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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 5/39 -
shade of some Perdita should ever, through some inconceivable whim, take a notion to traverse my brain, she would hurt herself horribly against heaps of dog-eared parchments. Happy the poets!--their white hairs never scare away the hovering shades of Helens, Francescas, Juliets, Julias, and Dorotheas! But the nose alone of Sylvestre Bonnard would put to flight the whole swarm of love's heroines.
Yet I, like others, have felt beauty; I have known that mysterious charm which Nature has lent to animate form; and the clay which lives has given to me that shudder of delight which makes the lover and the poet. But I have never known either how to love or how to sing. Now in my memory--all encumbered as it is with the rubbish of old texts--I can discern again, like a miniature forgotten in some attic, a certain bright young face, with violet eyes.... Why, Bonnard, my friend, what an old fool you are becoming! Read that catalogue which a Florentine bookseller sent you this very morning. It is a catalogue of Manuscripts; and he promises you a description of several famous ones, long preserved by the collectors of Italy and Sicily. There is something better suited to you, something more in keeping with your present appearance.
I read; I cry out! Hamilcar, who has assumed with the approach of age an air of gravity that intimidates me, looks at me reproachfully, and seems to ask me whether there is any rest in this world, since he cannot enjoy it beside me, who am old also like himself.
In the sudden joy of my discovery, I need a confidant; and it is to the sceptic Hamilcar that I address myself with all the effusion of a happy man.
"No, Hamilcar! no," I said to him; "there is no rest in this world, and the quietude which you long for is incompatible with the duties of life. And you say that we are old, indeed! Listen to what I read in this catalogue, and then tell me whether this is a time to be reposing:
"'LA LEGENDE DOREE DE JACQUES DE VORAGINE;--trduction francaise du quatorzieme sicle, par le Clerc Alexandre.
"'Superb MS., ornamented with two miniatures, wonderfully executed, and in a perfect state of preservation:--one representing the Purification of the Virgin; the other the Coronation of Proserpine.
"'At the termination of the "Legende Doree" are the Legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, and Droctoveus (xxxviij pp.) and the Miraculous Sepulture of Monsieur Saint-Germain d'Auxerre (xij pp.).
"'This rare manuscript, which formed part of the collection of Sir Thomas Raleigh, is now in the private study of Signor Michel-Angelo Polizzi, of Girgenti.'"
"You hear that, Hamilcar? The manuscript of the Clerk Alexander is in Sicily, at the house of Michel-Angelo Polizzi. Heaven grant he may be a friend of learned men! I am going to write him!"
Which I did forthwith. In my letter I requested Signor Polizzi to allow me to examine the manuscript of Clerk Alexander, stating on what grounds I ventured to consider myself worthy of so great a favour. I offered at the same time to put at his disposal several unpublished texts in my own possession, not devoid of interest. I begged him to favour me with a prompt reply, and below my signature I wrote down all my honorary titles.
"Monsieur! Monsieur! where are you running like that?" cried Therese, quite alarmed, coming down the stairs in pursuit of me, four steps at a time, with my hat in her hand.
"I am going to post a letter, Therese."
"Good God! is that a way to run out in the street, bareheaded, like a crazy man?"
"I am crazy, I know, Therese. But who is not? Give me my hat, quick!"
"And your gloves, Monsieur! and your umbrella!"
I had reached the bottom of the stairs, but still heard her protesting and lamenting.
October 10, 1859.
I awaited Signor Polizzi's reply with ill-contained impatience. I could not even remain quiet; I would make sudden nervous gestures-- open books and violently close them again. One day I happened to upset a book with my elbow--a volume of Moreri. Hamilcar, who was washing himself, suddenly stopped, and looked angrily at me, with his paw over his ear. Was this the tumultuous existence he must expect under my roof? Had there not been a tacit understanding between us that we should live a peaceful life? I had broken the covenant.
"My poor dear comrade," I made answer, "I am the victim of a violent passion, which agitates and masters me. The passions are enemies of peace and quiet, I acknowledge; but without them there would be no arts or industries in the world. Everybody would sleep naked on a dung-heap; and you would not be able, Hamilcar, to repose all day on a silken cushion, in the City of Books."
I expatiated no further to Hamilcar on the theory of the passions, however, because my housekeeper brought me a letter. It bore the postmark of Naples and read as follows:
"Most Illustrious Sir,--I do indeed possess that incomparable manuscript of the 'Golden Legend' which could not escape your keen observation. All-important reasons, however, forbid me, imperiously, tyrannically, to let the manuscript go out of my possession for a single day, for even a single minute. It will be a joy and pride for me to have you examine it in my humble home in Girgenti, which will be embellished and illuminated by your presence. It is with the most anxious expectation of your visit that I presume to sign myself, Seigneur Academician, "Your humble and devoted servant "Michel-Angelo Polizzi, "Wine-merchant and Archaeologist at Girgenti, Sicily."
Well, then! I will go to Sicily:
"Extremum hunc, Arethusa, mihi concede laborem."
October 25, 1859.
My resolve had been taken and my preparations made; it only remained for me to notify my housekeeper. I must acknowledge it was a long time before I could make up my mind to tell her I was going away. I feared her remonstrances, her railleries, her objurgations, her tears. "She is a good, kind girl," I said to myself; "she is attacked to me; she will want to prevent me from going; and the Lord knows that when she has her mind set upon anything, gestures and cries cost her no effort. In this instance she will be sure to call the concierge, the scrubber, the mattress-maker, and the seven sons of the fruit-seller; they will all kneel down in a circle around me; they will begin to cry, and then they will look so ugly that I shall be obliged to yield, so as not to have the pain of seeing them any more."
Such were the awful images, the sick dreams, which fear marshaled before my imagination. Yes, fear--"fecund Fear," as the poet says-- gave birth to these monstrosities in my brain. For--I may as well make the confession in these private pages--I am afraid of my housekeeper. I am aware that she knows I am weak; and this fact alone is sufficient to dispel all my courage in any contest with her. Contests are of frequent occurrence; and I invariably succumb.
But for all that, I had to announce my departure to Therese. She came into the library with an armful of wood to make a little fire-- "une flambe," she said. For the mornings are chilly. I watched her out of the corner of my eye while she crouched down at the hearth, with her head in the opening of the fireplace. I do not know how I then found the courage to speak, but I did so without much hesitation. I got up, and, walking up and down the room, observed in a careless tone, with that swaggering manner characteristic of cowards,
"By the way, Therese, I am going to Sicily."
Having thus spoken, I awaited the consequence with great anxiety. Therese did not reply. Her head and her vast cap remained buried in the fireplace; and nothing in her person, which I closely watched, betrayed the least emotion. She poked some paper under the wood, and blew up the fire. That was all!
Finally I saw her face again;--it was calm--so calm that it made me vexed. "Surely," I thought to myself, "this old maid has no heart. She lets me go away without saying so much as AH! Can the absence of her old master really affect her so little?"
"Well, then go, Monsieur," she answered at last, "only be back here by six o'clock! There is a dish for dinner to-day which will not wait for anybody."
Naples, November 10, 1859.
"Co tra calle vive, magna, e lave a faccia."
I understand, my friend--for three centimes I can eat, drink, and wash my face, all by means of one of those slices of watermelon you display there on a little table. But Occidental prejudices would prevent me from enjoying that simple pleasure freely and frankly. And how could I suck a watermelon? I have enough to do mereley to keep on my feet in this crowd. What a luminous, noisy night in the Strada di Porto! Mountains of fruit tower up in the shops, illuminated by multicoloured lanterns. Upon charcoal furnaces lighted in the open air water boils and steams, and ragouts are singing in frying-pans. The smell of fried fish and hot meats tickles my nose and makes me sneeze. At this moment I find that my handkerchief has left the pocket of my frock-coat. I am pushed, lifted up, and turned about in every direction by the gayest, the most talkative, the most animated and the most adroit populace possible to imagine; and suddenly a young woman of the people,
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