Then Claude began to look for his own picture. He tried to find his way by means of the initial letters inscribed above the entrances of the galleries, but made a mistake, and went through those on the left hand. There was a succession of open entrances, a perspective of old tapestry door-hangings, with glimpses of the distant pictures. He went as far as the great western gallery, and came back by the parallel suite of smaller galleries without finding that allotted to the letter L. And when he reached the Gallery of Honour again, the crowd had greatly increased. In fact, it was now scarcely possible for one to move about there. Being unable to advance, he looked around, and recognised a number of painters, that nation of painters which was at home there that day, and was therefore doing the honours of its abode. Claude particularly remarked an old friend of the Boutin Studio—a young fellow consumed with the desire to advertise himself, who had been working for a medal, and who was now pouncing upon all the visitors possessed of any influence and forcibly taking them to see his pictures. Then there was a celebrated and wealthy painter who received his visitors in front of his work with a smile of triumph on his lips, showing himself compromisingly gallant with the ladies, who formed quite a court around him. And there were all the others: the rivals who execrated one another, although they shouted words of praise in full voices; the savage fellows who covertly watched their comrades' success from the corner of a doorway; the timid ones whom one could not for an empire induce to pass through the gallery where their pictures were hung; the jokers who hid the bitter mortification of their defeat under an amusing witticism; the sincere ones who were absorbed in contemplation, trying to understand the various works, and already in fancy distributing the medals. And the painters' families were also there. One charming young woman was accompanied by a coquettishly bedecked child; a sour-looking, skinny matron of middle-class birth was flanked by two ugly urchins in black; a fat mother had foundered on a bench amid quite a tribe of dirty brats; and a lady of mature charms, still very good-looking, stood beside her grown-up daughter, quietly watching a hussy pass—this hussy being the father's mistress. And then there were also the models—women who pulled one another by the sleeve, who showed one another their own forms in the various pictorial nudities, talking very loudly the while and dressed without taste, spoiling their superb figures by such wretched gowns that they seemed to be hump-backed beside the well-dressed dolls—those Parisiennes who owed their figures entirely to their dressmakers.
When Claude got free of the crowd, he enfiladed the line of doorways on the right hand. His letter was on that side; but he searched the galleries marked with an L without finding anything. Perhaps his canvas had gone astray and served to fill up a vacancy elsewhere. So when he had reached the large eastern gallery, he set off along a number of other little ones, a secluded suite visited by very few people, where the pictures seemed to frown with boredom. And there again he found nothing. Bewildered, distracted, he roamed about, went on to the garden gallery, searching among the superabundant exhibits which overflowed there, pallid and shivering in the crude light; and eventually, after other distant excursions, he tumbled into the Gallery of Honour for the third time.
There was now quite a crush there. All those who in any way create a stir in Paris were assembled together—the celebrities, the wealthy, the adored, talent, money and grace, the masters of romance, of the drama and of journalism, clubmen, racing men and speculators, women of every category, hussies, actresses and society belles. And Claude, angered by his vain search, grew amazed at the vulgarity of the faces thus massed together, at the incongruity of the toilets—but a few of which were elegant, while so many were common looking—at the lack of majesty which that vaunted 'society' displayed, to such a point, indeed, that the fear which had made him tremble was changed into contempt. Were these the people, then, who were going to jeer at his picture, provided it were found again? Two little reporters with fair complexions were completing a list of persons whose names they intended to mention. A critic pretended to take some notes on the margin of his catalogue; another was holding forth in professor's style in the centre of a party of beginners; a third, all by himself, with his hands behind his back, seemed rooted to one spot, crushing each work beneath his august impassibility. And what especially struck Claude was the jostling flock-like behaviour of the people, their banded curiosity in which there was nothing youthful or passionate, the bitterness of their voices, the weariness to be read on their faces, their general appearance of suffering. Envy was already at work; there was the gentleman who makes himself witty with the ladies; the one who, without a word, looks, gives a terrible shrug of the shoulders, and then goes off; and there were the two who remain for a quarter of an hour leaning over the handrail, with their noses close to a little canvas, whispering very low and exchanging the knowing glances of conspirators.
But Fagerolles had just appeared, and amid the continuous ebb and flow of the groups there seemed to be no one left but him. With his hand outstretched, he seemed to show himself everywhere at the same time, lavishly exerting himself to play the double part of a young 'master' and an influential member of the hanging committee. Overwhelmed with praise, thanks, and complaints, he had an answer ready for everybody without losing aught of his affability. Since early morning he had been resisting the assault of the petty painters of his set who found their pictures badly hung. It was the usual scamper of the first moment, everybody looking for everybody else, rushing to see one another and bursting into recriminations—noisy, interminable fury. Either the picture was too high up, or the light did not fall upon it properly, or the paintings near it destroyed its effect; in fact, some talked of unhooking their works and carrying them off. One tall thin fellow was especially tenacious, going from gallery to gallery in pursuit of Fagerolles, who vainly explained that he was innocent in the matter and could do nothing. Numerical order was followed, the pictures for each wall were deposited on the floor below and then hung up without anybody being favoured. He carried his obligingness so far as to promise his intervention when the galleries were rearranged after the medals had been awarded; but even then he did not manage to calm the tall thin fellow, who still continued pursuing him.
Claude for a moment elbowed his way through the crowd to go and ask Fagerolles where his picture had been hung. But on seeing his friend so surrounded, pride restrained him. Was there not something absurd and painful about this constant need of another's help? Besides, he suddenly reflected that he must have skipped a whole suite of galleries on the right-hand side; and, indeed, there were fresh leagues of painting there. He ended by reaching a gallery where a stifling crowd was massed in front of a large picture which filled the central panel of honour. At first he could not see it, there was such a surging sea of shoulders, such a thick wall of heads, such a rampart of hats. People rushed forward with gaping admiration. At length, however, by dint of rising on tiptoe, he perceived the marvel, and recognised the subject, by what had been told him.
It was Fagerolles' picture. And in that 'Picnic' he found his own forgotten work, 'In the Open Air,' the same light key of colour, the same artistic formula, but softened, trickishly rendered, spoilt by skin-deep elegance, everything being 'arranged' with infinite skill to satisfy the low ideal of the public. Fagerolles had not made the mistake of stripping his three women; but, clad in the audacious toilets of women of society, they showed no little of their persons. As for the two gallant gentlemen in summer jackets beside them, they realised the ideal of everything most distingue; while afar off a footman was pulling a hamper off the box of a landau drawn up behind the trees. The whole of it, the figures, the drapery, the bits of still life of the repast, stood out gaily in full sunlight against the darkened foliage of the background; and the supreme skill of the painter lay in his pretended audacity, in a mendacious semblance of forcible treatment which just sufficed to send the multitude into ecstasies. It was like a storm in a cream-jug!
Claude, being unable to approach, listened to the remarks around him. At last there was a man who depicted real truth! He did not press his points like those fools of the new school; he knew how to convey everything without showing anything. Ah! the art of knowing where to draw the line, the art of letting things be guessed, the respect due to the public, the approval of good society! And withal such delicacy, such charm and art! He did not unseasonably deliver himself of passionate things of exuberant design; no, when he had taken three notes from nature, he gave those three notes, nothing more. A newspaper man who arrived went into raptures over the 'Picnic,' and coined the expression 'a very Parisian style of painting.' It was repeated, and people no longer passed without declaring that the picture was 'very Parisian' indeed.
All those bent shoulders, all those admiring remarks rising from a sea of spines, ended by exasperating Claude; and seized with a longing to see the faces of the folk who created success, he manoeuvred in such a way as to lean his back against the handrail hard by. From that point, he had the public in front of him in the grey light filtering through the linen awning which kept the centre of the gallery in shade; whilst the brighter light, gliding from the edges of the blinds, illumined the paintings on the walls with a white flow, in which the gilding of the frames acquired a warm sunshiny tint. Claude at once recognised the people who had formerly derided him—if these were not the same, they were at least their relatives—serious, however, and enraptured, their appearance greatly improved by their respectful attention. The evil look, the weariness, which he had at first remarked on their faces, as envious bile drew their skin together and dyed it yellow, disappeared here while they enjoyed the treat of an amiable lie. Two fat ladies, open-mouthed, were yawning with satisfaction. Some old gentlemen opened their eyes wide with a knowing air. A husband explained the subject to his young wife, who jogged her chin with a pretty motion of the neck. There was every kind of marvelling, beatifical, astonished, profound, gay, austere, amidst unconscious smiles and languid postures of the head. The men threw back their black silk hats, the flowers in the women's bonnets glided to the napes of their necks. And all the faces, after remaining motionless for a moment, were then drawn aside and replaced by others exactly like them.
Then Claude, stupefied by that triumph, virtually forgot everything else. The gallery was becoming too small, fresh bands of people constantly accumulated inside it. There were no more vacant spaces, as there had been early in the morning; no more cool whiffs rose from the garden amid the ambient smell of varnish; the atmosphere was now becoming hot and bitter with the perfumes scattered by the women's dresses. Before long the predominant odour suggested that of a wet dog. It must have been raining outside; one of those sudden spring showers had no doubt fallen, for the last arrivals brought moisture with them—their clothes hung about them heavily and seemed to steam as soon as they encountered the heat of the gallery. And, indeed, patches of darkness had for a moment been passing above the awning of the roof. Claude, who raised his eyes, guessed that large clouds were galloping onward lashed by the north wind, that driving rain was beating upon the glass panes. Moire-like shadows darted along the walls, all the paintings became dim, the spectators themselves were blended in obscurity until the cloud was carried away, whereupon the painter saw the heads again emerge from the twilight, ever agape with idiotic rapture.
But there was another cup of bitterness in reserve for Claude. On the left-hand panel, facing Fagerolles', he perceived Bongrand's picture. And in front of that painting there was no crush whatever; the visitors walked by with an air of indifference. Yet it was Bongrand's supreme effort, the thrust he had been trying to give for years, a last work conceived in his obstinate craving to prove the virility of his decline. The hatred he harboured against the 'Village Wedding,' that first masterpiece which had weighed upon all his toilsome after-life, had impelled him to select a contrasting but corresponding subject: the 'Village Funeral'—the funeral of a young girl, with relatives and friends straggling among fields of rye and oats. Bongrand had wrestled with himself, saying that people should see if he were done for, if the experience of his sixty years were not worth all the lucky dash of his youth; and now experience was defeated, the picture was destined to be a mournful failure, like the silent fall of an old man, which does not even stay passers-by in their onward course. There were still some masterly bits, the choirboy holding the cross, the group of daughters of the Virgin carrying the bier, whose white dresses and ruddy flesh furnished a pretty contrast with the black Sunday toggery of the rustic mourners, among all the green stuff; only the priest in his alb, the girl carrying the Virgin's banner, the family following the body, were drily handled; the whole picture, in fact, was displeasing in its very science and the obstinate stiffness of its treatment. One found in it a fatal, unconscious return to the troubled romanticism which had been the starting-point of the painter's career. And the worst of the business was that there was justification for the indifference with which the public treated that art of another period, that cooked and somewhat dull style of painting, which no longer stopped one on one's way, since great blazes of light had come into vogue.
It precisely happened that Bongrand entered the gallery with the hesitating step of a timid beginner, and Claude felt a pang at his heart as he saw him give a glance at his neglected picture and then another at Fagerolles', which was bringing on a riot. At that moment the old painter must have been acutely conscious of his fall. If he had so far been devoured by the fear of slow decline, it was because he still doubted; and now he obtained sudden certainty; he was surviving his reputation, his talent was dead, he would never more give birth to living, palpitating works. He became very pale, and was about to turn and flee, when Chambouvard, the sculptor, entering the gallery by the other door, followed by his customary train of disciples, called to him without caring a fig for the people present:
'Ah! you humbug, I catch you at it—admiring yourself!'
He, Chambouvard, exhibited that year an execrable 'Reaping Woman,' one of those stupidly spoilt figures which seemed like hoaxes on his part, so unworthy they were of his powerful hands; but he was none the less radiant, feeling certain that he had turned out yet another masterpiece, and promenading his god-like infallibility through the crowd which he did not hear laughing at him.
Bongrand did not answer, but looked at him with eyes scorched by fever.
'And my machine downstairs?' continued the sculptor. 'Have you seen it? The little fellows of nowadays may try it on, but we are the only masters—we, old France!'
And thereupon he went off, followed by his court and bowing to the astonished public.
'The brute!' muttered Bongrand, suffocating with grief, as indignant as at the outburst of some low-bred fellow beside a deathbed.
He perceived Claude, and approached him. Was it not cowardly to flee from this gallery? And he determined to show his courage, his lofty soul, into which envy had never entered.
'Our friend Fagerolles has a success and no mistake,' he said. 'I should be a hypocrite if I went into ecstasies over his picture, which I scarcely like; but he himself is really a very nice fellow indeed. Besides, you know how he exerted himself on your behalf.'
Claude was trying to find a word of admiration for the 'Village Funeral.'
'The little cemetery in the background is so pretty!' he said at last. 'Is it possible that the public—'
But Bongrand interrupted him in a rough voice:
'No compliments of condolence, my friend, eh? I see clear enough.'
At this moment somebody nodded to them in a familiar way, and Claude recognised Naudet—a Naudet who had grown and expanded, gilded by the success of his colossal strokes of business. Ambition was turning his head; he talked about sinking all the other picture dealers; he had built himself a palace, in which he posed as the king of the market, centralising masterpieces, and there opening large art shops of the modern style. One heard a jingle of millions on the very threshold of his hall; he held exhibitions there, even ran up other galleries elsewhere; and each time that May came round, he awaited the visits of the American amateurs whom he charged fifty thousand francs for a picture which he himself had purchased for ten thousand. Moreover, he lived in princely style, with a wife and children, a mistress, a country estate in Picardy, and extensive shooting grounds. His first large profits had come from the rise in value of works left by illustrious artists, now defunct, whose talent had been denied while they lived, such as Courbet, Millet, and Rousseau; and this had ended by making him disdain any picture signed by a still struggling artist. However, ominous rumours were already in circulation. As the number of well-known pictures was limited, and the number of amateurs could barely be increased, a time seemed to be coming when business would prove very difficult. There was talk of a syndicate, of an understanding with certain bankers to keep up the present high prices; the expedient of simulated sales was resorted to at the Hotel Drouot—pictures being bought in at a big figure by the dealer himself—and bankruptcy seemed to be at the end of all that Stock Exchange jobbery, a perfect tumble head-over-heels after all the excessive, mendacious agiotage.
'Good-day, dear master,' said Naudet, who had drawn near. 'So you have come, like everybody else, to see my Fagerolles, eh?'
He no longer treated Bongrand in the wheedling, respectful manner of yore. And he spoke of Fagerolles as of a painter belonging to him, of a workman to whom he paid wages, and whom he often scolded. It was he who had settled the young artist in the Avenue de Villiers, compelling him to have a little mansion of his own, furnishing it as he would have furnished a place for a hussy, running him into debt with supplies of carpets and nick-nacks, so that he might afterwards hold him at his mercy; and now he began to accuse him of lacking orderliness and seriousness, of compromising himself like a feather-brain. Take that picture, for instance, a serious painter would never have sent it to the Salon; it made a stir, no doubt, and people even talked of its obtaining the medal of honour; but nothing could have a worse effect on high prices. When a man wanted to get hold of the Yankees, he ought to know how to remain at home, like an idol in the depths of his tabernacle.
'You may believe me or not, my dear fellow,' he said to Bongrand, 'but I would have given twenty thousand francs out of my pocket to prevent those stupid newspapers from making all this row about my Fagerolles this year.'
Bongrand, who, despite his sufferings, was listening bravely, smiled.
'In point of fact,' he said, 'they are perhaps carrying indiscretion too far. I read an article yesterday in which I learnt that Fagerolles ate two boiled eggs every morning.'
He laughed over the coarse puffery which, after a first article on the 'young master's' picture, as yet seen by nobody, had for a week past kept all Paris occupied about him. The whole fraternity of reporters had been campaigning, stripping Fagerolles to the skin, telling their readers all about his father, the artistic zinc manufacturer, his education, the house in which he resided, how he lived, even revealing the colour of his socks, and mentioning a habit he had of pinching his nose. And he was the passion of the hour, the 'young master' according to the tastes of the day, one who had been lucky enough to miss the Prix de Rome, and break off with the School of Arts, whose principles, however, he retained. After all, the success of that style of painting which aims merely at approximating reality, not at rendering it in all its truth, was the fortune of a season which the wind brings and blows away again, a mere whim on the part of the great lunatic city; the stir it caused was like that occasioned by some accident, which upsets the crowd in the morning and is forgotten by night amidst general indifference.
However, Naudet noticed the 'Village Funeral.'
'Hullo! that's your picture, eh?' he said. 'So you wanted to give a companion to the "Wedding"? Well, I should have tried to dissuade you! Ah! the "Wedding"! the "Wedding"!'
Bongrand still listened to him without ceasing to smile. Barely a twinge of pain passed over his trembling lips. He forgot his masterpieces, the certainty of leaving an immortal name, he was only cognisant of the vogue which that youngster, unworthy of cleaning his palette, had so suddenly and easily acquired, that vogue which seemed to be pushing him, Bongrand, into oblivion—he who had struggled for ten years before he had succeeded in making himself known. Ah! when the new generations bury a man, if they only knew what tears of blood they make him shed in death!
However, as he had remained silent, he was seized with the fear that he might have let his suffering be divined. Was he falling to the baseness of envy? Anger with himself made him raise his head—a man should die erect. And instead of giving the violent answer which was rising to his lips, he said in a familiar way:
'You are right, Naudet, I should have done better if I had gone to bed on the day when the idea of that picture occurred to me.'
'Ah! there he is; excuse me!' cried the dealer, making off.
It was Fagerolles showing himself at the entrance of the gallery. He discreetly stood there without entering, carrying his good fortune with the ease of a man who knows what he is about. Besides, he was looking for somebody; he made a sign to a young man, and gave him an answer, a favourable one, no doubt, for the other brimmed over with gratitude. Then two other persons sprang forward to congratulate him; a woman detained him, showing him, with a martyr's gesture, a bit of still life hung in a dark corner. And finally he disappeared, after casting but one glance at the people in raptures before his picture.
Claude, who had looked and listened, was overwhelmed with sadness. The crush was still increasing, he now had nought before him but faces gaping and sweating in the heat, which had become intolerable. Above the nearer shoulders rose others, and so on and so on as far as the door, whence those who could see nothing pointed out the painting to each other with the tips of their umbrellas, from which dripped the water left by the showers outside. And Bongrand remained there out of pride, erect in defeat, firmly planted on his legs, those of an old combatant, and gazing with limpid eyes upon ungrateful Paris. He wished to finish like a brave man, whose kindness of heart is boundless. Claude, who spoke to him without receiving any answer, saw very well that there was nothing behind that calm, gay face; the mind was absent, it had flown away in mourning, bleeding with frightful torture; and thereupon, full of alarm and respect, he did not insist, but went off. And Bongrand, with his vacant eyes, did not even notice his departure.
A new idea had just impelled Claude onward through the crowd. He was lost in wonderment at not having been able to discover his picture. But nothing could be more simple. Was there not some gallery where people grinned, some corner full of noise and banter, some gathering of jesting spectators, insulting a picture? That picture would assuredly be his. He could still hear the laughter of the bygone Salon of the Rejected. And now at the door of each gallery he listened to ascertain if it were there that he was being hissed.
However, as he found himself once more in the eastern gallery, that hall where great art agonises, that depository where vast, cold, and gloomy historical and religious compositions are accumulated, he started, and remained motionless with his eyes turned upward. He had passed through that gallery twice already, and yet that was certainly his picture up yonder, so high up that he hesitated about recognising it. It looked, indeed, so little, poised like a swallow at the corner of a frame—the monumental frame of an immense painting five-and-thirty feet long, representing the Deluge, a swarming of yellow figures turning topsy-turvy in water of the hue of wine lees. On the left, moreover, there was a pitiable ashen portrait of a general; on the right a colossal nymph in a moonlit landscape, the bloodless corpse of a murdered woman rotting away on some grass; and everywhere around there were mournful violet-shaded things, mixed up with a comic scene of some bibulous monks, and an 'Opening of the Chamber of Deputies,' with a whole page of writing on a gilded cartouch, bearing the heads of the better-known deputies, drawn in outline, together with their names. And high up, high up, amid those livid neighbours, the little canvas, over-coarse in treatment, glared ferociously with the painful grimace of a monster.
Ah! 'The Dead Child.' At that distance the wretched little creature was but a confused lump of flesh, the lifeless carcase of some shapeless animal. Was that swollen, whitened head a skull or a stomach? And those poor hands twisted among the bedclothes, like the bent claws of a bird killed by cold! And the bed itself, that pallidity of the sheets, below the pallidity of the limbs, all that white looking so sad, those tints fading away as if typical of the supreme end! Afterwards, however, one distinguished the light eyes staring fixedly, one recognised a child's head, and it all seemed to suggest some disease of the brain, profoundly and frightfully pitiful.
Claude approached, and then drew back to see the better. The light was so bad that refractions darted from all points across the canvas. How they had hung his little Jacques! no doubt out of disdain, or perhaps from shame, so as to get rid of the child's lugubrious ugliness. But Claude evoked the little fellow such as he had once been, and beheld him again over yonder in the country, so fresh and pinky, as he rolled about in the grass; then in the Rue de Douai, growing pale and stupid by degrees, and then in the Rue Tourlaque, no longer able to carry his head, and dying one night, all alone, while his mother was asleep; and he beheld her also, that mother, the sad woman who had stopped at home, to weep there, no doubt, as she was now in the habit of doing for entire days. No matter, she had done right in not coming; 'twas too mournful—their little Jacques, already cold in his bed, cast on one side like a pariah, and so brutalised by the dancing light that his face seemed to be laughing, distorted by an abominable grin.
But Claude suffered still more from the loneliness of his work. Astonishment and disappointment made him look for the crowd, the rush which he had anticipated. Why was he not hooted? Ah! the insults of yore, the mocking, the indignation that had rent his heart, but made him live! No, nothing more, not even a passing expectoration: this was death. The visitors filed rapidly through the long gallery, seized with boredom. There were merely some people in front of the 'Opening of the Chamber,' where they collected to read the inscriptions, and show each other the deputies' heads. At last, hearing some laughter behind him, he turned round; but nobody was jeering, some visitors were simply making merry over the tipsy monks, the comic success of the Salon, which some gentlemen explained to some ladies, declaring that it was brilliantly witty. And all these people passed beneath little Jacques, and not a head was raised, not a soul even knew that he was up there.
However, the painter had a gleam of hope. On the central settee, two personages, one of them fat and the other thin, and both of them decorated with the Legion of Honour, sat talking, reclining against the velvet, and looking at the pictures in front of them. Claude drew near them and listened.
'And I followed them,' said the fat fellow. 'They went along the Rue St. Honore, the Rue St. Roch, the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin, the Rue la Fayette—'
'And you spoke to them?' asked the thin man, who appeared to be deeply interested.
'No, I was afraid of getting in a rage.'
Claude went off and returned on three occasions, his heart beating fast each time that some visitor stopped short and glanced slowly from the line to the ceiling. He felt an unhealthy longing to hear one word, but one. Why exhibit? How fathom public opinion? Anything rather than such torturing silence! And he almost suffocated when he saw a young married couple approach, the husband a good-looking fellow with little fair moustaches, the wife, charming, with the delicate slim figure of a shepherdess in Dresden china. She had perceived the picture, and asked what the subject was, stupefied that she could make nothing out of it; and when her husband, turning over the leaves of the catalogue, had found the title, 'The Dead Child,' she dragged him away, shuddering, and raising this cry of affright:
'Oh, the horror! The police oughtn't to allow such horrors!'
Then Claude remained there, erect, unconscious and haunted, his eyes raised on high, amid the continuous flow of the crowd which passed on, quite indifferent, without one glance for that unique sacred thing, visible to him alone. And it was there that Sandoz came upon him, amid the jostling.
The novelist, who had been strolling about alone—his wife having remained at home beside his ailing mother—had just stopped short, heart-rent, below the little canvas, which he had espied by chance. Ah! how disgusted he felt with life! He abruptly lived the days of his youth over again. He recalled the college of Plassans, his freaks with Claude on the banks of the Viorne, their long excursions under the burning sun, and all the flaming of their early ambition; and, later on, when they had lived side by side, he remembered their efforts, their certainty of coming glory, that fine irresistible, immoderate appetite that had made them talk of swallowing Paris at one bite! How many times, at that period, had he seen in Claude a great man, whose unbridled genius would leave the talent of all others far behind in the rear! First had come the studio of the Impasse des Bourdonnais; later, the studio of the Quai de Bourbon, with dreams of vast compositions, projects big enough to make the Louvre burst; and, meanwhile, the struggle was incessant; the painter laboured ten hours a day, devoting his whole being to his work. And then what? After twenty years of that passionate life he ended thus—he finished with that poor, sinister little thing, which nobody noticed, which looked so distressfully sad in its leper-like solitude! So much hope and torture, a lifetime spent in the toil of creating, to come to that, to that, good God!
Sandoz recognised Claude standing by, and fraternal emotion made his voice quake as he said to him:
'What! so you came? Why did you refuse to call for me, then?'
The painter did not even apologise. He seemed very tired, overcome with somniferous stupor.
'Well, don't stay here,' added Sandoz. 'It's past twelve o'clock, and you must lunch with me. Some people were to wait for me at Ledoyen's; but I shall give them the go-by. Let's go down to the buffet; we shall pick up our spirits there, eh, old fellow?'
And then Sandoz led him away, holding his arm, pressing it, warming it, and trying to draw him from his mournful silence.
'Come, dash it all! you mustn't give way like that. Although they have hung your picture badly, it is all the same superb, a real bit of genuine painting. Oh! I know that you dreamt of something else! But you are not dead yet, it will be for later on. And, just look, you ought to be proud, for it's you who really triumph at the Salon this year. Fagerolles isn't the only one who pillages you; they all imitate you now; you have revolutionised them since your "Open Air," which they laughed so much about. Look, look! there's an "open air" effect, and there's another, and here and there—they all do it.'
He waved his hand towards the pictures as he and Claude passed along the galleries. In point of fact, the dash of clear light, introduced by degrees into contemporary painting, had fully burst forth at last. The dingy Salons of yore, with their pitchy canvases, had made way for a Salon full of sunshine, gay as spring itself. It was the dawn, the aurora which had first gleamed at the Salon of the Rejected, and which was now rising and rejuvenating art with a fine, diffuse light, full of infinite shades. On all sides you found Claude's famous 'bluey tinge,' even in the portraits and the genre scenes, which had acquired the dimensions and the serious character of historical paintings. The old academical subjects had disappeared with the cooked juices of tradition, as if the condemned doctrine had carried its people of shadows away with it; rare were the works of pure imagination, the cadaverous nudities of mythology and catholicism, the legendary subjects painted without faith, the anecdotic bits destitute of life—in fact, all the bric-a-brac of the School of Arts used up by generations of tricksters and fools; and the influence of the new principle was evident even among those artists who lingered over the antique recipes, even among the former masters who had now grown old. The flash of sunlight had penetrated to their studios. From afar, at every step you took, you saw a painting transpierce the wall and form, as it were, a window open upon Nature. Soon the walls themselves would fall, and Nature would walk in; for the breach was a broad one, and the assault had driven routine away in that gay battle waged by audacity and youth.
'Ah! your lot is a fine one, all the same, old fellow!' continued Sandoz. 'The art of to-morrow will be yours; you have made them all.'
Claude thereupon opened his mouth, and, with an air of gloomy brutality, said in a low voice:
'What do I care if I have made them all, when I haven't made myself? See here, it's too big an affair for me, and that's what stifles me.'
He made a gesture to finish expressing his thought, his consciousness of his inability to prove the genius of the formula he had brought with him, the torture he felt at being merely a precursor, the one who sows the idea without reaping the glory, his grief at seeing himself pillaged, devoured by men who turned out hasty work, by a whole flight of fellows who scattered their efforts and lowered the new form of art, before he or another had found strength enough to produce the masterpiece which would make the end of the century a date in art.
But Sandoz protested, the future lay open. Then, to divert Claude, he stopped him while crossing the Gallery of Honour and said:
'Just look at that lady in blue before that portrait! What a slap Nature does give to painting! You remember when we used to look at the dresses and the animation of the galleries in former times? Not a painting then withstood the shock. And yet now there are some which don't suffer overmuch. I even noticed over there a landscape, the general yellowish tinge of which completely eclipsed all the women who approached it.'
Claude was quivering with unutterable suffering.
'Pray, let's go,' he said. 'Take me away—I can't stand it any longer.'
They had all the trouble in the world to find a free table in the refreshment room. People were pressed together in that big, shady retreat, girt round with brown serge drapery under the girders of the lofty iron flooring of the upstairs galleries. In the background, and but partially visible in the darkness, stood three dressers displaying dishes of preserved fruit symmetrically ranged on shelves; while, nearer at hand, at counters placed on the right and left, two ladies, a dark one and a fair one, watched the crowd with a military air; and from the dim depths of this seeming cavern rose a sea of little marble tables, a tide of chairs, serried, entangled, surging, swelling, overflowing and spreading into the garden, under the broad, pallid light which fell from the glass roof.
At last Sandoz saw some people rise. He darted forward and conquered the vacant table by sheer struggling with the mob.
'Ah! dash it! we are here at all events. What will you have to eat?'
Claude made a gesture of indifference. The lunch was execrable; there was some trout softened by over-boiling, some undercut of beef dried up in the oven, some asparagus smelling of moist linen, and, in addition, one had to fight to get served; for the hustled waiters, losing their heads, remained in distress in the narrow passages which the chairs were constantly blocking. Behind the hangings on the left, one could hear a racket of saucepans and crockery; the kitchen being installed there on the sand, like one of those Kermesse cook-shops set up by the roadside in the open air.
Sandoz and Claude had to eat, seated obliquely and half strangled between two parties of people whose elbows almost ended by getting into their plates; and each time that a waiter passed he gave their chairs a shake with his hips. However, the inconvenience, like the abominable cookery, made one gay. People jested about the dishes, different tables fraternised together, common misfortune brought about a kind of pleasure party. Strangers ended by sympathising; friends kept up conversations, although they were seated three rows distant from one another, and were obliged to turn their heads and gesticulate over their neighbours' shoulders. The women particularly became animated, at first rather anxious as to the crush, and then ungloving their hands, catching up their skirts, and laughing at the first thimbleful of neat wine they drank.
However, Sandoz, who had renounced finishing his meat, raised his voice amid the terrible hubbub caused by the chatter and the serving:
'A bit of cheese, eh? And let's try to get some coffee.'
Claude, whose eyes looked dreamy, did not hear. He was gazing into the garden. From his seat he could see the central clump of verdure, some lofty palms which stood in relief against the grey hangings with which the garden was decorated all round. A circle of statues was set out there; and you could see the back of a faun; the profile of a young girl with full cheeks; the face of a bronze Gaul, a colossal bit of romanticism which irritated one by its stupid assumption of patriotism; the trunk of a woman hanging by the wrists, some Andromeda of the Place Pigalle; and others, and others still following the bends of the pathways; rows of shoulders and hips, heads, breasts, legs, and arms, all mingling and growing indistinct in the distance. On the left stretched a line of busts—such delightful ones—furnishing a most comical and uncommon suite of noses. There was the huge pointed nose of a priest, the tip-tilted nose of a soubrette, the handsome classical nose of a fifteenth-century Italian woman, the mere fancy nose of a sailor—in fact, every kind of nose, both the magistrate's and the manufacturer's, and the nose of the gentleman decorated with the Legion of Honour—all of them motionless and ranged in endless succession!
However, Claude saw nothing of them; to him they were but grey spots in the hazy, greenish light. His stupor still lasted, and he was only conscious of one thing, the luxuriousness of the women's dresses, of which he had formed a wrong estimate amid the pushing in the galleries, and which were here freely displayed, as if the wearers had been promenading over the gravel in the conservatory of some chateau. All the elegance of Paris passed by, the women who had come to show themselves, in dresses thoughtfully combined and destined to be described in the morrow's newspapers. People stared a great deal at an actress, who walked about with a queen-like tread, on the arm of a gentleman who assumed the complacent airs of a prince consort. The women of society looked like so many hussies, and they all of them took stock of one another with that slow glance which estimates the value of silk and the length of lace, and which ferrets everywhere, from the tips of boots to the feathers upon bonnets. This was neutral ground, so to say; some ladies who were seated had drawn their chairs together, after the fashion in the garden of the Tuileries, and occupied themselves exclusively with criticising those of their own sex who passed by. Two female friends quickened their pace, laughing. Another woman, all alone, walked up and down, mute, with a black look in her eyes. Some others, who had lost one another, met again, and began ejaculating about the adventure. And, meantime, the dark moving mass of men came to a standstill, then set off again till it stopped short before a bit of marble, or eddied back to a bit of bronze. And among the mere bourgeois, who were few in number, though all of them looked out of their element there, moved men with celebrated names—all the illustrations of Paris. A name of resounding glory re-echoed as a fat, ill-clad gentleman passed by; the winged name of a poet followed as a pale man with a flat, common face approached. A living wave was rising from this crowd in the even, colourless light when suddenly a flash of sunshine, from behind the clouds of a final shower, set the glass panes on high aflame, making the stained window on the western side resplendent, and raining down in golden particles through the still atmosphere; and then everything became warm—the snowy statues amid the shiny green stuff, the soft lawns parted by the yellow sand of the pathways, the rich dresses with their glossy satin and bright beads, even the very voices, whose hilarious murmur seemed to crackle like a bright fire of vine shoots. Some gardeners, completing the arrangements of the flower-beds, turned on the taps of the stand-pipes and promenaded about with their pots, the showers squirting from which came forth again in tepid steam from the drenched grass. And meanwhile a plucky sparrow, who had descended from the iron girders, despite the number of people, dipped his beak in the sand in front of the buffet, eating some crumbs which a young woman threw him by way of amusement. Of all the tumult, however, Claude only heard the ocean-like din afar, the rumbling of the people rolling onwards in the galleries. And a recollection came to him, he remembered that noise which had burst forth like a hurricane in front of his picture at the Salon of the Rejected. But nowadays people no longer laughed at him; upstairs the giant roar of Paris was acclaiming Fagerolles!
It so happened that Sandoz, who had turned round, said to Claude: 'Hallo! there's Fagerolles!'
And, indeed, Fagerolles and Jory had just laid hands on a table near by without noticing their friends, and the journalist, continuing in his gruff voice a conversation which had previously begun, remarked:
'Yes, I saw his "Dead Child"! Ah! the poor devil! what an ending!'
But Fagerolles nudged Jory, and the latter, having caught sight of his two old comrades, immediately added:
'Ah! that dear old Claude! How goes it, eh? You know that I haven't yet seen your picture. But I'm told that it's superb.'
'Superb!' declared Fagerolles, who then began to express his surprise. 'So you lunched here. What an idea! Everything is so awfully bad. We two have just come from Ledoyen's. Oh! such a crowd and such hustling, such mirth! Bring your table nearer and let us chat a bit.'
They joined the two tables together. But flatterers and petitioners were already after the triumphant young master. Three friends rose up and noisily saluted him from afar. A lady became smilingly contemplative when her husband had whispered his name in her ear. And the tall, thin fellow, the artist whose picture had been badly hung, and who had pursued him since the morning, as enraged as ever, left a table where he was seated at the further end of the buffet, and again hurried forward to complain, imperatively demanding 'the line' at once.
'Oh! go to the deuce!' at last cried Fagerolles, his patience and amiability exhausted. And he added, when the other had gone off, mumbling some indistinct threats: 'It's true; a fellow does all he can to be obliging, but those chaps would drive one mad! All of them on the "line"! leagues of "line" then! Ah! what a business it is to be a committee-man! One wears out one's legs, and one only reaps hatred as reward.'
Claude, who was looking at him with his oppressed air, seemed to wake up for a moment, and murmured:
'I wrote to you; I wanted to go and see you to thank you. Bongrand told me about all the trouble you had. So thanks again.'
But Fagerolles hastily broke in:
'Tut, tut! I certainly owed that much to our old friendship. It's I who am delighted to have given you any pleasure.'
He showed the embarrassment which always came upon him in presence of the acknowledged master of his youth, that kind of humility which filled him perforce when he was with the man whose mute disdain, even at this moment, sufficed to spoil all his triumph.
'Your picture is very good,' slowly added Claude, who wished to be kind-hearted and generous.
This simple praise made Fagerolles' heart swell with exaggerated, irresistible emotion, springing he knew not whence; and this rascal, who believed in nothing, who was usually so proficient in humbug, answered in a shaky voice:
'Ah! my dear fellow, ah! it's very kind of you to tell me that!'
Sandoz had at last obtained two cups of coffee, and as the waiter had forgotten to bring any sugar, he had to content himself with some pieces which a party had left on an adjoining table. A few tables, indeed, had now become vacant, but the general freedom had increased, and one woman's laughter rang out so loudly that every head turned round. The men were smoking, and a bluish cloud slowly rose above the straggling tablecloths, stained by wine and littered with dirty plates and dishes. When Fagerolles, on his aide, succeeded in obtaining two glasses of chartreuse for himself and Jory, he began to talk to Sandoz, whom he treated with a certain amount of deference, divining that the novelist might become a power. And Jory thereupon appropriated Claude, who had again become mournful and silent.
'You know, my dear fellow,' said the journalist, 'I didn't send you any announcement of my marriage. On account of our position we managed it on the quiet without inviting any guests. All the same, I should have liked to let you know. You will excuse me, won't you?'
He showed himself expansive, gave particulars, full of the happiness of life, and egotistically delighted to feel fat and victorious in front of that poor vanquished fellow. He succeeded with everything, he said. He had given up leader-writing, feeling the necessity of settling down seriously, and he had risen to the editorship of a prominent art review, on which, so it was asserted, he made thirty thousand francs a year, without mentioning certain profits realised by shady trafficking in the sale of art collections. The middle-class rapacity which he had inherited from his mother, the hereditary passion for profit which had secretly impelled him to embark in petty speculations as soon as he had gained a few coppers, now openly displayed itself, and ended by making him a terrible customer, who bled all the artists and amateurs who came under his clutches.
It was amidst this good luck of his that Mathilde, now all-powerful, had brought him to the point of begging her, with tears in his eyes, to become his wife, a request which she had proudly refused during six long months.
'When folks are destined to live together,' he continued, 'the best course is to set everything square. You experienced it yourself, my dear fellow; you know something about it, eh? And if I told you that she wouldn't consent at first—yes, it's a fact—for fear of being misjudged and of doing me harm. Oh! she has such grandeur, such delicacy of mind! No, nobody can have an idea of that woman's qualities. Devoted, taking all possible care of one, economical, and acute, too, and such a good adviser! Ah! it was a lucky chance that I met her! I no longer do anything without consulting her; I let her do as she likes; she manages everything, upon my word.'
The truth was that Mathilde had finished by reducing him to the frightened obedience of a little boy. The once dissolute she-ghoul had become a dictatorial spouse, eager for respect, and consumed with ambition and love of money. She showed, too, every form of sourish virtue. It was said that they had been seen taking the Holy Communion together at Notre Dame de Lorette. They kissed one another before other people, and called each other by endearing nicknames. Only, of an evening, he had to relate how he had spent his time during the day, and if the employment of a single hour remained suspicious, if he did not bring home all the money he had received, down to the odd coppers, she led him the most abominable life imaginable.
This, of course, Jory left unmentioned. By way of conclusion he exclaimed: 'And so we waited for my father's death, and then I married her.'
Claude, whose mind had so far been wandering, and who had merely nodded without listening, was struck by that last sentence.
'What! you married her—married Mathilde?'
That exclamation summed up all the astonishment that the affair caused him, all the recollections that occurred to him of Mahoudeau's shop. That Jory, why, he could still hear him talking about Mathilde in an abominable manner; and yet he had married her! It was really stupid for a fellow to speak badly of a woman, for he never knew if he might not end by marrying her some day or other!
However, Jory was perfectly serene, his memory was dead, he never allowed himself an allusion to the past, never showed the slightest embarrassment when his comrades' eyes were turned on him. Besides, Mathilde seemed to be a new-comer. He introduced her to them as if they knew nothing whatever about her.
Sandoz, who had lent an ear to the conversation, greatly interested by this fine business, called out as soon as Jory and Claude became silent:
'Let's be off, eh? My legs are getting numbed.'
But at that moment Irma Becot appeared, and stopped in front of the buffet. With her hair freshly gilded, she had put on her best looks—all the tricky sheen of a tawny hussy, who seemed to have just stepped out of some old Renaissance frame; and she wore a train of light blue brocaded silk, with a satin skirt covered with Alencon lace, of such richness that quite an escort of gentlemen followed her in admiration. On perceiving Claude among the others, she hesitated for a moment, seized, as it were, with cowardly shame in front of that ill-clad, ugly, derided devil. Then, becoming valiant, as it were, it was his hand that she shook the first amid all those well-dressed men, who opened their eyes in amazement. She laughed with an affectionate air, and spoke to him in a friendly, bantering way.
Fagerolles, however, was already paying for the two chartreuses he had ordered, and at last he went off with Irma, whom Jory also decided to follow. Claude watched them walk away together, she between the two men, moving on in regal fashion, greatly admired, and repeatedly bowed to by people in the crowd.
'One can see very well that Mathilde isn't here,' quietly remarked Sandoz. 'Ah! my friend, what clouts Jory would receive on getting home!'
The novelist now asked for the bill. All the tables were becoming vacant; there only remained a litter of bones and crusts. A couple of waiters were wiping the marble slabs with sponges, whilst a third raked up the soiled sand. Behind the brown serge hangings the staff of the establishment was lunching—one could hear a grinding of jaws and husky laughter, a rumpus akin to that of a camp of gipsies devouring the contents of their saucepans.
Claude and Sandoz went round the garden, where they discovered a statue by Mahoudeau, very badly placed in a corner near the eastern vestibule. It was the bathing girl at last, standing erect, but of diminutive proportions, being scarcely as tall as a girl ten years old, but charmingly delicate—with slim hips and a tiny bosom, displaying all the exquisite hesitancy of a sprouting bud. The figure seemed to exhale a perfume, that grace which nothing can give, but which flowers where it lists, stubborn, invincible, perennial grace, springing still and ever from Mahoudeau's thick fingers, which were so ignorant of their special aptitude that they had long treated this very grace with derision.
Sandoz could not help smiling.
'And to think that this fellow has done everything he could to warp his talent. If his figure were better placed, it would meet with great success.'
'Yes, great success,' repeated Claude. 'It is very pretty.'
Precisely at that moment they perceived Mahoudeau, already in the vestibule, and going towards the staircase. They called him, ran after him, and then all three remained talking together for a few minutes. The ground-floor gallery stretched away, empty, with its sanded pavement, and the pale light streaming through its large round windows. One might have fancied oneself under a railway bridge. Strong pillars supported the metallic framework, and an icy chillness blew from above, moistening the sand in which one's feet sank. In the distance, behind a torn curtain, one could see rows of statues, the rejected sculptural exhibits, the casts which poor sculptors did not even remove, gathered together in a livid kind of Morgue, in a state of lamentable abandonment. But what surprised one, on raising one's head, was the continuous din, the mighty tramp of the public over the flooring of the upper galleries. One was deafened by it; it rolled on without a pause, as if interminable trains, going at full speed, were ever and ever shaking the iron girders.
When Mahoudeau had been complimented, he told Claude that he had searched for his picture in vain. In the depths of what hole could they have put it? Then, in a fit of affectionate remembrance for the past, he asked anxiously after Gagniere and Dubuche. Where were the Salons of yore which they had all reached in a band, the mad excursions through the galleries as in an enemy's country, the violent disdain they had felt on going away, the discussions which had made their tongues swell and emptied their brains? Nobody now saw Dubuche. Two or three times a month Gagniere came from Melun, in a state of bewilderment, to attend some concert; and he now took such little interest in painting that he had not even looked in at the Salon, although he exhibited his usual landscape, the same view of the banks of the Seine which he had been sending for the last fifteen years—a picture of a pretty greyish tint, so conscientious and quiet that the public had never remarked it.
'I was going upstairs,' resumed Mahoudeau. 'Will you come with me?'
Claude, pale with suffering, raised his eyes every second. Ah! that terrible rumbling, that devouring gallop of the monster overhead, the shock of which he felt in his very limbs!
He held out his hand without speaking.
'What! are you going to leave us?' exclaimed Sandoz. Take just another turn with us, and we'll go away together.'
Then, on seeing Claude so weary, a feeling of pity made his heart contract. He divined that the poor fellow's courage was exhausted, that he was desirous of solitude, seized with a desire to fly off alone and hide his wound.
'Then, good-bye, old man: I'll call and see you to-morrow.'
Staggering, and as if pursued by the tempest upstairs, Claude disappeared behind the clumps of shrubbery in the garden. But two hours later Sandoz, who after losing Mahoudeau had just found him again with Jory and Fagerolles, perceived the unhappy painter again standing in front of his picture, at the same spot where he had met him the first time. At the moment of going off the wretched fellow had come up there again, harassed and attracted despite himself.
There was now the usual five o'clock crush. The crowd, weary of winding round the galleries, became distracted, and pushed and shoved without ever finding its way out. Since the coolness of the morning, the heat of all the human bodies, the odour of all the breath exhaled there had made the atmosphere heavy, and the dust of the floors, flying about, rose up in a fine mist. People still took each other to see certain pictures, the subjects of which alone struck and attracted the crowd. Some went off, came back, and walked about unceasingly. The women were particularly obstinate in not retiring; they seemed determined to remain there till the attendants should push them out when six o'clock began to strike. Some fat ladies had foundered. Others, who had failed to find even the tiniest place to sit down, leaned heavily on their parasols, sinking, but still obstinate. Every eye was turned anxiously and supplicatingly towards the settees laden with people. And all that those thousands of sight-seers were now conscious of, was that last fatigue of theirs, which made their legs totter, drew their features together, and tortured them with headache—that headache peculiar to fine-art shows, which is caused by the constant straining of one's neck and the blinding dance of colours.
Alone on the little settee where at noon already they had been talking about their private affairs, the two decorated gentlemen were still chatting quietly, with their minds a hundred leagues away from the place. Perhaps they had returned thither, perhaps they had not even stirred from the spot.
'And so,' said the fat one, 'you went in, pretending not to understand?'
'Quite so,' replied the thin one. 'I looked at them and took off my hat. It was clear, eh?'
'Astonishing! You really astonish me, my dear friend.'
Claude, however, only heard the low beating of his heart, and only beheld the 'Dead Child' up there in the air, near the ceiling. He did not take his eyes off it, a prey to a fascination which held him there, quite independent of his will. The crowd turned round him, people's feet trod on his own, he was pushed and carried away; and, like some inert object, he abandoned himself, waved about, and ultimately found himself again on the same spot as before without having once lowered his head, quite ignorant of what was occurring below, all his life being concentrated up yonder beside his work, his little Jacques, swollen in death. Two big tears which stood motionless between his eyelids prevented him from seeing clearly. And it seemed to him as if he would never have time to see enough.
Then Sandoz, in his deep compassion, pretended he did not perceive his old friend; it was as if he wished to leave him there, beside the tomb of his wrecked life. Their comrades once more went past in a band. Fagerolles and Jory darted on ahead, and, Mahoudeau having asked Sandoz where Claude's picture was hung, the novelist told a lie, drew him aside and took him off. All of them went away.
In the evening Christine only managed to draw curt words from Claude; everything was going on all right, said he; the public showed no ill-humour; the picture had a good effect, though it was hung perhaps rather high up. However, despite this semblance of cold tranquillity, he seemed so strange that she became frightened.
After dinner, as she returned from carrying the dirty plates into the kitchen, she no longer found him near the table. He had opened a window which overlooked some waste ground, and he stood there, leaning out to such a degree that she could scarcely see him. At this she sprang forward, terrified, and pulled him violently by his jacket.
'Claude! Claude! what are you doing?'
He turned round, with his face as white as a sheet and his eyes haggard.
'I'm looking,' he said.
But she closed the window with trembling hands, and after that significant incident such anguish clung to her that she no longer slept at night-time.
CLAUDE set to work again on the very next day, and months elapsed, indeed the whole summer went by, in heavy quietude. He had found a job, some little paintings of flowers for England, the proceeds of which sufficed for their daily bread. All his available time was again devoted to his large canvas, and he no longer went into the same fits of anger over it, but seemed to resign himself to that eternal task, evincing obstinate, hopeless industry. However, his eyes retained their crazy expression—one could see the death of light, as it were, in them, when they gazed upon the failure of his existence.
About this period Sandoz also experienced great grief. His mother died, his whole life was upset—that life of three together, so homely in its character, and shared merely by a few friends. He began to hate the pavilion of the Rue Nollet, and, moreover, success suddenly declared itself with respect to his books, which hitherto had sold but moderately well. So, prompted by the advent of comparative wealth, he rented in the Rue de Londres a spacious flat, the arrangements of which occupied him and his wife for several months. Sandoz's grief had drawn him closer to Claude again, both being disgusted with everything. After the terrible blow of the Salon, the novelist had felt very anxious about his old chum, divining that something had irreparably snapped within him, that there was some wound by which life ebbed away unseen. Then, however, finding Claude so cold and quiet, he ended by growing somewhat reassured.
Sandoz often walked up to the Rue Tourlaque, and whenever he found only Christine at home, he questioned her, realising that she also lived in apprehension of a calamity of which she never spoke. Her face bore a look of worry, and now and again she started nervously, like a mother who watches over her child and trembles at the slightest sound, with the fear that death may be entering the chamber.
One July morning Sandoz asked her: 'Well, are you pleased? Claude's quiet, he works a deal.'
She gave the large picture her usual glance, a side glance full of terror and hatred.
'Yes, yes, he works,' she said. 'He wants to finish everything else before taking up the woman again.' And without confessing the fear that harassed her, she added in a lower tone: 'But his eyes—have you noticed his eyes? They always have the same wild expression. I know very well that he lies, despite his pretence of taking things so easily. Pray, come and see him, and take him out with you, so as to change the current of his thoughts. He only has you left; help me, do help me!'
After that Sandoz diligently devised motives for various walks, arriving at Claude's early in the morning, and carrying him away from his work perforce. It was almost always necessary to drag him from his steps, on which he habitually sat, even when he was not painting. A feeling of weariness stopped him, a kind of torpor benumbed him for long minutes, during which he did not give a single stroke with the brush. In those moments of mute contemplation, his gaze reverted with pious fervour to the woman's figure which he no longer touched: it was like a hesitating desire combined with sacred awe, a passion which he refused to satisfy, as he felt certain that it would cost him his life. When he set to work again at the other figures and the background of the picture, he well knew that the woman's figure was still there, and his glance wavered whenever he espied it; he felt that he would only remain master of himself as long as he did not touch it again.
One evening, Christine, who now visited at Sandoz's and never missed a single Thursday there, in the hope of seeing her big sick child of an artist brighten up in the society of his friends, took the novelist aside and begged him to drop in at their place on the morrow. And on the next day Sandoz, who, as it happened, wanted to take some notes for a novel, on the other side of Montmartre, went in search of Claude, carried him off and kept him idling about until night-time.
On this occasion they went as far as the gate of Clignancourt, where a perpetual fair was held, with merry-go-rounds, shooting-galleries, and taverns, and on reaching the spot they were stupefied to find themselves face to face with Chaine, who was enthroned in a large and stylish booth. It was a kind of chapel, highly ornamented. There were four circular revolving stands set in a row and loaded with articles in china and glass, all sorts of ornaments and nick-nacks, whose gilding and polish shone amid an harmonica-like tinkling whenever the hand of a gamester set the stand in motion. It then spun round, grating against a feather, which, on the rotatory movement ceasing, indicated what article, if any, had been won. The big prize was a live rabbit, adorned with pink favours, which waltzed and revolved unceasingly, intoxicated with fright. And all this display was set in red hangings, scalloped at the top; and between the curtains one saw three pictures hanging at the rear of the booth, as in the sanctuary of some tabernacle. They were Chaine's three masterpieces, which now followed him from fair to fair, from one end of Paris to the other. The 'Woman taken in Adultery' in the centre, the copy of the Mantegna on the left, and Mahoudeau's stove on the right. Of an evening, when the petroleum lamps flamed and the revolving stands glowed and radiated like planets, nothing seemed finer than those pictures hanging amid the blood-tinged purple of the hangings, and a gaping crowd often flocked to view them.
The sight was such that it wrung an exclamation from Claude: 'Ah, good heavens! But those paintings look very well—they were surely intended for this.'
The Mantegna, so naively harsh in treatment, looked like some faded coloured print nailed there for the delectation of simple-minded folk; whilst the minutely painted stove, all awry, hanging beside the gingerbread Christ absolving the adulterous woman, assumed an unexpectedly gay aspect.
However, Chaine, who had just perceived the two friends, held out his hand to them, as if he had left them merely the day before. He was calm, neither proud nor ashamed of his booth, and he had not aged, having still a leathery aspect; though, on the other hand, his nose had completely vanished between his cheeks, whilst his mouth, clammy with prolonged silence, was buried in his moustache and beard.
'Hallo! so we meet again!' said Sandoz, gaily. 'Do you know, your paintings have a lot of effect?'
'The old humbug!' added Claude. 'Why, he has his little Salon all to himself. That's very cute indeed.'
Chaine's face became radiant, and he dropped the remark: 'Of course!'
Then, as his artistic pride was roused, he, from whom people barely wrung anything but growls, gave utterance to a whole sentence:
'Ah! it's quite certain that if I had had any money, like you fellows, I should have made my way, just as you have done, in spite of everything.'
That was his conviction. He had never doubted of his talent, he had simply forsaken the profession because it did not feed him. When he visited the Louvre, at sight of the masterpieces hanging there he felt convinced that time alone was necessary to turn out similar work.
'Ah, me!' said Claude, who had become gloomy again. 'Don't regret what you've done; you alone have succeeded. Business is brisk, eh?'
But Chaine muttered bitter words. No, no, there was nothing doing, not even in his line. People wouldn't play for prizes; all the money found its way to the wine-shops. In spite of buying paltry odds and ends, and striking the table with the palm of one's hand, so that the feather might not indicate one of the big prizes, a fellow barely had water to drink nowadays. Then, as some people had drawn near, he stopped short in his explanation to call out: 'Walk up, walk up, at every turn you win!' in a gruff voice which the two others had never known him to possess, and which fairly stupefied them.
A workman who was carrying a sickly little girl with large covetous eyes, let her play two turns. The revolving stands grated and the nick-nacks danced round in dazzling fashion, while the live rabbit, with his ears lowered, revolved and revolved so rapidly that the outline of his body vanished and he became nothing but a whitish circle. There was a moment of great emotion, for the little girl had narrowly missed winning him.
Then, after shaking hands with Chaine, who was still trembling with the fright this had given him, the two friends walked away.
'He's happy,' said Claude, after they had gone some fifty paces in silence.
'He!' cried Sandoz; 'why, he believes he has missed becoming a member of the Institute, and it's killing him.'
Shortly after this meeting, and towards the middle of August, Sandoz devised a real excursion which would take up a whole day. He had met Dubuche—Dubuche, careworn and mournful, who had shown himself plaintive and affectionate, raking up the past and inviting his two old chums to lunch at La Richaudiere, where he should be alone with his two children for another fortnight. Why shouldn't they go and surprise him there, since he seemed so desirous of renewing the old intimacy? But in vain did Sandoz repeat that he had promised Dubuche on oath to bring Claude with him; the painter obstinately refused to go, as if he were frightened at the idea of again beholding Bennecourt, the Seine, the islands, all the stretch of country where his happy years lay dead and buried. It was necessary for Christine to interfere, and he finished by giving way, although full of repugnance to the trip. It precisely happened that on the day prior to the appointment he had worked at his painting until very late, being taken with the old fever again. And so the next morning—it was Sunday—being devoured with a longing to paint, he went off most reluctantly, tearing himself away from his picture with a pang. What was the use of returning to Bennecourt? All that was dead, it no longer existed. Paris alone remained, and even in Paris there was but one view, the point of the Cite, that vision which haunted him always and everywhere, that one corner where he ever left his heart.
Sandoz, finding him nervous in the railway carriage, and seeing that his eyes remained fixed on the window as if he had been leaving the city—which had gradually grown smaller and seemed shrouded in mist—for years, did all he could to divert his mind, telling him, for instance, what he knew about Dubuche's real position. At the outset, old Margaillan, glorifying in his bemedalled son-in-law, had trotted him about and introduced him everywhere as his partner and successor. There was a fellow who would conduct business briskly, who would build houses more cheaply and in finer style than ever, for hadn't he grown pale over books? But Dubuche's first idea proved disastrous; on some land belonging to his father-in-law in Burgundy he established a brickyard in so unfavourable a situation, and after so defective a plan, that the venture resulted in the sheer loss of two hundred thousand francs. Then he turned his attention to erecting houses, insisting upon bringing personal ideas into execution, a certain general scheme of his which would revolutionise the building art. These ideas were the old theories he held from the revolutionary chums of his youth, everything that he had promised he would realise when he was free; but he had not properly reduced the theories to method, and he applied them unseasonably, with the awkwardness of a pupil lacking the sacred fire; he experimented with terra-cotta and pottery ornamentation, large bay windows, and especially with the employment of iron—iron girders, iron staircases, and iron roofings; and as the employment of these materials increased the outlay, he again ended with a catastrophe, which was all the greater as he was a pitiful manager, and had lost his head since he had become rich, rendered the more obtuse, it seemed, by money, quite spoilt and at sea, unable even to revert to his old habits of industry. This time Margaillan grew angry; he for thirty years had been buying ground, building and selling again, estimating at a glance the cost and return of house property; so many yards of building at so much the foot having to yield so many suites of rooms at so much rent. He wouldn't have anything more to do with a fellow who blundered about lime, bricks, millstones, and in fact everything, who employed oak when deal would have suited, and who could not bring himself to cut up a storey—like a consecrated wafer—into as many little squares as was necessary. No, no, none of that! He rebelled against art, after having been ambitious to introduce a little of it into his routine, in order to satisfy a long-standing worry about his own ignorance. And after that matters had gone from bad to worse, terrible quarrels had arisen between the son-in-law and the father-in-law, the former disdainful, intrenching himself behind his science, and the latter shouting that the commonest labourer knew more than an architect did. The millions were in danger, and one fine day Margaillan turned Dubuche out of his offices, forbidding him ever to set foot in them again, since he did not even know how to direct a building-yard where only four men worked. It was a disaster, a lamentable failure, the School of Arts collapsing, derided by a mason!
At this point of Sandoz's story, Claude, who had begun to listen to his friend, inquired:
'Then what is Dubuche doing now?'
'I don't know—nothing probably,' answered Sandoz. 'He told me that he was anxious about his children's health, and was taking care of them.'
That pale woman, Madame Margaillan, as slender as the blade of a knife, had died of tubercular consumption, which was plainly the hereditary disease, the source of the family's degeneracy, for her daughter, Regine, had been coughing ever since her marriage. She was now drinking the waters at Mont-Dore, whither she had not dared to take her children, as they had been very poorly the year before, after a season spent in that part, where the air was too keen for them. This explained the scattering of the family: the mother over yonder with her maid; the grandfather in Paris, where he had resumed his great building enterprises, battling amid his four hundred workmen, and crushing the idle and the incapable beneath his contempt; and the father in exile at La Richaudiere, set to watch over his son and daughter, shut up there, after the very first struggle, as if it had broken him down for life. In a moment of effusion Dubuche had even let Sandoz understand that as his wife was so extremely delicate he now lived with her merely on friendly terms.
'A nice marriage,' said Sandoz, simply, by way of conclusion.
It was ten o'clock when the two friends rang at the iron gate of La Richaudiere. The estate, with which they were not acquainted, amazed them. There was a superb park, a garden laid out in the French style, with balustrades and steps spreading away in regal fashion; three huge conservatories and a colossal cascade—quite a piece of folly, with its rocks brought from afar, and the quantity of cement and the number of conduits that had been employed in arranging it. Indeed, the owner had sunk a fortune in it, out of sheer vanity. But what struck the friends still more was the melancholy, deserted aspect of the domain; the gravel of the avenues carefully raked, with never a trace of footsteps; the distant expanses quite deserted, save that now and then a solitary gardener passed by; and the house looking lifeless, with all its windows closed, excepting two, which were barely set ajar.
However, a valet who had decided to show himself began to question them, and when he learnt that they wished to see 'monsieur,' he became insolent, and replied that 'monsieur' was behind the house in the gymnasium, and then went indoors again.
Sandoz and Claude followed a path which led them towards a lawn, and what they saw there made them pause. Dubuche, who stood in front of a trapeze, was raising his arms to support his son, Gaston, a poor sickly boy who, at ten years of age, still had the slight, soft limbs of early childhood; while the girl, Alice, sat in a perambulator awaiting her turn. She was so imperfectly developed that, although she was six years old, she could not yet walk. The father, absorbed in his task, continued exercising the slim limbs of his little boy, swinging him backwards and forwards, and vainly trying to make him raise himself up by his wrists. Then, as this slight effort sufficed to bring on perspiration, he removed the little fellow from the trapeze and rolled him in a rug. And all this was done amid complete silence, alone under the far expanse of sky, his face wearing a look of distressful pity as he knelt there in that splendid park. However, as he rose up he perceived the two friends.
'What! it's you? On a Sunday, and without warning me!'
He had made a gesture of annoyance, and at once explained that the maid, the only woman to whom he could trust the children, went to Paris on Sundays, and that it was consequently impossible for him to leave Gaston and Alice for a minute.
'I'll wager that you came to lunch?' he added.
As Claude gave Sandoz an imploring glance, the novelist made haste to answer:
'No, no. As it happens, we only have time enough to shake hands with you. Claude had to come down here on a business matter. He lived at Bennecourt, as you know. And as I accompanied him, we took it into our heads to walk as far as here. But there are people waiting for us, so don't disturb yourself in the least.'
Thereupon, Dubuche, who felt relieved, made a show of detaining them. They certainly had an hour to spare, dash it all! And they all three began to talk. Claude looked at Dubuche, astonished to find him so aged; his flabby face had become wrinkled—it was of a yellowish hue, and streaked with red, as if bile had splashed his skin; whilst his hair and his moustaches were already growing grey. In addition, his figure appeared to have become more compact; a bitter weariness made each of his gestures seem an effort. Were defeats in money matters as hard to bear, then, as defeats in art? Everything about this vanquished man—his voice, his glance—proclaimed the shameful dependency in which he had to live: the bankruptcy of his future which was cast in his teeth, with the accusation of having allowed a talent he did not possess to be set down as an asset in the marriage contract. Then there was the family money which he nowadays stole, the money spent on what he ate, the clothes he wore, and the pocket-money he needed—in fact, the perpetual alms which were bestowed upon him, just as they might have been bestowed upon some vulgar swindler, whom one unluckily could not get rid of.
'Wait a bit,' resumed Dubuche; 'I have to stop here five minutes longer with one of my poor duckies, and afterwards we'll go indoors.'
Gently, and with infinite motherly precautions, he removed little Alice from the perambulator and lifted her to the trapeze. Then, stammering coaxing words and smiling, he encouraged her, and left her hanging for a couple of minutes, so as to develop her muscles; but he remained with open arms, watching each movement with the fear of seeing her smashed to pieces, should her weak little wax-like hands relax their hold. She did not say anything, but obeyed him in spite of the terror that this exercise caused her; and she was so pitifully light in weight that she did not even fully stretch the ropes, being like one of those poor scraggy little birds which fall from a young tree without as much as bending it.
At this moment, Dubuche, having given Gaston a glance, became distracted on remarking that the rug had slipped and that the child's legs were uncovered.
'Good heavens! good heavens! Why, he'll catch cold on this grass! And I, who can't move! Gaston, my little dear! It's the same thing every day; you wait till I'm occupied with your sister. Sandoz, pray cover him over! Ah, thanks! Pull the rug up more; don't be afraid!'
So this was the outcome of his splendid marriage—those two poor, weak little beings, whom the least breath from the sky threatened to kill like flies. Of the fortune he had married, all that remained to him was the constant grief of beholding those woeful children stricken by the final degeneracy of scrofula and phthisis. However, this big, egotistical fellow showed himself an admirable father. The only energy that remained to him consisted in a determination to make his children live, and he struggled on hour after hour, saving them every morning, and dreading to lose them every night. They alone existed now amid his finished existence, amid the bitterness of his father-in-law's insulting reproaches, the coldness of his sorry, ailing wife. And he kept to his task in desperation; he finished bringing those children into the world, as it were, by dint of unremitting tenderness.
'There, my darling, that's enough, isn't it?' he said. 'You'll soon see how big and pretty you'll become.'
He then placed Alice in the perambulator again, took Gaston, who was still wrapped up, on one of his arms; and when his friends wished to help him, he declined their offer, pushing the little girl's vehicle along with his right hand, which had remained free.
'Thanks,' he said, 'I'm accustomed to it. Ah! the poor darlings are not heavy; and besides, with servants one can never be sure of anything.'
On entering the house, Sandoz and Claude again saw the valet who had been so insolent; and they noticed that Dubuche trembled before him. The kitchen and the hall shared the contempt of the father-in-law, who paid for everything, and treated 'madame's' husband like a beggar whose presence was merely tolerated out of charity. Each time that a shirt was got ready for him, each time that he asked for some more bread, the servants' impolite gestures made him feel that he was receiving alms.
'Well, good-bye, we must leave you,' said Sandoz, who suffered at the sight of it all.
'No, no, wait a bit. The children are going to breakfast, and afterwards I'll accompany you with them. They must go for their outing.'
Each day was regulated hour by hour. Of a morning came the baths and the gymnastics; then the breakfast, which was quite an affair, as the children needed special food, which was duly discussed and weighed. And matters were carried to such a point that even their wine and water was slightly warmed, for fear that too chilly a drop might give them a cold. On this occasion they each partook of the yolk of an egg diluted in some broth, and a mutton cutlet, which the father cut up into tiny morsels. Then, prior to the siesta, came the promenade.
Sandoz and Claude found themselves once more out-of-doors, walking down the broad avenues with Dubuche, who again propelled Alice's perambulator, whilst Gaston walked beside him. They talked about the estate as they went towards the gate. The master glanced over the park with timid, nervous eyes, as if he did not feel at home. Besides he did not know anything; he did not occupy himself about anything. He appeared even to have forgotten the profession which he was said to be ignorant of, and seemed to have gone astray, to be bowed down by sheer inaction.
'And your parents, how are they?' asked Sandoz.
A spark was once more kindled in Dubuche's dim eyes.
'Oh! my parents are happy,' he said; 'I bought them a little house, where they live on the annuity which I had specified in my marriage contract. Well, you see, mamma had advanced enough money for my education, and I had to return it to her, as I had promised, eh? Yes, I can at least say that my parents have nothing to reproach me with.'
Having reached the gate, they tarried there for a few minutes. At last, still looking crushed, Dubuche shook hands with his old comrades; and retaining Claude's hand in his, he concluded, as if making a simple statement of fact quite devoid of anger:
'Good-bye; try to get out of worry! As for me, I've spoilt my life.'
And they watched him walk back towards the house, pushing the perambulator, and supporting Gaston, who was already stumbling with fatigue—he, Dubuche, himself having his back bent and the heavy tread of an old man.
One o'clock was striking, and they both hurried down towards Bennecourt, saddened and ravenous. But mournfulness awaited them there as well; a murderous blast had swept over the place, both Faucheurs, husband and wife, and old Porrette, were all dead; and the inn, having fallen into the hands of that goose Melie, was becoming repugnant with its filth and coarseness. An abominable repast was served them, an omelette with hairs in it, and cutlets smelling of grease, in the centre of the common room, to which an open window admitted the pestilential odour of a dung heap, while the place was so full of flies that they positively blackened the tables. The heat of the burning afternoon came in with the stench, and Claude and Sandoz did not even feel the courage to order any coffee; they fled.
'And you who used to extol old Mother Faucheur's omelettes!' said Sandoz. 'The place is done for. We are going for a turn, eh?'
Claude was inclined to refuse. Ever since the morning he had had but one idea—that of walking on as fast as possible, as if each step would shorten the disagreeable task and bring him back to Paris. His heart, his head, his whole being had remained there. He looked neither to right nor to left, he glided along without distinguishing aught of the fields or trees, having but one fixed idea in his brain, a prey to such hallucinations that at certain moments he fancied the point of the Cite rose up and called to him from amid the vast expanse of stubble. However, Sandoz's proposal aroused memories in his mind; and, softening somewhat, he replied:
'Yes, that's it, we'll have a look.'
But as they advanced along the river bank, he became indignant and grieved. He could scarcely recognise the place. A bridge had been built to connect Bennecourt with Bonnieres: a bridge, good heavens! in the place of the old ferry-boat, grating against its chain—the old black boat which, cutting athwart the current, had been so full of interest to the artistic eye. Moreover, a dam established down-stream at Port-Villez had raised the level of the river, most of the islands of yore were now submerged, and the little armlets of the stream had become broader. There were no more pretty nooks, no more rippling alleys amid which one could lose oneself; it was a disaster that inclined one to strangle all the river engineers!
'Why, that clump of pollards still emerging from the water on the left,' cried Claude, 'was the Barreux Island, where we used to chat together, lying on the grass! You remember, don't you? Ah! the scoundrels!'
Sandoz, who could never see a tree felled without shaking his fist at the wood-cutter, turned pale with anger, and felt exasperated that the authorities had thus dared to mutilate nature.
Then, as Claude approached his old home, he became silent, and his teeth clenched. The house had been sold to some middle-class folk, and now there was an iron gate, against which he pressed his face. The rose-bushes were all dead, the apricot trees were dead also; the garden, which looked very trim, with its little pathways and its square-cut beds of flowers and vegetables, bordered with box, was reflected in a large ball of plated glass set upon a stand in the very centre of it; and the house, newly whitewashed and painted at the corners and round the doors and windows, in a manner to imitate freestone, suggested some clownish parvenu awkwardly arrayed in his Sunday toggery. The sight fairly enraged the painter. No, no, nothing of himself, nothing of Christine, nothing of the great love of their youth remained there! He wished to look still further; he turned round behind the house, and sought for the wood of oak trees where they had left the living quiver of their embraces; but the wood was dead, dead like all the rest, felled, sold, and burnt! Then he made a gesture of anathema, in which he cast all his grief to that stretch of country which was now so changed that he could not find in it one single token of his past life. And so a few years sufficed to efface the spot where one had laboured, loved, and suffered! What was the use of man's vain agitation if the wind behind him swept and carried away all the traces of his footsteps? He had rightly realised that he ought not to return thither, for the past is simply the cemetery of our illusions, where our feet for ever stumble against tombstones!
'Let us go!' he cried; 'let us go at once! It's stupid to torture one's heart like this!'
When they were on the new bridge, Sandoz tried to calm him by showing him the view which had not formerly existed, the widened bed of the Seine, full to the brim, as it were, and the water flowing onward, proudly and slowly. But this water failed to interest Claude, until he reflected that it was the same water which, as it passed through Paris, had bathed the old quay walls of the Cite; and then he felt touched, he leant over the parapet of the bridge for a moment, and thought that he could distinguish glorious reflections in it—the towers of Notre-Dame, and the needle-like spire of the Sainte-Chapelle, carried along by the current towards the sea.
The two friends missed the three o'clock train, and it was real torture to have to spend two long hours more in that region, where everything weighed so heavily on their shoulders. Fortunately, they had forewarned Christine and Madame Sandoz that they might return by a night train if they were detained. So they resolved upon a bachelor dinner at a restaurant on the Place du Havre, hoping to set themselves all right again by a good chat at dessert as in former times. Eight o'clock was about to strike when they sat down to table.
Claude, on leaving the terminus, with his feet once more on the Paris pavement, had lost his nervous agitation, like a man who at last finds himself once more at home. And with the cold, absent-minded air which he now usually displayed, he listened to Sandoz trying to enliven him. The novelist treated his friend like a mistress whose head he wished to turn; they partook of delicate, highly spiced dishes and heady wines. But mirth was rebellious, and Sandoz himself ended by becoming gloomy. All his hopes of immortality were shaken by his excursion to that ungrateful country village, that Bennecourt, so loved and so forgetful, where he and Claude had not found a single stone retaining any recollection of them. If things which are eternal forget so soon, can one place any reliance for one hour on the memory of man?
'Do you know, old fellow,' said the novelist, 'it's that which sometimes sends me into a cold sweat. Have you ever reflected that posterity may not be the faultless dispenser of justice that we dream of? One consoles oneself for being insulted and denied, by relying on the equity of the centuries to come; just as the faithful endure all the abominations of this earth in the firm belief of another life, in which each will be rewarded according to his deserts. But suppose Paradise exists no more for the artist than it does for the Catholic, suppose that future generations prolong the misunderstanding and prefer amiable little trifles to vigorous works! Ah! what a sell it would be, eh? To have led a convict's life—to have screwed oneself down to one's work—all for a mere delusion! Please notice that it's quite possible, after all. There are some consecrated reputations which I wouldn't give a rap for. Classical education has deformed everything, and has imposed upon us as geniuses men of correct, facile talent, who follow the beaten track. To them one may prefer men of free tendencies, whose work is at times unequal; but these are only known to a few people of real culture, so that it looks as if immortality might really go merely to the middle-class "average" talent, to the men whose names are forced into our brains at school, when we are not strong enough to defend ourselves. But no, no, one mustn't say those things; they make me shudder! Should I have the courage to go on with my task, should I be able to remain erect amid all the jeering around me if I hadn't the consoling illusion that I shall some day be appreciated?'
Claude had listened with his dolorous expression, and he now made a gesture of indifference tinged with bitterness.
'Bah! what does it matter? Well, there's nothing hereafter. We are even madder than the fools who kill themselves for a woman. When the earth splits to pieces in space like a dry walnut, our works won't add one atom to its dust.'
'That's quite true,' summed up Sandoz, who was very pale. 'What's the use of trying to fill up the void of space? And to think that we know it, and that our pride still battles all the same!'
They left the restaurant, roamed about the streets, and foundered again in the depths of a cafe, where they philosophised. They had come by degrees to raking up the memories of their childhood, and this ended by filling their hearts with sadness. One o'clock in the morning struck when they decided to go home.
However, Sandoz talked of seeing Claude as far as the Rue Tourlaque. That August night was a superb one, the air was warm, the sky studded with stars. And as they went the round by way of the Quartier de l'Europe, they passed before the old Cafe Baudequin on the Boulevard des Batignolles. It had changed hands three times. It was no longer arranged inside in the same manner as formerly; there were now a couple of billiard tables on the right hand; and several strata of customers had followed each other thither, one covering the other, so that the old frequenters had disappeared like buried nations. However, curiosity, the emotion they had derived from all the past things they had been raking up together, induced them to cross the boulevard and to glance into the cafe through the open doorway. They wanted to see their table of yore, on the left hand, right at the back of the room.
'Oh, look!' said Sandoz, stupefied.
'Gagniere!' muttered Claude.
It was indeed Gagniere, seated all alone at that table at the end of the empty cafe. He must have come from Melun for one of the Sunday concerts to which he treated himself; and then, in the evening, while astray in Paris, an old habit of his legs had led him to the Cafe Baudequin. Not one of the comrades ever set foot there now, and he, who had beheld another age, obstinately remained there alone. He had not yet touched his glass of beer; he was looking at it, so absorbed in thought that he did not even stir when the waiters began piling the chairs on the tables, in order that everything might be ready for the morrow's sweeping.
The two friends hurried off, upset by the sight of that dim figure, seized as it were with a childish fear of ghosts. They parted in the Rue Tourlaque.
'Ah! that poor devil Dubuche!' said Sandoz as he pressed Claude's hand, 'he spoilt our day for us.'
As soon as November had come round, and when all the old friends were back in Paris again, Sandoz thought of gathering them together at one of those Thursday dinners which had remained a habit with him. They were always his greatest delight. The sale of his books was increasing, and he was growing rich; the flat in the Rue de Londres was becoming quite luxurious compared with the little house at Batignolles; but he himself remained immutable. On this occasion, he was anxious, in his good nature, to procure real enjoyment for Claude by organising one of the dear evenings of their youth. So he saw to the invitations; Claude and Christine naturally must come; next Jory and his wife, the latter of whom it had been necessary to receive since her marriage, then Dubuche, who always came alone, with Fagerolles, Mahoudeau, and finally Gagniere. There would be ten of them—all the men comrades of the old band, without a single outsider, in order that the good understanding and jollity might be complete.
Henriette, who was more mistrustful than her husband, hesitated when this list of guests was decided upon.
'Oh! Fagerolles? You believe in having Fagerolles with the others? They hardly like him—nor Claude either; I fancied I noticed a coolness—'
But he interrupted her, bent on not admitting it.
'What! a coolness? It's really funny, but women can't understand that fellows chaff each other. All that doesn't prevent them from having their hearts in the right place.'
Henriette took especial care in preparing the menu for that Thursday dinner. She now had quite a little staff to overlook, a cook, a man-servant, and so on; and if she no longer prepared any of the dishes herself, she still saw that very delicate fare was provided, out of affection for her husband, whose sole vice was gluttony. She went to market with the cook, and called in person on the tradespeople. She and her husband had a taste for gastronomical curiosities from the four corners of the world. On this occasion they decided to have some ox-tail soup, grilled mullet, undercut of beef with mushrooms, raviolis in the Italian fashion, hazel-hens from Russia, and a salad of truffles, without counting caviare and kilkis as side-dishes, a glace pralinee, and a little emerald-coloured Hungarian cheese, with fruit and pastry. As wine, some old Bordeaux claret in decanters, chambertin with the roast, and sparkling moselle at dessert, in lieu of champagne, which was voted commonplace.