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THEY AND I (chapter12)

2006-09-08 21:22


    I am sorry the house is finished. There is a proverb: "Fools build houses for wise men to live in." It depends upon what you are after. The fool gets the fun, and the wise men the bricks and mortar. I remember a whimsical story I picked up at the bookstall of the Gare de Lyon. I read it between Paris and Fontainebleau many years ago. Three friends, youthful Bohemians, smoking their pipes after the meagre dinner of a cheap restaurant in the Latin Quarter, fell to thinking of their poverty, of the long and bitter struggle that lay before them.

    "My themes are so original," sighed the Musician. "It will take me a year of fete days to teach the public to understand them, even if ever I do succeed. And meanwhile I shall live unknown, neglected; watching the men without ideals passing me by in the race, splashed with the mud from their carriage-wheels as I beat the pavements with worn shoes. It is really a most unjust world."

    "An abominable world," agreed the Poet. "But think of me! My case is far harder than yours. Your gift lies within you. Mine is to translate what lies around me; and that, for so far ahead as I can see, will always be the shadow side of life. To develop my genius to its fullest I need the sunshine of existence. My soul is being starved for lack of the beautiful things of life. A little of the wealth that vulgar people waste would make a great poet for France. It is not only of myself that I am thinking."

    The Painter laughed. "I cannot soar to your heights," he said. "Frankly speaking, it is myself that chiefly appeals to me. Why not? I give the world Beauty, and in return what does it give me? This dingy restaurant, where I eat ill-flavoured food off hideous platters, a foul garret giving on to chimney-pots. After long years of ill-requited labour I may-as others have before me——come into my kingdom: possess my studio in the Champs Elysees, my fine house at Neuilly; but the prospect of the intervening period, I confess, appals me."

    Absorbed in themselves, they had not noticed that a stranger, seated at a neighbouring table, had been listening with attention. He rose and, apologising with easy grace for intrusion into a conversation he could hardly have avoided overhearing, requested permission to be of service. The restaurant was dimly lighted; the three friends on entering had chosen its obscurest corner. The Stranger appeared to be well-dressed; his voice and bearing suggested the man of affairs; his face——what feeble light there was being behind him——remained in shadow.

    The three friends eyed him furtively: possibly some rich but eccentric patron of the arts; not beyond the bounds of speculation that he was acquainted with their work, had read the Poet's verses in one of the minor magazines, had stumbled upon some sketch of the Painter's while bargain-hunting among the dealers of the Quartier St. Antoine, been struck by the beauty of the Composer's Nocturne in F heard at some student's concert; having made enquiries concerning their haunts, had chosen this method of introducing himself. The young men made room for him with feelings of hope mingled with curiosity. The affable Stranger called for liqueurs, and handed round his cigar-case. And almost his first words brought them joy.

    "Before we go further," said the smiling Stranger, "it is my pleasure to inform you that all three of you are destined to become great."

    The liqueurs to their unaccustomed palates were proving potent. The Stranger's cigars were singularly aromatic. It seemed the most reasonable thing in the world that the Stranger should be thus able to foretell to them their future.

    "Fame, fortune will be yours," continued the agreeable Stranger. "All things delightful will be to your hand: the adoration of women, the honour of men, the incense of Society, joys spiritual and material, beauteous surroundings, choice foods, all luxury and ease, the world your pleasure-ground."

    The stained walls of the dingy restaurant were fading into space before the young men's eyes. They saw themselves as gods walking in the garden of their hearts' desires.

    "But, alas," went on the Stranger——and with the first note of his changed voice the visions vanished, the dingy walls came back——"these things take time. You will, all three, be well past middle-age before you will reap the just reward of your toil and talents. Meanwhile——" the sympathetic Stranger shrugged his shoulders——"it is the old story: genius spending its youth battling for recognition against indifference, ridicule, envy; the spirit crushed by its sordid environment, the drab monotony of narrow days. There will be winter nights when you will tramp the streets, cold, hungry, forlorn; summer days when you will hide in your attics, ashamed of the sunlight on your ragged garments; chill dawns when you will watch wild-eyed the suffering of those you love, helpless by reason of your poverty to alleviate their pain."

    The Stranger paused while the ancient waiter replenished the empty glasses. The three friends drank in silence.

    "I propose," said the Stranger, with a pleasant laugh, "that we pass over this customary period of probation——that we skip the intervening years——arrive at once at our true destination."

    The Stranger, leaning back in his chair, regarded the three friends with a smile they felt rather than saw. And something about the Stranger——they could not have told themselves what——made all things possible.

    "A quite simple matter," the Stranger assured them. "A little sleep and a forgetting, and the years lie behind us. Come, gentlemen. Have I your consent?"

    It seemed a question hardly needing answer. To escape at one stride the long, weary struggle; to enter without fighting into victory! The young men looked at one another. And each one, thinking of his gain, bartered the battle for the spoil.

    It seemed to them that suddenly the lights went out; and a darkness like a rushing wind swept past them, filled with many sounds. And then forgetfulness. And then the coming back of light.

    They were seated at a table, glittering with silver and dainty chinaware, to which the red wine in Venetian goblets, the varied fruit and flowers, gave colour. The room, furnished too gorgeously for taste, they judged to be a private cabinet in one of the great restaurants. Of such interiors they had occasionally caught glimpses through open windows on summer nights. It was softly illuminated by shaded lamps. The Stranger's face was still in shadow. But what surprised each of the three most was to observe opposite him two more or less bald-headed gentlemen of somewhat flabby appearance, whose features, however, in some mysterious way appeared familiar. The Stranger had his wine-glass raised in his hand.

    "Our dear Paul," the Stranger was saying, "has declined, with his customary modesty, any public recognition of his triumph. He will not refuse three old friends the privilege of offering him their heartiest congratulations. Gentlemen, I drink not only to our dear Paul, but to the French Academy, which in honouring him has honoured France."

    The Stranger, rising from his chair, turned his piercing eyes——the only part of him that could be clearly seen——upon the astonished Poet. The two elderly gentlemen opposite, evidently as bewildered as Paul himself, taking their cue from the Stranger, drained their glasses. Still following the Stranger's lead, leant each across the table and shook him warmly by the hand.

    "I beg pardon," said the Poet, "but really I am afraid I must have been asleep. Would it sound rude to you"——he addressed himself to the Stranger: the faces of the elderly gentlemen opposite did not suggest their being of much assistance to him——"if I asked you where I was?"

    Again there flickered across the Stranger's face the smile that was felt rather than seen. "You are in a private room of the Cafe Pretali," he answered. "We are met this evening to celebrate your recent elevation into the company of the Immortals."

    "Oh," said the Poet, "thank you."

    "The Academy," continued the Stranger, "is always a little late in these affairs. Myself, I could have wished your election had taken place ten years ago, when all France——all France that counts, that is——was talking of you. At fifty-three"——the Stranger touched lightly with his fingers the Poet's fat hand——"one does not write as when the sap was running up, instead of down."

    Slowly, memory of the dingy cafe in the Rue St. Louis, of the strange happening that took place there that night when he was young, crept back into the Poet's brain. "Would you mind," said the Poet, "would it be troubling you too much to tell me something of what has occurred to me?"

    "Not in the least," responded the agreeable Stranger. "Your career has been most interesting——for the first few years chiefly to yourself. You married Marguerite. You remember Marguerite?"

    The Poet remembered her.

    "A mad thing to do, so most people would have said," continued the Stranger. "You had not a sou between you. But, myself, I think you were justified. Youth comes to us but once. And at twenty-five our business is to live. Undoubtedly the marriage helped you. You lived an idyllic existence, for a time, in a tumble-down cottage at Suresnes, with a garden that went down to the river. Poor, of course you were; poor as church mice. But who fears poverty when hope and love are singing on the bough! I really think quite your best work was done during those years at Suresnes. Ah, the sweetness, the tenderness of it! There has been nothing like it in French poetry. It made no mark at the time; but ten years later the public went mad about it. She was dead then. Poor child, it had been a hard struggle. And, as you may remember, she was always fragile. Yet even in her death I think she helped you. There entered a new note into your poetry, a depth that had hitherto been wanting. It was the best thing that ever came to you, your love for Marguerite."

    The Stranger refilled his glass, and passed the decanter. But the Poet left the wine unheeded.

    "And then, ah, yes, then followed that excursion into politics. Those scathing articles you wrote for La Liberte! It is hardly an exaggeration to say that they altered the whole aspect of French political thought. Those wonderful speeches you made during your election campaign at Angers. How the people worshipped you! You might have carried your portfolio had you persisted. But you poets are such restless fellows. And after all, I daresay you have really accomplished more by your plays. You remember——no, of course, how could you?——the first night of La Conquette. Shall I ever forget it! I have always reckoned that the crown of your career. Your marriage with Madame Deschenelle——I do not think it was for the public good. Poor Deschenelle's millions——is it not so? Poetry and millions interfere with one another. But a thousand pardons, my dear Paul. You have done so much. It is only right you should now be taking your ease. Your work is finished."

    The Poet does not answer. Sits staring before him with eyes turned inward. The Painter, the Musician: what did the years bring to them? The Stranger tells them also of all that they have lost: of the griefs and sorrows, of the hopes and fears they have never tasted, of their tears that ended in laughter, of the pain that gave sweetness to joy, of the triumphs that came to them in the days before triumph had lost its savour, of the loves and the longings and fervours they would never know. All was ended. The Stranger had given them what he had promised, what they had desired: the gain without the getting.

    Then they break out.

    "What is it to me," cries the Painter, "that I wake to find myself wearing the gold medal of the Salon, robbed of the memory of all by which it was earned?"

    The Stranger points out to him that he is illogical; such memories would have included long vistas of meagre dinners in dingy restaurants, of attic studios, of a life the chief part of which had been passed amid ugly surroundings. It was to escape from all such that he had clamoured. The Poet is silent.

    "I asked but for recognition," cries the Musician, "that men might listen to me; not for my music to be taken from me in exchange for the recompense of a successful tradesman. My inspiration is burnt out; I feel it. The music that once filled my soul is mute."

    "It was born of the strife and anguish," the Stranger tells him, "of the loves that died, of the hopes that faded, of the beating of youth's wings against the bars of sorrow, of the glory and madness and torment called Life, of the struggle you shrank from facing."

    The Poet takes up the tale.

    "You have robbed us of Life," he cries. "You tell us of dead lips whose kisses we have never felt, of songs of victory sung to our deaf ears. You have taken our fires, you have left us but the ashes."

    "The fires that scorch and sear," the Stranger adds, "the lips that cried in their pain, the victory bought of wounds."

    "It is not yet too late," the Stranger tells them. "All this can be but a troubled dream, growing fainter with each waking moment. Will you buy back your Youth at the cost of ease? Will you buy back Life at the price of tears?"

    They cry with one voice, "Give us back our Youth with its burdens, and a heart to bear them! Give us back Life with its mingled bitter and sweet!"

    Then suddenly the Stranger stands revealed before them. They see that he is Life——Life born of battle, Life made strong by endeavour, Life learning song from suffering.

    There follows more talk; which struck me, when I read the story, as a mistake; for all that he tells them they have now learnt: that life to be enjoyed must be lived; that victory to be sweet must be won.

    They awake in the dingy cafe in the Rue St. Louis. The ancient waiter is piling up the chairs preparatory to closing the shutters. The Poet draws forth his small handful of coins; asks what is to pay. "Nothing," the waiter answers. A stranger who sat with them and talked awhile before they fell asleep has paid the bill. They look at one another, but no one speaks.

    The streets are empty. A thin rain is falling. They turn up the collars of their coats; strike out into the night. And as their footsteps echo on the glistening pavement it comes to each of them that they are walking with a new, brave step.

    I feel so sorry for Dick——for the tens of thousands of happy, healthy, cared-for lads of whom Dick is the type. There must be millions of youngsters in the world who have never known hunger, except as an appetiser to their dinner; who have never felt what it was to be tired, without the knowledge that a comfortable bed was awaiting them.

    To the well-to-do man or woman life is one perpetual nursery. They are wakened in the morning——not too early, not till the nursery has been swept out and made ready, and the fire lighted——awakened gently with a cup of tea to give them strength and courage for this great business of getting up——awakened with whispered words, lest any sudden start should make their little heads ache——the blinds carefully arranged to exclude the naughty sun, which otherwise might shine into their little eyes and make them fretful. The water, with the nasty chill off, is put ready for them; they wash their little hands and faces, all by themselves! Then they are shaved and have their hair done; their little hands are manicured, their little corns cut for them. When they are neat and clean, they toddle into breakfast; they are shown into their little chairs, their little napkins handed to them; the nice food that is so good for them is put upon their little plates; the drink is poured out for them into their cups. If they want to play, there is the day nursery. They have only to tell kind nurse what game it is they fancy. The toys are at once brought out. The little gun is put into their hand; the little horse is dragged forth from its corner, their little feet carefully placed in the stirrups. The little ball and bat is taken from its box.

    Or they will take the air, as the wise doctor has ordered. The little carriage will be ready in five minutes; the nice warm cloak is buttoned round them, the footstool placed beneath their feet, the cushion at their back.

    The day is done. The games have been played; the toys have been taken from their tired hands, put back into the cupboard. The food that is so good for them, that makes them strong little men and women, has all been eaten. They have been dressed for going out into the pretty Park, undressed and dressed again for going out to tea with the little boys and girls next door; undressed and dressed again for the party. They have read their little book? have seen a little play, have looked at pretty pictures. The kind gentleman with the long hair has played the piano to them. They have danced. Their little feet are really quite tired. The footman brings them home. They are put into their little nighties. The candle is blown out, the nursery door is softly closed.

    Now and again some restless little man, wearying of the smug nursery, will run out past the garden gate, and down the long white road; will find the North Pole or, failing that, the South Pole, or where the Nile rises, or how it feels to fly; will climb the Mountains of the Moon——do anything, go anywhere, to escape from Nurse Civilisation's everlasting apron strings. Or some queer little woman, wondering where the people come from, will run and run till she comes to the great town, watch in wonder the strange folk that sweat and groan——the peaceful nursery, with the toys, the pretty frocks never quite the same again to her.

    But to the nineteen-twentieths of the well-to-do the world beyond the nursery is an unknown land. Terrible things occur out there to little men and women who have no pretty nursery to live in. People push and shove you about, will even tread on your toes if you are not careful. Out there is no kind, strong Nurse Bank-Balance to hold one's little hand, and see that no harm comes to one. Out there, one has to fight one's own battles. Often one is cold and hungry, out there.

    One has to fend for oneself, out there; earn one's dinner before one eats it, never quite sure of the week after next. Terrible things take place, out there: strain and contest and fierce endeavour; the ways are full of dangers and surprises; folk go up, folk go down; you have to set your teeth and fight. Well-to-do little men and women shudder. Draw down the nursery blinds.

    Robina had a little dog. It led the usual dog's life: slept in a basket on an eiderdown cushion, sheltered from any chance draught by silk curtains; its milk warmed and sweetened; its cosy chair reserved for it, in winter, near the fire; in summer, where the sun might reach it; its three meals a day that a gourmet might have eaten gladly; its very fleas taken off its hands.

    And twice a year still extra care was needed, lest it should wantonly fling aside its days and nights of luxurious ease, claim its small share of the passion and pain that go to the making of dogs and men. For twice a year there came a wind, salt with the brine of earth's ceaseless tides, whispering to it of a wondrous land whose sharpest stones are sweeter than the silken cushions of all the world without.

    One winter's night there was great commotion. Babette was nowhere to be found. We were living in the country, miles away from everywhere. "Babette, Babette," cried poor frenzied Robina; and for answer came only the laughter of the wind, pausing in his game of romps with the snowflakes. Next morning an old woman from the town four miles away brought back Babette at the end of a string. Oh, such a soaked, bedraggled Babette! The old woman had found her crouching in a doorway, a bewildered little heap of palpitating femininity; and, reading the address upon her collar, and may be scenting a not impossible reward, had thought she might as well earn it for herself.

    Robina was shocked, disgusted. To think that Babette——dainty, petted, spoilt Babette——should have chosen of her own accord to go down into the mud and darkness of the vulgar town; to leave her curtained eiderdown to tramp the streets like any drab! Robina, to whom Babette had hitherto been the ideal dog, moved away to hide her tears of vexation. The old dame smiled. She had borne her good man eleven, so she told us. It had been a hard struggle, and some had gone down, and some were dead; but some, thank God, were doing well.

    The old dame wished us good day; but as she turned to go an impulse seized her. She crossed to where Babette, ashamed, yet half defiant, sat a wet, woeful little image on the hearthrug, stooped and lifted the little creature in her thin, worn arms.

    "It's trouble you've brought yourself," said the old dame. "You couldn't help it, could you?"

    Babette's little pink tongue stole out.

    "We understand, we know——we Mothers," they seemed to be saying to one another.

    And so the two kissed.

    I think the terrace will be my favourite spot. Ethelbertha thinks, too, that on sunny days she will like to sit there. From it, through an opening I have made in the trees, I can see the cottage just a mile away at the edge of the wood. Young Bute tells me it is the very place he has been looking for. Most of his time, of course, he has to pass in town, but his Fridays to Mondays he likes to spend in the country. Maybe I shall hand it over to him. St. Leonard's chimneys we can also see above the trees. Dick tells me he has quite made up his mind to become a farmer. He thinks it would be a good plan, for a beginning, to go into partnership with St. Leonard. It is not unlikely that St. Leonard's restless temperament may prompt him eventually to tire of farming. He has a brother in Canada doing well in the lumber business, and St. Leonard often talks of the advantages of the colonies to a man who is bringing up a large family. shall be sorry to lose him as a neighbour; though I see the advantages, under certain possibilities, of Mrs. St. Leonard's address being Manitoba.

    Veronica also thinks the terrace may come to be her favourite resting-place.

    "I suppose," said Veronica, "that if anything was to happen to Robina, everything would fall on me."

    "It would be a change, Veronica," I suggested. "Hitherto it is you who have done most of the falling."

    "Suppose I've got to see about growing up," said Veronica.

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