IT was nearly three o’clock when they went to bed that night, with the bitter cold November wind blowing through their little room and the big studio. Christine, breathless from her run, had quickly slipped between the sheets so that he might not know that she had followed him; and Claude, quite overcome, had taken his clothes off, one garment after another, without saying a word. For long months they had been as strangers; until then, however, she had never felt such a barrier between them, such tomb-like coldness.
She struggled for nearly a quarter of an hour against the sleepiness coming over her. She was very tired, and a kind of torpor numbed her; still she would not give way, feeling anxious at leaving him awake. She thus waited every night until he dozed off, so that she herself might afterwards sleep in peace. But he had not extinguished the candle, he lay there with his eyes open, fixed upon its flame. What could he be thinking of? Had he remained in fancy over yonder in the black night, amid the moist atmosphere of the quays, in front of Paris studded with stars like a frosty sky? And what inner conflict, what matter that had to be decided, contracted his face like that? Then, resistance being impossible, she succumbed and glided into the slumber following upon great weariness.
An hour later, the consciousness of something missing, the anguish of uneasiness awoke her with a sudden start. She at once felt the bed beside her, it was already cold: he was no longer there, she had already divined it while asleep. And she was growing alarmed, still but half awake, her head heavy and her ears buzzing, when through the doorway, left ajar, she perceived a ray of light coming from the studio. She then felt reassured, she thought that in a fit of sleeplessness he had gone to fetch some book or other; but at last, as he did not return, she ended by softly rising so as to take a peep. What she beheld quite unsettled her, and kept her standing on the tiled floor, with her feet bare, in such surprise that she did not at first dare to show herself.
Claude, who was in his shirt-sleeves, despite the coldness of the temperature, having merely put on his trousers and slippers in his haste, was standing on the steps in front of his large picture. His palette was lying at his feet, and with one hand he held the candle, while with the other he painted. His eyes were dilated like those of a somnambulist, his gestures were precise and stiff; he stooped every minute to take some colour on his brush, and then rose up, casting a large fantastic shadow on the wall. And there was not a sound; frightful silence reigned in the big dim room.
Christine guessed the truth and shuddered. The besetting worry, made more acute by that hour spent on the Pont des Saints-Peres, had prevented him from sleeping and had brought him once more before his canvas, consumed with a longing to look at it again, in spite of the lateness of the hour. He had, no doubt, only climbed the steps to fill his eyes the nearer. Then, tortured by the sight of some faulty shade, upset by some defect, to such a point that he could not wait for daylight, he had caught up a brush, at first merely wishing to give a simple touch, and then had been carried on from correction to correction, until at last, with the candle in his hand, he painted there like a man in a state of hallucination, amid the pale light which darted hither and thither as he gesticulated. His powerless creative rage had seized hold of him again, he was wearing himself out, oblivious of the hour, oblivious of the world; he wished to infuse life into his work at once.
Ah, what a pitiful sight! And with what tear-drenched eyes did Christine gaze at him! At first she thought of leaving him to that mad work, as a maniac is left to the pleasures of his craziness. He would never finish that picture, that was quite certain now. The more desperately he worked at it, the more incoherent did it become; the colouring had grown heavy and pasty, the drawing was losing shape and showing signs of effort. Even the background and the group of labourers, once so substantial and satisfactory, were getting spoiled; yet he clung to them, he had obstinately determined to finish everything else before repainting the central figure, the nude woman, which remained the dread and the desire of his hours of toil, and which would finish him off whenever he might again try to invest it with life. For months he had not touched it, and this had tranquillised Christine and made her tolerant and compassionate, amid her jealous spite; for as long as he did not return to that feared and desired mistress, she thought that he betrayed her less.
Her feet were freezing on the tiles, and she was turning to get into bed again when a shock brought her back to the door. She had not understood at first, but now at last she saw. With broad curved strokes of his brush, full of colour, Claude was at once wildly and caressingly modelling flesh. He had a fixed grin on his lips, and did not feel the burning candle-grease falling on his fingers, while with silent, passionate see-sawing, his right arm alone moved against the wall, casting black confusion upon it. He was working at the nude woman.
Then Christine opened the door and walked into the studio. An invincible revolt, the anger of a wife buffeted at home, impelled her forward. Yes, he was with that other, he was painting her like a visionary, whom wild craving for truth had brought to the madness of the unreal; and those limbs were being gilded like the columns of a tabernacle, that trunk was becoming a star, shimmering with yellow and red, splendid and unnatural. Such strange nudity — like unto a monstrance gleaming with precious stones and intended for religious adoration — brought her anger to a climax. She had suffered too much, she would not tolerate it.
And yet at first she simply showed herself despairing and supplicating. It was but the mother remonstrating with her big mad boy of an artist that spoke.
‘What are you doing there, Claude? Is it reasonable, Claude, to have such ideas? Come to bed, I beg of you, don’t stay on those steps where you will catch your death of cold!’
He did not answer; he stooped again to take some more paint on his brush, and made the figure flash with two bright strokes of vermilion.
‘Listen to me, Claude, in pity come to me — you know that I love you — you see how anxious you have made me. Come, oh! come, if you don’t want me to die of cold and waiting for you.’
With his face haggard, he did not look at her; but while he bedecked a part of the figure with carmine, he grumbled in a husky voice:
‘Just leave me alone, will you? I’m working.’
Christine remained silent for a moment. She was drawing herself erect, her eyes began to gleam with fire, rebellion inflated her gentle, charming form. Then she burst forth, with the growl of a slave driven to extremities.
‘Well, no, I won’t leave you alone! I’ve had enough of it. I’ll tell you what’s stifling me, what has been killing me ever since I have known you. Ah! that painting, yes, your painting, she’s the murderess who has poisoned my life! I had a presentiment of it on the first day; your painting frightened me as if it were a monster. I found it abominable, execrable; but then, one’s cowardly, I loved you too much not to like it also; I ended by growing accustomed to it! But later on, how I suffered! — how it tortured me! For ten years I don’t recollect having spent a day without shedding tears. No, leave me! I am easing my mind, I must speak out, since I have found strength enough to do so. For ten years I have been abandoned and crushed every day. Ah! to be nothing more to you, to feel myself cast more and more on one side, to fall to the rank of a servant; and to see that other one, that thief, place herself between you and me and clutch hold of you and triumph and insult me! For dare, yes, dare to say that she hasn’t taken possession of you, limb by limb, glided into your brain, your heart, your flesh, everywhere! She holds you like a vice, she feeds on you; in fact, she’s your wife, not I. She’s the only one you care for! Ah! the cursed wretch, the hussy!’
Claude was now listening to her, in his astonishment at that dolorous outburst; and being but half roused from his exasperated creative dream, he did not as yet very well understand why she was talking to him like that. And at sight of his stupor, the shuddering of a man surprised in a debauch, she flew into a still greater passion; she mounted the steps, tore the candlestick from his hand, and in her turn flashed the light in front of the picture.
‘Just look!’ she cried, ‘just tell me how you have improved matters? It’s hideous, it’s lamentable and grotesque; you’ll end by seeing so yourself. Come, isn’t it ugly, isn’t it idiotic? You see very well that you are conquered, so why should you persist any longer? There is no sense in it, that’s what upsets me. If you can’t be a great painter, life, at least, remains to us. Ah! life, life!’
She had placed the candle on the platform of the steps, and as he had gone down, staggering, she sprang off to join him, and they both found themselves below, he crouching on the last step, and she pressing his inert, dangling hands with all her strength.
‘Come, there’s life! Drive your nightmare away, and let us live, live together. Isn’t it too stupid, to be we two together, to be growing old already, and to torture ourselves, and fail in every attempt to find happiness? Oh! the grave will take us soon enough, never fear. Let’s try to live, and love one another. Remember Bennecourt! Listen to my dream. I should like to be able to take you away to-morrow. We would go far from this cursed Paris, we would find a quiet spot somewhere, and you would see how pleasant I would make your life; how nice it would be to forget everything together! Of a morning there are strolls in the sunlight, the breakfast which smells nice, the idle afternoon, the evening spent side by side under the lamp! And no more worrying about chimeras, nothing but the delight of living! Doesn’t it suffice that I love you, that I adore you, that I am willing to be your servant, your slave, to exist solely for your pleasures? Do you hear, I love you, I love you? there is nothing else, and that is enough — I love you!’
He had freed his hands, and making a gesture of refusal, he said, in a gloomy voice:
‘No, it is not enough! I won’t go away with you, I won’t be happy, I will paint!’
‘And I shall die of it, eh? And you will die of it, and we shall end by leaving all our blood and all our tears in it! There’s nothing beyond Art, that is the fierce almighty god who strikes us with his thunder, and whom you honour! he may crush us, since he is the master, and you will still bless his name!’
‘Yes, I belong to that god, he may do what he pleases with me. I should die if I no longer painted, and I prefer to paint and die of it. Besides, my will is nothing in the matter. Nothing exists beyond art; let the world burst!’
She drew herself up in a fresh spurt of anger. Her voice became harsh and passionate again.
‘But I— I am alive, and the women you love are lifeless! Oh! don’t say no! I know very well that all those painted women of yours are the only ones you care about! Before I was yours I had already perceived it. Then, for a short time you appeared to love me. It was at that period you told me all that nonsense about your fondness for your creations. You held such shadows in pity when you were with me; but it didn’t last. You returned to them, oh! like a maniac returns to his mania. I, though living, no longer existed for you; it was they, the visions, who again became the only realities of your life. What I then endured you never knew, for you are wonderfully ignorant of women. I have lived by your side without your ever understanding me. Yes, I was jealous of those painted creatures. When I posed to you, only one idea lent me the courage that I needed. I wanted to fight them, I hoped to win you back; but you granted me nothing, not even a kiss on my shoulder! Oh, God! how ashamed I sometimes felt! What grief I had to force back at finding myself thus disdained and thus betrayed!’
She continued boldly, she spoke out freely — she, so strangely compounded of passion and modesty. And she was not mistaken in her jealousy when she accused his art of being responsible for his neglect of herself. At the bottom of it all, there was the theory which he had repeated a hundred times in her presence: genius should be chaste, an artist’s only spouse should be his work.
‘You repulse me,’ she concluded violently; ‘you draw back from me as if I displeased you! And you love what? A nothing, a mere semblance, a little dust, some colour spread upon a canvas! But, once more, look at her, look at your woman up yonder! See what a monster you have made of her in your madness! Are there any women like that? Have any women golden limbs, and flowers on their bodies? Wake up, open your eyes, return to life again!’
Claude, obeying the imperious gesture with which she pointed to the picture, had now risen and was looking. The candle, which had remained upon the platform of the steps, illumined the nude woman like a taper in front of an altar, whilst the whole room around remained plunged in darkness. He was at length awakening from his dream, and the woman thus seen from below, at a distance of a few paces, filled him with stupefaction. Who had just painted that idol of some unknown religion? Who had wrought her of metals, marbles, and gems? Was it he who had unconsciously created that symbol of insatiable passion, that unhuman presentment of flesh, which had become transformed into gold and diamonds under his fingers, in his vain effort to make it live? He gasped and felt afraid of his work, trembling at the thought of that sudden plunge into the infinite, and understanding at last that it had become impossible for him even to depict Reality, despite his long effort to conquer and remould it, making it yet more real with his human hands.
‘You see! you see!’ Christine repeated, victoriously. And he, in a very low voice, stammered:
‘Oh! what have I done? Is it impossible to create, then? Haven’t our hands the power to create beings?’
She felt that he was giving way, and she caught him in her arms:
‘But why all this folly? — why think of anyone but me — I who love you? You took me for your model, but what was the use, say? Are those paintings of yours worth me? They are frightful, they are as stiff, as cold as corpses. But I am alive, and I love you!’
She seemed to be at that moment the very incarnation of passionate love. He turned and looked at her, and little by little he returned her embrace; she was softening him and conquering him.
‘Listen!’ she continued. ‘I know that you had a frightful thought; yes, I never dared to speak to you about it, because one must never bring on misfortune; but I no longer sleep of a night, you frighten me. This evening I followed you to that bridge which I hate, and I trembled, oh! I thought that it was all over — that I had lost you. Oh, God! what would become of me? I need you — you surely do not wish to kill me! Let us live and love one another — yes, love one another!’
Then, in the emotion caused him by her infinite passion and grief, he yielded. He pressed her to him, sobbing and stammering:
‘It is true I had that frightful thought — I should have done it, and I only resisted on thinking of that unfinished picture. But can I still live if work will have nothing more to do with me? How can I live after that, after what’s there, what I spoilt just now?’
‘I will love you, and you will live.’
‘Ah! you will never love me enough — I know myself. Something which does not exist would be necessary — something which would make me forget everything. You were already unable to change me. You cannot accomplish a miracle!’
Then, as she protested and kissed him passionately, he went on: ‘Well, yes, save me! Yes, save me, if you don’t want me to kill myself! Lull me, annihilate me, so that I may become your thing, slave enough, small enough to dwell under your feet, in your slippers. Ah! to live only on your perfume, to obey you like a dog, to eat and sleep — if I could, if I only could!’
She raised a cry of victory: ‘At last you are mine! There is only I left, the other is quite dead!’
And she dragged him from the execrated painting, she carried him off triumphantly. The candle, now nearly consumed, flared up for a minute behind them on the steps, before the big painting, and then went out. It was victory, yes, but could it last?
Daylight was about to break, and Christine lay asleep beside Claude. She was breathing softly, and a smile played upon her lips. He had closed his eyes; and yet, despite himself, he opened them afresh and gazed into the darkness. Sleep fled from him, and confused ideas again ascended to his brain. As the dawn appeared, yellowishly dirty, like a splash of liquid mud on the window-panes, he started, fancying that he heard a loud voice calling to him from the far end of the studio. Then, irresistibly, despite a few brief hours’ forgetfulness, all his old thoughts returned, overflowing and torturing him, hollowing his cheeks and contracting his jaws in the disgust he felt for mankind. Two wrinkles imparted intense bitterness to the expression of his face, which looked like the wasted countenance of an old man. And suddenly the loud voice from the far end of the studio imperiously summoned him a second time. Then he quite made up his mind: it was all over, he suffered too much, he could no longer live, since everything was a lie, since there was nothing left upon earth. Love! what was it? Nought but a passing illusion. This thought at last mastered him, possessed him entirely; and soon the craving for nothingness as his only refuge came on him stronger than ever. At first he let Christine’s head slip down from his shoulder on which it rested. And then, as a third summons rang out in his mind, he rose and went to the studio, saying:
‘Yes, yes, I’m coming,’
The sky did not clear, it still remained dirty and mournful — it was one of those lugubrious winter dawns; and an hour later Christine herself awoke with a great chilly shiver. She did not understand at first. How did it happen that she was alone? Then she remembered: she had fallen asleep with her cheek against his. How was it then that he had left her? Where could he be? Suddenly, amid her torpor, she sprang out of bed and ran into the studio. Good God! had he returned to the other then? Had the other seized hold of him again, when she herself fancied that she had conquered him for ever?
She saw nothing at the first glance she took; in the cold and murky morning twilight the studio seemed to her to be deserted. But whilst she was tranquillising herself at seeing nobody there, she raised her eyes to the canvas, and a terrible cry leapt from her gaping mouth:
‘Claude! oh, Claude!’
Claude had hanged himself from the steps in front of his spoilt work. He had simply taken one of the cords which held the frame to the wall, and had mounted the platform, so as to fasten the rope to an oaken crosspiece, which he himself had one day nailed to the uprights to consolidate them. Then from up above he had leapt into space. He was hanging there in his shirt, with his feet bare, looking horrible, with his black tongue protruding, and his bloodshot eyes starting from their orbits; he seemed to have grown frightfully tall in his motionless stiffness, and his face was turned towards the picture, close to the nude woman, as if he had wished to infuse his soul into her with his last gasp, and as if he were still looking at her with his expressionless eyes.
Christine, however, remained erect, quite overwhelmed with the grief, fright, and anger which dilated her body. Only a continuous howl came from her throat. She opened her arms, stretched them towards the picture, and clenched both hands.
‘Oh, Claude! oh, Claude!’ she gasped at last, ‘she has taken you back — the hussy has killed you, killed you, killed you!’
Then her legs gave way. She span round and fell all of a heap upon the tiled flooring. Her excessive suffering had taken all the blood from her heart, and, fainting away, she lay there, as if she were dead, like a white rag, miserable, done for, crushed beneath the fierce sovereignty of Art. Above her the nude woman rose radiant in her symbolic idol’s brightness; painting triumphed, alone immortal and erect, even when mad.
At nine o’clock on the Monday morning, when Sandoz, after the formalities and delay occasioned by the suicide, arrived in the Rue Tourlaque for the funeral, he found only a score of people on the footway. Despite his great grief, he had been running about for three days, compelled to attend to everything. At first, as Christine had been picked up half dead, he had been obliged to have her carried to the Hopital de Lariboisiere; then he had gone from the municipal offices, to the undertaker’s and the church, paying everywhere, and full of indifference so far as that went, since the priests were willing to pray over that corpse with a black circle round its neck. Among the people who were waiting he as yet only perceived some neighbours, together with a few inquisitive folk; while other people peered out of the house windows and whispered together, excited by the tragedy. Claude’s friends would, no doubt, soon come. He, Sandoz, had not been able to write to any members of the family, as he did not know their addresses. However, he retreated into the background on the arrival of two relatives, whom three lines in the newspapers had roused from the forgetfulness in which Claude himself, no doubt, had left them. There was an old female cousin,* with the equivocal air of a dealer in second-hand goods, and a male cousin, of the second degree, a wealthy man, decorated with the Legion of Honour, and owning one of the large Paris drapery shops. He showed himself good-naturedly condescending in his elegance, and desirous of displaying an enlightened taste for art. The female cousin at once went upstairs, turned round the studio, sniffed at all the bare wretchedness, and then walked down again, with a hard mouth, as if she were irritated at having taken the trouble to come. The second cousin, on the contrary, drew himself up and walked first behind the hearse, filling the part of chief mourner with proud and pleasant fitness.
* Madame Sidonie, who figures in M. Zola’s novel, ‘La Curee.’ The male cousin, mentioned immediately afterwards, is Octave Mouret, the leading character of ‘Pot-Bouille’ and ‘Au Bonheur des Dames.’— ED.
As the procession was starting off, Bongrand came up, and, after shaking hands with Sandoz, remained beside him. He was gloomy, and, glancing at the fifteen or twenty strangers who followed, he murmured:
‘Ah! poor chap! What! are there only we two?’
Dubuche was at Cannes with his children. Jory and Fagerolles kept away, the former hating the deceased and the latter being too busy. Mahoudeau alone caught the party up at the rise of the Rue Lepic, and he explained that Gagniere must have missed the train.
The hearse slowly ascended the steep thoroughfare which winds round the flanks of the height of Montmartre; and now and then cross streets, sloping downward, sudden gaps amid the houses, showed one the immensity of Paris as deep and as broad as a sea. When the party arrived in front of the Church of St. Pierre, and the coffin was carried up the steps, it overtopped the great city for a moment. There was a grey wintry sky overhead, large masses of clouds swept along, carried away by an icy wind, and in the mist Paris seemed to expand, to become endless, filling the horizon with threatening billows. The poor fellow who had wished to conquer it, and had broken his neck in his fruitless efforts, now passed in front of it, nailed under an oaken board, returning to the earth like one of the city’s muddy waves.
On leaving the church the female cousin disappeared, Mahoudeau likewise; while the second cousin again took his position behind the hearse. Seven other unknown persons decided to follow, and they started for the new cemetery of St. Ouen, to which the populace has given the disquieting and lugubrious name of Cayenne. There were ten mourners in all.
‘Well, we two shall be the only old friends,’ repeated Bongrand as he walked on beside Sandoz.
The procession, preceded by the mourning coach in which the priest and the choirboy were seated, now descended the other side of the height, along winding streets as precipitous as mountain paths. The horses of the hearse slipped over the slimy pavement; one could hear the wheels jolting noisily. Right behind, the ten mourners took short and careful steps, trying to avoid the puddles, and being so occupied with the difficulty of the descent that they refrained from speaking. But at the bottom of the Rue du Ruisseau, when they reached the Porte de Clignancourt and the vast open spaces, where the boulevard running round the city, the circular railway, the talus and moat of the fortifications are displayed to view, there came sighs of relief, a few words were exchanged, and the party began to straggle.
Sandoz and Bongrand by degrees found themselves behind all the others, as if they had wished to isolate themselves from those folk whom they had never previously seen. Just as the hearse was passing the city gate, the painter leant towards the novelist.
‘And the little woman, what is going to be done with her?’
‘Ah! how dreadful it is!’ replied Sandoz. ‘I went to see her yesterday at the hospital. She has brain fever. The house doctor maintains that they will save her, but that she will come out of it ten years older and without any strength. Do you know that she had come to such a point that she no longer knew how to spell. Such a crushing fall, a young lady abased to the level of a drudge! Yes, if we don’t take care of her like a cripple, she will end by becoming a scullery-maid somewhere.’
‘And not a copper, of course?’
‘Not a copper. I thought I should find the studies Claude made from nature for his large picture, those superb studies which he afterwards turned to such poor account. But I ferreted everywhere; he gave everything away; people robbed him. No, nothing to sell, not a canvas that could be turned to profit, nothing but that huge picture, which I demolished and burnt with my own hands, and right gladly, I assure you, even as one avenges oneself.’
They became silent for a moment. The broad road leading to St. Ouen stretched out quite straight as far as the eye could reach; and over the plain went the procession, pitifully small, lost, as it were, on that highway, along which there flowed a river of mud. A line of palings bordered it on either side, waste land extended both to right and left, while afar off one only saw some factory chimneys and a few lofty white houses, standing alone, obliquely to the road. They passed through the Clignancourt fete, with booths, circuses, and roundabouts on either side, all shivering in the abandonment of winter, empty dancing cribs, mouldy swings, and a kind of stage homestead, ‘The Picardy Farm,’ looking dismally sad between its broken fences.
‘Ah! his old canvases,’ resumed Bongrand, ‘the things he had at the Quai de Bourbon, do you remember them? There were some extraordinary bits among them. The landscapes he brought back from the south and the academy studies he painted at Boutin’s — a girl’s legs and a woman’s trunk, for instance. Oh, that trunk! Old Malgras must have it. A magisterial study it was, which not one of our “young masters” could paint. Yes, yes, the fellow was no fool — simply a great painter.’
‘When I think,’ said Sandoz, ‘that those little humbugs of the School and the press accused him of idleness and ignorance, repeating one after the other that he had always refused to learn his art. Idle! good heavens! why, I have seen him faint with fatigue after sittings ten hours long; he gave his whole life to his work, and killed himself in his passion for toil! And they call him ignorant — how idiotic! They will never understand that the individual gift which a man brings in his nature is superior to all acquired knowledge. Delacroix also was ignorant of his profession in their eyes, simply because he could not confine himself to hard and fast rules! Ah! the ninnies, the slavish pupils who are incapable of painting anything incorrectly!’
He took a few steps in silence, and then he added:
‘A heroic worker, too — a passionate observer whose brain was crammed with science — the temperament of a great artist endowed with admirable gifts. And to think that he leaves nothing, nothing!’
‘Absolutely nothing, not a canvas,’ declared Bongrand. ‘I know nothing of his but rough drafts, sketches, notes carelessly jotted down, as it were, all that artistic paraphernalia which can’t be submitted to the public. Yes, indeed, it is really a dead man, dead completely, who is about to be lowered into the grave.’
However, the painter and the novelist now had to hasten their steps, for they had got far behind the others while talking; and the hearse, after rolling past taverns and shops full of tombstones and crosses, was turning to the right into the short avenue leading to the cemetery. They overtook it, and passed through the gateway with the little procession. The priest in his surplice and the choirboy carrying the holy water receiver, who had both alighted from the mourning coach, walked on ahead.
It was a large flat cemetery, still in its youth, laid out by rule and line in the suburban waste land, and divided into squares by broad symmetrical paths. A few raised tombs bordered the principal avenues, but most of the graves, already very numerous, were on a level with the soil. They were hastily arranged temporary sepulchres, for five-year grants were the only ones to be obtained, and families hesitated to go to any serious expense. Thus, the stones sinking into the ground for lack of foundations, the scrubby evergreens which had not yet had time to grow, all the provisional slop kind of mourning that one saw there, imparted to that vast field of repose a look of poverty and cold, clean, dismal bareness like that of a barracks or a hospital. There was not a corner to be found recalling the graveyard nooks sung of in the ballads of the romantic period, not one leafy turn quivering with mystery, not a single large tomb speaking of pride and eternity. You were in the new style of Paris cemetery, where everything is set out straight and duly numbered — the cemetery of democratic times, where the dead seem to slumber at the bottom of an office drawer, after filing past one by one, as people do at a fete under the eyes of the police, so as to avoid obstruction.
‘Dash it!’ muttered Bongrand, ‘it isn’t lively here.’
‘Why not?’ asked Sandoz. ‘It’s commodious; there is plenty of air. And even although there is no sun, see what a pretty colour it all has.’
In fact, under the grey sky of that November morning, in the penetrating quiver of the wind, the low tombs, laden with garlands and crowns of beads, assumed soft tints of charming delicacy. There were some quite white, and others all black, according to the colour of the beads. But the contrast lost much of its force amid the pale green foliage of the dwarfish trees. Poor families exhausted their affection for the dear departed in decking those five-year grants; there were piles of crowns and blooming flowers — freshly brought there on the recent Day of the Dead. Only the cut flowers had as yet faded, between their paper collars. Some crowns of yellow immortelles shone out like freshly chiselled gold. But the beads predominated to such a degree that at the first glance there seemed to be nothing else; they gushed forth everywhere, hiding the inscriptions and covering the stones and railings. There were beads forming hearts, beads in festoons and medallions, beads framing either ornamental designs or objects under glass, such as velvet pansies, wax hands entwined, satin bows, or, at times, even photographs of women — yellow, faded, cheap photographs, showing poor, ugly, touching faces that smiled awkwardly.
As the hearse proceeded along the Avenue du Rond Point, Sandoz, whose last remark — since it was of an artistic nature — had brought him back to Claude, resumed the conversation, saying:
‘This is a cemetery which he would have understood, he who was so mad on modern things. No doubt he suffered physically, wasted away by the over-severe lesion that is so often akin to genius, “three grains too little, or three grains too much, of some substance in the brain,” as he himself said when he reproached his parents for his constitution. However, his disorder was not merely a personal affair, he was the victim of our period. Yes, our generation has been soaked in romanticism, and we have remained impregnated with it. It is in vain that we wash ourselves and take baths of reality, the stain is obstinate, and all the scrubbing in the world won’t take it away.’
Bongrand smiled. ‘Oh! as for romanticism,’ said he, ‘I’m up to my ears in it. It has fed my art, and, indeed, I’m impenitent. If it be true that my final impotence is due to that, well, after all, what does it matter? I can’t deny the religion of my artistic life. However, your remark is quite correct; you other fellows, you are rebellious sons. Claude, for instance, with his big nude woman amid the quays, that extravagant symbol —’
‘Ah, that woman!’ interrupted Sandoz, ‘it was she who throttled him! If you knew how he worshipped her! I was never able to cast her out of him. And how can one possibly have clear perception, a solid, properly-balanced brain when such phantasmagoria sprouts forth from your skull? Though coming after yours, our generation is too imaginative to leave healthy work behind it. Another generation, perhaps two, will be required before people will be able to paint and write logically, with the high, pure simplicity of truth. Truth, nature alone, is the right basis, the necessary guide, outside of which madness begins; and the toiler needn’t be afraid of flattening his work, his temperament is there, which will always carry him sufficiently away. Does any one dream of denying personality, the involuntary thumb-stroke which deforms whatever we touch and constitutes our poor creativeness?’
However, he turned his head, and involuntarily added:
‘Hallo! what’s burning? Are they lighting bonfires here?’
The procession had turned on reaching the Rond Point, where the ossuary was situated — the common vault gradually filled with all the remnants removed from the graves, and the stone slab of which, in the centre of a circular lawn, disappeared under a heap of wreaths, deposited there by the pious relatives of those who no longer had an individual resting-place. And, as the hearse rolled slowly to the left in transversal Avenue No. 2, there had come a sound of crackling, and thick smoke had risen above the little plane trees bordering the path. Some distance ahead, as the party approached, they could see a large pile of earthy things beginning to burn, and they ended by understanding. The fire was lighted at the edge of a large square patch of ground, which had been dug up in broad parallel furrows, so as to remove the coffins before allotting the soil to other corpses; just as the peasant turns the stubble over before sowing afresh. The long empty furrows seemed to yawn, the mounds of rich soil seemed to be purifying under the broad grey sky; and the fire thus burning in that corner was formed of the rotten wood of the coffins that had been removed — slit, broken boards, eaten into by the earth, often reduced to a ruddy humus, and gathered together in an enormous pile. They broke up with faint detonations, and being damp with human mud, they refused to flame, and merely smoked with growing intensity. Large columns of the smoke rose into the pale sky, and were beaten down by the November wind, and torn into ruddy shreds, which flew across the low tombs of quite one half of the cemetery.
Sandoz and Bongrand had looked at the scene without saying a word. Then, having passed the fire, the former resumed:
‘No, he did not prove to be the man of the formula he laid down. I mean that his genius was not clear enough to enable him to set that formula erect and impose it upon the world by a definite masterpiece. And now see how other fellows scatter their efforts around him, after him! They go no farther than roughing off, they give us mere hasty impressions, and not one of them seems to have strength enough to become the master who is awaited. Isn’t it irritating, this new notion of light, this passion for truth carried as far as scientific analysis, this evolution begun with so much originality, and now loitering on the way, as it were, falling into the hands of tricksters, and never coming to a head, simply because the necessary man isn’t born? But pooh! the man will be born; nothing is ever lost, light must be.’
‘Who knows? not always,’ said Bongrand. ‘Life miscarries, like everything else. I listen to you, you know, but I’m a despairer. I am dying of sadness, and I feel that everything else is dying. Ah! yes, there is something unhealthy in the atmosphere of the times — this end of a century is all demolition, a litter of broken monuments, and soil that has been turned over and over a hundred times, the whole exhaling a stench of death! Can anybody remain in good health amid all that? One’s nerves become unhinged, the great neurosis is there, art grows unsettled, there is general bustling, perfect anarchy, all the madness of self-love at bay. Never have people quarrelled more and seen less clearly than since it is pretended that one knows everything.’
Sandoz, who had grown pale, watched the large ruddy coils of smoke rolling in the wind.
‘It was fated,’ he mused in an undertone. ‘Our excessive activity and pride of knowledge were bound to cast us back into doubt. This century, which has already thrown so much light over the world, was bound to finish amid the threat of a fresh flow of darkness — yes, our discomfort comes from that! Too much has been promised, too much has been hoped for; people have looked forward to the conquest and explanation of everything, and now they growl impatiently. What! don’t things go quicker than that? What! hasn’t science managed to bring us absolute certainty, perfect happiness, in a hundred years? Then what is the use of going on, since one will never know everything, and one’s bread will always be as bitter? It is as if the century had become bankrupt, as if it had failed; pessimism twists people’s bowels, mysticism fogs their brains; for we have vainly swept phantoms away with the light of analysis, the supernatural has resumed hostilities, the spirit of the legends rebels and wants to conquer us, while we are halting with fatigue and anguish. Ah! I certainly don’t affirm anything; I myself am tortured. Only it seems to me that this last convulsion of the old religious terrors was to be foreseen. We are not the end, we are but a transition, a beginning of something else. It calms me and does me good to believe that we are marching towards reason, and the substantiality of science.’
His voice had become husky with emotion, and he added:
‘That is, unless madness plunges us, topsy-turvy, into night again, and we all go off throttled by the ideal, like our old friend who sleeps there between his four boards.’
The hearse was leaving transversal Avenue No. 2 to turn, on the right, into lateral Avenue No. 3, and the painter, without speaking, called the novelist’s attention to a square plot of graves, beside which the procession was now passing.
There was here a children’s cemetery, nothing but children’s tombs, stretching far away in orderly fashion, separated at regular intervals by narrow paths, and looking like some infantile city of death. There were tiny little white crosses, tiny little white railings, disappearing almost beneath an efflorescence of white and blue wreaths, on a level with the soil; and that peaceful field of repose, so soft in colour, with the bluish tint of milk about it, seemed to have been made flowery by all the childhood lying in the earth. The crosses recorded various ages, two years, sixteen months, five months. One poor little cross, destitute of any railing, was out of line, having been set up slantingly across a path, and it simply bore the words: ‘Eugenie, three days.’ Scarcely to exist as yet, and withal to sleep there already, alone, on one side, like the children who on festive occasions dine at a little side table!
However, the hearse had at last stopped, in the middle of the avenue; and when Sandoz saw the grave ready at the corner of the next division, in front of the cemetery of the little ones, he murmured tenderly:
‘Ah! my poor old Claude, with your big child’s heart, you will be in your place beside them.’
The under-bearers removed the coffin from the hearse. The priest, who looked surly, stood waiting in the wind; some sextons were there with their shovels. Three neighbours had fallen off on the road, the ten had dwindled into seven. The second cousin, who had been holding his hat in his hand since leaving the church, despite the frightful weather, now drew nearer. All the others uncovered, and the prayers were about to begin, when a loud piercing whistle made everybody look up.
Beyond this corner of the cemetery as yet untenanted, at the end of lateral Avenue No. 3, a train was passing along the high embankment of the circular railway which overlooked the graveyard. The grassy slope rose up, and a number of geometrical lines, as it were, stood out blackly against the grey sky; there were telegraph-posts, connected by thin wires, a superintendent’s box, and a red signal plate, the only bright throbbing speck visible. When the train rolled past, with its thunder-crash, one plainly distinguished, as on the transparency of a shadow play, the silhouettes of the carriages, even the heads of the passengers showing in the light gaps left by the windows. And the line became clear again, showing like a simple ink stroke across the horizon; while far away other whistles called and wailed unceasingly, shrill with anger, hoarse with suffering, or husky with distress. Then a guard’s horn resounded lugubriously.
‘Revertitur in terram suam unde erat,’ recited the priest, who had opened a book and was making haste.
But he was not heard, for a large engine had come up puffing, and was manoeuvring backwards and forwards near the funeral party. It had a loud thick voice, a guttural whistle, which was intensely mournful. It came and went, panting; and seen in profile it looked like a heavy monster. Suddenly, moreover, it let off steam, with all the furious blowing of a tempest.
‘Requiescat in pace,’ said the priest.
‘Amen,’ replied the choirboy.
But the words were again lost amid the lashing, deafening detonation, which was prolonged with the continuous violence of a fusillade.
Bongrand, quite exasperated, turned towards the engine. It became silent, fortunately, and every one felt relieved. Tears had risen to the eyes of Sandoz, who had already been stirred by the words which had involuntarily passed his lips, while he walked behind his old comrade, talking as if they had been having one of their familiar chats of yore; and now it seemed to him as if his youth were about to be consigned to the earth. It was part of himself, the best part, his illusions and his enthusiasm, which the sextons were taking away to lower into the depths. At that terrible moment an accident occurred which increased his grief. It had rained so hard during the preceding days, and the ground was so soft, that a sudden subsidence of soil took place. One of the sextons had to jump into the grave and empty it with his shovel with a slow rhythmical movement. There was no end to the matter, the funeral seemed likely to last for ever amid the impatience of the priest and the interest of the four neighbours who had followed on to the end, though nobody could say why. And up above, on the embankment, the engine had begun manoeuvring again, retreating and howling at each turn of its wheels, its fire-box open the while, and lighting up the gloomy scene with a rain of sparks.
At last the pit was emptied, the coffin lowered, and the aspergillus passed round. It was all over. The second cousin, standing erect, did the honours with his correct, pleasant air, shaking hands with all these people whom he had never previously seen, in memory of the relative whose name he had not remembered the day before.
‘That linen-draper is a very decent fellow,’ said Bongrand, who was swallowing his tears.
‘Quite so,’ replied Sandoz, sobbing.
All the others were going off, the surplices of the priest and the choirboy disappeared between the green trees, while the straggling neighbours loitered reading the inscriptions on the surrounding tombs.
Then Sandoz, making up his mind to leave the grave, which was now half filled, resumed:
‘We alone shall have known him. There is nothing left of him, not even a name!’
‘He is very happy,’ said Bongrand; ‘he has no picture on hand, in the earth where he sleeps. It is as well to go off as to toil as we do merely to turn out infirm children, who always lack something, their legs or their head, and who don’t live.’
‘Yes, one must really be wanting in pride to resign oneself to turning out merely approximate work and resorting to trickery with life. I, who bestow every care on my books — I despise myself, for I feel that, despite all my efforts, they are incomplete and untruthful.’
With pale faces, they slowly went away, side by side, past the children’s white tombs, the novelist then in all the strength of his toil and fame, the painter declining but covered with glory.
‘There, at least, lies one who was logical and brave,’ continued Sandoz; ‘he confessed his powerlessness and killed himself.’
‘That’s true,’ said Bongrand; ‘if we didn’t care so much for our skins we should all do as he has done, eh?’
‘Well, yes; since we cannot create anything, since we are but feeble copyists, we might as well put an end to ourselves at once.’
Again they found themselves before the burning pile of old rotten coffins, now fully alight, sweating and crackling; but there were still no flames to be seen, the smoke alone had increased — a thick acrid smoke, which the wind carried along in whirling coils, so that it now covered the whole cemetery as with a cloud of mourning.
‘Dash it! Eleven o’clock!’ said Bongrand, after pulling out his watch. ‘I must get home again.’
Sandoz gave an exclamation of surprise:
‘What, already eleven?’
Over the low-lying graves, over the vast bead-flowered field of death, so formal of aspect and so cold, he cast a long look of despair, his eyes still bedimmed by his tears. And then he added:
‘Let’s go to work.’
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15