Paris - In My Court
( Originally Published 1910 )
THE horse-chestnuts in the court beneath my bed-room window have been bare a long time, but there are still some leaves left on the elms. There will be few, though, by tomorrow, for the mid-October wind has caught them and sends them whirling downward. They sweep over the hard ground, curl like brown foam from the tops of the neat piles into which the concierge has raked them, and rustle across the green benches on which the nurses knit in the morning and the bourgeois read their papers in the late afternoon. The children are wild with joy. Calling to one another exultantly, they plow their way back and forth through the crackling heaps of leaves, and clutch them up by the handful to let them fall again in showers of dull red and tarnished gold. There are two who do nothing but roll persistently all day long. From time to time their nurses desert the knitting, to rush across volubly and drag them to their feet; but no power on earth can keep them long upright, and left to themselves they flop to the ground and roll again, silently and deliriously. The high thin voices of the others rise to me as I stand at my bed-room window. I like children, and they sometimes like me, — not al-ways, but a little oftener than their elders do perhaps,—because I do not feel either condescension or embarrassment in their presence ; but to-day I would not go into the court. The frankness with which children forget is almost as painful as the hypocrisy with which their parents pretend not to have forgotten.
I used frequently to sit there last summer with the muffled sound of Paris in my ears and the thought of Paris in my mind, while the sunlight crept along the bench, and the children played their games around me. Sometimes I would awake with a start to find my seat a house to which a visit was being paid, or an automobile speeding through the Bois, and then I would inquire whether I were in the way, and the children would chorus courteously, "Oh, not at all, monsieur ! Ne vous dérangez pas, monsieur" ; after which I would forget them again, and they me.
At other times, when the play was less intense, I would have scraps of conversation with one or another. A little blonde girl of ten, with a severe dignity of manner that sometimes deserted her when the games were exciting, spoke earnestly with me about the weather, and informed me often and with pride that she, her parents, and three minor members of her family —all equally blonde, but of degrees of dignity diminishing mathematically with their ages, clear to the youngest, who was four and not dignified at all--were soon to go to the country for a few weeks. In Paris the words je vais passer quelques semaines à la campagne" are as impressive as " I am going to run down to my country-house," in America. I learned later that the destination of the blonde family was only Saint-Denis. But at ten one has not yet begun to make invidious distinctions. There is Paris and there is the country. Saint-Denis means no less than Trouville.
There were many other children who played in the court, — for the house was large and the apartments were numerous ; but there was one so different from the others that I fell into the habit of looking up from my book to watch him when he was there, and of wondering about his absence when he was not. He was a child of six, with an oval face, chestnut curls that he had an odd little way of shaking back from his forehead, and large brown eyes strangely flecked with gold. No one was ever more unmistakably an aristocrat than this six-year-old boy. The unconscious grace of movement, the gentleness of manner, the instinctive courtesy, which, if anything tangible, are the signs of aristocracy - he possessed them all; and yet his name was just Etienne Dupont, and Dupont carries with it about as much connotative distinction in French as Jones in English. To me, aristocracy, or what I mean by it, — for no word has so many varying interpretations, — seems one of the most gracious things in life, bringing out the charm in commonplaces, lending beauty to a word or a glance, lingering like a perfume above bare existence. Impossible of adequate definition, it is the Something-Else like that which re-mains in a picture after one has analyzed it. The more I have looked for and found it, the more certain I have become that aristocracy is never acquired, always a matter of birth, but not at all a matter of family. It is perhaps a fair presumption that aristocrats are more likely to come of a stock which has already produced many; but roturiers are born every day into families which have been noble since the crusades, and aristocrats into those that dwell in tenements, or — which is more astounding—into those of the lower-middle-class. So the miracle was not that Etienne's name should have been Dupont, but that there should have been no-thing to explain the child in the father. He was a stout red-faced man, kindly, I was sure, but with a frank love of vulgarity, if I might judge from the stories I over-heard him relating to other fathers and from his gross resounding laugh. He was a clerk in the office of the mayor of the arrondissement. Do not think me unjust toward Monsieur Dupont. I was not dismissing him as a man —only as an aristocrat. Aristocracy is not one of the things that it takes long study to discern, like courage or character. It is a kind of fineness that reveals itself in a thou-sand ways, and is as easily discernible in a man at first sight as after a long intimacy. I did not know the mother, — she had been dead five years ; but I inquired about her of the little old man with the skull-cap. He has lived for longer than he can remember in the house and has observed three generations of its inhabitants.
" C'était une brave femme," he said, "petite, grasse,. bavarde — non, pas du tout distinguée. Elle ressemblait beaucoup à son mari. A strange child, le petit, to be born of such parents, n'est-ce pas?"
Somehow the answer pleased me. I liked to think of Etienne as a changeling. The secret may, however, have been, that I could not follow Monsieur and Madame Dupont back to their own childhood. Nothing is so fragile, so easily lost, as the strange quality that produces this delicacy of sentiment, this charm of manner. Rare gift of the gods as it is, it should be immortal; but it is not. It is an exquisite flower that must be carefully tended if it is to live. In one of Mr. Leonard Merrick's novels (which I am amazed that so few Americans have read ; for it is as delightful as a fairy tale and as true as a syllogism) the hero, being in quest of his youth, remembers a little girl with whom he had played as a child, and who possessed that gentle distinction (though he did not give it a name) which so charmed me in Etienne. He sought her out and found—a vain, shallow-minded woman, with a loud voice, a simper, and a habit of noise. It seemed improbable that the Monsieur Dupont whom I saw occasionally in the court, with his jovial bonhomie, and his commonness, could ever have had anything of the fineness I saw in his son ; but it was not impossible. Even Etienne might some day be-come —but I refused to consider that.
Etienne was not forward in play, but rather retiring. He was in no sense the leader of his comrades—the little girl of the yellow pig-tails was that. Nevertheless there was in the attitude of the other children toward him a gentleness that was almost deference. Just as, when we talk with a man whose English is choice and beautiful, we find our own words becoming more careful, so with this child of six the manners of his playmates were noticeably better than with one another. The youngest of the blonde children might fall on his face and wail unheeded ; but I saw the most boisterous young scapegrace in the court turn once with a swift solicitous, Tu ne t'es pas fait mal, Etienne?" when in a rough game the latter had been thrown to the ground.
The child, I remarked, as I watched him more closely, had another quality apart from his aristocracy — imagination. It was not he who led the games, but it was he who created them ; and if some of his inventions were puerile, I could not but admire the complicated originality of others. He did not speak to me except to wish me Bon jour," or "Bon soir," with a shy smile so radiant that it seemed to me pure sunlight ; but seeing the interest I was too clumsy not to show for his productions, he would cast me from time to time a deprecating, half-appealing glance in which there was something of the poet reading his verses. Then one day he discovered the game of Ogre, a game so complex, so involved, that I despair of making it clear to you. As the exposition of the game progressed, a reverent silence fell upon the listeners. Etienne's face glowed with inspiration, and he spoke breathlessly, finding successive rules as Shelley must have found successive words for The Skylark." It will be enough for you to know that an ogre inhabited a castle (otherwise one of the green benches) which he, being lame, could not leave. But the castle was situate in a thick forest where many travelers lost their way. (I would stake all I have that Etienne had never read "The Pilgrim's Progress.") Unaware that the castle was so dreadfully occupied, they would welcome the sight of it joyfully, and, knocking for admittance, would, under certain conditions, be captured ; under others, set aside to fatten ; and under still others (most difficult), actually eaten. They would then, if uneaten, be rescued by knights of Charlemagne's court ; if eaten, brought to life by a good fairy who could put the ogre to sleep with a certain magic formula. This will suffice, but this was not all. The complications of the game were innumerable. My brain reeled at the magnificence of the conception.
"But," asked the little girl of the blonde pig-tails with her matter-of-fact voice (and the answer to the question was implied in her tone), "but who shall be the ogre?"
There was a chorus of " Moi!" " Moi!" "Moi!" but Etienne shook his head firmly. "No," he said, coming toward my bench, and looking straight at me out of his great brown eyes in which the tiny points of yellow shone like little gold stars, "monsieur will be the ogre."
The others drew back with a sudden restraint that was one fourth the hostility of little savages toward an intruder, and three fourths the sheepishness of miniature bourgeois shocked by an outraged rule of conduct.
But there was neither self-consciousness nor boldness about Etienne,—only confidence in his instinct. He was the aristocrat through and through now, without a trace of that concern-for-what-others-may-think that is the profoundest characteristic of the middle class, the sign at once of its importance and its pettiness, of the depth below which it cannot sink and the height above which it cannot rise. Etienne was looking at me trustfully.
"Yes," I said simply, "I will be the ogre.
His question had meant more to me than my reply could possibly mean to him. There are two things that touch the heart deeply, perhaps because they are so rare. The one is a woman's sudden spontaneous caress, the other the impulsive advances of an unspoiled child. In the emotion caused by neither does vanity play any part.
So for half an hour, abandoning my dignity, I played at Ogre, with a fervor which was all gratitude to Etienne, making fearful grimaces, testing tentatively the plumpness of my victims, or devouring them outright, while they shivered in excitement or uttered shrieks of delighted terror, — for they were soon won over, being but children after all, and having that sense of the dramatic against which no other instinct of the French heart can long hold out, —and roaring so horribly that the nurses forgot their knitting for admiration and the mothers rushed to the windows in fear. When the game was at its height Etienne ran swiftly from me.
Bon soir, papa," he cried ; and glancing up I saw that Monsieur Dupont had entered the court, and was staring at us in surprise. He was just home, I judged, from the mairie, for he carried his black-leather port-folio under one arm. As for the travelers, prisoners, and knights of Charlemagne's court, they had stiffened suddenly into rigid little men and women who reminded me sadly of photographs in a family album.
Etienne had seized his father's hand. "We were playing Ogre, papa," he explained. " Monsieur was the ogre."
"Ah?" said Monsieur Dupont looking at me uncomprehendingly.
Etienne drew his father forward, and still holding tight to him with one hand, held out the other to me. "Thank you, monsieur," he said gravely. "You were a splendid ogre. Au revoir, monsieur."
Monsieur Dupont raised his hat to me politely, but his face was still puzzled. The French bourgeois seldom plays with his children. He is fond of them, and far more prodigal of caresses than an American father, but he treats them always as though they were grown-up, and requires of them a solemn respect, that may not lessen their affection for him, but that destroys the possibility of sympathy. They have no pleasant half-way stage, but leap at once from infancy to manhood. Even the games played in my court when Etienne was absent were, unless they were mere irrepressible romping (and they were seldom that) prim and dignified games. The recognized wildness of the lad between eighteen and twenty-two when, the baccalauréat passed, and business or the university entered, he has become all at once his own master,— a wildness often resembling debauch,—is perhaps but a re-action from this philistinism into which he has been crushed, but a struggling forth of his own identity. In this city, where the old struggle between Paganism and Christianity is forever going on, and where talent is strewn as thickly as the leaves in my court, it is matter for conjecture whether he will emerge completely, make of his reaction a philosophy, and leave behind him a great or a little name ; or whether, incapable of thinking, or impeded by circumstances, he will return to the caste from which he sprang; whether he will be one of the class that makes France preeminent, or one of that which keeps France populous. In the first case the reaction will be good, for it will have served toward achievement; in the second harmful, for then it will have been a force making against his happiness in the life for which he is fitted.
Two or three days later I went again into the court. The children greeted me cordially.
" But where is Etienne ? " I asked, looking about me.
He is ill, monsieur," said one solemnly.
" Ill ! " I exclaimed. " Not seriously ? "
" Oh, yes, monsieur, very ill indeed. Would monsieur play at Ogre to-day ? "
" No," I said, " not to-day — another time " ; and left the court. It was nothing, doubtless, — to be ill is always in a child's mind to be very ill. Nevertheless I was worried — for the ten or fifteen minutes one concedes to another's troubles. Then September came and I went to the shore for two weeks, and forgot Etienne and the court in the joy of the crisp salt air and the stinging spray of the breakers that beat upon the Norman coast.
When, having driven home from the Gare Saint-Lazare through the sunny streets on my return one mid-September afternoon, I strode buoyantly into the court, I saw at once that something was wrong. The children stood about in groups whispering, and an atmosphere like that of an English Sunday seemed to envelop the whole enclosure.
" Qu'est-ce qu'il y a, Marthe ? " I asked the little blonde girl.
" Etienne, monsieur," she replied, with, beneath the half-comprehending awe of her tone, a certain pride in being the first to break the news : he died day before yesterday. The funeral has just been."
You have known it all along; you have seen ahead from the beginning ; for to you it is only a story, —a too simple obvious story you must find it; but to me, for whom it was truth, it was not obvious, and I would think it sacrilege to make it over into something more artistic, better constructed.
I was lonely that evening, and went to the apartment of the little old man across the hall. He welcomed me courteously and gave me an arm-chair beside his before the open fire ; for the nights were already cool. I spoke to him of Etienne.
" It is strange," I said, " that his death should make me unhappy, — a child of six whom I saw but a few times and played with once.
No," said the old man, " it is not strange. Every added capacity for pleasure is a capacity for pain too. The same sensitiveness which led you at once to recognize the boy's charm makes you now feel pain at his death. It is nothing that Etienne was a child and that you saw him but a few times. What are our most poignant memories — a life-long friendship, a happy married life? No, but the intimacy of a two days' acquaintance-ship under odd conditions, some little trick of manner in a woman who was never even our mistress, or the glance of inspired comprehension exchanged with some one un-known and never seen again. But you should not grieve. For yourself you have added a delicate memory, and for Etienne it is surely better."
"No," I cried rebelliously, "it is not bet-ter ! Life is wonderful ! "
" Ah ! " observed the old man sadly, "you are young."
" Etienne was younger ! "
" There are two great blessings," he continued, " youth and death. Youth is good," he said, his eyes brightening ; " I remember my own, though it is a half-century away now ; but death, I am sure, is better," he added wearily.
Two days later, towards evening I descended again to the court and sat down on a bench in the quietest corner. After a time Monsieur Dupont entered, wheeling the bicycle that he sometimes uses on his trips to and from the mairie. He passed close to me, — for the little shed under which he keeps the machine was not far from my seat ; and I saw with sudden pity that his heavy face looked heavier and his little eyes dull and red. When he had put the bicycle away, he came back and stood looking about him apathetically. I raised my hat when he turned toward me, and he re-plied mechanically, then, after a moment's hesitation, sat down beside me and opened his newspaper slowly. But I understood that he was longing to speak to some one, and so closed my book and waited. He glanced at me two or three times to see if I were reading, then at last laid down his paper.
" You have heard that my son is dead ? " he said abruptly, in a tone that was less a question than a challenge and almost hostile with timidity.
Yes," I said, as gently as possible, " I know."
I paused, searching for something to add and finding nothing. That mattered little, however. It was not the expression of another's sympathy that he craved, but an opportunity of speaking himself, of some-how escaping from the facts by putting them into words. And he was not one who could talk to himself : he must have a listener.
" I buried him the day before yesterday," he went on dully, as though repeating a lesson. " I buried my son. I shall never see him again. — I don't understand."
It was pitiful to see this man, whom general ideas had always passed by, discovering now for himself the bitter meaning of the old, old formula. All his life, doubtless, he had said on occasion, with glib solemnity, that death was very inexplicable and sad, because that was the thing to say; now for the first time he felt the significance of the phrase. " I do not understand," he had said helplessly. The effort was too great. He fell back on facts.
" It was scarlet fever," he continued. " He suffered, monsieur."
I winced. It has always seemed to me terrible for a child to suffer —not because, being innocent, he does not deserve to (suffering is as horrible in the sinner as in the saint ; but because he has nothing to help him through. He is too young to have either a God in whom he can trust or one whom he can revile; either a sustaining confidence in a great wise scheme of which he is part or the contemptuous courage born of disbelief in the existence of any scheme: he can only feel pain and cry out. And Etienne had been so delicate and sensitive a child !
After a moment the man spoke again.
What had he done to suffer so ?" he cried. "You saw him playing here. You talked with him. You know whether he was good or not, — he was always like that, monsieur. What had he done? Bon Dieu! What had he done ? " he repeated fiercely,--
"What indeed ! And what reply could I make to this question that has been asked since the beginning of the world — and never answered ?
You must not think of that," I said hurriedly. "That is all done with." (How in our impotence of mind we catch at stock - phrases!) There is no suffering where your son is now — only happiness."
My hypocrisy sickened me ; but the fact that I clung to it nevertheless brought me a sudden flash of tolerance for the point of view of the priest. Time and again I had heard these same platitudes spoken from the pulpit or at funerals, and had despised the clergymen who uttered them for the insincerity in their sanctimonious voices, for the attitude of faith in which faith was wanting (it was not, doubtless, that they disbelieved them, at least not always; only that they did not feel them at the moment) ; but now I understood that they knew these formulas to be healing and, irrespective of their truth or untruth, best to be believed.
Monsieur Dupont looked at me dubiously. " Do you think," he asked, " that I shall see my son again ? "
" I am sure of it," I answered firmly.
Who is there that has the right to speak the truth if the truth will only give needless pain ? I was glad I had lied ; for the father's heavy face softened and his eyes grew less dull.
You think so, really ? " he asked again, not because he doubted me, but for the comfort of hearing the assertion repeated.
" Yes," I replied once more.
He sat silent for a few minutes, looking away with a half smile on his lips. By telling this man that I thought one way I had somehow — temporarily at least — eased his pain ; if I had told him I thought another way I should have made him wretched ; and all the time what I thought or did not think mattered as little to the truth itself as the brown leaves that were already beginning to fall sparsely mattered to the wind that sent them rustling downward. The irony of it was appalling.
The light had faded. There was no one left in the court but us. Monsieur Dupont turned to me suddenly. " I am keeping you. See, it is late," he said, taking out his watch, " and you have not dined."
We rose. He looked at me in a troubled silence for some seconds, groping dumbly for the right words with which to leave me. He lived on habits ; it was they that would over-come his suffering. For each situation he would have, I thought, a fitting phrase. But the present case was unique and unprepared for ; there was no phrase that solved it.
" I thank you," he stammered at last, holding out his hand. " You have been very kind. Good-night, monsieur."
That was a month ago. The children have forgotten now, and Monsieur Dupont has become again, so far as one can see, the placid bourgeois he was before. I thought today a trifle bitterly, when I heard his boisterous laugh, only a little modulated by the consciousness of his mourning, that Etienne was no longer a memory for him, only the memory of a memory. But to think so was arrogant and unfair. Who can tell in how many delicate ways the influence of his child creeps through the man's existence ?
For myself it is hard to explain what is left. I do not think of Etienne often, — how should I in a world which is rich and exult-ant with vitality ? Yet I feel that somehow, where his brief life touched mine, something was added for me to the store of significant experiences that one puts away and that become the background of one's mind.