The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola

1

CLAUDE was passing in front of the Hotel de Ville, and the clock was striking two o’clock in the morning when the storm burst forth. He had been roaming forgetfully about the Central Markets, during that burning July night, like a loitering artist enamoured of nocturnal Paris. Suddenly the raindrops came down, so large and thick, that he took to his heels and rushed, wildly bewildered, along the Quai de la Greve. But on reaching the Pont Louis Philippe he pulled up, ragefully breathless; he considered this fear of the rain to be idiotic; and so amid the pitch-like darkness, under the lashing shower which drowned the gas-jets, he crossed the bridge slowly, with his hands dangling by his side.

He had only a few more steps to go. As he was turning on to the Quai Bourbon, on the Isle of St. Louis, a sharp flash of lightning illumined the straight, monotonous line of old houses bordering the narrow road in front of the Seine. It blazed upon the panes of the high, shutterless windows, showing up the melancholy frontages of the old-fashioned dwellings in all their details; here a stone balcony, there the railing of a terrace, and there a garland sculptured on a frieze. The painter had his studio close by, under the eaves of the old Hotel du Martoy, nearly at the corner of the Rue de la Femme-sans-Tete.* So he went on while the quay, after flashing forth for a moment, relapsed into darkness, and a terrible thunder-clap shook the drowsy quarter.

* The street of the Headless woman. — ED.

When Claude, blinded by the rain, got to his door — a low, rounded door, studded with iron — he fumbled for the bell knob, and he was exceedingly surprised — indeed, he started — on finding a living, breathing body huddled against the woodwork. Then, by the light of a second flash, he perceived a tall young girl, dressed in black, and drenched already, who was shivering with fear. When a second thunder-clap had shaken both of them, Claude exclaimed:

‘How you frighten one! Who are you, and what do you want?’

He could no longer see her; he only heard her sob, and stammer:

‘Oh, monsieur, don’t hurt me. It’s the fault of the driver, whom I hired at the station, and who left me at this door, after ill-treating me. Yes, a train ran off the rails, near Nevers. We were four hours late, and a person who was to wait for me had gone. Oh, dear me; I have never been in Paris before, and I don’t know where I am. . . . ’

Another blinding flash cut her short, and with dilated eyes she stared, terror-stricken, at that part of the strange capital, that violet-tinted apparition of a fantastic city. The rain had ceased falling. On the opposite bank of the Seine was the Quai des Ormes, with its small grey houses variegated below by the woodwork of their shops and with their irregular roofs boldly outlined above, while the horizon suddenly became clear on the left as far as the blue slate eaves of the Hotel de Ville, and on the right as far as the leaden-hued dome of St. Paul. What startled her most of all, however, was the hollow of the stream, the deep gap in which the Seine flowed, black and turgid, from the heavy piles of the Pont Marie, to the light arches of the new Pont Louis Philippe. Strange masses peopled the river, a sleeping flotilla of small boats and yawls, a floating washhouse, and a dredger moored to the quay. Then, farther down, against the other bank, were lighters, laden with coals, and barges full of mill stone, dominated as it were by the gigantic arm of a steam crane. But, suddenly, everything disappeared again.

Claude had an instinctive distrust of women — that story of an accident, of a belated train and a brutal cabman, seemed to him a ridiculous invention. At the second thunder-clap the girl had shrunk farther still into her corner, absolutely terrified.

‘But you cannot stop here all night,’ he said.

She sobbed still more and stammered, ‘I beseech you, monsieur, take me to Passy. That’s where I was going.’

He shrugged his shoulders. Did she take him for a fool? Mechanically, however, he turned towards the Quai des Celestins, where there was a cabstand. Not the faintest glimmer of a lamp to be seen.

‘To Passy, my dear? Why not to Versailles? Where do you think one can pick up a cab at this time of night, and in such weather?’

Her only answer was a shriek; for a fresh flash of lightning had almost blinded her, and this time the tragic city had seemed to her to be spattered with blood. An immense chasm had been revealed, the two arms of the river stretching far away amidst the lurid flames of a conflagration. The smallest details had appeared: the little closed shutters of the Quai des Ormes, and the two openings of the Rue de la Masure, and the Rue du Paon-Blanc, which made breaks in the line of frontages; then near the Pont Marie one could have counted the leaves on the lofty plane trees, which there form a bouquet of magnificent verdure; while on the other side, beneath the Pont Louis Philippe, at the Mail, the barges, ranged in a quadruple line, had flared with the piles of yellow apples with which they were heavily laden. And there was also the ripple of the water, the high chimney of the floating washhouse, the tightened chain of the dredger, the heaps of sand on the banks, indeed, an extraordinary agglomeration of things, quite a little world filling the great gap which seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other. But the sky became dark again, and the river flowed on, all obscurity, amid the crashing of the thunder.

‘Thank heaven it’s over. Oh, heaven! what’s to become of me?’

Just then the rain began to fall again, so stiffly and impelled by so strong a wind that it swept along the quay with the violence of water escaping through an open lock.

‘Come, let me get in,’ said Claude; ‘I can stand this no longer.’

Both were getting drenched. By the flickering light of the gas lamp at the corner of the Rue de la Femme-sans-Tete the young man could see the water dripping from the girl’s dress, which was clinging to her skin, in the deluge that swept against the door. He was seized with compassion. Had he not once picked up a cur on such a stormy night as this? Yet he felt angry with himself for softening. He never had anything to do with women; he treated them all as if ignorant of their existence, with a painful timidity which he disguised under a mask of bravado. And that girl must really think him a downright fool, to bamboozle him with that story of adventure — only fit for a farce. Nevertheless, he ended by saying, ‘That’s enough. You had better come in out of the wet. You can sleep in my rooms.’

But at this the girl became even more frightened, and threw up her arms.

‘In your rooms? Oh! good heavens. No, no; it’s impossible. I beseech you, monsieur, take me to Passy. Let me beg of you.’

But Claude became angry. Why did she make all this fuss, when he was willing to give her shelter? He had already rung the bell twice. At last the door opened and he pushed the girl before him.

‘No, no, monsieur; I tell you, no —’

But another flash dazzled her, and when the thunder growled she bounded inside, scarce knowing what she was about. The heavy door had closed upon them, she was standing under a large archway in complete darkness.

‘It’s I, Madame Joseph,’ cried Claude to the doorkeeper. Then he added, in a whisper, ‘Give me your hand, we have to cross the courtyard.’

The girl did as she was told; she no longer resisted; she was overwhelmed, worn out. Once more they encountered the diluvian rain, as they ran side by side as hard as they could across the yard. It was a baronial courtyard, huge, and surrounded with stone arcades, indistinct amidst the gloom. However, they came to a narrow passage without a door, and he let go her hand. She could hear him trying to strike some matches, and swearing. They were all damp. It was necessary for them to grope their way upstairs.

‘Take hold of the banisters, and be careful,’ said Claude; ‘the steps are very high.’

The staircase, a very narrow one, a former servants’ staircase, was divided into three lofty flights, which she climbed, stumbling, with unskilful, weary limbs. Then he warned her that they had to turn down a long passage. She kept behind him, touching the walls on both sides with her outstretched hands, as she advanced along that endless passage which bent and came back to the front of the building on the quay. Then there were still other stairs right under the roof — creaking, shaky wooden stairs, which had no banister, and suggested the unplaned rungs of a miller’s ladder. The landing at the top was so small that the girl knocked against the young man, as he fumbled in his pocket for his key. At last, however, he opened the door.

‘Don’t come in, but wait, else you’ll hurt yourself again.’

She did not stir. She was panting for breath, her heart was beating fast, there was a buzzing in her ears, and she felt indeed exhausted by that ascent in the dense gloom. It seemed to her as if she had been climbing for hours, in such a maze, amidst such a turning and twisting of stairs that she would never be able to find her way down again. Inside the studio there was a shuffling of heavy feet, a rustling of hands groping in the dark, a clatter of things being tumbled about, accompanied by stifled objurgations. At last the doorway was lighted up.

‘Come in, it’s all right now.’

She went in and looked around her, without distinguishing anything. The solitary candle burned dim in that garret, more than fifteen feet high, and filled with a confused jumble of things whose big shadows showed fantastically on the walls, which were painted in grey distemper. No, she did not distinguish anything. She mechanically raised her eyes to the large studio-window, against which the rain was beating with a deafening roll like that of a drum, but at that moment another flash of lightning illumined the sky, followed almost immediately by a thunder-clap that seemed to split the roof. Dumb-stricken, pale as death, she dropped upon a chair.

‘The devil!’ muttered Claude, who also was rather pale. ‘That clap wasn’t far off. We were just in time. It’s better here than in the streets, isn’t it?’

Then he went towards the door, closed it with a bang and turned the key, while she watched him with a dazed look.

‘There, now, we are at home.’

But it was all over. There were only a few more thunder-claps in the distance, and the rain soon ceased altogether. Claude, who was now growing embarrassed, had examined the girl, askance. She seemed by no means bad looking, and assuredly she was young: twenty at the most. This scrutiny had the effect of making him more suspicious of her still, in spite of an unconscious feeling, a vague idea, that she was not altogether deceiving him. In any case, no matter how clever she might be, she was mistaken if she imagined she had caught him. To prove this he wilfully exaggerated his gruffness and curtness of manner.

Her very anguish at his words and demeanour made her rise, and in her turn she examined him, though without daring to look him straight in the face. And the aspect of that bony young man, with his angular joints and wild bearded face, increased her fears. With his black felt hat and his old brown coat, discoloured by long usage, he looked like a kind of brigand.

Directly he told her to make herself at home and go to bed, for he placed his bed at her disposal, she shrinkingly replied: ‘Thank you; I’ll do very well as I am; I’ll not undress.’

‘But your clothes are dripping,’ he retorted. ‘Come now, don’t make an idiot of yourself.’

And thereupon he began to knock about the chairs, and flung aside an old screen, behind which she noticed a washstand and a tiny iron bedstead, from which he began to remove the coverlet.

‘No, no, monsieur, it isn’t worth while; I assure you that I shall stay here.’

At this, however, Claude became angry, gesticulating and shaking his fists.

‘How much more of this comedy are we to have?’ said he. ‘As I give you my bed, what have you to complain of? You need not pay any attention to me. I shall sleep on that couch.’

He strode towards her with a threatening look, and thereupon, beside herself with fear, thinking that he was going to strike her, she tremblingly unfastened her hat. The water was dripping from her skirts. He kept on growling. Nevertheless, a sudden scruple seemed to come to him, for he ended by saying, condescendingly:

‘Perhaps you don’t like to sleep in my sheets. I’ll change them.’

He at once began dragging them from the bed and flinging them on to the couch at the other end of the studio. And afterwards he took a clean pair from the wardrobe and began to make the bed with all the deftness of a bachelor accustomed to that kind of thing. He carefully tucked in the clothes on the side near the wall, shook the pillows, and turned back a corner of the coverlet.

‘There, that’ll do; won’t it?’ said he.

And as she did not answer, but remained motionless, he pushed her behind the screen. ‘Good heavens! what a lot of fuss,’ he thought. And after spreading his own sheets on the couch, and hanging his clothes on an easel, he quickly went to bed himself. When he was on the point of blowing out the candle, however, he reflected that if he did so she would have to undress in the dark, and so he waited. At first he had not heard her stir; she had no doubt remained standing against the iron bedstead. But at last he detected a slight rustling, a slow, faint movement, as if amidst her preparations she also were listening, frightened perchance by the candle which was still alight. At last, after several minutes, the spring mattress creaked, and then all became still.

‘Are you comfortable, mademoiselle?’ now asked Claude, in a much more gentle voice.

‘Yes, monsieur, very comfortable,’ she replied, in a scarcely audible voice, which still quivered with emotion.

‘Very well, then. Good-night.’

‘Good-night.’

He blew out the candle, and the silence became more intense. In spite of his fatigue, his eyes soon opened again, and gazed upward at the large window of the studio. The sky had become very clear again, the stars were twinkling in the sultry July night, and, despite the storm, the heat remained oppressive. Claude was thinking about the girl — agitated for a moment by contrary feelings, though at last contempt gained the mastery. He indeed believed himself to be very strong-minded; he imagined a romance concocted to destroy his tranquillity, and he gibed contentedly at having frustrated it. His experience of women was very slight, nevertheless he endeavoured to draw certain conclusions from the story she had told him, struck as he was at present by certain petty details, and feeling perplexed. But why, after all, should he worry his brain? What did it matter whether she had told him the truth or a lie? In the morning she would go off; there would be an end to it all, and they would never see each other again. Thus Claude lay cogitating, and it was only towards daybreak, when the stars began to pale, that he fell asleep. As for the girl behind the screen, in spite of the crushing fatigue of her journey, she continued tossing about uneasily, oppressed by the heaviness of the atmosphere beneath the hot zinc-work of the roof; and doubtless, too, she was rendered nervous by the strangeness of her surroundings.

In the morning, when Claude awoke, his eyes kept blinking. It was very late, and the sunshine streamed through the large window. One of his theories was, that young landscape painters should take studios despised by the academical figure painters — studios which the sun flooded with living beams. Nevertheless he felt dazzled, and fell back again on his couch. Why the devil had he been sleeping there? His eyes, still heavy with sleep, wandered mechanically round the studio, when, all at once, beside the screen he noticed a heap of petticoats. Then he at once remembered the girl. He began to listen, and heard a sound of long-drawn, regular breathing, like that of a child comfortably asleep. Ah! so she was still slumbering, and so calmly, that it would be a pity to disturb her. He felt dazed and somewhat annoyed at the adventure, however, for it would spoil his morning’s work. He got angry at his own good nature; it would be better to shake her, so that she might go at once. Nevertheless he put on his trousers and slippers softly, and walked about on tiptoes.

The cuckoo clock struck nine, and Claude made a gesture of annoyance. Nothing had stirred; the regular breathing continued. The best thing to do, he thought, would be to set to work on his large picture; he would see to his breakfast later on, when he was able to move about. But, after all, he could not make up his mind. He who lived amid chronic disorder felt worried by that heap of petticoats lying on the floor. Some water had dripped from them, but they were damp still. And so, while grumbling in a low tone, he ended by picking them up one by one and spreading them over the chairs in the sunlight. Had one ever seen the like, clothes thrown about anyhow? They would never get dry, and she would never go off! He turned all that feminine apparel over very awkwardly, got entangled with the black dress-body, and went on all fours to pick up the stockings that had fallen behind an old canvas. They were Balbriggan stockings of a dark grey, long and fine, and he examined them, before hanging them up to dry. The water oozing from the edge of the dress had soaked them, so he wrung and stretched them with his warm hands, in order that he might be able to send her away the quicker.

Since he had been on his legs, Claude had felt sorely tempted to push aside the screen and to take a look at his guest. This self-condemned curiosity only increased his bad temper. At last, with his habitual shrug of the shoulders, he was taking up his brushes, when he heard some words stammered amidst a rustling of bed-clothes. Then, however, soft breathing was heard again, and this time he yielded to the temptation, dropping his brushes, and peeping from behind the screen. The sight that met his eyes rooted him to the spot, so fascinated that he muttered, ‘Good gracious! good gracious!’

The girl, amidst the hot-house heat that came from the window, had thrown back her coverlet, and, overcome with the fatigue of a restless night, lay steeped in a flood of sunshine, unconscious of everything. In her feverish slumbers a shoulder button had become unfastened, and a sleeve slipping down allowed her bosom to be seen, with skin which looked almost gilded and soft like satin. Her right arm rested beneath her neck, her head was thrown back, and her black unwound tresses enwrapped her like a dusky cloak.

‘Good gracious! But she’s a beauty!’ muttered Claude once more.

There, in every point, was the figure he had vainly sought for his picture, and it was almost in the right pose. She was rather spare, perhaps, but then so lithe and fresh.

With a light step, Claude ran to take his box of crayons, and a large sheet of paper. Then, squatting on a low chair, he placed a portfolio on his knees and began to sketch with an air of perfect happiness. All else vanished amidst artistic surprise and enthusiasm. No thought of sex came to him. It was all a mere question of chaste outlines, splendid flesh tints, well-set muscles. Face to face with nature, an uneasy mistrust of his powers made him feel small; so, squaring his elbows, he became very attentive and respectful. This lasted for about a quarter of an hour, during which he paused every now and then, blinking at the figure before him. As he was afraid, however, that she might change her position, he speedily set to work again, holding his breath, lest he should awaken her.

And yet, while steadily applying himself to his work, vague fancies again assailed his mind. Who could she be? Assuredly no mere hussy. But why had she told him such an unbelievable tale? Thereupon he began to imagine other stories. Perhaps she had but lately arrived in Paris with a lover, who had abandoned her; perhaps she was some young woman of the middle classes led into bad company by a female friend, and not daring to go home to her relatives; or else there was some still more intricate drama beneath it all; something horrible, inexplicable, the truth of which he would never fathom. All these hypotheses increased his perplexity. Meanwhile, he went on sketching her face, studying it with care. The whole of the upper part, the clear forehead, as smooth as a polished mirror, the small nose, with its delicately chiselled and nervous nostrils, denoted great kindliness and gentleness. One divined the sweet smile of the eyes beneath the closed lids; a smile that would light up the whole of the features. Unfortunately, the lower part of the face marred that expression of sweetness; the jaw was prominent, and the lips, rather too full, showed almost blood-like over the strong white teeth. There was here, like a flash of passion, something that spoke of awakening womanhood, still unconscious of itself amidst those other traits of childlike softness.

But suddenly a shiver rippled over the girl’s satiny skin. Perhaps she had felt the weight of that gaze thus mentally dissecting her. She opened her eyes very wide and uttered a cry.

‘Ah! great heavens!’

Sudden terror paralysed her at the sight of that strange room, and that young man crouching in his shirt-sleeves in front of her and devouring her with his eyes. Flushing hotly, she impulsively pulled up the counterpane.

‘Well, what’s the matter?’ cried Claude, angrily, his crayon suspended in mid-air; ‘what wasp has stung you now?’

He, whose knowledge of womankind was largely limited to professional models, was at a loss to understand the girl’s action.

She neither spoke nor stirred, but remained with the counterpane tightly wrapped round her throat, her body almost doubled up, and scarcely showing an outline beneath her coverings.

‘I won’t eat you, will I?’ urged Claude. ‘Come, just lie as you were, there’s a good girl.’

Again she blushed to her very ears. At last she stammered, ‘Oh, no, monsieur, no — pray!’

But he began to lose his temper altogether. One of the angry fits to which he was subject was coming upon him. He thought her obstinacy stupid. And as in response to his urgent requests she only began to sob, he quite lost his head in despair before his sketch, thinking that he would never be able to finish it, and would thus lose a capital study for his picture.

‘Well, you won’t, eh? But it’s idiotic. What do you take me for? Have I annoyed you at all? You know I haven’t. Besides, listen, it is very unkind of you to refuse me this service, because, after all, I sheltered you — I gave up my bed to you.’

She only continued to cry, with her head buried in the pillow.

‘I assure you that I am very much in want of this sketch, else I wouldn’t worry you.’

He grew surprised at the girl’s abundant tears, and ashamed at having been so rough with her, so he held his tongue at last, feeling embarrassed, and wishing too that she might have time to recover a bit. Then he began again, in a very gentle tone:

‘Well, as it annoys you, let’s say no more about it. But if you only knew. I’ve got a figure in my picture yonder which doesn’t make head-way at all, and you were just in the very note. As for me, when it’s a question of painting, I’d kill father and mother, you know. Well, you’ll excuse me, won’t you? And if you’d like me to be very nice, you’d just give me a few minutes more. No, no; keep quiet as you are; I only want the head — nothing but the head. If I could finish that, it would be all right. Really now, be kind; put your arm as it was before, and I shall be very grateful to you — grateful all my life long.’

It was he who was entreating now, pitifully waving his crayon amid the emotion of his artistic craving. Besides, he had not stirred, but remained crouching on his low chair, at a distance from the bed. At last she risked the ordeal, and uncovered her tranquillised face. What else could she do? She was at his mercy, and he looked so wretchedly unhappy.

Nevertheless, she still hesitated, she felt some last scruples. But eventually, without saying a word, she slowly brought her bare arm from beneath the coverings, and again slipped it under her head, taking care, however, to keep the counterpane tightly round her throat.

‘Ah! how kind you are! I’ll make haste, you will be free in a minute.’

He bent over his drawing, and only looked at her now and then with the glance of a painter who simply regards the woman before him as a model. At first she became pink again; the consciousness that she was showing her bare arm — which she would have shown in a ball-room without thinking at all about it — filled her with confusion. Nevertheless, the young man seemed so reasonable that she became reassured. The blush left her cheeks, and her lips parted in a vague confiding smile. And from between her half-opened eyelids she began to study him. How he had frightened her the previous night with his thick brown beard, his large head, and his impulsive gestures. And yet he was not ugly; she even detected great tenderness in the depths of his brown eyes, while his nose altogether surprised her. It was a finely-cut woman’s nose, almost lost amidst the bristling hair on his lips. He shook slightly with a nervous anxiety which made his crayon seem a living thing in his slender hand, and which touched her though she knew not why. She felt sure he was not bad-natured, his rough, surly ways arose from bashfulness. She did not decipher all this very clearly, but she divined it, and began to put herself at her ease, as if she were with a friend.

Nevertheless, the studio continued to frighten her a little. She cast sidelong glances around it, astonished at so much disorder and carelessness. Before the stove the cinders of the previous winter still lay in a heap. Besides the bed, the small washstand, and the couch, there was no other furniture than an old dilapidated oaken wardrobe and a large deal table, littered with brushes, colours, dirty plates, and a spirit lamp, atop of which was a saucepan, with shreds of vermicelli sticking to its sides. Some rush-bottomed chairs, their seats the worse for wear, were scattered about beside spavined easels. Near the couch the candlestick used on the previous night stood on the floor, which looked as if it had not been swept for fully a month. There was only the cuckoo clock, a huge one, with a dial illuminated with crimson flowers, that looked clean and bright, ticking sonorously all the while. But what especially frightened her were some sketches in oils that hung frameless from the walls, a serried array of sketches reaching to the floor, where they mingled with heaps of canvases thrown about anyhow. She had never seen such terrible painting, so coarse, so glaring, showing a violence of colour, that jarred upon her nerves like a carter’s oath heard on the doorstep of an inn. She cast her eyes down for a moment, and then became attracted by a picture, the back of which was turned to her. It was the large canvas at which the painter was working, and which he pushed against the wall every night, the better to judge it on the morrow in the surprise of the first glance. What could it be, that one, she wondered, since he dared not even show it? And, meantime, through the vast room, a sheet of burning sunlight, falling straight from the window panes, unchecked by any blind, spread with the flow of molten gold over all the broken-down furniture, whose devil-may-care shabbiness it threw into bold relief.

Claude began to feel the silence oppressive; he wanted to say something, no matter what, first, in order to be polite, and more especially to divert her attention from her pose. But cudgel his brain as he would, he could only think of asking: ‘Pray, what is your name?’

She opened her eyes, which she had closed, as if she were feeling sleepy.

‘Christine,’ she said.

At which he seemed surprised. Neither had he told her his name. Since the night before they had been together, side by side, without knowing one another.

‘My name is Claude.’

And, having looked at her just at that moment, he saw her burst into a pretty laugh. It was the sudden, merry peal of a big girl, still scarcely more than a hoyden. She considered this tardy exchange of names rather droll. Then something else amused her.

‘How funny — Claude, Christine — they begin with the same letter.’

They both became silent once more. He was blinking at his work, growing absorbed in it, and at a loss how to continue the conversation. He fancied that she was beginning to feel tired and uncomfortable, and in his fear lest she should stir, he remarked at random, merely to occupy her thoughts, ‘It feels rather warm.’

This time she checked her laughter, her natural gaiety that revived and burst forth in spite of herself ever since she had felt easier in mind. Truth to tell, the heat was indeed so oppressive that it seemed to her as if she were in a bath, with skin moist and pale with the milky pallor of a camellia.

‘Yes, it feels rather warm,’ she said, seriously, though mirth was dancing in her eyes.

Thereupon Claude continued, with a good-natured air:

‘It’s the sun falling straight in; but, after all, a flood of sunshine on one’s skin does one good. We could have done with some of it last night at the door, couldn’t we?’

At this both burst out laughing, and he, delighted at having hit upon a subject of conversation, questioned her about her adventure, without, however, feeling inquisitive, for he cared little about discovering the real truth, and was only intent upon prolonging the sitting.

Christine simply, and in a few words, related what had befallen her. Early on the previous morning she had left Clermont for Paris, where she was to take up a situation as reader and companion to the widow of a general, Madame Vanzade, a rich old lady, who lived at Passy. The train was timed to reach Paris at ten minutes past nine in the evening, and a maid was to meet her at the station. They had even settled by letter upon a means of recognition. She was to wear a black hat with a grey feather in it. But, a little above Nevers, her train had come upon a goods train which had run off the rails, its litter of smashed trucks still obstructing the line. There was quite a series of mishaps and delays. First an interminable wait in the carriages, which the passengers had to quit at last, luggage and all, in order to trudge to the next station, three kilometres distant, where the authorities had decided to make up another train. By this time they had lost two hours, and then another two were lost in the general confusion which the accident had caused from one end of the line to the other, in such wise that they reached the Paris terminus four hours behind time, that is, at one o’clock in the morning.

‘Bad luck, indeed,’ interrupted Claude, who was still sceptical, though half disarmed, in his surprise at the neat way in which the girl arranged the details of her story.

‘And, of course, there was no one at the station to meet you?’ he added.

Christine had, indeed, missed Madame Vanzade’s maid, who, no doubt, had grown tired of waiting. She told Claude of her utter helplessness at the Lyons terminus — that large, strange, dark station, deserted at that late hour of night. She had not dared to take a cab at first, but had kept on walking up and down, carrying her small bag, and still hoping that somebody would come for her. When at last she made up her mind there only remained one driver, very dirty and smelling of drink, who prowled round her, offering his cab in a knowing, impudent way.

‘Yes, I know, a dawdler,’ said Claude, getting as interested as if he were listening to a fairy tale. ‘So you got into his cab?’

Looking up at the ceiling, Christine continued, without shifting her position: ‘He made me; he called me his little dear, and frightened me. When he found out that I was going to Passy, he became very angry, and whipped his horse so hard that I was obliged to hold on by the doors. After that I felt more easy, because the cab trundled along all right through the lighted streets, and I saw people about. At last I recognised the Seine, for though I was never in Paris before, I had often looked at a map. Naturally I thought he would keep along the quay, so I became very frightened again on noticing that we crossed a bridge. Just then it began to rain, and the cab, which had got into a very dark turning, suddenly stopped. The driver got down from his seat, and declared it was raining too hard for him to remain on the box —’

Claude burst out laughing. He no longer doubted. She could not have invented that driver. And as she suddenly stopped, somewhat confused, he said, ‘All right, the cabman was having a joke.’

‘I jumped out at once by the other door,’ resumed Christine. ‘Then he began to swear at me, saying that we had arrived at Passy, and that he would tear my hat from my head if I did not pay him. It was raining in torrents, and the quay was absolutely deserted. I was losing my head, and when I had pulled out a five-franc piece, he whipped up his horse and drove off, taking my little bag, which luckily only contained two pocket-handkerchiefs, a bit of cake, and the key of my trunk, which I had been obliged to leave behind in the train.’

‘But you ought to have taken his number,’ exclaimed the artist indignantly. In fact he now remembered having been brushed against by a passing cab, which had rattled by furiously while he was crossing the Pont Louis Philippe, amid the downpour of the storm. And he reflected how improbable truth often was. The story he had conjured up as being the most simple and logical was utterly stupid beside the natural chain of life’s many combinations.

‘You may imagine how I felt under the doorway,’ concluded Christine. ‘I knew well enough that I was not at Passy, and that I should have to spend the night there, in this terrible Paris. And there was the thunder and the lightning — those horrible blue and red flashes, which showed me things that made me tremble.’

She closed her eyelids once more, she shivered, and the colour left her cheeks as, in her fancy, she again beheld the tragic city — that line of quays stretching away in a furnace-like blaze, the deep moat of the river, with its leaden waters obstructed by huge black masses, lighters looking like lifeless whales, and bristling with motionless cranes which stretched forth gallows-like arms. Was that a welcome to Paris?

Again did silence fall. Claude had resumed his drawing. But she became restless, her arm was getting stiff.

‘Just put your elbow a little lower, please,’ said Claude. Then, with an air of concern, as if to excuse his curtness: ‘Your parents will be very uneasy, if they have heard of the accident.’

‘I have no parents.’

‘What! neither father nor mother? You are all alone in the world?’

‘Yes; all alone.’

She was eighteen years old, and had been born in Strasburg, quite by chance, though, between two changes of garrison, for her father was a soldier, Captain Hallegrain. Just as she entered upon her twelfth year, the captain, a Gascon, hailing from Montauban, had died at Clermont, where he had settled when paralysis of the legs had obliged him to retire from active service. For nearly five years afterwards, her mother, a Parisian by birth, had remained in that dull provincial town, managing as well as she could with her scanty pension, but eking it out by fan-painting, in order that she might bring up her daughter as a lady. She had, however, now been dead for fifteen months, and had left her child penniless and unprotected, without a friend, save the Superior of the Sisters of the Visitation, who had kept her with them. Christine had come straight to Paris from the convent, the Superior having succeeded in procuring her a situation as reader and companion to her old friend, Madame Vanzade, who was almost blind.

At these additional particulars, Claude sat absolutely speechless. That convent, that well-bred orphan, that adventure, all taking so romantic a turn, made him relapse into embarrassment again, into all his former awkwardness of gesture and speech. He had left off drawing, and sat looking, with downcast eyes, at his sketch.

‘Is Clermont pretty?’ he asked, at last.

‘Not very; it’s a gloomy town. Besides, I don’t know; I scarcely ever went out.’

She was resting on her elbow, and continued, as if talking to herself in a very low voice, still tremulous from the thought of her bereavement.

‘Mamma, who wasn’t strong, killed herself with work. She spoilt me; nothing was too good for me. I had all sorts of masters, but I did not get on very well; first, because I fell ill, then because I paid no attention. I was always laughing and skipping about like a featherbrain. I didn’t care for music, piano playing gave me a cramp in my arms. The only thing I cared about at all was painting.’

He raised his head and interrupted her. ‘You can paint?’

‘Oh, no; I know nothing, nothing at all. Mamma, who was very talented, made me do a little water-colour, and I sometimes helped her with the backgrounds of her fans. She painted some lovely ones.’

In spite of herself, she then glanced at the startling sketches with which the walls seemed ablaze, and her limpid eyes assumed an uneasy expression at the sight of that rough, brutal style of painting. From where she lay she obtained a topsy-turvy view of the study of herself which the painter had begun, and her consternation at the violent tones she noticed, the rough crayon strokes, with which the shadows were dashed off, prevented her from asking to look at it more closely. Besides, she was growing very uncomfortable in that bed, where she lay broiling; she fidgetted with the idea of going off and putting an end to all these things which, ever since the night before, had seemed to her so much of a dream.

Claude, no doubt, became aware of her discomfort. A sudden feeling of shame brought with it one of compunction.

He put his unfinished sketch aside, and hastily exclaimed: ‘Much obliged for your kindness, mademoiselle. Forgive me, I have really abused it. Yes, indeed, pray get up; it’s time for you to look for your friends.’

And without appearing to understand why she did not follow his advice, but hid more and more of her bare arm in proportion as he drew nearer, he still insisted upon advising her to rise. All at once, as the real state of things struck him, he swung his arms about like a madman, set the screen in position, and went to the far end of the studio, where he began noisily setting his crockery in order, so that she might jump out and dress herself, without fear of being overheard.

Amidst the din he had thus raised, he failed to hear her hesitating voice, ‘Monsieur, monsieur —’

At last he caught her words.

‘Monsieur, would you be so kind — I can’t find my stockings.’

Claude hurried forward. What had he been thinking of? What was she to do behind that screen, without her stockings and petticoats, which he had spread out in the sunlight? The stockings were dry, he assured himself of that by gently rubbing them together, and he handed them to her over the partition; again noticing her arm, bare, plump and rosy like that of a child. Then he tossed the skirts on to the foot of the bed and pushed her boots forward, leaving nothing but her bonnet suspended from the easel. She had thanked him and that was all; he scarcely distinguished the rustling of her clothes and the discreet splashing of water. Still he continued to concern himself about her.

‘You will find the soap in a saucer on the table. Open the drawer and take a clean towel. Do you want more water? I’ll give you the pitcher.’

Suddenly the idea that he was blundering again exasperated him.

‘There, there, I am only worrying you. I will leave you to your own devices. Do as if you were at home.’

And he continued to potter about among the crockery. He was debating with himself whether he should ask her to stay to breakfast. He ought not to let her go like that. On the other hand, if she did stay, he would never get done; it would mean a loss of his whole morning. Without deciding anything, as soon as he had lighted his spirit lamp, he washed his saucepan and began to make some chocolate. He thought it more distingue, feeling rather ashamed of his vermicelli, which he mixed with bread and soused with oil as people do in the South of France. However, he was still breaking the chocolate into bits, when he uttered a cry of surprise, ‘What, already?’

It was Christine, who had pushed back the screen, and who appeared looking neat and correct in her black dress, duly laced and buttoned up, equipped, as it were, in a twinkle. Her rosy face did not even show traces of the water, her thick hair was twisted in a knot at the back of her head, not a single lock out of place. And Claude remained open-mouthed before that miracle of quickness, that proof of feminine skill in dressing well and promptly.

‘The deuce, if you go about everything in that way!’ said he.

He found her taller and handsomer than he had fancied. But what struck him most was her look of quiet decision. She was evidently no longer afraid of him. It seemed as though she had re-donned her armour and become an amazon again. She smiled and looked him straight in the face. Whereupon he said what he was still reluctant to say:

‘You’ll breakfast with me, won’t you?’

But she refused the offer. ‘No, thank you. I am going to the station, where my trunk must have arrived by now, and then I shall drive to Passy.’

It was in vain that he told her that she must be hungry, that it was unreasonable for her to go out without eating something.

‘Well, if you won’t, I’ll go down and fetch you a cab,’ he ended by exclaiming.

‘Pray don’t take such trouble.’

‘But you can’t go such a distance on foot. Let me at least take you to the cabstand, as you don’t know Paris.’

‘No, really I do not need you. If you wish to oblige me, let me go away by myself.’

She had evidently made up her mind. She no doubt shrank from the idea of being seen with a man, even by strangers. She meant to remain silent about that strange night, she meant to tell some falsehood, and keep the recollection of her adventure entirely to herself. He made a furious gesture, which was tantamount to sending her to the devil. Good riddance; it suited him better not to have to go down. But, all the same, he felt hurt at heart, and considered that she was ungrateful.

‘As you please, then. I sha’n’t resort to force,’ he said.

At these words, Christine’s vague smile became more accentuated. She did not reply, but took her bonnet and looked round in search of a glass. Failing to find one, she tied the strings as best she could. With her arms uplifted, she leisurely arranged and smoothed the ribbons, her face turned towards the golden rays of the sun. Somewhat surprised, Claude looked in vain for the traits of childish softness that he had just portrayed; the upper part of her face, her clear forehead, her gentle eyes had become less conspicuous; and now the lower part stood out, with its somewhat sensual jaw, ruddy mouth, and superb teeth. And still she smiled with that enigmatical, girlish smile, which was, perhaps, an ironical one.

‘At any rate,’ he said, in a vexed tone, ‘I do not think you have anything to reproach me with.’

At which she could not help laughing, with a slight, nervous laugh.

‘No, no, monsieur, not in the least.’

He continued staring at her, fighting the battle of inexperience and bashfulness over again, and fearing that he had been ridiculous. Now that she no longer trembled before him, had she become contemptuously surprised at having trembled at all? What! he had not made the slightest attempt at courtship, not even pressed a kiss on her finger-tips. The young fellow’s bearish indifference, of which she had assuredly been conscious, must have hurt her budding womanly feelings.

‘You were saying,’ she resumed, becoming sedate once more, ‘that the cabstand is at the end of the bridge on the opposite quay?’

‘Yes; at the spot where there is a clump of trees.’

She had finished tying her bonnet strings, and stood ready gloved, with her hands hanging by her side, and yet she did not go, but stared straight in front of her. As her eyes met the big canvas turned to the wall she felt a wish to see it, but did not dare to ask. Nothing detained her; still she seemed to be looking around as if she had forgotten something there, something which she could not name. At last she stepped towards the door.

Claude was already opening it, and a small loaf placed erect against the post tumbled into the studio.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘you ought to have stopped to breakfast with me. My doorkeeper brings the bread up every morning.’

She again refused with a shake of the head. When she was on the landing she turned round, and for a moment remained quite still. Her gay smile had come back; she was the first to hold out her hand.

‘Thank you, thank you very much.’

He had taken her small gloved hand within his large one, all pastel-stained as it was. Both hands remained like that for a few moments, closely and cordially pressed. The young girl was still smiling at him, and he had a question on the tip of his tongue: ‘When shall I see you again?’ But he felt ashamed to ask it, and after waiting a while she withdrew her hand.

‘Good-bye, monsieur.’

‘Good-bye, mademoiselle.’

Christine, without another glance, was already descending the steep ladder-like stairway whose steps creaked, when Claude turned abruptly into his studio, closing the door with a bang, and shouting to himself: ‘Ah, those confounded women!’

He was furious — furious with himself, furious with everyone. Kicking about the furniture, he continued to ease his feelings in a loud voice. Was not he right in never allowing them to cross his threshold? They only turned a fellow’s head. What proof had he after all that yonder chit with the innocent look, who had just gone, had not fooled him most abominably? And he had been silly enough to believe in her cock-and-bull stories! All his suspicions revived. No one would ever make him swallow that fairy tale of the general’s widow, the railway accident, and especially the cabman. Did such things ever happen in real life? Besides, that mouth of hers told a strange tale, and her looks had been very singular just as she was going. Ah! if he could only have understood why she had told him all those lies; but no, they were profitless, inexplicable. It was art for art’s sake. How she must be laughing at him by this time.

He roughly folded up the screen and sent it flying into a corner. She had no doubt left all in disorder. And when he found that everything was in its proper place — basin, towel, and soap — he flew into a rage because she had not made the bed. With a great deal of fuss he began to make it himself, lifting the mattress in his arms, banging the pillow about with his fists, and feeling oppressed by the pure scent of youth that rose from everything. Then he had a good wash to cool himself, and in the damp towel he found the same virgin fragrance, which seemed to spread through the studio. Swearing the while, he drank his chocolate from the saucepan, so excited, so eager to set to work, as to swallow large mouthfuls of bread without taking breath.

‘Why, it’s enough to kill one here,’ he suddenly exclaimed. ‘It must be this confounded heat that’s making me ill.’

After all, the sun had shifted, and it was far less hot. But he opened a small window on a level with the roof, and inhaled, with an air of profound relief, the whiff of warm air that entered. Then he took up his sketch of Christine’s head and for a long while he lingered looking at it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06