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splendour, and the self-pity of the child overcame me.

"Master," said I dismally, "what shall Narcisse and I do while you are
at the wedding?"

He wheeled round and regarded me, and I knew by the light in his eyes
that an inspiration was taking shape behind them.

"I'll buy you a red shirt and pomade your hair, and you shall be one of
us, my son, and go round with the hat."

I exulted obviously.

"Now the dog will feel out of it," said he, perplexed. "I will consult
Blanquette. Do you think we could shave Narcisse and make him think he's
a poodle?"

"That would be impossible, Monsieur," replied Blanquette gravely.

As Narcisse was enjoying himself to his heart's content, darting from
side to side of the road and sniffing for the smells his soul delighted
in, I did not concern myself about his feelings.

For Paragot's suggestion which I knew was ironically directed against
myself, I did not care. So long as I was to be with my companions and of
them, irony did not matter. I caught the twinkle in his eye and laughed.
He was as joyous as Narcisse. The gladness of the July morning danced in
his veins. He pulled the violin and bow out of the old baize bag and
fiddled as we walked. It must have been an amazing procession.

* * * * *

And the old man whose clothes and functions we had assumed lay cold and
stiff in the little lonely room with candles at his head and his feet.
During our railway journey to Chambéry Blanquette told us in her artless
way what she knew of his history. In the flesh he had been a crabbed and
crotchety ancient addicted to drink. He had passed some years of his
middle life in prison for petty thefts. In his youth - Blanquette's mind
could not grasp the idea of Père Paragot having once been young - he must
have been an astonishing blackguard. He had been wont to beat
Blanquette, until one day realising her young strength she held him firm
in her grip and threatened to throw him into a pond if he persisted in
his attempted chastisement. Since then he had respected her person, but
to the day of his death he had cursed her for anserine stupidity. An
unlovely, loveless and unloved old man. Why should Blanquette have wept
over him? She had not the Parisian's highly strung temperament and
capacity for facile emotion. She was peasant to the core, slow to
rejoice, and slow to grieve, and she had the peasant's remorseless
logic in envisaging the elemental facts of existence. Père Paragot was
wicked. He was dead. _Tant mieux._

* * * * *

Blanquette had not the divine sense of humour which rainbows the tears
of the world. That was my dear master's possession. But at the obvious
she could laugh like any child of unsophistication. In the long shaded
avenue of Chambéry, with its crowded market-stalls on either
side - stalls where you saw displayed for sale rolls of calico and boots
and gauffrettes and rusty locks and melons and rosaries and flyblown
books - Paragot bought me my red shirt (which - _mirabile dictu!_ - had
tasselled cords to tie the collar) and pomade for my hair. He also
purchased a yard of blue chiffon which he tied in an artistic bow round
Narcisse's neck, whereat Blanquette laughed heartily; and when Narcisse
bolted beneath a flower-stall and growling dispossessed himself of the
adornment, and set to with tooth and claw to rend it into fragments, she
threw herself on a bench convulsed with mirth. As Paragot had spent
fifty centimes on the chiffon I thought this hilarity exceedingly
ill-natured; but when another and a larger dog came up to see what
Narcisse was doing and in half a minute was whirling about with Narcisse
in a death grapple, and Blanquette sprang forward, separated the two
dogs at some risk and took our bleeding mongrel to her bosom, consoling
him with womanly words of pity, I saw there was something tender in
Blanquette which mitigated my resentment.

* * * * *

The Restaurant du Soleil, where the marriage feast was held, was an
earwiggy hostelry on the outskirts of the town, sheltered from the
prying roadway by a screen of green lattice and a series of _tonnelles_,
the dusty arbours, each furnished with table and chairs, beloved of
French revellers. Above the entrance gate stretched the semi-circular
sign-board bearing in addition to the name, the legend "Jardin. Noces.
Fêtes." Within, a few lime-trees closely planted threw deep shadow over
the grassless garden; shrubs and flowers wilted in a neglected bed.

Usually the forlorn demesne was supervised by a mangy waiter brooding
over mangy tables and by a mangier cat who kept a furtive eye on the
placarded list of each day's _plat du jour_ and wondered when her turn
would come for Thursday's _Sauté de lapin_. But tables, cat and waiter
cast manginess aside when _we_(the pride of that day still remains and
makes me italicise the word) came down to play at the wedding of Adolphe
Querlat and Léontine Bringuet.

"_Tiens!_ where is Père Paragot?" asked fat Madame Bringuet - perspiring
in unaccustomed corset and black bombazine.

"Alas! he is no longer, Madame," explained Blanquette. "He had a seizure
yesterday. He fell off his chair, and we picked him up stone dead."

"_Tiens, tiens_, but it is sad."

"But no. It does not matter. This gentleman will make you dance much
better than Père Paragot," and she whispered encomiums into Madame's
ear.

"Enchanted, Monsieur. And your name?"

My master swept a courtly bow with his feathered hat - no one ever bowed
so magnificently as he.

"Berzélius Nibbidard Paragot, _cadet_, at your service."

"You must be hungry, Monsieur Paragot - and Mademoiselle and this little
monsieur," said Madame Bringuet hospitably. "We are at table in the
_salle à manger_. You will join us."

We entered the long narrow room and sat down to the banquet. Heavens!
what a feast! There were omelettes and geese and eels and duck and tripe
and onion soup and sausages and succulences inconceivable. Accustomed to
the Spartan fare of vagabondage I plunged into the dishes head foremost
like a hungry puppy. Should I eat such a meal as that to-day it would be
my death. Hey for the light heart and elastic stomach of youth! Some
fifty persons, the _ban and arrière ban_ of the relations of the young
couple, guzzled in a wedged and weltering mass. Wizened grandfathers and
stolid large-eyed children ate and panted in the suffocating heat, and
gorged again. Not till half way through the repast did tongues begin to
wag freely. At last the tisane of champagne - syrupy paradise to my
uncultivated palate - was handed round and the toasts were drunk. The
bride's garter was secured amid boisterous shouts and innuendos, and
then we left the stifling room and entered the garden, the elders to
smoke and drink and gossip at the little tables beneath the verandah,
the younger folk to dance on the uneven gravel. Young as I was, I felt
grateful that no physical exercise was required of me for some hours to
come. Even Narcisse and the cat (which followed him) waddled heavily to
the verandah where we were to play.

The signal to start was soon given. Paragot tucked his violin under his
chin, tuned up, waved one, two, three with his bow; Blanquette struck a
cord on her zither and the dance began. At first all was desperately
correct. The men in their ill-fitting broadcloth and white ties and
enormous wedding favours, the women in their tight and decent finery,
gyrated with solemn circumspection. But by degrees the music and the
good Savoy wines and the abominable cognac flushed faces and set heads
a-swimming. The sweltering heat caused a gradual discarding of garments.
Arms took a closer grip of waists. Loud laughter and free jests replaced
formal conversation; steps were performed of Southern fantasy; the dust
rose in clouds; throats were choked though countenances streamed; the
consumption of wine was Rabelaisian. And all through the orgy Paragot
fiddled with strenuous light-heartedness, and Blanquette thrummed her
zither with the awful earnestness of a woman on whose efforts ten francs
and perhaps half a goose depended. But it was Paragot who made the
people dance. To me, sitting in red shirt and pomaded hair at his feet,
it seemed as if he were a magician. He threw his bow across the strings
and compelled them to do his bidding. He was the great, the omnipotent
personage of the feast. I sunned myself in his glory.

Indeed, he had the incommunicable gift of setting his soul a-dancing as
he played, of putting the devil into the feet of those who danced. The
wedding party were enraptured. If he had consumed all the bumpers he was
offered, he would have been as drunk as a fiddler at an Irish wake.
During a much needed interval in the dancing he advanced to the edge of
the verandah and as a solo played Stephen Heller's "Tarantella," which
crowned his triumph. With his unkempt beard and swarthy face and
ridiculous pearl-buttoned velveteens, there was an air of rakish
picturesqueness about Paragot, and he retained, what indeed he never
quite lost, a certain aristocracy of demeanour. Wild cries of "_Bis!_"
saluted him when he stopped. Men clapped each other on the shoulder
uttering clumsy oaths, women smiled at him largely. Madame Bringuet,
reeking in her tight gown, held up to him a brimming glass of champagne;
the bride threw him a rose. He kissed the flower, put it in his
button-hole and after bowing low drank to her health. I recalled my
childish ambition to keep a fried fish shop and despised it heartily. If
I only could play the violin like Paragot, thought I, and win the
plaudits of the multitude, what greater glory could the earth hold? The
practical Blanquette woke me from my dreams. Now was the moment, said
she, to go round with the hat. I swung myself down from the verandah,
the traditional shell (in lieu of a hat) in my hand, and went my round.
Money was poured into it. Time after time I emptied it into my bulging
pockets. When I returned to the verandah, Blanquette's eyes distended
strangely. She glanced at Paragot, who smiled at her in an absent
manner. For the moment the artist in him was predominant. He was the
centre of his little world, and its adulation was as breath to his
nostrils.

This is what I, the mature man, know to be the case. To me, then, he was
but the King receiving tribute from his subjects. When Paragot with a
flourish of his bow responded to the encore, I found my hand slip into
Blanquette's and there it remained in a tight grip till flushed and
triumphant he again acknowledged the applause. Nothing was said between
Blanquette and myself, but she became my sworn sister from that moment.
And Narcisse sat at our feet looking down on the crowd, his tongue
lolling out mockingly and a satiric leer on his face.

"My children," said Paragot, on our return journey in the close,
ill-lighted, wooden-seated third-class compartment, "we have had a
glorious day. One of those sun-kissed, snow-capped peaks that rise here
and there in the monotonous range of life. It fills the soul with poetry
and makes one talk in metaphor. In such moments as these we are all
metaphors, my son. We are illuminated expressions of the divine standing
for the commonplace things of yesterday and tomorrow. We have
accomplished what millions and millions are striving and struggling and
failing to do at this very hour. We have achieved _success_! We have
left on human souls the impress of our mastery! We are also all of us
dog-tired and, I perceive, disinclined to listen to transcendental
conversation."

"I'm not tired, master," I declared as stoutly as the effort of keeping
open two leaden eyelids would allow.

"And you?" he asked turning to Blanquette by his side - I occupied the
opposite corner.

She confessed. A very little. But she had listened to all Monsieur had
said, and if he continued to talk she would not think of going to sleep.
Whereupon she closed her eyes, and when I opened mine I saw that her
head had slipped along the smooth wooden back of the carriage and rested
on Paragot's shoulder. Through sheer kindliness and pity he had put his
arm around her so as to settle her comfortably as she slept. I envied
her.

When she awoke at the first stoppage of the train, she started away from
him with a little gasp.

"O Monsieur! I did not know. You should have told me."

"I am only Père Paragot," said he. "You must often have had your head
against this mountebank jacket of mine."

She misunderstood him. Her eyes flashed.

"It is the first time in my life - I swear it." She held up her two
forefingers crossed and kissed them. "Père Paragot! _ah non!_ neither he
nor another. I am an honest girl, though you may not think so."

"My good Blanquette," said he kindly, taking her scarred coarse hand in
his, "you are as honest a girl as ever breathed, and if Père Paragot
didn't let you put your sleepy little head on his shoulder he must have
been a stonier hearted old curmudgeon than you have given one to
believe."

So he soothed her and explained, while our two fellow passengers, a
wizened old peasant and his wife, regarded them stolidly.

"_Mon Dieu_, it is hot," said Blanquette. "Don't you think so, Asticot?
I wish I had a fan."

"I will make you one out of the paper the fowl is wrapped in," said
Paragot.

Not half a goose, but a cold fowl minus half a wing had been our
supplementary guerdon. Decently enveloped in a sheet of newspaper it lay
on her lap. When he had divested it of its covering, which he proceeded
to twist into a fan, it still lay on her lap, looking astonishingly
naked.

At the next station the old peasant and his wife got out and we had the
compartment to ourselves. Blanquette produced from her pocket a
handkerchief knotted over an enormous lump.

"These are the takings, Monsieur. It looks small; but they changed the
coppers into silver at the restaurant for me."

"It's a fortune," laughed my master.

"It is much," she replied gravely, and undoing the knot she offered him
with both hands the glittering treasure. "I hope you will be a little
generous, Monsieur - I know it was you who gained the _quête_."

"My good child!" cried he, interrupting her and pushing back her hands,
"what lunacy are you uttering? Do you imagine that I go about fiddling
for pence at village weddings?"

"But Monsieur - "

"But little imbecile, I did it to help you, to enable you to get your
ten francs and half a goose. Asticot too. Haven't you been enchanted all
day to be of service to Mademoiselle? Do you want to be paid for wearing
a red shirt with a tasselled collar and pommade in your hair? Aren't we
going about the world like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza rescuing damsels
in distress? Isn't that the lodestar of our wanderings?"

"Yes, master," said I.

Blanquette looked open-mouthed from him to me, from me to him, scarce
able to grasp such magnanimity. To the peasant, money is a commodity to
be struggled for, fought for, grasped, prized; to be doled out like the
drops of a priceless Elixir Vitæ. Paragot had the aristocratic, artistic
scorn of it; and I, as I have said before, was the pale reflexion of
Paragot.

"It is yours," I explained, as might a great prince's chamberlain, "the
master gained it for you."

The tears came into her eyes. The corners of her lips went down. Paragot
turned half round in his seat and put his hands on her shoulders.

"If you spill tears on the fowl you will make it too salt, and I shall
throw it out of the window."

* * * * *

Paragot paid the modest funeral expenses of the worn-out fiddler. Asked
why he did not leave the matter in the hands of the communal
authorities he replied that he could not take a man's name without
paying for it. Such an appellation as Berzélius Nibbidard Paragot was
worth a deal coffin and a mass or two. This fine sense of integrity was
above Blanquette's comprehension. She thought the funeral was a waste of
money.

"It should go to benefit the living and not the dead," she argued.

"Wait till you are dead yourself," he replied, "and see how you would
like to be robbed of your name. There are many things for you to learn,
my child."

"_Il n'y a pas beaucoup_ - not many," she said with a sigh. "We who are
poor and live on the high-roads learn very quickly. If you are hungry
and have two sous you can buy bread. If you only have two sous and you
throw them to a dog who doesn't need them, you have nothing to buy bread
with, and you starve. And it is not so easy to gain two sous."

Paragot sucked reflectively at his porcelain pipe.

"Asticot," said he, "the _argumentum ad ventrem_ is irrefutable."

"Now I must go and make my _malle_" she said. "I return to Chambéry to
try to earn my two sous."

"Won't you stay here over the night? You must be very tired."

"One must work for one's living, Monsieur," she said moving away.

It was afternoon. We had trudged the three dusty miles back from the
tiny churchyard where we had left the old man's unlamented grave, and
Paragot, as usual, was washing his throat with beer. It must be noted,
not to his glorification, that about this time a chronic dryness began
to be the main characteristic of Paragot's throat, and the only
humectant that seemed to be of no avail was water.

The sun still blazed and the hush of the July afternoon lay over the
valley. Paragot watched the thickset form of Blanquette disappear into
the café; he poured out another bottle of beer and addressed Narcisse
who was blinking idly up at him.

"If she had a pair of decent stays, my dog, or no stays at all, she
might have something of a figure. What do you think? On the whole - no."

Narcisse stood on his hind legs, his forepaws on his master's arm, and
uttered little plaintive whines. Paragot patted him on the head.

As I was engaged a yard or two away, elbows on knees, in what Paragot
was pleased to call my studies - Thierry's "Récits des Temps
Mérovingiens," a tattered, flyblown copy of which he had bought at
Chambéry - he was careful not to interrupt me; he talked to the dog.
Paragot had to talk to something. If he were alone he would have talked
to his shadow; in his coffin he would have apostrophised the worms.

"Yes, my dog," said he, after a draught of beer. "We have passed through
more than we wotted of these two days. We have held a human being by the
hand and have faced with her the eternal verities. Now she is going to
earn her two sous in the whirlpool, and the whirlpool will suck her
down, and as she has not claims to beauty, Narcisse, of any kind
whatsoever, either of face or figure, hers will be a shuddersome career
and end. Say you are sorry for poor Blanquette de Veau."

Narcisse sniffed at the table, but finding it bare of everything but
beer, in which he took no interest, dropped on his four legs and curled
himself up in dudgeon.

"You damned cynical sensualist," cried my master. "I have wasted the
breath of my sentiment upon you." And he called out for the landlady and
more beer.

Presently Blanquette emerged laden with zither case and fiddle and
little grey valise and the pearl-buttoned suit which was slung over one
arm.

"Monsieur," she said, putting down her impedimenta, "the _patronne_ has
told me that you have paid for my lodging and my nourishment. I am very
grateful, Monsieur. And if you will accept this costume it will be a way
of repaying your kindness."

Paragot rose, took the suit and laid it on his chair.

"I accept it loyally," said he, with a bow, as if Blanquette had been a
duchess.

"_Adieu, Monsieur, et merci_," she said holding out her hand.

Paragot stuck both his hands in his trousers pockets.

"My good child," said he, "you are bound straight for the most cheerless
hell that was ever inhabited by unamusing devils."

Blanquette shrugged her shoulders and spoke in her dull fatalistic way.

"_Que voulez-vous?_ I know it is not gay. But it is in the _métier_.
When Père Paragot was alive it was different. He had his good qualities,
Père Paragot. He was like a watch-dog. If any man came near me he was
fierce. I did not amuse myself, it is true, but I remained an honest
girl. Now it is changed. I am alone. I go into a brasserie to play and
dance. I can get an engagement at the Café Brasserie Tissot," and then
after a pause, turning her head away, she added the fatalistic words
she had used before: "_If faut passer par là, comme les autres_."

"I forbid you!" cried my master, striding up and down in front of her
and ejaculating horrible oaths. He invoked the sacred name of pigs and
of all kinds of other things. My attention had long since been diverted
from the learned Monsieur Thierry, and I wondered what she had to pass
through like the others. It must be something dreadful, or my master
would not be raving so profanely. I learned in after years. Of all
mutilated lives there are few more ghastly than those of the _fille de
brasserie_ in a small French provincial town. And here was Blanquette
about to abandon herself to it with stolid, hopeless resignation. There
was no question of vicious instinct. What semblance of glamour the life
presented did not attract her in the least. A sweated alien faces
rabbit-pulling in the East End with more pleasurable anticipation.

"I am not going to allow you to take an engagement in a brasserie!"
shouted my master. "Do you hear? I forbid you!"

"But Monsieur - - " began Blanquette piteously.

Then Paragot had one of his sudden inspirations. He crashed his fist on
the little table so that the glass and bottles leaped and Narcisse
darted for shelter into the café.

"_Tron de l'air!_" he cried. "I have it. It is an illumination.
Asticot - here! Leave your book. I shall be Paragot in character as well
as name. We shall fiddle with Blanquette as we fiddled yesterday - and I
shall be a watch-dog like Père Paragot and keep her an honest girl.
We'll make it a firm, Paragot and Company, and there will always be two
sous for bread and two to throw to a dog. I like throwing sous to dogs.
It is my nature. Now I know why I was sent into the world. It was to
play the fiddle up and down the sunny land of France. My little Asticot,
why haven't we thought of it before? You shall learn to play the
trumpet, Asticot, and Narcisse shall walk on his hind legs and collect
the money. It will be magnificent!"

"Are you serious, Monsieur?" asked Blanquette, trembling.

"Serious? Over an inspiration that came straight from the _bon Dieu_?
But yes, I am serious. _Et toi?_" he added sharply using for the first
time the familiar pronoun, "are you afraid I will beat you like Père
Paragot?"

"You can if you like," she said huskily; and I wondered why on earth she
should have turned the colour of cream cheese.




CHAPTER VII


NOT being content with having attached to his person a stray dog and a
mongrel boy and rendering himself responsible for their destinies,
Paragot must now saddle himself with a young woman. Had she been a
beautiful gipsy, holding fascinating allurements in lustrous eyes and
pomegranate lips, and witchery in a supple figure, the act would have
been a commonplace of human weakness. But in the case of poor
Blanquette, squat and coarse, her heavy features only redeemed from
ugliness by youth, honesty and clean teeth, the eternal attraction of
sex was absent.

From the decorative point of view she was as unlovely as Narcisse or
myself. She was dull, unimaginative, ignorant, as far removed from
Paragot as Narcisse from a greyhound. Why then, in the name of men and
angels, should Paragot have taken her under his protection? My only
answer to the question is that he was Paragot. Judge other men by
whatever standard you have to hand; it will serve its purpose in a rough
and ready manner; but Paragot - unless with me idolatry has obscured
reason - Paragot can only be measured by that absolute standard which
lies awful and unerring on the knees of the high gods.

Of course he saved the girl from a hideous doom. Thousands of kindly,
earnest men have done the same in one way or another. But Paragot's way
was different from anyone else's. Its glorious lunacy lifted it above
ordinary human methods.

So many of your wildly impulsive people repent them of their
generosities as soon as the magnanimous fervour has cooled. The grandeur
of Paragot lay in the fact that he never repented. He was fantastic,
self-indulgent, wastrel, braggart, what you will; but he had an
exaggerated notion of the value of every human soul save his own. The
destiny of poor Blanquette was to him of infinitely more importance than


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