Maitre Saval, notary at Vernon, was passionately fond of music. Still young, though already bald, always carefully shaved, a little corpulent, as it was fitting, wearing a gold pince-nez instead of old-fashioned spectacles, active, gallant, and joyous, he passed in Vernon for an artist. He thrummed on the piano and played on the violin, and gave musical evenings where interpretations were given of new operas.
He had even what is called a bit of a voice; nothing but a bit, a very little bit of a voice; but he managed it with so much taste that cries of “Bravo!” “Exquisite!” “Surprising!” “Adorable!” issued from every throat as soon as he had murmured the last note.
He was a subscriber to a music-publisher in Paris, who addressed new pieces to him, and he sent from time to time to the high society of the town, little notes something in this style:
“You are invited to be present on Monday evening at the house of M. Saval, notary, Vernon, at the first production of ‘Sais.’”
A few officers, gifted with good voices, formed the chorus. Two or three of the vinedressers’ families also sang. The notary filled the part of leader of the orchestra with so much correctness that the bandmaster of the 190th regiment of the line said to him, one day, at the Café de l’Europe:
“Oh! M. Saval is a master. It is a great pity that he did not adopt the career of an artist.”
When his name was mentioned in a drawing-room, there was always somebody found to declare: “He is not an amateur; he is an artist, a genuine artist.”
And two or three persons repeated, in a tone of profound conviction:
“Oh! yes, a genuine artist,” laying particular stress on the word “genuine.”
Every time that a new work was interpreted at a big Parisian theater, M. Saval paid a visit to the capital.
Now, last year, according to his custom, he went to hear “Henry VIII.” He then took the express which arrives in Paris at 4:30 p.m., intending to return by the 12:35 a.m. train so as not to have to sleep at a hotel. He had put on evening dress, a black coat and white tie, which he concealed under his overcoat with the collar turned up.
As soon as he had planted his foot on the Rue d’ Amsterdam, he felt himself in quite a jovial mood. He said to himself:
“Decidedly the air of Paris does not resemble any other air. It has in it something indescribably stimulating, exciting, intoxicating, which fills you with a strange longing to gambol and to do many other things. As soon as I arrive here, it seems to me, all of a sudden, that I have taken a bottle of champagne. What a life one can lead in this city in the midst of artists! Happy are the elect, the great men who enjoy renown in such a city! What an existence is theirs!”
And he made plans; he would have liked to know some of those celebrated men, to talk about them in Vernon, and to spend an evening with them from time to time in Paris.
But suddenly an idea struck him. He had heard allusions to little cafés in the outer boulevards at which well-known painters, men of letters, and even musicians gathered, and he proceeded to go up to Montmartre at a slow pace.
He had two hours before him. He wanted to have a look-round. He passed in front of taverns frequented by belated Bohemians gazing at the different faces, seeking to discover the artists. Finally, he came to the sign of “The Dead Rat,” and allured by the name, he entered.
Five or six women, with their elbows resting on the marble tables, were talking in low tones about their love affairs, the quarrels of Lucie and Hortense, and the scoundrelism of Octave. They were no longer young, too fat or too thin, tired out, used up. You could see that they were almost bald; and they drank bocks like men.
M. Saval sat down at some distance from them, and waited, for the hour for taking absinthe was at hand.
A tall young man soon came in and took a seat beside him. The landlady called him M. “Romantin.” The notary quivered. Was this the Romantin who had taken a medal at the last Salon?
The young man made a sign to the waiter:
“You will bring up my dinner at once, and then carry to my new studio, 15, Boulevard de Clinchy, thirty bottles of beer and the ham I ordered this morning. We are going to have housewarming.”
M. Saval immediately ordered dinner. Then, he took off his overcoat, so that his dress coat and his white tie could be seen. His neighbor did not seem to notice him. He had taken up a newspaper, and was reading it. M. Saval glanced sideways at him, burning with the desire to speak to him.
Two young men entered, in red vests, and peaked beards in the fashion of Henry III. They sat down opposite Romantin.
The first of the pair said:
“It is for this evening?”
Romantin pressed his hand.
“T believe you, old chap, and everyone will be there, I have Bonnat, Guillemet, Gervex, Beraud, Hebert, Duez, Clairin, and Jean–Paul Laurens. It will be a glorious blow out! And women too! Wait till you see! Every actress without exception — of course I mean, you know, all those who have nothing to do this evening.”
The landlord of the establishment came across.
“Do you often have this housewarming?”
The painter replied:
“I believe you, every three months, each quarter.”
M. Saval could not restrain himself any longer, and in a hesitating voice said:
“I beg your pardon for intruding on you, monsieur, but I heard your name pronounced, and I would be very glad to know if you really are M. Romantin, whose work in the last Salon I have so much admired?”
The painter answered:
“I am the very person, monsieur.”
The notary then paid the artist a very well-turned compliment, showing that he was a man of culture.
The painter, gratified, thanked him politely in reply.
Then they chatted. Romantin returned to the subject of his housewarming, going into details as to the magnificence of the forthcoming entertainment.
M. Saval questioned him as to all the men he was going to receive, adding:
“It would be an extraordinary piece of good fortune for a stranger to meet at one time so many celebrities assembled in the studio of an artist of your rank.”
Romantin, overcome, answered:
“If it would be agreeable to you, come.”
M. Saval accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, reflecting:
“I’ll always have time enough to see ‘Henri VIII.’”
Both of them had finished their meal. The notary insisted on paying the two bills, wishing to repay his neighbor’s civilities. He also paid for the drinks of the young fellows in red velvet; then he left the establishment with the painter.
They stopped in front of a very long house, by no means high, of which all the first story had the appearance of an interminable conservatory. Six studios stood in a row with their fronts facing the boulevards.
Romantin was the first to enter, and, ascending the stairs, he opened a door, and lighted a match and then a candle.
They found themselves in an immense apartment, the furniture of which consisted of three chairs, two easels, and a few sketches lying on the ground along the walls. M. Saval remained standing at the door in a stupefied state of mind.
The painter remarked:
“Here you are! we’ve got to the spot; but everything has yet to be done.”
Then, examining the high, bare apartment, whose ceiling was veiled in shadows, he said:
“We might make a great deal out of this studio.”
He walked round it, surveying it with the utmost attention, then went on:
“I have a mistress who might easily give a helping hand. Women are incomparable for hanging drapery. But I sent her to the country for today in order to get her off my hands this evening. It is not that she bores me, but she is too much lacking in the ways of good society. It would be embarrassing to my guests.”
He reflected for a few seconds, and then added:
“She is a good girl, but not easy to deal with. If she knew that I was holding a reception, she would tear out my eyes.”
M. Saval had not even moved; he did not understand.
The artist came over to him.
“Since I have invited you, you are going to give me some help.”
The notary said emphatically:
“Make any use of me you please. I am at your disposal.”
Romantin took off his jacket.
“Well, citizen, to work! We are first going to clean up.”
He went to the back of the easel, on which there was a canvas representing a cat, and seized a very worn-out broom.
“I say! Just brush up while I look after the lighting.”
M. Saval took the broom, inspected it, and then began to sweep the floor very awkwardly, raising a whirlwind of dust.
Romantin, disgusted, stopped him: “Deuce take it! you don’t know how to sweep the floor! Look at me!”
And he began to roll before him a heap of grayish sweepings, as if he had done nothing else all his life. Then, he gave back the broom to the notary, who imitated him.
In five minutes, such a cloud of dust filled the studio that Romantin asked:
“Where are you? I can’t see you any longer.”
M. Saval, who was coughing, came near to him. The painter said to him:
“How are you going to manage to get up a chandelier?”
The other, stunned, asked:
“Why, a chandelier to light — a chandelier with wax candles.”
The notary did not understand.
He answered: “I don’t know.”
The painter began to jump about, cracking his fingers.
“Well, monseigneur, I have found out a way.”
Then he went more calmly:
“Have you got five francs about you?”
M. Saval replied:
The artist said:
“Well! you’ll go and buy for me five francs’ worth of wax candles while I go and see the cooper.”
And he pushed the notary in his evening coat into the street. At the end of five minutes, they had returned one of them with the wax candles, and the other with the hoop of a cask. Then Romantin plunged his hand into a cupboard, and drew forth twenty empty bottles, which he fixed in the form of a crown around the hoop.
He then came down, and went to borrow a ladder from the door-keeper, after having explained that he had obtained the favors of the old woman by painting the portrait of her cat exhibited on the easel.
When he mounted the ladder, he said to M. Saval:
“Are you active?”
The other, without understanding, answered:
“Well, you just climb up there, and fasten this chandelier for me to the ring of the ceiling. Then, you must put a wax candle in each bottle, and light it. I tell you I have a genius for lighting up. But off with your coat, damn it! You are just like a Jeames.”
The door was opened brutally. A woman appeared, with her eyes flashing, and remained standing on the threshold.
Romantin gazed at her with a look of terror.
She waited some seconds, crossing her arms over her breast, and then, in a shrill, vibrating, exasperated voice, said:
“Ha! you sniveler, is this the way you leave me?”
Romantin made no reply. She went on:
“Ha! you scoundrel! You are again doing the swell, while you pack me off to the country. You’ll soon see the way I’ll settle your jollification. Yes, I’m going to receive your friends.”
She grew warmer:
“I’m going to slap their faces with the bottles and the wax candles. . . . ”
Romantin uttered one soft word:
“Mathilde. . . . ”
But she did not pay any attention to him; she went on:
“Wait a little my fine fellow! wait a little!”
Romantin went over to her, and tried to take her by the hands:
“Mathilde. . . . ”
But she was now fairly under way; and on she went, emptying the vials of her wrath with strong words and reproaches. They flowed out of her mouth, like a stream sweeping a heap of filth along with it. The words hurled out, seemed struggling for exit. She stuttered, stammered, yelled, suddenly recovering her voice to cast forth an insult or a curse.
He seized her hands without her having even noticed it. She did not seem to see anything, so much occupied was she in holding forth and relieving her heart. And suddenly she began to weep. The tears flowed from her eyes without making her stem the tide of her complaints. But her words had taken a howling, shrieking tone; they were a continuous cry interrupted by sobbings. She commenced afresh twice or three times, till she stopped as if something were choking her, and at last she ceased with a regular flood of tears.
Then he clasped her in his arms and kissed her hair, affected himself.
“Mathilde, my little Mathilde, listen. You must be reasonable. You know, if I give a supper-party to my friends, it is to thank these gentlemen for the medal I got at the Salon. I cannot receive women. You ought to understand that. It is not the same with artists as with other people.”
She stammered in the midst of her tears:
“Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“It was in order not to annoy you, not to give you pain. Listen, I’m going to see you home. You will be very sensible, very nice; you will remain quietly waiting for me in bed, and I’ll come back as soon as it’s over.”
“Yes, but you will not begin over again?”
“No, I swear to you!”
He turned towards M. Saval, who had at last hooked on the chandelier:
“My dear friend, I am coming back in five minutes. If any one arrives in my absence, do the honors for me, will you not?”
And he carried off Mathilde, who kept drying her eyes with her handkerchief as she went along.
Left to himself, M. Saval succeeded in putting everything around him in order. Then he lighted the wax candles, and waited.
He waited for a quarter of an hour, half an hour, an hour. Romantin did not return. Then, suddenly, there was a dreadful noise on the stairs, a song shouted out in chorus by twenty mouths and a regular march like that of a Prussian regiment. The whole house was shaken by the steady tramp of feet. The door flew open, and a motley throng appeared — men and women in a row, holding one another arm in arm, in pairs, and kicking their heels on the ground, in proper time, advanced into the studio like a snake uncoiling itself. They howled:
“Come, and let us all be merry,
Pretty maids and soldiers gay!”
M. Saval, thunderstruck, remained standing in evening dress under the chandelier. The procession of revelers caught sight of him, and uttered a shout:
“A Jeames! A Jeames!”
And they began whirling round him, surrounding him with a circle of vociferations. Then they took each other by the hand and went dancing about madly.
He attempted to explain:
“Messieurs — messieurs — mesdames — ”
But they did not listen to him. They whirled about, they jumped, they brawled.
At last, the dancing ceased. M. Saval uttered the word:
“Messieurs — ”
A tall young fellow, fair-haired and bearded to the nose, interrupted him:
“What’s your name, my friend?”
The notary, quite scared, said:
“I am M. Saval.”
A voice exclaimed:
“You mean Baptiste.”
A woman said:
“Let the poor waiter alone! You’ll end by making him get angry. He’s paid to attend on us, and not to be laughed at by us.”
Then, M. Saval noticed that each guest had brought his own provisions. One held a bottle of wine, and the other a pie. This one had a loaf of bread, and one a ham.
The tall, fair young fellow placed in his hands an enormous sausage, and gave orders:
“I say! Go and settle up the sideboard in the corner over there. You are to put the bottles at the left and the provisions at the right.”
Saval, getting quite distracted, exclaimed: “But messieurs, I am a notary!”
There was a moment’s silence, and then a wild outburst of laughter. One suspicious gentleman asked:
“How are you here?”
He explained, telling about his project of going to the Opera, his departure from Vernon, his arrival in Paris, and the way in which he had spent the evening.
They sat around him to listen to him; they greeted him with words of applause, and called him Scheherazade.
Romantin did not come back. Other guests arrived. M. Saval was presented to them so that he might begin his story over again. He declined; they forced him to relate it. They fixed him on one of the three chairs between two women who kept constantly filling his glass. He drank; he laughed; he talked; he sang, too. He tried to waltz with his chair, and fell on the ground.
From that moment, he forgot everything. It seemed to him, however, that they undressed him, put him to bed, and that his stomach got sick.
When he awoke, it was broad daylight, and he lay stretched with his feet against a cupboard, in a strange bed.
An old woman with a broom in her hand was glaring angrily at him. At last, she said:
“Clear out, you blackguard! Clear out! What right has anyone to get drunk like this?”
He sat up in the bed, feeling very ill at ease. He asked:
“Where am I?”
“Where are you, you dirty scamp? You are drunk. Take your rotten carcass out of here as quick as you can, — and lose no time about it!”
He wanted to get up. He found that he was naked in the bed. His clothes had disappeared. He blurted out:
“Madame, I— ”
Then he remembered. . . . What was he to do? He asked:
“Did Monsieur Romantin come back?”
The door-keeper shouted:
“Will you take your dirty carcass out of this so that he at any rate may not catch you here?”
M. Saval said, in a state of confusion:
“I haven’t got my clothes; they have been taken away from me.”
He had to wait, to explain his situation, give notice to his friends, and borrow some money to buy clothes. He did not leave Paris till evening.
And, when people talk about music to him in his beautiful drawing-room in Vernon, he declares with an air of authority that painting is a very inferior art.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58