Strong as Death, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter IV

A Double Jealousy

One would have said that all the carriages in Paris were making a pilgrimage to the Palais de l’Industrie that day. As early as nine o’clock in the morning they began to drive, by way of all streets, avenues, and bridges, toward that hall of the fine arts where all artistic Paris invites all fashionable Paris to be present at the pretended varnishing of three thousand four hundred pictures.

A long procession of visitors pressed through the doors, and, disdaining the exhibition of sculpture, hastened upstairs to the picture gallery. Even while mounting the steps they raised their eyes to the canvases displayed on the walls of the staircase, where they hang the special category of decorative painters who have sent canvases of unusual proportions or works that the committee dare not refuse.

In the square salon a great crowd surged and rustled. The artists, who were in evidence until evening, were easily recognized by their activity, the sonorousness of their voices, and the authority of their gestures. They drew their friends by the sleeve toward the pictures, which they pointed out with exclamations and mimicry of a connoisseur’s energy. All types of artists were to be seen — tall men with long hair, wearing hats of mouse-gray or black and of indescribable shapes, large and round like roofs, with their turned- down brims shadowing the wearer’s whole chest. Others were short, active, slight or stocky, wearing foulard cravats and round jackets, or the sack-like garment of the singular costume peculiar to this class of painters.

There was the clan of the fashionables, of the curious, and of artists of the boulevard; the clan of Academicians, correct, and decorated with red rosettes, enormous or microscopic, according to individual conception of elegance and good form; the clan of bourgeois painters, assisted by the family surrounding the father like a triumphal chorus.

On the four great walls the canvases admitted to the honor of the square salon dazzled one at the very entrance by their brilliant tones, glittering frames, the crudity of new color, vivified by fresh varnish, blinding under the pitiless light poured from above.

The portrait of the President of the Republic faced the entrance; while on another wall a general bedizened with gold lace, sporting a hat decorated with ostrich plumes, and wearing red cloth breeches, hung in pleasant proximity to some naked nymphs under a willow-tree, and near by was a vessel in distress almost engulfed by a great wave. A bishop of the early Church excommunicating a barbarian king, an Oriental street full of dead victims of the plague, and the Shade of Dante in Hell, seized and captivated the eye with irresistible fascination.

Other paintings in the immense room were a charge of cavalry; sharpshooters in a wood; cows in a pasture; two noblemen of the eighteenth century fighting a duel on a street corner; a madwoman sitting on a wall; a priest administering the last rites to a dying man; harvesters, rivers, a sunset, a moonlight effect — in short, samples of everything that artists paint, have painted, and will paint until the end of the world.

Olivier, in the midst of a group of celebrated brother painters, members of the Institute and of the jury, exchanged opinions with them. He was oppressed by a certain uneasiness, a dissatisfaction with his own exhibited work, of the success of which he was very doubtful, in spite of the warm congratulations he had received.

Suddenly he sprang forward; the Duchesse de Mortemain had appeared at the main entrance.

“Hasn’t the Countess arrived yet?” she inquired of Bertin.

“I have not seen her.”

“And Monsieur de Musadieu?”

“I have not seen him either.”

“He promised me to be here at ten o’clock, at the top of the stairs, to show me around the principal galleries.”

“Will you permit me to take his place, Duchess?”

“No, no. Your friends need you. We shall see each other again very soon, for I shall expect you to lunch with us.”

Musadieu hastened toward them. He had been detained for some minutes in the hall of sculpture, and excused himself, breathless already.

“This way, Duchess, this way,” said he. “Let us begin at the right.”

They were just disappearing among the throng when the Comtesse de Guilleroy, leaning on her daughter’s arm, entered and looked around in search of Olivier Bertin.

He saw them and hastened to meet them. As he greeted the two ladies, he said:

“How charming you look to-day. Really, Nanette has improved very much. She has actually changed in a week.”

He regarded her with the eye of a close observer, adding: “The lines of her face are softer, yet more expressive; her complexion is clearer. She is already something less of a little girl and somewhat more of a Parisian.”

Suddenly he bethought himself of the grand affair of the day.

“Let us begin at the right,” said he, “and we shall soon overtake the Duchess.”

The Countess, well informed on all matters connected with painting, and as preoccupied as if she were herself on exhibition, inquired: “What do they say of the exposition?”

“A fine one,” Bertin replied. “There is a remarkable Bonnat, two excellent things by Carolus Duran, an admirable Puvis de Chavannes, a very new and astonishing Roll, an exquisite Gervex, and many others, by Beraud, Cazin, Duez — in short, a heap of good things.”

“And you?” said the Countess.

“Oh, they compliment me, but I am not satisfied.”

“You never are satisfied.”

“Yes, sometimes. But to-day I really feel that I am right.”

“Why?”

“I do not know.”

“Let us go to see it.”

When they arrived before Bertin’s picture — two little peasant-girls taking a bath in a brook — they found a group admiring it. The Countess was delighted, and whispered: “It is simply a delicious bit — a jewel! You never have done anything better.”

Bertin pressed close to her, loving her and thanking her for every word that calmed his suffering and healed his aching heart. Through his mind ran arguments to convince him that she was right, that she must judge accurately with the intelligent observation of an experienced Parisian. He forgot, so desirous was he to reassure himself, that for at least twelve years he had justly reproached her for too much admiring the dainty trifles, the elegant nothings, the sentimentalities and nameless trivialities of the passing fancy of the day, and never art, art alone, art detached from the popular ideas, tendencies, and prejudices.

“Let us go on,” said he, drawing them away from his picture. He led them for a long time from gallery to gallery, showing them notable canvases and explaining their subjects, happy to be with them.

“What time is it?” the Countess asked suddenly.

“Half after twelve.”

“Oh, let us hasten to luncheon then. The Duchess must be waiting for us at Ledoyen’s, where she charged me to bring you, in case we should not meet her in the galleries.”

The restaurant, in the midst of a little island of trees and shrubs, seemed like an overflowing hive. A confused hum of voices, calls, the rattling of plates and glasses came from the open windows and large doors. The tables, set close together and filled with people eating, extended in long rows right and left of a narrow passage, up and down which ran the distracted waiters, holding along their arms dishes filled with meats, fish, or fruit.

Under the circular gallery there was such a throng of men and women as to suggest a living pate. Everyone there laughed, called out, drank and ate, enlivened by the wines and inundated by one of those waves of joy that sweep over Paris, on certain days, with the sunshine.

An attendant showed the Countess, Annette, and Bertin upstairs into a reserved room, where the Duchess awaited them. As they entered, the painter observed, beside his aunt, the Marquis de Farandal, attentive and smiling, and extending his hand to receive the parasols and wraps of the Countess and her daughter. He felt again so much displeasure that he suddenly desired to say rude and irritating things.

The Duchess explained the meeting of her nephew and the departure of Musadieu, who had been carried off by the Minister of the Fine Arts, and Bertin, at the thought that this insipidly good-looking Marquis might marry Annette, that he had come there only to see her, and that he regarded her already as destined to share his bed, unnerved and revolted him, as if some one had ignored his own rights — sacred and mysterious rights.

As soon as they were at table, the Marquis, who sat beside the young girl, occupied himself in talking to her with the devoted air of a man authorized to pay his addresses.

He assumed a curious manner, which seemed to the painter bold and searching; his smiles were satisfied and almost tender, his gallantry was familiar and officious. In manner and word appeared already something of decision, as if he were about to announce that he had won the prize.

The Duchess and the Countess seemed to protect and approve this attitude of a pretender, and exchanged glances of complicity.

As soon as the luncheon was finished the party returned to the Exposition. There was such a dense crowd in the galleries, it seemed impossible to penetrate it. An odor of perspiring humanity, a stale smell of old gowns and coats, made an atmosphere at once heavy and sickening. No one looked at the pictures any more, but at faces and toilets, seeking out well-known persons; and at times came a great jostling of the crowd as it was forced to give way before the high double ladder of the varnishers, who cried: “Make way, Messieurs! Make way, Mesdames!”

At the end of ten minutes, the Countess and Olivier found themselves separated from the others. He wished to find them immediately, but, leaning upon him, the Countess said: “Are we not very well off as it is? Let them go, since it is quite natural that we should lose sight of them; we will meet them again in the buffet at four o’clock.”

“That is true,” he replied.

But he was absorbed by the idea that the Marquis was accompanying Annette and continuing his attempts to please her by his fatuous and affected gallantry.

“You love me always, then?” murmured the Countess.

“Yes, certainly,” he replied, with a preoccupied air, trying to catch a glimpse of the Marquis’s gray hat over the heads of the crowd.

Feeling that he was abstracted, and wishing to lead him back to her own train of thought, the Countess continued:

“If you only knew how I adore your picture of this year! It is certainly your chef-d’oeuvre.”

He smiled, suddenly, forgetting the young people in remembering his anxiety of the morning.

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“Yes, I prefer it above all others.”

With artful wheedling, she crowned him anew, having known well for a long time that nothing has a stronger effect on an artist than tender and continuous flattery. Captivated, reanimated, cheered by her sweet words, he began again to chat gaily, seeing and hearing only her in that tumultuous throng.

By way of expressing his thanks, he murmured in her ear: “I have a mad desire to embrace you!”

A warm wave of emotion swept over her, and, raising her shining eyes to his, she repeated her question: “You love me always, then?”

He replied, with the intonation she wished to hear, and which she had not heard before:

“Yes, I love you, my dear Any.”

“Come often to see me in the evenings,” she said. “Now that I have my daughter I shall not go out very much.”

Since she had recognized in him this unexpected reawakening of tenderness, her heart was stirred with great happiness. In view of Olivier’s silvery hair, and the calming touch of time, she had not suspected that he was fascinated by another woman, but she was terribly afraid that, from pure dread of loneliness, he might marry. This fear, which was of long standing, increased constantly, and set her wits to contriving plans whereby she might have him near her as much as possible, and to see that he should not pass long evenings alone in the chill silence of his empty rooms. Not being always able to hold and keep him, she would suggest amusements for him, sent him to the theater, forced him to go into society, being better pleased to know that he was mingling with many other women than alone in his gloomy house.

She resumed, answering his secret thought: “Ah, if I could only have you always with me, how I should spoil you! Promise me to come often, since I hardly go out at all now.”

“I promise it.”

At that moment a voice murmured “Mamma!” in her ear.

The Countess started and turned. Annette, the Duchess, and the Marquis had just rejoined them.

“It is four o’clock,” said the Duchess. “I am very tired and I wish to go now.”

“I will go, too; I have had enough of it,” said the Countess.

They reached the interior stairway which divides the galleries where the drawings and water-colors are hung, overlooking the immense garden inclosed in glass, where the works of sculpture are exhibited.

From the platform of this stairway they could see from one end to the other of this great conservatory, filled with statues set up along the pathway around large green shrubs, and below was the crowd which covered the paths like a moving black wave. The marbles rose from this mass of dark hats and shoulders, piercing it in a thousand places, and seeming almost luminous in their dazzling whiteness.

As Bertin took leave of the ladies at the door of exit, Madame de Guilleroy whispered:

“Then — will you come this evening?”

“Yes, certainly.”

Bertin reentered the Exposition, to talk with the artists over the impressions of the day.

Painters and sculptors stood talking in groups around the statues and in front of the buffet, upholding or attacking the same ideas that were discussed every year, using the same arguments over works almost exactly similar. Olivier, who usually took a lively share in these disputes, being quick in repartee and clever in disconcerting attacks, besides having a reputation as an ingenious theorist of which he was proud, tried to urge himself to take an active part in the debates, but the things he said interested him no more than those he heard, and he longed to go away, to listen no more, to understand no more, knowing beforehand as he did all that anyone could say on those ancient questions of art, of which he knew all sides.

He loved these things, however, and had loved them until now in an almost exclusive way; but to-day he was distracted by one of those slight but persistent preoccupations, one of those petty anxieties which are so small we ought not to allow ourselves to be troubled by them, but which, in spite of all we do or say, prick through our thoughts like an invisible thorn buried in the flesh.

He had even forgotten his anxiety over his little peasant bathers in the remembrance of the displeasing idea of the Marquis approaching Annette. What did it matter to him, after all? Had he any right? Why should he wish to prevent this precious marriage, already arranged, and suitable from every point of view? But no reasoning could efface that impression of uneasiness and discontent which had seized him when he had beheld Farandal talking and smiling like an accepted suitor, caressing with his glances the fair face of the young girl.

When he entered the Countess’s drawing-room that evening, and found her alone with her daughter, continuing by the lamplight their knitting for the poor, he had great difficulty in preventing himself from saying sneering things about the Marquis, and from revealing to Annette his real banality, veiled by a mask of elegance and good form.

For a long time, during these after-dinner evening visits, he had often allowed himself to lapse into occasional silence that was slightly somnolent, and was accustomed to fall into the easy attitudes of an old friend who does not stand on ceremony. But now he seemed suddenly to rouse himself and to show the alertness of men who do their best to be agreeable, who take thought as to what they wish to say, and who, before certain persons, seek for the best phrases in which to express their ideas and render them attractive. No longer did he allow the conversation to lag, but did his best to keep it bright and interesting; and when he had made the Countess and her daughter laugh gaily, when he felt that he had touched their emotions, or when they ceased to work in order to listen to him, he felt a thrill of pleasure, an assurance of success, which rewarded him for his efforts.

He came now every time that he knew they were alone, and never, perhaps, had he passed such delightful evenings.

Madame de Guilleroy, whose continual fears were soothed by this assiduity, made fresh efforts to attract him and to keep him near her. She refused invitations to dinners in the city, she did not go to balls, nor to the theaters, in order to have the joy of throwing into the telegraph-box, on going out at three o’clock, a little blue despatch which said: “Come to-night.” At first, wishing to give him earlier the tete-a-tete that he desired, she had sent her daughter to bed as soon as it was ten o’clock. Then after one occasion when he had appeared surprised at this and had begged laughingly that Annette should not be treated any longer like a naughty little girl, she had allowed her daughter a quarter of an hour’s grace, then half an hour, and finally a whole hour. Bertin never remained long after the young girl had retired; it was as if half the charm that held him there had departed with her. He would soon take the little low seat that he preferred beside the Countess and lay his cheek against her knee with a caressing movement. She would give him one of her hands, which he clasped in his, and the fever of his spirit would suddenly be abated; he ceased to talk, and appeared to find repose in tender silence from the effort he had made.

Little by little the Countess, with the keenness of feminine instinct, comprehended that Annette attracted him almost as much as she herself. This did not anger her; she was glad that between them he could find something of that domestic happiness which he lacked; and she imprisoned him between them, as it were, playing the part of tender mother in such a way that he might almost believe himself the young girl’s father; and a new bond of tenderness was added to that which had always held him to this household.

Her personal vanity, always alert, but disturbed since she had felt in several ways, like almost invisible pin-pricks, the innumerable attacks of advancing age, took on a new allurement. In order to become as slender as Annette, she continued to drink nothing, and the real slimness of her figure gave her the appearance of a young girl. When her back was turned one could hardly distinguish her from Annette; but her face showed the effect of this regime. The plump flesh began to be wrinkled and took on a yellowish tint which rendered more dazzling by contrast the superb freshness of the young girl’s complexion. Then the Countess began to make up her face with theatrical art, and, though in broad daylight she produced an effect that was slightly artificial, in the evening her complexion had that charmingly soft tint obtained by women who know how to make up well.

The realization of her fading beauty, and the employment of artificial aid to restore it, somewhat changed her habits. As much as possible, she avoided comparison with her daughter in the full light of day, but rather sought it by lamplight, which, if anything, showed herself to greater advantage. When she was fatigued, pale, and felt that she looked older than usual, she had convenient headaches by reason of which she excused herself from going to balls and theaters; but on days when she knew she looked well she triumphed again and played the elder sister with the grave modesty of a little mother. In order always to wear gowns like those of her daughter, she made Annette wear toilettes suitable for a fully-grown young woman, a trifle too old for her; and Annette who showed more and more plainly her joyous and laughing disposition, wore them with sparkling vivacity that rendered her still more attractive. She lent herself with all her heart to the coquettish arts of her mother, acting with her, as if by instinct, graceful little domestic scenes; she knew when to embrace her at the effective moment, how to clasp her tenderly round the waist, and to show by a movement, a caress, or some ingenious pose, how pretty both were and how much they resembled each other.

From seeing the two so much together, and from continually comparing them, Olivier Bertin sometimes actually confused them in his own mind. Sometimes, when Annette spoke, and he happened to be looking elsewhere, he was compelled to ask: “Which of you said that?” He often amused himself by playing this game of confusion when all three were alone in the drawing-room with the Louis XV tapestries. He would close his eyes and beg them to ask him the same question, the one after the other, and then change the order of the interrogations, so that he might recognize their voices. They did this with so much cleverness in imitating each other’s intonations, in saying the same phrases with the same accents, that often he could not tell which spoke. In fact, they had come to speak so much alike that the servants answered “Yes, Madame” to the daughter and “Yes, Mademoiselle” to the mother.

From imitating each other’s voices and movements for amusement, they acquired such a similarity of gait and gesture that Monsieur de Guilleroy himself, when he saw one or the other pass through the shadowy end of the drawing-room, confounded them for an instant and asked: “Is that you, Annette, or is it your mamma?”

From this resemblance, natural and assumed, was engendered in the mind and heart of the painter a strange impression of a double entity, old and young, wise yet ignorant, two bodies made, the one after the other, with the same flesh; in fact, the same woman continued, but rejuvenated, having become once more what she was formerly. Thus he lived near them, shared between them, uneasy, troubled, feeling for the mother his old ardor awakened, and for the daughter an indefinable tenderness.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09