Cake

I had taken to traveling. The landscape in which I found myself was of irresistible grandeur and nobility. At that moment something from it must have crossed over into my soul. My thoughts fluttered up, light as air; vulgar passions, such as hate, such as profane love, now appeared to me distant as clouds drifting through the abysses under my feet. My soul seemed to me as vast and as pure as the dome of the sky encircling me; memories of earthly things came to my heart weakened, diminished, like a scarcely perceptible sound of cowbells from far away, very far away, from the slope of some other mountain. Over the little motionless lake, dark from its immense depth, passed sometimes the shadow of a cloud, like the reflection of an aerial giant sailing the sky. And I recall how this sensation, solemn and extraordinary, occasioned by grand, perfectly silent, movement, filled me with a mixture of joy and fear. In short, I felt, thanks to the rapturous beauty around me, in perfect peace with myself and with the universe; I believe, in fact, that in my perfect beatitude, totally oblivious to any earthly evil, I no longer found so ridiculous those declarations that man is born good; — at which point, unappeasable matter renewing its demands, I thought to relieve my fatigue and allay the appetite induced by my long climb. I took from my pocket a hunk of bread, a leather cup and the flask of a certain elixir pharmacists in those days sold to tourists, to mix at such moments with melted snow. Tranquilly I broke my bread, when a light sound made me raise my eyes. Before me stood a small creature in rags, dark, dishevelled, whose hollow eyes, wild and imploring, devoured my bread. And I heard him sigh, in a low raucous voice, the word: cake! I had to laugh, hearing the term with which he sought to dignify my more or less white bread and I cut a hefty slice to offer him. Slowly he came nearer, his eyes never leaving the coveted object; then seizing the slice with his hand, jumped back, as if afraid my offer were not sincere or had been already taken back.

But at that moment, he was knocked over by another little savage, springing from I don’t know where, and so perfectly like the first that they could be supposed twins. Together they rolled on the ground, disputing the precious acquisition, neither one willing, obviously, to sacrifice a half to his brother. The first, exasperated, grabbed the other by his hair; who in turn clamped his teeth on the first one’s ear, spitting out a bloody bit of it along with a superb dialect oath. The rightful possessor of the cake then tried to dig his nails into the ursurper’s eyes while the other put all he had into strangling his opponent with one hand while, with the other, slipping the contested article into his pocket. But revived by desperation, the conquered made a comeback and brought his conqueror down by ramming his head into the other’s stomach. Useless to describe further this hideous fight which lasted in fact longer than seemed possible from their childish frames. The cake traveled hand to hand and changed pocket to pocket moment by moment; but, alas, changed also in volume; and when finally, exhausted, panting, bloody, they stopped because they could fight no more, there was no longer, actually, anything to fight about; the bread had disappeared, scattered in crumbs like the grains of sand it fell among.

For me, this spectacle darkened the landscape, completely gone the calm joy that had enlivened my soul before seeing these little men. I remained sad for some time, saying to myself over and over, “So there exists a superb land where bread is called cake, a delicacy so rare as to cause strictly fratricidal war!”

The Eyes of the Poor

Ah, so you’d like to know why, today, I hate you. Less likely, no doubt, for you to understand than for me to explain, since you are the best example of feminine impenetrability I’ve ever met.

We had spent a long day together, which seemed short to me. We had assured each other that our thoughts were thoughts in common and that our two souls from now on would be one. Not, after all, the most original dream, what all men have dreamed and no man accomplished.

That evening, rather tired, you wanted to sit at a new café at the corner of the new boulevard, still full of stripped plaster but already gloriously presenting its unfinished splendors. The café glittered. The gas-lights themselves displayed all the ardor of a premiere and threw their beams on blindingly white walls, mirrors full of dazzling table-cloths, golden mouldings and cornices, plump-cheeked page-boys pulled by dogs on leashes, women laughing at the falcon perched on a fist, nymphs and goddesses crowned with fruit, paté, fowl, Hebes and Ganymedes whose extended arms offered a little jar of Bavarian cream or an obelisk of mixed ices; all history and the whole of mythology put to the service of gluttony.

Right in front of us, on the sidewalk, was a fellow, fortyish, graying beard on his tired face, holding with one hand a little boy and carrying on the other a tiny creature not yet able to walk. As nursemaid he was giving his children the evening air. All of them in tatters. The three faces were extraordinarily serious and their six eyes contemplated steadily the new café, with equal admiration, but nuanced according to age.

The eyes of the father said: “Beautiful! how beautiful! It’s as if all the gold from the poor world had come to live in these walls.” — The eyes of the little boy: “Beautiful! how beautiful! But it’s somewhere only for those who are not like us.” — As for the eyes of the littlest one, they were too fascinated to express anything beyond a deep and stupid joy.

Song writers claim that pleasure improves the soul and softens the heart. The song that evening did — to me, that is. Not only was I touched by this family of eyes, but I felt a bit ashamed of our glasses and pitchers, bigger than our thirst. I fixed my gaze on yours, my love, in order to read there what I was thinking; I plunged into your eyes, so beautiful and bizarrely tender, into your green eyes, inhabited by Caprice and inspired by the Moon, as you said to me: “I find these people insupportable, their eyes wide as barn doors! Couldn’t you ask the head waiter to get them out of here?”

That shows how difficult understanding is, my angel, and how thought is incommunicable, even between lovers.

A Toy for the Poor

I’d like to introduce an innocent diversion. There are so few amusements not wicked.

Going for a morning stroll to take in the sights along a main street, fill your pockets with cheap little gimmicks — such as cardboard puppets on a thread, little blacksmith figures beating anvils, horsemen on horses with a whistle for tail — and along by the taverns, under the trees, offer them gratis to whatever poor and unknown children you come by. You will see their eyes widen. At first they won’t dare accept, such good fortune not quite believable. Then they will grab the gift and move away, as cats distance themselves to eat what you toss them, having learned to distrust mankind.

On a drive inside the gate of a large garden, where sunlight reveals a lovely white manor, stood a neat and beautiful little boy in fastidious country garments.

Luxury, freedom from care, habitual wealthy surroundings, give children good looks like this, until one could suppose them made of a different substance from offspring of the middle class or of the poor.

Beside him, on the grass, lay a splendid toy, a figure neat as its master, polished, gilded, in a purple robe covered with plumes and trinkets. But he paid no attention to this favored toy, for here is what he was actually looking at: Outside the gate, across the road, between thistle and nettle, was another boy, dirty, sickly, soot-covered, one of those outcast urchins whose beauty an impartial eye might appreciate, if — as connoisseurs can spot a transcendent painting veneered over with later varnish — it could wash off the repulsive patina of poverty.

Across the symbolic bars separating two worlds, big street and big house, the poor boy displayed his own toy to the rich, who stared greedily, as if at an object rare and unknown. For the toy that this guttersnipe poked at, shook, waved about in a cage, was a live rat! His parents, for economy no doubt, had provided him a toy from life itself.

And the two children, each to the other, laughed fraternally, with teeth of equal whiteness