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Imaginary portraits, p.8

Imaginary Portraits, page 8


Imaginary Portraits

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their minds.One man engaged with another in talk in the market-place; a newinfluence came forth at the contact; another and then another adhered;at last a new spirit was abroad everywhere. The hot nights were noisywith swarming troops of dishevelled women and youths with red-stainedlimbs and faces, carrying their lighted torches over the vine-cladhills, or rushing down the streets, to the horror of timid watchers,towards the cool spaces by the river. A shrill music, a laughter atall things, was everywhere. And the new spirit repaired even to churchto take part in the novel offices of the Feast of Fools. Heads flungback in ecstasy--the morning sleep among the vines, when the fatigue ofthe night was over--dew-drenched garments--the serf lying at his easeat last: the artists, then so [62] numerous at the place, caught whatthey could, something, at least, of the richness, the flexibility ofthe visible aspects of life, from all this. With them the life ofseeming idleness, to which Denys was conducting the youth of Auxerre sopleasantly, counted but as the cultivation, for their due service toman, of delightful natural things. And the powers of nature concurred.It seemed there would be winter no more. The planet Mars drew nearerto the earth than usual, hanging in the low sky like a fiery red lamp.A massive but well-nigh lifeless vine on the wall of the cloister,allowed to remain there only as a curiosity on account of its immenseage, in that great season, as it was long after called, clothed itselfwith fruit once more. The culture of the grape greatly increased. Thesunlight fell for the first time on many a spot of deep woodlandcleared for vine-growing; though Denys, a lover of trees, was carefulto leave a stately specimen of forest growth here and there.

  When his troubles came, one characteristic that had seemed most amiablein his prosperity was turned against him--a fondness for oddly grown oreven misshapen, yet potentially happy, children; for odd animals also:he sympathised with them all, was skilful in healing their maladies,saved the hare in the chase, and sold his mantle to redeem a lamb fromthe butcher: He taught the people not to be [63] afraid of the strange,ugly creatures which the light of the moving torches drew from theirhiding-places, nor think it a bad omen that they approached. He tameda veritable wolf to keep him company like a dog. It was the first ofmany ambiguous circumstances about him, from which, in the minds of anincreasing number of people, a deep suspicion and hatred began todefine itself. The rich bestiary, then compiling in the library of thegreat church, became, through his assistance, nothing less than agarden of Eden--the garden of Eden grown wild. The owl alone heabhorred. A little later, almost as if in revenge, alone of allanimals it clung to him, haunting him persistently among the duskystone towers, when grown gentler than ever he dared not kill it. Hemoved unhurt in the famous menagerie of the castle, of which the commonpeople were so much afraid, and let out the lions, themselves timidprisoners enough, through the streets during the fair. The incidentsuggested to the somewhat barren pen-men of the day a "morality"adapted from the old pagan books--a stage-play in which the God of Wineshould return in triumph from the East. In the cathedral square thepageant was presented, amid an intolerable noise of every kind ofpipe-music, with Denys in the chief part, upon a gaily-painted chariot,in soft silken raiment, and, for [64] headdress, a strangeelephant-scalp with gilded tusks.

  And that unrivalled fairness and freshness of aspect:--how did he alonepreserve it untouched, through the wind and heat? In truth, it was notby magic, as some said, but by a natural simplicity in his living.When that dark season of his troubles arrived he was heard beggingquerulously one wintry night, "Give me wine, meat; dark wine and brownmeat!"--come back to the rude door of his old home in the cliff-side.Till that time the great vine-dresser himself drank only water; he hadlived on spring-water and fruit. A lover of fertility in all itsforms, in what did but suggest it, he was curious and penetrativeconcerning the habits of water, and had the secret of the divining-rod.Long before it came he could detect the scent of rain from afar, andwould climb with delight to the great scaffolding on the unfinishedtower to watch its coming over the thirsty vine-land, till it rattledon the great tiled roof of the church below; and then, throwing off hismantle, allow it to bathe his limbs freely, clinging firmly against thetempestuous wind among the carved imageries of dark stone.

  It was on his sudden return after a long journey (one of manyinexplicable disappearances), coming back changed somewhat, that he ateflesh for the first time, tearing the hot, red morsels with hisdelicate fingers in a kind of [65] wild greed. He had fled to thesouth from the first forbidding days of a hard winter which came atlast. At the great seaport of Marseilles he had trafficked withsailors from all parts of the world, from Arabia and India, and boughttheir wares, exposed now for sale, to the wonder of all, at the Easterfair--richer wines and incense than had been known in Auxerre, seeds ofmarvellous new flowers, creatures wild and tame, new pottery painted inraw gaudy tints, the skins of animals, meats fried with unheard-ofcondiments. His stall formed a strange, unwonted patch of colour,found suddenly displayed in the hot morning.

  The artists were more delighted than ever, and frequented his companyin the little manorial habitation, deserted long since by its ownersand haunted, so that the eyes of many looked evil upon it, where he hadtaken up his abode, attracted, in the first instance, by its richthough neglected garden, a tangle of every kind of creeping, vine-likeplant. Here, surrounded in abundance by the pleasant materials of histrade, the vine-dresser as it were turned pedant and kept school forthe various artists, who learned here an art supplementary to theirown,--that gay magic, namely (art or trick) of his existence, till theyfound themselves grown into a kind of aristocracy, like veritable gensfleur-de-lises, as they worked together for the decoration of the greatchurch and a hundred other [66] places beside. And yet a darkness hadgrown upon him. The kind creature had lost something of hisgentleness. Strange motiveless misdeeds had happened; and, at a lossfor other causes, not the envious only would fain have traced the blameto Denys. He was making the younger world mad. Would he make himselfCount of Auxerre? The lady Ariane, deserted by her former lover, hadlooked kindly upon him; was ready to make him son-in-law to the oldcount her father, old and not long for this world. The wise monkHermes bethought him of certain old readings in which the Wine-god,whose part Denys had played so well, had his contrast, his dark orantipathetic side; was like a double creature, of two natures,difficult or impossible to harmonise. And in truth the much-prizedwine of Auxerre has itself but a fugitive charm, being apt to sickenand turn gross long before the bottle is empty, however carefullysealed; as it goes indeed, at its best, by hard names, among those whogrow it, such as Chainette and Migraine.

  A kind of degeneration, of coarseness--the coarseness of satiety, andshapeless, battered-out appetite--with an almost savage taste forcarnivorous diet, had come over the company. A rumour went abroad ofcertain women who had drowned, in mere wantonness, their new-bornbabes. A girl with child was found hanged by her own act in a darkcellar. Ah! [67] if Denys also had not felt himself mad! But when theguilt of a murder, committed with a great vine-axe far out among thevineyards, was attributed vaguely to him, he could but wonder whetherit had been indeed thus, and the shadow of a fancied crime abode withhim. People turned against their favourite, whose former charms mustnow be counted only as the fascinations of witchcraft. It was as if thewine poured out for them had soured in the cup. The golden age hadindeed come back for a while:--golden was it, or gilded only, afterall? and they were too sick, or at least too serious, to carry throughtheir parts in it. The monk Hermes was whimsically reminded of thatafter-thought in pagan poetry, of a Wine-god who had been in hell.Denys certainly, with all his flaxen fairness about him, was manifestlya sufferer. At first he thought of departing secretly to some otherplace. Alas! his wits were too far gone for certainty of success inthe attempt. He feared to be brought back a prisoner. Those fat yearswere over. It was a time of scarcity. The working people might noteat and drink of the good things they had helped to store away. Tearsrose in the eyes of needy children, of old or weak people likechild
ren, as they woke up again and again to sunless, frost-bound,ruinous mornings; and the little hungry creatures went prowling afterscattered hedge-nuts or dried vine-tendrils.

  [68] Mysterious, dark rains prevailed throughout the summer. The greatoffices of Saint John were fumbled through in a sudden darkness ofunseasonable storm, which greatly damaged the carved ornaments of thechurch, the bishop reading his mid-day Mass by the light of the littlecandle at his book. And then, one night, the night which seemedliterally to have swallowed up the shortest day in the year, a plot wascontrived by certain persons to take Denys as he went and kill himprivately for a sorcerer. He could hardly tell how he escaped, andfound himself safe in his earliest home, the cottage in the cliff-side,with such a big fire as he delighted in burning upon the hearth. Theymade a little feast as well as they could for the beautiful huntedcreature, with abundance of waxlights.

  And at last the
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