by George du Maurier
With an Introduction by His Cousin Lady **** (“Madge Plunket”)
Edited and Illustrated by George Du Maurier
The writer of this singular autobiography was my cousin, who died at the —– Criminal Lunatic Asylum, of which he had been an inmate three years.
He had been removed thither after a sudden and violent attack of homicidal mania (which fortunately led to no serious consequences), from —– Jail, where he had spent twenty-five years, having been condemned to penal servitude for life, for the murder of —- —-, his relative.
He had been originally sentenced to death.
It was at —- Lunatic Asylum that he wrote these memoirs, and I received the MS. soon after his decease, with the most touching letter, appealing to our early friendship, and appointing me his literary executrix.
It was his wish that the story of his life should be published just as he had written it.
I have found it unadvisable to do this. It would revive, to no useful purpose, an old scandal, long buried and forgotten, and thereby give pain or annoyance to people who are still alive.
Nor does his memory require rehabilitation among those who knew him, or knew anything of him–the only people really concerned. His dreadful deed has long been condoned by all (and they are many) who knew the provocation he had received and the character of the man who had provoked him.
On mature consideration, and with advice, I resolved (in order that his dying wishes should not be frustrated altogether) to publish the memoir with certain alterations and emendations.
I have nearly everywhere changed the names of people and places; suppressed certain details, and omitted some passages of his life (most of the story of his school-days, for instance, and that of his brief career as a private in the Horse Guards) lest they should too easily lead to the identification and annoyance of people still alive, for he is strongly personal at times, and perhaps not always just; and some other events I have carefully paraphrased (notably his trial at the Old Bailey), and given for them as careful an equivalent as I could manage without too great a loss of verisimilitude.
I may as well state at once that, allowing for these alterations, every incident of his _natural_ life as described by himself is absolutely true, to the minutest detail, as I have been able to ascertain.
For the early part of it–the life at Passy he describes with such affection–I can vouch personally; I am the Cousin “Madge” to whom he once or twice refers.
I well remember the genial abode where he lived with his parents (my dear uncle and aunt); and the lovely “Madame Seraskier,” and her husband and daughter, and their house, “Parva sed Apta,” and “Major Duquesnois,” and the rest.
And although I have never seen him since he was twelve years old, when his parents died and he went to London (as most of my life has been spent abroad), I received occasional letters from him.
I have also been able to obtain much information about him from others, especially from a relative of the late “Mr. and Mrs. Lintot,” who knew him well, and from several officers in his regiment who remembered him; also from the “Vicar’s daughter,” whom he met at “Lady Cray’s” and who perfectly recollects the conversation she had with him at dinner, his sudden indisposition, and his long interview with the “Duchess of Towers,” under the ash-tree next morning; she was one of the croquet-players.
He was the most beautiful boy I ever saw, and so charming, lively, and amiable that everybody was fond of him. He had a horror of cruelty, especially to animals (quite singular in a boy of his age), and was very truthful and brave.
According to all accounts (and from a photograph in my possession), he grew up to be as handsome as a man can well be, a personal gift which he seems to have held of no account whatever, though he thought so much of it in others. But he also became singularly shy and reserved in manner, over-diffident and self-distrustful; of a melancholy disposition, loving solitude, living much alone, and taking nobody into his confidence; and yet inspiring both affection and respect. For he seems to have always been thoroughly gentlemanlike in speech, bearing, manner, and aspect.
It is possible, although he does not say so, that having first enlisted, and then entered upon a professional career under somewhat inauspicious conditions, he felt himself to have fallen away from the social rank (such as it was) that belonged to him by birth; and he may have found his associates uncongenial.
His old letters to me are charmingly open and effusive.
Of the lady whom (keeping her title and altering her name) I have called the “Duchess of Towers,” I find it difficult to speak. That they only met twice, and in the way he describes, is a fact about which there can be no doubt.
It is also indubitable that he received in Newgate, on the morning after his sentence to death, an envelope containing violets, and the strange message he mentions. Both letter and violets are in my possession, and the words are in her handwriting; about that there can be no mistake.
It is certain, moreover, that she separated from her husband almost immediately after my cousin’s trial and condemnation, and lived in comparative retirement from the world, as it is certain that he went suddenly mad, twenty-five years later, in —- Jail, a few hours after her tragic death, and before he could possibly have heard of it by the ordinary channels; and that he was sent to —- Asylum, where, after his frenzy had subsided, he remained for many days in a state of suicidal melancholia, until, to the surprise of all, he rose one morning in high spirits, and apparently cured of all serious symptoms of insanity; so he remained until his death. It was during the last year of his life that he wrote his autobiography, in French and English.
There is nothing to be surprised at, taking all the circumstances into consideration, that even so great a lady, the friend of queens and empresses, the bearer of a high title and an illustrious name, justly celebrated for her beauty and charm (and her endless charities), of blameless repute, and one of the most popular women in English society, should yet have conceived a very warm regard for my poor cousin; indeed, it was an open secret in the family of “Lord Cray” that she had done so. But for them she would have taken the whole world into her confidence.
After her death she left him what money had come to her from her father, which he disposed of for charitable ends, and an immense quantity of MS. in cipher–a cipher which is evidently identical with that he used himself in the annotations he put under innumerable sketches he was allowed to make during his long period of confinement, which (through her interest, and no doubt through his own good conduct) was rendered as bearable to him as possible. These sketches (which are very extraordinary) and her Grace’s MS. are now in my possession.
They constitute a mystery into which I have not dared to pry.
From papers belonging to both I have been able to establish beyond doubt the fact (so strangely discovered) of their descent from a common French ancestress, whose name I have but slightly modified and the tradition of whom still lingers in the “Departement de la Sarthe,” where she was a famous person a century ago; and her violin, a valuable Amati, now belongs to me.
Of the non-natural part of his story I will not say much.
It is, of course, a fact that he had been absolutely and, to all appearance, incurably insane before he wrote his life.
There seems to have been a difference of opinion, or rather a doubt, among the authorities of the asylum as to whether he was mad after the acute but very violent period of his brief attack had ended.
Whichever may have been the case, I am at least convinced of this: that he was no romancer, and thoroughly believed in the extraordinary mental experience he has revealed.
At the risk of being thought to share his madness–if he _was_ mad–I will conclude by saying that I, for one, believe him to have been sane, and to have told the truth all through.
I am but a poor scribe; ill-versed in the craft of wielding words and phrases, as the cultivated reader (if I should ever happen to have one) will no doubt very soon find out for himself.
I have been for many years an object of pity and contempt to all who ever gave me a thought–to all but _one_! Yet of all that ever lived on this earth I have been, perhaps, the happiest and most privileged, as that reader will discover if he perseveres to the end.
My outer and my inner life have been as the very poles–asunder; and if, at the eleventh hour, I have made up my mind to give my story to the world, it is not in order to rehabilitate myself in the eyes of my fellow-men, deeply as I value their good opinion; for I have always loved them and wished them well, and would fain express my goodwill and win theirs, if that were possible.
It is because the regions where I have found my felicity are accessible to all, and that many, better trained and better gifted, will explore them to far better purpose than I, and to the greater glory and benefit of mankind, when once I have given them the clew. Before I can do this, and in order to show how I came by this clew myself, I must tell, as well as I may, the tale of my checkered career–in telling which, moreover, I am obeying the last behest of one whose lightest wish was my law.
If I am more prolix than I need be, it must be set down to my want of experience in the art of literary composition–to a natural wish I have to show myself neither better nor worse than I believe myself to be; to the charm, the unspeakable charm, that personal reminiscences have for the person principally concerned, and which he cannot hope to impart, however keenly he may feel it, without gifts and advantages that have been denied to me.
And this leads me to apologize for the egotism of this Memoir, which is but an introduction to another and longer one that I hope to publish later. To write a story of paramount importance to mankind, it is true, but all about one’s outer and one’s inner self, to do this without seeming somewhat egotistical, requires something akin to genius–and I am but a poor scribe.
* * * * *
“_Combien j’ai douce souvenance
Du joli lieu de ma naissance_!”
These quaint lines have been running in my head at intervals through nearly all my outer life, like an oft-recurring burden in an endless ballad–sadly monotonous, alas! the ballad, which is mine; sweetly monotonous the burden, which is by Châteaubriand.
I sometimes think that to feel the full significance of this refrain one must have passed one’s childhood in sunny France, where it was written, and the remainder of one’s existence in mere London–or worse than mere London–as has been the case with me. If I had spent all my life from infancy upward in Bloomsbury, or Clerkenwell, or Whitechapel, my early days would be shorn of much of their retrospective glamour as I look back on them in these my after-years.
_”Combien j’ai douce souvenance!”_
It was on a beautiful June morning in a charming French garden, where the warm, sweet atmosphere was laden with the scent of lilac and syringa, and gay with butterflies and dragon-flies and humblebees, that I began my conscious existence with the happiest day of all my outer life.
It is true that I had vague memories (with many a blank between) of a dingy house in the heart of London, in a long street of desolating straightness, that led to a dreary square and back again, and nowhere else for me; and then of a troubled and exciting journey that seemed of jumbled days and nights. I could recall the blue stage-coach with the four tall, thin, brown horses, so quiet and modest and well-behaved; the red-coated guard and his horn; the red-faced driver and his husky voice and many capes.
Then the steamer with its glistening deck, so beautiful and white it seemed quite a desecration to walk upon it–this spotlessness did not last very long; and then two wooden piers with a light-house on each, and a quay, and blue-bloused workmen and red-legged little soldiers with mustaches, and bare-legged fisher-women, all speaking a language that I knew as well as the other commoner language I had left behind; but which I had always looked upon as an exclusive possession of my father’s and mother’s and mine for the exchange of sweet confidence and the bewilderment of outsiders; and here were little boys and girls in the street, quite common children, who spoke it as well and better than I did myself.
After this came the dream of a strange, huge, top-heavy vehicle, that seemed like three yellow carriages stuck together, and a mountain of luggage at the top under an immense black tarpaulin, which ended in a hood; and beneath the hood sat a blue-bloused man with a singular cap, like a concertina, and mustaches, who cracked a loud whip over five squealing, fussy, pugnacious white and gray horses, with bells on their necks and bushy fox-tails on their foreheads, and their own tails carefully tucked up behind.
From the _coupé_ where I sat with my father and mother I could watch them well as they led us through dusty roads with endless apple-trees or poplars on either side. Little barefooted urchins (whose papas and mammas wore wooden shoes and funny white nightcaps) ran after us for French half-pennies, which were larger than English ones, and pleasanter to have and to hold! Up hill and down we went; over sounding wooden bridges, through roughly paved streets in pretty towns to large court-yards, where five other quarrelsome steeds, gray and white, were waiting to take the place of the old ones–worn out, but quarreling still!
And through the night I could hear the gay music of the bells and hoofs, the rumbling of the wheels the cracking of the eternal whip, as I fidgeted from one familiar lap to the other in search of sleep; and waking out of a doze I could see the glare of the red lamps on the five straining white and gray backs that dragged us so gallantly through the dark summer night.
[Illustration: “A STRANGE, HUGE, TOP-HEAVY VEHICLE.”]
Then it all became rather tiresome and intermittent and confused, till we reached at dusk next day a quay by a broad river; and as we drove along it, under thick trees, we met other red and blue and green lamped five-horsed diligences starting on their long journey just as ours was coming to an end.
Then I knew (because I was a well-educated little boy, and heard my father exclaim, “Here’s Paris at last!”) that we had entered the capital of France–a fact that impressed me very much–so much, it seems, that I went to sleep for thirty-six hours at a stretch, and woke up to find myself in the garden I have mentioned, and to retain possession of that self without break or solution of continuity (except when I went to sleep again) until now.
* * * * *
The happiest day in all my outer life!
For in an old shed full of tools and lumber at the end of the garden, and half-way between an empty fowl-house and a disused stable (each an Eden in itself) I found a small toy-wheelbarrow–quite the most extraordinary, the most unheard of and undreamed of, humorously, daintily, exquisitely fascinating object I had ever come across in all my brief existence.
I spent hours–enchanted hours–in wheeling brick-bats from the stable to the fowl-house, and more enchanted hours in wheeling them all back again, while genial French workmen, who were busy in and out of the house where we were to live, stopped every now and then to ask good-natured questions of the “p’tit Anglais,” and commend his knowledge of their tongue, and his remarkable skill in the management of a wheelbarrow. Well I remember wondering, with newly-aroused self-consciousness, at the intensity, the poignancy, the extremity of my bliss, and looking forward with happy confidence to an endless succession of such hours in the future.
But next morning, though the weather was as fine, and the wheelbarrow and the brick-bats and the genial workmen were there, and all the scents and sights and sounds were the same, the first fine careless rapture was not to be caught again, and the glory and the freshness had departed.
Thus did I, on the very dawning of life, reach at a single tide the high-water-mark of my earthly bliss–never to be reached again by me on this side of the ivory gate–and discover that to make the perfection of human happiness endure there must be something more than a sweet French garden, a small French wheelbarrow, and a nice little English boy who spoke French and had the love of approbation–a fourth dimension is required.
I found it in due time.
But if there were no more enchanted hours like the first, there were to be seven happy years that have the quality of enchantment as I look back on them.
* * * * *
Oh, the beautiful garden! Roses, nasturtiums and convolvulus, wallflowers, sweet-pease and carnations, marigolds and sunflowers, dahlias and pansies and hollyhocks and poppies, and Heaven knows what besides! In my fond recollection they all bloom at once, irrespective of time and season.
To see and smell and pick all these for the first time at the susceptible age of five! To inherit such a kingdom after five years of Gower Street and Bedford Square! For all things are relative, and everything depends upon the point of view. To the owner of Chatsworth (and to his gardeners) my beautiful French Garden would have seemed a small affair.
[Illustration: LE P’TIT ANGLAIS.]
And what a world of insects–Chatsworth could not beat _these_ (indeed, is no doubt sadly lacking in them)–beautiful, interesting, comic, grotesque, and terrible; from the proud humble-bee to the earwig and his cousin, the devil’s coach-horse; and all those rampant, many footed things that pullulate in damp and darkness under big flat stones. To think that I have been friends with all these–roses and centipedes and all–and then to think that most of my outer life has been spent between bare whitewashed walls, with never even a flea or a spider to be friends with again!
Our house (where, by-the-way, I had been born five years before), an old yellow house with green shutters and Mansard-roofs of slate, stood between this garden and the street–a long winding street, roughly flagged, with oil-lamps suspended across at long intervals; these lamps were let down with pulleys at dusk, replenished and lit, and then hauled up again to make darkness visible for a few hours on nights when the moon was away.
Opposite to us was a boys’ school–“Maison d’Éducation, Dirigée par M. Jules Saindou, Bachelier et Maître ès Lettres et ès Sciences,” and author of a treatise on geology, with such hauntingly terrific pictures of antediluvian reptiles battling in the primeval slime that I have never been able to forget them. My father, who was fond of science, made me a present of it on my sixth birthday. It cost me many a nightmare.
From our windows we could see and hear the boys at play–at a proper distance French boys sound just like English ones, though they do not look so, on account of their blue blouses and dusky, cropped heads–and we could see the gymnastic fixtures in the play-ground, M. Saindou’s pride. “Le portique! la poutre! le cheval! et les barres parallèles!” Thus they were described in M. Saindou’s prospectus.
On either side of the street (which was called “the Street of the Pump”), as far as eye could reach looking west, were dwelling-houses just like our own, only agreeably different; and garden walls overtopped with the foliage of horse-chestnut, sycamore, acacia, and lime; and here and there huge portals and iron gates defended by posts of stone gave ingress to mysterious abodes of brick and plaster and granite, many-shuttered, and embosomed in sun-shot greenery.
Looking east one could see in the near distance unsophisticated shops with old-fashioned windows of many panes–Liard, the grocer; Corbin, the poulterer; the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker.
And this delightful street, as it went on its winding way, led not to Bedford Square or the new University College Hospital, but to Paris through the Arc de Triomphe at one end, and to the river Seine at the other; or else, turning to the right, to St. Cloud through the Bois de Boulogne of Louis Philippe Premier, Roi des Français–as different from the Paris and the Bois de Boulogne of to-day as a diligence from an express train.
On one side of the beautiful garden was another beautiful garden, separated from ours by a high wall covered with peach and pear and plum and apricot trees; on the other, accessible to us through a small door in another lower wall clothed with jasmine, clematis, convolvulus, and nasturtium, was a long, straight avenue of almond-trees, acacia, laburnum, lilac, and may, so closely planted that the ivy-grown walls on either side could scarcely be seen. What lovely patches they made on the ground when the sun shone! One end of this abutted on “the Street of the Pump,” from which it was fenced by tall, elaborately-carved iron gates between stone portals, and at the side was a “porte bâtarde,” guarded by le Père et la Mère François, the old concierge and his old wife. Peace to their ashes, and Heaven rest their kindly, genial souls!
The other end of the avenue, where there was also an iron gate, admitted to a large private park that seemed to belong to nobody, and of which we were free–a very wilderness of delight, a heaven, a terror of tangled thickets and not too dangerous chalk cliffs, disused old quarries and dark caverns, prairies of lush grass, sedgy pools, turnip fields, forests of pine, groves and avenues of horse-chestnut, dank valleys of walnut-trees and hawthorn, which summer made dark at noon; bare, wind-swept mountainous regions whence one could reconnoitre afar; all sorts of wild and fearsome places for savages and wild beasts to hide and small boys to roam quite safely in quest of perilous adventure.
All this vast enclosure (full of strange singing, humming, whistling, buzzing, twittering, cooing, booming, croaking, flying, creeping, crawling, jumping, climbing, burrowing, splashing, diving things) had been neglected for ages–an Eden where one might gather and eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge without fear, and learn lovingly the ways of life without losing one’s innocence; a forest that had remade for itself a new virginity, and become primeval once more; where beautiful Nature had reasserted her own sweet will, and massed and tangled everything together as though a Beauty had been sleeping there undisturbed for close on a hundred years, and was only waiting for the charming Prince–or, as it turned out a few years later, alas! the speculative builder and the railway engineer–those princes of our day.
My fond remembrance would tell me that this region was almost boundless, well as I remember its boundaries. My knowledge of physical geography, as applied to this particular suburb of Paris, bids me assign more modest limits to this earthly paradise, which again was separated by an easily surmounted fence from Louis Philippe’s Bois de Boulogne; and to this I cannot find it in my heart to assign any limits whatever, except the pretty old town from which it takes its name, and whose principal street leads to that magical combination of river, bridge, palace, gardens, mountain, and forest, St. Cloud.
What more could be wanted for a small boy fresh (if such be freshness) from the very heart of Bloomsbury?
That not a single drop should be lacking to the full cup of that small boy’s felicity, there was a pond on the way from Passy to St. Cloud–a memorable pond, called “La Mare d’Auteuil,” the sole aquatic treasure that Louis Philippe’s Bois de Boulogne could boast. For in those ingenuous days there existed no artificial lake fed by an artificial stream, no pré-Catelan, no Jardin d’Acclimatation. The wood was just a wood, and nothing more–a dense, wild wood, that covered many hundreds of acres, and sheltered many thousands of wild live things. Though mysteriously deep in the middle, this famous pond (which may have been centuries old, and still exists) was not large; you might almost fling a stone across it anywhere.
Bounded on three sides by the forest (now shorn away), it was just hidden from the dusty road by a fringe of trees; and one could have it all to one’s self, except on Sunday and Thursday afternoons, when a few love-sick Parisians remembered its existence, and in its loveliness forgot their own.
To be there at all was to be happy; for not only was it quite the most secluded, picturesque, and beautiful pond in all the habitable globe–that pond of ponds, the _only_ pond–but it teemed with a far greater number and variety of wonderful insects and reptiles than any other pond in the world. Such, at least, I believed must be the case, for they were endless.
To watch these creatures, to learn their ways, to catch them (which we sometimes did), to take them home and be kind to them, and try to tame them, and teach them our ways (with never varying non-success, it is true, but in, oh, such jolly company!) became a hobby that lasted me, on and off, for seven years.
La Mare d’Auteuil! The very name has a magic, from all the associations that gathered round it during that time, to cling forever.
How I loved it! At night, snoozing in my warm bed, I would awesomely think of it, and how solemn it looked when I had reluctantly left it at dusk, an hour or two before; then I would picture it to myself, later, lying deep and cold and still under the stars, in the dark thicket, with all that weird, uncanny lite seething beneath its stagnant surface.
Then gradually the water would sink, and the reeds, left naked, begin to move and rustle ominously, and from among their roots in the uncovered slush everything alive would make for the middle–hopping, gliding, writhing frantically….
Down shrank the water; and soon in the slimy bottom, yards below, huge fat salamanders, long-lost and forgotten tadpoles as large as rats, gigantic toads, enormous flat beetles, all kinds of hairy, scaly, spiny, blear-eyed, bulbous, shapeless monsters without name, mud-colored offspring of the mire that had been sleeping there for hundreds of years, woke up, and crawled in and out, and wallowed and interwriggled, and devoured each other, like the great saurians and batrachians in my _Manuel de Géologie Élémentaire_. Édition illustrée à l’usage des enfants. Par Jules Saindou, Bachelier et Maître ès Lettres et ès Sciences.
Then would I wake up with a start, in a cold perspiration, an icy chill shooting through me that roughed my skin and stirred the roots of my hair, and ardently wish for to-morrow morning.
In after-years, and far away among the cold fogs of Clerkenwell, when the frequent longing would come over me to revisit “the pretty place of my birth,” it was for the Mare d’Auteuil I longed the most; _that_ was the loadstar, the very pole of my home-sick desires; always thither the wings of my hopeless fancy bore me first of all; it was, oh! to tread that sunlit grassy brink once more, and to watch the merry tadpoles swarm, and the green frog takes its header like a little man, and the water-rat swim to his hole among the roots of the willow, and the horse-leech thread his undulating way between the water-lily stems; and to dream fondly of the delightful, irrevocable past, on the very spot of all where I and mine were always happiest!
“…Qu’ils étaient beaux, les jours De France!”
In the avenue I have mentioned (_the_ avenue, as it is still to me, and as I will always call it) there was on the right hand, half the way up, a _maison de santé_, or boarding-house, kept by one Madame Pelé; and there among others came to board and lodge, a short while after our advent, four or five gentlemen who had tried to invade France, with a certain grim Pretender at their head, and a tame eagle as a symbol of empire to rally round.
The expedition had failed; the Pretender had been consigned to a fortress; the eagle had found a home in the public slaughter-house of Boulogne-sur-Mer, which it adorned for many years, and where it fed as it had never probably fed before; and these, the faithful followers, le Colonel Voisil, le Major Duquesnois, le Capitaine Audenis, le Docteur Lombal (and one or two others whose names I have forgotten), were prisoners on parole at Madame Pelé’s, and did not seem to find their durance very vile.
[Illustration: (no caption)]
I grew to know and love them all, especially the Major Duquesnois, an almost literal translation into French of Colonel Newcome. He took to me at once, in spite of my Englishness, and drilled me, and taught me the exercise as it was performed in the Vieille Garden and told me a new fairy-tale, I verily believe, every afternoon for seven years. Scheherezade could do no more for a Sultan, and to save her own neck from the bowstring!
Cher et bien amé “Vieux de la Vieille!” with his big iron-gray mustache, his black satin stock, his spotless linen, his long green frock-coat so baggy about the skirts, and the smart red ribbon in his button-hole! He little foresaw with what warm and affectionate regard his memory would be kept forever sweet and green in the heart of his hereditary foe and small English tyrant and companion!
* * * * *
Opposite Madame Pelé’s, and the only other dwelling besides hers and ours in the avenue, was a charming little white villa with a Grecian portico, on which were inscribed in letters of gold the words “Parva sed Apta”; but it was not tenanted till two or three years after our arrival.
In the genial French fashion of those times we soon got on terms of intimacy with these and other neighbors, and saw much of each other at all times of the day.
My tall and beautiful young mother (la belle Madame Pasquier, as she was gallantly called) was an Englishwoman who had been born and partly brought up in Paris.
My gay and jovial father (le beau Pasquier, for he was also tall and comely to the eye) was a Frenchman, although an English subject, who had been born and partly brought up in London; for he was the child of emigres from France during the Reign of Terror.
“When in death I shall calm recline, Oh take my heart to my mistress dear! Tell her it lived upon smiles and wine Of the brightest hue while it lingered here!”
He was gifted with a magnificent, a phenomenal voice–a barytone and tenor rolled into one; a marvel of richness, sweetness, flexibility, and power–and had intended to sing at the opera; indeed, he had studied for three years at the Paris Conservatoire to that end; and there he had carried all before him, and given rise to the highest hopes. But his family, who were Catholics of the blackest and Legitimists of the whitest dye–and as poor as church rats had objected to such a godless and derogatory career; so the world lost a great singer, and the great singer a mine of wealth and fame.
However, he had just enough to live upon, and had married a wife (a heretic!) who had just about as much, or as little; and he spent his time, and both his money and hers, in scientific inventions–to little purpose, for well as he had learned how to sing, he had not been to any conservatoire where they teach one how to invent.
So that, as he waited “for his ship to come home,” he sang only to amuse his wife, as they say the nightingale does; and to ease himself of superfluous energy, and to charm the servants, and le Père et la Mère François, and the five followers of Napoleon, and all and everybody who cared to listen, and last and least (and most!), myself.
For this great neglected gift of his, on which he set so little store, was already to me the most beautiful and mysterious thing in the world; and next to this, my mother’s sweet playing on the harp and piano, for she was an admirable musician.
It was her custom to play at night, leaving the door of my bedroom ajar, and also the drawing-room door, so that I could hear her till I fell asleep.
Sometimes, when my father was at home, the spirit would move him to hum or sing the airs she played, as he paced up and down the room on the track of a new invention.
And though he sang and hummed “pian-piano,” the sweet, searching, manly tones seemed to fill all space.
The hushed house became a sounding-board, the harp a mere subservient tinkle, and my small, excitable frame would thrill and vibrate under the waves of my unconscious father’s voice; and oh, the charming airs he sang!
His stock was inexhaustible, and so was hers; and thus an endless succession of lovely melodies went ringing through that happy period.
And just as when a man is drowning, or falling from a height, his whole past life is said to be mapped out before his mental vision as in a single flash, so seven years of sweet, priceless home love–seven times four changing seasons of simple, genial, prae-imperial Frenchness; an ideal house, with all its pretty furniture, and shape, and color; a garden full of trees and flowers; a large park, and all the wild live things therein; a town and its inhabitants; a mile or two of historic river; a wood big enough to reach from the Arc de Triomphe to St. Cloud (and in it the pond of ponds); and every wind and weather that the changing seasons can bring–all lie embedded and embalmed for me in every single bar of at least a hundred different tunes, to be evoked at will for the small trouble and cost of just whistling or humming the same, or even playing it with one finger on the piano–when I had a piano within reach.
Enough to last me for a lifetime–with proper economy, of course–it will not do to exhaust, by too frequent experiment, the strange capacity of a melodic bar for preserving the essence of by-gone things, and days that are no more.
Oh, Nightingale! whether thou singest thyself or, better still, if thy voice by not in thy throat, but in thy fiery heart and subtle brain, and thou makest songs for the singing of many others, blessed be thy name! The very sound of it is sweet in every clime and tongue: Nightingale, Rossignol, Usignuolo, Bulbul! Even Nachtigall does not sound amiss in the mouth of a fair English girl who has had a Hanoverian for a governess! and, indeed, it is in the Nachtigall’s country that the best music is made!
[Illustration: “OH, NIGHTINGALE!”]
And oh, Nightingale! never, never grudge thy song to those who love it–nor waste it upon those who do not….
Thus serenaded, I would close my eyes, and lapped in darkness and warmth and heavenly sound, be lulled asleep–perchance to dream!
For my early childhood was often haunted by a dream, which at first I took for a reality–a transcendant dream of some interest and importance to mankind, as the patient reader will admit in time. But many years of my life passed away before I was able to explain and account for it.
I had but to turn my face to the wall, and soon I found myself in company with a lady who had white hair and a young face–a very beautiful young face.
Sometimes I walked with her, hand in hand–I being quite a small child–and together we fed innumerable pigeons who lived in a tower by a winding stream that ended in a water-mill. It was too lovely, and I would wake.
Sometimes we went into a dark place, where there was a fiery furnace with many holes, and many people working and moving about–among them a man with white hair and a young face, like the lady, and beautiful red heels to his shoes. And under his guidance I would contrive to make in the furnace a charming little cocked hat of colored glass–a treasure! And the sheer joy thereof would wake me.
Sometimes the white-haired lady and I would sit together at a square box from which she made lovely music, and she would sing my favorite song–a song that I adored. But I always woke before this song came to an end, on account of the too insupportably intense bliss I felt on hearing it; and all I could remember when awake were the words “triste–comment–sale.” The air, which I knew so well in my dream, I could not recall.
It seemed as though some innermost core of my being, some childish holy of holies, secreted a source of supersubtle reminiscence, which, under some stimulus that now and again became active during sleep, exhaled itself in this singular dream–shadowy and slight, but invariably accompanied by a sense of felicity so measureless and so penetrating that I would always wake in a mystic flutter of ecstasy, the bare remembrance of which was enough to bless and make happy many a succeeding hour.
* * * * *
Besides this happy family of three, close by (in the Street of the Tower) lived my grandmother Mrs. Biddulph, and my Aunt Plunket, a widow, with her two sons, Alfred and Charlie, and her daughter Madge. They also were fair to look at–extremely so–of the gold-haired, white-skinned, well-grown Anglo-Saxon type, with frank, open, jolly manners, and no beastly British pride.
So that physically, at least, we reflected much credit on the English name, which was not in good odor just then at Passy-lès-Paris, where Waterloo was unforgotten. In time, however, our nationality was condoned on account of our good looks–“non Angli sed angeli!” as M. Saindou was gallantly pleased to exclaim when he called (with a prospectus of his school) and found us all gathered together under the big apple-tree on our lawn.
But English beauty in Passy was soon to receive a memorable addition to its ranks in the person of a certain Madame Seraskier, who came with an invalid little daughter to live in the house so modestly described in gold as “Parva sed Apta.”
She was the English, or rather the Irish, wife of a Hungarian patriot and man of science, Dr. Seraskier (son of the famous violinist); an extremely tall, thin man, almost gigantic, with a grave, benevolent face, and a head like a prophet’s; who was, like my father, very much away from his family–conspiring perhaps–or perhaps only inventing (like my father), and looking out “for his ship to come home!”
[Illustration: “SHE TOPPED MY TALL MOTHER.”]
This fair lady’s advent was a sensation–to me a sensation that never palled or wore itself away; it was no longer now “la belle Madame Pasquier,” but “la divine Madame Seraskier”–beauty-blind as the French are apt to be.
She topped my tall mother by more than half a head; as was remarked by Madame Pelé, whose similes were all of the kitchen and dining-room, “elle lui mangerait des petits pâtés sur la tête!” And height, that lends dignity to ugliness, magnifies beauty on a scale of geometrical progression–2, 4, 8, 16, 32–for every consecutive inch, between five feet five, let us say, and five feet ten or eleven (or thereabouts), which I take to have been Madame Seraskier’s measurement.
She had black hair and blue eyes–of the kind that turns violet in a novel–and a beautiful white skin, lovely hands and feet, a perfect figure, and features chiselled and finished and polished and turned out with such singular felicitousness that one gazed and gazed till the heart was full of a strange jealous resentment at any one else having the right to gaze on something so rare, so divinely, so sacredly fair–any one in the world but one’s self!
But a woman can be all this without being Madame Seraskier–she was much more.
For the warmth and genial kindness of her nature shone through her eyes and rang in her voice. All was of a piece with her–her simplicity, her grace, her naturalness and absence of vanity; her courtesy, her sympathy, her mirthfulness.
I do not know which was the most irresistible: she had a slight Irish accent when she spoke English, a less slight English accent when she spoke French!
I made it my business to acquire both.
Indeed, she was in heart and mind and body what we should _all_ be but for the lack of a little public spirit and self-denial (under proper guidance) during the last few hundred years on the part of a few thousand millions of our improvident fellow-creatures.
There should be no available ugly frames for beautiful souls to be hurried into by carelessness or mistake, and no ugly souls should be suffered to creep, like hermit-crabs, into beautiful shells never intended for them. The outward and visible form should mark the inward and spiritual grace; that it seldom does so is a fact there is no gainsaying. Alas! such beauty is such an exception that its possessor, like a prince of the blood royal, is pampered and spoiled from the very cradle, and every good and generous and unselfish impulse is corroded by adulation–that spontaneous tribute so lightly won, so quickly paid, and accepted so royally as a due.
So that only when by Heaven’s grace the very beautiful are also very good, is it time for us to go down on our knees, and say our prayers in thankfulness and adoration; for the divine has been permitted to make itself manifest for a while in the perishable likeness of our poor humanity.
A beautiful face! a beautiful tune! Earth holds nothing to beat these, and of such, for want of better materials, we have built for ourselves the kingdom of Heaven.
_”Plus oblige, et peut davantage
Un beau visage
Qu’un homme armé–
Et rien n’est meilleur que d’entendre Air doux et tendre
My mother soon became the passionately devoted friend of the divine Madame Seraskier; and I, what would I not have done–what danger would I not have faced–what death would I not have died for her!
I did not die; I lived her protestant to be, for nearly fifty years. For nearly fifty years to recollect the rapture and the pain it was to look at her; that inexplicable longing ache, that dumb, delicious, complex, innocent distress, for which none but the greatest poets have ever found expression; and which, perhaps, they have not felt half so acutely, these glib and gifted ones, as _I_ did, at the susceptible age of seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve.
She had other slaves of my sex. The five Napoleonic heroes did homage each after his fashion: the good Major with a kind of sweet fatherly tenderness touching to behold; the others with perhaps less unselfish adoration; notably the brave Capitaine Audenis, of the fair waxed mustache and beautiful brown tail coat, so tightly buttoned with gilt buttons across his enormous chest, and imperceptible little feet so tightly imprisoned in shiny tipped female cloth boots, with buttons of mother-of-pearl; whose hobby was, I believe, to try and compensate himself for the misfortunes of war by more successful attempts in another direction. Anyhow he betrayed a warmth that made my small bosom a Gehenna, until she laughed and snubbed him into due propriety and shamefaced self-effacement.
It soon became evident that she favored two, at least, out of all this little masculine world–the Major myself; and a strange trio we made.
Her poor little daughter, the object of her passionate solicitude, a very clever and precocious child, was the reverse of beautiful, although she would have had fine eyes but for her red lashless lids. She wore her thick hair cropped short, like a boy, and was pasty and sallow in complexion, hollow-cheeked, thick-featured, and overgrown, with long thin hands and feet, and arms and legs of quite pathetic length and tenuity; a silent and melancholy little girl, who sucked her thumb perpetually, and kept her own counsel. She would have to lie in bed for days together, and when she got well enough to sit up, I (to please her mother) would read to her _Le Robinson Suisse_, _Sandford and Merton_, _Evenings at Home_, _Les Contes de Madame Perrault_, the shipwreck from “Don Juan,” of which we never tired, and the “Giaour,” the “Corsair,” and “Mazeppa”; and last, but not least, _Peter Parleys Natural History_, which we got to know by heart.
And out of this latter volume I would often declaim for her benefit what has always been to me the most beautiful poem in the world, possibly because it was the first I read for myself, or else because it is so intimately associated with those happy days. Under an engraving of a wild duck (after Bewick, I believe) were quoted W.C. Bryant’s lines “To a Water-fowl.” They charmed me then and charm me now as nothing else has quite charmed me; I become a child again as I think of them, with a child’s virgin subtlety of perception and magical susceptibility to vague suggestions of the Infinite.
Poor little Mimsey Seraskier would listen with distended eyes and quick comprehension. She had a strange fancy that a pair of invisible beings, “La fée Tarapatapoum,” and “Le Prince Charmant” (two favorite characters of M. le Major’s) were always in attendance upon us–upon her and me–and were equally fond of us both; that is, “La fée Tarapatapoum” of me, and “Le Prince Charmant” of her–and watched over us and would protect us through life.
“O! ils sont joliment bien ensemble, tous les deux–ils sont inséparables!” she would often exclaim, _apropos_ of these visionary beings; and _apropos_ of the water-fowl she would say–
“Il aime beaucoup cet oiseau-là, le Prince Charmant! dis encore, quand il vole si haut, et qu’il fait froid, et qu’il est fatigué, et que la nuit vient, mais qu’il ne veut pas descendre!”
And I would re-spout–
_”‘All day thy wings have fanned, At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere, Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land, Though the dark night be near!'”_
And poor, morbid, precocious, overwrought Mimsey’s eyes would fill, and she would meditatively suck her thumb and think unutterable things.
And then I would copy Bewick’s wood-cuts for her, as she sat on the arm of my chair and patiently watched; and she would say: “La fée Tarapatapoum trouve que tu dessines dans la perfection!” and treasure up these little masterpieces–“pour l’album de la fée Tarapatapoum!”
There was one drawing she prized above all others–a steel engraving in a volume of Byron, which represented two beautiful beings of either sex, walking hand in hand through a dark cavern. The man was in sailor’s garb; the lady, who went barefoot and lightly clad, held a torch; and underneath was written–
_”And Neuha led her Torquil by the hand, And waved along the vaults her flaming brand.”_
I spent hours in copying it for her, and she preferred the copy to the original, and would have it that the two figures were excellent portraits of her Prince and Fairy.
Sometimes during these readings and sketchings under the apple-tree on the lawn, the sleeping Médor (a huge nondescript sort of dog, built up of every breed in France, with the virtues of all and the vices of none) would wag his three inches of tail, and utter soft whimperings of welcome in his dream; and she would say–
“C’est le Prince Charmant qui lui dit; ‘Médor donne la patte!'”
Or our old tomcat would rise from his slumbers with his tail up, and rub an imaginary skirt; and it was–
“Regarde Mistigris! La fée Tarapatapoum est en train de lui frotter les oreilles!'”
We mostly spoke French, in spite of strict injunctions to the contrary from our fathers and mothers, who were much concerned lest we should forget our English altogether.
In time we made a kind of ingenious compromise; for Mimsey, who was full of resource, invented a new language, or rather two, which we called Frankingle and Inglefrank, respectively. They consisted in anglicizing French nouns and verbs and then conjugating and pronouncing them Englishly, or _vice versâ_.
For instance, it was very cold, and the school-room window was open, so she would say in Frankingle–
“Dispeach yourself to ferm the feneeter, Gogo. It geals to pier-fend! we shall be inrhumed!” or else, if I failed to immediately understand–“Gogo, il frise a splitter les stonnes–maque aste et chute le vindeau; mais chute–le donc vite! Je snize déjà!” which was Inglefrank.
With this contrivance we managed to puzzle and mystify the uninitiated, English and French alike. The intelligent reader, who sees it all in print, will not be so easily taken in.
When Mimsey was well enough, she would come with my cousins and me into the park, where we always had a good time–lying in ambush for red Indians, rescuing Madge Plunket from a caitiff knight, or else hunting snakes and field-mice and lizards, and digging for lizard’s eggs, which we would hatch at home–that happy refuge for all manner of beasts, as well as little boys and girls. For there were squirrels, hedgehogs, and guinea-pigs; an owl, a raven, a monkey, and white mice; little birds that had strayed from the maternal nest before they could fly (they always died!), the dog Médor, and any other dog who chose; not to mention a gigantic rocking-horse made out of a real stuffed pony–the smallest pony that had ever been!
Often our united high spirits were too boisterous for Mimsey. Dreadful headaches would come on, and she would sit in a corner, nursing a hedgehog with one arm and holding her thumb in her mouth with the other. Only when we were alone together was she happy, and then, _moult tristement!_
On summer evenings whole parties of us, grown-up and small, would walk through the park and the Bois de Boulogne to the “Mare d’Auteuil”; as we got near enough for Médor to scent the water, he would bark and grin and gyrate, and go mad with excitement, for he had the gift of diving after stones, and liked to show it off.
There we would catch huge olive-colored water-beetles, yellow underneath; red-bellied newts; green frogs, with beautiful spots and a splendid parabolic leap; gold and silver fish, pied with purply brown. I mention them in the order of their attractiveness. The fish were too tame and easily caught, and their beauty of too civilized an order; the rare, flat, vicious dytiscus “took the cake.”
Sometimes, even, we would walk through Boulogne to St. Cloud, to see the new railway and the trains–an inexhaustible subject of wonder and delight–and eat ices at the “Tête Noire” (a hotel which had been the scene of a terrible murder, that led to a cause célèbre); and we would come back through the scented night, while the glowworms were shining in the grass, and the distant frogs were croaking in the Mare d’Auteuil. Now and then a startled roebuck would gallop in short bounds across the path, from thicket to thicket, and Médor would go mad again and wake the echoes of the new Paris fortification, which were still in the course of construction.
He had not the gift of catching roebucks!
If my father were of the party, he would yodel Tyrolese melodies, and sing lovely songs of Boieldieu, Hérold, and Grétry; or “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” or else the “Bay of Dublin” for Madame Seraskier, who had the nostalgia of her beloved country whenever her beloved husband was away.
Or else we would break out into a jolly chorus and march to the tune–
_”Marie, trempe ton pain,
Marie, trempe ton pain,
Marie, trempe ton pain dans la soupe; Marie, trempe ton pain,
Marie, trempe ton pain,
Marie, trempe ton pain dans le vin!”_
_”La–soupe aux choux–se fait dans la marmite; Dans–la marmite–se fait la soupe aux choux.”_
which would give us all the nostalgia of supper.
Or else, again, if it were too hot to sing, or we were too tired, M. le Major, forsaking the realms of fairy-land, and uncovering his high bald head as he walked, would gravely and reverently tell us of his great master, of Brienne, of Marengo, and Austerlitz; of the farewells at Fontainebleau, and the Hundred Days–never of St. Helena; he would not trust himself to speak to us of that! And gradually working his way to Waterloo, he would put his hat on, and demonstrate to us, by A+B, how, virtually, the English had lost the day, and why and wherefore. And on all the little party a solemn, awe-struck stillness would fall as we listened, and on some of us the sweet nostalgia of bed!
Oh, the good old time!
The night was consecrated for me by the gleam and scent and rustle of Madame Seraskier’s gown, as I walked by her side in the deepening dusk–a gleam of yellow, or pale blue, or white–a scent of sandalwood–a rustle that told of a light, vigorous tread on firm, narrow, high-arched feet, that were not easily tired; of an anxious, motherly wish to get back to Mimsey, who was not strong enough for these longer expeditions.
On the shorter ones I used sometimes to carry Mimsey on my back most of the way home (to please her mother)–a frail burden, with her poor, long, thin arms round my neck, and her pale, cold cheek against my ear–she weighed nothing! And when I was tired M. le Major would relieve me, but not for long. She always wanted to be carried by Gogo (for so I was called, for no reason whatever, unless it was that my name was Peter).
She would start at the pale birches that shone out against the gloom, and shiver if a bough scraped her, and tell me all about the Erl-king–“mais comme ils sont là tous les deux” (meaning the Prince and the Fairy) “il n’y a absolument rien à craindre.”
And Mimsey was _si bonne camarade_, in spite of her solemnity and poor health and many pains, so grateful for small kindnesses, so appreciative of small talents, so indulgent to small vanities (of which she seemed to have no more share than her mother), and so deeply humorous in spite of her eternal gravity–for she was a real tomboy at heart–that I soon carried her, not only to please her mother, but to please herself, and would have done anything for her.
As for M. le Major, he gradually discovered that Mimsey was half a martyr and half a saint, and possessed all the virtues under the sun.
“Ah, vous ne la comprenez pas, cette enfant; vous verrez un jour quand ça ira mieux! vous verrez! elle est comme sa mère … elle a toutes les intelligences de la tête et du coeur!” and he would wish it had pleased Heaven that he should be her grandfather–on the maternal side.
_L’art d’être grandpère!_ This weather-beaten, war-battered old soldier had learned it, without ever having had either a son or a daughter of his own. He was a _born_ grandfather!
Moreover, Mimsey and I had many tastes and passions in common–music, for instance, as well as Bewick’s wood-cuts and Byron’s poetry, and roast chestnuts and domestic pets; and above all, the Mare d’Auteuil, which she preferred in the autumn, when the brown and yellow leaves were eddying and scampering and chasing each other round its margin, or drifting on its troubled surface, and the cold wet wind piped through the dishevelled boughs of the forest, under the leaden sky.
She said it was good to be there then, and think of home and the fireside; and better still, when home was reached at last, to think of the desolate pond we had left; and good, indeed, it was to trudge home by wood and park and avenue at dusk, when the bats were about, with Alfred and Charlie and Mimsey and Madge and Médor; swishing our way through the lush, dead leaves, scattering the beautiful, ripe horse-chestnut out of its split creamy case, or picking up acorns and beechnuts here and there as we went.
And, once home, it was good, very good, to think how dark and lonesome and shivery it must be out there by the _mare_, as we squatted and chatted and roasted chestnuts by the wood fire in the school-room before the candles were lit–_entre chien et loup_, as was called the French gloaming–while Thérèse was laying the tea-things, and telling us the news, and cutting bread and butter; and my mother played the harp in the drawing-room above; till the last red streak died out of the wet west behind the swaying tree-tops, and the curtains were drawn, and there was light, and the appetites were let loose.
I love to sit here, in my solitude and captivity, and recall every incident of that sweet epoch–to ache with the pangs of happy remembrance; than which, for the likes of me, great poets tell us there is no greater grief. This sorrow’s crown of sorrow is my joy and my consolation, and ever has been; and I would not exchange it for youth, health, wealth, honor, and freedom; only for thrice happy childhood itself once more, over and over again, would I give up its thrice happy recollections.
That it should not be all beer and skittles with us, and therefore apt to pall, my cousins and I had to work pretty hard. In the first place, my dear mother did all she could to make me an infant prodigy of learning. She tried to teach me Italian, which she spoke as fluently as English or French (for she had lived much in Italy), and I had to translate the “Gierusalemme Liberata” into both those latter languages–a task which has remained unfinished–and to render the “Allegro” and the “Penseroso” into Miltonian French prose, and “Le Cid” into Corneillian English. Then there were Pinnock’s histories of Greece and Rome to master, and, of course, the Bible; and, every Sunday, the Collect, the Gospel, and the Epistle to get by heart. No, it was not all beer and skittles.
It was her pleasure to teach, but, alas! not mine to learn; and we cost each other many a sigh, but loved each other all the more, perhaps.
Then we went in the mornings, my cousins and I, to M. Saindou’s, opposite, that we might learn French grammar and French-Latin and French-Greek. But on three afternoons out of the weekly six Mr. Slade, a Cambridge sizar stranded in Paris, came to anglicize (and neutralize) the Latin and Greek we had learned in the morning, and to show us what sorry stuff the French had made of them and of their quantities.
Perhaps the Greek and Latin quantities are a luxury of English growth–a mere social test–a little pitfall of our own invention, like the letter _h_, for the tripping up of unwary pretenders; or else, French education being so deplorably cheap in those days, the school-masters there could not afford to take such fanciful superfluities into consideration; it was not to be done at the price.
In France, be it remembered, the King and his greengrocer sent their sons to the same school (which did not happen to be M. Saindou’s, by the way, where it was nearly all greengrocer and no King); and the fee for bed, board, and tuition, in all public schools alike, was something like thirty pounds a year.
The Latin, in consequence, was without the distinction that comes of exclusiveness, and quite lacked that aristocratic flavor, so grateful and comforting to scholar and ignoramus alike, which the costly British public-school system (and the British accent) alone can impart to a dead language. When French is dead we shall lend it a grace it never had before; some of us even manage to do so already.
That is (no doubt) why the best French writers so seldom point their morals and adorn their tales, as ours do, with the usual pretty, familiar, and appropriate lines out of Horace or Virgil; and why Latin is so little quoted in French talk, except here and there by a weary shop-walker, who sighs–
“Varium et mutabile semper femina!” as he rolls up the unsold silk; or exclaims, “O rus! quando te aspiciam!” as he takes his railway ticket for Asnières on the first fine Sunday morning in spring.
But this is a digression, and we have wandered far away from Mr. Slade.
Good old Slade!
We used to sit on the tone posts outside the avenue gate and watch for his appearance at a certain distant corner of the winding street.
With his green tail coat, his stiff shirt collar, his flat thumbs stuck in the armholes of his nankeen waistcoat, his long flat feet turned inward, his reddish mutton-chop whiskers his hat on the back of his head, and his clean, fresh, blooming, virtuous, English face–the sight of him was not sympathetic when he appeared at last.
[Illustration: “GOOD OLD SLADE”]
Occasionally, in the course of his tuition, illness or domestic affairs would, to his great regret, detain him from our midst, and the beatitude we would experience when the conviction gradually dawned upon us that we were watching for him in vain was too deep for either words or deeds or outward demonstration of any sort. It was enough to sit on our stone posts and let it steal over us by degrees.
These beatitudes were few and far between. It would be infelicitous, perhaps, to compare the occasional absences of a highly respectable English tutor to an angel’s visits, but so we felt them.
And then he would make up for it next afternoon, that conscientious Englishman; which was fair enough to our parents, but not to us. And then what extra severity, as interest for the beggarly loan of half an afternoon! What rappings on ink-stained knuckles with a beastly, hard, round, polished, heavy-wooded, business-like English ruler!
It was our way in those days to think that everything English was beastly–an expression our parents thought we were much too fond of using.
But perhaps we were not without some excuse for this unpardonable sentiment. For there was _another_ English family in Passy–the Prendergasts, an older family than ours–that is, the parents (and uncles and aunts) were middle-aged, the grandmother dead, and the children grown up. We had not the honor of their acquaintance. But whether that was their misfortune and our fault (or _vice versâ_) I cannot tell. Let us hope the former.
They were of an opposite type to ours, and, though I say it, their type was a singularly unattractive one; perhaps it may have been the original of those caricatures of our compatriots by which French comic artists have sought to avenge Waterloo. It was stiff, haughty, contemptuous. It had prominent front teeth, a high nose, a long upper lip, a receding jaw; it had dull, cold, stupid, selfish green eyes, like a pike’s, that swerved neither to right nor left, but looked steadily over peoples’ heads as it stalked along in its pride of impeccable British self-righteousness.
At the sudden sight of it (especially on Sundays) all the cardinal virtues became hateful on the spot and respectability a thing to run away from. Even that smooth, close-shaven cleanliness was so Puritanically aggressive as to make one abhor the very idea of soap.
Its accent, when it spoke French (in shops), instead of being musical and sweet and sympathetic, like Madame Seraskier’s, was barbarous and grotesque, with dreadful “ongs,” and “angs,” and “ows,” and “ays”; and its manner overbearing, suspicious, and disdainful; and then we could hear its loud, insolent English asides; and though it was tall and straight and not outwardly deformed, it looked such a kill-joy skeleton at a feast, such a portentous carnival mask of solemn emptiness, such a dreary, doleful, unfunny figure of fun, that one felt Waterloo might some day be forgiven, even in Passy; but the Prendergasts, _never_!
I have lived so long away from the world that, for all I know, this ancient British type, this “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” may have become extinct, like another, but less unprepossessing bird–the dodo; whereby our state is the more gracious.
But in those days, and generalizing somewhat hastily as young people are apt to do, we grew to think that England must be full of Prendergasts, and did not want to go there.
To this universal English beastliness of things we made a few exceptions, it is true, but the list was not long: tea, mustard, pickles, gingerbread-nuts, and, of all things in the world, the English loaf of household bread that came to us once a week as a great treat and recompense for our virtues, and harmonized so well with Passy butter. It was too delicious! But there was always a difficulty, a dilemma–whether to eat it with butter alone, or with “cassonade” (French brown sugar) added.
Mimsey knew her own mind, and loved it with French brown sugar, and if she were not there I would save for her half of my slices, and carefully cassonade them for her myself.
On the other hand, we thought everything French the reverse of beastly–except all the French boys we knew, and at M. Saindou’s there were about two hundred; then there were all the boys in Passy (whose name was legion, and who _did not_ go to M. Saindou’s), and we knew all the boys in Passy. So that we were not utterly bereft of material for good, stodgy, crusty, patriotic English prejudice.
Nor did the French boys fail to think us beastly in return, and sometimes to express the thought; especially the little vulgar boys, whose playground was the street–the _voyous de Passy_. They hated our white silk chimney-pot hats and large collars and Eton jackets, and called us “sacred godems,” as their ancestors used to call ours in the days of Joan of Arc. Sometimes they would throw stones, and then there were collisions, and bleedings of impertinent little French noses, and runnings away of cowardly little French legs, and dreadful wails of “O là, là! O, là, là–maman!” when they were overtaken by English ones.
Not but what _our_ noses were made to bleed now and then, unvictoriously, by a certain blacksmith–always the same young blacksmith–Boitard!
It is always a young blacksmith who does these things–or a young butcher.
Of course, for the honor of Great Britain, one of us finally licked him to such a tune that he has never been able to hold up his head since. It was about a cat. It came off at dusk, one Christmas Eve, on the “Isle of Swans,” between Passy and Grenelle (too late to save the cat).
I was the hero of this battle. “It’s now or never,” I thought, and saw scarlet, and went for my foe like a maniac. The ring was kept by Alfred and Charlie helped, oddly enough, by a couple of male Prendergasts, who so far forgot themselves as to take an interest in the proceedings. Madge and Mimsey looked on, terrified and charmed.
It did not last long, and was worthy of being described by Homer, or even in _Bell’s Life_. That is one of the reasons why I will not describe it. The two Prendergasts seemed to enjoy it very much while it lasted, and when it was over they remembered themselves again, and said nothing, and stalked away.
As we grew older and wiser we had permission to extend our explorations to Meudon, Versailles, St. Germain, and other delightful places; to ride thither on hired horses, after having duly learned to ride at the famous “School of Equitation,” in the Rue Duphot.
[Illustration: “OMINOUS BIRDS OF YORE.”]
Also, we swam in those delightful summer baths in the Seine, that are so majestically called “Schools of Natation,” and became past masters in “la coupe” (a stroke no other Englishman but ourselves has ever been quite able to manage), and in all the different delicate “nuances” of header-taking–“la coulante,” “la hussarde,” “la tête-bêche,” “la tout ce que vous voudrez.”
Also, we made ourselves at home in Paris, especially old Paris.
For instance, there was the island of St. Louis, with its stately old mansions _entre cour et jardin,_ behind grim stone portals and high walls where great magistrates and lawyers dwelt in dignified seclusion–the nobles of the rove: but where once had dwelt, in days gone by, the greater nobles of the sword-crusaders, perhaps, and knights templars, like Brian de Bois Guilbert.
And that other more famous island, la Cité, where Paris itself was born, where Notre Dame reared its twin towers above the melancholy, gray, leprous walls and dirty brown roofs of the Hôtel-Dieu.
Pathetic little tumble down old houses, all out of drawing and perspective, nestled like old spiders’ webs between the buttresses of the great cathedral and on two sides of the little square in front (the Place du Parvis Notre Dame) stood ancient stone dwellings, with high slate roofs and elaborately wrought iron balconies. They seemed to have such romantic histories that I never tired of gazing at them, and wondering what the histories could be; and now I think of it, one of these very dwellings must have been the Hôtel de Gondelaurier, where, according to the most veracious historian that ever was, poor Esmeralda once danced and played the tambourine to divert the fair damsel Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier and her noble friends, all of whom she so transcended in beauty, purity, goodness, and breeding (although she was but an untaught, wandering gypsy girl, out of the gutter); and there, before them all and the gay archer, she was betrayed to her final undoing by her goat, whom she had so imprudently taught how to spell the beloved name of “Phébus.”
Close by was the Morgue, that grewsome building which the great etcher Méryon has managed to invest with some weird fascination akin to that it had for me in those days–and has now, as I see it with the charmed eyes of Memory.
La Morgue! what a fatal twang there is about the very name!
[Illustration: SETTLING AN OLD SCORE.]
After gazing one’s fill at the horrors within (as became a healthy-minded English boy) it was but a step to the equestrian statue of Henri Quatre, on the Pont-Neuf (the oldest bridge in Paris, by the way); there, astride his long-tailed charger, he smiled, _le roy vert et galant,_ just midway between either bank of the historic river, just where it was most historic; and turned his back on the Paris of the Bourgeois King with the pear-shaped face and the mutton-chop whiskers.
And there one stood, spellbound in indecision, like the ass of Buridan between two sacks of oats; for on either side, north or south of the Pont-Neuf, were to be found enchanting slums, all more attractive the ones than the others, winding up and down hill and roundabout and in and out, like haunting illustrations by Gustave Doré to _Drolatick Tales_ by Balzac (not seen or read by me till many years later, I beg to say).
Dark, narrow, silent, deserted streets that would turn up afterwards in many a nightmare–with the gutter in the middle and towerlets and stone posts all along the sides; and high fantastic walls (where it was _défendre d’afficher_), with bits of old battlement at the top, and overhanging boughs of sycamore and lime, and behind them gray old gardens that dated from the days of Louis le Hutin and beyond! And suggestive names printed in old rusty iron letters at the street corners–“Rue Videgousset,” “Rue Coupe-gorge,” “Rue de la Vieille Truanderie,” “Impasse de la Tour de Nesle,” etc., that appealed to the imagination like a chapter from Hugo or Dumas.
And the way to these was by long, tortuous, busy thoroughfares, most irregularly flagged, and all alive with strange, delightful people in blue blouses, brown woollen tricots, wooden shoes, red and white cotton nightcaps, rags and patches; most graceful girls, with pretty, self-respecting feet, and flashing eyes, and no head-dress but their own hair; gay, fat hags, all smile; thin hags, with faces of appalling wickedness or misery; precociously witty little gutter-imps of either sex; and such cripples! jovial hunchbacks, lusty blind beggars, merry creeping paralytics, scrofulous wretches who joked and punned about their sores; light-hearted, genial, mendicant monsters without arms or legs, who went ramping through the mud on their bellies from one underground wine-shop to another; and blue-chinned priests and barefooted brown monks and demure Sisters of Charity, and here and there a jolly chiffonnier with his hook, and his knap-basket behind; or a cuirassier, or a gigantic carbineer, or gay little “Hunter of Africa,” or a couple of bold gendarmes riding abreast, with their towering black _bonnets à poil;_ or a pair of pathetic little red-legged soldiers, conscripts just fresh from the country, with innocent light eyes and straw-coloured hair and freckled brown faces, walking hand in hand, and staring at all the pork-butchers’ shops–and sometimes at the pork-butcher’s wife!
Then a proletarian wedding procession–headed by the bride and bridegroom, an ungainly pair in their Sunday best–all singing noisily together. Then a pauper funeral, or a covered stretcher, followed by sympathetic eyes on its way to the Hôtel-Dieu; or the last sacrament, with bell and candle, bound for the bedside of some humble agonizer _in extremis_–and we all uncovered as it went by.
And then, for a running accompaniment of sound the clanging chimes, the itinerant street cries, the tinkle of the _marchand de coco,_ the drum, the _cor de chasse,_ the organ of Barbary, the ubiquitous pet parrot, the knife-grinder, the bawling fried-potato monger, and, most amusing of all, the poodle-clipper and his son, strophe and antistrophe, for every minute the little boy would yell out in his shrill treble that “his father clipped poodles for thirty sous, and was competent also to undertake the management of refractory tomcats,” upon which the father would growl in his solemn bass, “My son speaks the truth”–_L’enfant dit vrai!_
And rising above the general cacophony the din of the eternally cracking whip, of the heavy carwheel jolting over the uneven stones, the stamp and neigh of the spirited little French cart-horse and the music of his many bells, and the cursing and swearing and _hue! dià!_ of his driver! It was all entrancing.
Thence home–to quite, innocent, suburban Passy–by the quays, walking on the top of the stone parapet all the way, so as to miss nothing (till a gendarme was in sight), or else by the Boulevards, the Rue de Rivoli, the Champs Élysées, the Avenue de St. Cloud, and the Chaussée de la Muette. What a beautiful walk! Is there another like it anywhere as it was then, in the sweet early forties of this worn-out old century, and before this poor scribe had reached his teens?
Ah! it is something to have known that Paris, which lay at one’s feet as one gazed from the heights of Passy, with all its pinnacles and spires and gorgeously-gilded domes, its Arch of Triumph, its Elysian Fields, its Field of Mars, its Towers of our Lady, its far-off Column of July, its Invalids, and Vale of Grace, and Magdalen, and Place of the Concord, where the obelisk reared its exotic peak by the beautiful unforgettable fountains.
There flowed the many-bridged winding river, always the same way, unlike our tidal Thames, and always full; just beyond it was spread that stately, exclusive suburb, the despair of the newly rich and recently ennobled, where almost every other house bore a name which read like a page of French history; and farther still the merry, wicked Latin quarter and the grave Sorbonne, the Pantheon, the Garden of Plants; on the hither side, in the middle distance, the Louvre, where the kings of France had dwelt for centuries; the Tuileries, where “the King of the French” dwelt then, and just for a little while yet.
Well I knew and loved it all; and most of all I loved it when the sun was setting at my back, and innumerable distant windows reflected the blood-red western flame. It seemed as though half Paris were on fire, with the cold blue east for a background.
Yes, it is something to have roamed over it as a small boy–a small English boy (that is, a small boy unattended by his mother or his nurse), curious, inquisitive, and indefatigable; full of imagination; all his senses keen with the keenness that belongs to the morning of life: the sight of a hawk, the hearing of a bat, almost the scent of a hound.
Indeed, it required a nose both subtle and unprejudiced to understand and appreciate and thoroughly enjoy that Paris–not the Paris of M. le Baron Haussmann, lighted by gas and electricity, and flushed and drained by modern science; but the “good old Paris” of Balzac and Eugène Sue and _Les Mystères_–the Paris of dim oil-lanterns suspended from iron gibbets (where once aristocrats had been hung); of water-carriers who sold water from their hand-carts, and delivered it at your door (_au cinquème_) for a penny a pail–to drink of, and wash in, and cook with, and all.
There were whole streets–and these by no means the least fascinating and romantic–where the unwritten domestic records of every house were afloat in the air outside it–records not all savory or sweet, but always full of interest and charm!
One knew at a sniff as one passed the _porte cochère_ what kind of people lived behind and above; what they ate and what they drank, and what their trade was; whether they did their washing at home, and burned tallow or wax, and mixed chicory with their coffee, and were over-fond of Gruyère cheese–the biggest, cheapest, plainest, and most formidable cheese in the world; whether they fried with oil or butter, and liked their omelets overdone and garlic in their salad, and sipped black-currant brandy or anisette as a liqueur; and were overrun with mice, and used cats or mouse-traps to get rid of them, or neither; and bought violets, or pinks, or gillyflowers in season, and kept them too long; and fasted on Friday with red or white beans, or lentils, or had a dispensation from the Pope–or, haply, even dispensed with the Pope’s dispensation.
For of such a telltale kind were the overtones in that complex, odorous clang.
I will not define its fundamental note–ever there, ever the same; big with a warning of quick-coming woe to many households; whose unheeded waves, slow but sure, and ominous as those that rolled on great occasions from le Bourdon de Notre Dame (the Big Ben of Paris), drove all over the gay city and beyond, night and day–penetrating every corner, overflowing the most secret recesses, drowning the very incense by the altar-steps.
“_Le pauvre en sa cabane où le chaume le couvre Est sujet à ses lois;
Et la garde qui veille aux barrières du Louvre N’en défend point nos rois_.”
And here, as I write, the faint, scarcely perceptible, ghost-like suspicion of a scent–a mere nostalgic fancy, compound, generic, synthetic and all-embracing–an abstract olfactory symbol of the “Tout Paris” of fifty years ago, comes back to me out of the past; and fain would I inhale it in all its pristine fulness and vigour. For scents, like musical sounds, are rare sublimaters of the essence of memory (this is a prodigious fine phrase–I hope it means something), and scents need not be seductive in themselves to recall the seductions of scenes and days gone by.
Alas! scents cannot be revived at will, like an
“_Air doux et tendre
Oh, that I could hum or whistle an old French smell! I could evoke all Paris, sweet, prae-imperial Paris, in a single whiff!
* * * * *
In such fashion did we three small boys, like the three musketeers (the fame of whose exploits was then filling all France), gather and pile up sweet memories, to chew the cud thereof in after years, when far away and apart.
Of all that _bande joyeuse_–old and young and middle-aged, from M. le Major to Mimsey Seraskier–all are now dead but me–all except dear Madge, who was so pretty and light-hearted; and I have never seen her since.
* * * * *
Thus have I tried, with as much haste as I could command (being one of the plodding sort) to sketch that happy time, which came to an end suddenly and most tragically when I was twelve years old.
My dear and jovial happy-go-lucky father was killed in a minute by the explosion of a safety lamp of his own invention, which was to have superseded Sir Humphry Davy’s, and made our fortune! What a brutal irony of fate.
So sanguine was he of success, so confident that his ship had come home at last, that he had been in treaty for a nice little old manor in Anjou (with a nice little old castle to match), called la Marière, which had belonged to his ancestors, and from which we took our name (for we were Pasquier de la Marière, of quite a good old family); and there we were to live on our own land, as _gentilshommes campagnards_, and be French for evermore, under a paternal, pear-faced bourgeois king as a temporary _pis-aller_ until Henri Cinq, Comte de Chambord, should come to his own again, and make us counts and barons and peers of France–Heaven knows what for!
My mother, who was beside herself with grief, went over to London, where this miserable accident had occurred, and had barely arrived there when she was delivered of a still-born child, and died almost immediately; and I became an orphan in less than a week, and a penniless one. For it turned out that my father had by this time spent every penny of his own and my mother’s capital, and had, moreover, died deeply in debt. I was too young and too grief-stricken to feel anything but the terrible bereavement, but it soon became patent to me that an immense alteration was to be made in my mode of life.
A relative of my mother’s, Colonel Ibbetson (who was well off) came to Passy to do his best for me, and pay what debts had been incurred in the neighborhood, and settle my miserable affairs.
After a while it was decided by him and the rest of the family that I should go back with him to London, there to be disposed of for the best, according to his lights.
And on a beautiful June Morning, redolent of lilac and syringa, gay with dragon-flies and butterflies and bumblebees, my happy childhood ended as it had begun. My farewells were heartrending (to me), but showed that I could inspire affection as well as feel it, and that was some compensation for my woe.
“Adieu, cher Monsieur Gogo. Bonne chance, et le Bon Dieu vous bénisse,” said le Père et la Mère François. Tears trickled down the Major’s hooked nose on to his mustache, now nearly white.
Madame Seraskier strained me to her kind heart, and blessed and kissed me again and again, and rained her warm tears on my face; and hers was the last figure I saw as our fly turned into the Rue de la Tour on our way to London, Colonel Ibbetson exclaiming–
“Gad! who’s the lovely young giantess that seems so fond of you, you little rascal, hey? By George! you young Don Giovanni, I’d have given something to be in your place! And who’s that nice old man with the long green coat and the red ribbon? A _vieille moustache_, I suppose: almost like a gentleman. Precious few Frenchmen can do that!”
Such was Colonel Ibbetson.
And then and there, even as he spoke, a little drop of sullen, chill dislike to my guardian and benefactor, distilled from his voice, his aspect, the expression of his face, and his way of saying things, suddenly trickled into my consciousness–never to be whiped away!
As for so poor Mimsey, her grief was so overwhelming that she could not come out and wish me goodbye like the others; and it led, as I afterwards heard, to a long illness, the worst she ever had; and when she recovered it was to find that her beautiful mother was no more.
Madame Seraskier died of the cholera, and so did le Père et la Mère François, and Madame Pelé, and one of the Napoleonic prisoners (not M. le Major), and several other people we had known, including a servant of our own, Thérèse, the devoted Thérèse, to whom we were all devoted in return. That malodorous tocsin, which I have compared to the big bell of Notre Dame, had warned, and warned, and warned in vain.
The _maison de santé_ was broken up. M. le Major and his friends went and roosted on parole elsewhere, until a good time arrived for them, when their lost leader came back and remained–first as President of the French Republic, then as Emperor of the French themselves. No more parole was needed after that.
My grandmother and Aunt Plunket and her children fled in terror to Tours, and Mimsey went to Russia with her father.
Thus miserably ended that too happy septennate, and so no more at present of
“_Le joli lieu de ma naissance_!”
The next decade of my outer life is so uninteresting, even to myself, that I will hurry through it as fast as I can. It will prove dull reading, I fear.
My Uncle Ibbetson (as I now called him) took to me and arranged to educate and start me in life, and make “a gentleman” of me–an “English gentleman.” But I had to change my name and adopt his; for some reason I did not know, he seemed to hate my father’s very name. Perhaps it was because he had injured my father through life in many ways, and my father had always forgiven him; a very good reason! Perhaps it was because he had proposed to my mother three times when she was a girl, and had been thrice refused! (After the third time, he went to India for seven years, and just before his departure my father and mother were married, and a year after that I was born.)
So Pierre Pasquier de la Marière, _alias_ Monsieur Gogo, became Master Peter Ibbetson, and went to Bluefriars, the gray-coat school, where he spent six years–an important slice out of a man’s life, especially at that age.
I hated the garb, I hated the surroundings–the big hospital at the back, and that reek of cruelty, drunkenness, and filth, the cattle-market–where every other building was either a slaughter-house, a gin-palace, or a pawnbroker’s shop, more than all I hated the gloomy jail opposite, where they sometimes hanged a man in public on a Monday morning. This dismal prison haunted my dreams when I wanted to dream of Passy, of my dear dead father and mother and Madame Seraskier.
For the first term or two they were ever in my thoughts, and I was always trying to draw their profiles on desks and slates and copybooks, till at last all resemblance seemed to fade out of them; and then I drew M. le Major till his side face became quite demoralized and impossible, and ceased to be like anything in life. Then I fell back on others: le Père François, with his eternal _bonnet de colon_ and sabots stuffed with straw; the dog Médor, the rocking-horse, and all the rest of the menagerie; the diligence that brought me away from Paris; the heavily jack-booted couriers in shiny hats and pigtails, and white breeches, and short-tailed blue coats covered with silver buttons, who used to ride through Passy, on their way to and fro between the Tuileries and St. Cloud, on little, neighing, gray stallions with bells round their necks and tucked-up tails, and beautiful heads like the horses’ heads in the Elgin Marbles.
In my sketches they always looked and walked and trotted the same way: to the left, or westward as it would be on the map. M. le Major, Madame Seraskier, Médor, the diligences and couriers, were all bound westward by common consent–all going to London, I suppose, to look after me, who was so dotingly fond of them.
Some of the boys used to admire these sketches and preserve them–some of the bigger boys would value my idealized (!) profiles of Madame Seraskier, with eyelashes quite an inch in length, and an eye three times the size of her mouth; and thus I made myself an artistic reputation for a while. But it did not last long, for my vein was limited; and soon another boy came to the school, who surpassed me in variety and interest of subject, and could draw profiles looking either way with equal ease; he is now a famous Academician, and seems to have preserved much of his old facility.[A]
[Footnote A: _Note_.–I have here omitted several pages, containing a description in detail of my cousin’s life “at Bluefriars”; and also the portraits (not always flattering) which he has written of masters and boys, many of whom are still alive, and some of whom have risen to distinction; but these sketches would be without special interest unless the names were given as well, and that would be unadvisable for many reasons. Moreover, there is not much in what I have left out that has any bearing on his subsequent life, or the development of his character. MADGE PLUNKET.]
* * * * *
Thus, on the whole, my school career was neither happy nor unhappy, nor did I distinguish myself in any way, nor (though I think I was rather liked than otherwise) make any great or lasting friendships; on the other hand. I did not in any way disgrace myself, nor make a single enemy that I knew of. Except that I grew our of the common tall and very strong, a more commonplace boy than I must have seemed (after my artistic vein gad run itself dry) never went to a public school. So much for my outer life at Bluefriars.
[Illustration: A DREAM OF CHIVALRY]
But I had an inner world of my own, whose capital was Passy, whose fauna and flora were not to be surpassed by anything in Regent’s Park or the Zoological Gardens.
It was good to think of it by day, to dream of it by night, _although I had not yet learned how to dream!_
There were soon other and less exclusive regions, however, which I shared with other boys of that bygone day. Regions of freedom and delight, where I heard the ominous crack of Deerslayer’s rifle, and was friends with Chingachgook and his noble son–the last, alas! of the Mohicans: where Robin Hood and Friar Tuck made merry, and exchanged buffets with Lion-hearted Richard under the green-wood tree: where Quentin Durward, happy squire of dames, rode midnightly by their side through the gibbet-and-gipsy-haunted forests of Touraine…. Ah! I had my dream of chivalry!
Happy times and climes! One must be a gray-coated school-boy, in the heart of foggy London, to know that nostalgia.
Not, indeed, but what London has its merits. Sam Weller lived there, and Charley Bates, and the irresistible Artful Dodger–and Dick Swiveller, and his adorable Marchioness, who divided my allegiance with Rebecca of York and sweet Diana Vernon.
It was good to be an English boy in those days, and care for such friends as these! But it was good to be a French boy also; to have known Paris, to possess the true French feel of things–and the language.
Indeed, bilingual boys–boys double-tongued from their very birth (especially in French and English)–enjoy certain rare privileges. It is not a bad thing for a school-boy (since a school-boy he must be) to hail from two mother-countries if he can, and revel now and then in the sweets of homesickness for that of his two mother-countries in which he does not happen to be; and read _Les Trois Mousquetaires_ in the cloisters of Bluefriars, or _Ivanhoe_ in the dull, dusty prison-yard that serves for a playground in so many a French _lycée_!
Without listening, he hears all round him the stodgy language of every day, and the blatant shouts of his school-fellows, in the voices he knows so painfully well–those shrill trebles, those cracked barytones and frog-like early basses! There they go, bleating and croaking and yelling; Dick, Tom, and Harry, or Jules, Hector, and Alphonse! How vaguely tiresome and trivial and commonplace they are–those too familiar sounds; yet what an additional charm they lend to that so utterly different but equally familiar word-stream that comes silently flowing into his consciousness through his rapt eyes! The luxurious sense of mental exclusiveness and self-sequestration is made doubly complete by the contrast!
And for this strange enchantment to be well and thoroughly felt, both his languages must be native; not acquired, however perfectly. Every single word must have its roots deep down in a personal past so remote for him as to be almost unremembered; the very sound and printed aspect of each must be rich in childish memories of home; in all the countless, nameless, priceless associations that make it sweet and fresh and strong, and racy of the soil.
Oh! Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan–how I loved you, and your immortal squires, Planchet, Grimaud, Mousqueton! How well and wittily you spoke the language I adored–better even than good Monsieur Lallemand, the French master at Bluefriars, who could wield the most irregular subjunctives as if they had been mere feathers–trifles light as air.
Then came the Count of Monte-Cristo, who taught me (only too well) his terrible lesson of hatred and revenge; and _Les Mystères de Paris, Le Juif Errant_, and others.
But no words that I can think of in either mother-tongue can express what I felt when first, through these tear-dimmed eyes of mine, and deep into my harrowed soul, came silently flowing the never-to-be-forgotten history of poor Esmeralda,[A] my first love! whose cruel fate filled with pity, sorrow, and indignation the last term of my life at school. It was the most important, the most solemn, the most epoch-making event of my school life. I read it, reread it, and read it again. I have not been able to read it since; it is rather long! but how well I remember it, and how short it seemed then! and oh! how short those well-spent hours!
[Footnote A: Notre Dame de Paris, par Victor Hugo.]
That mystic word [Greek: Anagkae]! I wrote it on the flyleaf of all my books. I carved it on my desk. I intoned it in the echoing cloisters! I vowed I would make a pilgrimage to Notre Dame some day, that I might hunt for it in every hole and corner there, and read it with my own eyes, and feel it with my own forefinger.
And then that terrible prophetic song the old hag sings in the dark slum–how it haunted me, too! I could not shake it out of my troubled consciousness for months:
_Grouille, grève, grève, grouille, File, File, ma quenouille:_
_File sa corde au bourreau
Qui siffle dans le préau.
Yes; it was worth while having been a little French boy just for a few years.
I especially found it so during the holidays, which I regularly spent at Bluefriars; for there was a French circulating library in Holborn, close by–a paradise. It was kept by a delightful old French lady who had seen better days, and was very kind to me, and did not lend me all the books I asked for!
Thus irresistibly beguiled by these light wizards of our degenerate age, I dreamed away most of my school life, utterly deaf to the voices of the older enchanters–Homer, Horace, Virgil–whom I was sent to school on purpose to make friends with; a deafness I lived to deplore, like other dunces, when it was too late.
* * * * *
And I was not only given to dream by day–I dreamed by night; my sleep was full of dreams–terrible nightmares, exquisite visions, strange scenes full of inexplicable reminiscence; all vague and incoherent, like all men’s dreams that have hitherto been; _for I had not yet learned how to dream_.
A vast world, a dread and beautiful chaos, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of life, too shadowy and dim to leave any lasting impression on the busy, waking mind; with here and there more vivid images of terror or delight, that one remembered for a few hours with a strange wonder and questioning, as Coleridge remembered his Abyssinian maid who played upon the dulcimer (a charming and most original combination).
The whole cosmos is in a man’s brains–as much of it, at least, as a man’s brains will hold; perhaps it is nowhere else. And when sleep relaxes the will, and there are no earthly surroundings to distract attention–no duty, pain, or pleasure to compel it–riderless Fancy takes the bit in its teeth, and the whole cosmos goes mad and has its wild will of us.
[Illustration: “NOTRE DAME DE PARIS.”]
Ineffable false joys, unspeakable false terror and distress, strange phantoms only seen as in a glass darkly, chase each other without rhyme or reason, and play hide-and-seek across the twilit field and through the dark recesses of our clouded and imperfect consciousness.
And the false terrors and distress, however unspeakable, are no worse than such real terrors and distress as are only too often the waking lot of man, or even so bad; but the ineffable false joys transcend all possible human felicity while they last, and a little while it is! We wake, and wonder, and recall the slight foundation on which such ultra-human bliss has seemed to rest. What matters the foundation if but the bliss be there, and the brain has nerves to feel it?
Poor human nature, so richly endowed with nerves of anguish, so splendidly organized for pain and sorrow, is but slenderly equipped for joy.
What hells have we not invented for the afterlife! Indeed, what hells we have often made of this, both for ourselves and others, and at really such a very small cost of ingenuity, after all!
Perhaps the biggest and most benighted fools have been the best hell-makers.
Whereas the best of our heavens is but a poor perfunctory conception, for all that the highest and cleverest among us have done their very utmost to decorate and embellish it, and make life there seem worth living. So impossible it is to imagine or invent beyond the sphere of our experience.
Now, these dreams of mine (common to many) of the false but ineffable joys, are they not a proof that there exist in the human brain hidden capacities, dormant potentialities of bliss, unsuspected hitherto, to be developed some day, perhaps, and placed within the reach of all, wakers and sleepers alike?
A sense of ineffable joy, attainable at will, and equal in intensity and duration to (let us say) an attack of sciatica, would go far to equalize the sorrowful, one-sided conditions under which we live.
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But there is one thing which, as a school-boy, I never dreamed–namely, that I, and one other holding a torch, should one day, by common consent, find our happiness in exploring these mysterious caverns of the brain; and should lay the foundations of order where only misrule had been before: and out of all those unreal, waste, and transitory realms of illusion, evolve a real, stable, and habitable world, which all who run may reach.
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At last I left school for good, and paid a visit to my Uncle Ibbetson in Hopshire, where he was building himself a lordly new pleasure-house on his own land, as the old one he had inherited a year or two ago was no longer good enough for him.
It was an uninteresting coast on the German Ocean, without a rock, or a cliff, or a pier, or a tree; even without cold gray stones for the sea to break on–nothing but sand!–a bourgeois kind of sea, charmless in its best moods, and not very terrible in its wrath, except to a few stray fishermen whom it employed, and did not seem to reward very munificently.
Inland it was much the same. One always thought of the country as gray, until one looked and found that it was green; and then, if one were old and wise, one thought no more about it, and turned one’s gaze inward. Moreover, it seemed to rain incessantly.
But it was the country and the sea, after Bluefriars and the cloisters–after Newgate, St. Bartholomew, and Smithfield.
And one could fish and bathe in the sea after all, and ride in the country, and even follow the hounds, a little later; which would have been a joy beyond compare if one had not been blessed with an uncle who thought one rode like a French tailor, and told one so, and mimicked one, in the presence of charming young ladies who rode in perfection.
In fact, it was heaven itself by comparison, and would have remained so longer but for Colonel Ibbetson’s efforts to make a gentleman of me–an English gentleman.
What is a gentleman? It is a grand old name; but what does it mean?
At one time, to say of a man that he is a gentleman, is to confer on him the highest title of distinction we can think of; even if we are speaking of a prince.
At another, to say of a man that he is _not_ a gentleman is almost to stigmatize him as a social outcast, unfit for the company of his kind–even if it is only one haberdasher speaking of another.
_Who_ is a gentleman, and yet who _is not_?
The Prince of Darkness was one, and so was Mr. John Halifax, if we are to believe those who knew them best; and so was one “Pelham,” according to the late Sir Edward Bulwer, Earl of Lytton, etc.; and it certainly seemed as if _he_ ought to know.
And I was to be another, according to Roger Ibbetson, Esquire, of Ibbetson Hall, late Colonel of the–, and it certainly seemed as if he ought to know too! The word was as constantly on his lips (when talking to _me_) as though, instead of having borne her Majesty’s commission, he were a hairdresser’s assistant who had just come into an independent fortune.
This course of tuition began pleasantly enough, before I left London, by his sending me to his tailors, who made me several beautiful suits; especially an evening suit, which has lasted me for life, alas; and these, after the uniform of the gray-coat school, were like an initiation to the splendors of freedom and manhood.
Colonel Ibbetson–or Uncle Ibbetson, as I used to call him–was my mother’s first cousin; my grandmother, Mrs. Biddulph, was the sister of his father, the late Archdeacon Ibbetson, a very pious, learned, and exemplary divine, of good family.
But his mother (the Archdeacon’s second wife) had been the only child and heiress of an immensely rich pawnbroker, by name Mendoza; a