The Red Lily, by Anatole France

Chapter 32

The Red Lily

It was Friday, at the opera. The curtain had fallen on Faust’s laboratory. From the orchestra, opera-glasses were raised in a surveying of the gold and purple theatre. The sombre drapery of the boxes framed the dazzling heads and bare shoulders of women. The amphitheatre bent above the parquette its garland of diamonds, hair, gauze, and satin. In the proscenium boxes were the wife of the Austrian Ambassador and the Duchess Gladwin; in the amphitheatre Berthe d’Osigny and Jane Tulle, the latter made famous the day before by the suicide of one of her lovers; in the boxes, Madame Berard de La Malle, her eyes lowered, her long eyelashes shading her pure cheeks; Princess Seniavine, who, looking superb, concealed under her fan panther — like yawnings; Madame de Morlaine, between two young women whom she was training in the elegances of the mind; Madame Meillan, resting assured on thirty years of sovereign beauty; Madame Berthier d’Eyzelles, erect under iron-gray hair sparkling with diamonds. The bloom of her cheeks heightened the austere dignity of her attitude. She was attracting much notice. It had been learned in the morning that, after the failure of Garain’s latest combination, M. Berthier-d’Eyzelles had, undertaken the task of forming a Ministry. The papers published lists with the name of Martin-Belleme for the treasury, and the opera-glasses were turned toward the still empty box of the Countess Martin.

A murmur of voices filled the hall. In the third rank of the parquette, General Lariviere, standing at his place, was talking with General de La Briche.

“I will do as you do, my old comrade, I will go and plant cabbages in Touraine.”

He was in one of his moments of melancholy, when nothingness appeared to him to be the end of life. He had flattered Garain, and Garain, thinking him too clever, had preferred for Minister of War a shortsighted and national artillery general. At least, the General relished the pleasure of seeing Garain abandoned, betrayed by his friends Berthier-d’Eyzelles and Martin-Belleme. It made him laugh even to the wrinkles of his small eyes. He laughed in profile. Weary of a long life of dissimulation, he gave to himself suddenly the joy of expressing his thoughts.

“You see, my good La Briche, they make fools of us with their civil army, which costs a great deal, and is worth nothing. Small armies are the only good ones. This was the opinion of Napoleon I, who knew.”

“It is true, it is very true,” sighed General de La Briche, with tears in his eyes.

Montessuy passed before them; Lariviere extended his hand to him.

“They say, Montessuy, that you are the one who checked Garain. Accept my compliments.”

Montessuy denied that he had exercised any political influence. He was not a senator nor a deputy, nor a councillor-general. And, looking through his glasses at the hall:

“See, Lariviere, in that box at the right, a very beautiful woman, a brunette.”

And he took his seat quietly, relishing the sweets of power.

However, in the hall, in the corridors, the names of the new Ministers went from mouth to mouth in the midst of profound indifference: President of the Council and Minister of the Interior, Berthier-d’Eyzelles; justice and Religions, Loyer; Treasury, Martin-Belleme. All the ministers were known except those of Commerce, War, and the Navy, who were not yet designated.

The curtain was raised on the wine-shop of Bacchus. The students were singing their second chorus when Madame Martin appeared in her box. Her white gown had sleeves like wings, and on the drapery of her corsage, at the left breast, shone a large ruby lily.

Miss Bell sat near her, in a green velvet Queen Anne gown. Betrothed to Prince Eusebio Albertinelli della Spina, she had come to Paris to order her trousseau.

In the movement and the noise of the kermess she said:

“Darling, you have left at Florence a friend who retains the charm of your memory. It is Professor Arrighi. He reserves for you the praise-which he says is the most beautiful. He says you are a musical creature. But how could Professor Arrighi forget you, darling, since the trees in the garden have not forgotten you? Their unleaved branches lament your absence. Even they regret you, darling.”

“Tell them,” said Therese, “that I have of Fiesole a delightful reminiscence, which I shall always keep.”

In the rear of the opera-box M. Martin-Belleme was explaining in a low voice his ideas to Joseph Springer and to Duviquet. He was saying: “France’s signature is the best in the world.” He was inclined to prudence in financial matters.

And Miss Bell said:

“Darling, I will tell the trees of Fiesole that you regret them and that you will soon come to visit them on their hills. But I ask you, do you see Monsieur Dechartre in Paris? I should like to see him very much. I like him because his mind is graceful. Darling, the mind of Monsieur Dechartre is full of grace and elegance.”

Therese replied M. Jacques Dechartre was doubtless in the theatre, and that he would not fail to come and salute Miss Bell.

The curtain fell on the gayety of the waltz scene. Visitors crowded the foyers. Financiers, artists, deputies met in the anteroom adjoining the box. They surrounded M. Martin-Belleme, murmured polite congratulations, made graceful gestures to him, and crowded one another in order to shake his hand. Joseph Schmoll, coughing, complaining, blind and deaf, made his way through the throng and reached Madame Martin. He took her hand and said:

“They say your husband is appointed Minister. Is it true?”

She knew they were talking of it, but she did not think he had been appointed yet. Her husband was there, why not ask him?

Sensitive to literal truths only, Schmoll said:

“Your husband is not yet a Minister? When he is appointed, I will ask you for an interview. It is an affair of the highest importance.”

He paused, throwing from his gold spectacles the glances of a blind man and of a visionary, which kept him, despite the brutal exactitude of his temperament, in a sort of mystical state of mind. He asked, brusquely:

“Were you in Italy this year, Madame?”

And, without giving her time to answer:

“I know, I know. You went to Rome. You have looked at the arch of the infamous Titus, that execrable monument, where one may see the seven-branched candlestick among the spoils of the Jews. Well, Madame, it is a shame to the world that that monument remains standing in the city of Rome, where the Popes have subsisted only through the art of the Jews, financiers and money-changers. The Jews brought to Italy the science of Greece and of the Orient. The Renaissance, Madame, is the work of Israel. That is the truth, certain but misunderstood.”

And he went through the crowd of visitors, crushing hats as he passed.

Princess Seniavine looked at her friend from her box with the curiosity that the beauty of women at times excited in her. She made a sign to Paul Vence who was near her:

“Do you not think Madame Martin is extraordinarily beautiful this year?”

In the lobby, full of light and gold, General de La Briche asked Lariviere:

“Did you see my nephew?”

“Your nephew, Le Menil?”

“Yes — Robert. He was in the theatre a moment ago.”

La Briche remained pensive for a moment. Then he said:

“He came this summer to Semanville. I thought him odd. A charming fellow, frank and intelligent. But he ought to have some occupation, some aim in life.”

The bell which announced the end of an intermission between the acts had hushed. In the foyer the two old men were walking alone.

“An aim in life,” repeated La Briche, tall, thin, and bent, while his companion, lightened and rejuvenated, hastened within, fearing to miss a scene.

Marguerite, in the garden, was spinning and singing. When she had finished, Miss Bell said to Madame Martin:

“Darling, Monsieur Choulette has written me a perfectly beautiful letter. He has told me that he is very celebrated. And I am glad to know it. He said also: ‘The glory of other poets reposes in myrrh and aromatic plants. Mine bleeds and moans under a rain of stones and of oyster-shells.’ Do the French, my love, really throw stones at Monsieur Choulette?”

While Therese reassured Miss Bell, Loyer, imperious and somewhat noisy, caused the door of the box to be opened. He appeared wet and spattered with mud.

“I come from the Elysee,” he said.

He had the gallantry to announce to Madame Martin, first, the good news he was bringing:

“The decrees are signed. Your husband has the Finances. It is a good portfolio.”

“The President of the Republic,” inquired M. Martin — Belleme, “made no objection when my name was pronounced?”

“No; Berthier praised the hereditary property of the Martins, your caution, and the links with which you are attached to certain personalities in the financial world whose concurrence may be useful to the government. And the President, in accordance with Garain’s happy expression, was inspired by the necessities of the situation. He has signed.”

On Count Martin’s yellowed face two or three wrinkles appeared. He was smiling.

“The decree,” continued Loyer, “will be published tomorrow. I accompanied myself the clerk who took it to the printer. It was surer. In Grevy’s time, and Grevy was not an idiot, decrees were intercepted in the journey from the Elysee to the Quai Voltaire.”

And Loyer threw himself on a chair. There, enjoying the view of Madame Martin, he continued:

“People will not say, as they did in the time of my poor friend Gambetta, that the republic is lacking in women. You will give us fine festivals, Madame, in the salons of the Ministry.”

Marguerite, looking at herself in the mirror, with her necklace and earrings, was singing the jewel song.

“We shall have to compose the declaration,” said Count Martin. “I have thought of it. For my department I have found, I think, a fine formula.”

Loyer shrugged his shoulders.

“My dear Martin, we have nothing essential to change in the declaration of the preceding Cabinet; the situation is unchanged.”

He struck his forehead with his hand.

“Oh, I had forgotten. We have made your friend, old Lariviere, Minister of War, without consulting him. I have to warn him.”

He thought he could find him in the boulevard cafe, where military men go. But Count Martin knew the General was in the theatre.

“I must find him,” said Loyer.

Bowing to Therese, he said:

“You permit me, Countess, to take your husband?”

They had just gone out when Jacques Dechartre and Paul Vence came into the box.

“I congratulate you, Madame,” said Paul Vence.

But she turned toward Dechartre:

“I hope you have not come to congratulate me, too.”

Paul Vence asked her if she would move into the apartments of the Ministry.

“Oh, no,” she replied.

“At least, Madame,” said Paul Vence, “you will go to the balls at the Elysees, and we shall admire the art with which you retain your mysterious charm.”

“Changes in cabinets,” said Madame Martin, “inspire you, Monsieur Vence, with very frivolous reflections.”

“Madame,” continued Paul Vence, “I shall not say like Renan, my beloved master: ‘What does Sirius care?’ because somebody would reply with reason ‘What does little Earth care for big Sirius?’ But I am always surprised when people who are adult, and even old, let themselves be deluded by the illusion of power, as if hunger, love, and death, all the ignoble or sublime necessities of life, did not exercise on men an empire too sovereign to leave them anything other than power written on paper and an empire of words. And, what is still more marvellous, people imagine they have other chiefs of state and other ministers than their miseries, their desires, and their imbecility. He was a wise man who said: ‘Let us give to men irony and pity as witnesses and judges.’”

“But, Monsieur Vence,” said Madame Martin, laughingly, “you are the man who wrote that. I read it.”

The two Ministers looked vainly in the theatre and in the corridors for the General. On the advice of the ushers, they went behind the scenes.

Two ballet-dancers were standing sadly, with a foot on the bar placed against the wall. Here and there men in evening dress and women in gauze formed groups almost silent.

Loyer and Martin-Belleme, when they entered, took off their hats. They saw, in the rear of the hall, Lariviere with a pretty girl whose pink tunic, held by a gold belt, was open at the hips.

She held in her hand a gilt pasteboard cup. When they were near her, they heard her say to the General:

“You are old, to be sure, but I think you do as much as he does.”

And she was pointing disdainfully to a grinning young man, with a gardenia in his button-hole, who stood near them.

Loyer motioned to the General that he wished to speak to him, and, pushing him against the bar, said:

“I have the pleasure to announce to you that you have been appointed Minister of War.”

Lariviere, distrustful, said nothing. That badly dressed man with long hair, who, under his dusty coat, resembled a clown, inspired so little confidence in him that he suspected a snare, perhaps a bad joke.

“Monsieur Loyer is Keeper of the Seals,” said Count Martin.

“General, you cannot refuse,” Loyer said. “I have said you will accept. If you hesitate, it will be favoring the offensive return of Garain. He is a traitor.”

“My dear colleague, you exaggerate,” said Count Martin; “but Garain, perhaps, is lacking a little in frankness. And the General’s support is urgent.”

“The Fatherland before everything,” replied Lariviere with emotion.

“You know, General,” continued Loyer, “the existing laws are to be applied with moderation.”

He looked at the two dancers who were extending their short and muscular legs on the bar.

Lariviere murmured:

“The army’s patriotism is excellent; the good-will of the chiefs is at the height of the most critical circumstances.”

Loyer tapped his shoulder.

“My dear colleague, there is some use in having big armies.”

“I believe as you do,” replied Lariviere; “the present army fills the superior necessities of national defence.”

“The use of big armies,” continued Loyer, “is to make war impossible. One would be crazy to engage in a war these immeasurable forces, the management of which surpasses all human faculty. Is not this your opinion, General?”

General Lariviere winked.

“The situation,” he said, “exacts circumspection. We are facing a perilous unknown.”

Then Loyer, looking at his war colleague with cynical contempt, said:

“In the very improbable case of a war, don’t you think, my dear colleague, that the real generals would be the station-masters?”

The three Ministers went out by the private stairway. The President of the Council was waiting for them.

The last act had begun; Madame Martin had in her box only Dechartre and Miss Bell. Miss Bell was saying:

“I rejoice, darling, I am exalted, at the thought that you wear on your heart the red lily of Florence. Monsieur Dechartre, whose soul is artistic, must be very glad, too, to see at your corsage that charming jewel.

“I should like to know the jeweller that made it, darling. This lily is lithe and supple like an iris. Oh, it is elegant, magnificent, and cruel. Have you noticed, my love, that beautiful jewels have an air of magnificent cruelty?”

“My jeweller,” said Therese, “is here, and you have named him; it is Monsieur Dechartre who designed this jewel.”

The door of the box was opened. Therese half turned her head and saw in the shadow Le Menil, who was bowing to her with his brusque suppleness.

“Transmit, I pray you, Madame, my congratulations to your husband.”

He complimented her on her fine appearance. He spoke to Miss Bell a few courteous and precise words.

Therese listened anxiously, her mouth half open in the painful effort to say insignificant things in reply. He asked her whether she had had a good season at Joinville. He would have liked to go in the hunting time, but could not. He had gone to the Mediterranean, then he had hunted at Semanville.

“Oh, Monsieur Le Menil,” said Miss Bell, “you have wandered on the blue sea. Have you seen sirens?”

No, he had not seen sirens, but for three days a dolphin had swum in the yacht’s wake.

Miss Bell asked him if that dolphin liked music.

He thought not.

“Dolphins,” he said, “are very ordinary fish that sailors call sea-geese, because they have goose-shaped heads.”

But Miss Bell would not believe that the monster which had earned the poet Arion had a goose-shaped head.

“Monsieur Le Menil, if next year a dolphin comes to swim near your boat, I pray you play to him on the flute the Delphic Hymn to Apollo. Do you like the sea, Monsieur Le Menil?”

“I prefer the woods.”

Self-contained, simple, he talked quietly.

“Oh, Monsieur Le Menil, I know you like woods where the hares dance in the moonlight.”

Dechartre, pale, rose and went out.

The church scene was on. Marguerite, kneeling, was wringing her hands, and her head drooped with the weight of her long tresses. The voices of the organ and the chorus sang the death-song.

“Oh, darling, do you know that that death-song, which is sung only in the Catholic churches, comes from a Franciscan hermitage? It sounds like the wind which blows in winter in the trees on the summit of the Alverno.”

Therese did not hear. Her soul had followed Dechartre through the door of her box.

In the anteroom was a noise of overthrown chairs. It was Schmoll coming back. He had learned that M. Martin-Belleme had recently been appointed Minister. At once he claimed the cross of Commander of the Legion of Honor and a larger apartment at the Institute. His apartment was small, narrow, insufficient for his wife and his five daughters. He had been forced to put his workshop under the roof. He made long complaints, and consented to go only after Madame Martin had promised that she would speak to her husband.

“Monsieur Le Menil,” asked Miss Bell, “shall you go yachting next year?”

Le Menil thought not. He did not intend to keep the Rosebud. The water was tiresome.

And calm, energetic, determined, he looked at Therese.

On the stage, in Marguerite’s prison, Mephistopheles sang, and the orchestra imitated the gallop of horses. Therese murmured:

“I have a headache. It is too warm here.”

Le Menil opened the door.

The clear phrase of Marguerite calling the angels ascended to heaven in white sparks.

“Darling, I will tell you that poor Marguerite does not wish to be saved according to the flesh, and for that reason she is saved in spirit and in truth. I believe one thing, darling, I believe firmly we shall all be saved. Oh, yes, I believe in the final purification of sinners.”

Therese rose, tall and white, with the red flower at her breast. Miss Bell, immovable, listened to the music. Le Menil, in the anteroom, took Madame Martin’s cloak, and, while he held it unfolded, she traversed the box, the anteroom, and stopped before the mirror of the half-open door. He placed on her bare shoulders the cape of red velvet embroidered with gold and lined with ermine, and said, in a low tone, but distinctly:

“Therese, I love you. Remember what I asked you the day before yesterday. I shall be every day, at three o’clock, at our home, in the Rue Spontini.”

At this moment, as she made a motion with her head to receive the cloak, she saw Dechartre with his hand on the knob of the door. He had heard. He looked at her with all the reproach and suffering that human eyes can contain. Then he went into the dim corridor. She felt hammers of fire beating in her chest and remained immovable on the threshold.

“You were waiting for me?” said Montessuy. “You are left alone to-day. I will escort you and Miss Bell.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06