French Perspectives - Utopia
( Originally Published 1916 )
"A PNEUMATIQUE for Mademoiselle," announced Margot, as she set down my breakfast tray. The fine literary handwriting of the address was intriguing in itself, and I hastily tore open the blue envelope: —
"Mademoiselle," it began, "only last night did I learn from our mutual friends the Gastons of your sociological studies, and I wish to offer you, before it shall be too late, the result of my own profound investigations of the problems in which you are interested. I might even ask why you have not yourself approached one of the few men in France capable of helping you with facts and figures? But I refrain from reproaches. I leave Paris to-night to prepare the way for a new venture in cooperative vine-growing which shall have none of the errors of the first — that famous failure at La Bolie of which you must have heard. Come to-day, then; come before eleven.
"Hopefully votre serviteur,
Facts and figures? I was anxious enough to get them from any available source, but as I explored the semi-rural quarter beyond the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont for the street named in the petit bleu, I already felt considerable doubt of the value of my expedition. In the sober academic circles I frequented, the mention of M. Tully's cooperative experiments had always raised an enigmatic smile, and the phrase of a young sculptress had stuck in my mind: ;`Tully? Mais, c'est un sylvain des bois ! " A faun? But the solid, working-class aspect of the house, when I found it, proved reassuring. As there was no concierge to be seen, I climbed four pairs of stairs, by instinct, to the top floor, and pulled the bell-rope at one of the doors that faced each other across the landing.
A slatternly bonne, answering my ring, shook her head doubtfully: "Madame is here," she said, "Monsieur over there — ah, le voila ! "
I turned to behold an extraordinary figure standing in the opposite door: a short, plump, and very round little figure, with a great deal of black beard and hair, enormous brown eyes, and a ruddy face that beamed content and simple goodness. This smiling personage might, indeed, if judged by the countenance alone, have been taken for one of the excellent bourgeois vulgarians whom one sees enjoying the Bois with their children on Sunday afternoons. His dress, how-ever, was anything but bourgeois. He wore a crimson velveteen coat, too tight in the seams; white duck trousers, — on a cold spring day, — too short in the legs; and his bare feet were thrust into brightly embroidered felt slippers. He gave one the impression of bursting out everywhere: his hairy neck and arms from his dingy shirt, his waist from the cord that held his clothes together at the belt, his ankles from the shrunken trousers.
"Pardon me, I think I must have come to the wrong apartment," I said hastily — for could this be a man who was expecting a strange young woman? — "I was looking for M. Tully, the authority on cooperation — "
"Come in, come in, o'est bien moi," replied the little man, bowing gallantly. "Mademoiselle," he continued with empressement, holding out a plump and dirty hand, "I should have known you anywhere for a true humanitarian, for one of those courageous young women who are today revolting against intolerable —"
I broke in upon his swelling period; but not at all dashed, and shuffling cheerfully ahead of me down the passage in his flapping slippers, he exclaimed that he was enchanted to place himself, his notes, and his ideas at my disposal. With another deep bow, another joyous smile, he pointed to a chair, and sat down opposite me at his writing-table.
Piles of manuscript, closely written in his minute, flourishing script, were there spread out for the visitor's inspection. A chair had evidently been cleared by turning its contents on to the floor. But this minor disturbance could have contributed little to the general confusion. Dusty books and papers were knee-deep on every side; a violin, paint-boxes, a palette, a doll — these were a few of the accessories I noticed in the study of my sociological host. As my glance took in the crude force of some half-finished canvases that hung on the wall, and the charm of the open window that framed a square of clear spring sky, and a slender, shivering poplar tree, he leaned forward with another radiant smile.
"Ah, Mademoiselle!" he exclaimed intimately, "merci, merci, Mademoiselle! you notice my pictures, you appreciate my tree! That is to say your soul also loves nature and the arts. Mme.
Lys, my talented wife, painted those portraits. Talented — what do I say? — she is a woman of genius, une femme tout a fait supérieure, a true comrade in cooperation."
"Perhaps you will let me look at them after we have discussed your experiment," said I, trying to emphasize the purpose of my visit, but inwardly facing the immediate confirmation of my doubts: "I have, you know, been visiting some of the French cooperative societies —"
"Ma chère demoiselle," he again interrupted, with a rich and disarming expansiveness, "I al-ready know far more than that! Suppose we leave out the preliminaries? There are those who pursue the social sciences in an abstract, pedantic manner, there are others who take them not only from the heart but en artiste. Admit that we both belong to the great dilettanti!"
Waiving admissions, I reminded M. Tully of La Bolie and asked the reasons for its failure: "Did the peasants —?"
But before I had finished my sentence, with abundant gestures and eloquent tongue he was pouring out a description of the psychological, lyrical, moral, physical, ethical, and sociological characteristics of his "Utopie des Vignes," as he called it; yet it was impossible to get from him a clear idea of any single aspect, or, indeed to stick to the subject in hand. I have never seen a creature so deeply in earnest and yet so utterly inconsequent. In the midst of a minute description of the economic status of a typical family of vignerons, he remembered the song, the old French song, that he had sung in that household to the bedridden grandmother. "Tenez," he suddenly cried, and darting into the corner for his violin, played and sang the air, in a warm, stir-ring voice that almost brought tears to ,my eyes.
The song, moreover, suggested the old Roman bridge on which he had first heard its words, "thrilling out of the darkness of a summer evening," as he said. And the bridge, in turn, recalled the cathedral that stood in the square opposite the bridge. So he dropped his violin to hurry out a notebook, with delicate pencil sketches of the carved doorway of the cathedral, and behold! we were embarked upon a discussion of Romanesque and Gothic. With difficulty I got in a question about our typical family. "To be sure"—and Tully returned to the family with an enthusiasm that might have carried us far into economics if, as luck would have it, the eldest son of that family had not been a poet. His verses, produced in manuscript after a long hunt, led us deep into the origins of the French language, the troubadours, vers libre — Heaven knows what besides! Poetry and the budgets of the working-classes; cooperation and the Gothic — all this I could not but feel was significant only as interpreting and developing the private life and soul of Ulysse Tully.
I was not, however, to be let off with generalities on this most absorbing subject. In the full tide of eloquence, he pointed to a row of note-books on his shelf : " Voila ma vie, chère Mademoiselle, my intimate life," he confessed with the naïve spontaneity that won me in spite of myself and my amusement. "It is not all admirable — no, indeed," he added, shaking his head in sad tolerance of his own shortcomings. "I quite understand, oh, quite," he continued, looking at me out of great liquid eyes which seemed, like a little boy's, to beg admiration for this magnanimity, "that some of my friends condemn me, give me up because of what has been. It is their right. And yet," he reflected, as from a height that other mortals could not reach, "the moral being that is developing in me sees my past — and accepts it."
Mme. Lys likewise accepted it, one gathered; a most remarkable woman, he repeated, whom I should appreciate. I must, he insisted, make her acquaintance when she recovered from the illness that had followed the birth of her last child. What a genius, what a heart, what a will! She had defied the world for him, with all his failures, all his poverty, all his hopes; she understood to the full the beauty of sacrifice. There was the strength of women, and how few of them appreciated it, re-marked this innocent egotist, wiping his eyes emotionally. But the rôle of confidante was more than I had bargained for and I was just preparing to take my leave when I became conscious of the sudden and unexpected opening of the door behind me. Turning involuntarily I saw there a curiously disconcerting small person. A little girl, perhaps three years old. She was dressed in a white frock, and a scapula or charm of old wrought silver hung from her neck by a narrow black ribbon. Yet it was less this ornament than the pale, questioning look with which her tiny, sensitive face regarded me, and the wise shining of her dark eyes, that made her seem strange and remote, like a child out of Maeterlinck. I had an odd sense of being observed from some region of mystical but absolute knowledge, when she had established herself opposite me on her father's knee.
M. Tully, however, greeted her with the broadest of smiles, and burst proudly into speech: this was his darling, his Suzon. "How is your mother, ma petite?" he inquired, bending over her to give her a resounding kiss. The answer, in the limpid, clipped French of childhood, made us both start. "Ses yeux sont tristes quand elle regarde"—her eyes are sad when she looks out of them, - said Suzon gently.
M. Tully's own eyes met mine in a half-alarmed glance which begged me to admire the penetration of this wonderful little creature of his, and yet pro-tested against the truth that her insight revealed.
"She has never got back her strength," he murmured, as if vaguely troubled in spite of himself. "But she is so brave, so beautiful in her patience," he added, after a moment, and jumping up, with a happy sigh, tossed his daughter on his shoulders, and began to dance about the room, singing, in his rolling mellow voice: —
"Malbrouck s'en va t'en guerre,
I seized this opportunity to gather up my notes, in spite of M. Tully's protests that we had not half done. His cordialities, his injunctions, and his farewells followed me through the door, and I felt both baffled and relieved when I escaped from them down the stairs. Before I had gone more than one flight, however, I heard a little pattering step behind me, and a clear voice saying: "Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle!" Suzon was peering through the bannisters; when I had climbed up to meet her she took my hand, and led me to the door that the servant had called ' Madame's," saying only: "Tu es gentille; viens voir maman."
Following obediently, but greatly surprised, — had the invalid sent for me? —I was aware of an untidy kitchen and a smell of cooking, and then, at the end of another narrow corridor, aware only of a face on a pillow, above an expanse of counter-pane. Small, still, and ivory-pale, with glossy black hair looped above the ears, and remote, bright eyes like the child's, it confronted me, and I did not need to see the vague bundle, wrapped in the shadow of an arm, to read on it the passion-ate seal of recent motherhood. And yet, instead of being all surrender, all love and pride and joy, it was rigid, inscrutably fixed and distant as some little Chinese Buddha — the face of a woman who is keeping feeling at bay, with vigilant fortitude.
"Voila petite mère," remarked Suzon, in a soft explanatory tone: she was assuming our mutual understanding of her introduction, and the mother, moving a feeble hand, emerged, as it were, from her distance to smile dimly at us both.
But that trembling smile — it revealed precisely what the silent passivity was seeking to conceal: a poignant tenderness, an anguish of incurable wounds. While I had been enjoying M. Tully's vivid and diverting egotism across the hall, Mme. Lys had been lying here on her pillow, reviewing all that she had done and suffered to feed that careless vitality, and looking with those inscrutable eyes into who knows what vagrant future for her children. How soon would they, too, become a part of a past which was only re-membered in moments of magnanimous tolerance? she seemed to ask. She was obviously, in spite of armed resistance, dying inch by inch.
Suzon, who still held my hand tightly, while I returned the smile as best I could, and then stole out again, seemed quietly aware of it. M. Ulysse, however, met me at the door, exhaling a joyous unconsciousness of anything but his own happy reactions.
"What a woman, n'est-ce pas?" he whispered, bending to kiss my hand in facile gratitude. "I see you do recognize—did I not say so? — her superiority, her grandeur. You must know her better — she'll soon be up again!"