Fragrance in Literature-Prue and I by George William Curtis

Prue and I by George William Curtis

They sat about the deck in a hundred listless postures. Some leaned
idly over the bulwarks, and looked wistfully away from the ship, as if
they fancied they saw all that I inferred but could not see. As the
perfume, and sound, and climate changed, I could see many a longing
eye sadden and grow moist, and as the chime of bells echoed distinctly
like the airy syllables of names, and, as it were, made pictures in
music upon the minds of those quaint mariners--then dry lips moved,
perhaps to name a name, perhaps to breathe a prayer.

"I am content here," said a laughing youth, with heavily matted
curls. "What can be better than this? We feel every climate, the music
and the perfume of every zone, are ours. In the starlight I woo the
mermaids, as I lean over the side, and no enchanted island will show
us fairer forms. I am satisfied. The ship sails on. We cannot see but
we can dream. What work or pain have we here? I like the ship; I like
the voyage; I like my company, and am content."

How the stately monster had been fattening upon foreign spoils! How it
had gorged itself (such galleons did never seem to me of the feminine
gender) with the luscious treasures of the tropics! It had lain its
lazy length along the shores of China, and sucked in whole flowery
harvests of tea. The Brazilian sun flashed through the strong wicker
prisons, bursting with bananas and nectarean fruits that eschew the
temperate zone. Steams of camphor, of sandal wood, arose from the
hold. Sailors chanting cabalistic strains, that had to my ear a shrill
and monotonous pathos, like the uniform rising and falling of an
autumn wind, turned cranks that lifted the bales, and boxes, and
crates, and swung them ashore.
But to my mind, the spell of their singing raised the fragrant
freight, and not the crank. Madagascar and Ceylon appeared at the
mystic bidding of the song. The placid sunshine of the docks was
perfumed with India. The universal calm of southern seas poured from
the bosom of the ship over the quiet, decaying old northern port.


"During the long, warm mornings of nearly half a century, my
grandfather Titbottom had sat in his dressing-gown, and gazed at the
sea. But one calm June day, as he slowly paced the piazza after
breakfast, his dreamy glance was arrested by a little vessel,
evidently nearing the shore. He called for his spyglass, and,
surveying the craft, saw that she came from the neighboring
island. She glided smoothly, slowly, over the summer sea. The warm
morning air was sweet with perfumes, and silent with heat. The sea
sparkled languidly, and the brilliant blue sky hung cloudlessly
over. Scores of little island vessels had my grandfather seen coming
over the horizon, and cast anchor in the port. Hundreds of summer
mornings had the white sails flashed and faded, like vague faces
through forgotten dreams. But this time he laid down the spyglass, and
leaned against a column of the piazza, and watched the vessel with an
intentness that he could not explain. She came nearer and nearer, a
graceful spectre in the dazzling morning.


"Yet, as I gazed and gazed, I felt what stately cities might well have
been built upon those shores, and have flashed prosperity over the
calm, like coruscations of pearls. I dreamed of gorgeous fleets,
silken-sailed, and blown by perfumed winds, drifting over those
depthless waters and through those spacious skies. I gazed upon the
twilight, the inscrutable silence, like a God-fearing discoverer upon
a new and vast sea bursting upon him through forest glooms, and in the
fervor of whose impassioned gaze, a millenial and poetic world arises,
and man need no longer die to be happy.

Then I step back, and taking her by the arm, lead her to the window. I
throw it open even wider than before. The sunlight streams on the
great church-towers opposite, and the trees in the neighboring square
glisten, and wave their boughs gently, as if they would burst into
leaf before dinner. Cages are hung at the open chamber-windows in the
street, and the birds, touched into song by the sun, make Memnon
true. Prue's purple and white hyacinths are in full blossom, and
perfume the warm air, so that the canaries and the mocking birds are
no longer aliens in the city streets, but are once more swinging in
their spicy native groves.

Now, it was a belt of warm, odorous air in which we sailed, and then
cold as the breath of a polar ocean. The perfume of new-mown hay and
the breath of roses, came mingled with the distant music of bells, and
the twittering song of birds, and a low surf-like sound of the wind in
summer woods. There were all sounds of pastoral beauty, of a tranquil
landscape such as Prue loves--and which shall be painted as the
background of her portrait whenever she sits to any of my many artist
friends--and that pastoral beauty shall be called England; I strained
my eyes into the cruel mist that held all that music and all that
suggested beauty, but I could see nothing. It was so sweet that I
scarcely knew if I cared to see. The very thought of it charmed my
senses and satisfied my heart. I smelled and heard the landscape that
I could not see.

Then the pungent, penetrating fragrance of blossoming vineyards was
wafted across the air; the flowery richness of orange groves, and the
sacred odor of crushed bay leaves, such as is pressed from them when
they are strewn upon the flat pavement of the streets of Florence, and
gorgeous priestly processions tread them under foot. A steam of
incense filled the air. I smelled Italy--as in the magnolia from
Bourne's garden--and, even while my heart leaped with the
consciousness, the odor passed, and a stretch of burning silence
succeeded.

Our cousin the curate loved, while he was yet a boy, Flora, of the
sparkling eyes and the ringing voice. His devotion was absolute. Flora
was flattered, because all the girls, as I said, worshipped him; but
she was a gay, glancing girl, who had invaded the student's heart with
her audacious brilliancy, and was half surprised that she had subdued
it. Our cousin--for I never think of him as my cousin, only--wasted
away under the fervor of his passion. His life exhaled as incense
before her. He wrote poems to her, and sang them under her window, in
the summer moonlight. He brought her flowers and precious gifts. When
he had nothing else to give, he gave her his love in a homage so
eloquent and beautiful that the worship was like the worship of the
wise men. The gay Flora was proud and superb. She was a girl, and the
bravest and best boy loved her. She was young, and the wisest and
truest youth loved her. They lived together, we all lived together, in
the happy valley of childhood. We looked forward to manhood as
island-poets look across the sea, believing that the whole world
beyond is a blest Araby of spices.

"From all these lofty halls of memory he constantly escaped to a
remote and solitary chamber, into which no one had ever
penetrated. But my fatal eyes, behind the glasses, followed and
entered with him, and saw that the chamber was a chapel. It was dim,
and silent, and sweet with perpetual incense that burned upon an altar
before a picture forever veiled. There, whenever I chanced to look, I
saw him kneel and pray; and there, by day and by night, a funeral hymn
was chanted.

I see the graceful cluster of girls hovering over the piano, and the
quiet groups of the elders in easy chairs, around little tables. I
cannot hear what is said, nor plainly see the faces. But some hoyden
evening wind, more daring than I, abruptly parts the cloud to look in,
and out comes a gush of light, music, and fragrance, so that I shrink
away into the dark, that I may not seem, even by chance, to have
invaded that privacy.

"There is wonderful music there," he said: "sometimes I awake at
night, and hear it. It is full of the sweetness of youth, and love,
and a new world. I lie and listen, and I seem to arrive at the great
gates of my estates. They swing open upon noiseless hinges, and the
tropic of my dreams receives me. Up the broad steps, whose marble
pavement mingled light and shadow print with shifting mosaic, beneath
the boughs of lustrous oleanders, and palms, and trees of unimaginable
fragrance, I pass into the vestibule, warm with summer odors, and into
the presence-chamber beyond, where my wife awaits me. But castle, and
wife, and odorous woods, and pictures, and statues, and all the bright
substance of my household, seem to reel and glimmer in the splendor,
as the music fails.


"My grandmother died, and I was thrown into the world without
resources, and with no capital but my spectacles. I tried to find
employment, but everybody was shy of me. There was a vague suspicion
that I was either a little crazed, or a good deal in league with the
prince of darkness. My companions, who would persist in calling a
piece of painted muslin, a fair and fragrant flower, had no
difficulty; success waited for them around every corner, and arrived
in every ship.

"I have seen her but once since. It was in church, and she was
kneeling, with her eyes closed, so that she did not see me. But I
rubbed the glasses well, and looked at her, and saw a white lily,
whose stem was broken, but which was fresh, and luminous, and fragrant
still."

But I departed from the maternal presence, proud and happy. I was
aromatic. I bore about me the true foreign air. Whoever smelt me smelt
distant countries. I had nutmeg, spices, cinnamon, and cloves, without
the jolly red-nose. I pleased myself with being the representative of
the Indies. I was in good odor with myself and all the world.

"I mingled with men, but with little pleasure. There are but many
varieties of a few types. I did not find those I came to
clearer-sighted than those I had left behind. I heard men called
shrewd and wise, and report said they were highly intelligent and
successful. My finest sense detected no aroma of purity and principle;
but I saw only a fungus that had fattened and spread in a night. They
went to the theatres to see actors upon the stage. I went to see
actors in the boxes, so consummately cunning, that others did not know
they were acting, and they did not suspect it themselves.


Death? Why, as I was inly praying Prue's forgiveness for my solitary
ramble and consequent demise, a glance like the fulness of summer
splendor gushed over me; the odor of flowers and of eastern gums made
all the atmosphere. I breathed the orient, and lay drunk with balm,
while that strange ship, a golden galley now, with glittering
draperies festooned with flowers, paced to the measured beat of oars
along the calm, and Cleopatra smiled alluringly from the great
pageant's heart.


But, somehow, the strange ship was gained, and I found myself among as
singular a company as I have ever seen. There were men of every
country, and costumes of all kinds. There was an indescribable
mistiness in the air, or a premature twilight, in which all the
figures looked ghostly and unreal. The ship was of a model such as I
had never seen, and the rigging had a musty odor, so that the whole
craft smelled like a ship-chandler's shop grown mouldy. The figures
glided rather than walked about, and I perceived a strong smell of
cabbage issuing from the hold.


The ship dashed on. Unknown odors and strange sounds still filled the
air, and all the world went by us as we flew, with no other noise than
the low gurgling of the sea around the side.

Columbus, also, had possessions in the West; and as I read aloud the
romantic story of his life, my voice quivers when I come to the point
in which it is related that sweet odors of the land mingled with the
sea-air, as the admiral's fleet approached the shores; that tropical
birds flew out and fluttered around the ships, glittering in the sun,
the gorgeous promises of the new country; that boughs, perhaps with
blossoms not all decayed, floated out to welcome the strange wood from
which the craft were hollowed. Then I cannot restrain myself, I think
of the gorgeous visions I have seen before I have even undertaken the
journey to the West, and I cry aloud to Prue:


"What sun-bright birds, and gorgeous blossoms, and celestial odors
will float out to us, my Prue, as we approach our western
possessions!"

The stores had a twilight of dimness, the air was spicy with mingled
odors. I liked to look suddenly in from the glare of sunlight outside,
and then the cool sweet dimness was like the palpable breath of the
far off island-groves; and if only some parrot or macaw hung within,
would flaunt with glistening plumage in his cage, and as the gay hue
flashed in a chance sunbeam, call in his hard, shrill voice, as if
thrusting sharp sounds upon a glistening wire from out that grateful
gloom, then the enchantment was complete, and without moving, I was
circumnavigating the globe.