The day following that on which the Duchess Padovani, to show herself smiling under the blow which had fallen upon her, had appeared at the theatre, she went, as she usually did at that time of year, to Mousseaux. She made no change in her plans. She had sent out her invitations for the season, and did not cancel them. But before the arrival of the first instalment of visitors, during the few days’ solitude usually spent in superintending in detail the arrangements for entertaining her guests, she passed the whole time from morning to night in the park at Mousseaux, whose slopes stretched far and wide on the banks of the Loire. She would go madly along, like a wounded and hunted animal, stop for a moment from exhaustion, and then at a throb of pain start off again. ‘Coward! coward! wretch!’ She hurled invectives at the Prince as though he had been by her side, and still she walked with the same fevered tread the labyrinth of green paths which ran down in long shady windings to the river. Here, forgetting her rank and her position, flinging off her mask and able to be natural at last, she would give vent to her despair, a despair perhaps something less than her wrath, for the voice of pride spoke louder within her than any other, and the few tears which escaped her lids did not flow, but leaped and sparkled like flames. Revenge, revenge! She longed for a revenge of blood, and sometimes pictured one of her foresters, Bertoli or Salviato, going off abroad to put a bullet into him on his wedding-day. Then she changed her mind. No, she would deal the blow herself, and feel the joy of the vendetta in her own grasp. She envied the women of lower class who wait behind a doorway for the traitor, and fling in his face a bottle full of vitriol with a storm of hideous curses. Why did she not know some of the horrible names that relieve the heart, some foul insult to shriek at the mean treacherous companion who rose before her mind with the hesitating look and false constrained smile he wore at their last meeting? But even in her savage Corsican patois the great lady knew no ‘nasty words,’ and when she had cried ‘Coward! coward! wretch!’ her beautiful mouth could only writhe in helpless rage.
In the evening after her solitary dinner in the vast hall, whose panelling of old leather was gilt by the setting sun, her wild pacing to and fro began again. Now it was on the gallery overhanging the river, quaintly restored by Paul Astier, with open arcades like lace-work and two pretty corbel-turrets. Below on the Loire, outspread like a lake, there still lingered a delicate silvery light from the departing day, while the hazy evening air exaggerated the distances between the willow beds and islands out towards Chaumont. But poor Mari’ Anto did not look at the view when, worn out with retracing the steps of her grief, she leant both elbows on the balustrade and gazed into the dimness. Her life appeared before her, waste and desolate, at an age when it is difficult to make a fresh start. A faint sound of voices rose from Mousseaux, a group of two or three small houses on the embankment; the chain of a boat creaked as the night breeze rose. How easy it would be! Grief had bowed down her head so low, that if she were but to lean forward a little farther. . . . But then what would the world say? A woman of her rank and age could not kill herself like any little grisette! The third day Paul’s note arrived, and with it the newspapers’ detailed report of the duel. It gave her the same delight as a warm pressure of the hand. So some one still cared for her, and had wanted to avenge her at the risk of his life! Not that Paul’s feeling was love, she supposed, but only a grateful affection, the reminiscence of kindnesses done by her to him and his family, perhaps an imperative desire to atone for his mother’s treachery. Generous, brave fellow! If she had been in Paris, she would have gone to him at once, but as her guests were just due, she could only write and send him her own doctor.
Every hour came fresh arrivals from Blois and from Onzain, Mousseaux lying half way between the two stations. The landau, the victoria, and two great breaks set down at the steps in the great court, amid the incessant ringing of the bell, many illustrious members of the Duchess’s set, academicians and diplomatists, the Count and Countess Foder, the Comte de Brétigny and his son the Vicomte, who was a Secretary of Legation, M. and Madame Desminières, Laniboire the philosopher, who had come to the castle to draw up his report on the award of the Prix de vertu, the young critic of Shelley, who was ‘run’ by the Padovani set, and Danjou, handsome Danjou, all by himself, though his wife had been asked. Life at Mousseaux was exactly what it had been the year before. The day passed in calls, or work in the separate rooms, meals, general conversation, afternoon naps; then, when the great heat was passed, came long drives through the woods, or sails on the river in the little fleet of boats anchored at the bottom of the park. Parties would be made to picnic on an island, and some of the guests would repair to the fish preserves, which were always well stocked with lively fish, as the keeper took care to replenish them from his nets before each expedition. Then every one came back to the ceremonious dinner, after which the gentlemen, when they had smoked in the billiard room or on the gallery, joined the ladies in a splendid apartment, which had been the council-chamber of Catherine de Médicis.
All round the huge room were depicted in tapestry the loves of Dido and her despair at the departure of the Trojan ships. The irony of this strange coincidence was not remarked by any one, so little do people in society regard their surroundings, less for want of observation than because they are always and fully occupied with their personal behaviour and the effect they are to produce. But there was a striking contrast between the tragic despair of the abandoned queen, gazing with arms uplifted and streaming eyes as the little black speck disappeared, and the smiling serenity of the Duchess, as she presided in the drawing-room, maintaining her supremacy over the other ladies, whose dress and whose reading were guided by her taste, or joining in the discussions between Laniboire and the young critic, and in the disputes waged over the candidates for Loisillon’s seat by Desminières and Danjou. Indeed, if the Prince d’Athis, the faithless Sammy, whose name was in every one’s thoughts, though on no one’s lips, could have seen her, he would have been mortified to find how small was the gap left in a woman’s life by his-absence, and how busy was the turmoil throughout the royal castle of Mousseaux, where in all the long front there were but three windows shut up, those belonging to what were called ‘the Prince’s rooms.’
‘She takes it well,’ said Danjou the first evening. And neither little Countess Foder, from whose massy lace protruded a very sharp inquisitive little nose, nor sentimental Madame Desminières, who had looked forward to lamentations and confidences, could get over such amazing courage. In truth they were as much amazed at her as if going to a long-expected play they had found the house ‘closed for the day’; while the men took Ariadne’s equanimity as an encouragement to would-be successors. The real change in the Duchess’s life lay in the attitude observed towards her by all or nearly all the men; they were less reserved, more sedulous, more eager to please her, and fluttered round her chair with an obvious desire, not merely to merit her patronage, but to attract her regard.
Never indeed had Maria Antonia been more beautiful. When she entered the dining-room the tempered brilliancy of her complexion and her shoulders in their light summer robe made a bright place at the table, even when the Marquise de Roca Nera had come over from her neighbouring country seat on the other side of the Loire. The Marquise was younger, but no one would have thought so to look at them. Laniboire, the philosopher, was strongly attracted to the Duchess. He was a widower, well on in years, with heavy features and apoplectic complexion, but he did his best to captivate his hostess by the display of a manly and sportsmanlike activity which led him into occasional mishaps. One day, in a boat, as he tried to make a great display of biceps over his rowing, he fell into the river; another time, as he was prancing on horseback at the side of the carriage, his mount squeezed his leg so hard against the wheel that he had to keep his room and be bandaged for several days. But the finest spectacle was to see him in the drawing-room, ‘dancing,’ as Danjou said, ‘before the Ark.’ He stretched and bent his unwieldy person in all directions. He would challenge to a philosophic duel the young critic, a confirmed pessimist of three-and-twenty, and overwhelm him with his own imperturbable optimism. Laniboire the philosopher had one particular reason for this good opinion of the world; his wife had died of diphtheria caught from nursing their children; both his children had died with their mother; and each time that he repeated his dithyramb in praise of existence, the philosopher concluded his statement with a sort of practical demonstration, a bow to the Duchess, which seemed to say, ‘How can a man think ill of life in the presence of such beauty as yours?’
The young critic paid his court in a less conspicuous and sufficiently cunning fashion. He was an immense admirer of the Prince d’Athis, and being at the age when admiration shows itself by imitation, he no sooner made his entry into society than he copied Sammy’s attitudes, his walk, even the carriage of his head, his bent back, and vague mysterious smile of contemptuous reserve. Now he increased the resemblance by details of dress, which he had observed and collected with the sharpness of a child, from the way of pinning his tie just at the opening of the collar to the fawn-coloured check of his English trousers. Unfortunately he had too much hair and not a scrap of beard, so that his efforts were quite thrown away, and revived no uncomfortable memories in the Duchess, who was as indifferent to his English checks as she was to the languishing glances of Brétigny fils, or the significant pressure of Brétigny père, as he gave her his arm to dinner. But all this helped to surround her with that atmosphere of gallantry to which she had long been accustomed by D’Athis, who played the humble servant to the verge of servility, and to save her woman’s pride from the conscious humiliation of abandonment.
Amidst all these aspirants Danjou kept somewhat aloof, amusing the Duchess with his green-room stories and making her laugh, a way of self-recommendation in certain cases not unsuccessful. But the time came when he thought matters sufficiently advanced: and one morning when she was starting for her rapid solitary walk with her dogs through the park, in the hope of leaving her wrath behind in the thickets with the waking birds, or of cooling and tempering it among the dewy lawns and dripping branches — suddenly, at a turn in the path, appeared Danjou, ready for the attack. Dressed from head to foot in white flannels, his trousers tucked into his boots, with a picturesque cap and a well-trimmed beard, he was trying to find a dénouement for a three-act drama, to be ready for the Français that winter. The name was ‘Appearances,’ and the subject a satire on society. Everything was written but the final scene.
‘Well, let us try what we can do together,’ said the Duchess brightly, as she cracked the long lash of the short-handled whip with silver whistle, which she used to call in her dogs. But the moment they turned to walk together, he began to talk of his love, and how sad it would be for her to live alone; and ended by offering himself, after his own fashion, straight out and with no circumlocutions. The Duchess, with a quick movement of pride, threw up her head, grasping her whip handle tightly, as if to strike the insolent fellow who dared to talk to her as he might to a super at the opera. But the insult was also a compliment, and there was pleasure as well as anger in her blush. Danjou steadily urged his point, and tried to dazzle her with his polished wit, pretending to treat the matter less as a love affair than as an intellectual partnership. A man like himself and a woman like her might command the world.
‘Many thanks, my dear Danjou; such specious reasoning is not new to me. I am suffering from it still.’ Then with a haughty wave of her hand, which allowed no reply, she pointed out the shady path which the dramatist was to follow, and said, ‘Look for your dénouement; I am going in.’ He stood where he was, completely disconcerted, and gazed at her beautiful carriage as she walked away.
‘Not even as zebra?’ he said, in a tone of appeal.
She looked round, her black brows meeting. ‘Ah, yes, you are right; the post is vacant,’ Her thoughts went to Lavaux, the base underling for whom she had done so much, and without a smile she answered in a weary voice, ‘Zebra, if you like.’
Then she vanished behind a little group of fine yellow roses a little overblown, whose leaves would be scattered at the first fresh breeze.
It was something to boast of that the proud Mari’ Anto’ had heard him through. Probably no other man, not even her Prince, had ever spoken to her thus. Full of the inspiration of hope, and stimulated by the fine speeches he had just thrown off, the dramatist soon hit upon his final scene. He was going back to write it out before breakfast, when he stopped short in surprise at seeing through the branches ‘the Prince’s ‘ windows open to the sunlight Who was coming? What favourite guest was to be honoured with those convenient and luxurious rooms, looking over the river and the park? He made inquiries, and was reassured. It was her Grace’s architect; he was coming to the castle after an illness. Considering the intimacy between the lady and the Astiers, nothing was more natural than that Paul should be entertained like a son of the house in a mansion which he had more or less created. Still, when the new arrival took his seat at breakfast, his chastened delicacy of feature, his paleness — the paler by a white silk kerchief — his duel, his wound, and the general flavour of romance surrounding him seemed to make so keen an impression on the ladies, and called forth such affectionate interest and care on the part of the Duchess herself, that handsome Danjou, being one of those all-engrossing persons to whom any other man’s success seems a personal loss, if not downright robbery, felt a jealous pang. With his eyes on his plate he took advantage of his position by the hostess to murmur some depreciatory remarks upon the pretty young fellow, unfortunately so much disfigured by his mother’s nose. He made merry over his duel, his wound, and his reputation in the fencing-room, the kind of bubble which bursts at the first prick of a real sword. He added, not knowing how near he was to the truth, ‘The quarrel at cards was of course a mere pretext; there was a woman at the bottom of it.’
‘Of the duel? Do you think so?’ His nod said ‘I am sure of it.’ Much admiring his own cleverness, he turned to the company, and dazzled them with his epigrams and anecdotes. He never went into society without providing himself with a store of these pocket squibs. Paul was no match for him here, and the ladies’ interest soon reverted to the brilliant talker, especially when he announced that, having got his dénouement and finished his play, he would read it in the drawing-room while it was too hot to go out. A universal exclamation of delight from the ladies welcomed this invaluable relief to the day’s monotony. What a precious privilege for them, proud as they were already of dating their letters from Mousseaux, to be able to send to all their dear friends, who were not there, accounts of an unpublished play by Danjou, read by Danjou himself, and then next winter to be in a position to say when the rehearsals were going on, ‘Oh, Danjou’s play! I know it; he read it to us at the castle.’
As the company rose, full of excitement at this good news, the Duchess went towards Paul, and taking his arm with her graceful air of command said, ‘Come for a turn on the gallery; it is stifling here.’ The air was heavy even at the height of the gallery, for there rose from the steaming river a mist of heat, which overspread and blurred the irregular green outlines of its banks and of its low floating islands. She led the young man away from the smokers right to the end of the furthest bay, and then clasping his hand said, ‘So it was for me; it was all for me.’
‘Yes, Duchess, for you.’
And he pursed his lips as he added, ‘And presently we shall have another try.’
‘You must not say that, you naughty boy.’
She stopped, as an inquisitive footstep came towards them. Danjou!’
‘My fan . . . on the dining-room table . . . would you be so kind? . . . ’ When he was some way off, she said, ‘I will not have it, Paul. In the first place, the creature is not worth fighting. Ah, if we were alone — if I could tell you!’ The fierceness of her tone and the clenching of her hands betrayed a rage that amazed Paul Astier. After a month he had hoped to find her calmer than this. It was a disappointment, and it checked the explosion, ‘I love you — I have always loved you,’ which was to have been forced from him at the first confidential interview. He was only telling the story of the duel, in which she was very much interested, when the Academician brought her fan. ‘Well fetched, zebra!’ she said by way of thanks. With a little pout he answered in the same strain but a lowered voice, ‘A zebra on promotion, you know!’
‘What, wanting to be raised already!’ She tapped him with her fan as she spoke, and anxious to put him in a good temper for his reading, let him escort her back to the drawing-room, where his manuscript was lying ready on a dainty card-table in the full light of a high window partly open, showing the flower-garden and the groups of great trees.
‘Appearances. A Drama in Three Acts. Dramatis Personæ. . . . ’
The ladies, getting as close round as they could, drew themselves together with the charming little shiver which is their way of anticipating enjoyment. Danjou read like a genuine ‘Player’ of Picheral’s classification, making lengthy pauses while he moistened his lips with his glass of water, and wiped them with a fine cambric handkerchief. As he finished each of the long broad pages, scribbled all over with his tiny handwriting, he let-it fall carelessly at his feet on the carpet Each time Madame de Foder, who hunts the ‘lions’ of all nations, stooped noiselessly, picked up the fallen sheet, and placed it reverently upon an armchair beside her, exactly square with the sheets before, contriving, in this subtle and delicate way, to take a certain part in the great man’s work. It was as if Liszt or Rubinstein had been at the piano and she had been turning over the music. All went well till the end of Act I., an interesting and promising introduction, received with a furore of delighted exclamations, rapturous laughter, and enthusiastic applause. After a long pause, in which was audible from the far distance of the park the hum of the insects buzzing about the tree-tops, the reader wiped his moustache, and resumed:
Act II The scene represents . . . But here his voice began to break, and grew huskier with every speech. He had just seen an empty chair among the ladies in the first row; it was Antonia’s chair; and his glances strayed over his eye-glass searching the whole huge room. It was full of green plants and screens, behind which the auditors had ensconced themselves to hear — or to sleep — undisturbed. At last, in one of the numerous and regular intervals provided by his glass of water, he caught a whisper, then a glimpse of a light dress, then, at the far end, on a sofa, he saw the Duchess with Paul beside her, continuing the conversation interrupted on the gallery. To one like Danjou, spoiled with every kind of success, the affront was deadly. But he nerved himself to finish the Act, throwing his pages down on the floor with a violence which made them fly, and sent little Madame de Foder crawling after them on all fours. At the end of the Act, as the whispering still went on, he left off, pretending that he was suddenly taken hoarse and must defer the rest till the next day. The Duchess, absorbed in the duel, of which she could not hear enough, supposed the play concluded, and cried from the distance, clapping her little hands, ‘Bravo, Danjou, the dénouement is delicious.’
That evening the great man had, or said he had, a bilious attack, and very early next morning he left Mousseaux without seeing any one again. Perhaps it was only the vexation of an author; perhaps he truly believed that young Astier was going to succeed the Prince. However that may be, a week after he had gone Paul had not got beyond an occasional whispered word. The lady showed him the utmost kindness, treated him with the care of a mother, asked after his health, whether he did not find the tower looking south too hot, whether the shaking of the carriage tired him, whether it was not too late for him to stay on the river. But the moment he tried to mention the word ‘love,’ she was off without seeming to understand. Still he found her a very different creature from the proud Antonia of other years. Then, haughty and calm, she would show impertinence his place by a mere frown. It was the serenity of a majestic river flowing between its embankments. But now the embankment was giving way; there seemed to be a crack somewhere, through which was breaking the real nature of the woman. She had fits of rebellion against custom and social convention, which hitherto she had respected scrupulously, sudden desires to go somewhere else, and to tire herself in some long excursion. She planned festivities, fireworks, great coursing expeditions for the autumn, in which she would take the lead, though it was years since she had been on horseback. Paul watched carefully the vagaries of her excitement, and kept his sharp hawk’s -eye upon everything; he had quite made up his mind not to dangle for two years, as he had round Colette de Rosen.
One night the party had broken up early, after a tiring day of driving in the neighbourhood. Paul had gone up to his room, and having thrown off his coat was sitting in his slippers smoking a cigar and writing to his mother a carefully studied epistle. Mamma was staying at Clos Jallanges, and wearing her eyes out with looking across the winding river into the extreme distance for a glimpse of the four towers of Mousseaux: and he had to convince her that there was no chance of a reconciliation at present between her and her friend, and that they had better not meet. (No, no! His good mother was much too fond of fishing on her own hook to be a desirable associate!) He had to remind her of the bill due at the end of the month, and her promise to send the money to good little Stenne, who had been left in the Rue Fortuny as sole garrison of the mediaeval mansion. If Sammy’s money had not yet come in, she might borrow of the Freydets, who would not refuse to advance it for a few days. That very morning the Paris papers in their foreign news had announced the marriage of the French Ambassador at St. Petersburg, mentioned the presence of the Grand Duke, described the bride’s dresses, and given the name of the Polish Bishop who had bestowed his blessing on the happy pair. Mamma might imagine how the breakfast party at Mousseaux was affected by this news, known to every one, and read by the hostess in the eyes of her guests and in their persistent conversation on other topics.
The poor Duchess, who had hardly spoken during the meal, felt, when it was over, that she must rouse herself, and in spite of the heat had carried off all her visitors in three carriages to the Château de la Poissonnière, where the poet Ronsard was born. Ten miles’ drive in the sun on a road all cracks and dust, for the pleasure of hearing that hideous old Lani-boire, hoisted on to an old stump as decayed as himself, recite ‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose.’ On the way home they had paid a visit to the Agricultural Orphanage and Training School founded by old Padovani. Mamma must know it all well; they had been over the dormitory and laundry, and inspected the implements and the copy-books; and the whole place was so hot and smelly; and Laniboire made a speech to the Agricultural Orphans, cropped like convicts, in which he assured them that the world was good. To finish themselves up they stopped again at the furnaces near Onzain, and spent an hour between the heat of the setting sun and the smoke and smell of coal from three huge belching brick chimneys, stumbling over the rails and dodging the trucks and shovels full of molten metal in gigantic masses, which dropped fire like dissolving blocks of red ice, All the time the Duchess went on unwearied, but looked at nothing, listened to nothing. She seemed to be having an animated discussion with old Brétigny, whose arm she had taken, and paid as little attention to the furnaces and forges as to the poet Ronsard or the Agricultural Orphanage.
Paul had reached this point in his letter, painting with terrible force, to console his mother for her absence, the dullness of life this year at Mousseaux, when he heard a gentle knock at his door. He thought it was the young critic, or the Vicomte de Brétigny, or perhaps Laniboire, who had been very unquiet of late. All these had often prolonged the evening in his room, which was the largest and most convenient, and had a dainty smoking-room attached to it. He was very much surprised on opening his door to see by the light of the painted windows that the long corridor of the first floor was absolutely silent and deserted, right away to the guard-room, where a ray of moonlight showed the outline of the carving on the massive door. He was going back to his seat, when there came another knock. It came from the smoking-room, which communicated by a little door under the hangings with a narrow passage in the thickness of the wall leading to the rooms of the Duchess. The arrangement, dating much earlier than the restorations, was not known to him: and, as he remembered certain conversations during the last few days, when the men were alone, and especially some of the stories of old Laniboire, his first thought was ‘Whew! I hope she did not hear us.’ He drew the bolt and the Duchess passed him without a word, and laying down on the table where he had been writing a bundle of yellowish papers, with which her delicate fingers played nervously, she said in a serious voice:
‘I want you to give me your advice; you are my friend, and I have no one else to confide in.’
No one but him — poor woman! And she did not take warning from the cunning watchful predatory glance, which shifted from the letter, imprudently left open on the table where she might have read it, to herself as she stood there with her arms bare and heavy hair coiled round and round her head. He was thinking, ‘What does she want? What has she come for?’ She, absorbed in the requickened wrath which had been rising and choking her since the morning, panted out in low broken sentences, ‘Just before you came, he sent Lavaux — he did! he sent Lavaux — to ask for his letters! — I gave his impudent cheeks such a reception that he won’t come again. — His letters, indeed! — these are what he wanted.’
She held out the roll, her brief, as it might be called, against the partner of her affections, showing what she had paid to raise the man out of the gutter.
‘Take them, look at them! They are really quite interesting! ‘He turned over the odd collection, smelling now of the boudoir, but better suited to Bos’s shop-front; there were mortgageable debts to dealers in curiosities, private jewellers, laundresses, yacht-builders, agents for imitation-champagne from Touraine, receipts from stewards and club-waiters, in short, every device of usury by which a man about Paris comes to bankruptcy. Mari’ Anto muttered under her breath, ‘The restoration of this gentleman cost more than Mousseaux, you see! . . . I have had all these things in a drawer for years, because I never destroy anything; but I solemnly declare that. I never thought of using them. Now I have changed my mind. He is rich. I want my money and interest. If he does not pay, I will take proceedings. Don’t you think I am justified?’
‘Entirely justified,’ said Paul, stroking the point of his fair beard, ‘only — was not the Prince d’Athis incapable of contracting when he signed these bills?’
‘Yes, yes, I know . . . Brétigny told me about that . . . for as he could get nothing through Lavaux, he wrote to Brétigny to ask him to arbitrate. A fellow Academician, you know!’ She laughed a laugh of impartial scorn for the official dignities of the Ambassador and the ex-Minister. Then she burst out indignantly, ‘It is true that I need not have paid, but I chose he should be clean. I don’t want any arbitration. I paid and will be paid back, or else I go into court, where the name and title of our representative at St. Petersburg will be dragged through the dirt. If I can only degrade the wretch, I shall have won the suit I care about.’
‘I can’t understand,’ said Paul as he put down the packet so as to hide the awkward letter to Mamma, ‘I can’t understand how such proofs should have been left in your hands by a man as clever ——’
The shrug of her shoulders sufficiently completed the interjection. But the madness of a woman’s anger may always lead to something, so he drew her on. ‘Yet he was one of our best diplomatists.’
‘It was I who put him up to it. He knows nothing of the business but what I taught him.’
She hid her face, as for shame, in her hands, checking her sobs and gasping with fury. ‘To think, to think, twelve years of my life to a man like that! And now he leaves me; he casts me off! Cast off by him! Cast off by him!’
It is some hours later, and she is still there. The young man is upon his knees and is whispering tenderly: ‘When you know that I love you — when you know that I loved you always. Think, think!’ The striking of a clock is heard in the far distance and wakening sounds go by in the growing light. She flies in dismay from the room, not caring so much as to take with her the brief of her intended revenge.
Revenge herself now? On whom? and what for? There was an end of her hatred now, for had she not her love? From this day she was another woman, such an one as when she is seen with her lover or her husband, supporting her unhasty steps upon the tender cradle of his arm, makes the common people say, ‘Well, she has got what she wants.’ There are not so many of them as people think, particularly in society. Not that the mistress of a great house could be thinking exclusively of her own happiness; there were guests going away and other guests arriving and settling in, a second instalment, more numerous and less intimate, the whole in fact of the Academic set. There were the Duke de Courson-Launay, the Prince and Princess de Fitz-Roy, the De Circourts, the Huchenards, Saint-Avol the diplomatist, Moser and his daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Henry of the American embassy. It was a hard task to provide entertainment and occupation for all these people and to fuse such different elements. No one understood the business better than she, but just now it was a burden and a weariness to her. She would have liked to keep quiet and meditate on her happiness, to think of nothing else: and she could devise no other amusements for her guests than the invariable. visit to the fish preserves, to Ronsard’s castle, and to the Orphanage. Her own pleasure was complete when her hand touched Paul’s, as accident brought them together in the same boat or the same carriage.
In the course of one such pompous expedition on the river, the little fleet from Mousseaux, sailing on a shimmering mirror of silken awnings and ducal pennons, had gone somewhat further than usual. Paul Astier was in the boat in front of his lady’s . He was sitting in the stern beside Laniboire, and was receiving the Academician’s confidences. Having been invited to stay at Mousseaux till his report was finished, the old fool fancied that he was making good progress towards the coveted succession; and as always happens in such cases, he chose Paul as the confidant of his hopes. After telling him what he had said and what she had answered, and one thing and another, he was just saying, ‘Now, young man, what would you do, if you were me?’ when a clear voice of low pitch rang over the water from the boat behind them.
‘See yonder, among the reeds. It looks like Védrine.’
Védrine it was, painting away, with his wife and children at his side, on an old flat-bottomed boat moored to a willow branch alongside of a green islet, where the wagtails were chirping themselves hoarse. The boats drew quickly up beside him, any novelty being a break to the everlasting tedium of fashionable society: and while the Duchess greeted with her sweetest smile Madame Védrine, who had once been her guest at Mousseaux, the ladies looked with interest at the artist’s strange home and the beautiful children, born of its light and its love, as they lay in the shelter of their green refuge on the clear, placid stream, which reflected the picture of their happiness. After the first greetings, Védrine, palette in hand, gave Paul an account of the doings at Clos Jallanges, which was visible through the mists of the river, half-way up the hill side — a long low white house with an Italian roof. ‘My dear fellow, they have all gone crazy there! The vacancy has turned their heads. They spend their days ticking votes — your mother, Picheral, and the poor invalid in her wheelchair. She too has caught the Academic fever, and talks of moving to Paris, entertaining and giving parties to help her brother on.’ So Védrine, to escape the general madness, camped out all day and worked in the open air — children and all; and pointing to his old boat he said, with a simple unresentful laugh, ‘My dahabeeah, you see; my trip to the Nile.’
All at once the little boy, who in the midst of so many people, so many pretty ladies and pretty dresses, had eyes for no one but old Laniboire, addressed him in a clear voice, ‘Please, are you the gentleman of the Académie who is going to be a hundred?’ The philosopher, occupied in showing off his boating for the benefit of the fair Antonia, was all but knocked off his seat: and when the peals of laughter had somewhat subsided, Védrine explained that the child was strangely interested in Jean Réhu, whom he did not know and had never seen, merely because he was nearly a hundred years old. Every day the handsome little boy asked about the old man and inquired how he was. Child as he was, he admired such length of days with something of a personal regard. If others had lived to a hundred, why not he?
But a sudden freshening of the breeze filled the sails of the little craft, and fluttered all the tiny pennons; a mass of clouds was moving up from over Blois, and towards Mousseaux a film of rain dimmed the horizon, while the four lights on the top of the towers sparkled against the black sky.
There was a moment of hurry and confusion. Then the vessels went away between the banks of yellow sand, one behind the other in the narrow channels; while Védrine, pleased by the brightness of the colours beneath the stormy sky and by the striking figures of the boatmen, standing in the bows and leaning hard on their long poles, turned to his wife, who was kneeling in the punt packing in the children, the colour-box, and the palette, and said, ‘Look over there, mamma. I sometimes say of a friend, that we are in the same boat. Well, there you may see what I mean. As those boats fly in line through the wind, with the darkness-coming down, so are we men and workers, generation after generation. It’s no use being shy of the fellows in your own boat; you know them, you rub up against them, you are friends without wishing it or even knowing it, all sailing on the same tack. But how the fellows in front do loiter and get in the way! There’s nothing in common between their boat and ours. We are too far off, we cannot catch what they say. We never trouble about them except to call out “Go ahead; get on, do!” Meanwhile youth in the boat behind is pushing us; they would not mind running us down; and we shout to them angrily, “Easy there! Where’s the hurry?” Well, as for me,’ and he drew himself to his full height, towering above the line of coast and river, ‘I belong, of course, to my own beat and I am fond of it. But the boat just ahead and the one coming up interest me not less. I would hail them, signal to them, speak to them all. All of us alike, those before and those behind, are threatened by the same dangers, and every boat finds the current strong, the sky treacherous, and the evening quick to close in . . . Now, my dears, we must make haste; here comes the rain!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53