George Streynsham Master.

The Century, Volume 19 online

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(He should not perish, they said, of thirst.
They would let him starve or stifle first.)

Buried alive I Abhorrent doom I
How he struggled and cursed his &tel
Left alone in that ghastly tomb
With horrible fungi and musty murk,
And nothing to do but watch and wait
For slow starvation to do its work !
Buried alive! and his soft white hands
Dug and scraped at the stubborn stones,
And he shrieked entreaties and vain com-
And vexed the silence with threats and

The vicious skeleton elbowed him.
And when he shrunk from its noisome

It seemed to follow with purpose grim
And grip his throat with a stifling clutch,
Till his starting eye-balls almost saw
Its horrible head and fleshless jaw
In luminous outline bare and stark
Against the solid and crowding dark.
The sight would a stouter heart appall.
And Brother Antonio crouched and shrunk,
And pressed his face to the rough stone

In deadly fear of the skeleton monk.

It happened that on the other side
Of the catacombed wall so thick and wide,
Another houseful of holy men.
Quite removed from their neighbors' ken.
Knowing naught of their neighbors' deeds,
Scourged the flesh for the spirit's good.
Sung their matins and told their beads, —
A happy and prosperous brotherhood.

Much did these excellent brothers grieve
That none among them was quite a saint,
And morn and midnight and noon and

They prayed with humble and heart-felt


That one of their order, gone before.
Would deign to visit the earth once more
And be their teacher to help and save
With wisdom brought firom beyond the

Musing on this and many more

Similar subjects of ghostly lore.

One evening Brother Filippo took

His frugal taper and missal-book.

And stole away by the turret stair

For a secret season of silent prayer;

But he bethought him before he went

Into his cell's chill banishment.

Of a cob webbed flagon, rare and old —

A famous vintage which long ago

He had hidden away in the dust and

Of the dim and shadowy crypt below.

Little he cared for specters grim

With glaring eye-holes and hollow breast —

Never a ghost had troubled him ;

And he followed fearless his secret quest

Where, far from the wholesome light of

His predecessors were laid away
So long ago that they paved the stones
With a basso-relievo of moldy bones.
And as he quietly picked his way
Over his sainted brethren's clay
(Or, stating it more correctly, lime),
And mused on the changes of life and

To his pondering soul it must have seemed,
While the flickering flare of his taper

On mortal relics and mildewed stones.
That the one fixed fact in the world was

There were bones in many and quaint de-
signs ;
In rows and pyramids, squares and lines,
Curves and angles and wings and lyres;
Droll wheel-patterns with skulls for hubs,
Ribs for felloes and spines for tires;
Cheerful fancies of hearts and clubs
(These in honor of long-past games
When these relics wore skins and names) ;
Bones in triplets and bones in pairs.
Arcs and circles, rosettes and squares —
Bones in every position placed.
Bones on the most abounding plan —
Never so vast a number graced
The happiest dream of a medical man.

And skulls! they met him on every side.
Spectral and grisly and vacant- eyed ;

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Skulls above him, around, beneath,
In every possible stage of teeth;
Some had regular rows of pearls.
Some were fanged like a savage beast,
While some had cuspids like fair young

White as rice-grains; and there was one
Uncommonly old and holy priest.

The friar turned with a nervous start
And a sudden plimge of his shrinking

From his jocund nose and his rosy jowl
Ebbed in a moment the rich red blood.
And terror struck to his inmost soul.
As thud — thud — thud — thud


With teeth worn level by life's long feast.
And a calm expression of work well done.
But Brother Filippo faced the throng
Fearless, and mused, as he stole along,
How strange, when life is alert and glad,
And death is dreary and cold and dull,
That living faces are mostly sad.
And nothing grins like a dead man's
skull !

Came four dull sounds from a walled-up

Smiting his sense like the strokes of doom.
His very skull-cap shrunk appalled;
Doubtless his hair would have risen straight
Except that his head was shiny-bald —
Bald as a biscuit, by time or fate;
Froze his heart with a deathly chill;
Died on his lips the mumbled prayer.

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His jaw dropped wide and his pulse stood

With a sudden and awful sense of scare,
And down on the damp unfriendly ground
He dropped in a deep and breathless

s wound.

Whether the touch of dead men's bones,
Or the solid whack on the cruel stones
Restored his senses, he rallied soon,
And with many a tumble, wrench and

sprain —
His haste and terror contemning pain —
(His light was out and there shone no

He scrambled and struggled, bruised and

Back by the crooked way he came, —
The winding vault and the steep stone

Leading to life and light and air, —
Losing all he could leave behind.
Taper, and sandals and presence of mind.

The brothers gathered with spade and pick —
And something of nervous dread, withal —
And lifting the cobwebs dense and thick,
They pried a stone from the massive wall.
And lo! in answer to all their quest, —
Pale with fasting, with terror faint.
His white hands folded across his breast, —
He stood discovered — their prayed-for saint!

Whatever had been Antonio's crime.
He was always cunning, old or young.
And he saw that this was a proper time
To cast up his eyes and hold his tongue.

They lifted him gently with many prayers,
This new-fledged saint, from his stone

They carried him tenderly up the stairs
With faces of awe-struck joy — and soon
They made him splendid with garments



Warmed him with cordials rich and strong.
And sculptured arches and stately nave
Sent back the strains of their welcome-

Sobered by danger and fear and grief, —
For even friars from these may learn, —
Brother Antonio vowed to turn
Over a brand-new moral lea£

'chill and silent the dead monk lay.

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To be devoted, sincere and good,
And live as a godly friar should.
He prayed and studied and fasted much ;
The fame of his saintship circled wide ;
The sick were brought for his healing

From the furthest bound of the country-
The simple peasantry far and near
Held him holy; and young and old
Sought his counsel with faith sincere,
And, stinting their stomachs of needed

Bought his blessing for so much gold.
And half believed he could raise the

But sudden conversions seldom last;
And ere a year of his saintship passed,
In spite of vigils and prayers galore.
Brother Antonio fell once more —
Heavier, harder, deeper, lower.
Farther and worse than he did before.
And the sorrowing brethren, shocked and

To find how sore they had been deceived,
Looked upon him as one accursed —
No saint but a doubly sinful man;
And remembering how they had found him

Could think of no surer or better plan.
To cleanse their skirts of this dismal stain,
Than to put him back in his hole again.

So, after vespers, they took him down
Where the broken tomb was gaping wide ;
The resident skeleton tall and brown,
And the empty water-goiu-d still inside
(The stone had never since been replaced) ;
And they clad him again in his mildewed

With the hempen rope's-end about the

waist, —
The same that when he arrived he wore, —
And plastered him in as he was before.
With his marrowless enemy stark and grim
And the ravenous rats to companion him.

Meantime the brothers who doomed him

Had seldom mentioned his awful fate;
His name among them had been accursed
And rarely heard in his former home.
Only genial Brother Jerome
Missed and mourned for his buried mate.

It happened that on the same spring day
When the guilty monk, for the second

Had been in the catacomb sealed away
To expiate and repent his crime.
Gentle Brother Jerome had died, —
Having pined and pined since the leaves

turned brown;
And now, as the moon began to rise
And scatter the light from her silver crown
Over the dewy world outside.
His brethren gathered to bear him down
And lay him away to skeletonize.

Under the altar, — the usual way, —
Chill and silent, the dead monk lay;
The flickering taper's light revealed
His dark-fi-inged lids in their death-sleep

The marble brows with their classic line.
The thin, high nose and the nostril fine.
And the lips that never would open more
In aves, paters, or holy hymns;
And the coarse gray garment he always

Showing the lines of his rigid limbs.
Under its fi-ayed and faded hem
Gaunt and pallid, his feet were seen,
Bare — and now, for a wonder, clean;
Earthly paths were no more for them;
And, though not needed in other spheres.
His half-worn sandals beside were placed.
Two wax-like hands to his pulseless breast
A wooden crucifix stiffly pressed.
That hung by his rosary's beaded chain
(Which never would reckon his prayers

To the hempen girdle about his waist

Dead — in his manhood's ripest prime;
Dead — and, spite of his fifty years.
What had he conquered firom fate and

What had he known of the worth of life ?
Never upon that lonely breast
Had brow of sweetheart or tender wife
Hidden in shyness or leaned for rest!
Never a child had nestled there,
Or tossed and tangled his glossy hair.
A wandering breath fix>m the chancel door
Blew and fluttered its soft brown rings, —
Silken-bright as in days of yore,
When in his childhood's delightful springs.
Thoughtless of scoiu-ges and penances,
He ran and sported and laughed for joy
Under the thick pomegranate trees
Of fair Granada, a merry boy !
Past all penance and prayer and pain,
The look of his youth came back again.

It chanced that the gentle brother's death
Was seized by Fate as the mournful means

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Of saving Antonio's failing breath,
And bringing him back to earthly scenes.
For it often chanced that no living soul,
For months, went down in that dismal

hole, —
The last cold bedroom of all the friars.
Wherein when once they were laid to

No call to matins or chant of choirs
Could rouse them;^-down in that dismal

Far from the pure, rebuking sky,
Irreverent rodents, alert and sly.
But daring froiji numbers and fierce withal.
Wary as friars, and sleek no less.
Held with the relics high carnival.
And throve on the husks of holiness.

But Brother Jerome was dead — and so
His comrades gathered in mournful pairs.
Some bearing him down to the vaults be-
While others followed with chants and

prayers ; —
It almost seemed, ere they reached the

That the monk had perished to save his

Their pallid tapers, with wavering spark*.
Only served to reveal the dark
And the skeleton heads, — a grewsome

Which, glad of some presence besides them-
Seemed to nod in the flickering light,
.\nd grin and gibber along the shelves.

Was it a rat, that in yonder chink, —
Tlieir tapers* glimmer scarce reached so

for, —
With a grim anticipatory wink.
Looked up from gnawing a fibula?
Each monk turned timidly round to see
What the cause of the noise might be.
As thud— thud— thud— thud.
There came a knocking that froze their

From the very tomb where long ago
They had walled up Brother Antonio !
Within, the famished and desperate saint.
Cramped by the chilly, close constraint,
Was struggling to make his presence known
By pounding for life with a stray thigh-

Each shrunk from showing before the rest
The awful terror that filled his breast;

Had there been but one, he had straight-
way fled
In a headlong panic of frantic dread,
As Brother Filippo had done, one day ;
For courage, like fire, 'tis safe to say, —
Though none of the brothers the fact

would own, —
Is apt to languish when left alone.

At last the bravest of all the band —
He had the muscle and brawn of five —
Said,— crossing himself with a trembling

hand, —
" 'Tis Brother Antonio, still alive/''
The wonder widened, and one and all
Fell to work at the massive wall.
While Brother Antonio's muffled tones
Urged them on from behind the stones.
At last they reached him ; with pale hands

Prayerfully on his ample breast.
He stood, with his rapt eyes raised on

And face with fasting and fear made wan.
Like the pallid statues that stand for aye
Niche-enshrined in the Pantheon.

Lo, a miracle! All their eyes

Opened wider with awed surprise —

Surely, none but a saint could live

Eleven long months in a hole like this!

And all were eager and glad to give

Honor to such rare holiness.

Humbly the pale and wondering throng

Pressed around with obeisance low.

Praying his pardon for all the wrong

Done in blindness so long ago.

And, as though to welcome the wise old

The rows of skulls on the narrow shelves
Grimaced and grinned in the general joy.
And talked it over among themselves.

Brother Antonio knew full well

He had cheated death by a marvel twice.

And haply the specter that shared his cell

Gave him some opportune advice.

Be that as it may, he took good heed

To mind his warnings and mend his

Atoning by righteous life and deed
For all the errors of former days ;
So he lived revered as a saint should be.
And died in the odor of sanctity.
And when at last he was laid away.
His journey ended for good and all.
And nobody heard him, by night or day,
Knocking for help in the thick stone wall.

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1 84




At the hotel where we were stopping in
Paris, I made the acquaintance of a leather
dealer from Texas, — a very worthy man, I
doubt not, but rather loud and superikiously
-emphatic in his style of conversation.

" There are two men/' he said to me one
day, " that I must see before leaving Paris
— ^Victor Hugo and Renan. Do you know
on what days they receive the public ? **

I ventured to suggest that they did not

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receive the public at all; but my leather
dealer could hardly credit such a statement.
The next day he applied to the American
minister for letters of mtroduction, which the
latter, for obvious reasons, refused to furnish.
The Texan threatened revenge, and inti-
mated privately to me that I need not be
surprised if the minister were suddenly
recalled before the end of the year. A week
later he confessed to me, that with the
determination "to cheek it out/' he had
called upon the poet without credentials,
but had not been admitted.

"The girl at the door," he said good-
humoredly, '^ kept rattling away at me for
some time ; but all I could make out was
that the old fellow was not at home, that he
was hardly ever at home, and wasn't likely
to be at home for a year or so. Don't talk
to me any more of French politeness. Why,
a stage-driver in Texas would know better
than to talk such truck to a gentleman.

No, sir; they are a d rascally set, these

French, and you may tell them that I said so."

This episode inclined me to put some
&ith in a rumor which had reached my ears
that Victor Hugo had been driven ffom his
former house in Rue de Clichy by English
and American tourists. If an illiterate
Texan who frankly declared that he was
unacquainted even with the titles of ** Les
Miserables " and " Notre Dame de Paris,"
was yet ¥nlling to take so much trouble to
see their auAor, what then must be the
state of mind of those countless emotional
persons who have shuddered at the wicked-
ness of Quasimodo, and wept over the
impossible purity and misfortunes of Esme-
ralda ? What obstacles would be sufficient
to baffie them in their efforts to make the
poet's acquaintance ? A Frenchman, even
diough he were Victor Hugo's next-door
neighbor, would hardly dare aspire to the
honor of his acquaintance unless he might
happen to belong to some one of the literary
or political cliques of which the poet is the
aduiowledged head. As for myself, I should
never have entertained the thought for a
moment, if fortune had not conspicuously
£aivored me.

I was sitting one evening last April in
Tourgu6neflf's library in Paris, discussing
with him the deplorable condition of Russia
and the recklessness and cold-blooded cru-
elty displayed by the government in its
prosecution of the Nihilists. Tourgu6neff
had just returned a few days earlier from
St Petersburg, and Paris had been very
^npty to me during his absence.
Vol. XIX. -14.

" I hope you will remember," he said, as
I rose to take my leave, " that I am always
at your disposal I know most of the liter-
ary celebrities of Paris, and I shall be very
happy either to introduce you personally or
give you letters of introduction. I have no
doubt, for instance, that you would take
much pleasure in making the acquaintance
of Alphonse Daudet, who is as charmmg in
his private talk as he is in his novels. If
you are a violent impressionist, you would
perhaps like to bum incense to Zola, who,
m spite of kis occasional violations of good
taste, is a man eminently worth knowing.
Victor Hugo has recently moved away from
this neighborhood, and I do not know his
present address ; but if you are anxious to
pay him a visit, I can assure you before-
hand that you will be received with much
courtesy and kindness. I shall be happy
to introduce you."

About a week later, I received a very
delightful note from Tourgu^ne£^ inclosing
the promised letters of introduction. I
learned in a roundabout way that Victor
Hugo was living in Avenue d'Eylau, and
that he received every evening from 9^
to II o'clock. The Avenue d'Eylau is an
interminable and rather monotonous street,
which runs from the Arc de Triomph out
toward Passy; there is nothing very Paris-
ian about it except, perhaps, the street-
venders and the military beggar with one
leg, singing the MarseUlaise in a hoarse
voice. One feels but feebly the heart-
beat of the great city in diese drowsy
suburbs; the stage for Passy rumbles along
once every half-hour with half a dozen
passengers of the miscellaneous types which
one always encounters in public vehicles;
but the true Parisian who haunts the boule-
vards and the green-rooms of the theaters,
and reads his " Figaro " over his morning
chocolate, is rarely seen in this neighbor-
hood, and would undoubtedly feel very
uncomfortable were he compelled to take
up his abode here. And yet Victor Hugo
is as genuine a Parisian as ever trod the
pavement of the Boulevard des Italiens.
Why then did he move away from the
Rue de Clichy, where you breathe, as it
were, the sublimated essence of Paris?
He was a martyr to his fame. He could
not protect himself against the public, who,
armed with guide-books and letters of in-
troduction, were continually intruding into
his privacy ; then every evening a crowd of
enthusiastic friends besieged his doors, bor-
ing him with their panegyrics, demanding

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autographs, recitation of verses, etc. ; and
in a hundred ways exhausting his heroic
good-humor and his unflagging patience.
The very isolation of his present residence
is therefore an advantage ; it takes fully an
hour to reach it by omnibus from the Place
de rOp^ra, and as there are no other attrac-
tions in the vicinity, the poet has, at all
events, the satisfaction of knowing that
those who do seek him here have made a
deliberate exertion to see him, and are
prompted by some deeper feeling than mere

The house is a double, two-story stone
edifice, quite unpretentious in appearance,
but surrounded by a very pretty garden, in
which, at the time of my visit, the rose-
bushes were struggling vainly to assert them-
selves in spite of the cold and unpropitious
season. I suppose they went by the alma-
nac (it was abDut the middle of May) and
paid no heed to the caprices of the weather
bureau. Over the front door there was a
glass canopy, presenting the shape of a
hollow and obtuse pyramid. I remained
standing here for a few moments, feeling a
little guilty, perhaps, because I had yielded
to the very impulse which I had so fre-
quently condemned in my fellow-mortals.
I was perfectly well aware that my claim
on Victor Hugo was scarcely any better
than that of hundreds of my compatriots ;
but then one always finds an excuse for not
classing oneself under such categories as
" the public," «* tourists," and " the ignobile
vulgus** I had at all events read some
fifteen or twenty volumes of Victor Hugo's
writings, and had a very definite opinion
concerning their literary value. I was not
a blind adorer, but, as I flattered myself, an
intelligent and not uns^pathetic critic. It
was this latter reflection which stimulated
my courage to the point where I seized
hold of the bell-handle and gave a vigorous
pull. An elderly woman opened the door,
took my letter of introduction and showed
me into the reception room. The air
within was luxuriously soft and delicious;
a genial wood fire was drowsing in the fire-
place, and under the ceiling and along the
walls about fifty candles were burning in
Venetian glass chandeliers of artistic design.
The room was not large, and was divided
by a heavy silk curtain of a dark Pompeian
red, with here and there a dash of tawny
yellow. The window curtains and the
tapestries of the walls and ceiling were of
the same stuff and colors. A number of
costly ornaments in bronze were scattered

about the room; especially conspicuous
were an aged and curious-looking clock and
an elephant of Japanese workmanship car-
rying a tower on his back. Large mir-
rors with bronze frames of elaborate design
ornamented the walls, and two magnificent
Japanese screens challenged attention bjr
the ^orgeousness of their color and theu'
exquisite embroidery, representing a flock
of cranes starting up from a swamp or field,
overgrown with bulrushes. In the comer
next to the door is an excellent terra cotta
statuette of Victor Hugo, about three feet
high. He stands resting his chin in kis
pdm and leaning against a pillar, about
the base of which are flung volumes bearing
the inscriptions: "Les Miserables," "Lc$
Orientales," " Notre Dame de Paris," etc
In another comer is placed a bronze statu-
ette of the " French Republic," who presents
a warlike and threatening appearance with
her formidable helmet and armor, and her
unsheathed sword. She is, however {as if
to re-assure those who might be alarmed by
her martial equipment), resting her elbow on
the tablets of the law, upon which are in-
scribed the words: ''Constitution de 25
F6vrier, 1875."

I had been in the room perhaps five min-
utes, when a gentleman with a phenomenal
crop of dark hair was ushered in, and took
his seat opposite to me. He glared at me
for a while in a very unfriendly fashion;
then went into a corner, pulled out some
slips of paper, and began to mumble some-
thmg between his teeth. I concluded that
he was rehearsing the speech with which he
was to address the great poet Presently
he sent me a very uneasy glance, thrust his
slips of paper furtively into his breast pocket,
and began to march up and down the floor,
apparendy in great agitation. Accidentally,
his eyes fell upon his own reflection in one
of the long mirrors and his agitation in-
creased ; he hastily pulled fi-om his pocket &
small comb, and began to arrange his hair.
Five minutes more elapsed; we heard a
child's voice from the next room, apparently
protesting against going to bed, and a fine
persuasive bass which was exerting itself to
overcome its objections. The dispute grew
louder; then at some remark of the little
one, the gentleman with the bass voice
burst into a laugh in which several other
voices joined. Finally, we heard a clatter
of knives and forks, a pushing back of
chairs, and the confused hum of conversa-

Online LibraryGeorge Streynsham MasterThe Century, Volume 19 → online text (page 33 of 160)