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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 6/39 -
while I am admiring her magnificent hair, with a single shock of her powerful elastic shoulder, pushes me staggering three paces back at least, without injury, into the arms of a maccaroni-eater, who receives me with a smile.
I am in Naples. How I ever managed to arrive here, with a few mutilated and shapeless remains of baggage, I cannot tell, because I am no longer myself. I have been travelling in a condition of perpetual fright; and I think that I must have looked awhile ago in this bright city like an owl bewildered by sunshine. To-night it is much worse! Wishing to obtain a glimpse of popular manners, I went to the Strada di Porto, where I now am. All about me animated throngs of people crowd and press before the eating-places; and I float like a waif among these living surges, which, even while they submerge you, still caress. For this Neopolitan people has, in its very vivacity, something indescribably gentle and polite. I am not roughly jostled, I am merely swayed about; and I think that by dint of thus rocking me to and fro, these good folks want to lull me asleep on my feet. I admire, as I tread the lava pavements of the strada, those porters and fishermen who move by me chatting, singing, smoking, gesticulating, quarrelling, and embracing each other the next moment with astonishing versatility of mood. They live through all their sense at the same time; and, being philosophers without knowing it, keep the measure of their desires in accordance with the brevity of life. I approach a much-patronised tavern, and see inscribed above the entrance this quatrain in Neopolitan patois:
"Amice, alliegre magnammo e bevimmo N fin che n'ce stace noglio a la lucerna: Chi sa s'a l'autro munno n'ce verdimmo? Chi sa s'a l'autro munno n'ce taverna?" ["Friends, let us merrily eat and drink as long as oil remains in the lamp: Who knows if we shall meet again in another world? Who knows if in the other world there will be a tavern?"]
Even such counsels was Horace wont to give to his friends. You received them, Posthumus; you heard them also, Leuconoe, perverse beauty who wished to know the secrets of the future. That future is now the past, and we know it well. Of a truth you were foolish to worry yourselves about so small a matter; and your friend showed his good sense when he told you to take life wisely and to filter your Greek wines--"Sapias, vina liques." Even thus the sight of a fair land under a spotless sky urges to the pursuit of quiet pleasures. but there are souls for ever harassed by some sublime discontent; those are the noblest. You were of such, Leuconoe; and I, visiting for the first time, in my declining years, that city where your beauty was famed of old, I salute with deep respect your melancholy memory. Those souls of kin to your own who appeared in the age of Chrisitianity were souls of saints; and the "Golden Legend" is full of the miracles they wrought. Your friend Horace left a less noble posterity, and I see one of his descendants in the person of that tavern poet, who at this moment is serving out wine in cups under the epicurean motto of his sign.
And yet life decides in favour of friend Flaccus, and his philosophy is the only one which adapts itself to the course of events. There is a fellow leaning against that trellis-work covered with vine- leaves, and eating an ice, while watching the stars. He would not stoop even to pick up the old manuscript I am going to seek with so much trouble and fatigue. And in truth man is made rather to eat ices than to pore over old texts.
I continued to wander about among the drinkers and the singers. There were lovers biting into beautiful fruit, each with an arm about the other's waist. Man must be naturally bad; for all this strange joy only evoked in me a feeling of uttermost despondency. That thronging populace displayed such artless delight in the simple act of living, that all the shynesses begotten by my old habits as an author awoke and intensified into something like fright. Furthermore, I found myself much discouraged by my inability to understand a word of all the storm of chatter about me. It was a humiliating experience for a philologist. Thus I had begun to feel quite sulky, when I was startled to hear someone behind me observe:
"Dimitri, that old man is certainly a Frenchman. He looks so bewildered that I really fell sorry for him. Shall I speak to him? ...He has such a goo-natured look, with that round back of his--do you not think so, Dimitri?"
It was said in French by a woman's voice. For the moment it was disagreeable to hear myself spoken of as an old man. Is a man old at sixty-two? Only the other day, on the Pont des Arts, my colleague Perrot d'Avrignac complimented me on my youthful appearance; and I should think him a better authority about one's age than that young chatterbox who has taken it on herself to make remarks about my back. My back is round, she says. Ah! ah! I had some suspicion myself to that effect, but I am not going now to believe it at all, since it is the opinion of a giddy-headed young woman. Certainly I will not turn my head round to see who it was that spoke; but I am sure it was a pretty woman. Why? Because she talks like a capricious person and like a spoiled child. Ugly women may be naturally quite as capricious as pretty ones; but as they are never petted and spoiled, and as no allowances are made for them, they soon find themselves obliged either to suppress their whims or to hide them. On the other hand, the pretty women can be just as fantastical as they please. My neighbour is evidently one of the latter.... But, after all, coming to think it over, she really did nothing worse than to express, in her own way, a kindly thought about me, for which I ought to feel grateful.
These reflections--include the last and decisive one--passed through my mind in less than a second; and if I have taken a whole minute to tell them, it is characteristic of most philologists. In less than a second, therefore, after the voice had ceased, I did turn round, and saw a pretty little woman--a sprightly brunette.
"Madame," I said, with a bow, "excuse my involuntary indiscretion. I could not help overhearing what you have just said. You would like to be of service to a poor old man. And the wish, Madame, has already been fulfilled--the mere sound of a French voice has given me such pleasure that I must thank you."
I bowed again, and turned to go away; but my foot slipped upon a melon-rind, and I should certainly have embraced the Parthenopean soil had not the young lady put out her hand and caught me.
There is a force in circumstances--even in the very smallest circumstances--against which resistance is vain. I resigned myself to remain the protege of the fair unknown.
"It is late," she said; "do you not wish to go back to your hotel, which must be quite close to ours--unless it be the same one?"
"Madame," I replied, "I do not know what time it is, because somebody has stolen my watch; but I think, as you say, that it must be time to retire; and I shall be very glad to regain my hotel in the company of such courteous compatriots."
So saying, I bowed once more to the young lady, and also saluted her companion, a silent colossus with a gentle and melancholy face.
After having gone a little way with them, I learned, among other matters, that my new acquaintances were the Prince and Princess Trepof, and that they were making a trip round the world for the purpose of finding match-boxes, of which they were making a collection.
We proceeded along a narrow, tortuous vicoletto, lighted only by a single lamp burning in the niche of a Madonna. The purity and transparency of the air gave a celestial softness and clearness to the very darkness itself; and one could find one's way without difficulty under such a limpid night. But in a little while we began to pass through a "venella," or, in Neopolitan parlance, a sottoportico, which led under so many archways and so many far- projecting balconies that no gleam of light from the sky could reach us. My young guide had made us take this route as a short cut, she assured us; but I think she did so quite as much simply in order to show that she felt at home in Naples, and knew the city thoroughly. Indeed, she needed to know it very thoroughly to venture by night into that labyrinth of subterranean alleys and flights of steps. If ever any many showed absolute docility in allowing himself to be guided, that man was myself. Dante never followed the steps of Beatrice with more confidence than I felt in following those of Princess Trepof.
The lady appeared to find some pleasure in my conversation, for she invited me to take a carriage-drive with her on the morrow to visit the grotto of Posilippo and the tomb of Virgil. She declared she had seen me somewhere before; but she could not remember if it had been a Stockholm or at Canton. In the former event I was a very celebrated professor of geology; in the latter, a provision- merchant whose courtesy and kindness had been much appreciated. One thing certain was that she had seen my back somewhere before.
"Excuse me," she added; "we are continually travelling, my husband and I, to collect match-boxes and to change our ennui by changing country. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to content ourselves with a single variety of ennui. But we have made all our preparations and arrangements for travelling: all our plans have been laid out in advance, and it gives us no trouble, whereas it would be very troublesome for us to stop anywhere in particular. I tell you all this so that you many not be surprised if my recollections have become a little mixed up. But from the moment I first saw you at a distance this evening, I felt--in fact I knew-- that I had seen you before. Now the question is, 'Where was it that I saw you?' You are not then, either the geologist or the provision-merchant?"
"No, Madame," I replied, "I am neither the one nor the other; and I am sorry for it--since you have had reason to esteem them. There is really nothing about me worthy of your interest. I have spent all my life poring over books, and I have never traveled: you might have known that from my bewilderment, which excited your compassion. I am a member of the Institute."
"You are a member of the Institute! How nice! Will you not write something for me in my album? Do you know Chinese? I would like so much to have you write something in Chinese or Persian in my album. I will introduce you to my friend, Miss Fergusson, who travels everywhere to see all the famous people in the world. She will be delighted.... Dimitri, did you hear that?--this gentleman is a member of the Institute, and he has passed all his life over books."
The prince nodded approval.
"Monsieur," I said, trying to engage him in our conversation, "it
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