Menu Close


Tirala-tirala . . .

I WONDER what the secret of it is—why that little fragment of a
musical phrase has always had this instant, irresistible power to
move me. The tune of which it formed a part I have never
heard ; whether it was a merry tune or a sad tune, a pretty tune
or a stupid one, I have no means of guessing. A sequence of six
notes, like six words taken from the middle of a sentence, it stands
quite by itself, detached, fortuitous. If I were to pick it out for
you on the piano, you would scoff at it ; you would tell me that it
is altogether pointless and unsuggestive—that any six notes, struck
at haphazard, would signify as much. And I certainly could not,
with the least show of reason, maintain the contrary. I could only
wonder the more why it has always had, for me, this very singular
charm. As when I was a child, so now, after all these years, it is
a sort of talisman in my hands, a thing to conjure with. I have
but to breathe it never so softly to myself, and (if I choose) the
actual world melts away, and I am journeying on wings in
dreamland. Whether I choose or not, it always thrills my heart
with responsive echoes, it always wakes a sad, sweet emotion.

∗ ∗ ∗

I remember quite clearly the day when I first heard it ; quite


                        66 Tirala-tirala . . .

clearly, though it was more—oh, more than five-and-twenty years
ago, and the days that went before and came after it have entirely
lost their outlines, and merged into a vague golden blur. That
day, too, as I look backwards, glows in the distance with a golden
light ; and if I were to speak upon my impulse, I should vow it
was a smiling day of June, clothed in sunshine and crowned with
roses. But then, if I were to speak upon my impulse, I should
vow that it was June at Saint-Graal the whole year round.
When I stop to think, I remember that it was a rainy day, and
that the ground was sprinkled with dead leaves. I remember
standing at a window in my grandmother s room, and gazing out
with rueful eyes. It rained doggedly, relentlessly—even, it
seemed to me, defiantly, spitefully, as if it took a malicious
pleasure in penning me up within doors. The mountains, the
Pyrenees, a few miles to the south, were completely hidden by the
veil of waters. The sodden leaves, brown patches on the lawn
and in the pathways, struggled convulsively, like wounded birds,
to fly from the gusts of wind, but fell back fluttering heavily.
One could almost have touched the clouds, they hung so low, big
ragged tufts of sad-coloured cotton-wool, blown rapidly through
the air, just above the writhing tree-tops. Everywhere in the
house there was a faint fragrance of burning wood : fires had been
lighted to keep the dampness out.

∗ ∗ ∗

Indeed, if it had been a fair day, my adventure could scarcely
have befallen. I should have been abroad, in the garden or the
forest, playing with André, our farmer’s son ; angling, with a bit
of red worsted as bait, for frogs in the pond ; trying to catch
lizards on the terrace ; lying under a tree with Don Quixote or Le
Capitaine Fracasse
; visiting Manuela in her cottage ; or perhaps,


                        By Henry Harland 67

best of all, spending the afternoon with Hélène, at Granjolaye. It
was because the rain interdicted these methods of amusement that
I betook myself for solace to Constantinople.

∗ ∗ ∗

I don’t know why—I don’t think any one knew why—that part
of our house was called Constantinople ; but it had been called so
from time immemorial, and we all accepted it as a matter of
course. It was the topmost story of the East Wing—three
rooms : one little room, by way of ante-chamber, into which you
entered from a corkscrew staircase ; then another little room, at
your left ; and then a big room, a long dim room, with only two
windows, one at either end. And these rooms served as a sort of
Hades for departed household gods. They were crowded, crowded
to overflowing, with such wonderful old things ! Old furniture
—old straight-backed chairs, old card-tables, with green cloth
tops, and brass claws for feet, old desks and cabinets, the dismem-
bered relics of old four-post bedsteads ; old clothes—old hats,
boots, cloaks—green silk calashes, like bonnets meant for the ladies
of Brobdingnag—and old hoop-petticoats, the skeletons of dead
toilets ; old books, newspapers, pictures ; old lamps and candlesticks,
clocks, fire-irons, vases ; an old sedan-chair ; old spurs, old swords,
old guns and pistols: generations upon generations of superannuated
utilities and vanities, slumbering in one another’s shadows, under
a common sheet of dust, and giving off a thin, penetrating, ancient

When it rained, Constantinople was my ever-present refuge.
It was a land of penumbra and mystery, a realm of perpetual
wonderment, a mine of inexhaustible surprises. I never visited it
without finding something new, without getting a sensation.
One day, when André was there with me, we both saw a ghost—


                        68 Tirala-tirala . . .

yes, as plainly as at this moment I see the paper I’m writing on ;
but I won’t turn aside now to speak of that. And as for my finds,
on two or three occasions, at least, they had more than a subjective
metaphysical importance. The first was a chest filled with
jewellery and trinkets, an iron chest, studded with nails, in size
and shape like a small trunk, with a rounded lid. I dragged it out
of a dark corner, from amidst a quantity of rubbish, and (it wasn’t
even locked !) fancy the eyes I made when I beheld its contents:
half-a-dozen elaborately carved, high-backed tortoise-shell combs,
ranged in a morocco case ; a beautiful old-fashioned watch, in the
form of a miniature guitar ; an enamelled snuff-box ; and then no
end of rings, brooches, buckles, seals, and watch-keys, set with
precious stones—not very precious stones perhaps,—only garnets
amethysts, carnelians ; but mercy, how they glittered ! I ran off
in great excitement to call my grandmother ; and she called my
uncle Edmond ; and he, alas, applied the laws of seigniory to the
transaction, and I saw my trover appropriated. My other im-
portant finds were appropriated also, but about them I did not care
so much—they were only papers. One was a certificate, dated in
the Year III, and attesting that my grandfather’s father had taken
the oath of allegiance to the Republic. As I was a fierce Legiti-
mist, this document afforded me but moderate satisfaction. The
other was a Map of the World, covering a sheet of cardboard
nearly a yard square, executed in pen-and-ink, but with such a
complexity of hair-lines, delicate shading, and ornate lettering, that,
until you had examined it closely, you would have thought it a
carefully finished steel-engraving. It was signed ” Herminie de
Pontacq, 1814 “; that is to say, by my grandmother herself, who
in 1814 had been twelve years old ; dear me, only twelve years
old ! It was delightful and marvellous to think that my own
grandmother, in 1814, had been so industrious, and painstaking,


                        By Henry Harland 69

and accomplished a little girl. I assure you, I felt almost as proud
as if I had done it myself.

∗ ∗ ∗

The small room at the left of the ante-chamber was consecrated
to the roba of an uncle of my grandfather’s, who had been a sugar-
planter in the province of New Orleans, in the reign of Louis
XVI. He had also been a Colonel, and so the room was called
the Colonel’s room. Here were numberless mementoes of the
South : great palm-leaf fans, conch-shells, and branches of coral,
broad-brimmed hats of straw, monstrous white umbrellas, and, in
a corner, a collection of long slender wands, ending in thick
plumes of red and yellow feathers. These, I was informed, the
sugar-planter’s slaves, standing behind his chair, would flourish
about his head, to warn off the importunate winged insects that
abound là-bas. He had died at Paris in 1793, and of nothing more
romantic than a malignant fever, foolish person, when he might
so easily have been guillotined ! (It was a matter of permanent
regret with me that none of our family had been guillotined.) But
his widow had survived him for more than forty years, and her my
grandmother remembered perfectly. A fat old Spanish Créole lady,
fat and very lazy—oh, but very lazy indeed. At any rate, she
used to demand the queerest services of the negress who was in
constant attendance upon her. ” Nanette, Nanette, tourne tête à
moi. Veux”—summon your fortitude—” veux cracher !” Ah,
well, we are told, they made less case of such details in those robust
old times. How would she have fared, poor soul, had she fallen
amongst us squeamish decadents ?

∗ ∗ ∗

It was into the Colonel’s room that I turned to-day. There


The Yellow Book—Vol. VI. E

                        70 Tirala-tirala . . .

was a cupboard in its wall that I had never thoroughly examined.
The lower shelves, indeed, I knew by heart ; they held, for the
most part, empty medicine bottles. But the upper ones ?

∗ ∗ ∗

I pause for a moment, and the flavour of that far-away after-
noon comes back fresher in my memory than yesterday’s. I am
perched on a chair, in the dim light of Constantinople, at Saint-
Graal ; my nostrils are full of a musty, ancient smell ; I can hear
the rain pat-pattering on the roof, the wind whistling at the window,
and, faintly, in a distant quarter of the house, my cousin Elodie
playing her exercises monotonously on the piano. I am balancing
myself on tip-toe, craning my neck, with only one care, one pre-
occupation, in the world—to get a survey of the top shelf of the
closet in the Colonel’s room. The next to the top, and the next
below that, I already command ; they are vacant of everything
save dust. But the top one is still above my head, and how to
reach it seems a terribly vexed problem, of which, for a little while,
motionless, with bent brows, I am rapt in meditation. And then,
suddenly, I have an inspiration—I see my way.

It was not for nothing that my great-aunt Radigonde—(think
of having had a great-aunt named Radigonde, and yet never having
seen her ! She died before I was born—isn’t Fate unkind ?)—it
was not for nothing that my great-aunt Radigonde, from 1820 till
its extinction in 1838, had subscribed to the Revue Rose—La
Revue Rose ; Echo du Bon Ton ; Miroir de la Mode ; paraissant tons
les mois ; dirigée par une Dame du Monde
; nor was it in vain, either,
that my great-aunt Radigonde had had the annual volumes of this
fashionable intelligencer bound. Three or four of them now, piled
one above the other on my chair, lent me the altitude I needed ;
and the top shelf yielded up its secret.


                        By Henry Harland 71

It was an abominably dusty secret, and it was quite a business to
wipe it off. Then I perceived that it was a box, a square box,
about eighteen inches long and half as deep, made of polished
mahogany, inlaid with scrolls and flourishes of satin-wood.
Opened, it proved to be a dressing-case. It was lined with pink
velvet and white brocaded silk. There was a looking-glass, in a pink
velvet frame, with an edge of gold lace, that swung up on a hinged
support of tarnished ormolu ; a sere and yellow looking-glass, that
gave back a reluctant, filmy image of my face. There were half-
a-dozen pear-shaped bottles, of wine-coloured glass, with tarnished
gilt tops. There was a thing that looked like the paw of a small
animal, the fur of which, at one end, was reddened, as if it had
been rubbed in some red powder. The velvet straps that had once
presumably held combs and brushes, had been despoiled by an earlier
hand than mine ; but of two pockets in the lid the treasures were
intact: a tortoise-shell housewife, containing a pair of scissors, a
thimble, and a bodkin, and a tortoise-shell purse, each prettily
incrusted with silver and lined with thin pink silk.

In front, between two of the gilt-topped bottles, an oval of pink
velvet, with a tiny bird in ormolu perched upon it, was evidently
movable—a cover to something. When I had lifted it, I saw, first,
a little pane of glass, and then, through that, the brass cylinder and
long steel comb of a musical box. Wasn’t it an amiable conceit,
whereby my lady should be entertained with tinkling harmonies
the while her eyes and fingers were busied in the composition of
her face ? Was it a frequent one in old dressing-cases ?

Oh, yes, the key was there—a gilt key, coquettishly decorated
with a bow of pink ribbon ; and when I had wound the mechanism
up, the cylinder, to my great relief, began to turn—to my relief,
for I had feared that the spring might be broken, or something :
springs are so apt to be broken in this disappointing world. The


                        72 Tirala-tirala . . .

cylinder began to turn—but, alas, in silence, or almost in silence,
emitting only a faintly audible, rusty gr-r-r-r, a sort of guttural
grumble ; until, all at once, when I was least expecting it—tirala-
tirala—it trilled out clearly, crisply, six silvery notes, and then
relapsed into its rusty gr-r-r-r.

So it would go on and on until it ran down. A minute or two of
creaking and croaking, hemming-and-hawing, as it were, whilst
it cleared its old asthmatic throat, then a sudden silvery tirala-
tirala, then a catch, a cough, and mutter-mutter-mutter. Or was
it more like an old woman maundering in her sleep, who should
suddenly quaver out a snatch from a ditty of her girlhood, and
afterwards mumble incoherently again ?

I suppose the pin-points on the cylinder, all save just those six,
were worn away ; or, possibly, those teeth of the steel comb were
the only ones that retained elasticity enough to vibrate.

∗ ∗ ∗

A sequence of six notes, as inconclusive as six words plucked at
random from the middle of a sentence ; as void of musical value
as six such words would be of literary value. I wonder why it
has always had this instant, irresistible power to move me. It has
always been a talisman in my hands, a thing to conjure with.
As when I was a child, so now, after twenty years, I have but to
breathe it to myself, and, if I will, the actual world melts away,
and I am journeying in dreamland. Whether I will or not, it
always stirs a sad, sweet emotion in my heart. I wonder why.
Tirala-tirala—I dare say, for another, any six notes, struck at hap-
hazard, would signify as much. But for me—ah, if I could seize
the sentiment it has for me, and translate it into English words,
I should have achieved a sort of miracle. For me, it is the voice
of a spirit, sighing something unutterable. It is an elixir, distilled


                        By Henry Harland 73

of unearthly things, six lucent drops ; I drink them, and I am
transported into another atmosphere, and I see visions. It is
Aladdin’s lamp ; I touch it, and cloud-capped towers and gorgeous
palaces are mine in the twinkling of an eye. It is my wishing-
cap, my magic-carpet, my key to the Castle of Enchantment.

∗ ∗ ∗

The Castle of Enchantment. . . . .

When I was a child the Castle of Enchantment meant—the
Future ; the great mysterious Future, away, away there, beneath
the uttermost horizon, where the sky is luminous with tints of
rose and pearl ; the ineffable Future, when I should be grown-up,
when I should be a Man, and when the world would be my garden,
the world and life, and all their riches, mine to explore, to adventure
in, to do as I pleased with ! The Future and the World, the real
World, the World that lay beyond our village, beyond the Forest
of Granjolaye, farther than Bayonne, farther even than Pau ; the
World one read of and heard strange legends of : Paris, and Bagdad,
and England, and Peru. Oh, how I longed to see it ; how hard
it was to wait ; how desperately hard to think of the immense
number of long years that must be worn through somehow,
before it could come true.

But—tirala-tirala !—my little broken bar of music was a touch-
stone. At the sound of it, at the thought of it, the Present was
spirited away ; Saint-Graal and all our countryside were left a
thousand miles behind ; and the Future and the World opened their
portals to me, and I wandered in them where I would. In a sort
of trance, with wide eyes and bated breath, I wandered in them,
through enraptured hours. Believe me, it was a Future, it was a
World, of quite unstinted magnificence. My many-pinnacled
Castle of Enchantment was built of gold and silver, ivory, ala-


                        74 Tirala-tirala . . .

baster, and mother-of-pearl ; the fountains in its courts ran with
perfumed waters ; and its pleasaunce was an orchard of pome-
granates—one had no need to spare one’s colours. I dare say,
too, that it was rather vague, wrapped in a good deal of roseate
haze, and of an architecture that could scarcely have been reduced
to ground-plans and elevations ; but what of that ? And oh, the
people, the people by whom the World and the Future were in-
habited, the cavalcading knights, the beautiful princesses ! And
their virtues, and their graces, and their talents ! There were no
ugly people, of course, no stupid people, no disagreeable people ;
everybody was young and handsome, gallant, generous, and
splendidly dressed. And everybody was astonishingly nice to me,
and it never seemed to occur to anybody that I wasn’t to have my
own way in everything. And I had it. Love and wealth, glory,
and all manner of romance—I had them for the wishing. The
stars left their courses to fight for me. And the winds of heaven
vied with each other to prosper my galleons.

To be sure, it was nothing more nor other than the day-dream
of every child. But it happened that that little accidental frag-
ment of a phrase of music had a quite peculiar power to send me
off dreaming it.

∗ ∗ ∗

I suppose it must be that we pass the Castle of Enchantment
while we are asleep. For surely, at first, it is before us—we are
moving towards it ; we can see it shining in the distance ; we shall
reach it to-morrow, next week, next year. And then—and then,
one morning, we wake up, and lo ! it is behind us. We have passed
it—we are sailing away from it—we can’t turn back. We have
passed the Castle of Enchantment ! And yet, it was only to
reach it that we made our weary voyage, toiling through hardships


                        By Henry Harland 75

and perils and discouragements, forcing our impatient hearts to
wait ; it was only the hope, the certain hope, of reaching it at last,
that made our toiling and our waiting possible. And now—we
have passed it. We are sailing away from it. We can’t turn
back. We can only look back—with the bitterness that every
heart knows. If we look forward, what is there to see, save grey
waters, and then a darkness that we fear to enter ?

∗ ∗ ∗

When I was a child, it was the great world and the future into
which my talisman carried me, dreaming desirous dreams ; the
great world, all gold and marble, peopled by beautiful princesses
and cavalcading knights ; the future, when I should be grown-up,
when I should be a Man.

Well, I am grown-up now, and I have seen something of the
great world—something of its gold and marble, its cavalcading
knights and beautiful princesses. But if I care to dream desirous
dreams, I touch my talisman, and wish myself back in the little
world of my childhood. Tirala-tirala—I breathe it softly, softly ;
and the sentiment of my childhood comes and fills my room like a
fragrance. I am at Saint-Graal again ; and my grandmother is
seated at her window, knitting ; and André is bringing up the
milk from the farm; and my cousin Elodie is playing her exercises
on the piano ; and Hélène and I are walking in the garden—
Hélène in her short white frock, with a red sash, and her black hair
loose down her back. All round us grow innumerable flowers,
and innumerable birds are singing in the air, and the frogs are
croaking, croaking in our pond. And farther off, the sun shines
tranquilly on the chestnut trees of the Forest of Granjolaye ; and
farther still, the Pyrenees gloom purple. . . . . It is not much,


                        76 Tirala-tirala . . .

perhaps it is not very wonderful ; but oh, how my heart yearns to
recover it, how it aches to realise that it never can.

∗ ∗ ∗

In the Morning (says Paraschkine) the Eastern Rim of the
Earth was piled high with Emeralds and Rubies, as if the Gods
had massed their Riches there ; but he—ingenuous Pilgrim—who
set forth to reach this Treasure-hoard, and to make the Gods’
Riches his, seemed presently to have lost his Way ; he could no
longer discern the faintest Glint of the Gems that had tempted
him : until, in the Afternoon, chancing to turn his Head, he saw
a bewildering Sight—the Emeralds and Rubies were behind him,
immeasurably far behind, piled up in the West.

Where is the Castle of Enchantment ? When do we pass it ?
Ah, well, thank goodness, we all have talismans (like my little
broken bit of a forgotten tune) whereby we are enabled sometimes
to visit it in spirit, and to lose ourselves during enraptured moments
among its glistening, labyrinthine halls.

MLA citation:

Harland, Henry. “Tirala-tirala…” The Yellow Book, vol. 6, July 1895, pp. 65-76. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.