Tales of Two Countries/At the Fair
|←Hope's clad in April Green||Tales of Two Countries (1891)
At the Fair
|London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co. pages 71-80|
AT THE FAIR.
It was by the merest chance that Monsieur and Madame Tousseau came to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the early days of September.
Four weeks ago they had been married in Lyons, which was their home; but where they had passed these four weeks they really could not have told you. The time had gone hop-skip-and-jump; a couple of days had entirely slipped out of their reckoning, and, on the other hand, they remembered a little summer-house at Fontainebleau, where they had rested one evening, as clearly as if they had passed half their lives there.
Paris was, strictly speaking, the goal of their wedding-journey, and there they established themselves in a comfortable little hôtel garni. But the city was sultry and they could not rest; so they rambled about among the small towns in the neighbourhood, and found themselves, one Sunday at noon, in Saint-Germain.
"Monsieur and Madame have doubtless come to take part in the fête?" said the plump little land-lady of the Hôtel Henri Quatre, as she ushered her guests up the steps.
The fête? They knew of no fête in the world except their own wedded happiness; but they did not say so to the landlady.
They soon learned that they had been lucky enough to drop into the very midst of the great and celebrated fair which is held every year, on the first Sunday of September in the Forest of Saint-Germain.
The young couple were highly delighted with their good hap. It seemed as though Fortune followed at their heels, or rather ran ahead of them, to arrange surprises. After a delicious tête-à-tête dinner behind one of the clipped yew trees in the quaint garden, they took a carriage and drove off to the forest.
In the hotel garden, beside the little fountain in the middle of the lawn, sat a ragged condor which the landlord had bought to amuse his guests. It was attached to its perch by a good strong rope. But when the sun shone upon it with real warmth, it fell a-thinking of the snow peaks of Peru, of mighty wing-strokes over the deep valleys—and then it forgot the rope.
Two vigorous strokes with its pinions would bring the rope up taut, and it would fall back upon the sward. There it would lie by the hour, then shake itself and clamber up to its little perch again.
When it turned its head to watch the happy pair, Madame Tousseau burst into a fit of laughter at its melancholy mien.
The afternoon sun glimmered through the dense foliage of the interminable straight-ruled avenue that skirts the terrace. The young wife's veil fluttered aloft as they sped through the air, and wound itself right round Monsieur's head. It took a long time to put it in order again, and Madame's hat had to be adjusted ever so often. Then came the relighting of Monsieur's cigar, and that, too, was quite a business; for Madame's fan would always give a suspicious little flirt every time the match was lighted; then a penalty had to be paid, and that, again, took time.
The aristocratic English family which was passing the summer at Saint-Germain was disturbed in its regulation walk by the passing of the gay little equipage. They raised their correct grey or blue eyes; there was neither contempt nor annoyance in their look—only the faintest shade of surprise. But the condor followed the carriage with its eyes, until it became a mere black speck at the vanishing-point of the straight-ruled interminable avenue.
"La joyeuse fête des Loges" is a genuine fair, with gingerbread cakes, sword-swallowers, and waffles piping hot. As the evening falls, coloured lamps and Chinese lanterns are lighted around the venerable oak which stands in the middle of the fair-ground, and boys climb about among its topmost branches with maroons and Bengal lights.
Gentlemen of an inventive turn of mind go about with lanterns on their hats, on their sticks, and wherever they can possibly hang; and the most inventive of all strolls around with his sweetheart under a great umbrella, with a lantern dangling from each rib.
On the outskirts, bonfires are lighted; fowls are roasted on spits, while potatoes are cut into slices and fried in dripping. Each aroma seems to have its amateurs, for there are always people crowding round; but the majority stroll up and down the long street of booths.
Monsieur and Madame Tousseau had plunged into all the fun of the fair. They had gambled in the most lucrative lottery in Europe, presided over by a man who excelled in dubious witticisms. They had seen the fattest goose in the world, and the celebrated flea, "Bismarch," who could drive six horses. Furthermore, they had purchased ginger-bread, shot at a target for clay pipes and soft-boiled eggs, and finally had danced a waltz in the spacious dancing-tent.
They had never had such fun in their lives. There were no great people there—at any rate, none greater than themselves. As they did not know a soul, they smiled to every one, and when they met the same person twice they laughed and nodded to him.
They were charmed with everything. They stood outside the great circus and ballet marquees and laughed at the shouting buffoons. Scraggy mountebanks performed on trumpets, and young girls with well floured shoulders smile d alluringly from the platforms.
Monsieur Tousseau's purse was never at rest; but they did not grow impatient of the perpetual claims upon it. On the contrary, they only laughed at the gigantic efforts these people would make to earn—perhaps half a franc, or a few centimes.
Suddenly they encountered a face they knew. It was a young American whom they had met at the hotel in Paris.
"Well, Monsieur Whitmore!" cried Madame Tousseau, gaily, "here at last you've found a place where you can't possibly help enjoying yourself."
"For my part," answered the American, slowly, "I find no enjoyment in seeing the people who haven't money making fools of themselves to please the people who have."
"Oh, you're incorrigible!" laughed the young wife," But I must compliment you on the excellent French you are speaking to-day."
After exchanging a few more words, they lost each other in the crowd; Mr. Whitmore was going back to Paris immediately.
Madame Tousseau's compliment was quite sincere. As a rule the grave American talked deplorable French, but the answer he had made to Madame was almost correct. It seemed as though it had been well thought out in advance—as though a whole series of impressions had condensed themselves into these words. Perhaps that was why his answer sank so deep into the minds of Monsieur and Madame Tousseau.
Neither of them thought it a particularly brilliant remark; on the contrary, they agreed that it must be miserable to take so gloomy a view of things. But, nevertheless, his words left something rankling. They could not laugh so lightly as before, Madame felt tired, and they began to think of getting homewards.
Just as they turned to go down the long street of booths in order to find their carriage, they met a noisy crew coming upward.
"Let us take the other way," said Monsieur.
They passed between two booths, and emerged at the back of one of the rows. They stumbled over the tree-roots before their eyes got used to the uncertain light which fell in patches between the tents. A dog, which lay gnawing at something or other, rose with a snarl, and dragged its prey further into the darkness, among the trees.
On this side the booths were made up of old sails and all sorts of strange draperies. Here and there light shone through the openings, and at one place Madame distinguished a face she knew.
It was the man who had sold her that incomparable gingerbread—Monsieur had half of it still in his pocket.
But it was curious to see the gingerbread-man from this side. Here was something quite different from the smiling obsequiousness which had said so many pretty things to her pretty face, and had been so unwearied in belauding the gingerbread—which really was excellent.
Now he sat crouched together, eating some indescribable mess out of a checked pocket-handkerchief—eagerly, greedily, without looking up.
Farther down they heard a muffled conversation. Madame was bent upon peeping in; Monsieur objected, but he had to give in.
An old mountebank sat counting a handful of coppers, grumbling and growling the while. A young girl stood before him, shivering and pleading for pardon; she was wrapped in a long water-proof.
The man swore, and stamped on the ground. Then she threw off the waterproof and stood half naked in a sort of ballet costume. Without saying a word, and without smoothing her hair or preening her finery, she mounted the little steps that led to the stage.
At that moment she turned and looked at her father. Her face had already put on the ballet-simper, but it now gave place to a quite different expression. The mouth remained fixed, but the eyes tried, for a second, to send him a beseeching smile. The mountebank shrugged his shoulders, and held out his hand with the coppers; the girl turned, ducked under the curtain, and was received with shouts and applause.
Beside the great oak-tree the lottery man was holding forth as fluently as ever. His witticisms, as the darkness thickened, grew less and less dubious. There was a different ring, too, in the laughter of the crowd; the men were noisier, the mountebanks leaner, the women more brazen, the music falser—so it seemed, at least, to Madame and Monsieur.
As they passed the dancing-tent the racket of a quadrille reached their ears. "Great heavens!—was it really there that we danced?" said Madame, and nestled closer to her husband.
They made their way through the rout as quickly as they could; they would soon reach their carriage, it was just behind the circus-marquee. It would be nice to rest and escape from all this hubbub.
The platform in front of the circus-marquee was now vacant. Inside, in the dim and stifling rotunda, the performance was in full swing.
Only the old woman who sold the tickets sat asleep at her desk. And a little way off, in the light of her lamp, stood a tiny boy.
He was dressed in tights, green on one side, red on the other; on his head he had a fool's cap with horns.
Close up to the platform stood a woman wrapped in a black shawl. She seemed to be talking to the boy.
He advanced his red leg and his green leg by turns, and drew them back again. At last he took three steps forward on his meagre shanks and held out his hand to the woman.
She took what he had in it, and disappeared into the darkness.
He stood motionless for a moment, then he muttered some words and burst into tears.
Presently he stopped, and said: "Maman m'a pris mon sou!"—and fell to weeping again.
He dried his eyes and left off for a time, but as often as he repeated to himself his sad little history,—how his mother had taken his sou from him—he was seized with another and a bitterer fit of weeping.
He stooped and buried his face in the curtain. The stiff, wrinkly oil-painting must be hard and cold to cry into. The little body shrank together; he drew his green leg close up under him, and stood like a stork upon the red one.
No one on the other side of the curtain must hear that he was crying. Therefore he did not sob like a child, but fought as a man fights against a broken heart.
When the attack was over, he blew his nose with his fingers, and wiped them on his tights. With the dirty curtain he had dabbled the tears all over his face until it was streaked with black; and in this guise, and dry-eyed, he gazed for a moment over the fair.
Then: "Maman m'a pris mon sou"—and he set off again.
The back sweep of the wave leaves the beach dry for an instant while the next wave is gathering. Thus sorrow swept in heavy surges over the little childish heart.
His dress was so ludicrous, his body so meagre, his weeping was so woefully bitter, and his suffering so great and man-like—
—But at home at the hotel—the Pavillon Henri Quatre, where the Queens of France condescended to be brought to bed—there the condor sat and slept upon its perch.
And it dreamed its dream—its only dream—its dream about the snow-peaks of Peru and the mighty wing-strokes over the deep valleys; and then it forgot its rope.
It uplifted its ragged pinions vigorously, and struck two sturdy strokes. Then the rope drew taut, and it fell back where it was wont to fall—it wrenched its claw, and the dream vanished.—
Next morning the aristocratic English family was much concerned, and the landlord himself felt annoyed, for the condor lay dead upon the grass.