CLAUDE set to work again on the very next day, and months elapsed, indeed the whole summer went by, in heavy quietude. He had found a job, some little paintings of flowers for England, the proceeds of which sufficed for their daily bread. All his available time was again devoted to his large canvas, and he no longer went into the same fits of anger over it, but seemed to resign himself to that eternal task, evincing obstinate, hopeless industry. However, his eyes retained their crazy expression — one could see the death of light, as it were, in them, when they gazed upon the failure of his existence.
About this period Sandoz also experienced great grief. His mother died, his whole life was upset — that life of three together, so homely in its character, and shared merely by a few friends. He began to hate the pavilion of the Rue Nollet, and, moreover, success suddenly declared itself with respect to his books, which hitherto had sold but moderately well. So, prompted by the advent of comparative wealth, he rented in the Rue de Londres a spacious flat, the arrangements of which occupied him and his wife for several months. Sandoz’s grief had drawn him closer to Claude again, both being disgusted with everything. After the terrible blow of the Salon, the novelist had felt very anxious about his old chum, divining that something had irreparably snapped within him, that there was some wound by which life ebbed away unseen. Then, however, finding Claude so cold and quiet, he ended by growing somewhat reassured.
Sandoz often walked up to the Rue Tourlaque, and whenever he found only Christine at home, he questioned her, realising that she also lived in apprehension of a calamity of which she never spoke. Her face bore a look of worry, and now and again she started nervously, like a mother who watches over her child and trembles at the slightest sound, with the fear that death may be entering the chamber.
One July morning Sandoz asked her: ‘Well, are you pleased? Claude’s quiet, he works a deal.’
She gave the large picture her usual glance, a side glance full of terror and hatred.
‘Yes, yes, he works,’ she said. ‘He wants to finish everything else before taking up the woman again.’ And without confessing the fear that harassed her, she added in a lower tone: ‘But his eyes — have you noticed his eyes? They always have the same wild expression. I know very well that he lies, despite his pretence of taking things so easily. Pray, come and see him, and take him out with you, so as to change the current of his thoughts. He only has you left; help me, do help me!’
After that Sandoz diligently devised motives for various walks, arriving at Claude’s early in the morning, and carrying him away from his work perforce. It was almost always necessary to drag him from his steps, on which he habitually sat, even when he was not painting. A feeling of weariness stopped him, a kind of torpor benumbed him for long minutes, during which he did not give a single stroke with the brush. In those moments of mute contemplation, his gaze reverted with pious fervour to the woman’s figure which he no longer touched: it was like a hesitating desire combined with sacred awe, a passion which he refused to satisfy, as he felt certain that it would cost him his life. When he set to work again at the other figures and the background of the picture, he well knew that the woman’s figure was still there, and his glance wavered whenever he espied it; he felt that he would only remain master of himself as long as he did not touch it again.
One evening, Christine, who now visited at Sandoz’s and never missed a single Thursday there, in the hope of seeing her big sick child of an artist brighten up in the society of his friends, took the novelist aside and begged him to drop in at their place on the morrow. And on the next day Sandoz, who, as it happened, wanted to take some notes for a novel, on the other side of Montmartre, went in search of Claude, carried him off and kept him idling about until night-time.
On this occasion they went as far as the gate of Clignancourt, where a perpetual fair was held, with merry-go-rounds, shooting-galleries, and taverns, and on reaching the spot they were stupefied to find themselves face to face with Chaine, who was enthroned in a large and stylish booth. It was a kind of chapel, highly ornamented. There were four circular revolving stands set in a row and loaded with articles in china and glass, all sorts of ornaments and nick-nacks, whose gilding and polish shone amid an harmonica-like tinkling whenever the hand of a gamester set the stand in motion. It then spun round, grating against a feather, which, on the rotatory movement ceasing, indicated what article, if any, had been won. The big prize was a live rabbit, adorned with pink favours, which waltzed and revolved unceasingly, intoxicated with fright. And all this display was set in red hangings, scalloped at the top; and between the curtains one saw three pictures hanging at the rear of the booth, as in the sanctuary of some tabernacle. They were Chaine’s three masterpieces, which now followed him from fair to fair, from one end of Paris to the other. The ‘Woman taken in Adultery’ in the centre, the copy of the Mantegna on the left, and Mahoudeau’s stove on the right. Of an evening, when the petroleum lamps flamed and the revolving stands glowed and radiated like planets, nothing seemed finer than those pictures hanging amid the blood-tinged purple of the hangings, and a gaping crowd often flocked to view them.
The sight was such that it wrung an exclamation from Claude: ‘Ah, good heavens! But those paintings look very well — they were surely intended for this.’
The Mantegna, so naively harsh in treatment, looked like some faded coloured print nailed there for the delectation of simple-minded folk; whilst the minutely painted stove, all awry, hanging beside the gingerbread Christ absolving the adulterous woman, assumed an unexpectedly gay aspect.
However, Chaine, who had just perceived the two friends, held out his hand to them, as if he had left them merely the day before. He was calm, neither proud nor ashamed of his booth, and he had not aged, having still a leathery aspect; though, on the other hand, his nose had completely vanished between his cheeks, whilst his mouth, clammy with prolonged silence, was buried in his moustache and beard.
‘Hallo! so we meet again!’ said Sandoz, gaily. ‘Do you know, your paintings have a lot of effect?’
‘The old humbug!’ added Claude. ‘Why, he has his little Salon all to himself. That’s very cute indeed.’
Chaine’s face became radiant, and he dropped the remark: ‘Of course!’
Then, as his artistic pride was roused, he, from whom people barely wrung anything but growls, gave utterance to a whole sentence:
‘Ah! it’s quite certain that if I had had any money, like you fellows, I should have made my way, just as you have done, in spite of everything.’
That was his conviction. He had never doubted of his talent, he had simply forsaken the profession because it did not feed him. When he visited the Louvre, at sight of the masterpieces hanging there he felt convinced that time alone was necessary to turn out similar work.
‘Ah, me!’ said Claude, who had become gloomy again. ‘Don’t regret what you’ve done; you alone have succeeded. Business is brisk, eh?’
But Chaine muttered bitter words. No, no, there was nothing doing, not even in his line. People wouldn’t play for prizes; all the money found its way to the wine-shops. In spite of buying paltry odds and ends, and striking the table with the palm of one’s hand, so that the feather might not indicate one of the big prizes, a fellow barely had water to drink nowadays. Then, as some people had drawn near, he stopped short in his explanation to call out: ‘Walk up, walk up, at every turn you win!’ in a gruff voice which the two others had never known him to possess, and which fairly stupefied them.
A workman who was carrying a sickly little girl with large covetous eyes, let her play two turns. The revolving stands grated and the nick-nacks danced round in dazzling fashion, while the live rabbit, with his ears lowered, revolved and revolved so rapidly that the outline of his body vanished and he became nothing but a whitish circle. There was a moment of great emotion, for the little girl had narrowly missed winning him.
Then, after shaking hands with Chaine, who was still trembling with the fright this had given him, the two friends walked away.
‘He’s happy,’ said Claude, after they had gone some fifty paces in silence.
‘He!’ cried Sandoz; ‘why, he believes he has missed becoming a member of the Institute, and it’s killing him.’
Shortly after this meeting, and towards the middle of August, Sandoz devised a real excursion which would take up a whole day. He had met Dubuche — Dubuche, careworn and mournful, who had shown himself plaintive and affectionate, raking up the past and inviting his two old chums to lunch at La Richaudiere, where he should be alone with his two children for another fortnight. Why shouldn’t they go and surprise him there, since he seemed so desirous of renewing the old intimacy? But in vain did Sandoz repeat that he had promised Dubuche on oath to bring Claude with him; the painter obstinately refused to go, as if he were frightened at the idea of again beholding Bennecourt, the Seine, the islands, all the stretch of country where his happy years lay dead and buried. It was necessary for Christine to interfere, and he finished by giving way, although full of repugnance to the trip. It precisely happened that on the day prior to the appointment he had worked at his painting until very late, being taken with the old fever again. And so the next morning — it was Sunday — being devoured with a longing to paint, he went off most reluctantly, tearing himself away from his picture with a pang. What was the use of returning to Bennecourt? All that was dead, it no longer existed. Paris alone remained, and even in Paris there was but one view, the point of the Cite, that vision which haunted him always and everywhere, that one corner where he ever left his heart.
Sandoz, finding him nervous in the railway carriage, and seeing that his eyes remained fixed on the window as if he had been leaving the city — which had gradually grown smaller and seemed shrouded in mist — for years, did all he could to divert his mind, telling him, for instance, what he knew about Dubuche’s real position. At the outset, old Margaillan, glorifying in his bemedalled son-in-law, had trotted him about and introduced him everywhere as his partner and successor. There was a fellow who would conduct business briskly, who would build houses more cheaply and in finer style than ever, for hadn’t he grown pale over books? But Dubuche’s first idea proved disastrous; on some land belonging to his father-in-law in Burgundy he established a brickyard in so unfavourable a situation, and after so defective a plan, that the venture resulted in the sheer loss of two hundred thousand francs. Then he turned his attention to erecting houses, insisting upon bringing personal ideas into execution, a certain general scheme of his which would revolutionise the building art. These ideas were the old theories he held from the revolutionary chums of his youth, everything that he had promised he would realise when he was free; but he had not properly reduced the theories to method, and he applied them unseasonably, with the awkwardness of a pupil lacking the sacred fire; he experimented with terra-cotta and pottery ornamentation, large bay windows, and especially with the employment of iron — iron girders, iron staircases, and iron roofings; and as the employment of these materials increased the outlay, he again ended with a catastrophe, which was all the greater as he was a pitiful manager, and had lost his head since he had become rich, rendered the more obtuse, it seemed, by money, quite spoilt and at sea, unable even to revert to his old habits of industry. This time Margaillan grew angry; he for thirty years had been buying ground, building and selling again, estimating at a glance the cost and return of house property; so many yards of building at so much the foot having to yield so many suites of rooms at so much rent. He wouldn’t have anything more to do with a fellow who blundered about lime, bricks, millstones, and in fact everything, who employed oak when deal would have suited, and who could not bring himself to cut up a storey — like a consecrated wafer — into as many little squares as was necessary. No, no, none of that! He rebelled against art, after having been ambitious to introduce a little of it into his routine, in order to satisfy a long-standing worry about his own ignorance. And after that matters had gone from bad to worse, terrible quarrels had arisen between the son-in-law and the father-in-law, the former disdainful, intrenching himself behind his science, and the latter shouting that the commonest labourer knew more than an architect did. The millions were in danger, and one fine day Margaillan turned Dubuche out of his offices, forbidding him ever to set foot in them again, since he did not even know how to direct a building-yard where only four men worked. It was a disaster, a lamentable failure, the School of Arts collapsing, derided by a mason!
At this point of Sandoz’s story, Claude, who had begun to listen to his friend, inquired:
‘Then what is Dubuche doing now?’
‘I don’t know — nothing probably,’ answered Sandoz. ‘He told me that he was anxious about his children’s health, and was taking care of them.’
That pale woman, Madame Margaillan, as slender as the blade of a knife, had died of tubercular consumption, which was plainly the hereditary disease, the source of the family’s degeneracy, for her daughter, Regine, had been coughing ever since her marriage. She was now drinking the waters at Mont-Dore, whither she had not dared to take her children, as they had been very poorly the year before, after a season spent in that part, where the air was too keen for them. This explained the scattering of the family: the mother over yonder with her maid; the grandfather in Paris, where he had resumed his great building enterprises, battling amid his four hundred workmen, and crushing the idle and the incapable beneath his contempt; and the father in exile at La Richaudiere, set to watch over his son and daughter, shut up there, after the very first struggle, as if it had broken him down for life. In a moment of effusion Dubuche had even let Sandoz understand that as his wife was so extremely delicate he now lived with her merely on friendly terms.
‘A nice marriage,’ said Sandoz, simply, by way of conclusion.
It was ten o’clock when the two friends rang at the iron gate of La Richaudiere. The estate, with which they were not acquainted, amazed them. There was a superb park, a garden laid out in the French style, with balustrades and steps spreading away in regal fashion; three huge conservatories and a colossal cascade — quite a piece of folly, with its rocks brought from afar, and the quantity of cement and the number of conduits that had been employed in arranging it. Indeed, the owner had sunk a fortune in it, out of sheer vanity. But what struck the friends still more was the melancholy, deserted aspect of the domain; the gravel of the avenues carefully raked, with never a trace of footsteps; the distant expanses quite deserted, save that now and then a solitary gardener passed by; and the house looking lifeless, with all its windows closed, excepting two, which were barely set ajar.
However, a valet who had decided to show himself began to question them, and when he learnt that they wished to see ‘monsieur,’ he became insolent, and replied that ‘monsieur’ was behind the house in the gymnasium, and then went indoors again.
Sandoz and Claude followed a path which led them towards a lawn, and what they saw there made them pause. Dubuche, who stood in front of a trapeze, was raising his arms to support his son, Gaston, a poor sickly boy who, at ten years of age, still had the slight, soft limbs of early childhood; while the girl, Alice, sat in a perambulator awaiting her turn. She was so imperfectly developed that, although she was six years old, she could not yet walk. The father, absorbed in his task, continued exercising the slim limbs of his little boy, swinging him backwards and forwards, and vainly trying to make him raise himself up by his wrists. Then, as this slight effort sufficed to bring on perspiration, he removed the little fellow from the trapeze and rolled him in a rug. And all this was done amid complete silence, alone under the far expanse of sky, his face wearing a look of distressful pity as he knelt there in that splendid park. However, as he rose up he perceived the two friends.
‘What! it’s you? On a Sunday, and without warning me!’
He had made a gesture of annoyance, and at once explained that the maid, the only woman to whom he could trust the children, went to Paris on Sundays, and that it was consequently impossible for him to leave Gaston and Alice for a minute.
‘I’ll wager that you came to lunch?’ he added.
As Claude gave Sandoz an imploring glance, the novelist made haste to answer:
‘No, no. As it happens, we only have time enough to shake hands with you. Claude had to come down here on a business matter. He lived at Bennecourt, as you know. And as I accompanied him, we took it into our heads to walk as far as here. But there are people waiting for us, so don’t disturb yourself in the least.’
Thereupon, Dubuche, who felt relieved, made a show of detaining them. They certainly had an hour to spare, dash it all! And they all three began to talk. Claude looked at Dubuche, astonished to find him so aged; his flabby face had become wrinkled — it was of a yellowish hue, and streaked with red, as if bile had splashed his skin; whilst his hair and his moustaches were already growing grey. In addition, his figure appeared to have become more compact; a bitter weariness made each of his gestures seem an effort. Were defeats in money matters as hard to bear, then, as defeats in art? Everything about this vanquished man — his voice, his glance — proclaimed the shameful dependency in which he had to live: the bankruptcy of his future which was cast in his teeth, with the accusation of having allowed a talent he did not possess to be set down as an asset in the marriage contract. Then there was the family money which he nowadays stole, the money spent on what he ate, the clothes he wore, and the pocket-money he needed — in fact, the perpetual alms which were bestowed upon him, just as they might have been bestowed upon some vulgar swindler, whom one unluckily could not get rid of.
‘Wait a bit,’ resumed Dubuche; ‘I have to stop here five minutes longer with one of my poor duckies, and afterwards we’ll go indoors.’
Gently, and with infinite motherly precautions, he removed little Alice from the perambulator and lifted her to the trapeze. Then, stammering coaxing words and smiling, he encouraged her, and left her hanging for a couple of minutes, so as to develop her muscles; but he remained with open arms, watching each movement with the fear of seeing her smashed to pieces, should her weak little wax-like hands relax their hold. She did not say anything, but obeyed him in spite of the terror that this exercise caused her; and she was so pitifully light in weight that she did not even fully stretch the ropes, being like one of those poor scraggy little birds which fall from a young tree without as much as bending it.
At this moment, Dubuche, having given Gaston a glance, became distracted on remarking that the rug had slipped and that the child’s legs were uncovered.
‘Good heavens! good heavens! Why, he’ll catch cold on this grass! And I, who can’t move! Gaston, my little dear! It’s the same thing every day; you wait till I’m occupied with your sister. Sandoz, pray cover him over! Ah, thanks! Pull the rug up more; don’t be afraid!’
So this was the outcome of his splendid marriage — those two poor, weak little beings, whom the least breath from the sky threatened to kill like flies. Of the fortune he had married, all that remained to him was the constant grief of beholding those woeful children stricken by the final degeneracy of scrofula and phthisis. However, this big, egotistical fellow showed himself an admirable father. The only energy that remained to him consisted in a determination to make his children live, and he struggled on hour after hour, saving them every morning, and dreading to lose them every night. They alone existed now amid his finished existence, amid the bitterness of his father-in-law’s insulting reproaches, the coldness of his sorry, ailing wife. And he kept to his task in desperation; he finished bringing those children into the world, as it were, by dint of unremitting tenderness.
‘There, my darling, that’s enough, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ll soon see how big and pretty you’ll become.’
He then placed Alice in the perambulator again, took Gaston, who was still wrapped up, on one of his arms; and when his friends wished to help him, he declined their offer, pushing the little girl’s vehicle along with his right hand, which had remained free.
‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I’m accustomed to it. Ah! the poor darlings are not heavy; and besides, with servants one can never be sure of anything.’
On entering the house, Sandoz and Claude again saw the valet who had been so insolent; and they noticed that Dubuche trembled before him. The kitchen and the hall shared the contempt of the father-in-law, who paid for everything, and treated ‘madame’s ‘ husband like a beggar whose presence was merely tolerated out of charity. Each time that a shirt was got ready for him, each time that he asked for some more bread, the servants’ impolite gestures made him feel that he was receiving alms.
‘Well, good-bye, we must leave you,’ said Sandoz, who suffered at the sight of it all.
‘No, no, wait a bit. The children are going to breakfast, and afterwards I’ll accompany you with them. They must go for their outing.’
Each day was regulated hour by hour. Of a morning came the baths and the gymnastics; then the breakfast, which was quite an affair, as the children needed special food, which was duly discussed and weighed. And matters were carried to such a point that even their wine and water was slightly warmed, for fear that too chilly a drop might give them a cold. On this occasion they each partook of the yolk of an egg diluted in some broth, and a mutton cutlet, which the father cut up into tiny morsels. Then, prior to the siesta, came the promenade.
Sandoz and Claude found themselves once more out-of-doors, walking down the broad avenues with Dubuche, who again propelled Alice’s perambulator, whilst Gaston walked beside him. They talked about the estate as they went towards the gate. The master glanced over the park with timid, nervous eyes, as if he did not feel at home. Besides he did not know anything; he did not occupy himself about anything. He appeared even to have forgotten the profession which he was said to be ignorant of, and seemed to have gone astray, to be bowed down by sheer inaction.
‘And your parents, how are they?’ asked Sandoz.
A spark was once more kindled in Dubuche’s dim eyes.
‘Oh! my parents are happy,’ he said; ‘I bought them a little house, where they live on the annuity which I had specified in my marriage contract. Well, you see, mamma had advanced enough money for my education, and I had to return it to her, as I had promised, eh? Yes, I can at least say that my parents have nothing to reproach me with.’
Having reached the gate, they tarried there for a few minutes. At last, still looking crushed, Dubuche shook hands with his old comrades; and retaining Claude’s hand in his, he concluded, as if making a simple statement of fact quite devoid of anger:
‘Good-bye; try to get out of worry! As for me, I’ve spoilt my life.’
And they watched him walk back towards the house, pushing the perambulator, and supporting Gaston, who was already stumbling with fatigue — he, Dubuche, himself having his back bent and the heavy tread of an old man.
One o’clock was striking, and they both hurried down towards Bennecourt, saddened and ravenous. But mournfulness awaited them there as well; a murderous blast had swept over the place, both Faucheurs, husband and wife, and old Porrette, were all dead; and the inn, having fallen into the hands of that goose Melie, was becoming repugnant with its filth and coarseness. An abominable repast was served them, an omelette with hairs in it, and cutlets smelling of grease, in the centre of the common room, to which an open window admitted the pestilential odour of a dung heap, while the place was so full of flies that they positively blackened the tables. The heat of the burning afternoon came in with the stench, and Claude and Sandoz did not even feel the courage to order any coffee; they fled.
‘And you who used to extol old Mother Faucheur’s omelettes!’ said Sandoz. ‘The place is done for. We are going for a turn, eh?’
Claude was inclined to refuse. Ever since the morning he had had but one idea — that of walking on as fast as possible, as if each step would shorten the disagreeable task and bring him back to Paris. His heart, his head, his whole being had remained there. He looked neither to right nor to left, he glided along without distinguishing aught of the fields or trees, having but one fixed idea in his brain, a prey to such hallucinations that at certain moments he fancied the point of the Cite rose up and called to him from amid the vast expanse of stubble. However, Sandoz’s proposal aroused memories in his mind; and, softening somewhat, he replied:
‘Yes, that’s it, we’ll have a look.’
But as they advanced along the river bank, he became indignant and grieved. He could scarcely recognise the place. A bridge had been built to connect Bennecourt with Bonnieres: a bridge, good heavens! in the place of the old ferry-boat, grating against its chain — the old black boat which, cutting athwart the current, had been so full of interest to the artistic eye. Moreover, a dam established down-stream at Port-Villez had raised the level of the river, most of the islands of yore were now submerged, and the little armlets of the stream had become broader. There were no more pretty nooks, no more rippling alleys amid which one could lose oneself; it was a disaster that inclined one to strangle all the river engineers!
‘Why, that clump of pollards still emerging from the water on the left,’ cried Claude, ‘was the Barreux Island, where we used to chat together, lying on the grass! You remember, don’t you? Ah! the scoundrels!’
Sandoz, who could never see a tree felled without shaking his fist at the wood-cutter, turned pale with anger, and felt exasperated that the authorities had thus dared to mutilate nature.
Then, as Claude approached his old home, he became silent, and his teeth clenched. The house had been sold to some middle-class folk, and now there was an iron gate, against which he pressed his face. The rose-bushes were all dead, the apricot trees were dead also; the garden, which looked very trim, with its little pathways and its square-cut beds of flowers and vegetables, bordered with box, was reflected in a large ball of plated glass set upon a stand in the very centre of it; and the house, newly whitewashed and painted at the corners and round the doors and windows, in a manner to imitate freestone, suggested some clownish parvenu awkwardly arrayed in his Sunday toggery. The sight fairly enraged the painter. No, no, nothing of himself, nothing of Christine, nothing of the great love of their youth remained there! He wished to look still further; he turned round behind the house, and sought for the wood of oak trees where they had left the living quiver of their embraces; but the wood was dead, dead like all the rest, felled, sold, and burnt! Then he made a gesture of anathema, in which he cast all his grief to that stretch of country which was now so changed that he could not find in it one single token of his past life. And so a few years sufficed to efface the spot where one had laboured, loved, and suffered! What was the use of man’s vain agitation if the wind behind him swept and carried away all the traces of his footsteps? He had rightly realised that he ought not to return thither, for the past is simply the cemetery of our illusions, where our feet for ever stumble against tombstones!
‘Let us go!’ he cried; ‘let us go at once! It’s stupid to torture one’s heart like this!’
When they were on the new bridge, Sandoz tried to calm him by showing him the view which had not formerly existed, the widened bed of the Seine, full to the brim, as it were, and the water flowing onward, proudly and slowly. But this water failed to interest Claude, until he reflected that it was the same water which, as it passed through Paris, had bathed the old quay walls of the Cite; and then he felt touched, he leant over the parapet of the bridge for a moment, and thought that he could distinguish glorious reflections in it — the towers of Notre-Dame, and the needle-like spire of the Sainte-Chapelle, carried along by the current towards the sea.
The two friends missed the three o’clock train, and it was real torture to have to spend two long hours more in that region, where everything weighed so heavily on their shoulders. Fortunately, they had forewarned Christine and Madame Sandoz that they might return by a night train if they were detained. So they resolved upon a bachelor dinner at a restaurant on the Place du Havre, hoping to set themselves all right again by a good chat at dessert as in former times. Eight o’clock was about to strike when they sat down to table.
Claude, on leaving the terminus, with his feet once more on the Paris pavement, had lost his nervous agitation, like a man who at last finds himself once more at home. And with the cold, absent-minded air which he now usually displayed, he listened to Sandoz trying to enliven him. The novelist treated his friend like a mistress whose head he wished to turn; they partook of delicate, highly spiced dishes and heady wines. But mirth was rebellious, and Sandoz himself ended by becoming gloomy. All his hopes of immortality were shaken by his excursion to that ungrateful country village, that Bennecourt, so loved and so forgetful, where he and Claude had not found a single stone retaining any recollection of them. If things which are eternal forget so soon, can one place any reliance for one hour on the memory of man?
‘Do you know, old fellow,’ said the novelist, ‘it’s that which sometimes sends me into a cold sweat. Have you ever reflected that posterity may not be the faultless dispenser of justice that we dream of? One consoles oneself for being insulted and denied, by relying on the equity of the centuries to come; just as the faithful endure all the abominations of this earth in the firm belief of another life, in which each will be rewarded according to his deserts. But suppose Paradise exists no more for the artist than it does for the Catholic, suppose that future generations prolong the misunderstanding and prefer amiable little trifles to vigorous works! Ah! what a sell it would be, eh? To have led a convict’s life — to have screwed oneself down to one’s work — all for a mere delusion! Please notice that it’s quite possible, after all. There are some consecrated reputations which I wouldn’t give a rap for. Classical education has deformed everything, and has imposed upon us as geniuses men of correct, facile talent, who follow the beaten track. To them one may prefer men of free tendencies, whose work is at times unequal; but these are only known to a few people of real culture, so that it looks as if immortality might really go merely to the middle-class “average” talent, to the men whose names are forced into our brains at school, when we are not strong enough to defend ourselves. But no, no, one mustn’t say those things; they make me shudder! Should I have the courage to go on with my task, should I be able to remain erect amid all the jeering around me if I hadn’t the consoling illusion that I shall some day be appreciated?’
Claude had listened with his dolorous expression, and he now made a gesture of indifference tinged with bitterness.
‘Bah! what does it matter? Well, there’s nothing hereafter. We are even madder than the fools who kill themselves for a woman. When the earth splits to pieces in space like a dry walnut, our works won’t add one atom to its dust.’
‘That’s quite true,’ summed up Sandoz, who was very pale. ‘What’s the use of trying to fill up the void of space? And to think that we know it, and that our pride still battles all the same!’
They left the restaurant, roamed about the streets, and foundered again in the depths of a cafe, where they philosophised. They had come by degrees to raking up the memories of their childhood, and this ended by filling their hearts with sadness. One o’clock in the morning struck when they decided to go home.
However, Sandoz talked of seeing Claude as far as the Rue Tourlaque. That August night was a superb one, the air was warm, the sky studded with stars. And as they went the round by way of the Quartier de l’Europe, they passed before the old Cafe Baudequin on the Boulevard des Batignolles. It had changed hands three times. It was no longer arranged inside in the same manner as formerly; there were now a couple of billiard tables on the right hand; and several strata of customers had followed each other thither, one covering the other, so that the old frequenters had disappeared like buried nations. However, curiosity, the emotion they had derived from all the past things they had been raking up together, induced them to cross the boulevard and to glance into the cafe through the open doorway. They wanted to see their table of yore, on the left hand, right at the back of the room.
‘Oh, look!’ said Sandoz, stupefied.
‘Gagniere!’ muttered Claude.
It was indeed Gagniere, seated all alone at that table at the end of the empty cafe. He must have come from Melun for one of the Sunday concerts to which he treated himself; and then, in the evening, while astray in Paris, an old habit of his legs had led him to the Cafe Baudequin. Not one of the comrades ever set foot there now, and he, who had beheld another age, obstinately remained there alone. He had not yet touched his glass of beer; he was looking at it, so absorbed in thought that he did not even stir when the waiters began piling the chairs on the tables, in order that everything might be ready for the morrow’s sweeping.
The two friends hurried off, upset by the sight of that dim figure, seized as it were with a childish fear of ghosts. They parted in the Rue Tourlaque.
‘Ah! that poor devil Dubuche!’ said Sandoz as he pressed Claude’s hand, ‘he spoilt our day for us.’
As soon as November had come round, and when all the old friends were back in Paris again, Sandoz thought of gathering them together at one of those Thursday dinners which had remained a habit with him. They were always his greatest delight. The sale of his books was increasing, and he was growing rich; the flat in the Rue de Londres was becoming quite luxurious compared with the little house at Batignolles; but he himself remained immutable. On this occasion, he was anxious, in his good nature, to procure real enjoyment for Claude by organising one of the dear evenings of their youth. So he saw to the invitations; Claude and Christine naturally must come; next Jory and his wife, the latter of whom it had been necessary to receive since her marriage, then Dubuche, who always came alone, with Fagerolles, Mahoudeau, and finally Gagniere. There would be ten of them — all the men comrades of the old band, without a single outsider, in order that the good understanding and jollity might be complete.
Henriette, who was more mistrustful than her husband, hesitated when this list of guests was decided upon.
‘Oh! Fagerolles? You believe in having Fagerolles with the others? They hardly like him — nor Claude either; I fancied I noticed a coolness —’
But he interrupted her, bent on not admitting it.
‘What! a coolness? It’s really funny, but women can’t understand that fellows chaff each other. All that doesn’t prevent them from having their hearts in the right place.’
Henriette took especial care in preparing the menu for that Thursday dinner. She now had quite a little staff to overlook, a cook, a man-servant, and so on; and if she no longer prepared any of the dishes herself, she still saw that very delicate fare was provided, out of affection for her husband, whose sole vice was gluttony. She went to market with the cook, and called in person on the tradespeople. She and her husband had a taste for gastronomical curiosities from the four corners of the world. On this occasion they decided to have some ox-tail soup, grilled mullet, undercut of beef with mushrooms, raviolis in the Italian fashion, hazel-hens from Russia, and a salad of truffles, without counting caviare and kilkis as side-dishes, a glace pralinee, and a little emerald-coloured Hungarian cheese, with fruit and pastry. As wine, some old Bordeaux claret in decanters, chambertin with the roast, and sparkling moselle at dessert, in lieu of champagne, which was voted commonplace.
At seven o’clock Sandoz and Henriette were waiting for their guests, he simply wearing a jacket, and she looking very elegant in a plain dress of black satin. People dined at their house in frock-coats, without any fuss. The drawing-room, the arrangements of which they were now completing, was becoming crowded with old furniture, old tapestry, nick-nacks of all countries and all times — a rising and now overflowing stream of things which had taken source at Batignolles with an old pot of Rouen ware, which Henriette had given her husband on one of his fete days. They ran about to the curiosity shops together; a joyful passion for buying possessed them. Sandoz satisfied the longings of his youth, the romanticist ambitions which the first books he had read had given birth to. Thus this writer, so fiercely modern, lived amid the worm-eaten middle ages which he had dreamt of when he was a lad of fifteen. As an excuse, he laughingly declared that handsome modern furniture cost too much, whilst with old things, even common ones, you immediately obtained something with effect and colour. There was nothing of the collector about him, he was entirely concerned as to decoration and broad effects; and to tell the truth, the drawing-room, lighted by two lamps of old Delft ware, had quite a soft warm tint with the dull gold of the dalmaticas used for upholstering the seats, the yellowish incrustations of the Italian cabinets and Dutch show-cases, the faded hues of the Oriental door-hangings, the hundred little notes of the ivory, crockery and enamel work, pale with age, which showed against the dull red hangings of the room.
Claude and Christine were the first to arrive. The latter had put on her only silk dress — an old, worn-out garment which she preserved with especial care for such occasions. Henriette at once took hold of both her hands and drew her to a sofa. She was very fond of her, and questioned her, seeing her so strange, touchingly pale, and with anxious eyes. What was the matter? Did she feel poorly? No, no, she answered that she was very gay and very pleased to come; but while she spoke, she kept on glancing at Claude, as if to study him, and then looked away. He seemed excited, evincing a feverishness in his words and gestures which he had not shown for a month past. At intervals, however, his agitation subsided, and he remained silent, with his eyes wide open, gazing vacantly into space at something which he fancied was calling him.
‘Ah! old man,’ he said to Sandoz, ‘I finished reading your book last night. It’s deucedly clever; you have shut up their mouths this time!’
They both talked standing in front of the chimney-piece, where some logs were blazing. Sandoz had indeed just published a new novel, and although his critics did not disarm, there was at last that stir of success which establishes a man’s reputation despite the persistent attacks of his adversaries. Besides, he had no illusions; he knew very well that the battle, even if it were won, would begin again at each fresh book he wrote. The great work of his life was advancing, that series of novels which he launched forth in volumes one after another in stubborn, regular fashion, marching towards the goal he had selected without letting anything, obstacles, insults, or fatigue, conquer him.
‘It’s true,’ he gaily replied, ‘they are weakening this time. There’s even one who has been foolish enough to admit that I’m an honest man! See how everything degenerates! But they’ll make up for it, never fear! I know some of them whose nuts are too much unlike my own to let them accept my literary formula, my boldness of language, and my physiological characters acting under the influence of circumstances; and I refer to brother writers who possess self-respect; I leave the fools and the scoundrels on one side. For a man to be able to work on pluckily, it is best for him to expect neither good faith nor justice. To be in the right he must begin by dying.’
At this Claude’s eyes abruptly turned towards a corner of the drawing-room, as if to pierce the wall and go far away yonder, whither something had summoned him. Then they became hazy and returned from their journey, whilst he exclaimed:
‘Oh! you speak for yourself! I should do wrong to kick the bucket. No matter, your book sent me into a deuced fever. I wanted to paint to-day, but I couldn’t. Ah! it’s lucky that I can’t get jealous of you, else you would make me too unhappy.’
However, the door had opened, and Mathilde came in, followed by Jory. She was richly attired in a tunic of nasturtium-hued velvet and a skirt of straw-coloured satin, with diamonds in her ears and a large bouquet of roses on her bosom. What astonished Claude the most was that he did not recognise her, for she had become plump, round, and fair skinned, instead of thin and sunburnt as he had known her. Her disturbing ugliness had departed in a swelling of the face; her mouth, once noted for its black voids, now displayed teeth which looked over-white whenever she condescended to smile, with a disdainful curling of the upper lip. You could guess that she had become immoderately respectable; her five and forty summers gave her weight beside her husband, who was younger than herself and seemed to be her nephew. The only thing of yore that clung to her was a violent perfume; she drenched herself with the strongest essences, as if she had been anxious to wash from her skin the smell of all the aromatic simples with which she had been impregnated by her herbalist business; however, the sharpness of rhubarb, the bitterness of elder-seed, and the warmth of peppermint clung to her; and as soon as she crossed the drawing-room, it was filled with an undefinable smell like that of a chemist’s shop, relieved by an acute odour of musk.
Henriette, who had risen, made her sit down beside Christine, saying:
‘You know each other, don’t you? You have already met here.’
Mathilde gave but a cold glance at the modest attire of that woman who had lived for a long time with a man, so it was said, before being married to him. She herself was exceedingly rigid respecting such matters since the tolerance prevailing in literary and artistic circles had admitted her to a few drawing-rooms. Henriette hated her, however, and after the customary exchange of courtesies, not to be dispensed with, resumed her conversation with Christine.
Jory had shaken hands with Claude and Sandoz, and, standing near them, in front of the fireplace, he apologised for an article slashing the novelist’s new book which had appeared that very morning in his review.
‘As you know very well, my dear fellow, one is never the master in one’s own house. I ought to see to everything, but I have so little time! I hadn’t even read that article, I relied on what had been told me about it. So you will understand how enraged I was when I read it this afternoon. I am dreadfully grieved, dreadfully grieved —’
‘Oh, let it be! It’s the natural order of things,’ replied Sandoz, quietly. ‘Now that my enemies are beginning to praise me, it’s only proper that my friends should attack me.’
The door again opened, and Gagniere glided in softly, like a will-o’-the-wisp. He had come straight from Melun, and was quite alone, for he never showed his wife to anybody. When he thus came to dinner he brought the country dust with him on his boots, and carried it back with him the same night on taking the last train. On the other hand, he did not alter; or, rather, age seemed to rejuvenate him; his complexion became fairer as he grew old.
‘Hallo! Why, Gagniere’s here!’ exclaimed Sandoz.
Then, just as Gagniere was making up his mind to bow to the ladies, Mahoudeau entered. He had already grown grey, with a sunken, fierce-looking face and childish, blinking eyes. He still wore trousers which were a good deal too short for him, and a frock-coat which creased in the back, in spite of the money which he now earned; for the bronze manufacturer for whom he worked had brought out some charming statuettes of his, which one began to see on middle-class mantel-shelves and consoles.
Sandoz and Claude had turned round, inquisitive to witness the meeting between Mahoudeau and Mathilde. However, matters passed off very quietly. The sculptor bowed to her respectfully, while Jory, the husband, with his air of serene unconsciousness, thought fit to introduce her to him, for the twentieth time, perhaps.
‘Eh! It’s my wife, old fellow. Shake hands together.’
Thereupon, both very grave, like people of society who are forced somewhat over-promptly into familiarity, Mathilde and Mahoudeau shook hands. Only, as soon as the latter had got rid of the job and had found Gagniere in a corner of the drawing-room, they both began sneering and recalling, in terrible language, all the abominations of yore.
Dubuche was expected that evening, for he had formally promised to come.
‘Yes,’ explained Henriette, ‘there will only be nine of us. Fagerolles wrote this morning to apologise; he is forced to go to some official dinner, but he hopes to escape, and will join us at about eleven o’clock.’
At that moment, however, a servant came in with a telegram. It was from Dubuche, who wired: ‘Impossible to stir. Alice has an alarming cough.’
‘Well, we shall only be eight, then,’ resumed Henriette, with the somewhat peevish resignation of a hostess disappointed by her guests.
And the servant having opened the dining-room door and announced that dinner was ready, she added:
‘We are all here. Claude, offer me your arm.’
Sandoz took Mathilde’s, Jory charged himself with Christine, while Mahoudeau and Gagniere brought up the rear, still joking coarsely about what they called the beautiful herbalist’s padding.
The dining-room which they now entered was very spacious, and the light was gaily bright after the subdued illumination of the drawing-room. The walls, covered with specimens of old earthenware, displayed a gay medley of colours, reminding one of cheap coloured prints. Two sideboards, one laden with glass and the other with silver plate, sparkled like jewellers’ show-cases. And in the centre of the room, under the big hanging lamp girt round with tapers, the table glistened like a catafalque with the whiteness of its cloth, laid in perfect style, with decorated plates, cut-glass decanters white with water or ruddy with wine, and symmetrical side-dishes, all set out around the centre-piece, a silver basket full of purple roses.
They sat down, Henriette between Claude and Mahoudeau, Sandoz with Mathilde and Christine beside him, Jory and Gagniere at either end; and the servant had barely finished serving the soup, when Madame Jory made a most unfortunate remark. Wishing to show herself amiable, and not having heard her husband’s apologies, she said to the master of the house:
‘Well, were you pleased with the article in this morning’s number? Edouard personally revised the proofs with the greatest care!’
On hearing this, Jory became very much confused and stammered:
‘No, no! you are mistaken! It was a very bad article indeed, and you know very well that it was “passed” the other evening while I was away.’
By the silent embarrassment which ensued she guessed her blunder. But she made matters still worse, for, giving her husband a sharp glance, she retorted in a very loud voice, so as to crush him, as it were, and disengage her own responsibility:
‘Another of your lies! I repeat what you told me. I won’t allow you to make me ridiculous, do you hear?’
This threw a chill over the beginning of the dinner. Henriette recommended the kilkis, but Christine alone found them very nice. When the grilled mullet appeared, Sandoz, who was amused by Jory’s embarrassment, gaily reminded him of a lunch they had had together at Marseilles in the old days. Ah! Marseilles, the only city where people know how to eat!
Claude, who for a little while had been absorbed in thought, now seemed to awaken from a dream, and without any transition he asked:
‘Is it decided? Have they selected the artists for the new decorations of the Hotel de Ville?’
‘No,’ said Mahoudeau, ‘they are going to do so. I sha’n’t get anything, for I don’t know anybody. Fagerolles himself is very anxious. If he isn’t here to-night, it’s because matters are not going smoothly. Ah! he has had his bite at the cherry; all that painting for millions is cracking to bits!’
There was a laugh, expressive of spite finally satisfied, and even Gagniere at the other end of the table joined in the sneering. Then they eased their feelings in malicious words, and rejoiced over the sudden fall of prices which had thrown the world of ‘young masters’ into consternation. It was inevitable, the predicted time was coming, the exaggerated rise was about to finish in a catastrophe. Since the amateurs had been panic-stricken, seized with consternation like that of speculators when a ‘slump’ sweeps over a Stock Exchange, prices were giving way day by day, and nothing more was sold. It was a sight to see the famous Naudet amid the rout; he had held out at first, he had invented ‘the dodge of the Yankee’— the unique picture hidden deep in some gallery, in solitude like an idol — the picture of which he would not name the price, being contemptuously certain that he could never find a man rich enough to purchase it, but which he finally sold for two or three hundred thousand francs to some pig-dealer of Chicago, who felt glorious at carrying off the most expensive canvas of the year. But those fine strokes of business were not to be renewed at present, and Naudet, whose expenditure had increased with his gains, drawn on and swallowed up in the mad craze which was his own work, could now hear his regal mansion crumbling beneath him, and was reduced to defend it against the assault of creditors.
‘Won’t you take some more mushrooms, Mahoudeau?’ obligingly interrupted Henriette.
The servant was now handing round the undercut. They ate, and emptied the decanters; but their bitterness was so great that the best things were offered without being tasted, which distressed the master and mistress of the house.
‘Mushrooms, eh?’ the sculptor ended by repeating. ‘No, thanks.’ And he added: ‘The funny part of it all is, that Naudet is suing Fagerolles. Oh, quite so! he’s going to distrain on him. Ah! it makes me laugh! We shall see a pretty scouring in the Avenue de Villiers among all those petty painters with mansions of their own. House property will go for nothing next spring! Well, Naudet, who had compelled Fagerolles to build a house, and who furnished it for him as he would have furnished a place for a hussy, wanted to get hold of his nick-nacks and hangings again. But Fagerolles had borrowed money on them, so it seems. You can imagine the state of affairs; the dealer accuses the artist of having spoilt his game by exhibiting with the vanity of a giddy fool; while the painter replies that he doesn’t mean to be robbed any longer; and they’ll end by devouring each other — at least, I hope so.’
Gagniere raised his voice, the gentle but inexorable voice of a dreamer just awakened.
‘Fagerolles is done for. Besides, he never had any success.’
The others protested. Well, what about the hundred thousand francs’ worth of pictures he had sold a year, and his medals and his cross of the Legion of Honour? But Gagniere, still obstinate, smiled with a mysterious air, as if facts could not prevail against his inner conviction. He wagged his head and, full of disdain, replied:
‘Let me be! He never knew anything about chiaroscuro.’
Jory was about to defend the talent of Fagerolles, whom he considered to be his own creation, when Henriette solicited a little attention for the raviolis. There was a short slackening of the quarrel amid the crystalline clinking of the glasses and the light clatter of the forks. The table, laid with such fine symmetry, was already in confusion, and seemed to sparkle still more amid the ardent fire of the quarrel. And Sandoz, growing anxious, felt astonished. What was the matter with them all that they attacked Fagerolles so harshly? Hadn’t they all begun together, and were they not all to reach the goal in the same victory? For the first time, a feeling of uneasiness disturbed his dream of eternity, that delight in his Thursdays, which he had pictured following one upon another, all alike, all of them happy ones, into the far distance of the future. But the feeling was as yet only skin deep, and he laughingly exclaimed:
‘Husband your strength, Claude, here are the hazel-hens. Eh! Claude, where are you?’
Since silence had prevailed, Claude had relapsed into his dream, gazing about him vacantly, and taking a second help of raviolis without knowing what he was about; Christine, who said nothing, but sat there looking sad and charming, did not take her eyes off him. He started when Sandoz spoke, and chose a leg from amid the bits of hazel-hen now being served, the strong fumes of which filled the room with a resinous smell.
‘Do you smell that?’ exclaimed Sandoz, amused; ‘one would think one were swallowing all the forests of Russia.’
But Claude returned to the matter which worried him.
‘Then you say that Fagerolles will be entrusted with the paintings for the Municipal Council’s assembly room?’
And this remark sufficed; Mahoudeau and Gagniere, set on the track, at once started off again. Ah! a nice wishy-washy smearing it would be if that assembly room were allotted to him; and he was doing plenty of dirty things to get it. He, who had formerly pretended to spit on orders for work, like a great artist surrounded by amateurs, was basely cringing to the officials, now that his pictures no longer sold. Could anything more despicable be imagined than a painter soliciting a functionary, bowing and scraping, showing all kinds of cowardice and making all kinds of concessions? It was shameful that art should be dependent upon a Minister’s idiotic good pleasure! Fagerolles, at that official dinner he had gone to, was no doubt conscientiously licking the boots of some chief clerk, some idiot who was only fit to be made a guy of.
‘Well,’ said Jory, ‘he effects his purpose, and he’s quite right. You won’t pay his debts.’
‘Debts? Have I any debts, I who have always starved?’ answered Mahoudeau in a roughly arrogant tone. ‘Ought a fellow to build himself a palace and spend money on creatures like that Irma Becot, who’s ruining Fagerolles?’
At this Jory grew angry, while the others jested, and Irma’s name went flying over the table. But Mathilde, who had so far remained reserved and silent by way of making a show of good breeding, became intensely indignant. ‘Oh! gentlemen, oh! gentlemen,’ she exclaimed, ‘to talk before us about that creature. No, not that creature, I implore you!
After that Henriette and Sandoz, who were in consternation, witnessed the rout of their menu. The truffle salad, the ice, the dessert, everything was swallowed without being at all appreciated amidst the rising anger of the quarrel; and the chambertin and sparkling moselle were imbibed as if they had merely been water. In vain did Henriette smile, while Sandoz good-naturedly tried to calm them by making allowances for human weakness. Not one of them retreated from his position; a single word made them spring upon each other. There was none of the vague boredom, the somniferous satiety which at times had saddened their old gatherings; at present there was real ferocity in the struggle, a longing to destroy one another. The tapers of the hanging lamp flared up, the painted flowers of the earthenware on the walls bloomed, the table seemed to have caught fire amid the upsetting of its symmetrical arrangements and the violence of the talk, that demolishing onslaught of chatter which had filled them with fever for a couple of hours past.
And amid the racket, when Henriette made up her mind to rise so as to silence them, Claude at length remarked:
‘Ah! if I only had the Hotel de Ville work, and if I could! It used to be my dream to cover all the walls of Paris!’
They returned to the drawing-room, where the little chandelier and the bracket-candelabra had just been lighted. It seemed almost cold there in comparison with the kind of hot-house which had just been left; and for a moment the coffee calmed the guests. Nobody beyond Fagerolles was expected. The house was not an open one by any means, the Sandozes did not recruit literary dependents or muzzle the press by dint of invitations. The wife detested society, and the husband said with a laugh that he needed ten years to take a liking to anybody, and then he must like him always. But was not that real happiness, seldom realised? A few sound friendships and a nook full of family affection. No music was ever played there, and nobody had ever read a page of his composition aloud.
On that particular Thursday the evening seemed a long one, on account of the persistent irritation of the men. The ladies had begun to chat before the smouldering fire; and when the servant, after clearing the table, reopened the door of the dining-room, they were left alone, the men repairing to the adjoining apartment to smoke and sip some beer.
Sandoz and Claude, who were not smokers, soon returned, however, and sat down, side by side, on a sofa near the doorway. The former, who was glad to see his old friend excited and talkative, recalled the memories of Plassans apropos of a bit of news he had learnt the previous day. Pouillaud, the old jester of their dormitory, who had become so grave a lawyer, was now in trouble over some adventure with a woman. Ah! that brute of a Pouillaud! But Claude did not answer, for, having heard his name mentioned in the dining-room, he listened attentively, trying to understand.
Jory, Mahoudeau, and Gagniere, unsatiated and eager for another bite, had started on the massacre again. Their voices, at first mere whispers, gradually grew louder, till at last they began to shout.
‘Oh! the man, I abandon the man to you,’ said Jory, who was speaking of Fagerolles. ‘He isn’t worth much. And he out-generalled you, it’s true. Ah! how he did get the better of you fellows, by breaking off from you and carving success for himself on your backs! You were certainly not at all cute.’
Mahoudeau, waxing furious, replied:
‘Of course! It sufficed for us to be with Claude, to be turned away everywhere.’
‘It was Claude who did for us!’ so Gagniere squarely asserted.
And thus they went on, relinquishing Fagerolles, whom they reproached for toadying the newspapers, for allying himself with their enemies and wheedling sexagenarian baronesses, to fall upon Claude, who now became the great culprit. Well, after all, the other was only a hussy, one of the many found in the artistic fraternity, fellows who accost the public at street corners, leave their comrades in the lurch, and victimise them so as to get the bourgeois into their studios. But Claude, that abortive great artist, that impotent fellow who couldn’t set a figure on its legs in spite of all his pride, hadn’t he utterly compromised them, hadn’t he let them in altogether? Ah! yes, success might have been won by breaking off. If they had been able to begin over again, they wouldn’t have been idiots enough to cling obstinately to impossible principles! And they accused Claude of having paralysed them, of having traded on them — yes, traded on them, but in so clumsy and dull-witted a manner that he himself had not derived any benefit by it.
‘Why, as for me,’ resumed Mahoudeau, ‘didn’t he make me quite idiotic at one moment? When I think of it, I sound myself, and remain wondering why I ever joined his band. Am I at all like him? Was there ever any one thing in common between us, eh? Ah! it’s exasperating to find the truth out so late in the day!’
‘And as for myself,’ said Gagniere, ‘he robbed me of my originality. Do you think it has amused me, each time I have exhibited a painting during the last fifteen years, to hear people saying behind me, “That’s a Claude!” Oh! I’ve had enough of it, I prefer not to paint any more. All the same, if I had seen clearly in former times, I shouldn’t have associated with him.’
It was a stampede, the snapping of the last ties, in their stupefaction at suddenly finding that they were strangers and enemies, after a long youth of fraternity together. Life had disbanded them on the road, and the great dissimilarity of their characters stood revealed; all that remained in them was the bitterness left by the old enthusiastic dream, that erstwhile hope of battle and victory to be won side by side, which now increased their spite.
‘The fact is,’ sneered Jory, ‘that Fagerolles did not let himself be pillaged like a simpleton.’
But Mahoudeau, feeling vexed, became angry. ‘You do wrong to laugh,’ he said, ‘for you are a nice backslider yourself. Yes, you always told us that you would give us a lift up when you had a paper of your own.’
‘Ah! allow me, allow me —’
Gagniere, however, united with Mahoudeau: ‘That’s quite true!’ he said. ‘You can’t say any more that what you write about us is cut out, for you are the master now. And yet, never a word! You didn’t even name us in your articles on the last Salon.’
Then Jory, embarrassed and stammering, in his turn flew into a rage.
‘Ah! well, it’s the fault of that cursed Claude! I don’t care to lose my subscribers simply to please you fellows. It’s impossible to do anything for you! There! do you understand? You, Mahoudeau, may wear yourself out in producing pretty little things; you, Gagniere, may even never do anything more; but you each have a label on the back, and you’ll need ten years’ efforts before you’ll be able to get it off. In fact, there have been some labels that would never come off! The public is amused by it, you know; there were only you fellows to believe in the genius of that big ridiculous lunatic, who will be locked up in a madhouse one of these fine mornings!’
Then the dispute became terrible, they all three spoke at once, coming at last to abominable reproaches, with such outbursts, and such furious motion of the jaw, that they seemed to be biting one another.
Sandoz, seated on the sofa, and disturbed in the gay memories he was recalling, was at last obliged to lend ear to the tumult which reached him through the open doorway.
‘You hear them?’ whispered Claude, with a dolorous smile; ‘they are giving it me nicely! No, no, stay here, I won’t let you stop them; I deserve it, since I have failed to succeed.’
And Sandoz, turning pale, remained there, listening to that bitter quarrelling, the outcome of the struggle for life, that grappling of conflicting personalities, which bore all his chimera of everlasting friendship away.
Henriette, fortunately, became anxious on hearing the violent shouting. She rose and went to shame the smokers for thus forsaking the ladies to go and quarrel together. They then returned to the drawing-room, perspiring, breathing hard, and still shaken by their anger. And as Henriette, with her eyes on the clock, remarked that they certainly would not see Fagerolles that evening, they, began to sneer again, exchanging glances. Ah! he had a fine scent, and no mistake; he wouldn’t be caught associating with old friends, who had become troublesome, and whom he hated.
In fact, Fagerolles did not come. The evening finished laboriously. They once more went back to the dining-room, where the tea was served on a Russian tablecloth embroidered with a stag-hunt in red thread; and under the tapers a plain cake was displayed, with plates full of sweetstuff and pastry, and a barbarous collection of liqueurs and spirits, whisky, hollands, Chio raki, and kummel. The servant also brought some punch, and bestirred himself round the table, while the mistress of the house filled the teapot from the samovar boiling in front of her. But all the comfort, all the feast for the eyes and the fine perfume of the tea did not move their hearts. The conversation again turned on the success that some men achieved and the ill-luck that befell others. For instance, was it not shameful that art should be dishonoured by all those medals, all those crosses, all those rewards, which were so badly distributed to boot? Were artists always to remain like little boys at school? All the universal platitude came from the docility and cowardice which were shown, as in the presence of ushers, so as to obtain good marks.
They had repaired to the drawing-room once more, and Sandoz, who was greatly distressed, had begun to wish that they would take themselves off, when he noticed Mathilde and Gagniere seated side by side on a sofa and talking languishingly of music, while the others remained exhausted, lacking saliva and power of speech. Gagniere philosophised and poetised in a state of ecstasy, while Mathilde rolled up her eyes and went into raptures as if titillated by some invisible wing. They had caught sight of each other on the previous Sunday at the concert at the Cirque, and they apprised each other of their enjoyment in alternate, far-soaring sentences.
‘Ah! that Meyerbeer, monsieur, the overture of “Struensee,” that funereal strain, and then that peasant dance, so full of dash and colour; and then the mournful burden which returns, the duo of the violoncellos. Ah! monsieur, the violoncellos, the violoncellos!’
‘And Berlioz, madame, the festival air in “Romeo.” Oh! the solo of the clarionets, the beloved women, with the harp accompaniment! Something enrapturing, something white as snow which ascends! The festival bursts upon you, like a picture by Paul Veronese, with the tumultuous magnificence of the “Marriage of Cana”; and then the love-song begins again, oh, how softly! Oh! always higher! higher still —’
‘Did you notice, monsieur, in Beethoven’s Symphony in A, that knell which ever and ever comes back and beats upon your heart? Yes, I see very well, you feel as I do, music is a communion — Beethoven, ah, me! how sad and sweet it is to be two to understand him and give way —’
‘And Schumann, madame, and Wagner, madame — Schumann’s “Reverie,” nothing but the stringed instruments, a warm shower falling on acacia leaves, a sunray which dries them, barely a tear in space. Wagner! ah, Wagner! the overture of the “Flying Dutchman,” are you not fond of it? — tell me you are fond of it! As for myself, it overcomes me. There is nothing left, nothing left, one expires —’
Their voices died away; they did not even look at each other, but sat there elbow to elbow, with their faces turned upward, quite overcome.
Sandoz, who was surprised, asked himself where Mathilde could have picked up that jargon. In some article of Jory’s, perhaps. Besides, he had remarked that women talk music very well, even without knowing a note of it. And he, whom the bitterness of the others had only grieved, became exasperated at sight of Mathilde’s languishing attitude. No, no, that was quite enough; the men tore each other to bits; still that might pass, after all; but what an end to the evening it was, that feminine fraud, cooing and titillating herself with thoughts of Beethoven’s and Schumann’s music! Fortunately, Gagniere suddenly rose. He knew what o’clock it was even in the depths of his ecstasy, and he had only just time left him to catch his last train. So, after exchanging nerveless and silent handshakes with the others, he went off to sleep at Melun.
‘What a failure he is!’ muttered Mahoudeau. ‘Music has killed painting; he’ll never do anything!’
He himself had to leave, and the door had scarcely closed behind his back when Jory declared:
‘Have you seen his last paperweight? He’ll end by sculpturing sleeve-links. There’s a fellow who has missed his mark! To think that he prided himself on being vigorous!’
But Mathilde was already afoot, taking leave of Christine with a curt little inclination of the head, affecting social familiarity with Henriette, and carrying off her husband, who helped her on with her cloak in the ante-room, humble and terrified at the severe glance she gave him, for she had an account to settle.
Then, the door having closed behind them, Sandoz, beside himself, cried out: ‘That’s the end! The journalist was bound to call the others abortions — yes, the journalist who, after patching up articles, has fallen to trading upon public credulity! Ah! luckily there’s Mathilde the Avengeress!’
Of the guests Christine and Claude alone were left. The latter, since the drawing-room had been growing empty, had remained ensconced in the depths of an arm-chair, no longer speaking, but overcome by that species of magnetic slumber which stiffened him, and fixed his eyes on something far away beyond the walls. He protruded his face, a convulsive kind of attention seemed to carry it forward; he certainly beheld something invisible, and heard a summons in the silence.
Christine having risen in her turn, and apologised for being the last to leave, Henriette took hold of her hands, repeated how fond she was of her, begged her to come and see her frequently, and to dispose of her in all things as she would with a sister. But Claude’s sorrowful wife, looking so sadly charming in her black dress, shook her head with a pale smile.
‘Come,’ said Sandoz in her ear, after giving a glance at Claude, ‘you mustn’t distress yourself like that. He has talked a great deal, he has been gayer this evening. He’s all right.’
But in a terrified voice she answered:
‘No, no; look at his eyes — I shall tremble as long as he has his eyes like that. You have done all you could, thanks. What you haven’t done no one will do. Ah! how I suffer at being unable to hope, at being unable to do anything!’
Then in a loud tone she asked:
‘Are you coming, Claude?’
She had to repeat her question twice, for at first he did not hear her; he ended by starting, however, and rose to his feet, saying, as if he had answered the summons from the horizon afar off:
‘Yes, I’m coming, I’m coming.’
When Sandoz and his wife at last found themselves alone in the drawing-room, where the atmosphere now was stifling — heated by the lights and heavy, as it were, with melancholy silence after all the outbursts of the quarrelling — they looked at one another and let their arms fall, quite heart-rent by the unfortunate issue of their dinner party. Henrietta tried to laugh it off, however, murmuring:
‘I warned you, I quite understood —’
But he interrupted her with a despairing gesture. What! was that, then, the end of his long illusion, that dream of eternity which had made him set happiness in a few friendships, formed in childhood, and shared until extreme old age? Ah! what a wretched band, what a final rending, what a terrible balance-sheet to weep over after that bankruptcy of the human heart! And he grew astonished on thinking of the friends who had fallen off by the roadside, of the great affections lost on the way, of the others unceasingly changing around himself, in whom he found no change. His poor Thursdays filled him with pity, so many memories were in mourning, it was the slow death of all that one loves! Would his wife and himself have to resign themselves to live as in a desert, to cloister themselves in utter hatred of the world? Ought they rather to throw their doors wide open to a throng of strangers and indifferent folk? By degrees a certainty dawned in the depths of his grief: everything ended and nothing began again in life. He seemed to yield to evidence, and, heaving a big sigh, exclaimed:
‘You were right. We won’t invite them to dinner again — they would devour one another.’
As soon as Claude and Christine reached the Place de la Trinite on their way home, the painter let go of his wife’s arm; and, stammering that he had to go somewhere, he begged her to return to the Rue Tourlaque without him. She had felt him shuddering, and she remained quite scared with surprise and fear. Somewhere to go at that hour — past midnight! Where had he to go, and what for? He had turned round and was making off, when she overtook him, and, pretending that she was frightened, begged that he would not leave her to climb up to Montmartre alone at that time of night. This consideration alone brought him back. He took her arm again; they ascended the Rue Blanche and the Rue Lepic, and at last found themselves in the Rue Tourlaque. And on reaching their door, he rang the bell, and then again left her.
‘Here you are,’ he said; ‘I’m going.’
He was already hastening away, taking long strides, and gesticulating like a madman. Without even closing the door which had been opened, she darted off, bent on following him. In the Rue Lepic she drew near; but for fear of exciting him still more she contented herself with keeping him in sight, walking some thirty yards in the rear, without his knowing that she was behind him. On reaching the end of the Rue Lepic he went down the Rue Blanche again, and then proceeded by way of the Rue de la Chaussee-d’Antin and the Rue du Dix Decembre as far as the Rue de Richelieu. When she saw him turn into the last-named thoroughfare, a mortal chill came over her: he was going towards the Seine; it was the realisation of the frightful fear which kept her of a night awake, full of anguish! And what could she do, good Lord? Go with him, hang upon his neck over yonder? She was now only able to stagger along, and as each step brought them nearer to the river, she felt life ebbing from her limbs. Yes, he was going straight there; he crossed the Place du Theatre Francais, then the Carrousel, and finally reached the Pont des Saints-Peres. After taking a few steps along the bridge, he approached the railing overlooking the water; and at the thought that he was about to jump over, a loud cry was stifled in her contracted throat.
But no; he remained motionless. Was it then only the Cite over yonder that haunted him, that heart of Paris which pursued him everywhere, which he conjured up with his fixed eyes, even through walls, and which, when he was leagues away, cried out the constant summons heard by him alone? She did not yet dare to hope it; she had stopped short, in the rear, watching him with giddy anxiety, ever fancying that she saw him take the terrible leap, but resisting her longing to draw nearer, for fear lest she might precipitate the catastrophe by showing herself. Oh, God! to think that she was there with her devouring passion, her bleeding motherly heart — that she was there beholding everything, without daring to risk one movement to hold him back!
He stood erect, looking very tall, quite motionless, and gazing into the night.
It was a winter’s night, with a misty sky of sooty blackness, and was rendered extremely cold by a sharp wind blowing from the west. Paris, lighted up, had gone to sleep, showing no signs of life save such as attached to the gas-jets, those specks which scintillated and grew smaller and smaller in the distance till they seemed but so much starry dust. The quays stretched away showing double rows of those luminous beads whose reverberation glimmered on the nearer frontages. On the left were the houses of the Quai du Louvre, on the right the two wings of the Institute, confused masses of monuments and buildings, which became lost to view in the darkening gloom, studded with sparks. Then between those cordons of burners, extending as far as the eye could reach, the bridges stretched bars of lights, ever slighter and slighter, each formed of a train of spangles, grouped together and seemingly hanging in mid-air. And in the Seine there shone the nocturnal splendour of the animated water of cities; each gas-jet there cast a reflection of its flame, like the nucleus of a comet, extending into a tail. The nearer ones, mingling together, set the current on fire with broad, regular, symmetrical fans of light, glowing like live embers, while the more distant ones, seen under the bridges, were but little motionless sparks of fire. But the large burning tails appeared to be animated, they waggled as they spread out, all black and gold, with a constant twirling of scales, in which one divined the flow of the water. The whole Seine was lighted up by them, as if some fete were being given in its depths — some mysterious, fairy-like entertainment, at which couples were waltzing beneath the river’s red-flashing window-panes. High above those fires, above the starry quays, the sky, in which not a planet was visible, showed a ruddy mass of vapour, that warm, phosphorescent exhalation which every night, above the sleep of the city, seems to set the crater of a volcano.
The wind blew hard, and Christine, shivering, her eyes full of tears, felt the bridge move under her, as if it were bearing her away amid a smash up of the whole scene. Had not Claude moved? Was he not climbing over the rail? No; everything became motionless again, and she saw him still on the same spot, obstinately stiff, with his eyes turned towards the point of the Cite, which he could not see.
It had summoned him, and he had come, and yet he could not see it in the depths of the darkness. He could only distinguish the bridges, with their light framework standing out blackly against the sparkling water. But farther off everything became confused, the island had disappeared, he could not even have told its exact situation if some belated cabs had not passed from time to time over the Pont-Neuf, with their lamps showing like those shooting sparks which dart at times through embers. A red lantern, on a level with the dam of the Mint, cast a streamlet of blood, as it were, into the water. Something huge and lugubrious, some drifting form, no doubt a lighter which had become unmoored, slowly descended the stream amid the reflections. Espied for a moment, it was immediately afterwards lost in the darkness. Where had the triumphal island sunk? In the depths of that flow of water? Claude still gazed, gradually fascinated by the great rushing of the river in the night. He leant over its broad bed, chilly like an abyss, in which the mysterious flames were dancing. And the loud, sad wail of the current attracted him, and he listened to its call, despairing, unto death.
By a shooting pain at her heart, Christine this time realised that the terrible thought had just occurred to him. She held out her quivering hands which the wind was lashing. But Claude remained there, struggling against the sweetness of death; indeed he did not move for another hour, he lingered there unconscious of the lapse of time, with his eyes still turned in the direction of the Cite, as if by a miracle of power they were about to create light, and conjure up the island so that he might behold it.
When Claude at last left the bridge, with stumbling steps, Christine had to pass in front and run in order to be home in the Rue Tourlaque before him.
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:58