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Imaginary portraits, p.9

Imaginary Portraits, page 9


Imaginary Portraits

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clergy bethought themselves of a remedy for this eviltime. The body of one of the patron saints had lain neglectedsomewhere under the flagstones of the sanctuary. This must be piouslyexhumed, and provided with a shrine worthy of it. The goldsmiths, thejewellers and lapidaries, set diligently to work, and no long timeafter, the shrine, like a little cathedral with portals and towercomplete, stood ready, its chiselled gold framing panels of rockcrystal, on the great altar. Many bishops arrived, with King Lewis theSaint himself accompanied by his mother, to assist at the search forand disinterment of the sacred relics. In [69] their presence, theBishop of Auxerre, with vestments of deep red in honour of the relics,blessed the new shrine, according to the office De benedictionecapsarum pro reliquiis. The pavement of the choir, removed amid asurging sea of lugubrious chants, all persons fasting, discovered as ifit had been a battlefield of mouldering human remains. Their odourrose plainly above the plentiful clouds of incense, such as was used inthe king's private chapel. The search for the Saint himself continuedin vain all day and far into the night. At last from a little narrowchest, into which the remains had been almost crushed together, thebishop's red-gloved hands drew the dwindled body, shrunkeninconceivably, but still with every feature of the face traceable in asudden oblique ray of ghastly dawn.

  That shocking sight, after a sharp fit as though a demon were going outof him, as he rolled on the turf of the cloister to which he had fledalone from the suffocating church, where the crowd still awaited theProcession of the relics and the Mass De reliquiis quae continentur inEcclesiis, seemed indeed to have cured the madness of Denys, butcertainly did not restore his gaiety. He was left a subdued, silent,melancholy creature. Turning now, with an odd revulsion of feeling, togloomy objects, he picked out a ghastly shred from the common bones onthe pavement to wear about his neck, and in a little while found hisway to the monks [70] of Saint Germain, who gladly received him intotheir workshop, though secretly, in fear of his foes.

  The busy tribe of variously gifted artists, labouring rapidly at themany works on hand for the final embellishment of the cathedral of St.Etienne, made those conventual buildings just then cheerful enough tolighten a melancholy, heavy even as that of our friend Denys. He tookhis place among the workmen, a conventual novice; a novice also as towhatever concerns any actual handicraft. He could but compound sweetincense for the sanctuary. And yet, again by merely visible presence,he made himself felt in all the varied exercise around him of thosearts which address themselves first of all to sight. Unconsciously hedefined a peculiar manner, alike of feeling and expression, to thoseskilful hands at work day by day with the chisel, the pencil, or theneedle, in many an enduring form of exquisite fancy. In threesuccessive phases or fashions might be traced, especially in the carvedwork, the humours he had determined. There was first wild gaiety,exuberant in a wreathing of life-like imageries, from which nothingreally present in nature was excluded. That, as the soul of Denysdarkened, had passed into obscure regions of the satiric, the grotesqueand coarse. But from this time there was manifest, with no loss ofpower or effect, a well-assured seriousness, somewhat [71] jealous andexclusive, not so much in the selection of the material on which thearts were to work, as in the precise sort of expression that should beinduced upon it. It was as if the gay old pagan world had been blessedin some way; with effects to be seen most clearly in the rich miniaturework of the manuscripts of the capitular library,--a marvellous Ovidespecially, upon the pages of which those old loves and sorrows seemedto come to life again in medieval costume, as Denys, in cowl now andwith tonsured head, leaned over the painter, and led his work, by akind of visible sympathy, often unspoken, rather than by any formalcomment.

  Above all, there was a desire abroad to attain the instruments of afreer and more various sacred music than had been in use hitherto--amusic that might express the whole compass of souls now grown tomanhood. Auxerre, indeed, then as afterwards, was famous for itsliturgical music. It was Denys, at last, to whom the thought occurredof combining in a fuller tide of music all the instruments then in use.Like the Wine-god of old, he had been a lover and patron especially ofthe music of the pipe, in all its varieties. Here, too, there had beenevident those three fashions or "modes":--first, the simple andpastoral, the homely note of the pipe, like the piping of the winditself from off the distant fields; then, the wild, savage din, thathad cost so much to quiet people, and [72] driven excitable people mad.Now he would compose all this to sweeter purposes; and the building ofthe first organ became like the book of his life: it expanded to thefull compass of his nature, in its sorrow and delight. In long,enjoyable days of wind and sun by the river-side, the seeminglyhalf-witted "brother" sought and found the needful varieties of reed.The carpenters, under his instruction, set up the great wooden passagesfor the thunder; while the little pipes of pasteboard simulated thesound of the human voice singing to the victorious notes of the longmetal trumpets. At times this also, as people heard night after nightthose wandering sounds, seemed like the work of a madman, though theyawoke sometimes in wonder at snatches of a new, an unmistakable newmusic. It was the triumph of all the various modes of the power of thepipe, tamed, ruled, united. Only, on the painted shutters of theorgan-case Apollo with his lyre in his hand, as lord of the strings,seemed to look askance on the music of the reed, in all the jealousywith which he put Marsyas to death so cruelly.

  Meantime, the people, even his enemies, seemed to have forgotten him.Enemies, in truth, they still were, ready to take his life should theopportunity come; as he perceived when at last he ventured forth on aday of public ceremony. The bishop was to pronounce a blessing uponthe foundations of a new bridge, [73] designed to take the place of theancient Roman bridge which, repaired in a thousand places, had hithertoserved for the chief passage of the Yonne. It was as if the disturbingof that time-worn masonry let out the dark spectres of departed times.Deep down, at the core of the central pile, a painful object wasexposed--the skeleton of a child, placed there alive, it was rightlysurmised, in the superstitious belief that, by way of vicarioussubstitution, its death would secure the safety of all who should passover.

  There were some who found themselves, with a little surprise, lookinground as if for a similar pledge of security in their new undertaking.It was just then that Denys was seen plainly, standing, in allessential features precisely as of old, upon one of the great stonesprepared for the foundation of the new building. For a moment he feltthe eyes of the people upon him full of that strange humour, and withcharacteristic alertness, after a rapid gaze over the grey city in itsbroad green framework of vineyards, best seen from this spot, flunghimself down into the water and disappeared from view where the streamflowed most swiftly below a row of flour-mills. Some indeed fanciedthey had seen him emerge again safely on the deck of one of the greatboats, loaded with grapes and wreathed triumphantly with flowers like afloating garden, which were then bringing down the vintage from thecountry; but generally the people [74] believed their strange enemy nowat last departed for ever. Denys in truth was at work again in peace atthe cloister, upon his house of reeds and pipes. At times his fitscame upon him again; and when they came, for his cure he would digeagerly, turned sexton now, digging, by choice, graves for the dead inthe various churchyards of the town. There were those who had seen himthus employed (that form seeming still to carry something of realsun-gold upon it) peering into the darkness, while his tears fellsometimes among the grim relics his mattock had disturbed.

  In fact, from the day of the exhumation of the body of the Saint in thegreat church, he had had a wonderful curiosity for such objects, andone wintry day bethought him of removing the body of his mother fromthe unconsecrated ground in which it lay, that he might bury it in thecloister, near the spot where he was now used to work. At twilight hecame over the frozen snow. As he passed through the stony barriers ofthe place the world around seemed curdled to the centre--all buthimself, fighting his way across it, turning now and then right-aboutfrom the persistent wind, which de
alt so roughly with his blond hairand the purple mantle whirled about him. The bones, hastily gathered,he placed, awefully but without ceremony, in a hollow space preparedsecretly within the grave of another.

  Meantime the winds of his organ were ready [75] to blow; and withdifficulty he obtained grace from the Chapter for a trial of its powerson a notable public occasion, as follows. A singular guest wasexpected at Auxerre. In recompense for some service rendered to theChapter in times gone by, the Sire de Chastellux had the hereditarydignity of a canon of the church. On the day of his reception hepresented himself at the entrance of the choir in surplice and amice,worn over the military habit. The old count of Chastellux was latelydead, and the heir had announced his coming, according to custom, toclaim his ecclesiastical privilege. There had been long feud betweenthe houses of Chastellux and Auxerre; but on this happy occasion anoffer of peace came with a proposal for
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