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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
How Tricotrin Found Viva
By Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée) (1839–1908)
 
From ‘Tricotrin’

IT was autumn; a rich golden autumn of France, with the glow of burning sunsets, and the scarlet pomp of reddened woods, and the purple and the yellow of grapes gathered for the wine-press, and the luscious dreamy odor of overripened fruits crushed by careless passing feet, upon the orchard mosses. Afar off, in the full noonday, the winding road was white and hot with dust; but here in a nook of forest land, in a dell of leafy growth between the vineyards which encompassed it, the air was cool and the sunlight broken with shade, while, through its stillness where the boughs threw the shadow darkest, a little torrent leapt and splashed, making music as it went, and washing round the base of an old ivy-grown stone tower that had fallen to ruin in the midst of its green nest.  1
  There was no sound except one, beside that of the bright tumbling stream, though now and then there came in from the distance the ring of a convent clock’s bells, or the laugh of a young girl at work among the vines;—no sound except one, and that was the quick, sharp, gleeful crack of nuts in a monkey’s teeth. There were squirrels by the score there in that solitary place who had right, hereditary and indisputable they would have said, to all the nuts that the boughs bore and the grasses hid: but Mistigri was no recognizer of rights divine; she loved nuts, and cared little how she got them, and she sat aloft in her glory, or swung herself from twig to twig, crushing and eating and flinging the shells away with all that gleeful self-satisfaction of which a little black monkey is to the full as capable, after successful piracy, as any conquering sovereign.  2
  “Mistigri, Mistigri!” said her companion surveying her, “who could doubt your human affinity who once had seen you pilfer? Monkey stows away her stolen goods in a visible pouch unblushingly; man smuggles his away unknown in the guise of ‘profit’ or ‘percentage,’ ‘commerce’ or ‘annexation,’—the natural advancement of civilization on the simple and normal thieving. Increased cranium, increased caution: that’s all the difference, eh, Mistigri?”  3
  Mistigri cocked her head on one side, but would not waste time in replying: her little shiny black mouth was full of good kernels.  4
  “Why talk when you can take?” she would have asked.  5
  Her owner did not press for an answer; but sung, carelessly, snatches of Goethe’s ‘Millsong’ and of Müller’s ‘Whisper,’ his voice chiming in with the bubble of the stream while he took at intervals his noontide meal, classic and uncostly, of Chasselas grapes and a big brown roll.  6
  He was a man of some forty years, dressed in a linen blouse, with a knapsack as worn as an African soldier’s lying at his feet, unstrapped, in company with a flask of good wine and a Straduarius fiddle. He himself was seated on a fallen tree, with the sun breaking through the foliage above in manifold gleams and glories, that touched the turning leaves bright red as fire, and fell on his own head when he tossed it up to fling a word to Mistigri, or to catch the last summer-song of a blackbird. It was a beautiful Homeric head; bold, kingly, careless, noble, with the royalty of the lion in its gallant poise, and the challenge of the eagle in its upward gesture;—the head which an artist would have given to his Hector, or his Phœbus, or his God Lyæus. The features were beautiful too, in their varied mobile eloquent meanings; with their poet’s brows, their reveler’s laugh, their soldier’s daring, their student’s thought, their many and conflicting utterances, whose contradictions made one unity—the unity of genius.  7
  At this moment there was only the enjoyment of a rich and sunny nature, in an idle moment, written on them, as he ate his grapes and threw fragments of wit up at Mistigri where she was perched among the nut boughs. But the brilliant eyes, so blue in some lights, so black in others, had the lustre and the depths of infinite meditation in them; and the curling lips that were hidden under the fullness of their beard had the delicate fine mockery of the satirist blent with the brighter, franker mirth of genial sympathies. And his face changed as he cast the crumbs of his finished meal to some ducks that paddled lower down in the stream, where it grew stiller around the old tower, and took up his Straduarius from the ground with the touch of a man who loves the thing that he touches. The song of the water that had made the melody to his banquet was in his brain;—sweet, wild, entangled sounds that he must needs reproduce, with the selfsame fancy that a painter must catch the fleeting hues of fair scenes that would haunt him forever unless exorcised thus.  8
  “Quiet, Mistigri!” he said softly, and the monkey sat still on her hazel bough, eating indeed, but noiselessly. He listened one moment more to the stream, then drew the bow across the strings. The music thrilled out upon the silence, catching the song of the brook in harmony as Goethe caught it in verse,—all its fresh delicious babble, all its rush of silvery sound, all its cool and soothing murmur, all its pauses of deep rest. All of which the woodland torrent told: of the winds that had tossed the boughs into its foam; of the women-faces its tranquil pools had mirrored; of the blue burden of forget-me-nots and the snowy weight of lilies it had borne so lovingly; of the sweet familiar idyls it had seen, where it had wound its way below quaint millhouse walls choked up with ivy-growth, where the children and the pigeons paddled with rosy feet upon the resting wheel; of the weary sighs that had been breathed over it beneath the gray old convents where it heard the miserere steal in with its own ripple, and looked, itself, a thing so full of leaping joy and dancing life to the sad eyes of girl-recluses,—all these of which it told, the music told again. The strings were touched by an artist’s hand; and all that duller ears heard, but dimly, in the splash and surge of the brown fern-covered stream, he heard in marvelous poems, and translated into clearer tongue—the universal tongue which has no country and no limit, and in which the musician speaks alike to sovereign and to savage.  9
  There was not a creature there to hear, save the yellow-winged loriotes, and Mistigri, who was absorbed in nuts: but he played on to himself an hour or more for love of the theme and the art; and an old peasant woman, going through the trees at some yards distance, and seeing nothing of the player for the screen of leaves, laughed and stroked the hair of a grandchild who clung to her, afraid of the magical woodland melodies: “The wood-elves, little one? Bah! that is only Tricotrin!”  10
  Her feet, brushing the fallen leaves with pleasant sound, soon passed away; he played on and on,—such poetry as Bamboche drew from his violin, whereat Poussin bowed his head, weeping with the passion of women, as through his tears he beheld as in a vision the “Et in Arcadia Ego.”  11
  Then, as suddenly as he had begun, Tricotrin dropped the bow and ceased, and struck a light and smoked,—a great Arab pipe of some carved wood, black and polished by long use. On the silence that succeeded there came a low laugh of delight,—the laugh of a very young child. He looked up and down and among the ferns at his feet; the laughter was close beside him, yet he could see nothing. He smoked on indifferently, watching the bright eyes of the birds glancing out from the shadow; then the laugh came again, close at his side, as it sounded; he rose and pushed aside some branches, and looked over a broken rail behind him, beyond a tangled growth of reeds and rushes.  12
  There he saw what had aroused him from his smoke-silence: more than half hidden under the moss and the broad tufted grasses, stretching her hands out at the gorgeous butterflies that fluttered above her head, and covered with the wide yellow leaves of gourds and the white fragrant abundance of traveler’s-joy, was the child whose laughter he had heard. A child between two and three years old, her face warm with the flush of past sleep, her eyes smiling against the light, her hair lying like gold-dust on the moss, her small fair limbs struggling uncovered out of a rough red cloak that alone was folded about her. The scarlet of the mantle, the whiteness of the clematis, the yellow hues of the wild gourds, the color of the winged insects, the head of the child rising out of the mosses, and the young face that looked like a moss-rosebud just unclosing, made a picture in their own way; and he who passed no picture by, but had pictures in his memory surpassing all the collected art of galleries, paused to survey it with his arms folded on the rail.  13
  Its solitude, its strangeness, did not occur to him; he looked at it as at some painting of his French brethren’s easels,—that was all. But the child, seeing a human eye regard her, forgot her butterflies and remembered human wants; she stretched her hands to him instead of to her playmates of the air. “J’ai faim!” she cried, with a plaintive self-pity: bread would be better than the butterflies.  14
  “Hungry?” he answered, addressing her as he was wont to do Mistigri. “I have nothing for you. Who brought you there, you Waif and Stray? Put down there and left, to get rid of the trouble of you, apparently? Well, D’Alembert was dropped down in the streets, and found a foster-mother in a milkwoman, and he did pretty well afterward. Perhaps some dainty De Tencin brought you likewise into the world, and has hidden you like a bit of smuggled lace, only thinking you nothing so valuable. Is it so, eh?”  15
  “J’ai faim!” cried the child afresh: all her history was comprised to her in the one fact that she wanted bread,—as it is comprised to a mob.  16
  “Catch, then!” he replied to the cry, dropping into her hands from where he leant, a bunch of the Chasselas grapes that still remained in his pocket. It sufficed: the child was not so much pained by hunger as by thirst, though she scarcely knew the difference between her own sensations; her throat was dry, and the grapes were all she wanted. He, leaning over the lichen-covered rail, watched her while she enjoyed them one by one. She was a very pretty child; the prettier for that rough moss covering, out of which her delicate fair shoulders and chest rose uncovered, while the breeze blew about her yellow glossy curls.  17
  “Left there to be got rid of—clearly,” he murmured to her. “Any one who picks you up will do you the greatest injury possible. Die now in the sunshine among the flowers: you will never have such another chance of a poetical and picturesque exit. Who was ingenious enough to hide you there? The poor shirt-stitcher who was at her last sou? or Madame la Marquise who was at her last scandal? Was it Magdalene who has to wear sackcloth for having dared to sin without money to buy absolution? or Messalina who covers ten thousand poisonous passions with a silver-embroidered robe, and is only discreetly careful of ‘consequences’? Which was your progenitrix, little one, eh?”  18
  To this question so closely concerning her, the Waif could give no answer, being gifted with only imperfect speech; but happy in the grapes, she laughed up in his eyes her unspoken thanks, shaking a cluster of clematis above her head, as happy in her couch of flowers and moss as she could have been in any silver cradle. The question concerned her in nothing yet: the bar sinister could not stretch across the sunny blue skies, the butterflies flew above her as familiarly as above the brow of a child-queen, and the white flowers did not wither sooner in bastard than in legitimate hands.  19
  “How the sun shines on you, as if you were a princess!” he soliloquized to her. “Ah! Nature is a terrible socialist; what republicans she would make of men if they listened to her. But there is no fear for them,—they are not fond enough of her school! You look very comfortably settled here, and how soon you will get life over. You are very fortunate. You will suffer a little bit,—paf! what of that? Everybody suffers that little bit sooner or later, and it grows sharper the longer it is put off. Suppose you were picked up by somebody and lived: it would be very bad for you. You would be a lovely woman, and lovely women are the devil’s aides-de-camp. You would snare men in your yellow hair, and steal their substance with the breath of your lips, and dress up lying avarice as love, and make a miser’s greed wear the smile of a cherub. Ah! that you would. And then would come age, a worse thing for women like you than crime or death; and you would suffer an agony with every wrinkle, and a martyrdom with every whitening lock; and you would grow hard, and haggard, and painted, and hideous even to the vilest among men; and you would be hissed off the stage in hatred by the mouths that once shouted your triumphs, while you would hear the fresh comers laugh as they rushed on to be crowned with the roses that once wreathed your own forehead. And then would come the end,—the hospital and the wooden shell, and the grave trampled flat to the dust as soon almost as made, while the world danced on in the sunlight unheeding. Ah! be wise. Die while you can, among your butterflies and flowers!”  20
  The child, lying below there in her nest, looked up in his eyes again and laughed: “Viva!” she cried, while she clasped her grapes in her two small hands.  21
  “Viva? What do you mean by that? Do you mean, imperfectly, to ask to live an Italian? Fie then! That is unphilosophic. Take the advice of two philosophers. Bolingbroke says there is so much trouble in coming into the world and in going out of it, that it is barely worth while to be here at all; and I tell you the same. He had the cakes and ale too, but the one got stale and the other bitter. What will it be for you who start with neither cakes nor ale? Life’s not worth much to a man. It is worth just nothing at all to a woman. It is a mistake altogether; and lasts just long enough for all to find that out, but not long enough for any to remedy it. We always live the time required to get thoroughly uncomfortable, and as soon as we are in the track to sift the problem—paf!—out we go like a rush-light, the very moment we begin to burn brightly. Be persuaded by me, and don’t think of living: you have a golden opportunity of getting quittance of the whole affair. Don’t throw it away!”  22
  The good advice of Experience was, as it always is, thrown away on the impetuosity of Ignorance. The child laughed still over her Chasselas bunch, murmuring still over and over again the nearest approach she knew to a name:—  23
  “Viva—Viva—Viva!”  24
  “The obstinacy of women prematurely developed. Why will you not know when you are well off? ‘Those whom the gods love die young.’ If you would just now prefer to have your mother’s love instead of the gods’, you are wrong. What have you before you? You will be marked ‘outcast.’ You will have nothing as your career except to get rich by snaring the foolish; or to be virtuous and starve on three halfpence a day, having a pauper’s burial as reward for your chastity. If you live, your hands must be either soiled or empty. I would die among the clematis if I were you.”  25
  But the child, persistently regardless of wise counsel, only laughed still, and strove to struggle from her network of blossom and of moss.  26
  “Your mind is set upon living,—what a pity!” murmured her solitary companion. “When your hair is white, how you will wish you had died when it was yellow;—everybody does, but while the yellow lasts nobody believes it! You want to live? So Eve wanted the ‘fruit of fairest colors.’ If I were to help you to have your own way now, you would turn on me thirty years hence as your worst enemy. Were you able to understand reason—but your sex would prevent that, let alone your age. Let us ask Mistigri. Mistigri, is that Waif to live or to die?”  27
  The companion and counselor, who lived in his pocket and was accustomed to be thus appealed to, had swung herself down on to the grass, and was now squatted on the rail beside him. The child, catching sight of the monkey, tried to stretch and stroke her; and Mistigri, who was always of an affable, and when she had eaten sufficient herself, of a generous turn of mind, extended her little black paw, and tendered a nut, as an overture to an acquaintance.  28
  “You vote for life too?” cried Tricotrin. “Bah, Mistigri! I thought you so sensible—for your sex! When a discerning mother, above the weakness of womenkind, has arranged everything so neatly, we should be the most miserable sentimentalists to interfere.”  29
  As he spoke, the little creature, who had been vainly striving to free herself from her forest-cradle, ceased her efforts and looked up in piteous mute entreaty, her eyes wet and soft with glistening tears, her mouth trembling with an unspoken appeal.  30
  He who saw a wounded bird only to help it, and met a lame dog only to carry it, was unable to resist that pathetic helplessness. He turned and lifted his voice.  31
  “Grand’mère Virelois, are you there? Here is something in your way, not in mine.”  32
  In answer to the shout there came out from the low broken door of the ruined tower an old peasant woman, brown and bent and very aged, but blithe as a bird, and with her black eyes as bright as the eyes of a mouse, under the white pent-house of her high starched cap.  33
  “What is it, good Tricotrin?” she asked, in that sweet, singing voice that makes the accent of many French peasant women so lingering and charming on the ear,—the voice that has in it all the contentment of the brave, cheery spirit within.  34
  “A Waif and Stray,” answered Tricotrin. “Whether from Mary Magdalene or Madame la Marquise is unknown; probably will never be known. Curses go home to roost, but chickens don’t. The Waif is irrational: she thinks a mouthful of black bread better than easy extinction among the ferns. Claudine de Tencin has left a feminine D’Alembert in a moss-cradle: are you inclined to play the part of the foster-mother?”  35
  Grand’mère Virelois listened to the harangue, comprehending it no more than if he had spoken in Hebrew; but she was used to him, and thought nothing of that.  36
  “What is it I am to see?” she asked again, peering curiously with lively interest among the leaves. Before he could answer she had caught sight of the child, with vehement amaze and ecstatic wonder; the speech had been as Hebrew to her, but the fact was substantial and indisputable. Crossing herself in her surprise, with a thousand expletives of pity and admiration, she bent her little withered but still active form beneath the rail, and stooped and raised the foundling—raised her, but only a little from the ground.  37
  “Holy Virgin! Tricotrin!” she cried, “look here! the child is fastened. Help me!”  38
  He looked quickly as she called him, and saw that the withes of osiers and the tendrils of wild vine had been netted so tightly around the limbs, tied here and there with strong twine, that the infant could never have escaped from its resting-place; it had evidently been so fastened that the child might perish there unseen. His face darkened as he looked.  39
  “Murder, then! not mere neglect. Ah! this is Madame la Marquise at work, not Magdalene!” he murmured, as he slashed the network right and left with his knife, and set the Waif at liberty; while Grand’mère Virelois went into a woman’s raptures on the young beauty of the “petit Gésu,” and a woman’s vehement censures of a sister’s sin.  40
  Tricotrin smoked resignedly, while her raptures and her diatribes expended themselves; it was long before either were exhausted.  41
  “Don’t abuse the mother,” he interposed at last. “Everybody gets rid of troublesome consequences when they can. We’ve done no good in disturbing her arrangements. We have only disinterred a living blunder that she wished to bury.”  42
  “For shame, Tricotrin!” cried Grand’mère, quivering with horror, while she folded the child in her withered arms. “You can jest on such wickedness! You can excuse such a murderess!”  43
  “Paf!” said Tricotrin, lightly blowing away a smoke ring. “The whole system of creation is a sliding scale of murders. All the world over, life is only sustained by life being extinguished.”  44
  Grand’mère Virelois, who was a pious little woman, shuddered and clasped the child nearer.  45
  “Ah—h—h! the vile woman! How will she see Our Lady’s face on the last day?”  46
  “How she will meet the world she lives in is more the question with her now, I imagine. An eminently sagacious woman! and you and I are two sentimentalists to interfere with her admirably artistic play. So you would live, little one? I wonder what you will make of what you have got! A Jeremiad if you are a good silly woman; a Can-can measure if you are a bad clever one. Which will it be, I wonder?”  47
  “Mon Dieu, it is an angel!” murmured Grand’mère; “such hair, like silk,—such eyes,—such a rose for a mouth! And left to die of hunger and cold! Ah, may the Holy Mary find her out and avenge her crime, the wicked one!”  48
  “The vengeance will come quick if the sinner live in a garret; it will limp very slowly if she shelter in a palace. Well, since you take that child in your arms, do you mean to find her the piece of bread the unphilosophic castaway will want?”  49
  “Will I not! if I go without myself. Oh, the pretty little child! who could have left you? Wherever the mother dwells, may the good God hunt her down!”  50
  “Deity as a detective? Not a grand idea that. Yet it is the heavenly office that looks dearest to man when it is exercised upon others! Grand’mère, answer me: Are you going to keep that Waif?”  51
  The bright, brown, wrinkled, homely face of the good old woman grew perplexed.  52
  “Ah, my friend, times are so bad, it is hard work to get a bit in the pot for one’s self; and I stitch, stitch, stitch, and spin, spin, spin, till I am blind many a time. And yet the pretty child—with no one to care for it! I do not know,—she must be brought up hard if she come to me. Not a lentil even to put in the water and make one fancy it is soup, in some days these hard times! But do you know nothing more of her than this, Tricotrin?”  53
  “Nothing.”  54
  His luminous eyes met hers full and frankly; she knew—all the nations where he wandered knew—that the affirmative of Tricotrin was more sure than the truth of most men’s oaths.  55
  “Then she must be abandoned here by some wretch to starve unseen?”  56
  “It looks like it.”  57
  “Ah! the little angel! What does the barbarous brutal heart of stone deserve?”  58
  “What it will get if it lodge in the breast that rags and tatters cover; what it will not get if it lodge in the breast that heaves under silks and laces.”  59
  “True enough! but the good God will smite in his own time. Oh, little one, how could they ever forsake thee?” cried Grand’mère, caressing afresh the child, who was laughing and well content in her friendly and tender hold.  60
  “Then you are going to adopt her?”  61
  “Adopt her? Mother of Jesus! I dare not say that. You know how I live, Tricotrin,—how hardly, though I try to let it be cheerfully. If I had a little more she should share it, and welcome; but as it is—not a mouthful of chestnuts, even, so often; not a drop of oil or a bit of garlic sometimes weeks together! She would be better off at the Foundling Hospital than with me. Besides, it is an affair for the mayor of the commune.”  62
  “Certainly it is. But if the most notable mayor can do nothing except send this foundling among the others, would you like better to keep her?”  63
  Grand’mère Virelois was silent and thoughtful a minute; then her little bright eyes glanced up at him from under their white linen roofing, with a gleam in them that was between a smile and a tear.  64
  “You know how I lost them, Tricotrin. One in Africa, one at the Barricades, one crushed under a great marble block, building the Préfet’s palace. And then the grandchild too,—the only little one,—so pretty, so frail, so tender, killed that long bitter winter, because the food was so scarce, like the young birds dead on the snow! You know, Tricotrin? and what use is it to take her to perish like him, though in her laughter and her caresses I might think that he lived again?”  65
  “I know!” said Tricotrin softly, with an infinite balm of pity, and of the remembrance that was the sweetest sympathy, in his voice. “Well, if M. le Maire can find none to claim her, she shall stay with you, Grand’mère: and as for the food, that shall not trouble you; I will have a care of that.”  66
  “You? Holy Jesus! how good!”  67
  “Not in the least. I abetted her in her ignorant and ridiculous desire to exchange a pleasant death among the clematis for all the toil and turmoil of prolonged existences; I am clearly responsible for my share in the folly. I cut the meshes that her sagacious mother had knotted so hardly. I must accept my part in the onus of such unwarrantable interference. You keep the Waif; and I will be at the cost of her.”  68
  “But then, Tricotrin, you call yourself poor?”  69
  “So I am. But one need not be a millionaire to be able to get a few crumbs for that robin. The creature persisted in living, and I humored her caprice. It was mock humanity, paltry sentiment; Mistigri was partly at fault, but I mostly. We must accept the results. They will be disastrous probably,—the creature is feminine,—but such as they are we must make the best of them.”  70
  “Then you will adopt her?”  71
  “Not in the least. But I will see she has something to eat; and that you are able to give it her if her parents cannot be found. Here is a gold bit for the present minute; and when we know whether she is really and truly a Waif, you shall have more to keep the pot over your fire full and boiling. Adieu, Grand’mère.”  72
  With that farewell, he, heedless of the voluble thanks and praises that the old woman showered after him, and of the outcries of the child who called to Mistigri, put his pipe in his mouth, his violin in his pocket, and throwing his knapsack over his shoulder, brushed his way through the forest growth.  73
  “Mock sentiment!” he said to himself. “You and I have done a silly thing, Mistigri. What will come of it?”  74
 
 
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