ONE morning, as Claude, who had taken ‘The Dead Child’ to the Palais de l’Industrie the previous day, was roaming round about the Parc Monceau, he suddenly came upon Fagerolles.
‘What!’ said the latter, cordially, ‘is it you, old fellow? What’s becoming of you? What are you doing? We see so little of each other now.’
Then, Claude having mentioned what he had sent to the Salon — that little canvas which his mind was full of — Fagerolles added:
‘Ah! you’ve sent something; then I’ll get it “hung” for you. You know that I’m a candidate for the hanging committee this year.’
Indeed, amid the tumult and everlasting discontent of the artists, after attempts at reform, repeated a score of times and then abandoned, the authorities had just invested the exhibitors with the privilege of electing the members of the hanging committee; and this had quite upset the world of painters and sculptors, a perfect electoral fever had set in, with all sorts of ambitious cabals and intrigues — all the low jobbery, indeed, by which politics are dishonoured.
‘I’m going to take you with me,’ continued Fagerolles; you must come and see how I’m settled in my little house, in which you haven’t yet set foot, in spite of all your promises. It’s there, hard by, at the corner of the Avenue de Villiers.’
Claude, whose arm he had gaily taken, was obliged to follow him. He was seized with a fit of cowardice; the idea that his old chum might get his picture ‘hung’ for him filled him with mingled shame and desire. On reaching the avenue, he stopped in front of the house to look at its frontage, a bit of coquettish, precioso architectural tracery — the exact copy of a Renaissance house at Bourges, with lattice windows, a staircase tower, and a roof decked with leaden ornaments. It looked like the abode of a harlot; and Claude was struck with surprise when, on turning round, he recognised Irma Becot’s regal mansion just over the way. Huge, substantial, almost severe of aspect, it had all the importance of a palace compared to its neighbour, the dwelling of the artist, who was obliged to limit himself to a fanciful nick-nack.
‘Ah! that Irma, eh?’ said Fagerolles with just a shade of respect in his tone. ‘She has got a cathedral and no mistake! But come in.’
The interior of Fagerolles’ house was strangely and magnificently luxurious. Old tapestry, old weapons, a heap of old furniture, Chinese and Japanese curios were displayed even in the very hall. On the left there was a dining-room, panelled with lacquer work and having its ceiling draped with a design of a red dragon. Then there was a staircase of carved wood above which banners drooped, whilst tropical plants rose up like plumes. Overhead, the studio was a marvel, though rather small and without a picture visible. The walls, indeed, were entirely covered with Oriental hangings, while at one end rose up a huge chimney-piece with chimerical monsters supporting the tablet, and at the other extremity appeared a vast couch under a tent — the latter quite a monument, with lances upholding the sumptuous drapery, above a collection of carpets, furs and cushions heaped together almost on a level with the flooring.
Claude looked at it all, and there came to his lips a question which he held back — Was all this paid for? Fagerolles, who had been decorated with the Legion of Honour the previous year, now asked, it was said, ten thousand francs for painting a mere portrait. Naudet, who, after launching him, duly turned his success to profit in a methodical fashion, never let one of his pictures go for less than twenty, thirty, forty thousand francs. Orders would have fallen on the painter’s shoulders as thick as hail, if he had not affected the disdain, the weariness of the man whose slightest sketches are fought for. And yet all this display of luxury smacked of indebtedness, there was only so much paid on account to the upholsterers; all the money — the money won by lucky strokes as on ‘Change — slipped through the artist’s fingers, and was spent without trace of it remaining. Moreover, Fagerolles, still in the full flush of his sudden good fortune, did not calculate or worry, being confident that he would always sell his works at higher and higher prices, and feeling glorious at the high position he was acquiring in contemporary art.
Eventually, Claude espied a little canvas on an ebony easel, draped with red plush. Excepting a rosewood tube case and box of crayons, forgotten on an article of furniture, nothing reminding one of the artistic profession could be seen lying about.
‘Very finely treated,’ said Claude, wishing to be amiable, as he stood in front of the little canvas. ‘And is your picture for the Salon sent?’
‘Ah! yes, thank heavens! What a number of people I had here! A perfect procession which kept me on my legs from morning till evening during a week. I didn’t want to exhibit it, as it lowers one to do so, and Naudet also opposed it. But what would you have done? I was so begged and prayed; all the young fellows want to set me on the committee, so that I may defend them. Oh! my picture is simple enough — I call it “A Picnic.” There are a couple of gentlemen and three ladies under some trees — guests at some chateau, who have brought a collation with them and are eating it in a glade. You’ll see, it’s rather original.’
He spoke in a hesitating manner, and when his eyes met those of Claude, who was looking at him fixedly, he lost countenance altogether, and joked about the little canvas on the easel.
‘That’s a daub Naudet asked me for. Oh! I’m not ignorant of what I lack — a little of what you have too much of, old man. You know that I’m still your friend; why, I defended you only yesterday with some painters.’
He tapped Claude on the shoulders, for he had divined his old master’s secret contempt, and wished to win him back by his old-time caresses — all the wheedling practices of a hussy. Very sincerely and with a sort of anxious deference he again promised Claude that he would do everything in his power to further the hanging of his picture, ‘The Dead Child.’
However, some people arrived; more than fifteen persons came in and went off in less than an hour — fathers bringing young pupils, exhibitors anxious to say a good word on their own behalf, friends who wanted to barter influence, even women who placed their talents under the protection of their charms. And one should have seen the painter play his part as a candidate, shaking hands most lavishly, saying to one visitor: ‘Your picture this year is so pretty, it pleases me so much!’ then feigning astonishment with another: ‘What! you haven’t had a medal yet?’ and repeating to all of them: ‘Ah! If I belonged to the committee, I’d make them walk straight.’ He sent every one away delighted, closed the door behind each visitor with an air of extreme amiability, through which, however, there pierced the secret sneer of an ex-lounger on the pavement.
‘You see, eh?’ he said to Claude, at a moment when they happened to be left alone. ‘What a lot of time I lose with those idiots!’
Then he approached the large window, and abruptly opened one of the casements; and on one of the balconies of the house over the way a woman clad in a lace dressing-gown could be distinguished waving her handkerchief. Fagerolles on his side waved his hand three times in succession. Then both windows were closed again.
Claude had recognised Irma; and amid the silence which fell Fagerolles quietly explained matters:
‘It’s convenient, you see, one can correspond. We have a complete system of telegraphy. She wants to speak to me, so I must go —’
Since he and Irma had resided in the avenue, they met, it was said, on their old footing. It was even asserted that he, so ‘cute,’ so well-acquainted with Parisian humbug, let himself be fleeced by her, bled at every moment of some good round sum, which she sent her maid to ask for — now to pay a tradesman, now to satisfy a whim, often for nothing at all, or rather for the sole pleasure of emptying his pockets; and this partly explained his embarrassed circumstances, his indebtedness, which ever increased despite the continuous rise in the quotations of his canvases.
Claude had put on his hat again. Fagerolles was shuffling about impatiently, looking nervously at the house over the way.
‘I don’t send you off, but you see she’s waiting for me,’ he said, ‘Well, it’s understood, your affair’s settled — that is, unless I’m not elected. Come to the Palais de l’Industrie on the evening the voting-papers are counted. Oh! there will be a regular crush, quite a rumpus! Still, you will always learn if you can rely on me.’
At first, Claude inwardly swore that he would not trouble about it. Fagerolles’ protection weighed heavily upon him; and yet, in his heart of hearts, he really had but one fear, that the shifty fellow would not keep his promise, but would ultimately be taken with a fit of cowardice at the idea of protecting a defeated man. However, on the day of the vote Claude could not keep still, but went and roamed about the Champs Elysees under the pretence of taking a long walk. He might as well go there as elsewhere, for while waiting for the Salon he had altogether ceased work. He himself could not vote, as to do so it was necessary to have been ‘hung’ on at least one occasion. However, he repeatedly passed before the Palais de l’Industrie,* the foot pavement in front of which interested him with its bustling aspect, its procession of artist electors, whom men in dirty blouses caught hold of, shouting to them the titles of their lists of candidates — lists some thirty in number emanating from every possible coterie, and representing every possible opinion. There was the list of the studios of the School of Arts, the liberal list, the list of the uncompromising radical painters, the conciliatory list, the young painters’ list, even the ladies’ list, and so forth. The scene suggested all the turmoil at the door of an electoral polling booth on the morrow of a riot.
* This palace, for many years the home of the ‘Salon,’ was built for the first Paris International Exhibition, that of 1855, and demolished in connection with that of 1900. — ED.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, when the voting was over, Claude could not resist a fit of curiosity to go and have a look. The staircase was now free, and whoever chose could enter. Upstairs, he came upon the huge gallery, overlooking the Champs Elysees, which was set aside for the hanging committee. A table, forty feet long, filled the centre of this gallery, and entire trees were burning in the monumental fireplace at one end of it. Some four or five hundred electors, who had remained to see the votes counted, stood there, mingled with friends and inquisitive strangers, talking, laughing, and setting quite a storm loose under the lofty ceiling. Around the table, parties of people who had volunteered to count the votes were already settled and at work; there were some fifteen of these parties in all, each comprising a chairman and two scrutineers. Three or four more remained to be organised, and nobody else offered assistance; in fact, every one turned away in fear of the crushing labour which would rivet the more zealous people to the spot far into the night.
It precisely happened that Fagerolles, who had been in the thick of it since the morning, was gesticulating and shouting, trying to make himself heard above the hubbub.
‘Come, gentlemen, we need one more man here! Come, some willing person, over here!’
And at that moment, perceiving Claude, he darted forward and forcibly dragged him off.
‘Ah! as for you, you will just oblige me by sitting down there and helping us! It’s for the good cause, dash it all!’
Claude abruptly found himself chairman of one of the counting committees, and began to perform his functions with all the gravity of a timid man, secretly experiencing a good deal of emotion, as if the hanging of his canvas would depend upon the conscientiousness he showed in his work. He called out the names inscribed upon the voting-papers, which were passed to him in little packets, while the scrutineers, on sheets of paper prepared for the purpose, noted each successive vote that each candidate obtained. And all this went on amidst a most frightful uproar, twenty and thirty names being called out at the same time by different voices, above the continuous rumbling of the crowd. As Claude could never do anything without throwing passion into it, he waxed excited, became despondent whenever a voting-paper did not bear Fagerolles’ name, and grew happy as soon as he had to shout out that name once more. Moreover, he often tasted that delight, for his friend had made himself popular, showing himself everywhere, frequenting the cafes where influential groups of artists assembled, even venturing to expound his opinions there, and binding himself to young artists, without neglecting to bow very low to the members of the Institute. Thus there was a general current of sympathy in his favour. Fagerolles was, so to say, everybody’s spoilt child.
Night came on at about six o’clock that rainy March day. The assistants brought lamps; and some mistrustful artists, who, gloomy and silent, were watching the counting askance, drew nearer. Others began to play jokes, imitated the cries of animals, or attempted a tyrolienne. But it was only at eight o’clock, when a collation of cold meat and wine was served, that the gaiety reached its climax. The bottles were hastily emptied, the men stuffed themselves with whatever they were lucky enough to get hold of, and there was a free-and-easy kind of Kermesse in that huge hall which the logs in the fireplace lit up with a forge-like glow. Then they all smoked, and the smoke set a kind of mist around the yellow light from the lamps, whilst on the floor trailed all the spoilt voting-papers thrown away during the polling; indeed, quite a layer of dirty paper, together with corks, breadcrumbs, and a few broken plates. The heels of those seated at the table disappeared amidst this litter. Reserve was cast aside; a little sculptor with a pale face climbed upon a chair to harangue the assembly, and a painter, with stiff moustaches under a hook nose, bestrode a chair and galloped, bowing, round the table, in mimicry of the Emperor.
Little by little, however, a good many grew tired and went off. At eleven o’clock there were not more than a couple of hundred persons present. Past midnight, however, some more people arrived, loungers in dress-coats and white ties, who had come from some theatre or soiree and wished to learn the result of the voting before all Paris knew it. Reporters also appeared; and they could be seen darting one by one out of the room as soon as a partial result was communicated to them.
Claude, hoarse by now, still went on calling names. The smoke and the heat became intolerable, a smell like that of a cow-house rose from the muddy litter on the floor. One o’clock, two o’clock in the morning struck, and he was still unfolding voting-papers, the conscientiousness which he displayed delaying him to such a point that the other parties had long since finished their work, while his was still a maze of figures. At last all the additions were centralised and the definite result proclaimed. Fagerolles was elected, coming fifteenth among forty, or five places ahead of Bongrand, who had been a candidate on the same list, but whose name must have been frequently struck out. And daylight was breaking when Claude reached home in the Rue Tourlaque, feeling both worn out and delighted.
Then, for a couple of weeks he lived in a state of anxiety. A dozen times he had the idea of going to Fagerolles’ for information, but a feeling of shame restrained him. Besides, as the committee proceeded in alphabetical order, nothing perhaps was yet decided. However, one evening, on the Boulevard de Clichy, he felt his heart thump as he saw two broad shoulders, with whose lolloping motion he was well acquainted, coming towards him.
They were the shoulders of Bongrand, who seemed embarrassed. He was the first to speak, and said:
‘You know matters aren’t progressing very well over yonder with those brutes. But everything isn’t lost. Fagerolles and I are on the watch. Still, you must rely on Fagerolles; as for me, my dear fellow, I am awfully afraid of compromising your chances.’
To tell the truth, there was constant hostility between Bongrand and the President of the hanging committee, Mazel, a famous master of the School of Arts, and the last rampart of the elegant, buttery, conventional style of art. Although they called each other ‘dear colleague’ and made a great show of shaking hands, their hostility had burst forth the very first day; one of them could never ask for the admission of a picture without the other one voting for its rejection. Fagerolles, who had been elected secretary, had, on the contrary, made himself Mazel’s amuser, his vice, and Mazel forgave his old pupil’s defection, so skilfully did the renegade flatter him. Moreover, the young master, a regular turncoat, as his comrades said, showed even more severity than the members of the Institute towards audacious beginners. He only became lenient and sociable when he wanted to get a picture accepted, on those occasions showing himself extremely fertile in devices, intriguing and carrying the vote with all the supple deftness of a conjurer.
The committee work was really a hard task, and even Bongrand’s strong legs grew tired of it. It was cut out every day by the assistants. An endless row of large pictures rested on the ground against the handrails, all along the first-floor galleries, right round the Palace; and every afternoon, at one o’clock precisely, the forty committee-men, headed by their president, who was equipped with a bell, started off on a promenade, until all the letters in the alphabet, serving as exhibitors’ initials, had been exhausted. They gave their decisions standing, and the work was got through as fast as possible, the worst canvases being rejected without going to the vote. At times, however, discussions delayed the party, there came a ten minutes’ quarrel, and some picture which caused a dispute was reserved for the evening revision. Two men, holding a cord some thirty feet long, kept it stretched at a distance of four paces from the line of pictures, so as to restrain the committee-men, who kept on pushing each other in the heat of their dispute, and whose stomachs, despite everything, were ever pressing against the cord. Behind the committee marched seventy museum-keepers in white blouses, executing evolutions under the orders of a brigadier. At each decision communicated to them by the secretaries, they sorted the pictures, the accepted paintings being separated from the rejected ones, which were carried off like corpses after a battle. And the round lasted during two long hours, without a moment’s respite, and without there being a single chair to sit upon. The committee-men had to remain on their legs, tramping on in a tired way amid icy draughts, which compelled even the least chilly among them to bury their noses in the depths of their fur-lined overcoats.
Then the three o’clock snack proved very welcome: there was half an hour’s rest at a buffet, where claret, chocolate, and sandwiches could be obtained. It was there that the market of mutual concessions was held, that the bartering of influence and votes was carried on. In order that nobody might be forgotten amid the hailstorm of applications which fell upon the committee-men, most of them carried little note-books, which they consulted; and they promised to vote for certain exhibitors whom a colleague protected on condition that this colleague voted for the ones in whom they were interested. Others, however, taking no part in these intrigues, either from austerity or indifference, finished the interval in smoking a cigarette and gazing vacantly about them.
Then the work began again, but more agreeably, in a gallery where there were chairs, and even tables with pens and paper and ink. All the pictures whose height did not reach four feet ten inches were judged there —‘passed on the easel,’ as the expression goes — being ranged, ten or twelve together, on a kind of trestle covered with green baize. A good many committee-men then grew absent-minded, several wrote their letters, and the president had to get angry to obtain presentable majorities. Sometimes a gust of passion swept by; they all jostled each other; the votes, usually given by raising the hand, took place amid such feverish excitement that hats and walking-sticks were waved in the air above the tumultuous surging of heads.
And it was there, ‘on the easel,’ that ‘The Dead Child’ at last made its appearance. During the previous week Fagerolles, whose pocket-book was full of memoranda, had resorted to all kinds of complicated bartering in order to obtain votes in Claude’s favour; but it was a difficult business, it did not tally with his other engagements, and he only met with refusals as soon as he mentioned his friend’s name. He complained, moreover, that he could get no help from Bongrand, who did not carry a pocket-book, and who was so clumsy, too, that he spoilt the best causes by his outbursts of unseasonable frankness. A score of times already would Fagerolles have forsaken Claude, had it not been for his obstinate desire to try his power over his colleagues by asking for the admittance of a work by Lantier, which was a reputed impossibility. However, people should see if he wasn’t yet strong enough to force the committee into compliance with his wishes. Moreover, perhaps from the depths of his conscience there came a cry for justice, an unconfessed feeling of respect for the man whose ideas he had stolen.
As it happened, Mazel was in a frightfully bad humour that day. At the outset of the sitting the brigadier had come to him, saying: ‘There was a mistake yesterday, Monsieur Mazel. A hors-concours* picture was rejected. You know, No. 2520, a nude woman under a tree.’
* A painting by one of those artists who, from the fact that they had obtained medals at previous Salons, had the right to go on exhibiting at long as they lived, the committee being debarred from rejecting their work however bad it might be. — ED.
In fact, on the day before, this painting had been consigned to the grave amid unanimous contempt, nobody having noticed that it was the work of an old classical painter highly respected by the Institute; and the brigadier’s fright, and the amusing circumstance of a picture having thus been condemned by mistake, enlivened the younger members of the committee and made them sneer in a provoking manner.
Mazel, who detested such mishaps, which he rightly felt were disastrous for the authority of the School of Arts, made an angry gesture, and drily said:
‘Well, fish it out again, and put it among the admitted pictures. It isn’t so surprising, there was an intolerable noise yesterday. How can one judge anything like that at a gallop, when one can’t even obtain silence?’
He rang his bell furiously, and added:
‘Come, gentlemen, everything is ready — a little good will, if you please.’
Unluckily, a fresh misfortune occurred as soon as the first paintings were set on the trestle. One canvas among others attracted Mazel’s attention, so bad did he consider it, so sharp in tone as to make one’s very teeth grate. As his sight was failing him, he leant forward to look at the signature, muttering the while: ‘Who’s the pig —’
But he quickly drew himself up, quite shocked at having read the name of one of his friends, an artist who, like himself, was a rampart of healthy principles. Hoping that he had not been overheard, he thereupon called out:
‘Superb! No. 1, eh, gentlemen?’
No. 1 was granted — the formula of admission which entitled the picture to be hung on the line. Only, some of the committee-men laughed and nudged each other, at which Mazel felt very hurt, and became very fierce.
Moreover, they all made such blunders at times. A great many of them eased their feelings at the first glance, and then recalled their words as soon as they had deciphered the signature. This ended by making them cautious, and so with furtive glances they made sure of the artist’s name before expressing any opinion. Besides, whenever a colleague’s work, some fellow committee-man’s suspicious-looking canvas, was brought forward, they took the precaution to warn each other by making signs behind the painter’s back, as if to say, ‘Take care, no mistake, mind; it’s his picture.’
Fagerolles, despite his colleagues’ fidgety nerves, carried the day on a first occasion. It was a question of admitting a frightful portrait painted by one of his pupils, whose family, a very wealthy one, received him on a footing of intimacy. To achieve this he had taken Mazel on one side in order to try to move him with a sentimental story about an unfortunate father with three daughters, who were starving. But the president let himself be entreated for a long while, saying that a man shouldn’t waste his time painting when he was dying for lack of food, and that he ought to have a little more consideration for his three daughters! However, in the result, Mazel raised his hand, alone, with Fagerolles. Some of the others then angrily protested, and even two members of the Institute seemed disgusted, whereupon Fagerolles whispered to them in a low key:
‘It’s for Mazel! He begged me to vote. The painter’s a relative of his, I think; at all events, he greatly wants the picture to be accepted.’
At this the two academicians promptly raised their hands, and a large majority declared itself in favour of the portrait.
But all at once laughter, witticisms, and indignant cries rang out: ‘The Dead Child’ had just been placed on the trestle. Were they to have the Morgue sent to them now? said some. And while the old men drew back in alarm, the younger ones scoffed at the child’s big head, which was plainly that of a monkey who had died from trying to swallow a gourd.
Fagerolles at once understood that the game was lost. At first he tried to spirit the vote away by a joke, in accordance with his skilful tactics:
‘Come, gentlemen, an old combatant —’
But furious exclamations cut him short. Oh, no! not that one. They knew him, that old combatant! A madman who had been persevering in his obstinacy for fifteen years past — a proud, stuck-up fellow who posed for being a genius, and who had talked about demolishing the Salon, without even sending a picture that it was possible to accept. All their hatred of independent originality, of the competition of the ‘shop over the way,’ which frightened them, of that invincible power which triumphs even when it is seemingly defeated, resounded in their voices. No, no; away with it!
Then Fagerolles himself made the mistake of getting irritated, yielding to the anger he felt at finding what little real influence he possessed.
‘You are unjust; at least, be impartial,’ he said.
Thereupon the tumult reached a climax. He was surrounded and jostled, arms waved about him in threatening fashion, and angry words were shot out at him like bullets.
‘You dishonour the committee, monsieur!’
‘If you defend that thing, it’s simply to get your name in the newspapers!’
‘You aren’t competent to speak on the subject!’
Then Fagerolles, beside himself, losing even the pliancy of his bantering disposition, retorted:
‘I’m as competent as you are.’
‘Shut up!’ resumed a comrade, a very irascible little painter with a fair complexion. ‘You surely don’t want to make us swallow such a turnip as that?’
Yes, yes, a turnip! They all repeated the word in tones of conviction — that word which they usually cast at the very worst smudges, at the pale, cold, glairy painting of daubers.
‘All right,’ at last said Fagerolles, clenching his teeth. ‘I demand the vote.’
Since the discussion had become envenomed, Mazel had been ringing his bell, extremely flushed at finding his authority ignored.
‘Gentlemen — come, gentlemen; it’s extraordinary that one can’t settle matters without shouting — I beg of you, gentlemen —’
At last he obtained a little silence. In reality, he was not a bad-hearted man. Why should not they admit that little picture, although he himself thought it execrable? They admitted so many others!
‘Come, gentlemen, the vote is asked for.’
He himself was, perhaps, about to raise his hand, when Bongrand, who had hitherto remained silent, with the blood rising to his cheeks in the anger he was trying to restrain, abruptly went off like a pop-gun, most unseasonably giving vent to the protestations of his rebellious conscience.
‘But, curse it all! there are not four among us capable of turning out such a piece of work!’
Some grunts sped around; but the sledge-hammer blow had come upon them with such force that nobody answered.
‘Gentlemen, the vote is asked for,’ curtly repeated Mazel, who had turned pale.
His tone sufficed to explain everything: it expressed all his latent hatred of Bongrand, the fierce rivalry that lay hidden under their seemingly good-natured handshakes.
Things rarely came to such a pass as this. They almost always arranged matters. But in the depths of their ravaged pride there were wounds which always bled; they secretly waged duels which tortured them with agony, despite the smile upon their lips.
Bongrand and Fagerolles alone raised their hands, and ‘The Dead Child,’ being rejected, could only perhaps be rescued at the general revision.
This general revision was the terrible part of the task. Although, after twenty days’ continuous toil, the committee allowed itself forty-eight hours’ rest, so as to enable the keepers to prepare the final work, it could not help shuddering on the afternoon when it came upon the assemblage of three thousand rejected paintings, from among which it had to rescue as many canvases as were necessary for the then regulation total of two thousand five hundred admitted works to be complete. Ah! those three thousand pictures, placed one after the other alongside the walls of all the galleries, including the outer one, deposited also even on the floors, and lying there like stagnant pools, between which the attendants devised little paths — they were like an inundation, a deluge, which rose up, streamed over the whole Palais de l’Industrie, and submerged it beneath the murky flow of all the mediocrity and madness to be found in the river of Art. And but a single afternoon sitting was held, from one till seven o’clock — six hours of wild galloping through a maze! At first they held out against fatigue and strove to keep their vision clear; but the forced march soon made their legs give way, their eyesight was irritated by all the dancing colours, and yet it was still necessary to march on, to look and judge, even until they broke down with fatigue. By four o’clock the march was like a rout — the scattering of a defeated army. Some committee-men, out of breath, dragged themselves along very far in the rear; others, isolated, lost amid the frames, followed the narrow paths, renouncing all prospect of emerging from them, turning round and round without any hope of ever getting to the end! How could they be just and impartial, good heavens? What could they select from amid that heap of horrors? Without clearly distinguishing a landscape from a portrait, they made up the number they required in pot-luck fashion. Two hundred, two hundred and forty — another eight, they still wanted eight more. That one? No, that other. As you like! Seven, eight, it was over! At last they had got to the end, and they hobbled away, saved — free!
In one gallery a fresh scene drew them once more round ‘The Dead Child,’ lying on the floor among other waifs. But this time they jested. A joker pretended to stumble and set his foot in the middle of the canvas, while others trotted along the surrounding little paths, as if trying to find out which was the picture’s top and which its bottom, and declaring that it looked much better topsy-turvy.
Fagerolles himself also began to joke.
‘Come, a little courage, gentlemen; go the round, examine it, you’ll be repaid for your trouble. Really now, gentlemen, be kind, rescue it; pray do that good action!’
They all grew merry in listening to him, but with cruel laughter they refused more harshly than ever. ‘No, no, never!’
‘Will you take it for your “charity”?’ cried a comrade.
This was a custom; the committee-men had a right to a ‘charity’; each of them could select a canvas among the lot, no matter how execrable it might be, and it was thereupon admitted without examination. As a rule, the bounty of this admission was bestowed upon poor artists. The forty paintings thus rescued at the eleventh hour, were those of the beggars at the door — those whom one allowed to glide with empty stomachs to the far end of the table.
‘For my “charity,"’ repeated Fagerolles, feeling very much embarrassed; ‘the fact is, I meant to take another painting for my “charity.” Yes, some flowers by a lady —’
He was interrupted by loud jeers. Was she pretty? In front of the women’s paintings the gentlemen were particularly prone to sneer, never displaying the least gallantry. And Fagerolles remained perplexed, for the ‘lady’ in question was a person whom Irma took an interest in. He trembled at the idea of the terrible scene which would ensue should he fail to keep his promise. An expedient occurred to him.
‘Well, and you, Bongrand? You might very well take this funny little dead child for your charity.’
Bongrand, wounded to the heart, indignant at all the bartering, waved his long arms:
‘What! I? I insult a real painter in that fashion? Let him be prouder, dash it, and never send anything to the Salon!’
Then, as the others still went on sneering, Fagerolles, desirous that victory should remain to him, made up his mind, with a proud air, like a man who is conscious of his strength and does not fear being compromised.
‘All right, I’ll take it for my “charity,"’ he said.
The others shouted bravo, and gave him a bantering ovation, with a series of profound bows and numerous handshakes. All honour to the brave fellow who had the courage of his opinions! And an attendant carried away in his arms the poor derided, jolted, soiled canvas; and thus it was that a picture by the painter of ‘In the Open Air’ was at last accepted by the hanging committee of the Salon.
On the very next morning a note from Fagerolles apprised Claude, in a couple of lines, that he had succeeded in getting ‘The Dead Child’ admitted, but that it had not been managed without trouble. Claude, despite the gladness of the tidings, felt a pang at his heart; the note was so brief, and was written in such a protecting, pitying style, that all the humiliating features of the business were apparent to him. For a moment he felt sorry over this victory, so much so that he would have liked to take his work back and hide it. Then his delicacy of feeling, his artistic pride again gave way, so much did protracted waiting for success make his wretched heart bleed. Ah! to be seen, to make his way despite everything! He had reached the point when conscience capitulates; he once more began to long for the opening of the Salon with all the feverish impatience of a beginner, again living in a state of illusion which showed him a crowd, a press of moving heads acclaiming his canvas.
By degrees Paris had made it the fashion to patronise ‘varnishing day’— that day formerly set aside for painters only to come and finish the toilets of their pictures. Now, however, it was like a feast of early fruit, one of those solemnities which set the city agog and attract a tremendous crowd. For a week past the newspaper press, the streets, and the public had belonged to the artists. They held Paris in their grasp; the only matters talked of were themselves, their exhibits, their sayings or doings — in fact, everything connected with them. It was one of those infatuations which at last draw bands of country folk, common soldiers, and even nursemaids to the galleries on days of gratuitous admission, in such wise that fifty thousand visitors are recorded on some fine Sundays, an entire army, all the rear battalions of the ignorant lower orders, following society, and marching, with dilated eyes, through that vast picture shop.
That famous ‘varnishing day’ at first frightened Claude, who was intimidated by the thought of all the fine people whom the newspapers spoke about, and he resolved to wait for the more democratic day of the real inauguration. He even refused to accompany Sandoz. But he was consumed by such a fever, that after all he started off abruptly at eight o’clock in the morning, barely taking time to eat a bit of bread and cheese beforehand. Christine, who lacked the courage to go with him, kissed him again and again, feeling anxious and moved.
‘Mind, my dear, don’t worry, whatever happens,’ said she.
Claude felt somewhat oppressed as he entered the Gallery of Honour. His heart was beating fast from the swiftness with which he had climbed the grand staircase. There was a limpid May sky out of doors, and through the linen awnings, stretched under the glazed roof, there filtered a bright white light, while the open doorways, communicating with the garden gallery, admitted moist gusts of quivering freshness. For a moment Claude drew breath in that atmosphere which was already tainted with a vague smell of varnish and the odour of the musk with which the women present perfumed themselves. At a glance he took stock of the pictures on the walls: a huge massacre scene in front of him, streaming with carmine; a colossal, pallid, religious picture on his left; a Government order, the commonplace delineation of some official festivity, on the right; and then a variety of portraits, landscapes, and indoor scenes, all glaring sharply amid the fresh gilding of their frames. However, the fear which he retained of the folks usually present at this solemnity led him to direct his glances upon the gradually increasing crowd. On a circular settee in the centre of the gallery, from which sprang a sheaf of tropical foliage, there sat three ladies, three monstrously fat creatures, attired in an abominable fashion, who had settled there to indulge in a whole day’s backbiting. Behind him he heard somebody crushing harsh syllables in a hoarse voice. It was an Englishman in a check-pattern jacket, explaining the massacre scene to a yellow woman buried in the depths of a travelling ulster. There were some vacant spaces; groups of people formed, scattered, and formed again further on; all heads were raised; the men carried walking-sticks and had overcoats on their arms, the women strolled about slowly, showing distant profiles as they stopped before the pictures; and Claude’s artistic eye was caught by the flowers in their hats and bonnets, which seemed very loud in tint amid the dark waves of the men’s silk hats. He perceived three priests, two common soldiers who had found their way there no one knew whence, some endless processions of gentlemen decorated with the ribbon of the Legion of Honour, and troops of girls and their mothers, who constantly impeded the circulation. However, a good many of these people knew each other; there were smiles and bows from afar, at times a rapid handshake in passing. And conversation was carried on in a discreet tone of voice, above which rose the continuous tramping of feet.
Then Claude began to look for his own picture. He tried to find his way by means of the initial letters inscribed above the entrances of the galleries, but made a mistake, and went through those on the left hand. There was a succession of open entrances, a perspective of old tapestry door-hangings, with glimpses of the distant pictures. He went as far as the great western gallery, and came back by the parallel suite of smaller galleries without finding that allotted to the letter L. And when he reached the Gallery of Honour again, the crowd had greatly increased. In fact, it was now scarcely possible for one to move about there. Being unable to advance, he looked around, and recognised a number of painters, that nation of painters which was at home there that day, and was therefore doing the honours of its abode. Claude particularly remarked an old friend of the Boutin Studio — a young fellow consumed with the desire to advertise himself, who had been working for a medal, and who was now pouncing upon all the visitors possessed of any influence and forcibly taking them to see his pictures. Then there was a celebrated and wealthy painter who received his visitors in front of his work with a smile of triumph on his lips, showing himself compromisingly gallant with the ladies, who formed quite a court around him. And there were all the others: the rivals who execrated one another, although they shouted words of praise in full voices; the savage fellows who covertly watched their comrades’ success from the corner of a doorway; the timid ones whom one could not for an empire induce to pass through the gallery where their pictures were hung; the jokers who hid the bitter mortification of their defeat under an amusing witticism; the sincere ones who were absorbed in contemplation, trying to understand the various works, and already in fancy distributing the medals. And the painters’ families were also there. One charming young woman was accompanied by a coquettishly bedecked child; a sour-looking, skinny matron of middle-class birth was flanked by two ugly urchins in black; a fat mother had foundered on a bench amid quite a tribe of dirty brats; and a lady of mature charms, still very good-looking, stood beside her grown-up daughter, quietly watching a hussy pass — this hussy being the father’s mistress. And then there were also the models — women who pulled one another by the sleeve, who showed one another their own forms in the various pictorial nudities, talking very loudly the while and dressed without taste, spoiling their superb figures by such wretched gowns that they seemed to be hump-backed beside the well-dressed dolls — those Parisiennes who owed their figures entirely to their dressmakers.
When Claude got free of the crowd, he enfiladed the line of doorways on the right hand. His letter was on that side; but he searched the galleries marked with an L without finding anything. Perhaps his canvas had gone astray and served to fill up a vacancy elsewhere. So when he had reached the large eastern gallery, he set off along a number of other little ones, a secluded suite visited by very few people, where the pictures seemed to frown with boredom. And there again he found nothing. Bewildered, distracted, he roamed about, went on to the garden gallery, searching among the superabundant exhibits which overflowed there, pallid and shivering in the crude light; and eventually, after other distant excursions, he tumbled into the Gallery of Honour for the third time.
There was now quite a crush there. All those who in any way create a stir in Paris were assembled together — the celebrities, the wealthy, the adored, talent, money and grace, the masters of romance, of the drama and of journalism, clubmen, racing men and speculators, women of every category, hussies, actresses and society belles. And Claude, angered by his vain search, grew amazed at the vulgarity of the faces thus massed together, at the incongruity of the toilets — but a few of which were elegant, while so many were common looking — at the lack of majesty which that vaunted ‘society’ displayed, to such a point, indeed, that the fear which had made him tremble was changed into contempt. Were these the people, then, who were going to jeer at his picture, provided it were found again? Two little reporters with fair complexions were completing a list of persons whose names they intended to mention. A critic pretended to take some notes on the margin of his catalogue; another was holding forth in professor’s style in the centre of a party of beginners; a third, all by himself, with his hands behind his back, seemed rooted to one spot, crushing each work beneath his august impassibility. And what especially struck Claude was the jostling flock-like behaviour of the people, their banded curiosity in which there was nothing youthful or passionate, the bitterness of their voices, the weariness to be read on their faces, their general appearance of suffering. Envy was already at work; there was the gentleman who makes himself witty with the ladies; the one who, without a word, looks, gives a terrible shrug of the shoulders, and then goes off; and there were the two who remain for a quarter of an hour leaning over the handrail, with their noses close to a little canvas, whispering very low and exchanging the knowing glances of conspirators.
But Fagerolles had just appeared, and amid the continuous ebb and flow of the groups there seemed to be no one left but him. With his hand outstretched, he seemed to show himself everywhere at the same time, lavishly exerting himself to play the double part of a young ‘master’ and an influential member of the hanging committee. Overwhelmed with praise, thanks, and complaints, he had an answer ready for everybody without losing aught of his affability. Since early morning he had been resisting the assault of the petty painters of his set who found their pictures badly hung. It was the usual scamper of the first moment, everybody looking for everybody else, rushing to see one another and bursting into recriminations — noisy, interminable fury. Either the picture was too high up, or the light did not fall upon it properly, or the paintings near it destroyed its effect; in fact, some talked of unhooking their works and carrying them off. One tall thin fellow was especially tenacious, going from gallery to gallery in pursuit of Fagerolles, who vainly explained that he was innocent in the matter and could do nothing. Numerical order was followed, the pictures for each wall were deposited on the floor below and then hung up without anybody being favoured. He carried his obligingness so far as to promise his intervention when the galleries were rearranged after the medals had been awarded; but even then he did not manage to calm the tall thin fellow, who still continued pursuing him.
Claude for a moment elbowed his way through the crowd to go and ask Fagerolles where his picture had been hung. But on seeing his friend so surrounded, pride restrained him. Was there not something absurd and painful about this constant need of another’s help? Besides, he suddenly reflected that he must have skipped a whole suite of galleries on the right-hand side; and, indeed, there were fresh leagues of painting there. He ended by reaching a gallery where a stifling crowd was massed in front of a large picture which filled the central panel of honour. At first he could not see it, there was such a surging sea of shoulders, such a thick wall of heads, such a rampart of hats. People rushed forward with gaping admiration. At length, however, by dint of rising on tiptoe, he perceived the marvel, and recognised the subject, by what had been told him.
It was Fagerolles’ picture. And in that ‘Picnic’ he found his own forgotten work, ‘In the Open Air,’ the same light key of colour, the same artistic formula, but softened, trickishly rendered, spoilt by skin-deep elegance, everything being ‘arranged’ with infinite skill to satisfy the low ideal of the public. Fagerolles had not made the mistake of stripping his three women; but, clad in the audacious toilets of women of society, they showed no little of their persons. As for the two gallant gentlemen in summer jackets beside them, they realised the ideal of everything most distingue; while afar off a footman was pulling a hamper off the box of a landau drawn up behind the trees. The whole of it, the figures, the drapery, the bits of still life of the repast, stood out gaily in full sunlight against the darkened foliage of the background; and the supreme skill of the painter lay in his pretended audacity, in a mendacious semblance of forcible treatment which just sufficed to send the multitude into ecstasies. It was like a storm in a cream-jug!
Claude, being unable to approach, listened to the remarks around him. At last there was a man who depicted real truth! He did not press his points like those fools of the new school; he knew how to convey everything without showing anything. Ah! the art of knowing where to draw the line, the art of letting things be guessed, the respect due to the public, the approval of good society! And withal such delicacy, such charm and art! He did not unseasonably deliver himself of passionate things of exuberant design; no, when he had taken three notes from nature, he gave those three notes, nothing more. A newspaper man who arrived went into raptures over the ‘Picnic,’ and coined the expression ‘a very Parisian style of painting.’ It was repeated, and people no longer passed without declaring that the picture was ‘very Parisian’ indeed.
All those bent shoulders, all those admiring remarks rising from a sea of spines, ended by exasperating Claude; and seized with a longing to see the faces of the folk who created success, he manoeuvred in such a way as to lean his back against the handrail hard by. From that point, he had the public in front of him in the grey light filtering through the linen awning which kept the centre of the gallery in shade; whilst the brighter light, gliding from the edges of the blinds, illumined the paintings on the walls with a white flow, in which the gilding of the frames acquired a warm sunshiny tint. Claude at once recognised the people who had formerly derided him — if these were not the same, they were at least their relatives — serious, however, and enraptured, their appearance greatly improved by their respectful attention. The evil look, the weariness, which he had at first remarked on their faces, as envious bile drew their skin together and dyed it yellow, disappeared here while they enjoyed the treat of an amiable lie. Two fat ladies, open-mouthed, were yawning with satisfaction. Some old gentlemen opened their eyes wide with a knowing air. A husband explained the subject to his young wife, who jogged her chin with a pretty motion of the neck. There was every kind of marvelling, beatifical, astonished, profound, gay, austere, amidst unconscious smiles and languid postures of the head. The men threw back their black silk hats, the flowers in the women’s bonnets glided to the napes of their necks. And all the faces, after remaining motionless for a moment, were then drawn aside and replaced by others exactly like them.
Then Claude, stupefied by that triumph, virtually forgot everything else. The gallery was becoming too small, fresh bands of people constantly accumulated inside it. There were no more vacant spaces, as there had been early in the morning; no more cool whiffs rose from the garden amid the ambient smell of varnish; the atmosphere was now becoming hot and bitter with the perfumes scattered by the women’s dresses. Before long the predominant odour suggested that of a wet dog. It must have been raining outside; one of those sudden spring showers had no doubt fallen, for the last arrivals brought moisture with them — their clothes hung about them heavily and seemed to steam as soon as they encountered the heat of the gallery. And, indeed, patches of darkness had for a moment been passing above the awning of the roof. Claude, who raised his eyes, guessed that large clouds were galloping onward lashed by the north wind, that driving rain was beating upon the glass panes. Moire-like shadows darted along the walls, all the paintings became dim, the spectators themselves were blended in obscurity until the cloud was carried away, whereupon the painter saw the heads again emerge from the twilight, ever agape with idiotic rapture.
But there was another cup of bitterness in reserve for Claude. On the left-hand panel, facing Fagerolles’, he perceived Bongrand’s picture. And in front of that painting there was no crush whatever; the visitors walked by with an air of indifference. Yet it was Bongrand’s supreme effort, the thrust he had been trying to give for years, a last work conceived in his obstinate craving to prove the virility of his decline. The hatred he harboured against the ‘Village Wedding,’ that first masterpiece which had weighed upon all his toilsome after-life, had impelled him to select a contrasting but corresponding subject: the ‘Village Funeral’— the funeral of a young girl, with relatives and friends straggling among fields of rye and oats. Bongrand had wrestled with himself, saying that people should see if he were done for, if the experience of his sixty years were not worth all the lucky dash of his youth; and now experience was defeated, the picture was destined to be a mournful failure, like the silent fall of an old man, which does not even stay passers-by in their onward course. There were still some masterly bits, the choirboy holding the cross, the group of daughters of the Virgin carrying the bier, whose white dresses and ruddy flesh furnished a pretty contrast with the black Sunday toggery of the rustic mourners, among all the green stuff; only the priest in his alb, the girl carrying the Virgin’s banner, the family following the body, were drily handled; the whole picture, in fact, was displeasing in its very science and the obstinate stiffness of its treatment. One found in it a fatal, unconscious return to the troubled romanticism which had been the starting-point of the painter’s career. And the worst of the business was that there was justification for the indifference with which the public treated that art of another period, that cooked and somewhat dull style of painting, which no longer stopped one on one’s way, since great blazes of light had come into vogue.
It precisely happened that Bongrand entered the gallery with the hesitating step of a timid beginner, and Claude felt a pang at his heart as he saw him give a glance at his neglected picture and then another at Fagerolles’, which was bringing on a riot. At that moment the old painter must have been acutely conscious of his fall. If he had so far been devoured by the fear of slow decline, it was because he still doubted; and now he obtained sudden certainty; he was surviving his reputation, his talent was dead, he would never more give birth to living, palpitating works. He became very pale, and was about to turn and flee, when Chambouvard, the sculptor, entering the gallery by the other door, followed by his customary train of disciples, called to him without caring a fig for the people present:
‘Ah! you humbug, I catch you at it — admiring yourself!’
He, Chambouvard, exhibited that year an execrable ‘Reaping Woman,’ one of those stupidly spoilt figures which seemed like hoaxes on his part, so unworthy they were of his powerful hands; but he was none the less radiant, feeling certain that he had turned out yet another masterpiece, and promenading his god-like infallibility through the crowd which he did not hear laughing at him.
Bongrand did not answer, but looked at him with eyes scorched by fever.
‘And my machine downstairs?’ continued the sculptor. ‘Have you seen it? The little fellows of nowadays may try it on, but we are the only masters — we, old France!’
And thereupon he went off, followed by his court and bowing to the astonished public.
‘The brute!’ muttered Bongrand, suffocating with grief, as indignant as at the outburst of some low-bred fellow beside a deathbed.
He perceived Claude, and approached him. Was it not cowardly to flee from this gallery? And he determined to show his courage, his lofty soul, into which envy had never entered.
‘Our friend Fagerolles has a success and no mistake,’ he said. ‘I should be a hypocrite if I went into ecstasies over his picture, which I scarcely like; but he himself is really a very nice fellow indeed. Besides, you know how he exerted himself on your behalf.’
Claude was trying to find a word of admiration for the ‘Village Funeral.’
‘The little cemetery in the background is so pretty!’ he said at last. ‘Is it possible that the public —’
But Bongrand interrupted him in a rough voice:
‘No compliments of condolence, my friend, eh? I see clear enough.’
At this moment somebody nodded to them in a familiar way, and Claude recognised Naudet — a Naudet who had grown and expanded, gilded by the success of his colossal strokes of business. Ambition was turning his head; he talked about sinking all the other picture dealers; he had built himself a palace, in which he posed as the king of the market, centralising masterpieces, and there opening large art shops of the modern style. One heard a jingle of millions on the very threshold of his hall; he held exhibitions there, even ran up other galleries elsewhere; and each time that May came round, he awaited the visits of the American amateurs whom he charged fifty thousand francs for a picture which he himself had purchased for ten thousand. Moreover, he lived in princely style, with a wife and children, a mistress, a country estate in Picardy, and extensive shooting grounds. His first large profits had come from the rise in value of works left by illustrious artists, now defunct, whose talent had been denied while they lived, such as Courbet, Millet, and Rousseau; and this had ended by making him disdain any picture signed by a still struggling artist. However, ominous rumours were already in circulation. As the number of well-known pictures was limited, and the number of amateurs could barely be increased, a time seemed to be coming when business would prove very difficult. There was talk of a syndicate, of an understanding with certain bankers to keep up the present high prices; the expedient of simulated sales was resorted to at the Hotel Drouot — pictures being bought in at a big figure by the dealer himself — and bankruptcy seemed to be at the end of all that Stock Exchange jobbery, a perfect tumble head-over-heels after all the excessive, mendacious agiotage.
‘Good-day, dear master,’ said Naudet, who had drawn near. ‘So you have come, like everybody else, to see my Fagerolles, eh?’
He no longer treated Bongrand in the wheedling, respectful manner of yore. And he spoke of Fagerolles as of a painter belonging to him, of a workman to whom he paid wages, and whom he often scolded. It was he who had settled the young artist in the Avenue de Villiers, compelling him to have a little mansion of his own, furnishing it as he would have furnished a place for a hussy, running him into debt with supplies of carpets and nick-nacks, so that he might afterwards hold him at his mercy; and now he began to accuse him of lacking orderliness and seriousness, of compromising himself like a feather-brain. Take that picture, for instance, a serious painter would never have sent it to the Salon; it made a stir, no doubt, and people even talked of its obtaining the medal of honour; but nothing could have a worse effect on high prices. When a man wanted to get hold of the Yankees, he ought to know how to remain at home, like an idol in the depths of his tabernacle.
‘You may believe me or not, my dear fellow,’ he said to Bongrand, ‘but I would have given twenty thousand francs out of my pocket to prevent those stupid newspapers from making all this row about my Fagerolles this year.’
Bongrand, who, despite his sufferings, was listening bravely, smiled.
‘In point of fact,’ he said, ‘they are perhaps carrying indiscretion too far. I read an article yesterday in which I learnt that Fagerolles ate two boiled eggs every morning.’
He laughed over the coarse puffery which, after a first article on the ‘young master’s ‘ picture, as yet seen by nobody, had for a week past kept all Paris occupied about him. The whole fraternity of reporters had been campaigning, stripping Fagerolles to the skin, telling their readers all about his father, the artistic zinc manufacturer, his education, the house in which he resided, how he lived, even revealing the colour of his socks, and mentioning a habit he had of pinching his nose. And he was the passion of the hour, the ‘young master’ according to the tastes of the day, one who had been lucky enough to miss the Prix de Rome, and break off with the School of Arts, whose principles, however, he retained. After all, the success of that style of painting which aims merely at approximating reality, not at rendering it in all its truth, was the fortune of a season which the wind brings and blows away again, a mere whim on the part of the great lunatic city; the stir it caused was like that occasioned by some accident, which upsets the crowd in the morning and is forgotten by night amidst general indifference.
However, Naudet noticed the ‘Village Funeral.’
‘Hullo! that’s your picture, eh?’ he said. ‘So you wanted to give a companion to the “Wedding”? Well, I should have tried to dissuade you! Ah! the “Wedding”! the “Wedding”!’
Bongrand still listened to him without ceasing to smile. Barely a twinge of pain passed over his trembling lips. He forgot his masterpieces, the certainty of leaving an immortal name, he was only cognisant of the vogue which that youngster, unworthy of cleaning his palette, had so suddenly and easily acquired, that vogue which seemed to be pushing him, Bongrand, into oblivion — he who had struggled for ten years before he had succeeded in making himself known. Ah! when the new generations bury a man, if they only knew what tears of blood they make him shed in death!
However, as he had remained silent, he was seized with the fear that he might have let his suffering be divined. Was he falling to the baseness of envy? Anger with himself made him raise his head — a man should die erect. And instead of giving the violent answer which was rising to his lips, he said in a familiar way:
‘You are right, Naudet, I should have done better if I had gone to bed on the day when the idea of that picture occurred to me.’
‘Ah! there he is; excuse me!’ cried the dealer, making off.
It was Fagerolles showing himself at the entrance of the gallery. He discreetly stood there without entering, carrying his good fortune with the ease of a man who knows what he is about. Besides, he was looking for somebody; he made a sign to a young man, and gave him an answer, a favourable one, no doubt, for the other brimmed over with gratitude. Then two other persons sprang forward to congratulate him; a woman detained him, showing him, with a martyr’s gesture, a bit of still life hung in a dark corner. And finally he disappeared, after casting but one glance at the people in raptures before his picture.
Claude, who had looked and listened, was overwhelmed with sadness. The crush was still increasing, he now had nought before him but faces gaping and sweating in the heat, which had become intolerable. Above the nearer shoulders rose others, and so on and so on as far as the door, whence those who could see nothing pointed out the painting to each other with the tips of their umbrellas, from which dripped the water left by the showers outside. And Bongrand remained there out of pride, erect in defeat, firmly planted on his legs, those of an old combatant, and gazing with limpid eyes upon ungrateful Paris. He wished to finish like a brave man, whose kindness of heart is boundless. Claude, who spoke to him without receiving any answer, saw very well that there was nothing behind that calm, gay face; the mind was absent, it had flown away in mourning, bleeding with frightful torture; and thereupon, full of alarm and respect, he did not insist, but went off. And Bongrand, with his vacant eyes, did not even notice his departure.
A new idea had just impelled Claude onward through the crowd. He was lost in wonderment at not having been able to discover his picture. But nothing could be more simple. Was there not some gallery where people grinned, some corner full of noise and banter, some gathering of jesting spectators, insulting a picture? That picture would assuredly be his. He could still hear the laughter of the bygone Salon of the Rejected. And now at the door of each gallery he listened to ascertain if it were there that he was being hissed.
However, as he found himself once more in the eastern gallery, that hall where great art agonises, that depository where vast, cold, and gloomy historical and religious compositions are accumulated, he started, and remained motionless with his eyes turned upward. He had passed through that gallery twice already, and yet that was certainly his picture up yonder, so high up that he hesitated about recognising it. It looked, indeed, so little, poised like a swallow at the corner of a frame — the monumental frame of an immense painting five-and-thirty feet long, representing the Deluge, a swarming of yellow figures turning topsy-turvy in water of the hue of wine lees. On the left, moreover, there was a pitiable ashen portrait of a general; on the right a colossal nymph in a moonlit landscape, the bloodless corpse of a murdered woman rotting away on some grass; and everywhere around there were mournful violet-shaded things, mixed up with a comic scene of some bibulous monks, and an ‘Opening of the Chamber of Deputies,’ with a whole page of writing on a gilded cartouch, bearing the heads of the better-known deputies, drawn in outline, together with their names. And high up, high up, amid those livid neighbours, the little canvas, over-coarse in treatment, glared ferociously with the painful grimace of a monster.
Ah! ‘The Dead Child.’ At that distance the wretched little creature was but a confused lump of flesh, the lifeless carcase of some shapeless animal. Was that swollen, whitened head a skull or a stomach? And those poor hands twisted among the bedclothes, like the bent claws of a bird killed by cold! And the bed itself, that pallidity of the sheets, below the pallidity of the limbs, all that white looking so sad, those tints fading away as if typical of the supreme end! Afterwards, however, one distinguished the light eyes staring fixedly, one recognised a child’s head, and it all seemed to suggest some disease of the brain, profoundly and frightfully pitiful.
Claude approached, and then drew back to see the better. The light was so bad that refractions darted from all points across the canvas. How they had hung his little Jacques! no doubt out of disdain, or perhaps from shame, so as to get rid of the child’s lugubrious ugliness. But Claude evoked the little fellow such as he had once been, and beheld him again over yonder in the country, so fresh and pinky, as he rolled about in the grass; then in the Rue de Douai, growing pale and stupid by degrees, and then in the Rue Tourlaque, no longer able to carry his head, and dying one night, all alone, while his mother was asleep; and he beheld her also, that mother, the sad woman who had stopped at home, to weep there, no doubt, as she was now in the habit of doing for entire days. No matter, she had done right in not coming; ’twas too mournful — their little Jacques, already cold in his bed, cast on one side like a pariah, and so brutalised by the dancing light that his face seemed to be laughing, distorted by an abominable grin.
But Claude suffered still more from the loneliness of his work. Astonishment and disappointment made him look for the crowd, the rush which he had anticipated. Why was he not hooted? Ah! the insults of yore, the mocking, the indignation that had rent his heart, but made him live! No, nothing more, not even a passing expectoration: this was death. The visitors filed rapidly through the long gallery, seized with boredom. There were merely some people in front of the ‘Opening of the Chamber,’ where they collected to read the inscriptions, and show each other the deputies’ heads. At last, hearing some laughter behind him, he turned round; but nobody was jeering, some visitors were simply making merry over the tipsy monks, the comic success of the Salon, which some gentlemen explained to some ladies, declaring that it was brilliantly witty. And all these people passed beneath little Jacques, and not a head was raised, not a soul even knew that he was up there.
However, the painter had a gleam of hope. On the central settee, two personages, one of them fat and the other thin, and both of them decorated with the Legion of Honour, sat talking, reclining against the velvet, and looking at the pictures in front of them. Claude drew near them and listened.
‘And I followed them,’ said the fat fellow. ‘They went along the Rue St. Honore, the Rue St. Roch, the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin, the Rue la Fayette —’
‘And you spoke to them?’ asked the thin man, who appeared to be deeply interested.
‘No, I was afraid of getting in a rage.’
Claude went off and returned on three occasions, his heart beating fast each time that some visitor stopped short and glanced slowly from the line to the ceiling. He felt an unhealthy longing to hear one word, but one. Why exhibit? How fathom public opinion? Anything rather than such torturing silence! And he almost suffocated when he saw a young married couple approach, the husband a good-looking fellow with little fair moustaches, the wife, charming, with the delicate slim figure of a shepherdess in Dresden china. She had perceived the picture, and asked what the subject was, stupefied that she could make nothing out of it; and when her husband, turning over the leaves of the catalogue, had found the title, ‘The Dead Child,’ she dragged him away, shuddering, and raising this cry of affright:
‘Oh, the horror! The police oughtn’t to allow such horrors!’
Then Claude remained there, erect, unconscious and haunted, his eyes raised on high, amid the continuous flow of the crowd which passed on, quite indifferent, without one glance for that unique sacred thing, visible to him alone. And it was there that Sandoz came upon him, amid the jostling.
The novelist, who had been strolling about alone — his wife having remained at home beside his ailing mother — had just stopped short, heart-rent, below the little canvas, which he had espied by chance. Ah! how disgusted he felt with life! He abruptly lived the days of his youth over again. He recalled the college of Plassans, his freaks with Claude on the banks of the Viorne, their long excursions under the burning sun, and all the flaming of their early ambition; and, later on, when they had lived side by side, he remembered their efforts, their certainty of coming glory, that fine irresistible, immoderate appetite that had made them talk of swallowing Paris at one bite! How many times, at that period, had he seen in Claude a great man, whose unbridled genius would leave the talent of all others far behind in the rear! First had come the studio of the Impasse des Bourdonnais; later, the studio of the Quai de Bourbon, with dreams of vast compositions, projects big enough to make the Louvre burst; and, meanwhile, the struggle was incessant; the painter laboured ten hours a day, devoting his whole being to his work. And then what? After twenty years of that passionate life he ended thus — he finished with that poor, sinister little thing, which nobody noticed, which looked so distressfully sad in its leper-like solitude! So much hope and torture, a lifetime spent in the toil of creating, to come to that, to that, good God!
Sandoz recognised Claude standing by, and fraternal emotion made his voice quake as he said to him:
‘What! so you came? Why did you refuse to call for me, then?’
The painter did not even apologise. He seemed very tired, overcome with somniferous stupor.
‘Well, don’t stay here,’ added Sandoz. ‘It’s past twelve o’clock, and you must lunch with me. Some people were to wait for me at Ledoyen’s; but I shall give them the go-by. Let’s go down to the buffet; we shall pick up our spirits there, eh, old fellow?’
And then Sandoz led him away, holding his arm, pressing it, warming it, and trying to draw him from his mournful silence.
‘Come, dash it all! you mustn’t give way like that. Although they have hung your picture badly, it is all the same superb, a real bit of genuine painting. Oh! I know that you dreamt of something else! But you are not dead yet, it will be for later on. And, just look, you ought to be proud, for it’s you who really triumph at the Salon this year. Fagerolles isn’t the only one who pillages you; they all imitate you now; you have revolutionised them since your “Open Air,” which they laughed so much about. Look, look! there’s an “open air” effect, and there’s another, and here and there — they all do it.’
He waved his hand towards the pictures as he and Claude passed along the galleries. In point of fact, the dash of clear light, introduced by degrees into contemporary painting, had fully burst forth at last. The dingy Salons of yore, with their pitchy canvases, had made way for a Salon full of sunshine, gay as spring itself. It was the dawn, the aurora which had first gleamed at the Salon of the Rejected, and which was now rising and rejuvenating art with a fine, diffuse light, full of infinite shades. On all sides you found Claude’s famous ‘bluey tinge,’ even in the portraits and the genre scenes, which had acquired the dimensions and the serious character of historical paintings. The old academical subjects had disappeared with the cooked juices of tradition, as if the condemned doctrine had carried its people of shadows away with it; rare were the works of pure imagination, the cadaverous nudities of mythology and catholicism, the legendary subjects painted without faith, the anecdotic bits destitute of life — in fact, all the bric-a-brac of the School of Arts used up by generations of tricksters and fools; and the influence of the new principle was evident even among those artists who lingered over the antique recipes, even among the former masters who had now grown old. The flash of sunlight had penetrated to their studios. From afar, at every step you took, you saw a painting transpierce the wall and form, as it were, a window open upon Nature. Soon the walls themselves would fall, and Nature would walk in; for the breach was a broad one, and the assault had driven routine away in that gay battle waged by audacity and youth.
‘Ah! your lot is a fine one, all the same, old fellow!’ continued Sandoz. ‘The art of to-morrow will be yours; you have made them all.’
Claude thereupon opened his mouth, and, with an air of gloomy brutality, said in a low voice:
‘What do I care if I have made them all, when I haven’t made myself? See here, it’s too big an affair for me, and that’s what stifles me.’
He made a gesture to finish expressing his thought, his consciousness of his inability to prove the genius of the formula he had brought with him, the torture he felt at being merely a precursor, the one who sows the idea without reaping the glory, his grief at seeing himself pillaged, devoured by men who turned out hasty work, by a whole flight of fellows who scattered their efforts and lowered the new form of art, before he or another had found strength enough to produce the masterpiece which would make the end of the century a date in art.
But Sandoz protested, the future lay open. Then, to divert Claude, he stopped him while crossing the Gallery of Honour and said:
‘Just look at that lady in blue before that portrait! What a slap Nature does give to painting! You remember when we used to look at the dresses and the animation of the galleries in former times? Not a painting then withstood the shock. And yet now there are some which don’t suffer overmuch. I even noticed over there a landscape, the general yellowish tinge of which completely eclipsed all the women who approached it.’
Claude was quivering with unutterable suffering.
‘Pray, let’s go,’ he said. ‘Take me away — I can’t stand it any longer.’
They had all the trouble in the world to find a free table in the refreshment room. People were pressed together in that big, shady retreat, girt round with brown serge drapery under the girders of the lofty iron flooring of the upstairs galleries. In the background, and but partially visible in the darkness, stood three dressers displaying dishes of preserved fruit symmetrically ranged on shelves; while, nearer at hand, at counters placed on the right and left, two ladies, a dark one and a fair one, watched the crowd with a military air; and from the dim depths of this seeming cavern rose a sea of little marble tables, a tide of chairs, serried, entangled, surging, swelling, overflowing and spreading into the garden, under the broad, pallid light which fell from the glass roof.
At last Sandoz saw some people rise. He darted forward and conquered the vacant table by sheer struggling with the mob.
‘Ah! dash it! we are here at all events. What will you have to eat?’
Claude made a gesture of indifference. The lunch was execrable; there was some trout softened by over-boiling, some undercut of beef dried up in the oven, some asparagus smelling of moist linen, and, in addition, one had to fight to get served; for the hustled waiters, losing their heads, remained in distress in the narrow passages which the chairs were constantly blocking. Behind the hangings on the left, one could hear a racket of saucepans and crockery; the kitchen being installed there on the sand, like one of those Kermesse cook-shops set up by the roadside in the open air.
Sandoz and Claude had to eat, seated obliquely and half strangled between two parties of people whose elbows almost ended by getting into their plates; and each time that a waiter passed he gave their chairs a shake with his hips. However, the inconvenience, like the abominable cookery, made one gay. People jested about the dishes, different tables fraternised together, common misfortune brought about a kind of pleasure party. Strangers ended by sympathising; friends kept up conversations, although they were seated three rows distant from one another, and were obliged to turn their heads and gesticulate over their neighbours’ shoulders. The women particularly became animated, at first rather anxious as to the crush, and then ungloving their hands, catching up their skirts, and laughing at the first thimbleful of neat wine they drank.
However, Sandoz, who had renounced finishing his meat, raised his voice amid the terrible hubbub caused by the chatter and the serving:
‘A bit of cheese, eh? And let’s try to get some coffee.’
Claude, whose eyes looked dreamy, did not hear. He was gazing into the garden. From his seat he could see the central clump of verdure, some lofty palms which stood in relief against the grey hangings with which the garden was decorated all round. A circle of statues was set out there; and you could see the back of a faun; the profile of a young girl with full cheeks; the face of a bronze Gaul, a colossal bit of romanticism which irritated one by its stupid assumption of patriotism; the trunk of a woman hanging by the wrists, some Andromeda of the Place Pigalle; and others, and others still following the bends of the pathways; rows of shoulders and hips, heads, breasts, legs, and arms, all mingling and growing indistinct in the distance. On the left stretched a line of busts — such delightful ones — furnishing a most comical and uncommon suite of noses. There was the huge pointed nose of a priest, the tip-tilted nose of a soubrette, the handsome classical nose of a fifteenth-century Italian woman, the mere fancy nose of a sailor — in fact, every kind of nose, both the magistrate’s and the manufacturer’s, and the nose of the gentleman decorated with the Legion of Honour — all of them motionless and ranged in endless succession!
However, Claude saw nothing of them; to him they were but grey spots in the hazy, greenish light. His stupor still lasted, and he was only conscious of one thing, the luxuriousness of the women’s dresses, of which he had formed a wrong estimate amid the pushing in the galleries, and which were here freely displayed, as if the wearers had been promenading over the gravel in the conservatory of some chateau. All the elegance of Paris passed by, the women who had come to show themselves, in dresses thoughtfully combined and destined to be described in the morrow’s newspapers. People stared a great deal at an actress, who walked about with a queen-like tread, on the arm of a gentleman who assumed the complacent airs of a prince consort. The women of society looked like so many hussies, and they all of them took stock of one another with that slow glance which estimates the value of silk and the length of lace, and which ferrets everywhere, from the tips of boots to the feathers upon bonnets. This was neutral ground, so to say; some ladies who were seated had drawn their chairs together, after the fashion in the garden of the Tuileries, and occupied themselves exclusively with criticising those of their own sex who passed by. Two female friends quickened their pace, laughing. Another woman, all alone, walked up and down, mute, with a black look in her eyes. Some others, who had lost one another, met again, and began ejaculating about the adventure. And, meantime, the dark moving mass of men came to a standstill, then set off again till it stopped short before a bit of marble, or eddied back to a bit of bronze. And among the mere bourgeois, who were few in number, though all of them looked out of their element there, moved men with celebrated names — all the illustrations of Paris. A name of resounding glory re-echoed as a fat, ill-clad gentleman passed by; the winged name of a poet followed as a pale man with a flat, common face approached. A living wave was rising from this crowd in the even, colourless light when suddenly a flash of sunshine, from behind the clouds of a final shower, set the glass panes on high aflame, making the stained window on the western side resplendent, and raining down in golden particles through the still atmosphere; and then everything became warm — the snowy statues amid the shiny green stuff, the soft lawns parted by the yellow sand of the pathways, the rich dresses with their glossy satin and bright beads, even the very voices, whose hilarious murmur seemed to crackle like a bright fire of vine shoots. Some gardeners, completing the arrangements of the flower-beds, turned on the taps of the stand-pipes and promenaded about with their pots, the showers squirting from which came forth again in tepid steam from the drenched grass. And meanwhile a plucky sparrow, who had descended from the iron girders, despite the number of people, dipped his beak in the sand in front of the buffet, eating some crumbs which a young woman threw him by way of amusement. Of all the tumult, however, Claude only heard the ocean-like din afar, the rumbling of the people rolling onwards in the galleries. And a recollection came to him, he remembered that noise which had burst forth like a hurricane in front of his picture at the Salon of the Rejected. But nowadays people no longer laughed at him; upstairs the giant roar of Paris was acclaiming Fagerolles!
It so happened that Sandoz, who had turned round, said to Claude: ‘Hallo! there’s Fagerolles!’
And, indeed, Fagerolles and Jory had just laid hands on a table near by without noticing their friends, and the journalist, continuing in his gruff voice a conversation which had previously begun, remarked:
‘Yes, I saw his “Dead Child”! Ah! the poor devil! what an ending!’
But Fagerolles nudged Jory, and the latter, having caught sight of his two old comrades, immediately added:
‘Ah! that dear old Claude! How goes it, eh? You know that I haven’t yet seen your picture. But I’m told that it’s superb.’
‘Superb!’ declared Fagerolles, who then began to express his surprise. ‘So you lunched here. What an idea! Everything is so awfully bad. We two have just come from Ledoyen’s . Oh! such a crowd and such hustling, such mirth! Bring your table nearer and let us chat a bit.’
They joined the two tables together. But flatterers and petitioners were already after the triumphant young master. Three friends rose up and noisily saluted him from afar. A lady became smilingly contemplative when her husband had whispered his name in her ear. And the tall, thin fellow, the artist whose picture had been badly hung, and who had pursued him since the morning, as enraged as ever, left a table where he was seated at the further end of the buffet, and again hurried forward to complain, imperatively demanding ‘the line’ at once.
‘Oh! go to the deuce!’ at last cried Fagerolles, his patience and amiability exhausted. And he added, when the other had gone off, mumbling some indistinct threats: ‘It’s true; a fellow does all he can to be obliging, but those chaps would drive one mad! All of them on the “line”! leagues of “line” then! Ah! what a business it is to be a committee-man! One wears out one’s legs, and one only reaps hatred as reward.’
Claude, who was looking at him with his oppressed air, seemed to wake up for a moment, and murmured:
‘I wrote to you; I wanted to go and see you to thank you. Bongrand told me about all the trouble you had. So thanks again.’
But Fagerolles hastily broke in:
‘Tut, tut! I certainly owed that much to our old friendship. It’s I who am delighted to have given you any pleasure.’
He showed the embarrassment which always came upon him in presence of the acknowledged master of his youth, that kind of humility which filled him perforce when he was with the man whose mute disdain, even at this moment, sufficed to spoil all his triumph.
‘Your picture is very good,’ slowly added Claude, who wished to be kind-hearted and generous.
This simple praise made Fagerolles’ heart swell with exaggerated, irresistible emotion, springing he knew not whence; and this rascal, who believed in nothing, who was usually so proficient in humbug, answered in a shaky voice:
‘Ah! my dear fellow, ah! it’s very kind of you to tell me that!’
Sandoz had at last obtained two cups of coffee, and as the waiter had forgotten to bring any sugar, he had to content himself with some pieces which a party had left on an adjoining table. A few tables, indeed, had now become vacant, but the general freedom had increased, and one woman’s laughter rang out so loudly that every head turned round. The men were smoking, and a bluish cloud slowly rose above the straggling tablecloths, stained by wine and littered with dirty plates and dishes. When Fagerolles, on his aide, succeeded in obtaining two glasses of chartreuse for himself and Jory, he began to talk to Sandoz, whom he treated with a certain amount of deference, divining that the novelist might become a power. And Jory thereupon appropriated Claude, who had again become mournful and silent.
‘You know, my dear fellow,’ said the journalist, ‘I didn’t send you any announcement of my marriage. On account of our position we managed it on the quiet without inviting any guests. All the same, I should have liked to let you know. You will excuse me, won’t you?’
He showed himself expansive, gave particulars, full of the happiness of life, and egotistically delighted to feel fat and victorious in front of that poor vanquished fellow. He succeeded with everything, he said. He had given up leader-writing, feeling the necessity of settling down seriously, and he had risen to the editorship of a prominent art review, on which, so it was asserted, he made thirty thousand francs a year, without mentioning certain profits realised by shady trafficking in the sale of art collections. The middle-class rapacity which he had inherited from his mother, the hereditary passion for profit which had secretly impelled him to embark in petty speculations as soon as he had gained a few coppers, now openly displayed itself, and ended by making him a terrible customer, who bled all the artists and amateurs who came under his clutches.
It was amidst this good luck of his that Mathilde, now all-powerful, had brought him to the point of begging her, with tears in his eyes, to become his wife, a request which she had proudly refused during six long months.
‘When folks are destined to live together,’ he continued, ‘the best course is to set everything square. You experienced it yourself, my dear fellow; you know something about it, eh? And if I told you that she wouldn’t consent at first — yes, it’s a fact — for fear of being misjudged and of doing me harm. Oh! she has such grandeur, such delicacy of mind! No, nobody can have an idea of that woman’s qualities. Devoted, taking all possible care of one, economical, and acute, too, and such a good adviser! Ah! it was a lucky chance that I met her! I no longer do anything without consulting her; I let her do as she likes; she manages everything, upon my word.’
The truth was that Mathilde had finished by reducing him to the frightened obedience of a little boy. The once dissolute she-ghoul had become a dictatorial spouse, eager for respect, and consumed with ambition and love of money. She showed, too, every form of sourish virtue. It was said that they had been seen taking the Holy Communion together at Notre Dame de Lorette. They kissed one another before other people, and called each other by endearing nicknames. Only, of an evening, he had to relate how he had spent his time during the day, and if the employment of a single hour remained suspicious, if he did not bring home all the money he had received, down to the odd coppers, she led him the most abominable life imaginable.
This, of course, Jory left unmentioned. By way of conclusion he exclaimed: ‘And so we waited for my father’s death, and then I married her.’
Claude, whose mind had so far been wandering, and who had merely nodded without listening, was struck by that last sentence.
‘What! you married her — married Mathilde?’
That exclamation summed up all the astonishment that the affair caused him, all the recollections that occurred to him of Mahoudeau’s shop. That Jory, why, he could still hear him talking about Mathilde in an abominable manner; and yet he had married her! It was really stupid for a fellow to speak badly of a woman, for he never knew if he might not end by marrying her some day or other!
However, Jory was perfectly serene, his memory was dead, he never allowed himself an allusion to the past, never showed the slightest embarrassment when his comrades’ eyes were turned on him. Besides, Mathilde seemed to be a new-comer. He introduced her to them as if they knew nothing whatever about her.
Sandoz, who had lent an ear to the conversation, greatly interested by this fine business, called out as soon as Jory and Claude became silent:
‘Let’s be off, eh? My legs are getting numbed.’
But at that moment Irma Becot appeared, and stopped in front of the buffet. With her hair freshly gilded, she had put on her best looks — all the tricky sheen of a tawny hussy, who seemed to have just stepped out of some old Renaissance frame; and she wore a train of light blue brocaded silk, with a satin skirt covered with Alencon lace, of such richness that quite an escort of gentlemen followed her in admiration. On perceiving Claude among the others, she hesitated for a moment, seized, as it were, with cowardly shame in front of that ill-clad, ugly, derided devil. Then, becoming valiant, as it were, it was his hand that she shook the first amid all those well-dressed men, who opened their eyes in amazement. She laughed with an affectionate air, and spoke to him in a friendly, bantering way.
Fagerolles, however, was already paying for the two chartreuses he had ordered, and at last he went off with Irma, whom Jory also decided to follow. Claude watched them walk away together, she between the two men, moving on in regal fashion, greatly admired, and repeatedly bowed to by people in the crowd.
‘One can see very well that Mathilde isn’t here,’ quietly remarked Sandoz. ‘Ah! my friend, what clouts Jory would receive on getting home!’
The novelist now asked for the bill. All the tables were becoming vacant; there only remained a litter of bones and crusts. A couple of waiters were wiping the marble slabs with sponges, whilst a third raked up the soiled sand. Behind the brown serge hangings the staff of the establishment was lunching — one could hear a grinding of jaws and husky laughter, a rumpus akin to that of a camp of gipsies devouring the contents of their saucepans.
Claude and Sandoz went round the garden, where they discovered a statue by Mahoudeau, very badly placed in a corner near the eastern vestibule. It was the bathing girl at last, standing erect, but of diminutive proportions, being scarcely as tall as a girl ten years old, but charmingly delicate — with slim hips and a tiny bosom, displaying all the exquisite hesitancy of a sprouting bud. The figure seemed to exhale a perfume, that grace which nothing can give, but which flowers where it lists, stubborn, invincible, perennial grace, springing still and ever from Mahoudeau’s thick fingers, which were so ignorant of their special aptitude that they had long treated this very grace with derision.
Sandoz could not help smiling.
‘And to think that this fellow has done everything he could to warp his talent. If his figure were better placed, it would meet with great success.’
‘Yes, great success,’ repeated Claude. ‘It is very pretty.’
Precisely at that moment they perceived Mahoudeau, already in the vestibule, and going towards the staircase. They called him, ran after him, and then all three remained talking together for a few minutes. The ground-floor gallery stretched away, empty, with its sanded pavement, and the pale light streaming through its large round windows. One might have fancied oneself under a railway bridge. Strong pillars supported the metallic framework, and an icy chillness blew from above, moistening the sand in which one’s feet sank. In the distance, behind a torn curtain, one could see rows of statues, the rejected sculptural exhibits, the casts which poor sculptors did not even remove, gathered together in a livid kind of Morgue, in a state of lamentable abandonment. But what surprised one, on raising one’s head, was the continuous din, the mighty tramp of the public over the flooring of the upper galleries. One was deafened by it; it rolled on without a pause, as if interminable trains, going at full speed, were ever and ever shaking the iron girders.
When Mahoudeau had been complimented, he told Claude that he had searched for his picture in vain. In the depths of what hole could they have put it? Then, in a fit of affectionate remembrance for the past, he asked anxiously after Gagniere and Dubuche. Where were the Salons of yore which they had all reached in a band, the mad excursions through the galleries as in an enemy’s country, the violent disdain they had felt on going away, the discussions which had made their tongues swell and emptied their brains? Nobody now saw Dubuche. Two or three times a month Gagniere came from Melun, in a state of bewilderment, to attend some concert; and he now took such little interest in painting that he had not even looked in at the Salon, although he exhibited his usual landscape, the same view of the banks of the Seine which he had been sending for the last fifteen years — a picture of a pretty greyish tint, so conscientious and quiet that the public had never remarked it.
‘I was going upstairs,’ resumed Mahoudeau. ‘Will you come with me?’
Claude, pale with suffering, raised his eyes every second. Ah! that terrible rumbling, that devouring gallop of the monster overhead, the shock of which he felt in his very limbs!
He held out his hand without speaking.
‘What! are you going to leave us?’ exclaimed Sandoz. Take just another turn with us, and we’ll go away together.’
Then, on seeing Claude so weary, a feeling of pity made his heart contract. He divined that the poor fellow’s courage was exhausted, that he was desirous of solitude, seized with a desire to fly off alone and hide his wound.
‘Then, good-bye, old man: I’ll call and see you to-morrow.’
Staggering, and as if pursued by the tempest upstairs, Claude disappeared behind the clumps of shrubbery in the garden. But two hours later Sandoz, who after losing Mahoudeau had just found him again with Jory and Fagerolles, perceived the unhappy painter again standing in front of his picture, at the same spot where he had met him the first time. At the moment of going off the wretched fellow had come up there again, harassed and attracted despite himself.
There was now the usual five o’clock crush. The crowd, weary of winding round the galleries, became distracted, and pushed and shoved without ever finding its way out. Since the coolness of the morning, the heat of all the human bodies, the odour of all the breath exhaled there had made the atmosphere heavy, and the dust of the floors, flying about, rose up in a fine mist. People still took each other to see certain pictures, the subjects of which alone struck and attracted the crowd. Some went off, came back, and walked about unceasingly. The women were particularly obstinate in not retiring; they seemed determined to remain there till the attendants should push them out when six o’clock began to strike. Some fat ladies had foundered. Others, who had failed to find even the tiniest place to sit down, leaned heavily on their parasols, sinking, but still obstinate. Every eye was turned anxiously and supplicatingly towards the settees laden with people. And all that those thousands of sight-seers were now conscious of, was that last fatigue of theirs, which made their legs totter, drew their features together, and tortured them with headache — that headache peculiar to fine-art shows, which is caused by the constant straining of one’s neck and the blinding dance of colours.
Alone on the little settee where at noon already they had been talking about their private affairs, the two decorated gentlemen were still chatting quietly, with their minds a hundred leagues away from the place. Perhaps they had returned thither, perhaps they had not even stirred from the spot.
‘And so,’ said the fat one, ‘you went in, pretending not to understand?’
‘Quite so,’ replied the thin one. ‘I looked at them and took off my hat. It was clear, eh?’
‘Astonishing! You really astonish me, my dear friend.’
Claude, however, only heard the low beating of his heart, and only beheld the ‘Dead Child’ up there in the air, near the ceiling. He did not take his eyes off it, a prey to a fascination which held him there, quite independent of his will. The crowd turned round him, people’s feet trod on his own, he was pushed and carried away; and, like some inert object, he abandoned himself, waved about, and ultimately found himself again on the same spot as before without having once lowered his head, quite ignorant of what was occurring below, all his life being concentrated up yonder beside his work, his little Jacques, swollen in death. Two big tears which stood motionless between his eyelids prevented him from seeing clearly. And it seemed to him as if he would never have time to see enough.
Then Sandoz, in his deep compassion, pretended he did not perceive his old friend; it was as if he wished to leave him there, beside the tomb of his wrecked life. Their comrades once more went past in a band. Fagerolles and Jory darted on ahead, and, Mahoudeau having asked Sandoz where Claude’s picture was hung, the novelist told a lie, drew him aside and took him off. All of them went away.
In the evening Christine only managed to draw curt words from Claude; everything was going on all right, said he; the public showed no ill-humour; the picture had a good effect, though it was hung perhaps rather high up. However, despite this semblance of cold tranquillity, he seemed so strange that she became frightened.
After dinner, as she returned from carrying the dirty plates into the kitchen, she no longer found him near the table. He had opened a window which overlooked some waste ground, and he stood there, leaning out to such a degree that she could scarcely see him. At this she sprang forward, terrified, and pulled him violently by his jacket.
‘Claude! Claude! what are you doing?’
He turned round, with his face as white as a sheet and his eyes haggard.
‘I’m looking,’ he said.
But she closed the window with trembling hands, and after that significant incident such anguish clung to her that she no longer slept at night-time.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15