Pater on The ‘Contes’ of M Augustin Filon

TALES OF A HUNDRED YEARS SINCE IT was a happy thought of M. Filon to put into the mouth of an imaginary centenarian a series of delightfully picturesque studies which aim at the minute presentment of life in France under the old régime, and end for the most part with the Revolution. A genial centenarian, whose years have told happily on him, he appreciates not only those humanities of feeling and habit which were peculiar to the last century and passed away with it, but also that permanent humanity which has but undergone a change of surface in the new world of our own, wholly different though it may look. With a sympathetic sense of life as it is always, M. Filon has transplanted the creations of his fancy into an age certainly at a greater distance from ourselves than can be estimated by mere lapse of time, and where a fully detailed antiquarian knowledge, used with admirable tact and economy, is indeed serviceable in giving reality of effect to scene and character. In truth, M. Filon’s very lively antiquarianism carries with it a genuine air of personal memory. With him, as happens so rarely, an intimate knowledge of historic detail is the secret of life, of the impression of life; puts his own imagination on the wing; secures the imaginative cooperation of the reader. A stately age?to us, perhaps, in the company of the historic muse, seeming even more stately than it actually was ?it is pleasant to find it, as we do now and again on these pages, in graceful déshalille. With perfect lightness of touch, M. Filon seems to have a complete command of all the physiognomic details of old France, of old Paris and its people?how they made a holiday; how they got at the news; the fashions. Did the English reader ever hear before of the beautifully dressed doll which came once a month from Paris to Soho to teach an expectant world of fashion how to dress itself; Old Paris ! For young lovers at their windows; for every one fortunate enough to have seen it:?” Qu’il est joli ce paysage du Paris nocturne d’il y a cent ens ! ” We think we shall best do justice to an unusually pretty book by taking one of M. Filon’s stories (not because we are quite sure it is the cleverest of them) with a view to the more definite illustration of his method, therein. Christopher Marteau was a warden of the corporation of Luthiers. He dealt in musical instruments, as his father and grandfather had done before him, at the sign ofSaint Cecilia. With . his wife, his only child Phlipote, and Claude his apprentice, who was to marry Phlipote, he occupied a good house of his own. Of course the disposition of the young people, bred together from their childhood, does not at first entirely concur with the parental arrangements. But the story tells, reassuringly, how? to some extent how sadly?they came heartily to do so. M. Marteau was no ordinary shopkeeper. The various distinguished people who had fingered his clavecins, and turned over the folios of music, for half a century past, had left their memories behind them; M. de Voltaire, for instance, who had caressed the head of Phlipote with an aged, skeleton hand, leaving, apparently, no very agreeable impression on the child, though her father delighted to recall the incident, being himself a demi-philosophe. He went to church, that is to say, only twice a year, on the Feast of St. Cecilia and on the Sunday when the Luthiers offered the pain bénit. It was his opinion that everything in the State needed reform except the Corporations. The relations of the husband to his affectionate, satiric, pleasure-seeking wife, who knew so well all the eighteen theatres which then existed in Paris, are treated with much quiet humour. On Sundays the four set forth together for a country holiday. At such times Phlipote would walk half-a-dozen paces in advance of her father and mother, side by side with her intended. But they never talked to each other: the hands, the eyes, never met. Of what was Phlipote dreaming ? and what was in the thoughts of Claude ? It happened one day that, like sister and brother, the lovers exchanged confidences. ” It is not always,” observes Phlipote, whom every one excepting Claude on those occasions sought with admiring eyes? “‘ It is not always one loves those one is told to love.’ “‘What, have you, too, a secret, my little Phlipote ?’ ” ‘ I too, Claude ! Then what may be yours ? ‘ “‘Listen, Phlipote ! ‘ he answered. ‘We don’t wish to be husband and wife, but we can be friends?good and faithful friends, helping each other to change the decision of our parents.’ “‘Were I but sure you would not betray me ‘ “‘Would you like me to confess first ? The woman I love Ah ! but you will laugh at my folly !’ “‘No, Claude ! I shall not laugh. I know too well what one suffers.’ ” ‘ Especially when love is hopeless.’ “‘Hopeless ?’ ” ‘ Alas ! I have never spoken to her. Perhaps never shall !’ “‘Well ! as for me, I don’t even know the name of him to whom my heart is given ! ‘ “‘Ah ! poor Phlipote !’ `’ ‘ Poor Claude ! ‘ ” They had approached each other. The young man took the tiny hand of his friend, pressing it in his own. ” ‘The woman I adore is Mademoiselle Guimard ! ‘ “‘What ! Guimard of the Opera ??the fiancée of Despréaux ? ‘ ” Claude still held the hands of Phlipote, who was trembling now, and almost on fire at the story of this ambitious love. In return she reveals her own. It was Good Friday. She had come with her mother to the Sainte Chapelle to hear Mademoiselle Coupain play the organ and witness the extraordinary spectacle of the convulsionnaires, brought thither to be touched by the relic of the True Cross. In the press of the crowd at this exciting scene Phlipote faints, or nearly faints, when a young man comes kindly to their aid. ” She is so young ! ” he explains to the mother, ” she seems so delicate ! ” ” He looked at me,” she tells Claude?” he looked at me, through his half-closed eyelids; and his words were like a caress”:? “‘And have you seen him no more ?’ asks Claude, full of sympathy. “‘ Yes ! once again. He pretended to be looking at the window of the Little Dunkirk, over the way, but with cautious glances towards our house. Only, as he did not know what storey we live on, he failed to discover me behind my curtain, where I was but half visible.’ “‘You should have shown yourself.’ “‘Oh, Claude ! ‘ she cried, with a delicious gesture of timidity, of shame. ” So they prattled for a long time; he talking of the great Guimard, she of her unknown lover, scarce listening to, but completely understanding each other. ” ‘ Holloa ! ‘ cries the loud voice of Christopher Marteau. ‘What are you doing out there ? ‘ “The young people arose. Phlipote linked her arm gaily in that of Claude. ‘ How contented I feel !’ she says; ‘how good it is to have a friend?to have you whom I used to detest, because I thought you were in love with me. Now, when I know you can’t bear me, I shall be nicely in love with you.’ The soft warmth of her arm seemed to pass through Claude, and gave him strange sensations. He resumed naively, ‘Yes ! and how odd it is after all that I am not in love with you. You are so pretty ! ‘ Phlipote raised her finger coquettishly, ‘ No compliments, monsieur. Since we are not to marry each other, it is forbidden to pay court to me ! “‘ From that day a close intimacy established itself between the formerly affianced pair, now become accomplices in defeating the good intentions of their elders. In long conversations’ they talked in turn, or both together, of their respective loves. Phlipote allows Claude entrance to her chamber, full of admiration for its graceful arrangements, its virgin cleanliness. He inspects slowly all the familiar objects daily touched by her, her books, her girlish ornaments. One day she cried with an air of mischief, ” If she were here in my place, what would you do ? ” and no sooner were the words uttered than his arms were round her neck. “‘Tis but to teach you what I would do were shehere.” They were a little troubled by this adventure. And the next day was a memorable one. By the kind contrivance of Phlipote herself, Claude gains the much-desired access to the object of his affections, but to his immense disillusion. If he could but speak to her, he fancies he should find the courage, the skill, to bend her. Breathless, Phlipote comes in secret with the good news. The great actress desires some one to tune herclavecin:? “‘ Papa would have gone; but I begged him so earnestly to take me to the Théâtre Français that he could not refuse; and it is yourself will go this evening to tune the clavecin of your beloved.’ “‘Phlipote, you’ve a better heart than I ! This morning I saw a gentleman, who resembled point by point your description of the unknown at the Sainte Chapelle, prowling about our shop.’ “‘And you didn’t tell me !’ ” Claude hung his head. “‘But why not ? ‘ the young girl asks imperiously. ‘ Why not ? ‘ ” ‘ In truth I could hardly say, hardly understand, myself. Do you forgive me, Phlipote ?’ “‘I suppose I must. So make yourself as smart as you can, to please your goddess.”‘ Next day she hears the story of Claude’s grievous disappointment on seeing the great actress at home?plain, five-and-forty, ill- tempered. He had tuned the clavecin and taken flight. – And now for Phlipote’s idol ! It was agreed that Whitsunday should be spent at Versailles. On that day the royal apartments were open to; the public, and at the hour of High Mass the crowd flowed back towards the vestibule of the chapel to witness what was called the procession of the Cordons Bleus. The ” Blue Ribbons” were the knights of the Order Du Saint-Esprit in their robes of ceremony, who came to range themselves in the choir according to the date of their creation. The press was so great that the parents were separated from the young people. Claude, however, at the side of Phlipote, realized the ideal of a faithful and jealous guardian. The hallebardes of the Suisses rang on the marble pavement of the gallery. Royalty, now unconsciously presenting its ceremonies for the last time, advanced through a cloud of splendour; but before the Queen appeared it was necessary that all the knights of the order down to the youngest should pass by, slow, solemn, majestic. They wore, besides their ribbons of blue moiré, the silver dove on the shoulder, and the long mantle of sombre blue velvet lined with yellow satin. Phlipote watched mechanically the double file of haughty figures passing before them: then, on a sudden, with a feeble cry, falls fainting into the arms of Claude. Recovered after a while, under shelter of the great staircase, she wept as those weep whose heart is broken by a great blow. Claude, without a word, sustained, soothed her. A sentiment of gratitude mingled itself with her distress. ” How good he is ! ” she thought. ” It was a pity,” says her mother a little later ?” a pity you did not see the Cordons Bleus. Fancy ! You will laugh at me ! But in one of the handsomest of the Chevaliers I felt sure I recognized the stranger who helped us at the Sainte Chapelle, and was so gallant with you.” Philpote did not laugh. ” You are deceived, mother ! ” she said in a faint voice. ” Pardi ! ” cries the father. ” ‘Tis what I always say. Your stranger was some young fellow from a shop.” Two months later the young people receive the nuptial benediction, and continue the musical business when the elders retire to the country. At first a passionate lover, Claude was afterwards a good and devoted husband. Phlipote never again opened her lips regarding the vague love which for a moment had flowered in her heart: only sometimes, a cloud of reverie veiled her eyes, which seemed to seek sadly, beyond the circle of her slow, calm life, a brilliant but chimeric image visible for her alone. And once again she saw him. It was in the terrible year 1794. She knew the hour at which the tumbril with those condemned to die passed the windows; and at the first signal would close them and draw the curtain. But on this day some invincible fascination nailed her to her place. There were ten faces; but she had eyes for one alone. She had not forgotten, could not mistake, him?that pale head, so proud and fine, but now thin with suffering; the beautiful mobile eyes, now encircled with the signs of sorrow and watching. The convict’s shirt, open in large, broad folds, left bare the neck, delicate as a woman’s, and made for that youthful face an aureole, of innocence, of martyrdom. His looks met hers. Did he recognize her ? She could not have said. She remained there, paralyzed with emotion, till the moment when the vision disappeared. Then she flung herself into her chamber, fell on her knees, lost herself in prayer. There was a distant roll of drums. The man to whom she had given her maiden soul was gone. “Cursed be their anger, for it was cruel ! ” says the reader. But Monsieur Filon’s stories sometimes end as merrily as they begin; and always he is all delicacy?a delicacy which keeps his large yet minute antiquarian knowledge of that vanished time ever in service to a direct interest in humanity as it is permanently, alike before and after ’93. His book is certainly one well worth possessing.


Originally published in the Guardian —