Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Simple Story
By Jacques Jasmin (1798–1864)
From ‘My Souvenirs’: Translation of Harriet Waters Preston, in ‘Troubadours and Trouvères’

NOW will I keep my promise, and will tell
How I was born, and what my youth befell.
The poor decrepit century passed away;
Had barely two more years on earth to stay,
When in a dingy and a dim retreat,        5
An old rat-palace in a narrow street,
    Behind a door, Shrove Tuesday morn,
Just as the day flung its black nightcap by,
Of mother lame, and humpbacked sire, was born
        A boy,—and it was I.        10
When princes come to life, the cannon thunder
        With joy; but when I woke,
Being but a tailor’s son, it was no wonder
        Not even a cracker spoke.
Only a certain charivarian band        15
Before our neighbor’s door had ta’en its stand,
Whereby my little virgin ears were torn
With dreadful din of kettle and of horn,
Which only served to echo wide the drone
Of forty couplets of my father’s own….        20
Suddenly life became a pastime gay.
We can but paint what we have felt, they say:
Why, then must feeling have begun for me
At seven years old; for then myself I see,
With paper cap on head and horn in hand,        25
Following my father in the village band.
Was I not happy while the horns were blowing?
Or better still, when we by chance were going,
A score or more, as we were wont to, whiles,
To gather fagots on the river isles?        30
Bare heads, bare feet, our luncheon carrying,
Just as the noontide bells began to ring,
  We would set forth. Ah, that was glee!
  Singing ‘The Lamb thou gavest me!’
I’m merry at the very memory!…        35
  Nathless, I was a dreamy little thing;
One simple word would strike me mute full often,
  And I would hark, as to a viol string,
And knew not why I felt my heart so soften:
And that was school,—a pleasant word enow;        40
  But when my mother at her spinning-wheel
Would pause and look on me with pitying brow,
  And breathe it to my grandsire, I would feel
A sudden sorrow as I eyed the twain,—
A mystery, a long whole moment’s pain.        45
And something else there was that made me sad:
I liked to fill a little pouch I had,
At the great fairs, with whatso I could glean,
And then to bid my mother look within;
And if my purse but showed her I had won        50
A few poor coins, a sou for service done,
Sighing, “Ah, my poor little one,” she said,
“This comes in time;” and then my spirit bled.
Yet laughter soon came back, and I
Was giddier than before, a very butterfly….        55
At last a winter came when I could keep
  No more my footstool; for there chanced a thing
  So strange, so sorrowful, so harrowing,
That long, long afterwards it made me weep.
Sweet ignorance, why is thy kind disguise        60
So early rent from happy little eyes?
I mind one Monday,—’twas my tenth birthday,—
The other boys had throned me king, in play,
When I was smitten by a sorry sight:
Two cartmen bore some aged helpless wight,        65
In an old willow chair, along the way.
I watched them as they near and nearer drew;
And what saw I? Dear God, could it be true?
’Twas my own grandsire, and our household all
Following. I saw but him. With sudden yearning,        70
I sprang and kissed him. He, my kiss returning,
For the first time some piteous tears let fall.
“Where wilt thou go? and why wilt thou forsake
Us little ones who love thee?” was my cry.
“Dear, they are taking me,” my grandsire spake,        75
“Unto the almshouse, where the Jasmins die.”
Kissed me once more, closed his blue eyes, passed on.
  Far through the trees we followed them, be sure.
In five more days the word came he was gone.
For me sad wisdom woke that Monday morn:        80
  Then knew I first that we were very poor….
Myself, nor less nor more, I’ll draw for you,
And, if not fair, the likeness shall be true….
Now saw I why our race, from sire to son,
  For many lives, had never died at home;        85
    But time for crutches having come,
      The almshouse claimed its own.
I saw why one brisk woman every morn
  Paused, pail in hand, my grandame’s threshold by:
She brought her—not yet old, though thus forlorn—        90
      The bread of charity.
And ah, that wallet! by two cords uphung,
Wherein my hands for broken bread went straying,—
Grandsire had borne it round the farms among,
A morsel from his ancient comrades praying.        95
Poor grandsire! When I kept him company,
The softest bit was evermore for me!
All this was shame and sorrow exquisite.
I played no more at leap-frog in the street,
But sat and dreamed about the seasons gone.        100
And if chance things my sudden laughter won,—
Flag, soldier, hoop, or kite,—it died away
Like the pale sunbeam of a weeping day….
One morn my mother came, as one with gladness crazed,
Crying, “Come, Jacques, to school!” Stupid, I stood and gazed.        105
“To school! What then? are we grown rich?” I cried amazed.
“Nay, nay, poor little one! Thou wilt not have to pay!
Thy cousin gives it thee, and I am blessed this day.”
Behold me then, with fifty others set,
Mumbling my lesson in the alphabet.        110
I had a goodly memory; or so they used to say.
Thanks to this pious dame, therefore,
  ’Twixt smiles and tears it came to pass
That I could read in six months more;
  In six months more could say the mass;        115
In six months more I might aspire
To tantum ergo and the choir;
In six months more, still paying nothing,
  I passed the sacred college gate;
In six months more, with wrath and loathing        120
  They thrust me forth. Ah, luckless fate!
’Twas thus: a tempting prize was offered by-and-by
Upon the term’s last week, and my theme won the same.
            (A cassock ’twas, and verily
            As autumn heather old and dry.)        125
  Nathless, when mother dear upon Shrove Monday came,
My cheeks fired when we kissed; along my veins the blood
            Racing in little blobs did seem.
More darns were in the cassock, well I understood,
              Than errors in my theme;        130
But glad at heart was I, and the gladder for her glee.
What love was in her touch! What looks she gave her son!
        “Thank God, thou learnest well!” said she;
            “For this is why, my little one,
Each Tuesday comes a loaf, and so rude the winter blows,        135
            It is welcome, as He knows.”
Thereon I gave my word I would very learned be;
  And when she turned away, content was in her eyes.
So I pondered on my frock, and my sire, who presently
  Should come and take my measure. It happened otherwise.        140
          The marplot de’il himself had sworn
            It should not be, so it would seem,
          Nor holy gown by me be worn.
Wherefore my steps he guided to a quiet court and dim,
          Drove me across, and bade me stop        145
          Under a ladder slight and tall,
Where a pretty peasant maiden, roosted against the wall,
      Was dressing pouter pigeons, there atop.
Oft as I saw a woman, in the times whereof I write,
Slid a tremor through my veins, and across my dreary day        150
      There flashed a sudden vision on my sight
            Of a life all velvet, so to say:
Thus, when I saw Catrine (rosy she was, and sweet),
      I was fain to mount a bit, till I discerned
        A pair of comely legs, a pair of snowy feet,        155
      And all my silly heart within me burned.
One tell-tale sigh I gave, and my damsel veered, alas!—
          Then huddled up with piteous cries;
          The ladder snapped before my eyes.
          She fell!—escape for me none was!        160
And there we twain lay sprawling upon the court-yard floor,
            I under and she o’er!…
But while so dulcet vengeance is wrought me by my stars,
What step is this upon the stair? Who fumbles at the bars?
        Alackaday! Who opes the door?        165
The dread superior himself! And he my pardon bore!
Thou knowest the Florence Lion,—the famous picture where
        The mother sees, in stark despair,
        The onslaught of the monster wild
        Who will devour her darling child;        170
And, fury in her look, nor heeding life the least,
With piercing cry, “My boy!” leaps on the savage beast;
          Who, wondering and withstood,
Seemeth to quench the burning of his cruel thirst for blood,
            And the baby is released:        175
Just so the reverend canon, with madness in his eye,
Sprang on my wretched self, and “My sweetmeats!” was his cry;
And the nobler lion’s part, alas, was not for me!
For the jar was empty half and the bottom plain to see!
        “Out of this house, thou imp of hell:        180
Thou’rt past forgiveness now! Dream not of such a thing!”
        And the old canon, summoning
        His forces, shook my ladder well.
Then with a quaking heart I turned me to descend,
        Still by one handle holding tight        185
        The fatal jar, which dropped outright
        And shattered, and so came the end!
        Behold me now in dire disgrace,
An outcast in the street, in the merry carnival,
        As black as any Moor, with all        190
        The sweetmeat stains upon my face!
        My woes, meseemed, were just begun.
        “Ho for the masque!” a gamin cried;
        Full desperately did I run,
But a mob of howling urchins thronged me on every side.        195
        Raised at my heels a cloud of dust,
        And roared, “The masque is full of must!”
        As on the wind’s own pinions borne
        I fled, and gained our cot forlorn,
        And in among my household burst,        200
      Starved, dripping, dead with rage and thirst.
Uprose a cry of wonderment from sisters, mother, sire,
And while we kissed I told them all, whereon a silence fell.
        Seeing bean-porridge on the fire,
        I said I would my hunger quell.        205
Wherefore then did they make as though they heard not me,
Standing death-still? At last arose my mother dear,
        Most anxiously, most tenderly.
        “Why are we tarrying?” said she,
        “No more will come. Our all is here.”        210
But I, “No more of what? Ah, tell me, for God’s sake!”—
      Sorely the mystery made me quake,—
      “What wast thou waiting, mother mild?”
I trembled, for I guessed. And she, “The loaf, my child!”
So I had ta’en their bread away! O squalor and distress!        215
      Accursed sweetmeats! Naughty feet!
I am base indeed! O silence full of bitterness!
Gentles, who pitying weep for every woe ye meet,
          My anguish ye may guess!
    No money and no loaf! A sorry tale, I ween.        220
  Gone was my hunger now, but in my aching heart
          I seemed to feel a cruel smart,
    A stab as of a brand, fire-new and keen,
    Rending the scabbard it is shut within.
Silent I stood awhile, and my mother blankly scanned,        225
While she, as in a dream, gazed on her own left hand;
      Then put her Sunday kerchief by,
      And rose and spake right cheerily,
And left us for a while; and when she came once more,
    Beneath her arm a little loaf she bore.        230
      Then all anew a-talking fell,
      And to the table turned. Ah, well!
      They laughed, but I was full of thought,
And evermore my wandering eyes my mother sought.
Sorry was I, and mute, for a doubt that me possessed,        235
  And drowned the noisy clamor of the rest.
But what I longed to see perpetually withdrew
          And shyly hid from view,
        Until at last, soup being done,
        My gentle mother made a move        240
As she would cut the loaf, signing the cross above.
Then stole I one swift look the dear left hand upon,
And ah, it was too true!—the wedding-ring was gone!…
One beauteous eve in summer, when the world was all abroad,
Swept onward by the human stream that toward the palace bore,        245
        Unthinkingly the way I trod,
        And followed eager hundreds o’er
          The threshold of an open door.
          Good Heaven! where was I? What might mean
          The lifting of that linen screen?        250
    O lovely, lovely vision! O country strange and fair!
How they sing in yon bright world! and how sweetly talk they too!
          Can ears attend the music rare,
          Or eyes embrace the dazzling view?
    “Why, yon is Cinderella!” I shouted in my maze.        255
          “Silence!” quoth he who sat by me.
“Why, then? Where are we, sir? What is this whereon we gaze?”
          “Thou idiot! This is the Comedy!”
          Ah, yes! I knew that magic name,
          Full oft at school had heard the same;        260
          And fast the fevered pulses flew
          In my low room the dark night through.
  “O fatherland of poesy! O paradise of love!
Thou art a dream to me no more! Thy mighty spell I prove.
  And thee, sweet Cinderella, my guardian I make,        265
  And to-morrow I turn player for thy sake!”
But slumber came at dawn, and next the flaming look
Of my master, who awoke me. How like a leaf I shook!
“Where wast thou yesternight? Answer me, ne’er-do-weel!
      And wherefore home at midnight steal?”        270
      “O sir, how glorious was the play!”
“The play, indeed! ’Tis very true what people say:
      Thou art stark crazy, wretched boy,
To make so vile an uproar through all the livelong night!
To sing and spout, and rest of sober souls destroy.        275
Thou who hast worn a cassock, nor blushest for thy plight!
      Thou’lt come to grief, I warn thee so!
Quit shop, mayhap, and turn thyself a player low!”
      “Ay, master dear, that would I be!”
      “What, what? Hear I aright?” said he.        280
      “Art blind? and dost not know the gate
      That leadeth to the almshouse straight?”
At this terrific word, the heart in me went down
      As though a club had fallen thereon;
And Cinderella fled her throne in my light head.        285
      The pang I straightway did forget;
      And yet, meseems, yon awful threat
      Made softer evermore my attic bed.

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