He said to us: “I saw some very funny things and some funny girls when I was a boatman, and I have often been tempted to write a little book to be called On the Seine, telling all about that careless and vigorous, that merry and poor life, a life of robust and noisy enjoyment, which I led from the time I was twenty until I was thirty.
“I was a mere understrapper without a half-penny, and now I am a man who has made his money, who has spent large sums on a momentary caprice. In my heart, I had a thousand modest and unrealizable desires which gilded my existence with imaginary hopes, though now, I really do not know that any fancy would make me get out of my armchair where I am dozing. How simple and nice and good it is to live like this, between my office in Paris, and the river at Argenteuil. For ten years, the Seine was my only, my absorbing passion. Ah! that beautiful, calm, diversified and stinking river, full of mirage and filth. I think I loved it so much because it seemed to give me a sense of life. Oh! what walks I had along the grassy banks, where my friends the frogs were dreaming on the leaf of a nenuphar, and where the coquettish and delicate water lilies suddenly opened to me, behind a willow, a leaf of a Japanese album, and when the kingfisher flashed past me like a blue flame! How I loved it all, with the instinctive love of eyes which seemed to be all over my body, and with a natural and profound joy.
“Just as other men keep the recollection of sweet and tender nights, so I remember sunrises in the morning mist, floating, wandering vapors, which were as pale as death, before the sun rose, and then as its first rays glided over the meadows, lighted up with a rosy tint, which delighted the heart. And then again, I have recollections of the moon silvering the running, trembling water, with a brightness which made dreams flourish. And all this, the symbol of eternal illusions, rose up in me on that turbid water, which was carrying all the filth of Paris towards the sea.
“And then, what a merry life it was, with my companions. There were five of us, a band of grave men we are now; and as we were all poor, we had founded an inexpressible colony in a horrible eating house at Argenteuil, and which possessed only one bedroom, where I have certainly spent some of the maddest nights of my life. We cared for nothing except for amusing ourselves and rowing, for we all worshiped the oar, with one exception. I remember such singular adventures, such unlikely tricks invented by those five rascals, that no one would believe them at present. People do not live like that any longer, even on the Seine, for our mad fancies which we kept up, have died out now.
“We five only possessed one boat, which we had bought with great difficulty, and on which we laughed, as we shall never laugh again. It was a large yawl, called The Leaf Turned Upside Down, rather heavy, but spacious and comfortable. I shall not describe my companions to you. There was one little fellow, called Petit Bleu, who was very sharp; a tall man, with a savage look, gray eyes and black hair, who was nick-named Tomahawk, the only one who never touched an oar, as he said he should upset the boat; a slender, elegant man, who was very careful about his person, and whom we called Only–One-Eye, in remembrance of a recent story about Cladel, and because he wore a single eyeglass, and, lastly, I, who had been baptized Joseph Prunier. We lived together in perfect harmony, and our only regret was that we had no boatwoman, for a woman’s presence is almost indispensable on a boat, because it keeps the men’s wits and hearts on the alert, because it animates them, and wakes them up and she looks well walking on the green banks with a red parasol. But we did not want an ordinary boatwoman for us five, for we were not very like the rest of the world. We wanted something unexpected, funny, ready for everything, something, in short, which it would be almost impossible to find. We had tried many without success, girls who had held the tiller, imbecile boatwomen who always preferred wine that intoxicates to water which flows and carries the yawls. We kept them for one Sunday, and then got rid of them in disgust.
“Well, one Saturday afternoon, Only–One-Eye brought us a little thin, lively, jumping, chattering girl, full of drollery, of that drollery which is the substitute for wit among the youthful male and female workpeople who have developed in the streets of Paris. She was nice looking without being pretty, the outline of a woman who had some of everything, one of those silhouettes which draftsmen draw in three strokes on the table in a café after dinner, between a glass of brandy and a cigarette. Nature is like that, sometimes.
“The first evening she surprised us, amused us, and we could not form any opinion about her, so unexpectedly had she come among us; but having fallen into this nest of men, who were all ready for any folly, she was soon mistress of the situation, and the very next day she made a conquest of each one of us. She was quite cracked, into the bargain, and must have been born with a glass of absinthe in her stomach, which her mother drank at the moment she was being delivered, and she never got sober since, for her wet nurse, so she said, recruited her strength with draughts of rum, and she never called the bottles which were standing in a line at the back of the wine merchant’s shop anything but ‘My holy family.’
“I do not know which of us gave her the name of Fly, nor why it was given her, but it suited her very well, and stuck to her, and our yawl every week carried five merry, strong young fellows on the Seine between Asnières and Maison Lafitte, who were ruled from under a parasol of colored paper, by a lively and madcap young person, who treated us like slaves whose business it was to row her about, and whom we were all very fond of.
“We were all very fond of her, for a thousand reasons first of all, but for only one, afterwards. In the stern of our boat, she was a kind of small word mill, chattering to the wind which blew on the water. She chattered ceaselessly, with that slight, continuous noise of those pieces of winged mechanism which turn in the breeze, and she thoughtlessly said the most unexpected, the funniest, the most astonishing things. In that mind, all the parts of which seemed dissimilar, like rags of all kinds and of every color, not sewn, but merely tacked together, there appeared to be as much imagination as in a fairy tale, a good deal of coarseness, indecency, impudence and of the unexpected, and as much breeziness and landscapes as in a balloon voyage.
“We put questions to her, in order to call forth answers which she had found, no one could tell where, and the one with which we teased her most frequently was: ‘Why are you called Fly?’ And she gave us such unlikely reasons that we left off rowing, in order to laugh. But she pleased us also as a woman; and La Toque, who never rowed, and who sat by her side at the tiller the whole day long, once replied to the usual question: ‘Why are you called Fly?’ ‘Because she is a little Spanish fly.’
“Yes, a little buzzing, exciting fly, not the classical, poisonous, brilliant and mantled Spanish fly, but a little Spanish fly with red wings, which began to disturb the whole crew of The Leaf Turned Upside Down. And what stupid jokes were also made about this leaf where this fly had alighted!
“Since the arrival of Fly on our boat, Only–One-Eye had taken a leading, superior part among us, the part of a gentleman who has a wife, towards four others who have not got one, and he abused that privilege so far as to kiss Fly in our presence, when he put her on his knee after meals, and by other prerogatives, which were as humiliating as they were irritating.
“They had been isolated in the sleeping-room by means of a curtain, but I soon perceived that my companions and I had the same arguments in our minds, in our solitude: ‘Why, and in virtue of what law of exception, or of what unacceptable principle, should Fly, who does not appear troubled by any prejudices, remain faithful to her lover, while wives in the best are not faithful to their husbands.’
“Our reflections were quite right, and we were soon convinced of it, and we ought only to have made them sooner, so as not to have needed to regret any lost time, for Fly deceived Only–One-Eye, with all the others of the crew of the Leaf Turned Upside Down, and she deceived him without making any difficulties, without any resistance, the first time any of us asked her.
“Of course, modest people will be terribly shocked! But why? What courtesan who happens to be in the fashion, but has a dozen lovers, and which of those lovers is stupid enough not to know it? Is it not the correct thing to have an evening at the house of a celebrated and marked courtesan, just as one has an evening at the Opéra, the Théâtre Français or the Odeon? Ten men subscribe together to keep a mistress just as they do to possess a race horse, which only one jockey mounts, and this is a correct picture of the favored lover who does not pay anything.
“From delicacy they left Fly to Only–One-Eye from Saturday night to Monday morning, and we only deceived him during the week, in Paris, from the Seine, which, for boatmen like us, was hardly deceiving him at all. The situation had this peculiarity, that the four freebooters of Fly’s favors were quite aware of this partition of her among themselves, and that they spoke of it to each other, and even then, with allusions that made her laugh very much. Only–One-Eye alone seemed to know nothing, and that peculiar position gave rise to some embarrassment between him and us, and seemed to separate him from us, to isolate him, to raise a barrier across our former confidence and our former intimacy. That gave him a difficult and a rather ridiculous part to play towards us, the part of a deceived lover, almost a husband’s part.
“As he was very clever and gifted with the special faculty of not showing what he felt, we sometimes asked each other whether he did not guess anything, and he took care to let us know, in a manner that was painful for us. We were going to breakfast at Bougival, and we were rowing vigorously, when La Toque, who had, that morning, the triumphant look of a man who was satisfied, and who, sitting by the steers-woman, seemed to squeeze himself rather too close to her, in our estimation, stopped the rowing by calling out: ‘Stop!’
“The four oars were drawn out of the water, and then, turning to his neighbor, he said to her: ‘Why were you called Fly?’ But before she could reply, the voice of Only–One-Eye, who was sitting in the bows, said dryly: ‘Because she settles on all the carrion.’
“There was a dead silence, and an embarrassed pause, which was followed by an inclination to laugh, while Fly herself looked very much confused, and La Toque gave the order: ‘Row on, all;’ and the boat started again. The incident was closed, and light let in upon the subject, and that little adventure made no difference in our habits, but it only re-established cordiality between Only–One-Eye and us. He once more became the honored proprietor of the Fly from Saturday night until Monday morning, as his superiority over all of us had been thoroughly established by that definition, which, moreover, closed one of the questions about the word Fly. For the future we were satisfied with playing the secondary part of grateful and polite friends who profited discreetly by the week days, without any contention of any kind among ourselves.
“That answered very well for about three months, but then suddenly Fly assumed a strange attitude towards us. She was less merry, nervous, uneasy, and almost irritable, and we frequently asked her: ‘What is the matter with you?’ And she replied: ‘Nothing; leave me alone.’
“Only–One-Eye told us what was the matter with her, one Saturday evening. We had just sat down to table in the little dining-room which our eating house keeper, Barbichon, reserved for us at his inn, and, the soup being finished, we were waiting for the fried fish, when our friend, who also appeared thoughtful, took Fly’s hand and said: ‘My dear comrades, I have a very grave communication to make to you, and one that may, perhaps, give rise to a prolonged discussion, but we shall have to argue between the courses. Poor Fly has announced a piece of disastrous news to me, and at the same time has asked me to tell it to you: She is pregnant, and I will only add two words. This is not the moment to abandon her, and it is forbidden to try and find out who is the father.’1
1 La recherche de la paternité est interdite. A celebrated clause in the Code Napoleon, whereby a man cannot be made chargeable for a bastard. — TRANSLATOR.]
“At first we were stupefied, and felt as if some disaster had befallen us, and we looked at each other with the longing to accuse some one, but whom? Oh! Which of us? I have never felt as I did at that moment, the perfidy of that cruel joke of nature, which never allows a man to know for certainty whether he is the father of his child. Then, however, by degrees a sort of feeling of consolation came over us and gave us comfort, which sprung from a confused idea of joint responsibility.
“Tomahawk, who spoke but little, formulated a beginning of reassurance by these words: ‘Well, so much the worse, by Jove: Union is Strength, however.’ At that moment a scullion brought in the fried gudgeons, but they did not fall to on them like they generally did, for they all had the same trouble on their mind, and Only–One-Eye continued: ‘Under these circumstances she has had the delicacy to confess everything to me. My friends, we are all equally guilty, so let us shake hands and adopt the child.’
“That was decided upon unanimously; they raised their hands to the dish of fried fish and swore: ‘We will adopt it.’ Then, when she was thus suddenly saved, and delivered from the weight of the terrible anxiety that had been tormenting her for a month, this pretty, crazy, poor child of love, Fly, exclaimed: ‘Oh! my friends! my friends! You have kind, good hearts . . . good hearts. . . . Thank you, all of you!’ And she shed tears for the first time before us all.
“From that time we spoke in the boat about the child, as if it were already born, and each of us took an exaggerated interest, because of our share in the matter, in the slow and regular development of our mistress’s waist, and we stopped rowing in order to say: ‘Fly?’ ‘Here I am,’ she replied. ‘Boy or girl?’ ‘Boy.’ ‘What will he be when he grows up?’
“Then she indulged in the most fantastic flights of fancy. They were interminable stories, astounding inventions, from the day of his birth until his final triumph. In the unsophisticated, passionate and moving fancy of this extraordinary little creature, who now lived chastely in the midst of us five, whom she called ‘her five papas.’ She saw him as a sailor, and told us that he would discover another America; as a general, restoring Alsace and Lorraine to France, then as an emperor, founding a dynasty of wise and generous rulers who would bestow settled welfare on our country; then as a learned man and natural philosopher, revealing, first of all, the secret of the manufacture of gold, then that of living forever; then as an aeronaut, who invented the means of soaring up to the stars, and of making the skies an immense promenade for men; the realization of the most unforeseen and magnificent dreams.
“How nice and how amusing she was, poor little girl, until the end of the summer, but the twentieth of September dissipated her dream. We had come back from breakfasting at the Maison Lafitte and were passing Saint–Germain, when she felt thirsty and asked us to stop at Pecq.
“For some time past, she had been getting very heavy, and that inconvenienced her very much. She could not run about as she used to do, nor jump from the boat to the shore, as she had formerly done. She would try, in spite of our warnings and efforts to stop her, and she would have fallen a dozen times, had it not been that our restraining arms kept her back. On that day, she was imprudent enough to wish to land before the boat had stopped; it was one of those pieces of bravado by which athletes, who are ill or tired, sometimes kill themselves, and at the very moment when we were going to come alongside, she got up, took a spring and tried to jump onto the landing-stage. She was not strong enough, however, and only just touched the stones with her foot, struck the sharp angle with her stomach, uttered a cry and disappeared into the water.
“We all five plunged in at the same moment, and pulled out the poor, fainting woman, who was as pale as death, and was already suffering terrible pain, and we carried her as quickly as possible to the nearest inn, and sent for a medical man. For the six hours that her miscarriage lasted, she suffered the most terrible pain with the courage of a heroine, while we were grieving round her, feverish with anxiety and fear. Then she was delivered of a dead child, and for some days we were in the greatest fear for her life; at last, however, the doctor said to us one morning: ‘I think her life is saved. That girl is made of steel,’ and we all of us went into her room, with radiant hearts, and Only–One-Eye, as spokesman for us all, said to her: ‘The danger is all over, little Fly, and we are all happy again.’
“Then, for the second time, she wept in our presence, and, with her eyes full of tears, she said, hesitatingly:
“‘Oh! If you only knew, if you only knew . . . what a grief it is . . . what a grief it is to me . . . I shall never get over it.’ ‘Over what, little Fly?’ ‘Over having killed it, for I did kill it! Oh! Without intending to! Oh! how grieved I am! . . . ’
“She was sobbing, and we stood round, deeply touched, but without knowing what to say, and she went on: ‘Have you seen it?’ And we replied with one voice: ‘Yes.’ ‘It was a boy, was it not?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Beautiful, was it not?’ We hesitated a good deal, but Petit–Bleu, who was less scrupulous than the rest of us, made up his mind to affirm it, and said: ‘Very beautiful.’
“He committed a mistake, however, for she began to sob, and almost to scream with grief, and Only–One-Eye, who perhaps loved her more than the rest of us did, had a happy thought. Kissing her eyes, that were dimmed with tears, he said: ‘Console yourself, little Fly, console yourself; we will make another for you.’
“Her innate sense of the ridiculous was suddenly excited, and half-convinced, and half-joking, still tearful and her heart sore with grief, she said, looking at us all: ‘Do you really mean it?’ And we replied all at once:
“‘We really mean it.’”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58