The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola

6

THE very next morning, at seven o’clock, Christine was at the studio, her face still flushed by the falsehood which she had told Madame Vanzade about a young friend from Clermont whom she was to meet at the station, and with whom she should spend the day.

Claude, overjoyed by the idea of spending a whole day with her, wanted to take her into the country, far away under the glorious sunlight, so as to have her entirely to himself. She was delighted; they scampered off like lunatics, and reached the St. Lazare Station just in time to catch the Havre train. He knew, beyond Mantes, a little village called Bennecourt, where there was an artists’ inn which he had at times invaded with some comrades; and careless as to the two hours’ rail, he took her to lunch there, just as he would have taken her to Asnieres. She made very merry over this journey, to which there seemed no end. So much the better if it were to take them to the end of the world! It seemed to them as if evening would never come.

At ten o’clock they alighted at Bonnieres; and there they took the ferry — an old ferry-boat that creaked and grated against its chain — for Bennecourt is situated on the opposite bank of the Seine. It was a splendid May morning, the rippling waters were spangled with gold in the sunlight, the young foliage showed delicately green against the cloudless azure. And, beyond the islets situated at this point of the river, how delightful it was to find the country inn, with its little grocery business attached, its large common room smelling of soapsuds, and its spacious yard full of manure, on which the ducks disported themselves.

‘Hallo, Faucheur! we have come to lunch. An omelette, some sausages, and some cheese, eh?’

‘Are you going to stay the night, Monsieur Claude?’

‘No, no; another time. And some white wine; eh? you know that pinky wine, that grates a bit in the throat.’

Christine had already followed mother Faucheur to the barn-yard, and when the latter came back with her eggs, she asked Claude with her artful peasant’s laugh:

‘And so now you’re married?’

‘Well,’ replied the painter without hesitation, ‘it looks like it since I’m with my wife.’

The lunch was exquisite: the omelette overdone, the sausages too greasy, and the bread so hard that he had to cut it into fingers for Christine lest she should hurt her wrist. They emptied two bottles of wine, and began a third, becoming so gay and noisy that they ended by feeling bewildered in the long room, where they partook of the meal all alone. She, with her cheeks aflame, declared that she was tipsy; it had never happened to her before, and she thought it very funny. Oh! so funny, and she burst into uncontrollable laughter.

‘Let us get a breath of air,’ she said at last.

‘Yes, let’s take a stroll. We must start back at four o’clock; so we have three hours before us.’

They went up the village of Bennecourt, whose yellow houses straggle along the river bank for about a couple of thousand yards. All the villagers were in the fields; they only met three cows, led by a little girl. He, with an outstretched arm, told her all about the locality; seemed to know whither he was going, and when they had reached the last house — an old building, standing on the bank of the Seine, just opposite the slopes of Jeufosse — turned round it, and entered a wood of oak trees. It was like the end of the world, roofed in with foliage, through which the sun alone penetrated in narrow tongues of flame. And there they could stroll and talk and kiss in freedom.

When at last it became necessary for them to retrace their steps, they found a peasant standing at the open doorway of the house by the wood-side. Claude recognised the man and called to him:

‘Hallo, Porrette! Does that shanty belong to you?’

At this the old fellow, with tears in his eyes, related that it did, and that his tenants had gone away without paying him, leaving their furniture behind. And he invited them inside.

‘There’s no harm in looking; you may know somebody who would like to take the place. There are many Parisians who’d be glad of it. Three hundred francs a year, with the furniture; it’s for nothing, eh?’

They inquisitively followed him inside. It was a rambling old place that seemed to have been cut out of a barn. Downstairs they found an immense kitchen and a dining-room, in which one might have given a dance; upstairs were two rooms also, so vast that one seemed lost in them. As for the furniture, it consisted of a walnut bedstead in one of the rooms, and of a table and some household utensils in the kitchen. But in front of the house the neglected garden was planted with magnificent apricot trees, and overgrown with large rose-bushes in full bloom; while at the back there was a potato field reaching as far as the oak wood, and surrounded by a quick-set hedge.

‘I’d leave the potatoes as they are,’ said old Porrette.

Claude and Christine looked at each other with one of those sudden cravings for solitude and forgetfulness common to lovers. Ah! how sweet it would be to love one another there in the depths of that nook, so far away from everybody else! But they smiled. Was such a thing to be thought of? They had barely time to catch the train that was to take them back to Paris. And the old peasant, who was Madame Faucheur’s father, accompanied them along the river bank, and as they were stepping into the ferry-boat, shouted to them, after quite an inward struggle:

‘You know, I’ll make it two hundred and fifty francs — send me some people.’

On reaching Paris, Claude accompanied Christine to Madame Vanzade’s door. They had grown very sad. They exchanged a long handshake, silent and despairing, not daring to kiss each other there.

A life of torment then began. In the course of a fortnight she was only able to call on three occasions; and she arrived panting, having but a few minutes at her disposal, for it so happened that the old lady had just then become very exacting. Claude questioned her, feeling uneasy at seeing her look so pale and out of sorts, with her eyes bright with fever. Never had that pious house, that vault, without air or light, where she died of boredom, caused her so much suffering. Her fits of giddiness had come upon her again; the want of exercise made the blood throb in her temples. She owned to him that she had fainted one evening in her room, as if she had been suddenly strangled by a leaden hand. Still she did not say a word against her employer; on the contrary, she softened on speaking of her: the poor creature, so old and so infirm, and so kind-hearted, who called her daughter! She felt as if she were committing a wicked act each time that she forsook her to hurry to her lover’s .

Two more weeks went by, and the falsehoods with which Christine had to buy, as it were, each hour of liberty became intolerable to her. She loved, she would have liked to proclaim it aloud, and her feelings revolted at having to hide her love like a crime, at having to lie basely, like a servant afraid of being sent away.

At last, one evening in the studio, at the moment when she was leaving, she threw herself with a distracted gesture into Claude’s arms, sobbing with suffering and passion. ‘Ah! I cannot, I cannot — keep me with you; prevent me from going back.’

He had caught hold of her, and was almost smothering her with kisses.

‘You really love me, then! Oh, my darling! But I am so very poor, and you would lose everything. Can I allow you to forego everything like this?’

She sobbed more violently still; her halting words were choked by her tears.

‘The money, eh? which she might leave me? Do you think I calculate? I have never thought of it, I swear it to you! Ah! let her keep everything and let me be free! I have no ties, no relatives; can’t I be allowed to do as I like?’

Then, in a last sob of agony: ‘Ah, you are right; it’s wrong to desert the poor woman. Ah! I despise myself. I wish I had the strength. But I love you too much, I suffer too much; surely you won’t let me die?’

‘Oh!’ he cried in a passionate transport. ‘Let others die, there are but we two on earth.’

It was all so much madness. Christine left Madame Vanzade in the most brutal fashion. She took her trunk away the very next morning. She and Claude had at once remembered the deserted old house at Bennecourt, the giant rose-bushes, the immense rooms. Ah! to go away, to go away without the loss of an hour, to live at the world’s end in all the bliss of their passion! She clapped her hands for very joy. He, still smarting from his defeat, at the Salon, and anxious to recover from it, longed for complete rest in the country; yonder he would find the real ‘open air,’ he would work away with grass up to his neck and bring back masterpieces. In a couple of days everything was ready, the studio relinquished, the few household chattels conveyed to the railway station. Besides, they met with a slice of luck, for Papa Malgras gave some five hundred francs for a score of sketches, selected from among the waifs and strays of the removal. Thus they would be able to live like princes. Claude still had his income of a thousand francs a year; Christine, too, had saved some money, besides having her outfit and dresses. And away they went; it was perfect flight, friends avoided and not even warned by letter, Paris despised and forsaken amid laughter expressive of relief.

June was drawing to a close, and the rain fell in torrents during the week they spent in arranging their new home. They discovered that old Porrette had taken away half the kitchen utensils before signing the agreement. But that matter did not affect them. They took a delight in dabbling about amidst the showers; they made journeys three leagues long, as far as Vernon, to buy plates and saucepans, which they brought back with them in triumph. At last they got shipshape, occupying one of the upstairs rooms, abandoning the other to the mice, and transforming the dining-room into a studio; and, above all, as happy as children at taking their meals in the kitchen off a deal table, near the hearth where the soup sang in the pot. To wait upon them they engaged a girl from the village, who came every morning and went home at night. She was called Melie, she was a niece of the Faucheurs, and her stupidity delighted them. In fact, one could not have found a greater idiot in the whole region.

The sun having shown itself again, some delightful days followed, the months slipping away amid monotonous felicity. They never knew the date, they were for ever mixing up the days of the week. Every day, after the second breakfast, came endless strolls, long walks across the tableland planted with apple trees, over the grassy country roads, along the banks of the Seine through the meadows as far as La Roche-Guyon; and there were still more distant explorations, perfect journeys on the opposite side of the river, amid the cornfields of Bonnieres and Jeufosse. A person who was obliged to leave the neighbourhood sold them an old boat for thirty francs, so that they also had the river at their disposal, and, like savages, became seized with a passion for it, living on its waters for days together, rowing about, discovering new countries, and lingering for hours under the willows on the banks, or in little creeks, dark with shade. Betwixt the eyots scattered along the stream there was a shifting and mysterious city, a network of passages along which, with the lower branches of the trees caressingly brushing against them, they softly glided, alone, as it were, in the world, with the ringdoves and the kingfishers. He at times had to spring out upon the sand, with bare legs, to push off the skiff. She bravely plied the oars, bent on forcing her way against the strongest currents, and exulting in her strength. And in the evening they ate cabbage soup in the kitchen, laughing at Melie’s stupidity, as they had laughed at it the day before; to begin the morrow just in the same fashion.

Every evening, however, Christine said to Claude:

‘Now, my dear, you must promise me one thing — that you’ll set to work to-morrow.’

‘Yes, to-morrow; I give you my word.’

‘And you know if you don’t, I shall really get angry this time. Is it I who prevent you?’

‘You! what an idea. Since I came here to work — dash it all! you’ll see to-morrow.’

On the morrow they started off again in the skiff; she looked at him with an embarrassed smile when she saw that he took neither canvas nor colours. Then she kissed him, laughing, proud of her power, moved by the constant sacrifice he made to her. And then came fresh affectionate remonstrances: ‘To-morrow, ah! to-morrow she would tie him to his easel!’

However, Claude did make some attempts at work. He began a study of the slopes of Jeufosse, with the Seine in the foreground; but Christine followed him to the islet where he had installed himself, and sat down on the grass close to him with parted lips, her eyes watching the blue sky. And she looked so pretty there amidst the verdure, in that solitude, where nothing broke the silence but the rippling of the water, that every minute he relinquished his palette to nestle by her side. On another occasion, he was altogether charmed by an old farmhouse, shaded by some antiquated apple trees which had grown to the size of oaks. He came thither two days in succession, but on the third Christine took him to the market at Bonnieres to buy some hens. The next day was also lost; the canvas had dried; then he grew impatient in trying to work at it again, and finally abandoned it altogether. Throughout the warm weather he thus made but a pretence to work — barely roughing out little bits of painting, which he laid aside on the first pretext, without an effort at perseverance. His passion for toil, that fever of former days that had made him rise at daybreak to battle with his rebellious art, seemed to have gone; a reaction of indifference and laziness had set in, and he vegetated delightfully, like one who is recovering from some severe illness.

But Christine lived indeed. All the latent passion of her nature burst into being. She was indeed an amorosa, a child of nature and of love.

Thus their days passed by and solitude did not prove irksome to them. No desire for diversion, of paying or receiving visits, as yet made them look beyond themselves. Such hours as she did not spend near him, she employed in household cares, turning the house upside down with great cleanings, which Melie executed under her supervision, and falling into fits of reckless activity, which led her to engage in personal combats with the few saucepans in the kitchen. The garden especially occupied her; provided with pruning shears, careless of the thorns which lacerated her hands, she reaped harvests of roses from the giant rose-bushes; and she gave herself a thorough back-ache in gathering the apricots, which she sold for two hundred francs to some of the Englishmen who scoured the district every year. She was very proud of her bargain, and seriously talked of living upon the garden produce. Claude cared less for gardening; he had placed his couch in the large dining-room, transformed into a studio; and he stretched himself upon it, and through the open window watched her sow and plant. There was profound peace, the certainty that nobody would come, that no ring at the bell would disturb them at any moment of the day. Claude carried this fear of coming into contact with people so far as to avoid passing Faucheur’s inn, for he dreaded lest he might run against some party of chums from Paris. Not a soul came, however, throughout the livelong summer. And every night as they went upstairs, he repeated that, after all, it was deuced lucky.

There was, however, a secret sore in the depths of his happiness. After their flight from Paris, Sandoz had learnt their address, and had written to ask whether he might go to see Claude, but the latter had not answered the letter, and so coolness had followed, and the old friendship seemed dead. Christine was grieved at this, for she realised well enough that he had broken off all intercourse with his comrades for her sake. She constantly reverted to the subject; she did not want to estrange him from his friends, and indeed she insisted that he should invite them. But, though he promised to set matters right, he did nothing of the kind. It was all over; what was the use of raking up the past?

However, money having become scarce towards the latter days of July, he was obliged to go to Paris to sell Papa Malgras half a dozen of his old studies, and Christine, on accompanying him to the station, made him solemnly promise that he would go to see Sandoz. In the evening she was there again, at the Bonnieres Station, waiting for him.

‘Well, did you see him? did you embrace each other?’

He began walking by her side in silent embarrassment. Then he answered in a husky voice:

‘No; I hadn’t time.’

Thereupon, sorely distressed, with two big tears welling to her eyes, she replied:

‘You grieve me very much indeed.’

Then, as they were walking under the trees, he kissed her, crying also, and begging her not to make him sadder still. ‘Could people alter life? Did it not suffice that they were happy together?’

During the earlier months they only once met some strangers. This occurred a little above Bennecourt, in the direction of La Roche-Guyon. They were strolling along a deserted, wooded lane, one of those delightful dingle paths of the region, when, at a turning, they came upon three middle-class people out for a walk — father, mother, and daughter. It precisely happened that, believing themselves to be quite alone, Claude and Christine had passed their arms round each other’s waists; she, bending towards him, was offering her lips; while he laughingly protruded his; and their surprise was so sudden that they did not change their attitude, but, still clasped together, advanced at the same slow pace. The amazed family remained transfixed against one of the side banks, the father stout and apoplectic, the mother as thin as a knife-blade, and the daughter, a mere shadow, looking like a sick bird moulting — all three of them ugly, moreover, and but scantily provided with the vitiated blood of their race. They looked disgraceful amidst the throbbing life of nature, beneath the glorious sun. And all at once the sorry girl, who with stupefied eyes thus watched love passing by, was pushed off by her father, dragged along by her mother, both beside themselves, exasperated by the sight of that embrace, and asking whether there was no longer any country police, while, still without hurrying, the lovers went off triumphantly in their glory.

Claude, however, was wondering and searching his memory. Where had he previously seen those heads, so typical of bourgeois degeneracy, those flattened, crabbed faces reeking of millions earned at the expense of the poor? It was assuredly in some important circumstance of his life. And all at once he remembered; they were the Margaillans, the man was that building contractor whom Dubuche had promenaded through the Salon of the Rejected, and who had laughed in front of his picture with the roaring laugh of a fool. A couple of hundred steps further on, as he and Christine emerged from the lane and found themselves in front of a large estate, where a big white building stood, girt with fine trees, they learnt from an old peasant woman that La Richaudiere, as it was called, had belonged to the Margaillans for three years past. They had paid fifteen hundred thousand francs for it, and had just spent more than a million in improvements.

‘That part of the country won’t see much of us in future,’ said Claude, as they returned to Bennecourt. ‘Those monsters spoil the landscape.’

Towards the end of the summer, an important event changed the current of their lives. Christine was enceinte. At first, both she and Claude felt amazed and worried. Now for the first time they seemed to dread some terrible complications in their life. Later on, however, they gradually grew accustomed to the thought of what lay before them and made all necessary preparations. But the winter proved a terribly inclement one, and Christine was compelled to remain indoors, whilst Claude went walking all alone over the frost-bound, clanking roads. And he, finding himself in solitude during these walks, after months of constant companionship, wondered at the way his life had turned, against his own will, as it were. He had never wished for home life even with her; had he been consulted, he would have expressed his horror of it; it had come about, however, and could not be undone, for — without mentioning the child — he was one of those who lack the courage to break off. This fate had evidently been in store for him, he felt; he had been destined to succumb to the first woman who did not feel ashamed of him. The hard ground resounded beneath his wooden-soled shoes, and the blast froze the current of his reverie, which lingered on vague thoughts, on his luck of having, at any rate, met with a good and honest girl, on how cruelly he would have suffered had it been otherwise. And then his love came back to him; he hurried home to take Christine in his trembling arms as if he had been in danger of losing her.

The child, a boy, was born about the middle of February, and at once began to revolutionise the home, for Christine, who had shown herself such an active housewife, proved to be a very awkward nurse. She failed to become motherly, despite her kind heart and her distress at the sight of the slightest pimple. She soon grew weary, gave in, and called for Melie, who only made matters worse by her gaping stupidity. The father had to come to the rescue, and proved still more awkward than the two women. The discomfort which needlework had caused Christine of old, her want of aptitude as regards the usual occupations of her sex, revived amid the cares that the baby required. The child was ill-kept, and grew up anyhow in the garden, or in the large rooms left untidy in sheer despair, amidst broken toys, uncleanliness and destruction. And when matters became too bad altogether, Christine could only throw herself upon the neck of the man she loved. She was pre-eminently an amorosa and would have sacrificed her son for his father twenty times over.

It was at this period, however, that Claude resumed work a little. The winter was drawing to a close; he did not know how to spend the bright sunny mornings, since Christine could no longer go out before mid-day on account of Jacques, whom they had named thus after his maternal grandfather, though they neglected to have him christened. Claude worked in the garden, at first, in a random way: made a rough sketch of the lines of apricot trees, roughed out the giant rose-bushes, composed some bits of ‘still life,’ out of four apples, a bottle, and a stoneware jar, disposed on a table-napkin. This was only to pass his time. But afterwards he warmed to his work; the idea of painting a figure in the full sunlight ended by haunting him; and from that moment his wife became his victim, she herself agreeable enough, offering herself, feeling happy at affording him pleasure, without as yet understanding what a terrible rival she was giving herself in art. He painted her a score of times, dressed in white, in red, amidst the verdure, standing, walking, or reclining on the grass, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, or bare-headed, under a parasol, the cherry-tinted silk of which steeped her features in a pinky glow. He never felt wholly satisfied; he scratched out the canvases after two or three sittings, and at once began them afresh, obstinately sticking to the same subject. Only a few studies, incomplete, but charmingly indicated in a vigorous style, were saved from the palette-knife, and hung against the walls of the dining-room.

And after Christine it became Jacques’ turn to pose. They stripped him to the skin, like a little St. John the Baptist, on warm days, and stretched him on a blanket, where he was told not to stir. But devil a bit could they make him keep still. Getting frisky, in the sunlight, he crowed and kicked with his tiny pink feet in the air, rolling about and turning somersaults. The father, after laughing, became angry, and swore at the tiresome mite, who would not keep quiet for a minute. Who ever heard of trifling with painting? Then the mother made big eyes at the little one, and held him while the painter quickly sketched an arm or a leg. Claude obstinately kept at it for weeks, tempted as he felt by the pretty tones of that childish skin. It was not as a father, but as an artist, that he gloated over the boy as the subject for a masterpiece, blinking his eyes the while, and dreaming of some wonderful picture he would paint. And he renewed the experiment again and again, watching the lad for days, and feeling furious when the little scamp would not go to sleep at times when he, Claude, might so well have painted him.

One day, when Jacques was sobbing, refusing to keep still, Christine gently remarked:

‘My dear, you tire the poor pet.’

At this Claude burst forth, full of remorse:

‘After all! you are right; I’m a fool with this painting of mine. Children are not intended for that sort of thing.’

The spring and summer sped by amidst great quietude. They went out less often; they had almost given up the boat, which finished rotting against the bank, for it was quite a job to take the little one with them among the islets. But they often strolled along the banks of the Seine, without, however, going farther afield than a thousand yards or so. Claude, tired of the everlasting views in the garden, now attempted some sketches by the river-side, and on such days Christine went to fetch him with the child, sitting down to watch him paint, until they all three returned home with flagging steps, beneath the ashen dusk of waning daylight. One afternoon Claude was surprised to see Christine bring with her the old album which she had used as a young girl. She joked about it, and explained that to sit behind him like that had roused in her a wish to work herself. Her voice was a little unsteady as she spoke; the truth was that she felt a longing to share his labour, since this labour took him away from her more and more each day. She drew and ventured to wash in two or three water-colours in the careful style of a school-girl. Then, discouraged by his smiles, feeling that no community of ideas would be arrived at on that ground, she once more put her album aside, making him promise to give her some lessons in painting whenever he should have time.

Besides, she thought his more recent pictures very pretty. After that year of rest in the open country, in the full sunlight, he painted with fresh and clearer vision, as it were, with a more harmonious and brighter colouring. He had never before been able to treat reflections so skilfully, or possessed a more correct perception of men and things steeped in diffuse light. And henceforth, won over by that feast of colours, she would have declared it all capital if he would only have condescended to finish his work a little more, and if she had not remained nonplussed now and then before a mauve ground or a blue tree, which upset all her preconceived notions of colour. One day when she ventured upon a bit of criticism, precisely about an azure-tinted poplar, he made her go to nature and note for herself the delicate bluishness of the foliage. It was true enough, the tree was blue; but in her inmost heart she did not surrender, and condemned reality; there ought not to be any blue trees in nature.

She no longer spoke but gravely of the studies hanging in the dining-room. Art was returning into their lives, and it made her muse. When she saw him go off with his bag, his portable easel, and his sunshade, it often happened that she flung herself upon his neck, asking:

‘You love me, say?’

‘How silly you are! Why shouldn’t I love you?’

‘Then kiss me, since you love me, kiss me a great deal, a great deal.’

Then accompanying him as far as the road, she added:

‘And mind you work; you know that I have never prevented you from working. Go, go; I am very pleased when you work.’

Anxiety seemed to seize hold of Claude, when the autumn of the second year tinged the leaves yellow, and ushered in the cold weather. The season happened to be abominable; a fortnight of pouring rain kept him idle at home; and then fog came at every moment, hindering his work. He sat in front of the fire, out of sorts; he never spoke of Paris, but the city rose up over yonder, on the horizon, the winter city, with its gaslamps flaring already at five o’clock, its gatherings of friends, spurring each other on to emulation, and its life of ardent production, which even the frosts of December could not slacken. He went there thrice in one month, on the pretext of seeing Malgras, to whom he had, again, sold a few small pictures. He no longer avoided passing in front of Faucheur’s inn; he even allowed himself to be waylaid at times by old Porrette, and to accept a glass of white wine at the inn, and his glance scoured the room as if, despite the season, he had been looking for some comrades of yore, who had arrived there, perchance, that morning. He lingered as if awaiting them; then, in despair at his solitude, he returned home, stifling with all that was fermenting within him, ill at having nobody to whom he might shout the thoughts which made his brain almost burst.

However, the winter went by, and Claude had the consolation of being able to paint some lovely snow scenes. A third year was beginning, when, towards the close of May, an unexpected meeting filled him with emotion. He had that morning climbed up to the plateau to find a subject, having at last grown tired of the banks of the Seine; and at the bend of a road he stopped short in amazement on seeing Dubuche, in a silk hat, and carefully-buttoned frock coat, coming towards him, between the double row of elder hedges.

‘What! is it you?’

The architect stammered from sheer vexation:

‘Yes, I am going to pay a visit. It’s confoundedly idiotic in the country, eh? But it can’t be helped. There are certain things one’s obliged to do. And you live near here, eh? I knew — that is to say, I didn’t. I had been told something about it, but I thought it was on the opposite side, farther down.’

Claude, very much moved at seeing him, helped him out of his difficulty.

‘All right, all right, old man, there is no need to apologise. I am the most guilty party. Ah! it’s a long while since we saw one another! If you knew what a thump my heart gave when I saw your nose appear from behind the leaves!’

Then he took his arm and accompanied him, giggling with pleasure, while the other, in his constant worry about his future, which always made him talk about himself, at once began speaking of his prospects. He had just become a first-class pupil at the School, after securing the regulation ‘honourable mentions,’ with infinite trouble. But his success left him as perplexed as ever. His parents no longer sent him a penny, they wailed about their poverty so much that he might have to support them in his turn. He had given up the idea of competing for the Prix de Rome, feeling certain of being beaten in the effort, and anxious to earn his living. And he was weary already; sick at scouring the town, at earning twenty-five sous an hour from ignorant architects, who treated him like a hodman. What course should he adopt? How was he to guess at the shortest route? He might leave the School; he would get a lift from his master, the influential Dequersonniere, who liked him for his docility and diligence; only what a deal of trouble and uncertainty there would still be before him! And he bitterly complained of the Government schools, where one slaved away for years, and which did not even provide a position for all those whom they cast upon the pavement.

Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the path. The elder hedges were leading to an open plain, and La Richaudiere appeared amid its lofty trees.

‘Hold hard! of course,’ exclaimed Claude, ‘I hadn’t thought about it — you’re going to that shanty. Oh! the baboons; there’s a lot of ugly mugs, if you like!’

Dubuche, looking vexed at this outburst of artistic feeling, protested stiffly. ‘All the same, Papa Margaillan, idiot as he seems to you, is a first-rate man of business. You should see him in his building-yards, among the houses he runs up, as active as the very fiend, showing marvellous good management, and a wonderful scent as to the right streets to build and what materials to buy! Besides, one does not earn millions without becoming a gentleman. And then, too, it would be very silly of me not to be polite to a man who can be useful to me.’

While talking, he barred the narrow path, preventing his friend from advancing further — no doubt from a fear of being compromised by being seen in his company, and in order to make him understand that they ought to separate there.

Claude was on the point of inquiring about their comrades in Paris, but he kept silent. Not even a word was said respecting Christine, and he was reluctantly deciding to quit Dubuche, holding out his hand to take leave, when, in spite of himself, this question fell from his quivering lips:

‘And is Sandoz all right?’

‘Yes, he’s pretty well. I seldom see him. He spoke to me about you last month. He is still grieved at your having shown us the door.’

‘But I didn’t show you the door,’ exclaimed Claude, beside himself. ‘Come and see me, I beg of you. I shall be so glad!’

‘All right, then, we’ll come. I’ll tell him to come, I give you my word — good-bye, old man, good-bye; I’m in a hurry.’

And Dubuche went off towards La Richaudiere, whilst Claude watched his figure dwindle as he crossed the cultivated plain, until nothing remained but the shiny silk of his hat and the black spot of his coat. The young man returned home slowly, his heart bursting with nameless sadness. However, he said nothing about this meeting to Christine.

A week later she had gone to Faucheur’s to buy a pound of vermicelli, and was lingering on her way back, gossiping with a neighbour, with her child on her arm, when a gentleman who alighted from the ferry-boat approached and asked her:

‘Does not Monsieur Claude Lantier live near here?’

She was taken aback, and simply answered:

‘Yes, monsieur; if you’ll kindly follow me —’

They walked on side by side for about a hundred yards. The stranger, who seemed to know her, had glanced at her with a good-natured smile; but as she hurried on, trying to hide her embarrassment by looking very grave, he remained silent. She opened the door and showed the visitor into the studio, exclaiming:

‘Claude, here is somebody for you.’

Then a loud cry rang out; the two men were already in each other’s arms.

‘Oh, my good old Pierre! how kind of you to come! And Dubuche?’

‘He was prevented at the last moment by some business, and he sent me a telegram to go without him.’

‘All right, I half expected it; but you are here. By the thunder of heaven, I am glad!’

And, turning towards Christine, who was smiling, sharing their delight:

‘It’s true, I didn’t tell you. But the other day I met Dubuche, who was going up yonder, to the place where those monsters live —’

But he stopped short again, and then with a wild gesture shouted:

‘I’m losing my wits, upon my word. You have never spoken to each other, and I leave you there like that. My dear, you see this gentleman? He’s my old chum, Pierre Sandoz, whom I love like a brother. And you, my boy; let me introduce my wife. And you have got to give each other a kiss.’

Christine began to laugh outright, and tendered her cheek heartily. Sandoz had pleased her at once with his good-natured air, his sound friendship, the fatherly sympathy with which he looked at her. Tears of emotion came to her eyes as he kept both her hands in his, saying:

‘It is very good of you to love Claude, and you must love each other always, for love is, after all, the best thing in life.’

Then, bending to kiss the little one, whom she had on her arm, he added: ‘So there’s one already!’

While Christine, preparing lunch, turned the house up-side down, Claude retained Sandoz in the studio. In a few words he told him the whole of the story, who she was, how they had met each other, and what had led them to start housekeeping together, and he seemed to be surprised when his friend asked him why they did not get married. In faith, why? Because they had never even spoken about it, because they would certainly be neither more nor less happy; in short it was a matter of no consequence whatever.

‘Well,’ said the other, ‘it makes no difference to me; but, if she was a good and honest girl when she came to you, you ought to marry her.’

‘Why, I’ll marry her whenever she likes, old man. Surely I don’t mean to leave her in the lurch!’

Sandoz then began to marvel at the studies hanging on the walls. Ha, the scamp had turned his time to good account! What accuracy of colouring! What a dash of real sunlight! And Claude, who listened to him, delighted, and laughing proudly, was just going to question him about the comrades in Paris, about what they were all doing, when Christine reappeared, exclaiming: ‘Make haste, the eggs are on the table.’

They lunched in the kitchen, and an extraordinary lunch it was; a dish of fried gudgeons after the boiled eggs; then the beef from the soup of the night before, arranged in salad fashion, with potatoes, and a red herring. It was delicious; there was the pungent and appetising smell of the herring which Melie had upset on the live embers, and the song of the coffee, as it passed, drop by drop, into the pot standing on the range; and when the dessert appeared — some strawberries just gathered, and a cream cheese from a neighbour’s dairy — they gossiped and gossiped with their elbows squarely set on the table. In Paris? Well, to tell the truth, the comrades were doing nothing very original in Paris. And yet they were fighting their way, jostling each other in order to get first to the front. Of course, the absent ones missed their chance; it was as well to be there if one did not want to be altogether forgotten. But was not talent always talent? Wasn’t a man always certain to get on with strength and will? Ah! yes, it was a splendid dream to live in the country, to accumulate masterpieces, and then, one day, to crush Paris by simply opening one’s trunks.

In the evening, when Claude accompanied Sandoz to the station, the latter said to him:

‘That reminds me, I wanted to tell you something. I think I am going to get married.’

The painter burst out laughing.

‘Ah, you wag, now I understand why you gave me a lecture this morning.’

While waiting for the train to arrive, they went on chatting. Sandoz explained his ideas on marriage, which, in middle-class fashion, he considered an indispensable condition for good work, substantial orderly labour, among great modern producers. The theory of woman being a destructive creature — one who killed an artist, pounded his heart, and fed upon his brain — was a romantic idea against which facts protested. Besides, as for himself, he needed an affection that would prove the guardian of his tranquillity, a loving home, where he might shut himself up, so as to devote his whole life to the huge work which he ever dreamt of. And he added that everything depended upon a man’s choice — that he believed he had found what he had been looking for, an orphan, the daughter of petty tradespeople, without a penny, but handsome and intelligent. For the last six months, after resigning his clerkship, he had embraced journalism, by which he gained a larger income. He had just moved his mother to a small house at Batignolles, where the three would live together — two women to love him, and he strong enough to provide for the household.

‘Get married, old man,’ said Claude. ‘One should act according to one’s feelings. And good-bye, for here’s your train. Don’t forget your promise to come and see us again.’

Sandoz returned very often. He dropped in at odd times whenever his newspaper work allowed him, for he was still free, as he was not to be married till the autumn. Those were happy days, whole afternoons of mutual confidences when all their old determination to secure fame revived.

One day, while Sandoz was alone with Claude on an island of the Seine, both of them lying there with their eyes fixed on the sky, he told the painter of his vast ambition, confessed himself aloud.

‘Journalism, let me tell you, is only a battle-ground. A man must live, and he has to fight to do so. Then, again, that wanton, the Press, despite the unpleasant phases of the profession, is after all a tremendous power, a resistless weapon in the hands of a fellow with convictions. But if I am obliged to avail myself of journalism, I don’t mean to grow grey in it! Oh, dear no! And, besides, I’ve found what I wanted, a machine that’ll crush one with work, something I’m going to plunge into, perhaps never to come out of it.’

Silence reigned amid the foliage, motionless in the dense heat. He resumed speaking more slowly and in jerky phrases:

‘To study man as he is, not man the metaphysical puppet but physiological man, whose nature is determined by his surroundings, and to show all his organism in full play. That’s my idea! Is it not farcical that some should constantly and exclusively study the functions of the brain on the pretext that the brain alone is the noble part of our organism? Thought, thought, confound it all! thought is the product of the whole body. Let them try to make a brain think by itself alone; see what becomes of the nobleness of the brain when the stomach is ailing! No, no, it’s idiotic; there is no philosophy nor science in it! We are positivists, evolutionists, and yet we are to stick to the literary lay-figures of classic times, and continue disentangling the tangled locks of pure reason! He who says psychologist says traitor to truth. Besides, psychology, physiology, it all signifies nothing. The one has become blended with the other, and both are but one nowadays, the mechanism of man leading to the sum total of his functions. Ah, the formula is there, our modern revolution has no other basis; it means the certain death of old society, the birth of a new one, and necessarily the upspringing of a new art in a new soil. Yes, people will see what literature will sprout forth for the coming century of science and democracy.’

His cry uprose and was lost in the immense vault of heaven. Not a breath stirred; there was nought but the silent ripple of the river past the willows. And Sandoz turned abruptly towards his companion, and said to him, face to face:

‘So I have found what I wanted for myself. Oh, it isn’t much, a little corner of study only, but one that should be sufficient for a man’s life, even when his ambition is over-vast. I am going to take a family, and I shall study its members, one by one, whence they come, whither they go, how they re-act one upon another — in short, I shall have mankind in a small compass, the way in which mankind grows and behaves. On the other hand, I shall set my men and women in some given period of history, which will provide me with the necessary surroundings and circumstances — you understand, eh? a series of books, fifteen, twenty books, episodes that will cling together, although each will have a separate framework, a series of novels with which I shall be able to build myself a house for my old days, if they don’t crush me!’

He fell on his back again, spread out his arms on the grass, as if he wanted to sink into the earth, laughing and joking all the while.

‘Oh, beneficent earth, take me unto thee, thou who art our common mother, our only source of life! thou the eternal, the immortal one, in whom circulates the soul of the world, the sap that spreads even into the stones, and makes the trees themselves our big, motionless brothers! Yes, I wish to lose myself in thee; it is thou that I feel beneath my limbs, clasping and inflaming me; thou alone shalt appear in my work as the primary force, the means and the end, the immense ark in which everything becomes animated with the breath of every being!’

Though begun as mere pleasantry, with all the bombast of lyrical emphasis, the invocation terminated in a cry of ardent conviction, quivering with profound poetical emotion, and Sandoz’s eyes grew moist; and, to hide how much he felt moved, he added, roughly, with a sweeping gesture that took in the whole scene around:

‘How idiotic it is! a soul for every one of us, when there is that big soul there!’

Claude, who had disappeared amid the grass, had not stirred. After a fresh spell of silence he summed up everything:

‘That’s it, old boy! Run them through, all of them. Only you’ll get trounced.’

‘Oh,’ said Sandoz, rising up and stretching himself, ‘my bones are too hard. They’ll smash their own wrists. Let’s go back; I don’t want to miss the train.’

Christine had taken a great liking to him, seeing him so robust and upright in his doings, and she plucked up courage at last to ask a favour of him: that of standing godfather to Jacques. True, she never set foot in church now, but why shouldn’t the lad be treated according to custom? What influenced her above all was the idea of giving the boy a protector in this godfather, whom she found so serious and sensible, even amidst the exuberance of his strength. Claude expressed surprise, but gave his consent with a shrug of the shoulders. And the christening took place; they found a godmother, the daughter of a neighbour, and they made a feast of it, eating a lobster, which was brought from Paris.

That very day, as they were saying good-bye, Christine took Sandoz aside, and said, in an imploring voice:

‘Do come again soon, won’t you? He is bored.’

In fact, Claude had fits of profound melancholy. He abandoned his work, went out alone, and prowled in spite of himself about Faucheur’s inn, at the spot where the ferry-boat landed its passengers, as if ever expecting to see all Paris come ashore there. He had Paris on the brain; he went there every month and returned desolate, unable to work. Autumn came, then winter, a very wet and muddy winter, and he spent it in a state of morose torpidity, bitter even against Sandoz, who, having married in October, could no longer come to Bennecourt so often. Claude only seemed to wake up at each of the other’s visits; deriving a week’s excitement from them, and never ceasing to comment feverishly about the news brought from yonder. He, who formerly had hidden his regret of Paris, nowadays bewildered Christine with the way in which he chatted to her from morn till night about things she was quite ignorant of, and people she had never seen. When Jacques fell asleep, there were endless comments between the parents as they sat by the fireside. Claude grew passionate, and Christine had to give her opinion and to pronounce judgment on all sorts of matters.

Was not Gagniere an idiot for stultifying his brain with music, he who might have developed so conscientious a talent as a landscape painter? It was said that he was now taking lessons on the piano from a young lady — the idea, at his age! What did she, Christine, think of it? And Jory had been trying to get into the good graces of Irma Becot again, ever since she had secured that little house in the Rue de Moscou! Christine knew those two; two jades who well went together, weren’t they? But the most cunning of the whole lot was Fagerolles, to whom he, Claude, would tell a few plain truths and no mistake, when he met him. What! the turn-coat had competed for the Prix de Rome, which, of course, he had managed to miss. To think of it. That fellow did nothing but jeer at the School, and talked about knocking everything down, yet took part in official competitions! Ah, there was no doubt but that the itching to succeed, the wish to pass over one’s comrades and be hailed by idiots, impelled some people to very dirty tricks. Surely Christine did not mean to stick up for him, eh? She was not sufficiently a philistine to defend him. And when she had agreed with everything Claude said, he always came back with nervous laughter to the same story — which he thought exceedingly comical — the story of Mahoudeau and Chaine, who, between them, had killed little Jabouille, the husband of Mathilde, that dreadful herbalist woman. Yes, killed the poor consumptive fellow with kindness one evening when he had had a fainting fit, and when, on being called in by the woman, they had taken to rubbing him with so much vigour that he had remained dead in their hands.

And if Christine failed to look amused at all this, Claude rose up and said, in a churlish voice: ‘Oh, you; nothing will make you laugh — let’s go to bed.’

He still adored her, but she no longer sufficed. Another torment had invincibly seized hold of him — the passion for art, the thirst for fame.

In the spring, Claude, who, with an affectation of disdain, had sworn he would never again exhibit, began to worry a great deal about the Salon. Whenever he saw Sandoz he questioned him about what the comrades were going to send. On the opening day he went to Paris and came back the same evening, stern and trembling. There was only a bust by Mahoudeau, said he, good enough, but of no importance. A small landscape by Gagniere, admitted among the ruck, was also of a pretty sunny tone. Then there was nothing else, nothing but Fagerolles’ picture — an actress in front of her looking-glass painting her face. He had not mentioned it at first; but he now spoke of it with indignant laughter. What a trickster that Fagerolles was! Now that he had missed his prize he was no longer afraid to exhibit — he threw the School overboard; but you should have seen how skilfully he managed it, what compromises he effected, painting in a style which aped the audacity of truth without possessing one original merit. And it would be sure to meet with success, the bourgeois were only too fond of being titillated while the artist pretended to hustle them. Ah! it was time indeed for a true artist to appear in that mournful desert of a Salon, amid all the knaves and the fools. And, by heavens, what a place might be taken there!

Christine, who listened while he grew angry, ended by faltering:

‘If you liked, we might go back to Paris.’

‘Who was talking of that?’ he shouted. ‘One can never say a word to you but you at once jump to false conclusions.’

Six weeks afterwards he heard some news that occupied his mind for a week. His friend Dubuche was going to marry Mademoiselle Regine Margaillan, the daughter of the owner of La Richaudiere. It was an intricate story, the details of which surprised and amused him exceedingly. First of all, that cur Dubuche had managed to hook a medal for a design of a villa in a park, which he had exhibited; that of itself was already sufficiently amusing, as it was said that the drawing had been set on its legs by his master, Dequersonniere, who had quietly obtained this medal for him from the jury over which he presided. Then the best of it was that this long-awaited reward had decided the marriage. Ah! it would be nice trafficking if medals were now awarded to settle needy pupils in rich families! Old Margaillan, like all parvenus, had set his heart upon having a son-in-law who could help him, by bringing authentic diplomas and fashionable clothes into the business; and for some time past he had had his eyes on that young man, that pupil of the School of Arts, whose notes were excellent, who was so persevering, and so highly recommended by his masters. The medal aroused his enthusiasm; he at once gave the young fellow his daughter and took him as a partner, who would soon increase his millions now lying idle, since he knew all that was needful in order to build properly. Besides, by this arrangement poor Regine, always low-spirited and ailing, would at least have a husband in perfect health.

‘Well, a man must be fond of money to marry that wretched flayed kitten,’ repeated Claude.

And as Christine compassionately took the girl’s part, he added:

‘But I am not down upon her. So much the better if the marriage does not finish her off. She is certainly not to be blamed, if her father, the ex-stonemason, had the stupid ambition to marry a girl of the middle-classes. Her father, you know, has the vitiated blood of generations of drunkards in his veins, and her mother comes of a stock in the last stages of degeneracy. Ah! they may coin money, but that doesn’t prevent them from being excrescences on the face of the earth!’

He was growing ferocious, and Christine had to clasp him in her arms and kiss him, and laugh, to make him once more the good-natured fellow of earlier days. Then, having calmed down, he professed to understand things, saying that he approved of the marriages of his old chums. It was true enough, all three had taken wives unto themselves. How funny life was!

Once more the summer drew to an end; it was the fourth spent at Bennecourt. In reality they could never be happier than now; life was peaceful and cheap in the depths of that village. Since they had been there they had never lacked money. Claude’s thousand francs a year and the proceeds of the few pictures he had sold had sufficed for their wants; they had even put something by, and had bought some house linen. On the other hand, little Jacques, by now two years and a half old, got on admirably in the country. From morning till night he rolled about the garden, ragged and dirt-begrimed, but growing as he listed in robust ruddy health. His mother often did not know where to take hold of him when she wished to wash him a bit. However, when she saw him eat and sleep well she did not trouble much; she reserved her anxious affection for her big child of an artist, whose despondency filled her with anguish. The situation grew worse each day, and although they lived on peacefully without any cause for grief, they, nevertheless, drifted to melancholy, to a discomfort that showed itself in constant irritation.

It was all over with their first delights of country life. Their rotten boat, staved in, had gone to the bottom of the Seine. Besides, they did not even think of availing themselves of the skiff that the Faucheurs had placed at their disposal. The river bored them; they had grown too lazy to row. They repeated their exclamations of former times respecting certain delightful nooks in the islets, but without ever being tempted to return and gaze upon them. Even the walks by the river-side had lost their charm — one was broiled there in summer, and one caught cold there in winter. And as for the plateau, the vast stretch of land planted with apple trees that overlooked the village, it became like a distant country, something too far off for one to be silly enough to risk one’s legs there. Their house also annoyed them — that barracks where they had to take their meals amid the greasy refuse of the kitchen, where their room seemed a meeting-place for the winds from every point of the compass. As a finishing stroke of bad luck, the apricots had failed that year, and the finest of the giant rose-bushes, which were very old, had been smitten with some canker or other and died. How sorely time and habit wore everything away! How eternal nature herself seemed to age amidst that satiated weariness. But the worst was that the painter himself was getting disgusted with the country, no longer finding a single subject to arouse his enthusiasm, but scouring the fields with a mournful tramp, as if the whole place were a void, whose life he had exhausted without leaving as much as an overlooked tree, an unforeseen effect of light to interest him. No, it was over, frozen, he should never again be able to paint anything worth looking at in that confounded country!

October came with its rain-laden sky. On one of the first wet evenings Claude flew into a passion because dinner was not ready. He turned that goose of a Melie out of the house and clouted Jacques, who got between his legs. Whereupon, Christine, crying, kissed him and said:

‘Let’s go, oh, let us go back to Paris.’

He disengaged himself, and cried in an angry voice: ‘What, again! Never! do you hear me?’

‘Do it for my sake,’ she said, warmly. ‘It’s I who ask it of you, it’s I that you’ll please.’

‘Why, are you tired of being here, then?’

‘Yes, I shall die if we stay here much longer; and, besides I want you to work. I feel quite certain that your place is there. It would be a crime for you to bury yourself here any longer.’

‘No, leave me!’

He was quivering. On the horizon Paris was calling him, the Paris of winter-tide which was being lighted up once more. He thought he could hear from where he stood the great efforts that his comrades were making, and, in fancy, he returned thither in order that they might not triumph without him, in order that he might become their chief again, since not one of them had strength or pride enough to be such. And amid this hallucination, amid the desire he felt to hasten to Paris, he yet persisted in refusing to do so, from a spirit of involuntary contradiction, which arose, though he could not account for it, from his very entrails. Was it the fear with which the bravest quivers, the mute struggle of happiness seeking to resist the fatality of destiny?

‘Listen,’ said Christine, excitedly. ‘I shall get our boxes ready, and take you away.’

Five days later, after packing and sending their chattels to the railway, they started for Paris.

Claude was already on the road with little Jacques, when Christine fancied that she had forgotten something. She returned alone to the house; and finding it quite bare and empty, she burst out crying. It seemed as if something were being torn from her, as if she were leaving something of herself behind — what, she could not say. How willingly would she have remained! how ardent was her wish to live there always — she who had just insisted on that departure, that return to the city of passion where she scented the presence of a rival. However, she continued searching for what she lacked, and in front of the kitchen she ended by plucking a rose, a last rose, which the cold was turning brown. And then she slowly closed the gate upon the deserted garden.

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