The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter vii.

Mlle. Germaine de Freydet,

Clos Jallanges.

My DEAREST SISTER — Your letters distress me much. I know you are lonely and ill, and feel my absence; but what am I to do? Remember my master’s advice to show myself and be seen. It is not, as you may suppose, at Clos Jallanges, in my tweed suit and leggings, that I could get on with my candidature. I cannot but see that the time is near. Loisillon is sinking visibly, dying by inches; and I am using the time to make friendships among the Academicians, which may mean votes hereafter. Astier has already introduced me to several of them. I often go to fetch him after the meetings. It is charming to see them come out of the Institute, almost all laden with years as with honours, and walk away arm-in-arm in groups of three or four, bright and happy, talking loud and filling the pavement, their eyes still wet after the hearty laughs they have had within. ‘Paille-ron is very smart,’ says one; ‘But Danjou gave it him back,’ says another. As for me, I fasten on to the arm of Astier-Réhu and, ranked with the deities, seem almost a deity myself. One by one at this or that bridge the groups break up. ‘See you next Thursday,’ is the last word. And I go back to the Rue de Beaune with my master, who gives me encouragement and advice, and in the confidence of success says, with his frank laugh, ‘Look at me, Freydet; I am twenty years younger after a meeting!’

I really believe the dome does keep them fresh. Where is there another old man as lusty as Jean Réhu, whose ninety-eighth birthday we celebrated yesterday evening by a dinner at Voisin’s? Lavaux suggested it, and if it cost me 40L., it gave me the opportunity of counting my men. We were twenty-five at table, all Academicians, except Picheral, Lavaux, and myself. I have the votes of seventeen or eighteen; the rest are uncertain, but well disposed. Dinner very well served, and very chatty.

By the way, I have asked Lavaux to come to Clos Jallanges for his holiday. He is librarian of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. He shall have the large room in the wing, looking out on the pheasants. I don’t think highly of his character, but I must have him; he is the Duchess’s ‘zebra’! Did I tell you that a zebra in ladies’ language is a bachelor friend, unoccupied, discreet, and quick, kept always at hand for errands and missions too delicate to be trusted to a servant? In the intervals of his diplomacy a young zebra may sometimes get particular gratifications, but as a rule the animal is tame and wants little, content with small promotion, a place at the bottom of the table, and the honour of showing his paces before the lady and her friends. Lavaux, I fancy, has made his place profitable in other ways. He is so clever and, in spite of his easy manner, so much dreaded. He knows, as he says, ‘the servants’ hall’ of two establishments, literature and politics, and he shows me the holes and traps of which the road to the Institute is full. Astier, my master, does not know them to this day. In his grand simplicity he has climbed straight up, unaware of danger, with his eyes upon the dome, confident in his strength and his labour. A hundred times he would have broken his neck, if his wife, the cleverest of clever women, had not guided him unperceived.

It was Lavaux who dissuaded me from publishing between this and the next vacancy my ‘Thoughts of a Rustic.’ ‘No, no,’ said he to me, ‘you have done enough. You might well even let it be understood that you will not write any more. Your work is over, and you are a mere gentleman at large. The Académie loves that.’ I put that with the valuable hint from Picheral: ‘Do not take them your books.’

The fewer your works, I see, the better your claim. Picheral has much influence; he too must come to us this summer. Put him on the second floor, in what was the box-room, or somewhere. Poor Germaine, it is a great bother for you, and ill as you are! But where’s the help? It is bad enough not to have a house in town for the winter and give parties, like Dalzon, Moser, and all my competitors. Do, do take care of yourself and get well.

To go back to my dinner party. There was naturally much talk of the Académie, its elections and duties, its merits and demerits in public estimation. The ‘deities’ hold that those who run down the institution are all, without exception, poor creatures who cannot get in. For the strong apparent instances to the contrary, there was a reason in each case. I ventured to mention the great name of Balzac, a man from our country. But the playwright Desminières, who used to manage the amateur theatricals at Compiègne, burst out with ‘Balzac! But did you know him? Do you know, sir, the sort of man he was? An utter Bohemian! A man, sir, who never had a guinea in his pocket! I had it from his friend Frédéric Lemaître. Never one guinea! And you would have had the Académie ——’ Here old Jean Réhu, having his trumpet to his ear, got the notion that we were talking of ‘tallies,’ and told us the fine story of his friend Suard coming to the Académie on January 21, 1793, the day the king was executed, and availing himself of the absence of his colleagues to sweep off the whole fees for the meeting.

He tells a story well, does the old gentleman, and but for his deafness would be a brilliant talker. When I gave his health, with a few complimentary verses on his marvellous youth, the old fellow in a gracious reply called me his dear colleague. My master Astier corrected him —‘future colleague.’ Laughter and applause. ‘Future colleague’ was the title which they all gave me as they said goodbye, shaking my hand with a significant pressure, and adding, ‘We shall meet before long,’ or ‘See you soon,’ in reference to my expected call. It is not a pleasant process, paying these calls, but everyone goes through it. Astier-Réhu told me, as we came away from the dinner, that when he was elected old Dufaure let him come ten times without seeing him. Well, he would not give up, and the eleventh time the door was thrown open. Nothing like persistence.

In truth, if Ripault-Babin or Loisillon died (they are both in danger, but even now I have most hopes of Ripault-Babin), my only serious competitor would be Dalzon. He has talent and wealth, stands well with the ‘dukes,’ and his cellar is capital; the only thing against him is a youthful peccadillo lately discovered, ‘Without the Veil,’ a poem of 600 lines printed ‘at Eropolis,’ anonymously, and utterly outrageous. They say that he has bought up and suppressed the whole, but there are still some copies in circulation with signature and dedication. Poor Dalzon contradicts the story and makes a desperate fight. The Académie reserves judgment pending the inquiry. That is why my respected master said to me gravely one evening without giving reasons, ‘I shall not vote again for M. Dalzon.’ The Académie is a club, that is the important thing to remember. You cannot go in without proper dress and clean hands. For all that I have too much gallantry and too much respect for my opponent to make use of such concealed weapons; and Fage, the bookbinder in the Cour des Comptes, the strange little humpback whom I sometimes meet in Védrine’s studio — Fage, I say, who has much acquaintance with the curiosities of bibliography, got a good snub when he offered me one of the signed copies of ‘Without the Veil.’ ‘Then it will go to M. Moser,’ was his calm reply.

Talking of Védrine, I am in an awkward position. In the warmth of our first few meetings I made him promise to bring his family to stay with us in the country. But how can we have him along with people like Astier and Lavaux, who detest him? He is so uncivilised, such an oddity! Just imagine! He is by descent Marquis de Védrine, but even at school he suppressed the title and the ‘de,’ additions coveted by most people in this democratic age, when everything else may be got. And what is his reason? Because, do you see, he wants to be liked for his own sake! The latest of him is that the Princess de Rosen will not take the knight, which he has done for the Prince’s tomb. It was mentioned every minute in the family, where money is not plenty. ‘When we have sold the knight, I am to have a clockwork horse,’ said the boy. The poor mother too counted upon the knight for refurnishing her empty presses, and to Védrine himself the price of the master-piece meant just three months’ holiday in a Nile-boat. Well! the knight not sold, or to be paid for heaven knows when, after a lawsuit and a valuation, if you fancy they are thrown out by that, you are much mistaken. When I got to the Cour des Comptes the day after the disappointment, I found friend Védrine planted before an easel, absorbed in pleasure, sketching upon a large canvas the curious wild vegetation on the burnt building. Behind him were his wife and son in ecstasy, and Madame Védrine, with the little girl in her arms, said to me in a serious undertone, ‘We are so happy; Monsieur Védrine has at last got to oils.’ Is it not laughable? Is it not touching?

This piecemeal letter, dear, will show you in what a bustle and fever I live since I have been working at my candidature. I go here and go there, to ‘at homes,’ to dinner parties, to evening parties. I am even supposed to be ‘zebra’ to good Madame Ancelin, because I am constant at her drawing-room on Fridays, and on Tuesday evenings in her box at the Français. A very countrified ‘zebra,’ I am sure, in spite of the changes I have had made to give myself a graver and more fashionable appearance. You must look for a surprise when I come back. Last Monday there was a select party at the Duchess Padovani’s, where I had the honour to be presented to the Grand-Duke Leopold. His Highness complimented me on my last book, and all my books, which he knows as well as I do. It is marvellous what foreigners do know. But it is at the Astiers’ that I am most comfortable. It is such a primitive, simple, united family. One day, after breakfast, there arrived a new Academic coat for the master, and we tried it on together. I say ‘we,’ for he wanted to see how the palm leaves looked upon me. I put on the coat, hat, and sword, a real sword, my dear, which comes out, and has a groove in the middle for the blood to run away, and I assure you I was struck with my appearance; but this I tell you only to show the intimacy of this invaluable friendship.

When I come back to my peaceful, if narrow, quarters, if it is too late to write to you, I always do a little counting. On the full list of the Académie I tick those of whom I am sure, and those who stand by Dalzon. Then I do various sums in subtraction and addition. It is an excellent amusement, as you will see when I show you. As I was telling you, Dalzon has the ‘dukes,’ but the writer of the ‘House of Orleans,’ who is received at Chantilly, is to introduce me there before long. If I get on there — and with this object I am diligently studying a certain engagement at Rocroy; so you see your brother is becoming deep — well, if I get on, the author of ‘Without the Veil, printed at Eropolis,’ loses his strongest support. As for my opinions, I do not disavow them. I am a Republican, but not extreme, and more particularly I am a Candidate! Immediately after this little expedition I quite expect to come back to my darling Germaine, who will, I do hope, bear up and think of the happiness of the triumph! We will do it, dear! We will get into the ‘goose’s garden,’ as it is called by that Bohemian Védrine; but we shall need endurance.

Your loving brother,

Abel de Freydet.

I have opened my letter again to say that the morning papers announce the death of Loisillon. The stroke of fate is always affecting, even when fully expected. What a sad event! What a loss to French literature! And unhappily, dear, it will keep me here still longer. Please pay the labourers. More news soon.

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