Then in those miniature houses there was a gradual animation, and the reappearance of life that seemed to have slept for ages behind closed doors, awaiting only the coming of the pale young man with the accordion. Behind the windows there was laughter on the faces j of young girls with their white headdresses decorated with quaint spirals sticking out like antennae.All the pretty girls of Veere were there behind their lace curtains, with mouths agape like roses in ; a cloud of bees. Seeing them thus emerge out of the deep shadows and come, with fresh complexions, to their windows, I imagined these 1 homes to be real dolls` houses brought to life by enchantment—the houses of all the dolls of Veere, with their lovely bare arms tanned by the salt air, their great bulged skirts, their little colored heads and eyes tinted like the sea.So the musician went here and there through the streets, his wild airs j changing to sad and plaintive strains that brought tears to the eyes. These were like the melancholy tunes played at sea during the night, by some little cabin boy. It was the soul of Veere, silently weeping over her lost love, sighing regretfully over all the lovely girls who now lay asleep with crosses over them, for the handsome young men who went to sea and never returned. Finally the sounds of the accordion died away far off among the dunes.When I returned to the inn I said to Pietje:“You were right. There is a boy in this town who plays his little tunes. Doubtless he is a soul in torment. Do they know what evil befell him?” The little cat-eyed creature laughed and pointed to a man seated over by the window:“Ask him,” she said. “He can tell you better than I could.”Well, the story was quite commonplace, after all. It seems that one day the lad had fallen in love with one of those doll-like creatures who come to the windows. One evening he had come to her house to dance and play the accordion. Other boys were also in the habit of coming to the same house, and they too paid their court to the girl.
Caught sight of her in the arms
When the lad wept, she would say to him, “What do you expect? I love you, but I love him, too—the boy over by the door, and I love the boy who`s coming here after you leave…. I love them all!” Once from behind the hedge he had caught sight of her in the arms of the youth who had come before him. He quickly drew his knife, and killed both the girl and the boy.And from that day to this,” continued the man who was telling the story, “he wanders through the streets, playing his little tunes. He`s quite inoffensive: children throw stones at him and the girls laugh. He doesn`t understand.”But I could not quite believe that this was the true version. Things are true only in appearance: behind even the most obvious facts there lurks a secret meaning: this must be sought for, for it is the more beautiful of the two. I therefore said to myself that this boy was the soul of Veere.I now understand why he came out of the church door. You, little town of Veere, and that poor half-witted musician are both tainted with the same quiet madness. It is as if the winds of the sea had turned your heads. Something has gone never to return, something that is lamented by your carillon, that sobs in the notes of that accordian.At Veere there is always a strange young man who walks off in the direction of the dunes and looks out over the broad expanse of the sea.
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I was amazed at the sudden opening of the door and the appearance of a handsome young man with strange eyes. He wore a short jacket of velvet with the silver clasps ordinarily worn by the men of Zeeland. He carried an accordion such as is sold in the harbor shops and played by sailors at sea, when of an evening they draw silver tones from it, now rippling quickly and now long drawn out.The young man looked as though he had been rudely awakened out of a dream. Was this, I wondered, the boy who, as Pielje, said, was always “playing his little tunes”?He walked by me without so much as turning his head, passing along pink-tinted walls, long straight windows of aged glass, and little gardens planted with cabbage and onions. He slowly crossed the public square, while once again the little carillon rang out in crystal tones, singing its sad song of the ultimate agony of Veere.The wind softly scattered the notes and sent them flying over the roofs of houses in the direction of the sea. The singular young man placed the accordion against his shoulder, and with his fingers on the stops, expanded and contracted the bellows of the instrument. The air he played seemed to have a meaning for himself alone.
Mystery of the village
Bending his head down close to his accordion, he smiled the smile of a man who no longer belongs to this life. I thought I understood deep down in my soul that some secret cause had affected the boy`s reason, attuning it at the same time to the mystery of the village of Veere. But I could not have explained it.Then something occurred that troubled me. The young man looked up at the tower, saw the great lords standing in their niches, and then out over the distant sea, his eyes glistening with a light as of another day. ; The accordion played on faster and more furiously with a kind of madness, and it seemed as though the ancient soul of the town were suddenly set to vibrating under the deft fingers of the player. He made his ; way on and on through the streets, dancing a quaint step like a sailor`s hornpipe.He shook the ground under foot with his heels, whirled about holding the accordion high above his head, and quickly brought it down until it almost touched the paved walk; then balanced himself in one spot with an affected grace, eyes closed and face set in an ecstatic and ceremonious smile—always to the accompaniment of that rhythmical and feverish dance music, palpitating with all the abandoned ardor of a murderer or a lover.
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Over there behind the ramparts lies the open sea with its ships, while overhead the arching sky, heavy with clouds, bears down upon the expanse of the sea. In that town I felt I was dying myself, that my feeble heart beat so faintly, while my fingers made some slight sign of life toward the sun.“That little Pietje was trying to take advantage of my credulity,”I said to myself. “Or else she`s talking about something that happened long ago, before everyone had died here.”At that moment the carillon sang out its sweet little song. It re-minded one of a Sunday afternoon in summer at grandfather`s, as the old man sat watching the dust filter in from the street under the door, his hands crossed over the head of his cane.The air it played sounded like that of some old broken music-box. The sounds trickled lazily down from the belfry and saddened me; it was as if I had suddenly heard the song that sang the last agonies of old Veere.The town hall in the public square was a pretty building, as delicately decorated as a reliquary; it had tall statues in the niches, of kings and saints. I suppose—but who now knows the history of Veere?— I made up my mind that it was doubtless the carillon to which the strange-eyed child had referred.
Possibly those shadowy eyes
And I thought almost contemptuously of those old statues, so outmoded on their daises, looking out always toward the open sea. They had stood there for centuries, with heads rigidly fixed, waiting for something that never happened. Possibly those shadowy eyes, carved out of stone, were watching for the return of fleets that one day long since set sail out of the harbor. Near the square stood an old church steeple, the key of which has for ages reposed at the bottom of the sea.The irony of it all, I mused with a smile. Everyone had left the town, and was now along the ramparts that extended all the way out to the dunes. Only a few old people were left aged folk with dirty, smudgy little shadows under their noses like the greenish mold that comes after death. And yet the stone images, with their swords and scepters, seem as though they were actually in command over the living.I went to the tower and kicked three resounding blows at the gate. I did it mainly as a sort of mockery, knowing well that no one in the solitude of that ancient House of God would respond. I also wanted to hear what a noise could be made among the shadows of death.
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Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913)
Lemonnier has, from the very beginning of his career in 1863, re-mained an interpreter of Belgian life, and particularly of the life of the peasants. His novels are powerful exhibitions of the brutality of humankind, yet penetrated with a moving beauty of form and style. Lemonnier wrote several volumes of short stories, of which many reveal the melancholy aspect of old Flemish towns.The Soul of Veere is highly characteristic of this latter type of story.It originally appeared in a volume entitled It Was in Summer, first published in 1900. The translation by Barrett H. Clark, here printed for the first time, is included by permission of Albin Michel, publisher, Paris.
The Soul of Veere
Little Pietje, who belonged to the inn on the public square, asked J me whether I had ever seen the boy who was always “playing his little tunes?” Now, what did she mean by that? I had been in Veere : three days and had seen no one answering to her description. Good heavens, I thought to myself, can there be anyone in Veere foolish enough to do that?It would be quite useless to play music there, as the houses are invariably closed, while only on the rarest occasions do you see at a window the face of an old man, an old woman, or a pretty girl in one of those flat caps with metal plaques over the temples. Why, there would be no one to listen to him! In the strange little village of Veere, they all look like mummies on exhibition behind their little squares of green or blue glass.That is my impression of the place. If by chance I had happened to hear that boy playing his little tunes through the streets, I would have put my finger to my lips as a warning not to disturb the silence that reigned in the depths of those houses.The sun itself, in scattered flecks of gold, sleeps in the middle of the street. It is long since it fell sick trying to reawaken the town that was once alive and is now fallen into a deep slumber. Its light dies on the threshold of houses, like the footstep of a beggar who returns morning after morning to a door which no one ever opens. The shades within have bolted their doors.If I live to be a hundred I shall never forget that street in Veere, nor the little houses jutting out over sidewalks that look as though they were clasping hands in prayer. It is all so far away from life that one has doubts of one`s own existence: only a faint shadow precedes you, and you are not quite sure at first whither it leads. But it leads in the direction of the churchyard, where all else has gone.
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