Jean had inherited from his father a little field close beside the sea.Round this field the branches of the pine trees murmured a response to theplashing of the waves. Beneath the pines the soil was red, and the crimsonshade of the earth mingling with the blue waves of the bay gave them apensive violet hue, most of all in the quiet evening hours dear toreveries and dreams.
In this field grew roses and raspberries. The pretty girls of theneighborhood came to Jean's home to buy these fruits and flowers, so liketheir own lips and cheeks. The roses, the lips, and the berries had allthe same youth, had all the same beauty.
Jean lived happily beside the sea, at the foot of the hills, beneath anolive tree planted near his door, which in all seasons threw a lance-likeblue shadow upon his white wall.
Near the olive tree was a well, the water of which was so cold and purethat the girls of the region, with their cheeks like roses and their lipslike raspberries, came thither night and morning with their jugs. Upontheir heads, covered with pads, they carried their jugs, round and slenderas themselves, supporting them with their beautiful bare arms, raisedaloft like living handles.
Jean observed all these things, and admired them, and blessed his life.
As he was only twenty years old, he fondly loved one of the charming girlswho drew water from his well, who ate his raspberries and breathed thefragrance of his roses.
He told this younger girl that she was as pure and fresh as the water, asdelicious as the raspberries and as sweet as the roses.
Then the young girl smiled.
He told it her again, and she made a face at him.
He sang her the same song, and she married a sailor who carried her faraway beyond the sea.
Jean wept bitterly, but he still admired beautiful things, and stillblessed his life. Sometimes he thought that the frailty of what isbeautiful and the brevity of what is good adds value to the beauty andgoodness of all things.
One day he learned by chance that the red earth of his field was anexcellent clay. He took a little of it in his hand, moistened it withwater from his well, and fashioned a simple vase, while he thought ofthose beautiful girls who are like the ancient Greek jars, at once roundand slender.
The earth in his field was, indeed, excellent clay.
He built himself a potter's wheel. With his own hands, and with his clay,he built a furnace against the wall of his house, and he set himself tomaking little pots to hold raspberries.
He became skilful at this work, and all the gardeners round about came tohim to provide themselves with these light, porous pots, of a beautifulred hue, round and slender, wherein the raspberries could be heapedwithout crushing them, and where they slept under the shelter of a greenleaf.
The leaf, the pot, the raspberries, these enchanted everybody by theirform and color; and the buyers in the city market would have no berriessave those which were sold in Jean the potter's round and slender pots.
Now more than ever the beautiful girls visited Jean's field.
Now they brought baskets of woven reeds in which they piled the emptypots, red and fresh. But now Jean observed them without desire. His heartwas forevermore far away beyond the sea.
Still, as he deepened and broadened the ditch in his field, from which hetook the clay, he saw that his pots to hold the raspberries were variouslycolored, tinted sometimes with rose, sometimes with blue or violet,sometimes with black or green.
These shades of the clay reminded him of the loveliest things which hadgladdened his eyes: plants, flowers, ocean, sky.
Then he set himself to choose, in making his vases, shades of clay, whichhe mingled delicately. And these colors, produced by centuries ofalternating lights and shadows, obeyed his will, changed in a momentaccording to his desire.
Each day he modelled hundreds of these raspberry pots, moulding them uponthe wheel which turned like a sun beneath the pressure of his agile foot.The mass of shapeless clay, turning on the center of the disk, under thetouch of his finger, suddenly raised itself like the petals of a lily,lengthened, broadened, swelled or shrank, submissive to his will.
The creative potter loved the clay.
As he still dreamed of the things which he had most admired, his thought,his remembrance, his will, descended into his fingers, where--without hisknowing how--they communicated to the clay that mysterious principle oflife which the wisest man is unable to define. The humble works of Jeanthe potter had marvellous graces. In such a curve, in such a tint, he putsome memory of youth, or of an opening blossom, or the very color of theweather, and of joy or sorrow.
In his hours of repose he walked with his eyes fixed upon the ground,studying the variations in the color of the soil on the cliffs, on theplains, on the sides of the hills.
And the wish came to him to model a unique vase, a marvellous vase, inwhich should live through all eternity something of all the fragilebeauties which his eyes had gazed upon; something even of all the briefjoys which his heart had known, and even a little of his divine sorrows ofhope, regret and love.
He was then in the full strength and vigor of manhood.
Yet, that he might the better meditate upon his desire he forsook thewell-paid work, which, it is true, had allowed him to lay aside a littlehoard. No longer, as of old, his wheel turned from morning until night. Hepermitted other potters to manufacture raspberry pots by the thousand. Themerchants forgot the way to Jean's field.
The young girls still came there for pleasure, because of the cold water,the roses, and the raspberries; but the ill-cultivated raspberriesperished, the rose-vines ran wild, climbed to the tops of the high walls,and offered their dusty blossoms to the travellers on the road.
The water in the well alone remained the same, cold and plenteous, andthat sufficed to draw about Jean eternal youth and eternal gaiety.
Only youth had grown mocking for Jean. For him gaiety had now becomescoffing.
"Ah, Master Jean! Does not your furnace burn any more? Your wheel, MasterJean, does it scarcely ever turn? When shall we see your amazing pot whichwill be as beautiful as everything which is beautiful, blooming like therose, beaded like the raspberry, and speaking--if we must believe what yousay about it--like our lips?"
Now Jean is ageing; Jean is old. He sits upon his stone seat beside thewell, under the lace-like shade of the olive tree, in front of his emptyfield, all the soil of which is good clay but which no longer produceseither raspberries or roses.
Jean said formerly: "There are three things: roses, raspberries, lips."
All the three have forsaken him.
The lips of the young girls, and even those of the children, have becomescoffing.
"Ah, Father Jean! Do you live like the grasshoppers? Nobody ever sees youeat, Father Jean! Father Jean lives on cold water. The man who grows oldbecomes a child again!
"What will you put into your beautiful vase, if you ever make it, sillyold fellow? It will not hold even a drop of water from your well. Go andpaint the hen-coops and make water-jugs!"
Jean silently shakes his head, and only replies to all these railleries bya kindly smile.
He is good to animals, and he shares his dry bread with the poor.
It is true that he eats scarcely anything, but he does not suffer inconsequence. He is very thin, but his flesh is all the more sound andwholesome. Under the arch of his eyebrows his old eyes, heedful of theworld, continue to sparkle with the clearness of the spring which reflectsthe light.
One bright morning, upon his wheel, which turns to the rhythmic motion ofhis foot, Jean sets himself to model a vase, the vase which he has longseen with his mind's eye.
The horizontal wheel turns like a sun to the rhythmic beating of his foot.The wheel turns. The clay vase rises, falls, swells, becomes crushed intoa shapeless mass, to be born again under Jean's hand. At last, with onesingle burst, it springs forth like an unlooked-for flower from aninvisible stem.
It blooms triumphantly, and the old man bears it in his trembling hands tothe carefully prepared furnace where fire must add to its beauty of formthe illusive, decisive beauty of color.
All through the night Jean has kept up and carefully regulated thefurnace-fire, that artisan of delicate gradations of color.
At dawn the work must be finished.
And the potter, old and dying, in his deserted field, raises toward thelight of the rising sun the dainty form, born of himself, in which helongs to find, in perfect harmony, the dream of his long life.
In the form and tint of the frail little vase he has wished to fix for alltime the ephemeral forms and colors of all the most beautiful things.
Oh, god of day! The miracle is accomplished. The sun lights the round andslender curves, the colorations infinitely refined, which blendharmoniously, and bring back to the soul of the aged man, by the pathwayof his eyes, the sweetest joys of his youth, the skies of daybreak and themournful violet waves of the sea beneath the setting sun.
Oh, miracle of art, in which life is thus epitomized to make joy eternal!
The humble artist raises toward the sun his fragile masterpiece, theflower of his simple heart; he raises it in his trembling hands as thoughto offer it to the unknown divinities who created primeval beauty.
But his hands, too weak and trembling, let it escape from them suddenly,even as his tottering body lets his soul escape--and the potter's dream,fallen with him to the ground, breaks and scatters into fragments.
Where is it now, the form of that vase brought to the light for aninstant, and seen only by the sun and the humble artist? Surely, it mustbe somewhere, that pure and happy form of the divine dream, made real for an instant!
About the author
As a young man Aicard studied law, but decided to abandon the profession and instead try his luck at literature. His first book,Beliefs of a Youth, was of poetry and was published in 1867.