WHEN Elisabeth Louise Vige was born at Paris, April, 1755, the French court and monarchy were still at the height of their splendour and power.A dancing-girl went by, wrapped in white muslin as thin as air, hardly veiling the exquisite grace of her shape. Close to us, in front of two musicians playing on the vina and the tom-tom, she began to dance, jingling the rattles and bells on her anklets: a mysterious dance with slow movements and long bows alternating with sudden leaps, her hands crossed on her heart, in a lightning flash of silver necklets and bangles. Every now and then a shadow passed between the nautch-girl and the lights that fell on her while she was dancing, and then she could scarcely be seen to touch the ground, she seemed to float in her fluttering[Pg 301] drapery; and presently, before the musicians had ceased playing, she vanished in the gloom of a side alley. She had asked for nothing, had danced simply for the pleasure of displaying her grace.
Above a large fan-palm the pale fronds of a talipot soar towards the sky, gracefully recurved like enormous ostrich plumes. A fluff, a down, of flowers clings to the stems of the magnificent crest, a delicate pale cloud; and the broad leaves of the tree, which will die when it has blossomed, are already withering and drooping on the crown. Then, in the clearings made by the recent decay of such a giant, falling where it had stood, and crushing the bamboos and ph?nix that grew round its foot, the flowers sprang in myriadsgreat sunflowers, shrubs of poinsettia, with its tufts of red or white bracts at the end of a branch of green[Pg 132] leaves, surrounding a small inconspicuous blossom, and tall, lavender-blue lilies.The same ubiquitous terminus on a sandy plain, remote from everything; then a drive jolting through bogs, and we reached the dirty, scattered town crowded with people who had collected round a sort of fair with booths for mountebanks, and roundabouts of wooden horses.
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At the entrance into one of the chapels is the trunk of an Akshai bar or b? tree, a kind of fig such as the Buddhists place in front of their sanctuaries. The tree is living in the subterranean[Pg 185] vault, and after thrusting its head through the heavy layer of stones forming the roof of the temple, it spreads its branches under the light of day. Endless absurd legends have grown up about the mystery of this tree, which is said to be no less than twenty centuries old; and my guide, who talks aloud in the presence of the idols he despises, being a Mohammedan, bows reverently to the tree and murmurs, "That is sacred; God has touched it."Evening fell, purple and orange tinging the princes' muslins to delicate hues; then very quickly all was dark. Deep melancholy came over us; we all sat without speaking a word, while from afar came the clatter of tom-toms from the temple, sometimes drowning the music, which droned on in a minor key, a maundering strain without a close but constantly repeating itself.
[Pg 119]Then, in the magic of the evening, the air was saturated with fragrance; invisible gardenias, amaryllis, and lemon-flowers perfumed the cool night. On every side we could hear the quavering guzla, the sound of tom-toms and tambourines. The streets were brightly lighted up and crowded.
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"Yes. But how much is this?"
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