Whenever they were thrown together the painter and the author generally reached this state of excitement. They spurred each other mutually, they went mad with dreams of glory; and there was such a burst of youth, such a passion for work about their plans, that they themselves often smiled afterwards at those great, proud dreams which seemed to endow them with suppleness, strength, and spirit.
Claude, who had stepped back as far as the wall, remained leaning against it, and gazing at his work. Seeing which, Sandoz, overcome by fatigue, left the couch and joined him. Then both looked at the picture without saying a word. The gentleman in the velveteen jacket was entirely roughed in. His hand, more advanced than the rest, furnished a pretty fresh patch of flesh colour amid the grass, and the dark coat stood out so vigorously that the little silhouettes in the background, the two little women wrestling in the sunlight, seemed to have retreated further into the luminous quivering of the glade. The principal figure, the recumbent woman, as yet scarcely more than outlined, floated about like some aerial creature seen in dreams, some eagerly desired Eve springing from the earth, with her features vaguely smiling and her eyelids closed.
'Well, now, what are you going to call it?' asked Sandoz.
'The Open Air,' replied Claude, somewhat curtly.
The title sounded rather technical to the writer, who, in spite of himself, was sometimes tempted to introduce literature into pictorial art.
'The Open Air! that doesn't suggest anything.'
'There is no occasion for it to suggest anything. Some women and a man are reposing in a forest in the sunlight. Does not that suffice? Don't fret, there's enough in it to make a masterpiece.'
He threw back his head and muttered between his teeth: 'Dash it all! it's very black still. I can't get Delacroix out of my eye, do what I will. And then the hand, that's Courbet's manner. Everyone of us dabs his brush into the romantic sauce now and then. We had too much of it in our youth, we floundered in it up to our very chins. We need a jolly good wash to get clear of it.'
Sandoz shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of despair. He also bewailed the fact that he had been born at what he called the confluence of Hugo and Balzac. Nevertheless, Claude remained satisfied, full of the happy excitement of a successful sitting. If his friend could give him two or three more Sundays the man in the jacket would be all there. He had enough of him for the present. Both began to joke, for, as a rule, Claude almost killed his models, only letting them go when they were fainting, half dead with fatigue. He himself now very nigh dropped, his legs bending under him, and his stomach empty. And as the cuckoo clock struck five, he snatched at his crust of bread and devoured it. Thoroughly worn out, he broke it with trembling fingers, and scarcely chewed it, again standing before his picture, pursued by his passion to such a degree as to be unconscious even that he was eating.
'Five o'clock,' said Sandoz, as he stretched himself, with his arms upraised. 'Let's go and have dinner. Ah! here comes Dubuche, just in time.'
There was a knock at the door, and Dubuche came in. He was a stout young fellow, dark, with regular but heavy features, close-cropped hair, and moustaches already full-blown. He shook hands with both his friends, and stopped before the picture, looking nonplussed. In reality that harum-scarum style of painting upset him, such was the even balance of his nature, such his reverence as a steady student for the established formulas of art; and it was only his feeling of friendship which, as a rule, prevented him from criticising. But this time his whole being revolted visibly.
'Well, what's the matter? Doesn't it suit you?' asked Sandoz, who was watching him.
'Yes, oh yes, it's very well painted—but—'
'Well, spit it out. What is it that ruffles you?'
'Not much, only the gentleman is fully dressed, and the women are not. People have never seen anything like that before.'
This sufficed to make both the others wild. Why, were there not a hundred pictures in the Louvre composed in precisely the same way? Hadn't all Paris and all the painters and tourists of the world seen them? And besides, if people had never seen anything like it, they would see it now. After all, they didn't care a fig for the public!
Not in the least disconcerted by these violent replies, Dubuche repeated quietly: 'The public won't understand—the public will think it indecorous—and so it is!'
'You wretched bourgeois philistine!' exclaimed Claude, exasperated. 'They are making a famous idiot of you at the School of Arts. You weren't such a fool formerly.'
These were the current amenities of his two friends since Dubuche had attended the School of Arts. He thereupon beat a retreat, rather afraid of the turn the dispute was taking, and saved himself by belabouring the painters of the School. Certainly his friends were right in one respect, the School painters were real idiots. But as for the architects, that was a different matter. Where was he to get his tuition, if not there? Besides his tuition would not prevent him from having ideas of his own, later on. Wherewith he assumed a very revolutionary air.
'All right,' said Sandoz, 'the moment you apologise, let's go and dine.'
But Claude had mechanically taken up a brush and set to work again. Beside the gentleman in the velveteen jacket the figure of the recumbent woman seemed to be fading away. Feverish and impatient, he traced a bold outline round her so as to bring her forward.
'Are you coming?'
'In a minute; hang it, what's the hurry? Just let me set this right, and I'll be with you.'
Sandoz shook his head and then remarked very quietly, lest he should still further annoy him: 'You do wrong to worry yourself like that, old man. Yes, you are knocked up, and have had nothing to eat, and you'll only spoil your work, as you did the other day.'
But the painter waved him off with a peevish gesture. It was the old story—he did not know when to leave off; he intoxicated himself with work in his craving for an immediate result, in order to prove to himself that he held his masterpiece at last. Doubts had just driven him to despair in the midst of his delight at having terminated a successful sitting. Had he done right, after all, in making the velveteen jacket so prominent, and would he not afterwards fail to secure the brilliancy which he wished the female figure to show? Rather than remain in suspense he would have dropped down dead on the spot. Feverishly drawing the sketch of Christine's head from the portfolio where he had hidden it, he compared it with the painting on the canvas, assisting himself, as it were, by means of this document derived from life.
'Hallo!' exclaimed Dubuche, 'where did you get that from? Who is it?'
Claude, startled by the questions, did not answer; then, without reflecting, he who usually told them everything, brusquely lied, prompted by a delicate impulse to keep silent respecting the adventure of the night.
'Tell us who it is?' repeated the architect.
'Nobody at all—a model.'
'A model! a very young one, isn't she? She looks very nice. I wish you would give me her address. Not for myself, but for a sculptor I know who's on the look-out for a Psyche. Have you got the address there?'
Thereupon Dubuche turned to a corner of the greyish wall on which the addresses of several models were written in chalk, haphazard. The women particularly left their cards in that way, in awkward, childish handwriting. Zoe Piedefer, 7 Rue Campagne-Premiere, a big brunette, who was getting rather too stout, had scrawled her sign manual right across the names of little Flore Beauchamp, 32 Rue de Laval, and Judith Vaquez, 69 Rue du Rocher, a Jewess, both of whom were too thin.
'I say, have you got the address?' resumed Dubuche.
Then Claude flew into a passion. 'Don't pester me! I don't know and don't care. You're a nuisance, worrying like that just when a fellow wants to work.'
Sandoz had not said a word. Surprised at first, he had soon smiled. He was gifted with more penetration than Dubuche, so he gave him a knowing nod, and they then began to chaff. They begged Claude's pardon; the moment he wanted to keep the young person for his personal use, they would not ask him to lend her. Ha! ha! the scamp went hunting about for pretty models. And where had he picked up that one?
More and more embarrassed by these remarks, Claude went on fidgetting. 'What a couple of idiots you are!' he exclaimed, 'If you only knew what fools you are making of yourselves. That'll do. You really make me sorry for both of you.'
His voice sounded so stern that they both became silent immediately, while he, after once more scratching out the woman's head, drew it anew and began to paint it in, following his sketch of Christine, but with a feverish, unsteady touch which went at random.
'Just give me another ten minutes, will you?' he repeated. 'I will rough in the shoulders to be ready for to-morrow, and then we'll go down.'
Sandoz and Dubuche, knowing that it was of no use to prevent him from killing himself in this fashion, resigned themselves to the inevitable. The latter lighted his pipe, and flung himself on the couch. He was the only one of the three who smoked; the others had never taken kindly to tobacco, always feeling qualmish after a cigar. And when Dubuche was stretched on his back, his eyes turned towards the clouds of smoke he raised, he began to talk about himself in an interminable monotonous fashion. Ah! that confounded Paris, how one had to work one's fingers to the bone in order to get on. He recalled the fifteen months of apprenticeship he had spent with his master, the celebrated Dequersonniere, a former grand-prize man, now architect of the Civil Branch of Public Works, an officer of the Legion of Honour and a member of the Institute, whose chief architectural performance, the church of St. Mathieu, was a cross between a pastry-cook's mould and a clock in the so-called First Empire style. A good sort of fellow, after all, was this Dequersonniere whom Dubuche chaffed, while inwardly sharing his reverence for the old classical formulas. However, but for his fellow-pupils, the young man would not have learnt much at the studio in the Rue du Four, for the master only paid a running visit to the place some three times a week. A set of ferocious brutes, were those comrades of his, who had made his life jolly hard in the beginning, but who, at least, had taught him how to prepare a surface, outline, and wash in a plan. And how often had he had to content himself with a cup of chocolate and a roll for dejeuner in order to pay the necessary five-and-twenty francs to the superintendent! And the sheets of paper he had laboriously smudged, and the hours he had spent in poring over books before he had dared to present himself at the School! And he had narrowly escaped being plucked in spite of all his assiduous endeavours. He lacked imagination, and the drawings he submitted, a caryatide and a summer dining-room, both extremely mediocre performances, had classed him at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, he had made up for this in his oral examination with his logarithms, geometry, and history of architecture, for he was very strong in the scientific parts. Now that he was attending the School as a second-class student, he had to toil and moil in order to secure a first-class diploma. It was a dog's life, there was no end to it, said he.
He stretched his legs apart, high upon the cushions, and smoked vigorously and regularly.
'What with their courses of perspective, of descriptive geometry, of stereotomy, of building, and of the history of art—ah! upon my word, they do make one blacken paper with notes. And every month there is a competitive examination in architecture, sometimes a simple sketch, at others a complete design. There's no time for pleasure if a fellow wishes to pass his examinations and secure the necessary honourable mentions, especially if, besides all that, he has to find time to earn his bread. As for myself, it's almost killing me.'
One of the cushions having slipped upon the floor, he fished it up with his feet. 'All the same, I'm lucky. There are so many of us scouring the town every day without getting the smallest job. The day before yesterday I discovered an architect who works for a large contractor. You can have no idea of such an ignoramus of an architect—a downright numskull, incapable even of tracing a plan. He gives me twenty-five sous an hour, and I set his houses straight for him. It came just in time, too, for my mother sent me word that she was quite cleared out. Poor mother, what a lot of money I have to refund her!'
As Dubuche was evidently talking to himself, chewing the cud of his everyday thoughts—his constant thoughts of making a rapid fortune—Sandoz did not even trouble to listen to him. He had opened the little window, and seated himself on a level with the roof, for he felt oppressed by the heat in the studio. But all at once he interrupted the architect.
'I say, are you coming to dinner on Thursday? All the other fellows will be there—Fagerolles, Mahoudeau, Jory, Gagniere.'
Every Thursday, quite a band met at Sandoz's: friends from Plassans and others met in Paris—revolutionaries to a man, and all animated by the same passionate love of art.
'Next Thursday? No, I think not,' answered Dubuche.
'I am obliged to go to a dance at a family's I know.'
'Where you expect to get hold of a dowry, I suppose?'
'Well, it wouldn't be such a bad spec.'
He shook the ashes from his pipe on to his left palm, and then, suddenly raising his voice—'I almost forgot. I have had a letter from Pouillaud.'
'You, too!—well, I think he's pretty well done for, Pouillaud. Another good fellow gone wrong.'
'Why gone wrong? He'll succeed his father; he'll spend his money quietly down there. He writes rationally enough. I always said he'd show us a thing or two, in spite of all his practical jokes. Ah! that beast of a Pouillaud.'
Sandoz, furious, was about to reply, when a despairing oath from Claude stopped him. The latter had not opened his lips since he had so obstinately resumed his work. To all appearance he had not even listened.
'Curse it—I have failed again. Decidedly, I'm a brute, I shall never do anything.' And in a fit of mad rage he wanted to rush at his picture and dash his fist through it. His friends had to hold him back. Why, it was simply childish to get into such a passion. Would matters be improved when, to his mortal regret, he had destroyed his work? Still shaking, he relapsed into silence, and stared at the canvas with an ardent fixed gaze that blazed with all the horrible agony born of his powerlessness. He could no longer produce anything clear or life-like; the woman's breast was growing pasty with heavy colouring; that flesh which, in his fancy, ought to have glowed, was simply becoming grimy; he could not even succeed in getting a correct focus. What on earth was the matter with his brain that he heard it bursting asunder, as it were, amidst his vain efforts? Was he losing his sight that he was no longer able to see correctly? Were his hands no longer his own that they refused to obey him? And thus he went on winding himself up, irritated by the strange hereditary lesion which sometimes so greatly assisted his creative powers, but at others reduced him to a state of sterile despair, such as to make him forget the first elements of drawing. Ah, to feel giddy with vertiginous nausea, and yet to remain there full of a furious passion to create, when the power to do so fled with everything else, when everything seemed to founder around him—the pride of work, the dreamt-of glory, the whole of his existence!
'Look here, old boy,' said Sandoz at last, 'we don't want to worry you, but it's half-past six, and we are starving. Be reasonable, and come down with us.'
Claude was cleaning a corner of his palette. Then he emptied some more tubes on it, and, in a voice like thunder, replied with one single word, 'No.'
For the next ten minutes nobody spoke; the painter, beside himself, wrestled with his picture, whilst his friends remained anxious at this attack, which they did not know how to allay. Then, as there came a knock at the door, the architect went to open it.
'Hallo, it's Papa Malgras.'
Malgras, the picture-dealer, was a thick-set individual, with close-cropped, brush-like, white hair, and a red splotchy face. He was wrapped in a very dirty old green coat, that made him look like an untidy cabman. In a husky voice, he exclaimed: 'I happened to pass along the quay, on the other side of the way, and I saw that gentleman at the window. So I came up.'
Claude's continued silence made him pause. The painter had turned to his picture again with an impatient gesture. Not that this silence in any way embarrassed the new comer, who, standing erect on his sturdy legs and feeling quite at home, carefully examined the new picture with his bloodshot eyes. Without any ceremony, he passed judgment upon it in one phrase—half ironic, half affectionate: 'Well, well, there's a machine.'
Then, seeing that nobody said anything, he began to stroll round the studio, looking at the paintings on the walls.
Papa Malgras, beneath his thick layer of grease and grime, was really a very cute customer, with taste and scent for good painting. He never wasted his time or lost his way among mere daubers; he went straight, as if from instinct, to individualists, whose talent was contested still, but whose future fame his flaming, drunkard's nose sniffed from afar. Added to this he was a ferocious hand at bargaining, and displayed all the cunning of a savage in his efforts to secure, for a song, the pictures that he coveted. True, he himself was satisfied with very honest profits, twenty per cent., thirty at the most. He based his calculations on quickly turning over his small capital, never purchasing in the morning without knowing where to dispose of his purchase at night. As a superb liar, moreover, he had no equal.
Pausing near the door, before the studies from the nude, painted at the Boutin studio, he contemplated them in silence for a few moments, his eyes glistening the while with the enjoyment of a connoisseur, which his heavy eyelids tried to hide. Assuredly, he thought, there was a great deal of talent and sentiment of life about that big crazy fellow Claude, who wasted his time in painting huge stretches of canvas which no one would buy. The girl's pretty legs, the admirably painted woman's trunk, filled the dealer with delight. But there was no sale for that kind of stuff, and he had already made his choice—a tiny sketch, a nook of the country round Plassans, at once delicate and violent—which he pretended not to notice. At last he drew near, and said, in an off-hand way:
'What's this? Ah! yes, I know, one of the things you brought back with you from the South. It's too crude. I still have the two I bought of you.'
And he went on in mellow, long-winded phrases. 'You'll perhaps not believe me, Monsieur Lantier, but that sort of thing doesn't sell at all—not at all. I've a set of rooms full of them. I'm always afraid of smashing something when I turn round. I can't go on like that, honour bright; I shall have to go into liquidation, and I shall end my days in the hospital. You know me, eh? my heart is bigger than my pocket, and there's nothing I like better than to oblige young men of talent like yourself. Oh, for the matter of that, you've got talent, and I keep on telling them so—nay, shouting it to them—but what's the good? They won't nibble, they won't nibble!'
He was trying the emotional dodge; then, with the spirit of a man about to do something rash: 'Well, it sha'n't be said that I came in to waste your time. What do you want for that rough sketch?'
Claude, still irritated, was painting nervously. He dryly answered, without even turning his head: 'Twenty francs.'
'Nonsense; twenty francs! you must be mad. You sold me the others ten francs a-piece—and to-day I won't give a copper more than eight francs.'
As a rule the painter closed with him at once, ashamed and humbled at this miserable chaffering, glad also to get a little money now and then. But this time he was obstinate, and took to insulting the picture-dealer, who, giving tit for tat, all at once dropped the formal 'you' to assume the glib 'thou,' denied his talent, overwhelmed him with invective, and taxed him with ingratitude. Meanwhile, however, he had taken from his pocket three successive five-franc pieces, which, as if playing at chuck-farthing, he flung from a distance upon the table, where they rattled among the crockery.
'One, two, three—not one more, dost hear? for there is already one too many, and I'll take care to get it back; I'll deduct it from something else of thine, as I live. Fifteen francs for that! Thou art wrong, my lad, and thou'lt be sorry for this dirty trick.'
Quite exhausted, Claude let him take down the little canvas, which disappeared as if by magic in his capacious green coat. Had it dropped into a special pocket, or was it reposing on Papa Malgras' ample chest? Not the slightest protuberance indicated its whereabouts.
Having accomplished his stroke of business, Papa Malgras abruptly calmed down and went towards the door. But he suddenly changed his mind and came back. 'Just listen, Lantier,' he said, in the honeyest of tones; 'I want a lobster painted. You really owe me that much after fleecing me. I'll bring you the lobster, you'll paint me a bit of still life from it, and keep it for your pains. You can eat it with your friends. It's settled, isn't it?'
At this proposal Sandoz and Dubuche, who had hitherto listened inquisitively, burst into such loud laughter that the picture-dealer himself became gay. Those confounded painters, they did themselves no good, they simply starved. What would have become of the lazy beggars if he, Papa Malgras, hadn't brought a leg of mutton now and then, or a nice fresh plaice, or a lobster, with its garnish of parsley?
'You'll paint me my lobster, eh, Lantier? Much obliged.' And he stationed himself anew before the large canvas, with his wonted smile of mingled derision and admiration. And at last he went off, repeating, 'Well, well, there's a machine.'
Claude wanted to take up his palette and brushes once more. But his legs refused their service; his arms fell to his side, stiff, as if pinioned there by some occult force. In the intense melancholy silence that had followed the din of the dispute he staggered, distracted, bereft of sight before his shapeless work.
'I'm done for, I'm done for,' he gasped. 'That brute has finished me off!'
The clock had just struck seven; he had been at work for eight mortal hours without tasting anything but a crust of bread, without taking a moment's rest, ever on his legs, shaken by feverish excitement. And now the sun was setting, shadows began to darken the studio, which in the gloaming assumed a most melancholy aspect. When the light went down like this on the crisis of a bad day's work, it seemed to Claude as if the sun would never rise again, but had for ever carried life and all the jubilant gaiety of colour away.
'Come,' implored Sandoz, with all the gentleness of brotherly compassion. 'Come, there's a good fellow.'
Even Dubuche added, 'You'll see more clearly into it to-morrow. Come and dine.'
For a moment Claude refused to surrender. He stood rooted to the spot, deaf to their friendly voices, and fiercely obstinate.
What did he want to do then, since his tired fingers were no longer able to grasp the brush? He did not know, but, however powerless he might be, he was gnawed by a mad craving to go on working still and to create in spite of everything. Even if he did nothing, he would at least stay there, he would not vacate the spot. All at once, however, he made up his mind, shaken the while as by a big sob. He clutched firmly hold of his broadest palette-knife, and, with one deep, slow sweep, he obliterated the woman's head and bosom. It was veritable murder, a pounding away of human flesh; the whole disappeared in a murky, muddy mash. By the side of the gentleman in the dark jacket, amidst the bright verdure, where the two little wrestlers so lightly tinted were disporting themselves, there remained naught of the nude, headless, breastless woman but a mutilated trunk, a vague cadaverous stump, an indistinct, lifeless patch of visionary flesh.
Sandoz and Dubuche were already descending the stairs with a great clatter, and Claude followed them, fleeing his work, in agony at having to leave it thus scarred with a gaping gash.
THE beginning of the week proved disastrous to Claude. He had relapsed into one of those periods of self-doubt that made him hate painting, with the hatred of a lover betrayed, who overwhelms the faithless one with insults although tortured by an uncontrollable desire to worship her yet again. So on the Thursday, after three frightful days of fruitless and solitary battling, he left home as early as eight in the morning, banging his door violently, and feeling so disgusted with himself that he swore he would never take up a brush again. When he was unhinged by one of these attacks there was but one remedy, he had to forget himself, and, to do so, it was needful that he should look up some comrades with whom to quarrel, and, above all, walk about and trudge across Paris, until the heat and odour of battle rising from her paving-stones put heart into him again.
That day, like every other Thursday, he was to dine at Sandoz's, in company with their friends. But what was he to do until the evening? The idea of remaining by himself, of eating his heart out, disgusted him. He would have gone straight to his friend, only he knew that the latter must be at his office. Then the thought of Dubuche occurred to him, but he hesitated, for their old friendship had lately been cooling down. He felt that the fraternity of the earlier times of effort no longer existed between them. He guessed that Dubuche lacked intelligence, had become covertly hostile, and was occupied with ambitions different from his own. However, he, Claude, must go somewhere. So he made up his mind, and repaired to the Rue Jacob, where the architect rented a small room on the sixth floor of a big frigid-looking house.
Claude was already on the landing of the second floor, when the doorkeeper, calling him back, snappishly told him that M. Dubuche was not at home, and had, in fact, stayed out all night. The young man slowly descended the stairs and found himself in the street, stupefied, as it were, by so prodigious an event as an escapade on the part of Dubuche. It was a piece of inconceivable bad luck. For a moment he strolled along aimlessly; but, as he paused at the corner of the Rue de Seine, not knowing which way to go, he suddenly recollected what his friend had told him about a certain night spent at the Dequersonniere studio—a night of terrible hard work, the eve of the day on which the pupils' designs had to be deposited at the School of Arts. At once he walked towards the Rue du Four, where the studio was situated. Hitherto he had carefully abstained from calling there for Dubuche, from fear of the yells with which outsiders were greeted. But now he made straight for the place without flinching, his timidity disappearing so thoroughly before the anguish of loneliness that he felt ready to undergo any amount of insult could he but secure a companion in misfortune.
The studio was situated in the narrowest part of the Rue du Four, at the far end of a decrepit, tumble-down building. Claude had to cross two evil-smelling courtyards to reach a third, across which ran a sort of big closed shed, a huge out-house of board and plaster work, which had once served as a packing-case maker's workshop. From outside, through the four large windows, whose panes were daubed with a coating of white lead, nothing could be seen but the bare whitewashed ceiling.
Having pushed the door open, Claude remained motionless on the threshold. The place stretched out before him, with its four long tables ranged lengthwise to the windows—broad double tables they were, which had swarms of students on either side, and were littered with moist sponges, paint saucers, iron candlesticks, water bowls, and wooden boxes, in which each pupil kept his white linen blouse, his compasses, and colours. In one corner, the stove, neglected since the previous winter, stood rusting by the side of a pile of coke that had not been swept away; while at the other end a large iron cistern with a tap was suspended between two towels. And amidst the bare untidiness of this shed, the eye was especially attracted by the walls which, above, displayed a litter of plaster casts ranged in haphazard fashion on shelves, and disappeared lower down behind forests of T-squares and bevels, and piles of drawing boards, tied together with webbing straps. Bit by bit, such parts of the partitions as had remained unoccupied had become covered with inscriptions and drawings, a constantly rising flotsam and jetsam of scrawls traced there as on the margin of an ever-open book. There were caricatures of the students themselves, coarse witticisms fit to make a gendarme turn pale, epigrammatic sentences, addition sums, addresses, and so forth; while, above all else, written in big letters, and occupying the most prominent place, appeared this inscription: 'On the 7th of June, Gorfu declared that he didn't care a hang for Rome.—Signed, Godemard.'*
* The allusion is to the French Art School at Rome, and the competitions into which students enter to obtain admission to it, or to secure the prizes offered for the best exhibits which, during their term of residence, they send to Paris.—ED.
Claude was greeted with a growl like that of wild beasts disturbed in their lair. What kept him motionless was the strange aspect of this place on the morning of the 'truck night,' as the embryo architects termed the crucial night of labour. Since the previous evening, the whole studio, some sixty pupils, had been shut up there; those who had no designs to exhibit—'the niggers,' as they were called remaining to help the others, the competitors who, being behind time, had to knock off the work of a week in a dozen hours. Already, at midnight, they had stuffed themselves with brawn, saveloys, and similar viands, washed down with cheap wine. Towards one o'clock they had secured the company of some 'ladies'; and, without the work abating, the feast had turned into a Roman orgy, blended with a smoking competition. On the damp, stained floor there remained a great litter of greasy paper and broken bottles; while the atmosphere reeked of burnt tallow, musk, highly seasoned sausages, and cheap bluish wine.
And now many voices savagely yelled: 'Turn him out. Oh, that mug! What does he want, that guy? Turn him out, turn him out.'
For a moment Claude, quite dazed, staggered beneath the violence of the onslaught. But the epithets became viler, for the acme of elegance, even for the more refined among these young fellows, was to rival one's friends in beastly language. He was, nevertheless, recovering and beginning to answer, when Dubuche recognised him. The latter turned crimson, for he detested that kind of adventure. He felt ashamed of his friend, and rushed towards him, amidst the jeers, which were now levelled at himself:
'What, is it you?' he gasped. 'I told you never to come in. Just wait for me a minute in the yard.'
At that moment, Claude, who was stepping back, narrowly escaped being knocked down by a little hand-truck which two big full-bearded fellows brought up at a gallop. It was from this truck that the night of heavy toil derived its name: and for the last week the students who had got behindhand with their work, through taking up petty paid jobs outside, had been repeating the cry, 'Oh! I'm in the truck and no mistake.' The moment the vehicle appeared, a clamour arose. It was a quarter to nine o'clock, there was barely time to reach the School of Arts. However, a helter-skelter rush emptied the studio; each brought out his chases, amidst a general jostling; those who obstinately wished to give their designs a last finishing touch were knocked about and carried away with their comrades. In less than five minutes every frame was piled upon the truck, and the two bearded fellows, the most recent additions to the studio, harnessed themselves to it like cattle and drew it along with all their strength, the others vociferating, and pushing from behind. It was like the rush of a sluice; the three courtyards were crossed amidst a torrential crash, and the street was invaded, flooded by the howling throng.
Claude, nevertheless, had set up running by the side of Dubuche, who came at the fag-end, very vexed at not having had another quarter of an hour to finish a tinted drawing more carefully.
'What are you going to do afterwards?' asked Claude.
'Oh! I've errands which will take up my whole day.'
The painter was grieved to see that even this friend escaped him. 'All right, then,' said he; 'in that case I leave you. Shall we see you at Sandoz's to-night?'
'Yes, I think so; unless I'm kept to dinner elsewhere.'
Both were getting out of breath. The band of embryo architects, without slackening their pace, had purposely taken the longest way round for the pleasure of prolonging their uproar. After rushing down the Rue du Four, they dashed across the Place Gozlin and swept into the Rue de l'Echaude. Heading the procession was the truck, drawn and pushed along more and more vigorously, and constantly rebounding over the rough paving-stones, amid the jolting of the frames with which it was laden. Its escort galloped along madly, compelling the passers-by to draw back close to the houses in order to save themselves from being knocked down; while the shop-keepers, standing open-mouthed on their doorsteps, believed in a revolution. The whole neighbourhood seemed topsy-turvy. In the Rue Jacob, such was the rush, so frightful were the yells, that several house shutters were hastily closed. As the Rue Bonaparte was, at last, being reached, one tall, fair fellow thought it a good joke to catch hold of a little servant girl who stood bewildered on the pavement, and drag her along with them, like a wisp of straw caught in a torrent.
'Well,' said Claude, 'good-bye, then; I'll see you to-night.'
The painter, out of breath, had stopped at the corner of the Rue des Beaux Arts. The court gates of the Art School stood wide open in front of him, and the procession plunged into the yard.
After drawing breath, Claude retraced his steps to the Rue de Seine. His bad luck was increasing; it seemed ordained that he should not be able to beguile a chum from work that morning. So he went up the street, and slowly walked on as far as the Place du Pantheon, without any definite aim. Then it occurred to him that he might just look into the Municipal Offices, if only to shake hands with Sandoz. That would, at any rate, mean ten minutes well spent. But he positively gasped when he was told by an attendant that M. Sandoz had asked for a day off to attend a funeral. However, he knew the trick of old. His friend always found the same pretext whenever he wanted to do a good day's work at home. He had already made up his mind to join him there, when a feeling of artistic brotherliness, the scruple of an honest worker, made him pause; yes, it would be a crime to go and disturb that good fellow, and infect him with the discouragement born of a difficult task, at the very moment when he was, no doubt, manfully accomplishing his own work.
So Claude had to resign himself to his fate. He dragged his black melancholy along the quays until mid-day, his head so heavy, so full of thoughts of his lack of power, that he only espied the well-loved horizons of the Seine through a mist. Then he found himself once more in the Rue de la Femme-sans-Tete, where he breakfasted at Gomard's wine shop, whose sign 'The Dog of Montargis,' inspired him with interest. Some stonemasons, in their working blouses, bespattered with mortar, were there at table, and, like them, and with them, he ate his eight sous' 'ordinary'—some beef broth in a bowl, in which he soaked some bread, followed by a slice of boiled soup-beef, garnished with haricot beans, and served up on a plate damp with dish-water. However, it was still too good, he thought, for a brute unable to earn his bread. Whenever his work miscarried, he undervalued himself, ranked himself lower than a common labourer, whose sinewy arms could at least perform their appointed task. For an hour he lingered in the tavern brutifying himself by listening to the conversation at the tables around him. Once outside he slowly resumed his walk in haphazard fashion.
When he got to the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, however, a fresh idea made him quicken his pace. Why had he not thought of Fagerolles? Fagerolles was a nice fellow, gay, and by no means a fool, although he studied at the School of Arts. One could talk with him, even when he defended bad painting. If he had lunched at his father's, in the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, he must certainly still be there.
On entering the narrow street, Claude felt a sensation of refreshing coolness come over him. In the sun it had grown very warm, and moisture rose from the pavement, which, however bright the sky, remained damp and greasy beneath the constant tramping of the pedestrians. Every minute, when a push obliged Claude to leave the footwalk, he found himself in danger of being knocked down by trucks or vans. Still the street amused him, with its straggling houses out of line, their flat frontages chequered with signboards up to the very eaves, and pierced with small windows, whence came the hum of every kind of handiwork that can be carried on at home. In one of the narrowest parts of the street a small newspaper shop made him stop. It was betwixt a hairdresser's and a tripeseller's, and had an outdoor display of idiotic prints, romantic balderdash mixed with filthy caricatures fit for a barrack-room. In front of these 'pictures,' a lank hobbledehoy stood lost in reverie, while two young girls nudged each other and jeered. He felt inclined to slap their faces, but he hurried across the road, for Fagerolles' house happened to be opposite. It was a dark old tenement, standing forward from the others, and was bespattered like them with the mud from the gutters. As an omnibus came up, Claude barely had time to jump upon the foot pavement, there reduced to the proportions of a simple ledge; the wheels brushed against his chest, and he was drenched to his knees.
M. Fagerolles, senior, a manufacturer of artistic zinc-work, had his workshops on the ground floor of the building, and having converted two large front rooms on the first floor into a warehouse, he personally occupied a small, dark, cellar-like apartment overlooking the courtyard. It was there that his son Henri had grown up, like a true specimen of the flora of the Paris streets, at the edge of that narrow pavement constantly struck by the omnibus wheels, always soddened by the gutter water, and opposite the print and newspaper shop, flanked by the barber's and tripeseller's. At first his father had made an ornamental draughtsman of him for personal use. But when the lad had developed higher ambition, taking to painting proper, and talking about the School of Arts, there had been quarrels, blows, a series of separations and reconciliations. Even now, although Henri had already achieved some successes, the manufacturer of artistic zinc-work, while letting him have his will, treated him harshly, like a lad who was spoiling his career.
After shaking off the water, Claude went up the deep archway entrance, to a courtyard, where the light was quite greenish, and where there was a dank, musty smell, like that at the bottom of a tank. There was an overhanging roofing of glass and iron at the foot of the staircase, which was a wide one, with a wrought-iron railing, eaten with rust. As the painter passed the warehouse on the first floor, he glanced through a glass door and noticed M. Fagerolles examining some patterns. Wishing to be polite, he entered, in spite of the artistic disgust he felt for all that zinc, coloured to imitate bronze, and having all the repulsive mendacious prettiness of spurious art.
'Good morning, monsieur. Is Henri still at home?'
The manufacturer, a stout, sallow-looking man, drew himself straight amidst all his nosegay vases and cruets and statuettes. He had in his hand a new model of a thermometer, formed of a juggling girl who crouched and balanced the glass tube on her nose.
'Henri did not come in to lunch,' he answered drily.
This cool reception upset Claude. 'Ah! he did not come back; I beg pardon for having disturbed you, then. Good-day, monsieur.'
Once more outside, Claude began to swear to himself. His ill-luck was complete, Fagerolles escaped him also. He even felt vexed with himself for having gone there, and having taken an interest in that picturesque old street; he was infuriated by the romantic gangrene that ever sprouted afresh within him, do what he might. It was his malady, perhaps, the false principle which he sometimes felt like a bar across his skull. And when he had reached the quays again, he thought of going home to see whether his picture was really so very bad. But the mere idea made him tremble all over. His studio seemed a chamber of horrors, where he could no more continue to live, as if, indeed, he had left the corpse of some beloved being there. No, no; to climb the three flights of stairs, to open the door, to shut himself up face to face with 'that,' would have needed strength beyond his courage. So he crossed the Seine and went along the Rue St. Jacques. He felt too wretched and lonely; and, come what might, he would go to the Rue d'Enfer to turn Sandoz from his work.
Sandoz's little fourth-floor flat consisted of a dining-room, a bedroom, and a strip of kitchen. It was tenanted by himself alone; his mother, disabled by paralysis, occupied on the other side of the landing a single room, where she lived in morose and voluntary solitude. The street was a deserted one; the windows of the rooms overlooked the gardens of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, above which rose the rounded crest of a lofty tree, and the square tower of St. Jacques-du-Haut-Pas.
Claude found Sandoz in his room, bending over his table, busy with a page of 'copy.'
'I am disturbing you?' said Claude.
'Not at all. I have been working ever since morning, and I've had enough of it. I've been killing myself for the last hour over a sentence that reads anyhow, and which has worried me all through my lunch.'
The painter made a gesture of despair, and the other, seeing him so gloomy, at once understood matters.
'You don't get on either, eh? Well, let's go out. A sharp walk will take a little of the rust off us. Shall we go?'
As he was passing the kitchen, however, an old woman stopped him. It was his charwoman, who, as a rule, came only for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. On Thursdays, however, she remained the whole afternoon in order to look after the dinner.
'Then it's decided, monsieur?' she asked. 'It's to be a piece of skate and a leg of mutton, with potatoes.'
'Yes, if you like.'
'For how many am I to lay the cloth?'
'Oh! as for that, one never knows. Lay for five, at any rate; we'll see afterwards. Dinner at seven, eh? we'll try to be home by then.'
When they were on the landing, Sandoz, leaving Claude to wait for him, stole into his mother's room. When he came out again, in the same discreet affectionate manner, they both went downstairs in silence. Outside, having sniffed to right and left, as if to see which way the wind blew, they ended by going up the street, reached the Place de l'Observatoire, and turned down the Boulevard du Montparnasse. This was their ordinary promenade; they reached the spot instinctively, being fond of the wide expanse of the outer boulevards, where they could roam and lounge at ease. They continued silent, for their heads were heavy still, but the comfort of being together gradually made them more serene. Still it was only when they were opposite the Western Railway Station that Sandoz spoke.
'I say, suppose we go to Mahoudeau's, to see how he's getting on with his big machine. I know that he has given "his gods and saints" the slip to-day.'
'All right,' answered Claude. 'Let's go to Mahoudeau's.'
They at once turned into the Rue du Cherche-Midi. There, at a few steps from the boulevard, Mahoudeau, a sculptor, had rented the shop of a fruiterer who had failed in business, and he had installed his studio therein, contenting himself with covering the windows with a layer of whitening. At this point, the street, wide and deserted, has a quiet, provincial aspect, with a somewhat ecclesiastical touch. Large gateways stand wide open showing a succession of deep roomy yards; from a cowkeeper's establishment comes a tepid, pungent smell of litter; and the dead wall of a convent stretches away for a goodly length. It was between this convent and a herbalist's that the shop transformed into a studio was situated. It still bore on its sign-board the inscription, 'Fruit and Vegetables,' in large yellow letters.
Claude and Sandoz narrowly missed being blinded by some little girls who were skipping in the street. On the foot pavement sat several families whose barricades of chairs compelled the friends to step down on to the roadway. However, they were drawing nigh, when the sight of the herbalist's shop delayed them for a moment. Between its windows, decked with enemas, bandages, and similar things, beneath the dried herbs hanging above the doorway, whence came a constant aromatic smell, a thin, dark woman stood taking stock of them, while, behind her, in the gloom of the shop, one saw the vague silhouette of a little sickly-looking man, who was coughing and expectorating. The friends nudged each other, their eyes lighted up with bantering mirth; and then they turned the handle of Mahoudeau's door.
The shop, though tolerably roomy, was almost filled by a mass of clay: a colossal Bacchante, falling back upon a rock. The wooden stays bent beneath the weight of that almost shapeless pile, of which nothing but some huge limbs could as yet be distinguished. Some water had been spilt on the floor, several muddy buckets straggled here and there, while a heap of moistened plaster was lying in a corner. On the shelves, formerly occupied by fruit and vegetables, were scattered some casts from the antique, covered with a tracery of cinder-like dust which had gradually collected there. A wash-house kind of dampness, a stale smell of moist clay, rose from the floor. And the wretchedness of this sculptor's studio and the dirt attendant upon the profession were made still more conspicuous by the wan light that filtered through the shop windows besmeared with whitening.
'What! is it you?' shouted Mahoudeau, who sat before his female figure, smoking a pipe.
He was small and thin, with a bony face, already wrinkled at twenty-seven. His black mane-like hair lay entangled over his very low forehead, and his sallow mask, ugly almost to ferociousness, was lighted up by a pair of childish eyes, bright and empty, which smiled with winning simplicity. The son of a stonemason of Plassans, he had achieved great success at the local art competitions, and had afterwards come to Paris as the town laureate, with an allowance of eight hundred francs per annum, for a period of four years. In the capital, however, he had found himself at sea, defenceless, failing in his competitions at the School of Arts, and spending his allowance to no purpose; so that, at the end of his term, he had been obliged for a livelihood to enter the employment of a dealer in church statues, at whose establishment, for ten hours a day, he scraped away at St. Josephs, St. Rochs, Mary Magdalens, and, in fact, all the saints of the calendar. For the last six months, however, he had experienced a revival of ambition, on finding himself once more among his comrades of Provence, the eldest of whom he was—fellows whom he had known at Geraud's boarding-school for little boys, and who had since grown into savage revolutionaries. At present, through his constant intercourse with impassioned artists, who troubled his brain with all sorts of wild theories, his ambition aimed at the gigantic.
'The devil!' said Claude, 'there's a lump.'
The sculptor, delighted, gave a long pull at his pipe, and blew a cloud of smoke.
'Eh, isn't it? I am going to give them some flesh, and living flesh, too; not the bladders of lard that they turn out.'
'It's a woman bathing, isn't it?' asked Sandoz.
'No; I shall put some vine leaves around her head. A Bacchante, you understand.'
At this Claude flew into a violent passion.
'A Bacchante? Do you want to make fools of people? Does such a thing as a Bacchante exist? A vintaging girl, eh? And quite modern, dash it all. I know she's nude, so let her be a peasant woman who has undressed. And that must be properly conveyed, mind; people must realise that she lives.'
Mahoudeau, taken aback, listened, trembling. He was afraid of Claude, and bowed to his ideal of strength and truth. So he even improved upon the painter's idea.
'Yes, yes, that's what I meant to say—a vintaging girl. And you'll see whether there isn't a real touch of woman about her.'
At that moment Sandoz, who had been making the tour of the huge block of clay, exclaimed: 'Why, here's that sneak of a Chaine.'
Behind the pile, indeed, sat Chaine, a burly fellow who was quietly painting away, copying the fireless rusty stove on a small canvas. It could be told that he was a peasant by his heavy, deliberate manner and his bull-neck, tanned and hardened like leather. His only noticeable feature was his forehead, displaying all the bumps of obstinacy; for his nose was so small as to be lost between his red cheeks, while a stiff beard hid his powerful jaws. He came from Saint Firmin, a village about six miles from Plassans, where he had been a cow-boy, until he drew for the conscription; and his misfortunes dated from the enthusiasm that a gentleman of the neighbourhood had shown for the walking-stick handles which he carved out of roots with his knife. From that moment, having become a rustic genius, an embryo great man for this local connoisseur, who happened to be a member of the museum committee, he had been helped by him, adulated and driven crazy with hopes; but he had successively failed in everything—his studies and competitions—thus missing the town's purse. Nevertheless, he had started for Paris, after worrying his father, a wretched peasant, into premature payment of his heritage, a thousand francs, on which he reckoned to live for a twelvemonth while awaiting the promised victory. The thousand francs had lasted eighteen months. Then, as he had only twenty francs left, he had taken up his quarters with his friend, Mahoudeau. They both slept in the same bed, in the dark back shop; they both in turn cut slices from the same loaves of bread—of which they bought sufficient for a fortnight at a time, so that it might get very hard, and that they might thus be able to eat but little of it.
'I say, Chaine,' continued Sandoz, 'your stove is really very exact.'
Chaine, without answering, gave a chuckle of triumph which lighted up his face like a sunbeam. By a crowning stroke of imbecility, and to make his misfortunes perfect, his protector's advice had thrown him into painting, in spite of the real taste that he showed for wood carving. And he painted like a whitewasher, mixing his colours as a hodman mixes his mortar, and managing to make the clearest and brightest of them quite muddy. His triumph consisted, however, in combining exactness with awkwardness; he displayed all the naive minuteness of the primitive painters; in fact, his mind, barely raised from the clods, delighted in petty details. The stove, with its perspective all awry, was tame and precise, and in colour as dingy as mire.
Claude approached and felt full of compassion at the sight of that painting, and though he was as a rule so harsh towards bad painters, his compassion prompted him to say a word of praise.
'Ah! one can't say that you are a trickster; you paint, at any rate, as you feel. Very good, indeed.'
However, the door of the shop had opened, and a good-looking, fair fellow, with a big pink nose, and large, blue, short-sighted eyes, entered shouting:
'I say, why does that herbalist woman next door always stand on her doorstep? What an ugly mug she's got!'
They all laughed, except Mahoudeau, who seemed very much embarrassed.
'Jory, the King of Blunderers,' declared Sandoz, shaking hands with the new comer.
'Why? What? Is Mahoudeau interested in her? I didn't know,' resumed Jory, when he had at length grasped the situation. 'Well, well, what does it matter? When everything's said, they are all irresistible.'
'As for you,' the sculptor rejoined, 'I can see you have tumbled on your lady-love's finger-nails again. She has dug a bit out of your cheek!'
They all burst out laughing anew, while Jory, in his turn, reddened. In fact, his face was scratched: there were even two deep gashes across it. The son of a magistrate of Plassans, whom he had driven half-crazy by his dissolute conduct, he had crowned everything by running away with a music-hall singer under the pretext of going to Paris to follow the literary profession. During the six months that they had been camping together in a shady hotel of the Quartier Latin, the girl had almost flayed him alive each time she caught him paying attention to anybody else of her sex. And, as this often happened, he always had some fresh scar to show—a bloody nose, a torn ear, or a damaged eye, swollen and blackened.
At last they all began to talk, with the exception of Chaine, who went on painting with the determined expression of an ox at the plough. Jory had at once gone into ecstasies over the roughly indicated figure of the vintaging girl. He worshipped a massive style of beauty. His first writings in his native town had been some Parnassian sonnets celebrating the copious charms of a handsome pork-butcheress. In Paris—where he had fallen in with the whole band of Plassans—he had taken to art criticism, and, for a livelihood, he wrote articles for twenty francs apiece in a small, slashing paper called 'The Drummer.' Indeed, one of these articles, a study on a picture by Claude exhibited at Papa Malgras's, had just caused a tremendous scandal; for Jory had therein run down all the painters whom the public appreciated to extol his friend, whom he set up as the leader of a new school, the school of the 'open air.' Very practical at heart, he did not care in reality a rap about anything that did not conduce to his own pleasures; he simply repeated the theories he heard enunciated by his friends. 'I say, Mahoudeau,' he now exclaimed, 'you shall have an article; I'll launch that woman of yours. What limbs, my boys! She's magnificent!'
Then suddenly changing the conversation: 'By the way,' he said, 'my miserly father has apologised. He is afraid I shall drag his name through the mud, so he sends me a hundred francs a month now. I am paying my debts.'
'Debts! you are too careful to have any,' muttered Sandoz, with a smile.
In fact, Jory displayed a hereditary tightness of fist which much amused his friends. He managed to lead a profligate life without money and without incurring debts; and with the skill he thus displayed was allied constant duplicity, a habit of incessantly lying, which he had contracted in the devout sphere of his family, where his anxiety to hide his vices had made him lie about everything at all hours, and even without occasion. But he now gave a superb reply, the cry of a sage of deep experience.
'Oh, you fellows, you don't know the worth of money!'
This time he was hooted. What a philistine! And the invectives continued, when some light taps on one of the window-panes suddenly made the din cease.
'She is really becoming a nuisance,' said Mahoudeau, with a gesture of annoyance.
'Eh? Who is it? The herbalist woman?' asked Jory. 'Let her come in; it will be great fun.'
The door indeed had already been opened, and Mahoudeau's neighbour, Madame Jabouille, or Mathilde, as she was familiarly called, appeared on the threshold. She was about thirty, with a flat face horribly emaciated, and passionate eyes, the lids of which had a bluish tinge as if they were bruised. It was said that some members of the clergy had brought about her marriage with little Jabouille, at a time when the latter's business was still flourishing, thanks to the custom of all the pious folk of the neighbourhood. The truth was, that one sometimes espied black cassocks stealthily crossing that mysterious shop, where all the aromatic herbs set a perfume of incense. A kind of cloistral quietude pervaded the place; the devotees who came in spoke in low voices, as if in a confessional, slipped their purchases into their bags furtively, and went off with downcast eyes. Unfortunately, some very horrid rumours had got abroad—slander invented by the wine-shop keeper opposite, said pious folks. At any rate, since the widower had re-married, the business had been going to the dogs. The glass jars seemed to have lost all their brightness, and the dried herbs, suspended from the ceiling, were tumbling to dust. Jabouille himself was coughing his life out, reduced to a very skeleton. And although Mathilde professed to be religious, the pious customers gradually deserted her, being of opinion that she made herself too conspicuous with young fellows of the neighbourhood now that Jabouille was almost eaten out of house and home.
For a moment Mathilde remained motionless, blinking her eyes. A pungent smell had spread through the shop, a smell of simples, which she brought with her in her clothes and greasy, tumbled hair; the sickly sweetness of mallow, the sharp odour of elderseed, the bitter effluvia of rhubarb, but, above all, the hot whiff of peppermint, which seemed like her very breath.
She made a gesture of feigned surprise. 'Oh, dear me! you have company—I did not know; I'll drop in again.'
'Yes, do,' said Mahoudeau, looking very vexed. 'Besides, I am going out; you can give me a sitting on Sunday.'
At this Claude, stupefied, fairly stared at the emaciated Mathilde, and then at the huge vintaging woman.
'What?' he cried, 'is it madame who poses for that figure? The dickens, you exaggerate!'
Then the laughter began again, while the sculptor stammered his explanations. 'Oh! she only poses for the head and the hands, and merely just to give me a few indications.'
Mathilde, however, laughed with the others, with a sharp, brazen-faced laughter, showing the while the gaping holes in her mouth, where several teeth were wanting.
'Yes,' resumed Mahoudeau. 'I have to go out on some business now. Isn't it so, you fellows, we are expected over yonder?'
He had winked at his friends, feeling eager for a good lounge. They all answered that they were expected, and helped him to cover the figure of the vintaging girl with some strips of old linen which were soaking in a pail of water.
However, Mathilde, looking submissive but sad, did not stir. She merely shifted from one place to another, when they pushed against her, while Chaine, who was no longer painting, glanced at her over his picture. So far, he had not opened his lips. But as Mahoudeau at last went off with his three friends, he made up his mind to ask, in his husky voice:
'Shall you come home to-night?'
'Very late. Have your dinner and go to bed. Good-bye.'
Then Chaine remained alone with Mathilde in the damp shop, amidst the heaps of clay and the puddles of water, while the chalky light from the whitened windows glared crudely over all the wretched untidiness.
Meantime the four others, Claude and Mahoudeau, Jory and Sandoz, strolled along, seeming to take up the whole width of the Boulevard des Invalides. It was the usual thing, the band was gradually increased by the accession of comrades picked up on the way, and then came the wild march of a horde upon the war-path. With the bold assurance of their twenty summers, these young fellows took possession of the foot pavement. The moment they were together trumpets seemed to sound in advance of them; they seized upon Paris and quietly dropped it into their pockets. There was no longer the slightest doubt about their victory; they freely displayed their threadbare coats and old shoes, like destined conquerors of to-morrow who disdained bagatelles, and had only to take the trouble to become the masters of all the luxury surrounding them. And all this was attended by huge contempt for everything that was not art—contempt for fortune, contempt for the world at large, and, above all, contempt for politics. What was the good of all such rubbish? Only a lot of incapables meddled with it. A warped view of things, magnificent in its very injustice, exalted them; an intentional ignorance of the necessities of social life, the crazy dream of having none but artists upon earth. They seemed very stupid at times, but, all the same, their passion made them strong and brave.
Claude became excited. Faith in himself revived amidst the glow of common hopes. His worry of the morning had only left a vague numbness behind, and he now once more began to discuss his picture with Sandoz and Mahoudeau, swearing, it is true, that he would destroy it the next day. Jory, who was very short-sighted, stared at all the elderly ladies he met, and aired his theories on artistic work. A man ought to give his full measure at once in the first spurt of inspiration; as for himself, he never corrected anything. And, still discussing, the four friends went on down the boulevard, which, with its comparative solitude, and its endless rows of fine trees, seemed to have been expressly designed as an arena for their disputations. When they reached the Esplanade, the wrangling became so violent that they stopped in the middle of that large open space. Beside himself, Claude called Jory a numskull; was it not better to destroy one's work than to launch a mediocre performance upon the world? Truckling to trade was really disgusting. Mahoudeau and Sandoz, on their side, shouted both together at the same time. Some passers-by, feeling uneasy, turned round to look, and at last gathered round these furious young fellows, who seemed bent on swallowing each other. But they went off vexed, thinking that some practical joke had been played upon them, when they suddenly saw the quartette, all good friends again, go into raptures over a wet-nurse, dressed in light colours, with long cherry-tinted ribbons streaming from her cap. There, now! That was something like—what a tint, what a bright note it set amid the surroundings! Delighted, blinking their eyes, they followed the nurse under the trees, and then suddenly seemed roused and astonished to find they had already come so far. The Esplanade, open on all sides, save on the south, where rose the distant pile of the Hotel des Invalides, delighted them—it was so vast, so quiet; they there had plenty of room for their gestures; and they recovered breath there, although they were always declaring that Paris was far too small for them, and lacked sufficient air to inflate their ambitious lungs.
'Are you going anywhere particular?' asked Sandoz of Mahoudeau and Jory.
'No,' answered the latter, 'we are going with you. Where are you going?'
Claude, gazing carelessly about him, muttered: 'I don't know. That way, if you like.'
They turned on to the Quai d'Orsay, and went as far as the Pont de la Concorde. In front of the Corps Legislatif the painter remarked, with an air of disgust: 'What a hideous pile!'
'Jules Favre made a fine speech the other day. How he did rile Rouher,' said Jory.
However, the others left him no time to proceed, the disputes began afresh. 'Who was Jules Favre? Who was Rouher? Did they exist? A parcel of idiots whom no one would remember ten years after their death.' The young men had now begun to cross the bridge, and they shrugged their shoulders with compassion. Then, on reaching the Place de la Concorde, they stopped short and relapsed into silence.
'Well,' opined Claude at last, 'this isn't bad, by any means.'
It was four o'clock, and the day was waning amidst a glorious powdery shimmer. To the right and left, towards the Madeleine and towards the Corps Legislatif, lines of buildings stretched away, showing against the sky, while in the Tuileries Gardens rose gradients of lofty rounded chestnut trees. And between the verdant borders of the pleasure walks, the avenue of the Champs Elysees sloped upward as far as the eye could reach, topped by the colossal Arc de Triomphe, agape in front of the infinite. A double current, a twofold stream rolled along—horses showing like living eddies, vehicles like retreating waves, which the reflections of a panel or the sudden sparkle of the glass of a carriage lamp seemed to tip with white foam. Lower down, the square—with its vast footways, its roads as broad as lakes—was filled with a constant ebb and flow, crossed in every direction by whirling wheels, and peopled with black specks of men, while the two fountains plashed and streamed, exhaling delicious coolness amid all the ardent life.
Claude, quivering with excitement, kept saying: 'Ah! Paris! It's ours. We have only to take it.'
They all grew excited, their eyes opened wide with desire. Was it not glory herself that swept from the summit of that avenue over the whole capital? Paris was there, and they longed to make her theirs.
'Well, we'll take her one day,' said Sandoz, with his obstinate air.
'To be sure we shall,' said Mahoudeau and Jory in the simplest manner.
They had resumed walking; they still roamed about, found themselves behind the Madeleine, and went up the Rue Tronchet. At last, as they reached the Place du Havre, Sandoz exclaimed, 'So we are going to Baudequin's, eh?'
The others looked as if they had dropped from the sky; in fact, it did seem as if they were going to Baudequin's.
'What day of the week is it?' asked Claude. 'Thursday, eh? Then Fagerolles and Gagniere are sure to be there. Let's go to Baudequin's.'
And thereupon they went up the Rue d'Amsterdam. They had just crossed Paris, one of their favourite rambles, but they took other routes at times—from one end of the quays to the other; or from the Porte St. Jacques to the Moulineaux, or else to Pere-la-Chaise, followed by a roundabout return along the outer boulevards. They roamed the streets, the open spaces, the crossways; they rambled on for whole days, as long as their legs would carry them, as if intent on conquering one district after another by hurling their revolutionary theories at the house-fronts; and the pavement seemed to be their property—all the pavement touched by their feet, all that old battleground whence arose intoxicating fumes which made them forget their lassitude.
The Cafe Baudequin was situated on the Boulevard des Batignolles, at the corner of the Rue Darcet. Without the least why or wherefore, it had been selected by the band as their meeting-place, though Gagniere alone lived in the neighbourhood. They met there regularly on Sunday nights; and on Thursday afternoons, at about five o'clock, those who were then at liberty had made it a habit to look in for a moment. That day, as the weather was fine and bright, the little tables outside under the awning were occupied by rows of customers, obstructing the footway. But the band hated all elbowing and public exhibition, so they jostled the other people in order to go inside, where all was deserted and cool.
'Hallo, there's Fagerolles by himself,' exclaimed Claude.
He had gone straight to their usual table at the end of the cafe, on the left, where he shook hands with a pale, thin, young man, whose pert girlish face was lighted up by a pair of winning, satirical grey eyes, which at times flashed like steel. They all sat down and ordered beer, after which the painter resumed:
'Do you know that I went to look for you at your father's; and a nice reception he gave me.'
Fagerolles, who affected a low devil-may-care style, slapped his thighs. 'Oh, the old fellow plagues me! I hooked it this morning, after a row. He wants me to draw some things for his beastly zinc stuff. As if I hadn't enough zinc stuff at the Art School.'
This slap at the professors delighted the young man's friends. He amused them and made himself their idol by dint of alternate flattery and blame. His smile went from one to the other, while, by the aid of a few drops of beer spilt on the table, his long nimble fingers began tracing complicated sketches. His art evidently came very easily to him; it seemed as if he could do anything with a turn of the hand.
'And Gagniere?' asked Mahoudeau; 'haven't you seen him?'
'No; I have been here for the last hour.'
Just then Jory, who had remained silent, nudged Sandoz, and directed his attention to a girl seated with a gentleman at a table at the back of the room. There were only two other customers present, two sergeants, who were playing cards. The girl was almost a child, one of those young Parisian hussies who are as lank as ever at eighteen. She suggested a frizzy poodle—with the shower of fair little locks that fell over her dainty little nose, and her large smiling mouth, set between rosy cheeks. She was turning over the leaves of an illustrated paper, while the gentleman accompanying her gravely sipped a glass of Madeira; but every other minute she darted gay glances from over the newspaper towards the band of artists.
'Pretty, isn't she?' whispered Jory. 'Who is she staring at? Why, she's looking at me.'
But Fagerolles suddenly broke in: 'I say, no nonsense. Don't imagine that I have been here for the last hour merely waiting for you.'
The others laughed; and lowering his voice he told them about the girl, who was named Irma Becot. She was the daughter of a grocer in the Rue Montorgueil, and had been to school in the neighbourhood till she was sixteen, writing her exercises between two bags of lentils, and finishing off her education on her father's doorstep, lolling about on the pavement, amidst the jostling of the throng, and learning all about life from the everlasting tittle-tattle of the cooks, who retailed all the scandal of the neighbourhood while waiting for five sous' worth of Gruyere cheese to be served them. Her mother having died, her father himself had begun to lead rather a gay life, in such wise that the whole of the grocery stores—tea, coffee, dried vegetables, and jars and drawers of sweetstuff—were gradually devoured. Irma was still going to school, when, one day, the place was sold up. Her father died of a fit of apoplexy, and Irma sought refuge with a poor aunt, who gave her more kicks than halfpence, with the result that she ended by running away, and taking her flight through all the dancing-places of Montmartre and Batignolles.
Claude listened to the story with his usual air of contempt for women. Suddenly, however, as the gentleman rose and went out after whispering in her ear, Irma Becot, after watching him disappear, bounded from her seat with the impulsiveness of a school girl, in order to join Fagerolles, beside whom she made herself quite at home, giving him a smacking kiss, and drinking out of his glass. And she smiled at the others in a very engaging manner, for she was partial to artists, and regretted that they were generally so miserably poor. As Jory was smoking, she took his cigarette out of his mouth and set it in her own, but without pausing in her chatter, which suggested that of a saucy magpie.
'You are all painters, aren't you? How amusing! But why do those three look as if they were sulking. Just laugh a bit, or I shall make you, you'll see!'
As a matter of fact, Sandoz, Claude, and Mahoudeau, quite taken aback, were watching her most gravely. She herself remained listening, and, on hearing her companion come back, she hastily gave Fagerolles an appointment for the morrow. Then, after replacing the cigarette between Jory's lips, she strode off with her arms raised, and making a very comical grimace; in such wise that when the gentleman reappeared, looking sedate and somewhat pale, he found her in her former seat, still looking at the same engraving in the newspaper. The whole scene had been acted so quickly, and with such jaunty drollery, that the two sergeants who sat nearby, good-natured fellows both of them, almost died of laughter as they shuffled their cards afresh.
In fact, Irma had taken them all by storm. Sandoz declared that her name of Becot was very well suited for a novel; Claude asked whether she would consent to pose for a sketch; while Mahoudeau already pictured her as a Paris gamin, a statuette that would be sure to sell. She soon went off, however, and behind the gentleman's back she wafted kisses to the whole party, a shower of kisses which quite upset the impressionable Jory.
It was five o'clock, and the band ordered some more beer. Some of the usual customers had taken possession of the adjacent tables, and these philistines cast sidelong glances at the artists' corner, glances in which contempt was curiously mingled with a kind of uneasy deference. The artists were indeed well known; a legend was becoming current respecting them. They themselves were now talking on common-place subjects: about the heat, the difficulty of finding room in the omnibus to the Odeon, and the discovery of a wine-shop where real meat was obtainable. One of them wanted to start a discussion about a number of idiotic pictures that had lately been hung in the Luxembourg Museum; but there was only one opinion on the subject, that the pictures were not worth their frames. Thereupon they left off conversing; they smoked, merely exchanging a word or a significant smile now and then.
'Well,' asked Claude at last, 'are we going to wait for Gagniere?'
At this there was a protest. Gagniere was a bore. Besides, he would turn up as soon as he smelt the soup.
'Let's be off, then,' said Sandoz. 'There's a leg of mutton this evening, so let's try to be punctual.'
Each paid his score, and they all went out. Their departure threw the cafe into a state of emotion. Some young fellows, painters, no doubt, whispered together as they pointed at Claude, much in the same manner as if he were the redoubtable chieftain of a horde of savages. Jory's famous article was producing its effect; the very public was becoming his accomplice, and of itself was soon to found that school of the open air, which the band had so far only joked about. As they gaily said, the Cafe Baudequin was not aware of the honour they had done it on the day when they selected it to be the cradle of a revolution.
Fagerolles having reinforced the group, they now numbered five, and slowly they took their way across Paris, with their tranquil look of victory. The more numerous they were, the more did they stretch across the pavement, and carry away on their heels the burning life of the streets. When they had gone down the Rue de Clichy, they went straight along the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin, turned towards the Rue de Richelieu, crossed the Seine by the Pont des Arts, so as to fling their gibes at the Institute, and finally reached the Luxembourg by way of the Rue de Seine, where a poster, printed in three colours, the garish announcement of a travelling circus, made them all shout with admiration. Evening was coming on; the stream of wayfarers flowed more slowly; the tired city was awaiting the shadows of night, ready to yield to the first comer who might be strong enough to take her.
On reaching the Rue d'Enfer, when Sandoz had ushered his four friends into his own apartments, he once more vanished into his mother's room. He remained there for a few moments, and then came out without saying a word, but with the tender, gentle smile habitual to him on such occasions. And immediately afterwards a terrible hubbub, of laughter, argument, and mere shouting, arose in his little flat. Sandoz himself set the example, all the while assisting the charwoman, who burst into bitter language because it was half-past seven, and her leg of mutton was drying up. The five companions, seated at table, were already swallowing their soup, a very good onion soup, when a new comer suddenly appeared.
'Hallo! here's Gagniere,' was the vociferous chorus.
Gagniere, short, slight, and vague looking, with a doll-like startled face, set off by a fair curly beard, stood for a moment on the threshold blinking his green eyes. He belonged to Melun, where his well-to-do parents, who were both dead, had left him two houses; and he had learnt painting, unassisted, in the forest of Fontainebleau. His landscapes were at least conscientiously painted, excellent in intention; but his real passion was music, a madness for music, a cerebral bonfire which set him on a level with the wildest of the band.
'Am I in the way?' he gently asked.
'Not at all; come in!' shouted Sandoz.
The charwoman was already laying an extra knife and fork.
'Suppose she lays a place for Dubuche, while she is about it,' said Claude. 'He told me he would perhaps come.'
But they were all down upon Dubuche, who frequented women in society. Jory said that he had seen him in a carriage with an old lady and her daughter, whose parasols he was holding on his knees.
'Where have you come from to be so late?' asked Fagerolles of Gagniere.
The latter, who was about to swallow his first spoonful of soup, set it in his plate again.
'I was in the Rue de Lancry—you know, where they have chamber music. Oh! my boy, some of Schumann's machines! You haven't an idea of them! They clutch hold of you at the back of your head just as if somebody were breathing down your back. Yes, yes, it's something much more immaterial than a kiss, just a whiff of breath. 'Pon my honour, a fellow feels as if he were going to die.'
His eyes were moistening and he turned pale, as if experiencing some over-acute enjoyment.
'Eat your soup,' said Mahoudeau; 'you'll tell us all about it afterwards.'
The skate was served, and they had the vinegar bottle put on the table to improve the flavour of the black butter, which seemed rather insipid. They ate with a will, and the hunks of bread swiftly disappeared. There was nothing refined about the repast, and the wine was mere common stuff, which they watered considerably from a feeling of delicacy, in order to lessen their host's expenses. They had just saluted the leg of mutton with a hurrah, and the host had begun to carve it, when the door opened anew. But this time there were furious protests.
'No, no, not another soul! Turn him out, turn him out.'
Dubuche, out of breath with having run, bewildered at finding himself amidst such howling, thrust his fat, pallid face forward, whilst stammering explanations.
'Really, now, I assure you it was the fault of the omnibuses. I had to wait for five of them in the Champs Elysees.'
'No, no, he's lying!—Let him go, he sha'n't have any of that mutton. Turn him out, turn him out!'
All the same, he ended by coming in, and it was then noticed that he was stylishly attired, all in black, trousers and frock-coat alike, and cravated and booted in the stiff ceremonious fashion of some respectable member of the middle classes going out to dinner.
'Hallo! he has missed his invitation,' chaffed Fagerolles. 'Don't you see that his fine ladies didn't ask him to stay to dinner, and so now he's come to gobble up our leg of mutton, as he doesn't know where else to go?'
At this Dubuche turned red, and stammered: 'Oh! what an idea! How ill-natured you are! And, besides, just attend to your own business.'
Sandoz and Claude, seated next to each other, smiled, and the former, beckoning to Dubuche, said to him: 'Lay your own place, bring a plate and a glass, and sit between us—like that, they'll leave you alone.'
However, the chaff continued all the time that the mutton was being eaten. When the charwoman had brought Dubuche a plate of soup and a piece of skate, he himself fell in with the jokes good-naturedly. He pretended to be famished, greedily mopped out his plate, and related a story about a mother having refused him her daughter because he was an architect. The end of the dinner thus became very boisterous; they all rattled on together. The only dessert, a piece of Brie cheese, met with enormous success. Not a scrap of it was left, and the bread almost ran short. The wine did run short, so they each swallowed a clear draught of water, smacking their lips the while amidst great laughter. And, with faces beaming, and well-filled paunches, they passed into the bedroom with the supreme content of folks who have fared very sumptuously indeed.
Those were Sandoz's jolly evenings. Even at the times when he was hard up he had always had some boiled beef and broth to share with his comrades. He felt delighted at having a number of them around him, all friends, inspired by the same ideas. Though he was of their own age, he beamed with fatherly feelings and satisfied good-nature when he saw them in his rooms, around him, hand in hand, and intoxicated with hope. As he had but two rooms, the bedroom did duty as a drawing-room, and became as much theirs as his. For lack of sufficient chairs, two or three had to seat themselves on the bed. And on those warm summer evenings the window remained wide open to let in the air. From it two black silhouettes were to be seen rising above the houses, against the clear sky—the tower of St. Jacques du Haut-Pas and the tree of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. When money was plentiful there was beer. Every one brought his own tobacco, the room soon became full of smoke, and without seeing each other they ended by conversing far into the night, amidst the deep mournful silence of that deserted district.
On that particular evening, at about nine o'clock, the charwoman came in.
'Monsieur, I have done. Can I go?'
'Yes, go to bed. You have left the kettle on the fire, haven't you? I'll make the tea myself.'
Sandoz had risen. He went off at the heels of the charwoman, and only returned a quarter of an hour afterwards. He had no doubt been to kiss his mother, whom he tucked up every night before she dozed off.
Meanwhile the voices had risen to a high pitch again. Fagerolles was telling a story.
'Yes, old fellow; at the School they even correct Nature herself. The other day Mazel comes up to me and says: "Those two arms don't correspond"; whereupon I reply: "Look for yourself, monsieur—the model's are like that." It was little Flore Beauchamp, you know. "Well," Mazel furiously replies, "if she has them like that, it's very wrong of her."'
They almost all shrieked, especially Claude, to whom Fagerolles told the story by way of paying court. For some time previously the younger artist had yielded to the elder's influence; and although he continued to paint with purely tricky skill, he no longer talked of anything but substantial, thickly-painted work, of bits of nature thrown on to canvas, palpitating with life, such as they really were. This did not prevent him, though, from elsewhere chaffing the adepts of the open-air school, whom he accused of impasting with a kitchen ladle.
Dubuche, who had not laughed, his sense of rectitude being offended, made so bold as to reply:
'Why do you stop at the School if you think you are being brutified there? It's simple enough, one goes away—Oh, I know you are all against me, because I defend the School. But, you see, my idea is that, when a fellow wants to carry on a trade, it is not a bad thing for him to begin by learning it.'
Ferocious shouts arose at this, and Claude had need of all his authority to secure a hearing.
'He is right. One must learn one's trade. But it won't do to learn it under the ferule of professors who want to cram their own views forcibly into your nut. That Mazel is a perfect idiot!'
He flung himself backward on the bed, on which he had been sitting, and with his eyes raised to the ceiling, he went on, in an excited tone:
'Ah! life! life! to feel it and portray it in its reality, to love it for itself, to behold in it the only real, lasting, and changing beauty, without any idiotic idea of ennobling it by mutilation. To understand that all so-called ugliness is nothing but the mark of individual character, to create real men and endow them with life—yes, that's the only way to become a god!'
His faith was coming back to him, the march across Paris had spurred him on once more; he was again seized by his passion for living flesh. They listened to him in silence. He made a wild gesture, then calmed down.
'No doubt every one has his own ideas; but the annoyance is that at the Institute they are even more intolerant than we are. The hanging committee of the Salon is in their hands. I am sure that that idiot Mazel will refuse my picture.'
Thereupon they all broke out into imprecations, for this question of the hanging committee was the everlasting subject of their wrath. They demanded reforms; every one had a solution of the problem ready—from universal suffrage, applied to the election of a hanging committee, liberal in the widest sense of the word, down to unrestricted liberty, a Salon open to all exhibitors.*
* The reader will bear in mind that all these complaints made by Claude and his friends apply to the old Salons, as organized under Government control, at the time of the Second Empire.—ED.
While the others went on discussing the subject, Gagniere drew Mahoudeau to the open window, where, in a low voice, his eyes the while staring into space, he murmured:
'Oh, it's nothing at all, only four bars; a simple impression jotted down there and then. But what a deal there is in it! To me it's first of all a landscape, dwindling away in the distance; a bit of melancholy road, with the shadow of a tree that one cannot see; and then a woman passes along, scarcely a silhouette; on she goes and you never meet her again, no, never more again.'
Just at that moment, however, Fagerolles exclaimed, 'I say, Gagniere, what are you going to send to the Salon this year?'
Gagniere did not hear, but continued talking, enraptured, as it were.
'In Schumann one finds everything—the infinite. And Wagner, too, whom they hissed again last Sunday!'
But a fresh call from Fagerolles made him start.
'Eh! what? What am I going to send to the Salon? A small landscape, perhaps; a little bit of the Seine. It is so difficult to decide; first of all I must feel pleased with it myself.'
He had suddenly become timid and anxious again. His artistic scruples, his conscientiousness, kept him working for months on a canvas the size of one's hand. Following the track of the French landscape painters, those masters who were the first to conquer nature, he worried about correctness of tone, pondering and pondering over the precise value of tints, till theoretical scruples ended by making his touch heavy. And he often did not dare to chance a bright dash of colour, but painted in a greyish gloomy key which was astonishing, when one remembered his revolutionary passions.
'For my part,' said Mahoudeau, 'I feel delighted at the prospect of making them squint with my woman.'
Claude shrugged his shoulders. 'Oh! you'll get in, the sculptors have broader minds than the painters. And, besides, you know very well what you are about; you have something at your fingers' ends that pleases. There will be plenty of pretty bits about your vintaging girl.'