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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 4/39 -
"Buy a doll for a boy--sacrebleu!" cried my uncle, in a voice of thunder. "Do you wish to dishonour yourself? And it is that old Mag there that you want! Well, I must compliment you, my young fellow! If you grow up with such tastes as that, you will never have any pleasure in life; and your comrades will call you a precious ninny. If you asked me for a sword or a gun, my boy, I would buy them for you with the last silver crown of my pension. But to buy a doll for you--by all that's holy!--to disgrace you! Never in the world! Why, if I were ever to see you playing with a puppet rigged out like that, Monsieur, my sister's son, I would disown you for my nephew!"
On hearing these words, I felt my heart so wrung that nothing but pride--a diabolical pride--kept me from crying.
My uncle, suddenly calming down, returned to his ideas about the Bourbons; but I, still smarting under the weight of his indignation, felt an unspeakable shame. My resolve was quickly made. I promised myself never to disgrace myself--I firmly and for ever renounced that red-cheeked doll.
I felt that day, for the first time, the austere sweetness of sacrifice.
Captain, though it be true that all your life you swore like a pagan, smoked like a beadle, and drank like a bell-ringer, be your memory nevertheless honoured--not merely because you were a brave soldier, but also because you revealed to your little nephew in petticoats the sentiment of heroism! Pride and laziness had made you almost insupportable, Uncle Victor!--but a great heart used to beat under those frogs upon your coat. You always used to wear, I now remember, a rose in your button-hole. That rose which you offered so readily to the shop-girls--that large, open-hearted flower, scattering its petals to all the winds, was the symbol of your glorious youth. You despised neither wine nor tobacco; but you despised life. Neither delicacy nor common sense could have been learned from you, Captain; but you taught me, even at an age when my nurse had to wipe my nose, a lesson of honour and self-abrogation that I shall never forget.
You have now been sleeping for many years in the Cemetery of Mont- Parnasse, under a plain slab bearing the epitaph:
CI-GIT ARISTIDE VICTOR MALDENT, Capitaine d'Infanterie, Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.
But such, Captain, was not the inscription devised by yourself to be placed above those old bones of yours--knocked about so long on fields of battle and in haunts of pleasure. Among your papers was found this proud and bitter epitaph, which, despite your last will none could have ventured to put upon your tomb:
CI-GIT UN BRIGAND DE LA LOIRE
"Therese, we will get a wreath of immortelles to-morrow, and lay them on the tomb of the Brigand of the Loire." ...
But Therese is not here. And how, indeed, could she be near me, seeing that I am at the rondpoint of the Champs-Elysees? There, at the termination of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe, which bears under its vaults the names of Uncle Victor's companions-in-arms, opens its giant gate against the sky. The trees of the avenue are unfolding to the sun of spring their first leaves, still all pale and chilly. Beside me the carriages keep rolling by to the Bois de Boulogne. Unconsciously I have wandered into this fashionable avenue on my promenade, and halted, quite stupidly, in front of a booth stocked with gingerbread and decanters of liquorice-water, each topped by a lemon. A miserable little boy, covered with rags, which expose his chapped skin, stares with widely opened eyes at those sumptuous sweets which are not for such as he. With the shamelessness of innocence he betrays his longing. His round, fixed eyes contemplate a certain gingerbread man of lofty stature. It is a general, and it looks a little like Uncle Victor. I take it, I pay for it, and present it to the little pauper, who dares not extend his hand to receive it--for, by reason of precocious experience, he cannot believe in luck; he looks at me, in the same way that certain big dogs do, with the air of one saying, "You are cruel to make fun of me like that!"
"Come, little stupid," I say to him, in that rough tone I am accustomed to use, "take it--take it, and eat it; for you, happier than I was at your age, you can satisfy your tastes without disgracing yourself."...And you, Uncle Victor--you, whose manly figure has been recalled to me by that gingerbread general, come, glorious Shadow, help me to forget my new doll. We remain for ever children, and are always running after new toys.
In the oddest way that Coccoz family has become associated in my mind with the Clerk Alexander.
"Therese," I said, as I threw myself into my easy-chair, "tell me if the little Coccoz is well, and whether he has got his first teeth yet--and bring me my slippers."
"He ought to have them by this time, Monsieur," replied Therese; "but I never saw them. The very first fine day of spring the mother disappeared with the child, leaving furniture and clothes and everything behind her. They found thirty-eight empty pomade-pots in the attic. It passes all belief! She had visitors latterly; and you may be quite sure she is not now in a convent of nuns. The niece of the concierge says she saw her driving about in a carriage on the boulevards. I always told you she would end badly."
"Therese," I replied, "that young woman has not ended either badly or well as yet. Wait until the term of her life is over before you judge her. And be careful not to talk too much with that concierge. It seemed to me--though I only saw her for a moment on the stairs-- that Madame Coccoz was very fond of her child. For that mother's love at least, she deserves credit."
"As far as that goes, Monsieur, certainly the little one never wanted for anything. In all the Quarter one could not have found a child better kept, or better nourished, or more petted and coddled. Every day that God makes she puts a clean bib on him, and sings to him to make him laugh from morning till night."
"Therese, a poet has said, 'That child whose mother has never smiled upon him is worthy neither of the table of the gods nor of the couch of the goddesses.'"
July 8, 1852.
Having been informed that the Chapel of the Virgin at Saint-Germain- des-Pres was being repaved, I entered the church with the hope of discovering some old inscriptions, possibly exposed by the labours of the workmen. I was not disappointed. The architect kindly showed me a stone which he had just had raised up against the wall. I knelt down to look at the inscription engraved upon that stone; and then, half aloud, I read in the shadow of the old apsis these words, which made my heart leap:
"Cy-gist Alexandre, moyne de ceste eglise, qui fist mettre en argent le menton de Saint-Vincent et de Saint-Amant et le pie des Innocens; qui toujours en son vivant fut preud'homme et vayllant. Priez pour l'ame de lui."
I wiped gently away with my handkerchief the dust covering that gravestone; I could have kissed it.
"It is he! it is Alexander!" I cried out; and from the height of the vaults the name fell back upon me with a clang, as if broken.
The silent severity of the beadle, whom I saw advancing towards me, made me ashamed of my enthusiasm; and I fled between the two holy water sprinklers with which tow rival "rats d'eglise" seemed desirous of barring my way.
At all events it was certainly my own Alexander! there could be no more doubt possible; the translator of the "Golden Legend," the author of the saints lives of Saints Germain, Vincent, Ferreol, Ferrution, and Droctoveus was, just as I had supposed, a monk of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. And what a monk, too--pious and generous! He had a silver chin, a silver head, and a silver foot made, that certain precious remains should be covered with an incorruptible envelope! But shall I never be able to view his handiwork? or is this new discovery only destined to increase my regrets?
August 20, 1859.
"I, that please some, try all; both joy and terror Of good and bad; that make and unfold error-- Now take upon me, in the name of Time To use my wings. Impute it not a crime To me or my swift passage, that I slide O'er years."
Who speaks thus? 'Tis an old man whom I know too well. It is Time.
Shakespeare, after having terminated the third act of the "Winter's Tale," pauses in order to leave time for little Perdita to grow up in wisdom and in beauty; and when he raises the curtain again he evokes the ancient Scythe-bearer upon the stage to render account to the audience of those many long days which have weighted down upon the head of the jealous Leontes.
Like Shakespeare in his play, I have left in this diary of mine a long interval to oblivion; and after the fashion of the poet, I make Time himself intervene to explain the omission of ten whole years. Ten whole years, indeed, have passed since I wrote one single line in this diary; and now that I take up the pen again, I have not the pleasure, alas! to describe a Perdita "now grown in grace." Youth and beauty are the faithful companions of poets; but those charming phantoms scarcely visit the rest of us, even for the space of a season. We do not know how to retain them with us. If the fair
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