SITTING straight, with the reins well held up in the most correct fashion, Paul Astier drove his two-wheeled cart at a stiff pace to the scene of his mysterious breakfast ‘with some business people.’ ‘Tclk! tclk!’ Past the Pont Royal, past the quays, past the Place de la Concorde. The road was so smooth, the day so fine, that as terraces, trees, and fountains went by, it would have needed but a little imagination on his part to believe himself carried away on the wings of Fortune. But the young man was no visionary, and as he bowled along he examined the new leather and straps, and put questions about the hay-merchant to his groom, a young fellow perched at his side looking as cool and as sharp as a stable terrier. The hay-merchant, it seemed, was as bad as the rest of them, and grumbled about supplying the fodder.
‘Oh, does he?’ said Paul absently; his mind had already passed to another subject. His mother’s revelations ran in his head. Fifty-three years old! The beautiful Duchess Antonia, whose neck and shoulders were the despair of Paris! Utterly incredible! ‘Tclk! tclk!’ He pictured her at Mousseaux last summer, rising earlier than any of her guests, wandering with her dogs in the park while the dew was still on the ground, with loosened hair and blooming lips; she did not look made up, not a bit. Fifty-three years old? Impossible!
‘Tclk, tclk! Hi! Hi!’ That’s a nasty corner between the Rond Pont and the Avenue d’Antin. — All the same, it was a low trick they were playing her, to find a wife for the Prince. For let his mother say what she would, the Duchess and her drawing-room had been a fine thing for them all. Perhaps his father might never have been in the Académie but for her; he himself owed her all his commissions. Then there was the succession to Loisillon’s place and the prospect of the fine rooms under the cupola — well, there was nothing like a woman for flinging you over. Not that men were any better; the Prince d’Athis, for instance. To think what the Duchess had done for him! When they met he was a ruined and penniless rip; now what was he? High in the diplomatic service, member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, on account of a book not a word of which he had written himself, ‘The Mission of Woman in the World’. And while the Duchess was busily at work to fit him with an Embassy, he was only waiting to be gazetted before taking French leave and playing off this dirty trick on her, after fifteen years of uninterrupted happiness. ‘The mission of woman in the world!’ Well, the Prince understood what the mission of woman was. The next thing was to better the lesson. ‘Tclk! tclk! Gate, please.’
Paul’s soliloquy was over, and his cart drew up before a mansion in the Rue de Courcelles. The double gates were rolled, back slowly and heavily as if accomplishing a task to which they had long been unused.
In this house lived the Princess Colette de Rosen, who had shut herself up in the complete seclusion of mourning since the sad occurrence which had made her a widow at twenty-six. The daily papers recorded the details of the young widow’s sensational despair: how the fair hair was cut off close and thrown into the coffin; how her room was decorated as for a lying in state; how she took her meals alone with two places laid, while on the table in the anteroom lay as usual the Prince’s walking stick, hat, and gloves, as though he were at home and just going out. But one detail had not been mentioned, and that was the devoted affection and truly maternal care which Madame Astier showed for the ‘poor little woman’ in these distressing circumstances.
Their friendship had begun some years ago, when a prize for an historical work had been adjudged to the Prince de Rosen by the Académie, ‘on the report of Astier-Réhu.’ Differences of age and social position had however kept them apart until the Princess’s mourning removed the barrier. When the widow’s door was solemnly closed against society, Madame Astier alone escaped the interdict. Madame Astier was the only person allowed to cross the threshold of the mansion, or rather the convent, inhabited by the poor weeping Carmelite with her shaven head and robe of black; Madame Astier was the only person admitted to hear the mass sung twice a week at St. Philip’s for the repose of Herbert’s soul; and it was she who heard the letters which Colette wrote every evening to her absent husband, relating her life and the way she spent her days. All mourning, however rigid, involves attention to material details which are degrading to grief but demanded by society. Liveries must be ordered, trappings provided for horses and carriages, and the heartbroken mourner must face the hypocritical sympathy of the tradesman. All these duties were discharged by Madame Astier with never-failing patience. She undertook the heavy task of managing the household, which the tear-laden eyes of its fair mistress could no longer supervise, and so spared the young widow all that could disturb her despair, or disarrange her hours for praying, weeping, writing ‘to him,’ and carrying armfuls of exotic flowers to the cemetery of Père Lachaise, where Paul Astier was superintending the erection of a gigantic mausoleum in commemorative stone brought at the express wish of the Princess from the scene of the tragedy.
Unfortunately the quarrying of this stone and its conveyance from Illyria, the difficulties of carving granite, and the endless plans and varying fancies of the widow, to whom nothing seemed sufficiently huge and magnificent to suit her dead hero, had brought about many hitches and delays. So it happened that in May 1880, two years and more after the catastrophe and the commencement of the work, the monument was still unfinished. Two years is a long time to maintain the constant paroxysms of an ostentatious grief, each sufficient to discharge the whole. The mourning was still observed as rigidly as ever, the house was still closed and silent as a cave. But in the place of the living statue weeping and praying in the furthest recesses of the crypt was now a pretty young woman whose hair was growing again, instinct with life in every curl and wave of its soft luxuriance. The reappearance of this fair hair gave a touch of lightness, almost of brightness, to the widow’s mourning, which seemed now no more than a caprice of fashion. In the movements and tones of the Princess was perceptible the stirring of spring; she had the air of relief and repose noticeable in young widows in the second period of their mourning. It is a delightful position. For the first time after the restraints of girlhood and the restraints of marriage, a woman enjoys the sweets of liberty and undisputed possession of herself; she is freed from contact with the coarser nature of man, and above all from the fear of maternity, the haunting terror of the young wife of the present day. In the case of the Princess Colette the natural development of uncontrollable grief into perfect peacefulness was emphasised by the paraphernalia of inconsolable widowhood with which she was still surrounded. It was not hypocrisy; but how could she give orders, without raising a smile on the servants’ faces, to remove the hat always waiting in the ante-room, the walking stick conspicuously handy, the place at table always laid for the absent husband; how could she say, ‘The Prince will not dine to-night’? But the mystic correspondence ‘with Herbert in heaven’ had begun to fall off, growing less frequent every day, till it ended in a calmly written journal which caused considerable, though unexpressed, amusement to Colette’s discerning friend.
The fact was that Madame Astier had a plan. The idea had sprung up in her practical little mind one Tuesday night at the Théâtre Français, when the Prince d’Athis had said to her confidentially in a low voice: ‘Oh, my dear Adelaide, what a chain to drag! I am bored to death.’ She at once planned to marry him to the Princess. It was a new game to play, crossing the old game, but not less subtle and fascinating. She had not now to hold forth upon the eternal nature of vows, or to hunt up in Joubert or other worthy philosophers such mottoes as the following, which the Princess had written out at the beginning of her wedding book: ‘A woman can be wife and widow with honour but once.’ She no longer went into raptures over the manly beauty of the young hero, whose portrait, full length and half length, profile and three quarters, in marble and on canvas, met you in every part of the house.
It was her system now to bring him gradually and dexterously down. ‘Do you not think, dear,’ she would say, ‘that these portraits of the Prince make his jaw too heavy? Of course I know the lower part of his face was rather pronounced, a little too massive.’ And so she administered a series of little poisonous stabs, with an indescribable skill and gentleness, drawing back when she went too far, and watching for Colette’s smile at some criticism a little sharper than the rest. Working in this way she at last brought Colette to admit that Herbert had always had a touch of the boor; his manners were scarcely up to his rank; he had not, for instance, the distinguished air of the Prince d’Athis, ‘whom we met a few Sundays ago on the steps of St. Philip’s . If you should fancy him, dear, he is looking for a wife.’ This last remark was thrown out as a jest; but presently Madame Astier recurred to it and put it more definitely. Well, why should the Princess not marry him? It would be most suitable; the Prince had a good name, a diplomatic position of some importance; the marriage would involve no alteration of the Princess’s coronet or title — a practical convenience not to be overlooked. ‘And, indeed, if I am to tell you the truth, dear, the Prince entertains towards you an affection which’ . . . &c. &c.
The word ‘affection’ at first hurt the Princess’s feelings, but she soon grew used to hear it. They met the Prince d’Athis at church, then in great privacy at Madame Astier’s in the Rue de Beaune, and Colette soon admitted that he was the only man who might have induced her to abandon her widowhood. But then poor dear Herbert had loved her so devotedly — she had been his all.
‘Really,’ said Madame Astier with the quiet smile of a person who knows. Then followed allusions, hints, and all the devices by which one woman poisons the mind of another.
‘Why, my dear, there is no such thing in the world. A man of good breeding — a gentleman — will take care, for the sake of peace, not to give his wife pain or distress. But ——’
‘Then you mean that Herbert ——’
‘Was no better than the rest of them.’ The Princess, with an indignant protest, burst into tears; painless, passionless tears, such as ease a woman, and leave her as fresh as a lawn after a shower. But still she did not give way, to the great annoyance of Madame Astier, who had no conception of the real cause of her obduracy.
The truth was that frequent meetings to criticise the scheme of the mausoleum, much touching of hands and mingling of locks over the plans and sketches of cells and sepulchral figures, had created between Paul and Colette a fellow feeling which had gradually grown more and more tender, until one day Paul Astier detected in Colette’s eyes as she looked at him an expression that almost confessed her liking. There rose before him as a possibility the miraculous vision of Colette de Rosen bringing him her million as a marriage gift. That might be in a short time, after a preliminary trial of patience, a regularly conducted beleaguering of the fortress. In the first place it was most important to-betray no hint to ‘mamma,’ who, though very cunning and subtle, was likely to fail through excess of zeal, especially when the interests of her Paul were at stake. She would spoil all the chances in her eagerness to hasten the successful issue. So Paul concealed his plans from Madame Astier, in entire ignorance that she was running a countermine in the same line as his. He acted on his own account with great deliberation. The Princess was attracted by his youth and fashion, his brightness and his witty irony, from which he carefully took the venom. He knew that women, like children and the mob, and all impulsive and untutored beings, hate a tone of sarcasm, which puts them out, and which they perceive by instinct to be hostile to the dreams of enthusiasm and romance.
On this spring morning it was with feelings of more confidence than usual that young Astier reached the house. This was the first time that he had been asked to breakfast at the Rosen mansion; the reason alleged was a visit which they were to make together to the cemetery, in order to inspect the works on the spot. With an unexpressed understanding they had fixed on a Wednesday, the day when Madame Astier was ‘at home,’ so as not to have her as a third in the party. With this thought in his mind the young man, self-controlled as he was, let fall as he crossed the threshold a careless glance which took in the large courtyard and magnificent offices almost as if he were entering on the possession of them. His spirits fell as he passed through the ante-room, where the footmen and lacqueys in deep mourning were dozing on their seats. They seemed to be keeping a funeral vigil round the hat of the defunct, a magnificent grey hat, which proclaimed the arrival of spring as well as the determination with which his memory was kept up by the Princess. Paul was much annoyed by it; it was like meeting a rival. He did not realise the difficulty which prevented Colette from escaping the self-forged fetters of her custom. He was wondering angrily whether she would expect him to breakfast in company with him, when the footman who relieved him of his walking stick and hat informed him that the Princess would receive him in the small drawing-room. He was shown at once into the rotunda with its glass roof, a bower of exotic plants, and was completely reassured by the sight of a little table with places laid for two, the arrangement of which Madame de Rosen was herself superintending.
‘A fancy of mine,’ she said, pointing to the table, ‘when I saw how fine it was. It will be almost like the country.’
She had spent the night considering how she could avoid sitting down with this handsome young man in the presence of his knife and fork, and, not knowing what to say to the servants, had devised the plan of abandoning the situation and ordering breakfast, as a sudden whim, ‘in the conservatory.’
Altogether the ‘business’ breakfast promised well. The Romany blanc lay to keep cool in the rocky basin of the fountain, amidst ferns and water plants, and the sun shone on the pieces of spar and on the bright smooth green of the outspread leaves. The two young people sat opposite one another, their knees almost touching: he quite self-possessed, his light eyes cold and fiery; she all pink and white, her new growth of hair, like a delicate wavy plumage, showing without any artificial arrangement the shape of her little head. And while they talked on indifferent topics, both concealing their real thoughts, young Astier exulted each time that the silent servants opened the door of the deserted dining-room, when he saw in the distance the napkin of the departed, left for the first time cheerless and alone.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07