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The Tragedy of a Comic Song by Leonard Merrick

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The Tragedy of a Comic Song by Leonard Merrick



I like to monopolize a table in a restaurant, unless a friend is with me, so I resented the young man's presence. Besides, he had a melancholy face. If it hadn't been for the piano-organ, I don't suppose I should have spoken to him. As the organ that was afflicting Lisle Street began to volley a comic song of a day that was dead, he started.

"That tune!" he murmured in French. If I did not deceive myself, tears sprang to his eyes.

I was curious. Certainly, on both sides of the Channel, we had long ago had more than enough of the tune--no self-respecting organ-grinder rattled it now. That the young Frenchman should wince at the tune I understood. But that he should weep!

I smiled sympathetically. "We suffered from it over here as well," I remarked.

"I did not know," he said, in English that reproved my French, "it was sung in London also--Partant pour le Moulin?"

"Under another name," I told him, "it was an epidemic."

Clearly, the organ had stirred distressing memories in him, for though we fell to chatting, I could see that he neither talked nor dined with any relish. As luck would have it, too, the instrument of torture resumed its repertoire well within hearing, and when Partant pour le Moulin was reached again, he clasped his head.

"You find it so painful?" I inquired.

"Painful?" he exclaimed. "Monsieur, it is my 'istory, that comic tune! It is to me romance, tragedy, ruin. Will you hear? Wait! I shall range my ideas. Listen:"

It is Paris, at Montmartre--we are before the door of a laundress. A girl approaches. Her gaze is troubled, she frowns a little. What ails her? I shall tell you: the laundress has refused to deliver her washing until her bill is paid. And the girl cannot pay it--not till Saturday--and she has need of things to put on. It is a moment of anxiety. She opens the door. Some minutes pass. The girl reappears, holding under her arm a little parcel. Good! she has triumphed. In coming out she sees a young man, pale, abstracted, who stands before the shop. He does not attempt to enter. He stands motionless, regarding the window with an air forlorn.

"Ah," she says to herself, "here is another customer who cannot pay his bill!"

But wait a little. After 'alf an hour what happens? She sees the young man again! This time he stands before a modest restaurant. Does he go in? No, again no! He regards the window sorrowfully. He sighs. The dejection of his attitude would melt a stone.

"Poor boy," she thought; "he cannot pay for a dinner either!"

The affair is not finished. How the summer day is beautiful--she will do some footing! Figure yourself that once more she perceives the young man. Now it is before the mont-de-piete, the pawnbroker's. She watches him attentively. Here, at least, he will enter, she does not doubt. She is wrong. It is the same thing--he regards, he laments, he turns away!

"Oh, mon Dieu," she said. "Nothing remains to him to pawn even!"

It is too strong! She addressed him:


But, when she has said "Monsieur," there is the question how she shall continue. Now the young man regards the girl instead of the pawnbroker's. Her features are pretty--or "pretty well"; her costume has been made by herself, but it is not bad; and she has chic--above all she has chic. He asks:

"What can I have the pleasure to do for you?"

Remark that she is bohemian, and he also. The conversation was like this:

"Monsieur, three times this morning I have seen you. It was impossible that I resist speaking. You have grief?"

"Frightful!" he said.

"Perhaps," she added timidly, "you have hunger also?"

"A hunger insupportable, mademoiselle!"

"I myself am extremely hard up, Monsieur, but will you permit that I offer you what I can?"

"Angel!" the young man exclaimed. "There must be wings under your coat. But I beg of you not to fly yet. I shall tell you the reason of my grief. If you will do me the honor to seat yourself at the cafe opposite, we shall be able to talk more pleasantly."

This appeared strange enough, this invitation from a young man who she had supposed was starving; but wait a little! Her amazement increased when, to pay for the wine he had ordered, her companion threw on to the table a bank note with a gesture absolutely careless.

She was in danger of distrusting her eyes.

"Is it a dream?" she cried. "Is it a vision from the Thousand and One Nights, or is it really a bank note?"

"Mademoiselle, it is the mess of pottage," the young man answered gloomily. "It is the cause of my sadness: for that miserable money, and more that is to come, I have sold my birthright."

She was on a ship--no, what is it, your expression?--"at sea"!

"I am a poet," he explained; "but perhaps you may not know my work; I am not celebrated. I am Tricotrin, mademoiselle--Gustave Tricotrin, at your feet! For years I have written, aided by ambition, and an uncle who manufactures silk in Lyon. Well, the time is arrived when he is monstrous, this uncle. He says to me, 'Gustave, this cannot last--you make no living, you make nothing but debts.' (My tragedies he ignores.) 'Either you must be a poet who makes money, or you must be a partner who makes silk.' How could I defy him?--he holds the purse. It was unavoidable that I stooped. He has given me a sum to satisfy my creditors, and Monday I depart for Lyon. In the meantime, I take tender farewells of the familiar scenes I shall perhaps never behold again."

"How I have been mistaken!" she exclaimed. And then: "But the hunger you confessed?"

"Of the soul, mademoiselle," said the poet--"the most bitter!"

"And you have no difficulties with the laundress?"

"None," he groaned. "But in the bright days of poverty that have fled forever, I have had many difficulties with her. This morning I reconstituted the situation--I imagined myself without a sou, and without a collar."

"The little restaurant," she questioned, "where I saw you dining on the odor?"

"I figured fondly to myself that I was ravenous and that I dared not enter. It was sublime."

"The mont-de-piete?"

"There imagination restored to me the vanished moments when I have mounted with suspense, and my least deplorable suit of clothes." His emotion was profound. "It is my youth to which I am bidding adieu!" he cried. "It is more than that--it is my aspirations and my renown!"

"But you have said that you have no renown," she reminded him.

"So much the more painful," said the young man; "the hussy we could not win is always the fairest--I part from renown even more despairingly than from youth."

She felt an amusement, and interest. But soon it was the turn of him to feel an interest--the interest that had consequences so important, so 'eartbreaking, so fatales! He had demanded of her, most naturally, her history, and this she related to him in a style dramatic. Myself, I have not the style dramatic, though I avow to you I admire that.

"We are in a provincial town," she said to the young man, "we are in Rouen--the workroom of a modiste. Have no embarrassment, Monsieur Tricotrin, you, at least, are invisible to the girls who sew! They sew all day and talk little--already they are tristes, resigned. Among them sits one who is different--one passionate, ambitious--a girl who burns to be divette, singer, who is devoured by longings for applause, fashion, wealth. She has made the acquaintance of a little pastry cook. He has become fascinated, they are affianced. In a month she will be married."

The young man, Tricotrin, well understood that the girl she described was herself.

"What does she consider while she sits sewing?" she continued. "That the pastry cook loves her, that he is generous, that she will do her most to be to him a good wife? Not at all. Far from that! She considers, on the contrary, that she was a fool to promise him; she considers how she shall escape--from him, from Rouen, from her ennui--she seeks to fly to Paris. Alas! she has no money, not a franc. And she sews--always she sews in the dull room--and her spirit rebels."

"Good!" said the poet. "It is a capital first instalment."

"The time goes on. There remains only a week to the marriage morning. The little home is prepared, the little pastry cook is full of joy. Alors, one evening they go out; for her the sole attraction in the town is the hall of varieties. Yes, it is third class, it is not great things; however, it is the only one in Rouen. He purchases two tickets. What a misfortune--it is the last temptation to her! They stroll back; she takes his arm--under the moon, under the stars; but she sees only the lamps of Paris!--she sees only that he can say nothing she cares to hear!"

"Ah, unhappy man!" murmured the poet.

"They sit at a cafe table, and he talks, the fiance, of the bliss that is to come to them. She attends to not a word, not a syllable. While she smiles, she questions herself, frenzied, how she can escape. She has commanded a sirop. As she lifts her glass to the siphon, her gaze falls on the ring she wears--the ring of their betrothal. 'To the future, cher ange!' says the fiance. 'To the future, vieux cheri!' she says. And she laughs in her heart--for she resolves to sell the ring!"

Tricotrin had become absolutely enthralled.

"She obtained for the ring forty-five francs the next day--and for the little pastry cook all is finished. She wrote him a letter--'Good-bye.' He has lost his reason. Mad with despair, he has flung himself before an electric car, and is killed. . . . It is strange," she added to the poet, who regarded her with consternation, "that I did not think sooner of the ring that was always on my finger, n'est-ce pas? It may be that never before had I felt so furious an impulse to desert him. It may be also--that there was no ring and no pastry cook!" And she broke into peals of laughter.

"Ah, mon Dieu," exclaimed the young man, "but you are enchanting! Let us go to breakfast--you are the kindred soul I have looked for all my life. By-the-bye, I may as well know your name?"

Then, Monsieur, this poor girl who had trembled before her laundress, she told him a name which was going, in a while, to crowd the Ambassadeurs and be famous through all Paris--a name which was to mean caprices, folly, extravagance the most willful and reckless. She answered--and it said nothing yet--"My name is Paulette Fleury."

The piano-organ stopped short, as if it knew the Frenchman had reached a crisis in his narrative. He folded his arms and nodded impressively.

"Voila! Monsieur, I 'ave introduced you to Paulette Fleury! It was her beginning."

He offered me a cigarette, and frowned, lost in thought, at the lady who was chopping bread behind the counter.

"Listen," he resumed.

They have breakfasted; they have fed the sparrows around their chairs, and they have strolled under the green trees in the sunshine. She was singing then at a little cafe-concert the most obscure. It is arranged, before they part, that in the evening he shall go to applaud her.

He had a friend, young also, a composer, named Nicolas Pitou. I cannot express to you the devotion that existed between them. Pitou was employed at a publisher's, but the publisher paid him not much better than his art. The comrades have shared everything: the loans from the mont-de-piete, the attic, and the dreams. In Montmartre it was said "Tricotrin and Pitou" as one says "Orestes and Pylades." It is beautiful such affection, hein? Listen!

Tricotrin has recounted to his friend his meeting with Paulette, and when the hour for the concert is arrived, Pitou accompanied him. The musician, however, was, perhaps, the more sedate. He has gone with little expectation; his interest was not high.

What a surprise he has had! He has found her an actress--an artist to the ends of the fingers. Tricotrin was astonished also. The two friends, the poet and the composer, said "Mon Dieu!" They regarded the one the other. They said "Mon Dieu!" again. Soon Pitou has requested of Tricotrin an introduction. It is agreed. Tricotrin has presented his friend, and invited the chanteuse to drink a bock--a glass of beer. . . . Apropos, you take a liqueur, Monsieur, yes? What liqueur you take? Sst, garcon! . . . Well, you conjecture, no doubt, what I shall say? Before the bock was finished, they were in love with her--both!

At the door of her lodging, Paulette has given to each a pressure of the hand, and said gently, "Till to-morrow."

"I worship her!" Tricotrin told Pitou.

"I have found my ideal!" Pitou answered Tricotrin.

It is superb, such friendship, hein?

In the mind of the poet who had accomplished tragedies majestic--in the mind of the composer, the most classical in Montmartre--there had been born a new ambition: it was to write a comic song for Paulette Fleury!

It appears to you droll, perhaps? Monsieur, to her lover, the humblest divette is more than Patti. In all the world there can be no joy so thrilling as to hear the music of one's brain sung by the woman one adores--unless it be to hear the woman one adores give forth one's verse. I believe it has been accepted as a fact, this; nevertheless it is true.

Yes, already the idea had come to them, and Paulette was well pleased when they told her of it. Oh, she knew they loved her, both, and with both she coquetted. But with their intention she did not coquet; as to that she was in earnest. Every day they discussed it with enthusiasm-- they were to write a song that should make for her a furore.

What happened? I shall tell you. Monday, when Tricotrin was to depart for Lyon, he informed his uncle that he will not go. No less than that! His uncle was furious--I do not blame him--but naturally Tricotrin has argued, "If I am to create for Paulette her great chance, I must remain in Paris to study Paulette! I cannot create in an atmosphere of commerce. I require the Montmartrois, the boulevards, the inspiration of her presence." Isn't it?

And Pitou--whose very soul had been enraptured in his leisure by a fugue he was composing--Pitou would have no more of it. He allowed the fugue to grow dusty, while day and night he thought always of refrains that ran "Zim-la-zim-la zim-boum-boum!" Constantly they conferred, the comrades. They told the one the other how they loved her; and then they beat their heads, and besought of Providence a fine idea for the comic song.

It was the thought supreme. The silk manufacturer has washed his 'ands of Tricotrin, but he has not cared--there remained to him still one of the bank notes. As for Pitou, who neglected everything except to find his melody for Paulette, the publisher has given him the sack. Their acquaintances ridiculed the sacrifices made for her. But, Monsieur, when a man loves truly, to make a sacrifice for the woman is to make a present to himself.

Nevertheless I avow to you that they fretted because of her coquetry. One hour it seemed that Pitou had gained her heart; the next her encouragement has been all to Tricotrin. Sometimes they have said to her:

"Paulette, it is true we are as Orestes and Pylades, but there can be only one King of Eden at the time. Is it Orestes or Pylades that you mean to crown?"

Then she would laugh and reply:

"How can I say? I like you both so much I can never make up my mind which to like best."

It was not satisfactory.

And always she added. "In the meantime, where is the song?"

Ah, the song, that song, how they have sought it!--on the Butte, and in the Bois, and round the Halles. Often they have tramped Paris till daybreak, meditating the great chance for Paulette. And at last the poet has discovered it: for each verse a different phase of life, but through it all, the pursuit of gaiety, the fever of the dance--the gaiety of youth, the gaiety of dotage, the gaiety of despair! It should be the song of the pleasure-seekers--the voices of Paris when the lamps are lit.

Monsieur, if we sat 'ere in the restaurant until it closed, I could not describe to you how passionately Tricotrin, the devoted Tricotrin, worked for her. He has studied her without cease; he has studied her attitudes, her expressions. He has taken his lyric as if it were material and cut it to her figure; he has taken it as if it were plaster, and molded it upon her mannerisms. There was not a moue that she made, not a pretty trick that she had, not a word that she liked to sing for which he did not provide an opportunity. At the last line, when the pen fell from his fingers, he shouted to Pitou, "Comrade, be brave--I have won her!"

And Pitou? Monsieur, if we sat 'ere till they prepared the tables for dejeuner tomorrow, I could not describe to you how passionately Pitou, the devoted Pitou, worked that she might have a grand popularity by his music. At dawn, when he has found that strepitoso passage, which is the hurrying of the feet, he wakened the poet and cried, "Mon ami, I pity you--she is mine!" It was the souls of two men when it was finished, that comic song they made for her! It was the song the organ has ground out--Partant pour le Moulin.

And then they rehearsed it, the three of them, over and over, inventing always new effects. And then the night for the song is arrived. It has rained all day, and they have walked together in the rain--the singer, and the men who loved her, both--to the little cafe-concert where she would appear.

They tremble in the room, among the crowd, Pitou and Tricotrin; they are agitated. There are others who sing--it says nothing to them. In the room, in the Future, there is only Paulette!

It is very hot in the cafe-concert, and there is too much noise. At last they ask her: "Is she nervous?" She shakes her head: "Mais non!" She smiles to them.

Attend! It is her turn. Ouf; but it is hot in the cafe-concert, and there is too much noise! She mounts the platform. The audience are careless; it continues, the jingle of the glasses, the hum of talk. She begins. Beneath the table Tricotrin has gripped the hand of Pitou.

Wait! Regard the crowd that look at her! The glasses are silent, now, hein? The talk has stopped. To a great actress is come her chance. There is not too much noise in the cafe-concert!

But, when she finished! What an uproar! Never will she forget it. A thousand times she has told the story, how it was written--the song--and how it made her famous. Before two weeks she was the attraction of the Ambassadeurs, and all Paris has raved of Paulette Fleury.

Tricotrin and Pitou were mad with joy. Certainly Paris did not rave of Pitou nor Tricotrin--there have not been many that remembered who wrote the song; and it earned no money for them, either, because it was hers--the gift of their love. Still, they were enraptured. To both of them she owed equally, and more than ever it was a question which would be the happy man.

Listen! When they are gone to call on her one afternoon she was not at 'ome. What had happened? I shall tell you. There was a noodle, rich--what you call a "Johnnie in the Stalls"--who became infatuated with her at the Ambassadeurs. He whistled Partant pour le Moulin all the days, and went to hear it all the nights. Well, she was not at 'ome because she had married him. Absolutely they were married! Her lovers have been told it at the door.

What a moment! Figure yourself what they have suffered, both! They had worshipped her, they had made sacrifices for her, they had created for her her grand success; and, as a consequence of that song, she was the wife of the "Johnnie in the Stalls"!

Far down the street, but yet distinct, the organ revived the tune again. My Frenchman shuddered, and got up.

"I cannot support it," he murmured. "You understand? The associations are too pathetic."

"They must be harrowing," I said. "Before you go, there is one thing I should like to ask you, if I may. Have I had the honor of meeting Monsieur Tricotrin, or Monsieur Pitou?"

He stroked his hat, and gazed at me in sad surprise. "Ah, but neither, Monsieur," he groaned. "The associations are much more 'arrowing than that--I was the 'Johnnie in the Stalls'!"

~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~

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