December 24, 1849.
I had put on my slippers and my dressing-gown. I wiped away a tear with which the north wind blowing over the quay had obscured my vision. A bright fire was leaping in the chimney of my study. Ice-crystals, shaped like fern-leaves, were sprouting over the windowpanes and concealed from me the Seine with its bridges and the Louvre of the Valois.
I drew up my easy-chair to the hearth, and my table-volante, and took up so much of my place by the fire as Hamilcar deigned to allow me. Hamilcar was lying in front of the andirons, curled up on a cushion, with his nose between his paws. His thick fine fur rose and fell with his regular breathing. At my coming, he slowly slipped a glance of his agate eyes at me from between his half-opened lids, which he closed again almost at once, thinking to himself, “It is nothing; it is only my friend.”
“Hamilcar,” I said to him, as I stretched my legs —“Hamilcar, somnolent Prince of the City of Books — thou guardian nocturnal! Like that Divine Cat who combated the impious in Heliopolis — in the night of the great combat — thou dost defend from vile nibblers those books which the old savant acquired at the cost of his slender savings and indefatigable zeal. Sleep, Hamilcar, softly as a sultana, in this library, that shelters thy military virtues; for verily in thy person are united the formidable aspect of a Tatar warrior and the slumbrous grace of a woman of the Orient. Sleep, thou heroic and voluptuous Hamilcar, while awaiting the moonlight hour in which the mice will come forth to dance before the Acta Sanctorum of the learned Bolandists!”
The beginning of this discourse pleased Hamilcar, who accompanied it with a throat-sound like the song of a kettle on the fire. But as my voice waxed louder, Hamilcar notified me by lowering his ears and by wrinkling the striped skin of his brow that it was bad taste on my part so to declaim.
“This old-book man,” evidently thought Hamilcar, “talks to no purpose at all while our housekeeper never utters a word which is not full of good sense, full of significance — containing either the announcement of a meal or the promise of a whipping. One knows what she says. But this old man puts together a lot of sounds signifying nothing.”
So thought Hamilcar to himself. Leaving him to his reflections, I opened a book, which I began to read with interest; for it was a catalogue of manuscripts. I do not know any reading more easy, more fascinating, more delightful than that of a catalogue. The one which I was reading — edited in 1824 by Mr. Thompson, librarian to Sir Thomas Raleigh — sins, it is true, by excess of brevity, and does not offer that character of exactitude which the archivists of my own generation were the first to introduce into works upon diplomatics and paleography. It leaves a good deal to be desired and to be divined. This is perhaps why I find myself aware, while reading it, of a state of mind which in nature more imaginative than mine might be called reverie. I had allowed myself to drift away this gently upon the current of my thoughts, when my housekeeper announced, in a tone of ill-humor, that Monsieur Coccoz desired to speak with me.
In fact, some one had slipped into the library after her. He was a little man — a poor little man of puny appearance, wearing a thin jacket. He approached me with a number of little bows and smiles. But he was very pale, and, although still young and alert, he looked ill. I thought as I looked at him, of a wounded squirrel. He carried under his arm a green toilette, which he put upon a chair; then unfastening the four corners of the toilette, he uncovered a heap of little yellow books.
“Monsieur,” he then said to me, “I have not the honour to be known to you. I am a book-agent, Monsieur. I represent the leading houses of the capital, and in the hope that you will kindly honour me with your confidence, I take the liberty to offer you a few novelties.”
Kind gods! just gods! such novelties as the homunculus Coccoz showed me! The first volume that he put in my hand was “L’Histoire de la Tour de Nesle,” with the amours of Marguerite de Bourgogne and the Captain Buridan.
“It is a historical book,” he said to me, with a smile —“a book of real history.”
“In that case,” I replied, “it must be very tiresome; for all the historical books which contain no lies are extremely tedious. I write some authentic ones myself; and if you were unlucky enough to carry a copy of any of them from door to door you would run the risk of keeping it all your life in that green baize of yours, without ever finding even a cook foolish enough to buy it from you.”
“Certainly Monsieur,” the little man answered, out of pure good-nature.
And, all smiling again, he offered me the “Amours d’Heloise et d’Abeilard”; but I made him understand that, at my age, I had no use for love-stories.
Still smiling, he proposed me the “Regle des Jeux de la Societe”— piquet, bezique, ecarte, whist, dice, draughts, and chess.
“Alas!” I said to him, “if you want to make me remember the rules of bezique, give me back my old friend Bignan, with whom I used to play cards every evening before the Five Academies solemnly escorted him to the cemetery; or else bring down to the frivolous level of human amusements the grave intelligence of Hamilcar, whom you see on that cushion, for he is the sole companion of my evenings.”
The little man’s smile became vague and uneasy.
“Here,” he said, “is a new collection of society amusements — jokes and puns — with a receipt for changing a red rose to a white rose.”
I told him that I had fallen out with the roses for a long time, and that, as to jokes, I was satisfied with those which I unconsciously permitted myself to make in the course of my scientific labours.
The homunculus offered me his last book, with his last smile. He said to me:
“Here is the Clef des Songes — the ‘Key of Dreams’— with the explanation of any dreams that anybody can have; dreams of gold, dreams of robbers, dreams of death, dreams of falling from the top of a tower. . . . It is exhaustive.”
I had taken hold of the tongs, and, brandishing them energetically, I replied to my commercial visitor:
“Yes, my friend; but those dreams and a thousand others, joyous or tragic, are all summed up in one — the Dream of Life; is your little yellow book able to give me the key to that?”
“Yes, Monsieur,” answered the homunculus; “the book is complete, and it is not dear — one franc twenty-five centimes, Monsieur.”
I called my housekeeper — for there is no bell in my room — and said to her:
“Therese, Monsieur Coccoz — whom I am going to ask you to show out — has a book here which might interest you: the ‘Key of Dreams.’ I shall be very glad to buy it for you.”
My housekeeper responded:
“Monsieur, when one has not even time to dream awake, one has still less time to dream asleep. Thank God, my days are just enough for my work and my work for my days, and I am able to say every night, ‘Lord, bless Thou the rest which I am going to take.’ I never dream, either on my feet or in bed; and I never mistake my eider-down coverlet for a devil, as my cousin did; and, if you will allow me to give my opinion about it, I think you have books enough here now. Monsieur has thousands and thousands of books, which simply turn his head; and as for me, I have just tow, which are quite enough for all my wants and purposes — my Catholic prayer-book and my Cuisiniere Bourgeoise.”
And with those words my housekeeper helped the little man to fasten up his stock again within the green toilette.
The homunculus Coccoz had ceased to smile. His relaxed features took such an expression of suffering that I felt sorry to have made fun of so unhappy a man. I called him back, and told him that I had caught a glimpse of a copy of the “Histoire d’Estelle et de Nemorin,” which he had among his books; that I was very fond of shepherds and shepherdesses, and that I would be quite willing to purchase, at a reasonable price, the story of these two perfect lovers.
“I will sell you that book for one franc twenty-five centimes, Monsieur,” replied Coccoz, whose face at once beamed with joy. “It is historical; and you will be pleased with it. I know now just what suits you. I see that you are a connoisseur. To-morrow I will bring you the Crimes des Papes. It is a good book. I will bring you the edition d’amateur, with coloured plates.”
I begged him not to do anything of the sort, and sent him away happy. When the green toilette and the agent had disappeared in the shadow of the corridor I asked my housekeeper whence this little man had dropped upon us.
“Dropped is the word,” she answered; “he dropped on us from the roof, Monsieur, where he lives with his wife.”
“You say he has a wife, Therese? That is marvelous! Women are very strange creatures! This one must be a very unfortunate little woman.”
“I don’t really know what she is,” answered Therese; “but every morning I see her trailing a silk dress covered with grease-spots over the stairs. She makes soft eyes at people. And, in the name of common sense! does it become a woman that has been received here out of charity to make eyes and to wear dresses like that? For they allowed the couple to occupy the attic during the time the roof was being repaired, in consideration of the fact that the husband is sick and the wife in an interesting condition. The concierge even says that the pain came on her this morning, and that she is now confined. They must have been very badly off for a child!”
“Therese,” I replied, “they had no need of a child, doubtless. But Nature had decided that they should bring one into the world; Nature made them fall into her snare. One must have exceptional prudence to defeat Nature’s schemes. Let us be sorry for them and not blame them! As for silk dresses, there is no young woman who does not like them. The daughters of Eve adore adornment. You yourself, Therese — who are so serious and sensible — what a fuss you make when you have no white apron to wait at table in! But, tell me, have they got everything necessary in their attic?”
“How could they have it, Monsieur?” my housekeeper made answer. “The husband, whom you have just seen, used to be a jewellery-peddler — at least, so the concierge tells me — and nobody knows why he stopped selling watches. you have just seen that his is now selling almanacs. That is no way to make an honest living, and I never will believe that God’s blessing can come to an almanac-peddler. Between ourselves, the wife looks to me for all the world like a good-for-nothing — a Marie-couche toi-la. I think she would be just as capable of bringing up a child as I should be of playing the guitar. Nobody seems to know where they came from; but I am sure they must have come by Misery’s coach from the country of Sans-souci.”
“Wherever they have come from, Therese, they are unfortunate; and their attic is cold.”
“Pardi! — the roof is broken in several places and the rain comes through in streams. They have neither furniture nor clothing. I don’t think cabinet-makers and weavers work much for Christians of that sect!”
“That is very sad, Therese; a Christian woman much less well provided for than this pagan, Hamilcar here! — what does she have to say?”
“Monsieur, I never speak to those people; I don’t know what she says or what she sings. But she sings all day long; I hear her from the stairway whenever I am going out or coming in.”
“Well! the heir of the Coccoz family will be able to say, like the Egg in the village riddle: Ma mere me fit en chantant. [“My mother sang when she brought me into the world.”] The like happened in the case of Henry IV. When Jeanne d’Albret felt herself about to be confined she began to sing an old Bearnaise canticle:
“Notre–Dame du bout du pont,
Venez a mon aide en cette heure!
Priez le Dieu du ciel
Qu’il me delivre vite,
Qu’il me donne un garcon!
“It is certainly unreasonable to bring little unfortunates into the world. But the thing is done every day, my dear Therese and all the philosophers on earth will never be able to reform the silly custom. Madame Coccoz has followed it, and she sings. This is creditable at all events! But, tell me, Therese, have you not put the soup to boil today?”
“Yes, Monsieur; and it is time for me to go and skim it.”
“Good! but don’t forget, Therese, to take a good bowl of soup out of the pot and carry it to Madame Coccoz, our attic neighbor.”
My housekeeper was on the point of leaving the room when I added, just in time:
“Therese, before you do anything else, please call your friend the porter, and tell him to take a good bundle of wood out of our stock and carry it up to the attic of those Coccoz folks. See, above all, that he puts a first-class log in the lot — a real Christmas log. As for the homunculus, if he comes back again, do not allow either himself or any of his yellow books to come in here.”
Having taken all these little precautions with the refined egotism of an old bachelor, I returned to my catalogue again.
With what surprise, with what emotion, with what anxiety did I therein discover the following mention, which I cannot even now copy without feeling my hand tremble:
“LA LEGENDE DOREE DE JACQUES DE GENES (Jacques de Voragine); — traduction francaise, petit in4.
“This MS. of the fourteenth century contains, besides the tolerably complete translation of the celebrated work of Jacques de Voragine, 1. The Legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, Vincent, and Droctoveus; 2. A poem ‘On the Miraculous Burial of Monsieur Saint–Germain of Auxerre.’ This translation, as well as the legends and the poem, are due to the Clerk Alexander.
“This MS. is written upon vellum. It contains a great number of illuminated letters, and two finely executed miniatures, in a rather imperfect state of preservation:— one represents the Purification of the Virgin, and the other the Coronation of Proserpine.”
What a discovery! Perspiration moistened my forehead, and a veil seemed to come before my eyes. I trembled; I flushed; and, without being able to speak, I felt a sudden impulse to cry out at the top of my voice.
What a treasure! For more than forty years I had been making a special study of the history of Christian Gaul, and particularly of that glorious Abbey of Saint–Germain-desPres, whence issued forth those King–Monks who founded our national dynasty. Now, despite the culpable insufficiency of the description given, it was evident to me that the MS. of the Clerk Alexander must have come from the great Abbey. Everything proved this fact. All the legends added by the translator related to the pious foundation of the Abbey by King Childebert. Then the legend of Saint–Droctoveus was particularly significant; being the legend of the first abbot of my dear Abbey. The poem in French verse on the burial of Saint–Germain led me actually into the nave of that venerable basilica which was the umbilicus of Christian Gaul.
The “Golden Legend” is in itself a vast and gracious work. Jacques de Voragine, Definitor of the Order of Saint–Dominic, and Archbishop of Genoa, collected in the thirteenth century the various legends of Catholic saints, and formed so rich a compilation that from all the monasteries and castles of the time there arouse the cry: “This is the ‘Golden Legend.’” The “Legende Doree” was especially opulent in Roman hagiography. Edited by an Italian monk, it reveals its best merits in the treatment of matters relating to the terrestrial domains of Saint Peter. Voragine can only perceive the greater saints of the Occident as through a cold mist. For this reason the Aquitanian and Saxon translators of the good legend-writer were careful to add to his recital the lives of their own national saints.
I have read and collated a great many manuscripts of the “Golden Legend.” I know all those described by my learned colleague, M. Paulin Paris, in his handsome catalogue of the MSS. of the Biblotheque du Roi. There were two among them which especially drew my attention. One is of the fourteenth century and contains a translation by Jean Belet; the other, younger by a century, presents the version of Jacques Vignay. Both come from the Colbert collection, and were placed on the shelves of that glorious Colbertine library by the Librarian Baluze — whose name I can never pronounce without uncovering my head; for even in the century of the giants of erudition, Baluze astounds by his greatness. I know also a very curious codex in the Bigot collection; I know seventy-four printed editions of the work, commencing with the venerable ancestor of all — the Gothic of Strasburg, begun in 1471, and finished in 1475. But no one of those MSS., no one of those editions, contains the legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, Vincent, and Droctoveus; no one bears the name of the Clerk Alexander; no one, in find, came from the Abbey of Saint–Germain-desPres. Compared with the MS. described by Mr. Thompson, they are only as straw to gold. I have seen with my eyes, I have touched with my fingers, an incontrovertible testimony to the existence of this document. But the document itself — what has become of it? Sir Thomas Raleigh went to end his days by the shores of the Lake of Como, whither he carried with him a part of his literary wealth. Where did the books go after the death of that aristocratic collector? Where could the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander have gone?
“And why,” I asked myself, “why should I have learned that this precious book exists, if I am never to possess it — never even to see it? I would go to seek it in the burning heart of Africa, or in the icy regions of the Pole if I knew it were there. But I do not know where it is. I do not know if it be guarded in a triple-locked iron case by some jealous biblomaniac. I do not know if it be growing mouldy in the attic of some ignoramus. I shudder at the thought that perhaps its tore-out leaves may have been used to cover the pickle-jars of some housekeeper.”
August 30, 1850
The heavy heat compelled me to walk slowly. I kept close to the walls of the north quays; and, in the lukewarm shade, the shops of the dealers in old books, engravings, and antiquated furniture drew my eyes and appealed to my fancy. Rummaging and idling among these, I hastily enjoyed some verses spiritedly thrown off by a poet of the Pleiad. I examined an elegant Masquerade by Watteau. I felt, with my eye, the weight of a two-handed sword, a steel gorgerin, a morion. What a thick helmet! What a ponderous breastplate — Seigneur! A giant’s garb? No — the carapace of an insect. The men of those days were cuirassed like beetles; their weakness was within them. To-day, on the contrary, our strength is interior, and our armed souls dwell in feeble bodies.
. . . Here is a pastel-portrait of a lady of the old time — the face, vague like a shadow, smiles; and a hand, gloved with an openwork mitten, retains upon her satiny knees a lap-dog, with a ribbon about its neck. That picture fills me with a sort of charming melancholy. Let those who have no half-effaced pastels in their own hearts laugh at me! Like the horse that scents the stable, I hasten my pace as I near my lodgings. There it is — that great human hive, in which I have a cell, for the purpose of therein distilling the somewhat acrid honey of erudition. I climb the stairs with slow effort. Only a few steps more, and I shall be at my own door. But I divine, rather than see, a robe descending with a sound of rustling silk. I stop, and press myself against the balustrade to make room. The lady who is coming down is bareheaded; shi is young; she sings; her eyes and teeth gleam in the shadow, for she laughs with lips and eyes at the same time. She is certainly a neighbor, and a very familiar one. She holds in her arms a pretty child, a little boy — quite naked, like the son of a goddess; he has a medal hung round his neck by a little silver chain. I see him sucking his thumb and looking at me with those big eyes so newly opened on this old universe. The mother simultaneously looks at me in a sly, mysterious way; she stops — I think blushes a little — and holds out the little creature to me. The baby has a pretty wrinkle between wrist and arm, a pretty wrinkle about his neck, and all over him, from head to foot, the daintiest dimples laugh in his rosy flesh.
The mamma shows him to me with pride.
“Monsieur,” she says, “don’t you think he is very pretty — my little boy?”
She takes one tiny hand, lifts it to the child’s own lips, and, drawing out the darling pink fingers again towards me, says,
“Baby, throw the gentleman a kiss.”
Then, folding the little being in her arms, she flees away with the agility of a cat, and is lost to sight in a corridor which, judging by the odour, must lead to some kitchen.
I enter my own quarters.
“Therese, who can that young mother be whom I saw bareheaded on the stairs just now, with a pretty little boy?”
And Therese replies that it was Madame Coccoz.
I stare up at the ceiling, as if trying to obtain some further illumination. Therese then recalls to me the little book-peddler who tried to sell me almanacs last year, while his wife was lying in.
“And Coccoz himself?” I asked.
I was answered that I would never see him again. The poor little man had been laid away underground, without my knowledge, and, indeed, with the knowledge of very few people, on a short time after the happy delivery of Madame Coccoz. I leaned that his wife had been able to console herself: I did likewise.
“But, Therese,” I asked, “has Madame Coccoz got everything she needs in that attic of hers?”
“You would be a great dupe, Monsieur,” replied my housekeeper, “if you should bother yourself about that creature. They gave her notice to quit the attic when the roof was repaired. But she stays there yet — in spite of the proprietor, the agent, the concierge, and the bailiffs. I think she has bewitched every one of them. She will leave the attic when she pleases, Monsieur; but she is going to leave in her own carriage. Let me tell you that!”
Therese reflected for a moment; and then uttered these words:
“A pretty face is a curse from Heaven.”
“Then I ought to thank Heaven for having spared me that curse. But here! put my hat and cane away. I am going to amuse myself with a few pages of Moreri. If I can trust my old fox-nose, we are going to have a nicely flavoured pullet for dinner. Look after that estimable fowl, my girl, and spare your neighbors, so that you and your old master may be spared by them in turn.”
Having thus spoken, I proceeded to follow out the tufted ramifications of a princely genealogy.
May 7, 1851
I have passed the winter according to the ideal of the sages, in angello cum libello; and now the swallows of the Quai Malaquais find me on their return about as when they left me. He who lives little, changes little; and it is scarcely living at all to use up one’s days over old texts.
Yet I feel myself today a little more deeply impregnated than ever before with that vague melancholy which life distils. The economy of my intelligence (I dare scarcely confess it to myself!) has remained disturbed ever since that momentous hour in which the existence of the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander was first revealed to me.
It is strange that I should have lost my rest simply on account of a few old sheets of parchment; but it is unquestionably true. The poor man who has no desires possesses the greatest of riches; he possesses himself. The rich man who desires something is only a wretched slave. I am just such a slave. The sweetest pleasures — those of converse with some one of a delicate and well-balanced mind, or dining out with a friend — are insufficient to enable me to forget the manuscript which I know that I want, and have been wanting from the moment I knew of its existence. I feel the want of it by day and by night: I feel the want of it in all my joys and pains; I feel the want of it while at work or asleep.
I recall my desires as a child. How well I can now comprehend the intense wishes of my early years!
I can see once more, with astonishing vividness, a certain doll which, when I was eight years old, used to be displayed in the window of an ugly little shop of the Rue de Seine. I cannot tell how it happened that this doll attracted me. I was very proud of being a boy; I despised little girls; and I longed impatiently for the day (which alas! has come) when a strong beard should bristle on my chin. I played at being a soldier; and, under the pretext of obtaining forage for my rocking-horse, I used to make sad havoc among the plants my poor mother delighted to keep on her window-sill. Manly amusements those, I should say! And, nevertheless, I was consumed with longing for a doll. Characters like Hercules have such weaknesses occasionally. Was the one I had fallen in love with at all beautiful? No. I can see her now. She had a splotch of vermilion on either cheek, short soft arms, horrible wooden hands, and long sprawling legs. Her flowered petticoat was fastened at the waist with two pins. Even now I cans see the balck heads of those two pins. It was a decidedly vulgar doll — smelt of the faubourg. I remember perfectly well that, child as I was then, before I had put on my first pair of trousers, I was quite conscious in my own way that this doll lacked grace and style — that she was gross, that she was course. But I loved her in spite of that; I loved her just for that; I loved her only; I wanted her. My soldiers and my drums had become as nothing in my eyes, I ceased to stick sprigs of heliotrope and veronica into the mouth of my rocking-horse. That doll was all the world to me. I invented ruses worthy of a savage to oblige Virginie, my nurse, to take me by the little shop in the Rue de Seine. I would press my nose against the window until my nurse had to take my arm and drag me away. “Monsieur Sylvestre, it is late, and your mamma will scold you.” Monsieur Sylvestre in those days made very little of either scoldings or whippings. But his nurse lifted him up like a feather, and Monsieur Sylvestre yielded to force. In after-years, with age, he degenerated, and sometimes yielded to fear. But at that time he used to fear nothing.
I was unhappy. An unreasoning but irresistible shame prevented me from telling my mother about the object of my love. Thence all my sufferings. For many days that doll, incessantly present in fancy, danced before my eyes, stared at me fixedly, opened her arms to me, assuming in my imagination a sort of life which made her appear at once mysterious and weird, and thereby all the more charming and desirable.
Finally, one day — a day I shall never forget — my nurse took me to see my uncle, Captain Victor, who had invited me to lunch. I admired my uncle a great deal, as much because he had fired the last French cartridge at Waterloo, as because he used to prepare with his own hands, at my mother’s table, certain chapons-a-l’ail [Crust on which garlic has been rubbed], which he afterwards put in the chicory salad. I thought that was very fine! My Uncle Victor also inspired me with much respect by his frogged coat, and still more by his way of turning the whole house upside down from the moment he came into it. Even now I cannot tell just how he managed it, but I can affirm that whenever my Uncle Victor found himself in any assembly of twenty persons, it was impossible to see or to hear anybody but him. My excellent father, I have reason to believe, never shared my admiration for Uncle Victor, who used to sicken him with his pipe, give him great thumps in the back by way of friendliness, and accuse him of lacking energy. My mother, though always showing a sister’s indulgence to the Captain, sometimes advised him to fold the brandy-bottle a little less frequently. But I had no part either in these repugnances or these reproaches, and Uncle Victor inspired me with the purest enthusiasm. It was therefore with a feeling of pride that I entered into the little lodging he occupied in the Rue Guenegaud. The entire lunch, served on a small table close to the fireplace, consisted of cold meats and confectionery.
The Captain stuffed me with cakes and undiluted wine. He told me of numberless injustices to which he had been a victim. He complained particularly of the Bourbons; and as he neglected to tell me who the Bourbons were, I got the idea — I can’t tell how — that the Bourbons were horse-dealers established at Waterloo. The Captain, who never interrupted his talk except for the purpose of pouring out wine, furthermore made charges against a number of dirty scoundrels, blackguards, and good-for-nothings whom I did not know anything about, but whom I hated from the bottom of my heart. At dessert I thought I heard the Captain say my father was a man who could be led anywhere by the nose; but I am not quite sure that I understood him. I had a buzzing in my ears; and it seemed to me that the table was dancing.
My uncle put on his frogged coat, took his bell shaped hat, and we descended to the street, which seemed to me singularly changed. It looked to me as if I had not been in it before for ever so long a time. Nevertheless, when we came to the Rue de Seine, the idea of my doll suddenly returned to my mind and excited me in an extraordinary way. My head was on fire. I resolved upon a desperate expedient. We were passing before the window. She was there, behind the glass — with her red checks, and her flowered petticoat, and her long legs.
“Uncle,” I said, with a great effort, “will you buy that doll for me?”
And I waited.
“Buy a doll for a boy — sacrebleu!” cried my uncle, in a voice of thunder. “Do you wish to dishonour yourself? And it is that old Mag there that you want! Well, I must compliment you, my young fellow! If you grow up with such tastes as that, you will never have any pleasure in life; and your comrades will call you a precious ninny. If you asked me for a sword or a gun, my boy, I would buy them for you with the last silver crown of my pension. But to buy a doll for you — by all that’s holy! — to disgrace you! Never in the world! Why, if I were ever to see you playing with a puppet rigged out like that, Monsieur, my sister’s son, I would disown you for my nephew!”
On hearing these words, I felt my heart so wrung that nothing but pride — a diabolical pride — kept me from crying.
My uncle, suddenly calming down, returned to his ideas about the Bourbons; but I, still smarting under the weight of his indignation, felt an unspeakable shame. My resolve was quickly made. I promised myself never to disgrace myself — I firmly and for ever renounced that red-cheeked doll.
I felt that day, for the first time, the austere sweetness of sacrifice.
Captain, though it be true that all your life you swore like a pagan, smoked like a beadle, and drank like a bell-ringer, be your memory nevertheless honoured — not merely because you were a brave soldier, but also because you revealed to your little nephew in petticoats the sentiment of heroism! Pride and laziness had made you almost insupportable, Uncle Victor! — but a great heart used to beat under those frogs upon your coat. You always used to wear, I now remember, a rose in your button-hole. That rose which you offered so readily to the shop-girls — that large, open-hearted flower, scattering its petals to all the winds, was the symbol of your glorious youth. You despised neither wine nor tobacco; but you despised life. Neither delicacy nor common sense could have been learned from you, Captain; but you taught me, even at an age when my nurse had to wipe my nose, a lesson of honour and self-abrogation that I shall never forget.
You have now been sleeping for many years in the Cemetery of Mont–Parnasse, under a plain slab bearing the epitaph:
ARISTIDE VICTOR MALDENT,
Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
But such, Captain, was not the inscription devised by yourself to be placed above those old bones of yours — knocked about so long on fields of battle and in haunts of pleasure. Among your papers was found this proud and bitter epitaph, which, despite your last will none could have ventured to put upon your tomb:
UN BRIGAND DE LA LOIRE
“Therese, we will get a wreath of immortelles tomorrow, and lay them on the tomb of the Brigand of the Loire.” . . .
But Therese is not here. And how, indeed, could she be near me, seeing that I am at the rondpoint of the Champs–Elysees? There, at the termination of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe, which bears under its vaults the names of Uncle Victor’s companions-inarms, opens its giant gate against the sky. The trees of the avenue are unfolding to the sun of spring their first leaves, still all pale and chilly. Beside me the carriages keep rolling by to the Bois de Boulogne. Unconsciously I have wandered into this fashionable avenue on my promenade, and halted, quite stupidly, in front of a booth stocked with gingerbread and decanters of liquorice-water, each topped by a lemon. A miserable little boy, covered with rags, which expose his chapped skin, stares with widely opened eyes at those sumptuous sweets which are not for such as he. With the shamelessness of innocence he betrays his longing. His round, fixed eyes contemplate a certain gingerbread man of lofty stature. It is a general, and it looks a little like Uncle Victor. I take it, I pay for it, and present it to the little pauper, who dares not extend his hand to receive it — for, by reason of precocious experience, he cannot believe in luck; he looks at me, in the same way that certain big dogs do, with the air of one saying, “You are cruel to make fun of me like that!”
“Come, little stupid,” I say to him, in that rough tone I am accustomed to use, “take it — take it, and eat it; for you, happier than I was at your age, you can satisfy your tastes without disgracing yourself.” . . . And you, Uncle Victor — you, whose manly figure has been recalled to me by that gingerbread general, come, glorious Shadow, help me to forget my new doll. We remain for ever children, and are always running after new toys.
In the oddest way that Coccoz family has become associated in my mind with the Clerk Alexander.
“Therese,” I said, as I threw myself into my easy-chair, “tell me if the little Coccoz is well, and whether he has got his first teeth yet — and bring me my slippers.”
“He ought to have them by this time, Monsieur,” replied Therese; “but I never saw them. The very first fine day of spring the mother disappeared with the child, leaving furniture and clothes and everything behind her. They found thirty-eight empty pomade-pots in the attic. It passes all belief! She had visitors latterly; and you may be quite sure she is not now in a convent of nuns. The niece of the concierge says she saw her driving about in a carriage on the boulevards. I always told you she would end badly.”
“Therese,” I replied, “that young woman has not ended either badly or well as yet. Wait until the term of her life is over before you judge her. And be careful not to talk too much with that concierge. It seemed to me — though I only saw her for a moment on the stairs — that Madame Coccoz was very fond of her child. For that mother’s love at least, she deserves credit.”
“As far as that goes, Monsieur, certainly the little one never wanted for anything. In all the Quarter one could not have found a child better kept, or better nourished, or more petted and coddled. Every day that God makes she puts a clean bib on him, and sings to him to make him laugh from morning till night.”
“Therese, a poet has said, ‘That child whose mother has never smiled upon him is worthy neither of the table of the gods nor of the couch of the goddesses.’”
July 8, 1852.
Having been informed that the Chapel of the Virgin at Saint–Germain-desPres was being repaved, I entered the church with the hope of discovering some old inscriptions, possibly exposed by the labours of the workmen. I was not disappointed. The architect kindly showed me a stone which he had just had raised up against the wall. I knelt down to look at the inscription engraved upon that stone; and then, half aloud, I read in the shadow of the old apsis these words, which made my heart leap:
“Cy-gist Alexandre, moyne de ceste eglise, qui fist mettre en argent le menton de Saint–Vincent et de Saint–Amant et le pie des Innocens; qui toujours en son vivant fut preud’homme et vayllant. Priez pour l’ame de lui.”
I wiped gently away with my handkerchief the dust covering that gravestone; I could have kissed it.
“It is he! it is Alexander!” I cried out; and from the height of the vaults the name fell back upon me with a clang, as if broken.
The silent severity of the beadle, whom I saw advancing towards me, made me ashamed of my enthusiasm; and I fled between the two holy water sprinklers with which tow rival “rats d’eglise” seemed desirous of barring my way.
At all events it was certainly my own Alexander! there could be no more doubt possible; the translator of the “Golden Legend,” the author of the saints lives of Saints Germain, Vincent, Ferreol, Ferrution, and Droctoveus was, just as I had supposed, a monk of Saint–Germain-desPres. And what a monk, too — pious and generous! He had a silver chin, a silver head, and a silver foot made, that certain precious remains should be covered with an incorruptible envelope! But shall I never be able to view his handiwork? or is this new discovery only destined to increase my regrets?
August 20, 1859.
“I, that please some, try all; both joy and terror
Of good and bad; that make and unfold error —
Now take upon me, in the name of Time
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
Who speaks thus? ’Tis an old man whom I know too well. It is Time.
Shakespeare, after having terminated the third act of the “Winter’s Tale,” pauses in order to leave time for little Perdita to grow up in wisdom and in beauty; and when he raises the curtain again he evokes the ancient Scythe-bearer upon the stage to render account to the audience of those many long days which have weighted down upon the head of the jealous Leontes.
Like Shakespeare in his play, I have left in this diary of mine a long interval to oblivion; and after the fashion of the poet, I make Time himself intervene to explain the omission of ten whole years. Ten whole years, indeed, have passed since I wrote one single line in this diary; and now that I take up the pen again, I have not the pleasure, alas! to describe a Perdita “now grown in grace.” Youth and beauty are the faithful companions of poets; but those charming phantoms scarcely visit the rest of us, even for the space of a season. We do not know how to retain them with us. If the fair shade of some Perdita should ever, through some inconceivable whim, take a notion to traverse my brain, she would hurt herself horribly against heaps of dog-eared parchments. Happy the poets! — their white hairs never scare away the hovering shades of Helens, Francescas, Juliets, Julias, and Dorotheas! But the nose alone of Sylvestre Bonnard would put to flight the whole swarm of love’s heroines.
Yet I, like others, have felt beauty; I have known that mysterious charm which Nature has lent to animate form; and the clay which lives has given to me that shudder of delight which makes the lover and the poet. But I have never known either how to love or how to sing. Now in my memory — all encumbered as it is with the rubbish of old texts — I can discern again, like a miniature forgotten in some attic, a certain bright young face, with violet eyes. . . . Why, Bonnard, my friend, what an old fool you are becoming! Read that catalogue which a Florentine bookseller sent you this very morning. It is a catalogue of Manuscripts; and he promises you a description of several famous ones, long preserved by the collectors of Italy and Sicily. There is something better suited to you, something more in keeping with your present appearance.
I read; I cry out! Hamilcar, who has assumed with the approach of age an air of gravity that intimidates me, looks at me reproachfully, and seems to ask me whether there is any rest in this world, since he cannot enjoy it beside me, who am old also like himself.
In the sudden joy of my discovery, I need a confidant; and it is to the sceptic Hamilcar that I address myself with all the effusion of a happy man.
“No, Hamilcar! no,” I said to him; “there is no rest in this world, and the quietude which you long for is incompatible with the duties of life. And you say that we are old, indeed! Listen to what I read in this catalogue, and then tell me whether this is a time to be reposing:
“‘LA LEGENDE DOREE DE JACQUES DE VORAGINE; — trduction francaise du quatorzieme sicle, par le Clerc Alexandre.
“‘Superb MS., ornamented with two miniatures, wonderfully executed, and in a perfect state of preservation:— one representing the Purification of the Virgin; the other the Coronation of Proserpine.
“‘At the termination of the “Legende Doree” are the Legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, and Droctoveus (xxxviij pp.) and the Miraculous Sepulture of Monsieur Saint–Germain d’Auxerre (xij pp.).
“‘This rare manuscript, which formed part of the collection of Sir Thomas Raleigh, is now in the private study of Signor Michel–Angelo Polizzi, of Girgenti.’”
“You hear that, Hamilcar? The manuscript of the Clerk Alexander is in Sicily, at the house of Michel–Angelo Polizzi. Heaven grant he may be a friend of learned men! I am going to write him!”
Which I did forthwith. In my letter I requested Signor Polizzi to allow me to examine the manuscript of Clerk Alexander, stating on what grounds I ventured to consider myself worthy of so great a favour. I offered at the same time to put at his disposal several unpublished texts in my own possession, not devoid of interest. I begged him to favour me with a prompt reply, and below my signature I wrote down all my honorary titles.
“Monsieur! Monsieur! where are you running like that?” cried Therese, quite alarmed, coming down the stairs in pursuit of me, four steps at a time, with my hat in her hand.
“I am going to post a letter, Therese.”
“Good God! is that a way to run out in the street, bareheaded, like a crazy man?”
“I am crazy, I know, Therese. But who is not? Give me my hat, quick!”
“And your gloves, Monsieur! and your umbrella!”
I had reached the bottom of the stairs, but still heard her protesting and lamenting.
October 10, 1859.
I awaited Signor Polizzi’s reply with ill-contained impatience. I could not even remain quiet; I would make sudden nervous gestures — open books and violently close them again. One day I happened to upset a book with my elbow — a volume of Moreri. Hamilcar, who was washing himself, suddenly stopped, and looked angrily at me, with his paw over his ear. Was this the tumultuous existence he must expect under my roof? Had there not been a tacit understanding between us that we should live a peaceful life? I had broken the covenant.
“My poor dear comrade,” I made answer, “I am the victim of a violent passion, which agitates and masters me. The passions are enemies of peace and quiet, I acknowledge; but without them there would be no arts or industries in the world. Everybody would sleep naked on a dung-heap; and you would not be able, Hamilcar, to repose all day on a silken cushion, in the City of Books.”
I expatiated no further to Hamilcar on the theory of the passions, however, because my housekeeper brought me a letter. It bore the postmark of Naples and read as follows:
“Most Illustrious Sir — I do indeed possess that incomparable manuscript of the ‘Golden Legend’ which could not escape your keen observation. All-important reasons, however, forbid me, imperiously, tyrannically, to let the manuscript go out of my possession for a single day, for even a single minute. It will be a joy and pride for me to have you examine it in my humble home in Girgenti, which will be embellished and illuminated by your presence. It is with the most anxious expectation of your visit that I presume to sign myself, Seigneur Academician,
“Your humble and devoted servant
“Wine-merchant and Archaeologist at Girgenti, Sicily.”
Well, then! I will go to Sicily:
“Extremum hunc, Arethusa, mihi concede laborem.”
October 25, 1859.
My resolve had been taken and my preparations made; it only remained for me to notify my housekeeper. I must acknowledge it was a long time before I could make up my mind to tell her I was going away. I feared her remonstrances, her railleries, her objurgations, her tears. “She is a good, kind girl,” I said to myself; “she is attacked to me; she will want to prevent me from going; and the Lord knows that when she has her mind set upon anything, gestures and cries cost her no effort. In this instance she will be sure to call the concierge, the scrubber, the mattress-maker, and the seven sons of the fruit-seller; they will all kneel down in a circle around me; they will begin to cry, and then they will look so ugly that I shall be obliged to yield, so as not to have the pain of seeing them any more.”
Such were the awful images, the sick dreams, which fear marshaled before my imagination. Yes, fear —“fecund Fear,” as the poet says — gave birth to these monstrosities in my brain. For — I may as well make the confession in these private pages — I am afraid of my housekeeper. I am aware that she knows I am weak; and this fact alone is sufficient to dispel all my courage in any contest with her. Contests are of frequent occurrence; and I invariably succumb.
But for all that, I had to announce my departure to Therese. She came into the library with an armful of wood to make a little fire —“une flambe,” she said. For the mornings are chilly. I watched her out of the corner of my eye while she crouched down at the hearth, with her head in the opening of the fireplace. I do not know how I then found the courage to speak, but I did so without much hesitation. I got up, and, walking up and down the room, observed in a careless tone, with that swaggering manner characteristic of cowards,
“By the way, Therese, I am going to Sicily.”
Having thus spoken, I awaited the consequence with great anxiety. Therese did not reply. Her head and her vast cap remained buried in the fireplace; and nothing in her person, which I closely watched, betrayed the least emotion. She poked some paper under the wood, and blew up the fire. That was all!
Finally I saw her face again; — it was calm — so calm that it made me vexed. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this old maid has no heart. She lets me go away without saying so much as AH! Can the absence of her old master really affect her so little?”
“Well, then go, Monsieur,” she answered at last, “only be back here by six o’clock! There is a dish for dinner today which will not wait for anybody.”
Naples, November 10, 1859.
“Co tra calle vive, magna, e lave a faccia.”
I understand, my friend — for three centimes I can eat, drink, and wash my face, all by means of one of those slices of watermelon you display there on a little table. But Occidental prejudices would prevent me from enjoying that simple pleasure freely and frankly. And how could I suck a watermelon? I have enough to do mereley to keep on my feet in this crowd. What a luminous, noisy night in the Strada di Porto! Mountains of fruit tower up in the shops, illuminated by multicoloured lanterns. Upon charcoal furnaces lighted in the open air water boils and steams, and ragouts are singing in frying-pans. The smell of fried fish and hot meats tickles my nose and makes me sneeze. At this moment I find that my handkerchief has left the pocket of my frock-coat. I am pushed, lifted up, and turned about in every direction by the gayest, the most talkative, the most animated and the most adroit populace possible to imagine; and suddenly a young woman of the people, while I am admiring her magnificent hair, with a single shock of her powerful elastic shoulder, pushes me staggering three paces back at least, without injury, into the arms of a maccaroni-eater, who receives me with a smile.
I am in Naples. How I ever managed to arrive here, with a few mutilated and shapeless remains of baggage, I cannot tell, because I am no longer myself. I have been travelling in a condition of perpetual fright; and I think that I must have looked awhile ago in this bright city like an owl bewildered by sunshine. To-night it is much worse! Wishing to obtain a glimpse of popular manners, I went to the Strada di Porto, where I now am. All about me animated throngs of people crowd and press before the eating-places; and I float like a waif among these living surges, which, even while they submerge you, still caress. For this Neopolitan people has, in its very vivacity, something indescribably gentle and polite. I am not roughly jostled, I am merely swayed about; and I think that by dint of thus rocking me to and fro, these good folks want to lull me asleep on my feet. I admire, as I tread the lava pavements of the strada, those porters and fishermen who move by me chatting, singing, smoking, gesticulating, quarrelling, and embracing each other the next moment with astonishing versatility of mood. They live through all their sense at the same time; and, being philosophers without knowing it, keep the measure of their desires in accordance with the brevity of life. I approach a much-patronised tavern, and see inscribed above the entrance this quatrain in Neopolitan patois:
“Amice, alliegre magnammo e bevimmo
N fin che n’ce stace noglio a la lucerna:
Chi sa s’a l’autro munno n’ce verdimmo?
Chi sa s’a l’autro munno n’ce taverna?”
[“Friends, let us merrily eat and drink
as long as oil remains in the lamp:
Who knows if we shall meet again in another world?
Who knows if in the other world there will be a tavern?”]
Even such counsels was Horace wont to give to his friends. You received them, Posthumus; you heard them also, Leuconoe, perverse beauty who wished to know the secrets of the future. That future is now the past, and we know it well. Of a truth you were foolish to worry yourselves about so small a matter; and your friend showed his good sense when he told you to take life wisely and to filter your Greek wines —“Sapias, vina liques.” Even thus the sight of a fair land under a spotless sky urges to the pursuit of quiet pleasures. but there are souls for ever harassed by some sublime discontent; those are the noblest. You were of such, Leuconoe; and I, visiting for the first time, in my declining years, that city where your beauty was famed of old, I salute with deep respect your melancholy memory. Those souls of kin to your own who appeared in the age of Chrisitianity were souls of saints; and the “Golden Legend” is full of the miracles they wrought. Your friend Horace left a less noble posterity, and I see one of his descendants in the person of that tavern poet, who at this moment is serving out wine in cups under the epicurean motto of his sign.
And yet life decides in favour of friend Flaccus, and his philosophy is the only one which adapts itself to the course of events. There is a fellow leaning against that trellis-work covered with vine-leaves, and eating an ice, while watching the stars. He would not stoop even to pick up the old manuscript I am going to seek with so much trouble and fatigue. And in truth man is made rather to eat ices than to pore over old texts.
I continued to wander about among the drinkers and the singers. There were lovers biting into beautiful fruit, each with an arm about the other’s waist. Man must be naturally bad; for all this strange joy only evoked in me a feeling of uttermost despondency. That thronging populace displayed such artless delight in the simple act of living, that all the shynesses begotten by my old habits as an author awoke and intensified into something like fright. Furthermore, I found myself much discouraged by my inability to understand a word of all the storm of chatter about me. It was a humiliating experience for a philologist. Thus I had begun to feel quite sulky, when I was startled to hear someone behind me observe:
“Dimitri, that old man is certainly a Frenchman. He looks so bewildered that I really fell sorry for him. Shall I speak to him? . . . He has such a goo-natured look, with that round back of his — do you not think so, Dimitri?”
It was said in French by a woman’s voice. For the moment it was disagreeable to hear myself spoken of as an old man. Is a man old at sixty-two? Only the other day, on the Pont des Arts, my colleague Perrot d’Avrignac complimented me on my youthful appearance; and I should think him a better authority about one’s age than that young chatterbox who has taken it on herself to make remarks about my back. My back is round, she says. Ah! ah! I had some suspicion myself to that effect, but I am not going now to believe it at all, since it is the opinion of a giddy-headed young woman. Certainly I will not turn my head round to see who it was that spoke; but I am sure it was a pretty woman. Why? Because she talks like a capricious person and like a spoiled child. Ugly women may be naturally quite as capricious as pretty ones; but as they are never petted and spoiled, and as no allowances are made for them, they soon find themselves obliged either to suppress their whims or to hide them. On the other hand, the pretty women can be just as fantastical as they please. My neighbour is evidently one of the latter. . . . But, after all, coming to think it over, she really did nothing worse than to express, in her own way, a kindly thought about me, for which I ought to feel grateful.
These reflections — include the last and decisive one — passed through my mind in less than a second; and if I have taken a whole minute to tell them, it is characteristic of most philologists. In less than a second, therefore, after the voice had ceased, I did turn round, and saw a pretty little woman — a sprightly brunette.
“Madame,” I said, with a bow, “excuse my involuntary indiscretion. I could not help overhearing what you have just said. You would like to be of service to a poor old man. And the wish, Madame, has already been fulfilled — the mere sound of a French voice has given me such pleasure that I must thank you.”
I bowed again, and turned to go away; but my foot slipped upon a melon-rind, and I should certainly have embraced the Parthenopean soil had not the young lady put out her hand and caught me.
There is a force in circumstances — even in the very smallest circumstances — against which resistance is vain. I resigned myself to remain the protege of the fair unknown.
“It is late,” she said; “do you not wish to go back to your hotel, which must be quite close to ours — unless it be the same one?”
“Madame,” I replied, “I do not know what time it is, because somebody has stolen my watch; but I think, as you say, that it must be time to retire; and I shall be very glad to regain my hotel in the company of such courteous compatriots.”
So saying, I bowed once more to the young lady, and also saluted her companion, a silent colossus with a gentle and melancholy face.
After having gone a little way with them, I learned, among other matters, that my new acquaintances were the Prince and Princess Trepof, and that they were making a trip round the world for the purpose of finding match-boxes, of which they were making a collection.
We proceeded along a narrow, tortuous vicoletto, lighted only by a single lamp burning in the niche of a Madonna. The purity and transparency of the air gave a celestial softness and clearness to the very darkness itself; and one could find one’s way without difficulty under such a limpid night. But in a little while we began to pass through a “venella,” or, in Neopolitan parlance, a sottoportico, which led under so many archways and so many far-projecting balconies that no gleam of light from the sky could reach us. My young guide had made us take this route as a short cut, she assured us; but I think she did so quite as much simply in order to show that she felt at home in Naples, and knew the city thoroughly. Indeed, she needed to know it very thoroughly to venture by night into that labyrinth of subterranean alleys and flights of steps. If ever any many showed absolute docility in allowing himself to be guided, that man was myself. Dante never followed the steps of Beatrice with more confidence than I felt in following those of Princess Trepof.
The lady appeared to find some pleasure in my conversation, for she invited me to take a carriage-drive with her on the morrow to visit the grotto of Posilippo and the tomb of Virgil. She declared she had seen me somewhere before; but she could not remember if it had been a Stockholm or at Canton. In the former event I was a very celebrated professor of geology; in the latter, a provision-merchant whose courtesy and kindness had been much appreciated. One thing certain was that she had seen my back somewhere before.
“Excuse me,” she added; “we are continually travelling, my husband and I, to collect match-boxes and to change our ennui by changing country. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to content ourselves with a single variety of ennui. But we have made all our preparations and arrangements for travelling: all our plans have been laid out in advance, and it gives us no trouble, whereas it would be very troublesome for us to stop anywhere in particular. I tell you all this so that you many not be surprised if my recollections have become a little mixed up. But from the moment I first saw you at a distance this evening, I felt — in fact I knew — that I had seen you before. Now the question is, ‘Where was it that I saw you?’ You are not then, either the geologist or the provision-merchant?”
“No, Madame,” I replied, “I am neither the one nor the other; and I am sorry for it — since you have had reason to esteem them. There is really nothing about me worthy of your interest. I have spent all my life poring over books, and I have never traveled: you might have known that from my bewilderment, which excited your compassion. I am a member of the Institute.”
“You are a member of the Institute! How nice! Will you not write something for me in my album? Do you know Chinese? I would like so much to have you write something in Chinese or Persian in my album. I will introduce you to my friend, Miss Fergusson, who travels everywhere to see all the famous people in the world. She will be delighted. . . . Dimitri, did you hear that? — this gentleman is a member of the Institute, and he has passed all his life over books.”
The prince nodded approval.
“Monsieur,” I said, trying to engage him in our conversation, “it is true that something can be learned from books; but a great deal more can be learned by travelling, and I regret that I have not been able to go round the world like you. I have lived in the same house for thirty years and I scarcely every go out.”
“Lived in the same house for thirty years!” cried Madame Trepof; “is it possible?”
“Yes, Madame,” I answered. “But you must know the house is situated on the bank of the Seine, and in the very handsomest and most famous part of the world. From my window I can see the Tuileries and the Louvre, the Pont–Neuf, the towers of Notre–Dame, the turrets of the Palais de Justice, and the spire of the Sainte–Chapelle. All those stones speak to me; they tell me stories about the days of Saint–Louis, of the Valois, of Henri IV., and of Louus XIV. I understand them, and I love them all. It is only a very small corner of the world, but honestly, Madame, where is there a more glorious spot?”
At this moment we found ourselves upon a public square — a largo steeped in the soft glow of the night. Madame Trepof looked at me in an uneasy manner; her lifted eyebrows almost touched the black curls about her forehead.
“Where do you live then?” she demanded brusquely.
“On the Quai Malaquais, Madame, and my name is Bonnard. It is not a name very widely known, but I am contented if my friends do not forget it.”
This revelation, unimportant as it was, produced an extraordinary effect upon Madame Trepof. She immediately turned her back upon me and caught her husband’s arm.
“Come, Dimitri!” she exclaimed, “do walk a little faster. I am horribly tired, and you will not hurry yourself in the least. We shall never get home. . . . As for you, monsieur, your way lies over there!”
She made a vague gesture in the direction of some dark vicolo, pushed her husband the opposite way, and called to me, without even turning her head.
“Adieu, Monsieur! We shall not go to Posilippo tomorrow, nor the day after, either. I have a frightful headache! . . . Dimitri, you are unendurable! will you not walk faster?”
I remained for the moment stupefied, vainly trying to think what I could have done to offend Madame Trepof. I had also lost my way, and seemed doomed to wander about all night. In order to ask my way, I would have to see somebody; and it did not seem likely that I should find a single human being who could understand me. In my despair I entered a street at random — a street, or rather a horrible alley that had the look of a murderous place. It proved so in fact, for I had not been two minutes in it before I saw two men fighting with knives. They were attacking each other more fiercely with their tongues than with their weapons; and I concluded from the nature of the abuse they were showering upon each other that it was a love affair. I prudently made my way into a side alley while those two good fellows were still much too busy with their own affairs to think about mine. I wandered hopelessly about for a while, and at last sat down, completely discouraged, on a stone bench, inwardly cursing the strange caprices of Madame Trepof.
“How are you, Signor? Are you back from San Carlo? Did you hear the diva sing? It is only at Naples you can hear singing like hers.”
I looked up, and recognised my host. I had seated myself with my back to the facade of my hotel, under the window of my own room.
Monte–Allegro, November 30, 1859.
We were all resting — myself, my guides, and their mules — on a road from Sciacca to Girgenti, at a tavern in the miserable village of Monte–Allegro, whose inhabitants, consumed by the mal aria, continually shiver in the sun. But nevertheless they are Greeks, and their gaiety triumphs over all circumstances. A few gather about the tavern, full of smiling curiosity. One good story would have sufficed, had I known how to tell it to them, to make them forget all the woes of life. They had all a look of intelligence! and their women, although tanned and faded, wore their long black cloaks with much grace.
Before me I could see old ruins whitened by the sea-wind — ruins about which no grass ever grows. The dismal melancholy of deserts prevails over this arid land, whose cracked surface can barely nourish a few shriveled mimosas, cacti, and dwarf palms. Twenty yards away, along the course of a ravine, stones were gleaming whitely like a long line of scattered bones. They told me that was the bed of a stream.
I had been fifteen days in Sicily. On coming into the Bay of Palermo — which opens between the two mighty naked masses of the Pelligrino and the Catalfano, and extends inward along the “Golden Conch”— the view inspired me with such admiration that I resolved to travel a little in this island, so ennobled by historic memories, and rendered so beautiful by the outlines of its hills, which reveal the principles of Greek art. Old pilgrim though I was, grown hoary in the Gothic Occident — I dared to venture upon that classic soil; and, securing a guide, I went from Palermo to Trapani, from Trapani to Selinonte, from Selinonte to Sciacca — which I left this morning to go to Girgenti, where I am to find the MS. of Clerk Alexander. The beautiful things I have seen are still so vivid in my mind that I feel the task of writing them would be a useless fatigue. Why spoil my pleasure-trip by collecting notes? Lovers who love truly do not write down their happiness.
Wholly absorbed by the melancholy of the present and the poetry of the past, my thoughts people with beautiful shapes, and my eyes ever gratified by the pure and harmonious lines of the landscape, I was resting in the tavern at Monte–Allegro, sipping a glass of heavy, fiery wine, when I saw two persons enter the waiting-room, whom, after a moment’s hesitation, I recognised as the Prince and Princess Trepof.
This time I saw the princess in the light — and what a light! He who has known that of Sicily can better comprehend the words of Sophocles: “Oh holy light! . . . Eye of the Golden Day!” Madame Trepof, dressed in a brown-holland and wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, appeared to me a very pretty woman of about twenty-eight. Her eyes were luminous as a child’s; but her slightly plump chin indicated the age of plenitude. She is, I must confess it, quite an attractive person. She is supple and changeful; her mood is like water itself — and, thank Heaven! I am no navigator. I thought I discerned in her manner a sort of ill-humour, which I attributed presently, by reason of some observations she uttered at random, to the fact that she had met no brigands upon her route.
“Such things only happen to us!” she exclaimed, with a gesture of discouragement.
She called for a glass of iced water, which the landlord presented to her with a gesture that recalled to me those scenes of funeral offerings painted upon Greek vases.
I was in no hurry to introduce myself to a lady who had so abruptly dropped my acquaintance in the public square at Naples; but she perceived me in my corner, and her frown notified me very plainly that our accidental meeting was disagreeable to her.
After she had sipper her ice-water for a few moments — whether because her whim had suddenly changed, or because my loneliness aroused her pity, I did not know — she walked directly to me.
“Good-day, Monsieur Bonnard,” she said. “How do you do? What strange chance enables us to meet again in this frightful country?”
“This country is not frightful, Madame,” I replied. “Beauty is so great and so august a quality that centuries of barbarism cannot efface it so completely that adorable vestiges of it will not always remain. The majesty of the antique Ceres still overshadows these arid valleys; and that Greek Muse who made Arethusa and Maenalus ring with her divine accents, still sings for my ears upon the barren mountain and in the place of the dried-up spring. Yes, Madame, when our globe, no longer inhabited, shall, like the moon, roll a wan corpse through space, the soil which bears the ruins of Selinonte will still keep the seal of beauty in the midst of universal death; and then, then, at least there will be no frivolous mouth to blaspheme the grandeur of these solitudes.”
I knew well enough that my words were beyond the comprehension of the pretty little empty-head which heard them. But an old fellow like myself who has worn out his life over books does not know how to adapt his tone to circumstances. Besides I wished to give Madame Trepof a lesson in politeness. She received it with so much submission, and with such an air of comprehension, that I hastened to add, as good-naturedly as possible,
“As to whether the chance which has enabled me to meet you again be lucky or unlucky, I cannot decide the question until I am sure that my presence be not disagreeable to you. You appeared to become weary of my company very suddenly at Naples the other day. I can only attribute that misfortune to my naturally unpleasant manner — since, on that occasion, I had had the honour of meeting you for the first time in my life.”
These words seem to cause her inexplicable joy. She smiled upon me in the most gracious, mischievous way, and said very earnestly, holding out her hand, which I touched with my lips,
“Monsieur Bonnard, do not refuse to accept a seat in my carriage. You can chat with me on the way about antiquity, and that will amuse me ever so much.”
“My dear,” exclaimed the prince, “you can do just as you please; but you ought to remember that one is horribly cramped in that carriage of yours; and I fear that you are only offering Monsieur Bonnard the chance of getting a frightful attack of lumbago.”
Madame Trepof simply shook her head by way of explaining that such considerations had no weight with her whatever; then she untied her hat. The darkness of her black curls descended over her eyes, and bathed them in velvety shadow. She remained a little while quite motionless, and her face assumed a surprising expression of reverie. But all of a sudden she darted at some oranges which the tavern-keeper had brought in a basket, and began to throw them, one by one, into a fold of her dress.
“These will be nice on the road,” she said. “We are going just where you are going — to Girgenti. I must tell you all about it. you know that my husband is making a collection of match-boxes. We bought thirteen hundred match-boxes at Marseilles. But we heard there was a factory of them at Girgenti. According to what we were told, it is a very small factory, and its products — which are very ugly — never go outside the city and its suburbs. So we are going to Girgenti just to buy match-boxes. Dimitri has been a collector of all sorts of things; but the only kind of collection which can now interest him is a collection of match-boxes. He has already got five thousand two hundred and fourteen different kinds. Some of them gave us frightful trouble to find. For instance, we knew that at Naples boxes were once made with the portraits of Mazzini and Garibaldi on them; and that the police had seized the plates from which the portraits were printed, and put the manufacturer in gaol. Well, by dint of searching and inquiring for ever so long a while, we found one of those boxes at last for sale at one hundred francs, instead of two sous. It was not really too dear at that price; but we were denounced for buying it. We were taken for conspirators. All our baggage was searched; they could not find the box, because I had hidden it so well; but they found my jewels, and carried them off. They have them still. The incident made quite a sensation, and we were going to get arrested. But the king was displeased about it, and he ordered them to leave us alone. Up to that time, I used to think it was very stupid to collect match-boxes; but when I found that there were risks of losing liberty, and perhaps even life, by doing it, I began to feel a taste for it. Now I am an absolute fanatic on the subject. We are going to Sweden next summer to complete our series. . . . Are we not, Dimitri?”
I felt — must I confess it? — a thorough sympathy with these intrepid collectors. No doubt I would rather have found Monsieur and Madame Trepof engaged in collecting antique marbles or painted vases in Sicily. I should have like to have found them interested in the ruins of Syracuse, or the poetical traditions of the Eryx. But at all events, they were making some sort of a collection — they belonged to the great confraternity — and I could not possibly make fun of them without making fun of myself. Besides, Madame Trepof had spoken of her collection with such an odd mingling of irony and enthusiasm that I could not help finding the idea a very good one.
We were getting ready to leave the tavern, when we noticed some people coming downstairs from the upper room, carrying carbines under their dark cloaks. to me they had the look of thorough bandits; and after they were gone I told Monsieur Trepof my opinion of them. He answered me, very quietly, that he also thought they were regular bandits; and the guides begged us to apply for an escort of gendarmes, but Madame Trepof besought us not to do anything of the kind. She declared that we must not “spoil her journey.”
Then, turning her persuasive eyes upon me, she asked,
“Do you not believe, Monsieur Bonnard, that there is nothing in life worth having except sensations?”
“Why, certainly, Madame,” I answered; “but then we must take into consideration the nature of the sensations themselves. Those which a noble memory or a grand spectacle creates within us certainly represent what is best in human life; but those merely resulting from the menace of danger seem to me sensations which one should be very careful to avoid as much as possible. For example, would you think it a very pleasant thing, Madame, while travelling over the mountains at midnight, to find the muzzle of a carbine suddenly pressed against your forehead?”
“Oh, no!” she replied; “the comic-operas have made carbines absolutely ridiculous, and it would be a great misfortune to any young woman to find herself in danger from an absurd weapon. But it would be quite different with a knife — a very cold and very bright knife blade, which makes a cold shudder go right through one’s heart.”
She shuddered even as she spoke; closed her eyes, and threw her head back. Then she resumed:
“People like you are so happy! You can interest yourselves in all sorts of things!”
She gave a sidelong look at her husband, who was talking with the innkeeper. Then she leaned towards me, and murmured very low:
“You see, Dimitri and I, we are both suffering from ennui! We have still the match-boxes. But at last one gets tired even of match-boxes. Besides, our collection will soon be complete. And then what are we going to do?”
“Oh, Madame!” I exclaimed, touched by the moral unhappiness of this pretty person, “if you only had a son, then you would know what to do. You would then learn the purpose of your life, and your thoughts would become at once more serious and yet more cheerful.”
“But I have a son,” she replied. “He is a big boy; he is eleven years old, and he suffers from ennui like the rest of us. Yes, my George has ennui, too; he is tired of everything. It is very wretched.”
She glanced again towards her husband, who was superintending the harnessing of the mules on the road outside — testing the condition of girths and straps. Then she asked me whether there had been many changes on the Quai Malaquais during the past ten years. She declared she never visited that neighbourhood because it was too far way.
“Too far from Monte Allegro?” I queried.
“Why, no!” she replied. “Too far from the Avenue des Champs Elysees, where we live.”
And she murmured over again, as if talking to herself, “Too far! — too far!” in a tone of reverie which I could not possibly account for. All at once she smiled again, and said to me,
“I like you, Monsieur Bonnard! — I like you very, very much!”
The mules had been harnessed. The young woman hastily picked up a few oranges which had rolled off her lap; rose up; looked at me, and burst out laughing.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “how I should like to see you grappling with the brigands! You would say such extraordinary things to them! . . . Please take my hat, and hold my umbrella for me, Monsieur Bonnard.”
“What a strange little mind!” I thought to myself, as I followed her. “It could only have been in a moment of inexcusable thoughtlessness that Nature gave a child to such a giddy little woman!”
Girgenti. Same day.
Her manners had shocked me. I left her to arrange herself in her lettica, and I made myself as comfortable as I could in my own. These vehicles, which have no wheels, are carried by two mules — one before and one behind. This kind of litter, or chaise, is of ancient origin. I had often seen representations of similar ones in the French MSS. of the fourteenth century. I had no idea then that one of those vehicles would be at a future day placed at my own disposal. We must never be too sure of anything.
For three hours the mules sounded their little bells, and thumped the calcined ground with their hoofs. On either hand there slowly defiled by us the barren monstrous shapes of a nature totally African.
Half-way we made a halt to allow our animals to recover breath.
Madame Trepof came to me on the road, took my arm, and drew me a little away from the party. Then, very suddenly, she said to me in a tone of voice I had never heard before:
“Do not think that I am a wicked woman. My George knows that I am a good mother.”
We walked side by side for a moment in silence. She looked up, and I saw that she was crying.
“Madame,” I said to her, “look at this soil which has been burned and cracked by five long months of fiery heat. A little white lily has sprung up from it.”
And I pointed with my cane to the frail stalk, tipped by a double blossom.
“Your heart,” I said, “however arid it be, bears also its white lily; and that is reason enough why I do not believe that you are what you say — a wicked woman.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” she cried, with the obstinacy of a child —“I am a wicked woman. But I am ashamed to appear so before you who are so good — so very, very good.”
“You do not know anything at all about it,” I said to her.
“I know it! I know all about you, Monsieur Bonnard!” she declared, with a smile.
And she jumped back into her lettica.
Girgenti, November 30, 1859.
I awoke the following morning in the House of Gellias. Gellias was a rich citizen of ancient Agrigentum. He was equally celebrated for his generosity and for his wealth; and he endowed his native city with a great number of free inns. Gellias has been dead for thirteen hundred years; and nowadays there is no gratuitous hospitality among civilised peoples. But the name of Gellias has become that of a hotel in which, by reason of fatigue, I was able to obtain one good night’s sleep.
The modern Girgenti lifts its high, narrow, solid streets, dominated by a sombre Spanish cathedral, upon the side of the acropolis of the antique Agrigentum. I can see from my windows, half-way on the hillside towards the sea, the white range of temples partially destroyed. The ruins alone have some aspect of coolness. All the rest is arid. Water and life have forsaken Agrigentine. Water — the divine Nestis of the Agrigentine Empedocles — is so necessary to animated beings that nothing can live far from the rivers and the springs. But the port of Girgenti, situated at a distance of three kilometres from the city, has a great commerce. “And it is in this dismal city,” I said to myself, “upon this precipitous rock, that the manuscript of Clerk Alexander is to be found!” I asked my way to the house of Signor Michel–Angelo Polizzi, and proceeded thither.
I found Signor Polizzi, dressed all in white from head to feet, busy cooking sausages in a frying-pan. At the sight of me, he let go the frying-pan, threw up his arms in the air, and uttered shrieks of enthusiasm. He was a little man whose pimply features, aquiline nose, round eyes, and projecting chin formed a very expressive physiognomy.
He called me “Excellence,” said he was going to mark the day with a white stone, and made me sit down. The hall in which we were represented the union of the kitchen, reception-room, bedchamber, studio, and wine-cellar. There were charcoal furnaces visible, a bed, paintings, an easel, bottles, strings of onions, and a magnificent lustre of coloured glass pendants. I glanced at the paintings on the wall.
“The arts! the arts!” cried Signor Polizzi, throwing up his arms again to heaven —“the arts! What dignity! what consolation! Excellence, I am a painter!”
And he showed me an unfinished Saint–Francis, which indeed could very well remain unfinished for ever without any loss to religion or to art. Next he showed me some old paintings of a better style, but apparently restored after a decidedly reckless manner.
“I repair,” he said —“I repair old paintings. Oh, the Old Masters! What genius, what soul!”
“Why, then,” I said to him, “you must be a painter, an archaeologist, and a wine-merchant all in one?”
“At your service, Excellence,” he answered. “I have a zucco here at this very moment — a zucco of which every single drop is a pearl of fire. I want your Lordship to taste of it.”
“I esteem the wines of Sicily,” I responded, “but it was not for the sake of your flagons that I came to see you, Signor Polizzi.”
He: “Then you have come to see me about paintings. You are an amateur. It is an immense delight for me to receive amateurs. I am going to show you the chef-d’oeuvre of Monrealese; yes, Excellence, his chef-d’oeuvre! An Adoration of Shepherds! It is the pearl of the whole Sicilian school!”
I: “Later on I will be glad to see the chef-d’oeuvre; but let us first talk about the business which brings me here.”
His little quick bright eyes watched my face curiously; and I perceived, with anguish, that he had not the least suspicion of the purpose of my visit.
A cold sweat broke out over my forehead; and in the bewilderment of my anxiety I stammered out something to this effect:
“I have come from Paris expressly to look at a manuscript of the Legende Doree, which you informed me was in your possession.”
At these words he threw up his arms, opened his mouth and eyes to the widest possible extent, and betrayed every sign of extreme nervousness.
“Oh! the manuscript of the ‘Golden Legend!’ A pearl, Excellence! a ruby, a diamond! Two miniatures so perfect that they give one the feeling of glimpses of Paradise! What suavity! Those colours ravished from the corollas of flowers make a honey for the eyes! Even a Sicilian could have done no better!”
“Let me see it, then,” I asked; unable to conceal either my anxiety or my hope.
“Let you see it!” cried Polizzi. “But how can I, Excellence? I have not got it any longer! I have not got it!”
And he seemed determined to tear out his hair. He might indeed have pulled every hair in his head out of his hide before I should have tried to prevent him. But he stopped of his own accord, before he had done himself any grievous harm.
“What!” I cried out in anger —“what! you make me come all the way from Paris to Girgenti, by promising to show me a manuscript, and now, when I come, you tell me you have not got it! It is simply infamous, Monsieur! I shall leave your conduct to be judged by all honest men!”
Anybody who could have seen me at that moment would have been able to form a good idea of the aspect of a furious sheep.
“It is infamous! it is infamous!” I repeated, waving my arms, which trembled from anger.
Then Michel–Angelo Polizzi let himself fall into a chair in the attitude of a dying hero. I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his hair — until then flamboyant and erect upon his head — fall down in limp disorder over his brow.
“I am a father, Excellence! I am a father!” he groaned, wringing his hands.
He continued, sobbing:
“My son Rafael — the son of my poor wife, for whose death I have been mourning fifteen years — Rafael, Excellence, wanted to settle at Paris; he hired a shop in the Rue Lafitte for the sale of curiosities. I gave him everything precious which I had — I gave him my finest majolicas; my most beautiful Urbino ware; my masterpieces of art; what paintings, Signor! Even now they dazzle me with I see them only in imagination! And all of them signed! Finally, I gave him the manuscript of the ‘Golden Legend’! I would have given him my flesh and my blood! An only son, Signor! the son of my poor saintly wife!”
“So,” I said, “while I— relying on your written word, Monsieur — was travelling to the very heart of Sicily to find the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander, the same manuscript was actually exposed for sale in a window in the Rue Lafitte, only fifteen hundred yards from my house?”
“Yes, it was there! that is positively true!” exclaimed Signor Polizzi, suddenly growing calm again; “and it is there still — at least I hope it is, Excellence.”
He took a card from a shelf as he spoke, and offered it to me, saying,
“Here is the address of my son. Make it known to your friends, and you will oblige me. Faience and enameled wares; hangings; pictures. He has a complete stock of objects of art — all at the fairest possible prices — and everything authentic, I can vouch for it, upon my honour! Go and see him. He will show you the manuscript of the ‘Golden Legend.’ Two miniatures miraculously fresh in colour!”
I was feeble enough to take the card he held out to me.
The fellow was taking further advantage of my weakness to make me circulate the name of Rafael Polizzi among the Societies of the learned!
My hand was already on the door-knob, when the Sicilian caught me by the arm; he had a look as of sudden inspiration.
“Ah! Excellence!” he cried, “what a city is this city of ours! It gave birth to Empedocles! Empedocles! What a great man what a great citizen! What audacity of thought! what virtue! what soul! At the port over there is a statue of Empedocles, before which I bare my head each time that I pass by! When Rafael, my son, was going away to found an establishment of antiquities in the Rue Lafitte, at Paris, I took him to the port, and there, at the foot of that statue of Empedocles, I bestowed upon him my paternal benediction! ‘Always remember Empedocles!’ I said to him. Ah! Signor, what our unhappy country needs today is a new Empedocles! Would you not like me to show you the way to his statue, Excellence? I will be your guide among the ruins here. I will show you the temple of Castor and Pollux, the temple of the Olympian Jupiter, the temple of the Lucinian Juno, the antique well, the tomb of Theron, and the Gate of Gold! All the professional guides are asses; but we — we shall make excavations, if you are willing — and we shall discover treasures! I know the science of discovering hidden treasures — the secret art of finding their whereabouts — a gift from Heaven!”
I succeeded in tearing myself away from his grasp. But he ran after me again, stopped me at the foot of the stairs, and said in my ear,
“Listen, Excellence. I will conduct you about the city; I will introduce you to some Girgentines! What a race! what types! what forms! Sicilian girls, Signor! — the antique beauty itself!”
“Go to the devil!” I cried at last, in anger, and rushed into the street, leaving him still writhing in the loftiness of his enthusiasm.
When I had got out of his sight, I sank down upon a stone, and began to think, with my face in my hands.
“And it was for this,” I said to myself —“it was to hear such propositions as this that I came to Sicily! That Polizzi is simply a scoundrel, and his son another; and they made a plan together to ruin me.” But what was their scheme? I could not unravel it. Meanwhile, it may be imagined how discouraged and humiliated I felt.
A merry burst of laughter caused me to turn my head, and I saw Madame Trepof running in advance of her husband, and holding up something which I could not distinguish clearly.
She sat down beside me, and showed me — laughing more merrily all the while — an abominable little paste-board box, on which was printed a red and blue face, which the inscription declared to be the face of Empedocles.
“Yes, Madame,” I said, “but that abominable Polizzi, to whom I advise you not to send Monsieur Trepof, has made me fall out for ever with Empedocles; and this portrait is not at all of a nature to make me feel more kindly to the ancient philosopher.”
“Oh!” declared Madame Trepof, “it is ugly, but it is rare! These boxes are not exported at all; you can buy them only where they are made. Dimitri has six others just like this in his pocket. We got them so as to exchange with other collectors. You understand? At none o’clock this morning we were at the factory. You see we did not waste our time.”
“So I certainly perceive, Madame,” I replied, bitterly; “but I have lost mine.”
I then saw that she was a naturally good-hearted woman. All her merriment vanished.
“Poor Monsieur Bonnard! poor Monsieur Bonnard!” she murmured.
And, taking my hand in hers, she added:
“Tell me about your troubles.”
I told her about them. My story was long; but she was evidently touched by it, for she asked me quite a number of circumstantial questions, which I took for proof of her friendly interest. She wanted to know the exact title of the manuscript, its shape, its appearance, and its age; she asked me for the address of Signor Rafael Polizzi.
And I gave it to her; thus doing (O destiny!) precisely what the abominable Polizzi had told me to do.
It is sometimes difficult to check oneself. I recommenced my plaints and my imprecations. But this time Madame Trepof only burst out laughing.
“Why do you laugh?” I asked her.
“Because I am a wicked woman,” she answered.
And she fled away, leaving me all disheartened on my stone.
Paris, December 8, 1859.
My unpacked trunks still encumbered the hall. I was seated at a tabled covered with all those good things which the land of France produces for the delectation of gourmets. I was eating a pate le Chartres, which is alone sufficient to make one love one’s country. Therese, standing before me with her hands joined over her white apron, was looking at me with benignity, with anxiety, and with pity. Hamilcar was rubbing himself against my legs, wild with delight.
These words of an old poet came back to my memory:
“Happy is he who, like Ulysses, hath made a goodly journey.”
. . . “Well,” I thought to myself, “I travelled to no purpose; I have come back with empty hands; but, like Ulysses, I made a goodly journey.”
And having taken my last sip of coffee, I asked Therese for my hat and cane, which she gave me not without dire suspicions; she feared I might be going upon another journey. But I reassured her by telling her to have dinner ready at six o’clock.
It had always been a keen pleasure for me to breathe the air in those Parisian streets whose every paving-slab and every stone I love devotedly. But I had an end in view, and I took my way straight to the Rue Lafitte. I was not long in find the establishment of Signor Rafael Polizzi. It was distinguishable by a great display of old paintings which, although all bearing the signature of some illustrious artist, had a certain family air of resemblance that might have suggested some touching idea about the fraternity of genius, had it not still more forcibly suggested the professional tricks of Polizzi senior. Enriched by these doubtful works of art, the shop was further rendered attractive by various petty curiosities: poniards, drinking-vessels, goblets, figulines, brass guadrons, and Hispano–Arabian wares of metallic lustre.
Upon a Portuguese arm-chair, decorated with an escutcheon, lay a copy of the “Heures” of Simon Vostre, open at the page which has an astrological figure on it; and an old Vitruvius, placed upon a quaint chest, displayed its masterly engravings of caryatides and telamones. This apparent disorder which only masked cunning arrangement, this factitious hazard which had placed the best objects in the most favourable light, would have increased my distrust of the place, but that the distrust which the mere name of Polizzi had already inspired could not have been increased by any circumstances — being already infinite.
Signor Rafael, who sat there as the presiding genius of all these vague and incongruous shapes, impressed me as a phlegmatic young man, with a sort of English character. he betrayed no sign whatever of those transcendent faculties displayed by his father in the arts of mimcry and declamation.
I told him what I had come for; he opened a cabinet and drew from it a manuscript, which he placed on a table that I might examine it at my leisure.
Never in my life did I experience such an emotion — except, indeed, during some few brief months of my youth, months whose memories, though I should live a hundred years, would remain as fresh at my last hour as in the first day they came to me.
It was, indeed, the very manuscript described by the librarian of Sir Thomas Raleigh; it was, indeed, the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander which I saw, which I touched! The work of Voragine himself had been perceptibly abridged; but that made little difference to me. All the inestimable additions of the monk of Saint–Germain-desPres were there. That was the main point! I tried to read the Legend of Saint Droctoveus; but I could not — all the lines of the page quivered before my eyes, and there was a sound in my ears like the noise of a windmill in the country at night. Nevertheless, I was able to see that the manuscript offered every evidence of indubitable authenticity. The two drawings of the Purification of the Virgin and the Coronationof Proserpine were meagre in design and vulgar in violence of colouring. Considerably damaged in 1824, as attested by the catalogue of Sir Thomas, they had obtained during the interval a new aspect of freshness. But this miracle did not surprise me at all. And, besides, what did I care about the two miniatures? The legends and the poem of Alexander — those alone formed the treasure I desired. My eyes devoured as much of it as they had the power to absorb.
I affected indifference while asking Signor Polizzi the price of the manuscript; and, while awaiting his reply, I offered up a secret prayer that the price might not exceed the amount of ready money at my disposal — already much diminished by the cost of my expensive voyage. Signor Polizzi, however, informed me that he was not at liberty to dispose of the article, inasmuch as it did not belong to him, and was to be sold at auction shortly, at the Hotel des Ventes, with a number of other MSS. and several incunabula.
This was a severe blow to me. It tried to preserve my calmness, notwithstanding, and replied somewhat to this effect:
“You surprise me, Monsieur! Your father, whom I talked with recently at Girgenti, told me positively that the manuscript was yours. You cannot now attempt to make me discredit your father’s word.”
“I DID own the manuscript, indeed,” answered Signor Rafael with absolute frankness; “but I do not own it any longer. I sold that manuscript — the remarkable interest of which you have not failed to perceive — to an amateur whom I am forbidden to name, and who, for reasons which I am not at liberty to mention, finds himself obliged to sell his collection. I am honoured with the confidence of my customer, and was commissioned by him to draw up the catalogue and manage the sale, which takes place the 24th of December. Now, if you will be kind enough to give me your address, I shall have the pleasure of sending you the catalogue, which is already in the press. you fill find the ‘Legende Doree’ described in it as ‘No. 42.’”
I gave my address, and left the shop.
The polite gravity of the son impressed me quite as disagreeably as the impudent buffoonery of the father. I hated, from the bottom of my heart, the tricks of the vile hagglers! It was perfectly evident that the two rascals had a secret understanding, and had only devised this auction-sale, with the aid of a professional appraiser, to force the bidding on the manuscript I wanted so much up to an outrageous figure. I was completely at their mercy. There is one evil in all passionate desires, even the noblest — namely, that they leave us subject to the will of others, and in so far dependent. This reflection made me suffer cruelly; but it did not conquer my longing to won the work of Clerk Alexander. While I was thus meditating, I heard a coachman swear. And I discovered it was I whom he was swearing at only when I felt the pole of a carriage poke me in the ribs. I started aside, barely in time to save myself from being run over; and whom did I perceive through the windows of the coupe? Madame Trepof, being taken by two beautiful horses, and a coachman all wrapped up in furs like a Russian Boyard, into the very street I had just left. She did not notice me; she was laughing to herself with that artless grace of expression which still preserved for her, at thirty years, all the charm of her early youth.
“Well, well!” I said to myself, “she is laughing! I suppose she must have just found another match-box.”
And I made my way back to the Ponts, feeling very miserable.
Nature, eternally indifferent, neither hastened nor hurried the twenty-fourth day of December. I went to the Hotel Bullion, and took my place in Salle No. 4, immediately below the high desk at which the auctioneer Boulouze and the expert Polizzi were to sit. I saw the hall gradually fill with familiar faces. I shook hands with several old booksellers of the quays; but that prudence which any large interest inspires in even the most self-assured caused me to keep silence in regard to the reason of my unaccustomed presence in the halls of the Hotel Bullion. On the other hand, I questioned those gentlemen at the auction sale; and I had teh satisfaction of finding them all interested about matters in no wise related to my affair.
Little by little the hall became thronged with interested or merely curious spectators; and, after half an hour’s delay, the auctioneer with his ivory hammer, the clerk with his bundle of memorandum-papers, and the crier, carrying his collection-box fixed to the end of a pole, all took their places on the platform in the most solemn business manner. The attendants ranged themselves at the foot of the desk. The presiding officer having declared the sale open, a partial hush followed.
A commonplace series of Preces dia, with miniatures, were first sold off at mediocre prices. Needless to say, the illuminations of these books were in perfect condition!
The lowness of the bids gave courage to the gathering of second-hand booksellers present, who began to mingle with us, and become more familiar. The dealers in old brass and bric-a-brac pressed forward in their tun, waiting for the doors of an adjoining room to be opened; and the voice of the auctioneer was drowned by the jests of the Auvergnats.
A magnificent codex of the “Guerre des Juifs” revived attention. It was long disputed for. “Five thousand francs! five thousand!” called the crier, while the bric-a-brac dealers remained silent with admiration. Then seven or eight antiphonaries brought us back again to low prices. A fat old woman, in a loose gown, bareheaded — a dealer in second-hand goods — encouraged by the size of the books and the low prices bidden, had one of the antiphonaries knocked down to her for thirty francs.
At last the expert Polizzi announced No. 42: “The ‘Golden Legend’; French MS.; unpublished; two superb miniatures, with a starting bid of three thousand francs.”
“Three thousand! three thousand bid!” yelled the crier.
“Three thousand!” dryly repeated the auctioneer.
There was a buzzing in my head, and, as through a cloud, I saw a host of curious faces all turning towards the manuscript, which a boy was carrying open through the audience.
“Three thousand and fifty!” I said.
I was frightened by the sound of my own voice, and further confused by seeing, or thinking that I saw, all eyes turned on me.
“Three thousand and fifty on the right!” called the crier, taking up my bid.
“Three thousand one hundred!” responded Signor Polizzi.
Then began a heroic duel between the expert and myself.
“Three thousand five hundred!”
“Four thousand five hundred.”
Then by a sudden bold stroke, Signor Polizzi raised the bid at once to six thousand.
Six thousand francs was all the money I could dispose of. It represented the possible. I risked the impossible.
“Six thousand one hundred!”
Alas! even the impossible did not suffice.
“Six thousand five hundred!” replied Signor Polizzi, with calm.
I bowed my head and sat there stupefied, unable to answer either yes or no to the crier, who called to me:
“Six thousand five hundred, by me — not by you on the right there! — it is my bid — no mistake! Six thousand five hundred!”
“Perfectly understood!” declared the auctioneer. “Six thousand five hundred. Perfectly clear; perfectly plain. . . . Any more bids? The last bid is six thousand five hundred francs.”
A solemn silence prevailed. Suddenly I felt as if my head had burst open. It was the hammer of the officiant, who, with a loud blow on the platform, adjudged No. 42 irrevocably to Signor Polizzi. Forthwith the pen of the clerk, coursing over the papier-timbre, registered that great fact in a single line.
I was absolutely prostrated, and I felt the utmost need of rest and quiet. Nevertheless, I did not leave my seat. My powers of reflection slowly returned. Hope is tenacious. I had one more hope. It occurred to me that the new owner of the “Legende Doree” might be some intelligent and liberal bibliophile who would allow me to examine the MS., and perhaps even to publish the more important parts. And, with this idea, as soon as the sale was over I approached the expert as he was leaving the platform.
“Monsieur,” I asked him, “did you buy in No. 42 on your own account, or on commission?”
“On commission. I was instructed not to let it go at any price.”
“Can you tell me the name of the purchaser?”
“Monsieur, I regret that I cannot serve you in that respect. I have been strictly forbidden to mention the name.”
I went home in despair.
December 30, 1859.
“Therese! don’t you hear the bell? Somebody has been ringing at the door for the last quarter of an hour?”
Therese does not answer. She is chattering downstairs with the concierge, for sure. So that is the way you observe your old master’s birthday? You desert me even on the eve of Saint–Sylvestre! Alas! if I am to hear any kind wishes today, they must come up from the ground; for all who love me have long been buried. I really don’t know what I am still living for. There is the bell again! . . . I get up slowly from my seat at the fire, with my shoulders still bent from stooping over it, and go to the door myself. Whom do I see at the threshold? It is not a dripping love, and I am not an old Anacreon; but it is a very pretty little boy of about ten years old. He is alone; he raises his face to look at me. His cheeks are blushing; but his little pert nose gives one an idea of mischievous pleasantry. He has feathers in his cap, and a great lace-ruff on his jacket. The pretty little fellow! He holds in both arms a bundle as big as himself, and asks me if I am Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard. I tell him yes; he gives me the bundle, tells me his mamma sent it to me, and then he runs downstairs.
I go down a few steps; I lean over the balustrade, and see the little cap whirling down the spiral of the stairway like a feather in the wind. “Good-bye, my little boy!” I should have liked so much to question him. But what, after all, could I have asked? It is not polite to question children. Besides, the package itself will probably give me more information than the messenger could.
It is a very big bundle, but not very heavy. I take it into my library, and there untie the ribbons and unfasten the paper wrappings; and I see — what? a log! a first-class log! a real Christmas log, but so light that I know it must be hollow. Then I find that it is indeed composed of two separate pieces, opening on hinges, and fastened with hooks. I slip the hooks back, and find myself inundated with violets! Violets! they pour over my table, over my knees, over the carpet. They tumble into my vest, into my sleeves. I am all perfumed with them.
“Therese! Therese! fill me some vases with water, and bring them here, quick! Here are violets sent to us I know not from what country nor by what hand; but it must be from a perfumed country, and by a very gracious hand. . . . Do you hear me, old crow?”
I have put all the violets on my table — now completely covered by the odorous mass. But there is still something in the log . . . a book — a manuscript. It is . . . I cannot believe it, and yet I cannot doubt it. . . . It is the “Legende Doree”! — It is the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander! Here is the “Purification of the Virgin” and the “Coronation of Proserpine”; — here is the legend of Saint Droctoveus. I contemplate this violet-perfumed relic. I turn the leaves of it — between which the dark rich blossoms have slipped in here and there; and, right opposite the legend of Saint–Cecilia, I find a card bearing this name:
Princess Trepof! — you who laughed and wept by turns so sweetly under the fair sky of Agrigentum! — you, whom a cross old man believed to be only a foolish little woman! — today I am convinced of your rare and beautiful folly; and the old fellow whom you now overwhelm with happiness will go to kiss your hand, and give you back, in another form, this precious manuscript, of which both he and science owe you an exact and sumptuous publication!
Therese entered my study just at that moment; she seemed to be very much excited.
“Monsieur!” she cried, “guess whom I saw just now in a carriage, with a coat-of-arms painted on it, that was stopping before the door?”
“Parbleu! — Madame Trepof,” I exclaimed.
“I don’t know anything about any Madame Trepof,” answered my housekeeper. “The woman I saw just now was dressed like a duchess, and had a little boy with her, with lace-frills all along the seams of his clothes. And it was that same little Madame Coccoz you once sent a log to, when she was lying-in here about eleven years ago. I recognized her at once.”
“What!” I exclaimed, “you mean to say it was Madame Coccoz, the widow of the almanac-peddler?”
“Herself, Monsieur! The carriage-door was open for a minute to let her little boy, who had just come from I don’t know where, get in. She hasn’t changed scarcely at all. Well, why should those women change? — they never worry themselves about anything. Only the Coccoz woman looks a little fatter than she used to be. And the idea of a woman that was taken in here out of pure charity coming to show off her velvets and diamonds in a carriage with a crest painted on it! Isn’t it shameful!”
“Therese!” I cried, in a terrible voice, “if you ever speak to me again about that lady except in terms of the deepest respect, you and I will fall out! . . . Bring me the Sevres vases to put those violets in, which now give the City of Books a charm it never had before.”
While Therese went off with a sigh to get the Sevres vases, I continued to contemplate those beautiful scattered violets, whose odour spread all about me like the perfume of some sweet presence, some charming soul; and I asked myself how it had been possible for me never to recognise Madame Coccoz in the person of the Princess Trepof. But that vision of the young widow, showing me her little child on the stairs, had been a very rapid one. I had much more reason to reproach myself for having passed by a gracious and lovely soul without knowing it.
“Bonnard,” I said to myself, “thou knowest how to decipher old texts; but thou dost not know how to read in the Book of Life. That giddy little Madame Trepof, whom thou once believed to possess no more soul than a bird, has expended, in pure gratitude, more zeal and finer tact than thou didst ever show for anybody’s sake. Right royally hath she repaid thee for the log-fire of her churching-day!
“Therese! Awhile ago you were a magpie; now you are becoming a tortoise! Come and give some water to these Parmese violets.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54