Christine, who listened while he grew angry, ended by faltering:
'If you liked, we might go back to Paris.'
'Who was talking of that?' he shouted. 'One can never say a word to you but you at once jump to false conclusions.'
Six weeks afterwards he heard some news that occupied his mind for a week. His friend Dubuche was going to marry Mademoiselle Regine Margaillan, the daughter of the owner of La Richaudiere. It was an intricate story, the details of which surprised and amused him exceedingly. First of all, that cur Dubuche had managed to hook a medal for a design of a villa in a park, which he had exhibited; that of itself was already sufficiently amusing, as it was said that the drawing had been set on its legs by his master, Dequersonniere, who had quietly obtained this medal for him from the jury over which he presided. Then the best of it was that this long-awaited reward had decided the marriage. Ah! it would be nice trafficking if medals were now awarded to settle needy pupils in rich families! Old Margaillan, like all parvenus, had set his heart upon having a son-in-law who could help him, by bringing authentic diplomas and fashionable clothes into the business; and for some time past he had had his eyes on that young man, that pupil of the School of Arts, whose notes were excellent, who was so persevering, and so highly recommended by his masters. The medal aroused his enthusiasm; he at once gave the young fellow his daughter and took him as a partner, who would soon increase his millions now lying idle, since he knew all that was needful in order to build properly. Besides, by this arrangement poor Regine, always low-spirited and ailing, would at least have a husband in perfect health.
'Well, a man must be fond of money to marry that wretched flayed kitten,' repeated Claude.
And as Christine compassionately took the girl's part, he added:
'But I am not down upon her. So much the better if the marriage does not finish her off. She is certainly not to be blamed, if her father, the ex-stonemason, had the stupid ambition to marry a girl of the middle-classes. Her father, you know, has the vitiated blood of generations of drunkards in his veins, and her mother comes of a stock in the last stages of degeneracy. Ah! they may coin money, but that doesn't prevent them from being excrescences on the face of the earth!'
He was growing ferocious, and Christine had to clasp him in her arms and kiss him, and laugh, to make him once more the good-natured fellow of earlier days. Then, having calmed down, he professed to understand things, saying that he approved of the marriages of his old chums. It was true enough, all three had taken wives unto themselves. How funny life was!
Once more the summer drew to an end; it was the fourth spent at Bennecourt. In reality they could never be happier than now; life was peaceful and cheap in the depths of that village. Since they had been there they had never lacked money. Claude's thousand francs a year and the proceeds of the few pictures he had sold had sufficed for their wants; they had even put something by, and had bought some house linen. On the other hand, little Jacques, by now two years and a half old, got on admirably in the country. From morning till night he rolled about the garden, ragged and dirt-begrimed, but growing as he listed in robust ruddy health. His mother often did not know where to take hold of him when she wished to wash him a bit. However, when she saw him eat and sleep well she did not trouble much; she reserved her anxious affection for her big child of an artist, whose despondency filled her with anguish. The situation grew worse each day, and although they lived on peacefully without any cause for grief, they, nevertheless, drifted to melancholy, to a discomfort that showed itself in constant irritation.
It was all over with their first delights of country life. Their rotten boat, staved in, had gone to the bottom of the Seine. Besides, they did not even think of availing themselves of the skiff that the Faucheurs had placed at their disposal. The river bored them; they had grown too lazy to row. They repeated their exclamations of former times respecting certain delightful nooks in the islets, but without ever being tempted to return and gaze upon them. Even the walks by the river-side had lost their charm—one was broiled there in summer, and one caught cold there in winter. And as for the plateau, the vast stretch of land planted with apple trees that overlooked the village, it became like a distant country, something too far off for one to be silly enough to risk one's legs there. Their house also annoyed them—that barracks where they had to take their meals amid the greasy refuse of the kitchen, where their room seemed a meeting-place for the winds from every point of the compass. As a finishing stroke of bad luck, the apricots had failed that year, and the finest of the giant rose-bushes, which were very old, had been smitten with some canker or other and died. How sorely time and habit wore everything away! How eternal nature herself seemed to age amidst that satiated weariness. But the worst was that the painter himself was getting disgusted with the country, no longer finding a single subject to arouse his enthusiasm, but scouring the fields with a mournful tramp, as if the whole place were a void, whose life he had exhausted without leaving as much as an overlooked tree, an unforeseen effect of light to interest him. No, it was over, frozen, he should never again be able to paint anything worth looking at in that confounded country!
October came with its rain-laden sky. On one of the first wet evenings Claude flew into a passion because dinner was not ready. He turned that goose of a Melie out of the house and clouted Jacques, who got between his legs. Whereupon, Christine, crying, kissed him and said:
'Let's go, oh, let us go back to Paris.'
He disengaged himself, and cried in an angry voice: 'What, again! Never! do you hear me?'
'Do it for my sake,' she said, warmly. 'It's I who ask it of you, it's I that you'll please.'
'Why, are you tired of being here, then?'
'Yes, I shall die if we stay here much longer; and, besides I want you to work. I feel quite certain that your place is there. It would be a crime for you to bury yourself here any longer.'
'No, leave me!'
He was quivering. On the horizon Paris was calling him, the Paris of winter-tide which was being lighted up once more. He thought he could hear from where he stood the great efforts that his comrades were making, and, in fancy, he returned thither in order that they might not triumph without him, in order that he might become their chief again, since not one of them had strength or pride enough to be such. And amid this hallucination, amid the desire he felt to hasten to Paris, he yet persisted in refusing to do so, from a spirit of involuntary contradiction, which arose, though he could not account for it, from his very entrails. Was it the fear with which the bravest quivers, the mute struggle of happiness seeking to resist the fatality of destiny?
'Listen,' said Christine, excitedly. 'I shall get our boxes ready, and take you away.'
Five days later, after packing and sending their chattels to the railway, they started for Paris.
Claude was already on the road with little Jacques, when Christine fancied that she had forgotten something. She returned alone to the house; and finding it quite bare and empty, she burst out crying. It seemed as if something were being torn from her, as if she were leaving something of herself behind—what, she could not say. How willingly would she have remained! how ardent was her wish to live there always—she who had just insisted on that departure, that return to the city of passion where she scented the presence of a rival. However, she continued searching for what she lacked, and in front of the kitchen she ended by plucking a rose, a last rose, which the cold was turning brown. And then she slowly closed the gate upon the deserted garden.
WHEN Claude found himself once more on the pavement of Paris he was seized with a feverish longing for hubbub and motion, a desire to gad about, scour the whole city, and see his chums. He was off the moment he awoke, leaving Christine to get things shipshape by herself in the studio which they had taken in the Rue de Douai, near the Boulevard de Clichy. In this way, on the second day of his arrival, he dropped in at Mahoudeau's at eight o'clock in the morning, in the chill, grey November dawn which had barely risen.
However, the shop in the Rue du Cherche-Midi, which the sculptor still occupied, was open, and Mahoudeau himself, half asleep, with a white face, was shivering as he took down the shutters.
Ah! it's you. The devil! you've got into early habits in the country. So it's settled—you are back for good?'
'Yes; since the day before yesterday.'
'That's all right. Then we shall see something of each other. Come in; it's sharp this morning.'
But Claude felt colder in the shop than outside. He kept the collar of his coat turned up, and plunged his hands deep into his pockets; shivering before the dripping moisture of the bare walls, the muddy heaps of clay, and the pools of water soddening the floor. A blast of poverty had swept into the place, emptying the shelves of the casts from the antique, and smashing stands and buckets, which were now held together with bits of rope. It was an abode of dirt and disorder, a mason's cellar going to rack and ruin. On the window of the door, besmeared with whitewash, there appeared in mockery, as it were, a large beaming sun, roughly drawn with thumb-strokes, and ornamented in the centre with a face, the mouth of which, describing a semicircle, seemed likely to burst with laughter.
'Just wait,' said Mahoudeau, 'a fire's being lighted. These confounded workshops get chilly directly, with the water from the covering cloths.'
At that moment, Claude, on turning round, noticed Chaine on his knees near the stove, pulling the straw from the seat of an old stool to light the coals with. He bade him good-morning, but only elicited a muttered growl, without succeeding in making him look up.
'And what are you doing just now, old man?' he asked the sculptor.
'Oh! nothing of much account. It's been a bad year—worse than the last one, which wasn't worth a rap. There's a crisis in the church-statue business. Yes, the market for holy wares is bad, and, dash it, I've had to tighten my belt! Look, in the meanwhile, I'm reduced to this.'
He thereupon took the linen wraps off a bust, showing a long face still further elongated by whiskers, a face full of conceit and infinite imbecility.
'It's an advocate who lives near by. Doesn't he look repugnant, eh? And the way he worries me about being very careful with his mouth. However, a fellow must eat, mustn't he?'
He certainly had an idea for the Salon; an upright figure, a girl about to bathe, dipping her foot in the water, and shivering at its freshness with that slight shiver that renders a woman so adorable. He showed Claude a little model of it, which was already cracking, and the painter looked at it in silence, surprised and displeased at certain concessions he noticed in it: a sprouting of prettiness from beneath a persistent exaggeration of form, a natural desire to please, blended with a lingering tendency to the colossal. However, Mahoudeau began lamenting; an upright figure was no end of a job. He would want iron braces that cost money, and a modelling frame, which he had not got; in fact, a lot of appliances. So he would, no doubt, decide to model the figure in a recumbent attitude beside the water.
'Well, what do you say—what do you think of it?' he asked.
'Not bad,' answered the painter at last. 'A little bit sentimental, in spite of the strapping limbs; but it'll all depend upon the execution. And put her upright, old man; upright, for there would be nothing in it otherwise.'
The stove was roaring, and Chaine, still mute, rose up. He prowled about for a minute, entered the dark back shop, where stood the bed that he shared with Mahoudeau, and then reappeared, his hat on his head, but more silent, it seemed, than ever. With his awkward peasant fingers he leisurely took up a stick of charcoal and then wrote on the wall: 'I am going to buy some tobacco; put some more coals in the stove.' And forthwith he went out.
Claude, who had watched him writing, turned to the other in amazement.
'We no longer speak to one another; we write,' said the sculptor, quietly.
'Since three months ago.'
'And you sleep together?'
Claude burst out laughing. Ah! dash it all! they must have hard nuts. But what was the reason of this falling-out? Then Mahoudeau vented his rage against that brute of a Chaine! Hadn't he, one night on coming home unexpectedly, found him treating Mathilde, the herbalist woman, to a pot of jam? No, he would never forgive him for treating himself in that dirty fashion to delicacies on the sly, while he, Mahoudeau, was half starving, and eating dry bread. The deuce! one ought to share and share alike.
And the grudge had now lasted for nearly three months without a break, without an explanation. They had arranged their lives accordingly; they had reduced their strictly necessary intercourse to a series of short phrases charcoaled on the walls. As for the rest, they lived as before, sharing the same bed in the back shop. After all, there was no need for so much talk in life, people managed to understand one another all the same.
While filling the stove, Mahoudeau continued to relieve his mind.
'Well, you may believe me if you like, but when a fellow's almost starving it isn't disagreeable to keep quiet. Yes, one gets numb amidst silence; it's like an inside coating that stills the gnawing of the stomach a bit. Ah, that Chaine! You haven't a notion of his peasant nature. When he had spent his last copper without earning the fortune he expected by painting, he went into trade, a petty trade, which was to enable him to finish his studies. Isn't the fellow a sharp 'un, eh? And just listen to his plan. He had some olive oil sent to him from Saint-Firmin, his village, and then he tramped the streets and found a market for the oil among well-to-do families from Provence living in Paris. Unfortunately, it did not last. He is such a clod-hopper that they showed him the door on all sides. And as there was a jar of oil left which nobody would buy, well, old man, we live upon it. Yes, on the days when we happen to have some bread we dip our bread into it.'
Thereupon he pointed to the jar standing in a corner of the shop. Some of the oil having been spilt, the wall and the floor were darkened by large greasy stains.
Claude left off laughing. Ah! misery, how discouraging it was! how could he show himself hard on those whom it crushed? He walked about the studio, no longer vexed at finding models weakened by concessions to middle-class taste; he even felt tolerant with regard to that hideous bust. But, all at once, he came across a copy that Chaine had made at the Louvre, a Mantegna, which was marvellously exact in its dryness.
'Oh, the brute,' he muttered, 'it's almost the original; he's never done anything better than that. Perhaps his only fault is that he was born four centuries too late.'
Then, as the heat became too great, he took off his over-coat, adding:
'He's a long while fetching his tobacco.'
'Oh! his tobacco! I know what that means,' said Mahoudeau, who had set to work at his bust, finishing the whiskers; 'he has simply gone next door.'
'Oh! so you still see the herbalist?'
'Yes, she comes in and out.'
He spoke of Mathilde and Chaine without the least show of anger, simply saying that he thought the woman crazy. Since little Jabouille's death she had become devout again, though this did not prevent her from scandalising the neighbourhood. Her business was going to wreck, and bankruptcy seemed impending. One night, the gas company having cut off the gas in default of payment, she had come to borrow some of their olive oil, which, after all, would not burn in the lamps. In short, it was quite a disaster; that mysterious shop, with its fleeting shadows of priests' gowns, its discreet confessional-like whispers, and its odour of sacristy incense, was gliding to the abandonment of ruin. And the wretchedness had reached such a point that the dried herbs suspended from the ceiling swarmed with spiders, while defunct leeches, which had already turned green, floated on the tops of the glass jars.
'Hallo, here he comes!' resumed the sculptor. 'You'll see her arrive at his heels.'
In fact, Chaine came in. He made a great show of drawing a screw of tobacco from his pocket, then filled his pipe, and began to smoke in front of the stove, remaining obstinately silent, as if there were nobody present. And immediately afterwards Mathilde made her appearance like a neighbour who comes in to say 'Good morning.' Claude thought that she had grown still thinner, but her eyes were all afire, and her mouth was seemingly enlarged by the loss of two more teeth. The smell of aromatic herbs which she always carried in her uncombed hair seemed to have become rancid. There was no longer the sweetness of camomile, the freshness of aniseed; she filled the place with a horrid odour of peppermint that seemed to be her very breath.
'Already at work!' she exclaimed. 'Good morning.' And, without minding Claude, she kissed Mahoudeau. Then, after going to shake hands with the painter in her brazen way, she continued:
'What do you think? I've found a box of mallow root, and we will treat ourselves to it for breakfast. Isn't that nice of me now! We'll share.'
'Thanks,' said the sculptor, 'it makes my mouth sticky. I prefer to smoke a pipe.'
And, seeing that Claude was putting on his overcoat again, he asked: 'Are you going?'
'Yes. I want to get the rust off, and breathe the air of Paris a bit.'
All the same, he stopped for another few minutes watching Chaine and Mathilde, who stuffed themselves with mallow root, each taking a piece by turns. And though he had been warned, he was again amazed when he saw Mahoudeau take up the stick of charcoal and write on the wall: 'Give me the tobacco you have shoved into your pocket.'
Without a word, Chaine took out the screw and handed it to the sculptor, who filled his pipe.
'Well, I'll see you again soon,' said Claude.
'Yes, soon—at any rate, next Thursday, at Sandoz's.'
Outside, Claude gave an exclamation of surprise on jostling a gentleman, who stood in front of the herbalist's peering into the shop.
'What, Jory! What are you doing there?'
Jory's big pink nose gave a sniff.
'I? Nothing. I was passing and looked in,' said he in dismay.
Then he decided to laugh, and, as if there were any one to overhear him, lowered his voice to ask:
'She is next door with our friends, isn't she? All right; let's be off, quick!'
And he took the painter with him, telling him all manner of strange stories of that creature Mathilde.
'But you used to say that she was frightful,' said Claude, laughing.
Jory made a careless gesture. Frightful? No, he had not gone as far as that. Besides, there might be something attractive about a woman even though she had a plain face. Then he expressed his surprise at seeing Claude in Paris, and, when he had been fully posted, and learned that the painter meant to remain there for good, he all at once exclaimed:
'Listen, I am going to take you with me. You must come to lunch with me at Irma's.'
The painter, taken aback, refused energetically, and gave as a reason that he wasn't even wearing a frock-coat.
'What does that matter? On the contrary, it makes it more droll. She'll be delighted. I believe she has a secret partiality for you. She is always talking about you to us. Come, don't be a fool. I tell you she expects me this morning, and we shall be received like princes.'
He did not relax his hold on Claude's arm, and they both continued their way towards the Madeleine, talking all the while. As a rule, Jory kept silent about his many love adventures, just as a drunkard keeps silent about his potations. But that morning he brimmed over with revelations, chaffed himself and owned to all sorts of scandalous things. After all he was delighted with existence, his affairs went apace. His miserly father had certainly cut off the supplies once more, cursing him for obstinately pursuing a scandalous career, but he did not care a rap for that now; he earned between seven and eight thousand francs a year by journalism, in which he was making his way as a gossipy leader writer and art critic. The noisy days of 'The Drummer,' the articles at a louis apiece, had been left far behind. He was getting steady, wrote for two widely circulated papers, and although, in his inmost heart he remained a sceptical voluptuary, a worshipper of success at any price, he was acquiring importance, and readers began to look upon his opinions as fiats. Swayed by hereditary meanness, he already invested money every month in petty speculations, which were only known to himself, for never had his vices cost him less than nowadays.
As he and Claude reached the Rue de Moscou, he told the painter that it was there that Irma Becot now lived. 'Oh! she is rolling in wealth,' said he, 'paying twenty thousand francs a year rent and talking of building a house which would cost half a million.' Then suddenly pulling up he exclaimed: 'Come, here we are! In with you, quick!'
But Claude still objected. His wife was waiting for him to lunch; he really couldn't. And Jory was obliged to ring the bell, and then push him inside the hall, repeating that his excuse would not do; for they would send the valet to the Rue de Douai to tell his wife. A door opened and they found themselves face to face with Irma Becot, who uttered a cry of surprise as soon as she perceived the painter.
'What! is it you, savage?' she said.
She made him feel at home at once by treating him like an old chum, and, in fact, he saw well enough that she did not even notice his old clothes. He himself was astonished, for he barely recognised her. In the course of four years she had become a different being; her head was 'made up' with all an actress's skill, her brow hidden beneath a mass of curly hair, and her face elongated, by a sheer effort of will, no doubt. And from a pale blonde she had become flaringly carrotty; so that a Titianesque creature seemed to have sprung from the little urchin-like girl of former days. Her house, with all its show of luxury, still had its bald spots. What struck the painter were some good pictures on the walls, a Courbet, and, above all, an unfinished study by Delacroix. So this wild, wilful creature was not altogether a fool, although there was a frightful cat in coloured biscuit standing on a console in the drawing-room.
When Jory spoke of sending the valet to his friend's place, she exclaimed in great surprise:
'What! you are married?'
'Why, yes,' said Claude, simply.
She glanced at Jory, who smiled; then she understood, and added:
'Ah! But why did people tell me that you were a woman-hater? I'm awfully vexed, you know. I frightened you, don't you remember, eh? You still think me very ugly, don't you? Well, well, we'll talk about it all some other day.'
It was the coachman who went to the Rue de Douai with a note from Claude, for the valet had opened the door of the dining-room, to announce that lunch was served. The repast, a very delicate one, was partaken of in all propriety, under the icy stare of the servant. They talked about the great building works that were revolutionising Paris; and then discussed the price of land, like middle-class people with money to invest. But at dessert, when they were all three alone with the coffee and liqueurs, which they had decided upon taking there, without leaving the table, they gradually became animated, and dropped into their old familiar ways, as if they had met each other at the Cafe Baudequin.
'Ah, my lads,' said Irma, 'this is the only real enjoyment, to be jolly together and to snap one's fingers at other people.'
She was twisting cigarettes; she had just placed the bottle of chartreuse near her, and had begun to empty it, looking the while very flushed, and lapsing once more to her low street drollery.
'So,' continued Jory, who was apologising for not having sent her that morning a book she wanted, 'I was going to buy it last night at about ten o'clock, when I met Fagerolles—'
'You are telling a lie,' said she, interrupting him in a clear voice. And to cut short his protestations—'Fagerolles was here,' she added, 'so you see that you are telling a lie.'
Then, turning to Claude, 'No, it's too disgusting. You can't conceive what a liar he is. He tells lies like a woman, for the pleasure of it, for the merest trifle. Now, the whole of his story amounts simply to this: that he didn't want to spend three francs to buy me that book. Each time he was to have sent me a bouquet, he had dropped it under the wheels of a carriage, or there were no flowers to be had in all Paris. Ah! there's a fellow who only cares for himself, and no mistake.'
Jory, without getting in the least angry, tilted back his chair and sucked his cigar, merely saying with a sneer:
'Oh! if you see Fagerolles now—'
'Well, what of it?' she cried, becoming furious. 'It's no business of yours. I snap my fingers at your Fagerolles, do you hear? He knows very well that people don't quarrel with me. We know each other; we sprouted in the same crack between the paving-stones. Look here, whenever I like, I have only to hold up my finger, and your Fagerolles will be there on the floor, licking my feet.'
She was growing animated, and Jory thought it prudent to beat a retreat.
'My Fagerolles,' he muttered; 'my Fagerolles.'
'Yes, your Fagerolles. Do you think that I don't see through you both? He is always patting you on the back, as he hopes to get articles out of you, and you affect generosity and calculate the advantage you'll derive if you write up an artist liked by the public.'
This time Jory stuttered, feeling very much annoyed on account of Claude being there. He did not attempt to defend himself, however, preferring to turn the quarrel into a joke. Wasn't she amusing, eh? when she blazed up like that, with her lustrous wicked eyes, and her twitching mouth, eager to indulge in vituperation?
'But remember, my dear, this sort of thing cracks your Titianesque "make-up,"' he added.
She began to laugh, mollified at once.
Claude, basking in physical comfort, kept on sipping small glasses of cognac one after another, without noticing it. During the two hours they had been there a kind of intoxication had stolen over them, the hallucinatory intoxication produced by liqueurs and tobacco smoke. They changed the conversation; the high prices that pictures were fetching came into question. Irma, who no longer spoke, kept a bit of extinguished cigarette between her lips, and fixed her eyes on the painter. At last she abruptly began to question him about his wife.
Her questions did not appear to surprise him; his ideas were going astray: 'She had just come from the provinces,' he said. 'She was in a situation with a lady, and was a very good and honest girl.'
'Why, yes, pretty.'
For a moment Irma relapsed into her reverie, then she said, smiling: 'Dash it all! How lucky you are!'
Then she shook herself, and exclaimed, rising from the table: 'Nearly three o'clock! Ah! my children, I must turn you out of the house. Yes, I have an appointment with an architect; I am going to see some ground near the Parc Monceau, you know, in the new quarter which is being built. I have scented a stroke of business in that direction.'
They had returned to the drawing-room. She stopped before a looking-glass, annoyed at seeing herself so flushed.
'It's about that house, isn't it?' asked Jory. 'You have found the money, then?'
She brought her hair down over her brow again, then with her hands seemed to efface the flush on her cheeks; elongated the oval of her face, and rearranged her tawny head, which had all the charm of a work of art; and finally, turning round, she merely threw Jory these words by way of reply: Look! there's my Titianesque effect back again.'
She was already, amidst their laughter, edging them towards the hall, where once more, without speaking, she took Claude's hands in her own, her glance yet again diving into the depths of his eyes. When he reached the street he felt uncomfortable. The cold air dissipated his intoxication; he remorsefully reproached himself for having spoken of Christine in that house, and swore to himself that he would never set foot there again.
Indeed, a kind of shame deterred Claude from going home, and when his companion, excited by the luncheon and feeling inclined to loaf about, spoke of going to shake hands with Bongrand, he was delighted with the idea, and both made their way to the Boulevard de Clichy.
For the last twenty years Bongrand had there occupied a very large studio, in which he had in no wise sacrificed to the tastes of the day, to that magnificence of hangings and nick-nacks with which young painters were then beginning to surround themselves. It was the bare, greyish studio of the old style, exclusively ornamented with sketches by the master, which hung there unframed, and in close array like the votive offerings in a chapel. The only tokens of elegance consisted of a cheval glass, of the First Empire style, a large Norman wardrobe, and two arm-chairs upholstered in Utrecht velvet, and threadbare with usage. In one corner, too, a bearskin which had lost nearly all its hair covered a large couch. However, the artist had retained since his youthful days, which had been spent in the camp of the Romanticists, the habit of wearing a special costume, and it was in flowing trousers, in a dressing-gown secured at the waist by a silken cord, and with his head covered with a priest's skull-cap, that he received his visitors.
He came to open the door himself, holding his palette and brushes.
'So here you are! It was a good idea of yours to come! I was thinking about you, my dear fellow. Yes, I don't know who it was that told me of your return, but I said to myself that it wouldn't be long before I saw you.'
The hand that he had free grasped Claude's in a burst of sincere affection. He then shook Jory's, adding:
'And you, young pontiff; I read your last article, and thank you for your kind mention of myself. Come in, come in, both of you! You don't disturb me; I'm taking advantage of the daylight to the very last minute, for there's hardly time to do anything in this confounded month of November.'
He had resumed his work, standing before his easel, on which there was a small canvas, which showed two women, mother and daughter, sitting sewing in the embrasure of a sunlit window. The young fellows stood looking behind him.
'Exquisite,' murmured Claude, at last.
Bongrand shrugged his shoulders without turning round.
'Pooh! A mere nothing at all. A fellow must occupy his time, eh? I did this from life at a friend's house, and I am cleaning it a bit.'
'But it's perfect—it is a little gem of truth and light,' replied Claude, warming up. 'And do you know, what overcomes me is its simplicity, its very simplicity.'
On hearing this the painter stepped back and blinked his eyes, looking very much surprised.
'You think so? It really pleases you? Well, when you came in I was just thinking it was a foul bit of work. I give you my word, I was in the dumps, and felt convinced that I hadn't a scrap of talent left.'
His hands shook, his stalwart frame trembled as with the agony of travail. He rid himself of his palette, and came back towards them, his arms sawing the air, as it were; and this artist, who had grown old amidst success, who was assured of ranking in the French School, cried to them:
'It surprises you, eh? but there are days when I ask myself whether I shall be able to draw a nose correctly. Yes, with every one of my pictures I still feel the emotion of a beginner; my heart beats, anguish parches my mouth—in fact, I funk abominably. Ah! you youngsters, you think you know what funk means; but you haven't as much as a notion of it, for if you fail with one work, you get quits by trying to do something better. Nobody is down upon you; whereas we, the veterans, who have given our measure, who are obliged to keep up to the level previously attained, if not to surpass it, we mustn't weaken under penalty of rolling down into the common grave. And so, Mr. Celebrity, Mr. Great Artist, wear out your brains, consume yourself in striving to climb higher, still higher, ever higher, and if you happen to kick your heels on the summit, think yourself lucky! Wear your heels out in kicking them up as long as possible, and if you feel that you are declining, why, make an end of yourself by rolling down amid the death rattle of your talent, which is no longer suited to the period; roll down forgetful of such of your works as are destined to immortality, and in despair at your powerless efforts to create still further!'
His full voice had risen to a final outburst like thunder, and his broad flushed face wore an expression of anguish. He strode about, and continued, as if carried away, in spite of himself, by a violent whirlwind:
'I have told you a score of times that one was for ever beginning one's career afresh, that joy did not consist in having reached the summit, but in the climbing, in the gaiety of scaling the heights. Only, you don't understand, you cannot understand; a man must have passed through it. Just remember! You hope for everything, you dream of everything; it is the hour of boundless illusions, and your legs are so strong that the most fatiguing roads seem short; you are consumed with such an appetite for glory, that the first petty successes fill your mouth with a delicious taste. What a feast it will be when you are able to gratify ambition to satiety! You have nearly reached that point, and you look right cheerfully on your scratches! Well, the thing is accomplished; the summit has been gained; it is now a question of remaining there. Then a life of abomination begins; you have exhausted intoxication, and you have discovered that it does not last long enough, that it is not worth the struggle it has cost, and that the dregs of the cup taste bitter. There is nothing left to be learnt, no new sensation to be felt; pride has had its allowance of fame; you know that you have produced your greatest works; and you are surprised that they did not bring keener enjoyment with them. From that moment the horizon becomes void; no fresh hope inflames you; there is nothing left but to die. And yet you still cling on, you won't admit that it's all up with you, you obstinately persist in trying to produce—just as old men cling to love with painful, ignoble efforts. Ah! a man ought to have the courage and the pride to strangle himself before his last masterpiece!'
While he spoke he seemed to have increased in stature, reaching to the elevated ceiling of the studio, and shaken by such keen emotion that the tears started to his eyes. And he dropped into a chair before his picture, asking with the anxious look of a beginner who has need of encouragement:
'Then this really seems to you all right? I myself no longer dare to believe anything. My unhappiness springs from the possession of both too much and not enough critical acumen. The moment I begin a sketch I exalt it, then, if it's not successful, I torture myself. It would be better not to know anything at all about it, like that brute Chambouvard, or else to see very clearly into the business and then give up painting.... Really now, you like this little canvas?'
Claude and Jory remained motionless, astonished and embarrassed by those tokens of the intense anguish of art in its travail. Had they come at a moment of crisis, that this master thus groaned with pain, and consulted them like comrades? The worst was that they had been unable to disguise some hesitation when they found themselves under the gaze of the ardent, dilated eyes with which he implored them—eyes in which one could read the hidden fear of decline. They knew current rumours well enough; they agreed with the opinion that since his 'Village Wedding' the painter had produced nothing equal to that famous picture. Indeed, after maintaining something of that standard of excellence in a few works, he was now gliding into a more scientific, drier manner. Brightness of colour was vanishing; each work seemed to show a decline. However, these were things not to be said; so Claude, when he had recovered his composure, exclaimed:
'You never painted anything so powerful!'
Bongrand looked at him again, straight in the eyes. Then he turned to his work, in which he became absorbed, making a movement with his herculean arms, as if he were breaking every bone of them to lift that little canvas which was so very light. And he muttered to himself: 'Confound it! how heavy it is! Never mind, I'll die at it rather than show a falling-off.'
He took up his palette and grew calm at the first stroke of the brush, while bending his manly shoulders and broad neck, about which one noticed traces of peasant build remaining amid the bourgeois refinement contributed by the crossing of classes of which he was the outcome.
Silence had ensued, but Jory, his eyes still fixed on the picture, asked:
'Is it sold?'
Bongrand replied leisurely, like the artist who works when he likes without care of profit:
'No; I feel paralysed when I've a dealer at my back.' And, without pausing in his work, he went on talking, growing waggish.
'Ah! people are beginning to make a trade of painting now. Really and truly I have never seen such a thing before, old as I am getting. For instance, you, Mr. Amiable Journalist, what a quantity of flowers you fling to the young ones in that article in which you mentioned me! There were two or three youngsters spoken of who were simply geniuses, nothing less.'
Jory burst out laughing.
'Well, when a fellow has a paper, he must make use of it. Besides, the public likes to have great men discovered for it.'
'No doubt, public stupidity is boundless, and I am quite willing that you should trade on it. Only I remember the first starts that we old fellows had. Dash it! We were not spoiled like that, I can tell you. We had ten years' labour and struggle before us ere we could impose on people a picture the size of your hand; whereas nowadays the first hobbledehoy who can stick a figure on its legs makes all the trumpets of publicity blare. And what kind of publicity is it? A hullabaloo from one end of France to the other, sudden reputations that shoot up of a night, and burst upon one like thunderbolts, amid the gaping of the throng. And I say nothing of the works themselves, those works announced with salvoes of artillery, awaited amid a delirium of impatience, maddening Paris for a week, and then falling into everlasting oblivion!'
'This is an indictment against journalism,' said Jory, who had stretched himself on the couch and lighted another cigar. 'There is a great deal to be said for and against it, but devil a bit, a man must keep pace with the times.'
Bongrand shook his head, and then started off again, amid a tremendous burst of mirth:
'No! no! one can no longer throw off the merest daub without being hailed as a young "master." Well, if you only knew how your young masters amuse me!'
But as if these words had led to some other ideas, he cooled down, and turned towards Claude to ask this question: 'By the way, have you seen Fagerolles' picture?'
'Yes,' said the young fellow, quietly.
They both remained looking at each other: a restless smile had risen to their lips, and Bongrand eventually added:
'There's a fellow who pillages you right and left.'
Jory, becoming embarrassed, had lowered his eyes, asking himself whether he should defend Fagerolles. He, no doubt, concluded that it would be profitable to do so, for he began to praise the picture of the actress in her dressing-room, an engraving of which was then attracting a great deal of notice in the print-shops. Was not the subject a really modern one? Was it not well painted, in the bright clear tone of the new school? A little more vigour might, perhaps, have been desirable; but every one ought to be left to his own temperament. And besides, refinement and charm were not so common by any means, nowadays.
Bending over his canvas, Bongrand, who, as a rule, had nothing but paternal praise for the young ones, shook and made a visible effort to avoid an outburst. The explosion took place, however, in spite of himself.
'Just shut up, eh? about your Fagerolles! Do you think us greater fools than we really are? There! you see the great painter here present. Yes; I mean the young gentleman in front of you. Well, the whole trick consists in pilfering his originality, and dishing it up with the wishy-washy sauce of the School of Arts! Quite so! you select a modern subject, and you paint in the clear bright style, only you adhere to correctly commonplace drawing, to all the habitual pleasing style of composition—in short, to the formula which is taught over yonder for the pleasure of the middle-classes. And you souse all that with deftness, that execrable deftness of the fingers which would just as well carve cocoanuts, the flowing, pleasant deftness that begets success, and which ought to be punished with penal servitude, do you hear?'
He brandished his palette and brushes aloft, in his clenched fists.
'You are severe,' said Claude, feeling embarrassed. 'Fagerolles shows delicacy in his work.'
'I have been told,' muttered Jory, mildly, 'that he has just signed a very profitable agreement with Naudet.'
That name, thrown haphazard into the conversation, had the effect of once more soothing Bongrand, who repeated, shrugging his shoulders:
'Ah! Naudet—ah! Naudet.'
And he greatly amused the young fellows by telling them about Naudet, with whom he was well acquainted. He was a dealer, who, for some few years, had been revolutionising the picture trade. There was nothing of the old fashion about his style—the greasy coat and keen taste of Papa Malgras, the watching for the pictures of beginners, bought at ten francs, to be resold at fifteen, all the little humdrum comedy of the connoisseur, turning up his nose at a coveted canvas in order to depreciate it, worshipping painting in his inmost heart, and earning a meagre living by quickly and prudently turning over his petty capital. No, no; the famous Naudet had the appearance of a nobleman, with a fancy-pattern jacket, a diamond pin in his scarf, and patent-leather boots; he was well pomaded and brushed, and lived in fine style, with a livery-stable carriage by the month, a stall at the opera, and his particular table at Bignon's. And he showed himself wherever it was the correct thing to be seen. For the rest, he was a speculator, a Stock Exchange gambler, not caring one single rap about art. But he unfailingly scented success, he guessed what artist ought to be properly started, not the one who seemed likely to develop the genius of a great painter, furnishing food for discussion, but the one whose deceptive talent, set off by a pretended display of audacity, would command a premium in the market. And that was the way in which he revolutionised that market, giving the amateur of taste the cold shoulder, and only treating with the moneyed amateur, who knew nothing about art, but who bought a picture as he might buy a share at the Stock Exchange, either from vanity or with the hope that it would rise in value.
At this stage of the conversation Bongrand, very jocular by nature, and with a good deal of the mummer about him, began to enact the scene. Enter Naudet in Fagerolles' studio.
'"You've real genius, my dear fellow. Your last picture is sold, then? For how much?"
'"For five hundred francs."
'"But you must be mad; it was worth twelve hundred. And this one which you have by you—how much?"
'"Well, my faith, I don't know. Suppose we say twelve hundred?"
'"What are you talking about? Twelve hundred francs! You don't understand me, then, my boy; it's worth two thousand. I take it at two thousand. And from this day forward you must work for no one but myself—for me, Naudet. Good-bye, good-bye, my dear fellow; don't overwork yourself—your fortune is made. I have taken it in hand." Wherewith he goes off, taking the picture with him in his carriage. He trots it round among his amateurs, among whom he has spread the rumour that he has just discovered an extraordinary painter. One of the amateurs bites at last, and asks the price.
'"What, five thousand francs for the picture of a man whose name hasn't the least notoriety? Are you playing the fool with me?"
'"Look here, I'll make you a proposal; I'll sell it you for five thousand francs, and I'll sign an agreement to take it back in a twelvemonth at six thousand, if you no longer care for it."
Of course the amateur is tempted. What does he risk after all? In reality it's a good speculation, and so he buys. After that Naudet loses no time, but disposes in a similar manner of nine or ten paintings by the same man during the course of the year. Vanity gets mingled with the hope of gain, the prices go up, the pictures get regularly quoted, so that when Naudet returns to see his amateur, the latter, instead of returning the picture, buys another one for eight thousand francs. And the prices continue to go up, and painting degenerates into something shady, a kind of gold mine situated on the heights of Montmartre, promoted by a number of bankers, and around which there is a constant battle of bank-notes.'
Claude was growing indignant, but Jory thought it all very clever, when there came a knock at the door. Bongrand, who went to open it, uttered a cry of surprise.
'Naudet, as I live! We were just talking about you.'
Naudet, very correctly dressed, without a speck of mud on him, despite the horrible weather, bowed and came in with the reverential politeness of a man of society entering a church.
'Very pleased—feel flattered, indeed, dear master. And you only spoke well of me, I'm sure of it.'
'Not at all, Naudet, not at all,' said Bongrand, in a quiet tone. 'We were saying that your manner of trading was giving us a nice generation of artists—tricksters crossed with dishonest business men.'
Naudet smiled, without losing his composure.
'The remark is harsh, but so charming! Never mind, never mind, dear master, nothing that you say offends me.'
And, dropping into ecstasy before the picture of the two little women at needlework:
'Ah! Good heavens, I didn't know this, it's a little marvel! Ah! that light, that broad substantial treatment! One has to go back to Rembrandt for anything like it; yes, to Rembrandt! Look here, I only came in to pay my respects, but I thank my lucky star for having brought me here. Let us do a little bit of business. Let me have this gem. Anything you like to ask for it—I'll cover it with gold.'
One could see Bongrand's back shake, as if his irritation were increasing at each sentence. He curtly interrupted the dealer.
'Too late; it's sold.'
'Sold, you say. And you cannot annul your bargain? Tell me, at any rate, to whom it's sold? I'll do everything, I'll give anything. Ah! What a horrible blow! Sold, are you quite sure of it? Suppose you were offered double the sum?'
'It's sold, Naudet. That's enough, isn't it?'
However, the dealer went on lamenting. He remained for a few minutes longer, going into raptures before other sketches, while making the tour of the studio with the keen glances of a speculator in search of luck. When he realised that his time was badly chosen, and that he would be able to take nothing away with him, he went off, bowing with an air of gratitude, and repeating remarks of admiration as far as the landing.
As soon as he had gone, Jory, who had listened to the conversation with surprise, ventured to ask a question:
'But you told us, I thought—It isn't sold, is it?'
Without immediately answering, Bongrand went back to his picture. Then, in his thundering voice, resuming in one cry all his hidden suffering, the whole of the nascent struggle within him which he dared not avow, he said:
'He plagues me. He shall never have anything of mine! Let him go and buy of Fagerolles!'
A quarter of an hour later, Claude and Jory also said good-bye, leaving Bongrand struggling with his work in the waning daylight. Once outside, when the young painter had left his companion, he did not at once return home to the Rue de Douai, in spite of his long absence. He still felt the want of walking about, of surrendering himself up to that great city of Paris, where the meetings of one single day sufficed to fill his brain; and this need of motion made him wander about till the black night had fallen, through the frozen mud of the streets, beneath the gas-lamps, which, lighted up one by one, showed like nebulous stars amidst the fog.
Claude impatiently awaited the Thursday when he was to dine at Sandoz's, for the latter, immutable in his habits, still invited his cronies to dinner once a week. All those who chose could come, their covers were laid. His marriage, his change of life, the ardent literary struggle into which he had thrown himself, made no difference; he kept to his day 'at home,' that Thursday which dated from the time he had left college, from the time they had all smoked their first pipes. As he himself expressed it, alluding to his wife, there was only one chum more.
'I say, old man,' he had frankly said to Claude, 'I'm greatly worried—'
'Why, about inviting Madame Christine. There are a lot of idiots, a lot of philistines watching me, who would say all manner of things—'
'You are quite right, old man. But Christine herself would decline to come. Oh! we understand the position very well. I'll come alone, depend upon it.'
At six o'clock, Claude started for Sandoz's place in the Rue Nollet, in the depths of Batignolles, and he had no end of trouble in finding the small pavilion which his friend had rented. First of all he entered a large house facing the street, and applied to the doorkeeper, who made him cross three successive courtyards; then he went down a passage, between two other buildings, descended some steps, and tumbled upon the iron gate of a small garden. That was the spot, the pavilion was there at the end of a path. But it was so dark, and he had nearly broken his legs coming down the steps, that he dared not venture any further, the more so as a huge dog was barking furiously. At last he heard the voice of Sandoz, who was coming forward and trying to quiet the dog.
'Ah, it's you! We are quite in the country, aren't we? We are going to set up a lantern, so that our company may not break their necks. Come in, come in! Will you hold your noise, you brute of a Bertrand? Don't you see that it's a friend, fool?'
Thereupon the dog accompanied them as far as the pavilion, wagging his tail and barking joyously. A young servant-girl had come out with a lantern, which she fastened to the gate, in order to light up the breakneck steps. In the garden there was simply a small central lawn, on which there stood a large plum tree, diffusing a shade around that rotted the grass; and just in front of the low house, which showed only three windows, there stretched an arbour of Virginia creeper, with a brand-new seat shining there as an ornament amid the winter showers, pending the advent of the summer sun.
'Come in,' repeated Sandoz.
On the right-hand side of the hall he ushered Claude into the parlour, which he had turned into a study. The dining-room and kitchen were on the left. Upstairs, his mother, who was now altogether bedridden, occupied the larger room, while he and his wife contented themselves with the other one, and a dressing-room that parted the two. That was the whole place, a real cardboard box, with rooms like little drawers separated by partitions as thin as paper. Withal, it was the abode of work and hope, vast in comparison with the ordinary garrets of youth, and already made bright by a beginning of comfort and luxury.
'There's room here, eh?' he exclaimed. 'Ah! it's a jolly sight more comfortable than the Rue d'Enfer. You see that I've a room to myself. And I have bought myself an oaken writing-table, and my wife made me a present of that dwarf palm in that pot of old Rouen ware. Isn't it swell, eh?'
His wife came in at that very moment. Tall, with a pleasant, tranquil face and beautiful brown hair, she wore a large white apron over her plainly made dress of black poplin; for although they had a regular servant, she saw to the cooking, for she was proud of certain of her dishes, and she put the household on a footing of middle-class cleanliness and love of cheer.
She and Claude became old chums at once.
'Call him Claude, my darling. And you, old man, call her Henriette. No madame nor monsieur, or I shall fine you five sous each time.'
They laughed, and she scampered away, being wanted in the kitchen to look after a southern dish, a bouillabaisse, with which she wished to surprise the Plassans friend. She had obtained the recipe from her husband himself, and had become marvellously deft at it, so he said.
'Your wife is charming,' said Claude, 'and I see she spoils you.'
But Sandoz, seated at his table, with his elbows among such pages of the book he was working at as he had written that morning, began to talk of the first novel of his series, which he had published in October. Ah! they had treated his poor book nicely! It had been a throttling, a butchering, all the critics yelling at his heels, a broadside of imprecations, as if he had murdered people in a wood. He himself laughed at it, excited rather than otherwise, for he had sturdy shoulders and the quiet bearing of a toiler who knows what he's after. Mere surprise remained to him at the profound lack of intelligence shown by those fellows the critics, whose articles, knocked off on the corner of some table, bespattered him with mud, without appearing as much as to guess at the least of his intentions. Everything was flung into the same slop-pail of abuse: his studies of physiological man; the important part he assigned to circumstances and surroundings; his allusions to nature, ever and ever creating; in short, life—entire, universal life—existent through all the animal world without there really being either high or low, beauty or ugliness; he was insulted, too, for his boldness of language for the conviction he expressed that all things ought to be said, that there are abominable expressions which become necessary, like branding irons, and that a language emerges enriched from such strength-giving baths. He easily granted their anger, but he would at least have liked them to do him the honour of understanding him and getting angry at his audacity, not at the idiotic, filthy designs of which he was accused.
'Really,' he continued, 'I believe that the world still contains more idiots than downright spiteful people. They are enraged with me on account of the form I give to my productions, the written sentences, the similes, the very life of my style. Yes, the middle-classes fairly split with hatred of literature!'
Then he became silent, having grown sad.
'Never mind,' said Claude, after an interval, 'you are happy, you at least work, you produce—'
Sandoz had risen from his seat with a gesture of sudden pain.
'True, I work. I work out my books to their last pages—But if you only knew, if I told you amidst what discouragement, amidst what torture! Won't those idiots take it into their heads to accuse me of pride! I, whom the imperfection of my work pursues even in my sleep—I, who never look over the pages of the day before, lest I should find them so execrable that I might afterwards lack the courage to continue. Oh, I work, no doubt, I work! I go on working, as I go on living, because I am born to it, but I am none the gayer on account of it. I am never satisfied; there is always a great collapse at the end.'
He was interrupted by a loud exclamation outside, and Jory appeared, delighted with life, and relating that he had just touched up an old article in order to have the evening to himself. Almost immediately afterwards Gagniere and Mahoudeau, who had met at the door, came in conversing together. The former, who had been absorbed for some months in a theory of colours, was explaining his system to the other.
'I paint my shade in,' he continued, as if in a dream. 'The red of the flag loses its brightness and becomes yellowish because it stands out against the blue of the sky, the complementary shade of which—orange—blends with red—'
Claude, interested at once, was already questioning him when the servant brought in a telegram.
'All right,' said Sandoz, 'it's from Dubuche, who apologises; he promises to come and surprise us at about eleven o'clock.'
At this moment Henriette threw the door wide open, and personally announced that dinner was ready. She had doffed her white apron, and cordially shook hands, as hostess, with all of them. 'Take your seats! take your seats!' was her cry. It was half-past seven already, the bouillabaisse could not wait. Jory, having observed that Fagerolles had sworn to him that he would come, they would not believe it. Fagerolles was getting ridiculous with his habit of aping the great artist overwhelmed with work!
The dining-room into which they passed was so small that, in order to make room for a piano, a kind of alcove had been made out of a dark closet which had formerly served for the accommodation of crockery. However, on grand occasions half a score of people still gathered round the table, under the white porcelain hanging lamp, but this was only accomplished by blocking up the sideboard, so that the servant could not even pass to take a plate from it. However, it was the mistress of the house who carved, while the master took his place facing her, against the blockaded sideboard, in order to hand round whatever things might be required.
Henriette had placed Claude on her right hand, Mahoudeau on her left, while Gagniere and Jory were seated next to Sandoz.
'Francoise,' she called, 'give me the slices of toast. They are on the range.'
And the girl having brought the toast, she distributed two slices to each of them, and was beginning to ladle the bouillabaisse into the plates, when the door opened once more.
'Fagerolles at last!' she said. 'I have given your seat to Mahoudeau. Sit down there, next to Claude.'
He apologised with an air of courtly politeness, by alleging a business appointment. Very elegantly dressed, tightly buttoned up in clothes of an English cut, he had the carriage of a man about town, relieved by the retention of a touch of artistic free-and-easiness. Immediately on sitting down he grasped his neighbour's hand, affecting great delight.
'Ah, my old Claude! I have for such a long time wanted to see you. A score of times I intended going after you into the country; but then, you know, circumstances—'
Claude, feeling uncomfortable at these protestations, endeavoured to meet them with a like cordiality. But Henriette, who was still serving, saved the situation by growing impatient.
'Come, Fagerolles, just answer me. Do you wish two slices of toast?'
'Certainly, madame, two, if you please. I am very fond of bouillabaisse. Besides, yours is delicious, a marvel!'
In fact, they all went into raptures over it, especially Jory and Mahoudeau, who declared they had never tasted anything better at Marseilles; so much so, that the young wife, delighted and still flushed with the heat of the kitchen, her ladle in her hand, had all she could do to refill the plates held out to her; and, indeed, she rose up and ran in person to the kitchen to fetch the remains of the soup, for the servant-girl was losing her wits.
'Come, eat something,' said Sandoz to her. 'We'll wait well enough till you have done.'
But she was obstinate and remained standing.
'Never mind me. You had better pass the bread—yes, there, behind you on the sideboard. Jory prefers crumb, which he can soak in the soup.'
Sandoz rose in his turn and assisted his wife, while the others chaffed Jory on his love for sops. And Claude, moved by the pleasant cordiality of his hosts, and awaking, as it were, from a long sleep, looked at them all, asking himself whether he had only left them on the previous night, or whether four years had really elapsed since he had dined with them one Thursday. They were different, however; he felt them to be changed: Mahoudeau soured by misery, Jory wrapt up in his own pleasures, Gagniere more distant, with his thoughts elsewhere. And it especially seemed to him that Fagerolles was chilly, in spite of his exaggerated cordiality of manner. No doubt their features had aged somewhat amid the wear and tear of life; but it was not only that which he noticed, it seemed to him also as if there was a void between them; he beheld them isolated and estranged from each other, although they were seated elbow to elbow in close array round the table. Then the surroundings were different; nowadays, a woman brought her charm to bear on them, and calmed them by her presence. Then why did he, face to face with the irrevocable current of things, which die and are renewed, experience that sensation of beginning something over again—why was it that he could have sworn that he had been seated at that same place only last Thursday? At last he thought he understood. It was Sandoz who had not changed, who remained as obstinate as regards his habits of friendship, as regards his habits of work, as radiant at being able to receive his friends at the board of his new home as he had formerly been, when sharing his frugal bachelor fare with them. A dream of eternal friendship made him changeless. Thursdays similar one to another followed and followed on until the furthest stages of their lives. All of them were eternally together, all started at the self-same hour, and participated in the same triumph!
Sandoz must have guessed the thought that kept Claude mute, for he said to him across the table, with his frank, youthful smile:
'Well, old man, here you are again! Ah, confound it! we missed you sorely. But, you see, nothing is changed; we are all the same—aren't we, all of you?'
They answered by nodding their heads—no doubt, no doubt!
'With this difference,' he went on, beaming—'with this difference, that the cookery is somewhat better than in the Rue d'Enfer! What a lot of messes I did make you swallow!'
After the bouillabaisse there came a civet of hare; and a roast fowl and salad terminated the dinner. But they sat for a long time at table, and the dessert proved a protracted affair, although the conversation lacked the fever and violence of yore. Every one spoke of himself and ended by relapsing into silence on perceiving that the others did not listen to him. With the cheese, however, when they had tasted some burgundy, a sharp little growth, of which the young couple had ordered a cask out of the profits of Sandoz's first novel, their voices rose to a higher key, and they all grew animated.
'So you have made an arrangement with Naudet, eh?' asked Mahoudeau, whose bony cheeks seemed to have grown yet more hollow. 'Is it true that he guarantees you fifty thousand francs for the first year?'
Fagerolles replied, with affected carelessness, 'Yes, fifty thousand francs. But nothing is settled; I'm thinking it over. It is hard to engage oneself like that. I am not going to do anything precipitately.'
'The deuce!' muttered the sculptor; 'you are hard to please. For twenty francs a day I'd sign whatever you like.'
They all now listened to Fagerolles, who posed as being wearied by his budding success. He still had the same good-looking, disturbing hussy-like face, but the fashion in which he wore his hair and the cut of his beard lent him an appearance of gravity. Although he still came at long intervals to Sandoz's, he was separating from the band; he showed himself on the boulevards, frequented the cafes and newspaper offices—all the places where a man can advertise himself and make useful acquaintances. These were tactics of his own, a determination to carve his own victory apart from the others; the smart idea that if he wished to triumph he ought to have nothing more in common with those revolutionists, neither dealer, nor connections, nor habits. It was even said that he had interested the female element of two or three drawing-rooms in his success, not in Jory's style, but like a vicious fellow who rises superior to his passions, and is content to adulate superannuated baronesses.
Just then Jory, in view of lending importance to himself, called Fagerolles' attention to a recently published article; he pretended that he had made Fagerolles just as he pretended that he had made Claude. 'I say, have you read that article of Vernier's about yourself? There's another fellow who repeats my ideas!'
'Ah, he does get articles, and no mistake!' sighed Mahoudeau.
Fagerolles made a careless gesture, but he smiled with secret contempt for all those poor beggars who were so utterly deficient in shrewdness that they clung, like simpletons, to their crude style, when it was so easy to conquer the crowd. Had it not sufficed for him to break with them, after pillaging them, to make his own fortune? He benefited by all the hatred that folks had against them; his pictures, of a softened, attenuated style, were held up in praise, so as to deal the death-blow to their ever obstinately violent works.
'Have you read Vernier's article?' asked Jory of Gagniere. 'Doesn't he say exactly what I said?'
For the last few moments Gagniere had been absorbed in contemplating his glass, the wine in which cast a ruddy reflection on the white tablecloth. He started:
'Eh, what, Vernier's article?'
'Why, yes; in fact, all those articles which appear about Fagerolles.'
Gagniere in amazement turned to the painter.
'What, are they writing articles about you? I know nothing about them, I haven't seen them. Ah! they are writing articles about you, but whatever for?'
There was a mad roar of laughter. Fagerolles alone grinned with an ill grace, for he fancied himself the butt of some spiteful joke. But Gagniere spoke in absolute good faith. He felt surprised at the success of a painter who did not even observe the laws regulating the value of tints. Success for that trickster! Never! For in that case what would become of conscientiousness?
This boisterous hilarity enlivened the end of the dinner. They all left off eating, though the mistress of the house still insisted upon filling their plates.
'My dear, do attend to them,' she kept saying to Sandoz, who had grown greatly excited amidst the din. 'Just stretch out your hand; the biscuits are on the side-board.'
They all declined anything more, and rose up. As the rest of the evening was to be spent there, round the table, drinking tea, they leaned back against the walls and continued chatting while the servant cleared away. The young couple assisted, Henriette putting the salt-cellars in a drawer, and Sandoz helping to fold the cloth.
'You can smoke,' said Henriette. 'You know that it doesn't inconvenience me in the least.'
Fagerolles, who had drawn Claude into the window recess, offered him a cigar, which was declined.
'True, I forgot; you don't smoke. Ah! I say, I must go to see what you have brought back with you. Some very interesting things, no doubt. You know what I think of your talent. You are the cleverest of us all.'
He showed himself very humble, sincere at heart, and allowing his admiration of former days to rise once more to the surface; indeed, he for ever bore the imprint of another's genius, which he admitted, despite the complex calculations of his cunning mind. But his humility was mingled with a certain embarrassment very rare with him—the concern he felt at the silence which the master of his youth preserved respecting his last picture. At last he ventured to ask, with quivering lips:
'Did you see my actress at the Salon? Do you like it? Tell me candidly.'
Claude hesitated for a moment; then, like the good-natured fellow he was, said:
'Yes; there are some very good bits in it.'
Fagerolles already repented having asked that stupid question, and he ended by altogether floundering; he tried to excuse himself for his plagiarisms and his compromises. When with great difficulty he had got out of the mess, enraged with himself for his clumsiness, he for a moment became the joker of yore again, made even Claude laugh till he cried, and amused them all. At last he held out his hand to take leave of Henriette.
'What, going so soon?'
'Alas! yes, dear madame. This evening my father is entertaining the head of a department at one of the ministries, an official whom he's trying to influence in view of obtaining a decoration; and, as I am one of his titles to that distinction, I had to promise that I would look in.'
When he was gone, Henriette, who had exchanged a few words in a low voice with Sandoz, disappeared; and her light footfall was heard on the first floor. Since her marriage it was she who tended the old, infirm mother, absenting herself in this fashion several times during the evening, just as the son had done formerly.
Not one of the guests, however, had noticed her leave the room. Mahoudeau and Gagniere were now talking about Fagerolles; showing themselves covertly bitter, without openly attacking him. As yet they contented themselves with ironical glances and shrugs of the shoulders—all the silent contempt of fellows who don't wish to slash a chum. Then they fell back on Claude; they prostrated themselves before him, overwhelmed him with the hopes they set in him. Ah! it was high time for him to come back, for he alone, with his great gifts, his vigorous touch, could become the master, the recognised chief. Since the Salon of the Rejected the 'school of the open air' had increased in numbers; a growing influence was making itself felt; but unfortunately, the efforts were frittered away; the new recruits contented themselves with producing sketches, impressions thrown off with a few strokes of the brush; they were awaiting the necessary man of genius, the one who would incarnate the new formula in masterpieces. What a position to take! to master the multitude, to open up a century, to create a new art! Claude listened to them, with his eyes turned to the floor and his face very pale. Yes, that indeed was his unavowed dream, the ambition he dared not confess to himself. Only, with the delight that the flattery caused him, there was mingled a strange anguish, a dread of the future, as he heard them raising him to the position of dictator, as if he had already triumphed.
'Don't,' he exclaimed at last; 'there are others as good as myself. I am still seeking my real line.'
Jory, who felt annoyed, was smoking in silence. Suddenly, as the others obstinately kept at it, he could not refrain from remarking:
'All this, my boys, is because you are vexed at Fagerolles' success.'
They energetically denied it; they burst out in protestations. Fagerolles, the young master! What a good joke!
'Oh, you are turning your back upon us, we know it,' said Mahoudeau. 'There's no fear of your writing a line about us nowadays.'
'Well, my dear fellow,' answered Jory, vexed, 'everything I write about you is cut out. You make yourselves hated everywhere. Ah! if I had a paper of my own!'
Henriette came back, and Sandoz's eyes having sought hers, she answered him with a glance and the same affectionate, quiet smile that he had shown when leaving his mother's room in former times. Then she summoned them all. They sat down again round the table while she made the tea and poured it out. But the gathering grew sad, benumbed, as it were, with lassitude. Sandoz vainly tried a diversion by admitting Bertrand, the big dog, who grovelled at sight of the sugar-basin, and ended by going to sleep near the stove, where he snored like a man. Since the discussion on Fagerolles there had been intervals of silence, a kind of bored irritation, which fell heavily upon them amidst the dense tobacco smoke. And, in fact, Gagniere felt so out of sorts that he left the table for a moment to seat himself at the piano, murdering some passages from Wagner in a subdued key, with the stiff fingers of an amateur who tries his first scale at thirty.
Towards eleven o'clock Dubuche, arriving at last, contributed the finishing touch to the general frost. He had made his escape from a ball to fulfil what he considered a remaining duty towards his old comrades; and his dress-coat, his white necktie, his fat, pale face, all proclaimed his vexation at having come, the importance he attached to the sacrifice, and the fear he felt of compromising his new position. He avoided mentioning his wife, so that he might not have to bring her to Sandoz's. When he had shaken hands with Claude, without showing more emotion than if he had met him the day before, he declined a cup of tea and spoke slowly—puffing out his cheeks the while—of his worry in settling in a brand-new house, and of the work that had overwhelmed him since he had attended to the business of his father-in-law, who was building a whole street near the Parc Monceau.
Then Claude distinctly felt that something had snapped. Had life then already carried away the evenings of former days, those evenings so fraternal in their very violence, when nothing had as yet separated them, when not one of them had thought of keeping his part of glory to himself? Nowadays the battle was beginning. Each hungry one was eagerly biting. And a fissure was there, a scarcely perceptible crack that had rent the old, sworn friendships, and some day would make them crumble into a thousand pieces.
However, Sandoz, with his craving for perpetuity, had so far noticed nothing; he still beheld them as they had been in the Rue d'Enfer, all arm in arm, starting off to victory. Why change what was well? Did not happiness consist in one pleasure selected from among all, and then enjoyed for ever afterwards? And when, an hour later, the others made up their minds to go off, wearied by the dull egotism of Dubuche, who had not left off talking about his own affairs; when they had dragged Gagniere, in a trance, away from the piano, Sandoz, followed by his wife, absolutely insisted, despite the coldness of the night, on accompanying them all to the gate at the end of the garden. He shook hands all round, and shouted after them:
'Till Thursday, Claude; till next Thursday, all of you, eh? Mind you all come!'
'Till Thursday!' repeated Henriette, who had taken the lantern and was holding it aloft so as to light the steps.
And, amid the laughter, Gagniere and Mahoudeau replied, jokingly: 'Till Thursday, young master! Good-night, young master!'
Once in the Rue Nollet, Dubuche immediately hailed a cab, in which he drove away. The other four walked together as far as the outer boulevards, scarcely exchanging a word, looking dazed, as it were, at having been in each other's company so long. At last Jory decamped, pretending that some proofs were waiting for him at the office of his newspaper. Then Gagniere mechanically stopped Claude in front of the Cafe Baudequin, the gas of which was still blazing away. Mahoudeau refused to go in, and went off alone, sadly ruminating, towards the Rue du Cherche-Midi.
Without knowing how, Claude found himself seated at their old table, opposite Gagniere, who was silent. The cafe had not changed. The friends still met there of a Sunday, showing a deal of fervour, in fact, since Sandoz had lived in the neighbourhood; but the band was now lost amid a flood of new-comers; it was slowly being submerged by the increasing triteness of the young disciples of the 'open air.' At that hour of night, however, the establishment was getting empty. Three young painters, whom Claude did not know, came to shake hands with him as they went off; and then there merely remained a petty retired tradesman of the neighbourhood, asleep in front of a saucer.
Gagniere, quite at his ease, as if he had been at home, absolutely indifferent to the yawns of the solitary waiter, who was stretching his arms, glanced towards Claude, but without seeing him, for his eyes were dim.
'By the way,' said the latter, 'what were you explaining to Mahoudeau this evening? Yes, about the red of a flag turning yellowish amid the blue of the sky. That was it, eh? You are studying the theory of complementary colours.'
But the other did not answer. He took up his glass of beer, set it down again without tasting its contents, and with an ecstatic smile ended by muttering:
'Haydn has all the gracefulness of a rhetorician—his is a gentle music, quivering like the voice of a great-grandmother in powdered hair. Mozart, he's the precursory genius—the first who endowed an orchestra with an individual voice; and those two will live mostly because they created Beethoven. Ah, Beethoven! power and strength amidst serene suffering, Michael Angelo at the tomb of the Medici! A heroic logician, a kneader of human brains; for the symphony, with choral accompaniments, was the starting-point of all the great ones of to-day!'
The waiter, tired of waiting, began to turn off the gas, wearily dragging his feet along as he did so. Mournfulness pervaded the deserted room, dirty with saliva and cigar ends, and reeking of spilt drink; while from the hushed boulevard the only sound that came was the distant blubbering of some drunkard.
Gagniere, still in the clouds, however, continued to ride his hobby-horse.
'Weber passes by us amid a romantic landscape, conducting the ballads of the dead amidst weeping willows and oaks with twisted branches. Schumann follows him, beneath the pale moonlight, along the shores of silvery lakes. And behold, here comes Rossini, incarnation of the musical gift, so gay, so natural, without the least concern for expression, caring nothing for the public, and who isn't my man by a long way—ah! certainly not—but then, all the same, he astonishes one by his wealth of production, and the huge effects he derives from an accumulation of voices and an ever-swelling repetition of the same strain. These three led to Meyerbeer, a cunning fellow who profited by everything, introducing symphony into opera after Weber, and giving dramatic expression to the unconscious formulas of Rossini. Oh! the superb bursts of sound, the feudal pomp, the martial mysticism, the quivering of fantastic legends, the cry of passion ringing out through history! And such finds!—each instrument endowed with a personality, the dramatic recitatives accompanied symphoniously by the orchestra—the typical musical phrase on which an entire work is built! Ah! he was a great fellow—a very great fellow indeed!'
'I am going to shut up, sir,' said the waiter, drawing near.
And, seeing that Gagniere did not as much as look round, he went to awaken the petty retired tradesman, who was still dozing in front of his saucer.
'I am going to shut up, sir.'
The belated customer rose up, shivering, fumbled in the dark corner where he was seated for his walking-stick, and when the waiter had picked it up for him from under the seats he went away.
And Gagniere rambled on:
'Berlioz has mingled literature with his work. He is the musical illustrator of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Goethe. But what a painter!—the Delacroix of music, who makes sound blaze forth amidst effulgent contrasts of colour. And withal he has romanticism in his brain, a religious mysticism that carries him away, an ecstasy that soars higher than mountain summits. A bad builder of operas, but marvellous in detached pieces, asking too much at times of the orchestra which he tortures, having pushed the personality of instruments to its furthest limits; for each instrument represents a character to him. Ah! that remark of his about clarionets: "They typify beloved women." Ah! it has always made a shiver run down my back. And Chopin, so dandified in his Byronism; the dreamy poet of those who suffer from neurosis! And Mendelssohn, that faultless chiseller! a Shakespeare in dancing pumps, whose "songs without words" are gems for women of intellect! And after that—after that—a man should go down on his knees.'
There was now only one gas-lamp alight just above his head, and the waiter standing behind him stood waiting amid the gloomy, chilly void of the room. Gagniere's voice had come to a reverential tremolo. He was reaching devotional fervour as he approached the inner tabernacle, the holy of holies.
'Oh! Schumann, typical of despair, the voluptuousness of despair! Yes, the end of everything, the last song of saddened purity hovering above the ruins of the world! Oh! Wagner, the god in whom centuries of music are incarnated! His work is the immense ark, all the arts blended in one; the real humanity of the personages at last expressed, the orchestra itself living apart the life of the drama. And what a massacre of conventionality, of inept formulas! what a revolutionary emancipation amid the infinite! The overture of "Tannhauser," ah! that's the sublime hallelujah of the new era. First of all comes the chant of the pilgrims, the religious strain, calm, deep and slowly throbbing; then the voices of the sirens gradually drown it; the voluptuous pleasures of Venus, full of enervating delight and languor, grow more and more imperious and disorderly; and soon the sacred air gradually returns, like the aspiring voice of space, and seizes hold of all other strains and blends them in one supreme harmony, to waft them away on the wings of a triumphal hymn!'
'I am going to shut up, sir,' repeated the waiter.
Claude, who no longer listened, he also being absorbed in his own passion, emptied his glass of beer and cried: 'Eh, old man, they are going to shut up.'
Then Gagniere trembled. A painful twitch came over his ecstatic face, and he shivered as if he had dropped from the stars. He gulped down his beer, and once on the pavement outside, after pressing his companion's hand in silence, he walked off into the gloom.
It was nearly two o'clock in the morning when Claude returned to the Rue de Douai. During the week that he had been scouring Paris anew, he had each time brought back with him the feverish excitement of the day. But he had never before returned so late, with his brain so hot and smoky. Christine, overcome with fatigue, was asleep under the lamp, which had gone out, her brow resting on the edge of the table.
AT last Christine gave a final stroke with her feather-broom, and they were settled. The studio in the Rue de Douai, small and inconvenient, had only one little room, and a kitchen, as big as a cupboard, attached to it. They were obliged to take their meals in the studio; they had to live in it, with the child always tumbling about their legs. And Christine had a deal of trouble in making their few sticks suffice, as she wished to do, in order to save expense. After all, she was obliged to buy a second-hand bedstead; and yielded to the temptation of having some white muslin curtains, which cost her seven sous the metre. The den then seemed charming to her, and she began to keep it scrupulously clean, resolving to do everything herself, and to dispense with a servant, as living would be a difficult matter.
During the first months Claude lived in ever-increasing excitement. His peregrinations through the noisy streets; his feverish discussions on the occasion of his visits to friends; all the rage and all the burning ideas he thus brought home from out of doors, made him hold forth aloud even in his sleep. Paris had seized hold of him again; and in the full blaze of that furnace, a second youth, enthusiastic ambition to see, do, and conquer, had come upon him. Never had he felt such a passion for work, such hope, as if it sufficed for him to stretch out his hand in order to create masterpieces that should set him in the right rank, which was the first. While crossing Paris he discovered subjects for pictures everywhere; the whole city, with its streets, squares, bridges, and panoramas of life, suggested immense frescoes, which he, however, always found too small, for he was intoxicated with the thought of doing something colossal. Thus he returned home quivering, his brain seething with projects; and of an evening threw off sketches on bits of paper, in the lamp-light, without being able to decide by what he ought to begin the series of grand productions that he dreamt about.
One serious obstacle was the smallness of his studio. If he had only had the old garret of the Quai de Bourbon, or even the huge dining-room of Bennecourt! But what could he do in that oblong strip of space, that kind of passage, which the landlord of the house impudently let to painters for four hundred francs a year, after roofing it in with glass? The worst was that the sloping glazed roof looked to the north, between two high walls, and only admitted a greenish cellar-like light. He was therefore obliged to postpone his ambitious projects, and he decided to begin with average-sized canvases, wisely saying to himself that the dimensions of a picture are not a proper test of an artist's genius.
The moment seemed to him favourable for the success of a courageous artist who, amidst the breaking up of the old schools, would at length bring some originality and sincerity into his work. The formulas of recent times were already shaken. Delacroix had died without leaving any disciples. Courbet had barely a few clumsy imitators behind him; their best pieces would merely become so many museum pictures, blackened by age, tokens only of the art of a certain period. It seemed easy to foresee the new formula that would spring from theirs, that rush of sunshine, that limpid dawn which was rising in new works under the nascent influence of the 'open air' school. It was undeniable; those light-toned paintings over which people had laughed so much at the Salon of the Rejected were secretly influencing many painters, and gradually brightening every palette. Nobody, as yet, admitted it, but the first blow had been dealt, and an evolution was beginning, which became more perceptible at each succeeding Salon. And what a stroke it would be if, amidst the unconscious copies of impotent essayists, amidst the timid artful attempts of tricksters, a master were suddenly to reveal himself, giving body to the new formula by dint of audacity and power, without compromise, showing it such as it should be, substantial, entire, so that it might become the truth of the end of the century!
In that first hour of passion and hope, Claude, usually so harassed by doubts, believed in his genius. He no longer experienced any of those crises, the anguish of which had driven him for days into the streets in quest of his vanished courage. A fever stiffened him, he worked on with the blind obstinacy of an artist who dives into his entrails, to drag therefrom the fruit that tortures him. His long rest in the country had endowed him with singular freshness of visual perception, and joyous delight in execution; he seemed to have been born anew to his art, and endowed with a facility and balance of power he had never hitherto possessed. He also felt certain of progress, and experienced great satisfaction at some successful bits of work, in which his former sterile efforts at last culminated. As he had said at Bennecourt, he had got hold of his 'open air,' that carolling gaiety of tints which astonished his comrades when they came to see him. They all admired, convinced that he would only have to show his work to take a very high place with it, such was its individuality of style, for the first time showing nature flooded with real light, amid all the play of reflections and the constant variations of colours.