The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter xv.

‘It’s a scandal.’

‘There must be a reply. The Académie cannot be silent under the attack.’

‘What are you thinking of? On the contrary, the dignity of the Académie demands ——’

‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, the real feeling of the Académie is ——’

In their private assembly room, in front of the great chimney-piece and the full-length portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, the ‘deities’ were engaged in a discussion preliminary to the meeting. The cold smoke-stained light of a Parisian winter’s day, falling through the great lantern overhead, gave effect to the chill solemnity of the marble busts ranged in row along the walls; and the huge fire in the chimney, nearly as red as the Cardinal’s robe, was not enough to warm the little council-chamber or court-house, furnished with green leather seats, long horse-shoe table in front of the desk, and chain-bedecked usher, keeping the entrance near the place of Picheral, the Secretary.

Generally the best part of the meeting is the quarter of an hour’s grace allowed to late-comers. The Academicians gather in groups with their backs to the fire and their coat tails turned up, chatting familiarly in undertones. But on this afternoon the conversation was general and had risen to the utmost violence of public debate, each new comer joining in from the far end of the room, while he signed the attendance list. Some even before entering, while they were still depositing their great coats, comforters, and overshoes in the empty room of the Académie des Sciences, opened the door to join in the cries of ‘Shame!’ and ‘Scandalous!’

The cause of all the commotion was this. There had appeared in a morning paper a reprint of a highly disrespectful report made to the Académie of Florence upon Astier-Réhu’s ‘Galileo’ and the manifestly apocryphal and absurd (sic) historical documents which were published with it. The report had been sent with the greatest privacy to the President of the Académie Française, and for some days there had been considerable excitement at the Institute, where Astier-Réhu’s decision was eagerly awaited. He had said nothing but, ‘I know, I know; I am taking the necessary steps.’ And now suddenly here was this report which they believed to be known only to themselves, hurled at them like a bomb-shell from the outer sheet of one of the most widely circulated of the Parisian newspapers, and accompanied by remarks insulting to the Permanent Secretary and to the whole Society.

Furious was the indignant outcry against the impudence of the journalist and the folly of Astier-Réhu, which had brought this upon them. The Académie has not been accustomed to such attacks, since it has prudently opened its doors to ‘gentlemen of the Press.’ The fiery Laniboire, familiar with every kind of ‘sport.’ talked of cutting off the gentleman’s ears, and it took two or three colleagues to restrain his ardour.

‘Come, Laniboire; we wear the sword, but we do not draw it Why, it’s your own epigram, confound you, though adopted by the Institute.’

‘Gentlemen, you remember that Pliny the Elder, in the thirteenth book of his “Natural History”’— here arrived Gazan, who came in puffing with his elephantine trot —‘is one of the first writers who mentions counterfeit autographs; amongst others, a false letter of Priam’s on papyrus’—

‘Monsieur Gazan has not signed the list,’ cried Picheral’s sharp falsetto.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon.’ And the fat man went off to sign, still discoursing about papyrus and King Priam, though unheard for the hubbub of angry voices, in which the only word that could be distinguished was ‘Académie.’ They all talked about the Académie as if it were an actual live person, whose real view each man believed himself alone to know and to express. Suddenly the exclamations ceased, as Astier-Réhu entered, signed his name, and quietly deposited at his place as Permanent Secretary the ensign of his office, carried under his arm. Then moving towards his colleagues he said:

‘Gentlemen, I have bad news for you. I sent to the Library to be tested the twelve or fifteen thousand documents which made what I called my collection. Well, gentlemen, all are forgeries. The Académie of Florence stated the truth. I am the victim of a stupendous hoax.’

As he wiped from his brow the great drops of sweat wrung out by the strain of his confession, some one asked in an insolent tone:

‘Well, and so, Mr. Secretary’—

‘So, M. Danjou, I had no other choice but to bring an action — which is what I have done. There was a general protest, all declaring that a lawsuit was out of the question and would bring ridicule upon the whole Society, to which he answered that he was exceedingly sorry to disoblige his colleagues, but his mind was made up. ‘Besides, the man is in prison and the proceedings have commenced.’

Never had the private assembly-room heard a roar like that which greeted this statement. Laniboire distinguished himself as usual among the most excited by shouting that the Académie ought to get rid of so dangerous a member. In the first heat of their anger some of the assembly began to discuss the question aloud. Could it be done? Could the Académie say to a member who had brought the whole body into an undignified position, ‘Go! I reverse my judgment. Deity as you are, I relegate you to the rank of a mere mortal’? Suddenly, either having caught a few words of the discussion, or by one of those strange intuitions which seem occasionally to come as an inspiration to the most hopelessly deaf, old Réhu, who had been keeping to himself, away from the fire for fear of a fit, remarked in his loud unmodulated voice, ‘During the Restoration, for reasons merely political, we turned out eleven members at once.’ The patriarch gave the usual little attesting movement of the head, calling to witness his contemporaries of the period, white busts with vacant eyes standing in rows on pedestals round the room.

‘Eleven! whew!’ muttered Danjou amid a great silence. And Laniboire, cynical as before, said ‘All societies are cowardly; it’s the natural law of self-preservation.’ Here Epinchard, who had been busy near the door with Picheral the Secretary, rejoined the rest, and observed in a weak voice, between two fits of coughing, that the Permanent Secretary was not the only person to blame in the matter, as would appear from the minutes of the proceedings of July 8, 1879, which should now be read. Picheral from his place, in his thin brisk voice, began at a great pace: On July 8, 1879, Léonard-Pierre-Alexandre Astier-Réhu presented to the Académie Française a letter from Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu respecting the statutes of the Society. The Académie, after an examination of this unpublished and interesting document, passed a vote of thanks to the donor, and decided to enter the letter of Rotrou upon the minutes. The letter is appended (at this point the Secretary slackened his delivery and put a malicious stress upon each word) with all the errors of the original text, which, being such as occur in ordinary correspondence, confirm the authenticity of the document. All stood motionless in the faded light that came through the glass, avoiding each other’s eyes and listening in utter amazement.

‘Shall I read the letter too?’ asked Picheral with a smile. He was much amused.

‘Yes, read the letter too,’ said Epinchard. But after a phrase or two there were cries of ‘Enough, enough, that will do!’ They were ashamed of such a letter of Rotrou. It was a crying forgery, a mere schoolboy’s imitation, the sentences misshapen, and half the words not known at the supposed date. How could they have been so blind?

‘You see, gentlemen, that we could scarcely throw the whole burden upon our unfortunate colleague,’ said Epinchard; and turning to the Permanent Secretary begged him to abandon proceedings which could bring nothing but discredit upon the whole Society and the great Cardinal himself.

But neither the fervour of the appeal nor the magnificence of the orator’s attitude, as he pointed to the insignia of the Sacred Founder, could prevail over the stubborn resolution of Astier-Réhu. Standing firm and upright before the little table in the middle of the room, which was used as a desk for the reading of communications, with his fists clenched, as if he feared that his decision might be wrung out of his hands, he repeated that ‘Nothing, I assure you, nothing’ would alter his determination. He struck the hard wood angrily with his big knuckles, as he said, ‘Ah, gentlemen, I have waited, for reasons like these, too long already! I tell you, my “Galileo” is a bone in my throat! I am not rich enough to buy it up, and I see it in the shop windows, advertising me as the accomplice of a forger.’ What was his object! Why, to tear out the rotten pages with his own hand and burn them before all the world! A trial would give him the opportunity. ‘You talk of ridicule? The Académie is above the fear of it; and as for me, a butt and a beggar as I must be, I shall have the proud satisfaction of having protected my personal honour and the dignity of history. I ask no more.’ Honest Crocodilus! In the beat of his rhetoric was a sound of pure probity, which rang strangely where all around was padded with compromise and concealment. Suddenly the usher announced, ‘Four o’clock, gentlemen.’ Four o’clock! and they had not finished the arrangements for Ripault-Babin’s funeral.

‘Ah, we must remember Ripault-Babin!’ observed Danjou in a mocking voice. ‘He has died at the right moment!’ said Laniboire with mournful emphasis. But the point of his epigram was lost, for the usher was crying, ‘Take your places’; and the President was ringing his bell On his right was Desminières the Chancellor, and on his left the Permanent Secretary, reading quietly with recovered self-possession the report of the Funeral Committee, to an accompaniment of eager whispers and the pattering of sleet on the glass.

‘How late you went on to-day!’ remarked Coren-tine, as she opened the door to her master. Corentine was certainly to be reckoned with those who had no great opinion of the Institute. ‘M. Paul is in your study with Madame. You must go through the library; the drawing-room is full of people waiting to see you.’

The library, where nothing was left but the frame of the pigeon-holes, looked as if there had been a fire or a burglary. It depressed him, and he generally avoided it But to-day he went through it proudly, supported by the remembrance of his resolve, and of how he had declared it at the meeting. After an effort, which had cost him so much courage and determination, he felt a sweet sense of relief in the thought that his son was waiting for him. He had not seen him since just after the duel, when he had been overcome by the sight of his gallant boy, laid at full length and whiter than the sheet. He was thinking with delight how he would go up to him with open arms, and embrace him, and hold him tight, a long while, and say nothing — nothing! But as soon as he came into the room and saw the mother and son close together, whispering, with their eyes on the carpet, and their everlasting air of conspiracy, the affectionate impulse was gone.

‘Here you are at last!’ cried Madame Astier, who was dressed to go out. And in a tone of mock solemnity, as if introducing the two, she said, ‘My dear — the Count Paul Astier.’

‘At your service, Master,’ said Paul, as he bowed.

Astier-Réhu knitted his thick brows as he looked at them. ’Count Paul Astier?’ said he.

The young fellow, as charming as ever, in spite of the tanning of six months spent in the open air, said he had just indulged in the extravagance of a Roman title, not so much for his own sake as in honour of the lady who was about to take his name.

‘So you are going to be married,’ said his father, whose suspicions increased. ‘And who is the lady?’

‘The Duchess Padovani.’

‘You must have lost your senses! Why she is five-and-twenty years older than you, and besides — and besides —’ He hesitated, trying to find a respectful phrase, but at last blurted right out, ‘You can’t marry a woman who to every one’s knowledge has belonged to another for years.’

‘A fact, however, which has never prevented our dining with her regularly, and accepting from her all kinds of favours,’ hissed Madame Astier, rearing her little head as to strike. Without bestowing on her a word or a look, as holding her no judge in a question of honour, the man went up to his son, and said in earnest tones, the muscles of his big cheeks twitching with emotion, ‘Don’t do it, Paul. For the sake of the name you bear, don’t do it, my boy, I beg you.’ He grasped his son’s shoulder and shook him, voice and hand quivering together. But the young fellow moved away, not liking such demonstrations, and objected generally that ‘he didn’t see it; it was not his view.’ The father felt the impassable distance between himself and his son, saw the impenetrable face and the look askance, and instinctively lifted up his voice in appeal to his rights as head of the family. A smile which he caught passing between Paul and his mother, a fresh proof of their joint share in this discreditable business, completed his exasperation. He shouted and raved, threatening to make a public protest, to write to the papers, to brand them both, mother and son, ‘in his history.’ This last was his most appalling threat. When he had said of some historical character, ‘I have branded him in my history,’ he thought no punishment could be more severe. Madame Astier, almost as familiar with the threat of branding as with the dragging of his trunk about the passage, contented herself with saying as she buttoned her gloves: ‘You know every word can be heard in the next room.’ In spite of the curtains over the door, the murmur of conversation was audible from the drawing-room.

Then, repressing and swallowing his wrath, ‘Listen to me, Paul,’ said Léonard Astier, shaking his forefinger in the young man’s face, ‘if ever this thing you are talking of comes to pass, do not expect to look upon me again. I will not be present on your wedding day; I will not have you near me, not even at my death-bed; You are no longer a son of mine; and you go with my curse upon you.’ Moving away instinctively from the finger which almost touched him, Paul replied with great calmness, ‘Oh, you know, my dear father, that sort of thing is never done now-a-days! Even on the stage they have given up blessing and cursing.’

‘But not punishing, you scoundrel!’ growled the old man, lifting his hand. There was an angry cry of ‘Léonard!’ from the mother, as with the prompt parry of a boxer Paul turned the blow aside, quietly as if he had been in Keyser’s gymnasium, and without letting go the wrist he had twisted under, said beneath his breath, ‘No, no; I won’t have that.’

The tough old hillsman struggled violently, but, vigorous as he still was, he had found his master. At this terrible moment, while father and son stood face to face, breathing hate at one another, and exchanging murderous glances, the door of the drawing-room opened a little and showed the good-natured doll-like smile of a fat lady bedecked with feathers and flowers. ‘Excuse me, dear master, I want just to say a word — why, Adelaide is here, and M. Paul too. Charming! delightful! Quite a family group!’ Madame Ancelin was right. A family group it was, a picture of the modern family, spoilt by the crack which runs through European society from top to bottom, endangering its essential principles of authority and subordination, and nowhere more remarkable than here, under the stately dome of the Institute, where the traditional domestic virtues are judged and rewarded.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/daudet/alphonse/immortal/chapter15.html

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