Julie, when she happened to take a walk, never went without her maid; it was therefore useless to undertake to follow her. To pass the nights under the windows of one's beloved is a folly dear to lovers, but, in the present case, it would certainly prove vain. I said before that Croisilles was very religious; it therefore never entered his mind to seek to meet his lady-love at church. As the best way, though the most dangerous, is to write to people when one cannot speak to them in person, he decided on the very next day to write to the young lady.
His letter possessed, naturally, neither order nor reason. It read somewhat as follows:
"Mademoiselle,—Tell me exactly, I beg of you, what fortune one must possess to be able to pretend to your hand. I am asking you a strange question; but I love you so desperately, that it is impossible for me not to ask it, and you are the only person in the world to whom I can address it. It seemed to me, last evening, that you looked at me at the play. I had wished to die; would to God I were indeed dead, if I am mistaken, and if that look was not meant for me. Tell me if Fate can be so cruel as to let a man deceive himself in a manner at once so sad and so sweet. I believe that you commanded me to live. You are rich, beautiful. I know it. Your father is arrogant and miserly, and you have a right to be proud; but I love you, and the rest is a dream. Fix your charming eyes on me; think of what love can do, when I who suffer so cruelly, who must stand in fear of every thing, feel, nevertheless, an inexpressible joy in writing you this mad letter, which will perhaps bring down your anger upon me. But think also, mademoiselle that you are a little to blame for this, my folly. Why did you drop that bouquet? Put yourself for an instant, if possible, in my place; I dare think that you love me, and I dare ask you to tell me so. Forgive me, I beseech you. I would give my life's blood to be sure of not offending you, and to see you listening to my love with that angel smile which belongs only to you.
"Whatever you may do, your image remains mine; you can remove it only by tearing out my heart. As long as your look lives in my remembrance, as long as the bouquet keeps a trace of its perfume, as long as a word will tell of love, I will cherish hope."
Having sealed his letter, Croisilles went out and walked up and down the street opposite the Godeau mansion, waiting for a servant to come out. Chance, which always serves mysterious loves, when it can do so without compromising itself, willed it that Mademoiselle Julie's maid should have arranged to purchase a cap on that day. She was going to the milliner's when Croisilles accosted her, slipped a louis into her hand, and asked her to take charge of his letter.
The bargain was soon struck; the servant took the money to pay for her cap and promised to do the errand out of gratitude. Croisilles, full of joy, went home and sat at his door awaiting an answer.
Before speaking of this answer, a word must be said about Mademoiselle Godeau. She was not quite free from the vanity of her father, but her good nature was ever uppermost. She was, in the full meaning of the term, a spoilt child. She habitually spoke very little, and never was she seen with a needle in her hand; she spent her days at her toilet, and her evenings on the sofa, not seeming to hear the conversation going on around her. As regards her dress, she was prodigiously coquettish, and her own face was surely what she thought most of on earth. A wrinkle in her collarette, an ink-spot on her finger, would have distressed her; and, when her dress pleased her, nothing can describe the last look which she cast at her mirror before leaving the room. She showed neither taste nor aversion for the pleasures in which young ladies usually delight. She went to balls willingly enough, and renounced going to them without a show of temper, sometimes without motive.
The play wearied her, and she was in the constant habit of falling asleep there. When her father, who worshipped her, proposed to make her some present of her own choice, she took an hour to decide, not being able to think of anything she cared for. When M. Godeau gave a reception or a dinner, it often happened that Julie would not appear in the drawing-room, and at such times she passed the evening alone in her own room, in full dress, walking up and down, her fan in her hand. If a compliment was addressed to her, she turned away her head, and if any one attempted to pay court to her, she responded only by a look at once so dazzling and so serious as to disconcert even the boldest. Never had a sally made her laugh; never had an air in an opera, a flight of tragedy, moved her; indeed, never had her heart given a sign of life; and, on seeing her pass in all the splendor of her nonchalant loveliness one might have taken her for a beautiful somnambulist, walking through the world as in a trance.
So much indifference and coquetry did not seem easy to understand. Some said she loved nothing, others that she loved nothing but herself. A single word, however, suffices to explain her character,—she was waiting. From the age of fourteen she had heard it ceaselessly repeated that nothing was so charming as she. She was convinced of this, and that was why she paid so much attention to dress. In failing to do honor to her own person, she would have thought herself guilty of sacrilege. She walked, in her beauty, so to speak, like a child in its holiday dress; but she was very far from thinking that her beauty was to remain useless.
Beneath her apparent unconcern she had a will, secret, inflexible, and the more potent the better it was concealed. The coquetry of ordinary women, which spends itself in ogling, in simpering, and in smiling, seemed to her a childish, vain, almost contemptible way of fighting with shadows. She felt herself in possession of a treasure, and she disdained to stake it piece by piece; she needed an adversary worthy of herself; but, too accustomed to see her wishes anticipated, she did not seek that adversary; it may even be said that she felt astonished at his failing to present himself.
For the four or five years that she had been out in society and had conscientiously displayed her flowers, her furbelows, and her beautiful shoulders, it seemed to her inconceivable that she had not yet inspired some great passion.
Had she said what was really behind her thoughts, she certainly would have replied to her many flatterers: "Well! if it is true that I am so beautiful, why do you not blow your brains out for me?" An answer which many other young girls might make, and which more than one who says nothing hides away in a corner of her heart, not far perhaps from the tip of her tongue.
What is there, indeed, in the world, more tantalizing for a woman than to be young, rich, beautiful, to look at herself in her mirror and see herself charmingly dressed, worthy in every way to please, fully disposed to allow herself to be loved, and to have to say to herself: "I am admired, I am praised, all the world thinks me charming, but nobody loves me. My gown is by the best maker, my laces are superb, my coiffure is irreproachable, my face the most beautiful on earth, my figure slender, my foot prettily turned, and all this helps me to nothing but to go and yawn in the corner of some drawing-room! If a young man speaks to me he treats me as a child; if I am asked in marriage, it is for my dowry; if somebody presses my hand in a dance, it is sure to be some provincial fop; as soon as I appear anywhere, I excite a murmur of admiration; but nobody speaks low, in my ear, a word that makes my heart beat. I hear impertinent men praising me in loud tones, a couple of feet away, and never a look of humbly sincere adoration meets mine. Still I have an ardent soul full of life, and I am not, by any means, only a pretty doll to be shown about, to be made to dance at a ball, to be dressed by a maid in the morning and undressed at night—beginning the whole thing over again the next day."
That is what Mademoiselle Godeau had many times said to herself; and there were hours when that thought inspired her with so gloomy a feeling that she remained mute and almost motionless for a whole day. When Croisilles wrote her, she was in just such a fit of ill-humor. She had just been taking her chocolate and was deep in meditation, stretched upon a lounge, when her maid entered and handed her the letter with a mysterious air. She looked at the address, and not recognizing the handwriting, fell again to musing.
The maid then saw herself forced to explain what it was, which she did with a rather disconcerted air, not being at all sure how the young lady would take the matter. Mademoiselle Godeau listened without moving, then opened the letter, and cast only a glance at it; she at once asked for a sheet of paper, and nonchalantly wrote these few words:
"No, sir, I assure you I am not proud. If you had only a hundred thousand crowns, I would willingly marry you."
Such was the reply which the maid at once took to Croisilles, who gave her another louis for her trouble.
A hundred thousand crowns are not found "in a donkey's hoof-print," and if Croisilles had been suspicious he might have thought in reading Mademoiselle Godeau's letter that she was either crazy or laughing at him. He thought neither, for he only saw in it that his darling Julie loved him, and that he must have a hundred thousand crowns, and he dreamed from that moment of nothing but trying to secure them.
He possessed two hundred louis in cash, plus a house which, as I have said, might be worth about thirty thousand francs. What was to be done? How was he to go about transfiguring these thirty-four thousand francs, at a jump, into three hundred thousand. The first idea which came into the mind of the young man was to find some way of staking his whole fortune on the toss-up of a coin, but for that he must sell the house. Croisilles therefore began by putting a notice upon the door, stating that his house was for sale; then, while dreaming what he would do with the money that he would get for it, he awaited a purchaser.
A week went by, then another; not a single purchaser applied. More and more distressed, Croisilles spent these days with Jean, and despair was taking possession of him once more, when a Jewish broker rang at the door.
"This house is for sale, sir, is it not? Are you the owner of it?"
"And how much is it worth?"
"Thirty thousand francs, I believe; at least I have heard my father say so."
The Jew visited all the rooms, went upstairs and down into the cellar, knocking on the walls, counting the steps of the staircase, turning the doors on their hinges and the keys in their locks, opening and closing the windows; then, at last, after having thoroughly examined everything, without saying a word and without making the slightest proposal, he bowed to Croisilles and retired.
Croisilles, who for a whole hour had followed him with a palpitating heart, as may be imagined, was not a little disappointed at this silent retreat. He thought that perhaps the Jew had wished to give himself time to reflect and that he would return presently. He waited a week for him, not daring to go out for fear of missing his visit, and looking out of the windows from morning till night. But it was in vain; the Jew did not reappear. Jean, true to his unpleasant role of adviser, brought moral pressure to bear to dissuade his master from selling his house in so hasty a manner and for so extravagant a purpose. Dying of impatience, ennui, and love, Croisilles one morning took his two hundred louis and went out, determined to tempt fortune with this sum, since he could not have more.
The gaming-houses at that time were not public, and that refinement of civilization which enables the first comer to ruin himself at all hours, as soon as the wish enters his mind, had not yet been invented.
Scarcely was Croisilles in the street before he stopped, not knowing where to go to stake his money. He looked at the houses of the neighborhood, and eyed them, one after the other, striving to discover suspicious appearances that might point out to him the object of his search. A good-looking young man, splendidly dressed, happened to pass. Judging from his mien, he was certainly a young man of gentle blood and ample leisure, so Croisilles politely accosted him.
"Sir," he said, "I beg your pardon for the liberty I take. I have two hundred louis in my pocket and I am dying either to lose them or win more. Could you not point out to me some respectable place where such things are done?"
At this rather strange speech the young man burst out laughing.
"Upon my word, sir!" answered he, "if you are seeking any such wicked place you have but to follow me, for that is just where I am going."
Croisilles followed him, and a few steps farther they both entered a house of very attractive appearance, where they were received hospitably by an old gentleman of the highest breeding.
Several young men were already seated round a green cloth. Croisilles modestly took a place there, and in less than an hour his two hundred louis were gone.
He came out as sad as a lover can be who thinks himself beloved. He had not enough to dine with, but that did not cause him any anxiety.
"What can I do now," he asked himself, "to get money? To whom shall I address myself in this town? Who will lend me even a hundred louis on this house that I can not sell?"
While he was in this quandary, he met his Jewish broker. He did not hesitate to address him, and, featherhead as he was, did not fail to tell him the plight he was in.
The Jew did not much want to buy the house; he had come to see it only through curiosity, or, to speak more exactly, for the satisfaction of his own conscience, as a passing dog goes into a kitchen, the door of which stands open, to see if there is anything to steal. But when he saw Croisilles so despondent, so sad, so bereft of all resources, he could not resist the temptation to put himself to some inconvenience, even, in order to pay for the house. He therefore offered him about one-fourth of its value. Croisilles fell upon his neck, called him his friend and saviour, blindly signed a bargain that would have made one's hair stand on end, and, on the very next day, the possessor of four hundred new louis, he once more turned his steps toward the gambling-house where he had been so politely and speedily ruined the night before.
On his way, he passed by the wharf. A vessel was about leaving; the wind was gentle, the ocean tranquil. On all sides, merchants, sailors, officers in uniform were coming and going. Porters were carrying enormous bales of merchandise. Passengers and their friends were exchanging farewells, small boats were rowing about in all directions; on every face could be read fear, impatience, or hope; and, amidst all the agitation which surrounded it, the majestic vessel swayed gently to and fro under the wind that swelled her proud sails.
"What a grand thing it is," thought Croisilles, "to risk all one possesses and go beyond the sea, in perilous search of fortune! How it fills me with emotion to look at this vessel setting out on her voyage, loaded with so much wealth, with the welfare of so many families! What joy to see her come back again, bringing twice as much as was intrusted to her, returning so much prouder and richer than she went away! Why am I not one of those merchants? Why could I not stake my four hundred louis in this way? This immense sea! What a green cloth, on which to boldly tempt fortune! Why should I not myself buy a few bales of cloth or silk? What is to prevent my doing so, since I have gold? Why should this captain refuse to take charge of my merchandise? And who knows? Instead of going and throwing away this—my little all—in a gambling-house, I might double it, I might triple it, perhaps, by honest industry. If Julie truly loves me, she will wait a few years, she will remain true to me until I am able to marry her. Commerce sometimes yields greater profits than one thinks; examples are wanting in this world of wealth gained with astonishing rapidity in this way on the changing waves—why should Providence not bless an endeavor made for a purpose so laudable, so worthy of His assistance? Among these merchants who have accumulated so much and who send their vessels to the ends of the world, more than one has begun with a smaller sum than I have now. They have prospered with the help of God; why should I not prosper in my turn? It seems to me as though a good wind were filling these sails, and this vessel inspires confidence. Come! the die is cast; I will speak to the captain, who seems to be a good fellow; I will then write to Julie, and set out to become a clever and successful trader."
The greatest danger incurred by those who are habitually but half crazy, is that of becoming, at times, altogether so.
The poor fellow, without further deliberation, put his whim into execution. To find goods to buy, when one has money and knows nothing about the goods, is the easiest thing in the world.
The captain, to oblige Croisilles, took him to one of his friends, a manufacturer, who sold him as much cloth and silk as he could pay for. The whole of it, loaded upon a cart, was promptly taken on board. Croisilles, delighted and full of hope, had himself written in large letters his name upon the bales. He watched them being put on board with inexpressible joy; the hour of departure soon came, and the vessel weighed anchor.
I need not say that in this transaction, Croisilles had kept no money in hand. His house was sold; and there remained to him, for his sole fortune, the clothes he had on his back;—no home, and not a son. With the best will possible, Jean could not suppose that his master was reduced to such an extremity; Croisilles was not too proud, but too thoughtless to tell him of it. So he determined to sleep under the starry vault, and as for his meals, he made the following calculation; he presumed that the vessel which bore his fortune would be six months before coming back to Havre; Croisilles, therefore, not without regret, sold a gold watch his father had given him, and which he had fortunately kept; he got thirty-six livres for it. That was sufficient to live on for about six months, at the rate of four sous a day. He did not doubt that it would be enough, and, reassured for the present, he wrote to Mademoiselle Godeau to inform her of what he had done. He was very careful in his letter not to speak of his distress; he announced to her, on the contrary, that he had undertaken a magnificent commercial enterprise, of the speedy and fortunate issue of which there could be no doubt; he explained to her that La Fleurette, a merchant-vessel of one hundred and fifty tons, was carrying to the Baltic his cloths and his silks, and implored her to remain faithful to him for a year, reserving to himself the right of asking, later on, for a further delay, while, for his part, he swore eternal love to her.
When Mademoiselle Godeau received this letter she was sitting before the fire, and had in her hand, using it as a screen, one of those bulletins which are printed in seaports, announcing the arrival and departure of vessels, and which also report disasters at sea. It had never occurred to her, as one can well imagine, to take an interest in this sort of thing; she had in fact never glanced at any of these sheets.
The perusal of Croisilles' letter prompted her to read the bulletin she had been holding in her hand; the first word that caught her eye was no other than the name of La Fleurette.
The vessel had been wrecked on the coast of France, on the very night following its departure. The crew had barely escaped, but all the cargo was lost.
Mademoiselle Godeau, at this news, no longer remembered that Croisilles had made to her an avowal of his poverty; she was as heartbroken as though a million had been at stake.
In an instant, the horrors of the tempest, the fury of the winds, the cries of the drowning, the ruin of the man who loved her, presented themselves to her mind like a scene in a romance. The bulletin and the letter fell from her hands. She rose in great agitation, and, with heaving breast and eyes brimming with tears, paced up and down, determined to act, and asking herself how she should act.
There is one thing that must be said in justice to love; it is that the stronger, the clearer, the simpler the considerations opposed to it, in a word, the less common sense there is in the matter, the wilder does the passion become and the more does the lover love. It is one of the most beautiful things under heaven, this irrationality of the heart. We should not be worth much without it. After having walked about the room (without forgetting either her dear fan or the passing glance at the mirror), Julie allowed herself to sink once more upon her lounge. Whoever had seen her at this moment would have looked upon a lovely sight; her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were on fire; she sighed deeply, and murmured in a delicious transport of joy and pain:
"Poor fellow! He has ruined himself for me!"
Independently of the fortune which she could expect from her father, Mademoiselle Godeau had in her own right the property her mother had left her. She had never thought of it.
At this moment, for the first time in her life, she remembered that she could dispose of five hundred thousand francs. This thought brought a smile to her lips; a project, strange, bold, wholly feminine, almost as mad as Croisilles himself, entered her head;—she weighed the idea in her mind for some time, then decided to act upon it at once.
She began by inquiring whether Croisilles had any relatives or friends; the maid was sent out in all directions to find out.
Having made minute inquiries in all quarters, she discovered, on the fourth floor of an old rickety house, a half-crippled aunt, who never stirred from her arm-chair, and had not been out for four or five years. This poor woman, very old, seemed to have been left in the world expressly as a specimen of hungry misery. Blind, gouty, almost deaf, she lived alone in a garret; but a gayety, stronger than misfortune and illness, sustained her at eighty years of age, and made her still love life. Her neighbors never passed her door without going in to see her, and the antiquated tunes she hummed enlivened all the girls of the neighborhood. She possessed a little annuity which sufficed to maintain her; as long as day lasted, she knitted. She did not know what had happened since the death of Louis XIV.
It was to this worthy person that Julie had herself privately conducted. She donned for the occasion all her finery; feathers, laces, ribbons, diamonds, nothing was spared. She wanted to be fascinating; but the real secret of her beauty, in this case, was the whim that was carrying her away. She went up the steep, dark staircase which led to the good lady's chamber, and, after the most graceful bow, spoke somewhat as follows:
"You have, madame, a nephew, called Croisilles, who loves me and has asked for my hand; I love him too and wish to marry him; but my father, Monsieur Godeau, fermier-general of this town, refuses his consent, because your nephew is not rich. I would not, for the world, give occasion to scandal, nor cause trouble to anybody; I would therefore never think of disposing of myself without the consent of my family. I come to ask you a favor, which I beseech you to grant me. You must come yourself and propose this marriage to my father. I have, thank God, a little fortune which is quite at your disposal; you may take possession, whenever you see fit, of five hundred thousand francs at my notary's. You will say that this sum belongs to your nephew, which in fact it does. It is not a present that I am making him, it is a debt which I am paying, for I am the cause of the ruin of Croisilles, and it is but just that I should repair it. My father will not easily give in; you will be obliged to insist and you must have a little courage; I, for my part, will not fail. As nobody on earth excepting myself has any right to the sum of which I am speaking to you, nobody will ever know in what way this amount will have passed into your hands. You are not very rich yourself, I know, and you may fear that people will be astonished to see you thus endowing your nephew; but remember that my father does not know you, that you show yourself very little in town, and that, consequently it will be easy for you to pretend that you have just arrived from some journey. This step will doubtless be some exertion to you; you will have to leave your arm-chair and take a little trouble; but you will make two people happy, madame, and if you have ever known love, I hope you will not refuse me."
The old lady, during this discourse, had been in turn surprised, anxious, touched, and delighted. The last words persuaded her.
"Yes, my child," she repeated several times, "I know what it is,—I know what it is."
As she said this she made an effort to rise; her feeble limbs could barely support her; Julie quickly advanced and put out her hand to help her; by an almost involuntary movement they found themselves, in an instant, in each other's arms.
A treaty was at once concluded; a warm kiss sealed it in advance, and the necessary and confidential consultation followed without further trouble.
All the explanations having been made, the good lady drew from her wardrobe a venerable gown of taffeta, which had been her wedding-dress. This antique piece of property was not less than fifty years old; but not a spot, not a grain of dust had disfigured it; Julie was in ecstasies over it. A coach was sent for, the handsomest in the town. The good lady prepared the speech she was going to make to Monsieur Godeau; Julie tried to teach her how she was to touch the heart of her father, and did not hesitate to confess that love of rank was his vulnerable point.
"If you could imagine," said she, "a means of flattering this weakness, you will have won our cause."
The good lady pondered deeply, finished her toilet without Another word, clasped the hands of her future niece, and entered the carriage.
She soon arrived at the Godeau mansion; there, she braced herself up so gallantly for her entrance that she seemed ten years younger. She majestically crossed the drawing-room where Julie's bouquet had fallen, and when the door of the boudoir opened, said in a firm voice to the lackey who preceded her:
"Announce the dowager Baroness de Croisilles."
These words settled the happiness of the two lovers. Monsieur Godeau was bewildered by them. Although five hundred thousand francs seemed little to him, he consented to everything, in order to make his daughter a baroness, and such she became;—who would dare contest her title? For my part, I think she had thoroughly earned it.
THE VASE OF CLAY
BY JEAN AICARD
Jean had inherited from his father a little field close beside the sea. Round this field the branches of the pine trees murmured a response to the plashing of the waves. Beneath the pines the soil was red, and the crimson shade of the earth mingling with the blue waves of the bay gave them a pensive violet hue, most of all in the quiet evening hours dear to reveries and dreams.
In this field grew roses and raspberries. The pretty girls of the neighborhood came to Jean's home to buy these fruits and flowers, so like their own lips and cheeks. The roses, the lips, and the berries had all the same youth, had all the same beauty.
Jean lived happily beside the sea, at the foot of the hills, beneath an olive tree planted near his door, which in all seasons threw a lance-like blue shadow upon his white wall.
Near the olive tree was a well, the water of which was so cold and pure that the girls of the region, with their cheeks like roses and their lips like raspberries, came thither night and morning with their jugs. Upon their heads, covered with pads, they carried their jugs, round and slender as themselves, supporting them with their beautiful bare arms, raised aloft like living handles.
Jean observed all these things, and admired them, and blessed his life.
As he was only twenty years old, he fondly loved one of the charming girls who drew water from his well, who ate his raspberries and breathed the fragrance of his roses.
He told this younger girl that she was as pure and fresh as the water, as delicious as the raspberries and as sweet as the roses.
Then the young girl smiled.
He told it her again, and she made a face at him.
He sang her the same song, and she married a sailor who carried her far away beyond the sea.
Jean wept bitterly, but he still admired beautiful things, and still blessed his life. Sometimes he thought that the frailty of what is beautiful and the brevity of what is good adds value to the beauty and goodness of all things.
One day he learned by chance that the red earth of his field was an excellent clay. He took a little of it in his hand, moistened it with water from his well, and fashioned a simple vase, while he thought of those beautiful girls who are like the ancient Greek jars, at once round and slender.
The earth in his field was, indeed, excellent clay.
* * * * *
He built himself a potter's wheel. With his own hands, and with his clay, he built a furnace against the wall of his house, and he set himself to making little pots to hold raspberries.
He became skilful at this work, and all the gardeners round about came to him to provide themselves with these light, porous pots, of a beautiful red hue, round and slender, wherein the raspberries could be heaped without crushing them, and where they slept under the shelter of a green leaf.
The leaf, the pot, the raspberries, these enchanted everybody by their form and color; and the buyers in the city market would have no berries save those which were sold in Jean the potter's round and slender pots.
Now more than ever the beautiful girls visited Jean's field.
Now they brought baskets of woven reeds in which they piled the empty pots, red and fresh. But now Jean observed them without desire. His heart was forevermore far away beyond the sea.
Still, as he deepened and broadened the ditch in his field, from which he took the clay, he saw that his pots to hold the raspberries were variously colored, tinted sometimes with rose, sometimes with blue or violet, sometimes with black or green.
These shades of the clay reminded him of the loveliest things which had gladdened his eyes: plants, flowers, ocean, sky.
Then he set himself to choose, in making his vases, shades of clay, which he mingled delicately. And these colors, produced by centuries of alternating lights and shadows, obeyed his will, changed in a moment according to his desire.
Each day he modelled hundreds of these raspberry pots, moulding them upon the wheel which turned like a sun beneath the pressure of his agile foot. The mass of shapeless clay, turning on the center of the disk, under the touch of his finger, suddenly raised itself like the petals of a lily, lengthened, broadened, swelled or shrank, submissive to his will.
The creative potter loved the clay.
As he still dreamed of the things which he had most admired, his thought, his remembrance, his will, descended into his fingers, where—without his knowing how—they communicated to the clay that mysterious principle of life which the wisest man is unable to define. The humble works of Jean the potter had marvellous graces. In such a curve, in such a tint, he put some memory of youth, or of an opening blossom, or the very color of the weather, and of joy or sorrow.
In his hours of repose he walked with his eyes fixed upon the ground, studying the variations in the color of the soil on the cliffs, on the plains, on the sides of the hills.
And the wish came to him to model a unique vase, a marvellous vase, in which should live through all eternity something of all the fragile beauties which his eyes had gazed upon; something even of all the brief joys which his heart had known, and even a little of his divine sorrows of hope, regret and love.
He was then in the full strength and vigor of manhood.
Yet, that he might the better meditate upon his desire he forsook the well-paid work, which, it is true, had allowed him to lay aside a little hoard. No longer, as of old, his wheel turned from morning until night. He permitted other potters to manufacture raspberry pots by the thousand. The merchants forgot the way to Jean's field.
The young girls still came there for pleasure, because of the cold water, the roses, and the raspberries; but the ill-cultivated raspberries perished, the rose-vines ran wild, climbed to the tops of the high walls, and offered their dusty blossoms to the travellers on the road.
The water in the well alone remained the same, cold and plenteous, and that sufficed to draw about Jean eternal youth and eternal gaiety.
Only youth had grown mocking for Jean. For him gaiety had now become scoffing.
"Ah, Master Jean! Does not your furnace burn any more? Your wheel, Master Jean, does it scarcely ever turn? When shall we see your amazing pot which will be as beautiful as everything which is beautiful, blooming like the rose, beaded like the raspberry, and speaking—if we must believe what you say about it—like our lips?"
Now Jean is ageing; Jean is old. He sits upon his stone seat beside the well, under the lace-like shade of the olive tree, in front of his empty field, all the soil of which is good clay but which no longer produces either raspberries or roses.
Jean said formerly: "There are three things: roses, raspberries, lips."
All the three have forsaken him.
The lips of the young girls, and even those of the children, have become scoffing.
"Ah, Father Jean! Do you live like the grasshoppers? Nobody ever sees you eat, Father Jean! Father Jean lives on cold water. The man who grows old becomes a child again!
"What will you put into your beautiful vase, if you ever make it, silly old fellow? It will not hold even a drop of water from your well. Go and paint the hen-coops and make water-jugs!"
Jean silently shakes his head, and only replies to all these railleries by a kindly smile.
He is good to animals, and he shares his dry bread with the poor.
It is true that he eats scarcely anything, but he does not suffer in consequence. He is very thin, but his flesh is all the more sound and wholesome. Under the arch of his eyebrows his old eyes, heedful of the world, continue to sparkle with the clearness of the spring which reflects the light.
One bright morning, upon his wheel, which turns to the rhythmic motion of his foot, Jean sets himself to model a vase, the vase which he has long seen with his mind's eye.
The horizontal wheel turns like a sun to the rhythmic beating of his foot. The wheel turns. The clay vase rises, falls, swells, becomes crushed into a shapeless mass, to be born again under Jean's hand. At last, with one single burst, it springs forth like an unlooked-for flower from an invisible stem.
It blooms triumphantly, and the old man bears it in his trembling hands to the carefully prepared furnace where fire must add to its beauty of form the illusive, decisive beauty of color.
All through the night Jean has kept up and carefully regulated the furnace-fire, that artisan of delicate gradations of color.
At dawn the work must be finished.
And the potter, old and dying, in his deserted field, raises toward the light of the rising sun the dainty form, born of himself, in which he longs to find, in perfect harmony, the dream of his long life.
In the form and tint of the frail little vase he has wished to fix for all time the ephemeral forms and colors of all the most beautiful things.
Oh, god of day! The miracle is accomplished. The sun lights the round and slender curves, the colorations infinitely refined, which blend harmoniously, and bring back to the soul of the aged man, by the pathway of his eyes, the sweetest joys of his youth, the skies of daybreak and the mournful violet waves of the sea beneath the setting sun.
Oh, miracle of art, in which life is thus epitomized to make joy eternal!
* * * * *
The humble artist raises toward the sun his fragile masterpiece, the flower of his simple heart; he raises it in his trembling hands as though to offer it to the unknown divinities who created primeval beauty.
But his hands, too weak and trembling, let it escape from them suddenly, even as his tottering body lets his soul escape—and the potter's dream, fallen with him to the ground, breaks and scatters into fragments.
Where is it now, the form of that vase brought to the light for an instant, and seen only by the sun and the humble artist? Surely, it must be somewhere, that pure and happy form of the divine dream, made real for an instant!