Leaves in the Life of an Idler by Henry S. Armstrong
Leaf the First.
When a man whom you have every reason to believe not only the coolest, but the most unimpressible, of beings, suddenly turns white as a ghost and shivers with a nervous spasm, it is safe to suppose he is frightened. But when terror, turning into rage, changes one of the most attentive and respectful of servants into a madman, it is scarcely safe to suppose anything. As it was, I stared in mute amazement, and he glared at me as though I had struck him. While waiting for a light, I carelessly put my hand into a basket of hot-house vegetables. The small egg-plant I took up certainly did weigh twenty pounds, and when I attempted to lift the basket the handle bent double; but why this should frighten a man like Marcel, or provoke him to anger, is as inexplicable as it is surprising.
He is pacing up and down the hall in a state of the wildest excitement; and I, with man's truest comfort,--tobacco,--am left to my meditations.
What combination of circumstances reduced him to a porter, I cannot for the life of me imagine. His hand is as soft as a woman's; and his brow has a breadth of brain that would dignify a Senator. Notwithstanding the scrupulous deference in his tone, his manner possesses the quiet ease of a gentleman, to as great a degree as any I ever saw.
The utter incongruity of his appearance and position struck me the moment I laid eyes on him. He flourished his napkin with the dainty grace of a courtier; and when he lifted my luggage to his shoulder, I was on the point of apologizing. He makes my bed, polishes my shoes, performs with fidelity the most menial offices; and yet I cannot but look upon him as an equal. Poor devil! His cheek may burn with the bluest blood in France. What a pity the world is not moral!
There is something enchanting to me in smoking. It is like a rich cordial,--nerving every faculty to action. A draught from your Cabanas, the pulse quickens, the mind clears, and thought awakes, like a fine instrument under the magic touch of a master. The wind moans drearily without, the rain beats dismally against the windows, the fagots flicker blue-flamed and weird in the dark recesses of the chimney-place; but what care I? The white walls are lurid in the flare, the great bed stands out in the darkness like a grotesque engine of the Inquisition; but who suffers? Au troisième, No. 30, Rue Lepelletier, was never noted for its comforts; but who would ask a repose more secure, a peace more perfect, than are enjoyed by the occupant of this rambling old house? Blessed be the earth that bears this solace for weary brains! Its very odor is pregnant with dreams of the Vuelta Abajo. You see the luxuriant foliage of the tropics, the dark-green waves curling on the coral beach, and the scarlet flamingoes that gather shell-fish in the marshes away off in the golden sunset. You hear the wild song of the Spanish fruit-man as he sculls his boat along the broken wharves, and are soothed into utter listlessness by the thousand perfumes that come off with the land-breeze. A taste of the fragrant vapor, you recline in the odorous orange darkness of a dream-land, languidly breathing the smoke from your hookah, and the lustrous leaves moving over you are bathed in the soft and melting sunshine. The day lingers luminously over far mountain-ranges, paling in brilliancy on the hill-side, where the blushing vine, bending with the clusters, is still enlivened by the song of the vintagers; and in the valley, where the grain sheds its gold under the sickle. You are lost in voluptuous reverie. You breathe the sunlight; intellect is thawed and mellowed; emotions take the place of thought; "your senses, sun-tranced, rise into the sphere of soul." You feel the heart of humanity throbbing through all nature, and your own warms into quivering life.
"It is not good for man to live alone;" and you dream of another to share the rapture your wild fancy has created.
Your Haidee is pure. Her form has rather the statuesque roundness of Psyche than the luxurious excess of Venus. Timid, yet not tremulous, graceful even to delicacy, coquettish in outline, her beauty is formed for smiles. She is a still-eyed Xenobi, but knows nothing of Passion with disheveled locks, divine frenzy, and fiery grasp. She is your friend and comforter; and you are the strong rock her helplessness clings to. Your uncouth manner softens as you behold her troubled look. You become kind and considerate. You watch with pity the pinched faces of anxiety that pass before you. You cheer the little beggar, and give him of your abundance. Unhappy wanderer! he has started early on his wretched pilgrimage for bread. "Your heart, enlarged by its new sympathy with one, grows bountiful to all." The fragrant smoke curls in heavier clouds, and is wafted imperceptibly into the darkness. Ah, Arthur Granger! Arthur Granger! you are dreaming impossibilities, as the man athirst dreams of flowing waters.
"Love has lost its wings of heavenly azure with which it soared light as a lark into the empyrean, and now grovels on the earth, weighed down by the burden of red gold."
How well I recollect that warm, balmy March morning! My mother had sent me to Paris about six months before, to read law with an old relative. Of course I was delighted; but that day I felt tired of the dull routine of my life, and longed for the green fields, waving trees, and wild mountain-torrents of my home. I was walking slowly down the street, thinking gloomily of the labors of another day, and she was standing near a school-house door, intently occupied in giving some directions to an old soldier. In my whole life I do not think I ever saw a more beautiful creature. The airiness of the lithe little figure, the playfulness in the nod of the graceful head, the look of joyous innocence on that perfect face, flitted through my mind like a bright ray of sunshine during the entire day. Every morning, for years after, I met that child; and every morning her beaming smile cheered my young life like a glimpse of heaven. I never spoke to her; it was a long time before she even knew of my existence; but by-and-by I noticed a quizzical expression come over the old man's face, and I saw her features warm with a faint flush of recognition. How many dreams I based on that slight fabric! Of course I discovered her name; and of course I learned that her father was very rich; but what was that to me? With what pride did I gaze at his name in huge gilt letters on a great warehouse near us, and what wonderful little gothic cottages did I build on the strength of the "and Son" that would shortly be added to it! The long nights with my cousin became less wearisome. I could hear the dull creaking of the letter-press, and see him sit poring over his writing, quite patiently. When the organ-grinder stopped on the corner and played "Make me no gaudy chaplet," I did not long to rush into the streets, for I had her to think about. When the clock struck eleven, and my cousin, with his peculiar "phew!" commenced another letter, I looked on quite calmly, and began the construction of another cottage. Of course there were rainy days, and Thursdays that were ages to me; and there were Christmas holidays, and long, hot vacations, that she did not come; but September brought back the radiant face, and I worshiped on.
Gradually I noticed a change in her dress. She wore little lace collars, and bright ribbons I had not seen before; and sometimes she carried a little bouquet of violets, with a white rosebud in the center. As she grew older, I had many rivals. Gallant youths, brave in broadcloth and beavers, followed by dozens the Picciola I had watched so tenderly. How proudly I passed them by! and how I sneered at the thought of their understanding her!
I saw her form grow fuller and expand into a more queenly beauty. I saw her eyes sparkle with a diviner light, and her bosom swell with new and strange emotions. I watched her until she became a woman, and gloried in her matchless loveliness.
At last the end came. One morning, the brown calico frock was changed for an India silk, and the little school bonnet, with its blue veil, for a new one, covered with artificials. She was accompanied by an elderly lady, and looked nervous and excited. I was troubled at the tremulous, uncertain expression of her face. The next day I read her name in the list of graduates.
It does generally rain at picnics; but this time it didn't. When shall I ever forget that picnic? I stole a holiday to attend it. It was late when I arrived: the dinner was over, and I had one prepared expressly for me. Would you believe it? my fair attendant was the little Blue Veil. She was so kind and so gentle, and treated me in such a confiding, sisterly way. There was a tenderness in the soft depths of her eyes, a purity in the dazzling loveliness of her face, that my heart yielded to with the blind fervor of a devotee. When shall I ever forget that evening walk under the trees? Oh! those buttercups and daisies, and little Quaker ladies! what recollections they bring back to me! The pressure of that soft little hand on my arm, the timid grace of her manner, the sound of her clear, girlish voice, with what emotions have they stirred my soul! Heaven bless her! Thank God for that one glorious picture! It was years ago; she is married now, and the mother of children; yet even now I sometimes catch myself standing on the corners and gazing wistfully down the street for the bright image that stole into the morning of my young life like a soothing dream in a long, troubled sleep.
Leaf the Second.
Gardening in midwinter!--what new freak has taken possession of that eccentric man? The morning broke dank and drear, for the December air had chilled the moisture into a fog. The wide verandas that opened on the court-yard in rear were dripping with the rain, and the broad flag-stones covered with a greasy slime. The diminutive grass-plot was brown and soggy, but the withered blades rapidly disappeared under the sturdy plunges of Marcel's spade. I had gone out on the gallery to fill a ewer with water--in his excitement of the previous evening, Marcel had forgotten my morning bath--and saw him distinctly through the jalousies. He must have commenced at daylight; for, though it was then early, the ground was almost entirely dug up. Near him, on the pavement, was the basket over which he had displayed so much agitation. He prepared six holes, each of which was carefully lined with straw, and then deliberately commenced planting the egg-plants whole.
An hour or two later, he came up with the coffee. I thought he turned a shade or two paler at seeing me up and dressed; but no vestige of petulance remained. Having really taken no offense at the outburst, I rallied him concerning it.
"I was wrong," said he, gravely; "but nature has left me destitute of tact. An artist was once ordered to paint a one-eyed princess: the artful man made the picture a profile. Devoid of his discernment, I saw only my ruined treasures."
"And, after acting like a wild man, you sneer at my curiosity."
"One so secure in his position as M. Granger can lose nothing by forbearance."
"In other words, I am to endure patiently the taunts of an apron, because its wearer is worthy of a surtout?"
"The prompt nature of hunger is well known. Fifty years ago, I might have shrieked in the Place de la Concorde. France has degenerated; I polish your shoes."
The assumption of inferiority was so defiant that I said, bluntly, "This can never excuse the neglect of faculties bestowed by Heaven."
He shrugged his shoulders, and answered, "There was a time when power succumbed to intellect. 'Stand out of my sunlight,' said Diogenes to Alexander; and Alexander did so. This is Paris, M. Granger, and we are living on the Rue Lepelletier."
"And, frightened at its splendor, M. Marcel has prudently determined to put his brains under regimen."
"M. Marcel has prudently determined to avoid in future a tête-à-tête with his superiors."
He started abruptly to the door, and I called him back; determined distance even in a servant is far from flattering, and I asked him frankly if his visits to my apartments were as distasteful as his manner would lead me to infer.
He answered, politely, "Were fickle Fortune waiting to conduct me to the summit of my ambition, I would detain her a few hours to enjoy society so charming; but M. Granger forgets he is addressing a domestic."
"Stubborn in your pride to the last! What am I to think of one who holds all sympathy in contempt?"
"Basta!" he fiercely exclaimed. "I am like a vagrant cur: flying from the sticks and stones of a vile rabble, I fawn with cringing servility on the first hand that throws me a crust."
"Wrong, Marcel; wrong," I earnestly answered. "You are trying to warp your nature, as you tried to force the fruits of summer to bloom and ripen in midwinter. You will be human, and your egg-plants will rot in the earth."
My words seemed to have taken away every particle of color there was in him. His eyes contracted until they resembled those of a wild animal, and for a moment I thought he was going to spring at my throat. His voice--when finally he regained it--sounded like that of another person.
"M. Granger," said he, "a man visiting the Jardin des Plantes once undertook to stroke a leopard. Strange as it may appear, the animal was more pleased with petting than the inquiring mind imagined. The instant our naturalist attempted to desist, the creature raised his paw to strike. There monsieur stood, for a whole night, gazing into his glaring eyes and smoothing his soft neck. Can you imagine his feelings?"
With a bow that would have graced the Duc de Beaumont, he left. I heard him hastily packing his modest wardrobe; and in fifteen minutes a tilbury had whirled him away--whither, Heaven only knows.
Leaf the Third.
I do not think his own mother would call him handsome; he is certainly not young, nor particularly brilliant; and yet there is a fascination about the proprietor of this rambling old house that gave me an unaccountable desire to become his tenant. He is a wine-merchant, and occupies, as his counting-room, the entire second floor. The place is desolate-looking and dusty, and the furniture old with service; but, I am told, no man in Paris controls more of the grand vintages than M. Pontalba. With a Frenchman, the legality of a transaction depends on its being negotiated in a café; and it was in one of these I first saw him. He was seated at a table near me, absorbed with the contents of a box of baby-clothes, while a rather pretty and exceedingly voluble modiste harangued him on their beauty. The tenderness of his expression struck me. He took out the articles one by one, examining each with the interest of a woman. He ran his fingers through the tiny sleeves, and smoothed out the ruffles and lace, with a care that was almost loving. Diminutive cambric shirts, snowy dresses, and silky flannels,--all in their turn were inspected and replaced with a sigh of satisfaction.
An ardent young friend and I had been discussing the merits of Comte's philosophy; but so attracted were we by the singular trait that both stopped involuntarily, and watched him, until the woman was paid and a messenger carried the fairy wardrobe away.
My friend was an enthusiastic metaphysician; and, resuming the subject with a zest, was soon plunged into the phenomena of thought, the action of the brain, and the vitality of the blood that sustained it. As all conversant with the subject can readily believe, not many minutes elapsed before his artful sophistries proved the non-existence of heaven, hell, and even God himself.
M. Pontalba turned suddenly, and, drawing his chair close beside us, with an apology for the seeming intrusion, addressed the incipient skeptic:
"Behind the iron bars of that dreariest of studies, a prison, a little weed once received the concentrated thought of a savant. The covering of its stem, the first tender leaves, the development of the bud, the expansion of the flower--each bewildering in its consummate propriety--unfolded, in their turn, a system of laws in simplicity transcendent. By the aid of a microscope, a 'gillyflower' was seen protecting a chrysalis. Warm leaves cherished it, dainty juices aided its digestion, wholesome offshoots nourished it to maturity. Eking out a scant existence between two granite flags, this insignificant waif reared a caterpillar. What man are you, who can say there is no God?"
There was a pathos in his voice, and a tone of simple fervor, which gave that quiet old man the air of a priest.
It was more than a year afterward I took these rooms; but my establishment was of short duration ere I learned the history of an eventful morning which followed that incident:--of how the placid face of the master peered among his people, beaming with a great joy; how a sumptuous feast was fitted up in the private office for all in the employ; of the two hundred francs, and a suit of clothes, presented to each; and how every one, from the little messenger to the gray cashier, with the rarest wine in the cellar, drank prosperity to the new-born son and heir, and much happiness to the mother,--"God bless her!"
Once I saw a pony-carriage, with an aged, semi-military driver, pull up at the door, and the flutter of a veil as the vehicle passed through the entrance; and this was the only glimpse I ever caught of the little lady that dingy office called mistress. There was, however, a certain briskness in the movement of the clerks, and a glow of pleasure on their faces, that always denoted a visit; and very frequent those visits were. Without in any way obstructing it, her pretty interest seemed to throw a halo around the dull routine of trade; and, if there was any unpleasantness, the arrival of Jean Palliot, coachman and ex-grenadier, with Madame Althie Pontalba, was sure to drive it away.
Why will my heart, like a hungry thing, gloat on the happiness of others? He has gone away--in the midst of the holidays--no one knows whither; and his sweet wife and pleasant home are as dreary as I. There is a mystery about this house which I have not yet unraveled. Marcel left in the morning, and M. Pontalba in the evening. That has been two weeks ago. I thought he would have fainted when I told him of the garçon's exodus. I attempted a history of the gardening; but he would not listen to a word, and remained locked up in his private room during the entire day. Late in the evening a stranger called, and insisted on an interview. It resulted in a hasty consultation with the cashier, and an order for a coach. The two went off together,--whither, or for how long, no one knows.
Leaf the Fourth.
To-day finds a man in the full glow of health, and strength, and happiness; to-morrow comes death, cold, pitiless, irresistible; mocking all hope, freezing desire, crushing all effort with the eternal law of time and human destiny, it strikes him down with the icy fury of a fiend. Poetry, passion, humanity, are shivered at the touch. The glorious creature who, an instant before, quivered with life and love and energy, lies a shapeless mass, disgusting to the sight, loathsome to the touch, revolting to every instinct of our nature. So, in its ceaseless routine, forever and forever, wheels on the world. The play-ground bully, the swindler of the corn exchange, who is the more virtuous? dolls with life, babies with genius, which the more sensible? Even baby has its "pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake," and is lulled to sleep with visions of a coach and six little ponies. Dreams, dreams of self, that man wraps himself in like the swathing of a mummy. Who ever saw a cake marked with "T," who ever a "Valley of Tranquil Delight"?
The sun rises and sets on the weary diamond-digger of the South, the crazed perfume-hunter in the East, the stifled hemp-curer in the fetid swamps of Russia, the shriveled iron-worker in the scorching furnaces of England. Here, in Paris, amid that motley herd who feed on virtue, the moon shines down calmly on purblind embroiderers and peerless beauties, on worn-out roués and squalid beggars. The breeze that wafts to heaven the pure prayer of the maiden witnesses the fierce ribaldry of the courtesan; it flutters the curls of a sleeping infant, and bears on its wings the whispered exchange of chastity for bread. And man goes on, devouring his three poor meals a day, and babbling the meaningless nothings he has learned by rote. Oh, land of enlightenment! Oh, age of Christianity! Oh, zenith of civilization!
The smoke-wreaths curl into thicker clouds. I have painted bright pictures, and they have faded. I have cherished fond dreams, and they are vanished. "It is not good for man to live alone;" and I am most solitary. I can make another picture,--without the roses; but it will be true.
It's a merry Christmas, this Twenty-fifth of December, eighteen hundred and eighty-seven,--a very merry Christmas; times have scarcely changed at all in the last thirty years. The sun shines down brightly, and the frosty air is fall of gladness; for Santa Claus, with his untold wonders, has come and gone. Ecstasies over dolls and transports over tea-sets, screams of delight at hobby-horses and enthusiastic exclamations at humming-tops, have passed. Paint-boxes and writing-desks, leaden soldiers and tin trumpets, at last, are reduced to blissful matters of course. The streets, which all the morning have been thronged with laughing groups of happy children, are now almost deserted. Senators and cabmen, ministers of state and town constables, romping school-girls and worn-out actresses, Lady Dedlock and her washer-woman, men, women, and children of all degrees, have quietly seated themselves to roasted turkey and plum-pudding. Even the little boys who will play marbles under the library windows, who are constantly being "fat" and wanting "ups" and "roundings," and who are invariably ordered to "knuckle down and bore it hard," are now intently occupied with the succulent delights of "drum-sticks" and gizzards. And yet the man whose fingers now form these letters then sits alone. Time has not passed lightly over his head. The few hairs that straggle from beneath his skull-cap are gray, and the faintest breath makes him wrap closer in his thickly-wadded dressing-gown. His face is worn and pale, and the wrinkled hand, though it only holds a little cigarette, will sometimes tremble as it moves. The Christmas dinner is pushed away untasted. Château-Margaux has lost its flavor, and silver and crystal do not bring appetite now. Even the glowing sunshine, which plate-glass and silk damask cannot keep out, is unheeded. He gazes wearily at the magnificent furniture, and smokes. He has talked much to the world, and it has heard him. Flung into life without a friend, governed only by the will of a race born to command, he has struggled through sneers and sarcasm to eminence. Men fear him now, women flatter, nearly all envy; yet he is alone. He knows this; he knows that in all the laughing groups who enjoy this wine-drinking and turkey-eating day his name has not been mentioned once. Nature allows no trifling with her laws; flowers do not bloom in deserts. He has crushed sentiment; he has stifled affection. With a heart by nature kindly, he sits now an image cut in steel. He gazes calmly at his desolate hearth, at his joyless age, and smokes. Man has no power to move him; fate condemned him to be a statue.
Ah! the strongest, after all, are but weak, erring, human beings. The last of a race stands weary and old, trembling on the brink of eternity. Who will close the fading eye? Who will smooth the dying pillow? With all his great wealth, with all his wondrous knowledge, what one deed of charity will that infirm old man take into the presence of his Creator? He looks dreamingly out at the window. The plate-glass and damask are not there now; the sunshine is warm and the air balmy. A mild, breezy March morning, and he is standing on a corner, looking far down the street. "She is coming, coming;" the dark eyes beam on him, and the radiant face flushes the pallor of his cheek;--"come." He gives one lingering, beseeching look at the passing figure, the cigarette drops to the carpet, the withered hands clasp convulsively the arms of the chair, the gray head slowly falls on his breast, and one more frail human being, exhausted with the anxieties of a long and bitter life, is at rest forever. It's a merry Christmas, this Twenty-fifth of December, eighteen hundred and eighty-seven,--a very merry Christmas. Times have scarcely changed at all in the last thirty years.
How he ever got there, or when, I do not now, nor will I ever, know, but when I looked up Marcel was standing before me.
"M. Granger," said he, abruptly, "it will be necessary for you to seek another lodging."
"I would do you a service. The proof lies in the future. This house is doomed."
"Poor Marcel," said I, with genuine pity, "some recent trouble has turned your brain!"
"Mad!" he replied, laughing bitterly. "The wonder is that I am not. For years I have been hunted,--hunted like a dog. Prisons have been my dwelling-place, disguises my only clothing. My pillow is a spy; the very atmosphere I breathe is analyzed."
"And what is your offense?"
"A desire to live as the great God intended an Italian should. A desire to lift to his place among the free-born the corrupt descendant of Coriolanus, now nourishing his miserable body on the scudi extorted from a stranger's patience. The vile crew whom our ancestors drove howling and naked across the Danube, in undisturbed apathy gloat over our dearest treasures. Our people are ground into the dust; our women, stripped in the market-place, shriek under the pitiless lash of the oppressor. One man, sworn to protect Italy with his life, can save her, and has refused. That man dies."
"And you are pledged to kill him?"
"I am pledged to see you safely without these walls by this day fortnight."
"Marcel, you are crazy."
"M. Granger, you are polite."
That night fortnight I was away; and this was the message that sent me:
Leaf the Last.
This is the 15th of January, 1858. France is in a blaze of excitement. Last evening, in the Rue Lepelletier, an attempt was made to assassinate the Emperor, by throwing grenades filled with fulminating mercury under the coach that bore the Imperial family to the Italian Opera. Count Felice Orsini, the murderer, himself desperately wounded, has been arrested, and Paris is crying for his blood.
For several days I have been the honored guest of Madame Althie Pontalba. It is a golden evening; the sky, an hour ago so clear and blue, is piled with golden clouds, and stretches out into golden rivers, with golden banks, flowing calmly down into a golden sea. The purple slates on the church-steeple, the red tiles on the house-tops, the gardens with their evergreens and jonquils and little blue violets shrinking out of the frosty air, are wrapped in a golden mist. The light streams through the windows in rays of pure gold, and trickles down the walls in little golden currents. It is an enchanting little villa. The steep gables covered with variegated slate, the thin fluted columns of the verandas, the diminutive marble steps, the broad bow-windows with their transparent plate-glass, look more like a fairy picture than a reality. The trim shrubbery, the airy little statues, and even the white palings, so frail and fanciful in their construction, are charmingly appropriate.
It is an enchanting little room. The icy air is warmed by the bright carpet and glowing curtains, and the trickling currents of golden light on the walls are mellowed by the blazing sea-coals. It is a merry little fire, an ardent, earnest, home fire, that shoots out its whimsical little flames as if it meant to burn one to a cinder, and flutters and murmurs to itself and scatters down the white feathery ashes in a very ecstasy of impetuous glee. The green porcelain tiles on the hearth, the oval-shaped chairs, the wonderful tables, and the little easy-chair, are all flushed up, and seem quite enlivened at its sportive tricks. The silver sewing-bird, with its glittering little garnet eyes, is peering curiously down at the painted fish-geranium on the teapot; and the geranium, sweltering by the fire, seems almost wilted with the heat. The teapot pants and struggles under its steaming contents, and looks appealingly at the great china cup on the table; and now a lump of sparkling sugar is dropped into its shiny recesses, and the fragrant odor of that gentlest soother of troubled thoughts pervades the room.
How shall I describe the mistress of this fairy resting-place, as she sits in the softened light of this golden winter evening, with the trickling golden currents and the quivering firelight playing on her dress, and the last rays of the sunshine melting into golden threads in her hair? How can I picture the look of girlish innocence on her face, the artless grace of her manner, her delicate feminine ways, and the dainty arrangement of her toilet? How can I tell of the irresistible charm that pervades every article about her, from the little French boot resting on the rug, to the ruffle that circles her white throat? The balmy morning of her young life has passed. The brown calico frock, and the little school bonnet, with its blue veil, have been put away forever. The lithe figure has grown matronly, the childish timidity is gone; the softened face tells of changes,--changes made by much happiness; changes also, alas! by trouble.
The dark eyes beam with a deeper tenderness, with a wealth of maternal devotion, with a world of maternal anxiety. The aurora, with its hazy glow, has disappeared, and now the sun shines brightly on the early day; yet through all the love, and all the care, and all the joy of her pure life, remains that radiant smile, the glorious creation of a glorious God, that awakens in man one sensation,--tranquillity. O man, with the joy of your own young love, O woman blessed with a remembrance of earlier days, is it needful I should say, Madame Althie Pontalba is the Little Blue Veil?
There were two visitors here an hour ago,--a lady and a gentleman. Whatever their lack of ostentation, there was an air of distinction about both that would strike the most casual observer.
The cabriolet was plain, but the horses showed the purest blood, and the harness and equipments a neatness one would not see in a day's ride. The gentleman was tall and stately, with a well-shaped aquiline nose, and a mustache and imperial pointed à la militaire; and the lady was petite and graceful, with a face of rare loveliness. The features of both told plainly of a great trial bravely endured. The lady entered alone. Her carriage and demeanor possessed all that quiet elegance which is only met with in the society of the great; but it was with no courtly speech she addressed the mistress of this quiet home. To twine her arms lovingly around that dear form, to draw it close to her bosom, to pour out, in a voice broken with tears, a burst of gratitude, was the mission. In moments when hearts are wrung, we do not practice our grand politeness. A noble life had been saved, a terrible calamity averted. The polished manner of the salon was dropped. A wife spoke, a woman listened. The visit was already a long one when Jean Palliot took charge of the equipage, and, on leaving, it was into his hand the gentleman thrust a roulette of Napoleons.
"Sir," cried the indignant coachman, "a soldier of the Grand Army is not a beggar."
"It is not the gold, but the portraits of his commander I give the soldier of the Grand Army."
"Mon Dieu!" exclaimed the now affrighted veteran, "it is Napoleon!--Vive l'Empereur!"
* * * * *
Of the history of that attempt on the life of Napoleon, the world is fully informed. That, thanks to a fortunate warning, the Imperial coach was lined with boiler-iron, is well known. That warning, by direction of her husband, was written by Madame Althie Pontalba, and delivered by me.
That the destructive missiles were manufactured in Birmingham, England, our Minister Plenipotentiary has good cause to remember; but that they were smuggled into Paris in the guise of egg-plants, and deposited in the grass-plot in rear of house No. 30 of that now memorable street, I believe is still a mystery.
That Count Felice Orsini (the man executed) was concealed for weeks, is on record at the Prefecture; but that he assumed the position of a servant, and the name of Marcel, is not.
As for me, I think a great deal, and say nothing; but if the young Pontalba, who now studies type-setting with the Prince Imperial, was not the baby whose clothes I once saw examined at a café there is no truth in these "Leaves of an Idler."