Jean had inherited from his father a little field close beside the sea. Round this field the branches of the pine trees murmured a response to the plashing of the waves. Beneath the pines the soil was red, and the crimson shade of the earth mingling with the blue waves of the bay gave them a pensive violet hue, most of all in the quiet evening hours dear to reveries and dreams.
In this field grew roses and raspberries. The pretty girls of the neighborhood came to Jean’s home to buy these fruits and flowers, so like their own lips and cheeks. The roses, the lips, and the berries had all the same youth, had all the same beauty.
Jean lived happily beside the sea, at the foot of the hills, beneath an olive tree planted near his door, which in all seasons threw a lance-like blue shadow upon his white wall.
Near the olive tree was a well, the water of which was so cold and pure that the girls of the region, with their cheeks like roses and their lips like raspberries, came thither night and morning with their jugs. Upon their heads, covered with pads, they carried their jugs, round and slender as themselves, supporting them with their beautiful bare arms, raised aloft like living handles.
Jean observed all these things, and admired them, and blessed his life.
As he was only twenty years old, he fondly loved one of the charming girls who drew water from his well, who ate his raspberries and breathed the fragrance of his roses.
He told this younger girl that she was as pure and fresh as the water, as delicious as the raspberries and as sweet as the roses.
Then the young girl smiled.
He told it her again, and she made a face at him.
He sang her the same song, and she married a sailor who carried her far away beyond the sea.
Jean wept bitterly, but he still admired beautiful things, and still blessed his life. Sometimes he thought that the frailty of what is beautiful and the brevity of what is good adds value to the beauty and goodness of all things.
One day he learned by chance that the red earth of his field was an excellent clay. He took a little of it in his hand, moistened it with water from his well, and fashioned a simple vase, while he thought of those beautiful girls who are like the ancient Greek jars, at once round and slender.
The earth in his field was, indeed, excellent clay.
He built himself a potter’s wheel. With his own hands, and with his clay, he built a furnace against the wall of his house, and he set himself to making little pots to hold raspberries.
He became skillful at this work, and all the gardeners round about came to him to provide themselves with these light, porous pots, of a beautiful red hue, round and slender, wherein the raspberries could be heaped without crushing them, and where they slept under the shelter of a green leaf.
The leaf, the pot, the raspberries, these enchanted everybody by their form and color; and the buyers in the city market would have no berries save those which were sold in Jean the potter’s round and slender pots.
Now more than ever the beautiful girls visited Jean’s field.
Now they brought baskets of woven reeds in which they piled the empty pots, red and fresh. But now Jean observed them without desire. His heart was forevermore far away beyond the sea.
Still, as he deepened and broadened the ditch in his field, from which he took the clay, he saw that his pots to hold the raspberries were variously colored, tinted sometimes with rose, sometimes with blue or violet, sometimes with black or green.
These shades of the clay reminded him of the loveliest things which had gladdened his eyes: plants, flowers, ocean, sky.
Then he set himself to choose, in making his vases, shades of clay, which he mingled delicately. And these colors, produced by centuries of alternating lights and shadows, obeyed his will, changed in a moment according to his desire.
Each day he modeled hundreds of these raspberry pots, moulding them upon the wheel which turned like a sun beneath the pressure of his agile foot. The mass of shapeless clay, turning on the center of the disk, under the touch of his finger, suddenly raised itself like the petals of a lily, lengthened, broadened, swelled or shrank, submissive to his will.
The creative potter loved the clay.
As he still dreamed of the things which he had most admired, his thought, his remembrance, his will, descended into his fingers, where—without his knowing how—they communicated to the clay that mysterious principle of life which the wisest man is unable to define. The humble works of Jean the potter had marvellous graces. In such a curve, in such a tint, he put some memory of youth, or of an opening blossom, or the very color of the weather, and of joy or sorrow.
In his hours of repose he walked with his eyes fixed upon the ground, studying the variations in the color of the soil on the cliffs, on the plains, on the sides of the hills.
And the wish came to him to model a unique vase, a marvellous vase, in which should live through all eternity something of all the fragile beauties which his eyes had gazed upon; something even of all the brief joys which his heart had known, and even a little of his divine sorrows of hope, regret and love.
He was then in the full strength and vigor of manhood.
Yet, that he might the better meditate upon his desire he forsook the well-paid work, which, it is true, had allowed him to lay aside a little hoard. No longer, as of old, his wheel turned from morning until night. He permitted other potters to manufacture raspberry pots by the thousand. The merchants forgot the way to Jean’s field.
The young girls still came there for pleasure, because of the cold water, the roses, and the raspberries; but the ill-cultivated raspberries perished, the rose-vines ran wild, climbed to the tops of the high walls, and offered their dusty blossoms to the travellers on the road.
The water in the well alone remained the same, cold and plenteous, and that sufficed to draw about Jean eternal youth and eternal gaiety.
Only youth had grown mocking for Jean. For him gaiety had now become scoffing.
“Ah, Master Jean! Does not your furnace burn any more? Your wheel, Master Jean, does it scarcely ever turn? When shall we see your amazing pot which will be as beautiful as everything which is beautiful, blooming like the rose, beaded like the raspberry, and speaking—if we must believe what you say about it—like our lips?”
Now Jean is ageing; Jean is old. He sits upon his stone seat beside the well, under the lace-like shade of the olive tree, in front of his empty field, all the soil of which is good clay but which no longer produces either raspberries or roses.
Jean said formerly: “There are three things: roses, raspberries, lips.”
All the three have forsaken him.
The lips of the young girls, and even those of the children, have become scoffing.
“Ah, Father Jean! Do you live like the grasshoppers? Nobody ever sees you eat, Father Jean! Father Jean lives on cold water. The man who grows old becomes a child again!
“What will you put into your beautiful vase, if you ever make it, silly old fellow? It will not hold even a drop of water from your well. Go and paint the hen-coops and make water-jugs!”
Jean silently shakes his head, and only replies to all these railleries by a kindly smile.
He is good to animals, and he shares his dry bread with the poor.
It is true that he eats scarcely anything, but he does not suffer in consequence. He is very thin, but his flesh is all the more sound and wholesome. Under the arch of his eyebrows his old eyes, heedful of the world, continue to sparkle with the clearness of the spring which reflects the light.
One bright morning, upon his wheel, which turns to the rhythmic motion of his foot, Jean sets himself to model a vase, the vase which he has long seen with his mind’s eye.
The horizontal wheel turns like a sun to the rhythmic beating of his foot. The wheel turns. The clay vase rises, falls, swells, becomes crushed into a shapeless mass, to be born again under Jean’s hand. At last, with one single burst, it springs forth like an unlooked-for flower from an invisible stem.
It blooms triumphantly, and the old man bears it in his trembling hands to the carefully prepared furnace where fire must add to its beauty of form the illusive, decisive beauty of color.
All through the night Jean has kept up and carefully regulated the furnace-fire, that artisan of delicate gradations of color.
At dawn the work must be finished.
And the potter, old and dying, in his deserted field, raises toward the light of the rising sun the dainty form, born of himself, in which he longs to find, in perfect harmony, the dream of his long life.
In the form and tint of the frail little vase he has wished to fix for all time the ephemeral forms and colors of all the most beautiful things.
Oh, god of day! The miracle is accomplished. The sun lights the round and slender curves, the colorations infinitely refined, which blend harmoniously, and bring back to the soul of the aged man, by the pathway of his eyes, the sweetest joys of his youth, the skies of daybreak and the mournful violet waves of the sea beneath the setting sun.
Oh, miracle of art, in which life is thus epitomized to make joy eternal!
The humble artist raises toward the sun his fragile masterpiece, the flower of his simple heart; he raises it in his trembling hands as though to offer it to the unknown divinities who created primeval beauty.
But his hands, too weak and trembling, let it escape from them suddenly, even as his tottering body lets his soul escape—and the potter’s dream, fallen with him to the ground, breaks and scatters into fragments.
Where is it now, the form of that vase brought to the light for an instant, and seen only by the sun and the humble artist? Surely, it must be somewhere, that pure and happy form of the divine dream, made real for an instant!