This time Claude proceeded leisurely, and before roughing in the large figure he tired Christine for months by making her pose in twenty different ways. At last, one day, he began the roughing in. It was an autumnal morning, the north wind was already sharp, and it was by no means warm even in the big studio, although the stove was roaring. As little Jacques was poorly again and unable to go to school, they had decided to lock him up in the room at the back, telling him to be very good. And then the mother settled herself near the stove, motionless, in the attitude required.
During the first hour, the painter, perched upon his steps, kept glancing at her, but did not speak a word. Unutterable sadness stole over her, and she felt afraid of fainting, no longer knowing whether she was suffering from the cold or from a despair that had come from afar, and the bitterness of which she felt to be rising within her. Her fatigue became so great that she staggered and hobbled about on her numbed legs.
'What, already?' cried Claude. 'Why, you haven't been at it more than a quarter of an hour. You don't want to earn your seven francs, then?'
He was joking in a gruff voice, delighted with his work. And she had scarcely recovered the use of her limbs, beneath the dressing-gown she had wrapped round her, when he went on shouting: 'Come on, come on, no idling! It's a grand day to-day is! I must either show some genius or else kick the bucket.'
Then, in a weary way, she at last resumed the pose.
The misfortune was that before long, both by his glances and the language he used, she fully realised that she herself was as nothing to him. If ever he praised a limb, a tint, a contour, it was solely from the artistic point of view. Great enthusiasm and passion he often showed, but it was not passion for herself as in the old days. She felt confused and deeply mortified. Ah! this was the end; in her he no longer loved aught but his art, the example of nature and life! And then, with her eyes gazing into space, she would remain rigid, like a statue, keeping back the tears which made her heart swell, lacking even the wretched consolation of being able to cry. And day by day the same sorry life began afresh for her. To stand there as his model had become her profession. She could not refuse, however bitter her grief. Their once happy life was all over, there now seemed to be three people in the place; it was as if Claude had introduced a mistress into it—that woman he was painting. The huge picture rose up between them, parted them as with a wall, beyond which he lived with the other. That duplication of herself well nigh drove Christine mad with jealousy, and yet she was conscious of the pettiness of her sufferings, and did not dare to confess them lest he should laugh at her. However, she did not deceive herself; she fully realised that he preferred her counterfeit to herself, that her image was the worshipped one, the sole thought, the affection of his every hour. He almost killed her with long sittings in that cold draughty studio, in order to enhance the beauty of the other; upon whom depended all his joys and sorrows according as to whether he beheld her live or languish beneath his brush. Was not this love? And what suffering to have to lend herself so that the other might be created, so that she might be haunted by a nightmare of that rival, so that the latter might for ever rise between them, more powerful than reality! To think of it! So much dust, the veriest trifle, a patch of colour on a canvas, a mere semblance destroying all their happiness!—he, silent, indifferent, brutal at times, and she, tortured by his desertion, in despair at being unable to drive away that creature who ever encroached more and more upon their daily life!
And it was then that Christine, finding herself altogether beaten in her efforts to regain Claude's love, felt all the sovereignty of art weigh down upon her. That painting, which she had already accepted without restriction, she raised still higher in her estimation, placed inside an awesome tabernacle before which she remained overcome, as before those powerful divinities of wrath which one honours from the very hatred and fear that they inspire. Hers was a holy awe, a conviction that struggling was henceforth useless, that she would be crushed like a bit of straw if she persisted in her obstinacy. Each of her husband's canvases became magnified in her eyes, the smallest assumed triumphal dimensions, even the worst painted of them overwhelmed her with victory, and she no longer judged them, but grovelled, trembling, thinking them all formidable, and invariably replying to Claude's questions:
'Oh, yes; very good! Oh, superb! Oh, very, very extraordinary that one!'
Nevertheless, she harboured no anger against him; she still worshipped him with tearful tenderness, as she saw him thus consume himself with efforts. After a few weeks of successful work, everything got spoilt again; he could not finish his large female figure. At times he almost killed his model with fatigue, keeping hard at work for days and days together, then leaving the picture untouched for a whole month. The figure was begun anew, relinquished, painted all over again at least a dozen times. One year, two years went by without the picture reaching completion. Though sometimes it was almost finished, it was scratched out the next morning and painted entirely over again.
Ah! what an effort of creation it was, an effort of blood and tears, filling Claude with agony in his attempt to beget flesh and instil life! Ever battling with reality, and ever beaten, it was a struggle with the Angel. He was wearing himself out with this impossible task of making a canvas hold all nature; he became exhausted at last with the pains which racked his muscles without ever being able to bring his genius to fruition. What others were satisfied with, a more or less faithful rendering, the various necessary bits of trickery, filled him with remorse, made him as indignant as if in resorting to such practices one were guilty of ignoble cowardice; and thus he began his work over and over again, spoiling what was good through his craving to do better. He would always be dissatisfied with his women—so his friends jokingly declared—until they flung their arms round his neck. What was lacking in his power that he could not endow them with life? Very little, no doubt. Sometimes he went beyond the right point, sometimes he stopped short of it. One day the words, 'an incomplete genius,' which he overheard, both flattered and frightened him. Yes, it must be that; he jumped too far or not far enough; he suffered from a want of nervous balance; he was afflicted with some hereditary derangement which, because there were a few grains the more or the less of some substance in his brain, was making him a lunatic instead of a great man. Whenever a fit of despair drove him from his studio, whenever he fled from his work, he now carried about with him that idea of fatal impotence, and he heard it beating against his skull like the obstinate tolling of a funeral bell.
His life became wretched. Never had doubt of himself pursued him in that way before. He disappeared for whole days together; he even stopped out a whole night, coming back the next morning stupefied, without being able to say where he had gone. It was thought that he had been tramping through the outskirts of Paris rather than find himself face to face with his spoilt work. His sole relief was to flee the moment that work filled him with shame and hatred, and to remain away until he felt sufficient courage to face it once more. And not even his wife dared to question him on his return—indeed, she was only too happy to see him back again after her anxious waiting. At such times he madly scoured Paris, especially the outlying quarters, from a longing to debase himself and hob-nob with labourers. He expressed at each recurring crisis his old regret at not being some mason's hodman. Did not happiness consist in having solid limbs, and in performing the work one was built for well and quickly? He had wrecked his life; he ought to have got himself engaged in the building line in the old times when he had lunched at the 'Dog of Montargis,' Gomard's tavern, where he had known a Limousin, a big, strapping, merry fellow, whose brawny arms he envied. Then, on coming back to the Rue Tourlaque, with his legs faint and his head empty, he gave his picture much the same distressful, frightened glance as one casts at a corpse in a mortuary, until fresh hope of resuscitating it, of endowing it with life, brought a flush to his face once more.
One day Christine was posing, and the figure of the woman was again well nigh finished. For the last hour, however, Claude had been growing gloomy, losing the childish delight that he had displayed at the beginning of the sitting. So his wife scarcely dared to breathe, feeling by her own discomfort that everything must be going wrong once more, and afraid that she might accelerate the catastrophe if she moved as much as a finger. And, surely enough, he suddenly gave a cry of anguish, and launched forth an oath in a thunderous voice.
'Oh, curse it! curse it!'
He had flung his handful of brushes from the top of the steps. Then, blinded with rage, with one blow of his fist he transpierced the canvas.
Christine held out her trembling hands.
'My dear, my dear!'
But when she had flung a dressing-gown over her shoulders, and approached the picture, she experienced keen delight, a burst of satisfied hatred. Claude's fist had struck 'the other one' full in the bosom, and there was a gaping hole! At last, then, that other one was killed!
Motionless, horror-struck by that murder, Claude stared at the perforated bosom. Poignant grief came upon him at the sight of the wound whence the blood of his work seemed to flow. Was it possible? Was it he who had thus murdered what he loved best of all on earth? His anger changed into stupor; his fingers wandered over the canvas, drawing the ragged edges of the rent together, as if he had wished to close the bleeding gash. He was choking; he stammered, distracted with boundless grief:
'She is killed, she is killed!'
Then Christine, in her maternal love for that big child of an artist, felt moved to her very entrails. She forgave him as usual. She saw well enough that he now had but one thought—to mend the rent, to repair the evil at once; and she helped him; it was she who held the shreds together, whilst he from behind glued a strip of canvas against them. When she dressed herself, 'the other one' was there again, immortal, simply retaining near her heart a slight scar, which seemed to make her doubly dear to the painter.
As this unhinging of Claude's faculties increased, he drifted into a sort of superstition, into a devout belief in certain processes and methods. He banished oil from his colours, and spoke of it as of a personal enemy. On the other hand, he held that turpentine produced a solid unpolished surface, and he had some secrets of his own which he hid from everybody; solutions of amber, liquefied copal, and other resinous compounds that made colours dry quickly, and prevented them from cracking. But he experienced some terrible worries, as the absorbent nature of the canvas at once sucked in the little oil contained in the paint. Then the question of brushes had always worried him greatly; he insisted on having them with special handles; and objecting to sable, he used nothing but oven-dried badger hair. More important, however, than everything else was the question of palette-knives, which, like Courbet, he used for his backgrounds. He had quite a collection of them, some long and flexible, others broad and squat, and one which was triangular like a glazier's, and which had been expressly made for him. It was the real Delacroix knife. Besides, he never made use of the scraper or razor, which he considered beneath an artist's dignity. But, on the other hand, he indulged in all sorts of mysterious practices in applying his colours, concocted recipes and changed them every month, and suddenly fancied that he had bit on the right system of painting, when, after repudiating oil and its flow, he began to lay on successive touches until he arrived at the exact tone he required. One of his fads for a long while was to paint from right to left; for, without confessing as much, he felt sure that it brought him luck. But the terrible affair which unhinged him once more was an all-invading theory respecting the complementary colours. Gagniere had been the first to speak to him on the subject, being himself equally inclined to technical speculation. After which Claude, impelled by the exuberance of his passion, took to exaggerating the scientific principles whereby, from the three primitive colours, yellow, red, and blue, one derives the three secondary ones, orange, green, and violet, and, further, a whole series of complementary and similar hues, whose composites are obtained mathematically from one another. Thus science entered into painting, there was a method for logical observation already. One only had to take the predominating hue of a picture, and note the complementary or similar colours, to establish experimentally what variations would occur; for instance, red would turn yellowish if it were near blue, and a whole landscape would change in tint by the refractions and the very decomposition of light, according to the clouds passing over it. Claude then accurately came to this conclusion: That objects have no real fixed colour; that they assume various hues according to ambient circumstances; but the misfortune was that when he took to direct observation, with his brain throbbing with scientific formulas, his prejudiced vision lent too much force to delicate shades, and made him render what was theoretically correct in too vivid a manner: thus his style, once so bright, so full of the palpitation of sunlight, ended in a reversal of everything to which the eye was accustomed, giving, for instance, flesh of a violet tinge under tricoloured skies. Insanity seemed to be at the end of it all.
Poverty finished off Claude. It had gradually increased, while the family spent money without counting; and, when the last copper of the twenty thousand francs had gone, it swooped down upon them—horrible and irreparable. Christine, who wanted to look for work, was incapable of doing anything, even ordinary needlework. She bewailed her lot, twirling her fingers and inveighing against the idiotic young lady's education that she had received, since it had given her no profession, and her only resource would be to enter into domestic service, should life still go against them. Claude, on his side, had become a subject of chaff with the Parisians, and no longer sold a picture. An independent exhibition at which he and some friends had shown some pictures, had finished him off as regards amateurs—so merry had the public become at the sight of his canvases, streaked with all the colours of the rainbow. The dealers fled from him. M. Hue alone now and then made a pilgrimage to the Rue Tourlaque, and remained in ecstasy before the exaggerated bits, those which blazed in unexpected pyrotechnical fashion, in despair at being unable to cover them with gold. And though the painter wanted to make him a present of them, implored him to accept them, the old fellow displayed extraordinary delicacy of feeling. He pinched himself to amass a small sum of money from time to time, and then religiously took away the seemingly delirious picture, to hang it beside his masterpieces. Such windfalls came too seldom, and Claude was obliged to descend to 'trade art,' repugnant as it was to him. Such, indeed, was his despair at having fallen into that poison house, where he had sworn never to set foot, that he would have preferred starving to death, but for the two poor beings who were dependent on him and who suffered like himself. He became familiar with 'viae dolorosae' painted at reduced prices, with male and female saints at so much per gross, even with 'pounced' shop blinds—in short, all the ignoble jobs that degrade painting and make it so much idiotic delineation, lacking even the charm of naivete. He even suffered the humiliation of having portraits at five-and-twenty francs a-piece refused, because he failed to produce a likeness; and he reached the lowest degree of distress—he worked according to size for the petty dealers who sell daubs on the bridges, and export them to semi-civilised countries. They bought his pictures at two and three francs a-piece, according to the regulation dimensions. This was like physical decay, it made him waste away; he rose from such tasks feeling ill, incapable of serious work, looking at his large picture in distress, and leaving it sometimes untouched for a week, as if he had felt his hands befouled and unworthy of working at it.
They scarcely had bread to eat, and the huge shanty, which Christine had shown herself so proud of, on settling in it, became uninhabitable in the winter. She, once such an active housewife, now dragged herself about the place, without courage even to sweep the floor, and thus everything lapsed into abandonment. In the disaster little Jacques was sadly weakened by unwholesome and insufficient food, for their meals often consisted of a mere crust, eaten standing. With their lives thus ill-regulated, uncared for, they were drifting to the filth of the poor who lose even all self-pride.
At the close of another year, Claude, on one of those days of defeat, when he fled from his miscarried picture, met an old acquaintance. This time he had sworn he would never go home again, and he had been tramping across Paris since noon, as if at his heels he had heard the wan spectre of the big, nude figure of his picture—ravaged by constant retouching, and always left incomplete—pursuing him with a passionate craving for birth. The mist was melting into a yellowish drizzle, befouling the muddy streets. It was about five o'clock, and he was crossing the Rue Royale like one walking in his sleep, at the risk of being run over, his clothes in rags and mud-bespattered up to his neck, when a brougham suddenly drew up.
'Claude, eh? Claude!—is that how you pass your friends?'
It was Irma Becot who spoke, Irma in a charming grey silk dress, covered with Chantilly lace. She had hastily let down the window, and she sat smiling, beaming in the frame-work of the carriage door.
'Where are you going?'
He, staring at her open-mouthed, replied that he was going nowhere. At which she merrily expressed surprise in a loud voice, looking at him with her saucy eyes.
'Get in, then; it's such a long while since we met,' said she. 'Get in, or you'll be knocked down.'
And, in fact, the other drivers were getting impatient, and urging their horses on, amidst a terrible din, so he did as he was bidden, feeling quite dazed; and she drove him away, dripping, with the unmistakable signs of his poverty upon him, in the brougham lined with blue satin, where he sat partly on the lace of her skirt, while the cabdrivers jeered at the elopement before falling into line again.
When Claude came back to the Rue Tourlaque he was in a dazed condition, and for a couple of days remained musing whether after all he might not have taken the wrong course in life. He seemed so strange that Christine questioned him, whereupon he at first stuttered and stammered, and finally confessed everything. There was a scene; she wept for a long while, then pardoned him once more, full of infinite indulgence for him. And, indeed, amidst all her bitter grief there sprang up a hope that he might yet return to her, for if he could deceive her thus he could not care as much as she had imagined for that hateful painted creature who stared down from the big canvas.
The days went by, and towards the middle of the winter Claude's courage revived once more. One day, while putting some old frames in order, he came upon a roll of canvas which had fallen behind the other pictures. On opening the roll he found on it the nude figure, the reclining woman of his old painting, 'In the Open Air,' which he had cut out when the picture had come back to him from the Salon of the Rejected. And, as he gazed at it, he uttered a cry of admiration:
'By the gods, how beautiful it is!'
He at once secured it to the wall with four nails, and remained for hours in contemplation before it. His hands shook, the blood rushed to his face. Was it possible that he had painted such a masterly thing? He had possessed genius in those days then. So his skull, his eyes, his fingers had been changed. He became so feverishly excited and felt such a need of unburthening himself to somebody, that at last he called his wife.
'Just come and have a look. Isn't her attitude good, eh? How delicately her muscles are articulated! Just look at that bit there, full of sunlight. And at the shoulder here. Ah, heavens! it's full of life; I can feel it throb as I touch it.'
Christine, standing by, kept looking and answering in monosyllables. This resurrection of herself, after so many years, had at first flattered and surprised her. But on seeing him become so excited, she gradually felt uncomfortable and irritated, without knowing why.
'Tell me,' he continued, 'don't you think her beautiful enough for one to go on one's knees to her?'
'Yes, yes. But she has become rather blackish—'
Claude protested vehemently. Become blackish, what an idea! That woman would never grow black; she possessed immortal youth! Veritable passion had seized hold of him; he spoke of the figure as of a living being; he had sudden longings to look at her that made him leave everything else, as if he were hurrying to an appointment.
Then, one morning, he was taken with a fit of work.
'But, confound it all, as I did that, I can surely do it again,' he said. 'Ah, this time, unless I'm a downright brute, we'll see about it.'
And Christine had to give him a sitting there and then. For eight hours a day, indeed, during a whole month he kept her before him, without compassion for her increasing exhaustion or for the fatigue he felt himself. He obstinately insisted upon producing a masterpiece; he was determined that the upright figure of his big picture should equal that reclining one which he saw on the wall, beaming with life. He constantly referred to it, compared it with the one he was painting, distracted by the fear of being unable to equal it. He cast one glance at it, another at Christine, and a third at his canvas, and burst into oaths whenever he felt dissatisfied. He ended by abusing his wife.
She was no longer young. Age had spoilt her figure, and that it was which spoilt his work. She listened, and staggered in her very grief. Those sittings, from which she had already suffered so much, were becoming unbearable torture now. What was this new freak of crushing her with her own girlhood, of fanning her jealousy by filling her with regret for vanished beauty? She was becoming her own rival, she could no longer look at that old picture of herself without being stung at the heart by hateful envy. Ah, how heavily had that picture, that study she had sat for long ago, weighed upon her existence! The whole of her misfortunes sprang from it. It had changed the current of her existence. And it had come to life again, it rose from the dead, endowed with greater vitality than herself, to finish killing her, for there was no longer aught but one woman for Claude—she who was shown reclining on the old canvas, and who now arose and became the upright figure of his new picture.
Then Christine felt herself growing older and older at each successive sitting. And she experienced the infinite despair which comes upon passionate women when love, like beauty, abandons them. Was it because of this that Claude no longer cared for her, that he sought refuge in an unnatural passion for his work? She soon lost all clear perception of things; she fell into a state of utter neglect, going about in a dressing jacket and dirty petticoats, devoid of all coquettish feeling, discouraged by the idea that it was useless for her to continue struggling, since she had become old.
There were occasionally abominable scenes between her and Claude, who this time, however, obstinately stuck to his work and finished his picture, swearing that, come what might, he would send it to the Salon. He lived on his steps, cleaning up his backgrounds until dark. At last, thoroughly exhausted, he declared that he would touch the canvas no more; and Sandoz, on coming to see him one day, at four o'clock, did not find him at home. Christine declared that he had just gone out to take a breath of air on the height of Montmartre.
The breach between Claude and his old friends had gradually widened. With time the latters' visits had become brief and far between, for they felt uncomfortable when they found themselves face to face with that disturbing style of painting; and they were more and more upset by the unhinging of a mind which had been the admiration of their youth. Now all had fled; none excepting Sandoz ever came. Gagniere had even left Paris, to settle down in one of the two houses he owned at Melun, where he lived frugally upon the proceeds of the other one, after suddenly marrying, to every one's surprise, an old maid, his music mistress, who played Wagner to him of an evening. As for Mahoudeau, he alleged work as an excuse for not coming, and indeed he was beginning to earn some money, thanks to a bronze manufacturer, who employed him to touch up his models. Matters were different with Jory, whom no one saw, since Mathilde despotically kept him sequestrated. She had conquered him, and he had fallen into a kind of domesticity comparable to that of a faithful dog, yielding up the keys of his cashbox, and only carrying enough money about him to buy a cigar at a time. It was even said that Mathilde, like the devotee she had once been, had thrown him into the arms of the Church, in order to consolidate her conquest, and that she was constantly talking to him about death, of which he was horribly afraid. Fagerolles alone affected a lively, cordial feeling towards his old friend Claude whenever he happened to meet him. He then always promised to go and see him, but never did so. He was so busy since his great success, in such request, advertised, celebrated, on the road to every imaginable honour and form of fortune! And Claude regretted nobody save Dubuche, to whom he still felt attached, from a feeling of affection for the old reminiscences of boyhood, notwithstanding the disagreements which difference of disposition had provoked later on. But Dubuche, it appeared, was not very happy either. No doubt he was gorged with millions, but he led a wretched life, constantly at logger-heads with his father-in-law (who complained of having been deceived with regard to his capabilities as an architect), and obliged to pass his life amidst the medicine bottles of his ailing wife and his two children, who, having been prematurely born, had to be reared virtually in cotton wool.
Of all the old friends, therefore, there only remained Sandoz, who still found his way to the Rue Tourlaque. He came thither for little Jacques, his godson, and for the sorrowing woman also, that Christine whose passionate features amidst all this distress moved him deeply, like a vision of one of the ardently amorous creatures whom he would have liked to embody in his books. But, above all, his feeling of artistic brotherliness had increased since he had seen Claude losing ground, foundering amidst the heroic folly of art. At first he had remained utterly astonished at it, for he had believed in his friend more than in himself. Since their college days, he had always placed himself second, while setting Claude very high on fame's ladder—on the same rung, indeed, as the masters who revolutionise a period. Then he had been grievously affected by that bankruptcy of genius; he had become full of bitter, heartfelt pity at the sight of the horrible torture of impotency. Did one ever know who was the madman in art? Every failure touched him to the quick, and the more a picture or a book verged upon aberration, sank to the grotesque and lamentable, the more did Sandoz quiver with compassion, the more did he long to lull to sleep, in the soothing extravagance of their dreams, those who were thus blasted by their own work.
On the day when Sandoz called, and failed to find Claude at home, he did not go away; but, seeing Christine's eyelids red with crying, he said:
'If you think that he'll be in soon, I'll wait for him.'
'Oh! he surely won't be long.'
'In that case I'll wait, unless I am in your way.'
Never had her demeanour, the crushed look of a neglected woman, her listless movements, her slow speech, her indifference for everything but the passion that was consuming her, moved him so deeply. For the last week, perhaps, she had not put a chair in its place, or dusted a piece of furniture; she left the place to go to wreck and ruin, scarcely having the strength to drag herself about. And it was enough to break one's heart to behold that misery ending in filth beneath the glaring light from the big window; to gaze on that ill-pargetted shanty, so bare and disorderly, where one shivered with melancholy although it was a bright February afternoon.
Christine had slowly sat down beside an iron bedstead, which Sandoz had not noticed when he came in.
'Hallo,' he said, 'is Jacques ill?'
She was covering up the child, who constantly flung off the bedclothes.
'Yes, he hasn't been up these three days. We brought his bed in here so that he might be with us. He was never very strong. But he is getting worse and worse, it's distracting.'
She had a fixed stare in her eyes and spoke in a monotonous tone, and Sandoz felt frightened when he drew up to the bedside. The child's pale head seemed to have grown bigger still, so heavy that he could no longer support it. He lay perfectly still, and one might have thought he was dead, but for the heavy breathing coming from between his discoloured lips.
'My poor little Jacques, it's I, your godfather. Won't you say how d'ye do?'
The child made a fruitless, painful effort to lift his head; his eyelids parted, showing his white eyeballs, then closed again.
'Have you sent for a doctor?'
Christine shrugged her shoulders.
'Oh! doctors, what do they know?' she answered. 'We sent for one; he said that there was nothing to be done. Let us hope that it will pass over again. He is close upon twelve years old now, and maybe he is growing too fast.'
Sandoz, quite chilled, said nothing for fear of increasing her anxiety, since she did not seem to realise the gravity of the disease. He walked about in silence and stopped in front of the picture.
'Ho, ho! it's getting on; it's on the right road this time.'
And when she told him that the canvas was to be sent to the Salon that next week, he looked embarrassed, and sat down on the couch, like a man who wishes to judge the work leisurely. The background, the quays, the Seine, whence arose the triumphal point of the Cite, still remained in a sketchy state—masterly, however, but as if the painter had been afraid of spoiling the Paris of his dream by giving it greater finish. There was also an excellent group on the left, the lightermen unloading the sacks of plaster being carefully and powerfully treated. But the boat full of women in the centre transpierced the picture, as it were, with a blaze of flesh-tints which were quite out of place; and the brilliancy and hallucinatory proportions of the large nude figure which Claude had painted in a fever seemed strangely, disconcertingly false amidst the reality of all the rest.
Sandoz, silent, fell despair steal over him as he sat in front of that magnificent failure. But he saw Christine's eyes fixed upon him, and had sufficient strength of mind to say:
'Astounding!—the woman, astounding!'
At that moment Claude came in, and on seeing his old chum he uttered a joyous exclamation and shook his hand vigorously. Then he approached Christine, and kissed little Jacques, who had once more thrown off the bedclothes.
'How is he?'
'Just the same.'
'To be sure, to be sure; he is growing too fast. A few days' rest will set him all right. I told you not to be uneasy.'
And Claude thereupon sat down beside Sandoz on the couch. They both took their ease, leaning back, with their eyes surveying the picture; while Christine, seated by the bed, looked at nothing, and seemingly thought of nothing, in the everlasting desolation of her heart. Night was slowly coming on, the vivid light from the window paled already, losing its sheen amidst the slowly-falling crepuscular dimness.
'So it's settled; your wife told me that you were going to send it in.'
'You are right; you had better have done with it once for all. Oh, there are some magnificent bits in it. The quay in perspective to the left, the man who shoulders that sack below. But—'
He hesitated, then finally took the bull by the horns.
'But, it's odd that you have persisted in leaving those women nude. It isn't logical, I assure you; and, besides, you promised me you would dress them—don't you remember? You have set your heart upon them very much then?'
Claude answered curtly, with the obstinacy of one mastered by a fixed idea and unwilling to give any explanations. Then he crossed his arms behind his head, and began talking of other things, without, however, taking his eyes off his picture, over which the twilight began to cast a slight shadow.
'Do you know where I have just come from?' he asked. 'I have been to Courajod's. You know, the great landscape painter, whose "Pond of Gagny" is at the Luxembourg. You remember, I thought he was dead, and we were told that he lived hereabouts, on the other side of the hill, in the Rue de l'Abreuvoir. Well, old boy, he worried me, did Courajod. While taking a breath of air now and then up there, I discovered his shanty, and I could no longer pass in front of it without wanting to go inside. Just think, a master, a man who invented our modern landscape school, and who lives there, unknown, done for, like a mole in its hole! You can have no idea of the street or the caboose: a village street, full of fowls, and bordered by grassy banks; and a caboose like a child's toy, with tiny windows, a tiny door, a tiny garden. Oh! the garden—a mere patch of soil, sloping down abruptly, with a bed where four pear trees stand, and the rest taken up by a fowl-house, made out of green boards, old plaster, and wire network, held together with bits of string.'
His words came slowly; he blinked while he spoke as if the thought of his picture had returned to him and was gradually taking possession of him, to such a degree as to hamper him in his speech about other matters.
'Well, as luck would have it, I found Courajod on his doorstep to-day. An old man of more than eighty, wrinkled and shrunk to the size of a boy. I should like you to see him, with his clogs, his peasant's jersey and his coloured handkerchief wound over his head as if he were an old market-woman. I pluckily went up to him, saying, "Monsieur Courajod, I know you very well; you have a picture in the Luxembourg Gallery which is a masterpiece. Allow a painter to shake hands with you as he would with his master." And then you should have seen him take fright, draw back and stutter, as if I were going to strike him. A regular flight! However, I followed him, and gradually he recovered his composure, and showed me his hens, his ducks, his rabbits and dogs—an extraordinary collection of birds and beasts; there was even a raven among them. He lives in the midst of them all; he speaks to no one but his animals. As for the view, it's simply magnificent; you see the whole of the St. Denis plain for miles upon miles; rivers and towns, smoking factory-chimneys, and puffing railway-engines; in short, the place is a real hermitage on a hill, with its back turned to Paris and its eyes fixed on the boundless country. As a matter of course, I came back to his picture. "Oh, Monsieur Courajod," said I, "what talent you showed! If you only knew how much we all admire you. You are one of our illustrious men; you'll remain the ancestor of us all." But his lips began to tremble again; he looked at me with an air of terror-stricken stupidity; I am sure he would not have waved me back with a more imploring gesture if I had unearthed under his very eyes the corpse of some forgotten comrade of his youth. He kept chewing disconnected words between his toothless gums; it was the mumbling of an old man who had sunk into second childhood, and whom it's impossible to understand. "Don't know—so long ago—too old—don't care a rap." To make a long story short, he showed me the door; I heard him hurriedly turn the key in lock, barricading himself and his birds and animals against the admiration of the outside world. Ah, my good fellow, the idea of it! That great man ending his life like a retired grocer; that voluntary relapse into "nothingness" even before death. Ah, the glory, the glory for which we others are ready to die!'
Claude's voice, which had sunk lower and lower, died away at last in a melancholy sigh. Darkness was still coming on; after gradually collecting in the corners, it rose like a slow, inexorable tide, first submerging the legs of the chairs and the table, all the confusion of things that littered the tiled floor. The lower part of the picture was already growing dim, and Claude, with his eyes still desperately fixed on it, seemed to be watching the ascent of the darkness as if he had at last judged his work in the expiring light. And no sound was heard save the stertorous breathing of the sick child, near whom there still loomed the dark silhouette of the motionless mother.
Then Sandoz spoke in his turn, his hands also crossed behind his head, and his back resting against one of the cushions of the couch.
'Does one ever know? Would it not be better, perhaps, to live and die unknown? What a sell it would be if artistic glory existed no more than the Paradise which is talked about in catechisms and which even children nowadays make fun of! We, who no longer believe in the Divinity, still believe in our own immortality. What a farce it all is!'
Then, affected to melancholy himself by the mournfulness of the twilight, and stirred by all the human suffering he beheld around him, he began to speak of his own torments.
'Look here, old man, I, whom you envy, perhaps—yes, I, who am beginning to get on in the world, as middle-class people say—I, who publish books and earn a little money—well, I am being killed by it all. I have often already told you this, but you don't believe me, because, as you only turn out work with a deal of trouble and cannot bring yourself to public notice, happiness in your eyes could naturally consist in producing a great deal, in being seen, and praised or slated. Well, get admitted to the next Salon, get into the thick of the battle, paint other pictures, and then tell me whether that suffices, and whether you are happy at last. Listen; work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body. The moment I jump out of bed of a morning, work clutches hold of me, rivets me to my desk without leaving me time to get a breath of fresh air; then it pursues me at luncheon—I audibly chew my sentences with my bread. Next it accompanies me when I go out, comes back with me and dines off the same plate as myself; lies down with me on my pillow, so utterly pitiless that I am never able to set the book in hand on one side; indeed, its growth continues even in the depth of my sleep. And nothing outside of it exists for me. True, I go upstairs to embrace my mother, but in so absent-minded a way, that ten minutes after leaving her I ask myself whether I have really been to wish her good-morning. My poor wife has no husband; I am not with her even when our hands touch. Sometimes I have an acute feeling that I am making their lives very sad, and I feel very remorseful, for happiness is solely composed of kindness, frankness and gaiety in one's home; but how can I escape from the claws of the monster? I at once relapse into the somnambulism of my working hours, into the indifference and moroseness of my fixed idea. If the pages I have written during the morning have been worked off all right, so much the better; if one of them has remained in distress, so much the worse. The household will laugh or cry according to the whim of that all-devouring monster—Work. No, no! I have nothing that I can call my own. In my days of poverty I dreamt of rest in the country, of travel in distant lands; and now that I might make those dreams reality, the work that has been begun keeps me shut up. There is no chance of a walk in the morning's sun, no chance of running round to a friend's house, or of a mad bout of idleness! My strength of will has gone with the rest; all this has become a habit; I have locked the door of the world behind me, and thrown the key out of the window. There is no longer anything in my den but work and myself—and work will devour me, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all!'
He paused, and silence reigned once more in the deepening gloom. Then he began again with an effort:
'And if one were only satisfied, if one only got some enjoyment out of such a nigger's life! Ah! I should like to know how those fellows manage who smoke cigarettes and complacently stroke their beards while they are at work. Yes, it appears to me that there are some who find production an easy pleasure, to be set aside or taken up without the least excitement. They are delighted, they admire themselves, they cannot write a couple of lines but they find those lines of a rare, distinguished, matchless quality. Well, as for myself, I bring forth in anguish, and my offspring seems a horror to me. How can a man be sufficiently wanting in self-doubt as to believe in himself? It absolutely amazes me to see men, who furiously deny talent to everybody else, lose all critical acumen, all common-sense, when it becomes a question of their own bastard creations. Why, a book is always very ugly. To like it one mustn't have had a hand in the cooking of it. I say nothing of the jugsful of insults that are showered upon one. Instead of annoying, they rather encourage me. I see men who are upset by attacks, who feel a humiliating craving to win sympathy. It is a simple question of temperament; some women would die if they failed to please. But, to my thinking, insult is a very good medicine to take; unpopularity is a very manly school to be brought up in. Nothing keeps one in such good health and strength as the hooting of a crowd of imbeciles. It suffices that a man can say that he has given his life's blood to his work; that he expects neither immediate justice nor serious attention; that he works without hope of any kind, and simply because the love of work beats beneath his skin like his heart, irrespective of any will of his own. If he can do all this, he may die in the effort with the consoling illusion that he will be appreciated one day or other. Ah! if the others only knew how jauntily I bear the weight of their anger. Only there is my own choler, which overwhelms me; I fret that I cannot live for a moment happy. What hours of misery I spend, great heavens! from the very day I begin a novel. During the first chapters there isn't so much trouble. I have plenty of room before me in which to display genius. But afterwards I become distracted, and am never satisfied with the daily task; I condemn the book before it is finished, judging it inferior to its elders; and I torture myself about certain pages, about certain sentences, certain words, so that at last the very commas assume an ugly look, from which I suffer. And when it is finished—ah! when it is finished, what a relief! Not the enjoyment of the gentleman who exalts himself in the worship of his offspring, but the curse of the labourer who throws down the burden that has been breaking his back. Then, later on, with another book, it all begins afresh; it will always begin afresh, and I shall die under it, furious with myself, exasperated at not having had more talent, enraged at not leaving a "work" more complete, of greater dimensions—books upon books, a pile of mountain height! And at my death I shall feel horrible doubts about the task I may have accomplished, asking myself whether I ought not to have gone to the left when I went to the right, and my last word, my last gasp, will be to recommence the whole over again—'
He was thoroughly moved; the words stuck in his throat; he was obliged to draw breath for a moment before delivering himself of this passionate cry in which all his impenitent lyricism took wing:
Ah, life! a second span of life, who shall give it to me, that work may rob me of it again—that I may die of it once more?'
It had now become quite dark; the mother's rigid silhouette was no longer visible; the hoarse breathing of the child sounded amidst the obscurity like a terrible and distant signal of distress, uprising from the streets. In the whole studio, which had become lugubriously black, the big canvas only showed a glimpse of pallidity, a last vestige of the waning daylight. The nude figure, similar to an agonising vision, seemed to be floating about, without definite shape, the legs having already vanished, one arm being already submerged, and the only part at all distinct being the trunk, which shone like a silvery moon.
After a protracted pause, Sandoz inquired:
'Shall I go with you when you take your picture?'
Getting no answer from Claude, he fancied he could hear him crying. Was it with the same infinite sadness, the despair by which he himself had been stirred just now? He waited for a moment, then repeated his question, and at last the painter, after choking down a sob, stammered:
'Thanks, the picture will remain here; I sha'n't send it.'
'What? Why, you had made up your mind?'
'Yes, yes, I had made up my mind; but I had not seen it as I saw it just now in the waning daylight. I have failed with it, failed with it again—it struck my eyes like a blow, it went to my very heart.'
His tears now flowed slow and scalding in the gloom that hid him from sight. He had been restraining himself, and now the silent anguish which had consumed him burst forth despite all his efforts.
'My poor friend,' said Sandoz, quite upset; 'it is hard to tell you so, but all the same you are right, perhaps, in delaying matters to finish certain parts rather more. Still I am angry with myself, for I shall imagine that it was I who discouraged you by my everlasting stupid discontent with things.'
Claude simply answered:
'You! what an idea! I was not even listening to you. No; I was looking, and I saw everything go helter-skelter in that confounded canvas. The light was dying away, and all at once, in the greyish dusk, the scales suddenly dropped from my eyes. The background alone is pretty; the nude woman is altogether too loud; what's more, she's out of the perpendicular, and her legs are badly drawn. When I noticed that, ah! it was enough to kill me there and then; I felt life departing from me. Then the gloom kept rising and rising, bringing a whirling sensation, a foundering of everything, the earth rolling into chaos, the end of the world. And soon I only saw the trunk waning like a sickly moon. And look, look! there now remains nothing of her, not a glimpse; she is dead, quite black!'
In fact, the picture had at last entirely disappeared. But the painter had risen and could be heard swearing in the dense obscurity.
'D—n it all, it doesn't matter, I'll set to work at it again—'
Then Christine, who had also risen from her chair, against which he stumbled, interrupted him, saying: 'Take care, I'll light the lamp.'
She lighted it and came back looking very pale, casting a glance of hatred and fear at the picture. It was not to go then? The abomination was to begin once more!
'I'll set to work at it again,' repeated Claude, 'and it shall kill me, it shall kill my wife, my child, the whole lot; but, by heaven, it shall be a masterpiece!'
Christine sat down again; they approached Jacques, who had thrown the clothes off once more with his feverish little hands. He was still breathing heavily, lying quite inert, his head buried in the pillow like a weight, with which the bed seemed to creak. When Sandoz was on the point of going, he expressed his uneasiness. The mother appeared stupefied; while the father was already returning to his picture, the masterpiece which awaited creation, and the thought of which filled him with such passionate illusions that he gave less heed to the painful reality of the sufferings of his child, the true living flesh of his flesh.
On the following morning, Claude had just finished dressing, when he heard Christine calling in a frightened voice. She also had just woke with a start from the heavy sleep which had benumbed her while she sat watching the sick child.
'Claude! Claude! Oh, look! He is dead.'
The painter rushed forward, with heavy eyes, stumbling, and apparently failing to understand, for he repeated with an air of profound amazement, 'What do you mean by saying he is dead?'
For a moment they remained staring wildly at the bed. The poor little fellow, with his disproportionate head—the head of the progeny of genius, exaggerated as to verge upon cretinism—did not appear to have stirred since the previous night; but no breath came from his mouth, which had widened and become discoloured, and his glassy eyes were open. His father laid his hands upon him and found him icy cold.
'It is true, he is dead.'
And their stupor was such that for yet another moment they remained with their eyes dry, simply thunderstruck, as it were, by the abruptness of that death which they considered incredible.
Then, her knees bending under her, Christine dropped down in front of the bed, bursting into violent sobs which shook her from head to foot, and wringing her hands, whilst her forehead remained pressed against the mattress. In that first moment of horror her despair was aggravated above all by poignant remorse—the remorse of not having sufficiently cared for the poor child. Former days started up before her in a rapid vision, each bringing with it regretfulness for unkind words, deferred caresses, rough treatment even. And now it was all over; she would never be able to compensate the lad for the affection she had withheld from him. He whom she thought so disobedient had obeyed but too well at last. She had so often told him when at play to be still, and not to disturb his father at his work, that he was quiet at last, and for ever. The idea suffocated her; each sob drew from her a dull moan.
Claude had begun walking up and down the studio, unable to remain still. With his features convulsed, he shed a few big tears, which he brushed away with the back of his hand. And whenever he passed in front of the little corpse he could not help glancing at it. The glassy eyes, wide open, seemed to exercise a spell over him. At first he resisted, but a confused idea assumed shape within him, and would not be shaken off. He yielded to it at last, took a small canvas, and began to paint a study of the dead child. For the first few minutes his tears dimmed his sight, wrapping everything in a mist; but he kept wiping them away, and persevered with his work, even though his brush shook. Then the passion for art dried his tears and steadied his hand, and in a little while it was no longer his icy son that lay there, but merely a model, a subject, the strange interest of which stirred him. That huge head, that waxy flesh, those eyes which looked like holes staring into space—all excited and thrilled him. He stepped back, seemed to take pleasure in his work, and vaguely smiled at it.
When Christine rose from her knees, she found him thus occupied. Then, bursting into tears again, she merely said:
'Ah! you can paint him now, he'll never stir again.'
For five hours Claude kept at it, and on the second day, when Sandoz came back with him from the cemetery, after the funeral, he shuddered with pity and admiration at the sight of the small canvas. It was one of the fine bits of former days, a masterpiece of limpidity and power, to which was added a note of boundless melancholy, the end of everything—all life ebbing away with the death of that child.
But Sandoz, who had burst out into exclamations fall of praise, was quite taken aback on hearing Claude say to him:
'You are sure you like it? In that case, as the other machine isn't ready, I'll send this to the Salon.'
ONE morning, as Claude, who had taken 'The Dead Child' to the Palais de l'Industrie the previous day, was roaming round about the Parc Monceau, he suddenly came upon Fagerolles.
'What!' said the latter, cordially, 'is it you, old fellow? What's becoming of you? What are you doing? We see so little of each other now.'
Then, Claude having mentioned what he had sent to the Salon—that little canvas which his mind was full of—Fagerolles added:
'Ah! you've sent something; then I'll get it "hung" for you. You know that I'm a candidate for the hanging committee this year.'
Indeed, amid the tumult and everlasting discontent of the artists, after attempts at reform, repeated a score of times and then abandoned, the authorities had just invested the exhibitors with the privilege of electing the members of the hanging committee; and this had quite upset the world of painters and sculptors, a perfect electoral fever had set in, with all sorts of ambitious cabals and intrigues—all the low jobbery, indeed, by which politics are dishonoured.
'I'm going to take you with me,' continued Fagerolles; you must come and see how I'm settled in my little house, in which you haven't yet set foot, in spite of all your promises. It's there, hard by, at the corner of the Avenue de Villiers.'
Claude, whose arm he had gaily taken, was obliged to follow him. He was seized with a fit of cowardice; the idea that his old chum might get his picture 'hung' for him filled him with mingled shame and desire. On reaching the avenue, he stopped in front of the house to look at its frontage, a bit of coquettish, precioso architectural tracery—the exact copy of a Renaissance house at Bourges, with lattice windows, a staircase tower, and a roof decked with leaden ornaments. It looked like the abode of a harlot; and Claude was struck with surprise when, on turning round, he recognised Irma Becot's regal mansion just over the way. Huge, substantial, almost severe of aspect, it had all the importance of a palace compared to its neighbour, the dwelling of the artist, who was obliged to limit himself to a fanciful nick-nack.
'Ah! that Irma, eh?' said Fagerolles with just a shade of respect in his tone. 'She has got a cathedral and no mistake! But come in.'
The interior of Fagerolles' house was strangely and magnificently luxurious. Old tapestry, old weapons, a heap of old furniture, Chinese and Japanese curios were displayed even in the very hall. On the left there was a dining-room, panelled with lacquer work and having its ceiling draped with a design of a red dragon. Then there was a staircase of carved wood above which banners drooped, whilst tropical plants rose up like plumes. Overhead, the studio was a marvel, though rather small and without a picture visible. The walls, indeed, were entirely covered with Oriental hangings, while at one end rose up a huge chimney-piece with chimerical monsters supporting the tablet, and at the other extremity appeared a vast couch under a tent—the latter quite a monument, with lances upholding the sumptuous drapery, above a collection of carpets, furs and cushions heaped together almost on a level with the flooring.
Claude looked at it all, and there came to his lips a question which he held back—Was all this paid for? Fagerolles, who had been decorated with the Legion of Honour the previous year, now asked, it was said, ten thousand francs for painting a mere portrait. Naudet, who, after launching him, duly turned his success to profit in a methodical fashion, never let one of his pictures go for less than twenty, thirty, forty thousand francs. Orders would have fallen on the painter's shoulders as thick as hail, if he had not affected the disdain, the weariness of the man whose slightest sketches are fought for. And yet all this display of luxury smacked of indebtedness, there was only so much paid on account to the upholsterers; all the money—the money won by lucky strokes as on 'Change—slipped through the artist's fingers, and was spent without trace of it remaining. Moreover, Fagerolles, still in the full flush of his sudden good fortune, did not calculate or worry, being confident that he would always sell his works at higher and higher prices, and feeling glorious at the high position he was acquiring in contemporary art.
Eventually, Claude espied a little canvas on an ebony easel, draped with red plush. Excepting a rosewood tube case and box of crayons, forgotten on an article of furniture, nothing reminding one of the artistic profession could be seen lying about.
'Very finely treated,' said Claude, wishing to be amiable, as he stood in front of the little canvas. 'And is your picture for the Salon sent?'
'Ah! yes, thank heavens! What a number of people I had here! A perfect procession which kept me on my legs from morning till evening during a week. I didn't want to exhibit it, as it lowers one to do so, and Naudet also opposed it. But what would you have done? I was so begged and prayed; all the young fellows want to set me on the committee, so that I may defend them. Oh! my picture is simple enough—I call it "A Picnic." There are a couple of gentlemen and three ladies under some trees—guests at some chateau, who have brought a collation with them and are eating it in a glade. You'll see, it's rather original.'
He spoke in a hesitating manner, and when his eyes met those of Claude, who was looking at him fixedly, he lost countenance altogether, and joked about the little canvas on the easel.
'That's a daub Naudet asked me for. Oh! I'm not ignorant of what I lack—a little of what you have too much of, old man. You know that I'm still your friend; why, I defended you only yesterday with some painters.'
He tapped Claude on the shoulders, for he had divined his old master's secret contempt, and wished to win him back by his old-time caresses—all the wheedling practices of a hussy. Very sincerely and with a sort of anxious deference he again promised Claude that he would do everything in his power to further the hanging of his picture, 'The Dead Child.'
However, some people arrived; more than fifteen persons came in and went off in less than an hour—fathers bringing young pupils, exhibitors anxious to say a good word on their own behalf, friends who wanted to barter influence, even women who placed their talents under the protection of their charms. And one should have seen the painter play his part as a candidate, shaking hands most lavishly, saying to one visitor: 'Your picture this year is so pretty, it pleases me so much!' then feigning astonishment with another: 'What! you haven't had a medal yet?' and repeating to all of them: 'Ah! If I belonged to the committee, I'd make them walk straight.' He sent every one away delighted, closed the door behind each visitor with an air of extreme amiability, through which, however, there pierced the secret sneer of an ex-lounger on the pavement.
'You see, eh?' he said to Claude, at a moment when they happened to be left alone. 'What a lot of time I lose with those idiots!'
Then he approached the large window, and abruptly opened one of the casements; and on one of the balconies of the house over the way a woman clad in a lace dressing-gown could be distinguished waving her handkerchief. Fagerolles on his side waved his hand three times in succession. Then both windows were closed again.
Claude had recognised Irma; and amid the silence which fell Fagerolles quietly explained matters:
'It's convenient, you see, one can correspond. We have a complete system of telegraphy. She wants to speak to me, so I must go—'
Since he and Irma had resided in the avenue, they met, it was said, on their old footing. It was even asserted that he, so 'cute,' so well-acquainted with Parisian humbug, let himself be fleeced by her, bled at every moment of some good round sum, which she sent her maid to ask for—now to pay a tradesman, now to satisfy a whim, often for nothing at all, or rather for the sole pleasure of emptying his pockets; and this partly explained his embarrassed circumstances, his indebtedness, which ever increased despite the continuous rise in the quotations of his canvases.
Claude had put on his hat again. Fagerolles was shuffling about impatiently, looking nervously at the house over the way.
'I don't send you off, but you see she's waiting for me,' he said, 'Well, it's understood, your affair's settled—that is, unless I'm not elected. Come to the Palais de l'Industrie on the evening the voting-papers are counted. Oh! there will be a regular crush, quite a rumpus! Still, you will always learn if you can rely on me.'
At first, Claude inwardly swore that he would not trouble about it. Fagerolles' protection weighed heavily upon him; and yet, in his heart of hearts, he really had but one fear, that the shifty fellow would not keep his promise, but would ultimately be taken with a fit of cowardice at the idea of protecting a defeated man. However, on the day of the vote Claude could not keep still, but went and roamed about the Champs Elysees under the pretence of taking a long walk. He might as well go there as elsewhere, for while waiting for the Salon he had altogether ceased work. He himself could not vote, as to do so it was necessary to have been 'hung' on at least one occasion. However, he repeatedly passed before the Palais de l'Industrie,* the foot pavement in front of which interested him with its bustling aspect, its procession of artist electors, whom men in dirty blouses caught hold of, shouting to them the titles of their lists of candidates—lists some thirty in number emanating from every possible coterie, and representing every possible opinion. There was the list of the studios of the School of Arts, the liberal list, the list of the uncompromising radical painters, the conciliatory list, the young painters' list, even the ladies' list, and so forth. The scene suggested all the turmoil at the door of an electoral polling booth on the morrow of a riot.
* This palace, for many years the home of the 'Salon,' was built for the first Paris International Exhibition, that of 1855, and demolished in connection with that of 1900.—ED.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, when the voting was over, Claude could not resist a fit of curiosity to go and have a look. The staircase was now free, and whoever chose could enter. Upstairs, he came upon the huge gallery, overlooking the Champs Elysees, which was set aside for the hanging committee. A table, forty feet long, filled the centre of this gallery, and entire trees were burning in the monumental fireplace at one end of it. Some four or five hundred electors, who had remained to see the votes counted, stood there, mingled with friends and inquisitive strangers, talking, laughing, and setting quite a storm loose under the lofty ceiling. Around the table, parties of people who had volunteered to count the votes were already settled and at work; there were some fifteen of these parties in all, each comprising a chairman and two scrutineers. Three or four more remained to be organised, and nobody else offered assistance; in fact, every one turned away in fear of the crushing labour which would rivet the more zealous people to the spot far into the night.
It precisely happened that Fagerolles, who had been in the thick of it since the morning, was gesticulating and shouting, trying to make himself heard above the hubbub.
'Come, gentlemen, we need one more man here! Come, some willing person, over here!'
And at that moment, perceiving Claude, he darted forward and forcibly dragged him off.
'Ah! as for you, you will just oblige me by sitting down there and helping us! It's for the good cause, dash it all!'
Claude abruptly found himself chairman of one of the counting committees, and began to perform his functions with all the gravity of a timid man, secretly experiencing a good deal of emotion, as if the hanging of his canvas would depend upon the conscientiousness he showed in his work. He called out the names inscribed upon the voting-papers, which were passed to him in little packets, while the scrutineers, on sheets of paper prepared for the purpose, noted each successive vote that each candidate obtained. And all this went on amidst a most frightful uproar, twenty and thirty names being called out at the same time by different voices, above the continuous rumbling of the crowd. As Claude could never do anything without throwing passion into it, he waxed excited, became despondent whenever a voting-paper did not bear Fagerolles' name, and grew happy as soon as he had to shout out that name once more. Moreover, he often tasted that delight, for his friend had made himself popular, showing himself everywhere, frequenting the cafes where influential groups of artists assembled, even venturing to expound his opinions there, and binding himself to young artists, without neglecting to bow very low to the members of the Institute. Thus there was a general current of sympathy in his favour. Fagerolles was, so to say, everybody's spoilt child.
Night came on at about six o'clock that rainy March day. The assistants brought lamps; and some mistrustful artists, who, gloomy and silent, were watching the counting askance, drew nearer. Others began to play jokes, imitated the cries of animals, or attempted a tyrolienne. But it was only at eight o'clock, when a collation of cold meat and wine was served, that the gaiety reached its climax. The bottles were hastily emptied, the men stuffed themselves with whatever they were lucky enough to get hold of, and there was a free-and-easy kind of Kermesse in that huge hall which the logs in the fireplace lit up with a forge-like glow. Then they all smoked, and the smoke set a kind of mist around the yellow light from the lamps, whilst on the floor trailed all the spoilt voting-papers thrown away during the polling; indeed, quite a layer of dirty paper, together with corks, breadcrumbs, and a few broken plates. The heels of those seated at the table disappeared amidst this litter. Reserve was cast aside; a little sculptor with a pale face climbed upon a chair to harangue the assembly, and a painter, with stiff moustaches under a hook nose, bestrode a chair and galloped, bowing, round the table, in mimicry of the Emperor.
Little by little, however, a good many grew tired and went off. At eleven o'clock there were not more than a couple of hundred persons present. Past midnight, however, some more people arrived, loungers in dress-coats and white ties, who had come from some theatre or soiree and wished to learn the result of the voting before all Paris knew it. Reporters also appeared; and they could be seen darting one by one out of the room as soon as a partial result was communicated to them.
Claude, hoarse by now, still went on calling names. The smoke and the heat became intolerable, a smell like that of a cow-house rose from the muddy litter on the floor. One o'clock, two o'clock in the morning struck, and he was still unfolding voting-papers, the conscientiousness which he displayed delaying him to such a point that the other parties had long since finished their work, while his was still a maze of figures. At last all the additions were centralised and the definite result proclaimed. Fagerolles was elected, coming fifteenth among forty, or five places ahead of Bongrand, who had been a candidate on the same list, but whose name must have been frequently struck out. And daylight was breaking when Claude reached home in the Rue Tourlaque, feeling both worn out and delighted.
Then, for a couple of weeks he lived in a state of anxiety. A dozen times he had the idea of going to Fagerolles' for information, but a feeling of shame restrained him. Besides, as the committee proceeded in alphabetical order, nothing perhaps was yet decided. However, one evening, on the Boulevard de Clichy, he felt his heart thump as he saw two broad shoulders, with whose lolloping motion he was well acquainted, coming towards him.
They were the shoulders of Bongrand, who seemed embarrassed. He was the first to speak, and said:
'You know matters aren't progressing very well over yonder with those brutes. But everything isn't lost. Fagerolles and I are on the watch. Still, you must rely on Fagerolles; as for me, my dear fellow, I am awfully afraid of compromising your chances.'
To tell the truth, there was constant hostility between Bongrand and the President of the hanging committee, Mazel, a famous master of the School of Arts, and the last rampart of the elegant, buttery, conventional style of art. Although they called each other 'dear colleague' and made a great show of shaking hands, their hostility had burst forth the very first day; one of them could never ask for the admission of a picture without the other one voting for its rejection. Fagerolles, who had been elected secretary, had, on the contrary, made himself Mazel's amuser, his vice, and Mazel forgave his old pupil's defection, so skilfully did the renegade flatter him. Moreover, the young master, a regular turncoat, as his comrades said, showed even more severity than the members of the Institute towards audacious beginners. He only became lenient and sociable when he wanted to get a picture accepted, on those occasions showing himself extremely fertile in devices, intriguing and carrying the vote with all the supple deftness of a conjurer.
The committee work was really a hard task, and even Bongrand's strong legs grew tired of it. It was cut out every day by the assistants. An endless row of large pictures rested on the ground against the handrails, all along the first-floor galleries, right round the Palace; and every afternoon, at one o'clock precisely, the forty committee-men, headed by their president, who was equipped with a bell, started off on a promenade, until all the letters in the alphabet, serving as exhibitors' initials, had been exhausted. They gave their decisions standing, and the work was got through as fast as possible, the worst canvases being rejected without going to the vote. At times, however, discussions delayed the party, there came a ten minutes' quarrel, and some picture which caused a dispute was reserved for the evening revision. Two men, holding a cord some thirty feet long, kept it stretched at a distance of four paces from the line of pictures, so as to restrain the committee-men, who kept on pushing each other in the heat of their dispute, and whose stomachs, despite everything, were ever pressing against the cord. Behind the committee marched seventy museum-keepers in white blouses, executing evolutions under the orders of a brigadier. At each decision communicated to them by the secretaries, they sorted the pictures, the accepted paintings being separated from the rejected ones, which were carried off like corpses after a battle. And the round lasted during two long hours, without a moment's respite, and without there being a single chair to sit upon. The committee-men had to remain on their legs, tramping on in a tired way amid icy draughts, which compelled even the least chilly among them to bury their noses in the depths of their fur-lined overcoats.
Then the three o'clock snack proved very welcome: there was half an hour's rest at a buffet, where claret, chocolate, and sandwiches could be obtained. It was there that the market of mutual concessions was held, that the bartering of influence and votes was carried on. In order that nobody might be forgotten amid the hailstorm of applications which fell upon the committee-men, most of them carried little note-books, which they consulted; and they promised to vote for certain exhibitors whom a colleague protected on condition that this colleague voted for the ones in whom they were interested. Others, however, taking no part in these intrigues, either from austerity or indifference, finished the interval in smoking a cigarette and gazing vacantly about them.
Then the work began again, but more agreeably, in a gallery where there were chairs, and even tables with pens and paper and ink. All the pictures whose height did not reach four feet ten inches were judged there—'passed on the easel,' as the expression goes—being ranged, ten or twelve together, on a kind of trestle covered with green baize. A good many committee-men then grew absent-minded, several wrote their letters, and the president had to get angry to obtain presentable majorities. Sometimes a gust of passion swept by; they all jostled each other; the votes, usually given by raising the hand, took place amid such feverish excitement that hats and walking-sticks were waved in the air above the tumultuous surging of heads.
And it was there, 'on the easel,' that 'The Dead Child' at last made its appearance. During the previous week Fagerolles, whose pocket-book was full of memoranda, had resorted to all kinds of complicated bartering in order to obtain votes in Claude's favour; but it was a difficult business, it did not tally with his other engagements, and he only met with refusals as soon as he mentioned his friend's name. He complained, moreover, that he could get no help from Bongrand, who did not carry a pocket-book, and who was so clumsy, too, that he spoilt the best causes by his outbursts of unseasonable frankness. A score of times already would Fagerolles have forsaken Claude, had it not been for his obstinate desire to try his power over his colleagues by asking for the admittance of a work by Lantier, which was a reputed impossibility. However, people should see if he wasn't yet strong enough to force the committee into compliance with his wishes. Moreover, perhaps from the depths of his conscience there came a cry for justice, an unconfessed feeling of respect for the man whose ideas he had stolen.
As it happened, Mazel was in a frightfully bad humour that day. At the outset of the sitting the brigadier had come to him, saying: 'There was a mistake yesterday, Monsieur Mazel. A hors-concours* picture was rejected. You know, No. 2520, a nude woman under a tree.'
* A painting by one of those artists who, from the fact that they had obtained medals at previous Salons, had the right to go on exhibiting at long as they lived, the committee being debarred from rejecting their work however bad it might be.—ED.
In fact, on the day before, this painting had been consigned to the grave amid unanimous contempt, nobody having noticed that it was the work of an old classical painter highly respected by the Institute; and the brigadier's fright, and the amusing circumstance of a picture having thus been condemned by mistake, enlivened the younger members of the committee and made them sneer in a provoking manner.
Mazel, who detested such mishaps, which he rightly felt were disastrous for the authority of the School of Arts, made an angry gesture, and drily said:
'Well, fish it out again, and put it among the admitted pictures. It isn't so surprising, there was an intolerable noise yesterday. How can one judge anything like that at a gallop, when one can't even obtain silence?'
He rang his bell furiously, and added:
'Come, gentlemen, everything is ready—a little good will, if you please.'
Unluckily, a fresh misfortune occurred as soon as the first paintings were set on the trestle. One canvas among others attracted Mazel's attention, so bad did he consider it, so sharp in tone as to make one's very teeth grate. As his sight was failing him, he leant forward to look at the signature, muttering the while: 'Who's the pig—'
But he quickly drew himself up, quite shocked at having read the name of one of his friends, an artist who, like himself, was a rampart of healthy principles. Hoping that he had not been overheard, he thereupon called out:
'Superb! No. 1, eh, gentlemen?'
No. 1 was granted—the formula of admission which entitled the picture to be hung on the line. Only, some of the committee-men laughed and nudged each other, at which Mazel felt very hurt, and became very fierce.
Moreover, they all made such blunders at times. A great many of them eased their feelings at the first glance, and then recalled their words as soon as they had deciphered the signature. This ended by making them cautious, and so with furtive glances they made sure of the artist's name before expressing any opinion. Besides, whenever a colleague's work, some fellow committee-man's suspicious-looking canvas, was brought forward, they took the precaution to warn each other by making signs behind the painter's back, as if to say, 'Take care, no mistake, mind; it's his picture.'
Fagerolles, despite his colleagues' fidgety nerves, carried the day on a first occasion. It was a question of admitting a frightful portrait painted by one of his pupils, whose family, a very wealthy one, received him on a footing of intimacy. To achieve this he had taken Mazel on one side in order to try to move him with a sentimental story about an unfortunate father with three daughters, who were starving. But the president let himself be entreated for a long while, saying that a man shouldn't waste his time painting when he was dying for lack of food, and that he ought to have a little more consideration for his three daughters! However, in the result, Mazel raised his hand, alone, with Fagerolles. Some of the others then angrily protested, and even two members of the Institute seemed disgusted, whereupon Fagerolles whispered to them in a low key:
'It's for Mazel! He begged me to vote. The painter's a relative of his, I think; at all events, he greatly wants the picture to be accepted.'
At this the two academicians promptly raised their hands, and a large majority declared itself in favour of the portrait.
But all at once laughter, witticisms, and indignant cries rang out: 'The Dead Child' had just been placed on the trestle. Were they to have the Morgue sent to them now? said some. And while the old men drew back in alarm, the younger ones scoffed at the child's big head, which was plainly that of a monkey who had died from trying to swallow a gourd.
Fagerolles at once understood that the game was lost. At first he tried to spirit the vote away by a joke, in accordance with his skilful tactics:
'Come, gentlemen, an old combatant—'
But furious exclamations cut him short. Oh, no! not that one. They knew him, that old combatant! A madman who had been persevering in his obstinacy for fifteen years past—a proud, stuck-up fellow who posed for being a genius, and who had talked about demolishing the Salon, without even sending a picture that it was possible to accept. All their hatred of independent originality, of the competition of the 'shop over the way,' which frightened them, of that invincible power which triumphs even when it is seemingly defeated, resounded in their voices. No, no; away with it!
Then Fagerolles himself made the mistake of getting irritated, yielding to the anger he felt at finding what little real influence he possessed.
'You are unjust; at least, be impartial,' he said.
Thereupon the tumult reached a climax. He was surrounded and jostled, arms waved about him in threatening fashion, and angry words were shot out at him like bullets.
'You dishonour the committee, monsieur!'
'If you defend that thing, it's simply to get your name in the newspapers!'
'You aren't competent to speak on the subject!'
Then Fagerolles, beside himself, losing even the pliancy of his bantering disposition, retorted:
'I'm as competent as you are.'
'Shut up!' resumed a comrade, a very irascible little painter with a fair complexion. 'You surely don't want to make us swallow such a turnip as that?'
Yes, yes, a turnip! They all repeated the word in tones of conviction—that word which they usually cast at the very worst smudges, at the pale, cold, glairy painting of daubers.
'All right,' at last said Fagerolles, clenching his teeth. 'I demand the vote.'
Since the discussion had become envenomed, Mazel had been ringing his bell, extremely flushed at finding his authority ignored.
'Gentlemen—come, gentlemen; it's extraordinary that one can't settle matters without shouting—I beg of you, gentlemen—'
At last he obtained a little silence. In reality, he was not a bad-hearted man. Why should not they admit that little picture, although he himself thought it execrable? They admitted so many others!
'Come, gentlemen, the vote is asked for.'
He himself was, perhaps, about to raise his hand, when Bongrand, who had hitherto remained silent, with the blood rising to his cheeks in the anger he was trying to restrain, abruptly went off like a pop-gun, most unseasonably giving vent to the protestations of his rebellious conscience.
'But, curse it all! there are not four among us capable of turning out such a piece of work!'
Some grunts sped around; but the sledge-hammer blow had come upon them with such force that nobody answered.
'Gentlemen, the vote is asked for,' curtly repeated Mazel, who had turned pale.
His tone sufficed to explain everything: it expressed all his latent hatred of Bongrand, the fierce rivalry that lay hidden under their seemingly good-natured handshakes.
Things rarely came to such a pass as this. They almost always arranged matters. But in the depths of their ravaged pride there were wounds which always bled; they secretly waged duels which tortured them with agony, despite the smile upon their lips.
Bongrand and Fagerolles alone raised their hands, and 'The Dead Child,' being rejected, could only perhaps be rescued at the general revision.
This general revision was the terrible part of the task. Although, after twenty days' continuous toil, the committee allowed itself forty-eight hours' rest, so as to enable the keepers to prepare the final work, it could not help shuddering on the afternoon when it came upon the assemblage of three thousand rejected paintings, from among which it had to rescue as many canvases as were necessary for the then regulation total of two thousand five hundred admitted works to be complete. Ah! those three thousand pictures, placed one after the other alongside the walls of all the galleries, including the outer one, deposited also even on the floors, and lying there like stagnant pools, between which the attendants devised little paths—they were like an inundation, a deluge, which rose up, streamed over the whole Palais de l'Industrie, and submerged it beneath the murky flow of all the mediocrity and madness to be found in the river of Art. And but a single afternoon sitting was held, from one till seven o'clock—six hours of wild galloping through a maze! At first they held out against fatigue and strove to keep their vision clear; but the forced march soon made their legs give way, their eyesight was irritated by all the dancing colours, and yet it was still necessary to march on, to look and judge, even until they broke down with fatigue. By four o'clock the march was like a rout—the scattering of a defeated army. Some committee-men, out of breath, dragged themselves along very far in the rear; others, isolated, lost amid the frames, followed the narrow paths, renouncing all prospect of emerging from them, turning round and round without any hope of ever getting to the end! How could they be just and impartial, good heavens? What could they select from amid that heap of horrors? Without clearly distinguishing a landscape from a portrait, they made up the number they required in pot-luck fashion. Two hundred, two hundred and forty—another eight, they still wanted eight more. That one? No, that other. As you like! Seven, eight, it was over! At last they had got to the end, and they hobbled away, saved—free!
In one gallery a fresh scene drew them once more round 'The Dead Child,' lying on the floor among other waifs. But this time they jested. A joker pretended to stumble and set his foot in the middle of the canvas, while others trotted along the surrounding little paths, as if trying to find out which was the picture's top and which its bottom, and declaring that it looked much better topsy-turvy.
Fagerolles himself also began to joke.
'Come, a little courage, gentlemen; go the round, examine it, you'll be repaid for your trouble. Really now, gentlemen, be kind, rescue it; pray do that good action!'
They all grew merry in listening to him, but with cruel laughter they refused more harshly than ever. 'No, no, never!'
'Will you take it for your "charity"?' cried a comrade.
This was a custom; the committee-men had a right to a 'charity'; each of them could select a canvas among the lot, no matter how execrable it might be, and it was thereupon admitted without examination. As a rule, the bounty of this admission was bestowed upon poor artists. The forty paintings thus rescued at the eleventh hour, were those of the beggars at the door—those whom one allowed to glide with empty stomachs to the far end of the table.
'For my "charity,"' repeated Fagerolles, feeling very much embarrassed; 'the fact is, I meant to take another painting for my "charity." Yes, some flowers by a lady—'
He was interrupted by loud jeers. Was she pretty? In front of the women's paintings the gentlemen were particularly prone to sneer, never displaying the least gallantry. And Fagerolles remained perplexed, for the 'lady' in question was a person whom Irma took an interest in. He trembled at the idea of the terrible scene which would ensue should he fail to keep his promise. An expedient occurred to him.
'Well, and you, Bongrand? You might very well take this funny little dead child for your charity.'
Bongrand, wounded to the heart, indignant at all the bartering, waved his long arms:
'What! I? I insult a real painter in that fashion? Let him be prouder, dash it, and never send anything to the Salon!'
Then, as the others still went on sneering, Fagerolles, desirous that victory should remain to him, made up his mind, with a proud air, like a man who is conscious of his strength and does not fear being compromised.
'All right, I'll take it for my "charity,"' he said.
The others shouted bravo, and gave him a bantering ovation, with a series of profound bows and numerous handshakes. All honour to the brave fellow who had the courage of his opinions! And an attendant carried away in his arms the poor derided, jolted, soiled canvas; and thus it was that a picture by the painter of 'In the Open Air' was at last accepted by the hanging committee of the Salon.
On the very next morning a note from Fagerolles apprised Claude, in a couple of lines, that he had succeeded in getting 'The Dead Child' admitted, but that it had not been managed without trouble. Claude, despite the gladness of the tidings, felt a pang at his heart; the note was so brief, and was written in such a protecting, pitying style, that all the humiliating features of the business were apparent to him. For a moment he felt sorry over this victory, so much so that he would have liked to take his work back and hide it. Then his delicacy of feeling, his artistic pride again gave way, so much did protracted waiting for success make his wretched heart bleed. Ah! to be seen, to make his way despite everything! He had reached the point when conscience capitulates; he once more began to long for the opening of the Salon with all the feverish impatience of a beginner, again living in a state of illusion which showed him a crowd, a press of moving heads acclaiming his canvas.
By degrees Paris had made it the fashion to patronise 'varnishing day'—that day formerly set aside for painters only to come and finish the toilets of their pictures. Now, however, it was like a feast of early fruit, one of those solemnities which set the city agog and attract a tremendous crowd. For a week past the newspaper press, the streets, and the public had belonged to the artists. They held Paris in their grasp; the only matters talked of were themselves, their exhibits, their sayings or doings—in fact, everything connected with them. It was one of those infatuations which at last draw bands of country folk, common soldiers, and even nursemaids to the galleries on days of gratuitous admission, in such wise that fifty thousand visitors are recorded on some fine Sundays, an entire army, all the rear battalions of the ignorant lower orders, following society, and marching, with dilated eyes, through that vast picture shop.
That famous 'varnishing day' at first frightened Claude, who was intimidated by the thought of all the fine people whom the newspapers spoke about, and he resolved to wait for the more democratic day of the real inauguration. He even refused to accompany Sandoz. But he was consumed by such a fever, that after all he started off abruptly at eight o'clock in the morning, barely taking time to eat a bit of bread and cheese beforehand. Christine, who lacked the courage to go with him, kissed him again and again, feeling anxious and moved.
'Mind, my dear, don't worry, whatever happens,' said she.
Claude felt somewhat oppressed as he entered the Gallery of Honour. His heart was beating fast from the swiftness with which he had climbed the grand staircase. There was a limpid May sky out of doors, and through the linen awnings, stretched under the glazed roof, there filtered a bright white light, while the open doorways, communicating with the garden gallery, admitted moist gusts of quivering freshness. For a moment Claude drew breath in that atmosphere which was already tainted with a vague smell of varnish and the odour of the musk with which the women present perfumed themselves. At a glance he took stock of the pictures on the walls: a huge massacre scene in front of him, streaming with carmine; a colossal, pallid, religious picture on his left; a Government order, the commonplace delineation of some official festivity, on the right; and then a variety of portraits, landscapes, and indoor scenes, all glaring sharply amid the fresh gilding of their frames. However, the fear which he retained of the folks usually present at this solemnity led him to direct his glances upon the gradually increasing crowd. On a circular settee in the centre of the gallery, from which sprang a sheaf of tropical foliage, there sat three ladies, three monstrously fat creatures, attired in an abominable fashion, who had settled there to indulge in a whole day's backbiting. Behind him he heard somebody crushing harsh syllables in a hoarse voice. It was an Englishman in a check-pattern jacket, explaining the massacre scene to a yellow woman buried in the depths of a travelling ulster. There were some vacant spaces; groups of people formed, scattered, and formed again further on; all heads were raised; the men carried walking-sticks and had overcoats on their arms, the women strolled about slowly, showing distant profiles as they stopped before the pictures; and Claude's artistic eye was caught by the flowers in their hats and bonnets, which seemed very loud in tint amid the dark waves of the men's silk hats. He perceived three priests, two common soldiers who had found their way there no one knew whence, some endless processions of gentlemen decorated with the ribbon of the Legion of Honour, and troops of girls and their mothers, who constantly impeded the circulation. However, a good many of these people knew each other; there were smiles and bows from afar, at times a rapid handshake in passing. And conversation was carried on in a discreet tone of voice, above which rose the continuous tramping of feet.