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   Chapter 10 A BUDDING POET

A Romance of Youth -- Complete By Francois Coppee Characters: 24552

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


It is the first of May, and the lilacs in the Luxembourg Gardens are in blossom. It has just struck four o'clock. The bright sun and the pure sky have rendered more odious than ever the captivity of the office to Amedee, and he departs before the end of the sitting for a stroll in the Medicis garden around the pond, where, for the amusement of the children in that quarter, a little breeze from the northeast is pushing on a miniature flotilla. Suddenly he hears himself called by a voice which bursts out like a brass band at a country fair.

"Good-day, Violette."

It is Jocquelet, the future comedian, with his turned-up nose, which cuts the air like the prow of a first-class ironclad, superb, triumphant, dressed like a Brazilian, shaved to the quick, the dearest hope of Regnier's class at the Conservatoire-Jocquelet, who has made an enormous success in an act from the "Precieuses," at the last quarter's examination-he says so himself, without any useless modesty-Jocquelet, who will certainly have the first comedy prize at the next examination, and will make his debut with out delay at the Comedie Francaise! All this he announces in one breath, like a speech learned by heart, with his terrible voice, like a quack selling shaving-paste from a gilded carriage. In two minutes that favorite word of theatrical people had been repeated thirty times, punctuating the phrases: "I! I! I! I!"

Amedee is only half pleased at the meeting. Jocquelet was always a little too noisy to please him. After all, he was an old comrade, and out of politeness the poet congratulated him upon his success.

Jocquelet questioned him. What was Amedee doing? What had become of him? Where was his literary work? All this was asked with such cordiality and warmth of manner that one would have thought that Jocquelet was interested in Amedee, and had a strong friendship for him. Nothing of the sort. Jocquelet was interested in only one person in this world, and that person was named Jocquelet. One is either an actor or he is not. This personage was always one wherever he was-in an omnibus, while putting on his suspenders, even with the one he loved. When he said to a newcomer, "How do you do?" he put so much feeling into this very original question, that the one questioned asked himself whether he really had not just recovered from a long and dangerous illness. Now, at this time Jocquelet found himself in the presence of an unknown and poor young poet. What role ought such an eminent person as himself to play in such circumstances? To show affection for the young man, calm his timidity, and patronize him without too much haughtiness; that was the position to take, and Jocquelet acted it.

Amedee was an artless dupe, and, touched by the interest shown him, he frankly replied:

"Well, my dear friend, I have worked hard this winter. I am not dissatisfied. I think that I have made some progress; but if you knew how hard and difficult it is!"

He was about to confide to Jocquelet the doubts and sufferings of a sincere artist, but Jocquelet, as we have said, thought only of himself, and brusquely interrupted the young poet:

"You do not happen to have a poem with you-something short, a hundred or a hundred and fifty lines-a poem intended for effect, that one could recite?"

Amedee had copied out that very day, at the office, a war story, a heroic episode of Sebastopol that he had heard Colonel Lantz relate not long since at Madame Roger's, and had put into verse with a good French sentiment and quite the military spirit, verse which savored of powder, and went off like reports of musketry. He took the sheets out of his pocket, and, leading the comedian into a solitary by-path of sycamores which skirted the Luxembourg orangery, he read his poem to him in a low voice. Jocquelet, who did not lack a certain literary instinct, was very enthusiastic, for he foresaw a success for himself, and said to the poet:

"You read those verses just like a poet, that is, very badly. But no matter, this battle is very effective, and I see what I could do with it-with my voice. But what do you mean?" added he, planting himself in front of his friend. "Do you write verses like these and nobody knows anything about them? It is absurd. Do you wish, then, to imitate Chatterton? That is an old game, entirely used up! You must push yourself, show yourself. I will take charge of that myself! Your evening is free, is it not? Very well, come with me; before six o'clock I shall have told your name to twenty trumpeters, who will make all Paris resound with the news that there is a poet in the Faubourg Saint-Jacques. I will wager, you savage, that you never have put your foot into the Cafe de Seville. Why, my dear fellow, it is our first manufactory of fame! Here is the Odeon omnibus, get on! We shall be at the Boulevard Montmartre in twenty minutes, and I shall baptize you there, as a great man, with a glass of absinthe."

Dazzled and carried away, Amedee humored him and climbed upon the outside of the omnibus with his comrade. The vehicle hurried them quickly along toward the quay, crossed the Seine, the Carrousel, and passed before the Theatre-Francais, at which Jocquelet, thinking of his approaching debut, shook his fist, exclaiming, "Now I am ready for you!" Here the young men were planted upon the asphalt boulevard, in front of the Cafe de Seville.

Do not go to-day to see this old incubator, in which so many political and literary celebrities have been hatched; for you will only find a cafe, just like any other, with its groups of ugly little Jews who discuss the coming races, and here and there a poor creature, painted like a Jezebel, dying of chagrin over her pot of beer.

At the decline of the Second Empire-it was May 1, 1866, that Amedee Violette entered there for the first time-the Cafe de, Seville passed for, and with reason too, one of the most remarkable places in Paris. For this glorious establishment had furnished by itself, or nearly so, the eminent staff of our third Republic! Be honest, Monsieur le Prefet, you who presided at the opening of the agricultural meeting in our province, and who played the peacock in your dress-coat, embroidered in silver, before an imposing line of horned creatures; be honest and admit, that, at the time when you opposed the official candidates in your democratic journal, you had your pipe in the rack of the Cafe de Seville, with your name in white enamel upon the blackened bowl! Remember, Monsieur le Depute, you who voted against all the exemption cases of the military law, remember who, in this very place, at your daily game of dominoes for sixty points, more than a hundred times ranted against the permanent army-you, accustomed to the uproar of assemblies and the noise of the tavern-contributed to the parliamentary victories by crying, "Six all! count that!" And you too, Monsieur le Ministre, to whom an office-boy, dating from the tyrants, still says, "Your excellency," without offending you; you also have been a constant frequenter of the Cafe de Seville, and such a faithful customer that the cashier calls you by your Christian name. And do you recall, Monsieur the future president of the Council, that you did not acquit yourself very well when the sedentary dame, who never has been seen to rise from her stool, and who, as a joker pretended, was afflicted with two wooden legs, called you by a little sign to the desk, and said to you, not without a shade of severity in her tone: "Monsieur Eugene, we must be thinking of this little bill."

Notwithstanding his title of poet, Amedee had not the gift of prophecy. While seeing all these negligently dressed men seated outside at the Cafe de Seville's tables, taking appetizers, the young man never suspected that he had before him the greater part of the legislators destined to assure, some years later, France's happiness. Otherwise he would have respectfully taken note of each drinker and the color of his drink, since at a later period this would have been very useful to him as a mnemonical method for the understanding of our parliamentary combinations, which are a little complicated, we must admit. For example, would it not have been handy and agreeable to note down that the recent law on sugars had been voted by the solid majority of absinthe and bitters, or to know that the Cabinet's fall, day before yesterday, might be attributed simply to the disloyal and perfidious abandonment of the bitter mints or blackcurrant wine?

Jocquelet, who professed the most advanced opinions in politics, distributed several riotous and patronizing handshakes among these future statesmen as he entered the establishment, followed by Amedee.

Here, there were still more of politics, and also poets and literary men. They lived a sort of hurly-burly life, on good terms, but one could not get them confounded, for the politicians were all beard, the litterateurs, all hair.

Jocquelet directed his steps without hesitation toward the magnificent red head of the whimsical poet, Paul Sillery, a handsome young fellow with a wide-awake face, who was nonchalantly stretched upon the red velvet cushion of the window-seat, before a table, around which were three other heads of thick hair worthy of our early kings.

"My dear Paul," said Jocquelet, in his most thrilling voice, handing Sillery Amedee's manuscript, "here are some verses that I think are superb, and I am going to recite them as soon as I can, at some entertainment or benefit. Read them and give us your opinion of them. I present their author to you, Monsieur Amedee Violette. Amedee, I present you to Monsieur Paul Sillery."

All the heads of hair, framing young and amiable faces, turned curiously toward the newcomer, whom Paul Sillery courteously invited to be seated, with the established formula, "What will you take?" Then he began to read the lines that the comedian had given him.

Amedee, seated on the edge of his chair, was distracted with timidity, for Paul Sillery already enjoyed a certain reputation as a rising poet, and had established a small literary sheet called La Guepe, which published upon its first page caricatures of celebrated men with large heads and little bodies, and Amedee had read in it some of Paul's poems, full of impertinence and charm. An author whose work had been published! The editor of a journal! The idea was stunning to poor innocent Violette, who was not aware then that La Guepe could not claim forty subscribers. He considered Sillery something wonderful, and waited with a beating heart for the verdict of so formidable a judge. At the end of a few moments Sillery said, without raising his eyes from the manuscript:

"Here are some fine verses!"

A flood of delight filled the heart of the poet from the Faubourg St.-Jacques.

As soon as he had finished his reading, Paul arose from his seat, and, extending both hands over the carafes and glasses to Amedee, said, enthusiastically:

"Let me shake hands with you! Your description of the battle-scene is astonishing! It is admirable! It is as clear and precise as Merimee, and it has all the color and imagination that he lacks to make him a poet. It is something absolutely new. My dear Monsieur Violette, I congratulate you with all my heart! I can not ask you for this beautiful poem for La Guepe that Jocquelet is so fortunate as to have to recite, and of which I hope he will make a success. But I beg of you, as a great favor, to let me have some verses for my paper; they will be, I am sure, as good as these, if not better. To be sure, I forgot to tell you that we shall not be able to pay you for the copy, as La Guepe does not prosper; I will even admit that it only stands on one leg. In order to make it appear for a few months longer, I have recently been obliged to go to a money-lender, who has left me, instead of the classical stuffed crocodile, a trained horse which he had just taken from an insolvent circus. I mounted the noble animal to go to the Bois, but at the Place de la Concorde he began to waltz around it, and I was obliged to get rid of this dancing quadruped at a considerable loss. So your contribution to La Guepe would have to be gratuitous, like those of all t

he rest. You will give me the credit of having saluted you first of all, my dear Violette, by the rare and glorious title of true poet. You will let me reserve the pleasure of intoxicating you with the odor that a printer's first proofs give, will you not? Is it agreed?"

Yes, it was agreed! That is to say, Amedee, touched to the depths of his heart by so much good grace and fraternal cordiality, was so troubled in trying to find words to express his gratitude, that he made a terrible botch of it.

"Do not thank me," said Paul Sillery, with his pleasant but rather sceptical smile, "and do not think me better than I am. If all your verses are as strong as these that I have just read, you will soon publish a volume that will make a sensation, and-who knows?-perhaps will inspire me first of all with an ugly attack of jealousy. Poets are no better than other people; they are like the majority of Adam's sons, vain and envious, only they still keep the ability to admire, and the gift of enthusiasm, and that proves their superiority and is to their credit. I am delighted to have found a mare's nest to-day, an original and sincere poet, and with your permission we will celebrate this happy meeting. The price of the waltzing horse having hardly sufficed to pay off the debt to the publisher of La Guepe, I am not in funds this evening; but I have credit at Pere Lebuffle's, and I invite you all to dinner at his pot-house; after which we will go to my rooms, where I expect a few friends, and there you will read us your verses, Violette; we will all read some of them, and have a fine orgy of rich rhymes."

This proposition was received with favor by the three young men with the long hair, a la Clodion and Chilperic. As for Violette, he would have followed Paul Sillery at that moment, had it been into the infernal regions.

Jocquelet could not go with them, he had promised his evening to a lady, he said, and he gave this excuse with such a conceited smile that all were convinced he was going to crown himself with the most flattering of laurels at the mansion of some princess of the royal blood. In reality, he was going to see one of his Conservatoire friends, a large, lanky dowdy, as swarthy as a mole and full of pretensions, who was destined for the tragic line of character, and inflicted upon her lover Athalie's dream, Camille's imprecations, and Phedre's monologue.

After paying for the refreshments, Sillery gave his arm to Amedee, and, followed by the three Merovingians, they left the cafe. Forcing a way through the crowd which obstructed the sidewalk of the Faubourg Montmartre he conducted his guests to Pere Lebuffle's table d'hote, which was situated on the third floor of a dingy old house in the Rue Lamartine, where a sickening odor of burnt meat greeted them as soon as they reached the top of the stairs. They found there, seated before a tablecloth remarkable for the number of its wine-stains, two or three wild-looking heads of hair, and four or five shaggy beards, to whom Pere Lebuffle was serving soup, aided by a tired-looking servant. The name under which Sillery had designated the proprietor of the table d'hote might have been a nickname, for this stout person in his shirt-sleeves recommended himself to one's attentions by his bovine face and his gloomy, wandering eyes. To Amedee's amazement, Pere Lebuffle called the greater part of his clients "thou," and as soon as the newcomers were seated at table, Amedee asked Sillery, in a low voice, the cause of this familiarity.

"It is caused by the hard times, my dear Violette," responded the editor of 'La Guepe' as he unfolded his napkin. "There is no longer a 'Maecenas' or 'Lawrence the Magnificent.' The last patron of literature and art is Pere Lebufle. This wretched cook, who has perhaps never read a book or seen a picture, has a fancy for painters and poets, and allows them to cultivate that plant, Debt, which, contrary to other vegetables, grows all the more, the less it is watered with instalments. We must pardon the good man," said he, lowering his voice, "his little sin-a sort of vanity. He wishes to be treated like a comrade and friend by the artists. Those who have several accounts brought forward upon his ledger, arrive at the point of calling him 'thou,' and I, alas! am of that number. Thanks to that, I am going to make you drink something a little less purgative than the so-called wine which is turning blue in that carafe, and of which I advise you to be suspicious. I say, Lebuffle, my friend here, Monsieur Amedee Violette, will be, sooner or later, a celebrated poet. Treat him accordingly, my good fellow, and go and get us a bottle of Moulins-Vent."

The conversation meanwhile became general between the bearded and long-haired men. Is it necessary to say that they were all animated, both politicians and 'litterateurs', with the most revolutionary sentiments? At the very beginning, with the sardines, which evidently had been pickled in lamp-oil, a terribly hairy man, the darkest of them all, with a beard that grew up into its owner's eyes and then sprung out again in tufts from his nose and ears, presented some elegiac regrets to the memory of Jean-Paul Marat, and declared that at the next revolution it would be necessary to realize the programme of that delightful friend of the people, and make one hundred thousand heads fall.

"By thunder, Flambard, you have a heavy hand!" exclaimed one of the least important of beards, one of those that degenerate into side-whiskers as they become conservative. "One hundred thousand heads!"

"It is the minimum," replied the sanguinary beard.

Now, it had just been revealed to Amedee that under this ferocious beard was concealed a photographer, well known for his failures, and the young man could not help thinking that if the one hundred thousand heads in question had posed before the said Flambard's camera, he would not show such impatience to see them fall under the guillotine.

The conversation of the men with the luxuriant hair was none the less anarchical when the roast appeared, which sprung from the legendary animal called 'vache enragee'. The possessor of the longest and thickest of all the shock heads, which spread over the shoulders of a young story writer-between us, be it said, he made a mistake in not combing it oftener-imparted to his brothers the subject for his new novel, which should have made the hair of the others bristle with terror; for the principal episode in this agreeable fiction was the desecration of a dead body in a cemetery by moonlight. There was a sort of hesitation in the audience, a slight movement of recoil, and Sillery, with a dash of raillery in his glance, asked the novelist:

"Why the devil do you write such a story?"

The novelist replied, in a thundering tone:

"To astonish the bourgeoisie!"

And nobody made the slightest objection.

To "astonish the bourgeoisie" was the dearest hope and most ardent wish of these young men, and this desire betrayed itself in their slightest word; and doubtless Amedee thought it legitimate and even worthy of praise. However, he did not believe-must we admit his lack of confidence?-that so many glorious efforts were ever crowned with success. He went so far as to ask himself whether the character and cleverness of these bourgeoisie would not lead them to ignore not only the works, but even the existence, of the authors who sought to "astonish" them; and he thought, not without sadness, that when La Guepe should have published this young novelist's ghostly composition, the unconquerable bourgeoisie would know nothing about it, and would continue to devote itself to its favorite customs, such as tapping the barometer to know whether there was a change, or to heave a deep sigh after guzzling its soup, saying, "I feel better!" without being the least astonished in the world.

In spite of these mental reservations, which Amedee reproached himself with, being himself an impure and contemptible Philistine, the poet was delighted with his new friends and the unknown world opening before him. In this Bohemian corner, where one got intoxicated with wild excesses and paradoxes, recklessness and gayety reigned. The sovereign charm of youth was there, and Amedee, who had until now lived in a dark hiding-place, blossomed out in this warm atmosphere.

After a horrible dessert of cheese and prunes, Pere Lebuffle's guests dispersed. Sillery escorted Amedee and the three Merovingians to the little, sparsely furnished first floor in the Rue Pigalle, where he lived; and half a dozen other lyric poets, who might have furnished some magnificent trophies for an Apache warrior's scalping-knife, soon came to reenforce the club which met there every Wednesday evening.

Seats were wanting at the beginning, but Sillery drew from a closet an old black trunk which would hold two, and contented himself, as master of the house, with sitting from time to time, with legs dangling, upon the marble mantel. The company thus found themselves very comfortable; still more so when an old woman with a dirty cap had placed upon the table, in the middle of the room, six bottles of beer, some odd glasses, and a large flowered plate upon which was a package of cut tobacco with cigarette paper. They began to recite their verses in a cloud of smoke. Each recited his own, called upon by Sillery; each would rise without being urged, place his chair in front of him, and leaning one hand upon its back, would recite his poem or elegy. Certainly some of them were wanting in genius, some were even ludicrous. Among the number was a little fellow with a cadaverous face, about as large as two farthings' worth of butter, who declared, in a long speech with flat rhymes, that an Asiatic harem was not capable of quenching his ardent love of pleasure. A fat-faced fellow with a good, healthy, country complexion, announced, in a long story, his formal intention of dying of a decline, on account of the treason of a courtesan with a face as cold as marble; while, if the facts were known, this peaceable boy lived with an artless child of the people, brightening her lot by reducing her to a state of slavery; she blacked his boots for him every morning before he left the house.

In spite of these ridiculous things, there were present some genuine poets who knew their business and had real talent. These filled Amedee with respect and fear, and when Sillery called his name, he arose with a dry mouth and heavy heart.

"It is your turn now, you newcomer! Recite us your 'Before Sebastopol.'"

And so, thoroughbred that he was, Amedee overcame his emotion and recited, in a thrilling voice, his military rhymes, that rang out like the report of a veteran's gun.

The last stanza, was greeted with loud applause, and all the auditors arose and surrounded Amedee to offer him their congratulations.

"Why, it is superb!"

"Entirely new!"

"It will make an enormous success!"

"It is just what is needed to arouse the public!"

"Recite us something else!-something else!"

Reassured and encouraged, master of himself, he recited a popular scene in which he had freely poured out his love for the poor people. He next recited some of his Parisian suburban scenes, and then a series of sonnets, entitled "Love's Hopes," inspired by his dear Maria; and he astonished all these poets by the versatility and variety of his inspirations.

At each new poem bravos were thundered out, and the young man's heart expanded with joy under this warm sunshine of success. His audience vied with each other to approach Amedee first, and to shake his hand. Alas! some of those who were there would, later, annoy him by their low envy and treason; but now, in the generous frankness of their youth, they welcomed him as a master.

What an intoxicating evening! Amedee reached his home about two o'clock in the morning, his hands burning with the last grasps, his brain and heart intoxicated with the strong wine of praise. He walked with long and joyful strides through the fairy scene of a beautiful moonlight, in the fresh morning wind which made his clothes flutter and caressed his face. He thought he even felt the breath of fame.

BOOK 3.

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