Story type: Essay
It was in Paris, many years ago, that I fell by chance into this habit of early rising. My night–by reasons that I need not enter into–had been a troubled one. Tired of the hot bed that gave no sleep, I rose and dressed myself, crept down the creaking stairs, experiencing the sensations of a burglar new to his profession, unbolted the great door of the hotel, and passed out into an unknown, silent city, bathed in a mysterious soft light. Since then, this strange sweet city of the dawn has never ceased to call to me. It may be in London, in Paris again, in Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, that I have gone to sleep, but if perchance I wake before the returning tide of human life has dimmed its glories with the mists and vapours of the noisy day, I know that beyond my window blind the fairy city, as I saw it first so many years ago–this city that knows no tears, no sorrow, through which there creeps no evil thing; this city of quiet vistas, fading into hope; this city of far-off voices whispering peace; this city of the dawn that still is young–invites me to talk with it awhile before the waking hours drive it before them, and with a sigh it passes whence it came.
It is the great city’s one hour of purity, of dignity. The very rag- picker, groping with her filthy hands among the ashes, instead of an object of contempt, moves from door to door an accusing Figure, her thin soiled garments, her bent body, her scarred face, hideous with the wounds of poverty, an eloquent indictment of smug Injustice, sleeping behind its deaf shutters. Yet even into her dim brain has sunk the peace that fills for this brief hour the city. This, too, shall have its end, my sister! Men and women were not born to live on the husks that fill the pails outside the rich man’s door. Courage a little while longer, you and yours. Your rheumy eyes once were bright, your thin locks once soft and wavy, your poor bent back once straight; and maybe, as they tell you in their gilded churches, this bulging sack shall be lifted from your weary shoulders, your misshapen limbs be straight again. You pass not altogether unheeded through these empty streets. Not all the eyes of the universe are sleeping.
The little seamstress, hurrying to her early work! A little later she will be one of the foolish crowd, joining in the foolish laughter, in the coarse jests of the work-room: but as yet the hot day has not claimed her. The work-room is far beyond, the home of mean cares and sordid struggles far behind. To her, also, in this moment are the sweet thoughts of womanhood. She puts down her bag, rests herself upon a seat. If all the day were dawn, this city of the morning always with us! A neighbouring clock chimes forth the hour. She starts up from her dream and hurries on–to the noisy work-room.
A pair of lovers cross the park, holding each other’s hands. They will return later in the day, but there will be another expression in their eyes, another meaning in the pressure of their hands. Now the purity of the morning is with them.
Some fat, middle-aged clerk comes puffing into view: his ridiculous little figure very podgy. He stops to take off his hat and mop his bald head with his handkerchief: even to him the morning lends romance. His fleshy face changes almost as one looks at him. One sees again the lad with his vague hopes, his absurd ambitions.
There is a statue of Aphrodite in one of the smaller Paris parks. Twice in the same week, without particularly meaning it, I found myself early in the morning standing in front of this statue gazing listlessly at it, as one does when in dreamy mood; and on both occasions, turning to go, I encountered the same man, also gazing at it with, apparently, listless eyes. He was an uninteresting looking man–possibly he thought the same of me. From his dress he might have been a well-to-do tradesman, a minor Government official, doctor, or lawyer. Quite ten years later I paid my third visit to the same statue at about the same hour. This time he was there before me. I was hidden from him by some bushes. He glanced round but did not see me; and then he did a curious thing. Placing his hands on the top of the pedestal, which may have been some seven feet in height, he drew himself up, and kissed very gently, almost reverentially, the foot of the statue, begrimed though it was with the city’s dirt. Had he been some long-haired student of the Latin Quarter one would not have been so astonished. But he was such a very commonplace, quite respectable looking man. Afterwards he drew a pipe from his pocket, carefully filled and lighted it, took his umbrella from the seat where it had been lying, and walked away.
Had it been their meeting-place long ago? Had he been wont to tell her, gazing at her with lover’s eyes, how like she was to the statue? The French sculptor has not to consider Mrs. Grundy. Maybe, the lady, raising her eyes, had been confused; perhaps for a moment angry–some little milliner or governess, one supposes. In France the jeune fille of good family does not meet her lover unattended. What had happened? Or was it but the vagrant fancy of a middle-aged bourgeois seeking in imagination the romance that reality so rarely gives us, weaving his love dream round his changeless statue?
In one of Ibsen’s bitter comedies the lovers agree to part while they are still young, never to see each other in the flesh again. Into the future each will bear away the image of the other, godlike, radiant with the glory of youth and love; each will cherish the memory of a loved one who shall be beautiful always. That their parting may not appear such wild nonsense as at first it strikes us, Ibsen shows us other lovers who have married in the orthodox fashion. She was all that a mistress should be. They speak of her as they first knew her fifteen years ago, when every man was at her feet. He then was a young student, burning with fine ideals, with enthusiasm for all the humanities.
What did you expect? Fifteen years have passed–fifteen years of struggle with the grim realities. He is fat and bald. Eleven children have to be provided for. High ideals will not even pay the bootmaker. To exist you have to fight for mean ends with mean weapons. And the sweet girl heroine! Now the worried mother of eleven brats! One rings down the curtain amid Satanic laughter.
That is why, for one reason among so many, I love this mystic morning light. It has a strange power of revealing the beauty that is hidden from us by the coarser beams of the full day. These worn men and women, grown so foolish looking, so unromantic; these artisans and petty clerks plodding to their monotonous day’s work; these dull-eyed women of the people on their way to market to haggle over sous, to argue and contend over paltry handfuls of food. In this magic morning light the disguising body becomes transparent. They have grown beautiful, not ugly, with the years of toil and hardship; these lives, lived so patiently, are consecrated to the service of the world. Joy, hope, pleasure–they have done with all such, life for them is over. Yet they labour, ceaselessly, uncomplainingly. It is for the children.
One morning, near Brussels, I encountered a cart of faggots, drawn by a hound so lean that stroking him might have hurt a dainty hand. I was shocked–angry, till I noticed his fellow beast of burden pushing the cart from behind. Such a scarecrow of an old woman! There was little to choose between them. I walked with them a little way. She lived near Waterloo. All day she gathered wood in the great forest, and starting at three o’clock each morning, the two lean creatures between them dragged the cart nine miles to Brussels, returning when they had sold their load. With luck she might reckon on a couple of francs. I asked her if she could not find something else to do.
Yes, it was possible, but for the little one, her grandchild. Folks will not employ old women burdened with grandchildren.
You fair, dainty ladies, who would never know it was morning if somebody did not enter to pull up the blind and tell you so! You do well not to venture out in this magic morning light. You would look so plain–almost ugly, by the side of these beautiful women.
It is curious the attraction the Church has always possessed for the marketing classes. Christ drove them from the Temple, but still, in every continental city, they cluster round its outer walls. It makes a charming picture on a sunny morning, the great cathedral with its massive shadow forming the background; splashed about its feet, like a parterre of gay flowers around the trunk of some old tree, the women, young girls in their many coloured costumes, sitting before their piled-up baskets of green vegetables, of shining fruits.
In Brussels the chief market is held on the Grande Place. The great gilded houses have looked down upon much the same scene every morning these four hundred years. In summer time it commences about half- past four; by five o’clock it is a roaring hive, the great city round about still sleeping.
Here comes the thrifty housewife of the poor, to whom the difference of a tenth of a penny in the price of a cabbage is all-important, and the much harassed keeper of the petty pension. There are houses in Brussels where they will feed you, light you, sleep you, wait on you, for two francs a day. Withered old ladies, ancient governesses, who will teach you for forty centimes an hour, gather round these ricketty tables, wolf up the thin soup, grumble at the watery coffee, help themselves with unladylike greediness to the potato pie. It must need careful housewifery to keep these poor creatures on two francs a day and make a profit for yourself. So “Madame,” the much- grumbled-at, who has gone to bed about twelve, rises a little before five, makes her way down with her basket. Thus a few sous may be saved upon the day’s economies.
Sometimes it is a mere child who is the little housekeeper. One thinks that perhaps this early training in the art of haggling may not be good for her. Already there is a hard expression in the childish eyes, mean lines about the little mouth. The finer qualities of humanity are expensive luxuries, not to be afforded by the poor.
They overwork their patient dogs, and underfeed them. During the two hours’ market the poor beasts, still fastened to their little “chariots,” rest in the open space about the neighbouring Bourse. They snatch at what you throw them; they do not even thank you with a wag of the tail. Gratitude! Politeness! What mean you? We have not heard of such. We only work. Some of them amid all the din lie sleeping between their shafts. Some are licking one another’s sores. One would they were better treated; alas! their owners, likewise, are overworked and underfed, housed in kennels no better. But if the majority in every society were not overworked and underfed and meanly housed, why, then the minority could not be underworked and overfed and housed luxuriously. But this is talk to which no respectable reader can be expected to listen.
They are one babel of bargaining, these markets. The purchaser selects a cauliflower. Fortunately, cauliflowers have no feelings, or probably it would burst into tears at the expression with which it is regarded. It is impossible that any lady should desire such a cauliflower. Still, out of mere curiosity, she would know the price- -that is, if the owner of the cauliflower is not too much ashamed of it to name a price.
The owner of the cauliflower suggests six sous. The thing is too ridiculous for argument. The purchaser breaks into a laugh.
The owner of the cauliflower is stung. She points out the beauties of that cauliflower. Apparently it is the cauliflower out of all her stock she loves the best; a better cauliflower never lived; if there were more cauliflowers in the world like this particular cauliflower things might be different. She gives a sketch of the cauliflower’s career, from its youth upwards. Hard enough it will be for her when the hour for parting from it comes. If the other lady has not sufficient knowledge of cauliflowers to appreciate it, will she kindly not paw it about, but put it down and go away, and never let the owner of the cauliflower see her again.
The other lady, more as a friend than as a purchaser, points out the cauliflower’s defects. She wishes well to the owner of the cauliflower, and would like to teach her something about her business. A lady who thinks such a cauliflower worth six sous can never hope to succeed as a cauliflower vendor. Has she really taken the trouble to examine the cauliflower for herself, or has love made her blind to its shortcomings?
The owner of the cauliflower is too indignant to reply. She snatches it away, appears to be comforting it, replaces it in the basket. The other lady is grieved at human obstinacy and stupidity in general. If the owner of the cauliflower had had any sense she would have asked four sous. Eventually business is done at five.
It is the custom everywhere abroad–asking the price of a thing is simply opening conversation. A lady told me that, the first day she began housekeeping in Florence, she handed over to a poulterer for a chicken the price he had demanded–with protestations that he was losing on the transaction, but wanted, for family reasons, apparently, to get rid of the chicken. He stood for half a minute staring at her, and then, being an honest sort of man, threw in a pigeon.
Foreign housekeepers starting business in London appear hurt when our tradesmen decline to accept half-a-crown for articles marked three- and-six.
“Then why mark it only three-and-sixpence?” is the foreign housekeeper’s argument.