Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was an 18-year-old orphan with a delicate poet's soul when he entered the British diplomatic corps. The Foreign Office had already sent him to Athens, Frankfurt and Madrid before he received his Paris assignment in 1863. Just 23 when posted to Paris, he was a romantic rebel, a champion of the oppressed who kept a watchful eye on the privileged lords strutting around Skittles’ parlor.
Tall, with a strikingly pretty face, Wilfrid had a poet’s manner because he was indeed a poet. Though he did little more than sit quietly in a corner, Skittles noticed him because it was impossible not to. He was exceeding handsome:
A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (Tauris Parke Paperbacks)
To draw out the shy young man, Skittles would break away from the chatter and high spirits to join him in the corner for a few moments before she flitted off. He could be brutally candid—-he called her lively conversation "fool’s talk"--yet she saw past that to his easily wounded nature. Wilfrid did not have Skittles’ social ease, and he would withdraw in a jealous funk when she was distracted by another salon visitor.
Though Catherine Walters was just one year older than Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, she understood that his gloomy passion masked his inexperience with women. He was a Catholic by conversion and still a virgin.
Prior to joining the diplomatic corps, Wilfrid confided to Skittles, he had been schooled with the Jesuits and at one point had considered becoming a priest. His father, a Protestant country squire, poet and Tory, had gone off to war and died in battle when Wilfrid was 2. His mother, shy and sensitive like her son, had died of tuberculosis when he was 13, just after joining the Catholic church.
What Skittles now saw before her was a proud and intelligent young man, a sensualist in desperate need of the mothering. But he could take only so much of Skittles’ frivolity, glowering when she left him to enjoy a drink and a laugh with another guest before focusing her attention on him again. Sometimes he would leave her house abruptly, and she would let him disappear into the Parisian night without trying to stop him.
But one fateful night, Skittles followed Wilfrid discretely as he wandered the streets and finally approached him. Their encounter that night became an encounter that he would return to in both memory and fantasy for the rest of his life. The experience became the subject of a 58-sonnet poem, "Esther, A Young Man’s Tragedy," published in 1892. In this a highly personal and melodramatic work, Wilfrid speaks in the first person of meeting and falling in love with a woman named Esther in Lyons. Clearly, the place and the woman are stand-ins for Skittles and Paris.
The poet describes the event in terms that carry grief-tinged romance to an absurd level, starting with the first line: "When is life other than a tragedy."
It is the evening of the St. Martin’s Day fair, a popular event in agrarian France that celebrates the autumn harvest. "Working bees and drones," as Wilfrid calls them, mob the fairgrounds in search of mad laughter, and the poet, a stranger in a strange land, is carried along with the crowd to The Booth of Beauty, a freak show. Two female monsters, one with the disfiguring spots of a leopard and the other a seven-foot-tall giantess, "The Queen of Love," fascinate and sicken the poet, and as he goes faint he feels a woman’s hand behind him in the crowd, clutching at his arm.
Laughing, half aloud, she is a little woman dressed in black, "who stood on tiptoe with a childish air, her face and figure hidden in a sacque, all but her eyes and forehead and dark hair." This is Skittles, as Wilfrid sees her, "wise with woman's wit," but with a face that had "something, too, pathetic in its gaze." He also sees that she has a pale scar on her cheek, and this tells him "she had not lived a nun." She is beautiful, but it is a broken beauty, marred yet gracefully natural in its degradation, and this fires his bashful heart "to a zeal divine."
In other words, the virgin poet sees a sexy young woman whose look assures him that she would welcome him into her bed.
She is also a tease, because she complains that the poet, being so tall, can easily see the Queen of Love, and she can see nothing. She points to a chair and has the poet lift her up to stand on it, insisting that he keep his arm around her waist in case she falls. The giantess' attention is drawn to the laughing girl and the shamefaced boy, and she challenges them to come to her. The girl pushes the boy up to the stage, and at the leering crowd’s insistence, he touches the freak’s knee. When his deed is done, the air swirls darkly around him, and the blushing poet turns and flees, leaving Esther behind.
Too elated to simply return to the inn where he is staying, he doesn’t know where to go. He feels that he's on the threshold of evil, his soul until now "a thing pure from sensual strife," and on the verge of corruption. Wandering the streets, musing upon the world’s wickedness, the poet crosses the path of a woman as she angrily leaves a house on a side street, calling out an insult in French as she slams the door. It’s the broken beauty from the fair, and upon seeing the poet her look suddenly turns from fierce to gay, her black eyes gleaming with triumph "as they caught, like some wild bird of chase, their natural prey."
Telling him she’s not angry, but only too soft-hearted, she takes his hand and presses it to her heart. "Why did you follow me?" Esther/Skittles asks, mockingly. "Here, feel how my heart beats." The poet feels it is his own heart’s match, yet the girl pushes him off, saying he followed her only because he thought she was his fat Queen of Love from the fair. Now he’s confused and grows angry, turning to leave, but then her mood changes again, and she tells him in all seriousness that his John the Baptist’s face has turned her head.
"We are strangers both among these heavy Lyonnese," she says. "By right we so should hold together….I saw it in an instant in the booth that we should know each other and be friends."
In a daze, the poet agrees, and the girl goes on talking like a running stream, "without more reason or more pause or stay than to gather breath and then pursue her whim just where it led her, tender, sad, or gay. Her moods seemed all alike to her."
Joyfully, yielding to sin, he stops resisting and drowns in her torrent of words. The night grows cold, she shivers, and she tells him to follow her. Like two lost children, hand in hand they walk the streets of Lyons, pausing aimlessly here and there, until they come to a house, her dressmaker’s, she says, where Madame Blanche is too wise to pry into the affairs of her customers, no matter what hour of the night they choose to come. The poet is led to an inner room, where for the first time in his life he hears the language of a woman’s clothing spoken as the girl throws off her hat, unties her veil, undoes her jacket and then the jet buttons of her dress one by one,
And stood but clothed the more in loveliness,
A sight sublime, a dream, a miracle,
A little goddess from some luminous field
Brought down unconscious on our Earth to dwell,
And in an age of innocence revealed,
Naked but not ashamed. Nay, wherefore shame?
And I, ah, who shall blame me, who shall blame?
The poet chooses modestly not to tell the secrets of what happened in that inner room, and when we return to it with Madame Blanche, we see him kneeling as Esther/Skittles kisses his face and dries and comforts the former virgin’s tears.
The poet and Esther stay together only three days, and what for more experienced men might merely be a dirty weekend is for Blunt a life-changing event. It shocks him to see that after their precious days together, she blithely return to the Parisian high life and her undemanding and rich older lover. The girl, he decides, is a destroying angel incapable of real love:
Esther had no soul which Heaven or Hell
Could touch by joy or soften by the rod.
She could not really love me…Now life's light
Illumines all, and I behold her gay
As I first knew her in my love purblind,
Dear passionate Esther, soulless but how kind!
Watch for Part 10 of Reviving Skittles, when we learn why a long-term relationship between Skittles and Wilfrid could never have worked and what made her decide instead to be a great courtesan and never fall in love again.