‘My notion is that people, like things, have a right and a wrong way up, and there’s always a place to get hold of, if you want to have a good control and grasp of them. I know where the place is, and that’s my power! Driver, to the Tête Noire.’ At Paul Astier’s order the open carriage, in which the three tall hats belonging to Freydet, Védrine, and himself rose in funereal outline against the brightness of the afternoon landscape, drew up on the right-hand side of the bridge at St. Cloud, in front of the inn he had named. Every jolt of the hired conveyance over the paving of the square brought into sight an ominous long case of green baize projecting beyond the lowered hood of the carriage. Paul had chosen, as seconds for this meeting with D’Athis, first the Vicomte de Freydet, on account of his title and his ‘de,’ and with him the Count Adriani. But the Papal Embassy was afraid of adding another scandal to the recent affair of the Cardinal’s hat, and he had been obliged to find a substitute for Pepino in the sculptor, who would perhaps allow himself at the last minute to be described in the official statement as ‘Marquis.’ The matter, however, was not supposed to be serious, only a quarrel at the club over the card-table, where the Prince had taken a hand for a last game before leaving Paris. The affair could not be hushed up; it was specially impossible to cave in to a fighting man like Paul Astier, who had a great reputation in fencing rooms, and whose records were framed and hung in the shooting-gallery in the Avenue d’Antin.
While the carriage waited by the terrace of the restaurant and the waiters unobtrusively bestowed on it knowing glances, down a steep little path came rolling a short, fat man, with the white spats, white tie, silk hat, and captivating air of the doctor of a fashionable watering-place. He made signals from the distance with his sunshade, there’s Gomes,’ said Paul. Doctor Gomes, formerly on the resident staff of one of the Paris hospitals, had been ruined by play and an old attachment. Now he was ‘Uncle Gomes,’ and had an irregular practice; not a bad fellow, but one who would stick at nothing, and had made a specialty of affairs like the present. Fee, two guineas and breakfast. Just now he was spending his holiday with Cloclo at Ville d’Avray, and came puffing to the meeting place, carrying a little bag which held his instrument case, medicines, bandages, splints — enough to set up an ambulance.
‘Is it to be scratch or wound?’ he asked, as he took his seat in the carriage opposite Paul.
‘Scratch, of course, doctor, scratch, with swords of the Institute. The Académie Française against the Sciences Morales et Politiques.’
Gomès smiled as he steadied his bag between his knees.
‘I did not know, so I brought the big apparatus.’
‘Well, you must display it; it will impress the enemy,’ suggested Védrine, in his quiet way.
The doctor winked, a little put out by the two seconds, whose faces were unknown to the boulevards, and to whom Paul Astier, who treated him like a servant, did not even introduce him.
As the carriage started, the window of a room on the first floor opened, and a pair came and looked at them curiously. The girl was Marie Donval, of the Gymnase, whom the doctor recognised and named in a loud voice. The other was a deformed little creature, whose head was barely visible above the window-sill. Freydet, with much indignation, and Védrine, with some amusement, recognised Fage.
‘Are you surprised, M. de Freydet?’ said Paul. And hereupon he launched into a savage attack upon woman. Woman! A disordered child, with all a child’s perversity and wickedness, all its instinctive desire to cheat, to lie, to tease, all its cowardice. She was greedy, she was vain, she was inquisitive. Oh yes, she could serve you a hash of somebody else, but she had not an idea of her own; and in argument, why, she was as full of holes, twists, and slippery places as the pavement on a frosty night after a thaw. How was conversation possible with a woman? Why, there was nothing in her, neither kindness nor pity nor intellect — not leven common sense. For a fashionable bonnet or one of Spricht’s gowns she was capable of stealing, of any trick however dirty; for at bottom the only thing she cares for is dress. To know the strength of this passion a man must have gone, as Paul had, with the most elegant ladies of fashion to the rooms of the great man-milliner. They were hand-and-glove with the forewomen, asked them to breakfast at their country houses, knelt to old Spricht as if he were the Pope himself. The Marquise de Roca-Nera took her young daughters to him, and all but asked him to bless them!
‘Just so,’ said the doctor, with the automatic jerk of a hireling whose neck has been put out of joint by perpetual acquiescence. Then followed an awkward pause, the conversation being, as it were, thrown out of gear by this sudden and unexpectedly violent effusion from a young fellow usually very civil and self-possessed. The sun was oppressive, and was reflected off the dry stone walls on each side of the steep road, up which the horses were toiling painfully, while the pebbles creaked under the wheels.
‘To show the kindness and pity of woman, I can vouch for the following.’ It was Védrine who spoke, his head thrown back and swaying as it rested on the hood of the carriage, his eyes half shut as he looked at some inward vision. ‘It was not at the great milliner’s . It was at the Hôtel-Dieu, in Bouchereau’s department. A rough, white-washed cell, an iron bedstead with all the clothes thrown off, and on it, stark naked, covered with sweat and foam, contorted and twisted like a clown with sudden springs and with yells that re-echoed through the fore-court of Notre Dame, a madman in the last agony. Beside the bed two women, one on either side, the Sister, and one of Bouchereau’s little lady-students, both quite young, yet with no disgust and no fear, both leaning over the poonwretch whom no one dared go near, wiping from his brow and mouth the sweat of his agony and the suffocating foam. The Sister was praying all the time; the other was not. But in the inspired look in the eyes of both, in the gentleness of the brave little hands which wiped away the madman’s foam right from under his teeth, in the heroic and maternal beauty of their unwearied movements, you felt that they were both very women. There is woman! It was enough to make a man fall on his knees and sob.’
‘Thank you, Védrine,’ said Freydet under his breath; he had been choking with the recollection of the dear one at Clos Jallanges. The doctor began his jerk and his ‘just so,’ but was cut short by the dry, incisive tones of Paul Astier.
‘Oh yes, sick nurses, I’ll allow. Sickly themselves, nothing gives them such pleasure as nursing, dressing, bathing their patients, handling hot towels and basins; and then there’s the power they exercise over the suffering and the weak.’ His voice hissed and rose to the pitch of his mother’s, while from his cold eye darted a little gleam of wickedness which made his companions wonder ‘what is up,’ and suggested to the doctor the sage reflection, ‘All very well to talk about a scratch, and swords of the Institute, but I should not care to be in the Prince’s skin.’
‘Now I’ll paint you a pendant to our friend’s chromo,’ sneered Paul. ‘As a specimen of feminine delicacy and faithfulness, take a little widow, who even in the burial vault of the departed, and on his very tombstone ——’
‘The Ephesian Matron!‘ broke in Védrine, ‘you want to tell us that!’ The discussion grew animated and ran on, still to an accompaniment of the jolting wheels, upon the never-failing topics of masculine discussion, woman and love.
‘Gentlemen, look,’ said the doctor, who from his place on the front seat saw two carriages coming up the hill at a quick trot. In the first, an open victoria, were the Prince’s seconds. Gomes stood up, and as he sat down again named them in a low and respectful tone, ‘the Marquis d’Urbin and General de Bonneuil of the Jockey Club — very good form — and my brother-surgeon, Aubouis.’ This Doctor Aubouis was another low-caste of the same stamp as Gomes; but as he had a ribbon his fee was five guineas. Behind was a little brougham in which, along with the inseparable Lavaux, was concealed D’Athis, desperately bored with the whole business. During five minutes the three vehicles went up the hill one behind another like a wedding or funeral procession, and nothing was heard but the sound of the wheels and the panting or snorting of the horses as they rattled their bits.
‘Pass them,’ said a haughty nasal voice.
‘By all means,’ said Paul, ‘they are going to see to our quarters.’ The wheels grazed on the narrow road, the seconds bowed, the doctors exchanged professional smiles. Then the brougham went by, showing behind the window glass, pulled up in spite of the heat, a morose motionless profile, as pale as a corpse. ‘He won’t be paler than that an hour hence, when they take him home with a hole in his side,’ thought Paul, and he pictured the exact thrust, feint No. 2, followed by a direct lunge straight in between the third and fourth ribs.
At the top of the hill the air was cooler, and laden with the scent of lime-flowers, acacias, and roses warm in the sun. Behind the low park railings sloped great lawns over which moved the mottled shadows of the trees. Presently was heard the bell of a garden gate.
‘Here we are,’ said the doctor, who knew the place. It was where the Marquis d’Urbin’s stud used to be, but for the last two years it had been for sale. All the horses were gone, except a few colts gambolling about in fields separated by high barriers.
The duel was to take place at the further end of the estate, on a wide terrace in front of a white brick stable. It was reached by sloping paths all overgrown with moss and grass, along which both parties walked together, mingling, but not speaking, proper as could be; except that Védrine, unable to support these fashionable formalities, scandalised Freydet, who carried his high collar with much gravity, by exclaiming, ‘Here’s a lily of the valley,’ or pulling off a bough, and presently, struck with the contrast between the splendid passivity of nature and the futile activity of man, ejaculated, as he gazed on the great woods that climbed the opposite hill-side, and the distance composed of clustered roofs, shining water and blue haze, ‘How beautiful, how peaceful!’ With an involuntary movement he pointed to the horizon, for the benefit of some one whose patent leather boots came squeaking behind him. But oh, what an outpouring of contempt, not only upon the improper Védrine, but upon the landscape and the sky! The Prince d’Athis was unsurpassed in contempt. He expressed it with his eye, the celebrated eye whose flash had always overcome Bismarck; he expressed it with his great hooked nose, and with the turned down corners of his mouth; he expressed it without reason, without inquiry, study, or thought, and his rise in diplomacy, his successes in love and in society, were all the work of this supposed contempt!
In reality ‘Sammy ‘was an empty-headed bauble, a puppet picked by a clever woman’s compassion out of the refuse and oyster shells of the supper-tavern, raised by her higher and higher, prompted by her what to say and, more important still, what not to say, lessoned and guided by her, till the day when, finding himself at the top of the ladder, he kicked away the stool which he no longer wanted. Society thought him a very clever fellow, but Védrine did not share the general opinion; and the comparison of Talleyrand to a ‘silk stocking full of mud’ came into his mind as he watched this highly respectable and proper personage stalk majestically past him. Evidently the Duchess had her wits about her when she disguised his emptiness by making him both diplomatist and academician, and cloaking him for the official carnival with the double thickness of both the two thread-bare, though venerable, dominos, to which society continues to bow. But how she could have loved such a hollow, stony-hearted piece of crockery, Védrine did not understand. Was it his title? But her family was as good as his. Was it the English cut of his clothes, the frock coat closely fitted to his broken-down shoulders, and the mud-coloured trousers that made so crude a bit of colour among the trees? One might almost think that the young villain, Paul, was right in his contemptuous remarks on woman’s taste for what is low, for deformity in morals or physique!
The Prince had reached the three-foot fence which divided the path from the meadow, and either because he mistrusted his slender legs, or because he thought a vigorous movement improper for a man of his position, he hesitated, particularly bothered by the sense that ‘that huge artist fellow’ was just at his back. At last he made up his mind to step out of his way to a gap in the wooden fence. Védrine winked his little eyes. ‘Go round, my good sir,’ was his thought, ‘go round; make the road as long as you will, it must bring you in the end to the front of the white building yonder. And when you get there, you may possibly have to pay a heavy reckoning for all your scoundrelly tricks. There is always a reckoning to pay in the end.’ Having relieved his mind by this soliloquy, he jumped clean over the fence without so much as putting a hand on it (a proceeding extremely improper), and joined the knot of seconds busily engaged in casting lots for places and swords. In spite of the dandified solemnity of their aspect, they looked, as they all bent to see whether the toss fell head or tail, or ran to pick up the coins, like big school-boys in the playground, wrinkled and grey. During a discussion on a doubtful pitch, Védrine heard his name called by Astier, who, with perfect self-possession, was taking off his coat and emptying his pockets behind the little building. ‘What’s that stuff the General is talking? Wants to have his walking-stick within reach of our swords, to prevent accidents? I won’t have that sort of thing, do you hear? This is not a lower school fight. We are both old hands, fifth form.’ In spite of his light words, his teeth were clenched and his eye gleamed fiercely. ‘It’s serious then?’ asked Védrine, looking at him hard.
‘Couldn’t be more so.’
‘Ah! Somehow I thought as much,’ and the sculptor returned to convey the message to the General, commander of a cavalry division, looking all leg from his heels to his pointed ears, which in brilliancy of colour vied with Freydet’s . At Védrine’s intimation these ears flushed suddenly scarlet, as if the blood boiled in them. ‘Right, Sir! ‘Course, Sir!’ His words cut the air like the lash of a whip. Sammy was being helped by Doctor Aubouis to turn up his shirt sleeves. Did he hear? or was it the aspect of the lithe, cat-like, vigorous young fellow as he came forward with neck and arms bare and round as a woman’s, and with that pitiless look. Be the reason what it may, D’Athis, who had come to the ground as a social duty without a shade of anxiety, as befitted a gentleman who was not inexperienced and knew the value of two good seconds, suddenly changed countenance, turned earthy pale, while his beard scarcely concealed the twitch of his jaw in the horrible contortion of fear. But he kept his self-control, and put himself on the defensive bravely enough.
Yes, there is always a reckoning to pay. He realised that keenly as he faced that pitiless sword-point, which sought him, felt him at a distance, seemed to spare him now only to make more sure of hitting presently. They meant to kill him; that was certain. And as he parried the blows with his long, thin arm stretched out, amid the clashing of the hilts he felt, for the first time, a pang of remorse for his mean desertion of the noble lady who had lifted him out of the gutter and given him once more a decent place in the world; he felt too that her merited wrath was in some way connected with this present encompassing peril, which seemed to shake the air all about him, to send round and round in a glancing, vanishing vision the expanse of sky overhead, the alarmed faces of the seconds and doctors, and the remoter figures of two stable boys wildly beating off with their caps the gambolling horses that wanted to come and look on. Suddenly came exclamations, sharp and peremptory: ‘Enough! Stop, stop!’ What has happened? The peril is gone, the sky stands still, everything has resumed its natural colour and place. But at his feet over the torn and trampled ground spreads a widening pool of blood, which darkens the yellow soil, and in it lies Paul Astier helpless, with a wound right through his bare neck, stuck like a pig. In the still pause of horror which followed the disaster was heard the shrill, unceasing noise of insects in the distant meadow, while the horses, no longer watched, gathered together a little way off and stretched out inquisitive noses towards the motionless body of the vanquished.
Yet he was a skilful swordsman. His fingers had a firm grasp of the hilt and could make the whistling blade flash, hover, and descend where he pleased, while his adversary encountered him with a wavering cowardly spit. How had it come about? The seconds will say, and the evening papers repeat, and to-morrow all Paris will take up the cue, that Paul Astier slipped as he made his thrust and ran on his opponent’s point. A full and accurate account will no doubt be given: but in life it usually happens that decision of language varies inversely with certainty of knowledge. Even from the spectators, even from the combatants themselves, a certain mist and confusion will always veil the crucial moment, when, against all reasonable calculation, the final stroke was given by intervening fate, wrapped in that obscure cloud which by epic rule closes round the end of a contest.
Carried into a small coachman’s room adjoining the stable, Paul, on opening his eyes after a long swoon, saw first from the iron bedstead on which he lay a lithographic print of the Prince Imperial pinned to the wall over the drawers, which were covered with surgical instruments. As consciousness returned to him through the medium of external objects, the poor melancholy face with its faded eyes, discoloured by the damp of the walls, suggested a sad omen of ill-fated youth. But besides ambition and cunning, Paul had his full share of courage; and raising with difficulty his head and its cumbrous wrapping of bandages, he asked in a voice broken and weak, though fleeting still, ‘Wound or scratch, doctor?’ Gomes, who was rolling up his medicated wool, waved to him to keep quiet, as he answered, ‘Scratch, you lucky dog; but a near shave. Aubouis and I thought the carotid was cut.’ A faint colour came into the young man’s cheeks, and his eyes sparkled. It is so satisfactory not to die! Instantly his ambition revived, and he wanted to know how long he should take to get well again. ‘From three weeks to a month.’ Such was the doctor’s judgment, announced in an indifferent tone with an amusing shade of contempt. He was really very much annoyed and mortified that his patient had got the worst of it. Paul with his eyes on the wall was making calculations. D’Athis would be gone and Colette married before he was even out of bed. Well, that business had failed; he must look out for something else.
The door was opened, and a great flood of light poured into the miserable room. How delightful was life and the warm sunshine! Védrine, coming in with Freydet, went up to the bed and held out his hand joyously, saying ‘You did give us a fright!’ He was really fond of his young rascal, and cherished him as a work of art. ‘Ah, that you did!’ said Freydet, wiping his brow with an air of great relief. His eyes had seen all his hopes of election to the Académie lying on the ground in that pool of blood. How could Astier, the father, ever have come out as the champion of a man connected with such a fatal event? Not but that Freydet had a warm heart, but the absorbing thought of his candidature brought his mind, like a compass needle, always round to the same point; howsoever shaken and turned about, it came back still to the Academic Pole. And as the wounded man smiled at his friends, feeling a little foolish at finding himself, for all his cleverness, lying there at full length, Freydet dilated with admiration on the ‘proper’ behaviour of the seconds, whom they had just assisted in framing the report, of Doctor Aubouis, who had offered to stay with his professional friend, of the Prince, who had gone off in the victoria and left for Paul his well-hung carriage, which having only one horse could be brought right up to the door of the little building. Every one had behaved most properly.
‘How he bores one with his proprieties!’ said Védrine, seeing the face Paul had not been able to help making.
‘It really is very odd,’ murmured the young fellow in a vague and wandering voice. So it would be he, and not the other fellow, whose pale, bloodstained face would be seen by the doctors side through the window of the brougham as it went slowly home. Well, he had made a mess of it! Suddenly he sat up, in spite of the doctor’s protest, rummaged in his card-case for a card, and scribbled on it with pencil in a shaky hand, ‘Fate is as faithless as man. I wanted to avenge you, but could not. Forgive me.’ He signed his name, read it over, reflected, read it again, then fastened up the envelope, which they had found in a dusty drawer, a nasty scented envelope from some rural stores, and directed it to the Duchess Padovani. He gave it to Freydet, begging him to deliver it himself as soon as possible.
‘It shall be there within an hour, my dear Paul.’
He made with his hand a sign of thanks and dismissal, then stretched himself out, shut his eyes, and lay quiet and still till the departure, listening to the sound which came from the sunny meadow around — a vast shrill hum of insects, which imitated the pulsation of approaching fever. Beneath the closed lids his thoughts pursued the windings of this second and quite novel plot, conceived by a sudden inspiration on ‘the place of defeat.
Was it a sudden inspiration? There perhaps the ambitious young man was wrong; for the spring of our actions is often unseen, lost and hidden amid the internal disturbance of the crisis, even as the agitator who starts a crowd himself disappears in it. A human being resembles a crowd; both are manifold, complicated things, full of confused and irregular impulses, but there is an agitator in the background; and the movements of a man, like those of a mob, passionate and spontaneous as they may appear, have always been preconcerted. Since the evening when on the terrace of the Hôtel Padovani Lavaux had suggested the Duchess to the young Guardsman, the thought had occurred to Paul that, if Madame de Rosen failed him, he might fall back on the fair Antonia. It had recurred two nights ago at the Français, when he saw Adriani in the Duchess’s box; but it took no definite shape, because all his energy was then turned in another direction, and he still believed in the possibility of success. Now that the game was completely lost, his first idea on returning to life was ‘the Duchess.’ Thus, although he scarcely knew it, the resolution reached so abruptly was but the coming to light of what grew slowly underground. ‘I wanted to avenge you, but could not.’ Warm-hearted, impulsive, and revengeful as he knew her to be, ‘Mari’ Anto,’ as her Corsicans called her, would certainly be at his bedside the next morning. It would be his business to see that she did not go away.
Védrine and Freydet went back together in the landau, without waiting for Sammy’s brougham, which had to come slowly for the sake of the wounded man. The sight of the swords lying in their baize cover on the empty seat opposite suggested reflection. ‘They don’t rattle so much as they did going, the brutes,’ said Védrine, kicking them as he spoke. ‘Ah, you see they are his!’ said Freydet, giving words to his thoughts. Then, resuming the air of gravity and propriety appropriate to a second, he added, ‘We had everything in our favour, the ground, the weapons, and a first rate fencer. As he says, it is very odd.’
Presently there was a pause in the dialogue, while their attention was fixed by the gorgeous colour of the river, spread in sheets of green and purple under the setting sun. Crossing the bridge the horses trotted fast up the street of Boulogne. ‘Yes,’ Védrine went on, as if there had been no long interruption of silence; ‘yes, after all, in spite of apparent successes, the fellow is unlucky at bottom. I have now seen him more than once fighting with circumstances in one of those crises which are touchstones to a man’s fate, and bring out of him all the luck he has. Well, let him plot as cunningly as he will, foresee everything, mix his tints with the utmost skill, something gives way at the last moment, and without completely ruining him prevents him from attaining his object. Why? Very likely, just because his nose is crooked. I assure you, that sort of crookedness is nearly always the sign of a twist in the intellect, an obliquity in the character. The helm’s not straight, you see!’
They laughed at the suggestion; and Védrine, pursuing the subject of good and bad luck, told an odd story of a thing which had happened almost under his eyes when he was staying with the Padovani in Corsica. It was on the coast at Barbicaglia, just opposite the lighthouse on the Sanguinaires. In this lighthouse lived an old keeper, a tried servant, just on the eve of retirement. One night when he was on duty the old fellow fell asleep and dozed for five minutes at the most, stopping with his outstretched leg the movement of the revolving light, which ought to change colour once a minute. That very night, just at that moment, the inspector-general, who was making his annual round in a Government boat, happened to be opposite the Sanguinaires. He was amazed to see a stationary light, had the boat stopped, investigated and reported the matter, and the next morning the official boat brought a new keeper to the island and notice of instant dismissal to the poor old man. ‘It seems to me,’ said Védrine, ‘a curiosity in ill-luck that, in the chances of darkness, time, and space, the inspector’s survey should have coincided with the old man’s nap.’ Their carriage was just reaching the Place de la Concorde, and Védrine pointed with one of his slow calm movements to a great piece of sky overhead where the dark green colour was pierced here and there by newly-appearing stars, visible in the waning light of the glorious day.
A few minutes later the landau turned into the Rue de Poitiers, a short street, already in shadow, and stopped in front of the high iron gates bearing the Padovani shield. All the shutters of the house were closed, and there was a great chattering of birds in the garden. The Duchess had gone for the summer to Mousseaux. Freydet stood hesitating, with the huge envelope in his hand. He had expected to see the fair Antonia and give a graphic account of the duel, perhaps even to slip in a reference to his approaching candidature. Now he could not make up his mind whether he should leave the letter, or deliver it himself a few days hence, when he went back to Clos Jallanges. Eventually he decided to leave it, and as he stepped back into the carriage he said, ‘Poor fellow! He impressed upon me that the letter was urgent.’
‘Quite so,’ said Védrine, as the landau carried them along the quays, now beginning to glimmer with rows of yellow lights, to the meeting place arranged with D’Athis’s seconds; ‘quite so. I don’t know what the letter is about, but for him to take the trouble to write it at such a moment, it must be something very smart, something extremely ingenious and clever. Only there you are! Very urgent — and the Duchess has left.’
And pushing the end of his nose on one side between two fingers, he said with the utmost gravity, ‘That’s what it is, you see.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07