EVERY day between four and six, earlier or later according to the time of year, Paul Astier came to take his douche at Keyser’s hydropathic establishment at the top of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré Twenty minutes’ fencing, boxing, or single-stick followed by a bath and a cold douche; then a little halt at the flower-shop, as he came out, to have a carnation stitched in his buttonhole; then a constitutional as far as the Arc de l’Etoile, Stenne and the phaeton following close to the footway. Finally came a turn in the Bois, where Paul, thanks to his observance of fashionable hygiene, displayed a feminine delicacy of colouring and a complexion rivalling any lady’s . By this visit to Keyser’s he also saved himself the trouble of reading the papers. Gossip went on between one dressing-room and another, or on the lounges of the fencing-room, where the visitors sat in fencing dress or flannel dressing-gowns, or even outside the doctor’s door while awaiting the douche. From clubs, drawing-rooms, the Chamber, the Bourse, or the Palais de Justice came in the news of the day, and there it was proclaimed freely in loud tones, to the accompaniment of the clashing of swords and sticks, shouts for the waiter, resounding slaps on bare backs, creaking of wheel-chairs for rheumatic patients, heavy plunges re-echoing under the reverberating roof of the swimming-bath, while above the various sounds of splashing and spurting water rose the voice of worthy Dr. Keyser, standing on his platform, and the ever-recurring burden, ‘Turn round.’
On this occasion Paul Astier was ‘turning round’ under the refreshing shower with great enjoyment; he was getting rid of the dust and fatigue of his wearisome afternoon, as well as of the lugubrious sonorities of Astier-Réhu’s Academic regret ‘His hour sounded upon the bell’ . . . ‘the hand of Loisillon was cold’ . . . ‘he had drained the cup of happiness’ . . . &c, &c. Oh Master! Master! oh, respected papa! It took a good deal of water, showers, streams, floods of it, to wash off all that grimy rubbish.
As he went away with the water running off him, he passed a tall figure bent double, coming up from the swimming bath, which gave him a shivering nod from under a huge gutta-percha cap covering the head and half the face. The man’s lean pallor and stiff stooping walk made Paul take him for one of the poor invalids who attend the establishment regularly, and whose apparition, silent as night-birds in the fencing-room where they come to be weighed, contrasts so strangely with the healthy laughter and superabundant vigour of the rest of the company. But the contemptuous curve of the large nose and the weary lines round the mouth vaguely recalled some face he knew in society. In his dressing-room he asked the man who was shampooing him, ‘Who was that, Raymond, who bowed to me just now?’
‘Why, that’s the Prince d’Athis, sir,’ replied Raymond, with a plebeian’s satisfaction in uttering the word ‘prince.’ ‘He has been taking douches for some time past, and generally comes in the morning. But he is later to-day, on account of a burial, so he told Joseph.’
The door of Paul’s dressing-room was partly open during this dialogue, and in the room on the opposite side of the passage was visible La vaux. As he pulled on and buckled his long clerical hose, he said, ‘I say, Paul, did you see Sammy coming to freshen himself up a bit?’
‘Freshen himself up?’ said Paul. ‘What for?’
‘He’s going to be married in a fortnight, you know.’
‘Oh! And when does he go to his Embassy?’
‘Why, now, at once. The Princess has started. They are to be married out there.’
Paul had a horrid presentiment. ‘The Princess?’ he asked. ‘Whom is he going to marry?’
‘Where have you been? It’s been the talk of Paris for the last two days! Colette, of course; Colette the inconsolable. I should like to see what the Duchess looks like. At the Loisillon affair she carried herself well, but never lifted her veil or spoke a word. It’s a tough bit to swallow, eh? When you think that only yesterday I was helping her to choose materials for the room he was to have at St. Petersburg!’
The ill-natured unctuous voice of the fashionable scandalmonger went on with the story as he finished buckling his garters, accompanied by the sound of a douche two boxes off, and the Prince’s voice saying, ‘Harder, Joseph, harder, don’t be afraid.’ Freshening himself up, was he?
Paul had crossed the passage as soon as Lavaux began to talk, that he might hear better. He was seized with a wild desire to kick in the door of the Prince’s room, spring on him, and have an explanation face to face with the scoundrel who was stealing the fortune almost in his grasp. Suddenly he perceived that he had nothing on, reflected that his wrath was ill-timed, and went back to his room, where he calmed down a little as he realised that the first thing to do was to have a talk with his mother and find out exactly how matters stood.
That afternoon, for once, he had no flower in his buttonhole, and while, as the stream of carriages went past, the ladies looked languidly for the charming young man in the usual row, he was driving rapidly to the Rue de Beaune. There he was greeted by Corentine with bare arms and a dirty apron. She had taken the opportunity of her mistress’s absence to have a great clean-up.
‘Do you know where my mother is dining?’
No, her mistress had not told her. But the master was upstairs, rummaging in his papers. The little staircase leading to the paper-room creaked under Léonard Astier’s heavy tread.
‘Is that you, Paul?’ he asked.
The dim light of the passage and his own agitation prevented the young man from noticing his father’s extraordinary appearance and the dazed sound of his voice when he answered.
‘How’s the Master?’ said the son —‘So mamma’s not in?’
‘No, she is dining with Madame Ancelin and going on to the Français; I am to join them in the evening.’
After this the father and son had nothing further to say to each other. They met like two strangers, like two men of hostile races. On this occasion, indeed, Paul in his impatience was half inclined to ask Leonard whether he knew anything about the marriage; but he thought the next minute, ‘No, he is too stupid; mother would never say a word to him.’ His father, who was also strongly tempted to put a question, called him back with an air of embarrassment.
‘Paul,’ he said, ‘I have lost — I can’t find ——’
‘Can’t find what?’ asked the son.
Astier-Réhu hesitated a moment; but after looking closely at the pretty face, whose expression, on account of the bend in the nose, was never perfectly straightforward, he added in a gloomy, surly tone —
‘No, nothing; it does not matter. I won’t keep you.’
There was nothing for it but to meet his mother at the theatre in Madame Ancelin’s box. That meant two or three hours to be got through first. Paul dismissed his carriage and ordered Stenne to bring him his dress things at his club. Then he started for a stroll through the city in a faint twilight, while the clipped shrubs of the Tuileries Gardens assumed brighter colours as the sky grew dark around them. It was the mystic hour so precious to people pursuing dreams or making plans. The carriages grow fewer, the shadowy figures hurry by and touch the stroller lightly. There is no interruption to the flow of a man’s thoughts. So the ambitious young fellow, who had quite recovered his presence of mind, carried on his reflections clearly. His thoughts were like those of Napoleon at the last hour of the battle of Waterloo: after a long day of success defeat had come with night. What was the reason? What mistake had he made? He replaced the pieces on the chessboard, and looked for the explanation of failure, but in vain. It had perhaps been rash of him to let two days pass without seeing her. But it was the most elementary rule that after such a scene as that in the cemetery a woman should be left to herself to recover. How was he to foresee this sudden flight? Suddenly a hope flashed upon him. He knew that the Princess changed her plan as often as a bird its perch. Perhaps she might not yet have gone; perhaps he should find her in the midst of preparations, unhappy, undecided, asking Herbert’s portrait for advice, and should win her back by one embrace. He understood and could follow now all the capricious turns of the romance which had been going on in her little head.
He took a cab to the Rue de Courcelles. Nobody there. The Princess had gone abroad, they told him, that very morning. A terrible fit of despair came over him, and he went home instead of to the club, so as not to have to talk and answer questions. His spirits sank even lower at the sight of his great mediaeval erection and its front, in the style of the Tour de la Faim, all covered with bills; it suggested the piles of overdue accounts. As he felt his way in, he was greeted by a smell of fried onions filling the whole place; for his spruce little valet on nights when his master dined at the club would cook himself a tasty dish. A gleam of daylight still lingered in the studio, and Paul flung himself down on a sofa. There, as he was trying to think by what ill-luck his artfullest, cleverest designs had been upset, he fell asleep for a couple of hours and woke up another man. Just as memory gains in sharpness during the sleep of the body, so had his determination and talent for intrigue gone on acting during his short rest. He had found a new plan, and moreover a calm fixity of resolution, such as among the modern youth of France is very much more rarely met with than courage under arms.
He dressed rapidly and took a couple of eggs and a cup of tea; and when, with a faint odour of the warm curling-iron about his beard and moustaches, he entered the Théâtre Français and gave Madame Ancelin’s name at the box-office, the keenest observer would have failed to detect any absorbing preoccupation in the perfect gentleman of fashion, and would never have guessed the contents of this pretty drawing-room article, black-and-white lacquered, and well locked.
Madame Ancelin’s worship of official literature had two temples, the Académie Française and the Comédie Française. But the first of these places being open to the pious believer only at uncertain periods, she made the most of the second, and attended its services with great regularity. She never missed a ‘first night,’ whether important or unimportant, nor any of the Subscribers’ Tuesdays. And as she read no books but those stamped with the hall-mark of the Académie, so the actors at the Comédie were the only players to whom she listened with enthusiasm, with excited ejaculations and rapturous amazement. Her exclamations began at the box-office, at the sight of the two great marble fonts, which the good lady’s fancy had set up before the statues of Rachel and Talma in the entrance to the ‘House of Molière.’
‘Don’t they look after it well? Just look at the door-keepers! What a theatre it is!’
The jerky movements of her short arms and the puffing of her fat little body diffused through the passage a sense of noisy gleefulness which made people say in every box, ‘Here’s Madame Ancelin!’ On Tuesdays especially, the fashionable indifference of the house contrasted oddly with the seat where, in supreme content, leaning half out of the box, sat and cooed this good plump pink-eyed pigeon, piping away audibly, ‘Look at Coquelin! Look at De-launay! What perennial youth! What an admirable theatre!’ She never allowed her friends to talk of anything else, and in the entr’actes greeted her visitors with exclamations of rapture over the genius of the Academic playwright and the grace of the Actress-Associate.
At Paul Astier’s entrance the curtain was up; and knowing that the ritual of Madame Ancelin required absolute silence at such a time, he waited quietly in the little room, separated by a step from the front of the box, where Madame Ancelin was seated in bliss between Madame Astier and Madame Eviza, while behind were Danjou and De Freydet looking like prisoners. The click, which the box-door made and must make in shutting, was followed by a ‘Hush!’ calculated to appal the intruder who was disturbing the service. Madame Astier half turned round, and felt a shiver at the sight of her son. What was the matter? What had Paul to say to her of such pressing importance as to bring him to that haunt of boredom — Paul, who never let himself be bored without a reason? Money again, no doubt, horrid money! Well, fortunately she would soon have plenty; Sammy’s marriage would make them all rich. Much as she longed to go up to Paul and reassure him with the good news, which perhaps he had not heard, she was obliged to stay in her seat, look on at the play, and join as chorus in her hostess’s exclamations, ‘Look at Coquelin! Look at De-launay! Oh! Oh!’ It was a hard trial to her to have to wait So it was to Paul, who could see nothing but the glaring heat of the footlights, and in the looking-glass at the side the reflection of part of the house, stalls, dress-circle, boxes, rows of faces, pretty dresses, bonnets, all as it were drowned in a blue haze, and presenting the colourless ghostly appearance of things dimly seen under water. During the entr’acte came the usual infliction of indiscriminate praise.
‘Monsieur Paul! Di’ y’ see Reichemberg’s dress? Di’ y’ see the pink-bead apron? and the ribbon ruching? Di’ y’ see? This is the only place where they know how to dress, that it is!’
Visitors began to come, and the mother was able to get hold of her son and carry him off to the sofa. There, in the midst of wraps and the bustle of people going out, they spoke in low voices with their heads close together.
‘Answer me quickly and clearly,’ began Paul ‘Is Sammy going to be married?’
‘Yes, the Duchess heard yesterday. But she has come here to-night all the same. Corsican pride!’
‘And whom has he caught? Can you tell me now?’
‘Why, Colette, of course! You must have had a suspicion.’
‘Not the least,’ said Paul. ‘And what shall you get for it?’
She murmured triumphantly, ‘Eight thousand pounds!’
‘Well, by your schemes I have lost a million! — a million, and a wife!’ He grasped her by the wrists in his anger, and hissed into her face, ‘You selfish marplot!’
The news took away her breath and her senses. It was Paul then, Paul, from whom proceeded the force which acted, as she had occasionally perceived, against her influence; it was Paul whom the little fool was thinking of when she said, sobbing in her arms, ‘If you only knew!’ And now, just at the end of the mines which with so much cunning and skilful patience they had each been driving towards the treasure, one last stroke of the axe had brought them face to face, empty-handed! They sat silent, looking at each other, with corresponding crooks in their noses and the same fierce gleam in both pairs of grey eyes, while all around them were the stir of people coming and going and the buzz of conversation. Rigid indeed is the discipline of society, seeing that it could repress in these two creatures all the cries and groans, all the desire to roar and slay, which filled and shook their hearts. Madame Astier was the first to express her thoughts aloud:
‘If only the Princess were not gone!’
And she writhed her lips with rage at the thought that the sudden departure had been her own suggestion.
‘We will get her back,’ said Paul.
Without answering her question, he asked, ‘Is Sammy here to-night?’
‘Oh, I don’t think so, as she is —— Where are you going? what do you mean to do?’
‘Keep quiet, won’t you? Don’t interfere. You are too unlucky for me.’
He left with a crowd of visitors who were driven away by the end of the entr’acte, and she went back to her seat on Madame Ancelin’s left. Her hostess worshipped with the same ecstasy as before, and it was one perpetual giving of thanks.
‘Oh, look at Coquelin! What humour he has! My dear, do look at him!’
‘My dear’ was indeed not attending; her eyes wandered, and on her lips was the painful smile of a dancer hissed off the boards. With the excuse that the footlights dazzled her, she was turning every moment towards the audience to look for her son. Perhaps there would be a duel with the Prince, if he was there. And all her fault — all through her stupid bungling.
‘Ah, there’s Delaunay! Di’ y’ see him? Di’ y’ see?’
No, she had seen nothing but the Duchess’s box, where some one had just come in, with a youthful elegant figure, like her Paul. But it was the little Count Adriani, who had heard of the rupture like the rest of Paris and was already tracking the game. Through the rest of the play the mother ate her heart out in misery, turning over innumerable confused plans for the future, mixed in her thoughts with past events and scenes which ought to have forewarned her. Stupid, how stupid of her! How had she failed to guess?
At last came the departure, but oh how long it took! She had to stop every moment, to bow or smile to her friends, to say good-bye. ‘What are you going to do this summer? Do come and see us at Deauville.’ All down the narrow passage crammed with people, where ladies finish putting on their wraps with a pretty movement to make sure of their ear-rings, all down the white marble staircase to the men-servants waiting at the foot, the mother, as she talks, still watches, listens, tries to catch in the hum of the great fashionable swarm dispersing for some months a word or hint of a scene that evening in a box. Here comes the Duchess, haughty and erect in her long white and gold mantle, taking the arm of the young officer of the Papal Guard. She knows the shabby trick her friend has played her, and as the two women pass they exchange a cold expressionless glance more to be dreaded than the most violent expletive of a fishwoman. They know now what to think of each other; they know that in the poisoned warfare, which is to succeed their sisterly intimacy, every blow will tell, will be directed to the right spot by practised hands. But they discharge the task imposed by society, and both wear the same mask of indifference, so that the masterful hate of the one can meet and strike against the spiteful hate of the other without producing a spark.
Downstairs, in the press of valets and young clubmen, Léonard Astier was waiting, as he had promised, for his wife. ‘Ah, there is the great man!’ exclaimed Madame Ancelin; and with a final dip of her fingers into the holy water she scattered it around her broadcast, over the great Astier-Réhu, the great Danjou, and Coquelin, you know! and Delaunay, you know! Oh! Oh! Oh! — Astier did not reply, but followed with his wife on his arm and his collar turned up against the draught. It was raining. Madame Ancelin offered to take them home; but it was only with the conventional politeness of a ‘carriage’ lady afraid of tiring her horses and still more afraid of her coachman’s temper (she has invariably the best coachman in Paris). Besides, ‘the great man’ had a cab; and without waiting for the lady’s benediction —‘Ah, well, we know you two like to be alone. Ah! what a happy household!’— he dragged off Madame Astier along the wet and dirty colonnade.
When, at the end of a ball or evening party, a fashionable couple drive off in their carriage, the question always suggests itself, ‘Now what will they say?’ Not much usually, for the man generally comes away from this kind of festivity weary and knocked up, while the lady continues the party in the darkness of the carriage by inward comparisons of her dress and her looks with those she has just seen, and makes plans for the arrangement of her drawing-room or a new costume. Still the restraint of feature required by society is so excessive, and fashionable hypocrisy has reached such a height, that it would be interesting to be present at the moment when the conventional attitude is relaxed, to hear the real natural tone of voice, and to realise the actual relations of the beings thus suddenly released from trammels and sent rolling home in the light of their brougham lamps through the empty streets of Paris. In the case of the Astiers the return home was very characteristic. The moment they were alone the wife laid aside the deference and pretended interest exhibited towards the Master in society, and spoke her mind, compensating herself in so doing for the attention with which she had listened for the hundredth time to old stories which bored her to death. The husband, kindly by disposition and accustomed to think well of himself and everyone else, invariably came home in a state of bliss, and was horrified at the malicious comments of his wife on their hosts and the guests they had met. Madame Astier would utter calmly the most shocking accusations, exaggerating gossip in the light unconscious way which is characteristic of Parisian society. Rather than stimulate her he would hold his tongue and turn round in his corner to take a little doze. But on this evening Léonard sat down straight, regardless of the sharp ‘Do mind my dress!’ which showed that somebody’s skirts were being crumpled. What did he care about her dress? ‘I’ve been robbed!’ he said, in such a tone that the windows rattled.
Oh dear, the autographs! She had not been thinking of them, least of all just now, when tormented by very different anxieties, and there was nothing feigned in her surprise.
Robbed — yes, robbed of his ‘Charles-the-Fifths,’ the three best things in his collection! But the assurance which made his attack so violent died out of his voice, and his suspicion hesitated, at the sight of Adelaide’s surprise. Meanwhile she recovered her self-possession. ‘But whom do you suspect?’ Corentine, she thought, was trustworthy. Teyssèdre? It was hardly likely that an ignorant ——
Teyssèdre! He exclaimed at it, the thing seemed so obvious. Helped by his hatred for the man of polish, he soon began to see how the crime had come about, and traced it step by step from a chance allusion at dinner to the value of his documents, heard by Corentine and repeated in all innocence. Ah, the scoundrel! Why, he had the skull of a criminal! Foolish to struggle against the intimations of instinct! There must be something out of the common, when a floor-polisher could arouse so strange an antipathy in a member of the Institute! Ah, well, the dolt was done for now! He should catch it! ‘My three Charleses! Only fancy!’ He wanted to inform the police at once, before going home. His wife tried to prevent him. ‘Are you out of your mind? Go to the police-station after midnight?’ But he insisted, and thrust his great numskull out into the rain to give orders to the driver. She was obliged to pull him back with an effort, and feeling too much exhausted to carry on the lie, to let him say his say and bring him round gradually, she came out with the whole truth.
‘It’s not Teyssèdre — it’s I! There!’ At one breath she poured out the story of her visit to Bos, the money she had got, the 800L., and the necessity for it. The silence which ensued was so long that at first she thought he had had a fit of apoplexy. It was not that; but like a child that falls or hits itself, poor Crocodilus had opened his mouth so wide to let out his anger, and taken so deep a breath, that he could not utter a sound. At last came a roar that filled the Carrousel, where their cab was at that minute splashing through the pools.
‘Robbed, robbed! Robbed by my wife for the sake of her son!’ In his insane fury he jumbled together indiscriminately the abusive patois of his native hillside, ’Ah la garso! Ah li bongri!‘ with the classical exclamations of Harpagon bewailing his casket, Justice, justice du ciel!‘ and other select extracts often recited to his pupils. It was as light as day in the bright rays of the tall electric lamps standing round the great square, over which, as the theatres were emptying, omnibuses and carriages were now passing in all directions.
‘Do be quiet,’ said Madame Astier; ‘everyone knows you.’
‘Except you, Madame!’
She thought he was going to beat her, and in the strained condition of her nerves it might perhaps have been a relief. But under the terror of a scandal he suddenly quieted down, swearing finally by his mother’s ashes that as soon as he got home he would pack up his trunk and go straight off to Sauvagnat, leaving his wife to depart with her scoundrelly prodigal and live on their spoils.
Once more the deep old box with its big nails was brought hastily from the anteroom into the study. A few billets of wood were still left in it from the winter’s supply, but the ‘deity’ did not change his purpose for that. For an hour the house resounded with the rolling of logs and the banging of cupboard doors, as he flung among the sawdust and bits of dry bark linen, clothes, boots, and even the green coat and embroidered waistcoat of the Academic full dress, carefully put away in napkins. His wrath was relieved by this operation, and diminished as he filled his trunk, till his last resentful grumblings died away when it occurred to him that, fixed as he was to his place, to uproot himself was utterly impossible. Meanwhile Madame Astier, sitting on the edge of an armchair in her dressing-gown, with a lace wrap round her head, watched his proceedings and murmured between yawn and yawn with placid irony, ‘Really, Léonard, really!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07