M'sieu Fortier's Violin by Alice Dunbar
Slowly, one by one, the lights in the French Opera go out, until
there is but a single glimmer of pale yellow flickering in the great
dark space, a few moments ago all a-glitter with jewels and the
radiance of womanhood and a-clash with music. Darkness now, and
silence, and a great haunted hush over all, save for the distant
cheery voice of a stage hand humming a bar of the opera.
The glimmer of gas makes a halo about the bowed white head of a
little old man putting his violin carefully away in its case with
aged, trembling, nervous fingers. Old M'sieu Fortier was the last
one out every night.
Outside the air was murky, foggy. Gas and electricity were but
faint splotches of light on the thick curtain of fog and mist. Around
the opera was a mighty bustle of carriages and drivers and footmen,
with a car gaining headway in the street now and then, a howling of
names and numbers, the laughter and small talk of cloaked society
stepping slowly to its carriages, and the more bourgeoisie
vocalisation of the foot passengers who streamed along and hummed
little bits of music. The fog's denseness was confusing, too, and at
one moment it seemed that the little narrow street would become
inextricably choked and remain so until some mighty engine would blow
the crowd into atoms. It had been a crowded night. From around
Toulouse Street, where led the entrance to the troisiemes, from the
grand stairway, from the entrance to the quatriemes, the human stream
poured into the street, nearly all with a song on their lips.
M'sieu Fortier stood at the corner, blinking at the beautiful
ladies in their carriages. He exchanged a hearty salutation with the
saloon-keeper at the corner, then, tenderly carrying his violin case,
he trudged down Bourbon Street, a little old, bent, withered figure,
with shoulders shrugged up to keep warm, as though the faded brown
overcoat were not thick enough.
Down on Bayou Road, not so far from Claiborne Street, was a house,
little and old and queer, but quite large enough to hold M'sieu
Fortier, a wrinkled dame, and a white cat. He was home but little,
for on nearly every day there were rehearsals; then on Tuesday,
Thursday, and Saturday nights, and twice Sundays there were
performances, so Ma'am Jeanne and the white cat kept house almost
always alone. Then, when M'sieu Fortier was at home, why, it was
practice, practice all the day, and smoke, snore, sleep at night.
Altogether it was not very exhilarating.
M'sieu Fortier had played first violin in the orchestra ever
since--well, no one remembered his not playing there. Sometimes
there would come breaks in the seasons, and for a year the great
building would be dark and silent. Then M'sieu Fortier would do jobs
of playing here and there, one night for this ball, another night for
that soiree dansante, and in the day, work at his trade,--that of a
cigar-maker. But now for seven years there had been no break in the
season, and the little old violinist was happy. There is nothing
sweeter than a regular job and good music to play, music into which
one can put some soul, some expression, and which one must study to
understand. Dance music, of the frivolous, frothy kind deemed
essential to soirees, is trivial, easy, uninteresting.
So M'sieu Fortier, Ma'am Jeanne, and the white cat lived a
peaceful, uneventful existence out on Bayou Road. When the opera
season was over in February, M'sieu went back to cigar-making, and
the white cat purred none the less contentedly.
It had been a benefit to-night for the leading tenor, and he had
chosen "Roland a Ronceveaux," a favourite this season, for his
farewell. And, mon Dieu, mused the little M'sieu, but how his voice
had rung out bell-like, piercing above the chorus of the first act!
Encore after encore was given, and the bravos of the troisiemes were
enough to stir the most sluggish of pulses.
"Superbes Pyrenees Qui dressez dans le ciel, Vos cimes couronnees
D'un hiver eternelle, Pour nous livrer passage Ouvrez vos larges
flancs, Faites faire l'orage, Voici, venir les Francs!"
M'sieu quickened his pace down Bourbon Street as he sang the
chorus to himself in a thin old voice, and then, before he could see
in the thick fog, he had run into two young men.
"I--I--beg your pardon,--messieurs," he stammered.
"Most certainly," was the careless response; then the speaker,
taking a second glance at the object of the rencontre, cried
"Oh, M'sieu Fortier, is it you? Why, you are so happy, singing
your love sonnet to your lady's eyebrow, that you didn't see a thing
but the moon, did you? And who is the fair one who should clog your
There was a deprecating shrug from the little man.
"Ma foi, but monsieur must know fo' sho', dat I am too old for
"I know nothing save that I want that violin of yours. When is it
to be mine, M'sieu Fortier?"
"Nevare, nevare!" exclaimed M'sieu, gripping on as tightly to the
case as if he feared it might be wrenched from him. "Me a lovere,
and to sell mon violon! Ah, so ver' foolish!"
"Martel," said the first speaker to his companion as they moved on
up town, "I wish you knew that little Frenchman. He's a unique
specimen. He has the most exquisite violin I've seen in years;
beautiful and mellow as a genuine Cremona, and he can make the music
leap, sing, laugh, sob, skip, wail, anything you like from under his
bow when he wishes. It's something wonderful. We are good friends.
Picked him up in my French-town rambles. I've been trying to buy that
"To throw it aside a week later?" lazily inquired Martel. "You
are like the rest of these nineteenth-century vandals, you can see
nothing picturesque that you do not wish to deface for a souvenir; you
cannot even let simple happiness alone, but must needs destroy it in a
vain attempt to make it your own or parade it as an advertisement."
As for M'sieu Fortier, he went right on with his song and turned
into Bayou Road, his shoulders still shrugged high as though he were
cold, and into the quaint little house, where Ma'am Jeanne and the
white cat, who always waited up for him at nights, were both nodding
over the fire.
It was not long after this that the opera closed, and M'sieu went
back to his old out-of-season job. But somehow he did not do as well
this spring and summer as always. There is a certain amount of
cunning and finesse required to roll a cigar just so, that M'sieu
seemed to be losing, whether from age or deterioration it was hard to
tell. Nevertheless, there was just about half as much money coming in
as formerly, and the quaint little pucker between M'sieu's eyebrows
which served for a frown came oftener and stayed longer than ever
"Minesse," he said one day to the white cat,--he told all his
troubles to her; it was of no use to talk to Ma'am Jeanne, she was
too deaf to understand,--"Minesse, we are gettin' po'. You' pere git
h'old, an' hees han's dey go no mo' rapidement, an' dere be no mo'
soirees dese day. Minesse, eef la saison don' hurry up, we shall eat
ver' lil' meat."
And Minesse curled her tail and purred.
Before the summer had fairly begun, strange rumours began to float
about in musical circles. M. Mauge would no longer manage the opera,
but it would be turned into the hands of Americans, a syndicate. Bah!
These English-speaking people could do nothing unless there was a
trust, a syndicate, a company immense and dishonest. It was going to
be a guarantee business, with a strictly financial basis. But worse
than all this, the new manager, who was now in France, would not only
procure the artists, but a new orchestra, a new leader. M'sieu
Fortier grew apprehensive at this, for he knew what the loss of his
place would mean to him.
September and October came, and the papers were filled with
accounts of the new artists from France and of the new orchestra
leader too. He was described as a most talented, progressive,
energetic young man. M'sieu Fortier's heart sank at the word
"progressive." He was anything but that. The New Orleans Creole
blood flowed too sluggishly in his old veins.
November came; the opera reopened. M'sieu Fortier was not
"Minesse," he said with a catch in his voice that strongly
resembled a sob, "Minesse, we mus' go hongry sometime. Ah, mon
pauvre violon! Ah, mon Dieu, dey put us h'out, an' dey will not have
us. Nev' min', we will sing anyhow." And drawing his bow across the
strings, he sang in his thin, quavering voice, "Salut demeure, chaste
It is strange what a peculiar power of fascination former haunts
have for the human mind. The criminal, after he has fled from
justice, steals back and skulks about the scene of his crime; the
employee thrown from work hangs about the place of his former
industry; the schoolboy, truant or expelled, peeps in at the
school-gate and taunts the good boys within. M'sieu Fortier was no
exception. Night after night of the performances he climbed the
stairs of the opera and sat, an attentive listener to the orchestra,
with one ear inclined to the stage, and a quizzical expression on his
wrinkled face. Then he would go home, and pat Minesse, and fondle the
"Ah, Minesse, dose new player! Not one bit can dey play. Such
tones, Minesse, such tones! All the time portemento, oh, so ver'
bad! Ah, mon chere violon, we can play." And he would play and sing
a romance, and smile tenderly to himself.
At first it used to be into the deuxiemes that M'sieu Fortier
went, into the front seats. But soon they were too expensive, and
after all, one could hear just as well in the fourth row as in the
first. After a while even the rear row of the deuxiemes was too
costly, and the little musician wended his way with the plebeians
around on Toulouse Street, and climbed the long, tedious flight of
stairs into the troisiemes. It makes no difference to be one row
higher. It was more to the liking, after all. One felt more at home
up here among the people. If one was thirsty, one could drink a glass
of wine or beer being passed about by the libretto boys, and the music
sounded just as well.
But it happened one night that M'sieu could not even afford to
climb the Toulouse Street stairs. To be sure, there was yet another
gallery, the quatriemes, where the peanut boys went for a dime, but
M'sieu could not get down to that yet. So he stayed outside until all
the beautiful women in their warm wraps, a bright-hued chattering
throng, came down the grand staircase to their carriages.
It was on one of these nights that Courcey and Martel found him
shivering at the corner.
"Hello, M'sieu Fortier," cried Courcey, "are you ready to let me
have that violin yet?"
"For shame!" interrupted Martel.
"Fifty dollars, you know," continued Courcey, taking no heed of
his friend's interpolation.
M'sieu Fortier made a courtly bow. "Eef Monsieur will call at my
'ouse on de morrow, he may have mon violon," he said huskily; then
turned abruptly on his heel, and went down Bourbon Street, his
shoulders drawn high as though he were cold.
When Courcey and Martel entered the gate of the little house on
Bayou Road the next day, there floated out to their ears a wordless
song thrilling from the violin, a song that told more than speech or
tears or gestures could have done of the utter sorrow and desolation
of the little old man. They walked softly up the short red brick walk
and tapped at the door. Within, M'sieu Fortier was caressing the
violin, with silent tears streaming down his wrinkled gray face.
There was not much said on either side. Courcey came away with
the instrument, leaving the money behind, while Martel grumbled at
the essentially sordid, mercenary spirit of the world. M'sieu Fortier
turned back into the room, after bowing his visitors out with old-time
French courtliness, and turning to the sleepy white cat, said with a
"Minesse, dere's only me an' you now."
About six days later, Courcey's morning dreams were disturbed by
the announcement of a visitor. Hastily doing a toilet, he descended
the stairs to find M'sieu Fortier nervously pacing the hall floor.
"I come fo' bring back you' money, yaas. I cannot sleep, I cannot
eat, I only cry, and t'ink, and weesh fo' mon violon; and Minesse, an'
de ol' woman too, dey mope an' look bad too, all for mon violon. I
try fo' to use dat money, but eet burn an' sting lak blood money. I
feel lak' I done sol' my child. I cannot go at l'opera no mo', I
t'ink of mon violon. I starve befo' I live widout. My heart, he is
broke, I die for mon violon."
Courcey left the room and returned with the instrument.
"M'sieu Fortier," he said, bowing low, as he handed the case to
the little man, "take your violin; it was a whim with me, a passion
with you. And as for the money, why, keep that too; it was worth a
hundred dollars to have possessed such an instrument even for six