Friday, 25 March 2016
The Mad Player
Illustrations by J. W. Beatty
From The Canadian Magazine, December 1911. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, January 2016.
I THINK he was the strangest figure I have ever seen; and I saw him first one evening when I had laid aside my brushes for the day, and, attracted by the cries and laughter, strolled down the village street and joined the group of peasants who pushed around him.
He was mounted on a stage that consisted of a board stretched between two barrels, at one end of which a torch smoked woefully, as though in protest at its own desecration of the soft mountain twilight. A bow dangled straight down from one hand, a violin from the other, and his black eyes glittered from a face whose skin, where one could see it for the great untrimmed, shaggy mass of white beard, was colourless, parchment-like in its pallour; while, beside his master, a huge tawny mastiff on his haunches scratched vigorously at his hide, causing the plank to sway violently.
As I approached, the man fastened his eyes on me, and, sweeping his red woollen cap, with its long, hanging tassel, from his head, bowed.
“Monsieur,” he cried, “will do Coquin”—here he flourished his bow toward the canine—“the honour to remark his attack so marvelous of the high C, yes? It is to please the children; then monsieur shall see.”
Then, without waiting for any acknowledgment from me, who was, indeed, too amused and nonplused to offer any, the man and his beast burst into an astounding chorus. The man played, his efforts merciless on himself, every joint in his body seeming to swung to the rhythm of the air. His ill-fitting apparel—black, baggy velveteen trousers, into which was tucked a faded blue blouse, many sizes too large for him, that served for both coat and shirt—flapped in concert with his movements, exaggerating the gaunt leanness of his physique. And, as the oil torch sputtered crazily, joggling up and down with the motion of the plank, the dog howled, lifting up his head in prolonged, hearty and repeated yowls, snatching for his breath between each outbreak as he would snap at a pestiferous fly buzzing before his nose.
“He is but a harmless fool,” volunteered the man standing at my elbow.
“Who is he?” I asked curiously.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows?” he replied. “He travels the mountains and takes our pennies when times are good; when there is no money we give him something to eat and drink.”
“They were crying ‘Vive le Due' when I came,” said I. “Is that what you call him?”
“But, yes,” laughed the man: then: “Monsieur is he who was painting by the river this morning?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“So, Monsieur is, we know, a stranger, but it is evident he has never been in the mountains before since he has not heard of the Due de Vassmalquieur.”
“Vassmalquieur?” I repeated, puzzled. “What is that?”
My informant’s reply, if he made any, was drowned in the round of applause that greeted the conclusion of the piece. The Due—I shall call him that—gave a little bow that was all of condescension to the group before him, and again fastened his eyes on me as though demanding my verdict.
I clapped my hands and joined heartily in the cheers. The man's face broke into a smile and again he bowed profoundly, as he put his bow to the strings to begin a new selection. Then, while the Due fiddled with all his might and the brute ran the gamut to the accompaniment of the screaming laughter of the women and children, I turned to resume my conversation with my new acquaintance, only to find that he had moved away with some of his companions. So I, too, changed my position, strolling here and there amongst the crowd of rough, simple people, men, women and children of the little town, perched high on a slope of the Belgian Ardennes, which had been my stopping place for more than a week back. Finally, I turned to go, and, as I did so, the Due, whose eyes must have been following my every movement, stopped short in his playing and called out to me.
“If monsieur will but listen,” he pleaded, “I will play the Sonate Pathétique. Coquin shall be silent. Yes?”
I nodded my head unconcernedly as he began; but as the notes, throbbing, tremulous, rose and fell, I stood spellbound, silent, at their exquisite sweetness. Like some divine melody it was that, at the master touch, fills the heart too full for words, the eyes with tears, flooding the soul with a sense of the infinite, lifting it away beyond the gross, material things of life.
As the last note died away the audience stirred uneasily, a child’s voice rose petulantly and then another’s. There was a little ripple of applause, scattered and uncertain. “I like the other better,” declared a dark-eyed girl beside me, who clung to a young man’s arm. “It is too sad, that!”
For myself, I stood wondering at the battered incongruity, who, with his eyes gravely fixed on mine, now pulled his cap from his head again, and, bowing with unmistakable grace and dignity, placed it in the dog’s mouth.
Without a word from his master, the animal leaped from the plank and began to pass among the crowd, mutely, but eloquently, demanding some more substantial token of the audience’s appreciation than their mere applause. The brute’s sagacity was truly wonderful. Even those who had edged to the outer fringes away from the press did not escape his watchful eye, and the hat was duly presented to them, with, if necessary, a paw scratching the trousers’ leg or skirt to attract their attention.
To me the dog came almost last of all, for I had caught sight of the peasant with whom I had been conversing earlier in the evening and had joined him as he stood alone and a little apart. There were a number of pennies in the hat, perhaps ten or twelve. My companion laughed as he added another.
“The Due is in luck to-night,” he said.
“Yes?” I queried, contributing a silver piece. “Is it more, then, than usual?”
“About double, I should say,” he replied. “It is intermission. He will play some more, and at the end Coquin will go around again.”
It had grown dusk, and the Due, taking the hat from the dog, which had now returned to him, carried it to the torch and began to examine the contents under the flickering light. I moved a little closer, expecting to witness some expression of satisfaction as the result of his investigation. The peasant had said the collection was double the usual amount, and that was before I had contributed my two-franc piece, which was, at least, three times as much as all the rest combined. To my intense astonishment, therefore, the Due, after a moment, crushed the hat in his hand.
“I play no more to-night,” he burst out; and then, curiously, his words trailed off and broke: “No—more—to-night—”
The protest from the audience that followed this announcement was vigorous and pointed; but they might better have saved their breath. Without lifting his eyes in their direction, the Due took his torch, and, jabbing it flame downward into the ground, extinguished it. Certainly after that it was useless to stay longer, and the crowd, breaking up into little groups, began to move away; the women complaining volubly, the men grumbling with more of good-natured tolerance than of anger.
Half-amused, half-serious, and, too, a little puzzled, I mingled with those who took the road in the direction of the inn where I was lodging. Everyone knew everyone else, and their genealogy as well, and badinage flew thick and fast, for they were laughing now at the antics of the poor fool, as they styled him—the Due de Vassmalquieur. At the inn door they cried a respectful goodnight in chorus—like children they were. It seemed good to be among them. They took life as they found it, loved and married and died, simply, heartily, even as they lived. I whistled as I pulled over my sketches made that day, and then laughed aloud at the extravagance of my simile—one does not die heartily, I suppose.
“Pardon, monsieur”—the voice was at my elbow. I had taken a chair to the big fireplace in the common living-room of the inn, for it was chilly in the autumn evenings in the mountains. My folio was open on my knees. As I whirled quickly around, startled, a sketch fell from the rest and fluttered to the floor.
“Pardon, monsieur”—the Due de Vassmalquieur had picked it up and was extending it to me. As I reached for the sheet, he uttered a cry, abruptly drew it back, and, holding it close to his eyes as though shortsighted, stared at it fascinated. Coquin, on his haunches, was motionless at his master’s side.
I waited without speaking, desiring rather to see what this strange individual would do next. After a moment he shook his head, a feeble smile on his lips that seemed one of gentle tolerance for his own vagaries. He hesitated, shook his head again, this time more emphatically than before, and almost roughly pushed the sketch into my hands.
“My eyes play me tricks, monsieur,” he said querulously; and again the phrase that seemed mechanically ever on his lips: “Pardon, monsieur.”
“You are interested in the picture?” I asked. “It is only a little sketch I made this morning.”
“The picture is nothing to me,” he answered brusquely. “I am not here to look at pictures. Monsieur has the dress of the artist, but not the temperament.”
In what way had I offended the man, for offended he appeared to be? I placed the sketch with apparent carelessness, though purposely, in full view, on top of the portfolio, which I continued to hold on my knees. Across the room, madame, the patronne of the inn, in short woollen skirt, bustled around the three or four little tables serving saison, the native beer, to the villagers. In the corner, her husband sat facing me, puffing contentedly at his pipe, his glance shifting from myself to the Due, then to Coquin, the dog, and back again.
The Due was fumbling in his pocket. Suddenly, with a quick movement, he forced into my hand the two-franc piece that I had dropped into his hat when Coquin took up the collection.
“What—what is this?” I stammered.
“Monsieur is he who placed it in the hat, is it not so?”
“Certainly, I did; but—”
He interrupted me with a violent gesture of his hand; then, drawing up his body to its full height: “Monsieur does me an injury. I am an artist. Between artists there is appreciation not of money. Monsieur considers my playing not worthy of an artist, yes? That is a misfortune for me, but it is not deserving of insult.”
“It is not necessary!”—again he stopped me. “Am I the less artist because I am poor, and to gain a few pennies play for the amusement of the villagers? And Coquin to make them laugh? That is not art. Do I not know it? But did I not play once for monsieur alone, who is an artist himself? And I am repaid so!”
A harmless fool my peasant informant had told me. Indeed, it seemed so. The poor crazed brain full of whimsical conceits and fancies! His distress was real enough and pathetic, too, in the hurt dignity of his tones. I had wounded him in that tenderest of all spots—his pride and his belief in his artist worth. A distinct sense of pity came over me. Racking my brain for something that I might say to soothe the unintentional hurt I had inflicted, my eyes travelled around the room in search of inspiration. Madame’s wooden shoes clack-clacked her constant coming and going; the occupants of the tables were laughing and joking noisily; monsieur, the proprietor, met my look as my glance completed the circle, and his face puckered into a funny little smile of interested amusement, as though intimating that he understood and appreciated my dilemma. Involuntarily, I smiled back, and then, fearful that the Due might have intercepted the look and have misinterpreted it as one of derision directed toward himself, I turned to him with the intention of making such amends as I could.
But I need have had no concern on that score. The player seemed oblivious of everything and everybody save only the sketch, at which he was again staring intently, fixedly even.
“Pardon, monsieur”—the voice was a trembling quaver; the matter of the two-franc piece and the question of his artist worth, evidently far from the poor, unbalanced mind, now obsessed with another problem. “Pardon, monsieur; but did monsieur say he had done this to-day—here?"
“Yes,” I answered. “Why?”
“That is none of your affair!” he cried sharply; then quickly: “No, no, monsieur, I did not mean to offend. Monsieur will tell me where it was done—where? Mon Dieu,” and I thought at first it was but a trick my eyes were playing on me! “But it is so! It is real! It is real!” The man in his sudden excitement was pulling at my arm to drag me toward the door.
“Calm yourself, my friend,” I said. “Of course, I will show you the spot since you are so interested.” And so to humour him I rose from my chair and went to the street.
It was already quite dark. The evening settles down rapidly in the mountains in late October, but the moon just rising over the crest of a peak showed the road stretching out, a white, winding trail between the hills to the valley below us, from where one caught an occasional moon-glint from the river through an opening here and there in the woods.
The Due clung closely to me. following my gesture as I pointed toward the valley.
“It is there; yes, yes, it is there, I knew it,” he whispered to himself. I say whispered, though that hardly describes it. The words seemed drawn in, in a low, catchy, sobbing way.
“You see the first turn in the road?” I directed.
He nodded his head vehemently.
“Yes? Well, there is a little path—”
“I know! I know!” he interrupted.
“—that turns off there, leading into the woods,” I continued. “A quarter of a mile farther on it comes out onto a little open space above the river. It was from there that I sketched the opposite bank, which is the picture you—”
But without waiting for me to complete my sentence, the Due dashed away, running wildly down the road. Coquin at his heels.
I watched them until they reached the turn and disappeared, the man and the dog—Coquin, with clumsy, rolling movement; the Due, a fantastic figure, tassel bobbing from his woollen cap, blouse flapping, arms and legs swinging crazily. I laughed heartily at the sight as I turned and re-entered the inn, still laughing.
The innkeeper had changed his position, carrying his chair close to the one I had been occupying. As I sat down he looked at me out of one eye—and none could mistake the look. I ordered a pot of saison.
“Monsieur is curious about the Due, is it not so?” he questioned, emerging from his glass and replacing his pipe in his mouth. “Tiens, tiens! None can tell you the story better than I. A lot is told of him, the Due, but it is mostly untrue. It is a long time ago now. How old would monsieur say was the Due?”
“Sixty-five or seventy,” I hazarded.
“Monsieur is wrong by more than twenty years. he is forty-two or three, the Due.” My host buried his face in the mug of saison, then wiping his lips with the back of his hand shook his head sagely and repeated: ‘‘Twenty years. Monsieur would not think it, no?”
“No,” I said, expressing my surprise in my voice.
“But it is so,” asserted the landlord. “We were boys in the same village, only he was of the aristocrats. It is different now, yes? He was a young man when it happened, the accident to his fiancee. Of that I do not know much. She was never found. One morning alone with her horse she went to ride. The horse returned at night, but of the girl nothing was ever heard”—again he buried his face in the mug, then flung out his arms expansively—“nothing!”
“And the Due?” I prompted.
“The girl and music—music and the girl. He was that way. Nothing else—it was his life. lie was always queer. After the accident—they came at last to think that she had been thrown from her horse and had fallen over a cliff, perhaps into the river, which is undoubtedly the true explanation—the Due began to wander through the mountains searching for her. At first he would return each night, then he would be away for days, and, after a time, he would not be seen for weeks and sometimes months. Always he would have with him some instrument—sometimes a piccolo; sometimes, like to-night, a violin. His parents could do nothing; the poor fellow was crazed, searching, searching, always searching, until it has come to be as you have seen. That is the story, monsieur. It is pathetic, is it not?”
“Yes,” I said slowly. “Poor chap! But his asking for money, is that, too, part of his fancy? You said he was of the aristocracy. His parents—”
“They died,” said my host. “And as for the estate—when one is simple, eh, what does monsieur expect?”
“You mean he was robbed of it all?” I demanded.
The landlord nodded, finishing the last drop in the mug.
“Then Vassmalquieur, I suppose,” said I, “was the name of the estate.”
At this the innkeeper laughed outright, shaking his fat body until the tears stood in his eyes. “Oh, la, la!” he cried, when he could get his breath. “But, no, monsieur! They call him Due because, as I told monsieur, he was aristocrat—it is but a nickname. For a long time it was but Due, then some wag added the Vassmalquieur. Vassmalquieur, monsieur, is patois—Walloon, do you see? It means—nowhere! The Duke of Nowhere! The name of an estate, yes truly!”—and he went off into another burst of unrestrained hilarity.
I did not join him. The humour, if humour there were, was lost in the sterner note, the pitiful tragedy of a life behind it all—the tragedy deadened, no doubt, to those to whom the poor stroller had become an accustomed figure year after year, but vividly fresh to me who had just heard his story for the first time. And the picture—the sketch? I picked it up to look at it again, wondering if the poor brain could have found something in it to touch the memories of the past. It was but a landscape, as I have said. I handed it to the landlord, with the thought that he might supply the connection, if connection there were. He took it gingerly and stared—at his empty mug. I had no wish to buy his verdict. but at my request madame, with a playful shake of her finger at me, replenished it.
“It is magnificent!” said my rogue of a host.
I took it back, placed it in my portfolio, bade him good-night, and went upstairs to my room. Once during the night I was awakened by a dog’s long-drawn-out howl as it floated in through the open window. This was repeated. Half-drowsily the Due’s words came back to me: “Monsieur will do Coquin the honour to remark his attack so marvelous of the high C, yes?” Then I went off to sleep again.
In the morning I stood at the inn door as the cortege passed. The villagers silent, bare-headed, reverent. Beside the body, a dog—Coquin—drooping, head low, pitiful in his dumb grief. I turned, depressed and saddened, to ask the particulars. It was, indeed, Coquin that I had heard during the night, for early in the morning, attracted by his continued cries, they had found the body of his master near the spot to which I had directed him. He had either stepped or fallen over the bank which there rose straight up perhaps twenty feet, and his head had struck on a boulder that jutted out from the water below.
I cannot express the emotion that overwhelmed me; for my sketch, innocently enough, it is true, but none the less certainly, it seemed, had lured a fellow-creature to his death. I went at once to the portfolio and took it out, and for a long time puzzled over it vainly. Then suddenly a thought came to me. I remembered that in glancing at it, as it lay on the floor the night before, I had viewed it in its normal position—but it lay, then, between where I sat and where the Due stood. He must have looked at it upside down. I reversed it quickly—and then I, as he had done, with a startled cry, carried it closer to my eyes. At last I understood. The foliage, by some grim freak as my brush had traced it, bore a crude, but unmistakable resemblance to a woman’s face, with her hair streaming down touching the river’s brink—and to the poor, crazed brain it had been the end of his long search!
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.