The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter iv.

‘Don’t trust them, my dear Freydet. I know that trick; it’s the recruiting trick. The fact is, these people feel that their day is past, and that under their cupola they are beginning to get mouldy. The Académie is a taste that is going out, an ambition no longer in fashion. Its success is only apparent. And indeed for the last few years the distinguished company has given up waiting at home for custom, and comes down into the street to tout. Everywhere, in society, in the studios, at the publishers’, in the greenroom, in every literary or artistic centre, you will find the Recruiting-Academician, smiling on young budding talent. “The Académie has its eye on you, my young friend.” If a man has got some reputation, and has just written his third or fourth book, like you, then the invitation takes a more direct form. “Don’t forget us, my dear fellow; now’s your time.” Or perhaps, brusquely, with a friendly scolding, “Well, so you don’t mean to be one of us.” When it’s a man in society who is to be caught a translator of Ariosto or a writer of amateur plays, there is a gentler and more insinuating way of playing off the trick. And if our fashionable writer protests that he is not a gun of sufficient calibre, the Recruiting-Academidan brings out the regular phrase, that “the Académie is a club.” Lord bless us, how useful that phrase has been! “The Académie is a club, and its admission is not only for the work, but the worker.” Meantime the Recruiting-Academician is welcomed everywhere, made much of, asked to dinner and other entertainments. He becomes a parasite, fawned upon by those whose hopes he arouses — and is careful to maintain.’

But at this point kind-hearted Freydet protested indignantly. Never would his old master lend himself to such base uses. Védrine shrugged his shoulders: ‘Why, the worst of the lot is the recruiter who is sincere and disinterested. He believes in the Académie; his whole life is centred in the Académie; and when he says to you, “If you only knew the joy of it,” with a smack of the tongue like a man eating a ripe peach, he is saying what he really means, and so his bait is the more alluring and dangerous. But when once the hook has been swallowed and struck, then the Academician takes no more notice of the victim, but leaves him to struggle and dangle at the end of the line. You are an angler; well, when you have taken a fine perch or a big pike, and you drag it along behind your boat, what do you call that?’

‘Drowning your fish.’

‘Just so. Well, look at Moser! Does he not look like a drowned fish? He has been carried along in tow for these ten years. And there’s De Salèle, and Guérineau, and I don’t know how many others, who have even given up struggling.’

‘But still people do get into the Académie sooner or later.’

‘Not those once taken in tow. And suppose a man does succeed, where’s the good? What does it bring you? Money? Not as much as your hay-crop. Fame? Yes, a hole-and-corner fame within a space no bigger than your hat. It would be something if it gave talent, but those who have talent lose it when once they get inside and are chilled by the air of the place. The Académie is a club, you know; so there is a tone that must be adopted, and things which must be left unsaid, or watered down. There’s an end to originality, an end to bold neck-or-nothing strokes. The liveliest spirits never move for fear of tearing their green coats. It is like putting children into their Sunday clothes and saying “Amuse yourselves, my dears, but don’t get dirty.” And they do amuse themselves, I can tell you. Of course, they have the adulation of the Academical taverns, and their fair hostesses. But what a bore it is! I speak from experience, for I have let myself be dragged there occasionally. I can say with old Réhu, “That’s a thing I have seen.” Silly pretentious women have favoured me with ill-digested scraps from magazine articles, coming out of their little beaks like the written remarks of characters in a comic paper. I have heard fat, good natured Madame Ancelin, a woman as stupid as anything, cackle with admiration at the epigrams of Danjou, regular stage manufacture, about as natural as the curling of his wig.’

Here was a shock for Freydet: Danjou, the shepherd of Latium, had a wig!

‘A half-wig, what they call a breton. At Madame Astier’s,’ he went on, ‘I have gone through lectures on ethnology enough to kill a hippopotamus; and at the table of the Duchess, the severe and haughty Duchess, I have seen that old monkey Laniboire, seated in the place of honour, do and say things for which, if he had not been a “deity,” he would have been turned out of the house, with a good-bye in her Grace’s characteristic style. And the joke is, that it was she who got him into the Académie. She has seen that very Laniboire at her feet, begging humbly, piteously, importunately, to get himself elected, “Elect him,” she said to my cousin Loisillon, “elect him, do; and then I shall be rid of him.” And now she looks up to him as a god; he is always next her at table; and her contempt has changed into an abject admiration. It is like a savage, falling down and quaking before the idol he has carved. I know what Academic society is, with all its foolish, ludicrous, mean little intrigues. You want to get into it! What for, I should like to know? You have the happiest life in the world. Even I, who am not set upon anything, was near envying you, when I saw you with your sister at Clos-Jallanges: a perfect house on a hill-side, airy rooms, chimney-corners big enough to get into, oakwoods, cornfields, vineyards, river; the life of a country gentleman, as it is painted in the novels of Tolstoi; fishing and shooting, a pleasant library, a neighbourhood not too dull, the peasants reasonably honest; and to prevent you from growing callous in the midst of such unbroken satisfaction, your companion, suffering and smiling, full of life and keenness, poor thing, in her arm-chair, delighted to listen, when you came in from a ride and read her a good sonnet, genuine poetry, fresh from nature, which you had pencilled on your saddle, or lying flat in the grass, as we are now — only without this horrible din of waggons and trumpets.’

Védrine stopped perforce. Some heavy drays, loaded with iron, and shaking ground and houses as they went by, a piercing alarum from the neighbouring barracks, the harsh screech of a steam-tug’s whistle, an organ, and the bells of Sainte-Clotilde, all united at the moment, as from time to time the noises of a great town will do, in a thundering tutti; and the outrageous babel, close to the ear, contrasted strangely with the natural field of grass and weed, overshadowed by tall trees, in which the two old classmates were enjoying their smoke and their familiar chat.

It was at the corner of the Quai d’Orsay and the Rue de Bellechasse, on the ruined terrace of the old Cour des Comptes, now occupied by sweet wild plants, like a clearing in the forest at the coming of spring. Clumps of lilac past the flowering and dense thickets of plane and maple grew all along the balustrades, which were loaded with ivy and clematis: and within this verdant screen the pigeons lighted, the bees wandered, and under a beam of yellow light might be seen the calm and handsome profile of Madame Védrine, nursing her youngest, while the eldest threw stones at the numerous cats, grey, black, yellow, and tabby, which might be called the tigers of this Parisian jungle.

‘And as we are talking of your poetry, you will wish me to speak my mind, won’t you, old boy? Well, I have only just looked into your last book, but it has not that smell of bluebells and thyme that I found in the others. Your “God in Nature” has rather a flavour of the Academic bay; and I am much afraid you have made a sacrifice of your “woodnotes wild,” you know, and thrown them, by way of pass-money, into the mouth of Crocodilus.’

This nickname ‘Crocodilus,’ turning up at the bottom of Védrine’s schoolboy recollections, amused them for a moment. They pictured once more Astier-Réhu at his desk, with streaming brow, his cap well on the back of his head, and a yard of red ribbon relieved against the black of his gown, emphasising with the solemn movements of his wide sleeves the well-worn joke from Racine or Molière, or his own rounded periods in the style of Vic’t-d’Azir, whose seat in the Académie he eventually filled. Then Freydet, vexed with himself for laughing at his old master, began to praise his work as an historian. What a mass of original documents he had brought out of their dust!

‘There’s nothing in that,’ retorted Védrine with unqualified contempt. In his view, the most interesting documents in hands of a fool had no more meaning than has the great book of humanity itself, when consulted by a stupid novelist. The gold all turns into dead leaves. ‘Look here,’ he went on with rising animation, ‘a man is not to be called an historian because he has expanded unpublished material into great octavo volumes, which are shelved unread among the books of information, and should be labelled, “For external application only. Shake the bottle.” It is only French frivolity that attaches a serious value to compilations like those. The English and Germans despise us. “Ineptissimus vir Astier-Réhu,” says Mommsen somewhere or other in a note.’

‘Yes, and it was you, you heartless fellow, who made the poor man read out the note before the whole class.’

‘And a terrible jaw he gave me. It was nearly as bad as when one day I got so tired of hearing him tell us that the will was a lever, a lever with which you might lift anything anywhere, that I answered him from my place in his own voice: “Could you fly with it, sir — could you fly with it?"’

Freydet, laughing, abandoned his defence of the historian, and began to plead for Astier-Réhu as a teacher. But Védrine went off again.

‘A teacher! What is he? A poor creature who has spent his life in “weeding” hundreds of brains, or, in plain terms, destroying whatever in them was original and natural, all the living germs which it is the first duty of an educator to nourish and protect. To think how the lot of us were hoed, and stubbed, and grubbed! One or two did not take kindly to the process, but the old fellow went at it with his tools and his nails, till he made us all as neat and as flat as a schoolroom bench. And see the results of his workmanship! A few rebels, like Herscher, who, from hatred of the conventional, go for exaggeration and ugliness, or like myself, who, thanks to that old ass, love roughness and contortion so much, that my sculpture, they say, is “like a bag of walnuts.” And the rest of them levelled, scraped, and empty!’

‘And pray, what of me?’ said Freydet, with an affected despair.

‘Oh, as for you, Nature has preserved you so far; but look out for yourself if you let Crocodilus clip you again. And to think that we have public schools to provide us with this sort of pedagogue, and that we reward him with endowments, and honours, and a place (save the mark) in the National Institute!’

Stretched at his ease in the long grass, with his head on his arm and waving a fern, which he used as a sun-screen, Védrine calmly uttered these strong remarks, without the slightest play of feature in his broad face, pale and puffy like that of an Indian idol. Only the tiny laughing eyes broke the general expression of dreamy indolence.

His companion was shocked at such treatment of what he was accustomed to respect ‘But,’ he said, ‘if you are such an enemy of the father, how do you manage to be such a friend of the son?’

‘I am no more one than the other. I look upon Paul Astier, with his imperturbable sang-froid and his pretty-miss complexion, as a problem. I should like to live long enough to see what becomes of him.’

‘Ah, Monsieur de Freydet,’ said Madame Védrine, joining in the conversation from the place where she sat, ‘if you only knew what a tool he makes of my husband! All the restorations at Mousseaux, the new gallery towards the river, the concert-room, the chapel, all were done by Védrine. And the Rosen tomb too. He will only be paid for the statue; but the whole thing is really his — conception, arrangement, everything.’

‘There, there, that will do,’ said the artist quietly. ‘As for Mousseaux, the young fellow would certainly have been hard put to it to rediscover a fragment of the design under the layers of rubbish that the architects have been depositing there for the last thirty years. But the neighbourhood was charming, the Duchess amiable and not at all tiresome, and there was friend Freydet, whom I had found out at Clos-Jallanges. Besides, the truth is I have too many ideas, and am just tormented with them. To relieve me of a few is to do me a real service. My brain is like a railway junction, where the engines are getting up steam on all the lines at once. The young man saw that. He has not many ideas. So he purloins mine, and brings them before the public, quite certain that I shall not protest But he does not take me in. Don’t I know when he is going to filch! He preserves his little indifferent air, with no expression in his eyes, until suddenly there comes a little nervous twitch at the corner of his mouth. Done! Nabbed! I have no doubt he thinks to himself, “Good Lord, what a simpleton Védrine is!” He has not the least notion that I watch him and enjoy his little game. Now,’ said the sculptor as he got up, ‘I will show you my Knight, and then we will go over the ruin. It is worth looking at, you will find.’

Passing from the terrace into the building, they mounted a semicircle of steps and went through a square room, formerly the apartment of the Secretary to the Conseil d’Etat. It had no floor and no ceiling, all the upper storeys had fallen through and showed the blue sky between the huge iron girders, now twisted by the fire, which had divided the floors. In a corner, against a wall to which were attached long iron pipes overgrown with creepers, lay in three pieces a model of the Rosen tomb, buried in nettles and rubbish.

‘You see,’ said Védrine, ‘or rather you can’t see.’ And he began to describe the monument. The little Princess’s conception of a tomb was not easy to come up to. Several things had been tried — reminiscences of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Ninevite monuments — before deciding on Védrine’s plan, which would raise an outcry among architects, but was certainly impressive. A soldier’s tomb: an open tent with the canvas looped back, disclosing within, before an altar, the wide low sarcophagus, modelled on a camp bedstead, on which lay the good Knight Crusader, fallen for King and Creed; beside him his broken sword, and at his feet a great greyhound.

The difficulty of the work and the hardness of the Dalmatian granite, which the Princess insisted on having, had obliged Védrine to take mallet and chisel himself and to work like an artisan under the tarpaulin at the cemetery. Now, at last, after much time and trouble, the canopy was up, ‘and that young rascal, Astier, will get some credit from it,’ added the sculptor with a smile in which was no touch of bitterness. Then he lifted up an old carpet hanging over a hole in the wall, which had once been a door, and led Freydet into the huge ruined hall which served him for a studio, roofed with planks and decorated with mats and hangings.

It looked with all its litter like a barn, or rather a yard under cover, for in a sun-lit corner climbed a fine fig-tree with its twining branches and elegant leaves, while close by was the bulk of a broken stove, garlanded with ivy and honeysuckle, so as to resemble an old well. Here he had been working for two years, summer and winter, in spite, of the fogs of the neighbouring river and the bitter cold winds, without a single sneeze (his own expression), having the healthful strength of the great artists of the Renaissance, as well as their large mould of countenance and fertile imagination. Now he was as weary of sculpture and architecture as if he had been writing a tragedy. The moment his statue was delivered and paid for, wouldn’t he be off, nursery and all, for a journey up the Nile in a dahabeeah, and paint and paint from morning to night! While he spoke he moved away a stool and a bench, and led his friend up to a huge block in the rough. ‘There’s my warrior. Frankly now, what do you think of him?’

Freydet was somewhat startled and amazed at the colossal dimensions of the sleeping hero. The scale was magnified in proportion to the height of the canopy, and the roughness of the plaster exaggerated the anatomical emphasis characteristic of Védrine. Rather than smooth away the force, he gives his work an unfinished earthy surface, as of something still in the rock. But as the spectator gazed and began to grasp, the huge form became distinct with that impressive and attractive power which is the essence of fine art.

‘Splendid!’ he exclaimed, with the tone of sincerity. The other winked his merry little eyes, and said:

‘Not at first sight, eh? My style does not take till you are accustomed to it; and I do not feel sure of the Princess, when she comes to look at this ugly fellow.’

Paul Astier was to bring her in a few days, as soon as it had been rubbed down and smoothed and was ready to go to the foundry; and the sculptor looked forward to the visit with some uncertainty, knowing the taste of great ladies, as it is displayed in the stereotyped chatter, which at the Salon on five-shilling days runs up and down the picture-rooms, and breaks out round the sculpture. Oh, what hypocrisy it is! The only genuine thing about them is the spring costume, which they have provided to figure on this particular occasion.

‘And altogether, old fellow,’ continued Védrine, as he drew his friend out of the studio, ‘of all the affectations of Paris, of all the hypocrisies of society, the most shameless, the most amusing, is the pretended taste for art. It’s enough to make you die of laughing; everyone performing a mummery, which imposes on nobody. And music, the same! You should just see them at the Pop!’

They went down a long arcaded passage, full of the same odd vegetation, sown there by all the winds of heaven, breaking out in green from the hard-beaten ground, and peeping among the paintings on the shrivelled and smoke-blackened walls, Presently they came to the principal court, formerly gravelled, but now a field, in which were mingled wild grasses, plantain, pimpernel, groundsel, and myriads of tiny stems and heads. In the middle, fenced off with boards, was a bed of artichokes, strawberries, and pumpkins, looking like the garden of some squatter at the edge of a virgin forest; and, to complete the illusion, beside it was a little building of brick.

‘It’s the bookbinder’s garden, and that is his shop,’ said Védrine, pointing to a board over the half-open door, displaying in letters a foot long the inscription,

ALBIN FAGE,

Bookbinding in all its branches.

Fage had been bookbinder to the Cour des Comptes and the Conseil d’Etat, and having obtained leave to keep his lodge, which had escaped the fire, was now, with the exception of the caretaker, the sole tenant of the building. ‘Let us go in for a minute,’ said Védrine; ‘you will find him a remarkable specimen.’ He went nearer and called, ‘Fage! Fage!’ but the humble workshop was empty. In front of the window was the binder’s table, on which, among a heap of parings, lay his shears. Under a press were some green ledgers capped with copper. Strange to remark, everything in the room — the sewing-press, the tressel-table, the empty chair in front of it, the shelves piled with books, and even the shaving-mirror hung upon the latch — was on a diminutive scale, adapted to the height and reach of a child of twelve years old. It might have been taken for the house of a dwarf, or of a bookbinder of Lilliput.

‘He is a humpback,’ whispered Védrine to Frey-det, ‘and a lady’s man into the bargain, all scent and pomade.’ A horrible smell like a hairdresser’s shop, otto of roses and macassar, mingled with the stifling fumes, of glue. Védrine called once more in the direction of the back of the shop where the bedroom was; then they left, Freydet chuckling at the idea of a humpbacked Lovelace.

‘Perhaps he’s at a tryst,’ he said.

‘You are pleased to laugh; but, my dear fellow, the humpback is on the best of terms with all the beauties of Paris, if one may believe the testimony of his bedroom walls, which are covered with photographs bearing the owners’ names, and headed “To Albin,” “To my dear little Fage.” There is never any lady to be seen here, but he sometimes comes and tells me about his fine octavo, or his pretty little duodecimo, as he calls his conquests, according to their height and size.’

‘And he is ugly, you say?’

‘A perfect monster.’

‘And no money?’

‘A poor little bookbinder and worker in cardboard, living on his work and his bit of a garden, but very intelligent and learned, with a marvellous memory. We shall probably find him wandering about in some corner of the building. He is a great dreamer is little Fage, like all sentimentalists. — This way, but look where you step; there are some awkward places.’

They were going up a huge staircase, of which the lower steps still remained, as did the balustrade, rusty, split, and in places twisted. Then suddenly they turned off by a fragile wooden bridge, resting on the supports of the staircase, between high walls on which were dimly visible the remains of huge frescoes, cracked, decayed, and blackened with soot, the hind legs of a horse, a woman’s torso undraped, with inscriptions almost illegible on panels that had lost their gilding, ‘Meditation,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘Trade uniting the nations of the world.’

On the first floor a long gallery with a vaulted roof, as in the amphitheatre at Aries or Nîmes, stretched away between smoke-stained walls, covered with huge fissures, remains of plaster and iron work, and tangled vegetation. At the entrance to this passage was inscribed on the wall, ‘Corridor des Huissiers.’ On the next floor they found much the same thing, only that here, the roof having given way, the gallery was nothing but a long terrace of brambles climbing up to the undestroyed arcades and falling down in disordered waving festoons to the level of the courtyard. From this second floor could be seen the roofs of the neighbouring houses, the whitewashed walls of the barracks in the Rue de Poitiers, and the tall plane trees of the Padovani mansion, with the rooks’ nests, abandoned till the winter, swinging in their top branches. Below was the deserted court in full sunlight, with the little garden and tiny house of the bookbinder.

‘Just look, old boy, there’s a good lot of it here,’ said Védrine to his friend, pointing to the wild exuberant vegetation of every species which ran riot over the whole building. ‘If Crocodilus saw all these weeds, what a rage he would be in!’ Suddenly he started, and said, ‘Well, I never!’

At this moment, near the bookbinder’s house below, came into sight Astier-Réhu, recognisable by his long frock-coat of a metallic green and his large wide ‘topper.’ Most people in the neighbourhood knew this hat, which, set on the back of a grey curly head, distinguished, like a halo, the hierarch of erudition. It was Crocodilus himself!

He was talking earnestly to a man of very small stature, whose bare head shone with hair-oil, and whose tight-fitting, light-coloured coat showed in all its elegance the deformity of his back. Their words were not audible, but Astier seemed much excited. He brandished his stick and bent himself forward over the face of the little creature, who for his part was perfectly calm, and stood, as if his mind was made up, with his two large hands behind him folded under his hump.

‘The cripple does work for the Institute, does he?’ said Freydet, who remembered now that his master had uttered the name of Fage. Védrine did not answer. He was watching the action of the two men, whose conversation at this moment suddenly stopped, the humpback going into his house with a gesture which seemed to say, ‘As you please,’ while Astier with angry strides made for the gate of the building towards the Rue de Lille, then paused, turned back to the shop, went in, and closed the door behind him.

‘It’s odd,’ muttered the sculptor. ‘Why did Fage never tell me? What a mysterious little fellow it is! But I dare say they have the same taste for the “octavo” and the “duodecimo”!’

‘For shame, Védrine!’

The visit done, Freydet went slowly up the Quai d’Orsay, thinking about his book and his aspirations towards the Académie, which had received a severe shock from the home truths he had been hearing. How like the man is to the boy! How soon the character is in its essence complete! After an interval of twenty-five years, beneath the wrinkles and grey hairs and other changes, with which life disguises the outer man, the schoolfellows found each other just what they were when they sat together in class: one wilful, high-spirited, rebellious; the other obedient and submissive, with a tendency to indolence, which had been fostered by his quiet country life. After all Védrine was perhaps right. Even if he was sure of succeeding, was the thing worth the trouble? He was particularly anxious about his invalid sister, who, while he went about canvassing, must be left all alone at Clos-Jallanges. A few days’ absence had already made her feel nervous and low, and the morning’s post had brought a miserable letter.

He was by this time passing before the dragoon barracks; and his attention was caught by the appearance of the paupers, waiting on the other side of the street for the distribution of the remains of the soup. They had come long before for fear of missing their turn, and were seated on the benches or standing in a line against the parapet of the quay. Foul and grimy, with the hair and beard of human dogs, and dressed in the filthiest rags, they waited like a herd, neither moving nor speaking to each other, but peering into the great barrack-yard to catch the arrival of the porringers and the adjutant’s signal to come up. It was horrible to see in the brilliant sunlight the silent row of savage eyes and hungry faces, fixed with the same animal look upon the wide-open gate.

‘What are you doing there, my dear boy?’ said a voice, and Astier-Réhu, in high spirits, took his pupil’s arm. The poet pointed to the pathetic group on the opposite pavement. ‘Ah, yes,’ said the historian, ‘Ah, yes.’ He had in truth no eyes for anything outside books, nor any direct and personal perception of the facts of life. Indeed, from the way in which he took Freydet off, saying as he did so, ‘You may as well go with me as far as the Institute,’ it was clear that he did not approve the habit of mooning in the streets when you ought to be better employed. Leaning gently on his favourite’s arm, he began to tell him of his rapturous delight at having chanced upon a most astonishing discovery, a letter about the Académie from the Empress Catherine to Diderot, just in time for his forthcoming address to the Grand-Duke. He meant to read the letter at the meeting and perhaps to present his Highness, in the name of the Society, with the original in the handwriting of his ancestress. Baron Huchenard would burst with envy.

‘And, by the way, about my Charles the Fifths, you know! It’s absolutely false. Here is something to confute the old backbiter,’ and he clapped with his thick short hand a heavy leather pocket-book. He was so happy that he tried to arouse an answering happiness in Freydet by leading the conversation to the topic of yesterday — his candidature for the first place in the Académie that should be vacant. It would be delightful when the master and the scholar sat together under the dome! ‘And you will find how pleasant it is, and how comfortable. It cannot be imagined till you are there.’ The moment of entrance, he seemed to say, put an end to the miseries of life. At that threshold they might beat in vain. You soared into a region of peace and light, above envy, above criticism, blessed for ever! All was won, and nothing left to desire. Ah, the Académie! Those who spoke ill of it spoke in ignorance, or in jealousy, because they could not get in. The apes, the dunces!

His strong voice rose till it made everyone turn as he went along the quay. Some recognised him and mentioned his name. The booksellers and the vendors of engravings and curiosities, standing at their stalls, and accustomed to see him go by at his regular hours, stepped back and bowed respectfully.

‘Freydet, look at that,’ said his master, pointing to the Palais Mazarin, to which they had now come. ‘There it is! There’s the Institute as I saw it on the Didot books when I was a lad. I said to myself then, “I will get into that;” and I have got in. Now, my boy, it is your turn to use your will. Good luck to you.’ He stepped briskly in at the gate to the left of the main building, and went on into a series of large paved courts, silent and majestic, his figure throwing a lengthening shadow upon the ground.

He disappeared; but Freydet was gazing still, struck motionless. And on his kindly round brown face and in his soft, full-orbed eyes was the same expression as had been on the visages of the human dogs who waited before the barracks for their soup. Henceforward, whenever he looked at the Institute, that expression would always come over his face.

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