night. But the church chimes were tolling noon.
I sat down on a pile of timber that had crushed the grasses at the roots of the tree. I sat still there and waited. I could do nothing. I could not fight for them: I would not fight against them.
Down the ruined, smoking street, as I sat thus, there came a soldier hastily, with his sword drawn, glancing hither and thither rapidly, as one who had lost his way or missed his men. His dress was splashed, torn, covered with dust, and here and there with blood, but it was the dress of a soldier of rank. As he came the glare of the fires in front shone full on his face—his beautiful face: I knew it in an instant.
God had delivered him into my hands. So I said in my soul, exultant. We always charge our crimes upon God.
I sprang up and stood in his way.
"At last! at last!" I cried to him.
He wavered, paused, and looked at me bewildered: no doubt I was greatly changed, and in the horrid scorching gloom he did not recognise my features.
I gave him no breathing-space, but drew my sword and rushed on him.
"Defend yourself!" I said in his ear ere I touched him. We would fight until death—that I swore in my heart—but we would fight fairly, man to man.
When I spoke he knew me. He was a brave man and loyal. He raised no shout to rally his comrades. He took my challenge as I gave it. He threw himself in a second into position.
"I am ready," he said, simply.
We were all alone. The fire was around us on all sides. The dead alone were our spectators. The little lilac tree waved in the wind.
Our swords crossed a score of times swift as the lightning: then, in a moment as it seemed, he fell forward on my blade: his body drooped and doubled like a broken bough.
The steel had passed through his breast-bone. I had my vengeance.
It was a fair fight, man to man.
He looked up at me as he sank down dying on the stones.
A strange shadowy smile flickered over his mouth.
"You were revenged—before," he said slowly, each word drawn feebly with his breath. "Did you not know? She betrayed me last autumn to the Prussians; she had a lover amongst them greater than I."
A rush of blood choked his voice: he lay silent, leaning upon one hand. The flames shone upon his face, the smoke drove over us, the little lilac tree blew in the breeze, the birds murmured to their young ones.
Then all at once the street grew full of men. They were his own soldiery. They rushed on me to avenge his death. With the last effort of life in him he raised himself and signed them back.
"Do not touch him," he cried aloud to them. "It was I who injured him: I fall in fair fight."
Even as he spoke a shudder shook him, and he died.
His head was on the stones; his hair was soaked with the blood that had already been shed there; a grey pallor stole over his face; and yet even then he was still beautiful.
The lilac blossoms, loosened by the driving wind and by the fire's heat, fell softly on him, one by one, like tears.
I did not stir; I stood there looking down at him. My hate of him had died away with his young life: I only pitied him with an intense passion of pity.
We both perished for a thing so vile.
His comrades and men heeded nothing of his words; they arrested me as they would have done a common felon. I did not attempt to resist them. I had broken my sword and cast it down by his body: its end was accomplished, its fate was fulfilled: I had no further use for it.
They have brought me hither; they have given me a full trial, so they say, and to-morrow they will kill me.
What is the charge against me? That I, a soldier of the Commune, slew a soldier of Versailles. It is enough, more than enough, in these days. I say nothing. I am glad there should be an end.
If you ask any grace for me, ask only this—that the men who fire on me shall not be the same men by whose side I fought so long for France.
And when they throw my body in the ditch—see here!—let them bury this branch of lilac with me.
It is of no value—it is dead.