A Small Boy And Others Part 6

That apprehension was, in its way, of our house of learning too, and yet I recall how, on the scant and simple terms I have glanced at, I quite revelled in it; whereas other impressions of my brief ordeal shrink, for anything in the nature of interest, but to three or four recovered marks of the social composition of the school. There were the sons of all the small shop-keepers and not less, by my remembrance, of certain of the mechanics and artisans; but there was also the English contingent, these predominantly _internes_ and uniformed, blue-jacketed and bra.s.s-b.u.t.toned, even to an effect of odd redundancy, who by my conceit gave our a.s.sociation a lift. Vivid still to me is the summer morning on which, in the wide court--as wide, that is, as I liked to suppose it, and where we hung about helplessly enough for recreation--a brownish black-eyed youth, of about my own degree of youthfulness, mentioned to me with an air that comes back as that of the liveliest informational resource the outbreak, just heard of, of an awful Mutiny in India, where his military parents, who had not so long before sent him over thence, with such weakness of imagination, as I measured it, to the poor spot on which we stood, were in mortal danger of their lives; so that news of their having been killed would perhaps be already on the way. They might well have been military, these impressively exposed characters, since my friend's name was Napier, or Nappie as he was called at the school, and since, I may add also, there attached to him, in my eyes, the glamour of an altogether new emphasis of type. The English boys within our ken since our coming abroad had been of the fewest--the Fezandie youths, whether English or American, besides being but scantly boys, had been so lost, on that scene, in our heap of disparities; and it pressed upon me after a fashion of its own that those we had known in New York, and all aware of their varieties and "personalities" as one had supposed one's self, had in no case challenged the restless "placing" impulse with any such force as the finished little Nappie. They had not been, as he was by the very perversity of his finish, resultants of forces at all--or comparatively speaking; it was as if their producing elements had been simple and few, whereas behind this more mixed and, as we have learnt to say, evolved companion (his very simplicities, his gaps of possibility, being still evolved), there ma.s.sed itself I couldn't have said what protective social order, what tangled creative complexity. Why I should have thought him almost Indian of stamp and hue because his English parents were of the so general Indian peril is more than I can say; yet I have his exotic and above all his bold, his imaginably even "bad," young face, finely unacquainted with law, before me at this hour quite undimmed--announcing, as I conceived it, and quite as a shock, any awful adventure one would, as well as something that I must even at the time have vaguely taken as the play of the "pa.s.sions." He vanishes, and I dare say I but make him over, as I make everything; and he must have led his life, whatever it was to become, with the least possible waiting on the hour or the major consequence and no waste of energy at all in mooning, no patience with any subst.i.tute for his very own humour. We had another schoolmate, this one native to the soil, whose references were with the last vividness local and who was yet to escape with brilliancy in the aftertime the smallest shadow of effacement. His most direct reference at that season was to the princ.i.p.al pastry-cook's of the town, an establishment we then found supreme for little criss-crossed apple tartlets and melting _babas_--young Coquelin's home life amid which we the more acutely envied that the upward c.o.c.k of his so all-important nose testified, for my fancy, to the largest range of free familiar sniffing. C.-B. Coquelin is personally most present to me, in the form of that hour, by the value, as we were to learn to put it, of this nose, the fine a.s.surance and impudence of which fairly made it a trumpet for promises; yet in spite of that, the very gage, as it were, of his long career as the most interesting and many-sided comedian, or at least most unsurpa.s.sed dramatic _diseur_ of his time, I failed to doubt that, with the rich recesses of the parental industry for his background, his subtlest ident.i.ty was in his privilege, or perhaps even in his expertest trick, of helping himself well.

These images, however, were but drops in the bucket of my sense of catching character, roundabout us, as I say, at every turn and in every aspect; character that began even, as I was pleased to think, in our own habitation, the most s.p.a.cious and pompous Europe had yet treated us to, in spite of its fronting on the Rue Neuve Chaussee, a street of lively shopping, by the measure of that innocent age, and with its own ground-floor occupied by a bristling exhibition of indescribably futile _articles de Paris_. Modern and commodious itself, it looked from its balcony at serried and mismatched and quaintly-named haunts of old provincial, of sedately pa.s.sive rather than confidently eager, traffic; but this made, among us, for much harmless inquisitory life--while we were fairly a.s.saulted, at home, by the scale and some of the striking notes of our fine modernity. The young, the agreeable (agreeable to anything), the apparently opulent M. Prosper Sauvage--wasn't it?--had not long before, unless I mistake, inherited the place as a monument of "family," quite modestly local yet propitious family, ambition; with an ample extension in the rear, and across the clearest prettiest court, for his own dwelling, which thus became elegant, _entre cour et jardin_, and showed all the happy symmetries and proper conventions.

Here flourished, or rather, I surmise at this time of day, here languished, a domestic drama of which we enjoyed the murmurous overflow: frankly astounding to me, I confess, how I remain still in sensitive presence of our resigned proprietor's domestic drama, in and out of which I see a pair of figures quite up to the dramatic mark flit again with their air of the very rightest finish. I must but note these things, none the less, and pa.s.s; for scarce another item of the whole Boulogne concert of salient images failed, after all, of a significance either still more strangely social or more distinctively spectacular.

These appearances indeed melt together for my interest, I once more feel, as, during the interminable stretch of the prescribed and for the most part solitary airings and outings involved in my slow convalescence from the extremity of fever, I approached that straitened and somewhat bedarkened issue of the Rue de l'ecu (was it?) toward the bright-coloured, strongly-peopled Port just where Merridew's English Library, solace of my vacuous hours and temple, in its degree too, of deep initiations, mounted guard at the right. Here, frankly, discrimination drops--every particular in the impression once so quick and fresh sits interlinked with every other in the large lap of the whole. The motley, sunny, breezy, bustling Port, with its cla.s.sic, its admirable fisher-folk of both s.e.xes, models of type and tone and of what might be handsomest in the thoroughly weathered condition, would have seemed the straightest appeal to curiosity had not the old Thackerayan side, as I may comprehensively call it, and the scattered wealth of ill.u.s.tration of _his_ sharpest satiric range, not so constantly interposed and competed with it. The scene bristled, as I look back at it, with images from Men's Wives, from the society of Mr. Deuceace and that of fifty other figures of the same creation, with Bareacreses and Rawdon Crawleys and of course with Mrs. Macks, with Roseys of a more or less crumpled freshness and blighted bloom, with battered and bent, though doubtless never quite so fine, Colonel Newcomes not less; with more reminders in short than I can now gather in. Of those forms of the seedy, the subtly sinister, the vainly "genteel," the generally damaged and desperate, and in particular perhaps the invincibly impudent, all the marks, I feel sure, were stronger and straighter than such as we meet in generally like cases under our present levelling light. Such anointed and whiskered and eked-out, such brazen, bluffing, swaggering gentlemen, such floridly repaired ladies, their mates, all looking as hard as they could as if they were there for mere harmless amus.e.m.e.nt--it was as good, among them, as just _being_ Arthur Pendennis to know so well, or at least to guess so fearfully, who and what they might be.

They were floated on the tide of the manners then prevailing, I judge, with a rich processional effect that so many of our own grand lapses, when not of our mere final flatnesses, leave no material for; so that the living note of Boulogne was really, on a more sustained view, the opposition between a native race the most happily tempered, the most becomingly seasoned and salted and self-dependent, and a shifting colony--so far as the persons composing it _could_ either urgently or speculatively shift--inimitably at odds with any active freshness. And the stale and the light, even though so scantly rebounding, the too densely socialised, group was the English, and the "positive" and hardy and steady and wind-washed the French; and it was all as flushed with colour and patched with costume and referable to record and picture, to literature and history, as a more easily amusing and less earnestly uniform age could make it. When I speak of this opposition indeed I see it again most take effect in an ant.i.thesis that, on one side and the other, swallowed all differences at a gulp. The general British show, as we had it there, in the artless mid-Victorian desert, had, I think, for its most sweeping sign the high a.s.surance of its dowdiness; whereas one had only to glance about at the sea-faring and fisher-folk who were the real strength of the place to feel them shed at every step and by their every instinct of appearance the perfect lesson of taste. There it was to be learnt and taken home--with never a moral, none the less, drawn from it by the "higher types." I speak of course in particular of the tanned and trussed and kerchiefed, the active and productive women, all so short-skirted and free-limbed under stress; for as by the rule of the dowdy their s.e.x is ever the finer example, so where the sense of the suitable, of the charmingly and harmoniously right prevails, they preserve the pitch even as a treasure committed to their piety. To hit that happy mean of rightness amid the mixed occupations of a home-mother and a fishwife, to be in especial both so bravely stripped below and so perfectly enveloped above as the deep-wading, far-striding, shrimp-netting, crab-gathering matrons or maidens who played, waist-high, with the tides and racily quickened the market, was to make grace thoroughly practical and discretion thoroughly vivid. These attributes had with them all, for the eye, however, a range too great for me to follow, since, as their professional undress was a turn-out positively self-consistent, so their household, or more responsibly public, or altogether festal, array played through the varied essentials of fluted coif and folded kerchief and sober skirt and tense, dark, displayed stocking and clicking wooden slipper, to say nothing of long gold ear-drop or solid short-hung pectoral cross, with a respect for the rigour of conventions that had the beauty of self-respect.

I owe to no season of the general period such a preserved sense of innumerable unaccompanied walks--at the reason of which luxury of freedom I have glanced; which as often as not were through the steep and low-browed and brightly-daubed _ruelles_ of the fishing-town and either across and along the level sea-marge and sustained cliff beyond; this latter the site of the first Napoleon's so tremendously mustered camp of invasion, with a monument as futile, by my remembrance, as that enterprise itself had proved, to give it all the special accent I could ask for. Or I was as free for the _haute ville_ and the ramparts and the scattered, battered benches of reverie--if I may so honour my use of them; they kept me not less complacently in touch with those of the so anciently odd and mainly contracted houses over which the stiff citadel and the ghost of Catherine de Medicis, who had dismally sojourned in it, struck me as throwing such a chill, and one of which precisely must have witnessed the never-to-be-forgotten Campaigner's pa.s.sage in respect to her cold beef. Far from extinct for me is my small question of those hours, doubtless so mentally, so shamelessly wanton, as to what human life might be tucked away in such retreats, which expressed the last acceptance whether of desired or of imposed quiet; so absolutely appointed and obliged did I feel to make out, so far as I could, what, in so significant a world, they on their part _represented_. I think the force mainly sustaining me at that rather dreary time--as I see it can only show for--was this lively felt need that everything should represent something more than what immediately and all too blankly met the eye; I seem to myself to have carried it about everywhere and, though of course only without outward signs that might have betrayed my fatuity, and insistently, quite yearningly applied it. What I wanted, in my presumption, was that the object, the place, the person, the unreduced impression, often doubtless so difficult or so impossible to reduce, should give out to me something of a situation; living as I did in confused and confusing situations and thus hooking them on, however awkwardly, to almost any at all living surface I chanced to meet. My memory of Boulogne is that we had almost no society of any sort at home--there appearing to be about us but one sort, and that of far too great, or too fearful, an immediate bravery. Yet there were occasional figures that I recover from our scant circle and that I a.s.sociate, whatever links I may miss, with the small still houses on the rampart; figures of the quaintest, quite perhaps the frowsiest, little English ladies in such mushroom hats, such extremely circular and bestriped scarlet petticoats, such perpetual tight gauntlets, such explicit claims to long descent, which showed them for everything that everyone else at Boulogne was not. These mid-Victorian samples of a perfect consistency "represented," by my measure, as hard as ever they could--and represented, of all things, literature and history and society. The literature was that of the three-volume novel, then, and for much after, enjoying its loosest and serenest spread; for they separately and anxiously and awfully "wrote"--and that must almost by itself have amounted in them to all the history I evoked.

The dreary months, as I am content that in their second phase especially they should be called, are subject, I repeat, to the perversion, quite perhaps to the obscuration, of my temporarily hindered health--which should keep me from being too sure of these small _proportions_ of experience--I was to look back afterwards as over so grey a desert; through which, none the less, there flush as sharp little certainties, not to be disallowed, such matters as the general romance of Merridew, the English Librarian, before mentioned, at the mouth of the Port; a connection that thrusts itself upon me now as after all the truest centre of my perceptions--waylaying my steps at the time, as I came and went, more than any other object or impression. The question of what _that_ spot represented, or could be encouraged, could be aided and abetted, to represent, may well have supremely engaged me--for depth within depth there could only open before me. The place "meant," on these terms, to begin with, frank and licensed fiction, licensed to my recordedly relaxed state; and what this particular luxury represented it might have taken me even more time than I had to give to make out. The blest novel in three volumes exercised through its form, to my sense, on grounds lying deeper for me to-day than my deepest sounding, an appeal that fairly made it do with me what it would. Possibly a drivelling confession, and the more drivelling perhaps the more development I should attempt for it; from which, however, the very difficulty of the case saves me. Too many a.s.sociations, too much of the ferment of memory and fancy, are somehow stirred; they beset me again, they hover and whirl about me while I stand, as I used to stand, within the positively sanctified walls of the shop (so of the _vieux temps_ now their aspect and fashion and worked system: by which I mean again of the frumpiest and civillest mid-Victorian), and surrender to the vision of the shelves packed with their rich individual trinities. Why should it have affected me so that my choice, so difficult in such a dazzle, could only be for a trinity? I am unable fully to say--such a magic dwelt in the mere rich fact of the trio. When the novel of that age was "bad," as it so helplessly, so abjectly and prevailingly consented to be, the three volumes still did something for it, a something that was, all strangely, not an aggravation of its case. When it was "good" (our a.n.a.lysis, our terms of appreciation, had a simplicity that has lingered on) they made it copiously, opulently better; so that when, after the span of the years, my relation with them became, from that of comparatively artless reader, and to the effect of a superior fondness and acuteness, that of complacent author, the tradition of infatuated youth still flung over them its mantle: this at least till _all_ relation, by one of the very rudest turns of life we of the profession were to have known, broke off, in clumsy interfering hands and with almost no notice given, in a day, in an hour. Besides connecting me with the lost but unforgotten note of waiting service and sympathy that quavered on the Merridew air, they represented just for intrinsic charm more than I could at any moment have given a plain account of; they fell, by their ineffable history, every trio I ever touched, into the category of such prized phenomena as my memory, for instance, of fairly hanging about the Rue des Vieillards, at the season I speak of, through the apprehension that something vague and sweet--if I shouldn't indeed rather say something of infinite future point and application--would come of it. This is a reminiscence that nothing would induce me to verify, as for example by any revisiting light; but it was going to be good for me, good, that is, for what I was pleased to regard as my intelligence or my imagination, in fine for my obscurely specific sense of things, that I _should_ so have hung about.

The name of the street was by itself of so gentle and intimate a persuasion that I must have been ashamed not to proceed, for the very grace of it, to some shade of active response. And there was always a place of particular arrest in the vista brief and blank, but inclusively blank, blank _after_ ancient, settled, more and more subsiding things, blank almost, in short, with all Matthew Arnold's "ennui of the middle ages," rather than, poorly and meanly and emptily, before such states, which was previously what I had most known of blankness. This determined pause was at the window of a spare and solitary shop, a place of no amplitude at all, but as of an inveterate cheerful confidence, where, among a few artists' materials, an exhibited water-colour from some native and possibly then admired hand was changed but once in ever so long. That was perhaps after all the pivot of my revolution--the question of whether or no I should at a given moment find the old picture replaced. I made this, when I had the luck, pa.s.s for an event--yet an event which would _have_ to have had for its scene the precious Rue des Vieillards, and pale though may be the recital of such pleasures I lose myself in depths of kindness for my strain of ingenuity.

All of which, and to that extent to be corrected, leaves small allowance for my service to good M. Ansiot, rendered while my elder and younger brothers--the younger completing our group of the ungovernessed--were continuously subject to collegial durance. Their ordeal was, I still blush to think, appreciably the heavier, as compared with mine, during our longer term of thrifty exile from Paris--the time of stress, as I find I recall it, when we had turned our backs on the Rue Montaigne and my privilege was so to roam on the winter and the spring afternoons.

Mild M. Ansiot, "under" whom I for some three hours each forenoon sat sole and underided--and actually by himself too--was a curiosity, a benignity, a futility even, I gather; but save for a felt and remembered impulse in me to open the window of our scene of study as soon as he had gone was in no degree an ideal. He might rise here, could I do him justice, as the rarest of my poor evocations; for he it was, to be frank, who most literally smelt of the vieux temps--as to which I have noted myself as wondering and musing as much as might be, with recovered sc.r.a.ps and glimpses and other intimations, only never yet for such a triumph of that particular sense. To be still frank, he was little less than a monster--for mere unresisting or unresilient ma.s.s of personal presence I mean; so that I fairly think of him as a form of bland porpoise, violently blowing in an age not his own, as by having had to exchange deep water for thin air. Thus he impressed me as with an absolute ancientry of type, of tone, of responsible taste, above all; this last I mean in literature, since it was literature we sociably explored, to my at once charmed and shamed apprehension of the several firm traditions, the pure proprieties, the discussabilities, in the oddest way both so many and so few, of that field as they prevailed to his pious view. I must have had hold, in this mere sovereign sample of the accidentally, the quite unconsciously and unpretentiously, the all negligibly or superfluously handed-down, of a rare case of the provincial and academic _cuistre_; though even while I record it I see the good man as too helpless and unaggressive, too smothered in his poor facts of person and circ.u.mstance, of overgrown time of life alone, to incur with justness the harshness of cla.s.sification. He rested with a weight I scarce even felt--such easy terms he made, without scruple, for both of us--on the cheerful innocence of my barbarism; and though our mornings were short and subject, I think, to quite drowsy lapses and other honest aridities, we did sc.u.mble together, I make out, by the aid of the collected extracts from the truly and academically great which formed his sole resource and which he had, in a small portable and pocketed library rather greasily preserved, some patch of picture of a saving as distinguished from a losing cla.s.sicism. The point remains for me that when all was said--and even with everything that might directly have counted unsaid--he discharged for me such an office that I was to remain to this far-off hour in a state of possession of him that is the very opposite of a blank: quite after the fashion again in which I had all along and elsewhere suffered and resisted, and yet so perversely and intimately appropriated, tutoring; which was with as little as ever to show for my profit of his own express showings. The blank he fills out crowds itself with a wealth of value, since I shouldn't without him have been able to claim, for whatever it may be worth, a tenth (at that let me handsomely put it), of my "working" sense of the vieux temps. How can I allow then that we hadn't planted together, with a loose felicity, some of the seed of work?--even though the sprouting was so long put off. Everything, I have mentioned, had come at this time to be acceptedly, though far from braggingly, put off; and the ministrations of M. Ansiot really wash themselves over with the weak mixture that had begun to spread for me, to immensity, during that summer day or two of our earlier residence when, betraying strange pains and apprehensions, I was with all decision put to bed. Present to me still is the fact of my sharper sense, after an hour or two, of my being there in distress and, as happened for the moment, alone; present to me are the sounds of the soft afternoon, the mild animation of the Boulogne street through the half-open windows; present to me above all the strange sense that something had begun that would make more difference to me, directly and indirectly, than anything had ever yet made. I might verily, on the spot, have seen, as in a fading of day and a change to something suddenly queer, the whole large extent of it. I must thus, much impressed but half scared, have wanted to appeal; to which end I tumbled, all too weakly, out of bed and wavered toward the bell just across the room. The question of whether I really reached and rang it was to remain lost afterwards in the strong sick whirl of everything about me, under which I fell into a lapse of consciousness that I shall conveniently here treat as a considerable gap.

THE END

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