The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter xi.

The sword-thrust which had so nearly cost Paul Astier his life made peace for the time between his parents. In the emotion produced by such a shock to his natural feelings, the father forgave all; and as for three weeks Madame Astier remained with her patient, coming home only on flying visits to fetch linen or change her dress, there was no risk of the covert allusions and indirect reproaches, which will revive, even after forgiveness and reconciliation, the disagreement of husband and wife. And when Paul got well and went, at the urgent invitation of the Duchess, to Mousseaux, the return of this truly academic household, if not to warm affection, at least to the equable temperature of the ‘cold bed,’ was finally secured by its establishment in the Institute, in the official lodgings vacated by Loisillon, whose widow, having been appointed manager of the school of Ecouen, removed so quickly, that the new secretary began to move in within a very few days of his election.

It was not a long process to settle in rooms which they had surveyed for years with the minute exactness of envy and hope, till they knew the very utmost that could be made of every corner. The pieces of furniture from the Rue de Beaune fell into the new arrangement so smartly, that it looked as if they were merely returning after a sojourn in the country, and finding their fixed habitat and natural place of adhesion by the marks of their own forms upon the floors or panels. The redecoration was limited to cleaning the room in which Loisillon died, and papering what had been the reception-room of Villemain and was now taken by Astier for his study, because there was a good light from the quiet court and a lofty bright little room, immediately adjoining, for his MSS., which were transferred there in three journeys of a cab, with the help of Fage the bookbinder.

Every morning, with a fresh delight, he enjoyed the convenience of a ‘library’ scarcely inferior to the Foreign Office, which he could enter without stooping or climbing a ladder. Of his kennel in the Rue de Beaune he could not now think without anger and disgust. It is the nature of man to regard places in which he has felt pain with an obstinate and unforgiving dislike. We can reconcile ourselves to living creatures, which are capable of alteration and differences of aspect, but not to the stony unchange-ableness of things. Amid the pleasures of getting in, Astier-Réhu could forget his indignation at the offence of his wife, and even his grievances against Teyssèdre, who received orders to come every Wednesday morning as before. But at the mere remembrance of the slope-roofed den, into which he was lately banished for one day in each week, the historian ground his teeth, and the jaw of ‘Crocodilus’ reappeared.

Teyssèdre, incredible as it may be, was very little excited or impressed by the honour of polishing the monumental floors of the Palais Mazarin, and still shoved about the table, papers, and numberless refaits of the Permanent Secretary with the calm superiority of a citizen of Riom over a common fellow from ‘Chauvagnat.’ Astier-Réhu, secretly uncomfortable under this crushing contempt, sometimes tried to make the savage feel the dignity of the place upon which his wax-cake was operating. ‘Teyssèdre,’ said he to him, one morning, ‘this was the reception-room of the great Villemain. Pray treat it accordingly;’ but he instantly offered satisfaction to the Arvernian’s pride by saying weakly to Corentine, ‘Give the good man a glass of wine.’ The astonished Corentine brought it, and the polisher, leaning on his stick, emptied it at a draught, his pupils dilating with pleasure. Then he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and, setting down the glass with the mark of his greedy lips upon it, said, ‘Look you, Meuchieu Astier, a glass of good wine is the only real good in life.’ There was such a ring of truth in his voice, such a sparkle of contentment in his eyes, that the Permanent Secretary, going back into his library, shut the door a little sharply.

It was scarcely worth while to have scrambled from his low beginning to his present glory as head of literature, historian of the ‘House of Orleans,’ and keystone of the Académie Française, if a glass of good wine could give to a boor a happiness worth it all. But the next minute, hearing the polisher say with a sneer to Corentine that ‘mooch ‘e cared for the ‘ception-room of the great Villemain,’ Léonard Astier shrugged his shoulders, and at the thought of such ignorance his half-felt envy gave way to a deep and benign compassion.

Meanwhile Madame Astier, who had been brought up in the building, and recognised with remembrances of her childhood every stone in the court and every step in the dusty and venerable Staircase B, felt as if she had at last got back to her home. She had, moreover, a sense far keener than her husband’s of the material advantages of the place. Nothing to pay for rent, for lighting, for fires, a great saving upon the parties of the winter season, to say nothing of the increase of income and the influential connection, so particularly valuable in procuring orders for her beloved Paul. Madame Loisillon in her time, when sounding the praises of her apartments at the Institute, never failed to add with emphasis, ‘I have entertained there even Sovereigns.’ ‘Yes, in the little room,’ good Adelaide would answer tartly, drawing up her long neck. It was the fact that not unfrequently, after the prolonged fatigue of a Special Session, some great lady, a Royal Highness on her travels, or a leader influential in politics, would go upstairs to pay a little particular visit to the wife of the Permanent Secretary. To this sort of hospitality Madame Loisillon was indebted for her present appointment as school-manager, and Madame Astier would certainly not be less clever than her predecessor in utilising the convenience. The only drawback to her triumph was her quarrel with the Duchess, which made it impossible for her to follow Paul to Mousseaux. But an invitation, opportunely arriving at this moment, enabled her to get as near to him as the house at Clos Jallanges; and she had hopes of recovering in time the favour of the fair Antonia, towards whom, when she saw her so kind to Paul she began again to feel quite affectionate.

Léonard could not leave Paris, having to work off the arrears of business left by Loisillon. He let his wife go however, and promised to come down to their friends for a few hours now and then, though in truth he was resolved not to separate himself from his beloved Institute. It was so comfortable and quiet! He had to attend two meetings in the week, just on the other side of the court — summer meetings, where a friendly party of five or six ‘tallymen’ dozed at ease under the warm glass. The rest of the week he was entirely free, and the old man employed it industriously in correcting the proofs of his ‘Galileo,’ which, finished at last, was to come out at the opening of the season, as well as a second edition of ‘The House of Orleans,’ improved to twice its value by the addition of new and unpublished documents. As the world grows old, history, which being but a collective memory of the race is liable to all the lapses, losses, and weaknesses of memory in the individual, finds it ever more necessary to be fortified with authentic texts, and if it would escape the errors of senility, must refresh itself at the original springs. With what pride, therefore, with what enjoyment did Astier-Réhu, during those hot August days, revise the fresh and trustworthy information displayed in his beloved pages, as a preparation for returning them to his publisher, with the heading on which, for the first time, appeared beneath his name the words ‘Secretaire perpétuel de l’Académie Française.’ His eyes were not yet accustomed to the title, which dazzled him on each occasion, like the sun upon the white courtyard beneath his windows. It was the vast Second Court of the Institute, private and majestic, silent, but for sparrows or swallows passing rarely overhead, and consecrated by a bronze bust of Minerva with ten termini in a row against the back wall, over which rose the huge chimney of the adjoining Mint.

Towards four o’clock, when the helmeted shadow of the bust was beginning to lengthen, the stiff mechanical step of old Jean Réhu woould be heard upon the flags. He lived over the Astiers, and went out regularly every day for a long walk, watched from a respectful distance by a servant, whose arm he persistently refused. Within the barrier of his increasing deafness his faculties, under the great heat of this summer, had begun to give way, and especially his memory, no longer effectually guided by the reminding pins upon the lappets of his coat. He mixed his stories, and lost himself, like old Livingstone in the marshes of Central Africa, among his recollections, where he scrambled and floundered till some one assisted him. Such a humiliation irritated his spleen, and he now therefore seldom spoke to anyone, but talked to himself as he went along, marking with a sudden stop and a shake of the head the end of an anecdote and the inevitable phrase, ‘That’s a thing that I have seen.’ But he still carried himself upright, and was as fond of a hoax as in the days of the Directory. It was his amusement to impose abstinence from wine, abstinence from meat, and every ridiculous variety of regimen upon cits enamoured of life, crowds of whom wrote to him daily, asking by what diet he had so miraculously extended his. He would prescribe sometimes vegetables, milk, or cider, sometimes shell-fish exclusively, and meanwhile ate and drank without restriction, taking after each meal a siesta, and every evening a good turn up and down the floor, audible to Leonard Astier in the room below.

Two months, August and September, had now elapsed since the Permanent Secretary came in — two clear months of fruitful, delightful peace; such a pause in the climb of ambition as perhaps in all his life he had never enjoyed before. Madame Astier, still at Clos Jallanges, talked of returning soon; the sky of Paris showed the grey of the first fogs; the Academicians began to come home; the meetings were becoming less sociable; and Astier, during his working hours in the reception-room of the great Villemain, found it no longer necessary to screen himself with blinds from the blazing reflection of the court. He was at his table one afternoon, writing to the worthy De Freydet a letter of good news about his candidature, when the old cracked door-bell was violently rung. Corentine had just gone out, so he went to the door, where, to his astonishment, he was confronted by Baron Huchenard and Bos the dealer in manuscripts. Bos dashed into the study wildly waving his arms, while breathless ejaculations flew out of his red tangle of beard and hair: ‘Forged! The documents are forged! I can prove it! I can prove it!’

Astier-Réhu, not understanding at first, looked at the Baron, who looked at the ceiling. But when he had picked up the meaning of the dealer’s outcry — that the three autograph letters of Charles V., sold by Madame Astier to Bos and by him transferred to Huchenard, were asserted not to be genuine — he said with a disdainful smile, that he would readily repurchase them, as he regarded them with a confidence not to be affected by any means whatsoever.

‘Allow me, Mr. Secretary, allow me. I would ask you,’ said Baron Huchenard, slowly unbuttoning his macintosh as he spoke, and drawing the three documents out of a large envelope, ‘to observe this.’ The parchments were so changed as scarcely to seem the same; their smoky brown was bleached to a perfect whiteness; and upon each, clear and legible in the middle of the page, below the signature of Charles V., was this mark,

BB.

Angoulême 1836.

‘It was Delpech, the Professor of Chemistry, our learned colleague of the Académie des Sciences, who —’ but of the Baron’s explanation nothing but a confused murmur reached poor Léonard. There was no colour in his face, nor a drop of blood left at the tips of the big heavy fingers, in whose hold the three autographs shook.

‘The 800L. shall be at your house this evening, M. Bos,’ he managed to say at last with what moisture was left in his mouth.

Bos protested and appealed. The Baron had given him 900L.

‘900L., then,’ said Astier-Réhu, making a great effort to show them out. But in the dimly-lighted hall he kept back his colleague, and begged him humbly, as a Member of the Académie des Inscriptions, and for the honour of the whole Institute, to say nothing of this unlucky affair.

‘Certainly, my dear sir, certainly, on one condition.’

‘Name it, name it.’

‘You will shortly receive notice that I am a candidate for Loisillon’s chair.’ The Secretary’s answer was a firm clasp of hand in hand, which pledged the assistance of himself and his friends.

Once alone, the unhappy man sank down before the table with its load of proofs, on which lay outspread the three forged letters to Rabelais. He gazed at them blankly, and mechanically read: ’Maître Rabelais, vous qu’avez l’esprit fin et subtil!‘ The characters seemed to go round and round in a mixture of ink, dissolved into broad blots of sulphate of iron, which to his imagination went on spreading, till they reached his whole collection of originals, ten or twelve thousand, all unhappily got from the same quarter. Since these three were forged, what of his ‘Galileo’? — what of his ‘House of Orleans’? — the letter of Catherine II. which he had presented to the Grand Duke? — the letter of Rotrou, which he had solemnly bestowed upon the Académie? What? What? A spasm of energy brought him to his legs. Fage! He must at once see Fage!

His dealings with the bookbinder had begun some years before, when the little man had come one day to the Library of the Foreign Office to request the opinion of its learned and illustrious Keeper respecting a letter from Marie de Médicis to Pope Urban VIII. in favour of Galileo. It happened that Petit-Séquard had just announced as forthcoming, among a series of short light volumes on history, entitled ‘Holiday Studies,’ a ‘Galileo’ by Astier-Réhu of the Académie Française. When therefore the librarian’s trained judgment had assured him that the MS. was genuine, and he was told that Fage possessed also the letter of the Pope in reply, a letter of thanks from Galileo to the Queen, and others, he conceived instantaneously the idea of writing, instead of the ‘slight trifle,’ a great historical work. But his probity suggesting at the same moment a doubt as to the source of these documents, he looked the dwarf steadily in the face, and after examining, as he would have examined an original, the long pallid visage and the reddened, blinking eye-lids, said, with an inquisitorial snap of the jaw, ‘Are these manuscripts your own, M. Fage?’

‘Oh no, sir,’ said Fage. He was merely acting on behalf of a third person, an old maiden lady of good birth, who was obliged to part gradually with a very fine collection, which had belonged to the family ever since Louis XVI. Nor had he been willing to act, till he had taken the opinion of a scholar of the highest learning and character. Now, relying upon so competent a judgment, he should go to rich collectors, such as Baron Huchenard, for instance — but Astier-Réhu stopped him, saying, ‘Do not trouble yourself. Bring me all you have relating to Galileo. I can dispose of it.’ People were coming in and taking their places at the little tables, the sort of people who prowl and hunt in libraries, colourless and taciturn as diggers from the mines, with an air as if they had themselves been dug up out of somewhere close and damp. ‘Come to my private room, upstairs, not here,’ whispered the librarian in the big ear of the humpback as he moved away, displaying his gloves, oiled hair, and middle parting with the self-sufficiency often observable in his species.

The collection of Mademoiselle du Mesnil-Case, a name disclosed by Albin Fage only under solemn promise of secrecy, proved to be an inexhaustible treasure of papers relating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which threw all sorts of interesting lights upon the past, and sometimes, by a word or a date, overturned completely the established opinions about facts or persons. Whatever the price, Léonard Astier took and kept every one of the documents, which almost always fitted in with his commenced or projected works. Without a shadow of doubt he accepted the little man’s account of the masses of originals that were still accumulating dust in the attic of an ancient mansion at Ménilmontant. If, after some venomous criticism from ‘the first collector’ in France, his trust was slightly disturbed the suspicion could not but vanish when the book-binder, seated at his table or watering his vegetables in the quiet grass-grown yard, met it with perfect composure, and offered in particular a quite natural explanation of certain marks of erasure and restoration, visible on some of the pages, as due to the submergence of the collection in sea-water, when it was sent to England during the emigration. After this fresh assurance Astier-Réhu would go back to the gate with a lively step, carrying off each time a purchase for which he had given, according to its historical value, a cheque for twenty, forty, or even as much as eighty pounds.

These extravagances, unsuspected as yet by those around him, were prompted, whatever he might say to quiet his conscience, not so much by the motives of the historian as by those of the collector. This, even in a place so ill-adapted for seeing and hearing as the attic in the Rue de Beaune, where the bargains were usually struck, would have been patent to any observer. The tone of pretended indifference, the ‘Let me see’ muttered with dry lips, the quivering of the covetous fingers, marked the progress from passion to mania, the growth of the hard and selfish cyst, which was feeding its monstrous size upon the ruin of the whole organism. Astier was becoming the intractable Harpagon of the stage, pitiless to others as to himself, bewailing his poverty and riding in the omnibus, while in two years nearly 6500L. of his savings dropped secretly into the pocket of the humpback. To account to Madame Astier, Corentine, and Teyssèdre for the frequent visits of the little man, he received from the Academician pamphlets to bind, which he took away and brought back ostentatiously. They corresponded by a sort of private code. Fage would write on a post-card, ‘I have some new tooling to show you, sixteenth century, in good condition and rare.’ Astier would temporise: ‘Not wanted, thanks. Perhaps later.’ Then would come ‘My dear Sir, Do not think of it. I will try elsewhere,’ and to this the Academician invariably answered ‘Early to-morrow morning. Bring the tooling.’ Here was the torment of the collector’s pleasure. He must buy and buy, or else let pass to Bos, Huchenard, or some other rival the treasures of Ménilmontant. Sometimes the thought of the time when money must fail would put him into a grim rage, and infuriated by the calm, self-satisfied countenance of the dwarf, he would exclaim ‘More than 6400L. in two years! And still you say, the lady is in want of money! How on earth does she get rid of it? ‘At such moments he longed for the death of the old maid, the annihilation of the bookbinder, even a war, revolution, or general catastrophe, which might swallow up both the treasure and the relentless speculators who worked it.

And now the catastrophe was indeed near, not the catastrophe desired, for destiny never finds to her hand precisely the thing we asked for, but a turn of things so sudden and appalling as to threaten his work, his honour, fortune, and fame, all that he was and all that he had. As he strode away towards the Cour des Comptes, deadly pale and talking to himself, the booksellers and print-dealers along the quay scarcely recognised the Astier-Réhu who, instead of looking right into the shop for a bow, now passed them without recognition. To him neither person nor thing was visible. In imagination he was grasping the humpback by the throat, shaking him by his pin-bespangled scarf, and thrusting under his nose the autographs dishonoured by the chemistry of Delpech, with the question, ‘Now then, what is your answer to that?’

When he reached the Rue de Lille, he dashed through the door of rough planks in the fence which surrounds the ruins, went up the steps, and rang the bell once and again. He was struck by the gloomy look of the building, now that no flowers or greenery covered the nakedness of the gaping, crumbling masonry and the confusion of the twisted iron-work and leafless creepers. The sound of pattens came slowly across the chilly court, and the caretaker appeared, a solid woman, who, broom in hand and without opening the gate, said, ‘You want the bookbinder; but he isn’t here now.’ Not here! Yes, Fage had gone, and left no address. In fact, she was just cleaning up the cottage for the man who was to have the appointment to the Cour des Comptes, which Fage had resigned.

Astier-Réhu, for appearance’ sake, stammered out a word or two, but his voice was lost in the harsh and mournful cries of a great flight of black birds, which made the arches echo as they descended upon the court. ‘Why, here are the Duchess’s rooks!’ said the woman, with a respectful wave of the hand towards the bare plane-trees of the Hôtel Padovani, visible over the roof opposite. ‘They are come before the Duchess this year, and that means an early winter!’

He went away, with horror in his heart.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53