Peeps at People
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"It must be a picture!" I ejaculated, with enthusiasm. "And Ancona? Is he with you?"
"He is, and he's as useful a man as ever was," said ?douard. "He is our head ploughboy. And Calv?'s vegetable garden – well, Jean and I do not wish to seem vain, Miss Witherup, but really if there is a vegetable garden in the world that produces cabbages that are cabbages, and artichokes that are artichokes, and Bermuda potatoes that are Bermuda potatoes, it is Calv?'s garden right here."
"And what becomes of all the product of your farm?" I asked.
"We sell it all," said Jean. "We supply the Czar of Russia with green pease and radishes. The Emperor of Germany buys all his asparagus from us; and we have secured the broiled-chicken contract for the Austrian court for the next five years."
"And you don't feel, Mr. De Reszke," I asked, "that all this interferes with your work?"
"It is my work," replied the great tenor.
"Then why," I queried, "do you not take it up exclusively? Singing in grand opera must be very exhausting."
"It is," sighed Jean. "It is indeed. Siegfried is harder than haying, and I would rather shear six hundred sheep than sing Tristan; but, alas, ?douard and I cannot afford to give it up, for if we did, what would become of our farm? The estimated expense of producing one can of pease on this estate, Miss Witherup, is $300, but we have to let it go at 50 cents. Asparagus costs us $14.80 a spear. A lamb chop from the De Reszke Lambery sells for 60 cents in a Paris restaurant, but it costs us $97 a pound to raise them. So you see why it is that my brother and I still appear periodically in public, and also why it is that our services are very expensive. We didn't want to take the gross receipts of opera the last time we were in New York, and when the company went to the wall we'd have gladly compromised for 99 cents on the dollar, had we not at that very time received our semi-annual statement from the agent of our farm, showing an expenditure of $800,000, as against gross receipts of $1650."
"Sixteen hundred and thirty dollars," said ?douard, correcting his brother. "We had to deduct $20 from our bill against Queen Victoria for those pheasants' eggs we sent to Windsor. Three crates of them turned out to be Shanghai roosters."
"True," said Jean. "I had forgotten."
I rose, and after presenting the singers with the usual check and my cordial thanks for their hospitality, prepared to take my leave.
"You must have a souvenir of your visit, Miss Witherup," said Jean. "What shall it be – a radish or an Alderney cow? They both cost us about the same."
"Thank you," I said. "I do not eat radishes, and I have no place to keep a cow; but if you will sing the 'Lohengrin' farewell for me, it will rest with me forever."
The brothers laughed.
"You ask too much!" they cried. "That would be like giving you $10,000."
"Oh, very well," said I. "I'll take the will for the deed."
"We'll send you our pictures autographed," said ?douard."How will that do?"
"I shall be delighted," I replied, as I bowed myself out.
"You can use 'em to illustrate the interview with," Jean called out after me.
And so I left them. I hope their anxiety over their crops will not damage their "focal bowers," as the landlord called them, for with their voices gone I believe their farm would prove a good deal of a burden.
On my way back from the Polish home of the De Reszkes it occurred to me that it would be worth while to stop over a day or so and interview Mr. Sienkiewicz. There were a great many things I desired to ask that gentleman, and he is so comparatively unknown a personality that I thought a word or two with him would be interesting.
I had great difficulty in finding him, for the very simple reason that, like most other people, I did not know how to ask for him. Ordinarily I can go into a shop and ask where the person I wish to see may chance to dwell. But when a man has a name like Sienkiewicz, the task is not an easy one. When it is remembered that poets in various parts of the United States have made the name rhyme to such words as sticks, fizz, and even vichy, it will be seen that it requires an unusually bold person to try to speak it in a country where words of that nature are considered as easy to pronounce as Jones or Smith would be in my own beloved land. However, I was not to be daunted, and set about my self-appointed task without hesitation. My first effort was to seek information from my friends the De Reszkes, and I telegraphed them: "Where can I find Sienkiewicz? Please answer." With their usual courtesy the brothers replied promptly: "We don't know what it is. If it is a patent-medicine, apply at any apothecary shop; if it is a vegetable, we do not raise it, but we have a fine line of parsley we can send you if there is any immediate hurry."
I suppose I ought not to give the brothers away by printing their message of reply, but it seems to me to be so interesting that I may hope to be forgiven if I have erred.
I next turned to the book-shops, but even there I was puzzled. Most of the booksellers spoke French; and while I am tolerably familiar with the idiom of the boulevards, I do not speak it fluently, and was utterly at a loss to know what Quo Vadis might be in that language. So I asked for a copy of With Fire and Sword.
"Avez-vous Avec Feu et Sabre?" I asked of the courteous salesman.
It may have been my accent, or it may have been his stupidity. In any event, he did not seem to understand me, so I changed the book, and asked for The Children of the Soil.
"N'importe," said I. "Avez-vous Les Enfants de la Terre?"
"Excuse me, madame," he replied, in English, "but what do you want, anyhow?"
"I want to know where – er – where the author of Quo Vadis lives."
"Oh!" said he. "I did not quite understand you. It is so long since I was in Boston that my American French is a trifle weak. If you will take the blue trolley-car that goes up Ujazdowska Avenue, and ask the conductor to let you out at the junction of the Krakowskie Przedmiescie and the Nowy Swiat, the gendarme on the corner will be able to direct you thither."
"Great Heavens!" I cried. "Would you mind writing that down?"
He was a very agreeable young man, and consented. It is from his memorandum that I have copied the names he spoke with such ease, and if it so happens that I have got them wrong, it is his fault, and not mine.
"One more thing before I go," said I, folding up the memorandum and shoving it into the palm of my hand through the opening in my glove. "When I get to – er – the author of Quo Vadis's house, whom shall I ask for?"
I fear the young man thought I was mad. He eyed me suspiciously for a moment.
"That all depends upon whom you wish to see," he said.
"I want to see – er – him," said I.
"Then ask for him," he replied. "It is always well, when calling, to ask for the person one wishes to see. If you desired to call upon Mrs. Brown-Jones, for instance, it would be futile to go to her house and ask for Mrs. Pink-Smith, or Mrs. Greene-Robinson."
"I know that," said I. "But what's his name?"
The young man paled visibly. He now felt certain that I was an escaped lunatic.
"I mean, how do you pronounce it?" I hastened to add.
"Oh!" he replied, with a laugh, and visibly relieved. "Oh, that! Why, Sienkiewicz, of course! It is frequently troublesome to those who are not familiar with the Polish language. It is pronounced Sienkiewicz. S-i-e-n-k, Sienk, i-e, ie, w-i-c-z, wicz – Sienkiewicz."
And so I left him, no wiser than before. He did it so fluently and so rapidly that I failed to catch the orthoepic curves involved in this famous name.
Armed with the slip of paper he had so kindly handed me, I sought out and found the trolley-car; conveyed by signs rather than by word of mouth to the conductor where I wished to alight; discovered the gendarme, who turned out to be a born policeman, and was therefore an Irishman, who escorted me without more ado to the house in which dwelt the man for whom I was seeking.
"Is – er – the head of the house in?" I asked of the maid who answered my summons. I spoke in French, and this time met with no difficulty. The maid had served in America, and understood me at once.
"Yes, ma'm," she replied, and immediately ushered me into the author's den, where I discovered the great man himself scolding his secretary.
"I cannot understand why you are so careless," he was saying as I entered. "In spite of all my orders, repeatedly given, you will not dot your jays or cross your ells. If you do not take greater care I shall have to get some one else who will. Write this letter over again."
Then he looked up, and perceiving me, rose courteously, and, much to my surprise, observed in charming English:
"Miss Witherup, I presume?"
"Yes," said I, grasping his proffered hand. "How did you know?"
"I was at the De Reszkes' when your telegram reached there yesterday," he explained. "We thought you would be amused by the answer we sent you."
"Oh!" said I, seeing that I had been made the victim of a joke. "It wasn't polite, was it?"
"Oh, I don't know," he replied. "It was inspired by our confidence in your American alertness. We were sure you would be able to find me, anyhow, and we thought we'd indulge in a little humor, that was all."
"Ah!" I said, smiling, to show my forgiveness. "Well, you were right; and now that I have found you, tell me, do you write or dictate your stories?"
"I dictate them," he said.
"Wonderful!" said I. "Can you really speak all those dreadful Polish words? They are so long and so full of unexpected consonants in curious juxtaposition that they suggest barb-wire rather than literature to the average American mind."
I had a sort of sneaking idea that he would find in juxtaposition a word to match any of his own, and I spoke it with some pride. He did not seem to notice it, however, and calmly responded:
"One gets used to everything, Miss Witherup. I have known men who could speak Russian so sweetly that you'd never notice how full of jays the language is," said he. "And I have heard Englishmen say that after ten years' residence in the United States they got rather to like the dialect of you New-Yorkers, and in some cases to speak it with some degree of fluency themselves."
"What is your favorite novel, Mr. – er – "
"Sienkiewicz," he said, smiling over my hesitation.
"Thanks," said I, gratefully. "But never mind that. I have a toothache, anyhow, and if you don't mind I won't – "
"Don't mention it," he said.
"I won't," I answered. "What is your favorite novel?"
"Quo Vadis," he replied, promptly, and without any conceit whatever. He was merely candid.
"I don't mean of your own. I mean of other people's," said I.
"Oh!" said he. "I didn't understand; still, my answer must be the same. My favorite novel in Polish is, of course, my own; but of the novels that others have published, I think Quo Vadis, by Jeremiah Curtin, is my favorite. Of course it is only a translation, but it is good."
I did not intend to be baffled, however, so I persisted.
"Very well, Mr. – er – You," said I. "What is your favorite novel in Chinese?"
"My favorite novel has not yet been translated into Chinese," he replied, calmly, and I had to admit myself defeated.
"Do you like Vanity Fair?" I asked.
"I have never been there," said he, simply.
"What do you think of Pickwick?" I asked.
"That is a large question," he replied, with some uneasiness, I thought. "But as far as my impressions go, I think he was guilty."
I passed the matter over.
"Are you familiar with American literature?" I asked.
"Somewhat," said he. "I have watched the popular books in your country, and have read some of them."
"And what books are they?" I asked.
"Well, Quo Vadis and The Prisoner of Zenda," he replied. "They are both excellent."
"I suppose you never read Conan Doyle," I put in, with some sarcasm. A man who is familiar with what is popular in American literature ought to have read Conan Doyle.
"Yes," he replied, "I have read Conan Doyle. I've read it through three times, but I think Dr. Holmes did better work than that. His Autograph on the Breakfast Table was a much better novel than Conan Doyle, and his poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,' is a thing to be remembered. Still, I liked Conan Doyle," he added.
"Everybody does," I said.
"Naturally. It is a novel that suggests life, blood, insight, and all that," said my host. "But of all the books you Americans have written the best is Mr. Thackeray's estimate of your American boulevardier. It was named, if I remember rightly, Tommie Fadden. I read that with much interest, and I do not think that Mr. Thackeray ever did anything better, although his story of Jane Eyre was very good indeed. Fadden was such a perfect representation of your successful American, and in reading it one can picture to one's self all the peculiar qualities of your best society. Really, I am grateful to Mr. Thackeray for his Tommie Fadden, and when you return to New York I hope you will tell him so, with my compliments."
I looked at my watch and observed that the hour was growing late.
"I am returning to Paris," said I, "so I have very little time left. Still, I wish to ask you two questions. First, did you find it hard to make a name for yourself?"
"Very," said he. "It has taken sixteen hours a day for twenty years."
"Then why didn't you choose an easier name, like Lang, or Johnson?" I asked.
"What is your other question?" he said, in response. "When I make a name, I make a name that will be remembered. Sienkiewicz will be remembered, whether it can be pronounced without rehearsal or not. What is your other question?"
"Are you going to read from your own works in America, or not? Dr. Doyle, Dr. Watson, Anthony Hope, Matthew Arnold, and Richard Le Gallienne have done it. How about yourself?" I said.
Mr. Sienkiewicz sighed.
"I wanted to, but I can't," said he. "Nobody will have me."
"Nonsense," said I. "Have you? They'll all have you."
"But," he added, "how can I? One must be introduced, and how can chairmen of the evening introduce me?"
"They have intelligence," said I. And some of them have, so I was quite right.
"Yes, but they have no enunciation or memory," said he. "I can explain forever the pronunciation of my name, but your American chairman can never remember how it is pronounced. I shall not go."
And so I departed from the house of Mr. Sienkiewicz.
I can't really see why, when he was making a name for himself, he did not choose one that people outside of his own country could speak occasionally without wrecking their vocal chords – one like Boggs, for instance.
Upon returning to my London lodgings I was greatly rejoiced to find awaiting me there a cable message from the War Department at Washington, saying that if I would visit General Weyler at Madrid, and secure from him a really frank expression of his views concerning our Spanish imbroglio, the President would be very glad to give me a commission as First Assistant Vivandi?re to the army of the Philippines, with rank of Captain. I saw at once that in endeavoring to secure an interview with this particular celebrity I ran risks far greater than any I had yet encountered – greater even than those involved in my visit to Mr. Caine at his Manx home. It is my custom, however, to go wherever duty may call, and inasmuch as my sex has, since the days of Joan of Arc, secured military recognition nowhere except in the ranks of the Salvation Army, I resolved to accept the commission, and notified the War Department accordingly. Fortunately my style of beauty is of the Spanish type, and, furthermore, when at boarding-school, many years ago, in Brooklyn, I had studied the Spanish tongue, so that disguise was not difficult. I had seen Carmencita dance at a private residence in New York, and had therefore some slight knowledge of how a full-fledged se?orita should enter a room, so that, on the whole, I went to Madrid tolerably confident that I could beard the great Spanish lion in his den, and escape unscathed.
Purchasing a lace mantilla and a scarlet scarf about eight feet long, my feet covered with red slippers, and a slight suggestion of yellow silk hosiery peeping from beneath a satin skirt of the length prescribed by the rainy-day club, and armed with a pack of cards and a pair of castanets, I ventured forth upon my perilous mission. Nothing of moment occurred on the journey. I did not don my Spanish dress until I had left England behind – indeed, I had reached the Pyrenees before I arrayed myself in my costume, although I was most anxious to do so. It was, after all, so fetching.
Once in Spain I had no difficulty at all, and in fact made myself very popular with the natives by telling most charming fortunes for them, and dancing the armadillo and opadildock with a verve which pleased them and surprised even myself. I have always known myself to be a resourceful creature, but I had never dreamed that among my reserve accomplishments the agility and grace of a premiere danseuse could be numbered.
It was Friday evening when I reached Madrid, and Saturday morning, bright and early, I called at General Weyler's house. A rather stunning banderillo opened the front door and inquired my business.
"Tell General Weyler," said I, "that Se?orita Gypsy del Castillanos de Sierra de Santiago, of Newark, New Jersey, wishes to speak with him on affairs of national importance."
I had resolved upon a bold stroke, and it worked to a charm. The General, who is mortally afraid of assassins, had been listening from his usual hiding-place behind the hat-rack. Pushing the hat-rack from before him, he stepped out into the hall, and, standing between me and the door, inquired threateningly if Newark, New Jersey, was not one of the dependencies of the United States. I answered him in fluent Spanish that it was, told him that I had lived there through no fault of my own for three years, had had to fly before a mob because of my pro-Spanish sympathies, and, travelling night and day, had come to lay before him a complete sketch of the fortifications of Newark, together with the ground-plan of Harlem, which, as I informed him, he would have to take before he could possibly hope to place Washington in a state of siege. I also gave him a chart showing by what waterways a Spanish fleet could approach and reduce Niagara Falls to ashes – a blow which would strike England and the United States with equal force, without necessarily altering the status quo ante with Great Britain.
The General, like the quick-witted soldier that he is, became interested at once. The lowering aspect of his brow cleared like the summer clouds before an August sun, and, with an urbanity which I had not expected, invited me to step into his sanctum. I accepted with alacrity. I cannot say that it was a pleasant room; it was in military disorder. Machetes and murderous-looking pistols were everywhere, and the chair to which I was assigned was a pleasant little relic of the Inquisition, and was so arranged that had the General so wished, the arms holding hidden iron spikes would fold about me
at any moment and give me a hug I should not forget in a hurry. Added to this was a series of Kodak pictures of all the atrocities of which he was guilty while in Havana. These were framed in one massive oaken frieze running from one end of the room to the other, and labelled on a gilt tablet with black letters, "Snap Shots I Have Snapped, or Pleasant Times in Cuba."
This demonstrates that Weyler is one of those rarely fortunate people who take pleasure and pride in the profession they are called upon to follow.
"General," said I, once we were seated, "did it ever occur to you that if you were two feet shorter, and clean-shaven, with a different nose and a smaller mouth, and a shorter chin and a bigger brow, and less curve to your arms when you walk, you would resemble Napoleon Bonaparte?"
The General was evidently pleased by my compliment.
"Do you think so?" said he, with a smile which absolutely froze my soul.
"I do," I said, meekly, and then I began to weep. I was really unnerved, and began to wish I had never accepted the commission. He was so frightfully cold-blooded, and toyed with a stiletto of razor-like sharpness so carelessly that I was truly terrified.
"Don't cry, Gypsy," he said. "War is a terrible thing, but we will beat those Yankee pigs yet." This, of course, was before peace was declared.
The remark nerved me up again. He believed in me, and that was half the battle.
"Oh, I hope so, General," I sobbed. "But how? Poor old Spain has nothing to fight with."
"Spain has me, se?orita!" he cried, passionately. "And I single-handed will give them battle."
"But you do not know the country, General," said I. "Don't risk your life, I beg of you – our only hope! I haven't a doubt that in a fight with pigs you will win; but, General, the United States is so vast, so complicated; it is full of pitfalls!"
I could see that I had him worked up.
"Se?orita," he cried, "fear not for Weyler. Think you that I do not know America! Ha – ha! I know its every inch. And let me tell you this: it is because I have devoted hour after hour, day after day, night after night, to the study of the United States, and, best of all, they do not suspect it over there. Why? Because of my strategy! When I wished to learn where was situated the city of Ohio did I send to New York for a map? Not I. I knew that if I bought a map in New York, the house of which I bought it would advertise me as one of their patrons. I am too old a Spaniard to be caught like that." Here his voice sank to a whisper, and, leaning forward, he added, impressively: "I sent for a railway time-table. Figures express to my mind what lines or maps could not express to others. What did I learn from the New York Central time-table, for instance? This: Ohio is twelve hours from New York. Good, say you – but what does that mean? Travelling at the rate of four miles an hour, Ohio is just forty-eight miles from New York city! Forty-eight miles! Pah! By forced marches our troops could cover that in ten days."
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