The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter viii.

DESTINY had willed that Loisillon, fortunate always, should be fortunate in dying at the right moment. A week later, when houses were closed, society broken up, the Chamber and the Institute not sitting, his funeral train would have been composed of Academicians attentive to their tallies, followed only by deputies from the numerous societies of which he was Secretary or President. But business-like to the last and after, he went off to the moment, just before the Grand Prix, choosing a week entirely blank, when, as there was no crime, or duel, or interesting lawsuit, or political event, the sensational obsequies of the Permanent Secretary would be the only pastime of the town.

The funeral mass was to be at twelve o’clock, and long before that hour an immense crowd was gathering round St. Germain des Prés. The traffic was stopped, and no carriages but those of persons invited were allowed to pass within the rails, strictly kept by a line of policemen posted at intervals. Who Loisillon was, what he had done in his seventy years’ sojourn among mankind, what was the meaning of the capital letter embroidered in silver on the funeral drapery, was known to but few in the crowd. The one thing which struck them was the arrangement of the protecting line, and the large space left to the dead, distance, room, and emptiness being the constant symbols of respect and grandeur. It had been understood that there would be a chance of seeing actresses and persons of notoriety, and the cockneys at a distance were putting names to the faces they recognised among the groups conversing in front of the church.

There, under the black-draped porch, was the place for hearing the true funeral oration on Loisillon, quite other than that which was to be delivered presently at Mont Parnasse, and the true article on the man and his work, very different from the notices ready for to-morrow’s newspapers. His work was a ‘Journey in Val d’Andorre,’ and two reports published at the National Press, relating to the time when he was Superintendent at the Beaux-Arts. The man was a sort of shrewd attorney, creeping and cringing, with a permanent bow and an apologetic attitude, which seemed to ask your pardon for his decorations, your pardon for his insignia, your pardon for his place in the Académie — where his experience as a man of business was useful in fusing together a number of different elements, with none of which he could well have been classed — your pardon for the amazing success which had raised so high such a worthless winged grub. It was remembered that at an official dinner he had said of himself complacently, as he bustled round the table with a napkin on his arm, ‘What an excellent servant I should have made!’ And it might have been written on his tomb.

And while they moralised upon the nothingness of his life, his corpse, the remains of nothing, was receiving the honours of death. Carriage after carriage drew up at the church; liveries brown and liveries blue came and disappeared; long-frocked footmen bowed to the pavement with a pompous banging of doors and steps; the groups of journalists respectfully made way, now for the Duchess Padovani, stately and proud, now for Madame Ancelin, blooming in her crape, now for Madame Eviza, whose Jewish eyes shone through her veil with blaze enough to attract a constable — all the ladies of the Académie, assembled in full congregation to practise their worship, not so much by a service to the memory of Loisillon, as by contemplation of their living idols, the ‘deities’ made and fashioned by the cunning of their little hands, the work upon which, as women, they had employed the superabundance of their energy, artfulness, ambition, and pride. Some actresses had come too, on the pretext that the deceased had been the president of some sort of Actors’ Orphanage, but moved in reality by the frantic determination ‘not to be out of it,’ which belongs to their class. Their expressions of woe were such that they might have been taken for near relations. A carriage suddenly drawing up set down a distracted group of black veils, whose sorrow was distressing to witness. The widow, at last? No, it is Marguerite Oger, the great sensational actress, whose appearance excites all round the square a prolonged stir and much pushing about. From the porch a journalist ran forward to meet her, and taking her hands besought her to bear up. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I ought to be calm; I will,’ Whereupon, drying her tears and forcing them back with her handkerchief, she entered, or it should rather be said ‘went on,’ into the darkness of the nave, with its background of glimmering tapers, fell down before a desk on the ladies’ side in a prostration of self-abandonment, and rising with a sorrowful air said to another actress at her side, ‘How much did they take at the Vaudeville last night?’ ‘168L. 18s.,’ answered her friend, with the same accent of grief.

Lost in the crowd at the edge of the square, Abel de Freydet heard the people round him say, ‘It’s Marguerite. How well she did it!’ But being a small man, he was trying in vain to make his way, when a hand was laid upon his shoulder. ‘What, still in Paris? It must be a trial for your poor sister,’ said Védrine, as he carried him along. Working his way with his strong elbows through the stream of people who only came up to his shoulder, and saying occasionally, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen — members of the family,’ he brought to the front with him his country friend, who, though delighted at the meeting, felt some embarrassment, as the sculptor talked after his fashion, freely and audibly. ‘Bless me, what luck Loisillon has! Why there weren’t more people for Béranger. This is the sort of thing to keep a young man’s pecker up.’ Here Freydet, seeing the hearse approaching, took off his hat. ‘Good gracious, what have you done to your head? Turn round. Why you look like Louis Philippe!’ The poet’s moustache was turned down, his hair brushed forward, and his pleasant face showed its complexion of ruddy brown between whiskers touched with grey. He drew up his short figure with a stiff dignity, whereat Védrine laughing said, ‘Ah, I see. Made up for the grandees at Chantilly? So you are still bent upon the Académie! Why, just look at the exhibition yonder.’

In the sunlight and on the broad enclosure the official attendants immediately behind the hearse made a shocking show. Chance might seem to have chosen them for a wager among the most ridiculous seniors in the Institute, and they looked especially-ugly in the uniform designed by David, the coat embroidered with green, the hat, the Court sword, beating against legs for which the designer was certainly not responsible. First came Gazan; his hat was tilted awry by the bumps of his skull, and the vegetable green of the coat threw into relief the earthy colour and scaly texture of his elephantine visage. At his side was the grim tall Laniboire with purple apoplectic veins and a crooked mouth. His uniform was covered by an overcoat whose insufficient length left visible the end of his sword and the tails of the frock, and gave him an appearance certainly much less dignified than that of the marshal with his black rod, who walked before. Those that followed, such as Astier-Réhu and Desminières, were all embarrassed and uncomfortable, all acknowledged by their apologetic and self-conscious bearing the absurdity of their disguise, which, though it might pass in the chastened light of their historic dome, seemed amid the real life of the street not less laughable than a show of monkeys. ‘I declare one would like to throw some nuts to see if they would go after them on all fours,’ said Freydet’s undesirable companion. But Freydet did not catch the impertinent remark. He slipped away, mixed with the procession, and entered the church between two files of soldiers with arms reversed. He was in his heart profoundly glad that Loisillon was dead. He had never seen or known him; he could not love him for his work’s sake, as he had done no work; and the only thing for which he could thank him was that he had left his chair empty at such a convenient moment. But he was impressed notwithstanding. The funeral pomp to which custom makes the old Parisian indifferent, the long line of knapsacks, the muskets that fell on the flags with a single blow (at the command of a boyish little martinet, with a stock under-his chin, who was probably performing on this occasion his first military duty), and, above all, the funeral music and the muffled drums, filled him with respectful emotion: and as always happened when he felt keenly, rimes began to rise. He had actually got a good beginning, presenting a grand picture of the storm and electric agitation and mental eclipse produced in the atmosphere of a nation when one of its great men disappears. But he broke off his thoughts to make room for Danjou, who, having arrived very late, pushed on amid the looks and whispers of the ladies, gazing about him coldly and haughtily and passing his hand over his head as he habitually does, doubtless to ascertain the safety of his back hair.

‘He did not recognise me,’ thought Freydet, hurt by the crushing glance with which the Academician relegated to the ranks the nobody who had ventured to greet him; ‘it’s my whiskers, I suppose.’ The interruption turned the thoughts of the candidate from his verses, and he began to consider his plan of operations, his calls, his official announcement to the Permanent Secretary. But what was he thinking of? The Permanent Secretary was dead! Would Astier-Réhu be appointed before the vacation? And when would the election be? He proceeded to consider all the ‘details, down to his coat. Should he go to Astier’s tailor now? And did the tailor supply also the hat and sword?

Pie Jesu, Domine, sang a voice behind the altar, the swelling notes of an opera singer, asking repose for Loisillon, whom it might be thought the Divine Mercy had destined to special torment, for all through the church, loud and soft, in every variety of voice, solo and in unison, came the supplication for ‘repose, repose.’ Ah, let him sleep quietly after his many years of turmoil and intrigue! The solemn stirring chant was answered in the nave by women’s sobbing, above which rose the tragic convulsive gasp of Marguerite Oger, the gasp so impressive in the fourth act of ‘Musidora.’ All this lamentation touched the kind-hearted candidate and linked itself in his feelings to other lamentations and other sorrows. He thought of relatives who had died, and of his sister who had been a mother to him, and who was now given up by all the doctors, and knew it, and spoke of it in every letter. Ah! would she live even to see the day of his success? Tears blinded him, and he was obliged to wipe his eyes.

‘Don’t come it too strong, it won’t seem genuine,’ said the sneering voice of fat Lavaux, grinning close at his ear. He turned round angrily; but here the young officer gave at stentorian pitch the command ‘Carry — arms!’ and the bayonets rattled on the muskets while the muffled tones of the organ rolled out the ‘Dead March.’ The procession began to form for leaving the church, headed as before by Gazan, Laniboire, Desminières, and Freydet’s old master, Astier-Réhu. They all looked superb now, the parrot green of their laced coats being subdued by the dim religious light of the lofty building as they walked down the central aisle, two and two, slowly, as if loth to reach the great square of daylight seen through the open doors. Behind came the whole Society, headed by its senior member, the wonderful old Jean Réhu, looking taller than ever in a long coat, and holding up the little brown head, carved, one might fancy, out of a cocoa-nut, with an air of contemptuous indifference telling that ‘this was a thing he had seen’ any number of times before. Indeed in the course of the sixty years during which he had been in receipt of the tallies of the Académie, he must have heard many such funeral chants, and sprinkled much holy water on illustrious biers.

But if Jean Réhu was a ‘deity,’ whose miraculous immortality justified the name, it could only be applied in mockery to the band of patriarchs who followed him. Decrepit, bent double, gnarled as old apple trees, with feet of lead, limp legs, and blinking owlish eyes, they stumbled along, either supported on an arm or feeling their way with outstretched hands; and their names whispered by the crowd recalled works long dead and forgotten. Beside such ghosts as these, ‘on furlough from the cemetery,’ as was remarked by a smart young soldier in the guard of honour, the rest of the Academicians seemed young. They posed and strutted before the delighted eyes of the ladies, whose bright gleams reached them through the black veils, the ranks of the crowd, and the cloaks and knapsacks of the bewildered soldiers. On this occasion again Freydet, bowing to two or three ‘future colleagues,’ encountered cold or contemptuous smiles, like those which a man sees when he dreams that his dearest friends have forgotten him. But he had not time to be depressed, being caught and turned about by the double stream which moved up the church and towards the door.

‘Well, my lord, you will have to be stirring now,’ was the advice of friendly Picheral, whispered in the midst of the hubbub and the scraping of chairs. It sent the candidate’s blood tingling through his veins. But just as he passed before the bier Danjou muttered, without looking at him, as he handed him the holy-water brush, ‘Whatever you do, be quiet, and let things slide.’ His knees shook beneath him. Bestir yourself! Be quiet! Which advice was he to take? Which was the best? Doubtless his master, Astier, would tell him, and he tried to reach him outside the church. It was no easy task in the confusion of the court, where they were forming the procession, and lifting the coffin under its heap of countless wreaths. Never was a scene more lively than this coming out from the funeral into the brilliant daylight; everywhere people were bowing and talking gossip quite unconnected with the ceremony, while the bright expression on every face showed the reaction after a long hour’s sitting still and listening to melancholy music. Plans were made, meetings arranged; the hurrying stream of life, stopped for a brief while, impatiently resumed its course, and poor Loisillon was left far behind in the past to which he belonged.

‘At the Français to-night, don’t forget; it’s the last Tuesday,’ simpered Madame Ancelin, while Paul said to Lavaux, ‘Are you going to see it through?’

‘No; I’m taking Madame Eviza home.’

‘Then come to Keyser’s at six. We shall want freshening after the speeches.’

The mourning coaches were drawing up one after the other, while the private carriages set off at a trot. People were leaning out of all the windows in the square, and over towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain men standing on the stationary tramcars showed tier after tier of heads rising in dark relief against the blue sky. Freydet, dazzled by the sun, tilted his hat over his eyes and looked at the crowd, which reached as far as he could see. He felt proud, transferring to the Académie the posthumous glory which certainly could not be ascribed to the author of the ‘Journey in Val d’Andorre,’ though at the same time he was distressed at noticing that his dear ‘future colleagues’ obviously kept him at a distance, became meditative when he drew near, or turned away, making little groups to keep out the intruder. And these were the very men who only two days ago at Voisin’s had said to him, ‘When are you going to join us?’ But the heaviest blow was the desertion of Astier-Réhu.

‘What a calamity, sir!’ said Freydet, coming up to him and putting on a doleful expression for the purpose of saying something sympathetic. Astier-Réhu, standing by the hearse, made no answer, but went on turning over the leaves of the oration he would shortly have to deliver. ‘What a calamity!’ repeated Freydet.

‘My dear Freydet, you are indecent,’ said his master, roughly, in a loud voice. And with one harsh snap of the jaw he betook himself again to his reading.

Indecent! What did he mean? The poor man looked himself over, but could find no explanation of the reproach. What was the matter? What had he done?

For some minutes he was quite dazed. Vaguely he saw the hearse start under its shaking pyramid of flowers, with green coats at the four corners, more green coats behind, then all the Society, and immediately following, but at a respectful distance, another group, in which he found himself involved and carried along he knew not how. Young men, old men, all terribly gloomy and depressed, all marked on the brow with the same deep furrow, set there by one fixed idea, all expressing with their eyes the same hatred and distrust of their neighbours. When he had got over his discomfiture, and was able to identify these persons, he recognised the faded, hopeless face of old Moser, the candidate everlasting; the honest expression of Dalzon, the author of ‘that book,’ who had failed at the last election; and de Salêles! — and Guérineau! — Why, they were the ‘fish in tow’! They were the men about whom the Académie ‘does not trouble itself,’ whom it leaves, hanging on to a strong hook, to be drawn along in the wake of the ship of fame. There they all were — all of them, poor drowned fish! — some dead and under the water; others still struggling, turning up sad and greedy eyes full of an eager craving, never to be appeased. And while he vowed to himself to avoid a similar fate, Abel de Freydet followed the bait and dragged at the line, too firmly struck already to get himself free.

Far away, along the line cleared for the procession, muffled drums alternated with the blast of trumpets, bringing crowds of bystanders on the pavement and heads to every window. Then the music again took up the long-drawn strains of the Hero’s March. In the presence of so impressive a tribute as this national funeral, this proud protest on the part of humanity, crushed and overcome by death but decking defeat in magnificence, it was hard to realise that all this pomp was for Loisillon, Permanent Secretary of the Académie Française — for nothing, servant to nothing.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/daudet/alphonse/immortal/chapter8.html

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