By Hans Christian Andersen (1868)
We are travelling to the Paris Exhibition.
Now we are there ! it was a flight, a rush, but quite without witchcraft ; we came by steam, in a ship and on a high road.
Our time is the fairy-tale time.
We are in the midst of Paris, in a great hotel, all the staircase is decorated with flowers, and soft carpets cover the steps.
Our room is comfortable, the balcony door is standing open to a big square. Down there the spring lives. It has driven to Paris, arriving at the same time as we ; it has come in the shape of a big, young chestnut tree, with fine, newly -opened leaves. How it is clothed in all the glory of spring, far beyond all the other trees in the square ! One of these has gone out of the number of the living trees, and lies prostrate on the ground, torn up by the roots. There, where it stood, the new chestnut tree shall be planted and grow.
As yet it stands high up in the heavy cart which brought it to Paris this morning from the country, several miles away. There it had stood for years, close beside a mighty oak, under which sat often the kindly old priest, who told stories to the listening children. The young chestnut tree listened with them : the Dryad inside it, who was still a child, could remember the time when the tree was so small that it only reached a little higher than the ferns and long blades of grass. They were then as big as they could be, but the tree grew and increased every year, drank air and sunshine, received dew and rain, and was shaken and lashed by the rough winds : this is necessary for education.
The Dryad rejoiced in her life and experiences, in the sunshine and the song of birds, but happy most of all at the voices of men ; she understood their language quite as well as she understood that of animals.
Butterflies, dragon-flies, and common flies everything that could fly, paid her a visit ; they all gossipped together ; told about the village, the vineyard, the wood, the old castle with the park, in which were canals and dams ; down there in the water, dwelt also living things, which in their own way could also fly from place to place under the water, beings with thought and knowledge ; they said nothing, so wise were they.
And the swallow, which had dipped down into the water, told about the lovely gold-fish, about the fat bream, the thick tench, and the old, moss-grown carp. The swallow gave a very good description, ‘ but one can see better for oneself,’ she said ; but how should the Dryad ever get to see these beings ? She must content herself with being able to look out over the beautiful landscape and see the busy activity of men. That was lovely, but most lovely of all, when the old priest stood here under the oak, and told about France, and about the great deeds of men and women, whose names are named with admiration throughout all times. The Dryad heard of the shepherdess Joan of Arc, of Charlotte Corday ; she heard of olden times, of the times of Henry IV, and of Napoleon I, and of greatness and talent, right up to the present day. She heard names, each of which rang in the hearts of the people. France is a world-wide land ; a soil of intellect with a crater of freedom.
The village children listened devoutly, and the Dryad not less so ; she was a school-child like the others. She saw in the forms of the sailing clouds picture after picture of what she had heard told. The cloudy sky was her picturebook.
She felt herself so happy in the lovely France ; but had still a feeling that the birds, and every animal which could fly, were much more favoured than she. Even the fly could look about himself, far and wide, much farther than the Dryad’s horizon.
France was so extensive and so glorious, but she could only see a little bit of it ; like a world, the country stretched out with vineyards, woods, and great towns, and of all of these Paris was the mightiest, and the most brilliant ; thither the birds could go, but never she.
Amongst the village children was a little girl, so poor and so ragged, but lovely to look at ; she was always laughing and singing, and wreathing red flowers in her black hair.
‘ Do not go to Paris ! ‘ said the old priest. ‘ Poor child ! if you go there, it will be your ruin ! ‘
And yet she went.
The Dryad often thought about her, for they had both the same desire and longing for the great city. Spring came, summer, autumn, winter ; two or three years passed.
The Dryad’s tree bore its first chestnut blossoms, the birds twittered about it in the lovely sunshine. Then there came along the road a grand carriage with a stately lady ; she, herself, drove the beautiful prancing horses ; a smart little groom sat behind her. The Dryad knew her again, the old priest knew her again, shook his head, and said sorrowfully, ‘ You did go there ! it was your ruin ! Poor Marie ! ‘
‘ She poor ! ‘ thought the Dryad. ‘ Why, what a change ! she is dressed like a duchess ! she became like this in the city of enchantment. Oh, if I were only there in all the splendour and glory ! it even throws a light up into the clouds at night, when I look in the direction where I know the city is.’
Yes, thither, towards that quarter, the Dryad looked every evening, every night. She saw the glimmering mist on the horizon ; she missed it in the bright, moonlight nights ; she missed the floating clouds which showed her pictures of the city and of history.
The child grasps at its picture-book ; the Dryad grasped at the cloud world, her book of thoughts.
The warm summer sky, free from clouds, was for her a blank page, and now for several days she had seen such a sky.
It was the warm summer-time, with sultry days without a breath of air. Every leaf, every flower, lay as in a doze, and men were like that too. Then clouds arose, and that in the quarter where at night the glimmering mist announced, Here is Paris.
The clouds arose, forming themselves like a whole mountain range, and scudded through the air, out over the whole landscape as far as the Dryad could see.
The clouds lay like enormous purple rocks, layer on layer, high up in the sky. Flashes of lightning darted forth ; they also are servants of God the Lord,’ the old priest had said. And there came a bluish dazzling flash, a blaze as if the sun itself had burst the purple rocks, and the lightning came down, and splintered the mighty old oak tree to the roots ; its crown was rent, its trunk was rent, it fell split asunder as if it spread itself out to embrace the messenger of light. No metal cannon can boom through the air and over the land at the birth of a royal child, as the thunder rumbled here at the death of the old oak tree. The rain streamed down : a refreshing breeze blew, the storm was past, and a Sunday calm fell on everything. The village people gathered round the fallen old oak ; the venerable priest spoke words in its praise, and an artist made a sketch of the tree itself as a lasting memorial.
‘ Everything passes away ! ‘ said the Dryad, ‘ passes away like the clouds, and returns no more.’ The old priest came there no more ; the school roof had fallen, and the teachers’ chair was gone. The children came no more, but the autumn came, winter came, and the spring came too, and in all the changing seasons the Dryad gazed towards the quarter where every evening and night, far away on the horizon, Paris shone like a shimmering mist. Out from it sped engine after engine, the one train after the other, rushing and roaring, at all hours ; in the evening and at midnight, in the morning, and through the whole of the daytime came the trains, and from every one and into every one crowded people from all the countries in the world ; a new wonder of the world had called them to Paris. How did this wonder reveal itself ?
‘ A splendid flower of art and industry,’ they said, has sprung up on the barren soil of the Field of Mars ; a gigantic sunflower, from whose leaves one can learn geography and statistics, get the learning of a guild-master, be elevated in art and poetry, and learn the size and greatness of different countries.’
‘ A fairy-blossom,’ said others, ‘ a many-coloured lotusplant, which spreads its green leaves over the sand, like a velvet carpet, which has sprung forth in the early spring.The summer shall see it in all its glory ; the autumn storms will sweep it away ; neither root nor leaf shall be left.’
Outside the military school stretches the arena of war in times of peace ; the field without grass and stalk, a piece of sandy plain cut out of the African desert, where Fata Morgana shows her strange castles in the air and hanging gardens ; on the Field of Mars they now stand more brilliant and more wonderful, because genius had made them real.
‘ The present-day Palace of Aladdin is reared,’ it was said. Day by day, and hour by hour, it unfolds its rich splendour more and more. Marble and colours adorn its endless halls. ‘ Master Bloodless ‘ here moves his steel and iron limbs in the great machinery -hall. Works of art in metal, in stone, in weaving, proclaim the mental life which is stirring in all the countries of the world. Picture-galleries, masses of flowers, everything that intellect and hand can create in the workshops of the craftsman is here displayed to view. Even relics of ancient days from old castles and peat-mosses have met here.
The overwhelmingly great and varied sight must be reduced and condensed to a toy in order to be reproduced, understood, and seen as a whole.
The Field of Mars, like a great Christmas table, had on it an Aladdin’s Palace of industry and art, and round about it were little articles from all countries ; every nation found something to remind it of home. Here stood the Egyptian royal palace, here the caravanserai of the desert ; the Bedouin coming from his sunny land swung past on his camel ; here extended Russian stables with magnificent fiery steeds from the steppes. The little thatched farm-house from Denmark stood with its ‘ Dannebrog ‘ flag beside Gustav Vasa’s beautifully carved wooden house from Dalarne in Sweden ; American huts ; English cottages, French pavilions, kiosks, churches, and theatres lay oddly strewn about, and amidst all that, the fresh green turf, the clear, running water, flowering shrubs, rare trees, glass-houses where one could imagine oneself in a tropical forest ; whole rose-gardens, as if brought from Damascus, bloomed under the roof ; what colours, what fragrance ! Stalactite caves, artificially made, enclosing fresh and salt lakes, gave an exhibition from the kingdom of fish. One stood down on the bottom of the sea among fish and polypi.
All this, they said, the Field of Mars now bears and presents to view, and over this great richly-decked table moves, like a busy swarm of ants, the whole crowd of people, either on foot or drawn in little carriages ; all legs cannot stand such an exhausting promenade.’
They come here from early morning until late in the evening. Steamer after steamer, full of people, glides down the Seine. The number of carriages is constantly increasing, the crowds of people both on foot and on horseback are increasing, omnibuses and tramcars are stuffed and filled and covered with people, all these streams move to one goal, ‘ The Paris Exhibition ! ‘ All the entrances are decorated with the French flag ; round about the bazaar-buildings wave the flags of all nations ; from the machinery-hall there is a whirring and humming ; the bells chime in melody from the towers ; the organs play inside the churches ; hoarse, snuffling songs from the Oriental cafes mingle with the music. It is like the kingdom of Babel, the language of Babel, a Wonder of the World. It was such indeed so the reports about it said ; who did not hear them ? The Dryad knew everything that has been said here about the ‘ new wonder ‘ in the city of cities.
‘ Fly, ye birds ! fly thither to look, come again and tell ‘ was the prayer of the Dryad.
The longing swelled to a wish, and became a life’s thought ; and then one still silent night, when the full moon was shining, there flew out from its disk the Dryad saw it a spark, which fell glittering like a meteor ; and before the tree, whose branches shook as in a blast of wind, stood a mighty, radiant figure. It spoke in tones so soft and yet as strong as the trump of the Last Day, which kisses to life and calls to judgement.
1 Thou shalt enter that place of enchantment, thou shalt there take root, feel the rushing currents, the air and the sunshine there. But thy lifetime shall be shortened, the series of years which awaited thee out here in the open, will shrink there to a small number of seasons. Poor Dryad ; it will be thy ruin ! thy longing will grow, thy yearning and thy craving will become stronger ! The tree itself will become a prison for thee ; thou wilt forsake thy dwelling, forsake thy nature, and fly away and mix with human beings, and then thy years will dwindle down to half the lifetime of the ephemeral fly, only a single night ; thy life shall be extinguished, the leaves of the tree shall wither and be blown away, to return no more.’ Thus it sounded, thus it sang, “and the brightness vanished, but not the longing and desire of the Dryad ; she trembled with expectation, in a fever of wild anticipation.
‘ I shall go to the city of cities ! ‘ she exultingly cried. ‘ Life begins, gathers like the cloud, and no one knows where it goes.’
In the grey dawn, when the moon grew pale and the clouds red, the hour of fulfilment struck, and the promise was redeemed.
People came with spades and poles ; they dug round the roots of the tree, deep down, right under it. Then a cart was brought up, drawn by horses, the tree, with the roots and clods of earth hanging to them, was lifted, wrapped in matting which made a warm foot-bag for it, then it was placed on the cart and bound fast. It was to go on a journey to Paris, to grow and remain there in the grandest city of France the city of cities.
The leaves and branches of the chestnut tree trembled in the first moment of motion ; the Dryad trembled in the delight of expectation.
‘ Away ! away I ‘ rang in every pulse-beat. Away ! away ! ‘ came the echo in trembling, fluttering words. The Dryad forgot to say ‘ Farewell ‘ to her native place, to the waving grasses and the innocent daisies, which had looked up to her as to a great lady in our Lord’s garden, a young Princess who played the shepherdess out in the country.
The chestnut tree was on the cart, it nodded with its branches ‘ Farewell ‘, or Away , the Dryad knew not which ; she thought and dreamt of the wonderful, new, and yet so familiar scenes which should be unfolded before her. No childish heart in innocent delight, no passionfilled soul, has ever begun its journey to Paris more full of thought than she. ‘ Farewell ! ‘ became ‘ Away ! away ! ‘
The wheels of the cart went round, the distant became near and was left behind ; the country changed, as the clouds change ; new vineyards, forests, villages, villas, and gardens sprang up, came in sight, and rolled away again. The chestnut tree moved forward, the Dryad forward withit, engine after engine rushed close past each other and crossed each other ; the engines sent out clouds, which formed figures that told of the Paris they came from, and to which the Dryad was bound.
Everything round about knew and must understand whither her way led ; she thought that every tree she went past stretched out its branches to her, and begged : ‘ Take me with you ! take me with you I ‘ In every tree there was also a Dryad full of longing. What changes ! What a journey ! It seemed as if houses shot up out of the earth, more and more, closer and closer. Chimneys rose like flower-pots, placed above each other and side by side along the roofs ; great inscriptions with letters a yard long, painted figures on the walls from the ground-floor to the cornice shone forth.
‘ Where does Paris begin, and when shall I be in it ?’ the Dryad asked herself. The crowds of people increased, the noise and bustle grew greater, carriage followed carriage, men on foot followed men on horse, and all round was shop upon shop, music and song, screaming and talking.
The Dryad in her tree was in the midst of Paris.
The great, heavy cart stopped in a little square, planted with trees, surrounded by high houses, where every window had its balcony. People looked down from there upon the young, fresh chestnut tree which was driven up, and which was now to be planted here, in place of the worn-out, uprooted tree, which lay stretched along the ground. People stood still in the square, and looked at the spring verdure, smiling and delighted ; the older trees, still only in bud, greeted her with rustling branches, ‘ Welcome ! welcome ! ‘ and the fountain which threw its jets of water into the air, letting them splash again into the broad basin, allowed the wind to carry drops over to the newly-arrived tree, as if it would offer it a cup of welcome.
The Dryad felt that its tree was lifted from the cart and placed in its future position. The tree’s roots were hidden in the earth, fresh turf was laid over them ; blossoming shrubs and pots of flowers were planted like the tree ; here was a whole garden plot right in the middle of the square. The dead, uprooted tree, killed by gas-fumes, kitchenfumes, and all the plant-killing vapours of a town, was laid on the cart and driven away. The crowd looked on, children and old people sat on benches on the grass, and looked up among the leaves of the newly-planted tree.
And we, who tell about it, stood on the balcony, looked down on the young spring verdure just come from the fresh country air, and said, as the old priest would have said : ‘ Poor Dryad ! ‘
How happy I am ! ‘ said the Dryad, ‘ and yet I cannot quite realize it, nor quite express what I feel ; everything is as I expected it ! and yet not quite as I expected ! ‘
The houses were so high, and so close : the sun shone properly only upon one wall, and it was pasted over with posters and placards, before which the people stood and made the place crowded. Vehicles went past, light and heavy ; omnibuses, those over-filled houses on wheels, rolled along, riders trotted ahead, carts and carriages claimed the right to do the same. The Dryad wondered whether the tall houses, which stood so close, would also flit away, change their shapes like the clouds and glide aside, so that she could see into Paris, and out over it.
Notre-Dame must show itself, and the Vendome Column, and the Wonder which had called and was calling so many strangers hither. But the houses did not move.
It was still day, when the lamps were lighted, the gasrays shone out from the shops and up among the branches of the tree ; it was like summer sunshine. The stars came out overhead, the same ones the Dryad had seen in her native place ; she thought she felt a breeze from there, so pure and mild. She felt herself elevated and strengthened, and found she had the power of seeing right out through all the leaves of the tree, and had feeling to the farthest tips of the roots. She felt herself in the living human world, looked at with kindly eyes ; round about were bustle and music, colours and lights.
From a side street sounded wind-instruments, and the dance-inspiring tunes of the barrel-organ. Yes, to the dance, to the dance ! it sounded to gladness and the pleasure of life.
It was a music that must set men, horses, carriages, trees, and houses dancing, if they could dance. An intoxicating joy arose in the Dryad’s breast.
‘ How delightful and beautiful ! ‘ she cried joyfully, 1 1 am in Paris ! ‘
The day which came, the night which followed, and again the next day, offered the same sights, the same stir, the same life, changing and yet always the same.
1 Now I know every tree and every flower in the square here I I know every house, balcony and shop here, where I am placed in this little cramped corner which hides the great, mighty town from me. Where are the triumphal arches, the boulevards, and the Wonder of the World ?
None of all these do I see ! I am imprisoned as in a cage amongst the tall houses, which I now know by heart, with their placards, and posters, and sign-boards, all these plaster sweetmeats, which I have no taste for any longer. Where is all that I heard about, know about, longed for, and for the sake of which I wished to come here ? What have I grasped, won, or found ! I am longing as before, I see a life which I must grasp and live in ! I must enter the ranks of the living ! I must revel there, fly like the birds, see and understand, become wholly human, seize half a day of that in place of years of life in everyday fatigue and tediousness, in which I sicken and droop, and vanish like the mist on the meadow. I must shine like the cloud, shine in the sunlight of life, look out over everything like the cloud, and pass away like it, no one knows whither ! ‘
This was the Dryad’s sigh, which lifted itself in prayer.
Take my lifetime, and give me the half of the Ephemera’s life ! Free me from my imprisonment, give me human life, human joy for a short space, only this single night, if it must be so, and punish me thus for my presumptuous spirit, my longing for life ! Annihilate me ; let the fresh, young tree that encloses me then wither and fall, become ashes, and be scattered to the winds.
A rustling passed through the branches of the tree ; there came a titillating feeling, a trembling in every leaf, as if fire ran through it or out of it, a blast went through the crown of the tree, and in the midst of it arose a woman’s form, the Dryad herself. In the same instant she sat under the gas-illumined, leafy branches, young and beautiful, like poor Marie, to whom it was said, ‘ The great city will be thy ruin ‘
The Dryad sat by the foot of the tree, by the door of her house, which she had locked and of which she had thrown away the key. So young, so beautiful ! The stars saw her and twinkled. The gaslamps saw her and beamed and beckoned ! How slender she was and yet strong, a child and yet a full-grown maiden. Her clothes were fine as silk, and green as the fresh, newly- unfolded leaves in the crown of the tree ; in her nut-brown hair hung a half -blown chestnut blossom ; she looked like the goddess of Spring.
Only a short minute she sat motionless and still, then she sprang up, and ran like a gazelle from the place, and disappeared round the corner. She ran, she sprang like the light from a mirror which is carried in the sunshine, the light which with every motion is cast now here and now there ; and if one had looked closely, and been able to see what there was to see, how wonderful ! At every place where she stopped for a moment, her clothes and her figure were changed according to the character of the place, or the house whose lamp shone upon her.
She reached the Boulevards ; a sea of light streamed from the gas in the lamps, shops, and cafes. Young and slender trees stood here in rows ; each one hid its Dryad from the beams of the artificial sunlight. The whole of the long, never-ending pavement was like one great assemblyroom ; tables stood spread with refreshments of all kinds, from champagne and chartreuse down to coffee and beer. There was a display of flowers, of pictures, statues, books, and manycoloured fabrics. From the throng under the tall houses she looked out over the alarming stream under the rows of trees : there rushed a tide of rolling carriages, cabriolets, coaches, omnibuses, and cabs, gentlemen on horseback, and marching regiments, it was risking life and limb to cross over to the opposite side. Now shone a blue light, then the gas-lights were supreme, and suddenly a rocket shot up ; whence and whither ? Certainly, it was the highway of the great city of the world.
Here sounded soft Italian melodies, there Spanish songs, accompanied by the beating of castanets, but strongest, and swelling above all, sounded the musical-box melodies of the moment, the tickling can-can music, unknown to Orpheus, and never heard by beautiful Helen ; even the wheelbarrow must have danced on its one wheel if it could have danced. The Dryad danced, floated, flew, changing in colour like the honey-bird in the sunshine ; each house and the world within it gave fresh tints to her. As the gleaming lotus-flower, torn from its root, is borne by the stream on its eddies, she drifted ; and wherever she stood, she was again a new shape, therefore no one could follow her, recognize and watch her.
Like cloud-pictures everything flew past her, face after face, but not a single one did she know ; she saw no form from her own home. There shone in her thoughts two bright eyes, and she thought of Marie, poor Marie I the happy, ragged child with the red flower in her black hair.
She was in the city of the world, rich, and dazzling, as when she drove past the priest’s house, the Dryad’s tree, and the old oak. She was here, no doubt, in the deafening noise ; perhaps she had just got out of that magnificent coach waiting yonder ; splendid carriages stood here with laced coachmen, and silk-stockinged footmen. The grand people alighting were all women, richly dressed ladies. They went through the open lattice-door, up the high, broad stairs, which led to a building with white marble columns. Was this perhaps the ‘ Wonder of the World ‘ ? Then certainly Marie was there !
‘ Sancta Maria ! ‘ they sang within ; the clouds of incense floated under the lofty painted and gilded arches, where twilight reigned. It was the Church of the Madeleine. Dressed in black, in costly materials made after the latest fashion, ladies of the highest society glided over the polished floor. Coats of arms were on the silver clasps of the prayer-books bound in velvet, and on the fine, strongly-scented handkerchiefs trimmed with costly Brussels lace. Some of the ladies knelt in silent prayer before the altars, others sought the confessionals. The Dryad felt a restlessness, a fear, as if she had entered a place where she ought not to have set foot. Here was the home of silence, the palace of secrets ; all was whispered and confided without a sound being heard.
The Dryad saw herself disguised in silk and veil, resembling in form the other rich and high-born ladies ; was each of them a child of longing like herself . There sounded a sigh, so painfully deep ; did it come from the confessional corner, or from the breast of the Dryad ? She drew her veil closer round her. She breathed the incense and not the fresh air. Here was no place for her longing.
Away ! away ! in flight without rest ! The Ephemera has no rest ; its flight is its life !
She was again outside under the blazing gas-lamps by the splendid fountain. ‘ All the streams of water will not be able to wash away the innocent blood which has been shed here.’ So it has been said.
Foreigners stood here and talked loudly and with animation, as no one dared to do in the High Court of Mystery, from which the Dryad came.
A large stone-slab was turned and lifted up ; she did not understand this ; she saw an open entrance to the depths of the earth ; into this people descended from the starlit sky, from the sunshiny gas-flames, from all the stirring life.
‘ I am afraid of this ! ‘ said one of the women who stood there ; I dare not go down ; I don’t care either about seeing the sight ! Stay with me ! ‘
‘ And go back home,’ said the man, ‘ go from Paris without having seen the most remarkable thing, the real wonder of the present time, called into being by the talent and will of a single man !
I shall not go down there/ was the answer.
‘ The wonder of the present age,’ they said. The Dryad heard and understood it ; the goal of her greatest longing was reached, and here was the entrance, down in the depths under Paris ; she had not thought of this, but when she heard it now, and saw the foreigners going down, she followed them. The spiral staircase was of cast iron, broad and commodious. A lamp gleamed down there, and another one still farther down.
They stood in a labyrinth of endlessly long intersecting halls and arched passages ; all the streets and lanes of Paris were to be seen here, as in a dim mirror, the names could be read, every house above had its number here, its root, which struck down under the empty, macadamized footway, which ran along by a broad canal with a stream of rolling mud. Higher up, along the arches, was led the fresh running water, and above all hung, like a net, gas-pipes and telegraph wires. Lamps shone in the distance, like reflected images from the metropolis above. Now and then was heard a noisy rumbling overhead ; it was the heavy wagons which drove over the bridges above.
Where was the Dryad ?
You have heard of the catacombs ; they are but the faintest of outlines compared to this new subterranean world, the wonder of the present day, the drains of Paris. Here stood the Dryad and not out in the world’s exhibition on the Field of Mars. She heard exclamations of astonishment, admiration and appreciation.
‘ From down here/ they said, ‘ health and years of life are growing for thousands and thousands up above ! Our time is the time of progress with all its blessings.
That was the opinion and the talk of the people, but not of the creatures who lived and dwelt and had been born here, the rats ; they squeaked from the rifts in a piece of old wall, so clearly, distinctly and intelligibly to the Dryad.
A big old he-rat, with his tail bitten off, piercingly squeaked his feelings, his discomfort, and his honest opinion, and the family gave him support for every word.
‘ I am disgusted with this nonsense, this human nonsense, this ignorant talk ! Oh yes, it is very fine here now with gas and petroleum ! I don’t eat that kind of thing ! It has become so fine and bright here that one is ashamed of oneself, and does not know why. If we only lived in the time of tallow-candles ! it isn’t so far back either ! That was a romantic time, as they call it ! ‘
‘ What is that you are talking about ? ‘ said the Dryad. I did not see you before. What are you talking about ? ‘
‘ The good old days/ said the rat, ‘ the happy days of great-grandfather and great-grandmother rats ! In those days it was something to come down here. It was a rat’s nest different from the whole of Paris ! Mother Plague lived down here ; she killed people, but never rats. Robbers and smugglers breathed freely down here. Here was the place of refuge for the most interesting personages, who are now only seen in melodramas in the theatre up above. The time of romance is gone in our rat’s n,est too ; we have got fresh air and petroleum down here.’
So squeaked the rat ! squeaked against the new times in favour of the old days with Mother Plague.
A carriage stood there, a kind of open omnibus with swift, little horses ; the party got into it, and rushed along the Boulevard Sebastopol, the subterranean one : right above stretched the well-known Parisian one full of people.
The carriage disappeared in the dim light ; the Dryad also vanished, rose up into the gas-light and the fresh free air ; there, and not down in the crossing arches and their suffocating air, could the wonder be found, the Wonder of the World, that which she sought in her short night of life ; it must shine stronger than all the gas-lights up here, stronger than the moon which now glided forth. Yes, certainly ! and she saw it yonder, it beamed before her, it twinkled and glittered like the star of Venus in the sky.
She saw a shining gate, opening into a little garden, full of light and dancing melodies. Gas-jets shone here as borders round little quiet lakes and pools, where artificial water-plants, cut out of tin-plate bent and painted, glittered in the light, and threw jets of water yard-high out of their chalices. Beautiful weeping-willows, real weeping-willows of the spring-time, drooped their fresh branches like a green transparent yet concealing veil.
Here, amongst the bushes, blazed a bonfire ; its red glow shone over small, half -dark, silent arbours, permeated with tones, with a music thrilling to the ear, captivating, alluring, chasing the blood through the veins.
She saw young women, beautiful in festal attire, with trusting smiles, and the light laughing spirit of youth, a ‘ Marie ‘, with e rose in the hair, but without carriage and footmen. How they floated, how they whirled in the wild dance ! As if bitten by the Tarantella, they sprang and laughed and smiled, blissfully happy, ready to embrace the whole world.
The Dryad felt herself carried away in the dance. About her slender little foot fitted the silken shoe, chestnut-brown, like the ribbon which floated from her hair over her uncovered shoulders. The green silk garment waved in great folds, but did not conceal the beautifully formed limb with the pretty foot, which seemed as if it wished to describe magic circles in the air. Was she in the enchanted garden of Armida ? What was the place called ? The name shone outside in gas-jets,
Sounds of music and clapping of hands, rockets, and murmuring water, popping of champagne corks mingled here. The dance was wildly bacchanalian, and over the whole sailed the moon, with a rather wry face, no doubt. The sky was cloudless, clear and serene ; it seemed as if one could see straight into Heaven from ‘ Mabille ‘.
A consuming desire of life thrilled through the Dryad ; it was like an opium trance.
Her eyes spoke, her lips spoke, but the words were not heard for the sound of flutes and violins. Her partner whispered words in her ear, they trembled in time to the music of the can-can ; she did not understand them, we do not understand them either. He stretched his arms out towards her and about her, and only embraced the transparent, gas-filled air.
The Dryad was carried away by the stream of air, as the wind bears a rose-leaf. On high before her she saw a flame, a flashing light, high up on a tower. The light shone from the goal of her longing, from the red lighthouse on the ‘ Fata Morgana ‘ of the Field of Mars. She fluttered about the tower ; the workmen thought it was a butterfly which they saw dropping down to die in its all too early arrival.
The moon shone, gas-lights and lamps shone in the great halls and in the scattered buildings of all lands, shone over the undulating greeneward, and the rocks made by the ingenuity of men, where the waterfall poured down by the strength of ‘ Mr. Bloodless ‘. The depths of the ocean and of the fresh water, the realms of the fishes were opened here ; one was at the bottom of the deep pool, one was down in the ocean, in a diving-bell. The water pressed against the thick glass walls above and around. The polypi, fathom-long, flexible, winding, quivering, living arms, clutched, heaved, and grew fast to the bottom of the sea.
A great flounder lay thoughtfully close by, stretched itself out in comfort and ease : the crab crawled like an enormous spider over it, whilst shrimps darted about with a haste, a swiftness, as if they were the moths and butterflies of the sea.
In the fresh water grew water-lilies, sedges, and rushes. The gold-fishes had placed themselves in rows, like red cows in the field, all with the heads in the same direction, so as to get the current in their mouths. Thick fat tench stared with stupid eyes towards the glass walls ; they knew that they were at the Paris Exhibition ; they knew that they had made the somewhat difficult journey hither, in barrels filled with water, and had been land -sick on the railway, just as people are sea-sick on the sea. They had come to see the Exhibition, and so they saw it from their own fresh or salt water box, saw the throng of men which moved past from morning to night. All the countries of the world had sent and exhibited their natives, so that the old tench and bream, the nimble perch and the mossgrown carp should see these beings and give their opinions upon the species.
‘ They are shell-fish ! ‘ said a muddy little bleak. ‘ They change their shells two or three times in the day, and make sounds with their mouths talking, they call it. We don’t change, and we make ourselves understood in an easier way ; movements with the corners of the mouth, and a stare with the eyes ! We have many points of superiority over mankind ! ‘
‘They have learnt swimming, though/ said a little freshwater fish. ‘ I am from the big lake ; men go into the water in the hot season there, but first they put off their shells, and then they swim. The frogs have taught them that, they push with the hind -legs, and paddle with the fore-legs ; they can’t keep it up long. They would like to imitate us, but they don’t get near it. Poor men I ‘
And the fishes stared ; they imagined that the whole crowd of people they had seen in the strong daylight was still moving here ; yes, they were convinced that they still saw the same forms which, so to speak, first struck their nerves of apprehension.
A little perch, with beautifully striped skin, and an enviable round back, asserted that the human mud ‘ was there still ; he saw it.
I also see it ; it is so distinct ! ‘ said a jaundice-yellow tench. I see plainly the beautiful well-shaped human figure, ” high-legged lady ” or whatever it was they called her; she had our mouth and staring eyes, two balloons behind, and an umbrella let down in front, a great quantity of hanging duck-weed dingling and dangling. She should put it all off, go like us in the guise of nature, and she would look like a respectable tench, as far as human beings can do so ! ‘
‘ What became of him he on the string, the male they dragged ? ‘
‘ He rode in a bath-chair, sat with paper, pen and ink, and wrote everything down. What was he doing ? They called him a reporter.’
He is riding about there still,’ said a moss-grown maiden carp, with the trials of the world in her throat, so that she was hoarse with it ; she had once swallowed a fish-hook, and still swam patiently about with it in her throat.
A reporter,’ she said, that is, speaking plainly and fishily, a kind of cuttle-fish among men.’
So the fishes talked in their own manner. But in the midst of the artificial grotto sounded the blows of hammers and the songs of the work-people ; they must work at night, so that everything might be finished as soon as possible. They sang in the Dryad’s summer night’s dream, she herself stood there, ready to fly and vanish.
‘ They are gold-fish ! ‘ said she, and nodded to them. ‘ So I have managed to see you after all ! I know you ! I have known you a long time ! The swallow has told me about you in my home country. How pretty you are, how glittering and charming ! I could kiss each and all of you !
I know the others also ! That is certainly the fat tench ; that one there, the dainty bream ; and here, the old moss- grown carp ! I know you ! but you don’t know me ! ‘
The fish stared and did not understand a single word ; they stared out into the dim light. The Dryad was there no longer, she stood out in the open air, where the world’s ‘ wonder-blossoms ‘ from the different coi,mtries gave out their fragrance, from the land of rye-bread, from the coast of the stock-fish, the empire of russia leather, the riverbanks of Eau-de-Cologne, and from the eastern land of the essence of roses.
When, after a ball, we drive home, half -asleep, the tunes we have heard still sound distinctly in our ears ; we could sing each and all of them. And as in the eye of a murdered man, the last thing the glance rested on is said to remain photographed on it for a time, so here in the night the bustle and glare of the day was not extinguished. The Dryad felt it and knew that it would roll on in the same way through the coming day. The Dryad stood amongst the fragrant roses, thinking that she recognized them from her home, roses from the park of the castle and from the priest’s garden. She also saw the red pomegranate flower here ; Marie had worn one like it in her coal-black hair.
Memories from the home of her childhood out in the country flashed through her mind ; she drank in the sights round about her with greedy eyes, whilst feverish restlessness possessed her, and carried her through the wonderful halls.
She felt tired, and this tiredness increased. She had a longing to rest upon the soft Eastern cushions and carpets spread around, or to lean against the weeping- willow down by the clear water, and plunge herself into that.
But the Ephemera has no rest. The day was only a few minutes from the end.
Her thoughts trembled, her limbs trembled, she sank down on the grass, by the rippling water.
‘ Thou springest from the earth with lasting life ! ‘ said she ; ‘ cool my tongue, give me refreshment ! ‘
‘ I am not the living fountain ! ‘ answered the water. ‘ I flow by machinery ! ‘
‘ Give me of thy freshness, thou green grass,’ begged the Dryad. ‘ Give me one of the fragrant flowers ! ‘
1 We die when we are broken off ! ‘ answered the grass and flowers.
‘ Kiss me, thou fresh breeze ! only one single kiss of life ! ‘
‘ Soon the sun will kiss the clouds red ! ‘ said the wind, ‘ and then wilt thou be amongst the dead, passed away, as all the splendour here will pass away, before the year is gone, and I can again play with the light, loose sand in the square here, and blow the dust along over the ground, dust in the air, dust ! all dust ! ‘
The Dryad felt a dread, like that of the woman who in the bath has cut an artery and is bleeding to death, but while bleeding wishes still to live. She raised herself, came some steps forward, and again sank down in front of a little church. The door stood open, candles burned on the altar, and the organ pealed.
What music ! such tones the Dryad had never heard, and yet she seemed to hear in them well-known voices. They came from the depths of the heart of the whole creation. She thought she heard the rustling of the old oak tree, she thought she heard the old priest talking about great deeds, and about famous names, and of what God’s creatures had power to give as a gift to future times, and must give it in order to win, by that means, eternal life for itself.
The tones of the organ swelled and pealed, and spoke in song : ‘ Thy longing and desire uprooted thee from thy God -given place. It became thy ruin, poor Dryad ! ‘
The organ tones, soft and mild, sounded as if weeping, dying away in tears.
The clouds shone red in the sky. The wind whistled and sang, ‘ Pass away, ye Dead, the sun is rising ! ‘
The first beam fell on the Dryad. Her form shone in changing colours, like the soap-bubble when it breaks, vanishes and becomes a drop, a tear which falls to the ground and disappears.
Poor Dryad ! a dew-drop, only a tear, shed, vanished !
The sun shone over the ‘ Fata Morgana ‘ on the Field of Mars, shone over the Great Paris, over the little square with the trees and the splashing fountain, amongst the tall houses, where the chestnut tree stood, but with drooping branches, withered leaves, the tree which only yesterday lifted itself as fresh and full of life as the spring itself. Now it was dead, they said. The Dryad- had gone, passed away like the cloud, no one knew whither.
There lay on the ground a withered, broken chestnut flower ; the holy water of the Church had no power to call it to life. The foot of man soon trod it down into the dust.
The whole of this actually happened, we saw it ourselves at the Paris Exhibition in 1867, in our own time, in the great, wonderful, time of fairy-tale.