Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

companion; a chest, that contained his linen and clothes ; a little cupboard of worm-eaten wood, painted white, with which contrasted strangely a costly mahogany dressing-case inlaid with silver, and which was the only remnant of his past splendour; a narrow but clean bed; and a pair of blue linen curtains, that seemed hung at his window in mockery, for through its thick bars, or from the high wall which rose about ten feet beyond it, he neither feared the impertinence of curious eyes, nor the overpowering rays of the sun. Such was the furniture of his prison-chamber. The rest of his world was confined to a short stone staircase, which, turning sharply round, led to a little paved yard, that had formerly been one of the outworks of the citadel. And here it was that for two hours a day he was permitted to walk. This even was a privilege ; for, from this little enclosure, he could behold the summits of the Alps, which lay behind his prison, though not the rocks and forests with which they were studded. Alas! once returned to his chamber, his horizon was bounded by the dull wall of masonry that separated him from the sublime and picturesque scenery which might have relieved the tedium of the day. At the extremity of the wall was a little window, breaking alone its uniformity; and here, from time to time, Charney fancied that he recognised a melancholy figure.

This was his world—where his demon of THOUGHT still possessed him; and here, by its dictation, he wrote the most terrible sentences on the wall, near to the sacred keepsakes of his mother and sister ! By turns hé directed his mind to the merest trifles—manufactured whistles, boxes, and little open baskets of fruit stones—made miniature ships of walnut shells, and plaited straw for amusement. To vary his occupations, he engraved a thousand fantastic designs upon his table; houses upon houses, fish upon the trees, men taller than the steeples, boats upon the roofs, carriages in the middle of the water, and dwarf pyramids by the side of gigantic flies! Perhaps, however, the greatest interest this victim of ennui experienced, was the curiosity he felt concerning the figure he sometimes saw at the little window to which we before alluded. At first he took the stranger for a spy, placed there to watch his movements; and then he fancied he was one of his enemies enjoying the sight of his degradation-for Charney was the most suspicious

of mortals. When at last he questioned the jailer, the poor man only deceived him, though unintentionally.

'He is one of my own countrymen, an Italian,' said he; “a good Christian, for I find him often at prayers.'

Charney asked, “Why is he imprisoned ?'

'Because he tried to assassinate General Bonaparte,' returned the jailer. ' Is he, then, a patriot?'

Oh no; but he lost his son in the war in Germany, and that maddened him. He has but one child left-his daughter.'

"Oh, then it was in a transport of passion and selfishness ?' replied Charney. And then he continued, Pray, how does this bold conspirator amuse himself here?'

He catches insects,' said Ludovic the jailer with a smile.

Charney could no longer detest, he only despised him, as he answered: What a fool he must be!'

• Why, count, is he a fool? He has been longer a prisoner than you have, yet already you have become a master in the art of carving on wood.'

Notwithstanding the irony of this expression, Charney betook himself to his old occupations; and in such wearying puerilities passed an entire winter. Happily for him a new source of interest was opening:

It was a beautiful morning in spring, when Charney, as usual, paced the little courtyard. He walked slowly, as if thus he could increase the actual space which lay before him. He counted the paving stones one by one, doubtless to prove if his former calculations of this important matter were correct. With eyes bent to the ground, he perceived an unusual appearance between two of the stones. It was but a very little hillock of earth open at the top. Stooping down, he lightly raised some of the particles of soil, and now saw a little blade of vegetation which had scarcely yet escaped from a sced, which had been dropped probably by a bird, or wasted thither by the wind. He would have crushed it with his foot, but at that instant a soft breeze brought to him the odour of honeysuckle and seringa, as if to ask pity for the poor plant, and whisper that it also would perhaps some day have fragrance to bestow! Another idea also stayed his movement. How had this tender blade, so fragile that a touch would break it-how had this tender blade been able to raise itself, and throw from it the hard dry earth almost cemented to the stones by the pressure of his own feet? Interested by the circumstance, again he stooped to examine the infant plant.

He perceived a sort of soft coating, which, folding itself over the young leaves, preserved them from injury, while they pierced the crust of earth and burst into the air and sunshine. Ah! said he to himself, this is the secret. It derives from nature this principle of strength, just as birds, before they are hatched, are provided with beaks to break the egg-shell. Poor prisoner! thou at least in thy captivity dost possess an instrument for thine own liberation. He looked at it for a few moments, but thought no more of crushing it.

The next afternoon, while walking, again, from sheer absence of mind, he nearly stepped upon the little plant. Yet he paused instinctively, surprised himself at the interest it awakened. He found that it had grown in the four-and-twenty hours, and that, having basked in the sunshine, it had lost the sich:ly paleness he

These great

had noticed the previous day. He reflected on the strange power this feeble stem possessed of nourishing itself, and acquiring the various colours assigned to its different parts. Yes, thought he, 'its leaves will of course be of a different shade from the stem; and its flowers, I wonder what colour they will be? How is it that, fed from the same source, one imbibes blue, and another scarlet? They will so shew themselves, however; for, notwithstanding the confusion and disorder there is in the world, matter certainly obeys regular, though blind laws. Very blind,' he repeated to himself; 'if I needed another proof, here is one. lobes, which helped the plant to burst through the earth, are now quite useless; but still they hang heavily upon it, and exhaust its sap!'

While the count thus reasoned, the evening drew on; and though it was spring-time, the nights were cold. As the sun sank, the lobes he had been watching rose slowly before his eyes, and as if to justify themselves in his opinion, drew nearer to each other, enclosing the tender leaves, folding their soft wings over the plant, and thus protecting it from cold, or the attack of insects! Charney understood this silent answer all the better from perceiving that the outer coating had been eaten the preceding night by the slugs, whose silver trail still remained upon the surface.

This strange dialogue, carried on by thought on one side, and action on the other, could not rest here ; for Charney was too much accustomed to dispute, to yield his opinion at once to a good reason.

It is all very well, said he to himself; 'as it often happens, several fortunate accidents have combined to favour this little plant. Armed at first with a lever to raise up the earth, and a shield to defend it from injury, there was a double chance of its existence; but for these, the germ would have been stified, as doubtless myriads of the same species are, which nature having imperfectly formed, are unable to preserve themselves, or perpetuate their kind. Who can know the number of these unfinished productions ? Bah! there is nothing in all I have noticed but a lucky chance.'

Count Charney, nature has still an answer to all your arguments. Be patient, and perhaps you will discover that this frail production was providentially placed in the courtyard of your prison for a useful purpose. You are right in thinking that these protecting wings will soon be insufficient for the purpose ; but then they will wither and fall, no longer wanted. For when the north wind shall blow from the Alps damp fogs and flakes of snow, the new leaves still in the bud shall find there a safe asylum, a dwelling prepared for them, impervious to the air, cemented with gum and resin, which, increasing according to their growth, will only open in genial weather; and when returning sunshine calls them forth, they press together, thus borrowing and lending fraternal support, and find themselves provided with a downy covering to protect them from atmospheric changes. Be sure, wherever danger increases, the care of Providence is redoubled.

The prisoner still watched the changes of the plant. Again he argued, and again it had a ready answer. • Of what use is this down upon the stem?' said Charney.

The next morning he saw that the down was covered with a light hoar-frost, which had thus been held at a distance from the tender bark !

' At all events, it will not be wanted in the summer,' continued the count; and when warm weather came, behold the plant was stripped of its first mantle, and its fresh branches were free from a covering no longer necessary. “But a storm may come, and the wind will scatter, and the hail will tear thy tender leaves.'

The wind blew, and the young plant, too weak to wrestle with it, bent to the earth, and so found safety. It hailed; and now, by a new manæuvre, the leaves arose, and pressing together for mutual protection around the stem, presented a solid mass to the blows of the enemy : in union they found strength; and though the plant sustained some slight injury, it came out of the conflict still strong, and ready to open to the sunbeams, which soon healed its wounds!

' Has Chance intelligence?' asked Charney; 'can it join spirit to matter?' From attempting to discover some of the properties of this humble plant, and watching over its progress towards maturity, he unconsciously learned to love it; and it was the first thing which he loved, for his heart was at length touched. One day he had watched it longer even than usual, and surprised himself in a reverie beside it. His thoughts were calmer and sweeter than any he had experienced for a long time. Presently, on raising his head, he perceived at the window we before noticed the stranger, who evidently was watching him, and whom Charney had called in derision the fly-catcher. At first he blushed, as if the other had known his thoughts; and then he smiled, for he no longer despised him. What room was there for contempt? Was not his own mind absorbed in a very similar manner? Who knows,' said he, 'this Italian may have discovered in a fly things as worthy of being examined as I have in my plant.'

On re-entering his chamber, the first object which struck him was a sentence he had written on his wall about two months before-it ran thus :

Chance is the parent of creation.' He took a piece of charcoal, and wrote beneath it - Perhaps !' Charney chalked no more upon the wall

, and only carved upon his table representations of flowers and leaves. His hours of exercise he passed almost entirely by the side of his plant, watching its growth, and studying its changes; and often, when returned to his chamber, he continued to gaze on it through the grated window. It had now, indeed, become his favourite occupation—the only resource of a prisoner! Will he tire of it as he had done of every other ainusement? We shall see.

One morning, while looking at the plant from his window, he saw, or fancied, that the jailer, in crossing the courtyard with hurried strides, brushed so close to the stem that he almost crushed it. Charney trembled from head to foot. When Ludovic brought him his breakfast, he set about offering his petition, which was, that he would have the goodness to walk carefully, and spare the only ornament of the yard. But simple as the request may appear, he scarcely knew how to begin. Perhaps the regulations for cleaning the prison might be so rigid, that destruction must await the little thing; and if so, how great was the favour he had to ask! At last, however, mustering up courage to speak of such a trifle, he begged Ludovic who, though the warden of a prison, and sometimes rough in manner, was not by any means a hard-hearted man-to spare the plant in which he had begun to take such a friendly interest.

Why, as for your wallflower'- began Ludovic. 'Is it then a wallflower ?' interrupted the count.

Oh, I don't know, I am sure; but all such things seem to me more or less wallflowers. But this I will say, that you are rather late in recommending it to my care. Why, I should have put my foot upon it long ago, had I not seen that you were interested in it.'

“Yes, I do feel an interest,' said Charney, in a confused manner.

‘Hush, hush,' returned the other, winking his eye with a comical expression; people must have something to care about, and prisoners have no choice. Why, I have known great people, clever people—for they don't send fools here-amuse themselves at little cost. One catches flies—no great harm in that; another'-and here he winked again-'carves with his penknife all sorts of monstrous things upon his table, without remembering that I am responsible for the furniture. Some make friends of birds, and some of mice. Now, so much do I respect these fancies, that I have sent away our cat, though my wife doted on her, for fear of her killing them. Perhaps she might not have injured them, but I would not run any

I should have been a villain if I had ; for all the cats in the world are not worth the bird or mouse of a prisoner.'

. It was very good of you,' replied Charney, feeling himself humbled at being thought capable of such childish tastes. But this plant is for me something more than an amusement.'

'Well, what matters it? If it reminds you of the tree under which you prattled to your mother in your childhood, so much the better. The superintendent has not spoken about it, and as for me, I shut my eyes to things I don't wish to see. If it should grow to be a tree, and so be able to help you over the wall, it will be another affair ; but we have no need to think of that yet a while,' he added with a laugh ; 'though, I am sure, I wish you the free use of your

risk ;

« ForrigeFortsæt »