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sortes balzacanae

the band consisted of a fiddle, a clarionet, and a flageolet from the blind asylum. the three were paid seven francs in a lump sum for the night. for the money, they gave us, not beethoven certainly, nor yet rossini; they played as they had the will and the skill; and every one in the room (with charming delicacy of feeling) refrained from finding fault. the music made such a brutal assault on the drum of my ear, that after a first glance round the room my eyes fell at once upon the blind trio, and the sight of their uniform inclined me from the first to indulgence. as the artists stood in a window recess, it was difficult to distinguish their faces except at close quarters, and i kept away at first; but when i came nearer (i hardly know why) i thought of nothing else; the wedding party and the music ceased to exist, my curiosity was roused to the highest pitch, for my soul passed into the body of the clarionet player.

the fiddle and the flageolet were neither of them interesting; their faces were of the ordinary type among the blind--earnest, attentive, and grave. not so the clarionet player; any artist or philosopher must have come to a stop at the sight of him.

picture to yourself a plaster mask of dante in the red lamplight, with a forest of silver-white hair above the brows. blindness intensified the expression of bitterness and sorrow in that grand face of his; the dead eyes were lighted up, as it were, by a thought within that broke forth like a burning flame, lit by one sole insatiable desire, written large in vigorous characters upon an arching brow scored across with as many lines as an old stone wall.
the old man was playing at random, without the slightest regard for time or tune. his fingers traveled mechanically over the worn keys of his instrument; he did not trouble himself over a false note now and again (a canard, in the language of the orchestra), neither did the dancers, nor, for that matter, did my old italian's acolytes; for i had made up my mind that he must be italian, and an italian he was. there was something great, something too of the despot about this old homer bearing within him an odyssey doomed to oblivion. the greatness was so real that it triumphed over his abject position; the despotism so much a part of him, that it rose above his poverty.

there are violent passions which drive a man to good or evil, making of him a hero or a convict; of these there was not one that had failed to leave its traces on the grandly-hewn, lividly italian face. you trembled lest a flash of thought should suddenly light up the deep sightless hollows under the grizzled brows, as you might fear to see brigands with torches and poniards in the mouth of a cavern. you felt that there was a lion in that cage of flesh, a lion spent with useless raging against iron bars. the fires of despair had burned themselves out into ashes, the lava had cooled; but the tracks of the flames, the wreckage, and a little smoke remained to bear witness to the violence of the eruption, the ravages of the fire. these images crowded up at the sight of the clarionet player, till the thoughts now grown cold in his face burned hot within my soul.

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