Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories HTML version

Jean Francois
Jean Francois was a vagabond by nature, a balladmonger by profession. Like
many poets in many times, he found that the business of writing verse was more
amusing than lucrative; and he was constrained to supplement the earnings of
his pen and his guitar by other and more profitable work. He had run away from
what had been his home at the age of seven (he was a foundling, and his
adopted father was a shoe- maker), without having learnt a trade. When the
necessity arose he decided to supplement the art of balladmongering by that of
stealing. He was skilful in both arts: he wrote verse, sang ballads, picked pockets
(in the city), and stole horses (in the country) with equal facility and success.
Some of his verse has reached posterity, for instance the "Ballads du Paradis
Peint," which he wrote on white vellum, and illustrated himself with illuminations
in red, blue and gold, for the Dauphin. It ends thus in the English version of a
Balliol scholar:--
Prince, do not let your nose, your Royal nose,
Your large Imperial nose get out of joint;
Forbear to criticise my perfect prose--
Painting on vellum is my weakest point.
Again, the ballade of which the "Envoi" runs:--
Prince, when you light your pipe with radium spills,
Especially invented for the King--
Remember this, the worst of human ills:
Life without matches is a dismal thing,
is, in reality, only a feeble adaptation of his "Priez pour feu le vrai tresor de vie."
But although Jean Francois was not unknown during his lifetime, and although,
as his verse testifies, he knew his name would live among those of the enduring
poets after his death, his life was one of rough hardship, brief pleasures, long
anxieties, and constant uncertainty. Sometimes for a few days at a time he would
live in riotous luxury, but these rare epochs would immediately be succeeded by
periods of want bordering on starvation. Besides which he was nearly always in
peril of his life; the shadow of the gallows darkened his merriment, and the
thought of the wheel made bitter his joy. Yet in spite of this hazardous and
harassing life, in spite of the sharp and sudden transitions in his career, in spite
of the menace of doom, the hint of the wheel and the gallows, his fund of joy
remained undiminished, and this we see in his verse, which reflects with equal
vividness his alternate moods of infinite enjoyment and unmitigated despair. For
instance, the only two triolets which have survived from his "Trente deux Triolets
joyeux and tristes" are an example of his twofold temperament. They run thus in
the literal and exact translations of them made by an eminent official:--
I wish I was dead,
And lay deep in the grave.
I've a pain in my head,
I wish I was dead.
In a coffin of lead--