AS Claude could not paint his huge picture in the small studio of the Rue de Douai, he made up his mind to rent some shed that would be spacious enough, elsewhere; and strolling one day on the heights of Montmartre, he found what he wanted half way down the slope of the Rue Tourlaque, a street that descends abruptly behind the cemetery, and whence one overlooks Clichy as far as the marshes of Gennevilliers. It had been a dyer’s drying shed, and was nearly fifty feet long and more than thirty broad, with walls of board and plaster admitting the wind from every point of the compass. The place was let to him for three hundred francs. Summer was at hand; he would soon work off his picture and then quit.
This settled, feverish with hope, Claude decided to go to all the necessary expenses; as fortune was certain to come in the end, why trammel its advent by unnecessary scruples? Taking advantage of his right, he broke in upon the principal of his income, and soon grew accustomed to spend money without counting. At first he kept the matter from Christine, for she had already twice stopped him from doing so; and when he was at last obliged to tell her, she also, after a week of reproaches and apprehension, fell in with it, happy at the comfort in which she lived, and yielding to the pleasure of always having a little money in her purse. Thus there came a few years of easy unconcern.
Claude soon became altogether absorbed in his picture. He had furnished the huge studio in a very summary style: a few chairs, the old couch from the Quai de Bourbon, and a deal table bought second-hand for five francs sufficed him. In the practice of his art he was entirely devoid of that vanity which delights in luxurious surroundings. The only real expense to which he went was that of buying some steps on castors, with a platform and a movable footboard. Next he busied himself about his canvas, which he wished to be six and twenty feet in length and sixteen in height. He insisted upon preparing it himself; ordered a framework and bought the necessary seamless canvas, which he and a couple of friends had all the work in the world to stretch properly by the aid of pincers. Then he just coated the canvas with ceruse, laid on with a palette-knife, refusing to size it previously, in order that it might remain absorbent, by which method he declared that the painting would be bright and solid. An easel was not to be thought of. It would not have been possible to move a canvas of such dimensions on it. So he invented a system of ropes and beams, which held it slightly slanting against the wall in a cheerful light. And backwards and forwards in front of the big white surface rolled the steps, looking like an edifice, like the scaffolding by means of which a cathedral is to be reared.
But when everything was ready, Claude once more experienced misgivings. An idea that he had perhaps not chosen the proper light in which to paint his picture fidgeted him. Perhaps an early morning effect would have been better? Perhaps, too, he ought to have chosen a dull day, and so he went back to the Pont des Saint-Peres, and lived there for another three months.
The Cite rose up before him, between the two arms of the river, at all hours and in all weather. After a late fall of snow he beheld it wrapped in ermine, standing above mud-coloured water, against a light slatey sky. On the first sunshiny days he saw it cleanse itself of everything that was wintry and put on an aspect of youth, when verdure sprouted from the lofty trees which rose from the ground below the bridge. He saw it, too, on a somewhat misty day recede to a distance and almost evaporate, delicate and quivering, like a fairy palace. Then, again, there were pelting rains, which submerged it, hid it as with a huge curtain drawn from the sky to the earth; storms, with lightning flashes which lent it a tawny hue, the opaque light of some cut-throat place half destroyed by the fall of the huge copper-coloured clouds; and there were winds that swept over it tempestuously, sharpening its angles and making it look hard, bare, and beaten against the pale blue sky. Then, again, when the sunbeams broke into dust amidst the vapours of the Seine, it appeared steeped in diffused brightness, without a shadow about it, lighted up equally on every side, and looking as charmingly delicate as a cut gem set in fine gold. He insisted on beholding it when the sun was rising and transpiercing the morning mists, when the Quai de l’Horloge flushes and the Quai des Orfevres remains wrapt in gloom; when, up in the pink sky, it is already full of life, with the bright awakening of its towers and spires, while night, similar to a falling cloak, slides slowly from its lower buildings. He beheld it also at noon, when the sunrays fall on it vertically, when a crude glare bites into it, and it becomes discoloured and mute like a dead city, retaining nought but the life of heat, the quiver that darts over its distant housetops. He beheld it, moreover, beneath the setting sun, surrendering itself to the night which was slowly rising from the river, with the salient edges of its buildings still fringed with a glow as of embers, and with final conflagrations rekindling in its windows, from whose panes leapt tongue-like flashes. But in presence of those twenty different aspects of the Cite, no matter what the hour or the weather might be, he ever came back to the Cite that he had seen the first time, at about four o’clock one fine September afternoon, a Cite all serenity under a gentle breeze, a Cite which typified the heart of Paris beating in the limpid atmosphere, and seemingly enlarged by the vast stretch of sky which a flight of cloudlets crossed.
Claude spent his time under the Pont des Saints-Peres, which he had made his shelter, his home, his roof. The constant din of the vehicles overhead, similar to the distant rumbling of thunder, no longer disturbed him. Settling himself against the first abutment, beneath the huge iron arches, he took sketches and painted studies. The employes of the river navigation service, whose offices were hard by, got to know him, and, indeed, the wife of an inspector, who lived in a sort of tarred cabin with her husband, two children, and a cat, kept his canvases for him, to save him the trouble of carrying them to and fro each day. It became his joy to remain in that secluded nook beneath Paris, which rumbled in the air above him, whose ardent life he ever felt rolling overhead. He at first became passionately interested in Port St. Nicolas, with its ceaseless bustle suggesting that of a distant genuine seaport. The steam crane, The Sophia, worked regularly, hauling up blocks of stone; tumbrels arrived to fetch loads of sand; men and horses pulled, panting for breath on the big paving-stones, which sloped down as far as the water, to a granite margin, alongside which two rows of lighters and barges were moored. For weeks Claude worked hard at a study of some lightermen unloading a cargo of plaster, carrying white sacks on their shoulders, leaving a white pathway behind them, and bepowdered with white themselves, whilst hard by the coal removed from another barge had stained the waterside with a huge inky smear. Then he sketched the silhouette of a swimming-bath on the left bank, together with a floating wash-house somewhat in the rear, showing the windows open and the washerwomen kneeling in a row, on a level with the stream, and beating their dirty linen. In the middle of the river, he studied a boat which a waterman sculled over the stern; then, farther behind, a steamer of the towing service straining its chain, and dragging a series of rafts loaded with barrels and boards up stream. The principal backgrounds had been sketched a long while ago, still he did several bits over again — the two arms of the Seine, and a sky all by itself, into which rose only towers and spires gilded by the sun. And under the hospitable bridge, in that nook as secluded as some far-off cleft in a rock, he was rarely disturbed by anybody. Anglers passed by with contemptuous unconcern. His only companion was virtually the overseer’s cat, who cleaned herself in the sunlight, ever placid beneath the tumult of the world overhead.
At last Claude had all his materials ready. In a few days he threw off an outline sketch of the whole, and the great work was begun. However, the first battle between himself and his huge canvas raged in the Rue Tourlaque throughout the summer; for he obstinately insisted upon personally attending to all the technical calculations of his composition, and he failed to manage them, getting into constant muddles about the slightest deviation from mathematical accuracy, of which he had no experience. It made him indignant with himself. So he let it go, deciding to make what corrections might be necessary afterwards. He covered his canvas with a rush — in such a fever as to live all day on his steps, brandishing huge brushes, and expending as much muscular force as if he were anxious to move mountains. And when evening came he reeled about like a drunken man, and fell asleep as soon as he had swallowed his last mouthful of food. His wife even had to put him to bed like a child. From those heroic efforts, however, sprang a masterly first draught in which genius blazed forth amidst the somewhat chaotic masses of colour. Bongrand, who came to look at it, caught the painter in his big arms, and stifled him with embraces, his eyes full of tears. Sandoz, in his enthusiasm, gave a dinner; the others, Jory, Mahoudeau and Gagniere, again went about announcing a masterpiece. As for Fagerolles, he remained motionless before the painting for a moment, then burst into congratulations, pronouncing it too beautiful.
And, in fact, subsequently, as if the irony of that successful trickster had brought him bad luck, Claude only spoilt his original draught. It was the old story over again. He spent himself in one effort, one magnificent dash; he failed to bring out all the rest; he did not know how to finish. He fell into his former impotence; for two years he lived before that picture only, having no feeling for anything else. At times he was in a seventh heaven of exuberant joy; at others flung to earth, so wretched, so distracted by doubt, that dying men gasping in their beds in a hospital were happier than himself. Twice already had he failed to be ready for the Salon, for invariably, at the last moment, when he hoped to have finished in a few sittings, he found some void, felt his composition crack and crumble beneath his fingers. When the third Salon drew nigh, there came a terrible crisis; he remained for a fortnight without going to his studio in the Rue Tourlaque, and when he did so, it was as to a house desolated by death. He turned the huge canvas to the wall and rolled his steps into a corner; he would have smashed and burned everything if his faltering hands had found strength enough. Nothing more existed; amid a blast of anger he swept the floor clean, and spoke of setting to work at little things, since he was incapable of perfecting paintings of any size.
In spite of himself, his first idea of a picture on a smaller scale took him back to the Cite. Why should not he paint a simple view, on a moderate sized canvas? But a kind of shame, mingled with strange jealousy, prevented him from settling himself in his old spot under the Pont des Saints-Peres. It seemed to him as if that spot were sacred now; that he ought not to offer any outrage to his great work, dead as it was. So he stationed himself at the end of the bank, above the bridge. This time, at any rate, he would work directly from nature; and he felt happy at not having to resort to any trickery, as was unavoidable with works of a large size. The small picture, very carefully painted, more highly finished than usual, met, however, with the same fate as the others before the hanging committee, who were indignant with this style of painting, executed with a tipsy brush, as was said at the time in the studios. The slap in the face which Claude thus received was all the more severe, as a report had spread of concessions, of advances made by him to the School of Arts, in order that his work might be received. And when the picture came back to him, he, deeply wounded, weeping with rage, tore it into narrow shreds, which he burned in his stove. It was not sufficient that he should kill that one with a knife-thrust, it must be annihilated.
Another year went by for Claude in desultory toil. He worked from force of habit, but finished nothing; he himself saying, with a dolorous laugh, that he had lost himself, and was trying to find himself again. In reality, tenacious consciousness of his genius left him a hope which nothing could destroy, even during his longest crises of despondency. He suffered like some one damned, for ever rolling the rock which slipped back and crushed him; but the future remained, with the certainty of one day seizing that rock in his powerful arms and flinging it upward to the stars. His friends at last beheld his eyes light up with passion once more. It was known that he again secluded himself in the Rue Tourlaque. He who formerly had always been carried beyond the work on which he was engaged, by some dream of a picture to come, now stood at bay before that subject of the Cite. It had become his fixed idea — the bar that closed up his life. And soon he began to speak freely of it again in a new blaze of enthusiasm, exclaiming, with childish delight, that he had found his way and that he felt certain of victory.
One day Claude, who, so far, had not opened his door to his friends, condescended to admit Sandoz. The latter tumbled upon a study with a deal of dash in it, thrown off without a model, and again admirable in colour. The subject had remained the same — the Port St. Nicolas on the left, the swimming-baths on the right, the Seine and Cite in the background. But Sandoz was amazed at perceiving, instead of the boat sculled by a waterman, another large skiff taking up the whole centre of the composition — a skiff occupied by three women. One, in a bathing costume, was rowing; another sat over the edge with her legs dangling in the water, her costume partially unfastened, showing her bare shoulder; while the third stood erect and nude at the prow, so bright in tone that she seemed effulgent, like the sun.
‘Why, what an idea!’ muttered Sandoz. ‘What are those women doing there?’
‘Why, they are bathing,’ Claude quietly answered. ‘Don’t you see that they have come out of the swimming-baths? It supplies me with a motive for the nude; it’s a real find, eh? Does it shock you?’
His old friend, who knew him well by now, dreaded lest he should give him cause for discouragement.
‘I? Oh, no! Only I am afraid that the public will again fail to understand. That nude woman in the very midst of Paris — it’s improbable.’
Claude looked naively surprised.
‘Ah! you think so? Well, so much the worse. What’s the odds, as long as the woman is well painted? Besides, I need something like that to get my courage up.’
On the following occasions, Sandoz gently reverted to the strangeness of the composition, pleading, as was his nature, the cause of outraged logic. How could a modern painter who prided himself on painting merely what was real — how could he so bastardise his work as to introduce fanciful things into it? It would have been so easy to choose another subject, in which the nude would have been necessary. But Claude became obstinate, and resorted to lame and violent explanations, for he would not avow his real motive: an idea which had come to him and which he would have been at a loss to express clearly. It was, however, a longing for some secret symbolism. A recrudescence of romanticism made him see an incarnation of Paris in that nude figure; he pictured the city bare and impassioned, resplendent with the beauty of woman.
Before the pressing objections of his friend he pretended to be shaken in his resolutions.
‘Well, I’ll see; I’ll dress my old woman later on, since she worries you,’ he said. ‘But meanwhile I shall do her like that. You understand, she amuses me.’
He never reverted to the subject again, remaining silently obstinate, merely shrugging his shoulders and smiling with embarrassment whenever any allusion betrayed the general astonishment which was felt at the sight of that Venus emerging triumphantly from the froth of the Seine amidst all the omnibuses on the quays and the lightermen working at the Port of St. Nicolas.
Spring had come round again, and Claude had once more resolved to work at his large picture, when in a spirit of prudence he and Christine modified their daily life. She, at times, could not help feeling uneasy at seeing all their money so quickly spent. Since the supply had seemed inexhaustible, they had ceased counting. But, at the end of four years, they had woke up one morning quite frightened, when, on asking for accounts, they found that barely three thousand francs were left out of the twenty thousand. They immediately reverted to severe economy, stinting themselves as to bread, planning the cutting down of the most elementary expenses; and it was thus that, in the first impulse of self-sacrifice, they left the Rue de Douai. What was the use of paying two rents? There was room enough in the old drying-shed in the Rue Tourlaque — still stained with the dyes of former days — to afford accommodation for three people. Settling there was, nevertheless, a difficult affair; for however big the place was, it provided them, after all, with but one room. It was like a gipsy’s shed, where everything had to be done in common. As the landlord was unwilling, the painter himself had to divide it at one end by a partition of boards, behind which he devised a kitchen and a bedroom. They were then delighted with the place, despite the chinks through which the wind blew, and although on rainy days they had to set basins beneath the broader cracks in the roof. The whole looked mournfully bare; their few poor sticks seemed to dance alongside the naked walls. They themselves pretended to be proud at being lodged so spaciously; they told their friends that Jacques would at least have a little room to run about. Poor Jacques, in spite of his nine years, did not seem to be growing; his head alone became larger and larger. They could not send him to school for more than a week at a stretch, for he came back absolutely dazed, ill from having tried to learn, in such wise that they nearly always allowed him to live on all fours around them, crawling from one corner to another.
Christine, who for quite a long while had not shared Claude’s daily work, now once more found herself beside him throughout his long hours of toil. She helped him to scrape and pumice the old canvas of the big picture, and gave him advice about attaching it more securely to the wall. But they found that another disaster had befallen them — the steps had become warped by the water constantly trickling through the roof, and, for fear of an accident, Claude had to strengthen them with an oak cross-piece, she handing him the necessary nails one by one. Then once more, and for the second time, everything was ready. She watched him again outlining the work, standing behind him the while, till she felt faint with fatigue, and finally dropping to the floor, where she remained squatting, and still looking at him.
Ah! how she would have liked to snatch him from that painting which had seized hold of him! It was for that purpose that she made herself his servant, only too happy to lower herself to a labourer’s toil. Since she shared his work again, since the three of them, he, she, and the canvas, were side by side, her hope revived. If he had escaped her when she, all alone, cried her eyes out in the Rue de Douai, if he lingered till late in the Rue Tourlaque, fascinated as by a mistress, perhaps now that she was present she might regain her hold over him. Ah, painting, painting! in what jealous hatred she held it! Hers was no longer the revolt of a girl of the bourgeoisie, who painted neatly in water-colours, against independent, brutal, magnificent art. No, little by little she had come to understand it, drawn towards it at first by her love for the painter, and gained over afterwards by the feast of light, by the original charm of the bright tints which Claude’s works displayed. And now she had accepted everything, even lilac-tinted soil and blue trees. Indeed, a kind of respect made her quiver before those works which had at first seemed so horrid to her. She recognised their power well enough, and treated them like rivals about whom one could no longer joke. But her vindictiveness grew in proportion to her admiration; she revolted at having to stand by and witness, as it were, a diminution of herself, the blow of another love beneath her own roof.
At first there was a silent struggle of every minute. She thrust herself forward, interposed whatever she could, a hand, a shoulder, between the painter and his picture. She was always there, encompassing him with her breath, reminding him that he was hers. Then her old idea revived — she also would paint; she would seek and join him in the depths of his art fever. Every day for a whole month she put on a blouse, and worked like a pupil by the side of a master, diligently copying one of his sketches, and she only gave in when she found the effort turn against her object; for, deceived, as it were, by their joint work, he finished by forgetting that she was a woman, and lived with her on a footing of mere comradeship as between man and man. Accordingly she resorted to what was her only strength.
To perfect some of the small figures of his latter pictures, Claude had many a time already taken the hint of a head, the pose of an arm, the attitude of a body from Christine. He threw a cloak over her shoulders, and caught her in the posture he wanted, shouting to her not to stir. These were little services which she showed herself only too pleased to render him, but she had not hitherto cared to go further, for she was hurt by the idea of being a model now that she was his wife. However, since Claude had broadly outlined the large upright female figure which was to occupy the centre of his picture, Christine had looked at the vague silhouette in a dreamy way, worried by an ever-pursuing thought before which all scruples vanished. And so, when he spoke of taking a model, she offered herself, reminding him that she had posed for the figure in the ‘Open Air’ subject, long ago. ‘A model,’ she added, ‘would cost you seven francs a sitting. We are not so rich, we may as well save the money.’
The question of economy decided him at once.
‘I’m agreeable, and it’s even very good of you to show such courage, for you know that it is not a bit of pastime to sit for me. Never mind, you had better confess to it, you big silly, you are afraid of another woman coming here; you are jealous.’
Jealous! Yes, indeed she was jealous, so she suffered agony. But she snapped her fingers at other women; all the models in Paris might have sat to him for what she cared. She had but one rival, that painting, that art which robbed her of him.
Claude, who was delighted, at first made a study, a simple academic study, in the attitude required for his picture. They waited until Jacques had gone to school, and the sitting lasted for hours. During the earlier days Christine suffered a great deal from being obliged to remain in the same position; then she grew used to it, not daring to complain, lest she might vex him, and even restraining her tears when he roughly pushed her about. And he soon acquired the habit of doing so, treating her like a mere model; more exacting with her, however, than if he had paid her, never afraid of unduly taxing her strength, since she was his wife. He employed her for every purpose, at every minute, for an arm, a foot, the most trifling detail that he stood in need of. And thus in a way he lowered her to the level of a ‘living lay figure,’ which he stuck in front of him and copied as he might have copied a pitcher or a stew-pan for a bit of still life.
This time Claude proceeded leisurely, and before roughing in the large figure he tired Christine for months by making her pose in twenty different ways. At last, one day, he began the roughing in. It was an autumnal morning, the north wind was already sharp, and it was by no means warm even in the big studio, although the stove was roaring. As little Jacques was poorly again and unable to go to school, they had decided to lock him up in the room at the back, telling him to be very good. And then the mother settled herself near the stove, motionless, in the attitude required.
During the first hour, the painter, perched upon his steps, kept glancing at her, but did not speak a word. Unutterable sadness stole over her, and she felt afraid of fainting, no longer knowing whether she was suffering from the cold or from a despair that had come from afar, and the bitterness of which she felt to be rising within her. Her fatigue became so great that she staggered and hobbled about on her numbed legs.
‘What, already?’ cried Claude. ‘Why, you haven’t been at it more than a quarter of an hour. You don’t want to earn your seven francs, then?’
He was joking in a gruff voice, delighted with his work. And she had scarcely recovered the use of her limbs, beneath the dressing-gown she had wrapped round her, when he went on shouting: ‘Come on, come on, no idling! It’s a grand day to-day is! I must either show some genius or else kick the bucket.’
Then, in a weary way, she at last resumed the pose.
The misfortune was that before long, both by his glances and the language he used, she fully realised that she herself was as nothing to him. If ever he praised a limb, a tint, a contour, it was solely from the artistic point of view. Great enthusiasm and passion he often showed, but it was not passion for herself as in the old days. She felt confused and deeply mortified. Ah! this was the end; in her he no longer loved aught but his art, the example of nature and life! And then, with her eyes gazing into space, she would remain rigid, like a statue, keeping back the tears which made her heart swell, lacking even the wretched consolation of being able to cry. And day by day the same sorry life began afresh for her. To stand there as his model had become her profession. She could not refuse, however bitter her grief. Their once happy life was all over, there now seemed to be three people in the place; it was as if Claude had introduced a mistress into it — that woman he was painting. The huge picture rose up between them, parted them as with a wall, beyond which he lived with the other. That duplication of herself well nigh drove Christine mad with jealousy, and yet she was conscious of the pettiness of her sufferings, and did not dare to confess them lest he should laugh at her. However, she did not deceive herself; she fully realised that he preferred her counterfeit to herself, that her image was the worshipped one, the sole thought, the affection of his every hour. He almost killed her with long sittings in that cold draughty studio, in order to enhance the beauty of the other; upon whom depended all his joys and sorrows according as to whether he beheld her live or languish beneath his brush. Was not this love? And what suffering to have to lend herself so that the other might be created, so that she might be haunted by a nightmare of that rival, so that the latter might for ever rise between them, more powerful than reality! To think of it! So much dust, the veriest trifle, a patch of colour on a canvas, a mere semblance destroying all their happiness! — he, silent, indifferent, brutal at times, and she, tortured by his desertion, in despair at being unable to drive away that creature who ever encroached more and more upon their daily life!
And it was then that Christine, finding herself altogether beaten in her efforts to regain Claude’s love, felt all the sovereignty of art weigh down upon her. That painting, which she had already accepted without restriction, she raised still higher in her estimation, placed inside an awesome tabernacle before which she remained overcome, as before those powerful divinities of wrath which one honours from the very hatred and fear that they inspire. Hers was a holy awe, a conviction that struggling was henceforth useless, that she would be crushed like a bit of straw if she persisted in her obstinacy. Each of her husband’s canvases became magnified in her eyes, the smallest assumed triumphal dimensions, even the worst painted of them overwhelmed her with victory, and she no longer judged them, but grovelled, trembling, thinking them all formidable, and invariably replying to Claude’s questions:
‘Oh, yes; very good! Oh, superb! Oh, very, very extraordinary that one!’
Nevertheless, she harboured no anger against him; she still worshipped him with tearful tenderness, as she saw him thus consume himself with efforts. After a few weeks of successful work, everything got spoilt again; he could not finish his large female figure. At times he almost killed his model with fatigue, keeping hard at work for days and days together, then leaving the picture untouched for a whole month. The figure was begun anew, relinquished, painted all over again at least a dozen times. One year, two years went by without the picture reaching completion. Though sometimes it was almost finished, it was scratched out the next morning and painted entirely over again.
Ah! what an effort of creation it was, an effort of blood and tears, filling Claude with agony in his attempt to beget flesh and instil life! Ever battling with reality, and ever beaten, it was a struggle with the Angel. He was wearing himself out with this impossible task of making a canvas hold all nature; he became exhausted at last with the pains which racked his muscles without ever being able to bring his genius to fruition. What others were satisfied with, a more or less faithful rendering, the various necessary bits of trickery, filled him with remorse, made him as indignant as if in resorting to such practices one were guilty of ignoble cowardice; and thus he began his work over and over again, spoiling what was good through his craving to do better. He would always be dissatisfied with his women — so his friends jokingly declared — until they flung their arms round his neck. What was lacking in his power that he could not endow them with life? Very little, no doubt. Sometimes he went beyond the right point, sometimes he stopped short of it. One day the words, ‘an incomplete genius,’ which he overheard, both flattered and frightened him. Yes, it must be that; he jumped too far or not far enough; he suffered from a want of nervous balance; he was afflicted with some hereditary derangement which, because there were a few grains the more or the less of some substance in his brain, was making him a lunatic instead of a great man. Whenever a fit of despair drove him from his studio, whenever he fled from his work, he now carried about with him that idea of fatal impotence, and he heard it beating against his skull like the obstinate tolling of a funeral bell.
His life became wretched. Never had doubt of himself pursued him in that way before. He disappeared for whole days together; he even stopped out a whole night, coming back the next morning stupefied, without being able to say where he had gone. It was thought that he had been tramping through the outskirts of Paris rather than find himself face to face with his spoilt work. His sole relief was to flee the moment that work filled him with shame and hatred, and to remain away until he felt sufficient courage to face it once more. And not even his wife dared to question him on his return — indeed, she was only too happy to see him back again after her anxious waiting. At such times he madly scoured Paris, especially the outlying quarters, from a longing to debase himself and hob-nob with labourers. He expressed at each recurring crisis his old regret at not being some mason’s hodman. Did not happiness consist in having solid limbs, and in performing the work one was built for well and quickly? He had wrecked his life; he ought to have got himself engaged in the building line in the old times when he had lunched at the ‘Dog of Montargis,’ Gomard’s tavern, where he had known a Limousin, a big, strapping, merry fellow, whose brawny arms he envied. Then, on coming back to the Rue Tourlaque, with his legs faint and his head empty, he gave his picture much the same distressful, frightened glance as one casts at a corpse in a mortuary, until fresh hope of resuscitating it, of endowing it with life, brought a flush to his face once more.
One day Christine was posing, and the figure of the woman was again well nigh finished. For the last hour, however, Claude had been growing gloomy, losing the childish delight that he had displayed at the beginning of the sitting. So his wife scarcely dared to breathe, feeling by her own discomfort that everything must be going wrong once more, and afraid that she might accelerate the catastrophe if she moved as much as a finger. And, surely enough, he suddenly gave a cry of anguish, and launched forth an oath in a thunderous voice.
‘Oh, curse it! curse it!’
He had flung his handful of brushes from the top of the steps. Then, blinded with rage, with one blow of his fist he transpierced the canvas.
Christine held out her trembling hands.
‘My dear, my dear!’
But when she had flung a dressing-gown over her shoulders, and approached the picture, she experienced keen delight, a burst of satisfied hatred. Claude’s fist had struck ‘the other one’ full in the bosom, and there was a gaping hole! At last, then, that other one was killed!
Motionless, horror-struck by that murder, Claude stared at the perforated bosom. Poignant grief came upon him at the sight of the wound whence the blood of his work seemed to flow. Was it possible? Was it he who had thus murdered what he loved best of all on earth? His anger changed into stupor; his fingers wandered over the canvas, drawing the ragged edges of the rent together, as if he had wished to close the bleeding gash. He was choking; he stammered, distracted with boundless grief:
‘She is killed, she is killed!’
Then Christine, in her maternal love for that big child of an artist, felt moved to her very entrails. She forgave him as usual. She saw well enough that he now had but one thought — to mend the rent, to repair the evil at once; and she helped him; it was she who held the shreds together, whilst he from behind glued a strip of canvas against them. When she dressed herself, ‘the other one’ was there again, immortal, simply retaining near her heart a slight scar, which seemed to make her doubly dear to the painter.
As this unhinging of Claude’s faculties increased, he drifted into a sort of superstition, into a devout belief in certain processes and methods. He banished oil from his colours, and spoke of it as of a personal enemy. On the other hand, he held that turpentine produced a solid unpolished surface, and he had some secrets of his own which he hid from everybody; solutions of amber, liquefied copal, and other resinous compounds that made colours dry quickly, and prevented them from cracking. But he experienced some terrible worries, as the absorbent nature of the canvas at once sucked in the little oil contained in the paint. Then the question of brushes had always worried him greatly; he insisted on having them with special handles; and objecting to sable, he used nothing but oven-dried badger hair. More important, however, than everything else was the question of palette-knives, which, like Courbet, he used for his backgrounds. He had quite a collection of them, some long and flexible, others broad and squat, and one which was triangular like a glazier’s, and which had been expressly made for him. It was the real Delacroix knife. Besides, he never made use of the scraper or razor, which he considered beneath an artist’s dignity. But, on the other hand, he indulged in all sorts of mysterious practices in applying his colours, concocted recipes and changed them every month, and suddenly fancied that he had bit on the right system of painting, when, after repudiating oil and its flow, he began to lay on successive touches until he arrived at the exact tone he required. One of his fads for a long while was to paint from right to left; for, without confessing as much, he felt sure that it brought him luck. But the terrible affair which unhinged him once more was an all-invading theory respecting the complementary colours. Gagniere had been the first to speak to him on the subject, being himself equally inclined to technical speculation. After which Claude, impelled by the exuberance of his passion, took to exaggerating the scientific principles whereby, from the three primitive colours, yellow, red, and blue, one derives the three secondary ones, orange, green, and violet, and, further, a whole series of complementary and similar hues, whose composites are obtained mathematically from one another. Thus science entered into painting, there was a method for logical observation already. One only had to take the predominating hue of a picture, and note the complementary or similar colours, to establish experimentally what variations would occur; for instance, red would turn yellowish if it were near blue, and a whole landscape would change in tint by the refractions and the very decomposition of light, according to the clouds passing over it. Claude then accurately came to this conclusion: That objects have no real fixed colour; that they assume various hues according to ambient circumstances; but the misfortune was that when he took to direct observation, with his brain throbbing with scientific formulas, his prejudiced vision lent too much force to delicate shades, and made him render what was theoretically correct in too vivid a manner: thus his style, once so bright, so full of the palpitation of sunlight, ended in a reversal of everything to which the eye was accustomed, giving, for instance, flesh of a violet tinge under tricoloured skies. Insanity seemed to be at the end of it all.
Poverty finished off Claude. It had gradually increased, while the family spent money without counting; and, when the last copper of the twenty thousand francs had gone, it swooped down upon them — horrible and irreparable. Christine, who wanted to look for work, was incapable of doing anything, even ordinary needlework. She bewailed her lot, twirling her fingers and inveighing against the idiotic young lady’s education that she had received, since it had given her no profession, and her only resource would be to enter into domestic service, should life still go against them. Claude, on his side, had become a subject of chaff with the Parisians, and no longer sold a picture. An independent exhibition at which he and some friends had shown some pictures, had finished him off as regards amateurs — so merry had the public become at the sight of his canvases, streaked with all the colours of the rainbow. The dealers fled from him. M. Hue alone now and then made a pilgrimage to the Rue Tourlaque, and remained in ecstasy before the exaggerated bits, those which blazed in unexpected pyrotechnical fashion, in despair at being unable to cover them with gold. And though the painter wanted to make him a present of them, implored him to accept them, the old fellow displayed extraordinary delicacy of feeling. He pinched himself to amass a small sum of money from time to time, and then religiously took away the seemingly delirious picture, to hang it beside his masterpieces. Such windfalls came too seldom, and Claude was obliged to descend to ‘trade art,’ repugnant as it was to him. Such, indeed, was his despair at having fallen into that poison house, where he had sworn never to set foot, that he would have preferred starving to death, but for the two poor beings who were dependent on him and who suffered like himself. He became familiar with ‘viae dolorosae’ painted at reduced prices, with male and female saints at so much per gross, even with ‘pounced’ shop blinds — in short, all the ignoble jobs that degrade painting and make it so much idiotic delineation, lacking even the charm of naivete. He even suffered the humiliation of having portraits at five-and-twenty francs a-piece refused, because he failed to produce a likeness; and he reached the lowest degree of distress — he worked according to size for the petty dealers who sell daubs on the bridges, and export them to semi-civilised countries. They bought his pictures at two and three francs a-piece, according to the regulation dimensions. This was like physical decay, it made him waste away; he rose from such tasks feeling ill, incapable of serious work, looking at his large picture in distress, and leaving it sometimes untouched for a week, as if he had felt his hands befouled and unworthy of working at it.
They scarcely had bread to eat, and the huge shanty, which Christine had shown herself so proud of, on settling in it, became uninhabitable in the winter. She, once such an active housewife, now dragged herself about the place, without courage even to sweep the floor, and thus everything lapsed into abandonment. In the disaster little Jacques was sadly weakened by unwholesome and insufficient food, for their meals often consisted of a mere crust, eaten standing. With their lives thus ill-regulated, uncared for, they were drifting to the filth of the poor who lose even all self-pride.
At the close of another year, Claude, on one of those days of defeat, when he fled from his miscarried picture, met an old acquaintance. This time he had sworn he would never go home again, and he had been tramping across Paris since noon, as if at his heels he had heard the wan spectre of the big, nude figure of his picture — ravaged by constant retouching, and always left incomplete — pursuing him with a passionate craving for birth. The mist was melting into a yellowish drizzle, befouling the muddy streets. It was about five o’clock, and he was crossing the Rue Royale like one walking in his sleep, at the risk of being run over, his clothes in rags and mud-bespattered up to his neck, when a brougham suddenly drew up.
‘Claude, eh? Claude! — is that how you pass your friends?’
It was Irma Becot who spoke, Irma in a charming grey silk dress, covered with Chantilly lace. She had hastily let down the window, and she sat smiling, beaming in the frame-work of the carriage door.
‘Where are you going?’
He, staring at her open-mouthed, replied that he was going nowhere. At which she merrily expressed surprise in a loud voice, looking at him with her saucy eyes.
‘Get in, then; it’s such a long while since we met,’ said she. ‘Get in, or you’ll be knocked down.’
And, in fact, the other drivers were getting impatient, and urging their horses on, amidst a terrible din, so he did as he was bidden, feeling quite dazed; and she drove him away, dripping, with the unmistakable signs of his poverty upon him, in the brougham lined with blue satin, where he sat partly on the lace of her skirt, while the cabdrivers jeered at the elopement before falling into line again.
When Claude came back to the Rue Tourlaque he was in a dazed condition, and for a couple of days remained musing whether after all he might not have taken the wrong course in life. He seemed so strange that Christine questioned him, whereupon he at first stuttered and stammered, and finally confessed everything. There was a scene; she wept for a long while, then pardoned him once more, full of infinite indulgence for him. And, indeed, amidst all her bitter grief there sprang up a hope that he might yet return to her, for if he could deceive her thus he could not care as much as she had imagined for that hateful painted creature who stared down from the big canvas.
The days went by, and towards the middle of the winter Claude’s courage revived once more. One day, while putting some old frames in order, he came upon a roll of canvas which had fallen behind the other pictures. On opening the roll he found on it the nude figure, the reclining woman of his old painting, ‘In the Open Air,’ which he had cut out when the picture had come back to him from the Salon of the Rejected. And, as he gazed at it, he uttered a cry of admiration:
‘By the gods, how beautiful it is!’
He at once secured it to the wall with four nails, and remained for hours in contemplation before it. His hands shook, the blood rushed to his face. Was it possible that he had painted such a masterly thing? He had possessed genius in those days then. So his skull, his eyes, his fingers had been changed. He became so feverishly excited and felt such a need of unburthening himself to somebody, that at last he called his wife.
‘Just come and have a look. Isn’t her attitude good, eh? How delicately her muscles are articulated! Just look at that bit there, full of sunlight. And at the shoulder here. Ah, heavens! it’s full of life; I can feel it throb as I touch it.’
Christine, standing by, kept looking and answering in monosyllables. This resurrection of herself, after so many years, had at first flattered and surprised her. But on seeing him become so excited, she gradually felt uncomfortable and irritated, without knowing why.
‘Tell me,’ he continued, ‘don’t you think her beautiful enough for one to go on one’s knees to her?’
‘Yes, yes. But she has become rather blackish —’
Claude protested vehemently. Become blackish, what an idea! That woman would never grow black; she possessed immortal youth! Veritable passion had seized hold of him; he spoke of the figure as of a living being; he had sudden longings to look at her that made him leave everything else, as if he were hurrying to an appointment.
Then, one morning, he was taken with a fit of work.
‘But, confound it all, as I did that, I can surely do it again,’ he said. ‘Ah, this time, unless I’m a downright brute, we’ll see about it.’
And Christine had to give him a sitting there and then. For eight hours a day, indeed, during a whole month he kept her before him, without compassion for her increasing exhaustion or for the fatigue he felt himself. He obstinately insisted upon producing a masterpiece; he was determined that the upright figure of his big picture should equal that reclining one which he saw on the wall, beaming with life. He constantly referred to it, compared it with the one he was painting, distracted by the fear of being unable to equal it. He cast one glance at it, another at Christine, and a third at his canvas, and burst into oaths whenever he felt dissatisfied. He ended by abusing his wife.
She was no longer young. Age had spoilt her figure, and that it was which spoilt his work. She listened, and staggered in her very grief. Those sittings, from which she had already suffered so much, were becoming unbearable torture now. What was this new freak of crushing her with her own girlhood, of fanning her jealousy by filling her with regret for vanished beauty? She was becoming her own rival, she could no longer look at that old picture of herself without being stung at the heart by hateful envy. Ah, how heavily had that picture, that study she had sat for long ago, weighed upon her existence! The whole of her misfortunes sprang from it. It had changed the current of her existence. And it had come to life again, it rose from the dead, endowed with greater vitality than herself, to finish killing her, for there was no longer aught but one woman for Claude — she who was shown reclining on the old canvas, and who now arose and became the upright figure of his new picture.
Then Christine felt herself growing older and older at each successive sitting. And she experienced the infinite despair which comes upon passionate women when love, like beauty, abandons them. Was it because of this that Claude no longer cared for her, that he sought refuge in an unnatural passion for his work? She soon lost all clear perception of things; she fell into a state of utter neglect, going about in a dressing jacket and dirty petticoats, devoid of all coquettish feeling, discouraged by the idea that it was useless for her to continue struggling, since she had become old.
There were occasionally abominable scenes between her and Claude, who this time, however, obstinately stuck to his work and finished his picture, swearing that, come what might, he would send it to the Salon. He lived on his steps, cleaning up his backgrounds until dark. At last, thoroughly exhausted, he declared that he would touch the canvas no more; and Sandoz, on coming to see him one day, at four o’clock, did not find him at home. Christine declared that he had just gone out to take a breath of air on the height of Montmartre.
The breach between Claude and his old friends had gradually widened. With time the latters’ visits had become brief and far between, for they felt uncomfortable when they found themselves face to face with that disturbing style of painting; and they were more and more upset by the unhinging of a mind which had been the admiration of their youth. Now all had fled; none excepting Sandoz ever came. Gagniere had even left Paris, to settle down in one of the two houses he owned at Melun, where he lived frugally upon the proceeds of the other one, after suddenly marrying, to every one’s surprise, an old maid, his music mistress, who played Wagner to him of an evening. As for Mahoudeau, he alleged work as an excuse for not coming, and indeed he was beginning to earn some money, thanks to a bronze manufacturer, who employed him to touch up his models. Matters were different with Jory, whom no one saw, since Mathilde despotically kept him sequestrated. She had conquered him, and he had fallen into a kind of domesticity comparable to that of a faithful dog, yielding up the keys of his cashbox, and only carrying enough money about him to buy a cigar at a time. It was even said that Mathilde, like the devotee she had once been, had thrown him into the arms of the Church, in order to consolidate her conquest, and that she was constantly talking to him about death, of which he was horribly afraid. Fagerolles alone affected a lively, cordial feeling towards his old friend Claude whenever he happened to meet him. He then always promised to go and see him, but never did so. He was so busy since his great success, in such request, advertised, celebrated, on the road to every imaginable honour and form of fortune! And Claude regretted nobody save Dubuche, to whom he still felt attached, from a feeling of affection for the old reminiscences of boyhood, notwithstanding the disagreements which difference of disposition had provoked later on. But Dubuche, it appeared, was not very happy either. No doubt he was gorged with millions, but he led a wretched life, constantly at logger-heads with his father-in-law (who complained of having been deceived with regard to his capabilities as an architect), and obliged to pass his life amidst the medicine bottles of his ailing wife and his two children, who, having been prematurely born, had to be reared virtually in cotton wool.
Of all the old friends, therefore, there only remained Sandoz, who still found his way to the Rue Tourlaque. He came thither for little Jacques, his godson, and for the sorrowing woman also, that Christine whose passionate features amidst all this distress moved him deeply, like a vision of one of the ardently amorous creatures whom he would have liked to embody in his books. But, above all, his feeling of artistic brotherliness had increased since he had seen Claude losing ground, foundering amidst the heroic folly of art. At first he had remained utterly astonished at it, for he had believed in his friend more than in himself. Since their college days, he had always placed himself second, while setting Claude very high on fame’s ladder — on the same rung, indeed, as the masters who revolutionise a period. Then he had been grievously affected by that bankruptcy of genius; he had become full of bitter, heartfelt pity at the sight of the horrible torture of impotency. Did one ever know who was the madman in art? Every failure touched him to the quick, and the more a picture or a book verged upon aberration, sank to the grotesque and lamentable, the more did Sandoz quiver with compassion, the more did he long to lull to sleep, in the soothing extravagance of their dreams, those who were thus blasted by their own work.
On the day when Sandoz called, and failed to find Claude at home, he did not go away; but, seeing Christine’s eyelids red with crying, he said:
‘If you think that he’ll be in soon, I’ll wait for him.’
‘Oh! he surely won’t be long.’
‘In that case I’ll wait, unless I am in your way.’
Never had her demeanour, the crushed look of a neglected woman, her listless movements, her slow speech, her indifference for everything but the passion that was consuming her, moved him so deeply. For the last week, perhaps, she had not put a chair in its place, or dusted a piece of furniture; she left the place to go to wreck and ruin, scarcely having the strength to drag herself about. And it was enough to break one’s heart to behold that misery ending in filth beneath the glaring light from the big window; to gaze on that ill-pargetted shanty, so bare and disorderly, where one shivered with melancholy although it was a bright February afternoon.
Christine had slowly sat down beside an iron bedstead, which Sandoz had not noticed when he came in.
‘Hallo,’ he said, ‘is Jacques ill?’
She was covering up the child, who constantly flung off the bedclothes.
‘Yes, he hasn’t been up these three days. We brought his bed in here so that he might be with us. He was never very strong. But he is getting worse and worse, it’s distracting.’
She had a fixed stare in her eyes and spoke in a monotonous tone, and Sandoz felt frightened when he drew up to the bedside. The child’s pale head seemed to have grown bigger still, so heavy that he could no longer support it. He lay perfectly still, and one might have thought he was dead, but for the heavy breathing coming from between his discoloured lips.
‘My poor little Jacques, it’s I, your godfather. Won’t you say how d’ye do?’
The child made a fruitless, painful effort to lift his head; his eyelids parted, showing his white eyeballs, then closed again.
‘Have you sent for a doctor?’
Christine shrugged her shoulders.
‘Oh! doctors, what do they know?’ she answered. ‘We sent for one; he said that there was nothing to be done. Let us hope that it will pass over again. He is close upon twelve years old now, and maybe he is growing too fast.’
Sandoz, quite chilled, said nothing for fear of increasing her anxiety, since she did not seem to realise the gravity of the disease. He walked about in silence and stopped in front of the picture.
‘Ho, ho! it’s getting on; it’s on the right road this time.’
And when she told him that the canvas was to be sent to the Salon that next week, he looked embarrassed, and sat down on the couch, like a man who wishes to judge the work leisurely. The background, the quays, the Seine, whence arose the triumphal point of the Cite, still remained in a sketchy state — masterly, however, but as if the painter had been afraid of spoiling the Paris of his dream by giving it greater finish. There was also an excellent group on the left, the lightermen unloading the sacks of plaster being carefully and powerfully treated. But the boat full of women in the centre transpierced the picture, as it were, with a blaze of flesh-tints which were quite out of place; and the brilliancy and hallucinatory proportions of the large nude figure which Claude had painted in a fever seemed strangely, disconcertingly false amidst the reality of all the rest.
Sandoz, silent, fell despair steal over him as he sat in front of that magnificent failure. But he saw Christine’s eyes fixed upon him, and had sufficient strength of mind to say:
‘Astounding! — the woman, astounding!’
At that moment Claude came in, and on seeing his old chum he uttered a joyous exclamation and shook his hand vigorously. Then he approached Christine, and kissed little Jacques, who had once more thrown off the bedclothes.
‘How is he?’
‘Just the same.’
‘To be sure, to be sure; he is growing too fast. A few days’ rest will set him all right. I told you not to be uneasy.’
And Claude thereupon sat down beside Sandoz on the couch. They both took their ease, leaning back, with their eyes surveying the picture; while Christine, seated by the bed, looked at nothing, and seemingly thought of nothing, in the everlasting desolation of her heart. Night was slowly coming on, the vivid light from the window paled already, losing its sheen amidst the slowly-falling crepuscular dimness.
‘So it’s settled; your wife told me that you were going to send it in.’
‘You are right; you had better have done with it once for all. Oh, there are some magnificent bits in it. The quay in perspective to the left, the man who shoulders that sack below. But —’
He hesitated, then finally took the bull by the horns.
‘But, it’s odd that you have persisted in leaving those women nude. It isn’t logical, I assure you; and, besides, you promised me you would dress them — don’t you remember? You have set your heart upon them very much then?’
Claude answered curtly, with the obstinacy of one mastered by a fixed idea and unwilling to give any explanations. Then he crossed his arms behind his head, and began talking of other things, without, however, taking his eyes off his picture, over which the twilight began to cast a slight shadow.
‘Do you know where I have just come from?’ he asked. ‘I have been to Courajod’s . You know, the great landscape painter, whose “Pond of Gagny” is at the Luxembourg. You remember, I thought he was dead, and we were told that he lived hereabouts, on the other side of the hill, in the Rue de l’Abreuvoir. Well, old boy, he worried me, did Courajod. While taking a breath of air now and then up there, I discovered his shanty, and I could no longer pass in front of it without wanting to go inside. Just think, a master, a man who invented our modern landscape school, and who lives there, unknown, done for, like a mole in its hole! You can have no idea of the street or the caboose: a village street, full of fowls, and bordered by grassy banks; and a caboose like a child’s toy, with tiny windows, a tiny door, a tiny garden. Oh! the garden — a mere patch of soil, sloping down abruptly, with a bed where four pear trees stand, and the rest taken up by a fowl-house, made out of green boards, old plaster, and wire network, held together with bits of string.’
His words came slowly; he blinked while he spoke as if the thought of his picture had returned to him and was gradually taking possession of him, to such a degree as to hamper him in his speech about other matters.
‘Well, as luck would have it, I found Courajod on his doorstep to-day. An old man of more than eighty, wrinkled and shrunk to the size of a boy. I should like you to see him, with his clogs, his peasant’s jersey and his coloured handkerchief wound over his head as if he were an old market-woman. I pluckily went up to him, saying, “Monsieur Courajod, I know you very well; you have a picture in the Luxembourg Gallery which is a masterpiece. Allow a painter to shake hands with you as he would with his master.” And then you should have seen him take fright, draw back and stutter, as if I were going to strike him. A regular flight! However, I followed him, and gradually he recovered his composure, and showed me his hens, his ducks, his rabbits and dogs — an extraordinary collection of birds and beasts; there was even a raven among them. He lives in the midst of them all; he speaks to no one but his animals. As for the view, it’s simply magnificent; you see the whole of the St. Denis plain for miles upon miles; rivers and towns, smoking factory-chimneys, and puffing railway-engines; in short, the place is a real hermitage on a hill, with its back turned to Paris and its eyes fixed on the boundless country. As a matter of course, I came back to his picture. “Oh, Monsieur Courajod,” said I, “what talent you showed! If you only knew how much we all admire you. You are one of our illustrious men; you’ll remain the ancestor of us all.” But his lips began to tremble again; he looked at me with an air of terror-stricken stupidity; I am sure he would not have waved me back with a more imploring gesture if I had unearthed under his very eyes the corpse of some forgotten comrade of his youth. He kept chewing disconnected words between his toothless gums; it was the mumbling of an old man who had sunk into second childhood, and whom it’s impossible to understand. “Don’t know — so long ago — too old — don’t care a rap.” To make a long story short, he showed me the door; I heard him hurriedly turn the key in lock, barricading himself and his birds and animals against the admiration of the outside world. Ah, my good fellow, the idea of it! That great man ending his life like a retired grocer; that voluntary relapse into “nothingness” even before death. Ah, the glory, the glory for which we others are ready to die!’
Claude’s voice, which had sunk lower and lower, died away at last in a melancholy sigh. Darkness was still coming on; after gradually collecting in the corners, it rose like a slow, inexorable tide, first submerging the legs of the chairs and the table, all the confusion of things that littered the tiled floor. The lower part of the picture was already growing dim, and Claude, with his eyes still desperately fixed on it, seemed to be watching the ascent of the darkness as if he had at last judged his work in the expiring light. And no sound was heard save the stertorous breathing of the sick child, near whom there still loomed the dark silhouette of the motionless mother.
Then Sandoz spoke in his turn, his hands also crossed behind his head, and his back resting against one of the cushions of the couch.
‘Does one ever know? Would it not be better, perhaps, to live and die unknown? What a sell it would be if artistic glory existed no more than the Paradise which is talked about in catechisms and which even children nowadays make fun of! We, who no longer believe in the Divinity, still believe in our own immortality. What a farce it all is!’
Then, affected to melancholy himself by the mournfulness of the twilight, and stirred by all the human suffering he beheld around him, he began to speak of his own torments.
‘Look here, old man, I, whom you envy, perhaps — yes, I, who am beginning to get on in the world, as middle-class people say — I, who publish books and earn a little money — well, I am being killed by it all. I have often already told you this, but you don’t believe me, because, as you only turn out work with a deal of trouble and cannot bring yourself to public notice, happiness in your eyes could naturally consist in producing a great deal, in being seen, and praised or slated. Well, get admitted to the next Salon, get into the thick of the battle, paint other pictures, and then tell me whether that suffices, and whether you are happy at last. Listen; work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body. The moment I jump out of bed of a morning, work clutches hold of me, rivets me to my desk without leaving me time to get a breath of fresh air; then it pursues me at luncheon — I audibly chew my sentences with my bread. Next it accompanies me when I go out, comes back with me and dines off the same plate as myself; lies down with me on my pillow, so utterly pitiless that I am never able to set the book in hand on one side; indeed, its growth continues even in the depth of my sleep. And nothing outside of it exists for me. True, I go upstairs to embrace my mother, but in so absent-minded a way, that ten minutes after leaving her I ask myself whether I have really been to wish her good-morning. My poor wife has no husband; I am not with her even when our hands touch. Sometimes I have an acute feeling that I am making their lives very sad, and I feel very remorseful, for happiness is solely composed of kindness, frankness and gaiety in one’s home; but how can I escape from the claws of the monster? I at once relapse into the somnambulism of my working hours, into the indifference and moroseness of my fixed idea. If the pages I have written during the morning have been worked off all right, so much the better; if one of them has remained in distress, so much the worse. The household will laugh or cry according to the whim of that all-devouring monster — Work. No, no! I have nothing that I can call my own. In my days of poverty I dreamt of rest in the country, of travel in distant lands; and now that I might make those dreams reality, the work that has been begun keeps me shut up. There is no chance of a walk in the morning’s sun, no chance of running round to a friend’s house, or of a mad bout of idleness! My strength of will has gone with the rest; all this has become a habit; I have locked the door of the world behind me, and thrown the key out of the window. There is no longer anything in my den but work and myself — and work will devour me, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all!’
He paused, and silence reigned once more in the deepening gloom. Then he began again with an effort:
‘And if one were only satisfied, if one only got some enjoyment out of such a nigger’s life! Ah! I should like to know how those fellows manage who smoke cigarettes and complacently stroke their beards while they are at work. Yes, it appears to me that there are some who find production an easy pleasure, to be set aside or taken up without the least excitement. They are delighted, they admire themselves, they cannot write a couple of lines but they find those lines of a rare, distinguished, matchless quality. Well, as for myself, I bring forth in anguish, and my offspring seems a horror to me. How can a man be sufficiently wanting in self-doubt as to believe in himself? It absolutely amazes me to see men, who furiously deny talent to everybody else, lose all critical acumen, all common-sense, when it becomes a question of their own bastard creations. Why, a book is always very ugly. To like it one mustn’t have had a hand in the cooking of it. I say nothing of the jugsful of insults that are showered upon one. Instead of annoying, they rather encourage me. I see men who are upset by attacks, who feel a humiliating craving to win sympathy. It is a simple question of temperament; some women would die if they failed to please. But, to my thinking, insult is a very good medicine to take; unpopularity is a very manly school to be brought up in. Nothing keeps one in such good health and strength as the hooting of a crowd of imbeciles. It suffices that a man can say that he has given his life’s blood to his work; that he expects neither immediate justice nor serious attention; that he works without hope of any kind, and simply because the love of work beats beneath his skin like his heart, irrespective of any will of his own. If he can do all this, he may die in the effort with the consoling illusion that he will be appreciated one day or other. Ah! if the others only knew how jauntily I bear the weight of their anger. Only there is my own choler, which overwhelms me; I fret that I cannot live for a moment happy. What hours of misery I spend, great heavens! from the very day I begin a novel. During the first chapters there isn’t so much trouble. I have plenty of room before me in which to display genius. But afterwards I become distracted, and am never satisfied with the daily task; I condemn the book before it is finished, judging it inferior to its elders; and I torture myself about certain pages, about certain sentences, certain words, so that at last the very commas assume an ugly look, from which I suffer. And when it is finished — ah! when it is finished, what a relief! Not the enjoyment of the gentleman who exalts himself in the worship of his offspring, but the curse of the labourer who throws down the burden that has been breaking his back. Then, later on, with another book, it all begins afresh; it will always begin afresh, and I shall die under it, furious with myself, exasperated at not having had more talent, enraged at not leaving a “work” more complete, of greater dimensions — books upon books, a pile of mountain height! And at my death I shall feel horrible doubts about the task I may have accomplished, asking myself whether I ought not to have gone to the left when I went to the right, and my last word, my last gasp, will be to recommence the whole over again —’
He was thoroughly moved; the words stuck in his throat; he was obliged to draw breath for a moment before delivering himself of this passionate cry in which all his impenitent lyricism took wing:
Ah, life! a second span of life, who shall give it to me, that work may rob me of it again — that I may die of it once more?’
It had now become quite dark; the mother’s rigid silhouette was no longer visible; the hoarse breathing of the child sounded amidst the obscurity like a terrible and distant signal of distress, uprising from the streets. In the whole studio, which had become lugubriously black, the big canvas only showed a glimpse of pallidity, a last vestige of the waning daylight. The nude figure, similar to an agonising vision, seemed to be floating about, without definite shape, the legs having already vanished, one arm being already submerged, and the only part at all distinct being the trunk, which shone like a silvery moon.
After a protracted pause, Sandoz inquired:
‘Shall I go with you when you take your picture?’
Getting no answer from Claude, he fancied he could hear him crying. Was it with the same infinite sadness, the despair by which he himself had been stirred just now? He waited for a moment, then repeated his question, and at last the painter, after choking down a sob, stammered:
‘Thanks, the picture will remain here; I sha’n’t send it.’
‘What? Why, you had made up your mind?’
‘Yes, yes, I had made up my mind; but I had not seen it as I saw it just now in the waning daylight. I have failed with it, failed with it again — it struck my eyes like a blow, it went to my very heart.’
His tears now flowed slow and scalding in the gloom that hid him from sight. He had been restraining himself, and now the silent anguish which had consumed him burst forth despite all his efforts.
‘My poor friend,’ said Sandoz, quite upset; ‘it is hard to tell you so, but all the same you are right, perhaps, in delaying matters to finish certain parts rather more. Still I am angry with myself, for I shall imagine that it was I who discouraged you by my everlasting stupid discontent with things.’
Claude simply answered:
‘You! what an idea! I was not even listening to you. No; I was looking, and I saw everything go helter-skelter in that confounded canvas. The light was dying away, and all at once, in the greyish dusk, the scales suddenly dropped from my eyes. The background alone is pretty; the nude woman is altogether too loud; what’s more, she’s out of the perpendicular, and her legs are badly drawn. When I noticed that, ah! it was enough to kill me there and then; I felt life departing from me. Then the gloom kept rising and rising, bringing a whirling sensation, a foundering of everything, the earth rolling into chaos, the end of the world. And soon I only saw the trunk waning like a sickly moon. And look, look! there now remains nothing of her, not a glimpse; she is dead, quite black!’
In fact, the picture had at last entirely disappeared. But the painter had risen and could be heard swearing in the dense obscurity.
‘D— n it all, it doesn’t matter, I’ll set to work at it again —’
Then Christine, who had also risen from her chair, against which he stumbled, interrupted him, saying: ‘Take care, I’ll light the lamp.’
She lighted it and came back looking very pale, casting a glance of hatred and fear at the picture. It was not to go then? The abomination was to begin once more!
‘I’ll set to work at it again,’ repeated Claude, ‘and it shall kill me, it shall kill my wife, my child, the whole lot; but, by heaven, it shall be a masterpiece!’
Christine sat down again; they approached Jacques, who had thrown the clothes off once more with his feverish little hands. He was still breathing heavily, lying quite inert, his head buried in the pillow like a weight, with which the bed seemed to creak. When Sandoz was on the point of going, he expressed his uneasiness. The mother appeared stupefied; while the father was already returning to his picture, the masterpiece which awaited creation, and the thought of which filled him with such passionate illusions that he gave less heed to the painful reality of the sufferings of his child, the true living flesh of his flesh.
On the following morning, Claude had just finished dressing, when he heard Christine calling in a frightened voice. She also had just woke with a start from the heavy sleep which had benumbed her while she sat watching the sick child.
‘Claude! Claude! Oh, look! He is dead.’
The painter rushed forward, with heavy eyes, stumbling, and apparently failing to understand, for he repeated with an air of profound amazement, ‘What do you mean by saying he is dead?’
For a moment they remained staring wildly at the bed. The poor little fellow, with his disproportionate head — the head of the progeny of genius, exaggerated as to verge upon cretinism — did not appear to have stirred since the previous night; but no breath came from his mouth, which had widened and become discoloured, and his glassy eyes were open. His father laid his hands upon him and found him icy cold.
‘It is true, he is dead.’
And their stupor was such that for yet another moment they remained with their eyes dry, simply thunderstruck, as it were, by the abruptness of that death which they considered incredible.
Then, her knees bending under her, Christine dropped down in front of the bed, bursting into violent sobs which shook her from head to foot, and wringing her hands, whilst her forehead remained pressed against the mattress. In that first moment of horror her despair was aggravated above all by poignant remorse — the remorse of not having sufficiently cared for the poor child. Former days started up before her in a rapid vision, each bringing with it regretfulness for unkind words, deferred caresses, rough treatment even. And now it was all over; she would never be able to compensate the lad for the affection she had withheld from him. He whom she thought so disobedient had obeyed but too well at last. She had so often told him when at play to be still, and not to disturb his father at his work, that he was quiet at last, and for ever. The idea suffocated her; each sob drew from her a dull moan.
Claude had begun walking up and down the studio, unable to remain still. With his features convulsed, he shed a few big tears, which he brushed away with the back of his hand. And whenever he passed in front of the little corpse he could not help glancing at it. The glassy eyes, wide open, seemed to exercise a spell over him. At first he resisted, but a confused idea assumed shape within him, and would not be shaken off. He yielded to it at last, took a small canvas, and began to paint a study of the dead child. For the first few minutes his tears dimmed his sight, wrapping everything in a mist; but he kept wiping them away, and persevered with his work, even though his brush shook. Then the passion for art dried his tears and steadied his hand, and in a little while it was no longer his icy son that lay there, but merely a model, a subject, the strange interest of which stirred him. That huge head, that waxy flesh, those eyes which looked like holes staring into space — all excited and thrilled him. He stepped back, seemed to take pleasure in his work, and vaguely smiled at it.
When Christine rose from her knees, she found him thus occupied. Then, bursting into tears again, she merely said:
‘Ah! you can paint him now, he’ll never stir again.’
For five hours Claude kept at it, and on the second day, when Sandoz came back with him from the cemetery, after the funeral, he shuddered with pity and admiration at the sight of the small canvas. It was one of the fine bits of former days, a masterpiece of limpidity and power, to which was added a note of boundless melancholy, the end of everything — all life ebbing away with the death of that child.
But Sandoz, who had burst out into exclamations fall of praise, was quite taken aback on hearing Claude say to him:
‘You are sure you like it? In that case, as the other machine isn’t ready, I’ll send this to the Salon.’
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:58