MADAME DESPREZ, who answered to the Christian name of Anastasie, presented an agreeable type of her sex; exceedingly wholesome to look upon, a stout BRUNE, with cool smooth cheeks, steady, dark eyes, and hands that neither art nor nature could improve. She was the sort of person over whom adversity passes like a summer cloud; she might, in the worst of conjunctions, knit her brows into one vertical furrow for a moment, but the next it would be gone. She had much of the placidity of a contented nun; with little of her piety, however; for Anastasie was of a very mundane nature, fond of oysters and old wine, and somewhat bold pleasantries, and devoted to her husband for her own sake rather than for his. She was imperturbably good-natured, but had no idea of self-sacrifice. To live in that pleasant old house, with a green garden behind and bright flowers about the window, to eat and drink of the best, to gossip with a neighbour for a quarter of an hour, never to wear stays or a dress except when she went to Fontainebleau shopping, to be kept in a continual supply of racy novels, and to be married to Doctor Desprez and have no ground of jealousy, filled the cup of her nature to the brim. Those who had known the Doctor in bachelor days, when he had aired quite as many theories, but of a different order, attributed his present philosophy to the study of Anastasie. It was her brute enjoyment that he rationalised and perhaps vainly imitated.
Madame Desprez was an artist in the kitchen, and made coffee to a nicety. She had a knack of tidiness, with which she had infected the Doctor; everything was in its place; everything capable of polish shone gloriously; and dust was a thing banished from her empire. Aline, their single servant, had no other business in the world but to scour and burnish. So Doctor Desprez lived in his house like a fatted calf, warmed and cosseted to his heart’s content.
The midday meal was excellent. There was a ripe melon, a fish from the river in a memorable Bearnaise sauce, a fat fowl in a fricassee, and a dish of asparagus, followed by some fruit. The Doctor drank half a bottle PLUS one glass, the wife half a bottle MINUS the same quantity, which was a marital privilege, of an excellent Cote-Rotie, seven years old. Then the coffee was brought, and a flask of Chartreuse for madame, for the Doctor despised and distrusted such decoctions; and then Aline left the wedded pair to the pleasures of memory and digestion.
‘It is a very fortunate circumstance, my cherished one,’ observed the Doctor — ‘this coffee is adorable — a very fortunate circumstance upon the whole — Anastasie, I beseech you, go without that poison for to-day; only one day, and you will feel the benefit, I pledge my reputation.’
‘What is this fortunate circumstance, my friend?’ inquired Anastasie, not heeding his protest, which was of daily recurrence.
‘That we have no children, my beautiful,’ replied the Doctor. ‘I think of it more and more as the years go on, and with more and more gratitude towards the Power that dispenses such afflictions. Your health, my darling, my studious quiet, our little kitchen delicacies, how they would all have suffered, how they would all have been sacrificed! And for what? Children are the last word of human imperfection. Health flees before their face. They cry, my dear; they put vexatious questions; they demand to be fed, to be washed, to be educated, to have their noses blown; and then, when the time comes, they break our hearts, as I break this piece of sugar. A pair of professed egoists, like you and me, should avoid offspring, like an infidelity.’
‘Indeed!’ said she; and she laughed. ‘Now, that is like you — to take credit for the thing you could not help.’
‘My dear,’ returned the Doctor, solemnly, ‘we might have adopted.’
‘Never!’ cried madame. ‘Never, Doctor, with my consent. If the child were my own flesh and blood, I would not say no. But to take another person’s indiscretion on my shoulders, my dear friend, I have too much sense.’
‘Precisely,’ replied the Doctor. ‘We both had. And I am all the better pleased with our wisdom, because — because — ‘ He looked at her sharply.
‘Because what?’ she asked, with a faint premonition of danger.
‘Because I have found the right person,’ said the Doctor firmly, ‘and shall adopt him this afternoon.’
Anastasie looked at him out of a mist. ‘You have lost your reason,’ she said; and there was a clang in her voice that seemed to threaten trouble.
‘Not so, my dear,’ he replied; ‘I retain its complete exercise. To the proof: instead of attempting to cloak my inconsistency, I have, by way of preparing you, thrown it into strong relief. You will there, I think, recognise the philosopher who has the ecstasy to call you wife. The fact is, I have been reckoning all this while without an accident. I never thought to find a son of my own. Now, last night, I found one. Do not unnecessarily alarm yourself, my dear; he is not a drop of blood to me that I know. It is his mind, darling, his mind that calls me father.’
‘His mind!’ she repeated with a titter between scorn and hysterics. ‘His mind, indeed! Henri, is this an idiotic pleasantry, or are you mad? His mind! And what of my mind?’
‘Truly,’ replied the Doctor with a shrug, ‘you have your finger on the hitch. He will be strikingly antipathetic to my ever beautiful Anastasie. She will never understand him; he will never understand her. You married the animal side of my nature, dear and it is on the spiritual side that I find my affinity for Jean-Marie. So much so, that, to be perfectly frank, I stand in some awe of him myself. You will easily perceive that I am announcing a calamity for you. Do not,’ he broke out in tones of real solicitude — ‘do not give way to tears after a meal, Anastasie. You will certainly give yourself a false digestion.’
Anastasie controlled herself. ‘You know how willing I am to humour you,’ she said, ‘in all reasonable matters. But on this point — ’
‘My dear love,’ interrupted the Doctor, eager to prevent a refusal, ‘who wished to leave Paris? Who made me give up cards, and the opera, and the boulevard, and my social relations, and all that was my life before I knew you? Have I been faithful? Have I been obedient? Have I not borne my doom with cheerfulness? In all honesty, Anastasie, have I not a right to a stipulation on my side? I have, and you know it. I stipulate my son.’
Anastasie was aware of defeat; she struck her colours instantly. ‘You will break my heart,’ she sighed.
‘Not in the least,’ said he. ‘You will feel a trifling inconvenience for a month, just as I did when I was first brought to this vile hamlet; then your admirable sense and temper will prevail, and I see you already as content as ever, and making your husband the happiest of men.’
‘You know I can refuse you nothing,’ she said, with a last flicker of resistance; ‘nothing that will make you truly happier. But will this? Are you sure, my husband? Last night, you say, you found him! He may be the worst of humbugs.’
‘I think not,’ replied the Doctor. ‘But do not suppose me so unwary as to adopt him out of hand. I am, I flatter myself, a finished man of the world; I have had all possibilities in view; my plan is contrived to meet them all. I take the lad as stable boy. If he pilfer, if he grumble, if he desire to change, I shall see I was mistaken; I shall recognise him for no son of mine, and send him tramping.’
‘You will never do so when the time comes,’ said his wife; ‘I know your good heart.’
She reached out her hand to him, with a sigh; the Doctor smiled as he took it and carried it to his lips; he had gained his point with greater ease than he had dared to hope; for perhaps the twentieth time he had proved the efficacy of his trusty argument, his Excalibur, the hint of a return to Paris. Six months in the capital, for a man of the Doctor’s antecedents and relations, implied no less a calamity than total ruin. Anastasie had saved the remainder of his fortune by keeping him strictly in the country. The very name of Paris put her in a blue fear; and she would have allowed her husband to keep a menagerie in the back garden, let alone adopting a stable-boy, rather than permit the question of return to be discussed.
About four of the afternoon, the mountebank rendered up his ghost; he had never been conscious since his seizure. Doctor Desprez was present at his last passage, and declared the farce over. Then he took Jean-Marie by the shoulder and led him out into the inn garden where there was a convenient bench beside the river. Here he sat him down and made the boy place himself on his left.
‘Jean-Marie,’ he said very gravely, ‘this world is exceedingly vast; and even France, which is only a small corner of it, is a great place for a little lad like you. Unfortunately it is full of eager, shouldering people moving on; and there are very few bakers’ shops for so many eaters. Your master is dead; you are not fit to gain a living by yourself; you do not wish to steal? No. Your situation then is undesirable; it is, for the moment, critical. On the other hand, you behold in me a man not old, though elderly, still enjoying the youth of the heart and the intelligence; a man of instruction; easily situated in this world’s affairs; keeping a good table:— a man, neither as friend nor host, to be despised. I offer you your food and clothes, and to teach you lessons in the evening, which will be infinitely more to the purpose for a lad of your stamp than those of all the priests in Europe. I propose no wages, but if ever you take a thought to leave me, the door shall be open, and I will give you a hundred francs to start the world upon. In return, I have an old horse and chaise, which you would very speedily learn to clean and keep in order. Do not hurry yourself to answer, and take it or leave it as you judge aright. Only remember this, that I am no sentimentalist or charitable person, but a man who lives rigorously to himself; and that if I make the proposal, it is for my own ends — it is because I perceive clearly an advantage to myself. And now, reflect.’
‘I shall be very glad. I do not see what else I can do. I thank you, sir, most kindly, and I will try to be useful,’ said the boy.
‘Thank you,’ said the Doctor warmly, rising at the same time and wiping his brow, for he had suffered agonies while the thing hung in the wind. A refusal, after the scene at noon, would have placed him in a ridiculous light before Anastasie. ‘How hot and heavy is the evening, to be sure! I have always had a fancy to be a fish in summer, Jean-Marie, here in the Loing beside Gretz. I should lie under a water-lily and listen to the bells, which must sound most delicately down below. That would be a life — do you not think so too?’
‘Yes,’ said Jean-Marie.
‘Thank God you have imagination!’ cried the Doctor, embracing the boy with his usual effusive warmth, though it was a proceeding that seemed to disconcert the sufferer almost as much as if he had been an English schoolboy of the same age. ‘And now,’ he added, ‘I will take you to my wife.’
Madame Desprez sat in the dining-room in a cool wrapper. All the blinds were down, and the tile floor had been recently sprinkled with water; her eyes were half shut, but she affected to be reading a novel as the they entered. Though she was a bustling woman, she enjoyed repose between whiles and had a remarkable appetite for sleep.
The Doctor went through a solemn form of introduction, adding, for the benefit of both parties, ‘You must try to like each other for my sake.’
‘He is very pretty,’ said Anastasie. ‘Will you kiss me, my pretty little fellow?’
The Doctor was furious, and dragged her into the passage. ‘Are you a fool, Anastasie?’ he said. ‘What is all this I hear about the tact of women? Heaven knows, I have not met with it in my experience. You address my little philosopher as if he were an infant. He must be spoken to with more respect, I tell you; he must not be kissed and Georgy-porgy’d like an ordinary child.’
‘I only did it to please you, I am sure,’ replied Anastasie; ‘but I will try to do better.’
The Doctor apologised for his warmth. ‘But I do wish him,’ he continued, ‘to feel at home among us. And really your conduct was so idiotic, my cherished one, and so utterly and distantly out of place, that a saint might have been pardoned a little vehemence in disapproval. Do, do try — if it is possible for a woman to understand young people — but of course it is not, and I waste my breath. Hold your tongue as much as possible at least, and observe my conduct narrowly; it will serve you for a model.’
Anastasie did as she was bidden, and considered the Doctor’s behaviour. She observed that he embraced the boy three times in the course of the evening, and managed generally to confound and abash the little fellow out of speech and appetite. But she had the true womanly heroism in little affairs. Not only did she refrain from the cheap revenge of exposing the Doctor’s errors to himself, but she did her best to remove their ill-effect on Jean-Marie. When Desprez went out for his last breath of air before retiring for the night, she came over to the boy’s side and took his hand.
‘You must not be surprised nor frightened by my husband’s manners,’ she said. ‘He is the kindest of men, but so clever that he is sometimes difficult to understand. You will soon grow used to him, and then you will love him, for that nobody can help. As for me, you may be sure, I shall try to make you happy, and will not bother you at all. I think we should be excellent friends, you and I. I am not clever, but I am very good-natured. Will you give me a kiss?’
He held up his face, and she took him in her arms and then began to cry. The woman had spoken in complaisance; but she had warmed to her own words, and tenderness followed. The Doctor, entering, found them enlaced: he concluded that his wife was in fault; and he was just beginning, in an awful voice, ‘Anastasie — ’ when she looked up at him, smiling, with an upraised finger; and he held his peace, wondering, while she led the boy to his attic.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00