The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter xvi.

It was stifling in the Eighth Chamber, where the Fage case was just coming on after interminable preliminaries and great efforts on the part of influential persons to stop the proceedings. Never had this court-room, whose walls of a mouldy blue and diamond pattern in faded gilding reeked with the effluvium of rags and misery, never had this court seen squeezed on its dirty seats and packed in its passages such a press and such a crowd of fashionable and distinguished persons, so many flower-trimmed bonnets and spring costumes by the masters of millinery art, to throw into relief the dead black of the gowns and caps. People were still coming in through the entrance lobby, where the double doors were perpetually swinging as the tide flowed on, a wavy sea of thronging faces upturned beneath the whitish light of the landing. Everyone was there, all the well-known, well-worn, depressingly familiar personages that figure at every Parisian festivity, fashionable funeral, or famous ‘first night.’ There was Marguerite Oger well to the fore, and the little Countess Foder, and beautiful Mrs. Henry of the American Embassy. There were the ladies belonging to the Academic confraternity, Madame Ancein in mauve on the arm of Raverand, the leader of the bar; Madame Eviza, a bush of little roses surrounded by a busy humming swarm of would-be barristers. Behind the President’s bench was Danjou, standing with folded arms, and showing above the audience and the judges the hard angles of his regular stage-weathered countenance, everywhere to be seen during the last forty years as the type of social commonplace in all its manifold manifestations. With the exception of Astier-Réhu and Baron Huchenard, who were summoned as witnesses, he was the only Academician bold enough to face the irreverent remarks that might be expected in the speech of Fage’s counsel, Margery, the dreaded wit, who convulses the whole assembly and the bench with the mere sound of his nasal ‘Well.’ Some fun was to be expected; the whole atmosphere of the place announced it, the erratic tilt of the barristers’ caps, the gleam in the eyes and curl in the corners of the mouths of people giving one another little anticipatory smiles. There were endless anecdotes current about the achievements in gallantry of the little humpback who had just been brought to the prisoner’s box and, lifting his long well-greased head, cast into the court over the bar the conquering glance of a manifest ladies’ man. Stories were told of compromising letters, of an account drawn up by the prisoner mentioning right out the names of two or three well-known ladies of fashion, the regular names dragged again and again into every unsavoury case. There was a copy of the production going the rounds of the seats reserved for the press, a simple conceited autobiography containing none of the revelations imputed to it by public rumour. Fage had beguiled the tedium of confinement by writing for the court the story of his life. He was born, he said, near Vassy (Haute Marne), as straight as anybody — so they all say — but a fall from a horse at fifteen had bent and inflected his spine. His taste for gallantry had developed somewhat late in life when he was working at a bookseller’s in the Passage des Panoramas. As his deformity interfered with his success, he tried to find some way of getting plenty of money. The story of his love affairs alternating with that of his forgeries and the means employed, with descriptions of ink and of parchment, resulted in such headings to his chapters as ‘My first victim — For a red ribbon — The gingerbread fair — I make the acquaintance of Astier-Réhu — The mysterious ink — I defy the chemists of the Institute.’ This brief epitome is enough to show the combination, the humpback’s self-satisfaction plus the arrogance of the self-taught artisan. The general result of reading the production was utter amazement that the Permanent Secretary of the Académie Française and the official representatives of science and literature could have been taken in for two or three years by an ignorant dwarf with a brain crammed full of the refuse of libraries and the ill-digested parings of books. This constituted the extraordinary joke of the whole business, and was the explanation of the crowded court. People came to see the Académie pilloried in the person of Astier-Réhu, who sat among the witnesses, the mark of every eye. There he sat without moving, absorbed in his thoughts, not turning his head, and hardly answering the fulsome compliments of Freydet who was standing behind, with black gloves and a deep crape hat-band, having quite recently lost his sister. He had been summoned for the defence, and the Academic candidate was afraid that the fact might damage him in the eyes of his old master. He was apologising and explaining how he had come across the wretched Fage in Védrine’s studio, and that was the reason of this unexpected call. But his whispers were lost in the noise of the court and the monotonous hum from the bench, as cases were called on and disposed of, the invariable ‘This day week, this day week’ descending like the stroke of the guillotine and cutting short the barrister’s protest, and the entreaties of poor red-faced fellows mopping their brows before the seat of justice. ‘But, Monsieur le Président . . . ’ ‘This day week.’ Sometimes from the back of the court would come a cry and a despairing movement of a pair of arms, ‘I am here, M. le Président, but I can’t get through, there’s such a crowd . . . ’ ‘This day week.’ When a man has beheld such clearances as these, and seen the symbolic scales operate with such dexterity, he gets a vivid impression of French justice; it is not unlike the sensation of hearing the funeral service raced through in a hurry by a strange priest over a pauper’s grave.

The voice of the President called for the Fage case. Complete silence followed in the court, and even on the staircase landing where people had climbed on to benches to see. Then after a short consultation on the bench the witnesses filed out through a dense crowd of gowns on their way to the little room reserved for them, a dreary empty place, badly lighted by glass windows that had once been red, and looking out on a narrow alley. Astier-Réhu, who was to be called first, did not go in, but walked up and down in the gloomy passage between the witness-room and the court. Freydet wished to stay with him, but he said in a colourless voice, ‘No, no, let me alone, I want to be alone.’ So the candidate joined the other witnesses who were standing in little knots — Baron Huchenard, Bos the palaeographer, Delpech the chemist, of the Académie des Sciences, some experts in handwriting, and two or three pretty girls, the originals of some of the photographs that adorned the walls of Fage’s room, delighted at the notoriety that the proceedings would bring them, laughing loudly and displaying startling little spring hats strangely different from the linen cap and woollen mittens of the caretaker at the Cour des Comptes. Védrine also had been summoned, and Freydet came and sat by him on the wide ledge of the open window. The two friends, whirled apart in the opposing currents that divide men’s lives in Paris, had not met since the summer before until the recent funeral of poor Germaine de Freydet Védrine pressed his friend’s hand and asked how he was, how he felt after so terrible a blow. Freydet shrugged his shoulders, ‘It’s hard, very hard, but after all I’m used to it.’ Then, as Védrine stared in wonder at his selfish stoicism, he added, ‘Just think, that’s twice in one year that I have been fooled.’ The blow, the only blow, that he remembered, was his failure to get Ripault-Babin’s seat, which he had lately missed, as he had missed Loisillon’s before. Presently he understood, sighed deeply, and said, ‘Ah, yes, poor Germaine!’ She had taken so much trouble all the winter about his unlucky candidature. Two dinners a week! Up to twelve or one o’clock she would be wheeling her chair all over the drawing-room. She had sacrificed her remaining strength to it, and was even more excited and keen than her brother. And at the last, the very last, when she was past speaking, her poor twisted fingers went on counting upon the hem of the sheet ‘Yes, Védrine, she died, ticking and calculating my chances of Ripault-Babin’s seat. Oh, if only for her sake, I will get into their Académie, in defiance of them all, and in honour of her dear memory!’ He stopped short, then in an altered and lower voice went on: ‘Really I don’t know why I talk like that. The truth is that, since they put the idea into my head, I can think of nothing else. My sister is dead and I have hardly given her a tear. I had to pay my calls and “beg for the Académie,” as that fellow says. The thing takes the very life out of me. It’s perfectly maddening.’

In the savage plainness of these words and the excited ring of the angry voice, the sculptor could scarcely recognise his gentle courteous friend, to whom mere living used to be a joy. The absent expression in his eye, the anxious wrinkle on his brow, and the heat of the hand which grasped Védrine’s, all betrayed his subjection to one absorbing passion, one fixed idea. But the meeting with Védrine seemed to have relieved his nerves, and he asked affectionately, ‘Well, what are you doing, and how are you getting on? How is your wife? And the children?’ His friend answered with his quiet smile. All were doing well, thank God. The little girl was just going to be weaned. The boy continued to fulfil his function of looking lovely, and was waiting impatiently for old Réhu’s centenary. As for himself, he was hard at work. He had two pictures in the Salon this year, not badly hung, and not badly sold. On the other hand a creditor, not less unwise than hard, had taken possession of the Knight, and he had passed from stage to stage, first lying much in the way in a fine suite of rooms on the ground floor in the Rue St. Pétersbourg, then packed off to a stable at Batignolles, and now shivering under a cowkeeper’s shed at Levallois, where from time to time the sculptor and his family went to pay him a visit.

‘So much for glory!’ added Védrine with a laugh, as the voice of the usher called for the witness Astier-Réhu. The head of the Permanent Secretary showed for a moment, outlined against the dusty light of the court-room, upright and steady; but his back he had forgotten to control, and the shiver of his broad shoulders betrayed intense feeling. ‘Poor man,’ muttered the sculptor, ‘he’s got heavy trials to go through. This autograph business, and his son’s marriage.’

‘Is Paul Astier married?’

‘Yes, three days ago, to the Duchess Padovani. It was a sort of morganatic marriage, with no guests but the young man’s mamma and the four witnesses. I was one of them, as you may suppose, for a freak of fate seems to associate me with all the acts and deeds of the Astier family.’

And Védrine described the sorrowful surprise with which in the Mayor’s room he had seen the Duchess Padovani appear, deathly pale, as haughty as ever, but withered and heart-broken, with a mass of grey hair, the poor beautiful hair that she no longer took the trouble to dye. By her side was Paul Astier, the Count, smiling, cold, and charming as before. They all looked at one another, and nobody had a word to say except the official who, after a good stare at the two old ladies, felt it incumbent upon him to remark with a gracious bow:

‘We are only waiting for the bride.’

‘The bride is here,’ replied the Duchess, stepping forward with head erect and a bitter smile which spoilt and twisted her beautiful mouth.

From the Mayor’s office, where the deputy on duty had the good taste to spare them an oration, they adjourned to the Catholic Institute in the Rue de Vaugirard, an aristocratic church, all over gilding and flowers and a blaze of candles, but not a soul there, nobody but the wedding party on a single row of chairs, to hear the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Adriani, mumble an interminable homily out of an illuminated book. A fine thing it was, to hear the worldly prelate with large nose, thin lips, and hollow shoulders under his violet cape, talking of the ‘honourable traditions of the husband and the charms of the wife,’ with a sombre, cynical side-glance at the velvet cushions of the unhappy couple. Then came the departure; cold good-byes were exchanged under the arches of the little cloister, and a sigh of relief with ‘Well, that’s over,’ escaped the Duchess, said in the despairing, disenchanted accent of a woman who has measured the abyss, and leaps in with her eyes open only to keep her word.

‘Ah, well,’ Védrine went on, ‘I have seen gloomy and lamentable sights enough in the course of my lite, but never anything so heart-breaking as Paul Astier’s wedding.’

‘He’s a fine rascal, though, is our young friend,’ said Freydet, between his closed teeth.

‘Yes, a precious product of the “struggle for existence."’

The sculptor repeated the phrase with emphasis. A ‘struggler for existence’ was his name for the novel tribe of young savages who cite the necessity of ‘nature’s war’ as an hypocritical excuse for every kind of meanness. Freydet went on:

‘Well, anyhow, he’s rich now, which is what he wanted. His nose has not led him astray this time.’

‘Wait and see. The Duchess is not easy to get on with, and he looked devilish wicked at the Mayor’s . If the old lady bores him too much, we may still see him some day at the Assize Court, son and grandson of divinities as he is.’

‘The witness Védrine!’ called the usher at the top of his voice.

At the same moment a huge roar of laughter ran over the thronging crowd and came through the door as it swung open. ‘They don’t seem bored in there,’ said the municipal officer posted in the passage. The witnesses’ room, which had been gradually emptying during the chat of the two schoolfellows, now contained only Freydet and the caretaker, who, scared at having to appear in court, was twisting the strings of her cap like a lunatic. The worthy candidate, on the contrary, thought he had an unparalleled opportunity of burning incense at the shrine of the Académie Française and its Permanent Secretary. Left alone, when the good woman’s turn came, he paced up and down the room, planted himself in front of the window, and let off well-rounded periods accompanied by magnificent gestures of his black gloves. But he was misunderstood in the house opposite; and a fat hand at the end of a bare arm pulled aside a pink curtain and waved to him. Freydet, flushing crimson with shame, moved quickly away from the window, and took refuge in the passage.

‘The Public Prosecutor is speaking now,’ said the doorkeeper in a whisper, as a voice in a tone of assumed indignation rang through the heated air of the court —‘You played,’ it said, ‘on the innocent passion of an old man.’

‘But how about me?’ said Freydet, thinking aloud.

‘I expect you have been forgotten.’

Freydet was at first puzzled, but presently disgusted at the strange fate which prevented his coming forward in public as the champion of the Académie, and so getting himself talked about and seeing his name for once in the papers. Just then a shout of laughter greeted the enumeration of the forgeries in the Mesnil-Case collection; letters from kings, popes, empresses, Turenne, Buffon, Montaigne, La Boëtie, Clémence Isaure, and the mere mention of the absurd list showed the extraordinary simplicity of the historian who had been befooled by the little dwarf. But at the thought that this disrespectful laugh was a scoff at his master and protector, Freydet felt an indignation not altogether free from selfishness. He felt that he was himself hit by the recoil, and his candidature damaged again. He broke away, mingling in the stir of the general exodus amid a confusion of footmen running to and fro in the beautiful waning light of a fine June day, while the parasols, pink, white, mauve, or green opened like so many large flowers. Little explosions of laughter were still coming from the various groups, as if they had been seeing an amusing piece at the theatre. The little humpback had got it hot — five years’ imprisonment and costs. But how comic Margery had been! Marguerite Oger was exclaiming in fits, ‘Oh my dears, my dears!’ and Danjou, escorting Madame Eviza to her carriage, said aloud in his cynical way, ‘It’s a slap in the face for the Académie, well planted — but it was cleverly done.’

Léonard Astier, who was walking alone, heard Danjou’s remark as well as others, in spite of the warnings passed from mouth to mouth, ‘Take care — there he is.’ It signified to him the beginning of his fall in estimation, consequent on the general knowledge of his folly and the amusement of Paris.

‘Take my arm, my dear master!’ said Freydet, who had been carried to him by the strong impulse of affection.

‘Ah, my dear friend, how much good you do me!’ said the old man in a dull, broken voice.

They walked on in silence for some time. The trees on the quay cast a tracery of shade upon the stones below; the sounds of the street and the river echoed in the joyous air. It was one of those days on which human wretchedness seems to have been reprieved.

‘Where are we going?’ asked Freydet.

‘Anywhere — except home,’ answered the elder man, who felt a child’s terror at the thought of the scene his wife would inflict on him at dinner.

They dined together at the Point-du-Jour after walking a long time by the river. When poor Astier returned home very late the friendly words of his old pupil and the sweetness of the air had succeeded in restoring his peace of mind. He had got over his five hours in the stocks on the bench of the Eighth Chamber — five hours to endure with bound hands the insulting laughter of the crowd and the vitriol squirt of the counsel. ‘Laugh, apes, laugh! Posterity will judge!’ was the thought with which he consoled himself as he crossed the large courts of the Institute, wrapped in slumber, with unlighted windows and great dark foursquare holes right and left where the staircases came down. He felt his way upstairs and reached his study noiselessly like a thief. Since Paul’s marriage and his quarrel with his son he was in the habit of flinging himself down every night on a bed made up in the study, to escape the interminable midnight discussions in which the wife always comes off victorious, thanks to the never-failing support of her ‘nerves’, and the husband ends by giving way and promising everything for the sake of peace and permission to sleep.

Sleep! Never had he so much felt the need of it as now, at the end of his long day of emotion and fatigue, and the darkness of his study as he entered seemed the beginning of rest — when in the angle of the window he dimly distinguished a human figure.

‘Well, I hope you are satisfied.’ It was his wife! She was on the look out for him, waiting, and her angry voice stopped him short in the dark to listen. ‘You have won your cause; you insisted on making yourself a mockery, and you have done it — daubed and drenched yourself with ridicule, till you won’t be able to show yourself again! Much reason you had to cry out that your son was disgracing you, to insult and to curse your son! Poor boy, it is well he has changed his name, now that yours has become so identified with ignorance and gullibility that no one will be able to utter it without a smile. And all this, if you please, for the sake of your historical work! Why, you foolish man, who knows anything about your historical work? Who can possibly care whether your documents are genuine or forged? You know that nobody reads you.’

She went on and on, pouring out a thin stream of voice in her shrillest tone; and he felt as if he were back again in the pillory, listening to the official abuse as he had done all day, without interrupting, without even a threatening gesture, swallowing the insults as he had in court, and feeling that the authority was above attack and the judge one not to be answered. But how cruel was this invisible mouth which bit him, and wounded him all over, and slowly mangled in its teeth his pride as a man and a writer!

His books, indeed! Did he suppose that they had got him into the Académie? Why, it was to his wife alone that he owed his green coat! She had spent her life in plotting and manoeuvring to break open one door after another; sacrificed all her youth to such intrigues, and such intriguers, as made her sick with disgust. ‘Why, my dear, I had to! The Académie is attained by talent, of which you have none, or a great name, or a high position. You had none of these things. So I came to the rescue.’ And that there might be no mistake about it, that he might not attribute what she said only to the exasperation of a woman wounded and humiliated in her wifely pride and her blind maternal devotion, she recalled the details of his election, and reminded him of his famous remark about Madame Astier’s veils that smelt of tobacco, though he never smoked, ‘a remark, my dear, that has done more to make you notorious than your books.’

He gave a low deep groan, the stifled cry of a man who stays with both hands the life escaping from a mortal rent The sharp little voice went on unaltered. ‘Ah well, pack your trunk, do, once for all! Let the world hear no more of you. Fortunately your son is rich and will give you your daily bread. For you need not be told that now you will find no publisher or magazine to take your rubbish, and it will be due to Paul’s supposed infamy that you escape starvation.’

‘This is more than I can bear,’ muttered the poor man as he fled away, away from the lashing fury. And as he felt his way along the walls, and passed through the passage, down the stairs, across the echoing court, he muttered almost in tears, ‘More than I can bear, more than I can bear.’

Whither is he going? Straight before him, as if in a dream. He crosses the square and is half over the bridge, before the fresh air revives him. He sits down on a bench, takes off his hat and pulls up his coat sleeves to still the beating of his pulses; and the regular lapping of the water makes him calmer. He comes to himself again, but consciousness brings only memory and pain. What a woman! what a monster! And to think that he has lived five-and-thirty years with her and not known her! A shudder of disgust runs over him at the recollection of all the horrors he has just heard. She has spared nothing and left within him nothing alive, not even the pride which still kept him erect, his faith in his work and his belief in the Académie. At the thought of the Académie he instinctively turned round. Beyond the deserted bridge, beyond the wider avenue which leads to the foot of the building, the pile of the Palais Mazarin, massed together in the darkness, up-reared its portico and its dome, as on the cover of the Didot books, so often gazed upon in his young days and in the ambitious aspirations of his whole life. That dome, that block of stone, had been the delusive object of his hopes, and the cause of all his misery.

It was there he sought his wife, feeling neither love nor delight, but for the hope of the Institute. And he has had the coveted seat, and he knows the price!

Just then there was a sound of steps and laughter on the bridge; it came nearer. Some students with their mistresses were coming back to their rooms. Afraid of being recognised, he rose and leant over the parapet; and while the party passed close to him without seeing him, he reflected with bitterness that he had never amused himself, never allowed himself such a fine night’s holiday of song beneath the starlight. His ambition had always been fixed unbendingly on the approach to yonder dome, the dome, as it were, of a temple, whose beliefs and whose ritual he had respected in anticipation.

And what had yonder dome given him in return? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Even on the day of his admission, when the speeches were over and the double-edged compliments at an end, he had felt the sensation of emptiness and deluded hope. He had said to himself as he drove home to change his green coat, ‘Have I really got in? Why, it can’t be like this.’ Since then, by dint of constant lying to himself and echoing, with his colleagues, that it was delightful, delicious, he had ended by believing so. But now the veil had fallen away, and he saw the truth; and he would have liked to proclaim with a thousand tongues to the youth of France, ‘The Académie is a snare and a delusion. Go your way and do your work. Sacrifice nothing to the Académie, for it has nothing to offer you, neither gift, nor glory, nor the best thing of all, self-contentment. It is neither a retreat nor a refuge; it is a hollow idol, a religion that offers no consolations. The great troubles of life come upon you there as elsewhere; under that dome men have killed themselves, men have gone mad there! Those who in their agony have turned to the Académie, and weary of loving, or weary of cursing, have stretched forth their arms to her, have clasped but a shadow.’

The old schoolmaster was speaking aloud, bareheaded, grasping the parapet with both hands as in old days he used to hold the edge of his desk at lessons. The river rolled on below, tinged with hues of night, between its rows of winking lamps. An uncanny thing is the speechless life of light, moving, and looking, and never saying what it means. On the quay the song of a drunken man died quavering away in the distance, ‘When Cupid . . . in the morn . . . awakes.’ The accent showed that the merry singer was an Auvergnat making his way back to his coal-barge. It reminded him of Teyssèdre, the polisher, and his glass of good wine. He saw him wiping his mouth on his shirt-sleeve. ‘It’s the only real good in life.’ Even a humble natural joy like that he had never known; he must needs envy even Teyssèdre. Absolutely alone, with no refuge, no breast on which to weep, he realised that ‘that woman’ was right, and ‘the trunk had better be packed for good and all, Léonard.’

In the morning some policemen found on a bench on the Pont des Arts a wide-brimmed hat, one of those hats which preserve something of the expression of their owner. Inside was a large gold watch and a visiting card —‘Léonard Astier-Réhu, Permanent Secretary of the Académie Française.’ Right across the line of print had been written in pencil the words, ‘I die here of my own will.’ Of his own will indeed it was! Even better than the little phrase in the large, firm handwriting did the expression of his features — the set teeth, the projection of the lower jaw — declare his fixed determination to die, when after a morning’s search the dredgers found the body caught in the wide meshes of an iron net surrounding some baths for women, quite close to the bridge.

It was taken first to the emergency-station, where Picheral came to identify it, a strange sight himself, as he fluttered along the wide bank, with bare bald head and in a frock coat. It was not the first time that a Permanent Secretary had been taken out of the Seine; the same thing had occurred in the time of Picheral’s father, under very similar circumstances. And Picheral the son did not seem much affected, only annoyed that he could not wait till the evening to carry Astier-Réhu home. But it was necessary to take advantage of the absence of Madame Astier (who was breakfasting with her son) so as to spare her too great a shock.

The clock of the Palais Mazarin was striking one, when with the heavy tramp of the bearers the stretcher from the station was brought under the archway, marking its road with ominous splashes of water. At the foot of Staircase B there was a halt to take breath. Over the dazzling court was a great sharp-lined square of blue sky. The covering of the stretcher had been raised, and the features of Léonard Astier-Réhu were visible for the last time to his colleagues on the Dictionary Committee, who had just broken up their meeting in sign of mourning. They stood round, with their hats off, not a little shocked. Other people also stopped to see what it was, workmen, clerks, and apprentices, for the Institute serves as a passage from the Rue Mazarin to the quay. Among them was kind-hearted Freydet, who, as he wiped his eyes, thought in his heart, and was ashamed to think it, that here was another vacancy. Old Jean Réhu was just coming downstairs for his daily constitutional.

He had heard nothing, seemed surprised to see the crowd beneath him as he stood on one of the lower steps, and came nearer to look, in spite of the scared gestures of those who tried to keep him back. Did he understand? Did he recognise the corpse? His face remained calm, so did his eyes, as expressionless as those of the bust of Minerva under her helmet of bronze. And after a long look, as they turned the striped canvas down over the poor dead face, he went on, upright and proud, with his tall shadow stalking beside him, a ‘deity’ deathless indeed, while a half-mad senile shake of the head seemed to say: ‘That’s another of the things I have seen.’

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