Every Friday, regularly, at about eleven o’clock in the morning, he came into the courtyard, put down his soft hat at his feet, struck a few chords on his guitar and then began a ballad in his full, rich voice. And soon at every window in the four sides of that dull, barrack-like building, some girls appeared, one in an elegant dressing gown, another in a little jacket, most of them with their breasts and arms bare, all of them just out of bed, with their hair hastily twisted up, their eyes blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight, their complexions dull and their eyes still heavy from want of sleep.
They swayed themselves backwards and forwards to his slow melody, and gave themselves up to the enjoyment of it, and coppers, and even silver, poured into the handsome singer’s hat, and more than one of them would have liked to have followed the penny which she threw to him, and to have gone with the singer who had the voice of a siren, and who seemed to say to all these amorous girls; “Come, come to my retreat, where you will find a palace of crystal and gold, and wreaths which are always fresh, and happiness and love which never die.”
That was what they seemed to hear, those unhappy girls, when they heard him sing the songs of the old legends, which they had formerly believed. That was what they understood by the foolish words of the ballad. Then and nothing else, for how could any one doubt it, on seeing the fresh roses on their cheeks, and the tender flame which flickered like a mystic night-light in their eyes, which had, for the moment, become the eyes of innocent young girls again? But of young girls, who had grown up very quickly, alas! who were very precocious, and who very soon became the women that they were, poor vendors of love, always in search of love for which they were paid.
That was why, when he had finished his second ballad, and sometimes even sooner, concupiscent looks appeared in their eyes. The boatman of their dreams, the water-sprite of fairy tales, vanished in the mist of their childish recollections, and the singer re-assumed his real shape, that of musician and strolling player, whom they wished to pay, to be their lover. And the coppers and small silver were showered on him again, with engaging smiles, with the leers of a street-walker, even with: “p’st, p’st,” which soon transformed the barrack-like courtyard into an enormous cage full of twittering birds, while some of them could not restrain themselves, but said aloud, rolling their eyes with desire: “How handsome the creature is! Good heavens, how handsome he is!”
He was really handsome, and nobody could deny it, and even too handsome, with a regular beauty which almost palled on people. He had large, almond-shaped, gentle eyes, a Grecian nose, a bow-shaped mouth, hidden by a heavy moustache, and long, black, curly hair; in short, a head fit to be put into a hair-dresser’s window, or, better still, perhaps, onto the front page of the ballads which he was singing. But what made him still handsomer, was that his self-conceit had a look of sovereign indifference for he was not satisfied with not replying to the smiles, the ogles, and the p’st, p’st’s, by taking no notice of them; but when he had finished he shrugged his shoulders, he winked mischievously, and turned his lips contemptuously, which said very clearly: “The stove is not being heated for you, my little kittens!”
Often, one might have thought that he expressly wished to show his contempt, and that he tried to make himself thought unpoetical in the eyes of all those amorous girls, and to check their love, for he cleared his throat ostentatiously and offensively, more than was necessary, after singing, as if he would have liked to spit at them. But all that did not make him unpoetical in their eyes, and many of them, most of them, who were absolutely mad on him, went so far as to say that he did it like a swell!
The girl, who in her enthusiasm had been the first to utter that exclamation of intense passion, and who, after throwing him small silver, had thrown him a twenty-franc gold piece, at last made up her mind to have an explanation. Instead of a p’st, p’st, she spoke to him boldly one morning, in the presence of all the others, who religiously held their tongues.
“Come up here,” she called out to him, and from habit she added: “I will be very nice, you handsome dark fellow.”
At first they were dumbfounded at her audacity, and then all their cheeks flushed with jealousy, and the flame of mad desire shot from their eyes, from every window there came a perfect torrent of:
“Yes, come up, come up.” “Don’t go to her! Come to me.”
And, meanwhile, there was a shower of half-pence, of francs, of gold coins, as well as of cigars and oranges, while lace pocket handkerchiefs, silk neckties, and scarfs fluttered in the air and fell round the singer, like a flight of many colored butterflies.
He picked up the spoil calmly, almost carelessly, stuffed the money into his pocket, made a bundle of the furbelows, which he tied up as if they had been soiled linen, and then raising himself up, and putting his felt hat on his head, he said:
“Thank you, ladies, but indeed I cannot.”
They thought that he did not know how to satisfy so many demands at once, and one of them said: “Let him choose.”
“Yes, yes, that is it!” they all exclaimed unanimously.
But he repeated: “I tell you, I cannot.”
They thought he was excusing himself out of gallantry, and several of them exclaimed, almost with tears of emotion: “Women are all heart!” And the same voice that had spoken before, (it was one of the girls who wished to settle the matter amicably), said: “We must draw lots.”
“Yes, yes, that is it,” they all cried. And again there was a religious silence, more religious than before, for it wras caused by anxiety, and the beatings of their hearts may have been heard.
The singer profited by it, to say slowly: “I cannot have that either; nor all of you at once, nor one after the other; nothing! I tell you that I cannot.”
“Why? Why?” And now they were almost screaming, for they were angry and sorry at the same time. Their cheeks had gone from scarlet to livid, their eyes flashed fire, and some shook their fists menacingly.
“Silence!” the girl cried, who had spoken first. “Be quiet, you pack of huzzys! Let him explain himself, and tell us why!”
“Yes, yes, let us be quiet! Make him explain himself in God’s name!”
Then, in the fierce silence that ensued, the singer said, opening his arms wide, with a gesture of despairing inability to do what they wanted:
“What do you want? It is very amusing, but I cannot do more. I have two girls of my own already, at home.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58