PAULE'S BLUEBELLS Edit
By Leon Bigot Edit
Translated from the French by Henry Jordan, for Short Stories. 1892
In this pathetic sketch, the overflowing vitality of the merrymakers — who dart to and fro on the Seine in their frail skiffs, or dance wildly on the little island — is finely contrasted with the quiet ebbing of a young life, amid the strains of music and shouts of the revellers.
They arrived at dusk. In the distance Mont Valerien lay quiet and peaceful as a slumbering lion. A light mist enveloped it, falling from the blue sky, across which the setting sun cast golden flames. Two steps away Paris grumbled.
The Seine surrounded the Grande Jatte Isle with a low, gentle murmur, a murmur that was one long caress, and there was in the atmosphere a perfume of flowers and freshly mown grass.
Along the driveway on the other side of the river, carriages passed at a trot, bearing the happy occupants to the promenade or taking them back to the city. On the water, joyous merrymakers flew by in yawls that seemed like toys, the rowers shouting loud salutes to a big, lumbering towboat, black and awkward, which made them dance like cockleshells on the waves made by its paddles. And the ferrymen, who, for one sou a passenger, made the crossing from bank to bank, paused to let pass the enormous mass of barges dragged in tow, while the alert, laughing, noisy oarsmen, full of bravado, dashed by briskly plying their sculls.
The Seine, then, was full of laughter, rolling its green waters with a crisp, chopping sound that seemed to cry out to all, "Come on! Come on!” and brushed the banks with a sly little kiss that bent the reeds and the water-lilies still ungathered by the promenaders; while the rascally sparrows — little vagabonds with their sweethearts — leaped and skipped in the grassy nooks, near which the greenish scum of tiny rivulets made moving spots of emerald.
From time to time a pretty girl at the tiller threw a laugh to the wind; voices sounded everywhere; tights and jerseys, red and white caps, and the gay toilettes of women, casting for a moment the flash of their vivid color upon the rolling waves, came and went and were little by little effaced by the thickening mist that the heat drew from the water.
"Oh, if only I had some bluebells! "
Paule spoke feebly, in a soft, muffled voice, like the cooing of a bird. Her friend had made her a tiny nest of moss ; and near the little birch yawl, drawn out on the grass, seated or rather reclining there, her white flannel skirts spread out around her, her black, curly hair, thick and abundant, bringing out by contrast the ivory pallor of her skin, she seemed, herself — with that faint, wavering red deepening and paling in the wan cheeks — some strange, frail blossom.
She wanted bluebells, the whim of a child, of one incurably ill! Her beautiful dark eyes, surrounded by bluish circles and shaded by long, curling lashes — eyes almost too big for the delicate face — sparkled with desire — she wanted bluebells!
"But, dearest," her friend responded, "there are no bluebells here."
"True! How very annoying! "
And she gave a sigh that was nearly a sob in her sunken little bosom.
All at once a joyous racket came through the trees, the crash of a bass drum and the flourishes of trombones, marking the time of a gay quadrille. The boatmen of the Seine dance with all their heart at these island balls ! Paule listened and joyously clapped her hands.
" Come, let us see them ! " said she.
And he, with a gentle, kindly smile, full nevertheless of an unavowed sadness, he, Paule' s friend, held out his two strong hands and said simply:
"Get up, then."
In the cabaret frequented by the boatmen the crowd was dense ; pretty and gayly dressed girls in the arms of stalwart oarsmen — every muscle of the body plainly outlined under the thin woven shirts — madly whirled about the table of the drinkers. An orchestra of some dozen musicians, led by a signer something or other, the name spread out in letters a foot long on a gaudy poster, played a furious quadrille.
Some of the dancers affected the style of the choregraphs of the outer barriers, their gambollings, springs, and alert gymnastics; some, more serious, dance sedately and without bothering themselves with the manner of others, gallantly leading their loved ones here and there, with a certain fine and lofty scorn of their surroundings.
Truly a strange medley, in which friend and stranger elbowed each other as chance threw them together, and each took pleasure, according to his taste, intoxicating himself with the breath of the evening, while the perfume of Pernod mingled in the air with the smoke of pipes and cigars, to be quickly swept to the river, or to hang for a moment — little blue clouds in the trees — as if caught by the branches.
“ Ah, but life is good ! " sighed Paule, leaning heavily on the arm of her friend.
Life ! the eternal dream of those early doomed, of those that dream of a morrow they will never see, of a morrow already flying! Paule had in her eyes now the intoxication of a blissful vision ! Why could she not have in reality the joy that her eyes beheld, the deceptive mirage of the happiness of others.
Suddenly she uttered a little cry.
"Bluebells! Bluebells, Henri!"
It was true, there they were on the corsage of one of the women. She had passed like a whirlwind close beside them. On the gray robe of the dancer the flowers stuck out in an enticing tuft, and her cavalier, a lad of perhaps twenty years, seemed to breathe in the odor and to draw from the faint perfume an always increasing strength to clasp his companion to him.
Paule eagerly stretched out her thin little hands.
"I want some bluebells! " said she, and she bent as if to seize them.
But the couple whirled on; it was nearing the end of the quadrille, and they whirled on and on and down the length of the ballroom, while the music played loudly and the day finished dying, but from time to time the dancers returned to pass again beside Pauleys table. Her wide-open eyes still followed with eager interest the dance of the blue flowers on the breast of the smiling waltzer.
A sorrowful shadow insensibly clouded the brow of Paule's friend. The flowers that the little one dreamed of having were really her life. She would never, never have them. For her, all was ended. They had told him so at the Hospital de la Peti6, when he had gone there to seek her.
" My good monsieur," the infirmary chief had said to him^ " it is merely a question of time."
The chaplain whom Paule had wished to see, and who had been the confidant of her griefs, had murmured in his ear:
"She is lost, monsieur, poor child; make her happy six months — at most. "
And the priest, persisting in the belief that Paule was his wife, had added :
" It is the duty of a good husband."
And really, after all, why should she not have the flowers she wanted — why should not he, her friend, gratify the little one's innocent desire ?
"Wait!" said he.
And as the dance had ended, he rose and went straight to the shady little thicket where the one with the bluebells had taken refuge to rest for a moment with her breathless partner. The orchestra played now a dreamy song-waltz, to which some danced and all joined in the words, the deep bass of the men supporting and strengthening the treble of the grisetiesy the leader of the band pointing the measure gayly, and lending his aid to direct and harmonize this choral and instrumental concert.
Paule, leaning back in her chair, delighted with everything, had a tight, harsh little cough that from time to time was smothered in her handkerchief, but the surrounding joy was insensibly infectious; Paule's face soon was radiant with a smile that made her for an instant beautiful with youth and health. Then her friend was back again, a bunch of bluebells in his hand.
"You have them! " cried she, "you have the bluebells!"
Her friend did not answer, but held them to her. She seized them as a child seizes an offered plaything, with a brusque gesture, inspired apparently at once by pleasure and fear — the pleasure of having, the fear of losing.
But how had her friend secured the bluebells ? One must truly love much to be capable of a devotion that borders on the ridiculous. Two words had told the story of the happy girl with the flowers.
He wanted them, he said, his voice trembling with dread of a refusal, for a poor sick child ; a uiad caprice, he knew it well, but no one was selling them; he could not buy them, and disappointment would sadden the last hours of a dying one. Then, compassionately, before her dumb-struck escort could bow or say "yes," the girl had palled them from her breast and thrust the bluebells into his hand.
" You have them ! " repeated Paule, and, without asking how he had obtained them, she took them tenderly in her hot clasp, carried them to her lips, and pinned them to her corsage, smiling, content and proud.
Her friend regarded her sadly, with swimming eyes, his gaze vague and absent. Beyond the present, so near, he saw the morrow. . It was cruel — terrible!
Ah, but life was short ! And men but fools to live as if it were long! And for such trifles, too, did vitality expend itself, wiseacres and artists use up their wits, lawyers sow ruin, and politics and war do the rest ! That poor little bloodless body, so pretty, so frail, nearly transparent, that a cold breeze would wither to-morrow like a leaf without sap— was it not the image of life, so brief and fleeting ?
Dear little Paule! She would last, like the bluebells she loved, just long enough to charm — and to be gathered!
Meanwhile, all about them the music, noise, and laughter went on.
Evening now had-fallen, and everywhere they were setting the tables, among the trees and the shrubbery and along the banks, brilliant with Venetian lanterns; some of the boatmen were going away, whole boat-trains in fact, but double as many had come and still were coming.
Paule's friend, seeing the ever-deepening flame in the white little face, led her to a kiosquc that overlooked the Seine.
" Are we going to dine here ? " demanded she happily.
"Yes, dearest; and if you are too much tired, as I believe, I will have the yawl put in a boat-house and we will also sleep here, that you may rest."
Paule clasped her hands delightedly; the idea of sleeping on the isle made her smile immediately.
" And I shall see the Seine running under the stars all night long," said she.
"But no; you'll be sleeping."
" I ? Oh, no, I sleep so little. "
It was true, she did not sleep. At night the cough killed her, the fever burned her, ceaselessly, without respite. Even now, with the sun an hour gone, the little handkerchief was raised more and more frequently to the pale lips.
Just then a servant entered and set down a lamp. Paule spread out her flowers on the clean white cloth, nonchalantly leaned her elbows on the table and her chin in her two hands, such feeble, bloodless little hands, like bits of snow!
"If only," sighed she presently, in her soft, weary voice, answering some unspoken thought, " if only I could dine on flowers, like the butterflies! "
Something strange in her tone made her friend raise wondering eyes; she continued, never heeding:
" Yes, on flowers — these bluebells here! " — her voice broke a little, but she went on bravely, " for — for I am going soon^ and I know it. But I am very happy, all the same, knowing it. . . . And because of it — knowing it, I mean — that I wanted — just for the last time, to come with you to-day. If I could eat bluebells like the butterflies, they would spring from my grave, come up all around me, growing from my body, and — and you could gather them." Oh, the heartbreak in the pitiful little voice!
As she spoke, slowly, with evident effort, but smiling at her friend to prove to him that she was indeed happy, Paule strove to raise her head and give her hand to her startled lover, who, unwilling to see the truth, had still not moved.
But the support of her hand removed, the heavy little head fell helplessly forward on the table, and the pale brow lay among the scattered bluebells.
"Paule! Paule!" cried her friend, springing with a sob toward the poor little body.
Just at that moment, after a brief rest, the orchestra began again, a waltz by Strauss, to which whirled couples intoxicated with life, while the rowers, departing in their illuminated crafts, accompanied with their strong young voices the strains of the horns and violins.
But Paule heard no longer; Paule was gone, though the soul, perhaps, still hovered over the fading bluebells that the tears of her friend bathed with a scalding dew.
And all the Seine, under the moon that silvered it, rang with cries and songs from the Bineau bridge to the bridge of Asnières, and the river rolled its waters with a murmuring sound that seemed to say " Come on ! come on ! " and brushed its banks with a sly little kiss that bent the reeds and the water-lilies; while in the distance Mont Valerien slept now under a sky full of stars, and two steps away Paris grumbled.