Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By Sir Gilbert Parker (1862–1932)
From ‘When Valmond Came to Pontiac’

ON one corner stood the house of Monsieur Garon the avocat; on another, the shop of the Little Chemist; on another, the office of Medallion the auctioneer; and on the last, the Hotel Louis Quinze. The chief characteristics of Monsieur Garon’s house were its brass door-knobs, and the verdant luxuriance of the vines that climbed its sides; of the Little Chemist’s shop, the perfect whiteness of the building, the rolls of sober wall-paper, and the bottles of colored water in the shop windows; of Medallion’s, the stoop that surrounded three sides of the building, and the notices of sales tacked up, pasted up, on the front; of the Hotel Louis Quinze, the deep dormer windows, its solid timbers, and the veranda that gave its front distinction;—for this veranda had been the pride of several generations of landlords, and its heavy carving and bulky grace were worth even more admiration than Pontiac gave to it.  1
  The square which the two roads and the four corners made was on week-days the rendezvous of Pontiac and the whole parish; on Sunday mornings the rendezvous was shifted to the large church on the hillside, beside which was the house of the curé, Monsieur Fabre. Traveling towards the south, out of the silken haze of a midsummer day, you would come in time to the hills of Maine; north, to the city of Quebec and the River St. Lawrence; east, to the ocean; and west, to the Great Lakes and the land of the English. Over this bright province Britain raised her flag; but only Medallion and a few others loved it for its own sake, or saluted it in the English tongue.  2
  In the drab velvet dust of these four corners were gathered, one night of July a generation ago, the children of the village and many of their elders. All the events of that epoch were dated from the evening of this day. Another day of note the parish cherished, but it was merely a grave fulfillment of the first.  3
  Upon the veranda stoop of the Louis Quinze stood a man of apparently about twenty-eight years of age. When you came to study him closely, some sense of time and experience in his look told you that he might be thirty-eight, though his few gray hairs seemed but to emphasize a certain youthfulness in him. His eye was full, singularly clear, almost benign; at one moment it gave the impression of resolution, at another it suggested the wayward abstraction of the dreamer. He was well figured, with a hand of peculiar whiteness, suggesting in its breadth more the man of action than of meditation. But it was a contradiction, for as you saw it rise and fall, you were struck by its dramatic delicacy; as it rested on the railing of the veranda, by its latent power. You faced incongruity everywhere. His dress was bizarre, his face almost classical, the brow clear and strong, the profile good to the mouth, where there showed a combination of sensuousness and adventure. Yet in the face there was an elusive sadness, strangely out of keeping with the long linen coat, frilled shirt, the flowered waistcoat, lavender trousers, boots of enameled leather, and straw hat with white linen streamers. It was a whimsical picture.  4
  At the moment that the curé and Medallion the auctioneer came down the street together towards the Louis Quinze, talking amiably, this singular gentleman was throwing out hot pennies with a large spoon from a tray in his hand, calling on the children to gather them, in French which was not the French of Pontiac—or Quebec; and this fact the curé was quick to detect, as Monsieur Garon the avocat, standing on the outskirts of the crowd, had done some moments before. The stranger seemed only conscious of his act of liberality and the children before him. There was a naturalness in his enjoyment which was almost boy-like; a naïve sort of exultation seemed to possess him.  5
  He laughed softly to see the children toss the pennies from hand to hand, blowing to cool them; the riotous yet half timorous scramble for them, and burnt fingers thrust into hot blithe mouths. And when he saw a fat little lad of five crowded out of the way by his elders, he stepped down with a quick word of sympathy, put a half-dozen pennies in the child’s pocket, snatched him up and kissed him, and then returned to the veranda, where were gathered the landlord, the miller, and Monsieur De la Rivière the young Seigneur. But the most intent spectator of the scene was Parpon the dwarf, who sat grotesquely crouched upon the wide ledge of a window.  6
  Tray after tray of pennies was brought out and emptied, till at last the stranger paused, handed the spoon to the landlord, drew out a fine white handkerchief, dusted his fingers, standing silent for a moment and smiling upon the crowd.  7
  It was at this point that some young villager called, in profuse compliment, “Three cheers for the Prince!”  8
  The stranger threw an accent of pose into his manner, his eye lighted, his chin came up, he dropped one hand negligently on his hip, and waved the other in acknowledgment. Presently he beckoned, and from the hotel were brought out four great pitchers of wine and a dozen tin cups; and sending the garçon around with one, the landlord with another, he motioned Parpon the dwarf to bear a hand. Parpon shot out a quick, half resentful look at him; but meeting a warm, friendly eye, he took the pitcher and went among the elders, while the stranger himself courteously drank with the young men of the village, who, like many wiser folk, thus yielded to the charm of mystery. To every one he said a hearty thing, and sometimes touched his greeting off with a bit of poetry or a rhetorical phrase. These dramatic extravagances served him well, for he was among a race of story-tellers and crude poets.  9
  Parpon, uncouth and furtive, moved through the crowd, dispensing as much irony as wine:—
  “Three bucks we come to a pretty inn:
‘Hostess,’ say we, ‘have you red wine?’
            Brave! Brave!
‘Hostess,’ say we, ‘have you red wine?’
Our feet are sore and our crops are dry,
  This he hummed to Monsieur Garon the avocat, in a tone all silver; for he had that one gift of Heaven as recompense for his deformity,—his long arms, big head, and short stature,—a voice which gave you a shiver of delight and pain all at once. It had in it mystery and the incomprehensible. This drinking song, lilted just above his breath, touched some antique memory in the avocat; and he nodded kindly at the dwarf, though he refused the wine.  11
  “Ah, M’sieu’ le Curé,” said Parpon, ducking his head to avoid the hand that Medallion would have laid on it, “we’re going to be somebody now in Pontiac, bless the Lord! We’re simple folk, but we’re not neglected. He wears a king’s ribbon on his breast, M’sieu’ le Curé!”  12
  This was true. Fastened by a gold bar to the stranger’s breast was the crimson ribbon of an order.  13
  The Curé smiled at Parpon’s words, and looked curiously and gravely at the stranger. Tall Medallion, the auctioneer, took a glass of the wine, and lifting it, said, “Who shall I drink to, Parpon, my dear? What is he?”  14
  “Ten to one, a dauphin or a fool,” answered Parpon with a laugh like the note of an organ. “Drink to both, long legs.” Then he trotted away to the Little Chemist.  15
  “Hush, my brother,” said he, and he drew the other’s ear down to his mouth. “Now there’ll be plenty of work for you. We’re going to be gay in Pontiac. We’ll come to you with our spoiled stomachs.”  16
  He edged round the circle, and back to where the miller his master, and the young Seigneur stood.  17
  “Make more fine flour, old man,” said he to the miller: “pâtés are the thing now.” Then, to Monsieur De la Rivière, “There’s nothing like hot pennies and wine to make the world love you. But it’s too late, too late for my young Seigneur!” he added in mockery, and again he began to hum in a sort of amiable derision:—
  “My little tender heart,
  O gai, vive le roi!
My little tender heart,
  O gai, vive le roi!
’Tis for a grand baron,
  Vive le roi, la reine;
’Tis for a grand baron,
  Vive Napoléon!”
  With the last two lines the words swelled out far louder than was the dwarf’s intention; for few save Medallion and Monsieur De la Rivière had ever heard him sing. His concert house was the Rock of Red Pigeons,—his favorite haunt, his other home, where, it was said, he met the Little Good Folk of the Scarlet Hills, and had gay hours with them. And this was a matter of awe to the timid habitants.  19
  At the words “Vive Napoléon!” a hand touched him on the shoulder. He turned and saw the stranger looking at him intently, his eyes alight.  20
  “Sing it,” he said softly, yet with an air of command. Parpon hesitated, shrank back.  21
  “Sing it,” he persisted; and the request was taken up by others, till Parpon’s face flushed with a sort of pleasurable defiance. The stranger stooped and whispered something in his ear. There was a moment’s pause, in which the dwarf looked into the other’s eyes with an intense curiosity, or incredulity,—and then Medallion lifted the little man onto the railing of the veranda, and over the heads and into the hearts of the people there passed, in a divine voice, a song known to many, yet coming as a new revelation to them all.
  “My mother promised it,
  O gai, vive le roi!
My mother promised it,
  O gai, vive le roi!
To a gentleman of the king,
  Vive le roi, la reine;
To a gentleman of the king,
  Vive Napoléon!”
  This was chanted lightly, airily, with a sweetness almost absurd, coming as it did from so uncouth a musician. The last verses had a touch of pathos, droll yet searching:—

  “Oh, say, where goes your love,
  O gai, vive le roi?
Oh, say, where goes your love,
  O gai, vive le roi?
He rides on a white horse,
  Vive le roi, la reine;
He wears a silver sword,
  Vive Napoléon!”
Oh, grand to the war he goes,
  O gai, vive le roi!
Oh, grand to the war he goes,
  O gai, vive le roi!
Gold and silver he will bring,
  Vive le roi, la reine;
And eke the daughter of a king—
  Vive Napoléon!”
  The crowd, women and men, youths and maidens, enthusiastically repeated again and again the last line and the refrain, “Vive le roi, la reine! Vive Napoléon!”  24
  Meanwhile the stranger stood, now looking at the singer with eager eyes, now searching the faces of the people, keen to see the effect upon them. His glance found the curé, the avocat, and the auctioneer, and his eyes steadied successively to Medallion’s humorous look, to the curé’s puzzled questioning, to the avocat’s birdlike curiosity. It was plain they were not antagonistic; (why should they be?) and he—was there any reason why he should care whether or no they were for him or against him?  25
  True, he had entered the village in the dead of night, with much luggage and many packages; had aroused the people at the Louis Quinze; the driver who had brought him departing gayly, before daybreak, because of the gifts of gold given him above his wage. True, this singular gentleman had taken three rooms in the little hotel, had paid the landlord in advance, and had then gone to bed, leaving word that he was not to be waked till three o’clock the next afternoon. True, the landlord could not by any hint or indirection discover from whence this midnight visitor came. But if a gentleman paid his way, and was generous and polite, and minded his own business, wherefore should people busy themselves about him? When he appeared on the veranda of the inn with the hot pennies, not a half-dozen people in the village had known aught of his presence in Pontiac. The children came first to scorch their fingers and fill their pockets; and after them the idle young men, and the habitants in general.  26
  The song done, the stranger, having shaken Parpon by the hand, and again whispered in his ear, stepped forward. The last light of the setting sun was reflected from the red roof of the Little Chemist’s shop, upon the quaint figure and eloquent face, which had in it something of the gentleman, something of the comedian. The alert Medallion himself did not realize the comedian in it till the white hand was waved grandiloquently over the heads of the crowd. Then something in the gesture corresponded with something in the face, and the auctioneer had a nut which he could not crack for many a day. The voice was musical,—as fine in speaking almost as the dwarf’s in singing,—and the attention of the children was caught by the warm, vibrating tones. He addressed himself to them.  27
  “My children,” he said, “my name is—Valmond! We have begun well; let us be better friends. I have come from far off to be one of you, to stay with you for a while—who knows how long—how long?” He placed a finger meditatively on his lips, sending a sort of mystery into his look and bearing. “You are French, and so am I. You are playing on the shores of life, and so am I. You are beginning to think and dream, and so am I. We are only children till we begin to make our dreams our life. So I am one with you; for only now do I step from dream to action. My children, you shall be my brothers, and together we will sow the seed of action and reap the grain; we will make a happy garden of flowers, and violets shall bloom everywhere out of our dream,—everywhere. Violets, my children; pluck the wild violets and bring them to me, and I will give you silver for them, and I will love you. Never forget,” he added with a swelling voice, “that you owe your first duty to your mothers, and afterward to your country, and to the spirit of France. I see afar”—he looked toward the setting sun, and stretched out his arm dramatically, yet such was the impressiveness of his voice and person that not even the young Seigneur or Medallion smiled—“I see afar,” he repeated, “the glory of our dreams fulfilled, after toil, and struggle, and loss; and I call upon you now to unfurl the white banner of justice, and liberty, and the restoration!”  28
  The good women who listened guessed little of what he meant by the fantastic sermon; but they wiped their eyes in sympathy, and gathered their children to them, and said, “Poor gentleman, poor gentleman!” and took him instantly to their hearts. The men were mystified; but wine and rhetoric had fired them, and they cheered him—no one knew why. The curé, as he turned to leave with Monsieur Garon, shook his head in bewilderment; but even he did not smile, for the man’s eloquence had impressed him. And more than once he looked back at the dispersing crowd and the picturesque figure posing on the veranda. The avocat was thinking deeply, and as in the dusk he left the curé at his own door, all that he ventured was: “Singular, a most singular person!”  29
  “We shall see, we shall see,” said the curé abstractedly, and they said good-night. Medallion joined the Little Chemist in his shop door, and watched the habitants scatter, till only Parpon and the stranger were left. Presently these two faced each other, and without a word passed into the hotel together.  30
  “H’m, h’m,” said Medallion into space, drumming the door-jamb with his fingers, “which is it, my Parpon—a dauphin, or a fool?”  31
  He and the Little Chemist talked long, their eyes upon the window opposite, inside which Monsieur Valmond and the dwarf were talking. Up the dusty street wandered fitfully the refrain:
  “To a gentleman of the king,
      Vive Napoléon!”
  And once they dimly saw Monsieur Valmond come to the open window and stretch out his hand, as if in greeting to the song and the singer.  33

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