The Sweet o’ the year
By Ella Hepworth Dixon
INDOORS, in the austere northern light of the studio, one hardly
realised that the trees on the boulevard were all a-flutter in
their pale green garments, that outside, all over Paris, the fairy-
tale of spring was being told. The only vernal sound which the
painter could hear as he worked, was the monotonous cooing of a
pair of ring-doves, whose cage hung at the end of the passage, at
an open door which gave on a strip of sun-flooded court. Inter-
mittently, he could hear, too, the shuffling of a pair of feet—feet
which pottered about in the aimless way of the old and tired.
The familiar sound brought up a vision of Virginie, the woman
who swept out the studio, kept the models from the door, and
made him an excellent tisane when he was out of sorts. Yes,
Virginie certainly had her uses, although she was old, and
shrivelled and unsightly. The young man hummed a love-song
of Chaminade’s as he stepped away from his picture, screwing up
his eyes the better to judge of the values. Poor, bent old
Virginie, with the failing memory, the parchment skin, and the
formless lips ! He was sorry for women—even for old women.
Being a Frenchman, he had an innately tender regard for the sex.
“The world is made for men,” he said to himself, ” tiens, I am
glad I was born a man.”
And all the while Virginia, busy among her pots and pans at
the end of the passage, was thinking about her master. She was
proud of his talent, of his success, above all, of his youth and good
looks. She rejoiced that, although M. Georges was barely thirty,
he was already hors concours at the Salon, that he could afford so
big a studio. The young men made more money nowadays.
. . . Why, it was a finer atelier than he used to have—the
greatest painter of his day in France, the famous Jean Vaillant.
The stove had not yet been lighted, and, in spite of the
sunshine outside, it was chilly in the kitchen, where Virginie
was scouring the pans. At seventy, after a lifetime of anxiety
and of toil ; of rising at the dawn, of scrubbing, cleaning, cooking,
washing : at seventy, one has no longer much warmth in one’s
veins. And then the blond, spring sunshine only made her feel
dizzy ; she had a cough which troubled her, and queer pains in her
bones. … “Maybe,” she nodded to herself, ” that it is not for
long that I am here. Poor M. Georges.”
An imperious ring at the outer bell made her hurry to the door.
Her face fell as she encountered a fantastic hat loaded with lilac, a
fresh spring toilet, a pair of handsome eyes, and a triumphant
smile. She began to grumble.
“M. Georges was at home, yes. But he was
busy. He was hard at work on a picture. The back-ground of a portrait which
must be finished this week. Could not Mademoiselle call again ? ”
” Ah, but he will see me,” declared
the Lilac Hat, pushing by,
and leaving a pungent odour of chypre behind her as she passed,
with her rustling silk linings and her overpowering air of femi-
ninity. Virginie shuffled after her to the studio door.
“Mlle. Rose,” she announced.
The young man threw down his palette and brushes, and
turned, his face alight.
As Virginie went back alone down the narrow passage, there
was a curious silence in the atelier, broken, at last, by the murmur
of soft, happy voices.
” Tas de saletés,” grumbled Virginie, ” she’ll not let him do
any more work to-day.” A strange spasm of jealousy seized her.
The little incident—though she had often witnessed it before—
seemed somehow to accentuate to-day her own senility, her
failing powers, her rapid detachment from life. It reminded her,
too, of things that had occurred half a century ago. . . . . Well,
she would like to show M. Georges that she, too …. At any
rate, she had the letters still ; she would give them to him this
afternoon— when Mlle. Rose had gone, before he went out.
After all, who should have them except M. Georges ? He, at
least, would keep them if anything happened to her. . . . . Sud-
denly the old woman felt a lump at her throat, a curious, choking
sensation. She stepped to the window, and pushed it open.
Outside, a light easterly wind was shaking an almond-tree in
full blossom, making a fluttering pink cloud against the clear
April sky. The ring-doves in their wicker cage were cooing in
an amorous ecstasy. . . .
Presently, with her heavy step, she turned into the cupboard
which served her for a bed-room. In one corner stood a locked
box, dusty with disuse, at which she fumbled nervously with a
rusty key. Then, with palsied, trembling fingers, she drew out
an ancient packet of letters, tied with a ribbon which had perhaps
once been rose-coloured.
By and bye, when the light had lessened, Virginie knocked
timidly at the studio-door. Mile. Rose had been gone some
time now, yet there still hung about the room a faint odour of
” Mais entrez donc, ma vieille ! ” called out the young painter,
kindly, glancing over his shoulder as he stood at his easel. “What
is it that you want ? ”
” Nothing, M. Georges. It is something that I thought you
might like to have. You collect such things—letters, autographs.
And you, too, are an artist. One day—who knows—you may be
as great as him ? ”
He came forward, surprised, and took the bundle of letters from
her shaking fingers—dingy, folded sheets of paper, which had once
been fastened by wafers, and which bore the dates of April and
May, 1846. Running his eye across some of the yellow pages,
covered with faded ink, he glanced at the signatures. “Why,
they are priceless ! ” he cried. ” Love-letters from Jean Vaillant ?
Where, in Heaven’s name, did you get them, Virginie ? ”
” But they are mine ! Yes, yes, M. Jean wrote them to me.
Ah, but I did not always sweep studios and open doors…..
I was pretty once, M. Georges. I was a model. He chose me
for his Baigneuse. It is in the Luxembourg now ; they say it
will be in the Louvre. . . . . M. Jean was very fond of me…..
Dame! that is all nearly fifty years ago, now,” she muttered,
stooping, with the patient humility of the poor, to pick up
some of the yellow sheets which had fallen to the ground.
He knelt down, too, and helped to collect the letters.
” But read them, M. Georges ! ” A rosy flush of belated
feminine pride had crept over her shrunken cheeks. He began
to read aloud the letter he held in his hand. It was an intimate
revelation of the heart of him whom the younger generation
spoke of always as the Master.
” I want to tell you again how your eyes haunt me, and how
delight in your beauty. . . .”
She stood there timidly, as he read aloud, with her seamed face,
and her little, faded eyes fixed on her master. A white cap was
tied beneath her shrivelled chin ; a loose camisole covered her
shrunken chest, a meagre petticoat revealed her bony ankles.
“Your beauty, which is so strangely complex, for it has not only a
child’s sweetness, but a woman’s seduction. Ah, you are indeed an
exquisite creature. . . .”
He raised his eyes and looked at the familiar figure of Virginie.
…. All at once the bent, unsightly form seemed invested
with the sweetness, the purity, the dignity of the young girl ;
round her head, with its sparse white hair, there rested, for an
instant, the aureole of the woman who is beloved.
” Whether you wish it or no, you will be for ever my
my dream, my reward, I was like a man asleep, and you, Virginie,
have awoken me.”
A feeble smile of satisfied vanity flickered over the old woman’s
face. She nodded her head as he went on reading, her knotted
hands twisted nervously together. Time, with his corroding
finger, had seared and branded her out of all semblance of a
woman. She represented nothing but the long, the inexorable degradation of life.
” Nothing will ever make me forget the unearthly beauty of
face, nor the hours we have passed together. . . .”
Gently the young man laid the letter down. His eyes had
filled with tears ; he could no longer see the words. And
then, reverently, he folded it with the rest, and, opening the drawer
of an antique cabinet, he locked his new-found treasures up.
” Sapristi ! Mais ce n’est pas amusant—la vie,” he muttered,
watching the bent figure of the old woman as she passed,
presently, mumbling and nodding, out of the studio, to be
swallowed up in the vague shadows of the passage. Suddenly it
felt cold and dismal in the great room.
” Non, ce n’est pas gaie, la vie,” he repeated ; ” at least, not
when we live too long. Well, let us make haste to amuse our-
selves while we are young.”
Rapidly he cleaned up his palette, and put on another coat.
Rose had promised to wait for him for dinner, he remembered,
and there had even been talk of a ball in the Quartier.
Virginie was patching an old skirt as he passed out by the
little kitchen. It had turned much colder, and she had drawn up
a chair near the stove.
Gently, deferentially, he took her withered hand and kissed it.
” Hommage à la maîtresse de Jean Vaillant,” he murmured
gaily. ” Has she any commission for her humble servant ? ”
The old woman’s eyes lit up. Outside, there was already some-
thing of the cold serenity of evening in the still, primrose-coloured
sky. The ring-doves were silent now, huddled together in their
wicker cage, their beaks tucked beneath their wings.
” If monsieur,” she said humbly, ” would give himself the
trouble to bring me a small bottle of some cordial ? Dame! In
the spring one feels chilly, M. Georges. . . . . Yes, the old feel
chilly in the spring.”
Dixon, Ella Hepworth. “The Sweet o’ the Year.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 158-163. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/YBV9_dixonE_sweet/