It was the evening of a great dinner, to be followed by a select reception, at the Padovani mansion. The Grand-Duke Leopold was entertaining at the table of his ‘respected friend,’ as he called the Duchess, some members selected from the various departments of the Institute, and so making his return to the five Académies for their courteous reception of him and for the complimentary harangue of the President. Diplomatic society was, as usual, well represented at the house of a lady whose husband had been Ambassador; but the Institute had the chief place, and the arrangement of the guests showed the object of the dinner. The Grand-Duke, seated opposite the hostess, had Madame Astier on his right, and on his left the Countess Foder, wife of the First Secretary of the Finnish Embassy, acting as Ambassador. On the right of the Duchess sat Léonard Astier, and on her left Monsignor Adriani, the Papal Nuncio. Then came successively Baron Huchenard, representing the Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres; Mourad Bey, the Ambassador of the Porte; Delpech the chemist, Member of the Académie des Sciences; the Belgian Minister; Landry the musician, of the Beaux-Arts; Danjou the dramatist, one of Picherals ‘Players’; and, lastly, the Prince d’Athis, whose twofold claims to distinction as diplomatist and Member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques combined the characteristics of the two sets in the circle. At the ends of the table were the General acting as Aide-de-camp to His Highness, the young Count Adriani, nephew of the Nuncio, and Lavaux, whose presence was indispensable at every social gathering.
The feminine element was lacking in charm. The Countess Foder, red-haired, small, and lively, enveloped in lace to the tip of her little pointed nose, looked like a squirrel with a cold in its head. Baroness Huchenard, a lady of no particular age and with a moustache, produced the effect of a very fat old gentleman in a low dress. Madame Astier, in a velvet dress partly open at the neck, a present from the Duchess, had sacrificed on the altar of friendship the pleasure she would have had in displaying her arms and shoulders, the remains of her beauty; and thanks to this delicate attention the Duchess Padovani looked as if she were the only woman at dinner. The Duchess is elegantly dressed, tall and fair, with a tiny head and fine eyes of a golden hazel colour — eyes whose shifting haughty glance, from under long dark brows almost meeting, shows their power of expressing kindness, affection, or anger. Her nose is short, her mouth emotional and sensitive, and her complexion has the brilliancy of a young woman’s, owing to her custom of sleeping in the afternoon when she is going out in the evening or receiving friends at her own house. A long residence abroad at Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Constantinople, where as the wife of the French Ambassador it had been her duty to set the fashion to French society, has left in her manners a certain air of superior information, which the ladies of Paris find it hard to forgive. She talks graciously to them as though they were foreigners, and explains things to them which they understand as well as she. In her house in the Rue de Poitiers the Duchess still acts as though representing Paris among the Kurds. It is the sole defect of this noble and splendid lady.
Though there were, so to speak, no women, no bright dresses showing arms and shoulders and breaking the monotony of black coats with a blaze of jewels and flowers, still the table was not without colour. There was the violet cassock of the Nuncio with his broad silk sash, the purple Chechia of Mourad Bey, and the red tunic of the Papal Guard with its gold collar, blue embroideries, and gold braid on the breast, decorated also with the huge brilliant cross of the Legion of Honour, which the young Italian had received that very morning, the President thinking it proper to reward the successful delivery of the Cardinal’s hat. Scattered about, too, were ribbons green, blue, and red, and the silvery gleam and sparkling stars of decorations and orders.
Ten o’clock. The dinner is almost over, but not one of the flowers elaborately arranged round plates and dishes has been disturbed, there have been no raised voices or animated gestures. Yet the fare is excellent at the Padovani mansion, one of the few houses in Paris where they still have wine. The dinner betrays the presence in the house of an epicure, and the epicure is not the Duchess, who, like all leaders of French fashion, thinks the dinner good if she has on a becoming dress and the table is carefully and tastefully decorated. No; the epicure is the lady’s humble servant, the Prince d’Athis, a man of cultivated palate and fastidious appetite, spoilt by club cooking and not to be satisfied by silver plate or the sight of fine liveries and irreproachable white calves. It is for his sake that the fair Antonia admits among her occupations the care of the menu, it is for him that she provides highly seasoned dishes and fiery wines of Burgundy, which it must be admitted have not on this particular occasion dispelled the coldness of the guests.
At dessert there is the same deadness, stiffness, and restraint that marked the first course; hardly has a tinge of colour touched the ladies’ cheeks or noses. It is a dinner of wax dolls, official,-magnificent, with the magnificence which comes chiefly of ample room, lofty ceilings, and seats placed so far apart as to preclude all friendly touching of chairs. A gloomy chilly underground feeling separates the guests, in spite of the soft breath of the June night floating in from the gardens through the half-open shutters and gently swelling the silk blinds. The conversation is distant and constrained, the lips scarcely move and have an unmeaning smile. Not a remark is real, not one makes its way to the mind of the hearer; they are as perfectly artificial as the sweetmeats among which they are dropped. The speeches, like the faces, are masked, and it is lucky they are, for if at this moment the mask were to be taken off, and the true thoughts disclosed, how dismayed the noble company would be!
The Grand-Duke, who has a broad pale face framed by extra-black trim round whiskers, just such a royal personage as you see in an illustrated paper, is questioning Baron Huchenard with much interest about his recent book, and thinking to himself: ‘Oh dear, how this learned gentleman does bore me with his primitive dwellings! How much better off I should be at Roxelane, where sweet little Déa is dancing in the ballet! The author of Roxelane is here, I understand, but he is a middle-aged man, very ugly and very dull. And to think of the ankles of little Déa!’
The Nuncio, who has an intellectual face of the Roman type, large nose, thin lips, black eyes and sallow complexion, has leant on one side to listen to the history of the habitations of Man. He is looking at his nails, which shine like shells, and is thinking: ‘At the Embassy this morning I ate a delicious misto fritto and I haven’t got rid of it. Gioachimo has pulled my sash too tight; I wish I could get away from the table.’
The Turkish Ambassador, thick-lipped, yellow, and coarse, with his fez over his eyes and a poke in his neck, is filling the glass of Baroness Huchenard and saying, ‘How disgusting in these Westerns to bring their women into society, when they are as dilapidated as this! I had rather be impaled right off than exhibit that fat creature as my wife.’ The Baroness is thanking His Excellency with a mincing smile, which covers the thought ‘This Turk is a revolting beast.’
Nor are Madame Astier’s spoken thoughts any more in harmony with her internal reflections: ‘I only hope Paul will not have forgotten to go for grandpapa. It will be an effective scene when the old man comes in, supported on the arm of his great-grandson. Perhaps we may get an order out of His Highness.’ Then, as she looks affectionately at the Duchess, she thinks: ‘She is looking very handsome this evening. Some good news no doubt about the promised Embassy. Make the best of your time, my dear; in a month Sammy will be married.’
Madame Astier is not mistaken. The Grand-Duke on arriving announced to his ‘respected friend’ the President’s promise to appoint D’Athis within the next few days. The Duchess is filled with à repressed delight, which shines through as it were, and gives her a marvellous brilliance. To this height she has raised the man of her choice! And already she is making plans for removing her own establishment to St. Petersburg, to a mansion not too far from the Embassy; while the Prince, with his pale sunk cheeks and rapt look — the look whose penetration Bismarck could never sustain — checks upon his contemptuous lips the smile at once mysterious and dogmatic, compounded of diplomacy and learning, and thinks to himself: ‘Now Colette must make up her mind. She could come out there, we could be married quietly at the Chapelle des Pages, and all would be done and past recall before the Duchess heard of it.’
And thus many a reflection ludicrously inappropriate to the occasion passes from guest to guest under the same safe wrapper. Here you have the pleased beatitude of Léonard Astier, who has this very morning received the order of Stanislas (second class), as a return for presenting to His Highness a copy of his speech with the autograph letter of Catherine pinned to the first page and very ingeniously worked into the complimentary address. This letter was the great thing at the meeting, had been mentioned in the papers two days running, and heard of all over Europe, giving to the name of Astier, to his collection, and to his work, that astounding and disproportionate echo with which the Press now multiplies any passing event. Now Baron Huchenard might do his best to bite, might mumble as he pleased in his insinuating tones, ‘I ask you, my dear colleague, to observe.’ But no one would listen. And the ‘first collector in France’ was perfectly aware of it. See what a savage look he casts at his dear colleague in the pauses of his scientific harangue! What venom is in every deeply graven hollow of his porous, pumice-stone face!
Handsome Danjou is also furious, but for other reasons than the Baron. The Duchess has not asked his wife. The exclusion is painful to his feelings as a husband, a part of a man no less sensitive than the original ego; and in spite of his wish to shine before the Grand-Duke, the witticisms as good as new, which he was prepared with, will not go off. Another who does not feel comfortable is Delpech the chemist, whom His Highness, when he was presented, congratulated on his interpretation of the cuneiform character, confounding him with his colleague of the Académie des Inscriptions. It should be said that, with the exception of Danjou, whose comedies are popular abroad, the Grand-Duke has never heard of any of the Academic celebrities introduced to him at this dinner. Lavaux this very morning, in concert with the Aide-de-camp, arranged a set of cards bearing each the name of a guest with the titles of his principal works. The fact that His Highness did not get more confused among the list than he did proves much presence of mind and an Imperial memory. But the evening is not over, and other stars of learning are about to appear. Already may be heard the muffled rolling of wheels and the slamming of carriages putting down at the door. The Prince will have more chances yet.
Meanwhile, in a weak, slow voice, seeking for words and losing half of them in his nose, His Highness is discussing with Astier-Réhu a point of history suggested by the letter of Catherine II. The ewers have long completed the round, no one is eating or drinking any more, no one is even breathing, for fear of interrupting the conversation; all the company are in a hypnotic trance, and — a remarkable effect of lévitation — are literally hanging upon the Imperial lips. Suddenly the august nose is silent, and Léonard Astier, who has made a show of resistance in order to improve the effect of his opponent’s victory, throws up his arms like broken foils and says with an air of surrender, ‘Ah, Your Highness has mated me!’ The charm is broken, the company feel the ground under them again, everyone rises in a slight flutter of applause, the doors are thrown open, the Duchess takes the arm of the Grand-Duke, Mourad Bey that of the Baroness, and while, with a sound of sweeping-dresses and chairs pushed Lack, the assembly files out, Firmin, the maître d’hôtel, solemn and dignified, is privately doing a sum. ‘In any other house this dinner would have been worth to me forty pounds: with her, I’ll warrant, it won’t be a dozen;’ to which he adds aloud, as if he would spit his anger upon Her Grace’s train, ‘Grr! you hag!’
‘With Your Highness’s permission — my grandfather, M. Jean Réhu, the oldest member in the whole Institute.’
The high notes of Madame Astier’s voice ring in the great drawing-room, not nearly filled, though the guests invited to the reception have already arrived.
She speaks very loud to make grandpapa understand to whom he is being introduced and answer accordingly. Old Réhu looks grand, drawing up his tall figure and still carrying high his little Creole face darkened and cracked with age. Paul, graceful and pleasing, supports him on one side, his granddaughter on the other; Astier-Réhu is behind. The family makes a sentimental group in the style of Greuze. It would look well on one of the pale-coloured tapestries with which the room is decorated, tapestries — a strange thing to think of — scarcely older than Réhu himself. The Grand-Duke, much affected, tries to say something happy, but the author of the Letters to Urania is not upon his cards. He gets out of it by a few vague complimentary phrases, in answer to which old Réhu, supposing that he is being asked as usual about his age, says, ‘Ninety-eight years in a fortnight, Sir.’ His next attempt does not fit much better with His Highness’s gracious congratulations. ‘Not since 1803, Sir; the town must be much changed.’ During the progress of this singular dialogue, Paul is whispering to his mother, ‘You may see him home if you like; I won’t have anything more to do with him; he’s in an awful temper. In the carriage he was kicking me all the time in the legs, to work off his fidgets, he said.’ The young man himself had an unpleasant ring in his voice this evening, and in his charming face something set and hard, which his mother knew well, and noticed immediately on coming into the room. What is the matter? She watched him, trying to read the meaning in his light eyes, which, however, harder and keener than usual, revealed nothing.
But the chill, the ceremonious chill, prevailed here no less than at the dinner-table. The guests kept apart in groups, the few ladies in a circle upon low chairs, the gentlemen standing or walking about with a pretence of serious conversation, but obviously engaged in attracting His Highness’s attention. It was for His Highness that Landry the musician stood pensive by the chimney-piece, gazing upward with his inspired brow and his apostolic beard; for him that on the other side Delpech the chemist stood meditative with his chin upon his hand, poring intently with gathered brows as if watching the precipitation of a compound.
Laniboire the philosopher, famous for his likeness to Pascal, was wandering round, perpetually passing before the sofa, where, unable to escape from Jean Réhu, sat the Prince. The hostess had forgotten to present him, and his fine nose looked longer than usual and seemed to be making a desperate appeal: ‘Cannot you see that this is the nose of Pascal?’
At the same sofa Madame Eviza was shooting between her scarcely parted eyelids a look which asked His Highness to name his own price if he would but be seen at her reception next Monday. Ah! change the scene as you will, it is always the same performance — pretension, meanness, readiness to bow down, the courtier’s appetite for self-humiliation and self-abasement. We need not decline the visits of majesty; we are provided with all the properties required for the occasion.
‘I shall never be in time for the ballet.’
‘But why are we staying, Sir?’
‘I don’t know; there’s to be a surprise when the Nuncio is gone.’
While these few words passed in an undertone between the pair, they neither looked at each other nor changed a muscle of their ceremonial countenances. The Aide-de-camp had copied from his master the nasal intonation, the absence of gesture, the fixed attitude on the edge of the seat with the bowed arm against the side. He was rigid as on parade or in the Imperial box at the Théâtre Michel. Old Réhu stood before them, he would not sit down; he was still talking, still exhibiting the dusty stores of his memory, the people he had known, the many fashions in which he had dressed. The more distant the time, the clearer his recollection. ‘That is a thing I have seen,’ says he, as he pauses at the end of a story, with his eyes fixed, as it were, upon the flying past, and then off upon a fresh subject. He had been with Talma at Brunoy, he had been in the drawing-room of Josephine, full of musical boxes and artificial humming-birds covered with jewels, which sang and clapped their wings.
Out of doors on the terrace, in the warm darkness of the garden, was heard low conversation and stifled laughter, coming from the place where the cigars were visible as a ring of red dots. Lavaux was amusing himself by getting the young Guardsman to tell Danjou and Paul Astier the story of the Cardinal’s hat. ‘And the lady, Count — the lady at the station.’ ‘Cristo, qu’elle était bella!’ said the Italian in a low voice, and added correctively, ‘sim-patica, surtout, simpatica.’ Charming and responsive — this was his general idea of the ladies of Paris. He only wished he need not go back. The French wine had loosed his tongue, and he began describing his life in the Guards, the advantages of the profession, the hope which they all had on entering it that they might find a rich wife — that at one of His Holiness’s audiences they would dazzle some wealthy English Catholic or a fanatical Spaniard from South America come to bring her offering to the Vatican. ‘L’ouniforme est zouli, comprenez; et pouis les en-fortounes del Saint Père, cela nous donne à nous autres ses soldats oun prestigio roumanesque, cava-leresque, qualque sose qui plaît aux dames zénérale-menté.’ It must be allowed that with his youthful manly face, his gold braid shining softly in the moonlight, and his white leather breeches, he did recall the heroes of Artosto or Tasso.
‘Well, my dear Pepino,’ said fat Lavaux, in his mocking and disagreeable tone, ‘if you want a good match, here it is at your elbow.’
‘How so? Where?’
Paul Astier started and became attentive. The mention of a good match always made him fear that some one was stealing his.
‘The Duchess, of course. Old Padovani can’t stand another stroke.’
‘But the Prince d’Athis?’
‘He’ll never marry her.’
Lavaux was a good authority, being the friend of the Prince, and of the Duchess, too, for that matter; though, seeing that the establishment must shortly split, he stood on the side which he thought the safest ‘Go in boldly, my dear Count; there’s money, lots of it, and a fine connection, and a lady still well enough.’
‘Cristo, qu’elle est bella!’ said the Italian, with a sigh.
‘E simpatica,’ said Danjou, with a sneer. At which the Guardsman after a moment’s amazement, delighted to find an Academician with so much perception, exclaimed: ‘Si, simpatica, précisamenté!’
‘And then,’ continued Lavaux, ‘if you are fond of dyes, and enamel, and padding, you’ll get it. I believe she’s a marvel of construction, the best customer that Charrière has.’
He spoke out loud and quite freely, right in front of the dining-room. The garden door was slightly open, and through the crack the light fell upon the broad red impudent face of the parasite, and the warm air floated laden with the rich smell of the dinner which he had eaten and was repaying in mean dirty slanders. There’s for your truffes farcies; there’s for your gelinottes, and your ’chateaux‘ at fifteen shillings a glass! Danjou and he have got together on purpose to play this popular game of running-down; and a great deal they know and a great deal they tell. Lavaux serves the ball and Danjou returns. And the simple Guardsman, not knowing how much to believe, tries to laugh, with a horrid fear lest the Duchess should catch them, and is much relieved when he hears his uncle calling him from the other end of the terrace. The Papal Embassy shuts up early, and since his little misfortune he has been kept strictly to hours.
‘Good night, gentlemen.’
‘Good luck to you, young man.’
The Nuncio is gone; now for the surprise. At a signal from the Duchess, the author of Roxelane took his place at the piano and swept his beard over the keys as he struck two penetrating chords. Immediately at the far end of the rooms the curtains were drawn from the door, and down the vista of brilliant apartments, tripping along on the tips of her little gilt slippers, came a charming brunette in the close bodice and puffed skirts of the ballet, conducted at arm’s -length by a gloomy person with hair in rolls and a cadaverous countenance divided by a dead black moustache. It is Déa! Déa, the folly of the hour, the fashionable toy, accompanied by her instructor, Valère, the ballet-master at the opera. Roxelane was taken first this evening; and the girl, warm from her triumphant performance, had come to give her dance again for the benefit of the Duchess’s Imperial guest. A more delightful surprise his respected friend could not have devised. What more exquisite than to have all to yourself, close to yourself, and within an inch of your face, the pretty whirl of muslin and the panting of the fresh young breath, and to hear the sinews of the little creature strain like the sheets of a sail! His Highness was not alone in this opinion. The moment the dance began the men drew together, selfishly making a close ring of black coats and leaving the few ladies present to see what they could from outside. Even the Grand-Duke is hustled and shoved in the press: for as the dance quickens the circle narrows, till there is scarcely room for the movement. Men of letters and of politics, breathing hard, thrust their heads forward, while their decorations swing like cow-bells, and grinning from ear to ear show their watery lips and toothless jaws with grotesque animal cachinnations. Even the Prince d’Athis stoops with less contempt for humanity, as he gazes upon this marvel of youth and fairy grace, who with the tips of her toes takes off the masks of convention; and the Turk, Mourad Bey, who has sat the whole evening without a word in the depths of an armchair, is now gesticulating in the front row with open nostrils and staring eyes.
In the midst of the wild shouts of applause the girl springs and leaps with so harmonious a concealment of the muscular working of her frame, that her dance might seem as easy as the hovering of a dragon-fly, but for the few drops on her firm rounded neck and the smile, forced, tense, and almost painful, at the corner of her mouth, which betray the exhausting effort of the exquisite little creature, Paul Astier, who did not care for dancing, had stayed on the terrace to smoke. The applause and the thin sounds of the piano, audible in the distance, made an accompaniment to his reflections, which took shape little by little, even as his outward eyes, growing accustomed to the dark, made out by degrees in the garden the trunks of the trees and their quivering leaves, and far away at the end the delicate tracery of an old-fashioned trellis against the wall. It was so hard to succeed; one must hold on so long to reach the desired point, always close at hand and always receding. Why was it that Colette seemed every moment on the point of falling into his arms, and yet when he went back he had to begin again from the beginning? It looked as if in his absence some one for amusement pulled down his work. Who was it? It was that dead fellow, confound him! He ought to be at her side from morning to night; but how could he, with the perpetual necessity of running after money?
There came a light step, a soft sound of velvet. It was his mother looking for him. Why did he not come into the drawing-room with all the rest? She leaned over the balustrade beside him and wanted to know what he was thinking about.
‘Oh, nothing, nothing.’ But further pressed he came out with it. Well, the fact was — the fact was — that he had had enough of starving. Dun, dun, dun. One hole stopped and another opened. He would not stand any more of it, so there!
From the drawing-room came loud exclamations and wild laughter, together with the expressionless voice of Valère, directing the dancer in the imitation of an old-fashioned ballet figure.
‘How much do you want?’ whispered the mother trembling. She had never seen him like this before.
‘No, it’s no use; it’s more than you could possibly manage.’
‘How much?’ she asked again.
‘Eight hundred.’ And the agent must have it tomorrow by five o’clock, or else he would take possession. There would be a sale and all sorts of horrors. Sooner than that — and here he ground his cigar between his teeth as he said the last words —‘better make a hole in my frontispiece.’
The mother had heard enough. ‘Hush! hush!’ she said. ‘By five o’clock to-morrow? Hush!’ And she flung herself upon him, and she pressed her hands in agony upon his lips, as if she would arrest there the appalling sentence of death.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53