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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

François Coppée (1842–1908)

The Street Organ

From “Tales in Prose”

WHY do you stand so motionless at the high window of your boudoir, my lady countess, as if the touch of some mighty hand had transformed you into marble? What are you musing upon so intently, happy woman that you are, in the fulness of your beauty at the age of thirty? What memories does it summon up, what dreams does it compel, that old galop which with wailing and groaning the hand-organ is grinding out down there on the bleak boulevard, behind the leafless lindens of your garden?

It reminds you of the great amphitheater of “Johnson’s American Circus,” with its border of intently gazing faces, as it appeared in the days of your equestrian triumphs. When the two negro minstrels had put their comic concert to a sudden end by breaking their violins across each other’s heads, do you remember how the groom brought your trick-horse out on the sawdust track? And him you remember, the huge, white, docile creature, speckled with black, resembling a raw, dressed turkey stuffed with truffles? Then, hand in hand with the ringmaster, you made your entrance, a glittering creature in scarlet coat and hair Capoul style; the ringmaster with whom you (there is no harm in confessing it now) were just a tiny bit in love, like all the lady performers of the troupe. A quick little caper of twinkling feet by way of greeting to the public, and then, at a single bound, presto! hop! there you stand erect on your immense platform of a saddle. A crack of the whip, a stormy blare of brass instruments from the orchestra, the truffled horse falls mechanically into the proper little trot, and away you go!

Ah, countess, what an Olympian creature you were in those days! Seventeen was the number of your years, and your limbs were as those of the Capitoline Venus. What strength and grace! What perfect beauty, such as only the New World, with its crossing of varied strains, can produce! A murmur ran through the crowd. “It is Ada, the beautiful American,” and, intoxicated by this gale of triumph, off you pirouetted more boldly than ever.

A long crackling round of applause always ended the first part of the performance. And then, while the assistants were climbing on their stools to hold up the hoops for you to fly through, and the streamers to be leaped over, and while the clown amused the gods in the gallery by knocking his comrade flat down upon his face, and then delicately picking him up by the seat of his breeches—then would you ride slowly round the ring, alighting upon the rim of your saddle in butterfly fashion. That was the moment of keenest delight to your admirers. Proudly erect you held your goddess-like head, garlanded with flowers, and from the skirts of gauze that flowed and swayed about your form your divine extremities, clad in pink silk tights, emerged as from a cloud.

It was in one of those intervals of rest that you first observed the count, now your husband, then one of the gayest of Parisian men about town. In the passage that led to the stables he stood, tall and slender and faultlessly dressed in his close-fitting overcoat and pearl-gray hat, a sprig of lilac in his buttonhole, and tapping his lips with the gold knob of his little cane. The next day he was there, too, and the day after, and the next again. Your eyes drooped as they met his distracted gaze—that despairing look of a man who has lost his head.

And he had lost his head. But you were neither more nor less than a good, well-conducted girl. When you were five years old you had become an orphan, for your father, who did the pole-act, had fallen and broken his neck. Then the people of the troupe adopted the little one of the profession, and the old Parisian clown Mistigris taught you your French and a bit of reading and writing. But from being the pet and plaything of these worthy mountebanks—retaining their respect, too, through it all—you became the acknowledged glory of their enterprise. You were gaining a living in an honest way, it is true, by a display of your physical proportions, but you were virtuous nevertheless, and you remember that evening when the count offered you the turquoise set, in graceful, cynical terms enough, and you came near horsewhipping him in front of the elephant’s stall, in the very presence of the company.

The violent passions of the man needed but that spark. “Johnson’s American Circus” was then touring through France. The count followed it to Orleans, to Tours, to Nantes, there capping the climax of his folly (just as a Russian might have done), both his parents being dead, by carrying you off and marrying you.

Ah, dear me, how dolefully the wheezy hand-organ keeps grinding out the old galop in the twilight!

What could they do, after that first intoxicating honeymoon spent in a charming little seaside village? Down in the city the men at the Jockey Club were laughing to split their sides, and the women of fashion were bursting behind their fans with anger and jealousy. The count adopted a plan most feasible under the circumstances; he went into voluntary exile for a few years. Ah, my poor countess, how bored you were in that great dark Florentine palace, where you must needs be trained and taught like a little girl, where you had to digest so many lessons and bear with so many masters and mistresses! You were a grateful woman, though not, alas! a loving one, and so you wished to please the count, to make yourself worthy of him; but that took time and patience, and your husband would wound you so with his continual “Don’t speak like that—don’t do that,” invariably accompanied by a freezing my dear that pierced your heart.

But all women can be taught. Upstart is a word possessing no feminine form. At the end of three years you were an unimpeachable countess. The count, who was sick to death of museums and old masters that he had never been able to make much of, now brought you back to Paris. Open, with a bang, flew the long-closed doors and shutters of the old mansion, and you ate your home-coming dinner in the huge dining-room, opposite a portrait of the count’s great-grandfather, who had been lieutenant-general of the king’s armies; a stately old gentleman he was, with powdered hair, wearing the blue ribbon across his red coat, and especially remarkable for the immense family nose. From his lofty station he seemed to look down on you with severity.

And here, again, countess, you were sad and solitary. What labor did it cost your husband, what enormous expenditures for charitable purposes, merely to create for you a small society of priests and nuns! How doleful those black robes of either sex! And now for six years you have spent your mornings in visiting schools and nurseries, and have shivered of an evening in your lonely box at the Français or the Opera. You have no child, and no hope of one, and the years are fleeting. But worst of all is, that your only feelings toward your husband are those of gratitude and sincere friendship, for you have your opinion of him. No doubt he is a thorough gentleman in his way, but filled to the brim with stupid aristocratic prejudices, and as tiresome as a concert. He is now forty-eight, and the very type of the old beau turned milksop; a tasteless mixture enough of dyed whiskers and prejudices, gray hats and a weak stomach.

How pitiless the organ is in its persistence! Why will it play the old galop to the music of which you used in other days to time the dancing of your truffled horse? You see yourself once more in the arena at the end of your act, blowing your farewell kiss to the audience, and listening with delight to that hail-storm of applause. Are you going mad, countess? For you feel your heart beating, and the delicious emotions of your girlhood steal over you again when it seemed to you that the handsome ringmaster had tenderly pressed your fingers as he led you off the track.

At last the sound of the organ has died away; the tall skeletons of the bare trees can scarcely be seen standing out against the background of the dull, dark sky, that still grows darker and duller. The footman enters respectfully. He places a lamp that he has brought upon a stand, and says in ceremonial tones:

“The Vicar of Saint Thomas’s is awaiting your Ladyship in the drawing-room.”