The Revenge of Chanticleer
ONE fine Sunday of last November, I happened to be, toward the end of the afternoon, in one of the quiet little streets just off the Luxembourg Garden. It being Sunday afternoon, I strolled along without any definite purpose, and with no more definite thought than that I was wandering through an extremely familiar locality. The streets were perfectly empty — not even one of the American students, who generally swarm in that quarter, breaking the provincial stillness of the place with his stride — and I only met a couple of \wGy-\oo\dng fiacres. The day had been very fine, succeeding a rainy week, and the people had sought the country or the more lively scenes “ on the other side of the water.”
As I emerged from one of the byways into the rue Notre-Dame-desChamps, and, turning mechanically to the west, as I had done millions of times in years not so long past, bent my course towards a thoroughfare with omnibus and cars, I was suddenly confronted by a broad strip of clean-washed amber sky, and my mood changed at once. The sunset, with its strange succession of disquieting and soothing phases, is wasted on the man who just turns the light on when the room begins to sadden; but place the same man face to face with the swift changing presences in the evening west, he will no more resist their weird power than the little birds in the eaves. In a few moments I found myself within the precincts of the old college where I dreamed away eight or ten of the happiest years of my life, with a passionate longing to see the garden once more before the light wasted.
The streets outside were quiet, but the college might have been enchanted. Not a soul in court or cloister, not a sound from the rambling white buildings. The garden looked more spellbound than the rest, with a trim Sunday look about it; not a leaf on the lawns; the glossy shrubs prim and decorous; only, over the aerial tracery of branches and bows, the daffodil drapery already fading into turquoise. There was in the atmosphere a strange quality which seemed to remove the objects beyond their natural distances, and yet imparted an exceptional neatness to their contour. I went round once or twice without meeting anything alive, except a tomtit — a rare visitor in a Parisian garden — madly twittering as he tried and tried to finish the round of a tree. On the other side of a low ivy wall the ‘pavilion stood by itself in its courtyard, a noble piece of truly French architecture. There I had had my rooms for all those years, and it was difficult to realize that it was my home no more. I waited a while outside, watching the wild tomtit at his play, and then quite naturally passed into the yard and walked upstairs. The man who had taken the rooms after me was an old friend — one of those old friends one never sees, but one is always glad to meet. I did not expect that he would be in, and I gave the sharp knock one gives preparatory to going away at once. To my astonishment a voice was heard inside and I pushed the door open.
“ Halloa! ” said I, “ what are you doing here on a Sunday afternoon? I’ll bet you wanted no visitors. There was something in your ‘ Entrcz ’ which meant ‘ Who are you ? ’ more plainly than any words.”
“ Sit down,” was the reply. “ I am delighted to see you.”
My friend can be described as a brusque, kind-hearted fellow, with occasional fits of reverie never even bordering on taciturnity, and 1 was surprised at his manner.
“ For a man who is delighted to see another you really . . . But don’t be afraid. I just wanted to see the old rooms again. I have no time for the cross hermit to whom X so kindly made them over. May I just look at the ‘ three houses * once more ? ”
He opened the window and I stepped out on to the leads where the old breezy air welcomed me. I looked around. The familiar outlines stood out unchanged against the deep blue sky. There was Quinet’s house, on the other side of the garden, and Sainte-Beuve’s homely dwelling, and, timorously retreating into the dark background of a deserted conventgarden, the glum crazy mansion where Victor Hugo first took his bride.
Between the street and the collegiate buildings there was the old jumble of studios, improbable little inns, and nondescript one-storied houses round the open space where the farm-house, the wonderful forgotten farm-house, was dozing as usual between its .sheds and barn; and, just beneath me, the little garden and tiny cottage, just as it used to be, perhaps a shade more exquisitely tidy.
“ They are out as usual on Sunday afternoons,” I said from the roof to my friend, “ how are they ? ”
“ If you took as much interest as all that in those people you might have looked in before and not waited two years,” he replied. “ It amused you to look down every now and then and say a word or two, because the woman was pretty, but don’t pretend you really cared a straw for those workers. They moved out long ago.”
“ Moved out long ago! . . . Where are they gone, I wonder ? . . . But who lives there now ? ”
“ Nobody lives there,” Chevallier replied in a decidedly gruff tone. After a while, he added almost as if he spoke to himself, “ They only die.”
“ What on earth is the matter ? ” I said, rather impatiently, “ can’t you be a little sociable and explicit? ”
Oh! there’s nothing the matter, nothing whatever. It’s only because God, as usual, has to obey the devil in this world, and life is a ridiculous farce, and men are fools and murderers, thinking themselves very wise and highly civilized all the time. Oh! just sit down; you deserve to hear the story.”
He shut the wi ndow, p ulled the curtains, and switched on every light in the room.
“ Why not wait till it is quite dark ? ” I said, “ it is a pity to miss the twilight on such a day as this.”
“ Nonsense,” Chevallier replied, fumbling at some shelves and taking down an armful of volumes.
I noticed that a bookcase in a corner had been emptied of its contents, and the books lay in a great heap as if they waited to be packed up.
“ Your people,” Chevallier returned, “ moved off a fewr months after I had taken possession. I wras not sorry, Every time I appeared on the roof the woman would pop out of the hut and try to speak to me. I did n’t want to be so very neighborly.”
I have no doubt that she was perfectly all right,” I interposed. “ If you lived at the bottom of a well like that you would probably be only too glad to see a human face — were it the very image of yours — appear on high from time to time.”
“ Oh! leave the woman alone. I only said that she was pretty and invariably spied me out. When they were gone, the stillness was so deep down in the yard that I thought the poor little lodgings were deserted forever, and I grieved sometimes, thinking that the two lilac trees would bloom a short springtide in the tiny garden, and no poor people be happier for it. But it was winter still and the lilacs were a far-away hope. Toward the Carnival I fancied I heard occasional noises rise up from the garden, and one morning 1 was suddenly roused by a sound which I know I must have heard several times before, but of which I had been only vaguely conscious. It was the lusty cackling of a hen which, I don’t know why, I immediately imagined as one of those honest homely hens you see in distant districts still innocent of imported fowls, and so like stout Normand ’paysannes in full gray petticoats with a dash of red somewhere. Whatever her appearance, she was a talkative old hen. One generally imagines that hens only cackle over their new-laid egg. One will always imagine the wrong thing. Hens talk all day, sometimes in a subdued tone as if they were only remarking on little things, sometimes in a frightened or indignant chatter, and they keep up a great cackling for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour three or four times a day, especially when they hear bells. It amused me to gather all these particulars about gallinaceous habits, and there was something delightful in hearing only the plainest country noises and forgetting that the stone waves of the Parisian streets rolled for miles around.
“ Who had brought the hen into the little garden, and who looked after her, I had no idea. No sound helped me to guess, and I liked the admixture of anonymousness and familiarity in my feathered neighbor. However, happening one Sunday to return here immediately after lunch, instead of paying my Sunday calls, I was surprised to hear the voices of two children in the little garden. They had the exquisite ring habitual with Paris-born children, — no matter who the parents are, — and I began to speculate about them, wondering whether they lived in the cottage and, if so, how I had never heard them, when they suddenly broke into a song of their own which told me all I wanted to know.
Dans le jardin de grand’m&re,’
they repeated in a sweet monotone which had more poetry in it than many a prize poem I had read.
“ So there was a grandmother, who had come along with the hen. Once, when the two little voices rose to a rather high pitch, somebody said from the cottage, ‘ Finissez ! Granny does not like noise;’ a woman’s voice.
“ Toward four o’clock I heard the same voice bidding somebody good-by, and from the silence which immediately set in, I inferred that the old woman had been left alone and that the children and their mother lived elsewhere. Only the hen went on a little while, and suddenly, almost angrily, as if she had been chased and protested against the indignity. I opened the window, and for the first time since the winter months I stole on to the roof. An old woman was in the garden, and, as I expected, she was trying to drive the reluctant hen — gray and round as I had fancied her — into a sheltered recess where a few fagots and boxes were heaped up. She was a country woman, probably a Southerner, — if one vras to judge from her headdress, — tall and thin, with a general stiffness in her demeanor and a permanently frightened expression on her face. She suddenly saw me, and we both retreated as if by one impulse into our respective lodgings. I felt sure I had given the poor old thing a turn.
“ I saw her another time, several weeks later, on Easter-eve. I had little dreamed that the Easter Bells, the dear Easter Bells of my childhood, would remind me of their aerial journey to and from Rome in any connection with the old woman’s backyard. But they did; and while I wTas packing up for the vacation I was delighted to hear the two children’s overjoyed outbursts at each fresh discovery of a bright egg in the parsley or in the box border. There was a red one, and there wTas a blue one, and there w-ere three more red ones. 1 could not resist the wish to see the happy boy and girl, and I got on to the roof just in time to hear them suggest that the blue eggs should be given to the gray hen (which they called la Grise) to hatch, as the chicks wrere sure to be the same-. color as the eggs. They were dear little children in plain white pinafores. The grandmother replied that no doubt this was a very feasible thing, but the safest might be to eat the blue eggs rather than wait a few weeks for wonderful chickens. She spoke with a southern accent, in a quick whisper well in keeping with her sad, timid face. Just as she spoke, the boy noticed and mentioned my presence, and the grandmother looked up with a faint smile which I was stupid enough to return awkwardly, falling back at once towards the window as if I had been caught eavesdropping. That was my only interview with a woman who was probably worth a dozen of such as you and I.”
Chevallier was telling all these trivial details with an earnestness and an animation very unusual with him, and I wondered at his tone.
“ About a month after my return from the country,” he went on, “ the chicks really came. I was apprised of their advent by a special song which the boy dedicated to them. There were six of them, the childish rhyme said, and they were all yellow. I would certainly have tried to see them but for the presence of a man, evidently the children’s father, whose voice frightened me. He had the clear, the over-clear intonation you hear everywhere between Marseilles and Bordeaux, and spoke incessantly on a variety of subjects, but mostly on suburban politics, which he viewed from the most radical socialist standpoint. I did not miss one syllable of what he said, and in half an hour’s time I could have described him and his dark sunburnt face of an Aveyronese navvy, as accurately as if I had known him for years. He was not a bad fellow, and his love for the poor old mother whom his speeches terrified expressed itself roughly every now and then through his political bombast, — but I hate a race of men who will seem drunk when they are sober.
“ I was glad to think that the man was too busy ranting in the Belleville wine-shops, of a Sunday afternoon, to come and disturb us with his saltpetre eloquence In fact, I never heard him again, and every time I noticed the children’s presence, which was seldom, as I always went to Orleans for the week-end, they were with their mother. The summer, as you remember, was beautiful, and I enjoyed it as much sitting on a bench in the college garden or in the Luxembourg as if I had been in a Swiss valley. My rooms were beautifully cool in the morning. I did more work in those four months than in all the rest of the year.”
“ And what about the chickens ? ” I asked.
“ I suppose they grew up and throve,” Chevallier answered. “ I never saw them, but I noticed for the first time in my life that their clucking was exactly like the melancholy piping of church rooks when they wheel round a steeple; and if you had been brought up, as I was, in a cathedral town, you would know that it means a great deal. I loved those chickens until I had to curse them.”
“ What do you mean ? ”
“You’ll soon know. I went home, as usual, for the long vacation, and particularly enjoyed the two months’ spell of deep quiet and half-slumbering rest. I know that I have not many of these peaceful periods in store, and the lurid glare and the bustle of Paris hurt me when I issued from the station the evening before resuming duty here. I reached the college about ten, found my rooms tidy, airy, cool, and quiet as ever, and after unpacking my things and putting away my portmanteau, and effacing all traces of recent arrival, which I detest, I sat down and thought. What did I think about ? Nothing in particular. I only felt conscious that years go quickly by, that Paris eats one’s life up fast, and that I had been very happy in the country. Just as the church bells chimed, preparatory to striking twelve, I was aroused by a clear, deep, all-awakening cock-crow, so near and singing that the bird might have been roosting outside the window. For one moment two other clarions joined in, and the three chanticleers kept up a wonderful chorus till another crowing, lowerpitched, echoed somewhere in the direction of the Luxembourg. They went on for several minutes, filling the quiet night with that strange mysterious harmony which Shakespeare alone has really expressed. There certainly is a tuning between the nightly cock’s notes and some deep chords in the human soul. Long after the birds had gone to sleep again I went on listening. ‘Oh you darlings,’ I said at last, moving towards the bedroom; ‘to think that you are so grown!’ The fact is that the soft clucking little creatures had grown into lusty adults while I was away. I heard them quite plainly in the day-time. It amused me to notice how positive and self-asserting the young fellows already were, and how the old hen’s cackling savored of senile dotage in comparison.
“ How can I explain to you that all of a sudden the pleasure I took in their crowing and bragging and squabbling was changed into insuperable aversion ? One sleepless night, and one morning during which I wanted to work and could not, and put down my incapacity to their intrusion, were enough. I began to shut the windows to shut the crowing out, when the weather was warm enough for air and open casements. I dreaded being awakened by their furious empty music when twelve o’clock struck. I especially hated one of the three, possibly the least robust, who would insist on challenging the Luxembourg old fellow when the other two had long desisted. His shrill insatiable call was maddening. There was something foolish and stupid in it which I abhorred like the noise of an objectionable machine. One morning, after a feverish night of insomnia, I heard this particular cock going on in such a silly triumphant way that I rushed to the window and threw an old inkstand at him, just when he was jerking in his stretched neck and darting his round eyes right and left with a stupid admixture of gratuitous elation and terror at nothing. The bottle hit a watering-pot in the gravel-walk and was smashed to atoms, while I got back into the room, half-furious and half-ashamed.
“ The same day I spoke of the nuisance at lunch, and somebody told me that the police regulations were strongly against all nocturnal noises and I had only to write to the commissaire. But I could see that the fellows were amused.
“ After a few days more of patience, or, I should say, impatience, I made up my mind to write to the old woman, and took out one of my cards. But I did not know her name. Then I wrote a letter which 1 intended throwing down at the window. Just when I was going to drop it, and knelt near the edge “with my letter in my hand, I thought myself ridiculous, and when the letter went down it was in small fragments, upon which the wretched fowls pounced as if it were manna. This suggested another plan. I made up my mind that if, by All Saints’ Day, the cocks had not disappeared, — for people sometimes kill a chicken or two on such an occasion, — I would buy a pennyworth of poisoned Indian corn, which would attract the cocks more surely than paper, and send fifteen francs to the old woman, by post, the next day.
“ But ten minutes after resolving on this cowardly course, I met the college secretary, one of the fellow’s who had thought my tales of sleepless nights good fun, and, as he asked me howr I was and how my cocks were, I coldly told him that his business was to rid me of the nuisance and not chaff me about it. I looked more than serious, and the secretary saw it.
“ ‘ Very w7ell,’ said he, half-liumorously, ‘ I am to see the commissaire to-day; but wmn’t you be sorry for your old woman ? ’
“ ‘ My old woman is not sorry for me,’ I replied.
“ I impatiently wraited for the night, childishly expecting that my troubles would be over then. But midnight w7as hailed with the usual dead-awakening fanfare, and, as it was the same the next day and the day after, I came to the conclusion that the secretary had only been joking at my expense once more.
“ So, without further parley and consideration, I sat down and wrote to the commissaire, whom I knew a little, a forcible and rather cutting petit bleu. The night came, and no sound whatever broke in upon the deadly stillness. AVasI rid of my persecutors ? I listened the whole of the next day, and no crowing was heard. My first feeling was one of infinite relief and triumph, promptly succeeded by a vague anxiety. I had grown so used lately to listen and listen, now in anger, now in hope, that all my soul seemed to be in my ears, and the unbroken silence soon weighed upon me like remorse. The old hen was not heard any more than her wretched sons, and I missed her honest clucking. Toward six o’clock I was glad to notice the presence of the children in the yard; but soon after they raised such a piteous crying that it was heartrending, and I began to feel as guilty as 1 had been glad. There could be no doubt that the children were in tears over the death or disappearance of their pets. I wrould have given anything to undo what I had done.
“ The poor children were heard sobbing for a long time. When my servant came in to settle the bedroom, he listened for a while, and told me, ‘ There’s something queer going on outside here, sir. You should have heard the racket yesterday afternoon.’
“ ‘ What was it ? ’ I asked.
“ ‘A man,’ old Pierre replied, ‘ an infuriated man who came into the yard suddenly, and evidently killed every fowl in it, with the most terrible oaths I ever heard. “Bandits! ” he shouted, as he v’ent to workbrigands! murderers!” But it seemed to me those words were sometimes hurled at the fowds, and sometimes at somebody in this house.’
“ This narrative set me thinking. At first I thought the man must have been a policeman, but the idea “was absurd. I soon came to the conclusion that it was the woman’s son who had been apprised of my complaint, and was giving vent to his hatred against the bourgeois next door. The conjecture was rather a comfort. I preferred causing rage to causing distress.
“ Early the next morning, there were sudden sounds, which I could not make out, in the little garden and in the long passage leading from it into the street. An irresistible impulse soon drove me to the roof, and I beheld a shocking scene. Pour men, four workmen in Sunday clothes, were just lifting a coffin up before placing it on their shoulders, and a woman in a decent black dress was trying to prevent a man from laying the limp body of a dead fowl with a red comb on the shabby pall. Not a w’ord passed between them, and the struggle was made more horrible by the ghastly grotesqueness of it, and by the absolute silence. At last the man said in an angry whisper, ‘I tel! you that the assassins must pay for it, shall pay for it.’ And he marched behind the coffin with the bird dangling from his hand. The little procession was soon out of the passage, and I remained transfixed with horror and amazement.”
“ Do you mean to say,” I asked, “ that the poor old woman was dead, and that this was her funeral ? ”
“ Yes, it was, and I shall not forget the scene in a hurry. I learned all the particulars at the police station wffiere I called in the course of the day. A policeman was eating his lunch in a corner of the bleak room when I asked the commissaire what had happened. He heard my question, looked up, and pushed his plate away from him. The commissaire just nodded his way, as if he referred me to him, and the man answered me. There were sorrow’ in his face and voice.
“ ‘ It’s all been a very unfortunate business, sir,’ said he. 1 The commissairc had told me to tell the old woman of your complaint a wreek ago. But I could not find the house, hidden away as it is in that maze. AVlien your second letter came, I was beginning to eat my dinner as I am now; the commissaire spoke to me rather shortly, and I left my soup to go straight to the place with your letter in my hand. You had described the situation of the house so clearly that in less than five minutes I was in the yard, boiling over, I must say, with impatience at what I considered a — not very pressing case. I pushed the door open rather roughly, and delivered my message in a more angry tone than if I had had time to realize that there was no other tenant of the cottage than an old woman. I shall never forget her terror when she looked round and saw me. In one second she was as pale as her cap, and sat down in a chair without a word. She died in a few hours. I saw a nun die like that of mere fright, five years ago. I hope this is the last woman I kill.’
“ 4 You see, my dear sir,’ the commissaire said, ‘ she was a country-born and bred woman who had a mortal fright of Paris, and thought all the time that the police were after her son, and lived in such a state of anxiety, even in that quiet little yard, that the inspector here found a letter on the pincushion directed to her son in case of her sudden death. Poor old thing! But of course you were quite right in sending in your complaints, quite right. The regulations are absolutely on your side. Of course— But it’s useless now.’
“ I saw what the commissaire meant. He might have put it in the words I was hearing in my inner ear all the time, and said, ‘ Of course, you are right, but you are what the poor people call raide comme la justice. You are a civilized man whose civilization taught him to speak to his neighbor through the police. You are a murderer by accident, but you are a canting hypocrite by nature. If one said goodmorning to one’s neighbor, one would run less risk of killing him unawares.’ I shall die with that old woman’s death on my conscience.”
I did not know what to say, and remained silent for a long time. At last I suggested taking Chevallier over to some restaurant on the other side of the river, and he agreed. The poetry of the evening was gone when we walked out, and neither of us thought the streets very gay that night. It seemed to me as if wTe, and all the people we saw, were wmlves in smart disguise, and all the policemen knew it, and abetted it, and despised us for it.