And other Sketches

by Seranus (Susie Frances Harrison)


Crowded Out.

     I am nobody.  I am living in a London lodging-house.  My room is up three pair of stairs.  I have come to London to sell or part with in some manner an opera, a comedy, a volume of verse, songs, sketches, stories.  I compose as well as write.  I am ambitious. For the sake of another, one other, I am ambitious.  For myself it does not matter.  If nobody will discover me I must discover myself.  I must demand recognition, I must wrest attention, they are my due.  I look from my window over the smoky roofs of London. What will it do for me, this great cold city?  It shall hear me, it shall pause for a moment, for a day, for a year.  I will make it to listen to me, to look at me.  I have left a continent behind, I have crossed a great water; I have incurred dangers, trials of all kinds; I have grown pale and thin with labor and the midnight oil; I have starved, and watched the dawn break starving; I have prayed on my stubborn knees for death and I have prayed on my stubborn knees for life—all that I might reach London, London that has killed so many of my brothers, London the cold, London the blind, London the cruel!  I am here at last. I am here to be tested, to be proved, to be worn proudly, as a favourite and costly jewel is worn, or to be flung aside scornfully or dropped stealthily to—the devil!  And I love it so this great London! I am ready to swear no one ever loved it so before!  The smokier it is, the dirtier, the dingier, the better. The oftener it rains the better.  The more whimsical it is, the more fickle, the more credulous, the more self-sufficient, the more self-existent, the better.  Nothing that it can do, nothing that it can be, can change my love for it, great cruel London! [page 5]
     But to be cruel to me, to be fickle to me, to be deaf to me, to be blind to me!  Would I change then?  I might.  As yet it does not know me.  I pass through its streets, touching here a bit of old black wall, picking there an ivy leaf, and it knows me not.  It is holy ground to me.  It is the mistress whose hand alone I as yet dare to kiss.  Some day I shall possess the whole, and I shall walk with the firm and buoyant tread of the accepted, delighted lover.  Only to-day I am nobody.  I am crowded out. Yet there are moments when the mere joy of being in England, of being in London, satisfies me.  I have seen the sunbeam strike the glory along the green.  I know it is an English sky above me, all change, all mutability.  No steady cloudless sphere of blue but ever-varying glories of white piled cloud against the gray.  Listen to this.  I saw a primrose—the first I had ever seen—in the hedge.  They said “Pick it.” But I did not. I, who had written there years ago,— 

                                   I never pulled a primrose, I,
                                   But could I know that there may lie
                                   E’en now some small or hidden seed,
                                   Within, below, an English mead,
                                   Waiting for sun and rain to make
                                   A flower of it for my poor sake,
                                   I then could wait till winds should tell,
                                   For me there swayed or swung a bell,
                                   Or reared a banner, or peered a star,
                                   Or curved a cup in woods afar.

     I who had written that, I had found my first primrose and I could not pluck it. I found it fair to be sure.  I find all England fair.  The shimmering mist and the tender rain, the red wall-flower and the ivy green, the singing birds and the shallow streams—all the country; the blackened churches, the grass-grown churchyards, the hum of the streets, the crowded omnibus, the gorgeous shops,—all the town.  God! do I not love it, my England?  Yet not my England yet.  Till she proclaim it herself, I am not hers.  I will make her mine.  I will write as no man has ever written about her, for very love of her.  I look out to-night from my narrow window and think how the moonlight falls on Tintern, on Glastonbury, on Furness.  How it falls on the primrose I would not pluck.  How it would like to fall on the tall bluebells in the wood.  I see the lights of Oxford St. the omnibuses rattle by, the people are going to see Irving, Wilson Barrett, Ellen Terry.  What line of mine, what bar, what thought or phrase will turn [page 6] the silence into song, the copper into gold?     *     *     *     *     I come back from the window and sit at the square centre table.  It is rickety and uncomfortable, useless to write on.  I kick it.  I would kick anything that came in my way to-night.  I am savage.  Outside, a French piano is playing that infernal waltz.  A fair subject for kicking if you will.  But, though I would I cannot.  What a room!  The fire-place is filled with orange peel and brown paper, cigar stumps and matches.  One blind I pulled down this morning, the other is crooked.  The lamp glass is cracked, my work too.  I dare not look at the wall paper nor the pictures.  The carpet I have kicked into holes.  I can see it though I can’t feel it, it is so thin.  My clothes are lying all about.  The soot of London begrimes every object in the room.  I would buy a pot of musk or silken scarf if I dared, but how can I?
     I must get my bread first and live for beauty after.  Everything is refused though, everything is sent back or else dropped as it were into some bottomless pit or gulf.      Here is my opera. This is my magnum opus, very dear, very clear, very well preserved.  For it is three years old.  I scored it nearly altogether, by her side, Hortense, my dear love, my northern bird!  You could flush under my gaze, you could kindle at my touch, but you were not for me, you were not for me!     *     *     *     *     My head droops down, I could go to sleep.  But I must not waste time in sleep.  I will write another story.  No; I had four returned to-day.  Ah! cruel London!  To love you so, only that I may be spurned and thrust aside, ignored, forgotten.  But to-morrow I will try again.  I will take the opera to the theatres, I will see the managers, I will even tell them about myself and about Hortense—but it will be hard.  They do not know me, they do not know Hortense.  They will laugh, they will say “You fool.”  And I shall be helpless, I shall let them say it.  They will never listen to me, though I play my most beautiful phrase, for I am nobody.  And Hortense, the child with the royal air, Hortense, with her imperial brow and her hair rolled over its cushion, Hortense,  the Châtelaine of Beau Séjour, the delicate haughty, pale and impassioned daughter of a noble house, that Hortense, my Hortense, is nobody!
     Who in this great London will believe in me, who will care to know about Hortense or about Beau Séjour?  If they ask me, I shall say—oh! proudly—not in Normandy nor in Alsace, but [page 7] far away across a great water dwells such a maiden in such a château.There by the side of a northern river, ever rippling, ever sparkling in Summer, hard, hard frozen in winter, stretches a vast estate.  I remember its impenetrable pinewood, its deep ravine; I see the château, long and white and straggling, with the red tiled towers and the tall French windows; I see the terrace where the hound must still sleep; I see the square side tower with the black iron shutters; I see the very window where Hortense set her light; I see the floating cribs on the river, I hear the boatmen singing—

Descendez à l’ombre,
Ma Jolie blonde. 

     It was all caste.  Caste in London, caste in Le Bas Canada, all the same.  Because she was a St Hilare.  Her full name—Hortense Angelique De Repentigny de St. Hilaire—how it grates on me afresh with its aristocratic plentitude. She is well-born, certainly; better born than most of these girls I have seen here in London, driving, walking, riding in the Parks.  They wear their hair over cushions too.  Freckled skins, high cheek-bones, square foreheads, spreading eyebrows—they shouldn’t wear it so.  It suits Hortense—with her pale patrician outline and her dark pencilled eyebrows, and her little black ribbon amulet around her neck.  O, Marie, priey pour nous qui avous recours à vous! Once I walked out to Beau Séjour. She did not expect me and I crept through the leafy ravine to the pinewood, then onto the steps, then up to the terrace.  Through the French window I could see her seated at the long table opposite Father Couture.  She lives alone with the good Père.  She is the last one of the noble line, and he guards her well and guards her money too.
     “I do remember that it vill be all for ze Church,” she has [page 8] said to me.  And the priest has taught her all she knows, how to sew and embroider, and cook and read, though he never lets her read anything but books on religion.  Religion, always religion!  He has brought her up like a nun, crushed the life out of her.  Until I found her out, found my jewel out.  It is Tennyson who says that.  But his “Maud” was freer to woo than Hortense, freer to love and kiss and hold—my God!  that night while I watched them studying and bending over those cursed works on the Martyrs and the Saints and the Mission houses—I saw him—him—that old priest—take her in his arms and caress her, drink her breath, feast on her eyes, her hair, her delicate skin, and I burst in like a young madman and told Father Conture what I thought.  Oh!  I was mad!  I should have won her first.  I should have worked quietly, cautiously, waiting, waiting, biding my time.  But I could never bide my time.  And now she hates me, Hortense hates me, though she nearly learned to love me.  There where we used to listen to the magical river songs, we nearly loved, did we not Hortense?  But she was a St. Hilaire, and I—I was nobody, and I had insulted le bon Pere.  Yet if I can go back to her rich, prosperous, independent—What if that happen?  But I begin to fancy it will never happen.  My resolutions, where are they, what comes of them?  Nothing.  I have tried everything except the opera.  Everything else has been rejected.  For a week I have not gone to bed at all.  I wait and see those ghastly gray fingers smoothing my pillow.  I am not wanted.  I am crowded out.  My hands tremble and I cannot write.  My eyes fail and I cannot see.  To the window!     *     *     *     *     The lights of Oxford St. once more; the glare and the rattle without, the fever and the ruin, the nerves and the heart within.  Poor nerves, poor heart; it is food you want and wine and rest, and I cannot give them to you.     *     *     *     *
     Sing, Hortense, will you? sit by my side, by our dear river St. Maurice, the clear, the sparkling.  See how the floating cribs sail by, each with its gleaming lights! It is like Venice I suppose.  Shall we see Venice  ever, Hortense, you and I?  Sing now for me,

Descendez à l’ombre,
Ma Jolie blonde. 

Only you are petite brune, there is nothing blonde about you, mignonne, my dear mademoiselle, I should say if I were with you of course as I used to do. But surely I am with you and those lights are the floating cribs I see, and your voice it is that sings, [page 9] and presently the boatmen hear and they turn and move their hands to join in—Now all together,

Descendez à l’ombre,
*              *              *              *              *              *              *

     It was like you, Hortense, to come all this way.  How did you manage it, manage to cross the great water all alone?  My poor girl did you grow tired of Le bon Père at last and of the Martyrs and the Saints and the Jesuit Fathers?  But you have got your amulet on still I hope.  That is right, for there is a chance—there is a chance of these things proving blessings after all to good girls, and you were a good girl Hortense.  You will not mind me calling you Hortense, will you?  When we are in La Bas Canada again, in your own seignieury, it will be “Mademoiselle,” I promise you.  You say it is a strange pillow, Hortense?  Books, my girl, and manuscripts; hard but not so hard as London stones and London hearts.  Do you know I think I am dying, or else going mad?  And no one will listen even if I cry out.  There is too much to listen to already in England.  Think of all the growing green, Hortense, if you can, where you are, so far away from it all.  Where you are it is cold and the snow is still on the ground and only the little bloodroot is up in the woods. Here where I am, Hortense, where I am going to die, it is warm and green full of colour—oh! such colour!  Before I came here, to London you know London that is going to do so much for me, for us both, I had one day—one day in the country.  There I saw—No! they will not let me tell you, I knew they would try to prevent me, those long gray fingers stealing in, stealing in!  But I will tell you.  Listen, Hortense, please.  I saw the hawthorne, pink and white, the laburnum—yellow—not fire-colour, I shall correct the Laureate there, Hortense, when I am better, when I     *     *     publish!     *     *     *     It is dreadful to be alone in London.  Don’t come, Hortense.  Stay there where you are, even if it is cold and gray and there is no colour.  Keep your amulet around your neck, dear!     *     *     *     *     I count my pulse beats.  It is a bad thing to do.  It is broad daylight now and the fingers have gone.  I can write again perhaps.     *     *     The pen     *     *     *     The paper     *     *     *     *     The ink     *     *     *     *     God.  Hortense!  There is no ink left!  And my heart—My heart—Hortense!!!

Descendez à l’ombre,
Ma Jolie blonde. 

[page 10]


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