Since morning Zoe had delivered up the flat to a managing man who had come from Brebant’s with a staff of helpers and waiters. Brebant was to supply everything, from the supper, the plates and dishes, the glass, the linen, the flowers, down to the seats and footstools. Nana could not have mustered a dozen napkins out of all her cupboards, and not having had time to get a proper outfit after her new start in life and scorning to go to the restaurant, she had decided to make the restaurant come to her. It struck her as being more the thing. She wanted to celebrate her great success as an actress with a supper which should set people talking. As her dining room was too small, the manager had arranged the table in the drawing room, a table with twenty-five covers, placed somewhat close together.
“Is everything ready?” asked Nana when she returned at midnight.
“Oh! I don’t know,” replied Zoe roughly, looking beside herself with worry. “The Lord be thanked, I don’t bother about anything. They’re making a fearful mess in the kitchen and all over the flat! I’ve had to fight my battles too. The other two came again. My eye! I did just chuck ‘em out!”
She referred, of course, to her employer’s old admirers, the tradesman and the Walachian, to whom Nana, sure of her future and longing to shed her skin, as she phrased it, had decided to give the go-by.
“There are a couple of leeches for you!” she muttered.
“If they come back threaten to go to the police.”
Then she called Daguenet and Georges, who had remained behind in the anteroom, where they were hanging up their overcoats. They had both met at the stage door in the Passage des Panoramas, and she had brought them home with her in a cab. As there was nobody there yet, she shouted to them to come into the dressing room while Zoe was touching up her toilet. Hurriedly and without changing her dress she had her hair done up and stuck white roses in her chignon and at her bosom. The little room was littered with the drawing-room furniture, which the workmen had been compelled to roll in there, and it was full of a motley assemblage of round tables, sofas and armchairs, with their legs in air for the most part. Nana was quite ready when her dress caught on a castor and tore upward. At this she swore furiously; such things only happened to her! Ragingly she took off her dress, a very simple affair of white foulard, of so thin and supple a texture that it clung about her like a long shift. But she put it on again directly, for she could not find another to her taste, and with tears in her eyes declared that she was dressed like a ragpicker. Daguenet and Georges had to patch up the rent with pins, while Zoe once more arranged her hair. All three hurried round her, especially the boy, who knelt on the floor with his hands among her skirts. And at last she calmed down again when Daguenet assured her it could not be later than a quarter past twelve, seeing that by dint of scamping her words and skipping her lines she had effectually shortened the third act of the Blonde Venus.
“The play’s still far too good for that crowd of idiots,” she said. “Did you see? There were thousands there tonight. Zoe, my girl, you will wait in here. Don’t go to bed, I shall want you. By gum, it is time they came. Here’s company!”
She ran off while Georges stayed where he was with the skirts of his coat brushing the floor. He blushed, seeing Daguenet looking at him. Notwithstanding which, they had conceived a tender regard the one for the other. They rearranged the bows of their cravats in front of the big dressing glass and gave each other a mutual dose of the clothesbrush, for they were all white from their close contact with Nana.
“One would think it was sugar,” murmured Georges, giggling like a greedy little child.
A footman hired for the evening was ushering the guests into the small drawing room, a narrow slip of a place in which only four armchairs had been left in order the better to pack in the company. From the large drawing room beyond came a sound as of the moving of plates and silver, while a clear and brilliant ray of light shone from under the door. At her entrance Nana found Clarisse Besnus, whom La Faloise had brought, already installed in one of the armchairs.
“Dear me, you’re the first of ‘em!” said Nana, who, now that she was successful, treated her familiarly.
“Oh, it’s his doing,” replied Clarisse. “He’s always afraid of not getting anywhere in time. If I’d taken him at his word I shouldn’t have waited to take off my paint and my wig.”
The young man, who now saw Nana for the first time, bowed, paid her a compliment and spoke of his cousin, hiding his agitation behind an exaggeration of politeness. But Nana, neither listening to him nor recognizing his face, shook hands with him and then went briskly toward Rose Mignon, with whom she at once assumed a most distinguished manner.
“Ah, how nice of you, my dear madame! I was so anxious to have you here!”
“It’s I who am charmed, I assure you,” said Rose with equal amiability.
“Pray, sit down. Do you require anything?”
“Thank you, no! Ah yes, I’ve left my fan in my pelisse, Steiner; just look in the right-hand pocket.”
Steiner and Mignon had come in behind Rose. The banker turned back and reappeared with the fan while Mignon embraced Nana fraternally and forced Rose to do so also. Did they not all belong to the same family in the theatrical world? Then he winked as though to encourage Steiner, but the latter was disconcerted by Rose’s clear gaze and contented himself by kissing Nana’s hand.
Just then the Count de Vandeuvres made his appearance with Blanche de Sivry. There was an interchange of profound bows, and Nana with the utmost ceremony conducted Blanche to an armchair. Meanwhile Vandeuvres told them laughingly that Fauchery was engaged in a dispute at the foot of the stairs because the porter had refused to allow Lucy Stewart’s carriage to come in at the gate. They could hear Lucy telling the porter he was a dirty blackguard in the anteroom. But when the footman had opened the door she came forward with her laughing grace of manner, announced her name herself, took both Nana’s hands in hers and told her that she had liked her from the very first and considered her talent splendid. Nana, puffed up by her novel role of hostess, thanked her and was veritably confused. Nevertheless, from the moment of Fauchery’s arrival she appeared preoccupied, and directly she could get near him she asked him in a low voice:
“Will he come?”
“No, he did not want to,” was the journalist’s abrupt reply, for he was taken by surprise, though he had got ready some sort of tale to explain Count Muffat’s refusal.
Seeing the young woman’s sudden pallor, he became conscious of his folly and tried to retract his words.
“He was unable to; he is taking the countess to the ball at the Ministry of the Interior tonight.”
“All right,” murmured Nana, who suspected him of ill will, “you’ll pay me out for that, my pippin.”
She turned on her heel, and so did he; they were angry. Just then Mignon was pushing Steiner up against Nana, and when Fauchery had left her he said to her in a low voice and with the good-natured cynicism of a comrade in arms who wishes his friends to be happy:
“He’s dying of it, you know, only he’s afraid of my wife. Won’t you protect him?”
Nana did not appear to understand. She smiled and looked at Rose, the husband and the banker and finally said to the latter:
“Monsieur Steiner, you will sit next to me.”
With that there came from the anteroom a sound of laughter and whispering and a burst of merry, chattering voices, which sounded as if a runaway convent were on the premises. And Labordette appeared, towing five women in his rear, his boarding school, as Lucy Stewart cruelly phrased it. There was Gaga, majestic in a blue velvet dress which was too tight for her, and Caroline Hequet, clad as usual in ribbed black silk, trimmed with Chantilly lace. Lea de Horn came next, terribly dressed up, as her wont was, and after her the big Tatan Nene, a good-humored fair girl with the bosom of a wet nurse, at which people laughed, and finally little Maria Blond, a young damsel of fifteen, as thin and vicious as a street child, yet on the high road to success, owing to her recent first appearance at the Folies. Labordette had brought the whole collection in a single fly, and they were stlll laughing at the way they had been squeezed with Maria Blond on her knees. But on entering the room they pursed up their lips, and all grew very conventional as they shook hands and exchanged salutations. Gaga even affected the infantile and lisped through excess of genteel deportment. Tatan Nene alone transgressed. They had been telling her as they came along that six absolutely naked Negroes would serve up Nana’s supper, and she now grew anxious about them and asked to see them. Labordette called her a goose and besought her to be silent.
“And Bordenave?” asked Fauchery.
“Oh, you may imagine how miserable I am,” cried Nana; “he won’t be able to join us.”
“Yes,” said Rose Mignon, “his foot caught in a trap door, and he’s got a fearful sprain. If only you could hear him swearing, with his leg tied up and laid out on a chair!”
Thereupon everybody mourned over Bordenave’s absence. No one ever gave a good supper without Bordenave. Ah well, they would try and do without him, and they were already talking about other matters when a burly voice was heard:
“What, eh, what? Is that the way they’re going to write my obituary notice?”
There was a shout, and all heads were turned round, for it was indeed Bordenave. Huge and fiery-faced, he was standing with his stiff leg in the doorway, leaning for support on Simonne Cabiroche’s shoulder. Simonne was for the time being his mistress. This little creature had had a certain amount of education and could play the piano and talk English. She was a blonde on a tiny, pretty scale and so delicately formed that she seemed to bend under Bordenave’s rude weight. Yet she was smilingly submissive withal. He postured there for some moments, for he felt that together they formed a tableau.
“One can’t help liking ye, eh?” he continued. “Zounds, I was afraid I should get bored, and I said to myself, ‘Here goes.’”
But he interrupted himself with an oath.
Simonne had taken a step too quickly forward, and his foot had just felt his full weight. He gave her a rough push, but she, still smiling away and ducking her pretty head as some animal might that is afraid of a beating, held him up with all the strength a little plump blonde can command. Amid all these exclamations there was a rush to his assistance. Nana and Rose Mignon rolled up an armchair, into which Bordenave let himself sink, while the other women slid a second one under his leg. And with that all the actresses present kissed him as a matter of course. He kept grumbling and gasping.
“Oh, damn! Oh, damn! Ah well, the stomach’s unhurt, you’ll see.”
Other guests had arrived by this time, and motion became impossible in the room. The noise of clinking plates and silver had ceased, and now a dispute was heard going on in the big drawing room, where the voice of the manager grumbled angrily. Nana was growing impatient, for she expected no more invited guests and wondered why they did not bring in supper. She had just sent Georges to find out what was going on when, to her great surprise, she noticed the arrival of more guests, both male and female. She did not know them in the least. Whereupon with some embarrassment she questioned Bordenave, Mignon and Labordette about them. They did not know them any more than she did, but when she turned to the Count de Vandeuvres he seemed suddenly to recollect himself. They were the young men he had pressed into her service at Count Muffat’s. Nana thanked him. That was capital, capital! Only they would all be terribly crowded, and she begged Labordette to go and have seven more covers set. Scarcely had he left the room than the footman ushered in three newcomers. Nay, this time the thing was becoming ridiculous; one certainly could never take them all in. Nana was beginning to grow angry and in her haughtiest manner announced that such conduct was scarcely in good taste. But seeing two more arrive, she began laughing; it was really too funny. So much the worse. People would have to fit in anyhow! The company were all on their feet save Gaga and Rose and Bordenave, who alone took up two armchairs. There was a buzz of voices, people talking in low tones and stifling slight yawns the while.
“Now what d’you say, my lass,” asked Bordenave, “to our sitting down at table as if nothing had happened? We are all here, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes, we’re all here, I promise you!” she answered laughingly.
She looked round her but grew suddenly serious, as though she were surprised at not finding someone. Doubtless there was a guest missing whom she did not mention. It was a case of waiting. But a minute or two later the company noticed in their midst a tall gentleman with a fine face and a beautiful white beard. The most astonishing thing about it was that nobody had seen him come in; indeed, he must have slipped into the little drawing room through the bedroom door, which had remained ajar. Silence reigned, broken only by a sound of whispering. The Count de Vandeuvres certainly knew who the gentleman was, for they both exchanged a discreet handgrip, but to the questions which the women asked him he replied by a smile only. Thereupon Caroline Hequet wagered in a low voice that it was an English lord who was on the eve of returning to London to be married. She knew him quite well — she had had him. And this account of the matter went the round of the ladies present, Maria Blond alone asserting that, for her part, she recognized a German ambassador. She could prove it, because he often passed the night with one of her friends. Among the men his measure was taken in a few rapid phrases. A real swell, to judge by his looks! Perhaps he would pay for the supper! Most likely. It looked like it. Bah! Provided only the supper was a good one! In the end the company remained undecided. Nay, they were already beginning to forget the old white-bearded gentleman when the manager opened the door of the large drawing room.
“Supper is on the table, madame.”
Nana had already accepted Steiner’s proffered arm without noticing a movement on the part of the old gentleman, who started to walk behind her in solitary state. Thus the march past could not be organized, and men and women entered anyhow, joking with homely good humor over this absence of ceremony. A long table stretched from one end to the other of the great room, which had been entirely cleared of furniture, and this same table was not long enough, for the plates thereon were touching one another. Four candelabra, with ten candles apiece, lit up the supper, and of these one was gorgeous in silver plate with sheaves of flowers to right and left of it. Everything was luxurious after the restaurant fashion; the china was ornamented with a gold line and lacked the customary monogram; the silver had become worn and tarnished through dint of continual washings; the glass was of the kind that you can complete an odd set of in any cheap emporium.
The scene suggested a premature housewarming in an establishment newly smiled on by fortune and as yet lacking the necessary conveniences. There was no central luster, and the candelabra, whose tall tapers had scarcely burned up properly, cast a pale yellow light among the dishes and stands on which fruit, cakes and preserves alternated symmetrically.
“You sit where you like, you know,” said Nana. “It’s more amusing that way.”
She remained standing midway down the side of the table. The old gentleman whom nobody knew had placed himself on her right, while she kept Steiner on her left hand. Some guests were already sitting down when the sound of oaths came from the little drawing room. It was Bordenave. The company had forgotten him, and he was having all the trouble in the world to raise himself out of his two armchairs, for he was howling amain and calling for that cat of a Simonne, who had slipped off with the rest. The women ran in to him, full of pity for his woes, and Bordenave appeared, supported, nay, almost carried, by Caroline, Clarisse, Tatan Nene and Maria Blond. And there was much to-do over his installation at the table.
“In the middle, facing Nana!” was the cry. “Bordenave in the middle! He’ll be our president!”
Thereupon the ladies seated him in the middle. But he needed a second chair for his leg, and two girls lifted it up and stretched it carefully out. It wouldn’t matter; he would eat sideways.
“God blast it all!” he grumbled. “We’re squashed all the same! Ah, my kittens, Papa recommends himself to your tender care!”
He had Rose Mignon on his right and Lucy Stewart on his left hand, and they promised to take good care of him. Everybody was now getting settled. Count de Vandeuvres placed himself between Lucy and Clarisse; Fauchery between Rose Mignon and Caroline Hequet. On the other side of the table Hector de la Faloise had rushed to get next Gaga, and that despite the calls of Clarisse opposite, while Mignon, who never deserted Steiner, was only separated from him by Blanche and had Tatan Nene on his left. Then came Labordette and, finally, at the two ends of the table were irregular crowding groups of young men and of women, such as Simonne, Lea de Horn and Maria Blond. It was in this region that Daguenet and Georges forgathered more warmly than ever while smilingly gazing at Nana.
Nevertheless, two people remained standing, and there was much joking about it. The men offered seats on their knees. Clarisse, who could not move her elbows, told Vandeuvres that she counted on him to feed her. And then that Bordenave did just take up space with his chairs! There was a final effort, and at last everybody was seated, but, as Mignon loudly remarked, they were confoundedly like herrings in a barrel.
“Thick asparagus soup a la comtesse, clear soup a la Deslignac,” murmured the waiters, carrying about platefuls in rear of the guests.
Bordenave was loudly recommending the thick soup when a shout arose, followed by protests and indignant exclamations. The door had just opened, and three late arrivals, a woman and two men, had just come in. Oh dear, no! There was no space for them! Nana, however, without leaving her chair, began screwing up her eyes in the effort to find out whether she knew them. The woman was Louise Violaine, but she had never seen the men before.
“This gentleman, my dear,” said Vandeuvres, “is a friend of mine, a naval officer, Monsieur de Foucarmont by name. I invited him.”
Foucarmont bowed and seemed very much at ease, for he added:
“And I took leave to bring one of my friends with me.”
“Oh, it’s quite right, quite right!” said Nana. “Sit down, pray. Let’s see, you — Clarisse — push up a little. You’re a good deal spread out down there. That’s it — where there’s a will —”
They crowded more tightly than ever, and Foucarmont and Louise were given a little stretch of table, but the friend had to sit at some distance from his plate and ate his supper through dint of making a long arm between his neighbors’ shoulders. The waiters took away the soup plates and circulated rissoles of young rabbit with truffles and “niokys” and powdered cheese. Bordenave agitated the whole table with the announcement that at one moment he had had the idea of bringing with him Prulliere, Fontan and old Bosc. At this Nana looked sedate and remarked dryly that she would have given them a pretty reception. Had she wanted colleagues, she would certainly have undertaken to ask them herself. No, no, she wouldn’t have third-rate play actors. Old Bosc was always drunk; Prulliere was fond of spitting too much, and as to Fontan, he made himself unbearable in society with his loud voice and his stupid doings. Then, you know, third-rate play actors were always out of place when they found themselves in the society of gentlemen such as those around her.
“Yes, yes, it’s true,” Mignon declared.
All round the table the gentlemen in question looked unimpeachable in the extreme, what with their evening dress and their pale features, the natural distinction of which was still further refined by fatigue. The old gentleman was as deliberate in his movements and wore as subtle a smile as though he were presiding over a diplomatic congress, and Vandeuvres, with his exquisite politeness toward the ladies next to him, seemed to be at one of the Countess Muffat’s receptions. That very morning Nana had been remarking to her aunt that in the matter of men one could not have done better — they were all either wellborn or wealthy, in fact, quite the thing. And as to the ladies, they were behaving admirably. Some of them, such as Blanche, Lea and Louise, had come in low dresses, but Gaga’s only was perhaps a little too low, the more so because at her age she would have done well not to show her neck at all. Now that the company were finally settled the laughter and the light jests began to fail. Georges was under the impression that he had assisted at merrier dinner parties among the good folks of Orleans. There was scarcely any conversation. The men, not being mutually acquainted, stared at one another, while the women sat quite quiet, and it was this which especially surprised Georges. He thought them all smugs — he had been under the impression that everybody would begin kissing at once.
The third course, consisting of a Rhine carp a la Chambord and a saddle of venison a l’anglaise, was being served when Blanche remarked aloud:
“Lucy, my dear, I met your Ollivier on Sunday. How he’s grown!”
“Dear me, yes! He’s eighteen,” replied Lucy. “It doesn’t make me feel any younger. He went back to his school yesterday.”
Her son Ollivier, whom she was wont to speak of with pride, was a pupil at the Ecole de Marine. Then ensued a conversation about the young people, during which all the ladies waxed very tender. Nana described her own great happiness. Her baby, the little Louis, she said, was now at the house of her aunt, who brought him round to her every morning at eleven o’clock, when she would take him into her bed, where he played with her griffon dog Lulu. It was enough to make one die of laughing to see them both burying themselves under the clothes at the bottom of the bed. The company had no idea how cunning Louiset had already become.
“Oh, yesterday I did just pass a day!” said Rose Mignon in her turn. “Just imagine, I went to fetch Charles and Henry at their boarding school, and I had positively to take them to the theater at night. They jumped; they clapped their little hands: ‘We shall see Mamma act! We shall see Mamma act!’ Oh, it was a to-do!”
Mignon smiled complaisantly, his eyes moist with paternal tenderness.
“And at the play itself,” he continued, “they were so funny! They behaved as seriously as grown men, devoured Rose with their eyes and asked me why Mamma had her legs bare like that.”
The whole table began laughing, and Mignon looked radiant, for his pride as a father was flattered. He adored his children and had but one object in life, which was to increase their fortunes by administering the money gained by Rose at the theater and elsewhere with the businesslike severity of a faithful steward. When as first fiddle in the music hall where she used to sing he had married her, they had been passionately fond of one another. Now they were good friends. There was an understanding between them: she labored hard to the full extent of her talent and of her beauty; he had given up his violin in order the better to watch over her successes as an actress and as a woman. One could not have found a more homely and united household anywhere!
“What age is your eldest?” asked Vandeuvres.
“Henry’s nine,” replied Mignon, “but such a big chap for his years!”
Then he chaffed Steiner, who was not fond of children, and with quiet audacity informed him that were he a father, he would make a less stupid hash of his fortune. While talking he watched the banker over Blanche’s shoulders to see if it was coming off with Nana. But for some minutes Rose and Fauchery, who were talking very near him, had been getting on his nerves. Was Rose going to waste time over such a folly as that? In that sort of case, by Jove, he blocked the way. And diamond on finger and with his fine hands in great evidence, he finished discussing a fillet of venison.
Elsewhere the conversation about children continued. La Faloise, rendered very restless by the immediate proximity of Gaga, asked news of her daughter, whom he had had the pleasure of noticing in her company at the Varietes. Lili was quite well, but she was still such a tomboy! He was astonished to learn that Lili was entering on her nineteenth year. Gaga became even more imposing in his eyes, and when he endeavored to find out why she had not brought Lili with her:
“Oh no, no, never!” she said stiffly. “Not three months ago she positively insisted on leaving her boarding school. I was thinking of marrying her off at once, but she loves me so that I had to take her home — oh, so much against my will!”
Her blue eyelids with their blackened lashes blinked and wavered while she spoke of the business of settling her young lady. If at her time of life she hadn’t laid by a sou but was still always working to minister to men’s pleasures, especially those very young men, whose grandmother she might well be, it was truly because she considered a good match of far greater importance than mere savings. And with that she leaned over La Faloise, who reddened under the huge, naked, plastered shoulder with which she well-nigh crushed him.
“You know,” she murmured, “if she fails it won’t be my fault. But they’re so strange when they’re young!”
There was a considerable bustle round the table, and the waiters became very active. After the third course the entrees had made their appearance; they consisted of pullets a la marechale, fillets of sole with shallot sauce and escalopes of Strasbourg pate. The manager, who till then had been having Meursault served, now offered Chambertin and Leoville. Amid the slight hubbub which the change of plates involved Georges, who was growing momentarily more astonished, asked Daguenet if all the ladies present were similarly provided with children, and the other, who was amused by this question, gave him some further details. Lucy Stewart was the daughter of a man of English origin who greased the wheels of the trains at the Gare du Nord; she was thirty-nine years old and had the face of a horse but was adorable withal and, though consumptive, never died. In fact, she was the smartest woman there and represented three princes and a duke. Caroline Hequet, born at Bordeaux, daughter of a little clerk long since dead of shame, was lucky enough to be possessed of a mother with a head on her shoulders, who, after having cursed her, had made it up again at the end of a year of reflection, being minded, at any rate, to save a fortune for her daughter. The latter was twenty-five years old and very passionless and was held to be one of the finest women it is possible to enjoy. Her price never varied. The mother, a model of orderliness, kept the accounts and noted down receipts and expenditures with severe precision. She managed the whole household from some small lodging two stories above her daughter’s, where, moreover, she had established a workroom for dressmaking and plain sewing. As to Blanche de Sivry, whose real name was Jacqueline Bandu, she hailed from a village near Amiens. Magnificent in person, stupid and untruthful in character, she gave herself out as the granddaughter of a general and never owned to her thirty-two summers. The Russians had a great taste for her, owing to her embonpoint. Then Daguenet added a rapid word or two about the rest. There was Clarisse Besnus, whom a lady had brought up from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer in the capacity of maid while the lady’s husband had started her in quite another line. There was Simonne Cabiroche, the daughter of a furniture dealer in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, who had been educated in a large boarding school with a view to becoming a governess. Finally there were Maria Blond and Louise Violaine and Lea de Horn, who had all shot up to woman’s estate on the pavements of Paris, not to mention Tatan Nene, who had herded cows in Champagne till she was twenty.
Georges listened and looked at these ladies, feeling dizzy and excited by the coarse recital thus crudely whispered in his ear, while behind his chair the waiters kept repeating in respectful tones:
“Pullets a la marechale; fillets of sole with ravigote sauce.”
“My dear fellow,” said Daguenet, giving him the benefit of his experience, “don’t take any fish; it’ll do you no good at this time of night. And be content with Leoville: it’s less treacherous.”
A heavy warmth floated upward from the candelabras, from the dishes which were being handed round, from the whole table where thirty-eight human beings were suffocating. And the waiters forgot themselves and ran when crossing the carpet, so that it was spotted with grease. Nevertheless, the supper grew scarce any merrier. The ladies trifled with their meat, left half of it uneaten. Tatan Nene alone partook gluttonously of every dish. At that advanced hour of the night hunger was of the nervous order only, a mere whimsical craving born of an exasperated stomach.
At Nana’s side the old gentleman refused every dish offered him; he had only taken a spoonful of soup, and he now sat in front of his empty plate, gazing silently about. There was some subdued yawning, and occasionally eyelids closed and faces became haggard and white. It was unutterably slow, as it always was, according to Vandeuvres’s dictum. This sort of supper should be served anyhow if it was to be funny, he opined. Otherwise when elegantly and conventionally done you might as well feed in good society, where you were not more bored than here. Had it not been for Bordenave, who was still bawling away, everybody would have fallen asleep. That rum old buffer Bordenave, with his leg duly stretched on its chair, was letting his neighbors, Lucy and Rose, wait on him as though he were a sultan. They were entirely taken up with him, and they helped him and pampered him and watched over his glass and his plate, and yet that did not prevent his complaining.
“Who’s going to cut up my meat for me? I can’t; the table’s a league away.”
Every few seconds Simonne rose and took up a position behind his back in order to cut his meat and his bread. All the women took a great interest in the things he ate. The waiters were recalled, and he was stuffed to suffocation. Simonne having wiped his mouth for him while Rose and Lucy were changing his plate, her act struck him as very pretty and, deigning at length to show contentment:
“There, there, my daughter,” he said, “that’s as it should be. Women are made for that!”
There was a slight reawakening, and conversation became general as they finished discussing some orange sherbet. The hot roast was a fillet with truffles, and the cold roast a galantine of guinea fowl in jelly. Nana, annoyed by the want of go displayed by her guests, had begun talking with the greatest distinctness.
“You know the Prince of Scots has already had a stage box reserved so as to see the Blonde Venus when he comes to visit the exhibition.”
“I very much hope that all the princes will come and see it,” declared Bordenave with his mouth full.
“They are expecting the shah of Persia next Sunday,” said Lucy Stewart. Whereupon Rose Mignon spoke of the shah’s diamonds. He wore a tunic entirely covered with gems; it was a marvel, a flaming star; it represented millions. And the ladies, with pale faces and eyes glittering with covetousness, craned forward and ran over the names of the other kings, the other emperors, who were shortly expected. All of them were dreaming of some royal caprice, some night to be paid for by a fortune.
“Now tell me, dear boy,” Caroline Hequet asked Vandeuvres, leaning forward as she did so, “how old’s the emperor of Russia?”
“Oh, he’s ‘present time,’” replied the count, laughing. “Nothing to be done in that quarter, I warn you.”
Nana made pretense of being hurt. The witticism appeared somewhat too stinging, and there was a murmur of protest. But Blanche gave a description of the king of Italy, whom she had once seen at Milan. He was scarcely good looking, and yet that did not prevent him enjoying all the women. She was put out somewhat when Fauchery assured her that Victor Emmanuel could not come to the exhibition. Louise Violaine and Lea favored the emperor of Austria, and all of a sudden little Maria Blond was heard saying:
“What an old stick the king of Prussia is! I was at Baden last year, and one was always meeting him about with Count Bismarck.”
“Dear me, Bismarck!” Simonne interrupted. “I knew him once, I did. A charming man.”
“That’s what I was saying yesterday,” cried Vandeuvres, “but nobody would believe me.”
And just as at Countess Sabine’s, there ensued a long discussion about Bismarck. Vandeuvres repeated the same phrases, and for a moment or two one was again in the Muffats’ drawing room, the only difference being that the ladies were changed. Then, just as last night, they passed on to a discussion on music, after which, Foucarmont having let slip some mention of the assumption of the veil of which Paris was still talking, Nana grew quite interested and insisted on details about Mlle de Fougeray. Oh, the poor child, fancy her burying herself alive like that! Ah well, when it was a question of vocation! All round the table the women expressed themselves much touched, and Georges, wearied at hearing these things a second time discussed, was beginning to ask Daguenet about Nana’s ways in private life, when the conversation veered fatefully back to Count Bismarck. Tatan Nene bent toward Labordette to ask him privily who this Bismarck might be, for she did not know him. Whereupon Labordette, in cold blood, told her some portentous anecdotes. This Bismarck, he said, was in the habit of eating raw meat and when he met a woman near his den would carry her off thither on his back; at forty years of age he had already had as many as thirty-two children that way.
“Thirty-two children at forty!” cried Tatan Nene, stupefied and yet convinced. “He must be jolly well worn out for his age.”
There was a burst of merriment, and it dawned on her that she was being made game of.
“You sillies! How am I to know if you’re joking?”
Gaga, meanwhile, had stopped at the exhibition. Like all these ladies, she was delightedly preparing for the fray. A good season, provincials and foreigners rushing into Paris! In the long run, perhaps, after the close of the exhibition she would, if her business had flourished, be able to retire to a little house at Jouvisy, which she had long had her eye on.
“What’s to be done?” she said to La Faloise. “One never gets what one wants! Oh, if only one were still really loved!”
Gaga behaved meltingly because she had felt the young man’s knee gently placed against her own. He was blushing hotly and lisping as elegantly as ever. She weighed him at a glance. Not a very heavy little gentleman, to be sure, but then she wasn’t hard to please. La Faloise obtained her address.
“Just look there,” murmured Vandeuvres to Clarisse. “I think Gaga’s doing you out of your Hector.”
“A good riddance, so far as I’m concerned,” replied the actress. “That fellow’s an idiot. I’ve already chucked him downstairs three times. You know, I’m disgusted when dirty little boys run after old women.”
She broke off and with a little gesture indicated Blanche, who from the commencement of dinner had remained in a most uncomfortable attitude, sitting up very markedly, with the intention of displaying her shoulders to the old distinguished-looking gentleman three seats beyond her.
“You’re being left too,” she resumed.
Vandeuvres smiled his thin smile and made a little movement to signify he did not care. Assuredly ‘twas not he who would ever have prevented poor, dear Blanche scoring a success. He was more interested by the spectacle which Steiner was presenting to the table at large. The banker was noted for his sudden flames. That terrible German Jew who brewed money, whose hands forged millions, was wont to turn imbecile whenever he became enamored of a woman. He wanted them all too! Not one could make her appearance on the stage but he bought her, however expensive she might be. Vast sums were quoted. Twice had his furious appetite for courtesans ruined him. The courtesans, as Vandeuvres used to say, avenged public morality by emptying his moneybags. A big operation in the saltworks of the Landes had rendered him powerful on ‘change, and so for six weeks past the Mignons had been getting a pretty slice out of those same saltworks. But people were beginning to lay wagers that the Mignons would not finish their slice, for Nana was showing her white teeth. Once again Steiner was in the toils, and so deeply this time that as he sat by Nana’s side he seemed stunned; he ate without appetite; his lip hung down; his face was mottled. She had only to name a figure. Nevertheless, she did not hurry but continued playing with him, breathing her merry laughter into his hairy ear and enjoying the little convulsive movements which kept traversing his heavy face. There would always be time enough to patch all that up if that ninny of a Count Muffat were really to treat her as Joseph did Potiphar’s wife.
“Leoville or Chambertin?” murmured a waiter, who came craning forward between Nana and Steiner just as the latter was addressing her in a low voice.
“Eh, what?” he stammered, losing his head. “Whatever you like — I don’t care.”
Vandeuvres gently nudged Lucy Stewart, who had a very spiteful tongue and a very fierce invention when once she was set going. That evening Mignon was driving her to exasperation.
“He would gladly be bottleholder, you know,” she remarked to the count. “He’s in hopes of repeating what he did with little Jonquier. You remember: Jonquier was Rose’s man, but he was sweet on big Laure. Now Mignon procured Laure for Jonquier and then came back arm in arm with him to Rose, as if he were a husband who had been allowed a little peccadillo. But this time the thing’s going to fail. Nana doesn’t give up the men who are lent her.”
“What ails Mignon that he should be looking at his wife in that severe way?” asked Vandeuvres.
He leaned forward and saw Rose growing exceedingly amorous toward Fauchery. This was the explanation of his neighbor’s wrath. He resumed laughingly:
“The devil, are you jealous?”
“Jealous!” said Lucy in a fury. “Good gracious, if Rose is wanting Leon I give him up willingly — for what he’s worth! That’s to say, for a bouquet a week and the rest to match! Look here, my dear boy, these theatrical trollops are all made the same way. Why, Rose cried with rage when she read Leon’s article on Nana; I know she did. So now, you understand, she must have an article, too, and she’s gaining it. As for me, I’m going to chuck Leon downstairs — you’ll see!”
She paused to say “Leoville” to the waiter standing behind her with his two bottles and then resumed in lowered tones:
“I don’t want to shout; it isn’t my style. But she’s a cocky slut all the same. If I were in her husband’s place I should lead her a lovely dance. Oh, she won’t be very happy over it. She doesn’t know my Fauchery: a dirty gent he is, too, palling up with women like that so as to get on in the world. Oh, a nice lot they are!”
Vandeuvres did his best to calm her down, but Bordenave, deserted by Rose and by Lucy, grew angry and cried out that they were letting Papa perish of hunger and thirst. This produced a fortunate diversion. Yet the supper was flagging; no one was eating now, though platefuls of cepes a’ l’italienne and pineapple fritters a la Pompadour were being mangled. The champagne, however, which had been drunk ever since the soup course, was beginning little by little to warm the guests into a state of nervous exaltation. They ended by paying less attention to decorum than before. The women began leaning on their elbows amid the disordered table arrangements, while the men, in order to breathe more easily, pushed their chairs back, and soon the black coats appeared buried between the light-colored bodices, and bare shoulders, half turned toward the table, began to gleam as soft as silk. It was too hot, and the glare of the candles above the table grew ever yellower and duller. Now and again, when a women bent forward, the back of her neck glowed golden under a rain of curls, and the glitter of a diamond clasp lit up a lofty chignon. There was a touch of fire in the passing jests, in the laughing eyes, in the sudden gleam of white teeth, in the reflection of the candelabra on the surface of a glass of champagne. The company joked at the tops of their voices, gesticulated, asked questions which no one answered and called to one another across the whole length of the room. But the loudest din was made by the waiters; they fancied themselves at home in the corridors of their parent restaurant; they jostled one another and served the ices and the dessert to an accompaniment of guttural exclamations.
“My children,” shouted Bordenave, “you know we’re playing tomorrow. Be careful! Not too much champagne!”
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Foucarmont, “I’ve drunk every imaginable kind of wine in all the four quarters of the globe. Extraordinary liquors some of ‘em, containing alcohol enough to kill a corpse! Well, and what d’you think? Why, it never hurt me a bit. I can’t make myself drunk. I’ve tried and I can’t.”
He was very pale, very calm and collected, and he lolled back in his chair, drinking without cessation.
“Never mind that,” murmured Louise Violaine. “Leave off; you’ve had enough. It would be a funny business if I had to look after you the rest of the night.”
Such was her state of exaltation that Lucy Stewart’s cheeks were assuming a red, consumptive flush, while Rose Mignon with moist eyelids was growing excessively melting. Tatan Nene, greatly astonished at the thought that she had overeaten herself, was laughing vaguely over her own stupidity. The others, such as Blanche, Caroline, Simonne and Maria, were all talking at once and telling each other about their private affairs — about a dispute with a coachman, a projected picnic and innumerable complex stories of lovers stolen or restored. Meanwhile a young man near Georges, having evinced a desire to kiss Lea de Horn, received a sharp rap, accompanied by a “Look here, you, let me go!” which was spoken in a tone of fine indignation; and Georges, who was now very tipsy and greatly excited by the sight of Nana, hesitated about carrying out a project which he had been gravely maturing. He had been planning, indeed, to get under the table on all fours and to go and crouch at Nana’s feet like a little dog. Nobody would have seen him, and he would have stayed there in the quietest way. But when at Lea’s urgent request Daguenet had told the young man to sit still, Georges all at once felt grievously chagrined, as though the reproof had just been leveled at him. Oh, it was all silly and slow, and there was nothing worth living for! Daguenet, nevertheless, began chaffing and obliged him to swallow a big glassful of water, asking him at the same time what he would do if he were to find himself alone with a woman, seeing that three glasses of champagne were able to bowl him over.
“Why, in Havana,” resumed Foucarmont, “they make a spirit with a certain wild berry; you think you’re swallowing fire! Well now, one evening I drank more than a liter of it, and it didn’t hurt me one bit. Better than that, another time when we were on the coast of Coromandel some savages gave us I don’t know what sort of a mixture of pepper and vitriol, and that didn’t hurt me one bit. I can’t make myself drunk.”
For some moments past La Faloise’s face opposite had excited his displeasure. He began sneering and giving vent to disagreeable witticisms. La Faloise, whose brain was in a whirl, was behaving very restlessly and squeezing up against Gaga. But at length he became the victim of anxiety; somebody had just taken his handkerchief, and with drunken obstinacy he demanded it back again, asked his neighbors about it, stooped down in order to look under the chairs and the guests’ feet. And when Gaga did her best to quiet him:
“It’s a nuisance,” he murmured, “my initials and my coronet are worked in the corner. They may compromise me.”
“I say, Monsieur Falamoise, Lamafoise, Mafaloise!” shouted Foucarmont, who thought it exceedingly witty thus to disfigure the young man’s name ad infinitum.
But La Faloise grew wroth and talked with a stutter about his ancestry. He threatened to send a water bottle at Foucarmont’s head, and Count de Vandeuvres had to interfere in order to assure him that Foucarmont was a great joker. Indeed, everybody was laughing. This did for the already flurried young man, who was very glad to resume his seat and to begin eating with childlike submissiveness when in a loud voice his cousin ordered him to feed. Gaga had taken him back to her ample side; only from time to time he cast sly and anxious glances at the guests, for he ceased not to search for his handkerchief.
Then Foucarmont, being now in his witty vein, attacked Labordette right at the other end of the table. Louise Violaine strove to make him hold his tongue, for, she said, “when he goes nagging at other people like that it always ends in mischief for me.” He had discovered a witticism which consisted in addressing Labordette as “Madame,” and it must have amused him greatly, for he kept on repeating it while Labordette tranquilly shrugged his shoulders and as constantly replied:
“Pray hold your tongue, my dear fellow; it’s stupid.”
But as Foucarmont failed to desist and even became insulting without his neighbors knowing why, he left off answering him and appealed to Count Vandeuvres.
“Make your friend hold his tongue, monsieur. I don’t wish to become angry.”
Foucarmont had twice fought duels, and he was in consequence most politely treated and admitted into every circle. But there was now a general uprising against him. The table grew merry at his sallies, for they thought him very witty, but that was no reason why the evening should be spoiled. Vandeuvres, whose subtle countenance was darkening visibly, insisted on his restoring Labordette his sex. The other men — Mignon, Steiner and Bordenave — who were by this time much exalted, also intervened with shouts which drowned his voice. Only the old gentleman sitting forgotten next to Nana retained his stately demeanor and, still smiling in his tired, silent way, watched with lackluster eyes the untoward finish of the dessert.
“What do you say to our taking coffee in here, duckie?” said Bordenave. “We’re very comfortable.”
Nana did not give an immediate reply. Since the beginning of supper she had seemed no longer in her own house. All this company had overwhelmed and bewildered her with their shouts to the waiters, the loudness of their voices and the way in which they put themselves at their ease, just as though they were in a restaurant. Forgetting her role of hostess, she busied herself exclusively with bulky Steiner, who was verging on apoplexy beside her. She was listening to his proposals and continually refusing them with shakes of the head and that temptress’s laughter which is peculiar to a voluptuous blonde. The champagne she had been drinking had flushed her a rosy-red; her lips were moist; her eyes sparkled, and the banker’s offers rose with every kittenish movement of her shoulders, with every little voluptuous lift and fall of her throat, which occurred when she turned her head. Close by her ear he kept espying a sweet little satiny corner which drove him crazy. Occasionally Nana was interrupted, and then, remembering her guests, she would try and be as pleased as possible in order to show that she knew how to receive. Toward the end of the supper she was very tipsy. It made her miserable to think of it, but champagne had a way of intoxicating her almost directly! Then an exasperating notion struck her. In behaving thus improperly at her table, these ladies were showing themselves anxious to do her an ugly turn. Oh yes, she could see it all distinctly. Lucy had given Foucarmont a wink in order to egg him on against Labordette, while Rose, Caroline and the others were doing all they could to stir up the men. Now there was such a din you couldn’t hear your neighbor speak, and so the story would get about that you might allow yourself every kind of liberty when you supped at Nana’s. Very well then! They should see! She might be tipsy, if you like, but she was still the smartest and most ladylike woman there.
“Do tell them to serve the coffee here, duckie,” resumed Bordenave. “I prefer it here because of my leg.”
But Nana had sprung savagely to her feet after whispering into the astonished ears of Steiner and the old gentleman:
“It’s quite right; it’ll teach me to go and invite a dirty lot like that.”
Then she pointed to the door of the dining room and added at the top of her voice:
“If you want coffee it’s there, you know.”
The company left the table and crowded toward the dining room without noticing Nana’s indignant outburst. And soon no one was left in the drawing room save Bordenave, who advanced cautiously, supporting himself against the wall and cursing away at the confounded women who chucked Papa the moment they were chock-full. The waiters behind him were already busy removing the plates and dishes in obedience to the loudly voiced orders of the manager. They rushed to and fro, jostled one another, caused the whole table to vanish, as a pantomime property might at the sound of the chief scene-shifter’s whistle. The ladies and gentlemen were to return to the drawing room after drinking their coffee.
“By gum, it’s less hot here,” said Gaga with a slight shiver as she entered the dining room.
The window here had remained open. Two lamps illuminated the table, where coffee and liqueurs were set out. There were no chairs, and the guests drank their coffee standing, while the hubbub the waiters were making in the next room grew louder and louder. Nana had disappeared, but nobody fretted about her absence. They did without her excellently well, and everybody helped himself and rummaged in the drawers of the sideboard in search of teaspoons, which were lacking. Several groups were formed; people separated during supper rejoined each other, and there was an interchange of glances, of meaning laughter and of phrases which summed up recent situations.
“Ought not Monsieur Fauchery to come and lunch with us one of these days, Auguste?” said Rose Mignon.
Mignon, who was toying with his watch chain, eyed the journalist for a second or two with his severe glance. Rose was out of her senses. As became a good manager, he would put a stop to such spendthrift courses. In return for a notice, well and good, but afterward, decidedly not. Nevertheless, as he was fully aware of his wife’s wrongheadedness and as he made it a rule to wink paternally at a folly now and again, when such was necessary, he answered amiably enough:
“Certainly, I shall be most happy. Pray come tomorrow, Monsieur Fauchery.”
Lucy Stewart heard this invitation given while she was talking with Steiner and Blanche and, raising her voice, she remarked to the banker:
“It’s a mania they’ve all of them got. One of them even went so far as to steal my dog. Now, dear boy, am I to blame if you chuck her?”
Rose turned round. She was very pale and gazed fixedly at Steiner as she sipped her coffee. And then all the concentrated anger she felt at his abandonment of her flamed out in her eyes. She saw more clearly than Mignon; it was stupid in him to have wished to begin the Jonquier ruse a second time — those dodgers never succeeded twice running. Well, so much the worse for him! She would have Fauchery! She had been getting enamored of him since the beginning of supper, and if Mignon was not pleased it would teach him greater wisdom!
“You are not going to fight?” said Vandeuvres, coming over to Lucy Stewart.
“No, don’t be afraid of that! Only she must mind and keep quiet, or I let the cat out of the bag!”
Then signing imperiously to Fauchery:
“I’ve got your slippers at home, my little man. I’ll get them taken to your porter’s lodge for you tomorrow.”
He wanted to joke about it, but she swept off, looking like a queen. Clarisse, who had propped herself against a wall in order to drink a quiet glass of kirsch, was seen to shrug her shoulders. A pleasant business for a man! Wasn’t it true that the moment two women were together in the presence of their lovers their first idea was to do one another out of them? It was a law of nature! As to herself, why, in heaven’s name, if she had wanted to she would have torn out Gaga’s eyes on Hector’s account! But la, she despised him! Then as La Faloise passed by, she contented herself by remarking to him:
“Listen, my friend, you like ‘em well advanced, you do! You don’t want ‘em ripe; you want ‘em mildewed!”
La Faloise seemed much annoyed and not a little anxious. Seeing Clarisse making game of him, he grew suspicious of her.
“No humbug, I say,” he muttered. “You’ve taken my handkerchief. Well then, give it back!”
“He’s dreeing us with that handkerchief of his!” she cried. “Why, you ass, why should I have taken it from you?”
“Why should you?” he said suspiciously. “Why, that you may send it to my people and compromise me.”
In the meantime Foucarmont was diligently attacking the liqueurs. He continued to gaze sneeringly at Labordette, who was drinking his coffee in the midst of the ladies. And occasionally he gave vent to fragmentary assertions, as thus: “He’s the son of a horse dealer; some say the illegitimate child of a countess. Never a penny of income, yet always got twenty-five louis in his pocket! Footboy to the ladies of the town! A big lubber, who never goes with any of ‘em! Never, never, never!” he repeated, growing furious. “No, by Jove! I must box his ears.”
He drained a glass of chartreuse. The chartreuse had not the slightest effect upon him; it didn’t affect him “even to that extent,” and he clicked his thumbnail against the edge of his teeth. But suddenly, just as he was advancing upon Labordette, he grew ashy white and fell down in a heap in front of the sideboard. He was dead drunk. Louise Violaine was beside herself. She had been quite right to prophesy that matters would end badly, and now she would have her work cut out for the remainder of the night. Gaga reassured her. She examined the officer with the eye of a woman of experience and declared that there was nothing much the matter and that the gentleman would sleep like that for at least a dozen or fifteen hours without any serious consequences. Foucarmont was carried off.
“Well, where’s Nana gone to?” asked Vandeuvres.
Yes, she had certainly flown away somewhere on leaving the table. The company suddenly recollected her, and everybody asked for her. Steiner, who for some seconds had been uneasy on her account, asked Vandeuvres about the old gentleman, for he, too, had disappeared. But the count reassured him — he had just brought the old gentleman back. He was a stranger, whose name it was useless to mention. Suffice it to say that he was a very rich man who was quite pleased to pay for suppers! Then as Nana was once more being forgotten, Vandeuvres saw Daguenet looking out of an open door and beckoning to him. And in the bedroom he found the mistress of the house sitting up, white-lipped and rigid, while Daguenet and Georges stood gazing at her with an alarmed expression.
“What IS the matter with you?” he asked in some surprise.
She neither answered nor turned her head, and he repeated his question.
“Why, this is what’s the matter with me,” she cried out at length; “I won’t let them make bloody sport of me!”
Thereupon she gave vent to any expression that occurred to her. Yes, oh yes, SHE wasn’t a ninny — she could see clearly enough. They had been making devilish light of her during supper and saying all sorts of frightful things to show that they thought nothing of her! A pack of sluts who weren’t fit to black her boots! Catch her bothering herself again just to be badgered for it after! She really didn’t know what kept her from chucking all that dirty lot out of the house! And with this, rage choked her and her voice broke down in sobs.
“Come, come, my lass, you’re drunk,” said Vandeuvres, growing familiar. “You must be reasonable.”
No, she would give her refusal now; she would stay where she was.
“I am drunk — it’s quite likely! But I want people to respect me!”
For a quarter of an hour past Daguenet and Georges had been vainly beseeching her to return to the drawing room. She was obstinate, however; her guests might do what they liked; she despised them too much to come back among them.
No, she never would, never. They might tear her in pieces before she would leave her room!
“I ought to have had my suspicions,” she resumed.
“It’s that cat of a Rose who’s got the plot up! I’m certain Rose’ll have stopped that respectable woman coming whom I was expecting tonight.”
She referred to Mme Robert. Vandeuvres gave her his word of honor that Mme Robert had given a spontaneous refusal. He listened and he argued with much gravity, for he was well accustomed to similar scenes and knew how women in such a state ought to be treated. But the moment he tried to take hold of her hands in order to lift her up from her chair and draw her away with him she struggled free of his clasp, and her wrath redoubled. Now, just look at that! They would never get her to believe that Fauchery had not put the Count Muffat off coming! A regular snake was that Fauchery, an envious sort, a fellow capable of growing mad against a woman and of destroying her whole happiness. For she knew this — the count had become madly devoted to her! She could have had him!
“Him, my dear, never!” cried Vandeuvres, forgetting himself and laughing loud.
“Why not?” she asked, looking serious and slightly sobered.
“Because he’s thoroughly in the hands of the priests, and if he were only to touch you with the tips of his fingers he would go and confess it the day after. Now listen to a bit of good advice. Don’t let the other man escape you!”
She was silent and thoughtful for a moment or two. Then she got up and went and bathed her eyes. Yet when they wanted to take her into the dining room she still shouted “No!” furiously. Vandeuvres left the bedroom, smiling and without further pressing her, and the moment he was gone she had an access of melting tenderness, threw herself into Daguenet’s arms and cried out:
“Ah, my sweetie, there’s only you in the world. I love you! YES, I love you from the bottom of my heart! Oh, it would be too nice if we could always live together. My God! How unfortunate women are!”
Then her eye fell upon Georges, who, seeing them kiss, was growing very red, and she kissed him too. Sweetie could not be jealous of a baby! She wanted Paul and Georges always to agree, because it would be so nice for them all three to stay like that, knowing all the time that they loved one another very much. But an extraordinary noise disturbed them: someone was snoring in the room. Whereupon after some searching they perceived Bordenave, who, since taking his coffee, must have comfortably installed himself there. He was sleeping on two chairs, his head propped on the edge of the bed and his leg stretched out in front. Nana thought him so funny with his open mouth and his nose moving with each successive snore that she was shaken with a mad fit of laughter. She left the room, followed by Daguenet and Georges, crossed the dining room, entered the drawing room, her merriment increasing at every step.
“Oh, my dear, you’ve no idea!” she cried, almost throwing herself into Rose’s arms. “Come and see it.”
All the women had to follow her. She took their hands coaxingly and drew them along with her willy-nilly, accompanying her action with so frank an outburst of mirth that they all of them began laughing on trust. The band vanished and returned after standing breathlessly for a second or two round Bordenave’s lordly, outstretched form. And then there was a burst of laughter, and when one of them told the rest to be quiet Bordenave’s distant snorings became audible.
It was close on four o’clock. In the dining room a card table had just been set out, at which Vandeuvres, Steiner, Mignon and Labordette had taken their seats. Behind them Lucy and Caroline stood making bets, while Blanche, nodding with sleep and dissatisfied about her night, kept asking Vandeuvres at intervals of five minutes if they weren’t going soon. In the drawing room there was an attempt at dancing. Daguenet was at the piano or “chest of drawers,” as Nana called it. She did not want a “thumper,” for Mimi would play as many waltzes and polkas as the company desired. But the dance was languishing, and the ladies were chatting drowsily together in the corners of sofas. Suddenly, however, there was an outburst of noise. A band of eleven young men had arrived and were laughing loudly in the anteroom and crowding to the drawing room. They had just come from the ball at the Ministry of the Interior and were in evening dress and wore various unknown orders. Nana was annoyed at this riotous entry, called to the waiters who still remained in the kitchen and ordered them to throw these individuals out of doors. She vowed that she had never seen any of them before. Fauchery, Labordette, Daguenet and the rest of the men had all come forward in order to enforce respectful behavior toward their hostess. Big words flew about; arms were outstretched, and for some seconds a general exchange of fisticuffs was imminent. Notwithstanding this, however, a little sickly looking light-haired man kept insistently repeating:
“Come, come, Nana, you saw us the other evening at Peters’ in the great red saloon! Pray remember, you invited us.”
The other evening at Peters’? She did not remember it all. To begin with, what evening?
And when the little light-haired man had mentioned the day, which was Wednesday, she distinctly remembered having supped at Peters’ on the Wednesday, but she had given no invitation to anyone; she was almost sure of that.
“However, suppose you HAVE invited them, my good girl,” murmured Labordette, who was beginning to have his doubts. “Perhaps you were a little elevated.”
Then Nana fell a-laughing. It was quite possible; she really didn’t know. So then, since these gentlemen were on the spot, they had her leave to come in. Everything was quietly arranged; several of the newcomers found friends in the drawing room, and the scene ended in handshakings. The little sickly looking light-haired man bore one of the greatest names in France. Furthermore, the eleven announced that others were to follow them, and, in fact, the door opened every few moments, and men in white gloves and official garb presented themselves. They were still coming from the ball at the Ministry. Fauchery jestingly inquired whether the minister was not coming, too, but Nana answered in a huff that the minister went to the houses of people she didn’t care a pin for. What she did not say was that she was possessed with a hope of seeing Count Muffat enter her room among all that stream of people. He might quite have reconsidered his decision, and so while talking to Rose she kept a sharp eye on the door.
Five o’clock struck. The dancing had ceased, and the cardplayers alone persisted in their game. Labordette had vacated his seat, and the women had returned into the drawing room. The air there was heavy with the somnolence which accompanies a long vigil, and the lamps cast a wavering light while their burned-out wicks glowed red within their globes. The ladies had reached that vaguely melancholy hour when they felt it necessary to tell each other their histories. Blanche de Sivry spoke of her grandfather, the general, while Clarisse invented a romantic story about a duke seducing her at her uncle’s house, whither he used to come for the boar hunting. Both women, looking different ways, kept shrugging their shoulders and asking themselves how the deuce the other could tell such whoppers! As to Lucy Stewart, she quietly confessed to her origin and of her own accord spoke of her childhood and of the days when her father, the wheel greaser at the Northern Railway Terminus, used to treat her to an apple puff on Sundays.
“Oh, I must tell you about it!” cried the little Maria Blond abruptly. “Opposite to me there lives a gentleman, a Russian, an awfully rich man! Well, just fancy, yesterday I received a basket of fruit — oh, it just was a basket! Enormous peaches, grapes as big as that, simply wonderful for the time of year! And in the middle of them six thousand-franc notes! It was the Russian’s doing. Of course I sent the whole thing back again, but I must say my heart ached a little — when I thought of the fruit!”
The ladies looked at one another and pursed up their lips. At her age little Maria Blond had a pretty cheek! Besides, to think that such things should happen to trollops like her! Infinite was their contempt for her among themselves. It was Lucy of whom they were particularly jealous, for they were beside themselves at the thought of her three princes. Since Lucy had begnn taking a daily morning ride in the Bois they all had become Amazons, as though a mania possessed them.
Day was about to dawn, and Nana turned her eyes away from the door, for she was relinquishing all hope. The company were bored to distraction. Rose Mignon had refused to sing the “Slipper” and sat huddled up on a sofa, chatting in a low voice with Fauchery and waiting for Mignon, who had by now won some fifty louis from Vandeuvres. A fat gentleman with a decoration and a serious cast of countenance had certainly given a recitation in Alsatian accents of “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” a piece in which the Almighty says, “By My blasted Name” when He swears, and Isaac always answers with a “Yes, Papa!” Nobody, however, understood what it was all about, and the piece had been voted stupid. People were at their wits’ end how to make merry and to finish the night with fitting hilarity. For a moment or two Labordette conceived the idea of denouncing different women in a whisper to La Faloise, who still went prowling round each individual lady, looking to see if she were hiding his handkerchief in her bosom. Soon, as there were still some bottles of champagne on the sideboard, the young men again fell to drinking. They shouted to one another; they stirred each other up, but a dreary species of intoxication, which was stupid enough to drive one to despair, began to overcome the company beyond hope of recovery. Then the little fair-haired fellow, the man who bore one of the greatest names in France and had reached his wit’s end and was desperate at the thought that he could not hit upon something really funny, conceived a brilliant notion: he snatched up his bottle of champagne and poured its contents into the piano. His allies were convulsed with laughter.
“La now! Why’s he putting champagne into the piano?” asked Tatan Nene in great astonishment as she caught sight of him.
“What, my lass, you don’t know why he’s doing that?” replied Labordette solemnly. “There’s nothing so good as champagne for pianos. It gives ‘em tone.”
“Ah,” murmured Tatan Nene with conviction.
And when the rest began laughing at her she grew angry. How should she know? They were always confusing her.
Decidedly the evening was becoming a big failure. The night threatened to end in the unloveliest way. In a corner by themselves Maria Blond and Lea de Horn had begun squabbling at close quarters, the former accusing the latter of consorting with people of insufficient wealth. They were getting vastly abusive over it, their chief stumbling block being the good looks of the men in question. Lucy, who was plain, got them to hold their tongues. Good looks were nothing, according to her; good figures were what was wanted. Farther off, on a sofa, an attache had slipped his arm round Simonne’s waist and was trying to kiss her neck, but Simonne, sullen and thoroughly out of sorts, pushed him away at every fresh attempt with cries of “You’re pestering me!” and sound slaps of the fan across his face. For the matter of that, not one of the ladies allowed herself to be touched. Did people take them for light women? Gaga, in the meantime, had once more caught La Faloise and had almost hoisted him upon her knees while Clarisse was disappearing from view between two gentlemen, shaking with nervous laughter as women will when they are tickled. Round about the piano they were still busy with their little game, for they were suffering from a fit of stupid imbecillty, which caused each man to jostle his fellow in his frantic desire to empty his bottle into the instrument. It was a simple process and a charming one.
“Now then, old boy, drink a glass! Devil take it, he’s a thirsty piano! Hi! ‘Tenshun! Here’s another bottle! You mustn’t lose a drop!”
Nana’s back was turned, and she did not see them. Emphatically she was now falling back on the bulky Steiner, who was seated next to her. So much the worse! It was all on account of that Muffat, who had refused what was offered him. Sitting there in her white foulard dress, which was as light and full of folds as a shift, sitting there with drooped eyelids and cheeks pale with the touch of intoxication from which she was suffering, she offered herself to him with that quiet expression which is peculiar to a good-natured courtesan. The roses in her hair and at her throat had lost their leaves, and their stalks alone remained. Presently Steiner withdrew his hand quickly from the folds of her skirt, where he had come in contact with the pins that Georges had stuck there. Some drops of blood appeared on his fingers, and one fell on Nana’s dress and stained it.
“Now the bargain’s struck,” said Nana gravely.
The day was breaking apace. An uncertain glimmer of light, fraught with a poignant melancholy, came stealing through the windows. And with that the guests began to take their departure. It was a most sour and uncomfortable retreat. Caroline Hequet, annoyed at the loss of her night, announced that it was high time to be off unless you were anxious to assist at some pretty scenes. Rose pouted as if her womanly character had been compromised. It was always so with these girls; they didn’t know how to behave and were guilty of disgusting conduct when they made their first appearance in society! And Mignon having cleaned Vandeuvres out completely, the family took their departure. They did not trouble about Steiner but renewed their invitation for tomorrow to Fauchery. Lucy thereupon refused the journalist’s escort home and sent him back shrilly to his “strolling actress.” At this Rose turned round immediately and hissed out a “Dirty sow” by way of answer. But Mignon, who in feminine quarrels was always paternal, for his experience was a long one and rendered him superior to them, had already pushed her out of the house, telling her at the same time to have done. Lucy came downstairs in solitary state behind them. After which Gaga had to carry off La Faloise, ill, sobbing like a child, calling after Clarisse, who had long since gone off with her two gentlemen. Simonne, too, had vanished. Indeed, none remained save Tatan, Lea and Maria, whom Labordette complaisantly took under his charge.
“Oh, but I don’t the least bit want to go to bed!” said Nana. “One ought to find something to do.”
She looked at the sky through the windowpanes. It was a livid sky, and sooty clouds were scudding across it. It was six o’clock in the morning. Over the way, on the opposite side of the Boulevard Haussmann, the glistening roofs of the still-slumbering houses were sharply outlined against the twilight sky while along the deserted roadway a gang of street sweepers passed with a clatter of wooden shoes. As she viewed Paris thus grimly awakening, she was overcome by tender, girlish feelings, by a yearning for the country, for idyllic scenes, for things soft and white.
“Now guess what you’re to do,” she said, coming back to Steiner. “You’re going to take me to the Bois de Boulogne, and we’ll drink milk there.”
She clapped her hands in childish glee. Without waiting for the banker’s reply — he naturally consented, though he was really rather bored and inclined to think of other things — she ran off to throw a pelisse over her shoulders. In the drawing room there was now no one with Steiner save the band of young men. These had by this time dropped the very dregs of their glasses into the piano and were talking of going, when one of their number ran in triumphantly. He held in his hands a last remaining bottle, which he had brought back with him from the pantry.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” he shouted. “Here’s a bottle of chartreuse; that’ll pick him up! And now, my young friends, let’s hook it. We’re blooming idiots.”
In the dressing room Nana was compelled to wake up Zoe, who had dozed off on a chair. The gas was still alight, and Zoe shivered as she helped her mistress on with her hat and pelisse.
“Well, it’s over; I’ve done what you wanted me to,” said Nana, speaking familiarly to the maid in a sudden burst of expansive confidence and much relieved at the thought that she had at last made her election. “You were quite right; the banker’s as good as another.”
The maid was cross, for she was still heavy with sleep. She grumbled something to the effect that Madame ought to have come to a decision the first evening. Then following her into the bedroom, she asked what she was going to do with “those two,” meaning Bordenave, who was snoring away as usual, and Georges, who had slipped in slyly, buried his head in a pillow and, finally falling asleep there, was now breathing as lightly and regularly as a cherub. Nana in reply told her that she was to let them sleep on. But seeing Daguenet come into the room, she again grew tender. He had been watching her from the kitchen and was looking very wretched.
“Come, my sweetie, be reasonable,” she said, taking him in her arms and kissing him with all sorts of little wheedling caresses. “Nothing’s changed; you know that it’s sweetie whom I always adore! Eh, dear? I had to do it. Why, I swear to you we shall have even nicer times now. Come tomorrow, and we’ll arrange about hours. Now be quick, kiss and hug me as you love me. Oh, tighter, tighter than that!”
And she escaped and rejoined Steiner, feeling happy and once more possessed with the idea of drinking milk. In the empty room the Count de Vandeuvres was left alone with the “decorated” man who had recited “Abraham’s Sacrifice.” Both seemed glued to the card table; they had lost count of their whereabouts and never once noticed the broad light of day without, while Blanche had made bold to put her feet up on a sofa in order to try and get a little sleep.
“Oh, Blanche is with them!” cried Nana. “We are going to drink milk, dear. Do come; you’ll find Vandeuvres here when we return.”
Blanche got up lazily. This time the banker’s fiery face grew white with annoyance at the idea of having to take that big wench with him too. She was certain to bore him. But the two women had already got him by the arms and were reiterating:
“We want them to milk the cow before our eyes, you know.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56