(The scene is the interior of a wine shop in Paris. The walls are lined on all sides by kegs, piled like logs. The ceiling is low and covered with cobwebs. The midafternoon sun filters dejectedly through the one-barred window at the back. Doors are on both sides; one, heavy and powerful, opens outside; the other, on the left, leads to some inner chamber. A large table stands in the middle of the room backed by smaller ones set around the walls. A ship’s lamp hangs above the main table.
As the curtain rises there is knocking at the outside door—rather impatient knocking—and almost immediately Pitou, the wine dealer, enters from the other room and shuffles toward the door. He is an old man with unkempt beard and dirty corduroys.)
Pitou—Coming, coming—Hold tight! (The knocking stops. Pitou unlatches the door and it swings open. A man in a top hat and opera cloak enters. Jaques Chandelle is perhaps thirty-seven, tall and well groomed. His eyes are clear and penetrating, his chin, clean shaven, is sharp and decisive. His manner is that of a man accustomed only to success but ready and willing to work hard in any emergency. He speaks French with an odd accent as of one who knew the language well in early years but whose accent had grown toneless through long years away from France.)
Pitou—Good afternoon, Monsieur.
Chandelle—(looking about him curiously) Are you perhaps Monsieur Pitou?
Chandelle—Ah! I was told that one would always find you in at this hour. (He takes off his overcoat and lays it carefully on a chair) I was told also that you could help me.
Pitou—(puzzled) I could help you?
Chandelle—(Sitting down wearily on a wooden chair near the table) Yes, I’m a—a stranger in the city—now. I’m trying to trace someone—someone who has been dead many years. I’ve been informed that you’re the oldest inhabitant (he smiles faintly).
Pitou—(rather pleased) Perhaps—and yet there are older than I, ah yes, older than I. (He sits down across the table from Chandelle.)
Chandelle—And so I came for you. (He bends earnestly over the table toward Pitou.) Monsieur Pitou, I am trying to trace my father.
Chandelle—He died in this district about twenty years ago.
Pitou—Monsieur’s father was murdered?
Chandelle—Good God, no! What makes you think that?
Pitou—I thought perhaps in this district twenty years ago, an aristocrat—
Chandelle—My father was no aristocrat. As I remember, his last position was that of waiter in some forgotten cafe. (Pitou glances at Chandelle’s clothes and looks mystified. ) Here I’ll explain. I left France twenty-eight years ago to go to the States with my uncle. We went over in an immigrant ship, if you know what that is.
Pitou—Yes; I know.
Chandelle—My parents remained in France. The last I remember of my father was that he was a little man with a black beard, terribly lazy—the only good I ever remember his doing was to teach me to read and write. Where he picked up that accomplishment I don’t know. Five years after we reached America we ran across some newly landed French from this part of the city, who said that both my parents were dead. Soon after that my uncle died and I was far too busy to worry over parents whom I had half forgotten anyway. (He pauses.) Well to cut it short I prospered and—
Pitou—(deferentially) Monsieur is rich—’tis strange—’tis very strange.
Chandelle—Pitou, it probably appears strange to you that I should burst in on you now at this time of life, looking for traces of a father who went completely out of my life over twenty years ago.
Pitou—Oh—I understood you to say he was dead.
Chandelle—Yes he’s dead, but (hesitates) Pitou, I wonder if you can understand if I tell you why I am here.
Chandelle—(very earnestly) Monsieur Pitou, in America the men I see now, the women I know all had fathers, fathers to be ashamed of, fathers to be proud of, fathers in gilt frames, and fathers in the family closet, Civil War fathers, and Ellis Island fathers. Some even had grandfathers.
Pitou—I had a grandfather. I remember.
Chandelle—(interrupting) I want to see people who knew him, who had talked with him. I want to find out his intelligence, his life, his record. (Impetuously) I want to sense him—I want to know him—
Pitou—(interrupting) What was his name?
Chandelle—Chandelle, Jean Chandelle.
Pitou—(quietly) I knew him.
Chandelle—You knew him?
Pitou—He came here often to drink—that was long ago when this place was the rendezvous of half the district.
Chandelle—(excitedly) Here? He used to come here? To this room? Good Lord, the very house he lived in was torn down ten years ago. In two days’ search you are the first soul I’ve found who knew him. Tell me of him—everything—be frank.
Pitou—Many come and go in forty years (shakes his head. ) There are many names and many faces—Jean Chandelle—ah, of course, Jean Chandelle. Yes, yes; the chief fact I can remember about your father was that he was a—a—
Pitou—A terrible drunkard.
Chandelle—A drunkard—I expected as much. (He looks a trifle downcast, but makes a half-hearted attempt not to show it.)
Pitou—(Rambling on through a sea of reminiscence) I remember one Sunday night in July—hot night—baking—your father—let’s see—your father tried to knife Pierre Courru for drinking his mug of sherry.
Pitou—And then—ah, yes, (excitedly standing up) I see it again. Your father is playing vingt-et-un and they say he is cheating so he breaks Clavine’s chin with a chair and throws a bottle at someone and Lafouquet sticks a knife into his lung. He never got over that. That was—was two years before he died.
Chandelle—So he cheated and was murdered. My God, I’ve crossed the ocean to discover that.
Pitou—No—no—I never believed he cheated. They were laying for him—
Chandelle—(burying his face in his hands) Is that all (he shrugs his shoulders; his voice is a trifle broken) I scarcely expected a—saint but—well: so he was a rotler.
Pitou—(Laying his hand on Chandelle’s shoulder) There Monsieur, I have talked too much. Those were rough days. Knives were drawn at anything. Your father—but hold—do you want to meet three friends of his, his best friends. They can tell you much more than I.
Chandelle—(gloomily) His friends?
Pitou—(reminiscent again) There were four of them. Three come here yet—will be here this afternoon—your father was the fourth and they would sit at this table and talk and drink. They talked nonsense—everyone said; the wine room poked fun at them—called them les “Academicians Ridicules.” Night after night would they sit there. They would slouch in at eight and stagger out at twelve—
(The door swings open and three men enter. The first, Lamarque, is a tall man, lean and with a thin straggly beard. The second, Destage, is short and fat, white bearded and bald. The third, Francois Meridien is slender, with black hair streaked with grey and a small moustache. His face is pitifully weak, his eyes small, his chin sloping. He is very nervous. They all glance with dumb curiosity at Chandelle. )
Pitou—(including all three with a sweep of his arm) Here they are, Monsieur, they can tell you more than I. (Turning to the others) Messieurs, this gentleman desires to know about—
Chandelle—(rising hastily and interrupting Pitou) About a friend of my father’s. Pitou tells me you knew him. I believe his name was—Chandelle.
(The three men start and Francois begins to laugh nervously.)
Lamarque—(after a pause) Chandelle?
Francois—Jean Chandelle? So he had another friend besides us?
Destage—You will pardon me, Monsieur: that name—no one but us had mentioned it for twenty-two years.
Lamarque—(trying to be dignified, but looking a trifle ridiculous) And with us it is mentioned with reverence and awe.
Destage—Lamarque exaggerates a little perhaps. (Very seriously) He was very dear to us. (Again Francois laughs nervously.)
Lamarque—But what is it that Monsieur wishes to know? (Chandelle motions them to sit down. They take places at the big table and Destage produces a pipe and begins to fill it.)
Francois—Why, we’re four again!
Chandelle—Here, Pitou! Wine for everyone. (Pitou nods and shuffles out) Now, Messieurs, tell me of Chandelle. Tell me of his personality.
(Lamarque looks blankly at Destage.)
Destage—Well, he was—was attractive—
Lamarque—Not to everyone.
Destage—But to us. Some thought him a sneak. (Chandelle winces) He was a wonderful talker—when he wished, he could amuse the whole wine room. But he preferred to talk to us. (Pitou enters with a bottle and glasses. He pours and leaves the bottle on the table. Then he goes out.)
Lamarque—He was educated. God knows how.
Francois—(draining his glass and pouring out more.) He knew everything, he could tell anything—he used to tell me poetry. Oh, what poetry! And I would listen and dream—
Destage—And he could make verses and sing them with his guitar.
Lamarque—And he would tell us about men and women of history—about Charlotte Corday and Fouquet and Moliere and St. Louis and Mamine, the strangler, and Charlemagne and Mme. Dubarry and Machiavelli and John Law and Francois Villon—
Destage—Villon! (enthusiastically) He loved Villon. He would talk for hours of him.
Francois—(Pouring more wine) And then he would get very drunk and say “Let us fight” and he would stand on the table and say that everyone in the wine shop was a pig and a son of pigs. La! He would grab a chair or a table and Sacre Vie Dieu! but those were hard nights for us.
Lamarque—Then he would take his hat and guitar and go into the streets to sing. He would sing about the moon.
Francois—And the roses and the ivory towers of Babylon and about the ancient ladies of the court and about “the silent chords that flow from the ocean to the moon. ”
Destage—That’s why he made no money. He was bright and clever—when we worked, he worked feverishly hard, but he was always drunk, night and day.
Lamarque—Often he lived on liquor alone for weeks at a time.
Destage—He was much in jail toward the end.
Chandelle—(calling) Pitou! More wine!
Francois—(excitedly) And me! He used to like me best. He used to say that I was a child and he would train me. He died before he began. (Pitou enters with another bottle of wine; Francois seizes it eagerly and pours himself a glass.)
Destage—And then that cursed Lafouquet—stuck him with a knife.
Francois—But I fixed Lafouquet. He stood on the Seine bridge drunk and—
Lamarque—Shut up, you fool you—
Francois—I pushed him and he sank—down—down—and that night Chandelle came in a dream and thanked me.
Chandelle—(shuddering) How long—for how many years did you come here.
Destage—Six or seven. (Gloomily) Had to end—had to end.
Chandelle—And he’s forgotten. He left nothing. He’ll never be thought of again.
Destage—Remembered! Bah! Posterity is as much a charlatan as the most prejudiced tragic critic that ever boot-licked an actor. (He turns his glass nervously round and round) You don’t realize—I’m afraid—how we feel about Jean Chandelle, Francois and Lamarque and I—he was more than a genius to be admired—
Francois—(hoarsely) Don’t you see, he stood for us as well as for himself.
Lamarque—(rising excitedly and walking up and down.) There we were—four men—three of us poor dreamers—artistically educated, practically illiterate (he turns savagely to Chandelle and speaks almost menacingly) Do you realize that I can neither read nor write. Do you realize that back of Francois there, despite his fine phrases, there is a character weak as water, a mind as shallow as—
(Francois starts up angrily.)
Lamarque—Sit down (Francois sits down muttering.)
Francois—(after a pause) But, Monsieur, you must know—I leave the gift of—of—(helplessly) I can’t name it—appreciation, artistic, aesthetic sense—call it what you will. Weak—yes, why not? Here I am, with no chance, the world against me. I lie—I steal perhaps—I am drunk—I—
(Destage fills up Francois glass with wine.)
Destage—Here! Drink that and shut up! You are boring the gentleman. There is his weak side—poor infant.
(Chandelle who has listened to the last, keenly turns his chair toward Destage.)
Chandelle—But you say my father was more to you than a personal friend; in what way?
Lamarque—Can’t you see?
Francois—I—I—he helped—(Destage pours out more wine and gives it to him.)
Destage—You see he—how shall I say it?—he expressed us. If you can imagine a mind like mine, potently lyrical, sensitive without being cultivated. If you can imagine what a balm, what a medicine, what an all in all was summed up for me in my conversations with him. It was everything to me. I would struggle pathetically for a phrase to express a million yearnings and he would say it in a word.
Lamarque—Monsieur is bored? (Chandelle shakes his head and opening his case selects a cigarette and lights it)
Lamarque—Here, sir, are three rats, the product of a sewer—destined by nature to live and die in the filthy ruts where they were born. But these three rats in one thing are not of the sewer—they have eyes. Nothing to keep them from remaining in the sewer but their eyes, nothing to help them if they go out but their eyes—and now here comes the light. And it came and passed and left us rats again—vile rats—and one, when he lost the light, went blind.
Francois—(muttering to himself)—
Blind! Blind! Blind!
Then he ran alone, when the light had passed;
The sun had set and the night fell fast;
The rat lay down in the sewer at last,
(A beam of the sunset has come to rest on the glass of wine that Francois holds in his hand. The wine glitters and sparkles. Francois looks at it, starts, and drops the glass. The wine runs over the table.)
Destage—(animatedly) Fifteen—twenty years ago he sat where you sat, small, heavy-bearded, black eyed—always sleepy looking.
Francois—(his eyes closed—his voice trailing off) Always sleepy, sleepy, slee—
Chandelle—(dreamily) He was a poet unsinging, crowned with wreaths of ashes. (His voice rings with just a shade of triumph.)
Francois—(talking in his sleep) Ah, well Chandelle, are you witty to-night, or melancholy or stupid or drunk.
Chandelle—Messieurs—it grows late. I must be off. Drink, all of you (enthusiastically) Drink until you cannot talk or walk or see. (He throws a bill on the table.)
(Chandelle dons his coat and hat. Pitou enters with more wine. He fills the glasses.)
Lamarque—Drink with us, Monsieur.
Francois—(asleep) Toast, Chandelle, toast.
Chandelle—(taking a glass and raising it aloft). Toast (His face is a little red and his hand unsteady. He appears infinitely more gallic than when he entered the wine shop.)
Chandelle—I drink to one who might have been all, who was nothing—who might have sung; who only listened—who might have seen the sun; who but watched a dying ember—who drank of gall and wore a wreath of shadow laurels—
(The others have risen, even Francois who totters wildly forward.)
Francois—Jean, Jean, don’t go—don’t—till I, Francois—you can’t leave me—I’ll be all alone—alone—alone (his voice rises higher and higher) My God, man, can’t you see, you have no right to die—You are my soul. (He stands for a moment, then sprawls across the table. Far away in the twilight a violin sighs plaintively. The last beam of the sun rests on Francois’ head. Chandelle opens the door and goes out.)
Destage—The old days go by, and the old loves and the old spirit. “Ou sont les neiges d’antan? ” I guess. (Pauses unsteadily and then continues. ) I’ve gone far enough without him.
Lamarque—(dreamily) Far enough.
Destage—Your hand Jaques! (They clasp hands).
Francois—(wildly) Here—I, too—you won’t leave me (feebly) I want—just one more glass—one more—
(The light fades and disappears.)
Перевод А. Б. Руднева: Венец из призрачного лавра.