Tales of To-day and Other Days/The Barrel-Organ
WHAT mournful memories music brings up! How sad are the recollections of other days that it evokes! And how the tears rise in our eyes in the gathering twilight of November, at the wailing of the barrel-organ, as it plays some long-forgotten polka!
An old, old polka that used to set all Paris dancing fifteen years ago, when the number of your years was eighteen, madame, or thereabout! Yes! you, poor, faded blonde, who are wearing a blue velvet hat that only looks the shabbier for having new strings, and are wheeling your baby—the third, it is—in his little carriage, beneath the leafless lindens that border the cheerless boulevard of the suburban quarter where you live.
How pretty you were in the days when the band used to play that polka at all the bourgeois frolics, with their refreshments of stale cake and glasses of sweetened water! How like you were to a bright spring morning, with the pure oval of your face that would not have shamed a Correggio and your beautiful waved tresses, of the gold of ripened grain, that you lost the half of—the pity of it!—at the birth of your second child!
Portionless, you were? Yes, you had no dowry. How could it be otherwise with the daughter of an honest, second head-clerk, whose recommendation from his superiors uniformly consisted of these blighting words: "A good man in his place, very useful and unassuming; "a poor fellow who, when he went with you to your dances, never dared sit down to whist at ten sous the point, and was continually feeling in his waistcoat pocket to see if he had not lost the three francs that were to pay the cab-fare home?
Portionless!—Every mirror in the room as you made your entry, hanging on your father's arm, radiant in clouds of pink, gave you assurance that no portion was needed in your case. Who would have suspected that the mother, detained at home for lack of finery, had ironed out your skirt on the dining-room table and that your dress was the result of your own labors, cut and sewed by your own hands? Were you not gloved up to the elbows? How could anyone have known of the needle-pricks that you had on your finger-ends?
Listen to the old polka that the broken-winded barrel-organ is playing in the dim November twilight. Does it not remind you of the song of a crazy woman, broken by sobs?
Many a time were you invited to dance that polka by the handsome, dark young man with the military mustache, so elegant in his well-cut evening suit, whom you used to speak of to yourself in thought as Frédéric, his baptismal name. He used to ask you to dance that polka with him, and the mazurka, too, and the waltz. Your voice would tremble a little as you answered: "Yes, sir," and your hand would flutter, also, as you laid it in his, for he was a young man of good family, a pretty hard case, so the rumor was, who had fought a duel and whose father had twice had to pay his debts. What distinction!
How tightly his arm would clasp your waist as he led you to the floor, and when you paused for a moment to take breath, leaning on his arm with a happy smile upon your lips and quickened respiration, how your poor little heart would beat as he turned and looked you in the eyes and addressed to you in low, caressing tones a compliment—upon some trifle, some slight detail of your toilette, or the flower that you had in your hair—a compliment that was perfectly respectful in form, but in which you felt there lurked some hidden meaning that was cause to you at once of fear and pleasure!
But a gay young fellow like M. Frédéric, alas! had something else to do than waste his time at such milk-and-water entertainments. He took himself off to other scenes of gayety and you, is it not true? though you refused to admit it even to yourself, were sorry. Then two, three, four, five years rolled by. You gave up wearing pink dresses, for your cheeks were growing pale, and still at the little bourgeois parties, where the repertory of dance music never changes, they kept playing that old polka that reminded you of M. Frédéric.
At last it became necessary to look at things as they were and come to a decision, so you finally married the bashful young man who had until then been the dancing partner of all the scraggy young ladies of thirty and upward. In other days it had more than once happened you to forget when his turn came for a quadrille, although you had his name written down on your little ivory tablets. It was rather a feeling of pity, you must admit, that this good M. Jules inspired in you at that time, with his stiffly starched cravats and his cleaned gloves. You married him, though, after all, and he has turned out to be an industrious man and a good husband and father. He is now second head-clerk, like deceased Monsieur your father, and like him he is always characterized by his superiors in the same discouraging terms: "A quiet, useful man in his place; to be retained in the service." When you presented him with his second boy the poor man was stirred by a feeble impulse of ambition, and in the hope to secure advancement published a couple of small pamphlets upon special subjects, but the powers that be discharged their obligation toward him by awarding him academic honors.
Three children there are now,—first two boys and then a little minx of a daughter who came sometime afterward,—and they are a heavy load to carry! The oldest, fortunately, is at college, partially assisted by state funds; by dint of strict economy the two ends are made to meet. But what a monotonous, trivial way of living! The father leaves home early in the morning taking with him his breakfast—a sandwich and a little bottle of wine and water—in the pocket of his overcoat, for he is to give a lesson in geography at a young ladies' boarding-school before taking possession of his leather-covered chair at the department. You, madame, have not the time to stop and think of your grievances, and the day is all too short for one who has so much to do. And withal, never the least amusement! During all the past year you have been at the play but once, and that was last September, when you went to see the Domino Noir on free tickets.
You have accepted the situation and are resigned to your fate, doubtless; but that old polka that the organ keeps relentlessly playing reminds you that the other afternoon, as you were pushing before you the little carriage containing your slumbering baby, just as you are doing now, and pursuing your way along this same boulevard, you came near being run over by a spanking victoria and pair and recognized, well protected by his comfortable wraps, that identical M. Frédéric, the same as of old, with that air of unfailing youthfulness that is the property of the fortunate ones of this world, and he cast an ugly look at you as he shouted: "Stupid!" to his coachman.
Truly, that organ is insupportable, is it not?—It ceases, however, fortunately, and now the night is coming down. At the extremity of the dismal suburban boulevard, yonder, the gas-jets as they spring into light sprinkle with their pale stars the purple mist that follows close upon the sunset. It is time to return, Madame Jules. Your second son must have come in from school by this, and he never masters his morrow's lessons before, dinner unless you are there. Go home, Madame Jules. Your husband will soon be back from his office, tired and hungry, and you know full well that in your absence the small maid at twenty-five francs a month would not be equal to the task of "warming over" the remains of the roast beef of yesterday with potatoes and onions.
What mournful memories music brings up! How sad are the recollections of other days that it evokes! And how the tears rise to our eyes in the gathering twilight of November at the wailing of the barrel-organ as it plays some long forgotten galop!
Of what are you thinking, Madame la Comtesse, as you listen to it, and why do you stand thus motionless at the lofty window of your boudoir, as if some mighty hand had fallen and smitten you into stone among your musings? Happy woman that you are, in all the plenitude of your beauty of thirty years, say, what memories has it for you, that old galop that the wailing, groaning organ, compeller of dreams, is playing down there upon the bleak boulevard, behind the naked lindens of your garden?
It recalls to you the great amphitheater of "Johnson's American Circus," with its fringe of intently gazing faces, as it used to be in the days of your equestrian triumphs. The two negro minstrels have brought their comic concert to an abrupt end by smashing their violins over each other's head and the groom has brought your trick-horse out upon the saw-dust track—you remember him, the huge, gentle white horse, spotted with black, who used to remind one of a raw turkey dressed and stuffed with truffles? Then you make your entrée, hand in hand with the ring-master, a resplendent being in scarlet coat and hair à la Capoul, with whom you were a little bit in love, as you may as well confess, as indeed were all the lady performers of the troupe. A quick entrechat of twinkling feet by way of salutation to the public and then at a single bound, presto, hop! there you are erect on your great platform of a saddle. There is a crack of the whip, a furious storm of sound from the brasses of the orchestra, the truffled horse falls into his mechanical little gallop and hop! hop! away you go!
What an Olympian creature you were in those days, comtesse! The number of your years was seventeen, and you had the legs of the Capitoline Venus. What strength and grace! and that perfection of beauty that it takes the New World to produce with its crossing and blinding of different strains. The murmur ran through the throng: "It is the beautiful Adah! the American!" and then, carried off your feet by this gale of triumph, you pirouetted away more audaciously than ever.
The first part of the performance always wound up with a long, crackling fire of bravos. While the assistants were climbing upon their stools with their hoops and streamers in preparation for the next part of the programme, and the clown was amusing the gallery gods by knocking his comrade flat, face downward, and then picking him up delicately by the seat of his trousers, you were making the circuit of the ring at a walk, perched on the edge of your saddle as lightly as a butterfly. That was the moment that afforded the keenest enjoyment to your admirers. Proudly erect did you hold your goddess-like head, garlanded with flowers, and from the skirts of gauze that eddied and swirled about your form your sublime pedal extremities, incased in pink silk tights, emerged as from a cloud.
It was when you were resting on one of those occasions that you first observed the comte, now your husband, then one of the gayest of Parisian men about town. There he stood in the passage that led to the stables, tall, slender, and irreproachable in his closely buttoned overcoat and pearl-gray hat, wearing a sprig of lilac in his buttonhole and tapping his lips with the gold knob of his little walking-stick. He was there again the next day, and the day after that, and every day; and your eyes would sink in confusion as their glance met that distracted gaze of his, the despairing gaze of a man who has lost his head.
He had lost his head, indeed, but you were neither more nor less than an honest, good girl. You had become an orphan when five years old, your father, the man who did the pole act, having broken his neck in a fall. Then the people of the troupe adopted the little one of "the profession" and the old Parisian clown, Mistigris, taught you your French and a little reading and writing. From being the plaything and spoiled child of those honest mountebanks,—retaining their respect, too, through it all,—you became one of the glories of their enterprise. You were gaining a livelihood in an honest way, by the display of your physical proportions, it is true, but you were virtuous for all that, and you remember that evening when the comte offered you the turquoise set—in pretty cynical terms, it must be confessed—and you came near horsewhipping him in front of the elephants' stall in presence of all the company.
That was the spark in the powder magazine to that man of violent passions. Johnson's American Circus was making a tour through France at the time. The comte followed it to Orlèans, to Tours, to Saumur, to Angers, and finally, at Nantes, he capped the climax of his folly, just as a Russian might have done, and having neither father nor mother living, carried you off and married you.
Oh, dear! how dolefully that asthmatic barrel-organ keeps on grinding out that old galop in the twilight!
What was there left to do after the first weeks of the delirious honeymoon, that you spent in a lovely little village at the seashore? The men at the Jockey Club, down there in the city, were laughing to split their sides, and the women of fashion were bursting with anger and jealousy behind their fans. The comte did the best thing he could under the circumstances; he went into voluntary exile for a few years. Ah! my poor comtesse, how you yawned with ennui in that great black palace at Florence, where your husband had you trained and taught like a little girl, and where you had to stomach so many lessons and endure so many instructors. Like the grateful woman that you were—alas! it could not be said that you were a loving one—you wished to please the comte and make yourself worthy of him, but that, of course, required time, and, for all his patience, how your husband used to wound you with his continual: "Don't speak like that—don't do that," invariably accompanied by a freezing my dear, that went to your heart!
All women are teachable. "Parvenu" is a word for which there is no feminine. At the expiration of three years you were an unimpeachable comtesse. The comte, who was tired to death of the museums and had never been able to make much of the old masters, now gave up entirely and brought you back to Paris. The shutters of the old hôtel that had been closed so long flew back against the wall with a bang, and you ate your first home-coming dinner in the vast dining-room, seated opposite the big portrait of the comte's great-grandfather, who had been lieutenant-general of the king's armies; a stately old gentleman with powdered hair he was, wearing the cordon-bleu across his red coat, and particularly remarkable by reason of the immense nose that runs in the family, and he seemed to look down on you from his lofty position with somewhat of severity.
And here, again, comtesse, solitude and melancholy were your lot. What labor, and expenditure of money in charitable works, it cost your husband merely to create for you a small society of priests and priestesses! How lugubrious, those black robes of either sex! For the last six years you have been spending all your mornings in visiting schools and nurseries, and at night you shiver in your solitary box at the Français or the Opera. No child, and no hope of ever having one. The years are fleeting! And, what is worst of all, your only feelings toward the comte are those of deep gratitude and sincere friendship, and you have your opinion concerning him. Oh! a perfect gentleman in every way; no doubt of that, but chokeful of stupid, aristocratic prejudices, and as tiresome as a concert. He is forty-eight, now, and quite a type of the old beau turned milksop; isn't that so? a sufficiently vapid mixture of importance, dyed whiskers, prejudices, gray hats, and weak stomach.
Why will that pitiless organ persist in playing the galop that used in other days to time your entrechats on the back of the truffled horse? Now you behold yourself again in the middle of the arena at the end of your "act," blowing your farewell kiss to the public and listening delightedly to the hailstorm of applause. Are you taking leave of your senses, comtesse? And now again you feel your heart beating, and the first delicious emotion of your girlhood comes back to you, when it seemed to you that the handsome ringmaster in his scarlet coat had tenderly squeezed your finger-tips as he led you off the track!
The sound of the organ has died away at last; the tall skeletons of the naked trees can scarcely be discerned against the dull, dark sky that grows darker and duller still. The valet de chambre enters respectfully, bringing in a lamp. He places it upon a stand and says in ceremonial tones:
"Monsieur le curé de Saint Thomas-d'Aquin is awaiting Madame la Comtesse in the drawing-room."