On the 18th of May, 1859, M. Renault, formerly professor of physics and chemistry, now a landed proprietor at Fontainebleau, and member of the Municipal Council of that charming little city, himself carried to the post-office the following letter:—
“To Monsieur Leon Renault, Civil Engineer, Berlin, Prussia.
(To be kept at the Post-Office till called for.)
“My dear child:
“The good news you sent us from St. Petersburg caused us the greatest joy. Your poor mother had been ailing since winter, but I had not spoken to you about it from fear of making you uneasy while so far from home. As for myself, I had not been very well; and there was yet a third person (guess the name if you can!) who was languishing from not seeing you. But content yourself, my dear Leon: we have been recuperating more and more since the time of your return is almost fixed. We begin to believe that the mines of the Ural will not swallow up that which is dearer to us than all the world. Thank God! that fortune which you have so honorably and so quickly made will not have cost your life, nor even your health, since you tell us you have been growing fat off there in the desert. If you have not finished up all your business out there, so much the worse for you: there are three of us who have sworn that you shall never go back again. You will not find it hard to accede, for you will be happy among us. Such, at least, is the opinion of Clementine. . . . I forget that I was pledged not to name her. Master Bonnivet, our excellent neighbor, has not rested content with investing your funds in a good mortgage, but has also drawn up, in his leisure moments, a most edifying little indenture, which now lacks nothing but your signature. Our worthy mayor has ordered, on your account, a new official scarf, which is on the way from Paris. You will have the first benefit of it. Your apartment (which will soon belong to a plural ‘you’) is elegant, in proportion to your present fortune. You are to occupy. . . .; but the house has changed so in three years, that my description would be incomprehensible to you. M. Audret, the architect of the imperial chateau, directed the work. He actually wanted to construct me a laboratory worthy of Thénard or Duprez. I earnestly protested against it, and said that I was not yet worthy of one, as my celebrated work on the Condensation of Gases had only reached the fourth chapter. But as your mother was in collusion with the old scamp of a friend, it has turned out that science has henceforth a temple in our house — a regular sorcerer’s den, according to the picturesque expression of your old Gothon: it lacks nothing, not even a four-horse-power steam engine. Alas! what can I do with it? I am confident, nevertheless, that the expenditure will not be altogether lost to the world. You are not going to sleep upon your laurels. Oh, if I had only had your fortune when I had your youth! I would have dedicated my days to pure science, instead of losing the best part of them among those poor young men who got nothing from my lectures but an opportunity to read Paul de Kock. I would have been ambitious! — I would have striven to connect my name with the discovery of some great general law, or at least with the invention of some very useful apparatus. It is too late now; my eyes are worn out, and the brain itself refuses to work. Take your turn, my boy! You are not yet twenty-six, the Ural mines have given you the wherewithal to live at ease, and, for yourself alone, you have no further wants to satisfy; the time has come to work for humanity. That you will do so, is the strongest wish and dearest hope of your doting old father, who loves you and who waits for you with open arms.
“P. S. According to my calculations, this letter ought to reach Berlin two or three days before you. You have been already informed by the papers of the 7th inst. of the death of the illustrious Humboldt. It is a cause of mourning to science and to humanity. I have had the honor of writing to that great man several times in my life, and he once deigned to reply, in a letter which I piously cherish. If you happen to have an opportunity to buy some personal souvenir of him, a bit of his handwriting or some fragment of his collections, you will bring me a real pleasure.”
A month after the departure of this letter, the son so eagerly looked for returned to the paternal mansion. M. and Mme. Renault, who went to meet him at the depot, found him taller, stouter, and better-looking in every way. In fact, he was no longer merely a remarkable boy, but a man of good and pleasing proportions. Leon Renault was of medium height, light hair and complexion, plump and well made. His large blue eyes, sweet voice, and silken beard indicated a nature sensitive rather than powerful. A very white, round, and almost feminine neck contrasted singularly with a face bronzed by exposure. His teeth were beautiful, very delicate, a little inclined backward, and very evenly shaped. When he pulled off his gloves, he displayed two small and rather pudgey hands, quite firm and yet pleasantly soft, neither hot nor cold, nor dry nor damp, but agreeable to the touch and cared-for to perfection.
As he was, his father and mother would not have exchanged him for the Apollo Belvedere. They embraced him rapturously, overwhelming him with a thousand questions, most of which he, of course, failed to answer. Some old friends of the family, a doctor, an architect, and a notary, had run to the depot with the good old people; each one of them in turn gave him a hug, and asked him if he was well, and if he had had a pleasant journey. He listened patiently and even joyfully to this common-place music whose words did not signify much, but whose melody went to the heart because it came from the heart.
They had been there a good quarter of an hour, the train had gone puffing on its way, the omnibuses of the various hotels had started one after another at a good trot up the street leading to the city, and the June sun seemed to enjoy lighting up this happy group of excellent people. But Madame Renault cried out all at once that the poor child must be dying of hunger, and that it was barbarous to keep him waiting for his dinner any longer. There was no use in his protesting that he had breakfasted at Paris, and that the voice of hunger appealed to him less strongly than that of joy. They all got into two carriages, the son beside his mother, the father opposite, as if he could not keep his eyes off his boy. A wagon came behind with the trunks, long boxes, chests, and the rest of the traveller’s baggage. At the entrance of the town, the hackmen cracked their whips, the baggage-men followed the example, and this cheerful clatter drew the people to their doors and woke up for an instant the quietude of the streets. Madame Renault threw her glances right and left, searching out the spectators of her triumph, and saluting with most cordial affability people she hardly knew at all. And more than one mother saluted her, too, without knowing her; for there is no mother indifferent to such kinds of happiness, and, moreover, Leon’s family was liked by everybody. And the neighbors, meeting each other, said with a satisfaction free from jealousy:
“That is Renault’s son, who has been at work three years in the Russian mines, and now has come to share his fortune with his old parents.”
Leon also noticed several familiar faces, but not all that he wished to see. For he bent over an instant to his mother’s ear, saying: “And Clementine?” This word was pronounced so low and so close that M. Renault himself could not tell whether it was a word or a kiss. The good lady smiled tenderly, and answered but a single word: “Patience!” As if patience were a virtue very common among lovers!
The door of the house was wide open, and old Gothon was standing on the threshold. She raised her arms toward heaven and cried like a booby, for she had known Leon since he was not much higher than her wash-tub. There was now another formidable hugging on the upper step, between the good old servant and her young master. After a reasonable interval, the friends of M. Renault prepared to leave, but it was wasted pains; for they were assured that their places at table had already been prepared. And when all save the invisible Clementine were reassembled in the parlor, the great round-backed chairs held out their arms to the scion of the house of Renault; the old mirror on the mantle delighted to reflect his image; the great chandelier chimed a little song of welcome with its crystal pendants, and the mandarins on the etagére shook their heads in sign of welcome, as if they were orthodox penates instead of strangers and pagans. No one can tell why kisses and tears began to rain down again, but it certainly did seem as if he had once more just returned.
“Soup!” cried Gothon.
Madame Renault took the arm of her son, contrary to all the laws of etiquette, and without even apologizing to the honored guests present. She scarcely excused herself, even, for helping the son before the company. Leon let her have her own way, and took it all smilingly: there was not a guest there who was not ready to upset his soup over his waistcoat rather than taste it before Leon.
“Mother!” cried Leon, spoon in hand, “this is the first time for three years that I’ve tasted good soup.” Madame Renault felt herself blush with satisfaction, and Gothon was so overcome that she dropped a plate. Both fancied that possibly he had spoken to please their self-conceit; but nevertheless he spoke truly. There are two things in this world which a man does not often find away from home: the first is good soup; the second is disinterested love.
If I should attempt here an accurate enumeration of all the dishes that appeared on the table, there would not be one of my readers whose mouth would not water. I believe, indeed, that more than one delicate lady would be in danger of an attack of indigestion. Suppose, if you please, that such a list would reach nearly to the end of the volume, leaving me but a single page on which to write the marvellous history of Fougas. Therefore I forthwith return to the parlor, where coffee is already served.
Leon took scarcely half of his cup: but do not let that lead you to infer that the coffee was too hot, or too cold, or too sweet. Nothing in the world would have prevented his drinking it to the last drop, if a knock at the street-door had not stopped it just opposite his heart.
The minute which followed appeared to him interminable. Never in his travels had he encountered such a long minute. But at length Clementine appeared, preceded by the worthy Mlle. Virginie Sambucco, her aunt; and the mandarins who smiled on the etagére heard the sound of three kisses. Wherefore three? The superficial reader, who pretends to foresee things before they are written, has already found a very probable explanation. “Of course,” says he, “Leon was too respectful to embrace the dignified Mlle. Sambucco more than once, but when he came to Clementine, who was soon to become his wife, he very properly doubled the dose.” Now sir, that is what I call a premature judgment! The first kiss fell from the mouth of Leon upon the cheek of Mlle. Sambucco; the second was applied by the lips of Mlle. Sambucco to the right cheek of Leon; the third was, in fact, an accident that plunged two young hearts into profound consternation.
Leon, who was very much in love with his betrothed, rushed to her blindly, uncertain whether he would kiss her right cheek or her left, but determined not to put off too long a pleasure which he had been promising himself ever since the spring of 1856. Clementine did not dream of defending herself, but was fully prepared to apply her pretty rosy lips to Leon’s right cheek or his left, indifferently. The precipitation of the two young people brought it about that neither Clementine’s cheeks nor Leon’s received the offering intended for them. And the mandarins on the etagére, who fully expected to hear two kisses, heard but one. And Leon was confounded, and Clementine blushed up to her ears, and the two lovers retreated a step, intently regarding the roses of the carpet which will remain eternally graven upon their memories.
In the eyes of Leon Renault, Clementine was the most beautiful creature in the world. He had loved her for little more than three years, and it was somewhat on her account that he had taken the journey to Russia. In 1856 she was too young to marry, and too rich for an engineer with a salary of 2,400 francs to properly make pretentions to her hand. Leon, who was a good mathematician, proposed to himself the following problem: “Given — one young girl, fifteen and a half years old, with an income of 8,000 francs, and threatened with the inheritance from Mlle. Sambucco of, say 200,000 more:— to obtain a fortune at least equal to hers within such a period as will give her time enough to grow up, without leaving her time enough to become an old maid.” He had found the solution in the Ural mines.
During three long years, he had indirectly corresponded with the beloved of his heart. All the letters which he wrote to his father or mother, passed into the hands of Mlle. Sambucco, who did not keep them from Clementine. Sometimes, indeed, they were read aloud in the family, and M. Renault was never obliged to omit a phrase, for Leon never wrote anything which a young girl should not hear. The aunt and the niece had no other distractions; they lived retired in a little house at the end of a pretty garden, and received no one but old friends. Clementine, therefore, deserved but little credit for keeping her heart for Leon. With the exception of a big colonel of cuirassiers, who sometimes followed her in her walks, no man had ever made any demonstrations toward her.
She was very pretty withal, and not so merely to the eyes of her lover, or of the Renault family, or of the little city where she lived. Provincial towns are apt to be easily satisfied. They give the reputation of being a pretty woman or a great man, cheaply; especially when they are not rich enough in such commodities to show themselves over particular. In capitals, however, people claim to admire nothing but absolute merit. I have heard the mayor of a village say, with a certain pride: “Admit now, that my servant Catherine is right pretty, for a village of six hundred people!” Clementine was pretty enough to be admired in a city of eight hundred thousand. Fancy to yourself a little blonde creole, with black eyes, creamy complexion and dazzling teeth. Her figure was round and supple as a twig, and was finished off with dainty hands and pretty Andalusian feet, arched and beautifully rounded. All her glances were smiles, and all her movements caresses. Add to this, that she was neither a fool nor a prude, nor even an ignoramus like girls brought up in convents. Her education, which was begun by her mother, had been completed by two or three respectable old professors selected by M. Renault, who was her guardian. She had a sound heart, and a quick mind. But I may reasonably ask myself why I have so much to say about her, for she is still living; and, thank God! not one of her perfections has departed
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 15:08