Nana suddenly disappeared. It was a fresh plunge, an escapade, a flight into barbarous regions. Before her departure she had treated herself to a new sensation: she had held a sale and had made a clean sweep of everything — house, furniture, jewelry, nay, even dresses and linen. Prices were cited — the five days’ sale produced more than six hundred thousand francs. For the last time Paris had seen her in a fairy piece. It was called Melusine, and it played at the Theatre de la Gaite, which the penniless Bordenave had taken out of sheer audacity. Here she again found herself in company with Prulliere and Fontan. Her part was simply spectacular, but it was the great attraction of the piece, consisting, as it did, of three POSES PLASTIQUES, each of which represented the same dumb and puissant fairy. Then one fine morning amid his grand success, when Bordenave, who was mad after advertisement, kept firing the Parisian imagination with colossal posters, it became known that she must have started for Cairo the previous day. She had simply had a few words with her manager. Something had been said which did not please her; the whole thing was the caprice of a woman who is too rich to let herself be annoyed. Besides, she had indulged an old infatuation, for she had long meditated visiting the Turks.
Months passed — she began to be forgotten. When her name was mentioned among the ladies and gentlemen, the strangest stories were told, and everybody gave the most contradictory and at the same time prodigious information. She had made a conquest of the viceroy; she was reigning, in the recesses of a palace, over two hundred slaves whose heads she now and then cut off for the sake of a little amusement. No, not at all! She had ruined herself with a great big nigger! A filthy passion this, which had left her wallowing without a chemise to her back in the crapulous debauchery of Cairo. A fortnight later much astonishment was produced when someone swore to having met her in Russia. A legend began to be formed: she was the mistress of a prince, and her diamonds were mentioned. All the women were soon acquainted with them from the current descriptions, but nobody could cite the precise source of all this information. There were finger rings, earrings, bracelets, a REVIERE of phenomenal width, a queenly diadem surmounted by a central brilliant the size of one’s thumb. In the retirement of those faraway countries she began to gleam forth as mysteriously as a gem-laden idol. People now mentioned her without laughing, for they were full of meditative respect for this fortune acquired among the barbarians.
One evening in July toward eight o’clock, Lucy, while getting out of her carriage in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, noticed Caroline Hequet, who had come out on foot to order something at a neighboring tradesman’s. Lucy called her and at once burst out with:
“Have you dined? Are you disengaged? Oh, then come with me, my dear. Nana’s back.”
The other got in at once, and Lucy continued:
“And you know, my dear, she may be dead while we’re gossiping.”
“Dead! What an idea!” cried Caroline in stupefaction. “And where is she? And what’s it of?”
“At the Grand Hotel, of smallpox. Oh, it’s a long story!”
Lucy had bidden her coachman drive fast, and while the horses trotted rapidly along the Rue Royale and the boulevards, she told what had happened to Nana in jerky, breathless sentences.
“You can’t imagine it. Nana plumps down out of Russia. I don’t know why — some dispute with her prince. She leaves her traps at the station; she lands at her aunt’s — you remember the old thing. Well, and then she finds her baby dying of smallpox. The baby dies next day, and she has a row with the aunt about some money she ought to have sent, of which the other one has never seen a sou. Seems the child died of that: in fact, it was neglected and badly cared for. Very well; Nana slopes, goes to a hotel, then meets Mignon just as she was thinking of her traps. She has all sorts of queer feelings, shivers, wants to be sick, and Mignon takes her back to her place and promises to look after her affairs. Isn’t it odd, eh? Doesn’t it all happen pat? But this is the best part of the story: Rose finds out about Nana’s illness and gets indignant at the idea of her being alone in furnished apartments. So she rushes off, crying, to look after her. You remember how they used to detest one another — like regular furies! Well then, my dear, Rose has had Nana transported to the Grand Hotel, so that she should, at any rate, die in a smart place, and now she’s already passed three nights there and is free to die of it after. It’s Labordette who told me all about it. Accordingly I wanted to see for myself —”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Caroline in great excitement “We’ll go up to her.”
They had arrived at their destination. On the boulevard the coachman had had to rein in his horses amid a block of carriages and people on foot. During the day the Corps Legislatif had voted for war, and now a crowd was streaming down all the streets, flowing along all the pavements, invading the middle of the roadway. Beyond the Madeleine the sun had set behind a blood-red cloud, which cast a reflection as of a great fire and set the lofty windows flaming. Twilight was falling, and the hour was oppressively melancholy, for now the avenues were darkening away into the distance but were not as yet dotted over by the bright sparks of the gas lamps. And among the marching crowds distant voices swelled and grew ever louder, and eyes gleamed from pale faces, while a great spreading wind of anguish and stupor set every head whirling.
“Here’s Mignon,” said Lucy. “He’ll give us news.”
Mignon was standing under the vast porch of the Grand Hotel. He looked nervous and was gazing at the crowd. After Lucy’s first few questions he grew impatient and cried out:
“How should I know? These last two days I haven’t been able to tear Rose away from up there. It’s getting stupid, when all’s said, for her to be risking her life like that! She’ll be charming if she gets over it, with holes in her face! It’ll suit us to a tee!”
The idea that Rose might lose her beauty was exasperating him. He was giving up Nana in the most downright fashion, and he could not in the least understand these stupid feminine devotions. But Fauchery was crossing the boulevard, and he, too, came up anxiously and asked for news. The two men egged each other on. They addressed one another familiarly in these days.
“Always the same business, my sonny,” declared Mignon. “You ought to go upstairs; you would force her to follow you.”
“Come now, you’re kind, you are!” said the journalist. “Why don’t you go upstairs yourself?”
Then as Lucy began asking for Nana’s number, they besought her to make Rose come down; otherwise they would end by getting angry.
Nevertheless, Lucy and Caroline did not go up at once. They had caught sight of Fontan strolling about with his hands in his pockets and greatly amused by the quaint expressions of the mob. When he became aware that Nana was lying ill upstairs he affected sentiment and remarked:
“The poor girl! I’ll go and shake her by the hand. What’s the matter with her, eh?”
“Smallpox,” replied Mignon.
The actor had already taken a step or two in the direction of the court, but he came back and simply murmured with a shiver:
“Oh, damn it!”
The smallpox was no joke. Fontan had been near having it when he was five years old, while Mignon gave them an account of one of his nieces who had died of it. As to Fauchery, he could speak of it from personal experience, for he still bore marks of it in the shape of three little lumps at the base of his nose, which he showed them. And when Mignon again egged him on to the ascent, on the pretext that you never had it twice, he violently combated this theory and with infinite abuse of the doctors instanced various cases. But Lucy and Caroline interrupted them, for the growing multitude filled them with astonishment.
“Just look! Just look what a lot of people!” The night was deepening, and in the distance the gas lamps were being lit one by one. Meanwhile interested spectators became visible at windows, while under the trees the human flood grew every minute more dense, till it ran in one enormous stream from the Madeleine to the Bastille. Carriages rolled slowly along. A roaring sound went up from this compact and as yet inarticulate mass. Each member of it had come out, impelled by the desire to form a crowd, and was now trampling along, steeping himself in the pervading fever. But a great movement caused the mob to flow asunder. Among the jostling, scattering groups a band of men in workmen’s caps and white blouses had come in sight, uttering a rhythmical cry which suggested the beat of hammers upon an anvil.
“To Ber-lin! To Ber-lin! To Ber-lin!” And the crowd stared in gloomy distrust yet felt themselves already possessed and inspired by heroic imaginings, as though a military band were passing.
“Oh yes, go and get your throats cut!” muttered Mignon, overcome by an access of philosophy.
But Fontan thought it very fine, indeed, and spoke of enlisting. When the enemy was on the frontier all citizens ought to rise up in defense of the fatherland! And with that he assumed an attitude suggestive of Bonaparte at Austerlitz.
“Look here, are you coining up with us?” Lucy asked him.
“Oh dear, no! To catch something horrid?” he said.
On a bench in front of the Grand Hotel a man sat hiding his face in a handkerchief. On arriving Fauchery had indicated him to Mignon with a wink of the eye. Well, he was still there; yes, he was always there. And the journalist detained the two women also in order to point him out to them. When the man lifted his head they recognized him; an exclamation escaped them. It was the Count Muffat, and he was giving an upward glance at one of the windows.
“You know, he’s been waiting there since this morning,” Mignon informed them. “I saw him at six o’clock, and he hasn’t moved since. Directly Labordette spoke about it he came there with his handkerchief up to his face. Every half-hour he comes dragging himself to where we’re standing to ask if the person upstairs is doing better, and then he goes back and sits down. Hang it, that room isn’t healthy! It’s all very well being fond of people, but one doesn’t want to kick the bucket.”
The count sat with uplifted eyes and did not seem conscious of what was going on around him. Doubtless he was ignorant of the declaration of war, and he neither felt nor saw the crowd.
“Look, here he comes!” said Fauchery. “Now you’ll see.”
The count had, in fact, quitted his bench and was entering the lofty porch. But the porter, who was getting to know his face at last, did not give him time to put his question. He said sharply:
“She’s dead, monsieur, this very minute.”
Nana dead! It was a blow to them all. Without a word Muffat had gone back to the bench, his face still buried in his handkerchief. The others burst into exclamations, but they were cut short, for a fresh band passed by, howling, “A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!” Nana dead! Hang it, and such a fine girl too! Mignon sighed and looked relieved, for at last Rose would come down. A chill fell on the company. Fontan, meditating a tragic role, had assumed a look of woe and was drawing down the corners of his mouth and rolling his eyes askance, while Fauchery chewed his cigar nervously, for despite his cheap journalistic chaff he was really touched. Nevertheless, the two women continued to give vent to their feelings of surprise. The last time Lucy had seen her was at the Gaite; Blanche, too, had seen her in Melusine. Oh, how stunning it was, my dear, when she appeared in the depths of the crystal grot! The gentlemen remembered the occasion perfectly. Fontan had played the Prince Cocorico. And their memories once stirred up, they launched into interminable particulars. How ripping she looked with that rich coloring of hers in the crystal grot! Didn’t she, now? She didn’t say a word: the authors had even deprived her of a line or two, because it was superfluous. No, never a word! It was grander that way, and she drove her public wild by simply showing herself. You wouldn’t find another body like hers! Such shoulders as she had, and such legs and such a figure! Strange that she should be dead! You know, above her tights she had nothing on but a golden girdle which hardly concealed her behind and in front. All round her the grotto, which was entirely of glass, shone like day. Cascades of diamonds were flowing down; strings of brilliant pearls glistened among the stalactites in the vault overhead, and amid the transparent atmosphere and flowing fountain water, which was crossed by a wide ray of electric light, she gleamed like the sun with that flamelike skin and hair of hers. Paris would always picture her thus — would see her shining high up among crystal glass like the good God Himself. No, it was too stupid to let herself die under such conditions! She must be looking pretty by this time in that room up there!
“And what a lot of pleasures bloody well wasted!” said Mignon in melancholy tones, as became a man who did not like to see good and useful things lost.
He sounded Lucy and Caroline in order to find out if they were going up after all. Of course they were going up; their curiosity had increased. Just then Blanche arrived, out of breath and much exasperated at the way the crowds were blocking the pavement, and when she heard the news there was a fresh outburst of exclamations, and with a great rustling of skirts the ladies moved toward the staircase. Mignon followed them, crying out:
“Tell Rose that I’m waiting for her. She’ll come at once, eh?”
“They do not exactly know whether the contagion is to be feared at the beginning or near the end,” Fontan was explaining to Fauchery. “A medical I know was assuring me that the hours immediately following death are particularly dangerous. There are miasmatic exhalations then. Ah, but I do regret this sudden ending; I should have been so glad to shake hands with her for the last time.
“What good would it do you now?” said the journalist.
“Yes, what good?” the two others repeated.
The crowd was still on the increase. In the bright light thrown from shop-windows and beneath the wavering glare of the gas two living streams were distinguishable as they flowed along the pavement, innumerable hats apparently drifting on their surface. At that hour the popular fever was gaining ground rapidly, and people were flinging themselves in the wake of the bands of men in blouses. A constant forward movement seemed to sweep the roadway, and the cry kept recurring; obstinately, abruptly, there rang from thousands of throats:
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
The room on the fourth floor upstairs cost twelve francs a day, since Rose had wanted something decent and yet not luxurious, for sumptuousness is not necessary when one is suffering. Hung with Louis XIII cretonne, which was adorned with a pattern of large flowers, the room was furnished with the mahogany commonly found in hotels. On the floor there was a red carpet variegated with black foliage. Heavy silence reigned save for an occasional whispering sound caused by voices in the corridor.
“I assure you we’re lost. The waiter told us to turn to the right. What a barrack of a house!”
“Wait a bit; we must have a look. Room number 401; room number 401!”
“Oh, it’s this way: 405, 403. We ought to be there. Ah, at last, 401! This way! Hush now, hush!”
The voices were silent. Then there was a slight coughing and a moment or so of mental preparation. Then the door opened slowly, and Lucy entered, followed by Caroline and Blanche. But they stopped directly; there were already five women in the room; Gaga was lying back in the solitary armchair, which was a red velvet Voltaire. In front of the fireplace Simonne and Clarisse were now standing talking to Lea de Horn, who was seated, while by the bed, to the left of the door, Rose Mignon, perched on the edge of a chest, sat gazing fixedly at the body where it lay hidden in the shadow of the curtains. All the others had their hats and gloves on and looked as if they were paying a call: she alone sat there with bare hands and untidy hair and cheeks rendered pale by three nights of watching. She felt stupid in the face of this sudden death, and her eyes were swollen with weeping. A shaded lamp standing on the corner of the chest of drawers threw a bright flood of light over Gaga.
“What a sad misfortune, is it not?” whispered Lucy as she shook hands with Rose. “We wanted to bid her good-by.”
And she turned round and tried to catch sight of her, but the lamp was too far off, and she did not dare bring it nearer. On the bed lay stretched a gray mass, but only the ruddy chignon was distinguishable and a pale blotch which might be the face. Lucy added:
“I never saw her since that time at the Gaite, when she was at the end of the grotto.”
At this Rose awoke from her stupor and smiled as she said:
“Ah, she’s changed; she’s changed.”
Then she once more lapsed into contemplation and neither moved nor spoke. Perhaps they would be able to look at her presently! And with that the three women joined the others in front of the fireplace. Simonne and Clarisse were discussing the dead woman’s diamonds in low tones. Well, did they really exist — those diamonds? Nobody had seen them; it must be a bit of humbug. But Lea de Horn knew someone who knew all about them. Oh, they were monster stones! Besides, they weren’t all; she had brought back lots of other precious property from Russia — embroidered stuffs, for instance, valuable knickknacks, a gold dinner service, nay, even furniture. “Yes, my dear, fifty-two boxes, enormous cases some of them, three truckloads of them!” They were all lying at the station. “Wasn’t it hard lines, eh? — to die without even having time to unpack one’s traps?” Then she had a lot of tin, besides — something like a million! Lucy asked who was going to inherit it all. Oh, distant relations — the aunt, without doubt! It would be a pretty surprise for that old body. She knew nothing about it yet, for the sick woman had obstinately refused to let them warn her, for she still owed her a grudge over her little boy’s death. Thereupon they were all moved to pity about the little boy, and they remembered seeing him at the races. Oh, it was a wretchedly sickly baby; it looked so old and so sad. In fact, it was one of those poor brats who never asked to be born!
“He’s happier under the ground,” said Blanche.
“Bah, and so’s she!” added Caroline. “Life isn’t so funny!”
In that gloomy room melancholy ideas began to take possession of their imaginations. They felt frightened. It was silly to stand talking so long, but a longing to see her kept them rooted to the spot. It was very hot — the lamp glass threw a round, moonlike patch of light upon the ceiling, but the rest of the room was drowned in steamy darkness. Under the bed a deep plate full of phenol exhaled an insipid smell. And every few moments tiny gusts of wind swelled the window curtains. The window opened on the boulevard, whence rose a dull roaring sound.
“Did she suffer much?” asked Lucy, who was absorbed in contemplation of the clock, the design of which represented the three Graces as nude young women, smiling like opera dancers.
Gaga seemed to wake up.
“My word, yes! I was present when she died. I promise you it was not at all pleasant to see. Why, she was taken with a shuddering fit —”
But she was unable to proceed with her explanation, for a cry arose outside:
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
And Lucy, who felt suffocated, flung wide the window and leaned upon the sill. It was pleasant there; the air came fresh from the starry sky. Opposite her the windows were all aglow with light, and the gas sent dancing reflections over the gilt lettering of the shop signs.
Beneath these, again, a most amusing scene presented itself. The streams of people were discernible rolling torrentwise along the sidewalks and in the roadway, where there was a confused procession of carriages. Everywhere there were vast moving shadows in which lanterns and lampposts gleamed like sparks. But the band which now came roaring by carried torches, and a red glow streamed down from the direction of the Madeleine, crossed the mob like a trail of fire and spread out over the heads in the distance like a vivid reflection of a burning house. Lucy called Blanche and Caroline, forgetting where she was and shouting:
“Do come! You get a capital view from this window!”
They all three leaned out, greatly interested. The trees got in their way, and occasionally the torches disappeared under the foliage. They tried to catch a glimpse of the men of their own party below, but a protruding balcony hid the door, and they could only make out Count Muffat, who looked like a dark parcel thrown down on the bench where he sat. He was still burying his face in his handkerchief. A carriage had stopped in front, and yet another woman hurried up, in whom Lucy recognized Maria Blond. She was not alone; a stout man got down after her.
“It’s that thief of a Steiner,” said Caroline. “How is it they haven’t sent him back to Cologne yet? I want to see how he looks when he comes in.”
They turned round, but when after the lapse of ten minutes Maria Blond appeared, she was alone. She had twice mistaken the staircase. And when Lucy, in some astonishment, questioned her:
“What, he?” she said. “My dear, don’t you go fancying that he’ll come upstairs! It’s a great wonder he’s escorted me as far as the door. There are nearly a dozen of them smoking cigars.”
As a matter of fact, all the gentlemen were meeting downstairs. They had come strolling thither in order to have a look at the boulevards, and they hailed one another and commented loudly on that poor girl’s death. Then they began discussing politics and strategy. Bordenave, Daguenet, Labordette, Prulliere and others, besides, had swollen the group, and now they were all listening to Fontan, who was explaining his plan for taking Berlin within a week.
Meanwhile Maria Blond was touched as she stood by the bedside and murmured, as the others had done before her:
“Poor pet! The last time I saw her was in the grotto at the Gaite.”
“Ah, she’s changed; she’s changed!” Rose Mignon repeated with a smile of gloomiest dejection.
Two more women arrived. These were Tatan Nene and Louise Violaine. They had been wandering about the Grand Hotel for twenty minutes past, bandied from waiter to waiter, and had ascended and descended more than thirty flights of stairs amid a perfect stampede of travelers who were hurrying to leave Paris amid the panic caused by the war and the excitement on the boulevards. Accordingly they just dropped down on chairs when they came in, for they were too tired to think about the dead. At that moment a loud noise came from the room next door, where people were pushing trunks about and striking against furniture to an accompaniment of strident, outlandish syllables. It was a young Austrian couple, and Gaga told how during her agony the neighbors had played a game of catch as catch can and how, as only an unused door divided the two rooms, they had heard them laughing and kissing when one or the other was caught.
“Come, it’s time we were off,” said Clarisse. “We shan’t bring her to life again. Are you coming, Simonne?”
They all looked at the bed out of the corners of their eyes, but they did not budge an inch. Nevertheless, they began getting ready and gave their skirts various little pats. Lucy was again leaning out of window. She was alone now, and a sorrowful feeling began little by little to overpower her, as though an intense wave of melancholy had mounted up from the howling mob. Torches still kept passing, shaking out clouds of sparks, and far away in the distance the various bands stretched into the shadows, surging unquietly to and fro like flocks being driven to the slaughterhouse at night. A dizzy feeling emanated from these confused masses as the human flood rolled them along — a dizzy feeling, a sense of terror and all the pity of the massacres to come. The people were going wild; their voices broke; they were drunk with a fever of excitement which sent them rushing toward the unknown “out there” beyond the dark wall of the horizon.
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
Lucy turned round. She leaned her back against the window, and her face was very pale.
“Good God! What’s to become of us?”
The ladies shook their heads. They were serious and very anxious about the turn events were taking.
“For my part,” said Caroline Hequet in her decisive way, “I start for London the day after tomorrow. Mamma’s already over there getting a house ready for me. I’m certainly not going to let myself be massacred in Paris.”
Her mother, as became a prudent woman, had invested all her daughters’ money in foreign lands. One never knows how a war may end! But Maria Blond grew vexed at this. She was a patriot and spoke of following the army.
“There’s a coward for you! Yes, if they wanted me I should put on man’s clothes just to have a good shot at those pigs of Prussians! And if we all die after? What of that? Our wretched skins aren’t so valuable!”
Blanche de Sivry was exasperated.
“Please don’t speak ill of the Prussians! They are just like other men, and they’re not always running after the women, like your Frenchmen. They’ve just expelled the little Prussian who was with me. He was an awfully rich fellow and so gentle: he couldn’t have hurt a soul. It’s disgraceful; I’m ruined by it. And, you know, you mustn’t say a word or I go and find him out in Germany!”
After that, while the two were at loggerheads, Gaga began murmuring in dolorous tones:
“It’s all over with me; my luck’s always bad. It’s only a week ago that I finished paying for my little house at Juvisy. Ah, God knows what trouble it cost me! I had to go to Lili for help! And now here’s the war declared, and the Prussians’ll come and they’ll burn everything. How am I to begin again at my time of life, I should like to know?”
“Bah!” said Clarisse. “I don’t care a damn about it. I shall always find what I want.”
“Certainly you will,” added Simonne. “It’ll be a joke. Perhaps, after all, it’ll be good biz.”
And her smile hinted what she thought. Tatan Nene and Louise Violaine were of her opinion. The former told them that she had enjoyed the most roaring jolly good times with soldiers. Oh, they were good fellows and would have done any mortal thing for the girls. But as the ladies had raised their voices unduly Rose Mignon, still sitting on the chest by the bed, silenced them with a softly whispered “Hush!” They stood quite still at this and glanced obliquely toward the dead woman, as though this request for silence had emanated from the very shadows of the curtains. In the heavy, peaceful stillness which ensued, a void, deathly stillness which made them conscious of the stiff dead body lying stretched close by them, the cries of the mob burst forth:
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
But soon they forgot. Lea de Horn, who had a political salon where former ministers of Louis Philippe were wont to indulge in delicate epigrams, shrugged her shoulders and continued the conversation in a low tone:
“What a mistake this war is! What a bloodthirsty piece of stupidity!”
At this Lucy forthwith took up the cudgels for the empire. She had been the mistress of a prince of the imperial house, and its defense became a point of family honor with her.
“Do leave them alone, my dear. We couldn’t let ourselves be further insulted! Why, this war concerns the honor of France. Oh, you know I don’t say that because of the prince. He WAS just mean! Just imagine, at night when he was going to bed he hid his gold in his boots, and when we played at bezique he used beans, because one day I pounced down on the stakes for fun. But that doesn’t prevent my being fair. The emperor was right.”
Lea shook her head with an air of superiority, as became a woman who was repeating the opinions of important personages. Then raising her voice:
“This is the end of all things. They’re out of their minds at the Tuileries. France ought to have driven them out yesterday. Don’t you see?”
They all violently interrupted her. What was up with her? Was she mad about the emperor? Were people not happy? Was business doing badly? Paris would never enjoy itself so thoroughly again.
Gaga was beside herself; she woke up and was very indignant.
“Be quiet! It’s idiotic! You don’t know what you’re saying. I— I’ve seen Louis Philippe’s reign: it was full of beggars and misers, my dear. And then came ‘48! Oh, it was a pretty disgusting business was their republic! After February I was simply dying of starvation — yes, I, Gaga. Oh, if only you’d been through it all you would go down on your knees before the emperor, for he’s been a father to us; yes, a father to us.”
She had to be soothed but continued with pious fervor:
“O my God, do Thy best to give the emperor the victory. Preserve the empire to us!”
They all repeated this aspiration, and Blanche confessed that she burned candles for the emperor. Caroline had been smitten by him and for two whole months had walked where he was likely to pass but had failed to attract his attention. And with that the others burst forth into furious denunciations of the Republicans and talked of exterminating them on the frontiers so that Napoleon III, after having beaten the enemy, might reign peacefully amid universal enjoyment.
“That dirty Bismarck — there’s another cad for you!” Maria Blond remarked.
“To think that I should have known him!” cried Simonne. “If only I could have foreseen, I’m the one that would have put some poison in his glass.”
But Blanche, on whose heart the expulsion of her Prussian still weighed, ventured to defend Bismarck. Perhaps he wasn’t such a bad sort. To every man his trade!
“You know,” she added, “he adores women.”
“What the hell has that got to do with us?” said Clarisse. “We don’t want to cuddle him, eh?”
“There’s always too many men of that sort!” declared Louise Violaine gravely. “It’s better to do without ‘em than to mix oneself up with such monsters!”
And the discussion continued, and they stripped Bismarck, and, in her Bonapartist zeal, each of them gave him a sounding kick, while Tatan Nene kept saying:
“Bismarck! Why, they’ve simply driven me crazy with the chap! Oh, I hate him! I didn’t know that there Bismarck! One can’t know everybody.”
“Never mind,” said Lea de Horn by way of conclusion, “that Bismarck will give us a jolly good threshing.”
But she could not continue. The ladies were all down on her at once. Eh, what? A threshing? It was Bismarck they were going to escort home with blows from the butt ends of their muskets. What was this bad Frenchwoman going to say next?
“Hush,” whispered Rose, for so much noise hurt her.
The cold influence of the corpse once more overcame them, and they all paused together. They were embarrassed; the dead woman was before them again; a dull thread of coming ill possessed them. On the boulevard the cry was passing, hoarse and wild:
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
Presently, when they were making up their minds to go, a voice was heard calling from the passage:
Gaga opened the door in astonishment and disappeared for a moment. When she returned:
“My dear,” she said, “it’s Fauchery. He’s out there at the end of the corridor. He won’t come any further, and he’s beside himself because you still stay near that body.”
Mignon had at last succeeded in urging the journalist upstairs. Lucy, who was still at the window, leaned out and caught sight of the gentlemen out on the pavement. They were looking up, making energetic signals to her. Mignon was shaking his fists in exasperation, and Steiner, Fontan, Bordenave and the rest were stretching out their arms with looks of anxious reproach, while Daguenet simply stood smoking a cigar with his hands behind his back, so as not to compromise himself.
“It’s true, dear,” said Lucy, leaving the window open; “I promised to make you come down. They’re all calling us now.”
Rose slowly and painfully left the chest.
“I’m coming down; I’m coming down,” she whispered. “It’s very certain she no longer needs me. They’re going to send in a Sister of Mercy.”
And she turned round, searching for her hat and shawl. Mechanically she filled a basin of water on the toilet table and while washing her hands and face continued:
“I don’t know! It’s been a great blow to me. We used scarcely to be nice to one another. Ah well! You see I’m quite silly over it now. Oh! I’ve got all sorts of strange ideas — I want to die myself — I feel the end of the world’s coming. Yes, I need air.”
The corpse was beginning to poison the atmosphere of the room. And after long heedlessness there ensued a panic.
“Let’s be off; let’s be off, my little pets!” Gaga kept saying. “It isn’t wholesome here.”
They went briskly out, casting a last glance at the bed as they passed it. But while Lucy, Blanche and Caroline still remained behind, Rose gave a final look round, for she wanted to leave the room in order. She drew a curtain across the window, and then it occurred to her that the lamp was not the proper thing and that a taper should take its place. So she lit one of the copper candelabra on the chimney piece and placed it on the night table beside the corpse. A brilliant light suddenly illumined the dead woman’s face. The women were horror-struck. They shuddered and escaped.
“Ah, she’s changed; she’s changed!” murmured Rose Mignon, who was the last to remain.
She went away; she shut the door. Nana was left alone with upturned face in the light cast by the candle. She was fruit of the charnel house, a heap of matter and blood, a shovelful of corrupted flesh thrown down on the pillow. The pustules had invaded the whole of the face, so that each touched its neighbor. Fading and sunken, they had assumed the grayish hue of mud; and on that formless pulp, where the features had ceased to be traceable, they already resembled some decaying damp from the grave. One eye, the left eye, had completely foundered among bubbling purulence, and the other, which remained half open, looked like a deep, black, ruinous hole. The nose was still suppurating. Quite a reddish crush was peeling from one of the cheeks and invading the mouth, which it distorted into a horrible grin. And over this loathsome and grotesque mask of death the hair, the beautiful hair, still blazed like sunlight and flowed downward in rippling gold. Venus was rotting. It seemed as though the poison she had assimilated in the gutters and on the carrion tolerated by the roadside, the leaven with which she had poisoned a whole people, had but now remounted to her face and turned it to corruption.
The room was empty. A great despairing breath came up from the boulevard and swelled the curtain.
“A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02