Thus, for three years, Claude struggled on, without weakening, spurred to further efforts by each rebuff, abandoning nought of his ideas, but marching straight before him, with all the vigour of faith.
During the first year he went forth amid the December snows to place himself for four hours a day behind the heights of Montmartre, at the corner of a patch of waste land whence as a background he painted some miserable, low, tumble-down buildings, overtopped by factory chimneys, whilst in the foreground, amidst the snow, he set a girl and a ragged street rough devouring stolen apples. His obstinacy in painting from nature greatly complicated his work, and gave rise to almost insuperable difficulties. However, he finished this picture out of doors; he merely cleaned and touched it up a bit in his studio. When the canvas was placed beneath the wan daylight of the glazed roof, he himself was startled by its brutality. It showed like a scene beheld through a doorway open on the street. The snow blinded one. The two figures, of a muddy grey in tint, stood out, lamentable. He at once felt that such a picture would not be accepted, but he did not try to soften it; he sent it to the Salon, all the same. After swearing that he would never again try to exhibit, he now held the view that one should always present something to the hanging committee if merely to accentuate its wrong-doing. Besides, he admitted the utility of the Salon, the only battlefield on which an artist might come to the fore at one stroke. The hanging committee refused his picture.
The second year Claude sought a contrast. He selected a bit of the public garden of Batignolles in May; in the background were some large chestnut trees casting their shade around a corner of greensward and several six-storied houses; while in front, on a seat of a crude green hue, some nurses and petty cits of the neighbourhood sat in a line watching three little girls making sand pies. When permission to paint there had been obtained, he had needed some heroism to bring his work to a successful issue amid the bantering crowd. At last he made up his mind to go there at five in the morning, in order to paint in the background; reserving the figures, he contented himself with making mere sketches of them from nature, and finishing them in his studio. This time his picture seemed to him less crude; it had acquired some of the wan, softened light which descended through the glass roof. He thought his picture accepted, for all his friends pronounced it to be a masterpiece, and went about saying that it would revolutionise the Salon. There was stupefaction and indignation when a fresh refusal of the hanging committee was rumoured. The committee's intentions could not be denied: it was a question of systematically strangling an original artist. He, after his first burst of passion, vented all his anger upon his work, which he stigmatised as false, dishonest, and execrable. It was a well-deserved lesson, which he should remember: ought he to have relapsed into that cellar-like studio light? Was he going to revert to the filthy cooking of imaginary figures? When the picture came back, he took a knife and ripped it from top to bottom.
And so during the third year he obstinately toiled on a work of revolt. He wanted the blazing sun, that Paris sun which, on certain days, turns the pavement to a white heat in the dazzling reflection from the house frontages. Nowhere is it hotter; even people from burning climes mop their faces; you would say you were in some region of Africa beneath the heavily raining glow of a sky on fire. The subject Claude chose was a corner of the Place du Carrousel, at one o'clock in the afternoon, when the sunrays fall vertically. A cab was jolting along, its driver half asleep, its horse steaming, with drooping head, vague amid the throbbing heat. The passers-by seemed, as it were, intoxicated, with the one exception of a young woman, who, rosy and gay under her parasol, walked on with an easy queen-like step, as if the fiery element were her proper sphere. But what especially rendered this picture terrible was a new interpretation of the effects of light, a very accurate decomposition of the sunrays, which ran counter to all the habits of eyesight, by emphasising blues, yellows and reds, where nobody had been accustomed to see any. In the background the Tuileries vanished in a golden shimmer; the paving-stones bled, so to say; the figures were only so many indications, sombre patches eaten into by the vivid glare. This time his comrades, while still praising, looked embarrassed, all seized with the same apprehensions. Such painting could only lead to martyrdom. He, amidst their praises, understood well enough the rupture that was taking place, and when the hanging committee had once more closed the Salon against him, he dolorously exclaimed, in a moment of lucidity:
'All right; it's an understood thing—I'll die at the task.'
However, although his obstinate courage seemed to increase, he now and then gradually relapsed into his former doubts, consumed by the struggle he was waging with nature. Every canvas that came back to him seemed bad to him—above all incomplete, not realising what he had aimed at. It was this idea of impotence that exasperated him even more than the refusals of the hanging committee. No doubt he did not forgive the latter; his works, even in an embryo state, were a hundred times better than all the trash which was accepted. But what suffering he felt at being ever unable to show himself in all his strength, in such a master-piece as he could not bring his genius to yield! There were always some superb bits in his paintings. He felt satisfied with this, that, and the other. Why, then, were there sudden voids? Why were there inferior bits, which he did not perceive while he was at work, but which afterwards utterly killed the picture like ineffaceable defects? And he felt quite unable to make any corrections; at certain moments a wall rose up, an insuperable obstacle, beyond which he was forbidden to venture. If he touched up the part that displeased him a score of times, so a score of times did he aggravate the evil, till everything became quite muddled and messy.
He grew anxious, and failed to see things clearly; his brush refused to obey him, and his will was paralysed. Was it his hands or his eyes that ceased to belong to him amid those progressive attacks of the hereditary disorder that had already made him anxious? Those attacks became more frequent; he once more lapsed into horrible weeks, wearing himself out, oscillating betwixt uncertainty and hope; and his only support during those terrible hours, which he spent in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with his rebellious work, was the consoling dream of his future masterpiece, the one with which he would at last be fully satisfied, in painting which his hands would show all the energy and deftness of true creative skill. By some ever-recurring phenomenon, his longing to create outstripped the quickness of his fingers; he never worked at one picture without planning the one that was to follow. Then all that remained to him was an eager desire to rid himself of the work on which he was engaged, for it brought him torture; no doubt it would be good for nothing; he was still making fatal concessions, having recourse to trickery, to everything that a true artist should banish from his conscience. But what he meant to do after that—ah! what he meant to do—he beheld it superb and heroic, above attack and indestructible. All this was the everlasting mirage that goads on the condemned disciples of art, a falsehood that comes in a spirit of tenderness and compassion, and without which production would become impossible to those who die of their failure to create life.
In addition to those constantly renewed struggles with himself, Claude's material difficulties now increased. Was it not enough that he could not give birth to what he felt existing within him? Must he also battle with every-day cares? Though he refused to admit it, painting from nature in the open air became impossible when a picture was beyond a certain size. How could he settle himself in the streets amidst the crowd?—how obtain from each person the necessary number of sittings? That sort of painting must evidently be confined to certain determined subjects, landscapes, small corners of the city, in which the figures would be but so many silhouettes, painted in afterwards. There were also a thousand and one difficulties connected with the weather; the wind which threatened to carry off the easel, the rain which obliged one to interrupt one's work. On such days Claude came home in a rage, shaking his fist at the sky and accusing nature of resisting him in order that he might not take and vanquish her. He also complained bitterly of being poor; for his dream was to have a movable studio, a vehicle in Paris, a boat on the Seine, in both of which he would have lived like an artistic gipsy. But nothing came to his aid, everything conspired against his work.
And Christine suffered with Claude. She had shared his hopes very bravely, brightening the studio with her housewifely activity; but now she sat down, discouraged, when she saw him powerless. At each picture which was refused she displayed still deeper grief, hurt in her womanly self-love, taking that pride in success which all women have. The painter's bitterness soured her also; she entered into his feelings and passions, identified herself with his tastes, defended his painting, which had become, as it were, part of herself, the one great concern of their lives—indeed, the only important one henceforth, since it was the one whence she expected all her happiness. She understood well enough that art robbed her more and more of her lover each day, but the real struggle between herself and art had not yet begun. For the time she yielded, and let herself be carried away with Claude, so that they might be but one—one only in the self-same effort. From that partial abdication of self there sprang, however, a sadness, a dread of what might be in store for her later on. Every now and then a shudder chilled her to the very heart. She felt herself growing old, while intense melancholy upset her, an unreasoning longing to weep, which she satisfied in the gloomy studio for hours together, when she was alone there.
At that period her heart expanded, as it were, and a mother sprang from the loving woman. That motherly feeling for her big artist child was made up of all the vague infinite pity which filled her with tenderness, of the illogical fits of weakness into which she saw him fall each hour, of the constant pardons which she was obliged to grant him. He was beginning to make her unhappy, his caresses were few and far between, a look of weariness constantly overspread his features. How could she love him then if not with that other affection of every moment, remaining in adoration before him, and unceasingly sacrificing herself? In her inmost being insatiable passion still lingered; she was still the sensuous woman with thick lips set in obstinately prominent jaws. Yet there was a gentle melancholy, in being merely a mother to him, in trying to make him happy amid that life of theirs which now was spoilt.
Little Jacques was the only one to suffer from that transfer of tenderness. She neglected him more; the man, his father, became her child, and the poor little fellow remained as mere testimony of their great passion of yore. As she saw him grow up, and no longer require so much care, she began to sacrifice him, without intentional harshness, but merely because she felt like that. At meal-times she only gave him the inferior bits; the cosiest nook near the stove was not for his little chair; if ever the fear of an accident made her tremble now and then, her first cry, her first protecting movement was not for her helpless child. She ever relegated him to the background, suppressed him, as it were: 'Jacques, be quiet; you tire your father. Jacques, keep still; don't you see that your father is at work?'
The urchin suffered from being cooped up in Paris. He, who had had the whole country-side to roll about in, felt stifled in the narrow space where he now had to keep quiet. His rosy cheeks became pale, he grew up puny, serious, like a little man, with eyes which stared at things in wonder. He was five by now, and his head by a singular phenomenon had become disproportionately large, in such wise as to make his father say, 'He has a great man's nut!' But the child's intelligence seemed, on the contrary, to decrease in proportion as his skull became larger. Very gentle and timid, he became absorbed in thought for hours, incapable of answering a question. And when he emerged from that state of immobility he had mad fits of shouting and jumping, like a young animal giving rein to instinct. At such times warnings 'to keep quiet' rained upon him, for his mother failed to understand his sudden outbursts, and became uneasy at seeing the father grow irritated as he sat before his easel. Getting cross herself, she would then hastily seat the little fellow in his corner again. Quieted all at once, giving the startled shudder of one who has been too abruptly awakened, the child would after a time doze off with his eyes wide open, so careless of enjoying life that his toys, corks, pictures, and empty colour-tubes dropped listlessly from his hands. Christine had already tried to teach him his alphabet, but he had cried and struggled, so they had decided to wait another year or two before sending him to school, where his masters would know how to make him learn.
Christine at last began to grow frightened at the prospect of impending misery. In Paris, with that growing child beside them, living proved expensive, and the end of each month became terrible, despite her efforts to save in every direction. They had nothing certain but Claude's thousand francs a year; and how could they live on fifty francs a month, which was all that was left to them after deducting four hundred francs for the rent? At first they had got out of embarrassment, thanks to the sale of a few pictures, Claude having found Gagniere's old amateur, one of those detested bourgeois who possess the ardent souls of artists, despite the monomaniacal habits in which they are confined. This one, M. Hue, a retired chief clerk in a public department, was unfortunately not rich enough to be always buying, and he could only bewail the purblindness of the public, which once more allowed a genius to die of starvation; for he himself, convinced, struck by grace at the first glance, had selected Claude's crudest works, which he hung by the side of his Delacroix, predicting equal fortune for them. The worst was that Papa Malgras had just retired after making his fortune. It was but a modest competence after all, an income of about ten thousand francs, upon which he had decided to live in a little house at Bois Colombes, like the careful man he was.
It was highly amusing to hear him speak of the famous Naudet, full of disdain for the millions turned over by that speculator, 'millions that would some day fall upon his nose,' said Malgras. Claude, having casually met him, only succeeded in selling him a last picture, one of his sketches from the nude made at the Boutin studio, that superb study of a woman's trunk which the erstwhile dealer had not been able to see afresh without feeling a revival of his old passion for it. So misery was imminent; outlets were closing instead of new ones opening; disquieting rumours were beginning to circulate concerning the young painter's works, so constantly rejected at the Salon; and besides, Claude's style of art, so revolutionary and imperfect, in which the startled eye found nought of admitted conventionality, would of itself have sufficed to drive away wealthy buyers. One evening, being unable to settle his bill at his colour shop, the painter had exclaimed that he would live upon the capital of his income rather than lower himself to the degrading production of trade pictures. But Christine had violently opposed such an extreme measure; she would retrench still further; in short, she preferred anything to such madness, which would end by throwing them into the streets without even bread to eat.
After the rejection of Claude's third picture, the summer proved so wonderfully fine that the painter seemed to derive new strength from it. There was not a cloud; limpid light streamed day after day upon the giant activity of Paris. Claude had resumed his peregrinations through the city, determined to find a masterstroke, as he expressed it, something huge, something decisive, he did not exactly know what. September came, and still he had found nothing that satisfied him; he simply went mad for a week about one or another subject, and then declared that it was not the thing after all. His life was spent in constant excitement; he was ever on the watch, on the point of setting his hand on the realisation of his dream, which always flew away. In reality, beneath his intractable realism lay the superstition of a nervous woman; he believed in occult and complex influences; everything, luck or ill-luck, must depend upon the view selected.
One afternoon—it was one of the last fine days of the season—Claude took Christine out with him, leaving little Jacques in the charge of the doorkeeper, a kind old woman, as was their wont when they wanted to go out together. That day the young painter was possessed by a sudden whim to ramble about and revisit in Christine's company the nooks beloved in other days; and behind this desire of his there lurked a vague hope that she would bring him luck. And thus they went as far as the Pont Louis-Philippe, and remained for a quarter of an hour on the Quai des Ormes, silent, leaning against the parapet, and looking at the old Hotel du Martoy, across the Seine, where they had first loved each other. Then, still without saying a word, they went their former round; they started along the quays, under the plane trees, seeing the past rise up before them at every step. Everything spread out again: the bridges with their arches opening upon the sheeny water; the Cite, enveloped in shade, above which rose the flavescent towers of Notre-Dame; the great curve of the right bank flooded with sunlight, and ending in the indistinct silhouette of the Pavillon de Flore, together with the broad avenues, the monuments and edifices on both banks, and all the life of the river, the floating wash-houses, the baths, and the lighters.
As of old, the orb in its decline followed them, seemingly rolling along the distant housetops, and assuming a crescent shape, as it appeared from behind the dome of the Institute. There was a dazzling sunset, they had never beheld a more magnificent one, such a majestic descent amidst tiny cloudlets that changed into purple network, between the meshes of which a shower of gold escaped. But of the past that thus rose up before their eyes there came to them nought but invincible sadness—a sensation that things escaped them, and that it was impossible for them to retrace their way up stream and live their life over again. All those old stones remained cold. The constant current beneath the bridges, the water that had ever flowed onward and onward, seemed to have borne away something of their own selves, the delight of early desire and the joyfulness of hope. Now that they belonged to one another, they no longer tasted the simple happiness born of feeling the warm pressure of their arms as they strolled on slowly, enveloped by the mighty vitality of Paris.
On reaching the Pont des Saints-Peres, Claude, in sheer despair, stopped short. He had relinquished Christine's arm, and had turned his face towards the point of the Cite. She no doubt felt the severance that was taking place and became very sad. Seeing that he lingered there obliviously, she wished to regain her hold upon him.
'My dear,' said she, 'let us go home; it's time. Jacques will be waiting for us, you know.'
But he went half way across the bridge, and she had to follow him. Then once more he remained motionless, with his eyes still fixed on the Cite, on that island which ever rode at anchor, the cradle and heart of Paris, where for centuries all the blood of her arteries had converged amid the constant growth of faubourgs invading the plain. And a glow came over Claude's face, his eyes sparkled, and at last he made a sweeping gesture:
In the immediate foreground beneath them was the port of St. Nicolas, with the low shanties serving as offices for the inspectors of navigation, and the large paved river-bank sloping down, littered with piles of sand, barrels, and sacks, and edged with a row of lighters, still full, in which busy lumpers swarmed beneath the gigantic arm of an iron crane. Then on the other side of the river, above a cold swimming-bath, resounding with the shouts of the last bathers of the season, the strips of grey linen that served as a roofing flapped in the wind. In the middle, the open stream flowed on in rippling, greenish wavelets tipped here and there with white, blue, and pink. And then there came the Pont des Arts, standing back, high above the water on its iron girders, like black lace-work, and animated by a ceaseless procession of foot-passengers, who looked like ants careering over the narrow line of the horizontal plane. Below, the Seine flowed away to the far distance; you saw the old arches of the Pont-Neuf, browny with stone-rust; on the left, as far as the Isle of St. Louis, came a mirror-like gap; and the other arm of the river curved sharply, the lock gates of the Mint shutting out the view with a bar of foam. Along the Pont-Neuf passed big yellow omnibuses, motley vehicles of all kinds, with the mechanical regularity of so many children's toys. The whole of the background was inframed within the perspective of the two banks; on the right were houses on the quays, partly hidden by a cluster of lofty trees, from behind which on the horizon there emerged a corner of the Hotel de Villa, together with the square clock tower of St. Gervais, both looking as indistinct as if they had stood far away in the suburbs. And on the left bank there was a wing of the Institute, the flat frontage of the Mint, and yet another enfilade of trees.
But the centre of the immense picture, that which rose most prominently from the stream and soared to the sky, was the Cite, showing like the prow of an antique vessel, ever burnished by the setting sun. Down below, the poplars on the strip of ground that joins the two sections of the Pont-Neuf hid the statue of Henri IV. with a dense mass of green foliage. Higher up, the sun set the two lines of frontages in contrast, wrapping the grey buildings of the Quai de l'Horloge in shade, and illumining with a blaze those of the Quai des Orfevres, rows of irregular houses which stood out so clearly that one distinguished the smallest details, the shops, the signboards, even the curtains at the windows. Higher up, amid the jagged outlines of chimney stacks, behind a slanting chess-board of smaller roofs, the pepper-caster turrets of the Palais de Justice and the garrets of the Prefecture of Police displayed sheets of slate, intersected by a colossal advertisement painted in blue upon a wall, with gigantic letters which, visible to all Paris, seemed like some efflorescence of the feverish life of modern times sprouting on the city's brow. Higher, higher still, betwixt the twin towers of Notre-Dame, of the colour of old gold, two arrows darted upwards, the spire of the cathedral itself, and to the left that of the Sainte-Chapelle, both so elegantly slim that they seemed to quiver in the breeze, as if they had been the proud topmasts of the ancient vessel rising into the brightness of the open sky.
'Are you coming, dear?' asked Christine, gently.
Claude did not listen to her; this, the heart of Paris, had taken full possession of him. The splendid evening seemed to widen the horizon. There were patches of vivid light, and of clearly defined shadow; there was a brightness in the precision of each detail, a transparency in the air, which throbbed with gladness. And the river life, the turmoil of the quays, all the people, streaming along the streets, rolling over the bridges, arriving from every side of that huge cauldron, Paris, steamed there in visible billows, with a quiver that was apparent in the sunlight. There was a light breeze, high aloft a flight of small cloudlets crossed the paling azure sky, and one could hear a slow but mighty palpitation, as if the soul of Paris here dwelt around its cradle.
But Christine, frightened at seeing Claude so absorbed, and seized herself with a kind of religious awe, took hold of his arm and dragged him away, as if she had felt that some great danger was threatening him.
'Let us go home. You are doing yourself harm. I want to get back.'
At her touch he started like a man disturbed in sleep. Then, turning his head to take a last look, he muttered: 'Ah! heavens! Ah! heavens, how beautiful!'
He allowed himself to be led away. But throughout the evening, first at dinner, afterwards beside the stove, and until he went to bed, he remained like one dazed, so deep in his cogitations that he did not utter half a dozen sentences. And Christine, failing to draw from him any answer to her questions, at last became silent also. She looked at him anxiously; was it the approach of some serious illness, had he inhaled some bad air whilst standing midway across the bridge yonder? His eyes stared vaguely into space, his face flushed as if with some inner straining. One would have thought it the mute travail of germination, as if something were springing into life within him.
The next morning, immediately after breakfast, he set off, and Christine spent a very sorrowful day, for although she had become more easy in mind on hearing him whistle some of his old southern tunes as he got up, she was worried by another matter, which she had not mentioned to him for fear of damping his spirits again. That day they would for the first time lack everything; a whole week separated them from the date when their little income would fall due, and she had spent her last copper that morning. She had nothing left for the evening, not even the wherewithal to buy a loaf. To whom could she apply? How could she manage to hide the truth any longer from him when he came home hungry? She made up her mind to pledge the black silk dress which Madame Vanzade had formerly given her, but it was with a heavy heart; she trembled with fear and shame at the idea of the pawnshop, that familiar resort of the poor which she had never as yet entered. And she was tortured by such apprehension about the future, that from the ten francs which were lent her she only took enough to make a sorrel soup and a stew of potatoes. On coming out of the pawn-office, a meeting with somebody she knew had given her the finishing stroke.
As it happened, Claude came home very late, gesticulating merrily, and his eyes very bright, as if he were excited by some secret joy; he was very hungry, and grumbled because the cloth was not laid. Then, having sat down between Christine and little Jacques, he swallowed his soup and devoured a plateful of potatoes.
'Is that all?' he asked, when he had finished. 'You might as well have added a scrap of meat. Did you have to buy some boots again?'
She stammered, not daring to tell him the truth, but hurt at heart by this injustice. He, however, went on chaffing her about the coppers she juggled away to buy herself things with; and getting more and more excited, amid the egotism of feelings which he seemingly wished to keep to himself, he suddenly flew out at Jacques.
'Hold your noise, you brat!—you drive one mad.'
The child, forgetting all about his dinner, had been tapping the edge of his plate with his spoon, his eyes full of mirthful delight at this music.
'Jacques, be quiet,' scoldingly said his mother, in her turn. 'Let your father have his dinner in peace.'
Then the little one, abashed, at once became very quiet, and relapsed into gloomy stillness, with his lustreless eyes fixed on his potatoes, which, however, he did not eat.
Claude made a show of stuffing himself with cheese, while Christine, quite grieved, offered to fetch some cold meat from a ham and beef shop; but he declined, and prevented her going by words that pained her still more. Then, the table having been cleared, they all sat round the lamp for the evening, she sewing, the little one turning over a picture-book in silence, and Claude drumming on the table with his fingers, his mind the while wandering back to the spot whence he had come. Suddenly he rose, sat down again with a sheet of paper and a pencil, and began sketching rapidly, in the vivid circle of light that fell from under the lamp-shade. And such was his longing to give outward expression to the tumultuous ideas beating in his skull, that soon this sketch did not suffice for his relief. On the contrary, it goaded him on, and he finished by unburthening his mind in a flood of words. He would have shouted to the walls; and if he addressed himself to his wife it was because she happened to be there.
'Look, that's what we saw yesterday. It's magnificent. I spent three hours there to-day. I've got hold of what I want—something wonderful, something that'll knock everything else to pieces. Just look! I station myself under the bridge; in the immediate foreground I have the Port of St. Nicolas, with its crane, its lighters which are being unloaded, and its crowd of labourers. Do you see the idea—it's Paris at work—all those brawny fellows displaying their bare arms and chests? Then on the other side I have the swimming-baths—Paris at play—and some skiff there, no doubt, to occupy the centre of the composition; but of that I am not as yet certain. I must feel my way. As a matter of course, the Seine will be in the middle, broad, immense.'
While talking, he kept on indicating outlines with his pencil, thickening his strokes over and over again, and tearing the paper in his very energy. She, in order to please him, bent over the sketch, pretending to grow very interested in his explanations. But there was such a labyrinth of lines, such a confusion of summary details, that she failed to distinguish anything.
'You are following me, aren't you?'
'Yes, yes, very beautiful indeed.'
'Then I have the background, the two arms of the rivet with their quays, the Cite, rising up triumphantly in the centre, and standing out against the sky. Ah! that background, what a marvel! People see it every day, pass before it without stopping; but it takes hold of one all the same; one's admiration accumulates, and one fine afternoon it bursts forth. Nothing in the world can be grander; it is Paris herself, glorious in the sunlight. Ah! what a fool I was not to think of it before! How many times I have looked at it without seeing! However, I stumbled on it after that ramble along the quays! And, do you remember, there's a dash of shadow on that side; while here the sunrays fall quite straight. The towers are yonder; the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle tapers upward, as slim as a needle pointing to the sky. But no, it's more to the right. Wait, I'll show you.'
He began again, never wearying, but constantly retouching the sketch, and adding innumerable little characteristic details which his painter's eye had noticed; here the red signboard of a distant shop vibrated in the light; closer by was a greenish bit of the Seine, on whose surface large patches of oil seemed to be floating; and then there was the delicate tone of a tree, the gamut of greys supplied by the house frontages, and the luminous cast of the sky. She complaisantly approved of all he said and tried to look delighted.
But Jacques once again forgot what he had been told. After long remaining silent before his book, absorbed in the contemplation of a wood-cut depicting a black cat, he began to hum some words of his own composition: 'Oh, you pretty cat; oh, you ugly cat; oh, you pretty, ugly cat,' and so on, ad infinitum, ever in the same lugubrious manner.
Claude, who was made fidgety by the buzzing noise, did not at first understand what was upsetting him. But after a time the child's harassing phrase fell clearly upon his ear.
'Haven't you done worrying us with your cat?' he shouted furiously.
'Hold your tongue, Jacques, when your father is talking!' repeated Christine.
Upon my word, I do believe he is becoming an idiot. Just look at his head, if it isn't like an idiot's. It's dreadful. Just say; what do you mean by your pretty and ugly cat?'
The little fellow, turning pale and wagging his big head, looked stupid, and replied: 'Don't know.'
Then, as his father and mother gazed at each other with a discouraged air, he rested his cheek on the open picture-book, and remained like that, neither stirring nor speaking, but with his eyes wide open.
It was getting late; Christine wanted to put him to bed, but Claude had already resumed his explanations. He now told her that, the very next morning, he should go and make a sketch on the spot, just in order to fix his ideas. And, as he rattled on, he began to talk of buying a small camp easel, a thing upon which he had set his heart for months. He kept harping on the subject, and spoke of money matters till she at last became embarrassed, and ended by telling him of everything—the last copper she had spent that morning, and the silk dress she had pledged in order to dine that evening. Thereupon he became very remorseful and affectionate; he kissed her and asked her forgiveness for having complained about the dinner. She would excuse him, surely; he would have killed father and mother, as he kept on repeating, when that confounded painting got hold of him. As for the pawn-shop, it made him laugh; he defied misery.
'I tell you that we are all right,' he exclaimed. 'That picture means success.'
She kept silent, thinking about her meeting of the morning, which she wished to hide from him; but without apparent cause or transition, in the kind of torpor that had come over her, the words she would have kept back rose invincibly to her lips.
'Madame Vanzade is dead,' she said.
He looked surprised. Ah! really? How did she, Christine, know it?
'I met the old man-servant. Oh, he's a gentleman by now, looking very sprightly, in spite of his seventy years. I did not know him again. It was he who spoke to me. Yes, she died six weeks ago. Her millions have gone to various charities, with the exception of an annuity to the old servants, upon which they are living snugly like people of the middle-classes.'
He looked at her, and at last murmured, in a saddened voice: 'My poor Christine, you are regretting things now, aren't you? She would have given you a marriage portion, have found you a husband! I told you so in days gone by. She would, perhaps, have left you all her money, and you wouldn't now be starving with a crazy fellow like myself.'
She then seemed to wake from her dream. She drew her chair to his, caught hold of one of his arms and nestled against him, as if her whole being protested against his words:
'What are you saying? Oh! no; oh! no. It would have been shameful to have thought of her money. I would confess it to you if it were the case, and you know that I never tell lies; but I myself don't know what came over me when I heard the news. I felt upset and saddened, so sad that I imagined everything was over for me. It was no doubt remorse; yes, remorse at having deserted her so brutally, poor invalid that she was, the good old soul who called me her daughter! I behaved very badly, and it won't bring me luck. Ah! don't say "No," I feel it well enough; henceforth there's an end to everything for me.'
Then she wept, choked by those confused regrets, the significance of which she failed to understand, regrets mingling with the one feeling that her life was spoilt, and that she now had nothing but unhappiness before her.
'Come, wipe your eyes,' said Claude, becoming affectionate once more. 'Is it possible that you, who were never nervous, can conjure up chimeras and worry yourself in this way? Dash it all, we shall get out of our difficulties! First of all, you know that it was through you that I found the subject for my picture. There cannot be much of a curse upon you, since you bring me luck.'
He laughed, and she shook her head, seeing well enough that he wanted to make her smile. She was suffering on account of his picture already; for on the bridge he had completely forgotten her, as if she had ceased to belong to him! And, since the previous night, she had realised that he was farther and farther removed from her, alone in a world to which she could not ascend. But she allowed him to soothe her, and they exchanged one of their kisses of yore, before rising from the table to retire to rest.
Little Jacques had heard nothing. Benumbed by his stillness, he had fallen asleep, with his cheek on his picture-book; and his big head, so heavy at times that it bent his neck, looked pale in the lamplight. Poor little offspring of genius, which, when it begets at all, so often begets idiocy or physical imperfection! When his mother put him to bed Jacques did not even open his eyes.
It was only at this period that the idea of marrying Christine came to Claude. Though yielding to the advice of Sandoz, who expressed his surprise at the prolongation of an irregular situation which no circumstances justified, he more particularly gave way to a feeling of pity, to a desire to show himself kind to his mistress, and to win forgiveness for his delinquencies. He had seen her so sad of late, so uneasy with respect to the future, that he did not know how to revive her spirits. He himself was growing soured, and relapsing into his former fits of anger, treating her, at times, like a servant, to whom one flings a week's notice. Being his lawful wife, she would, no doubt, feel herself more in her rightful home, and would suffer less from his rough behaviour. She herself, for that matter, had never again spoken of marriage. She seemed to care nothing for earthly things, but entirely reposed upon him; however, he understood well enough that it grieved her that she was not able to visit at Sandoz's. Besides, they no longer lived amid the freedom and solitude of the country; they were in Paris, with its thousand and one petty spites, everything that is calculated to wound a woman in an irregular position. In reality, he had nothing against marriage save his old prejudices, those of an artist who takes life as he lists. Since he was never to leave her, why not afford her that pleasure? And, in fact, when he spoke to her about it, she gave a loud cry and threw her arms round his neck, surprised at experiencing such great emotion. During a whole week it made her feel thoroughly happy. But her joy subsided long before the ceremony.
Moreover, Claude did not hurry over any of the formalities, and they had to wait a long while for the necessary papers. He continued getting the sketches for his picture together, and she, like himself, did not seem in the least impatient. What was the good? It would assuredly make no difference in their life. They had decided to be married merely at the municipal offices, not in view of displaying any contempt for religion, but to get the affair over quickly and simply. That would suffice. The question of witnesses embarrassed them for a moment. As she was absolutely unacquainted with anybody, he selected Sandoz and Mahoudeau to act for her. For a moment he had thought of replacing the latter by Dubuche, but he never saw the architect now, and he feared to compromise him. He, Claude, would be content with Jory and Gagniere. In that way the affair would pass off among friends, and nobody would talk of it.
Several weeks had gone by; they were in December, and the weather proved terribly cold. On the day before the wedding, although they barely had thirty-five francs left them, they agreed that they could not send their witnesses away with a mere shake of the hand; and, rather than have a lot of trouble in the studio, they decided to offer them lunch at a small restaurant on the Boulevard de Clichy, after which they would all go home.
In the morning, while Christine was tacking a collar to a grey linsey gown which, with the coquetry of woman, she had made for the occasion, it occurred to Claude, who was already wearing his frock-coat and kicking his heels impatiently, to go and fetch Mahoudeau, for the latter, he asserted, was quite capable of forgetting all about the appointment. Since autumn, the sculptor had been living at Montmartre, in a small studio in the Rue des Tilleuls. He had moved thither in consequence of a series of affairs that had quite upset him. First of all, he had been turned out of the fruiterer's shop in the Rue du Cherche-Midi for not paying his rent; then had come a definite rupture with Chaine, who, despairing of being able to live by his brush, had rushed into commercial enterprise, betaking himself to all the fairs around Paris as the manager of a kind of 'fortune's wheel' belonging to a widow; while last of all had come the sudden flight of Mathilde, her herbalist's business sold up, and she herself disappearing, it seemed, with some mysterious admirer. At present Mahoudeau lived all by himself in greater misery than ever, only eating when he secured a job at scraping some architectural ornaments, or preparing work for some more prosperous fellow-sculptor.
'I am going to fetch him, do you hear?' Claude repeated to Christine. 'We still have a couple of hours before us. And, if the others come, make them wait. We'll go to the municipal offices all together.'
Once outside, Claude hurried along in the nipping cold which loaded his moustache with icicles. Mahoudeau's studio was at the end of a conglomeration of tenements—'rents,' so to say—and he had to cross a number of small gardens, white with rime, and showing the bleak, stiff melancholy of cemeteries. He could distinguish his friend's place from afar on account of the colossal plaster statue of the 'Vintaging Girl,' the once successful exhibit of the Salon, for which there had not been sufficient space in the narrow ground-floor studio. Thus it was rotting out in the open like so much rubbish shot from a cart, a lamentable spectacle, weather-bitten, riddled by the rain's big, grimy tears. The key was in the door, so Claude went in.
'Hallo! have you come to fetch me?' said Mahoudeau, in surprise. 'I've only got my hat to put on. But wait a bit, I was asking myself whether it wouldn't be better to light a little fire. I am uneasy about my woman there.'
Some water in a bucket was ice-bound. So cold was the studio that it froze inside as hard as it did out of doors, for, having been penniless for a whole week, Mahoudeau had gingerly eked out the little coal remaining to him, only lighting the stove for an hour or two of a morning. His studio was a kind of tragic cavern, compared with which the shop of former days evoked reminiscences of snug comfort, such was the tomb-like chill that fell on one's shoulders from the creviced ceiling and the bare walls. In the various corners some statues, of less bulky dimensions than the 'Vintaging Girl,' plaster figures which had been modelled with passion and exhibited, and which had then come back for want of buyers, seemed to be shivering with their noses turned to the wall, forming a melancholy row of cripples, some already badly damaged, showing mere stumps of arms, and all dust-begrimed and clay-bespattered. Under the eyes of their artist creator, who had given them his heart's blood, those wretched nudities dragged out years of agony. At first, no doubt, they were preserved with jealous care, despite the lack of room, but then they lapsed into the grotesque honor of all lifeless things, until a day came when, taking up a mallet, he himself finished them off, breaking them into mere lumps of plaster, so as to be rid of them.
'You say we have got two hours, eh?' resumed Mahoudeau. 'Well, I'll just light a bit of fire; it will be the wiser perhaps.'
Then, while lighting the stove, he began bewailing his fate in an angry voice. What a dog's life a sculptor's was! The most bungling stonemason was better off. A figure which the Government bought for three thousand francs cost well nigh two thousand, what with its model, clay, marble or bronze, all sorts of expenses, indeed, and for all that it remained buried in some official cellar on the pretext that there was no room for it elsewhere. The niches of the public buildings remained empty, pedestals were awaiting statues in the public gardens. No matter, there was never any room! And there were no possible commissions from private people; at best one received an order for a few busts, and at very rare intervals one for a memorial statue, subscribed for by the public and hurriedly executed at reduced terms. Sculpture was the noblest of arts, the most manly, yes, but the one which led the most surely to death by starvation!
'Is your machine progressing?' asked Claude.
'Without this confounded cold, it would be finished,' answered Mahoudeau. 'I'll show it you.'
He rose from his knees after listening to the snorting of the stove. In the middle of the studio, on a packing-case, strengthened by cross-pieces, stood a statue swathed is linen wraps which were quite rigid, hard frozen, draping the figure with the whiteness of a shroud. This statue embodied Mahoudeau's old dream, unrealised until now from lack of means—it was an upright figure of that bathing girl of whom more than a dozen small models had been knocking about his place for years. In a moment of impatient revolt he himself had manufactured trusses and stays out of broom-handles, dispensing with the necessary iron work in the hope that the wood would prove sufficiently solid. From time to time he shook the figure to try it, but as yet it had not budged.
'The devil!' he muttered; 'some warmth will do her good. These wraps seem glued to her—they form quite a breastplate.'
The linen was crackling between his fingers, and splinters of ice were breaking off. He was obliged to wait until the heat produced a slight thaw, and then with great care he stripped the figure, baring the head first, then the bosom, and then the hips, well pleased at finding everything intact, and smiling like a lover at a woman fondly adored.
'Well, what do you think of it?'
Claude, who had only previously seen a little rough model of the statue, nodded his head, in order that he might not have to answer immediately. Decidedly, that good fellow Mahoudeau was turning traitor, and drifting towards gracefulness, in spite of himself, for pretty things ever sprang from under his big fingers, former stonecutter though he was. Since his colossal 'Vintaging Girl,' he had gone on reducing and reducing the proportions of his figures without appearing to be aware of it himself, always ready to stick out ferociously for the gigantic, which agreed with his temperament, but yielding to the partiality of his eyes for sweetness and gracefulness. And indeed real nature broke at last through inflated ambition. Exaggerated still, his 'Bathing Girl' was already possessed of great charm, with her quivering shoulders and her tightly-crossed arms that supported her breast.
'Well, you don't like her?' he asked, looking annoyed.
'Oh, yes, I do! I think you are right to tone things down a bit, seeing that you feel like that. You'll have a great success with this. Yes, it's evident it will please people very much.'
Mahoudeau, whom such praises would once have thrown into consternation, seemed delighted. He explained that he wished to conquer public opinion without relinquishing a tithe of his convictions.
'Ah! dash it! it takes a weight off my mind to find you pleased,' said he, 'for I should have destroyed it if you had told me to do so, I give you my word! Another fortnight's work, and I'll sell my skin to no matter whom in order to pay the moulder. I say, I shall have a fine show at the Salon, perhaps get a medal.'
He laughed, waved his arms about, and then, breaking off:
'As we are not in a hurry, sit down a bit. I want to get the wraps quite thawed.'
The stove, which was becoming red hot, diffused great heat. The figure, placed close by, seemed to revive under the warm air that now crept up her from her shins to her neck. And the two friends, who had sat down, continued looking the statue full in the face, chatting about it and noting each detail. The sculptor especially grew excited in his delight, and indulged in caressing gestures.
All at once, however, Claude fancied he was the victim of some hallucination. To him the figure seemed to be moving; a quiver like the ripple of a wavelet crossed her stomach, and her left hip became straightened, as if the right leg were about to step out.
'Have you noticed the smooth surface just about the loins?' Mahoudeau went on, without noticing anything. 'Ah, my boy, I took great pains over that!'
But by degrees the whole statue was becoming animated. The loins swayed and the bosom swelled, as with a deep sigh, between the parted arms. And suddenly the head drooped, the thighs bent, and the figure came forward like a living being, with all the wild anguish, the grief-inspired spring of a woman who is flinging herself down.
Claude at last understood things, when Mahoudeau uttered a terrible cry. 'By heavens, she's breaking to pieces!—she is coming down!'
The clay, in thawing, had snapped the weak wooden trusses. There came a cracking noise, as if bones indeed were splitting; and Mahoudeau, with the same passionate gesture with which he had caressed the figure from afar, working himself into a fever, opened both arms, at the risk of being killed by the fall. For a moment the bathing girl swayed to and fro, and then with one crash came down on her face, broken in twain at the ankles, and leaving her feet sticking to the boards.
Claude had jumped up to hold his friend back.
'Dash it! you'll be smashed!' he cried.
But dreading to see her finish herself off on the floor, Mahoudeau remained with hands outstretched. And the girl seemed to fling herself on his neck. He caught her in his arms, winding them tightly around her. Her bosom was flattened against his shoulder and her thighs beat against his own, while her decapitated head rolled upon the floor. The shock was so violent that Mahoudeau was carried off his legs and thrown over, as far back as the wall; and there, without relaxing his hold on the girl's trunk, he remained as if stunned lying beside her.
'Ah! confound it!' repeated Claude, furiously, believing that his friend was dead.
With great difficulty Mahoudeau rose to his knees, and burst into violent sobs. He had only damaged his face in the fall. Some blood dribbled down one of his cheeks, mingling with his tears.
'Ah! curse poverty!' he said. 'It's enough to make a fellow drown himself not to be able to buy a couple of rods! And there she is, there she is!'
His sobs grew louder; they became an agonising wail; the painful shrieking of a lover before the mutilated corpse of his affections. With unsteady hands he touched the limbs lying in confusion around him; the head, the torso, the arms that had snapped in twain; above aught else the bosom, now caved in. That bosom, flattened, as if it had been operated upon for some terrible disease, suffocated him, and he unceasingly returned to it, probing the sore, trying to find the gash by which life had fled, while his tears, mingled with blood, flowed freely, and stained the statue's gaping wounds with red.
'Do help me!' he gasped. 'One can't leave her like this.'
Claude was overcome also, and his own eyes grew moist from a feeling of artistic brotherliness. He hastened to his comrade's aide, but the sculptor, after claiming his assistance, persisted in picking up the remains by himself, as if dreading the rough handling of anybody else. He slowly crawled about on his knees, took up the fragments one by one, and put them together on a board. The figure soon lay there in its entirety, as if it had been one of those girls who, committing suicide from love, throw themselves from some monument and are shattered by their fall, and put together again, looking both grotesque and lamentable, to be carried to the Morgue. Mahoudeau, seated on the floor before his statue, did not take his eyes from it, but became absorbed in heart-rending contemplation. However, his sobs subsided, and at last he said with a long-drawn sigh: 'I shall have to model her lying down! There's no other way! Ah, my poor old woman, I had such trouble to set her on her legs, and I thought her so grand like that!'
But all at once Claude grew uneasy. What about his wedding? Mahoudeau must change his clothes. As he had no other frock-coat than the one he was wearing, he was obliged to make a jacket do. Then, the figure having been covered with linen wraps once more, like a corpse over which a sheet has been pulled, they both started off at a run. The stove was roaring away, the thaw filled the whole studio with water, and slush streamed from the old dust-begrimed plaster casts.
When they reached the Rue de Douai there was no one there except little Jacques, in charge of the doorkeeper. Christine, tired of waiting, had just started off with the three others, thinking that there had been some mistake—that Claude might have told her that he would go straight to the mayor's offices with Mahoudeau. The pair fell into a sharp trot, but only overtook Christine and their comrades in the Rue Drouot in front of the municipal edifice. They all went upstairs together, and as they were late they met with a very cool reception from the usher on duty. The wedding was got over in a few minutes, in a perfectly empty room. The mayor mumbled on, and the bride and bridegroom curtly uttered the binding 'Yes,' while their witnesses were marvelling at the bad taste of the appointments of the apartment. Once outside, Claude took Christine's arm again, and that was all.
It was pleasant walking in the clear frosty weather. Thus the party quietly went back on foot, climbing the Rue des Martyrs to reach the restaurant on the Boulevard de Clichy. A small private room had been engaged; the lunch was a very friendly affair, and not a word was said about the simple formality that had just been gone through; other subjects were spoken of all the while, as at one of their customary gatherings.
It was thus that Christine, who in reality was very affected despite her pretended indifference, heard her husband and his friends excite themselves for three mortal hours about Mahoudeau's unfortunate statue. Since the others had been made acquainted with the story, they kept harping on every particular of it. Sandoz thought the whole thing very wonderful; Jory and Gagniere discussed the strength of stays and trusses; the former mainly concerned about the monetary loss involved, and the other demonstrating with a chair that the statue might have been kept up. As for Mahoudeau, still very shaky and growing dazed; he complained of a stiffness which he had not felt before; his limbs began to hurt him, he had strained his muscles and bruised his skin as if he had been caught in the embrace of a stone siren. Christine washed the scratch on his cheek, which had begun to bleed again, and it seemed to her as if the mutilated bathing girl had sat down to table with them, as if she alone was of any importance that day; for she alone seemed to interest Claude, whose narrative, repeated a score of times, was full of endless particulars about the emotion he had felt on seeing that bosom and those hips of clay shattered at his feet.
However, at dessert there came a diversion, for Gagniere all at once remarked to Jory:
'By the way, I saw you with Mathilde the day before yesterday. Yes, yes, in the Rue Dauphine.'
Jory, who had turned very red, tried to deny it; 'Oh, a mere accidental meeting—honour bright!' he stammered. 'I don't know where she hangs out, or I would tell you.'
'What! is it you who are hiding her?' exclaimed Mahoudeau. 'Well, nobody wants to see her again!'
The truth was that Jory, throwing to the winds all his habits of prudence and parsimony, was now secretly providing for Mathilde. She had gained an ascendency over him by his vices.
They still lingered at table, and night was falling when they escorted Mahoudeau to his own door. Claude and Christine, on reaching home, took Jacques from the doorkeeper, and found the studio quite chilly, wrapped in such dense gloom that they had to grope about for several minutes before they were able to light the lamp. They also had to light the stove again, and it struck seven o'clock before they were able to draw breath at their ease. They were not hungry, so they merely finished the remains of some boiled beef, mainly by way of encouraging the child to eat his soup; and when they had put him to bed, they settled themselves with the lamp betwixt them, as was their habit every evening.
However, Christine had not put out any work, she felt too much moved to sew. She sat there with her hands resting idly on the table, looking at Claude, who on his side had at once become absorbed in a sketch, a bit of his picture, some workmen of the Port Saint Nicolas, unloading plaster. Invincible dreaminess came over the young woman, all sorts of recollections and regrets became apparent in the depths of her dim eyes; and by degrees growing sadness, great mute grief took absolute possession of her, amid the indifference, the boundless solitude into which she seemed to be drifting, although she was so near to Claude. He was, indeed, on the other side of the table, yet how far away she felt him to be! He was yonder before that point of the Cite, he was even farther still, in the infinite inaccessible regions of art; so far, indeed, that she would now never more be able to join him! She several times tried to start a conversation, but without eliciting any answer. The hours went by, she grew weary and numb with doing nothing, and she ended by taking out her purse and counting her money.
'Do you know how much we have to begin our married life with?'
Claude did not even raise his head.
'We've nine sous. Ah! talk of poverty—'
He shrugged his shoulders, and finally growled: 'We shall be rich some day; don't fret.'
Then the silence fell again, and she did not even attempt to break it, but gazed at her nine coppers laid in a row upon the table. At last, as it struck midnight, she shivered, ill with waiting and chilled by the cold.
'Let's go to bed, dear,' she murmured; 'I'm dead tired.'
He, however, was working frantically, and did not even hear her.
'The fire's gone out,' she began again, 'we shall make ourselves ill; let's go to bed.'
Her imploring voice reached him at last, and made him start with sudden exasperation.
'Oh! go if you like! You can see very well that I want to finish something!'
She remained there for another minute, amazed by his sudden anger, her face expressive of deep sorrow. Then, feeling that he would rather be without her, that the very presence of a woman doing nothing upset him, she rose from the table and went off, leaving the door wide open. Half an hour, three-quarters went by, nothing stirred, not a sound came from her room; but she was not asleep, her eyes were staring into the gloom; and at last she timidly ventured upon a final appeal, from the depths of the dark alcove.
An oath was the only reply she received. And nothing stirred after that. She perhaps dozed off. The cold in the studio grew keener, and the wick of the lamp began to carbonise and burn red, while Claude, still bending over his sketch, did not seem conscious of the passing minutes.
At two o'clock, however, he rose up, furious to find the lamp going out for lack of oil. He only had time to take it into the other room, so that he might not have to undress in the dark. But his displeasure increased on seeing that Christine's eyes were wide open. He felt inclined to complain of it. However, after some random remarks, he suddenly exclaimed:
'The most surprising thing is that her trunk wasn't hurt!'
'What do you mean?' asked Christine, in amazement.
'Why, Mahoudeau's girl,' he answered.
At this she shook nervously, turned and buried her face in the pillow; and he was quite surprised on hearing her burst into sobs.
'What! you are crying?' he exclaimed.
She was choking, sobbing with heart-rending violence.
'Come, what's the matter with you?—I've said nothing to you. Come, darling, what's the matter?'
But, while he was speaking, the cause of her great grief dawned upon him. No doubt, on a day like that, he ought to have shown more affection; but his neglect was unintentional enough; he had not even given the matter a thought. She surely knew him, said he; he became a downright brute when he was at work. Then he bent over and embraced her. But it was as if something irreparable had taken place, as if something had for ever snapped, leaving a void between them. The formality of marriage seemed to have killed love.
AS Claude could not paint his huge picture in the small studio of the Rue de Douai, he made up his mind to rent some shed that would be spacious enough, elsewhere; and strolling one day on the heights of Montmartre, he found what he wanted half way down the slope of the Rue Tourlaque, a street that descends abruptly behind the cemetery, and whence one overlooks Clichy as far as the marshes of Gennevilliers. It had been a dyer's drying shed, and was nearly fifty feet long and more than thirty broad, with walls of board and plaster admitting the wind from every point of the compass. The place was let to him for three hundred francs. Summer was at hand; he would soon work off his picture and then quit.
This settled, feverish with hope, Claude decided to go to all the necessary expenses; as fortune was certain to come in the end, why trammel its advent by unnecessary scruples? Taking advantage of his right, he broke in upon the principal of his income, and soon grew accustomed to spend money without counting. At first he kept the matter from Christine, for she had already twice stopped him from doing so; and when he was at last obliged to tell her, she also, after a week of reproaches and apprehension, fell in with it, happy at the comfort in which she lived, and yielding to the pleasure of always having a little money in her purse. Thus there came a few years of easy unconcern.
Claude soon became altogether absorbed in his picture. He had furnished the huge studio in a very summary style: a few chairs, the old couch from the Quai de Bourbon, and a deal table bought second-hand for five francs sufficed him. In the practice of his art he was entirely devoid of that vanity which delights in luxurious surroundings. The only real expense to which he went was that of buying some steps on castors, with a platform and a movable footboard. Next he busied himself about his canvas, which he wished to be six and twenty feet in length and sixteen in height. He insisted upon preparing it himself; ordered a framework and bought the necessary seamless canvas, which he and a couple of friends had all the work in the world to stretch properly by the aid of pincers. Then he just coated the canvas with ceruse, laid on with a palette-knife, refusing to size it previously, in order that it might remain absorbent, by which method he declared that the painting would be bright and solid. An easel was not to be thought of. It would not have been possible to move a canvas of such dimensions on it. So he invented a system of ropes and beams, which held it slightly slanting against the wall in a cheerful light. And backwards and forwards in front of the big white surface rolled the steps, looking like an edifice, like the scaffolding by means of which a cathedral is to be reared.
But when everything was ready, Claude once more experienced misgivings. An idea that he had perhaps not chosen the proper light in which to paint his picture fidgeted him. Perhaps an early morning effect would have been better? Perhaps, too, he ought to have chosen a dull day, and so he went back to the Pont des Saint-Peres, and lived there for another three months.
The Cite rose up before him, between the two arms of the river, at all hours and in all weather. After a late fall of snow he beheld it wrapped in ermine, standing above mud-coloured water, against a light slatey sky. On the first sunshiny days he saw it cleanse itself of everything that was wintry and put on an aspect of youth, when verdure sprouted from the lofty trees which rose from the ground below the bridge. He saw it, too, on a somewhat misty day recede to a distance and almost evaporate, delicate and quivering, like a fairy palace. Then, again, there were pelting rains, which submerged it, hid it as with a huge curtain drawn from the sky to the earth; storms, with lightning flashes which lent it a tawny hue, the opaque light of some cut-throat place half destroyed by the fall of the huge copper-coloured clouds; and there were winds that swept over it tempestuously, sharpening its angles and making it look hard, bare, and beaten against the pale blue sky. Then, again, when the sunbeams broke into dust amidst the vapours of the Seine, it appeared steeped in diffused brightness, without a shadow about it, lighted up equally on every side, and looking as charmingly delicate as a cut gem set in fine gold. He insisted on beholding it when the sun was rising and transpiercing the morning mists, when the Quai de l'Horloge flushes and the Quai des Orfevres remains wrapt in gloom; when, up in the pink sky, it is already full of life, with the bright awakening of its towers and spires, while night, similar to a falling cloak, slides slowly from its lower buildings. He beheld it also at noon, when the sunrays fall on it vertically, when a crude glare bites into it, and it becomes discoloured and mute like a dead city, retaining nought but the life of heat, the quiver that darts over its distant housetops. He beheld it, moreover, beneath the setting sun, surrendering itself to the night which was slowly rising from the river, with the salient edges of its buildings still fringed with a glow as of embers, and with final conflagrations rekindling in its windows, from whose panes leapt tongue-like flashes. But in presence of those twenty different aspects of the Cite, no matter what the hour or the weather might be, he ever came back to the Cite that he had seen the first time, at about four o'clock one fine September afternoon, a Cite all serenity under a gentle breeze, a Cite which typified the heart of Paris beating in the limpid atmosphere, and seemingly enlarged by the vast stretch of sky which a flight of cloudlets crossed.
Claude spent his time under the Pont des Saints-Peres, which he had made his shelter, his home, his roof. The constant din of the vehicles overhead, similar to the distant rumbling of thunder, no longer disturbed him. Settling himself against the first abutment, beneath the huge iron arches, he took sketches and painted studies. The employes of the river navigation service, whose offices were hard by, got to know him, and, indeed, the wife of an inspector, who lived in a sort of tarred cabin with her husband, two children, and a cat, kept his canvases for him, to save him the trouble of carrying them to and fro each day. It became his joy to remain in that secluded nook beneath Paris, which rumbled in the air above him, whose ardent life he ever felt rolling overhead. He at first became passionately interested in Port St. Nicolas, with its ceaseless bustle suggesting that of a distant genuine seaport. The steam crane, The Sophia, worked regularly, hauling up blocks of stone; tumbrels arrived to fetch loads of sand; men and horses pulled, panting for breath on the big paving-stones, which sloped down as far as the water, to a granite margin, alongside which two rows of lighters and barges were moored. For weeks Claude worked hard at a study of some lightermen unloading a cargo of plaster, carrying white sacks on their shoulders, leaving a white pathway behind them, and bepowdered with white themselves, whilst hard by the coal removed from another barge had stained the waterside with a huge inky smear. Then he sketched the silhouette of a swimming-bath on the left bank, together with a floating wash-house somewhat in the rear, showing the windows open and the washerwomen kneeling in a row, on a level with the stream, and beating their dirty linen. In the middle of the river, he studied a boat which a waterman sculled over the stern; then, farther behind, a steamer of the towing service straining its chain, and dragging a series of rafts loaded with barrels and boards up stream. The principal backgrounds had been sketched a long while ago, still he did several bits over again—the two arms of the Seine, and a sky all by itself, into which rose only towers and spires gilded by the sun. And under the hospitable bridge, in that nook as secluded as some far-off cleft in a rock, he was rarely disturbed by anybody. Anglers passed by with contemptuous unconcern. His only companion was virtually the overseer's cat, who cleaned herself in the sunlight, ever placid beneath the tumult of the world overhead.
At last Claude had all his materials ready. In a few days he threw off an outline sketch of the whole, and the great work was begun. However, the first battle between himself and his huge canvas raged in the Rue Tourlaque throughout the summer; for he obstinately insisted upon personally attending to all the technical calculations of his composition, and he failed to manage them, getting into constant muddles about the slightest deviation from mathematical accuracy, of which he had no experience. It made him indignant with himself. So he let it go, deciding to make what corrections might be necessary afterwards. He covered his canvas with a rush—in such a fever as to live all day on his steps, brandishing huge brushes, and expending as much muscular force as if he were anxious to move mountains. And when evening came he reeled about like a drunken man, and fell asleep as soon as he had swallowed his last mouthful of food. His wife even had to put him to bed like a child. From those heroic efforts, however, sprang a masterly first draught in which genius blazed forth amidst the somewhat chaotic masses of colour. Bongrand, who came to look at it, caught the painter in his big arms, and stifled him with embraces, his eyes full of tears. Sandoz, in his enthusiasm, gave a dinner; the others, Jory, Mahoudeau and Gagniere, again went about announcing a masterpiece. As for Fagerolles, he remained motionless before the painting for a moment, then burst into congratulations, pronouncing it too beautiful.
And, in fact, subsequently, as if the irony of that successful trickster had brought him bad luck, Claude only spoilt his original draught. It was the old story over again. He spent himself in one effort, one magnificent dash; he failed to bring out all the rest; he did not know how to finish. He fell into his former impotence; for two years he lived before that picture only, having no feeling for anything else. At times he was in a seventh heaven of exuberant joy; at others flung to earth, so wretched, so distracted by doubt, that dying men gasping in their beds in a hospital were happier than himself. Twice already had he failed to be ready for the Salon, for invariably, at the last moment, when he hoped to have finished in a few sittings, he found some void, felt his composition crack and crumble beneath his fingers. When the third Salon drew nigh, there came a terrible crisis; he remained for a fortnight without going to his studio in the Rue Tourlaque, and when he did so, it was as to a house desolated by death. He turned the huge canvas to the wall and rolled his steps into a corner; he would have smashed and burned everything if his faltering hands had found strength enough. Nothing more existed; amid a blast of anger he swept the floor clean, and spoke of setting to work at little things, since he was incapable of perfecting paintings of any size.
In spite of himself, his first idea of a picture on a smaller scale took him back to the Cite. Why should not he paint a simple view, on a moderate sized canvas? But a kind of shame, mingled with strange jealousy, prevented him from settling himself in his old spot under the Pont des Saints-Peres. It seemed to him as if that spot were sacred now; that he ought not to offer any outrage to his great work, dead as it was. So he stationed himself at the end of the bank, above the bridge. This time, at any rate, he would work directly from nature; and he felt happy at not having to resort to any trickery, as was unavoidable with works of a large size. The small picture, very carefully painted, more highly finished than usual, met, however, with the same fate as the others before the hanging committee, who were indignant with this style of painting, executed with a tipsy brush, as was said at the time in the studios. The slap in the face which Claude thus received was all the more severe, as a report had spread of concessions, of advances made by him to the School of Arts, in order that his work might be received. And when the picture came back to him, he, deeply wounded, weeping with rage, tore it into narrow shreds, which he burned in his stove. It was not sufficient that he should kill that one with a knife-thrust, it must be annihilated.
Another year went by for Claude in desultory toil. He worked from force of habit, but finished nothing; he himself saying, with a dolorous laugh, that he had lost himself, and was trying to find himself again. In reality, tenacious consciousness of his genius left him a hope which nothing could destroy, even during his longest crises of despondency. He suffered like some one damned, for ever rolling the rock which slipped back and crushed him; but the future remained, with the certainty of one day seizing that rock in his powerful arms and flinging it upward to the stars. His friends at last beheld his eyes light up with passion once more. It was known that he again secluded himself in the Rue Tourlaque. He who formerly had always been carried beyond the work on which he was engaged, by some dream of a picture to come, now stood at bay before that subject of the Cite. It had become his fixed idea—the bar that closed up his life. And soon he began to speak freely of it again in a new blaze of enthusiasm, exclaiming, with childish delight, that he had found his way and that he felt certain of victory.
One day Claude, who, so far, had not opened his door to his friends, condescended to admit Sandoz. The latter tumbled upon a study with a deal of dash in it, thrown off without a model, and again admirable in colour. The subject had remained the same—the Port St. Nicolas on the left, the swimming-baths on the right, the Seine and Cite in the background. But Sandoz was amazed at perceiving, instead of the boat sculled by a waterman, another large skiff taking up the whole centre of the composition—a skiff occupied by three women. One, in a bathing costume, was rowing; another sat over the edge with her legs dangling in the water, her costume partially unfastened, showing her bare shoulder; while the third stood erect and nude at the prow, so bright in tone that she seemed effulgent, like the sun.
'Why, what an idea!' muttered Sandoz. 'What are those women doing there?'
'Why, they are bathing,' Claude quietly answered. 'Don't you see that they have come out of the swimming-baths? It supplies me with a motive for the nude; it's a real find, eh? Does it shock you?'
His old friend, who knew him well by now, dreaded lest he should give him cause for discouragement.
'I? Oh, no! Only I am afraid that the public will again fail to understand. That nude woman in the very midst of Paris—it's improbable.'
Claude looked naively surprised.
'Ah! you think so? Well, so much the worse. What's the odds, as long as the woman is well painted? Besides, I need something like that to get my courage up.'
On the following occasions, Sandoz gently reverted to the strangeness of the composition, pleading, as was his nature, the cause of outraged logic. How could a modern painter who prided himself on painting merely what was real—how could he so bastardise his work as to introduce fanciful things into it? It would have been so easy to choose another subject, in which the nude would have been necessary. But Claude became obstinate, and resorted to lame and violent explanations, for he would not avow his real motive: an idea which had come to him and which he would have been at a loss to express clearly. It was, however, a longing for some secret symbolism. A recrudescence of romanticism made him see an incarnation of Paris in that nude figure; he pictured the city bare and impassioned, resplendent with the beauty of woman.
Before the pressing objections of his friend he pretended to be shaken in his resolutions.
'Well, I'll see; I'll dress my old woman later on, since she worries you,' he said. 'But meanwhile I shall do her like that. You understand, she amuses me.'
He never reverted to the subject again, remaining silently obstinate, merely shrugging his shoulders and smiling with embarrassment whenever any allusion betrayed the general astonishment which was felt at the sight of that Venus emerging triumphantly from the froth of the Seine amidst all the omnibuses on the quays and the lightermen working at the Port of St. Nicolas.
Spring had come round again, and Claude had once more resolved to work at his large picture, when in a spirit of prudence he and Christine modified their daily life. She, at times, could not help feeling uneasy at seeing all their money so quickly spent. Since the supply had seemed inexhaustible, they had ceased counting. But, at the end of four years, they had woke up one morning quite frightened, when, on asking for accounts, they found that barely three thousand francs were left out of the twenty thousand. They immediately reverted to severe economy, stinting themselves as to bread, planning the cutting down of the most elementary expenses; and it was thus that, in the first impulse of self-sacrifice, they left the Rue de Douai. What was the use of paying two rents? There was room enough in the old drying-shed in the Rue Tourlaque—still stained with the dyes of former days—to afford accommodation for three people. Settling there was, nevertheless, a difficult affair; for however big the place was, it provided them, after all, with but one room. It was like a gipsy's shed, where everything had to be done in common. As the landlord was unwilling, the painter himself had to divide it at one end by a partition of boards, behind which he devised a kitchen and a bedroom. They were then delighted with the place, despite the chinks through which the wind blew, and although on rainy days they had to set basins beneath the broader cracks in the roof. The whole looked mournfully bare; their few poor sticks seemed to dance alongside the naked walls. They themselves pretended to be proud at being lodged so spaciously; they told their friends that Jacques would at least have a little room to run about. Poor Jacques, in spite of his nine years, did not seem to be growing; his head alone became larger and larger. They could not send him to school for more than a week at a stretch, for he came back absolutely dazed, ill from having tried to learn, in such wise that they nearly always allowed him to live on all fours around them, crawling from one corner to another.
Christine, who for quite a long while had not shared Claude's daily work, now once more found herself beside him throughout his long hours of toil. She helped him to scrape and pumice the old canvas of the big picture, and gave him advice about attaching it more securely to the wall. But they found that another disaster had befallen them—the steps had become warped by the water constantly trickling through the roof, and, for fear of an accident, Claude had to strengthen them with an oak cross-piece, she handing him the necessary nails one by one. Then once more, and for the second time, everything was ready. She watched him again outlining the work, standing behind him the while, till she felt faint with fatigue, and finally dropping to the floor, where she remained squatting, and still looking at him.
Ah! how she would have liked to snatch him from that painting which had seized hold of him! It was for that purpose that she made herself his servant, only too happy to lower herself to a labourer's toil. Since she shared his work again, since the three of them, he, she, and the canvas, were side by side, her hope revived. If he had escaped her when she, all alone, cried her eyes out in the Rue de Douai, if he lingered till late in the Rue Tourlaque, fascinated as by a mistress, perhaps now that she was present she might regain her hold over him. Ah, painting, painting! in what jealous hatred she held it! Hers was no longer the revolt of a girl of the bourgeoisie, who painted neatly in water-colours, against independent, brutal, magnificent art. No, little by little she had come to understand it, drawn towards it at first by her love for the painter, and gained over afterwards by the feast of light, by the original charm of the bright tints which Claude's works displayed. And now she had accepted everything, even lilac-tinted soil and blue trees. Indeed, a kind of respect made her quiver before those works which had at first seemed so horrid to her. She recognised their power well enough, and treated them like rivals about whom one could no longer joke. But her vindictiveness grew in proportion to her admiration; she revolted at having to stand by and witness, as it were, a diminution of herself, the blow of another love beneath her own roof.
At first there was a silent struggle of every minute. She thrust herself forward, interposed whatever she could, a hand, a shoulder, between the painter and his picture. She was always there, encompassing him with her breath, reminding him that he was hers. Then her old idea revived—she also would paint; she would seek and join him in the depths of his art fever. Every day for a whole month she put on a blouse, and worked like a pupil by the side of a master, diligently copying one of his sketches, and she only gave in when she found the effort turn against her object; for, deceived, as it were, by their joint work, he finished by forgetting that she was a woman, and lived with her on a footing of mere comradeship as between man and man. Accordingly she resorted to what was her only strength.
To perfect some of the small figures of his latter pictures, Claude had many a time already taken the hint of a head, the pose of an arm, the attitude of a body from Christine. He threw a cloak over her shoulders, and caught her in the posture he wanted, shouting to her not to stir. These were little services which she showed herself only too pleased to render him, but she had not hitherto cared to go further, for she was hurt by the idea of being a model now that she was his wife. However, since Claude had broadly outlined the large upright female figure which was to occupy the centre of his picture, Christine had looked at the vague silhouette in a dreamy way, worried by an ever-pursuing thought before which all scruples vanished. And so, when he spoke of taking a model, she offered herself, reminding him that she had posed for the figure in the 'Open Air' subject, long ago. 'A model,' she added, 'would cost you seven francs a sitting. We are not so rich, we may as well save the money.'
The question of economy decided him at once.
'I'm agreeable, and it's even very good of you to show such courage, for you know that it is not a bit of pastime to sit for me. Never mind, you had better confess to it, you big silly, you are afraid of another woman coming here; you are jealous.'
Jealous! Yes, indeed she was jealous, so she suffered agony. But she snapped her fingers at other women; all the models in Paris might have sat to him for what she cared. She had but one rival, that painting, that art which robbed her of him.
Claude, who was delighted, at first made a study, a simple academic study, in the attitude required for his picture. They waited until Jacques had gone to school, and the sitting lasted for hours. During the earlier days Christine suffered a great deal from being obliged to remain in the same position; then she grew used to it, not daring to complain, lest she might vex him, and even restraining her tears when he roughly pushed her about. And he soon acquired the habit of doing so, treating her like a mere model; more exacting with her, however, than if he had paid her, never afraid of unduly taxing her strength, since she was his wife. He employed her for every purpose, at every minute, for an arm, a foot, the most trifling detail that he stood in need of. And thus in a way he lowered her to the level of a 'living lay figure,' which he stuck in front of him and copied as he might have copied a pitcher or a stew-pan for a bit of still life.