The compliment made Mahoudeau feel serious. He posed above all for vigour of execution; he was unconscious of his real vein of talent, and despised gracefulness, though it ever invincibly sprung from his big, coarse fingers—the fingers of an untaught working-man—like a flower that obstinately sprouts from the hard soil where the wind has flung its seed.
Fagerolles, who was very cunning, had decided to send nothing, for fear of displeasing his masters; and he chaffed the Salon, calling it 'a foul bazaar, where all the bad painting made even the good turn musty.' In his inmost heart he was dreaming of one day securing the Rome prize, though he ridiculed it, as he did everything else.
However, Jory stationed himself in the middle of the room, holding up his glass of beer. Sipping every now and then, he declared: 'Well, your hanging committee quite disgusts me! I say, shall I demolish it? I'll begin bombarding it in our very next number. You'll give me some notes, eh? and we'll knock it to pieces. That will be fine fun.'
Claude was at last fully wound up, and general enthusiasm prevailed. Yes, yes, they must start a campaign. They would all be in it, and, pressing shoulder to shoulder, march to the battle together. At that moment there was not one of them who reserved his share of fame, for nothing divided them as yet; neither the profound dissemblance of their various natures, of which they themselves were ignorant, nor their rivalries, which would some day bring them into collision. Was not the success of one the success of all the others? Their youth was fermenting, they were brimming over with mutual devotion; they indulged anew in their everlasting dream of gathering into a phalanx to conquer the world, each contributing his individual effort; this one helping that one forward, and the whole band reaching fame at once in one row. Claude, as the acknowledged chief, was already sounding the victory, distributing laurels with such lyrical abundance that he overlooked himself. Fagerolles himself, gibing Parisian though he might be, believed in the necessity of forming an army; while even Jory, although he had a coarser appetite, with a deal of the provincial still about him, displayed much useful comradeship, catching various artistic phrases as they fell from his companions' lips, and already preparing in his mind the articles which would herald the advent of the band and make them known. And Mahoudeau purposely exaggerated his intentional roughness, and clasped his hands like an ogre kneading human flesh; while Gagniere, in ecstasy, as if freed from the everlasting greyishness of his art, sought to refine sensation to the utmost limits of intelligence; and Dubuche, with his matter-of-fact convictions, threw in but a word here and there; words, however, which were like club-blows in the very midst of the fray. Then Sandoz, happy and smiling at seeing them so united, 'all in one shirt,' as he put it, opened another bottle of beer. He would have emptied every one in the house.
'Eh?' he cried, 'we're agreed, let's stick to it. It's really pleasant to come to an understanding among fellows who have something in their nuts, so may the thunderbolts of heaven sweep all idiots away!'
At that same moment a ring at the bell stupefied him. Amidst the sudden silence of the others, he inquired—'Who, to the deuce, can that be—at eleven o'clock?'
He ran to open the door, and they heard him utter a cry of delight. He was already coming back again, throwing the door wide open as he said—'Ah! it's very kind indeed to think of us and surprise us like this! Bongrand, gentlemen.'
The great painter, whom the master of the house announced in this respectfully familiar way, entered, holding out both hands. They all eagerly rose, full of emotion, delighted with that manly, cordial handshake so willingly bestowed. Bongrand was then forty-five years old, stout, and with a very expressive face and long grey hair. He had recently become a member of the Institute, and wore the rosette of an officer of the Legion of Honour in the top button-hole of his unpretentious alpaca jacket. He was fond of young people; he liked nothing so much as to drop in from time to time and smoke a pipe among these beginners, whose enthusiasm warmed his heart.
'I am going to make the tea,' exclaimed Sandoz.
When he came back from the kitchen, carrying the teapot and cups, he found Bongrand installed astride a chair, smoking his short cutty, amidst the din which had again arisen. Bongrand himself was holding forth in a stentorian voice. The grandson of a farmer of the Beauce region, the son of a man risen to the middle classes, with peasant blood in his veins, indebted for his culture to a mother of very artistic tastes, he was rich, had no need to sell his pictures, and retained many tastes and opinions of Bohemian life.
'The hanging committee? Well, I'd sooner hang myself than belong to it!' said he, with sweeping gestures. 'Am I an executioner to kick poor devils, who often have to earn their bread, out of doors?'
'Still, you might render us great service by defending our pictures before the committee,' observed Claude.
'Oh, dear, no! I should only make matters worse for you—I don't count; I'm nobody.'
There was a chorus of protestations; Fagerolles objected, in a shrill voice:
'Well, if the painter of "The Village Wedding" does not count—'
But Bongrand was getting angry; he had risen, his cheeks afire.
'Eh? Don't pester me with "The Wedding"; I warn you I am getting sick of that picture. It is becoming a perfect nightmare to me ever since it has been hung in the Luxembourg Museum.'
This 'Village Wedding'—a party of wedding guests roaming through a corn-field, peasants studied from life, with an epic look of the heroes of Homer about them—had so far remained his masterpiece. The picture had brought about an evolution in art, for it had inaugurated a new formula. Coming after Delacroix, and parallel with Courbet, it was a piece of romanticism tempered by logic, with more correctness of observation, more perfection in the handling. And though it did not squarely tackle nature amidst the crudity of the open air, the new school claimed connection with it.
'There can be nothing more beautiful,' said Claude, 'than the two first groups, the fiddler, and then the bride with the old peasant.'
'And the strapping peasant girl, too,' added Mahoudeau; the one who is turning round and beckoning! I had a great mind to take her for the model of a statue.'
'And that gust of wind among the corn,' added Gagniere, 'and the pretty bit of the boy and girl skylarking in the distance.'
Bongrand sat listening with an embarrassed air, and a smile of inward suffering; and when Fagerolles asked him what he was doing just then, he answered, with a shrug of his shoulders:
'Well, nothing; some little things. But I sha'n't exhibit this time. I should like to find a telling subject. Ah, you fellows are happy at still being at the bottom of the hill. A man has good legs then, he feels so plucky when it's a question of getting up. But when once he is a-top, the deuce take it! the worries begin. A real torture, fisticuffs, efforts which must be constantly renewed, lest one should slip down too quickly. Really now, one would prefer being below, for the pleasure of still having everything to do—Ah, you may laugh, but you'll see it all for yourselves some day!'
They were indeed laughing, thinking it a paradox, or a little piece of affectation, which they excused. To be hailed, like Bongrand, with the name of master—was that not the height of bliss? He, with his arms resting on the back of his chair, listened to them in silence, leisurely puffing his pipe, and renouncing the idea of trying to make them understand him.
Meanwhile, Dubuche, who had rather domesticated tastes, helped Sandoz to hand the tea round, and the din continued. Fagerolles related a story about Daddy Malgras and a female cousin by marriage, whom the dealer offered as a model on conditions that he was given a presentment of her in oils. Then they began to talk of models. Mahoudeau waxed furious, because the really well-built female models were disappearing. It was impossible to find one with a decent figure now. Then suddenly the tumult increased again; Gagniere was being congratulated about a connoisseur whose acquaintance he had made in the Palais Royal one afternoon, while the band played, an eccentric gentleman living on a small income, who never indulged in any other extravagance than that of buying pictures. The other artists laughed and asked for the gentleman's address. Then they fell foul of the picture dealers, dirty black-guards, who preyed on artists and starved them. It was really a pity that connoisseurs mistrusted painters to such a degree as to insist upon a middleman under the impression that they would thus make a better bargain. This question of bread and butter excited them yet more, though Claude showed magnificent contempt for it all. The artist was robbed, no doubt, but what did that matter, if he had painted a masterpiece, and had some water to drink? Jory, having again expressed some low ideas about lucre, aroused general indignation. Out with the journalist! He was asked stringent questions. Would he sell his pen? Would he not sooner chop off his wrist than write anything against his convictions? But they scarcely waited for his answer, for the excitement was on the increase; it became the superb madness of early manhood, contempt for the whole world, an absorbing passion for good work, freed from all human weaknesses, soaring in the sky like a very sun. Ah! how strenuous was their desire to lose themselves, consume themselves, in that brazier of their own kindling!
Bongrand, who had not stirred the while, made a vague gesture of suffering at the sight of that boundless confidence, that boisterous joy at the prospect of attack. He forgot the hundred paintings which had brought him his glory, he was thinking of the work which he had left roughed out on his easel now. Taking his cutty from between his lips, he murmured, his eyes glistening with kindliness, 'Oh, youth, youth!'
Until two in the morning, Sandoz, who seemed ubiquitous, kept on pouring fresh supplies of hot water into the teapot. From the neighbourhood, now asleep, one now only heard the miawing of an amorous tabby. They all talked at random, intoxicated by their own words, hoarse with shouting, their eyes scorched, and when at last they made up their minds to go, Sandoz took the lamp to show them a light over the banisters, saying very softly:
'Don't make a noise, my mother is asleep.'
The hushed tread of their boots on the stairs died away at last, and deep silence fell upon the house.
It struck four. Claude, who had accompanied Bongrand, still went on talking to him in the deserted streets. He did not want to go to bed; he was waiting for daylight, with impatient fury, so that he might set to work at his picture again. This time he felt certain of painting a masterpiece, exalted as he was by that happy day of good-fellowship, his mind pregnant with a world of things. He had discovered at last what painting meant, and he pictured himself re-entering his studio as one returns into the presence of a woman one adores, his heart throbbing violently, regretting even this one day's absence, which seemed to him endless desertion. And he would go straight to his canvas, and realise his dream in one sitting. However, at every dozen steps or so, amidst the flickering light of the gaslamps, Bongrand caught him by a button of his coat, to repeat to him that, after all, painting was an accursed trade. Sharp as he, Bongrand, was supposed to be, he did not understand it yet. At each new work he undertook, he felt as if he were making a debut; it was enough to make one smash one's head against the wall. The sky was now brightening, some market gardeners' carts began rolling down towards the central markets; and the pair continued chattering, each talking for himself, in a loud voice, beneath the paling stars.
SIX weeks later, Claude was painting one morning amidst a flood of sunshine that streamed through the large window of his studio. Constant rain had made the middle of August very dull, but his courage for work returned with the blue sky. His great picture did not make much progress, albeit he worked at it throughout long, silent mornings, like the obstinate, pugnacious fellow he was.
All at once there came a knock at his door. He thought that Madame Joseph, the doorkeeper, was bringing up his lunch, and as the key was always in the door, he simply called: 'Come in!'
The door had opened; there was a slight rustle, and then all became still. He went on painting without even turning his head. But the quivering silence, and the consciousness of some vague gentle breathing near him, at last made him fidgety. He looked up, and felt amazed; a woman stood there clad in a light gown, her features half-hidden by a white veil, and he did not know her, and she was carrying a bunch of roses, which completed his bewilderment.
All at once he recognised her.
'You, mademoiselle? Well, I certainly didn't expect you!'
It was Christine. He had been unable to restrain that somewhat unamiable exclamation, which was a cry from the heart itself. At first he had certainly thought of her; then, as the days went by for nearly a couple of months without sign of life from her, she had become for him merely a fleeting, regretted vision, a charming silhouette which had melted away in space, and would never be seen again.
'Yes, monsieur, it's I. I wished to come. I thought it was wrong not to come and thank you—'
She blushed and stammered, at a loss for words. She was out of breath, no doubt through climbing the stairs, for her heart was beating fast. What! was this long-debated visit out of place after all? It had ended by seeming quite natural to her. The worst was that, in passing along the quay, she had bought that bunch of roses with the delicate intention of thereby showing her gratitude to the young fellow, and the flowers now dreadfully embarrassed her. How was she to give them to him? What would he think of her? The impropriety of the whole proceeding had only struck her as she opened the door.
But Claude, more embarrassed still, resorted to exaggerated politeness. He had thrown aside his palette and was turning the studio upside down in order to clear a chair.
'Pray be seated, mademoiselle. This is really a surprise. You are too kind.'
Once seated, Christine recovered her equanimity. He looked so droll with his wild sweeping gestures, and she felt so conscious of his shyness that she began to smile, and bravely held out the bunch of roses.
'Look here; I wished to show you that I am not ungrateful.'
At first he said nothing, but stood staring at her, thunderstruck. When he saw, though, that she was not making fun of him, he shook both her hands, with almost sufficient energy to dislocate them. Then he at once put the flowers in his water-jug, repeating:
'Ah! now you are a good fellow, you really are. This is the first time I pay that compliment to a woman, honour bright.'
He came back to her, and, looking straight into her eyes, he asked:
'Then you have not altogether forgotten me?'
'You see that I have not,' she replied, laughing.
'Why, then, did you wait two months before coming to see me?'
Again she blushed. The falsehood she was about to tell revived her embarrassment for a moment.
'But you know that I am not my own mistress,' she said. 'Oh, Madame Vanzade is very kind to me, only she is a great invalid, and never leaves the house. But she grew anxious as to my health and compelled me to go out to breathe a little fresh air.'
She did not allude to the shame which she had felt during the first few days after her adventure on the Quai de Bourbon. Finding herself in safety, beneath the old lady's roof, the recollection of the night she had spent in Claude's room had filled her with remorse; but she fancied at last that she had succeeded in dismissing the matter from her mind. It was no longer anything but a bad dream, which grew more indistinct each day. Then, how it was she could not tell, but amidst the profound quietude of her existence, the image of that young man who had befriended her had returned to her once more, becoming more and more precise, till at last it occupied her daily thoughts. Why should she forget him? She had nothing to reproach him with; on the contrary, she felt she was his debtor. The thought of seeing him again, dismissed at first, struggled against later on, at last became an all-absorbing craving. Each evening the temptation to go and see him came strong upon her in the solitude of her own room. She experienced an uncomfortable irritating feeling, a vague desire which she could not define, and only calmed down somewhat on ascribing this troubled state of mind to a wish to evince her gratitude. She was so utterly alone, she felt so stifled in that sleepy abode, the exuberance of youth seethed so strongly within her, her heart craved so desperately for friendship!
'So I took advantage of my first day out,' she continued. 'And besides, the weather was so nice this morning after all the dull rain.'
Claude, feeling very happy and standing before her, also confessed himself, but he had nothing to hide.
'For my part,' said he, 'I dared not think of you any more. You are like one of the fairies of the story-books, who spring from the floor and disappear into the walls at the very moment one least expects it; aren't you now? I said to myself, "It's all over: it was perhaps only in my fancy that I saw her come to this studio." Yet here you are. Well, I am pleased at it, very pleased indeed.'
Smiling, but embarrassed, Christine averted her head, pretending to look around her. But her smile soon died away. The ferocious-looking paintings which she again beheld, the glaring sketches of the South, the terrible anatomical accuracy of the studies from the nude, all chilled her as on the first occasion. She became really afraid again, and she said gravely, in an altered voice:
'I am disturbing you; I am going.'
'Oh! not at all, not at all,' exclaimed Claude, preventing her from rising. 'It does me good to have a talk with you, for I was working myself to death. Oh! that confounded picture; it's killing me as it is.'
Thereupon Christine, lifting her eyes, looked at the large picture, the canvas that had been turned to the wall on the previous occasion, and which she had vainly wished to see.
The background—the dark glade pierced by a flood of sunlight—was still only broadly brushed in. But the two little wrestlers—the fair one and the dark—almost finished by now, showed clearly in the light. In the foreground, the gentleman in the velveteen jacket, three times begun afresh, had now been left in distress. The painter was more particularly working at the principal figure, the woman lying on the grass. He had not touched the head again. He was battling with the body, changing his model every week, so despondent at being unable to satisfy himself that for a couple of days he had been trying to improve the figure from imagination, without recourse to nature, although he boasted that he never invented.
Christine at once recognised herself. Yes, that nude girl sprawling on the grass, one arm behind her head, smiling with lowered eyelids, was herself, for she had her features. The idea absolutely revolted her, and she was wounded too by the wildness of the painting, so brutal indeed that she considered herself abominably insulted. She did not understand that kind of art; she thought it execrable, and felt a hatred against it, the instinctive hatred of an enemy. She rose at last, and curtly repeated, 'I must be going.'
Claude watched her attentively, both grieved and surprised by her sudden change of manner.
'Yes, they are waiting for me. Good-bye.'
And she had already reached the door before he could take her hand, and venture to ask her:
'When shall I see you again?'
She allowed her hand to remain in his. For a moment she seemed to hesitate.
'I don't know. I am so busy.'
Then she withdrew her hand and went off, hastily, saying: 'One of these days, when I can. Good-bye.'
Claude remained stock-still on the threshold. He wondered what had come over her again to cause her sudden coolness, her covert irritation. He closed the door, and walked about, with dangling arms, and without understanding, seeking vainly for the phrase, the gesture that could have offended her. And he in his turn became angry, and launched an oath into space, with a terrific shrug of the shoulders, as if to rid himself of this silly worry. Did a man ever understand women? However, the sight of the roses, overlapping the water-jug, pacified him; they smelt so sweet. Their scent pervaded the whole studio, and silently he resumed his work amidst the perfume.
Two more months passed by. During the earlier days Claude, at the slightest stir of a morning, when Madame Joseph brought him up his breakfast or his letters, quickly turned his head, and could not control a gesture of disappointment. He no longer went out until after four, and the doorkeeper having told him one evening, on his return home, that a young person had called to see him at about five, he had only grown calm on ascertaining that the visitor was merely a model, Zoe Piedefer. Then, as the days went by, he was seized with a furious fit of work, becoming unapproachable to every one, indulging in such violent theories that even his friends did not venture to contradict him. He swept the world from his path with one gesture; there was no longer to be anything but painting left. One might murder one's parents, comrades, and women especially, and it would all be a good riddance. After this terrible fever he fell into abominable despondency, spending a week of impotence and doubt, a whole week of torture, during which he fancied himself struck silly. But he was getting over it, he had resumed his usual life, his resigned solitary struggle with his great picture, when one foggy morning, towards the end of October, he started and hastily set his palette aside. There had been no knock, but he had just recognised the footfall coming up the stairs. He opened the door and she walked in. She had come at last.
Christine that day wore a large cloak of grey material which enveloped her from head to foot. Her little velvet hat was dark, and the fog outside had pearled her black lace veil. But he thought her looking very cheerful, with the first slight shiver of winter upon her. She at once began to make excuses for having so long delayed her return. She smiled at him in her pretty candid manner, confessed that she had hesitated, and that she had almost made up her mind to come no more. Yes, she had her own opinions about things, which she felt sure he understood. As it happened, he did not understand at all—he had no wish to understand, seeing that she was there. It was quite sufficient that she was not vexed with him, that she would consent to look in now and then like a chum. There were no explanations; they kept their respective torments and the struggles of recent times to themselves. For nearly an hour they chatted together right pleasantly, with nothing hidden nor antagonistic remaining between them; it was as if an understanding had been arrived at, unknown to themselves, and while they were far apart. She did not even appear to notice the sketches and studies on the walls. For a moment she looked fixedly at the large picture, at the figure of the woman lying on the grass under the blazing golden sun. No, it was not like herself, that girl had neither her face nor her body. How silly to have fancied that such a horrid mess of colour was herself! And her friendship for the young fellow was heightened by a touch of pity; he could not even convey a likeness. When she went off, it was she who on the threshold cordially held out her hand.
'You know, I shall come back again—'
'Yes, in two months' time.'
'No, next week. You'll see, next Thursday.'
On the Thursday she punctually returned, and after that she did not miss a week. At first she had no particular day for calling, simply taking advantage of her opportunities; but subsequently she selected Monday, the day allowed her by Madame Vanzade in order that she might have a walk in the fresh, open air of the Bois de Boulogne. She had to be back home by eleven, and she walked the whole way very quickly, coming in all aglow from the run, for it was a long stretch from Passy to the Quai de Bourbon. During four winter months, from October to February, she came in this fashion, now in drenching rain, now among the mists from the Seine, now in the pale sunlight that threw a little warmth over the quays. Indeed, after the first month, she at times arrived unexpectedly, taking advantage of some errand in town to look in, and then she could only stay for a couple of minutes; they had barely had time enough to say 'How do you do?' when she was already scampering down the stairs again, exclaiming 'Good-bye.'
And now Claude learned to know Christine. With his everlasting mistrust of woman a suspicion had remained to him, the suspicion of some love adventure in the provinces; but the girl's soft eyes and bright laughter had carried all before them; he felt that she was as innocent as a big child. As soon as she arrived, quite unembarrassed, feeling fully at her ease, as with a friend, she began to indulge in a ceaseless flow of chatter. She had told him a score of times about her childhood at Clermont, and she constantly reverted to it. On the evening that her father, Captain Hallegrain, had suddenly died, she and her mother had been to church. She perfectly remembered their return home and the horrible night that had followed; the captain, very stout and muscular, lying stretched on a mattress, with his lower jaw protruding to such a degree that in her girlish memory she could not picture him otherwise. She also had that same jaw, and when her mother had not known how to master her, she had often cried: 'Ah, my girl, you'll eat your heart's blood out like your father.' Poor mother! how she, Christine, had worried her with her love of horseplay, with her mad turbulent fits. As far back as she could remember, she pictured her mother ever seated at the same window, quietly painting fans, a slim little woman with very soft eyes, the only thing she had inherited of her. When people wanted to please her mother they told her, 'she has got your eyes.' And then she smiled, happy in the thought of having contributed at least that touch of sweetness to her daughter's features. After the death of her husband, she had worked so late as to endanger her eyesight. But how else could she have lived? Her widow's pension—five hundred francs per annum—barely sufficed for the needs of her child. For five years Christine had seen her mother grow thinner and paler, wasting away a little bit each day until she became a mere shadow. And now she felt remorseful at not having been more obedient, at having driven her mother to despair by lack of application. She had begun each week with magnificent intentions, promising that she would soon help her to earn money; but her arms and legs got the fidgets, in spite of her efforts; the moment she became quiet she fell ill. Then one morning her mother had been unable to get up, and had died; her voice too weak to make itself heard, her eyes full of big tears. Ever did Christine behold her thus dead, with her weeping eyes wide open and fixed on her.
At other times, Christine, when questioned by Claude about Clermont, forgot those sorrows to recall more cheerful memories. She laughed gaily at the idea of their encampment, as she called it, in the Rue de l'Eclache; she born in Strasburg, her father a Gascon, her mother a Parisian, and all three thrown into that nook of Auvergne, which they detested. The Rue de l'Eclache, sloping down to the Botanical Gardens, was narrow and dank, gloomy, like a vault. Not a shop, never a passer-by—nothing but melancholy frontages, with shutters always closed. At the back, however, their windows, overlooking some courtyards, were turned to the full sunlight. The dining-room opened even on to a spacious balcony, a kind of wooden gallery, whose arcades were hung with a giant wistaria which almost smothered them with foliage. And the girl had grown up there, at first near her invalid father, then cloistered, as it were, with her mother, whom the least exertion exhausted. She had remained so complete a stranger to the town and its neighbourhood, that Claude and herself burst into laughter when she met his inquiries with the constant answer, 'I don't know.' The mountains? Yes, there were mountains on one side, they could be seen at the end of the streets; while on the other side of the town, after passing along other streets, there were flat fields stretching far away; but she never went there, the distance was too great. The only height she remembered was the Puy de Dome, rounded off at the summit like a hump. In the town itself she could have found her way to the cathedral blindfold; one had to turn round by the Place de Jaude and take the Rue des Gras; but more than that she could not tell him; the rest of the town was an entanglement, a maze of sloping lanes and boulevards; a town of black lava ever dipping downward, where the rain of the thunderstorms swept by torrentially amidst formidable flashes of lightning. Oh! those storms; she still shuddered to think of them. Just opposite her room, above the roofs, the lightning conductor of the museum was always on fire. In the sitting-room she had her own window—a deep recess as big as a room itself—where her work-table and personal nick-nacks stood. It was there that her mother had taught her to read; it was there that, later on, she had fallen asleep while listening to her masters, so greatly did the fatigue of learning daze her. And now she made fun of her own ignorance; she was a well-educated young lady, and no mistake, unable even to repeat the names of the Kings of France, with the dates of their accessions; a famous musician too, who had never got further than that elementary pianoforte exercise, 'The little boats'; a prodigy in water-colour painting, who scamped her trees because foliage was too difficult to imitate. Then she skipped, without any transition, to the fifteen months she had spent at the Convent of the Visitation after her mother's death—a large convent, outside the town, with magnificent gardens. There was no end to her stories about the good sisters, their jealousies, their foolish doings, their simplicity, that made one start. She was to have taken the veil, but she felt stifled the moment she entered a church. It had seemed to be all over with her, when the Superior, by whom she was treated with great affection, diverted her from the cloister by procuring her that situation at Madame Vanzade's. She had not yet got over the surprise. How had Mother des Saints Anges been able to read her mind so clearly? For, in fact, since she had been living in Paris she had dropped into complete indifference about religion.
When all the reminiscences of Clermont were exhausted, Claude wanted to hear about her life at Madame Vanzade's, and each week she gave him fresh particulars. The life led in the little house at Passy, silent and shut off from the outer world, was a very regular one, with no more noise about it than the faint tic-tac of an old-fashioned timepiece. Two antiquated domestics, a cook and a manservant, who had been with the family for forty years, alone glided in their slippers about the deserted rooms, like a couple of ghosts. Now and then, at very long intervals, there came a visitor: some octogenarian general, so desiccated, so slight of build that he scarcely pressed on the carpet. The house was also the home of shadows; the sun filtered with the mere gleam of a night light through the Venetian blinds. Since madame had become paralysed in the knees and stone blind, so that she no longer left her room, she had had no other recreation than that of listening to the reading of religious books. Ah! those endless readings, how they weighed upon the girl at times! If she had only known a trade, how gladly she would have cut out dresses, concocted bonnets, or goffered the petals of artificial flowers. And to think that she was capable of nothing, when she had been taught everything, and that there was only enough stuff in her to make a salaried drudge, a semi-domestic! She suffered horribly, too, in that stiff, lonely dwelling which smelt of the tomb. She was seized once more with the vertigo of her childhood, as when she had striven to compel herself to work, in order to please her mother; her blood rebelled; she would have liked to shout and jump about, in her desire for life. But madame treated her so gently, sending her away from her room, and ordering her to take long walks, that she felt full of remoras when, on her return to the Quai de Bourbon, she was obliged to tell a falsehood; to talk of the Bois de Boulogne or invent some ceremony at church where she now never set foot. Madame seemed to take to her more and more every day; there were constant presents, now a silk dress, now a tiny gold watch, even some underlinen. She herself was very fond of Madame Vanzade; she had wept one day when the latter had called her daughter; she had sworn never to leave her, such was her heart-felt pity at seeing her so old and helpless.
'Well,' said Claude one morning, 'you'll be rewarded; she'll leave you her money.'
Christine looked astonished. 'Do you think so? It is said that she is worth three millions of francs. No, no, I have never dreamt of such a thing, and I won't. What would become of me?'
Claude had averted his head, and hastily replied, 'Well, you'd become rich, that's all. But no doubt she'll first of all marry you off—'
On hearing this, Christine could hold out no longer, but burst into laughter. 'To one of her old friends, eh? perhaps the general who has a silver chin. What a good joke!'
So far they had gone no further than chumming like old friends. He was almost as new to life as she, having had nothing but chance adventures, and living in an ideal world of his own, fanciful amid romantic amours. To see each other in secret like this, from pure friendship, without anything more tender passing between them than a cordial shake of the hand at her arrival, and another one when she left, seemed to them quite natural. Still for her part she scented that he was shy, and at times she looked at him fixedly, with the wondering perturbation of unconscious passion. But as yet nothing ardent or agitating spoilt the pleasure they felt in being together. Their hands remained cool; they spoke cheerfully on all subjects; they sometimes argued like friends, who feel sure they will not fall out. Only, this friendship grew so keen that they could no longer live without seeing one another.
The moment Christine came, Claude took the key from outside the door. She herself insisted upon this, lest somebody might disturb them. After a few visits she had taken absolute possession of the studio. She seemed to be at home there. She was tormented by a desire to make the place a little more tidy, for such disorder worried her and made her uncomfortable. But it was not an easy matter. The painter had strictly forbidden Madame Joseph to sweep up things, lest the dust should get on the fresh paint. So, on the first occasions when his companion attempted to clean up a bit, he watched her with anxious entreating eyes. What was the good of changing the place of things? Didn't it suffice to have them at hand? However, she exhibited such gay determination, she seemed so happy at playing the housewife, that he let her have her own way at last. And now, the moment she had arrived and taken off her gloves, she pinned up her dress to avoid soiling it, and set the big studio in order in the twinkling of an eye. There was no longer a pile of cinders before the stove; the screen hid the bedstead and the washstand; the couch was brushed, the wardrobe polished; the deal table was cleared of the crockery, and had not a stain of paint; and above the chairs, which were symmetrically arranged, and the spanned easels propped against the walls, the big cuckoo clock, with full-blown pink flowers on its dial, seemed to tick more sonorously. Altogether it was magnificent; one would not have recognised the place. He, stupefied, watched her trotting to and fro, twisting about and singing as she went. Was this then the lazybones who had such dreadful headaches at the least bit of work? But she laughed; at headwork, yes; but exertion with her hands and feet did her good, seemed to straighten her like a young sapling. She confessed, even as she would have confessed some depraved taste, her liking for lowly household cares; a liking which had greatly worried her mother, whose educational ideal consisted of accomplishments, and who would have made her a governess with soft hands, touching nothing vulgar. How Christine had been chided indeed whenever she was caught, as a little girl, sweeping, dusting, and playing delightedly at being cook! Even nowadays, if she had been able to indulge in a bout with the dust at Madame Vanzade's, she would have felt less bored. But what would they have said to that? She would no longer have been considered a lady. And so she came to satisfy her longings at the Quai de Bourbon, panting with the exercise, all aglow, her eyes glistening with a woman's delight at biting into forbidden fruit.
Claude by this time grew conscious of having a woman's care around him. In order to make her sit down and chat quietly, he would ask her now and then to sew a torn cuff or coat-tail. She herself had offered to look over his linen; but it was no longer with the ardour of a housewife, eager to be up and doing. First of all, she hardly knew how to work; she held her needle like a girl brought up in contempt of sewing. Besides, the enforced quiescence and the attention that had to be given to such work, the small stitches which had to be looked to one by one, exasperated her. Thus the studio was bright with cleanliness like a drawing-room, but Claude himself remained in rags, and they both joked about it, thinking it great fun.
How happy were those months that they spent together, those four months of frost and rain whiled away in the studio, where the red-hot stove roared like an organ-pipe! The winter seemed to isolate them from the world still more. When the snow covered the adjacent roofs, when the sparrows fluttered against the window, they smiled at feeling warm and cosy, at being lost, as it were, amidst the great silent city. But they did not always confine themselves to that one little nook, for she allowed him at last to see her home. For a long while she had insisted upon going away by herself, feeling ashamed of being seen in the streets on a man's arm. Then, one day when the rain fell all of a sudden, she was obliged to let him come downstairs with an umbrella. The rain having ceased almost immediately, she sent him back when they reached the other side of the Pont Louis-Philippe. They only remained a few moments beside the parapet, looking at the Mail, and happy at being together in the open air. Down below, large barges, moored against the quay, and full of apples, were ranged four rows deep, so close together that the planks thrown across them made a continuous path for the women and children running to and fro. They were amused by the sight of all that fruit, those enormous piles littering the banks, the round baskets which were carried hither and thither, while a strong odour, suggestive of cider in fermentation, mingled with the moist gusts from the river.
A week later, when the sun again showed itself, and Claude extolled the solitude of the quays round the Isle Saint Louis, Christine consented to take a walk. They strolled up the Quai de Bourbon and the Quai d'Anjou, pausing at every few steps and growing interested in the various scenes of river life; the dredger whose buckets grated against their chains, the floating wash-house, which resounded with the hubbub of a quarrel, and the steam cranes busy unloading the lighters. She did not cease to wonder at one thought which came to her. Was it possible that yonder Quai des Ormes, so full of life across the stream, that this Quai Henri IV., with its broad embankment and lower shore, where bands of children and dogs rolled over in the sand, that this panorama of an active, densely-populated capital was the same accursed scene that had appeared to her for a moment in a gory flash on the night of her arrival? They went round the point of the island, strolling more leisurely still to enjoy the solitude and tranquillity which the old historic mansions seem to have implanted there. They watched the water seething between the wooden piles of the Estacade, and returned by way of the Quai de Bethune and the Quai d'Orleans, instinctively drawn closer to each other by the widening of the stream, keeping elbow to elbow at sight of the vast flow, with their eyes fixed on the distant Halle aux Vins and the Jardin des Plantes. In the pale sky, the cupolas of the public buildings assumed a bluish hue. When they reached the Pont St. Louis, Claude had to point out Notre-Dame by name, for Christine did not recognise the edifice from the rear, where it looked like a colossal creature crouching down between its flying buttresses, which suggested sprawling paws, while above its long leviathan spine its towers rose like a double head. Their real find that day, however, was at the western point of the island, that point like the prow of a ship always riding at anchor, afloat between two swift currents, in sight of Paris, but ever unable to get into port. They went down some very steep steps there, and discovered a solitary bank planted with lofty trees. It was a charming refuge—a hermitage in the midst of a crowd. Paris was rumbling around them, on the quays, on the bridges, while they at the water's edge tasted the delight of being alone, ignored by the whole world. From that day forth that bank became a little rustic coign of theirs, a favourite open-air resort, where they took advantage of the sunny hours, when the great heat of the studio, where the red-hot stove kept roaring, oppressed them too much, filling their hands with a fever of which they were afraid.
Nevertheless, Christine had so far objected to be accompanied farther than the Mail. At the Quai des Ormes she always bade Claude go back, as if Paris, with her crowds and possible encounters, began at the long stretch of quays which she had to traverse on her way home. But Passy was so far off, and she felt so dull at having to go such a distance alone, that gradually she gave way. She began by allowing Claude to see her as far as the Hotel de Ville; then as far as the Pont-Neuf; at last as far as the Tuileries. She forgot the danger; they walked arm in arm like a young married couple; and that constantly repeated promenade, that leisurely journey over the self-same ground by the river side, acquired an infinite charm, full of a happiness such as could scarcely be surpassed in after-times. They truly belonged to each other, though they had not erred. It seemed as if the very soul of the great city, rising from the river, wrapped them around with all the love that had throbbed behind the grey stone walls through the long lapse of ages.
Since the nipping colds of December, Christine only came in the afternoon, and it was about four o'clock, when the sun was sinking, that Claude escorted her back on his arm. On days when the sky was clear, they could see the long line of quays stretching away into space directly they had crossed the Pont Louis-Philippe. From one end to the other the slanting sun powdered the houses on the right bank with golden dust, while, on the left, the islets, the buildings, stood out in a black line against the blazing glory of the sunset. Between the sombre and the brilliant margin, the spangled river sparkled, cut in twain every now and then by the long bars of its bridges; the five arches of the Pont Notre-Dame showing under the single span of the Pont d'Arcole; then the Pont-au-Change and the Pont-Neuf, beyond each of whose shadows appeared a luminous patch, a sheet of bluish satiny water, growing paler here and there with a mirror-like reflection. And while the dusky outlines on the left terminated in the silhouettes of the pointed towers of the Palais de Justice, sharply and darkly defined against the sky, a gentle curve undulated on the right, stretching away so far that the Pavillon de Flore, who stood forth like a citadel at the curve's extreme end, seemed a fairy castle, bluey, dreamlike and vague, amidst the rosy mist on the horizon. But Claude and Christine, with the sunlight streaming on them, athwart the leafless plane trees, turned away from the dazzlement, preferring to gaze at certain spots, one above all—a block of old houses just above the Mail. Below, there was a series of one-storied tenements, little huckster and fishing-tackle shops, with flat terrace roofs, ornamented with laurel and Virginia creeper. And in the rear rose loftier, but decrepit, dwellings, with linen hung out to dry at their windows, a collection of fantastic structures, a confused mass of woodwork and masonry, overtoppling walls, and hanging gardens, in which coloured glass balls shone out like stars. They walked on, leaving behind them the big barracks and the Hotel de Ville, and feeling much more interest in the Cite which appeared across the river, pent between lofty smooth embankments rising from the water. Above the darkened houses rose the towers of Notre-Dame, as resplendent as if they had been newly gilt. Then the second-hand bookstalls began to invade the quays. Down below a lighter full of charcoal struggled against the strong current beneath an arch of the Pont Notre-Dame. And then, on the days when the flower market was held, they stopped, despite the inclement weather, to inhale the scent of the first violets and the early gillyflowers. On their left a long stretch of bank now became visible; beyond the pepper-caster turrets of the Palais de Justice, the small, murky tenements of the Quai de l'Horloge showed as far as the clump of trees midway across the Pont-Neuf; then, as they went farther on, other quays emerged from the mist, in the far distance: the Quai Voltaire, the Quai Malaquais, the dome of the Institute of France, the square pile of the Mint, a long grey line of frontages of which they could not even distinguish the windows, a promontory of roofs, which, with their stacks of chimney-pots, looked like some rugged cliff, dipping down into a phosphorescent sea. In front, however, the Pavillon de Flore lost its dreamy aspect, and became solidified in the final sun blaze. Then right and left, on either bank of the river, came the long vistas of the Boulevard de Sebastopol and the Boulevard du Palais; the handsome new buildings of the Quai de la Megisserie, with the new Prefecture of Police across the water; and the old Pont-Neuf, with its statue of Henri IV. looking like a splash of ink. The Louvre, the Tuileries followed, and beyond Grenelle there was a far-stretching panorama of the slopes of Sevres, the country steeped in a stream of sun rays. Claude never went farther. Christine always made him stop just before they reached the Pont Royal, near the fine trees beside Vigier's swimming baths; and when they turned round to shake hands once more in the golden sunset now flushing into crimson, they looked back and, on the horizon, espied the Isle Saint Louis, whence they had come, the indistinct distance of the city upon which night was already descending from the slate-hued eastern sky.
Ah! what splendid sunsets they beheld during those weekly strolls. The sun accompanied them, as it were, amid the throbbing gaiety of the quays, the river life, the dancing ripples of the currents; amid the attractions of the shops, as warm as conservatories, the flowers sold by the seed merchants, and the noisy cages of the bird fanciers; amid all the din of sound and wealth of colour which ever make a city's waterside its youthful part. As they proceeded, the ardent blaze of the western sky turned to purple on their left, above the dark line of houses, and the orb of day seemed to wait for them, falling gradually lower, slowly rolling towards the distant roofs when once they had passed the Pont Notre-Dame in front of the widening stream. In no ancient forest, on no mountain road, beyond no grassy plain will there ever be such triumphal sunsets as behind the cupola of the Institute. It is there one sees Paris retiring to rest in all her glory. At each of their walks the aspect of the conflagration changed; fresh furnaces added their glow to the crown of flames. One evening, when a shower had surprised them, the sun, showing behind the downpour, lit up the whole rain cloud, and upon their heads there fell a spray of glowing water, irisated with pink and azure. On the days when the sky was clear, however, the sun, like a fiery ball, descended majestically in an unruffled sapphire lake; for a moment the black cupola of the Institute seemed to cut away part of it and make it look like the waning moon; then the globe assumed a violet tinge and at last became submerged in the lake, which had turned blood-red. Already, in February, the planet described a wider curve, and fell straight into the Seine, which seemed to seethe on the horizon as at the contact of red-hot iron. However, the grander scenes, the vast fairy pictures of space only blazed on cloudy evenings. Then, according to the whim of the wind, there were seas of sulphur splashing against coral reefs; there were palaces and towers, marvels of architecture, piled upon one another, burning and crumbling, and throwing torrents of lava from their many gaps; or else the orb which had disappeared, hidden by a veil of clouds, suddenly transpierced that veil with such a press of light that shafts of sparks shot forth from one horizon to the other, showing as plainly as a volley of golden arrows. And then the twilight fell, and they said good-bye to each other, while their eyes were still full of the final dazzlement. They felt that triumphal Paris was the accomplice of the joy which they could not exhaust, the joy of ever resuming together that walk beside the old stone parapets.
One day, however, there happened what Claude had always secretly feared. Christine no longer seemed to believe in the possibility of meeting anybody who knew her. In fact, was there such a person? She would always pass along like this, remaining altogether unknown. He, however, thought of his own friends, and at times felt a kind of tremor when he fancied he recognised in the distance the back of some acquaintance. He was troubled by a feeling of delicacy; the idea that somebody might stare at the girl, approach them, and perhaps begin to joke, gave him intolerable worry. And that very evening, as she was close beside him on his arm, and they were approaching the Pont des Arts, he fell upon Sandoz and Dubuche, who were coming down the steps of the bridge. It was impossible to avoid them, they were almost face to face; besides, his friends must have seen him, for they smiled. Claude, very pale, kept advancing, and he thought it all up on seeing Dubuche take a step towards him; but Sandoz was already holding the architect back, and leading him away. They passed on with an indifferent air and disappeared into the courtyard of the Louvre without as much as turning round. They had both just recognised the original of the crayon sketch, which the painter hid away with all the jealousy of a lover. Christine, who was chattering, had noticed nothing. Claude, with his heart throbbing, answered her in monosyllables, moved to tears, brimming over with gratitude to his old chums for their discreet behaviour.
A few days later, however, he had another shock. He did not expect Christine, and had therefore made an appointment with Sandoz. Then, as she had run up to spend an hour—it was one of those surprises that delighted them—they had just withdrawn the key, as usual, when there came a familiar knock with the fist on the door. Claude at once recognised the rap, and felt so upset at the mishap that he overturned a chair. After that it was impossible to pretend to be out. But Christine turned so pale, and implored him with such a wild gesture, that he remained rooted to the spot, holding his breath. The knocks continued, and a voice called, 'Claude, Claude!' He still remained quite still, debating with himself, however, with ashen lips and downcast eyes. Deep silence reigned, and then footsteps were heard, making the stairs creak as they went down. Claude's breast heaved with intense sadness; he felt it bursting with remorse at the sound of each retreating step, as if he had denied the friendship of his whole youth.
However, one afternoon there came another knock, and Claude had only just time to whisper despairingly, 'The key has been left in the door.'
In fact, Christine had forgotten to take it out. She became quite scared and darted behind the screen, with her handkerchief over her mouth to stifle the sound of her breathing.
The knocks became louder, there was a burst of laughter, and the painter had to reply, 'Come in.'
He felt more uncomfortable still when he saw Jory, who gallantly ushered in Irma Becot, whose acquaintance he had made through Fagerolles, and who was flinging her youth about the Paris studios.
'She insisted upon seeing your studio, so I brought her,' explained the journalist.
The girl, however, without waiting, was already walking about and making remarks, with perfect freedom of manner. 'Oh! how funny it is here. And what funny painting. Come, there's a good fellow, show me everything. I want to see everything.'
Claude, apprehensively anxious, was afraid that she might push the screen aside. He pictured Christine behind it, and felt distracted already at what she might hear.
'You know what she has come to ask of you?' resumed Jory cheerfully. 'What, don't you remember? You promised that she might pose for something. And she'll do so if you like.'
'Of course I will,' said Irma.
'The fact is,' replied Claude, in an embarrassed tone, 'my picture here will take up all my time till the Salon. I have a figure in it that gives me a deal of trouble. It's impossible to perfect it with those confounded models.'
Irma had stationed herself in front of the picture, and looked at it with a knowing air. 'Oh! I see,' she said, 'that woman in the grass, eh? Do you think I could be of any use to you?'
Jory flared up in a moment, warmly approving the idea, but Claude with the greatest energy replied, 'No, no madame wouldn't suit. She is not at all what I want for this picture; not at all.'
Then he went on stammering excuses. He would be only too pleased later on, but just now he was afraid that another model would quite complete his confusion over that picture; and Irma responded by shrugging her shoulders, and looking at him with an air of smiling contempt.
Jory, however, now began to chat about their friends. Why had not Claude come to Sandoz's on the previous Thursday? One never saw him now. Dubuche asserted all sorts of things about him. There had been a row between Fagerolles and Mahoudeau on the subject whether evening dress was a thing to be reproduced in sculpture. Then on the previous Sunday Gagniere had returned home from a Wagner concert with a black eye. He, Jory, had nearly had a duel at the Cafe Baudequin on account of one of his last articles in 'The Drummer.' The fact was he was giving it hot to the twopenny-halfpenny painters, the men with the usurped reputations! The campaign against the hanging committee of the Salon was making a deuce of a row; not a shred would be left of those guardians of the ideal, who wanted to prevent nature from entering their show.
Claude listened to him with impatient irritation. He had taken up his palette and was shuffling about in front of his picture. The other one understood at last.
'You want to work, I see; all right, we'll leave you.'
Irma, however, still stared at the painter, with her vague smile, astonished at the stupidity of this simpleton, who did not seem to appreciate her, and seized despite herself with a whim to please him. His studio was ugly, and he himself wasn't handsome; but why should he put on such bugbear airs? She chaffed him for a moment, and on going off again offered to sit for him, emphasising her offer by warmly pressing his hand.
'Whenever you like,' were her parting words.
They had gone at last, and Claude was obliged to pull the screen aside, for Christine, looking very white, remained seated behind it, as if she lacked the strength to rise. She did not say a word about the girl, but simply declared that she had felt very frightened; and—trembling lest there should come another knock—she wanted to go at once, carrying away with her, as her startled looks testified, the disturbing thought of many things which she did not mention.
In fact, for a long time that sphere of brutal art, that studio full of glaring pictures, had caused her a feeling of discomfort. Wounded in all her feelings, full of repugnance, she could not get used to it all. She had grown up full of affectionate admiration for a very different style of art—her mother's fine water-colours, those fans of dreamy delicacy, in which lilac-tinted couples floated about in bluish gardens—and she quite failed to understand Claude's work. Even now she often amused herself by painting tiny girlish landscapes, two or three subjects repeated over and over again—a lake with a ruin, a water-mill beating a stream, a chalet and some pine trees, white with snow. And she felt surprised that an intelligent young fellow should paint in such an unreasonable manner, so ugly and so untruthful besides. For she not only thought Claude's realism monstrously ugly, but considered it beyond every permissible truth. In fact, she thought at times that he must be mad.
One day Claude absolutely insisted upon seeing a small sketch-book which she had brought away from Clermont, and which she had spoken about. After objecting for a long while, she brought it with her, flattered at heart and feeling very curious to know what he would say. He turned over the leaves, smiling all the while, and as he did not speak, she was the first to ask:
'You think it very bad, don't you?'
'Not at all,' he replied. 'It's innocent.'
The reply hurt her, despite Claude's indulgent tone, which aimed at making it amiable.
'Well, you see I had so few lessons from mamma. I like painting to be well done, and pleasing.'
Thereupon he burst into frank laughter.
'Confess now that my painting makes you feel ill! I have noticed it. You purse your lips and open your eyes wide with fright. Certainly it is not the style of painting for ladies, least of all for young girls. But you'll get used to it; it's only a question of educating your eyes and you'll end by seeing that what I am doing is very honest and healthy.'
Indeed, Christine slowly became used to it. But, at first, artistic conviction had nothing to do with the change, especially as Claude, with his contempt for female opinion, did not take the trouble to indoctrinate her. On the contrary, in her company he avoided conversing about art, as if he wished to retain for himself that passion of his life, apart from the new passion which was gradually taking possession of him. Still, Christine glided into the habit of the thing, and became familiarised with it; she began to feel interested in those abominable pictures, on noticing the important place they held in the artist's existence. This was the first stage on the road to conversion; she felt greatly moved by his rageful eagerness to be up and doing, the whole-heartedness with which he devoted himself to his work. Was it not very touching? Was there not something very creditable in it? Then, on noticing his joy or suffering, according to the success or the failure of the day's work, she began to associate herself with his efforts. She felt saddened when she found him sad, she grew cheerful when he received her cheerfully; and from that moment her worry was—had he done a lot of work? was he satisfied with what he had done since they had last seen each other? At the end of the second month she had been gained over; she stationed herself before his pictures to judge whether they were progressing or not. She no longer felt afraid of them. She still did not approve particularly of that style of painting, but she began to repeat the artistic expressions which she had heard him use; declared this bit to be 'vigorous in tone,' 'well built up,' or 'just in the light it should be.' He seemed to her so good-natured, and she was so fond of him, that after finding excuses for him for daubing those horrors, she ended by discovering qualities in them in order that she might like them a little also.
Nevertheless, there was one picture, the large one, the one intended for the Salon, to which for a long while she was quite unable to reconcile herself. She already looked without dislike at the studies made at the Boutin studio and the sketches of Plassans, but she was still irritated by the sight of the woman lying in the grass. It was like a personal grudge, the shame of having momentarily thought that she could detect in it a likeness of herself, and silent embarrassment, too, for that big figure continued to wound her feelings, although she now found less and less of a resemblance in it. At first she had protested by averting her eyes. Now she remained for several minutes looking at it fixedly, in mute contemplation. How was it that the likeness to herself had disappeared? The more vigorously that Claude struggled on, never satisfied, touching up the same bit a hundred times over, the more did that likeness to herself gradually fade away. And, without being able to account for it, without daring to admit as much to herself, she, whom the painting had so greatly offended when she had first seen it, now felt a growing sorrow at noticing that nothing of herself remained.
Indeed it seemed to her as if their friendship suffered from this obliteration; she felt herself further away from him as trait after trait vanished. Didn't he care for her that he thus allowed her to be effaced from his work? And who was the new woman, whose was the unknown indistinct face that appeared from beneath hers?
Claude, in despair at having spoilt the figure's head, did not know exactly how to ask her for a few hours' sitting. She would merely have had to sit down, and he would only have taken some hints. But he had previously seen her so pained that he felt afraid of irritating her again. Moreover, after resolving in his own mind to ask her this favour in a gay, off-hand way, he had been at a loss for words, feeling all at once ashamed at the notion.
One afternoon he quite upset her by one of those bursts of anger which he found it impossible to control, even in her presence. Everything had gone wrong that week; he talked of scraping his canvas again, and he paced up and down, beside himself, and kicking the furniture about. Then all of a sudden he caught her by the shoulders, and made her sit down on the couch.
'I beg of you, do me this favour, or it'll kill me, I swear it will.'
She did not understand him.
'What—what is it you want?'
Then as soon as she saw him take up his brushes, she added, without heeding what she said, 'Ah, yes! Why did not you ask me before?'
And of her own accord she threw herself back on a cushion and slipped her arm under her neck. But surprise and confusion at having yielded so quickly made her grave, for she did not know that she was prepared for this kind of thing; indeed, she could have sworn that she would never serve him as a model again. Her compliance already filled her with remorse, as if she were lending herself to something wrong by letting him impart her own countenance to that big creature, lying refulgent under the sun.
However, in two sittings, Claude worked in the head all right. He exulted with delight, and exclaimed that it was the best bit of painting he had ever done; and he was right, never had he thrown such a play of real light over such a life-like face. Happy at seeing him so pleased, Christine also became gay, going as far as to express approval of her head, which, though not extremely like her, had a wonderful expression. They stood for a long while before the picture, blinking at it, and drawing back as far as the wall.
'And now,' he said at last, 'I'll finish her off with a model. Ah! so I've got her at last.'
In a burst of childish glee, he took the girl round the waist, and they performed 'a triumphant war dance,' as he called it. She laughed very heartily, fond of romping as she was, and no longer feeling aught of her scruples and discomfort.
But the very next week Claude became gloomy again. He had chosen Zoe Piedefer as a model, but she did not satisfy him. Christine's delicate head, as he expressed it, did not set well on the other's shoulders. He, nevertheless, persisted, scratched out, began anew, and worked so hard that he lived in a constant state of fever. Towards the middle of January, seized with despair, he abandoned his picture and turned it against the wall, swearing that he would not finish it. But a fortnight later, he began to work at it again with another model, and then found himself obliged to change the whole tone of it. Thus matters got still worse; so he sent for Zoe again; became altogether at sea, and quite ill with uncertainty and anguish. And the pity of it was, that the central figure alone worried him, for he was well satisfied with the rest of the painting, the trees of the background, the two little women and the gentleman in the velvet coat, all finished and vigorous. February was drawing to a close; he had only a few days left to send his picture to the Salon; it was quite a disaster.
One evening, in Christine's presence, he began swearing, and all at once a cry of fury escaped him: 'After all, by the thunder of heaven, is it possible to stick one woman's head on another's shoulders? I ought to chop my hand off.'
From the depths of his heart a single idea now rose to his brain: to obtain her consent to pose for the whole figure. It had slowly sprouted, first as a simple wish, quickly discarded as absurd; then had come a silent, constantly-renewed debate with himself; and at last, under the spur of necessity, keen and definite desire. The recollection of the morning after the storm, when she had accepted his hospitality, haunted and tortured him. It was she whom he needed; she alone could enable him to realise his dream, and he beheld her again in all her youthful freshness, beaming and indispensable. If he could not get her to pose, he might as well give up his picture, for no one else would ever satisfy him. At times, while he remained seated for hours, distracted in front of the unfinished canvas, so utterly powerless that he no longer knew where to give a stroke of the brush, he formed heroic resolutions. The moment she came in he would throw himself at her feet; he would tell her of his distress in such touching words that she would perhaps consent. But as soon as he beheld her, he lost all courage, he averted his eyes, lest she might decipher his thoughts in his instinctive glances. Such a request would be madness. One could not expect such a service from a friend; he would never have the audacity to ask.
Nevertheless, one evening as he was getting ready to accompany her, and as she was putting on her bonnet, with her arms uplifted, they remained for a moment looking into each other's eyes, he quivering, and she suddenly becoming so grave, so pale, that he felt himself detected. All along the quays they scarcely spoke; the matter remained unmentioned between them while the sun set in the coppery sky. Twice afterwards he again read in her looks that she was aware of his all-absorbing thought. In fact, since he had dreamt about it, she had began to do the same, in spite of herself, her attention roused by his involuntary allusions. They scarcely affected her at first, though she was obliged at last to notice them; still the question seemed to her to be beyond the range of possibility, to be one of those unavowable ideas which people do not even speak of. The fear that he would dare to ask her did not even occur to her; she knew him well by now; she could have silenced him with a gesture, before he had stammered the first words, and in spite of his sudden bursts of anger. It was simple madness. Never, never!
Days went by, and between them that fixed idea grew in intensity. The moment they were together they could not help thinking of it. Not a word was spoken on the subject, but their very silence was eloquent; they no longer made a movement, no longer exchanged a smile without stumbling upon that thought, which they found impossible to put into words, though it filled their minds. Soon nothing but that remained in their fraternal intercourse. And the perturbation of heart and senses which they had so far avoided in the course of their familiar intimacy, came at last, under the influence of the all-besetting thought. And then the anguish which they left unmentioned, but which they could not hide from one another, racked and stifled them, left them heaving distressfully with painful sighs.
Towards the middle of March, Christine, at one of her visits, found Claude seated before his picture, overcome with sorrow. He had not even heard her enter. He remained motionless, with vacant, haggard eyes staring at his unfinished work. In another three days the delay for sending in exhibits for the Salon would expire.
'Well,' she inquired gently, after standing for a long time behind him, grief-stricken at seeing him in such despair.
He started and turned round.
'Well, it's all up. I sha'n't exhibit anything this year. Ah! I who relied so much upon this Salon!'
Both relapsed into despondency—a despondency and agitation full of confused thoughts. Then she resumed, thinking aloud as it were:
'There would still be time.'
'Time? Oh! no indeed. A miracle would be needed. Where am I to find a model so late in the day? Do you know, since this morning I have been worrying, and for a moment I thought I had hit upon an idea: Yes, it would be to go and fetch that girl, that Irma who came while you were here. I know well enough that she is short and not at all such as I thought of, and so I should perhaps have to change everything once more; but all the same it might be possible to make her do. Decidedly, I'll try her—'
He stopped short. The glowing eyes with which he gazed at her clearly said: 'Ah! there's you! ah! it would be the hoped-for miracle, and triumph would be certain, if you were to make this supreme sacrifice for me. I beseech you, I ask you devoutly, as a friend, the dearest, the most beauteous, the most pure.'
She, erect, looking very pale, seemed to hear each of those words, though all remained unspoken, and his ardently beseeching eyes overcame her. She herself did not speak. She simply did as she was desired, acting almost like one in a dream. Beneath it all there lurked the thought that he must not ask elsewhere, for she was now conscious of her earlier jealous disquietude and wished to share his affections with none. Yet it was in silence and all chastity that she stretched herself on the couch, and took up the pose, with one arm under her head, her eyes closed.
And Claude? Startled, full of gratitude, he had at last found again the sudden vision that he had so often evoked. But he himself did not speak; he began to paint in the deep solemn silence that had fallen upon them both. For two long hours he stood to his work with such manly energy that he finished right off a superb roughing out of the whole figure. Never before had he felt such enthusiasm in his art. It seemed to him as if he were in the presence of some saint; and at times he wondered at the transfiguration of Christine's face, whose somewhat massive jaws seemed to have receded beneath the gentle placidity which her brow and cheeks displayed. During those two hours she did not stir, she did not speak, but from time to time she opened her clear eyes, fixing them on some vague, distant point, and remaining thus for a moment, then closing them again, and relapsing into the lifelessness of fine marble, with the mysterious fixed smile required by the pose.
It was by a gesture that Claude apprized her he had finished. He turned away, and when they stood face to face again, she ready to depart, they gazed at one another, overcome by emotion which still prevented them from speaking. Was it sadness, then, unconscious, unnameable sadness? For their eyes filled with tears, as if they had just spoilt their lives and dived to the depths of human misery. Then, moved and grieved, unable to find a word, even of thanks, he kissed her religiously upon the brow.
ON the 15th May, a Friday, Claude, who had returned at three o'clock in the morning from Sandoz's, was still asleep at nine, when Madame Joseph brought him up a large bouquet of white lilac which a commissionaire had just left downstairs. He understood at once. Christine had wished to be beforehand in celebrating the success of his painting. For this was a great day for him, the opening day of the 'Salon of the Rejected,' which was first instituted that year,* and at which his picture—refused by the hanging committee of the official Salon—was to be exhibited.
* This was in 1863.—ED.
That delicate attention on Christine's part, that fresh and fragrant lilac, affected him greatly, as if presaging a happy day. Still in his nightshirt, with his feet bare, he placed the flowers in his water-jug on the table. Then, with his eyes still swollen with sleep, almost bewildered, he dressed, scolding himself the while for having slept so long. On the previous night he had promised Dubuche and Sandoz to call for them at the latter's place at eight o'clock, in order that they might all three go together to the Palais de l'Industrie, where they would find the rest of the band. And he was already an hour behind time.
Then, as luck would have it, he could not lay his hands upon anything in his studio, which had been turned topsy-turvy since the despatch of the big picture. For more than five minutes he hunted on his knees for his shoes, among a quantity of old chases. Some particles of gold leaf flew about, for, not knowing where to get the money for a proper frame, he had employed a joiner of the neighbourhood to fit four strips of board together, and had gilded them himself, with the assistance of his friend Christine, who, by the way, had proved a very unskilful gilder. At last, dressed and shod, and having his soft felt hat bespangled with yellow sparks of the gold, he was about to go, when a superstitious thought brought him back to the nosegay, which had remained alone on the centre of the table. If he did not kiss the lilac he was sure to suffer an affront. So he kissed it and felt perfumed by its strong springtide aroma.
Under the archway, he gave his key as usual to the doorkeeper. 'Madame Joseph,' he said, 'I shall not be home all day.'
In less than twenty minutes he was in the Rue d'Enfer, at Sandoz's. But the latter, whom he feared would have already gone, was equally late in consequence of a sudden indisposition which had come upon his mother. It was nothing serious. She had merely passed a bad night, but it had for a while quite upset him with anxiety. Now, easy in mind again, Sandoz told Claude that Dubuche had written saying that they were not to wait for him, and giving an appointment at the Palais. They therefore started off, and as it was nearly eleven, they decided to lunch in a deserted little cremerie in the Rue St. Honore, which they did very leisurely, seized with laziness amidst all their ardent desire to see and know; and enjoying, as it were, a kind of sweet, tender sadness from lingering awhile and recalling memories of their youth.
One o'clock was striking when they crossed the Champs Elysees. It was a lovely day, with a limpid sky, to which the breeze, still somewhat chilly, seemed to impart a brighter azure. Beneath the sun, of the hue of ripe corn, the rows of chestnut trees showed new foliage of a delicate and seemingly freshly varnished green; and the fountains with their leaping sheafs of water, the well-kept lawns, the deep vistas of the pathways, and the broad open spaces, all lent an air of luxurious grandeur to the panorama. A few carriages, very few at that early hour, were ascending the avenue, while a stream of bewildered, bustling people, suggesting a swarm of ants, plunged into the huge archway of the Palais de l'Industrie.
When they were inside, Claude shivered slightly while crossing the gigantic vestibule, which was as cold as a cellar, with a damp pavement which resounded beneath one's feet, like the flagstones of a church. He glanced right and left at the two monumental stairways, and asked contemptuously: 'I say, are we going through their dirty Salon?'
'Oh! no, dash it!' answered Sandoz. 'Let's cut through the garden. The western staircase over there leads to "the Rejected."'
Then they passed disdainfully between the two little tables of the catalogue vendors. Between the huge red velvet curtains and beyond a shady porch appeared the garden, roofed in with glass. At that time of day it was almost deserted; there were only some people at the buffet under the clock, a throng of people lunching. The crowd was in the galleries on the first floor, and the white statues alone edged the yellow-sanded pathways which with stretches of crude colour intersected the green lawns. There was a whole nation of motionless marble there steeped in the diffuse light falling from the glazed roof on high. Looking southwards, some holland screens barred half of the nave, which showed ambery in the sunlight and was speckled at both ends by the dazzling blue and crimson of stained-glass windows. Just a few visitors, tired already, occupied the brand-new chairs and seats, shiny with fresh paint; while the flights of sparrows, who dwelt above, among the iron girders, swooped down, quite at home, raking up the sand and twittering as they pursued each other.
Claude and Sandoz made a show of walking very quickly without giving a glance around them. A stiff classical bronze statue, a Minerva by a member of the Institute, had exasperated them at the very door. But as they hastened past a seemingly endless line of busts, they recognised Bongrand, who, all alone, was going slowly round a colossal, overflowing, recumbent figure, which had been placed in the middle of the path. With his hands behind his back, quite absorbed, he bent his wrinkled face every now and then over the plaster.
'Hallo, it's you?' he said, as they held out their hands to him. 'I was just looking at our friend Mahoudeau's figure, which they have at least had the intelligence to admit, and to put in a good position.' Then, breaking off: 'Have you been upstairs?' he asked.
'No, we have just come in,' said Claude.
Thereupon Bongrand began to talk warmly about the Salon of the Rejected. He, who belonged to the Institute, but who lived apart from his colleagues, made very merry over the affair; the everlasting discontent of painters; the campaign conducted by petty newspapers like 'The Drummer'; the protestations, the constant complaints that had at last disturbed the Emperor, and the artistic coup d'etat carried out by that silent dreamer, for this Salon of the Rejected was entirely his work. Then the great painter alluded to all the hubbub caused by the flinging of such a paving-stone into that frog's pond, the official art world.
'No,' he continued, 'you can have no idea of the rage and indignation among the members of the hanging committee. And remember I'm distrusted, they generally keep quiet when I'm there. But they are all furious with the realists. It was to them that they systematically closed the doors of the temple; it is on account of them that the Emperor has allowed the public to revise their verdict; and finally it is they, the realists, who triumph. Ah! I hear some nice things said; I wouldn't give a high price for your skins, youngsters.'
He laughed his big, joyous laugh, stretching out his arms the while as if to embrace all the youthfulness that he divined rising around him.
'Your disciples are growing,' said Claude, simply.
But Bongrand, becoming embarrassed, silenced him with a wave of his hand. He himself had not sent anything for exhibition, and the prodigious mass of work amidst which he found himself—those pictures, those statues, all those proofs of creative effort—filled him with regret. It was not jealousy, for there lived not a more upright and better soul; but as a result of self-examination, a gnawing fear of impotence, an unavowed dread haunted him.
'And at "the Rejected,"' asked Sandoz; 'how goes it there?'
'Superb; you'll see.'
Then turning towards Claude, and keeping both the young man's hands in his own, 'You, my good fellow, you are a trump. Listen! they say I am clever: well, I'd give ten years of my life to have painted that big hussy of yours.'
Praise like that, coming from such lips, moved the young painter to tears. Victory had come at last, then? He failed to find a word of thanks, and abruptly changed the conversation, wishing to hide his emotion.
'That good fellow Mahoudeau!' he said, 'why his figure's capital! He has a deuced fine temperament, hasn't he?'
Sandoz and Claude had begun to walk round the plaster figure. Bongrand replied with a smile.
'Yes, yes; there's too much fulness and massiveness in parts. But just look at the articulations, they are delicate and really pretty. Come, good-bye, I must leave you. I'm going to sit down a while. My legs are bending under me.'
Claude had raised his head to listen. A tremendous uproar, an incessant crashing that had not struck him at first, careered through the air; it was like the din of a tempest beating against a cliff, the rumbling of an untiring assault, dashing forward from endless space.
'Hallow, what's that?' he muttered.
'That,' said Bongrand, as he walked away, 'that's the crowd upstairs in the galleries.'
And the two young fellows, having crossed the garden, then went up to the Salon of the Rejected.
It had been installed in first-rate style. The officially received pictures were not lodged more sumptuously: lofty hangings of old tapestry at the doors; 'the line' set off with green baize; seats of crimson velvet; white linen screens under the large skylights of the roof. And all along the suite of galleries the first impression was the same—there were the same gilt frames, the same bright colours on the canvases. But there was a special kind of cheerfulness, a sparkle of youth which one did not altogether realise at first. The crowd, already compact, increased every minute, for the official Salon was being deserted. People came stung by curiosity, impelled by a desire to judge the judges, and, above all, full of the conviction that they were going to see some very diverting things. It was very hot; a fine dust arose from the flooring; and certainly, towards four o'clock people would stifle there.
'Hang it!' said Sandoz, trying to elbow his way, 'it will be no easy job to move about and find your picture.'
A burst of fraternal feverishness made him eager to get to it. That day he only lived for the work and glory of his old chum.
'Don't worry!' exclaimed Claude; 'we shall get to it all right. My picture won't fly off.'
And he affected to be in no hurry, in spite of the almost irresistible desire that he felt to run. He raised his head and looked around him; and soon, amidst the loud voices of the crowd that had bewildered him, he distinguished some restrained laughter, which was almost drowned by the tramp of feet and the hubbub of conversation. Before certain pictures the public stood joking. This made him feel uneasy, for despite all his revolutionary brutality he was as sensitive and as credulous as a woman, and always looked forward to martyrdom, though he was ever grieved and stupefied at being repulsed and railed at.
'They seem gay here,' he muttered.
'Well, there's good reason,' remarked Sandoz. 'Just look at those extravagant jades!'
At the same moment, while still lingering in the first gallery, Fagerolles ran up against them without seeing them. He started, being no doubt annoyed by the meeting. However, he recovered his composure immediately, and behaved very amiably.
'Hallo! I was just thinking of you. I have been here for the last hour.'
'Where have they put Claude's picture?' asked Sandoz. Fagerolles, who had just remained for twenty minutes in front of that picture studying it and studying the impression which it produced on the public, answered without wincing, 'I don't know; I haven't been able to find it. We'll look for it together if you like.'
And he joined them. Terrible wag as he was, he no longer affected low-bred manners to the same degree as formerly; he already began to dress well, and although with his mocking nature he was still disposed to snap at everybody as of old, he pursed his lips into the serious expression of a fellow who wants to make his way in the world. With an air of conviction he added: 'I must say that I now regret not having sent anything this year! I should be here with all the rest of you, and have my share of success. And there are really some astonishing things, my boys! those horses, for instance.'
He pointed to a huge canvas in front of them, before which the crowd was gathering and laughing. It was, so people said, the work of an erstwhile veterinary surgeon, and showed a number of life-size horses in a meadow, fantastic horses, blue, violet, and pink, whose astonishing anatomy transpierced their sides.
'I say, don't you humbug us,' exclaimed Claude, suspiciously.
But Fagerolles pretended to be enthusiastic. 'What do you mean? The picture's full of talent. The fellow who painted it understands horses devilish well. No doubt he paints like a brute. But what's the odds if he's original, and contributes a document?'
As he spoke Fagerolles' delicate girlish face remained perfectly grave, and it was impossible to tell whether he was joking. There was but the slightest yellow twinkle of spitefulness in the depths of his grey eyes. And he finished with a sarcastic allusion, the drift of which was as yet patent to him alone. 'Ah, well! if you let yourself be influenced by the fools who laugh, you'll have enough to do by and by.'
The three friends had gone on again, only advancing, however, with infinite difficulty amid that sea of surging shoulders. On entering the second gallery they gave a glance round the walls, but the picture they sought was not there. In lieu thereof they perceived Irma Becot on the arm of Gagniere, both of them pressed against a hand-rail, he busy examining a small canvas, while she, delighted at being hustled about, raised her pink little mug and laughed at the crowd.
'Hallo!' said Sandoz, surprised, 'here she is with Gagniere now!'
'Oh, just a fancy of hers!' exclaimed Fagerolles quietly. 'She has a very swell place now. Yes, it was given her by that young idiot of a marquis, whom the papers are always talking about. She's a girl who'll make her way; I've always said so! But she seems to retain a weakness for painters, and every now and then drops into the Cafe Baudequin to look up old friends!'
Irma had now seen them, and was making gestures from afar. They could but go to her. When Gagniere, with his light hair and little beardless face, turned round, looking more grotesque than over, he did not show the least surprise at finding them there.
'It's wonderful,' he muttered.
'What's wonderful?' asked Fagerolles.
'This little masterpiece—and withal honest and naif, and full of conviction.'
He pointed to a tiny canvas before which he had stood absorbed, an absolutely childish picture, such as an urchin of four might have painted; a little cottage at the edge of a little road, with a little tree beside it, the whole out of drawing, and girt round with black lines. Not even a corkscrew imitation of smoke issuing from the roof was forgotten.
Claude made a nervous gesture, while Fagerolles repeated phlegmatically:
'Very delicate, very delicate. But your picture, Gagniere, where is it?'
'My picture, it is there.'
In fact, the picture he had sent happened to be very near the little masterpiece. It was a landscape of a pearly grey, a bit of the Seine banks, painted carefully, pretty in tone, though somewhat heavy, and perfectly ponderated without a sign of any revolutionary splash.