By Laura E. Richards
Public Domain Books
Chapter IX. Blondel
Noontide in the great city! The July sun blazes down upon the brick sidewalks, heating them through and through, till they scorch the bare toes of the little street children, who creep about, sheltering their eyes with their hands, and keeping in the shade when it is possible. The apple-women crouch close to the wall, under their green umbrellas; the banana-sellers look yellow and wilted as their own wares. Men pass along, hurrying, because they are Americans, and business must go on whether it be hot or cold; but they move in a dogged jog-trot, expressive of weariness and disgust, and wipe their brows as they go, muttering anathemas under their breath on the whole summer season. Most of the men are in linen coats, some in no coats at all; all wear straw hats, and there is a great display of palm-leaf fans, waving in all degrees of energy. Here and there is seen an umbrella, but these are not frequent, for it seems to the American a strange and womanish thing to carry an umbrella except for rain; it also requires attention, and takes a man’s mind off his business. Each man of all the hurrying thousands is shut up in himself, carrying his little world, which is all the world there is, about with him, seeing the other hurrying mites only “as trees walking,” with no thought or note of them. Who cares about anybody else when it is so hot? Get through the day’s work, and away to the wife and children in the cool by the sea-shore, or in the comfortable green suburb, where, if one must still be hot, one can at least suffer decently, and not “like a running river be,"–with apologies to the boy Chatterton.
Among all these hurrying motes in the broad, fierce stream of sunshine, one figure moves slowly, without haste. Nobody looks at anybody else, or this figure might attract some attention, even in the streets of the great city. An old man, tall and slender, with snowy hair falling in a single curl over his forehead; with brown eyes which glance birdlike here and there, seeing everything, taking in every face, every shadow of a vanishing form that hurries along and away from him; with fiddle-bow in hand, and fiddle held close and tenderly against his shoulder. De Arthenay, looking for his little girl!
Not content with scanning every face as it passes, he looks up at the houses, searching with eager eye their blank, close-shuttered walls, as if in hope of seeing through the barriers of brick and stone, and surprising the secrets that may lurk within. Now and then a house seems to take his fancy, for he stops, and still looking up at the windows, plays a tune. It is generally the same tune,–a simple, homely old air, which the street-boys can readily take up and whistle, though they do not hear it in the music-halls or on the hand-organs. A languid crowd gathers round him when he pauses thus, for street-boys know a good fiddler when they hear him; and this is a good fiddler.
When a crowd has collected, the old man turns his attention from the silent windows (they are generally silent; or if a face looks out, it is not the beloved one which is in his mind night and day, day and night) and scans the faces around him, with sad, eager eyes. Then, stopping short in his playing, he taps sharply on his fiddle, and asks in a clear voice if any one has seen or heard of a blind child, with beautiful brown hair, clear blue eyes, and the most wonderful voice in the world.
No one has heard of such a child; but one tells him of a blind negro who can play the trombone, and another knows of a blind woman who tells fortunes “equal to the best mejums;” and so on, and so on. He shakes his head with a patient look, makes his grand bow, and passes on to the next street, the next wondering crowd, the next disappointment. Sometimes he is hailed by some music-hall keeper who hears him play, and knows a good thing when he hears it, and who engages the old fiddler to play for an evening or two. He goes readily enough; for there is no knowing where the dark stranger may have taken the child, and where no clew is, one may follow any track that presents itself. So the old man goes, and sits patiently in the hot, noisy place. At first the merry-makers, who are not of a high degree of refinement, make fun of him, and cut many a joke at the expense of his blue coat and brass buttons, his nankeen trousers and old-fashioned stock. But he heeds them not; and once he begins to play, they forget all about his looks, and only want to dance, dance, and say there never was such music for dancing. When a pleasant- looking girl comes near him, or pauses in the dance, he calls her to him, and asks her in a low tone the usual question: has she seen or heard of a blind child, with the most beautiful hair, etc. He is careful whom he asks, however; he would not insult Melody by asking for her of some of these young women, with bold eyes, with loose hair and disordered looks. So he sits and plays, a quaint, old-world figure, among the laughing, dancing, foolish crowd. Old De Arthenay, from the Androscoggin,–what would his ancestor, the gallant Marquis who came over with Baron Castine to America, what would the whole line of ancestors, from the crusaders down, say to see their descendant in such a place as this? He has always held his head high, though he has earned his bread by fiddling, varied by shoemaking in the winter-time. He has always kept good company, he would tell you, and would rather go hungry any day than earn a dinner among people who do not regard the decencies of life. Even in this place, people come to feel the quality of the old man, somehow, and no one speaks rudely to him; and voices are even lowered as they pass him, sitting grave and erect on his stool, his magic bow flying, his foot keeping time to the music. All the old tunes he plays, “Money Musk,” and “Portland Fancy,” and “Lady of the Lake.” Now he quavers into the “Chorus Jig;” but no one here knows enough to dance that, so he comes back to the simpler airs again. And as he plays, the whole tawdry, glaring scene drops away from the old man’s eyes, and instead of vulgar gaslight he sees the soft glow of the afternoon sun on the country road, and the graceful elms bending in an arch overhead, as if to watch the child Melody as she dances. The slender figure swaying hither and thither, with its gentle, wind-blown motion, the exquisite face alight with happiness, the floating tendrils of hair, the most beautiful hair in the world; then the dear, homely country folks sitting by the roadside, watching with breathless interest his darling, their darling, the flower of the whole country-side; Miss Vesta’s tall, stately figure in the doorway; the vine-clad window, behind which Rejoice lies, unseen, yet sharing all the sweet, simple pleasure with heartfelt enjoyment,–all this the old fiddler sees, set plain before him. The “lady” on his arm (for De Arthenay’s fiddle is a lady as surely as he is a gentleman),–the lady feels it too, perhaps, for she thrills to his touch, as the bow goes leaping over the strings; and more than one wild girl and rough fellow feels a touch of something that has not been felt mayhap for many a day, and goes home to stuffy garret or squalid cellar the better for that night’s music. And when it is over, De Arthenay makes his stately bow once more, and walks round the room, asking his question in low tones of such as seem worthy of it; and then home, patient, undaunted, to the quiet lodging where Vesta Dale is sitting up for him, weary after her day’s search in other quarters of the city, hoping little from his coming, yet unwilling to lie down without a sight of his face, always cheery when it meets hers, and the sound of his voice saying,–
“Better luck to-morrow, Miss Vesta! better luck tomorrow! There’s One has her in charge, and He didn’t need us to-day; that’s all, my dear.”
God help thee, De Arthenay! God speed and prosper thee, Rosin the Beau!
But is not another name more fitting even than the fantastic one of his adoption? Is not this Blondel, faithful, patient, undaunted, wandering by tower and town, singing his song of love and hope and undying loyalty under every window, till it shall one day fall like a breath from heaven on the ear of the prisoner, sitting in darkness and the shadow of death?