I was smoking my after-dinner cigar and reading Figaro on the esplanade in Strasbourg, when I was accosted by an old woman who inquired in French for the nearest photographer. She wore the common dress of the Alsatian peasant, and her dusty shoes indicated a long foot journey, but under her linen head-dress fell her white hair round a face that, sunburnt and wrinkled and wearing traces of recent tears, yet was so beautiful in its expression of tender goodness and touching resignation not unmixed with a certain pride, that I involuntarily addressed her as “Grandmere,” and forgetting that I had promised a friend to await his arrival, offered to guide her to her destination.
On the road she told me her simple story. She was a widow, and lived prior to the French-German war with her married son in a village, fifty miles from Strasbourg. They were well-to-do peasants before the enemy invaded their little village; but one morning they woke to find the Prussians encamped in their fields and making themselves perfectly at home. More troops arrived the next day and the following, until the quiet village was a big camp, where the enemy heaped up the stores needed for the siege of Strasbourg.
One dark night the camp was alarmed and a magazine containing among other stores a considerable quantity of powder was found on fire, and there was no doubt that it was the work of the inhabitants. Accordingly the next morning six of the most prominent or most patriotic of the inhabitants were brought before the Prussian commander, and after a short examination that proved nothing, without further trial, were shot in the square in front of the village church. The widow’s son was one of the six victims, and his wife, who became frantic with grief over his death, was the next morning found lifeless on his grave, thus leaving her infant son to the sole care of his grandmother.
The old woman now centered all her hope and all her affection in the little boy, and as he grew up she was fully repaid, for he loved his grandmother with an intensity often found in children who die young a love that was alone equaled by his veneration of his dead parents, his adoration of “la belle France” and his hate of the Prussians, for the old woman, who loved her country dearly, and never forgot that her husband fell fighting for it at “Solferino,” and that her son was killed by its enemies, instilled, perhaps unconsciously, both feelings in his young breast.
One day, when the boy was 10 years old, a Prussian official who inspected the village school was struck with his beauty and serious air, and addressed a question to him in German respecting his parents. “The Prussians killed them,” answered the boy in French. The official colored, and in a rebuking tone asked the boy why he didn’t speak German. “Because it is the language of my country’s enemies,” answered the boy fearlessly.
The official ordered him in arrest, and he was shut up in a chamber above the school-room, where he remained until night, when he boldly leaped from the window to the ground and, as he fell in a thick copse, escaped unhurt. The boy now fairly flew to his grandmother’s house, but as he was afraid of being seen and brought back to the school if he followed the road, he crossed in through the fields behind the village.
It was in the harvest and the grapes were ripe, so old Martin, the owner of the choicest grapes in the village, kept watch with a loaded shot-gun over his precious treasures. Softly he walks over the field behind the wine-press, when he hears something force its way through the grapevines. He stops and cocks his piece. He will now catch the thief who robs him of his biggest grapes. The moon is behind the clouds, out he sees the outline of a person running fast through the vines. “Halt!” he commands but the person never heeds him. He raises his gun–a flash–a scream–a fall of a body among the grapes, and when the old man arrives on the spot, he finds instead of the supposed grape thief a little curly-haired boy whose life is fast ebbing away with the blood that flows out and mixes with the crushed grapes; his black eyes are already fixed and glassy and it is with a faltering voice he whispers: “Give my love to grandmother and tell her– father! mother! I am coming”–his hands grasp the vines tighter, he raises himself to a sitting posture, the moon coming from behind the clouds shines on the wine leaves in his curly hair, a cry rises in his throat: “Vive la belle France!”–he sinks back, his eyes closed, and the orphan boy is gone.
“And it was me–me alone–who murdered him,” complained the grandmother when she concluded her tale. Her eyes were dry, but the muscles round the corner of her mouth worked convulsively and there was a great sob in her throat. “It was all my fault, the result of my unforgiveness; holy Mary have mercy–” and the old woman ran the black beads of her rosary through her fingers, murmuring her prayers.
We arrived shortly after at our destination, the atelier of a French photographer, with whom I was slightly acquainted. I introduced my companion to him, and he, after offering her a seat, addressed some questions to her about her picture. She looked at him with wonder, and finally replied that she only wanted a picture of her boy. “Ah!” said the photographer, “a little boy, very good, where is he!” A tear dimmed the old woman’s black eye, and for answer she pointed up to heaven. “Oh!” exclaimed my friend, “dead! I do not like to photograph dead bodies, but still as monsieur brought you here I will make an exception; when did your little boy die?”
“When the grapes ripen he will have been gone a year,” replied the grandmother.
“But, my dear,” began the photographer, perplexed, when I interrupted him, and taking him aside told him the old woman’s story and how she had walked fifty miles on her old legs to procure a likeness of her dead grandchild.
“But, my dear fellow, what can I do? I am grieved, upon my word I am; but what would you have me do? I can’t photograph angels!”
A noise of romping children was now heard and two boys, about 8 and 10 years old, came running into the atelier, crying at the top of their voices: “Oh, papa, voici!”
“Hush, children!” said the parent, “go away; I am busy,” and the happy boys disappeared laughing in the next room. A sudden idea struck me and turning to the old woman, who looked wistfully at the door through which the boys escaped, I asked her if she had kept any of her little boy’s clothes. “Indeed I have, monsieur!” she answered. “I have kept everything belonging to the little dear,” and opening a bundle she carried with her she continued: “Here is the best dress and (her voice sunk to a whisper) the last I ever saw him wear.”
I now took the photographer aside and made him acquainted with my plan for “photographing angels,” and after obtaining his promise of carrying out my instructions I persuaded the grandmother to leave her grandson’s clothing in the atelier and follow me to an inn, where I left her to the care of the buxom hostess.
Two days after the photographer sent for her and on her arrival handed her a picture at sight of which the old woman began crying freely. “My boy! my own darling boy! It is the clothes I spun every thread of myself and his pretty curly hair but why does he cover his face so? Won’t he look at me?” she asked suddenly, looking up from the picture that represented a little boy kneeling in a chair with his folded hands before his face.
“Oh!” remarked the photographer, “he is saying his prayers.”
“Yes, yes, I know! he is praying for his poor old grandmere. Oh, my darling boy!” and the great tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. “God and our lady bless you, messieurs!” said she when she grew calmer. “I am now going to pray by my boy’s grave until I follow him;” and refusing all aid for her trip home, but pressing her newly found treasure fast to her brave old heart, “Grandmere Jeanneton” left us.
As to the picture, our readers have of course all guessed that the photographer dressed his oldest boy in the poor peasant boy’s clothes; and who would not practice such a deception to see the tears that rolled down Grandmere Jeanneton’s aged cheeks?
The Argos [IN] Reflector 25 December 1884: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil was formerly in service in the household of Mrs Marrowfat, the society medium and shudders at the impostures by which that clever lady enriched herself at the expense of the desolate and sorrowing. And yet, somehow, Mrs Daffodil cannot bring herself to condemn the photographer who gave such consolation to the aged Grandmere who had lost everything.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.