In the 1880 edition of Men of the Day, under the heading Astier-Réhu, may be read the following notice:—
Astier, commonly called Astier-Réhu (Pierre Alexandre Léonard), Member of the Académie Française, was born in 1816 at Sauvagnat (Puy-de-Dôme). His parents belonged to the class of small farmers. He displayed from his earliest years a remarkable aptitude for the study of history. His education, begun at Riom and continued at Louis-le-Grand, where he was afterwards to re-appear as professor, was more sound than is now fashionable, and secured his admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, from which he went to the Chair of History at the Lycée of Mende. It was here that he wrote the Essay on Marcus Aurelius, crowned by the Académie Française. Called to Paris the following year by M. de Salvandy, the young and brilliant professor showed his sense of the discerning favour extended to him by publishing, in rapid succession, The Great Ministers of Louis XIV. (crowned by the Académie Française), Bonaparte and the Concordat (crowned by the Académie Française), and the admirable Introduction to the History of the House of Orleans, a magnificent prologue to the work which was to occupy twenty years of his life. This time the Académie, having no more crowns to offer him, gave him a seat among its members. He could scarcely be called a stranger there, having married Mlle. Rèhu, daughter of the lamented Paulin Réhu, the celebrated architect, member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and granddaughter of the highly respected Jean Réhu, the father of the Académie Française, the elegant translator of Ovid and author of the Letters to Urania, whose hale old age is the miracle of the Institute. By his friend and colleague M. Thiers Léonard Astier-Réhu was called to the post of Keeper of the Archives of Foreign Affairs. It is well known that, with a noble disregard of his interests, he resigned, some years later (1878), rather than that the impartial pen of history should stoop to the demands of our present rulers. But deprived of his beloved archives, the author has turned his leisure to good account. In two years he has given us the last three volumes of his history, and announces shortly New Lights on Galileo, based upon documents extremely curious and absolutely unpublished. All the works of Astier-Réhu may be had of Petit-Séquard, Bookseller to the Académie.
As the publisher of this book of reference entrusts to each person concerned the task of telling his own story, no doubt can possibly be thrown upon the authenticity of these biographical notes. But why must it be asserted that Léonard Astier-Réhu resigned his post as Keeper of the Archives? Every one knows that he was dismissed, sent away with no more ceremony than a hackney-cabman, because of an imprudent phrase let slip by the historian of the House of Orleans, vol. v. p. 327: ‘Then, as to-day, France, overwhelmed by the flood of demagogy, etc.’ Who can see the end of a metaphor? His salary of five hundred pounds a year, his rooms in the Quai d’Orsay (with coals and gas) and, besides, that wonderful treasure of historic documents, which had supplied the sap of his books, all this had been carried away from him by this unlucky ‘flood,’ all by his own flood! The poor man could not get over it. Even after the lapse of two years, regret for the ease and the honours of his office gnawed at his heart, and gnawed with a sharper tooth on certain dates, certain days of the month or the week, and above all on ‘Teyssèdre’s Wednesdays.’ Teyssèdre was the man who polished the floors. He came to the Astiers’ regularly every Wednesday. On the afternoon of that day Madame Astier was at home to her friends in her husband’s study, this being the only presentable apartment of their third floor in the Rue de Beaune, the remains of a grand house, terribly inconvenient in spite of its magnificent ceiling. The disturbance caused to the illustrious historian by this ‘Wednesday,’ recurring every week and interrupting his industrious and methodical labours, may easily be conceived. He had come to hate the rubber of floor, a man from his own country, with a face as yellow, close, and hard as his own cake of beeswax. He hated Teyssèdre, who, proud of coming from Riom, while ‘Meuchieu Achtier came only from Chauvagnat,’ had no scruple in pushing about the heavy table covered with pamphlets, notes, and reports, and hunted the illustrious victim from room to room till he was driven to seek refuge in a kind of pigeon-hole over the study, where, though not a big man, he must sit for want of room to get up. This lumber-closet, which was furnished with an old damask chair, an aged card-table and a stand of drawers, looked out on the courtyard through the upper circle of the great window belonging to the room below. Through this opening, much resembling the low glass door of an orangery, the travailing historian might be seen from head to foot, miserably doubled up like Cardinal La Balue in his cage. It was here that he was sitting one morning with his eyes upon an ancient scrawl, having been already expelled from the lower room by the bang-bang-bang of Teyssèdre, when he heard the sound of the front door bell.
‘Is that you, Fage?’ asked the Academician in his deep and resonant bass.
‘No, Meuchieu Achtier. It is the young gentleman.’
On Wednesday mornings the polisher opened the door, because Corentine was dressing her mistress.
‘How’s The Master?‘ cried Paul Astier, hurrying by to his mother’s room. The Academician did not answer. His son’s habit of using ironically a title generally bestowed upon him as a compliment was always offensive to him.
‘M. Fage is to be shown up as soon as he comes,’ he said, not addressing himself directly to the polisher.
‘Yes, Meuchieu Achtier.’ And the bang-bang-bang began again.
‘Good morning, mamma.’
‘Why, it’s Paul! Come in. Mind the folds, Corentine.’
Madame Astier was putting on a skirt before the looking-glass. She was tall, slender, and still good-looking in spite of her worn features and her too delicate skin. She did not move, but held out to him a cheek with a velvet surface of powder. He touched it with his fair pointed beard. The son was as little demonstrative as the mother.
‘Will M. Paul stay to breakfast?’ asked Corentine. She was a stout countrywoman of an oily complexion, pitted with smallpox. She was sitting on the carpet like a shepherdess in the fields, and was about to repair, at the hem of the skirt, her mistress’s old black dress. Her tone and her attitude showed the objectionable familiarity of the under-paid maid-of-all-work.
No, Paul would not stay to breakfast. He was expected elsewhere. He had his buggy below; he had only come to say a word to his mother.
‘Your new English cart? Let me look,’ said Madame Astier. She went to the open window, and parted the Venetian blinds, on which the bright May sunlight lay in stripes, just far enough to see the neat little vehicle, shining with new leather and polished pinewood, and the servant in spotless livery standing at the horse’s head.
‘Oh, ma’am, how beautiful!’ murmured Coren-tine, who was also at the window. ‘How nice M. Paul must look in it!’
The mother’s face shone. But windows were opening opposite, and people were stopping before the equipage, which was creating quite a sensation at this end of the Rue de Beaune. Madame Astier sent away the servant, seated herself on the edge of a folding-chair, and finished mending her skirt for herself, while she waited for what her son had to say to her, not without a suspicion what it would be, though her attention seemed to be absorbed in her sewing. Paul Astier was equally silent. He leaned back in an arm-chair and played with an ivory fan, an old thing which he had known for his mother’s ever since he was born. Seen thus, the likeness between them was striking; the same Creole skin, pink over a delicate duskiness, the same supple figure, the same impenetrable grey eye, and in both faces a slight defect hardly to be noticed; the finely-cut nose was a little out of line, giving an expression of slyness, of something not to be trusted. While each watched and waited for the other, the pause was filled by the distant brushing of Teyssèdre.
‘Rather good, that,’ said Paul.
His mother looked up. ‘What is rather good?’
He raised the fan and pointed, like an artist, at the bare arms and the line of the falling shoulders under the fine cambric bodice. She began to laugh.
‘Yes, but look here.’ She pointed to her long neck, where the fine wrinkles marked her age. ‘But after all,’ . . . you have the good looks, so what does it matter? Such was her thought, but she did not express it. A brilliant talker, perfectly trained in the fibs and commonplaces of society, a perfect adept in expression and suggestion, she was left without words for the only real feeling which she had ever experienced. And indeed she really was not one of those women who cannot make up their minds to grow old. Long before the hour of curfew — though indeed there had perhaps never been much fire in her to put out — all her coquetry, all her feminine eagerness to captivate and charm, all her aspirations towards fame or fashion or social success had been transferred to the account of her son, this tall, good-looking young fellow in the correct attire of the modern artist, with his slight beard and close-cut hair, who showed in mien and bearing that soldierly grace which our young men of the day get from their service as volunteers.
‘Is your first floor let?’ asked the mother at last.
‘Let! let! Not a sign of it! All the bills and advertisements no go! “I don’t know what is the matter with them; but they don’t come,” as Védrine said at his private exhibition.’
He laughed quietly, at an inward vision of Védrine among his enamels and his sculptures, calm, proud, and self-assured, wondering without anger at the non-appearance of the public. But Madame Astier did not laugh. That splendid first floor empty for the last two years! In the Rue Fortuny! A magnificent situation — a house in the style of Louis XII. — a house built by her son! Why, what did people want? The same people, doubtless, who did not go to Védrine. Biting off the thread with which she had been sewing, she said:
‘And it is worth taking, too!’
‘Quite; but it would want money to keep it up.’
The people at the Crédit Foncier would not be satisfied. And the contractors were upon him — four hundred pounds for carpenter’s work due at the end of the month, and he hadn’t a penny of it.
The mother, who was putting on the bodice of her dress before the looking-glass, grew pale and saw that she did so. It was the shiver that you feel in a duel, when your adversary raises his pistol to take aim.
‘You have had the money for the restorations at Mousseaux?’
‘Mousseaux! Long ago.’
‘And the Rosen tomb?’
‘Can’t get on. Védrine still at his statue.’
‘Yes, and why must you have Védrine? Your father warned you against him.’
‘Oh, I know. They can’t bear him at the Institute.’
He rose and walked about the room.
‘You know me, come. I am a practical man. If I took him and not some one else to do my statue, you may suppose that I had a reason.’ Then suddenly, turning to his mother:
‘You could not let me have four hundred pounds, I suppose?’ She had been waiting for this ever since he came in; he never came to see her for anything else.
‘Four hundred pounds? How can you think ——’ She said no more; but the pained expression of her mouth and eyes said clearly enough:
‘You know that I have given you everything — that I am dressed in clothes fit for the rag-bag — that I have not bought a bonnet for three years — that Corentine washes my linen in the kitchen because I should blush to give such rubbish to the laundress; and you know also that my worst misery is to refuse what you ask. Then why do you ask?’ And this mute address of his mother’s was so eloquent that Paul Astier answered it aloud:
‘Of course I was not thinking of your having it yourself. By Jove, if you had, it would be the better for me. But,’ he continued, in his cool, off hand way, ‘there is The Master up there. Could you get it from him? You might. You know how to get hold of him.’
‘That is over. There is an end of that.’
‘Well, but, you know, he works; his books sell; you spend nothing.’
He looked round in the subdued light at the reduced state of the old furniture, the worn curtains, the threadbare carpet, nothing of later date than their marriage thirty years ago. Where was it then that all the money went?
‘I say,’ he began again, ‘I wonder whether my venerable sire is in the habit of taking his fling?’
It was an idea so monstrous, so inconceivable, that of Léonard Astier-Réhu ‘taking his fling,’ that his wife could not help smiling in spite of herself. No, on that point she thought there was no need for uneasiness. ‘Only, you know, he has turned suspicious and mysterious, and “buries his hoard.” We have gone too far with him.’
They spoke low, like conspirators, with their eyes upon the carpet.
‘And grandpapa,’ said Paul, but not in a tone of confidence, ‘could you try him?’
‘Grandpapa? You must be mad!’
Yet he knew well enough what old Réhu was. A touchy, selfish man all but a hundred years old, who would have seen them all die rather than deprive himself of a pinch of snuff or a single one of the pins that were always stuck on the lapels of his coat. Ah, poor child! He must be hard up indeed before he could think of his grandfather.
‘Well, you would not like me to try ————.’ She paused.
‘To try where?’
‘In the Rue de Courcelles. I might get something in advance for the tomb.’
‘There? Good Heavens! You had better not!’
He spoke to her imperiously, with pale lips and a disagreeable expression in his eye; then recovering his self-contained and fleeting tone, he said:
‘Don’t trouble any more about it. It is only a crisis to be got through. I have had plenty before now.’
She held out to him his hat, which he was looking for. As he could get nothing from her, he would be off. To keep him a few minutes longer, she began talking of an important business which she had in hand — a marriage, which she had been asked to arrange.
At the word marriage he started and looked at her askance: ‘Who was it?’ She had promised to say nothing at present. But she could not refuse him. It was the Prince d’Athis.
‘Who is the lady?’ he asked.
It was her turn now to show him the side view of her crooked nose.
‘You do not know the lady. She is a foreigner with a fortune. If I succeed I might help you. I have made my terms in black and white.’
He smiled, completely reassured.
‘And how does the Duchess take it?’
‘She knows nothing of it, of course.’
‘Her Sammy,’ Her dear prince! And after fifteen years!’
Madame Astier’s gesture expressed the utter carelessness of one woman for the feelings of another.
‘What else could she expect at her age?’ said she.
‘Why, what is her age?’
‘She was born in 1827. We are in 1880. You can do the sum. Just a year older than myself.’
‘The Duchess!’ cried Paul, stupefied.
His mother laughed as she said, ‘Why, yes, you rude boy! What are you surprised at? I am sure you thought her twenty years younger. It’s a fact, it seems, that the most experienced of you know nothing about women. Well, you see, the poor prince could not have her hanging on to him all his life. Besides, one of these days the old Duke will die, and then where would he be? Fancy him tied to that old woman!’
‘Well,’ said Paul, ‘so much for your dear friend!’ She fired at this. Her dear friend! The Duchess! A pretty friend! A woman who, with twenty-five thousand a year — intimate as she was with her, and well aware of their difficulties — had never so much as thought of helping them! What was the present of an occasional dress? Or the permission to choose a bonnet at her milliner’s? Presents for use! There was no pleasure in them.
‘Like grandpapa Réhu’s on New Year’s day,’ put in Paul assenting. ‘An atlas, or a globe!’
‘Oh, Antonia is, I really think, more stingy still. When we were at Mousseaux, in the middle of the fruit season, if Sammy was not there, do you remember the dry plums they gave us for dessert? There is plenty in the orchard and the kitchen garden, but everything is sent to market at Blois or Vendôme. It runs in her blood, you know. Her father, the Marshal, was famous for it at the Court of Louis Philippe; and it was something to be thought stingy at the Court of Louis Philippe! These great Corsican families are all alike; nothing but meanness and pretension! They will eat chestnuts, such as the pigs would not touch, off plate with their arms on it. And as for the Duchess — why, she makes her steward account to her in person! They take the meat up to her every morning; and every evening (this is from a person who knows), when she has gone to her grand bed with the lace, at that tender moment she balances her books!’
Madame Astier was nearly breathless. Her small voice grew sharp and shrill, like the cry of a sea-bird from the masthead. Meanwhile Paul, amused at first, had begun to listen impatiently, with his thoughts elsewhere. ‘I am off,’ said he abruptly. ‘I have a breakfast with some business people — very important.’
‘No, not architect’s business this time.’
She wanted him to satisfy her curiosity, but he went on, ‘Not now; another time; it’s not settled.’ And finally, as he gave his mother a little kiss, he whispered in her ear, ‘All the same, do not forget my four hundred.’
But for this grown-up son, who was a secret cause of division, the Astier-Réhu would have had a happy household, as the world, and in particular the Academic world, measures household happiness. After thirty years their mutual sentiments remained the same, kept beneath the snow at the temperature of what gardeners call a ‘cold-bed.’ When, about ‘50, Professor Astier, after brilliant successes at the Institute, sued for the hand of Mademoiselle Adelaide Réhu, who at that time lived with her grandfather at the Palais Mazarin, it was not the delicate and slender beauty of his betrothed, it was not the bloom of her ‘Aurora’ face, which were the real attractions for him. Neither was it her fortune. For the parents of Mademoiselle Adelaide, who died suddenly of cholera, had left her but little; and the grandfather, a Creole from Martinique, an old beau of the time of the Directory, a gambler, a free liver, great in practical jokes and in duels, declared loudly and repeatedly that he should not add a penny to her slender portion.
No, that which enticed the scion of Sauvagnat, who was far more ambitious than greedy, was the Académie. The two great courtyards which he had to cross to bring his daily offering of flowers, and the long solemn corridors into which at intervals there descended a dusty staircase, were for him rather the path of glory than of love. The Paulin Réhu of the Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the Jean Réhu of the ‘Letters to Urania,’ the Institute complete with its lions and its cupola — this was the Mecca of his pilgrimage, and all this it was that he took to wife on his wedding day.
For this not transient beauty he felt a passion proof against the tooth of time, a passion which took such hold of him that his permanent attitude towards his wife was that of those mortal husbands on whom, in the mythological age, the gods occasionally bestowed their daughters. Nor did he quit this respect when at the fourth ballot he had himself become a deity. As for Madame Astier, who had only accepted marriage as a means of escape from a hard and selfish grandfather in his anecdotage, it had not taken her long to find out how poor was the laborious peasant brain, how narrow the intelligence, concealed by the solemn manners of the Academic laureate and manufacturer of octavos, and by his voice with its ophicleide notes adapted to the sublimities of the lecture room. And yet when, by force of intrigue, bargaining, and begging, she had seated him at last in the Académie, she felt herself possessed by a certain veneration, forgetting that it was herself who had clothed him in that coat with the green palm leaves, in which his nothingness ceased to be visible.
In the dull concord of their partnership, where was neither joy, nor intimacy, nor communion of any kind, there was but one single note of natural human feeling, their child; and this note disturbed the harmony. In the first place the father was entirely disappointed of all that he wished for his son, that he should be distinguished by the University, entered for the general examinations, and finally pass through the Ecole Normale to a professorship. Alas! at school Paul took prizes for nothing but gymnastics and fencing, and distinguished himself chiefly by a wilful and obstinate perversity, which covered a practical turn of mind and a precocious understanding of the world. Careful of his dress and his appearance, he never went for a walk without the hope, of which he made no secret to his schoolfellows, of ‘picking up a rich wife.’ Two or three times the father had been ready to punish this determined idleness after the rough method of Auvergne, but the mother was by to excuse and to protect. In vain Astier-Réhu scolded and snapped his jaw, a prominent feature which, in the days when he was a professor, had gained him the nickname of Crocodilus. In the last resort, he would threaten to pack his trunk and go back to his vineyard at Sauvagnat.
‘Ah, Léonard, Léonard!’ Madame Astier would say with gentle mockery; and nothing further came of it. Once, however, he really came near to strapping his trunk in good earnest, when, after a three years’ course of architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paul refused to compete for the Prix de Rome. The father could scarcely speak for indignation. ‘Wretched boy! It is the Prix de Rome! You cannot know; you do not understand. The Prix de Rome! Get that, and it means the Institute!’ Little the young man cared. What he wanted was wealth, and wealth the Institute does not bestow, as might be seen in his father, his grandfather, and old Réhu, his great-grandfather! To start in life, to get a business, a large business, an immediate income — this was what he wanted for his part, and not to wear a green coat with palms on it.
Léonard Astier was speechless. To hear such blasphemies uttered by his son and approved by his wife, a daughter of the house of Réhu! This time his trunk was really brought down from the box room; his old trunk, such as professors use in the provinces, with as much ironwork in the way of nails and hinges as might have sufficed for a church door, and high enough and deep enough to have held the enormous manuscript of ‘Marcus Aurelius’ together with all the dreams of glory and all the ambitious hopes of an historian on the high road to the Académie. It was in vain for Madame Astier to pinch her lips and say, ‘Oh, Léonard, Léonard!’ Nothing would stop him till his trunk was packed. Two days it stood in the way in the middle of his study. Then it travelled to the ante-room; and there reposed, turned once and for ever into a wood-box.
And at first, it must be said, Paul Astier did splendidly. Helped by his mother and her connection in good society, and further assisted by his own cleverness and personal charm, he soon got work which brought him into notice. The Duchess Padovani, wife of a former ambassador and minister, trusted him with the restoration of her much admired country house at Mousseaux-on-the-Loire, an ancient royal residence, long neglected, which he succeeded in restoring with a skill and ingenuity really amazing in an undistinguished scholar of the Beaux-Arts. Mousseaux got him the order for the new mansion of the Ambassador of the Porte; and finally the Princess of Rosen commissioned him to design the mausoleum of Prince Herbert of Rosen, who had come to a tragic end in the expedition of Christian of Illyria. The young man now thought himself sure of success. Astier the elder was induced by his wife to put down three thousand pounds out of his savings for the purchase of a site in the Rue Fortuny. Then Paul built himself a mansion — or rather, a wing to a mansion, which was itself arranged as a block of elegant ‘rooms to let.’ He was a practical young fellow, and if he wanted a mansion, without which no artist is chic, he meant it to bring him an income.
Unfortunately houses to let are not always so easy to let, and the young architect’s way of life, with two horses in his stable (one for harness, one for the saddle), his club, his visiting, his slow reimbursements, made it impossible for him to wait. Moreover, the elder Astier suddenly declared that he was not going to give any more; and all that the mother could attempt or say for her darling son failed to shake this irrevocable decision. Her will, which had hitherto swayed the establishment, was now resisted. Thenceforward there was a continual struggle. The mother used her ingenuity to make little dishonest profits on the household expenses, that she might never have to say ‘no’ to her son’s requests. Léonard suspected her and, to protect himself, checked the accounts. In these humiliating conflicts the wife, who was the better bred, was the first to tire; and nothing less than the desperate situation of her beloved Paul would have induced her to make a fresh attempt.
She went slowly into the dining room. It was a long, melancholy room, ill lighted by tall, narrow windows, having in fact been used as a table d’hôte for ecclesiastics until the Astiers took it. There she found her husband already at table, looking preoccupied and almost grumpy. In the ordinary way ’the Master‘ came to his meals with a smiling serenity as regular as his appetite, and with teeth which, sound as a foxhound’s, were not to be discouraged by stale bread or leathery meat, or by the miscellaneous disagreeables which are the everyday flavouring of life.
‘Ah, it’s Teyssèdre’s day,’ thought Madame Astier, as she took her seat, her best dress rustling as she did so. She was a little surprised at not receiving the compliment with which her husband never failed to welcome her ‘Wednesday’ costume, shabby as it was. Reckoning that this bad temper would go off with the first mouthfuls, she waited before beginning her attack. But, though the Master went on eating, his ill humour visibly increased. Everything was wrong; the wine tasted of the cork; the balls of boiled beef were burnt.
‘And all because your M. Fage kept you waiting this morning,’ cried Corentine angrily from the adjoining kitchen. She showed her shiny pitted face for a moment at the hatch in the wall through which, in the days of the table d’hôte, they used to pass the dishes. She shut it with a bang; upon which Astier muttered, ‘Really that girl’s impudence ——’ He was in truth much annoyed that the name of Fage had been mentioned before his wife. And sure enough at any other moment Madame Astier would not have failed to say, ‘Oh, Fage the bookbinder here again!’ and there would have followed a domestic scene; on all which Corentine reckoned when she threw in her artful speech. To-day, however, it was all-important that the master should not be irritated, but prepared by skilful stages for the intended petition. He was talked to, for instance, about the health of Loisillon, the perpetual secretary of the Académie, who, it seemed, was getting worse and worse. Loisillon’s post and his rooms in the Institute were to come to Léonard Astier as a compensation for the office which he had lost; and though he was really attached to his dying colleague, still the prospect of a good salary, an airy and comfortable residence, and other advantages had its attractions. He was perhaps ashamed to think of the death in this light, but in the privacy of his household he did so without blinking. But to-day even that did not bring a smile. ‘Poor M. Loisillon!’ said Madame Astier’s thin voice; ‘he begins to be uncertain about his words. La vaux was telling us yesterday at the Duchess’s, he can only say “a cu-curiosity, a cu-curiosity,” and,’ she added, compressing her lips and drawing up her long neck, ‘he is on the Dictionary Committee.’
Astier-Réhu did not move an eyebrow.
‘It is not a bad story,’ said he, clapping his jaw with a magisterial air. ‘But, as I have said somewhere in my history, in France the provisional is the only thing that lasts. Loisillon has been dying any time this ten years. He’ll see every one of us buried yet — every one of us,’ he repeated angrily, pulling at his dry bread. It was clear that Teyssèdre had put him into a very bad temper indeed.
Madame Astier went to another subject, the special meeting of all the five Académies, which was to take place within a few days, and to be honoured by the presence of the Grand Duke Leopold of Finland. It so happened that Astier-Réhu, being director for the coming quarter, was to preside at the meeting and to deliver the opening speech, in which his Highness was to receive a compliment. Skilfully questioned about this speech, which he was already planning, Léonard described it in outline. It was to be a crushing attack upon the modern school of literature — a sound thrashing administered in public to these pretenders, these dunces. And at this his eyes, big with his heavy meal, lighted up his square face, and the blood rose under his thick bushy eyebrows. They were still coal-black, and contrasted strangely with the white circle of his beard.
‘By the way,’ said he suddenly, ‘what about my uniform coat? Has it been seen to? The last time I wore it, at Montribot’s funeral ——’
But do not women think of everything? Madame Astier had seen to the coat that very morning. The silk of the palm leaves was getting shabby; the lining was all to pieces. It was very old. Oh, dear, when did he wear it first? Why, it was as long ago — as long ago — as when he was admitted! The twelfth of October, eighteen-sixty-six! He had better order a new one for the Meeting. The five Académies, a Royal Highness, and all Paris! Such an audience was worth a new coat. Léonard protested, not energetically, on the ground of expense. With a new coat he would want a new waistcoat; knee-breeches were not worn now, but a new waistcoat would be indispensable.
‘My dear, you really must!’ She continued to press him. If they did not take care they would make themselves ridiculous with their economy. There were too many shabby old things about them. The furniture of her room, for instance! It made her feel ashamed when a friend came in, and for a sum comparatively trifling.
‘Ouais! quelque sot,’ muttered Astier-Réhu, who liked to quote his classics. The furrow in his forehead deepened, and under it, as under the bar of a shutter, his countenance, which had been open for a minute, shut up. Many a time had he supplied the means to pay a milliner’s bill, or a dressmaker’s, or to re-paper the walls, and after all no account had been settled and no purchase made. All the money had gone to that Charybdis in the Rue Fortuny. He had had enough of it, and was not going to be caught again. He rounded his back, fixed his eyes upon the huge slice of Auvergne cheese which filled his plate, and said no more.
Madame Astier was familiar with this dogged silence. This attitude of passive resistance, dead as a ball of cotton, was always put on when money was mentioned. But this time she was resolved to make him answer. ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I see you rolling up, Master Hedgehog. I know the meaning of that. “Nothing to be got! nothing to be got! No, no, no!” Eh?’ The back grew rounder and rounder. ‘But you can find money for M. Fage.’ Astier started, sat up, and looked uneasily at his wife. Money for M. Fage? What did she mean?’ Why, of course,’ she went on, delighted to have forced the barrier of his silence, ‘of course it takes money to do all that binding. And what’s the good of it, I should like to know, for all those old scraps?’
He felt relieved; evidently she knew nothing; it was only a chance shot.
But the term ‘old scraps’ went to his heart: unique autograph documents, signed letters of Richelieu, Colbert, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, marvels bought for an old song, and worth a fortune. ‘Yes, madam, a fortune.’ He grew excited, and began to quote figures, the offers that had been made him. Bos, the famous Bos of the Rue de l’Abbaye (and he knew his business if any one did), Bos had offered him eight hundred pounds merely for three specimens from his collection — three letters from Charles the Fifth to François Rabelais. Old scraps indeed!
Madame Astier listened in utter amazement. She was well aware that for the last two or three years he had been collecting old manuscripts. He used sometimes to speak to her of his finds, and she listened in a wandering absent-minded way, as a woman does listen to a man’s voice when she has heard it for thirty years. But this was beyond her conception. Eight hundred pounds for three letters! And why did he not take it?’
He burst out like an explosion of dynamite.
‘Sell my Charles the Fifths! Never! I would see you all without bread and begging from door to door before I would touch them — understand that!’ He struck the table. His face was very pale, and his lips thrust out This fierce maniac was an Astier-Réhu whom his wife did not know. In the sudden glow of a passion human beings do thus take aspects unknown to those who know them best The next minute the Academician was quite calm, again, and was explaining, not without embarrassment, that these documents were indispensable to him as an author, especially now that he could not command the Records of the Foreign Office. To sell these materials would be to give up writing. On the contrary, he hoped to make additions to them. Then, with a touch of bitterness and affection, which betrayed the whole depth of the father’s disappointment, he said, ‘After my time, my fine gentleman of a son may sell them if he chooses; and since all he wants is to be rich, I will answer for it that he will be.’
‘Yes; but meanwhile ——’
This ‘meanwhile’ was said in a little flute-like voice so cruelly natural and quiet that Léonard, unable to control his jealousy of this son who left him no place in his wife’s heart, retorted with a solemn snap of the jaw, ‘Meanwhile, madam, others can do as I do. I have no mansion, I keep no horses and no English cart. The tramway does for my going and coming, and I am content to live on a third floor over an entresol, where I am exposed to Teyssèdre. I work night and day, I pile up volume after volume, two and three octavos in a year. I am on two committees of the Académie; I never miss a meeting; I never miss a funeral; and even in the summer I never accept an invitation to the country, lest I should miss a single tally. I hope my son, when he is sixty-five, may be as indefatigable.’
It was long since he had spoken of Paul, and never had he spoken so severely. The mother was struck by his tone, and in her look, as she glanced sidelong, almost wickedly, at her husband, there was a shade of respect, which had not been there before.
‘There is a ring,’ said Léonard eagerly, rising as he spoke, and flinging his table napkin upon the back of his chair. ‘That must be my man.’
‘It’s some one for you, ma’am; they are beginning early to-day,’ said Corentine, as, with her kitchen-maid’s fingers wiped hastily on her apron, she laid a card on the edge of the table. Madame Astier looked at it. ‘The Vicomte de Freydet.’ A gleam came into her eyes. But her delight was not perceptible in the calm tone in which she said, ‘So M. de Freydet is in Paris?’
‘Yes, about his book.’
‘Bless me! His book! I have not even cut it. What is it about?’
She hurried over the last mouth fuls, and washed the tips of her white fingers in her glass while her husband in an absent-minded way gave her some idea of the new volume. ‘God in Nature,’ a philosophic poem, entered for the Boisseau prize.
‘Oh, I do hope he will get it. He must, he must. They are so nice, he and his sister, and he is so good to the poor paralysed creature. Do you think he will?’
Astier would not commit himself. He could not promise, but he would certainly recommend Freydet, who seemed to him to be really improving. ‘If he asks you for my personal opinion, it is this: there is still a little too much for my taste, but much less than in his other books. You may tell him that his old master is pleased.’
Too much of what? Less of what? It must be supposed that Madame Astier knew, for she sought no explanation, but left the table and passed, quite happy, into her drawing room — as the study must be considered for the day. Astier, more and more absorbed in thought, lingered for some minutes, breaking up with his knife what remained in his plate of the Auvergne cheese; then, being disturbed in his meditations by Corentine, who, without heeding him, was rapidly clearing the table, he rose stiffly and went up, by a little staircase like a cat-ladder, to his attic, where he took up his magnifying glass and resumed the examination of the old manuscript upon which he had been busy since the morning.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53