At seven o'clock Sandoz and Henriette were waiting for their guests, he simply wearing a jacket, and she looking very elegant in a plain dress of black satin. People dined at their house in frock-coats, without any fuss. The drawing-room, the arrangements of which they were now completing, was becoming crowded with old furniture, old tapestry, nick-nacks of all countries and all times—a rising and now overflowing stream of things which had taken source at Batignolles with an old pot of Rouen ware, which Henriette had given her husband on one of his fete days. They ran about to the curiosity shops together; a joyful passion for buying possessed them. Sandoz satisfied the longings of his youth, the romanticist ambitions which the first books he had read had given birth to. Thus this writer, so fiercely modern, lived amid the worm-eaten middle ages which he had dreamt of when he was a lad of fifteen. As an excuse, he laughingly declared that handsome modern furniture cost too much, whilst with old things, even common ones, you immediately obtained something with effect and colour. There was nothing of the collector about him, he was entirely concerned as to decoration and broad effects; and to tell the truth, the drawing-room, lighted by two lamps of old Delft ware, had quite a soft warm tint with the dull gold of the dalmaticas used for upholstering the seats, the yellowish incrustations of the Italian cabinets and Dutch show-cases, the faded hues of the Oriental door-hangings, the hundred little notes of the ivory, crockery and enamel work, pale with age, which showed against the dull red hangings of the room.
Claude and Christine were the first to arrive. The latter had put on her only silk dress—an old, worn-out garment which she preserved with especial care for such occasions. Henriette at once took hold of both her hands and drew her to a sofa. She was very fond of her, and questioned her, seeing her so strange, touchingly pale, and with anxious eyes. What was the matter? Did she feel poorly? No, no, she answered that she was very gay and very pleased to come; but while she spoke, she kept on glancing at Claude, as if to study him, and then looked away. He seemed excited, evincing a feverishness in his words and gestures which he had not shown for a month past. At intervals, however, his agitation subsided, and he remained silent, with his eyes wide open, gazing vacantly into space at something which he fancied was calling him.
'Ah! old man,' he said to Sandoz, 'I finished reading your book last night. It's deucedly clever; you have shut up their mouths this time!'
They both talked standing in front of the chimney-piece, where some logs were blazing. Sandoz had indeed just published a new novel, and although his critics did not disarm, there was at last that stir of success which establishes a man's reputation despite the persistent attacks of his adversaries. Besides, he had no illusions; he knew very well that the battle, even if it were won, would begin again at each fresh book he wrote. The great work of his life was advancing, that series of novels which he launched forth in volumes one after another in stubborn, regular fashion, marching towards the goal he had selected without letting anything, obstacles, insults, or fatigue, conquer him.
'It's true,' he gaily replied, 'they are weakening this time. There's even one who has been foolish enough to admit that I'm an honest man! See how everything degenerates! But they'll make up for it, never fear! I know some of them whose nuts are too much unlike my own to let them accept my literary formula, my boldness of language, and my physiological characters acting under the influence of circumstances; and I refer to brother writers who possess self-respect; I leave the fools and the scoundrels on one side. For a man to be able to work on pluckily, it is best for him to expect neither good faith nor justice. To be in the right he must begin by dying.'
At this Claude's eyes abruptly turned towards a corner of the drawing-room, as if to pierce the wall and go far away yonder, whither something had summoned him. Then they became hazy and returned from their journey, whilst he exclaimed:
'Oh! you speak for yourself! I should do wrong to kick the bucket. No matter, your book sent me into a deuced fever. I wanted to paint to-day, but I couldn't. Ah! it's lucky that I can't get jealous of you, else you would make me too unhappy.'
However, the door had opened, and Mathilde came in, followed by Jory. She was richly attired in a tunic of nasturtium-hued velvet and a skirt of straw-coloured satin, with diamonds in her ears and a large bouquet of roses on her bosom. What astonished Claude the most was that he did not recognise her, for she had become plump, round, and fair skinned, instead of thin and sunburnt as he had known her. Her disturbing ugliness had departed in a swelling of the face; her mouth, once noted for its black voids, now displayed teeth which looked over-white whenever she condescended to smile, with a disdainful curling of the upper lip. You could guess that she had become immoderately respectable; her five and forty summers gave her weight beside her husband, who was younger than herself and seemed to be her nephew. The only thing of yore that clung to her was a violent perfume; she drenched herself with the strongest essences, as if she had been anxious to wash from her skin the smell of all the aromatic simples with which she had been impregnated by her herbalist business; however, the sharpness of rhubarb, the bitterness of elder-seed, and the warmth of peppermint clung to her; and as soon as she crossed the drawing-room, it was filled with an undefinable smell like that of a chemist's shop, relieved by an acute odour of musk.
Henriette, who had risen, made her sit down beside Christine, saying:
'You know each other, don't you? You have already met here.'
Mathilde gave but a cold glance at the modest attire of that woman who had lived for a long time with a man, so it was said, before being married to him. She herself was exceedingly rigid respecting such matters since the tolerance prevailing in literary and artistic circles had admitted her to a few drawing-rooms. Henriette hated her, however, and after the customary exchange of courtesies, not to be dispensed with, resumed her conversation with Christine.
Jory had shaken hands with Claude and Sandoz, and, standing near them, in front of the fireplace, he apologised for an article slashing the novelist's new book which had appeared that very morning in his review.
'As you know very well, my dear fellow, one is never the master in one's own house. I ought to see to everything, but I have so little time! I hadn't even read that article, I relied on what had been told me about it. So you will understand how enraged I was when I read it this afternoon. I am dreadfully grieved, dreadfully grieved—'
'Oh, let it be! It's the natural order of things,' replied Sandoz, quietly. 'Now that my enemies are beginning to praise me, it's only proper that my friends should attack me.'
The door again opened, and Gagniere glided in softly, like a will-o'-the-wisp. He had come straight from Melun, and was quite alone, for he never showed his wife to anybody. When he thus came to dinner he brought the country dust with him on his boots, and carried it back with him the same night on taking the last train. On the other hand, he did not alter; or, rather, age seemed to rejuvenate him; his complexion became fairer as he grew old.
'Hallo! Why, Gagniere's here!' exclaimed Sandoz.
Then, just as Gagniere was making up his mind to bow to the ladies, Mahoudeau entered. He had already grown grey, with a sunken, fierce-looking face and childish, blinking eyes. He still wore trousers which were a good deal too short for him, and a frock-coat which creased in the back, in spite of the money which he now earned; for the bronze manufacturer for whom he worked had brought out some charming statuettes of his, which one began to see on middle-class mantel-shelves and consoles.
Sandoz and Claude had turned round, inquisitive to witness the meeting between Mahoudeau and Mathilde. However, matters passed off very quietly. The sculptor bowed to her respectfully, while Jory, the husband, with his air of serene unconsciousness, thought fit to introduce her to him, for the twentieth time, perhaps.
'Eh! It's my wife, old fellow. Shake hands together.'
Thereupon, both very grave, like people of society who are forced somewhat over-promptly into familiarity, Mathilde and Mahoudeau shook hands. Only, as soon as the latter had got rid of the job and had found Gagniere in a corner of the drawing-room, they both began sneering and recalling, in terrible language, all the abominations of yore.
Dubuche was expected that evening, for he had formally promised to come.
'Yes,' explained Henriette, 'there will only be nine of us. Fagerolles wrote this morning to apologise; he is forced to go to some official dinner, but he hopes to escape, and will join us at about eleven o'clock.'
At that moment, however, a servant came in with a telegram. It was from Dubuche, who wired: 'Impossible to stir. Alice has an alarming cough.'
'Well, we shall only be eight, then,' resumed Henriette, with the somewhat peevish resignation of a hostess disappointed by her guests.
And the servant having opened the dining-room door and announced that dinner was ready, she added:
'We are all here. Claude, offer me your arm.'
Sandoz took Mathilde's, Jory charged himself with Christine, while Mahoudeau and Gagniere brought up the rear, still joking coarsely about what they called the beautiful herbalist's padding.
The dining-room which they now entered was very spacious, and the light was gaily bright after the subdued illumination of the drawing-room. The walls, covered with specimens of old earthenware, displayed a gay medley of colours, reminding one of cheap coloured prints. Two sideboards, one laden with glass and the other with silver plate, sparkled like jewellers' show-cases. And in the centre of the room, under the big hanging lamp girt round with tapers, the table glistened like a catafalque with the whiteness of its cloth, laid in perfect style, with decorated plates, cut-glass decanters white with water or ruddy with wine, and symmetrical side-dishes, all set out around the centre-piece, a silver basket full of purple roses.
They sat down, Henriette between Claude and Mahoudeau, Sandoz with Mathilde and Christine beside him, Jory and Gagniere at either end; and the servant had barely finished serving the soup, when Madame Jory made a most unfortunate remark. Wishing to show herself amiable, and not having heard her husband's apologies, she said to the master of the house:
'Well, were you pleased with the article in this morning's number? Edouard personally revised the proofs with the greatest care!'
On hearing this, Jory became very much confused and stammered:
'No, no! you are mistaken! It was a very bad article indeed, and you know very well that it was "passed" the other evening while I was away.'
By the silent embarrassment which ensued she guessed her blunder. But she made matters still worse, for, giving her husband a sharp glance, she retorted in a very loud voice, so as to crush him, as it were, and disengage her own responsibility:
'Another of your lies! I repeat what you told me. I won't allow you to make me ridiculous, do you hear?'
This threw a chill over the beginning of the dinner. Henriette recommended the kilkis, but Christine alone found them very nice. When the grilled mullet appeared, Sandoz, who was amused by Jory's embarrassment, gaily reminded him of a lunch they had had together at Marseilles in the old days. Ah! Marseilles, the only city where people know how to eat!
Claude, who for a little while had been absorbed in thought, now seemed to awaken from a dream, and without any transition he asked:
'Is it decided? Have they selected the artists for the new decorations of the Hotel de Ville?'
'No,' said Mahoudeau, 'they are going to do so. I sha'n't get anything, for I don't know anybody. Fagerolles himself is very anxious. If he isn't here to-night, it's because matters are not going smoothly. Ah! he has had his bite at the cherry; all that painting for millions is cracking to bits!'
There was a laugh, expressive of spite finally satisfied, and even Gagniere at the other end of the table joined in the sneering. Then they eased their feelings in malicious words, and rejoiced over the sudden fall of prices which had thrown the world of 'young masters' into consternation. It was inevitable, the predicted time was coming, the exaggerated rise was about to finish in a catastrophe. Since the amateurs had been panic-stricken, seized with consternation like that of speculators when a 'slump' sweeps over a Stock Exchange, prices were giving way day by day, and nothing more was sold. It was a sight to see the famous Naudet amid the rout; he had held out at first, he had invented 'the dodge of the Yankee'—the unique picture hidden deep in some gallery, in solitude like an idol—the picture of which he would not name the price, being contemptuously certain that he could never find a man rich enough to purchase it, but which he finally sold for two or three hundred thousand francs to some pig-dealer of Chicago, who felt glorious at carrying off the most expensive canvas of the year. But those fine strokes of business were not to be renewed at present, and Naudet, whose expenditure had increased with his gains, drawn on and swallowed up in the mad craze which was his own work, could now hear his regal mansion crumbling beneath him, and was reduced to defend it against the assault of creditors.
'Won't you take some more mushrooms, Mahoudeau?' obligingly interrupted Henriette.
The servant was now handing round the undercut. They ate, and emptied the decanters; but their bitterness was so great that the best things were offered without being tasted, which distressed the master and mistress of the house.
'Mushrooms, eh?' the sculptor ended by repeating. 'No, thanks.' And he added: 'The funny part of it all is, that Naudet is suing Fagerolles. Oh, quite so! he's going to distrain on him. Ah! it makes me laugh! We shall see a pretty scouring in the Avenue de Villiers among all those petty painters with mansions of their own. House property will go for nothing next spring! Well, Naudet, who had compelled Fagerolles to build a house, and who furnished it for him as he would have furnished a place for a hussy, wanted to get hold of his nick-nacks and hangings again. But Fagerolles had borrowed money on them, so it seems. You can imagine the state of affairs; the dealer accuses the artist of having spoilt his game by exhibiting with the vanity of a giddy fool; while the painter replies that he doesn't mean to be robbed any longer; and they'll end by devouring each other—at least, I hope so.'
Gagniere raised his voice, the gentle but inexorable voice of a dreamer just awakened.
'Fagerolles is done for. Besides, he never had any success.'
The others protested. Well, what about the hundred thousand francs' worth of pictures he had sold a year, and his medals and his cross of the Legion of Honour? But Gagniere, still obstinate, smiled with a mysterious air, as if facts could not prevail against his inner conviction. He wagged his head and, full of disdain, replied:
'Let me be! He never knew anything about chiaroscuro.'
Jory was about to defend the talent of Fagerolles, whom he considered to be his own creation, when Henriette solicited a little attention for the raviolis. There was a short slackening of the quarrel amid the crystalline clinking of the glasses and the light clatter of the forks. The table, laid with such fine symmetry, was already in confusion, and seemed to sparkle still more amid the ardent fire of the quarrel. And Sandoz, growing anxious, felt astonished. What was the matter with them all that they attacked Fagerolles so harshly? Hadn't they all begun together, and were they not all to reach the goal in the same victory? For the first time, a feeling of uneasiness disturbed his dream of eternity, that delight in his Thursdays, which he had pictured following one upon another, all alike, all of them happy ones, into the far distance of the future. But the feeling was as yet only skin deep, and he laughingly exclaimed:
'Husband your strength, Claude, here are the hazel-hens. Eh! Claude, where are you?'
Since silence had prevailed, Claude had relapsed into his dream, gazing about him vacantly, and taking a second help of raviolis without knowing what he was about; Christine, who said nothing, but sat there looking sad and charming, did not take her eyes off him. He started when Sandoz spoke, and chose a leg from amid the bits of hazel-hen now being served, the strong fumes of which filled the room with a resinous smell.
'Do you smell that?' exclaimed Sandoz, amused; 'one would think one were swallowing all the forests of Russia.'
But Claude returned to the matter which worried him.
'Then you say that Fagerolles will be entrusted with the paintings for the Municipal Council's assembly room?'
And this remark sufficed; Mahoudeau and Gagniere, set on the track, at once started off again. Ah! a nice wishy-washy smearing it would be if that assembly room were allotted to him; and he was doing plenty of dirty things to get it. He, who had formerly pretended to spit on orders for work, like a great artist surrounded by amateurs, was basely cringing to the officials, now that his pictures no longer sold. Could anything more despicable be imagined than a painter soliciting a functionary, bowing and scraping, showing all kinds of cowardice and making all kinds of concessions? It was shameful that art should be dependent upon a Minister's idiotic good pleasure! Fagerolles, at that official dinner he had gone to, was no doubt conscientiously licking the boots of some chief clerk, some idiot who was only fit to be made a guy of.
'Well,' said Jory, 'he effects his purpose, and he's quite right. You won't pay his debts.'
'Debts? Have I any debts, I who have always starved?' answered Mahoudeau in a roughly arrogant tone. 'Ought a fellow to build himself a palace and spend money on creatures like that Irma Becot, who's ruining Fagerolles?'
At this Jory grew angry, while the others jested, and Irma's name went flying over the table. But Mathilde, who had so far remained reserved and silent by way of making a show of good breeding, became intensely indignant. 'Oh! gentlemen, oh! gentlemen,' she exclaimed, 'to talk before us about that creature. No, not that creature, I implore you!
After that Henriette and Sandoz, who were in consternation, witnessed the rout of their menu. The truffle salad, the ice, the dessert, everything was swallowed without being at all appreciated amidst the rising anger of the quarrel; and the chambertin and sparkling moselle were imbibed as if they had merely been water. In vain did Henriette smile, while Sandoz good-naturedly tried to calm them by making allowances for human weakness. Not one of them retreated from his position; a single word made them spring upon each other. There was none of the vague boredom, the somniferous satiety which at times had saddened their old gatherings; at present there was real ferocity in the struggle, a longing to destroy one another. The tapers of the hanging lamp flared up, the painted flowers of the earthenware on the walls bloomed, the table seemed to have caught fire amid the upsetting of its symmetrical arrangements and the violence of the talk, that demolishing onslaught of chatter which had filled them with fever for a couple of hours past.
And amid the racket, when Henriette made up her mind to rise so as to silence them, Claude at length remarked:
'Ah! if I only had the Hotel de Ville work, and if I could! It used to be my dream to cover all the walls of Paris!'
They returned to the drawing-room, where the little chandelier and the bracket-candelabra had just been lighted. It seemed almost cold there in comparison with the kind of hot-house which had just been left; and for a moment the coffee calmed the guests. Nobody beyond Fagerolles was expected. The house was not an open one by any means, the Sandozes did not recruit literary dependents or muzzle the press by dint of invitations. The wife detested society, and the husband said with a laugh that he needed ten years to take a liking to anybody, and then he must like him always. But was not that real happiness, seldom realised? A few sound friendships and a nook full of family affection. No music was ever played there, and nobody had ever read a page of his composition aloud.
On that particular Thursday the evening seemed a long one, on account of the persistent irritation of the men. The ladies had begun to chat before the smouldering fire; and when the servant, after clearing the table, reopened the door of the dining-room, they were left alone, the men repairing to the adjoining apartment to smoke and sip some beer.
Sandoz and Claude, who were not smokers, soon returned, however, and sat down, side by side, on a sofa near the doorway. The former, who was glad to see his old friend excited and talkative, recalled the memories of Plassans apropos of a bit of news he had learnt the previous day. Pouillaud, the old jester of their dormitory, who had become so grave a lawyer, was now in trouble over some adventure with a woman. Ah! that brute of a Pouillaud! But Claude did not answer, for, having heard his name mentioned in the dining-room, he listened attentively, trying to understand.
Jory, Mahoudeau, and Gagniere, unsatiated and eager for another bite, had started on the massacre again. Their voices, at first mere whispers, gradually grew louder, till at last they began to shout.
'Oh! the man, I abandon the man to you,' said Jory, who was speaking of Fagerolles. 'He isn't worth much. And he out-generalled you, it's true. Ah! how he did get the better of you fellows, by breaking off from you and carving success for himself on your backs! You were certainly not at all cute.'
Mahoudeau, waxing furious, replied:
'Of course! It sufficed for us to be with Claude, to be turned away everywhere.'
'It was Claude who did for us!' so Gagniere squarely asserted.
And thus they went on, relinquishing Fagerolles, whom they reproached for toadying the newspapers, for allying himself with their enemies and wheedling sexagenarian baronesses, to fall upon Claude, who now became the great culprit. Well, after all, the other was only a hussy, one of the many found in the artistic fraternity, fellows who accost the public at street corners, leave their comrades in the lurch, and victimise them so as to get the bourgeois into their studios. But Claude, that abortive great artist, that impotent fellow who couldn't set a figure on its legs in spite of all his pride, hadn't he utterly compromised them, hadn't he let them in altogether? Ah! yes, success might have been won by breaking off. If they had been able to begin over again, they wouldn't have been idiots enough to cling obstinately to impossible principles! And they accused Claude of having paralysed them, of having traded on them—yes, traded on them, but in so clumsy and dull-witted a manner that he himself had not derived any benefit by it.
'Why, as for me,' resumed Mahoudeau, 'didn't he make me quite idiotic at one moment? When I think of it, I sound myself, and remain wondering why I ever joined his band. Am I at all like him? Was there ever any one thing in common between us, eh? Ah! it's exasperating to find the truth out so late in the day!'
'And as for myself,' said Gagniere, 'he robbed me of my originality. Do you think it has amused me, each time I have exhibited a painting during the last fifteen years, to hear people saying behind me, "That's a Claude!" Oh! I've had enough of it, I prefer not to paint any more. All the same, if I had seen clearly in former times, I shouldn't have associated with him.'
It was a stampede, the snapping of the last ties, in their stupefaction at suddenly finding that they were strangers and enemies, after a long youth of fraternity together. Life had disbanded them on the road, and the great dissimilarity of their characters stood revealed; all that remained in them was the bitterness left by the old enthusiastic dream, that erstwhile hope of battle and victory to be won side by side, which now increased their spite.
'The fact is,' sneered Jory, 'that Fagerolles did not let himself be pillaged like a simpleton.'
But Mahoudeau, feeling vexed, became angry. 'You do wrong to laugh,' he said, 'for you are a nice backslider yourself. Yes, you always told us that you would give us a lift up when you had a paper of your own.'
'Ah! allow me, allow me—'
Gagniere, however, united with Mahoudeau: 'That's quite true!' he said. 'You can't say any more that what you write about us is cut out, for you are the master now. And yet, never a word! You didn't even name us in your articles on the last Salon.'
Then Jory, embarrassed and stammering, in his turn flew into a rage.
'Ah! well, it's the fault of that cursed Claude! I don't care to lose my subscribers simply to please you fellows. It's impossible to do anything for you! There! do you understand? You, Mahoudeau, may wear yourself out in producing pretty little things; you, Gagniere, may even never do anything more; but you each have a label on the back, and you'll need ten years' efforts before you'll be able to get it off. In fact, there have been some labels that would never come off! The public is amused by it, you know; there were only you fellows to believe in the genius of that big ridiculous lunatic, who will be locked up in a madhouse one of these fine mornings!'
Then the dispute became terrible, they all three spoke at once, coming at last to abominable reproaches, with such outbursts, and such furious motion of the jaw, that they seemed to be biting one another.
Sandoz, seated on the sofa, and disturbed in the gay memories he was recalling, was at last obliged to lend ear to the tumult which reached him through the open doorway.
'You hear them?' whispered Claude, with a dolorous smile; 'they are giving it me nicely! No, no, stay here, I won't let you stop them; I deserve it, since I have failed to succeed.'
And Sandoz, turning pale, remained there, listening to that bitter quarrelling, the outcome of the struggle for life, that grappling of conflicting personalities, which bore all his chimera of everlasting friendship away.
Henriette, fortunately, became anxious on hearing the violent shouting. She rose and went to shame the smokers for thus forsaking the ladies to go and quarrel together. They then returned to the drawing-room, perspiring, breathing hard, and still shaken by their anger. And as Henriette, with her eyes on the clock, remarked that they certainly would not see Fagerolles that evening, they, began to sneer again, exchanging glances. Ah! he had a fine scent, and no mistake; he wouldn't be caught associating with old friends, who had become troublesome, and whom he hated.
In fact, Fagerolles did not come. The evening finished laboriously. They once more went back to the dining-room, where the tea was served on a Russian tablecloth embroidered with a stag-hunt in red thread; and under the tapers a plain cake was displayed, with plates full of sweetstuff and pastry, and a barbarous collection of liqueurs and spirits, whisky, hollands, Chio raki, and kummel. The servant also brought some punch, and bestirred himself round the table, while the mistress of the house filled the teapot from the samovar boiling in front of her. But all the comfort, all the feast for the eyes and the fine perfume of the tea did not move their hearts. The conversation again turned on the success that some men achieved and the ill-luck that befell others. For instance, was it not shameful that art should be dishonoured by all those medals, all those crosses, all those rewards, which were so badly distributed to boot? Were artists always to remain like little boys at school? All the universal platitude came from the docility and cowardice which were shown, as in the presence of ushers, so as to obtain good marks.
They had repaired to the drawing-room once more, and Sandoz, who was greatly distressed, had begun to wish that they would take themselves off, when he noticed Mathilde and Gagniere seated side by side on a sofa and talking languishingly of music, while the others remained exhausted, lacking saliva and power of speech. Gagniere philosophised and poetised in a state of ecstasy, while Mathilde rolled up her eyes and went into raptures as if titillated by some invisible wing. They had caught sight of each other on the previous Sunday at the concert at the Cirque, and they apprised each other of their enjoyment in alternate, far-soaring sentences.
'Ah! that Meyerbeer, monsieur, the overture of "Struensee," that funereal strain, and then that peasant dance, so full of dash and colour; and then the mournful burden which returns, the duo of the violoncellos. Ah! monsieur, the violoncellos, the violoncellos!'
'And Berlioz, madame, the festival air in "Romeo." Oh! the solo of the clarionets, the beloved women, with the harp accompaniment! Something enrapturing, something white as snow which ascends! The festival bursts upon you, like a picture by Paul Veronese, with the tumultuous magnificence of the "Marriage of Cana"; and then the love-song begins again, oh, how softly! Oh! always higher! higher still—'
'Did you notice, monsieur, in Beethoven's Symphony in A, that knell which ever and ever comes back and beats upon your heart? Yes, I see very well, you feel as I do, music is a communion—Beethoven, ah, me! how sad and sweet it is to be two to understand him and give way—'
'And Schumann, madame, and Wagner, madame—Schumann's "Reverie," nothing but the stringed instruments, a warm shower falling on acacia leaves, a sunray which dries them, barely a tear in space. Wagner! ah, Wagner! the overture of the "Flying Dutchman," are you not fond of it?—tell me you are fond of it! As for myself, it overcomes me. There is nothing left, nothing left, one expires—'
Their voices died away; they did not even look at each other, but sat there elbow to elbow, with their faces turned upward, quite overcome.
Sandoz, who was surprised, asked himself where Mathilde could have picked up that jargon. In some article of Jory's, perhaps. Besides, he had remarked that women talk music very well, even without knowing a note of it. And he, whom the bitterness of the others had only grieved, became exasperated at sight of Mathilde's languishing attitude. No, no, that was quite enough; the men tore each other to bits; still that might pass, after all; but what an end to the evening it was, that feminine fraud, cooing and titillating herself with thoughts of Beethoven's and Schumann's music! Fortunately, Gagniere suddenly rose. He knew what o'clock it was even in the depths of his ecstasy, and he had only just time left him to catch his last train. So, after exchanging nerveless and silent handshakes with the others, he went off to sleep at Melun.
'What a failure he is!' muttered Mahoudeau. 'Music has killed painting; he'll never do anything!'
He himself had to leave, and the door had scarcely closed behind his back when Jory declared:
'Have you seen his last paperweight? He'll end by sculpturing sleeve-links. There's a fellow who has missed his mark! To think that he prided himself on being vigorous!'
But Mathilde was already afoot, taking leave of Christine with a curt little inclination of the head, affecting social familiarity with Henriette, and carrying off her husband, who helped her on with her cloak in the ante-room, humble and terrified at the severe glance she gave him, for she had an account to settle.
Then, the door having closed behind them, Sandoz, beside himself, cried out: 'That's the end! The journalist was bound to call the others abortions—yes, the journalist who, after patching up articles, has fallen to trading upon public credulity! Ah! luckily there's Mathilde the Avengeress!'
Of the guests Christine and Claude alone were left. The latter, since the drawing-room had been growing empty, had remained ensconced in the depths of an arm-chair, no longer speaking, but overcome by that species of magnetic slumber which stiffened him, and fixed his eyes on something far away beyond the walls. He protruded his face, a convulsive kind of attention seemed to carry it forward; he certainly beheld something invisible, and heard a summons in the silence.
Christine having risen in her turn, and apologised for being the last to leave, Henriette took hold of her hands, repeated how fond she was of her, begged her to come and see her frequently, and to dispose of her in all things as she would with a sister. But Claude's sorrowful wife, looking so sadly charming in her black dress, shook her head with a pale smile.
'Come,' said Sandoz in her ear, after giving a glance at Claude, 'you mustn't distress yourself like that. He has talked a great deal, he has been gayer this evening. He's all right.'
But in a terrified voice she answered:
'No, no; look at his eyes—I shall tremble as long as he has his eyes like that. You have done all you could, thanks. What you haven't done no one will do. Ah! how I suffer at being unable to hope, at being unable to do anything!'
Then in a loud tone she asked:
'Are you coming, Claude?'
She had to repeat her question twice, for at first he did not hear her; he ended by starting, however, and rose to his feet, saying, as if he had answered the summons from the horizon afar off:
'Yes, I'm coming, I'm coming.'
When Sandoz and his wife at last found themselves alone in the drawing-room, where the atmosphere now was stifling—heated by the lights and heavy, as it were, with melancholy silence after all the outbursts of the quarrelling—they looked at one another and let their arms fall, quite heart-rent by the unfortunate issue of their dinner party. Henrietta tried to laugh it off, however, murmuring:
'I warned you, I quite understood—'
But he interrupted her with a despairing gesture. What! was that, then, the end of his long illusion, that dream of eternity which had made him set happiness in a few friendships, formed in childhood, and shared until extreme old age? Ah! what a wretched band, what a final rending, what a terrible balance-sheet to weep over after that bankruptcy of the human heart! And he grew astonished on thinking of the friends who had fallen off by the roadside, of the great affections lost on the way, of the others unceasingly changing around himself, in whom he found no change. His poor Thursdays filled him with pity, so many memories were in mourning, it was the slow death of all that one loves! Would his wife and himself have to resign themselves to live as in a desert, to cloister themselves in utter hatred of the world? Ought they rather to throw their doors wide open to a throng of strangers and indifferent folk? By degrees a certainty dawned in the depths of his grief: everything ended and nothing began again in life. He seemed to yield to evidence, and, heaving a big sigh, exclaimed:
'You were right. We won't invite them to dinner again—they would devour one another.'
As soon as Claude and Christine reached the Place de la Trinite on their way home, the painter let go of his wife's arm; and, stammering that he had to go somewhere, he begged her to return to the Rue Tourlaque without him. She had felt him shuddering, and she remained quite scared with surprise and fear. Somewhere to go at that hour—past midnight! Where had he to go, and what for? He had turned round and was making off, when she overtook him, and, pretending that she was frightened, begged that he would not leave her to climb up to Montmartre alone at that time of night. This consideration alone brought him back. He took her arm again; they ascended the Rue Blanche and the Rue Lepic, and at last found themselves in the Rue Tourlaque. And on reaching their door, he rang the bell, and then again left her.
'Here you are,' he said; 'I'm going.'
He was already hastening away, taking long strides, and gesticulating like a madman. Without even closing the door which had been opened, she darted off, bent on following him. In the Rue Lepic she drew near; but for fear of exciting him still more she contented herself with keeping him in sight, walking some thirty yards in the rear, without his knowing that she was behind him. On reaching the end of the Rue Lepic he went down the Rue Blanche again, and then proceeded by way of the Rue de la Chaussee-d'Antin and the Rue du Dix Decembre as far as the Rue de Richelieu. When she saw him turn into the last-named thoroughfare, a mortal chill came over her: he was going towards the Seine; it was the realisation of the frightful fear which kept her of a night awake, full of anguish! And what could she do, good Lord? Go with him, hang upon his neck over yonder? She was now only able to stagger along, and as each step brought them nearer to the river, she felt life ebbing from her limbs. Yes, he was going straight there; he crossed the Place du Theatre Francais, then the Carrousel, and finally reached the Pont des Saints-Peres. After taking a few steps along the bridge, he approached the railing overlooking the water; and at the thought that he was about to jump over, a loud cry was stifled in her contracted throat.
But no; he remained motionless. Was it then only the Cite over yonder that haunted him, that heart of Paris which pursued him everywhere, which he conjured up with his fixed eyes, even through walls, and which, when he was leagues away, cried out the constant summons heard by him alone? She did not yet dare to hope it; she had stopped short, in the rear, watching him with giddy anxiety, ever fancying that she saw him take the terrible leap, but resisting her longing to draw nearer, for fear lest she might precipitate the catastrophe by showing herself. Oh, God! to think that she was there with her devouring passion, her bleeding motherly heart—that she was there beholding everything, without daring to risk one movement to hold him back!
He stood erect, looking very tall, quite motionless, and gazing into the night.
It was a winter's night, with a misty sky of sooty blackness, and was rendered extremely cold by a sharp wind blowing from the west. Paris, lighted up, had gone to sleep, showing no signs of life save such as attached to the gas-jets, those specks which scintillated and grew smaller and smaller in the distance till they seemed but so much starry dust. The quays stretched away showing double rows of those luminous beads whose reverberation glimmered on the nearer frontages. On the left were the houses of the Quai du Louvre, on the right the two wings of the Institute, confused masses of monuments and buildings, which became lost to view in the darkening gloom, studded with sparks. Then between those cordons of burners, extending as far as the eye could reach, the bridges stretched bars of lights, ever slighter and slighter, each formed of a train of spangles, grouped together and seemingly hanging in mid-air. And in the Seine there shone the nocturnal splendour of the animated water of cities; each gas-jet there cast a reflection of its flame, like the nucleus of a comet, extending into a tail. The nearer ones, mingling together, set the current on fire with broad, regular, symmetrical fans of light, glowing like live embers, while the more distant ones, seen under the bridges, were but little motionless sparks of fire. But the large burning tails appeared to be animated, they waggled as they spread out, all black and gold, with a constant twirling of scales, in which one divined the flow of the water. The whole Seine was lighted up by them, as if some fete were being given in its depths—some mysterious, fairy-like entertainment, at which couples were waltzing beneath the river's red-flashing window-panes. High above those fires, above the starry quays, the sky, in which not a planet was visible, showed a ruddy mass of vapour, that warm, phosphorescent exhalation which every night, above the sleep of the city, seems to set the crater of a volcano.
The wind blew hard, and Christine, shivering, her eyes full of tears, felt the bridge move under her, as if it were bearing her away amid a smash up of the whole scene. Had not Claude moved? Was he not climbing over the rail? No; everything became motionless again, and she saw him still on the same spot, obstinately stiff, with his eyes turned towards the point of the Cite, which he could not see.
It had summoned him, and he had come, and yet he could not see it in the depths of the darkness. He could only distinguish the bridges, with their light framework standing out blackly against the sparkling water. But farther off everything became confused, the island had disappeared, he could not even have told its exact situation if some belated cabs had not passed from time to time over the Pont-Neuf, with their lamps showing like those shooting sparks which dart at times through embers. A red lantern, on a level with the dam of the Mint, cast a streamlet of blood, as it were, into the water. Something huge and lugubrious, some drifting form, no doubt a lighter which had become unmoored, slowly descended the stream amid the reflections. Espied for a moment, it was immediately afterwards lost in the darkness. Where had the triumphal island sunk? In the depths of that flow of water? Claude still gazed, gradually fascinated by the great rushing of the river in the night. He leant over its broad bed, chilly like an abyss, in which the mysterious flames were dancing. And the loud, sad wail of the current attracted him, and he listened to its call, despairing, unto death.
By a shooting pain at her heart, Christine this time realised that the terrible thought had just occurred to him. She held out her quivering hands which the wind was lashing. But Claude remained there, struggling against the sweetness of death; indeed he did not move for another hour, he lingered there unconscious of the lapse of time, with his eyes still turned in the direction of the Cite, as if by a miracle of power they were about to create light, and conjure up the island so that he might behold it.
When Claude at last left the bridge, with stumbling steps, Christine had to pass in front and run in order to be home in the Rue Tourlaque before him.
IT was nearly three o'clock when they went to bed that night, with the bitter cold November wind blowing through their little room and the big studio. Christine, breathless from her run, had quickly slipped between the sheets so that he might not know that she had followed him; and Claude, quite overcome, had taken his clothes off, one garment after another, without saying a word. For long months they had been as strangers; until then, however, she had never felt such a barrier between them, such tomb-like coldness.
She struggled for nearly a quarter of an hour against the sleepiness coming over her. She was very tired, and a kind of torpor numbed her; still she would not give way, feeling anxious at leaving him awake. She thus waited every night until he dozed off, so that she herself might afterwards sleep in peace. But he had not extinguished the candle, he lay there with his eyes open, fixed upon its flame. What could he be thinking of? Had he remained in fancy over yonder in the black night, amid the moist atmosphere of the quays, in front of Paris studded with stars like a frosty sky? And what inner conflict, what matter that had to be decided, contracted his face like that? Then, resistance being impossible, she succumbed and glided into the slumber following upon great weariness.
An hour later, the consciousness of something missing, the anguish of uneasiness awoke her with a sudden start. She at once felt the bed beside her, it was already cold: he was no longer there, she had already divined it while asleep. And she was growing alarmed, still but half awake, her head heavy and her ears buzzing, when through the doorway, left ajar, she perceived a ray of light coming from the studio. She then felt reassured, she thought that in a fit of sleeplessness he had gone to fetch some book or other; but at last, as he did not return, she ended by softly rising so as to take a peep. What she beheld quite unsettled her, and kept her standing on the tiled floor, with her feet bare, in such surprise that she did not at first dare to show herself.
Claude, who was in his shirt-sleeves, despite the coldness of the temperature, having merely put on his trousers and slippers in his haste, was standing on the steps in front of his large picture. His palette was lying at his feet, and with one hand he held the candle, while with the other he painted. His eyes were dilated like those of a somnambulist, his gestures were precise and stiff; he stooped every minute to take some colour on his brush, and then rose up, casting a large fantastic shadow on the wall. And there was not a sound; frightful silence reigned in the big dim room.
Christine guessed the truth and shuddered. The besetting worry, made more acute by that hour spent on the Pont des Saints-Peres, had prevented him from sleeping and had brought him once more before his canvas, consumed with a longing to look at it again, in spite of the lateness of the hour. He had, no doubt, only climbed the steps to fill his eyes the nearer. Then, tortured by the sight of some faulty shade, upset by some defect, to such a point that he could not wait for daylight, he had caught up a brush, at first merely wishing to give a simple touch, and then had been carried on from correction to correction, until at last, with the candle in his hand, he painted there like a man in a state of hallucination, amid the pale light which darted hither and thither as he gesticulated. His powerless creative rage had seized hold of him again, he was wearing himself out, oblivious of the hour, oblivious of the world; he wished to infuse life into his work at once.
Ah, what a pitiful sight! And with what tear-drenched eyes did Christine gaze at him! At first she thought of leaving him to that mad work, as a maniac is left to the pleasures of his craziness. He would never finish that picture, that was quite certain now. The more desperately he worked at it, the more incoherent did it become; the colouring had grown heavy and pasty, the drawing was losing shape and showing signs of effort. Even the background and the group of labourers, once so substantial and satisfactory, were getting spoiled; yet he clung to them, he had obstinately determined to finish everything else before repainting the central figure, the nude woman, which remained the dread and the desire of his hours of toil, and which would finish him off whenever he might again try to invest it with life. For months he had not touched it, and this had tranquillised Christine and made her tolerant and compassionate, amid her jealous spite; for as long as he did not return to that feared and desired mistress, she thought that he betrayed her less.
Her feet were freezing on the tiles, and she was turning to get into bed again when a shock brought her back to the door. She had not understood at first, but now at last she saw. With broad curved strokes of his brush, full of colour, Claude was at once wildly and caressingly modelling flesh. He had a fixed grin on his lips, and did not feel the burning candle-grease falling on his fingers, while with silent, passionate see-sawing, his right arm alone moved against the wall, casting black confusion upon it. He was working at the nude woman.
Then Christine opened the door and walked into the studio. An invincible revolt, the anger of a wife buffeted at home, impelled her forward. Yes, he was with that other, he was painting her like a visionary, whom wild craving for truth had brought to the madness of the unreal; and those limbs were being gilded like the columns of a tabernacle, that trunk was becoming a star, shimmering with yellow and red, splendid and unnatural. Such strange nudity—like unto a monstrance gleaming with precious stones and intended for religious adoration—brought her anger to a climax. She had suffered too much, she would not tolerate it.
And yet at first she simply showed herself despairing and supplicating. It was but the mother remonstrating with her big mad boy of an artist that spoke.
'What are you doing there, Claude? Is it reasonable, Claude, to have such ideas? Come to bed, I beg of you, don't stay on those steps where you will catch your death of cold!'
He did not answer; he stooped again to take some more paint on his brush, and made the figure flash with two bright strokes of vermilion.
'Listen to me, Claude, in pity come to me—you know that I love you—you see how anxious you have made me. Come, oh! come, if you don't want me to die of cold and waiting for you.'
With his face haggard, he did not look at her; but while he bedecked a part of the figure with carmine, he grumbled in a husky voice:
'Just leave me alone, will you? I'm working.'
Christine remained silent for a moment. She was drawing herself erect, her eyes began to gleam with fire, rebellion inflated her gentle, charming form. Then she burst forth, with the growl of a slave driven to extremities.
'Well, no, I won't leave you alone! I've had enough of it. I'll tell you what's stifling me, what has been killing me ever since I have known you. Ah! that painting, yes, your painting, she's the murderess who has poisoned my life! I had a presentiment of it on the first day; your painting frightened me as if it were a monster. I found it abominable, execrable; but then, one's cowardly, I loved you too much not to like it also; I ended by growing accustomed to it! But later on, how I suffered!—how it tortured me! For ten years I don't recollect having spent a day without shedding tears. No, leave me! I am easing my mind, I must speak out, since I have found strength enough to do so. For ten years I have been abandoned and crushed every day. Ah! to be nothing more to you, to feel myself cast more and more on one side, to fall to the rank of a servant; and to see that other one, that thief, place herself between you and me and clutch hold of you and triumph and insult me! For dare, yes, dare to say that she hasn't taken possession of you, limb by limb, glided into your brain, your heart, your flesh, everywhere! She holds you like a vice, she feeds on you; in fact, she's your wife, not I. She's the only one you care for! Ah! the cursed wretch, the hussy!'
Claude was now listening to her, in his astonishment at that dolorous outburst; and being but half roused from his exasperated creative dream, he did not as yet very well understand why she was talking to him like that. And at sight of his stupor, the shuddering of a man surprised in a debauch, she flew into a still greater passion; she mounted the steps, tore the candlestick from his hand, and in her turn flashed the light in front of the picture.
'Just look!' she cried, 'just tell me how you have improved matters? It's hideous, it's lamentable and grotesque; you'll end by seeing so yourself. Come, isn't it ugly, isn't it idiotic? You see very well that you are conquered, so why should you persist any longer? There is no sense in it, that's what upsets me. If you can't be a great painter, life, at least, remains to us. Ah! life, life!'
She had placed the candle on the platform of the steps, and as he had gone down, staggering, she sprang off to join him, and they both found themselves below, he crouching on the last step, and she pressing his inert, dangling hands with all her strength.
'Come, there's life! Drive your nightmare away, and let us live, live together. Isn't it too stupid, to be we two together, to be growing old already, and to torture ourselves, and fail in every attempt to find happiness? Oh! the grave will take us soon enough, never fear. Let's try to live, and love one another. Remember Bennecourt! Listen to my dream. I should like to be able to take you away to-morrow. We would go far from this cursed Paris, we would find a quiet spot somewhere, and you would see how pleasant I would make your life; how nice it would be to forget everything together! Of a morning there are strolls in the sunlight, the breakfast which smells nice, the idle afternoon, the evening spent side by side under the lamp! And no more worrying about chimeras, nothing but the delight of living! Doesn't it suffice that I love you, that I adore you, that I am willing to be your servant, your slave, to exist solely for your pleasures? Do you hear, I love you, I love you? there is nothing else, and that is enough—I love you!'
He had freed his hands, and making a gesture of refusal, he said, in a gloomy voice:
'No, it is not enough! I won't go away with you, I won't be happy, I will paint!'
'And I shall die of it, eh? And you will die of it, and we shall end by leaving all our blood and all our tears in it! There's nothing beyond Art, that is the fierce almighty god who strikes us with his thunder, and whom you honour! he may crush us, since he is the master, and you will still bless his name!'
'Yes, I belong to that god, he may do what he pleases with me. I should die if I no longer painted, and I prefer to paint and die of it. Besides, my will is nothing in the matter. Nothing exists beyond art; let the world burst!'
She drew herself up in a fresh spurt of anger. Her voice became harsh and passionate again.
'But I—I am alive, and the women you love are lifeless! Oh! don't say no! I know very well that all those painted women of yours are the only ones you care about! Before I was yours I had already perceived it. Then, for a short time you appeared to love me. It was at that period you told me all that nonsense about your fondness for your creations. You held such shadows in pity when you were with me; but it didn't last. You returned to them, oh! like a maniac returns to his mania. I, though living, no longer existed for you; it was they, the visions, who again became the only realities of your life. What I then endured you never knew, for you are wonderfully ignorant of women. I have lived by your side without your ever understanding me. Yes, I was jealous of those painted creatures. When I posed to you, only one idea lent me the courage that I needed. I wanted to fight them, I hoped to win you back; but you granted me nothing, not even a kiss on my shoulder! Oh, God! how ashamed I sometimes felt! What grief I had to force back at finding myself thus disdained and thus betrayed!'
She continued boldly, she spoke out freely—she, so strangely compounded of passion and modesty. And she was not mistaken in her jealousy when she accused his art of being responsible for his neglect of herself. At the bottom of it all, there was the theory which he had repeated a hundred times in her presence: genius should be chaste, an artist's only spouse should be his work.
'You repulse me,' she concluded violently; 'you draw back from me as if I displeased you! And you love what? A nothing, a mere semblance, a little dust, some colour spread upon a canvas! But, once more, look at her, look at your woman up yonder! See what a monster you have made of her in your madness! Are there any women like that? Have any women golden limbs, and flowers on their bodies? Wake up, open your eyes, return to life again!'
Claude, obeying the imperious gesture with which she pointed to the picture, had now risen and was looking. The candle, which had remained upon the platform of the steps, illumined the nude woman like a taper in front of an altar, whilst the whole room around remained plunged in darkness. He was at length awakening from his dream, and the woman thus seen from below, at a distance of a few paces, filled him with stupefaction. Who had just painted that idol of some unknown religion? Who had wrought her of metals, marbles, and gems? Was it he who had unconsciously created that symbol of insatiable passion, that unhuman presentment of flesh, which had become transformed into gold and diamonds under his fingers, in his vain effort to make it live? He gasped and felt afraid of his work, trembling at the thought of that sudden plunge into the infinite, and understanding at last that it had become impossible for him even to depict Reality, despite his long effort to conquer and remould it, making it yet more real with his human hands.
'You see! you see!' Christine repeated, victoriously. And he, in a very low voice, stammered:
'Oh! what have I done? Is it impossible to create, then? Haven't our hands the power to create beings?'
She felt that he was giving way, and she caught him in her arms:
'But why all this folly?—why think of anyone but me—I who love you? You took me for your model, but what was the use, say? Are those paintings of yours worth me? They are frightful, they are as stiff, as cold as corpses. But I am alive, and I love you!'
She seemed to be at that moment the very incarnation of passionate love. He turned and looked at her, and little by little he returned her embrace; she was softening him and conquering him.
'Listen!' she continued. 'I know that you had a frightful thought; yes, I never dared to speak to you about it, because one must never bring on misfortune; but I no longer sleep of a night, you frighten me. This evening I followed you to that bridge which I hate, and I trembled, oh! I thought that it was all over—that I had lost you. Oh, God! what would become of me? I need you—you surely do not wish to kill me! Let us live and love one another—yes, love one another!'
Then, in the emotion caused him by her infinite passion and grief, he yielded. He pressed her to him, sobbing and stammering:
'It is true I had that frightful thought—I should have done it, and I only resisted on thinking of that unfinished picture. But can I still live if work will have nothing more to do with me? How can I live after that, after what's there, what I spoilt just now?'
'I will love you, and you will live.'
'Ah! you will never love me enough—I know myself. Something which does not exist would be necessary—something which would make me forget everything. You were already unable to change me. You cannot accomplish a miracle!'
Then, as she protested and kissed him passionately, he went on: 'Well, yes, save me! Yes, save me, if you don't want me to kill myself! Lull me, annihilate me, so that I may become your thing, slave enough, small enough to dwell under your feet, in your slippers. Ah! to live only on your perfume, to obey you like a dog, to eat and sleep—if I could, if I only could!'
She raised a cry of victory: 'At last you are mine! There is only I left, the other is quite dead!'
And she dragged him from the execrated painting, she carried him off triumphantly. The candle, now nearly consumed, flared up for a minute behind them on the steps, before the big painting, and then went out. It was victory, yes, but could it last?
Daylight was about to break, and Christine lay asleep beside Claude. She was breathing softly, and a smile played upon her lips. He had closed his eyes; and yet, despite himself, he opened them afresh and gazed into the darkness. Sleep fled from him, and confused ideas again ascended to his brain. As the dawn appeared, yellowishly dirty, like a splash of liquid mud on the window-panes, he started, fancying that he heard a loud voice calling to him from the far end of the studio. Then, irresistibly, despite a few brief hours' forgetfulness, all his old thoughts returned, overflowing and torturing him, hollowing his cheeks and contracting his jaws in the disgust he felt for mankind. Two wrinkles imparted intense bitterness to the expression of his face, which looked like the wasted countenance of an old man. And suddenly the loud voice from the far end of the studio imperiously summoned him a second time. Then he quite made up his mind: it was all over, he suffered too much, he could no longer live, since everything was a lie, since there was nothing left upon earth. Love! what was it? Nought but a passing illusion. This thought at last mastered him, possessed him entirely; and soon the craving for nothingness as his only refuge came on him stronger than ever. At first he let Christine's head slip down from his shoulder on which it rested. And then, as a third summons rang out in his mind, he rose and went to the studio, saying:
'Yes, yes, I'm coming,'
The sky did not clear, it still remained dirty and mournful—it was one of those lugubrious winter dawns; and an hour later Christine herself awoke with a great chilly shiver. She did not understand at first. How did it happen that she was alone? Then she remembered: she had fallen asleep with her cheek against his. How was it then that he had left her? Where could he be? Suddenly, amid her torpor, she sprang out of bed and ran into the studio. Good God! had he returned to the other then? Had the other seized hold of him again, when she herself fancied that she had conquered him for ever?
She saw nothing at the first glance she took; in the cold and murky morning twilight the studio seemed to her to be deserted. But whilst she was tranquillising herself at seeing nobody there, she raised her eyes to the canvas, and a terrible cry leapt from her gaping mouth:
'Claude! oh, Claude!'
Claude had hanged himself from the steps in front of his spoilt work. He had simply taken one of the cords which held the frame to the wall, and had mounted the platform, so as to fasten the rope to an oaken crosspiece, which he himself had one day nailed to the uprights to consolidate them. Then from up above he had leapt into space. He was hanging there in his shirt, with his feet bare, looking horrible, with his black tongue protruding, and his bloodshot eyes starting from their orbits; he seemed to have grown frightfully tall in his motionless stiffness, and his face was turned towards the picture, close to the nude woman, as if he had wished to infuse his soul into her with his last gasp, and as if he were still looking at her with his expressionless eyes.
Christine, however, remained erect, quite overwhelmed with the grief, fright, and anger which dilated her body. Only a continuous howl came from her throat. She opened her arms, stretched them towards the picture, and clenched both hands.
'Oh, Claude! oh, Claude!' she gasped at last, 'she has taken you back—the hussy has killed you, killed you, killed you!'
Then her legs gave way. She span round and fell all of a heap upon the tiled flooring. Her excessive suffering had taken all the blood from her heart, and, fainting away, she lay there, as if she were dead, like a white rag, miserable, done for, crushed beneath the fierce sovereignty of Art. Above her the nude woman rose radiant in her symbolic idol's brightness; painting triumphed, alone immortal and erect, even when mad.
At nine o'clock on the Monday morning, when Sandoz, after the formalities and delay occasioned by the suicide, arrived in the Rue Tourlaque for the funeral, he found only a score of people on the footway. Despite his great grief, he had been running about for three days, compelled to attend to everything. At first, as Christine had been picked up half dead, he had been obliged to have her carried to the Hopital de Lariboisiere; then he had gone from the municipal offices, to the undertaker's and the church, paying everywhere, and full of indifference so far as that went, since the priests were willing to pray over that corpse with a black circle round its neck. Among the people who were waiting he as yet only perceived some neighbours, together with a few inquisitive folk; while other people peered out of the house windows and whispered together, excited by the tragedy. Claude's friends would, no doubt, soon come. He, Sandoz, had not been able to write to any members of the family, as he did not know their addresses. However, he retreated into the background on the arrival of two relatives, whom three lines in the newspapers had roused from the forgetfulness in which Claude himself, no doubt, had left them. There was an old female cousin,* with the equivocal air of a dealer in second-hand goods, and a male cousin, of the second degree, a wealthy man, decorated with the Legion of Honour, and owning one of the large Paris drapery shops. He showed himself good-naturedly condescending in his elegance, and desirous of displaying an enlightened taste for art. The female cousin at once went upstairs, turned round the studio, sniffed at all the bare wretchedness, and then walked down again, with a hard mouth, as if she were irritated at having taken the trouble to come. The second cousin, on the contrary, drew himself up and walked first behind the hearse, filling the part of chief mourner with proud and pleasant fitness.
* Madame Sidonie, who figures in M. Zola's novel, 'La Curee.' The male cousin, mentioned immediately afterwards, is Octave Mouret, the leading character of 'Pot-Bouille' and 'Au Bonheur des Dames.'—ED.
As the procession was starting off, Bongrand came up, and, after shaking hands with Sandoz, remained beside him. He was gloomy, and, glancing at the fifteen or twenty strangers who followed, he murmured:
'Ah! poor chap! What! are there only we two?'
Dubuche was at Cannes with his children. Jory and Fagerolles kept away, the former hating the deceased and the latter being too busy. Mahoudeau alone caught the party up at the rise of the Rue Lepic, and he explained that Gagniere must have missed the train.
The hearse slowly ascended the steep thoroughfare which winds round the flanks of the height of Montmartre; and now and then cross streets, sloping downward, sudden gaps amid the houses, showed one the immensity of Paris as deep and as broad as a sea. When the party arrived in front of the Church of St. Pierre, and the coffin was carried up the steps, it overtopped the great city for a moment. There was a grey wintry sky overhead, large masses of clouds swept along, carried away by an icy wind, and in the mist Paris seemed to expand, to become endless, filling the horizon with threatening billows. The poor fellow who had wished to conquer it, and had broken his neck in his fruitless efforts, now passed in front of it, nailed under an oaken board, returning to the earth like one of the city's muddy waves.
On leaving the church the female cousin disappeared, Mahoudeau likewise; while the second cousin again took his position behind the hearse. Seven other unknown persons decided to follow, and they started for the new cemetery of St. Ouen, to which the populace has given the disquieting and lugubrious name of Cayenne. There were ten mourners in all.
'Well, we two shall be the only old friends,' repeated Bongrand as he walked on beside Sandoz.
The procession, preceded by the mourning coach in which the priest and the choirboy were seated, now descended the other side of the height, along winding streets as precipitous as mountain paths. The horses of the hearse slipped over the slimy pavement; one could hear the wheels jolting noisily. Right behind, the ten mourners took short and careful steps, trying to avoid the puddles, and being so occupied with the difficulty of the descent that they refrained from speaking. But at the bottom of the Rue du Ruisseau, when they reached the Porte de Clignancourt and the vast open spaces, where the boulevard running round the city, the circular railway, the talus and moat of the fortifications are displayed to view, there came sighs of relief, a few words were exchanged, and the party began to straggle.
Sandoz and Bongrand by degrees found themselves behind all the others, as if they had wished to isolate themselves from those folk whom they had never previously seen. Just as the hearse was passing the city gate, the painter leant towards the novelist.
'And the little woman, what is going to be done with her?'
'Ah! how dreadful it is!' replied Sandoz. 'I went to see her yesterday at the hospital. She has brain fever. The house doctor maintains that they will save her, but that she will come out of it ten years older and without any strength. Do you know that she had come to such a point that she no longer knew how to spell. Such a crushing fall, a young lady abased to the level of a drudge! Yes, if we don't take care of her like a cripple, she will end by becoming a scullery-maid somewhere.'
'And not a copper, of course?'
'Not a copper. I thought I should find the studies Claude made from nature for his large picture, those superb studies which he afterwards turned to such poor account. But I ferreted everywhere; he gave everything away; people robbed him. No, nothing to sell, not a canvas that could be turned to profit, nothing but that huge picture, which I demolished and burnt with my own hands, and right gladly, I assure you, even as one avenges oneself.'
They became silent for a moment. The broad road leading to St. Ouen stretched out quite straight as far as the eye could reach; and over the plain went the procession, pitifully small, lost, as it were, on that highway, along which there flowed a river of mud. A line of palings bordered it on either side, waste land extended both to right and left, while afar off one only saw some factory chimneys and a few lofty white houses, standing alone, obliquely to the road. They passed through the Clignancourt fete, with booths, circuses, and roundabouts on either side, all shivering in the abandonment of winter, empty dancing cribs, mouldy swings, and a kind of stage homestead, 'The Picardy Farm,' looking dismally sad between its broken fences.
'Ah! his old canvases,' resumed Bongrand, 'the things he had at the Quai de Bourbon, do you remember them? There were some extraordinary bits among them. The landscapes he brought back from the south and the academy studies he painted at Boutin's—a girl's legs and a woman's trunk, for instance. Oh, that trunk! Old Malgras must have it. A magisterial study it was, which not one of our "young masters" could paint. Yes, yes, the fellow was no fool—simply a great painter.'
'When I think,' said Sandoz, 'that those little humbugs of the School and the press accused him of idleness and ignorance, repeating one after the other that he had always refused to learn his art. Idle! good heavens! why, I have seen him faint with fatigue after sittings ten hours long; he gave his whole life to his work, and killed himself in his passion for toil! And they call him ignorant—how idiotic! They will never understand that the individual gift which a man brings in his nature is superior to all acquired knowledge. Delacroix also was ignorant of his profession in their eyes, simply because he could not confine himself to hard and fast rules! Ah! the ninnies, the slavish pupils who are incapable of painting anything incorrectly!'
He took a few steps in silence, and then he added:
'A heroic worker, too—a passionate observer whose brain was crammed with science—the temperament of a great artist endowed with admirable gifts. And to think that he leaves nothing, nothing!'
'Absolutely nothing, not a canvas,' declared Bongrand. 'I know nothing of his but rough drafts, sketches, notes carelessly jotted down, as it were, all that artistic paraphernalia which can't be submitted to the public. Yes, indeed, it is really a dead man, dead completely, who is about to be lowered into the grave.'
However, the painter and the novelist now had to hasten their steps, for they had got far behind the others while talking; and the hearse, after rolling past taverns and shops full of tombstones and crosses, was turning to the right into the short avenue leading to the cemetery. They overtook it, and passed through the gateway with the little procession. The priest in his surplice and the choirboy carrying the holy water receiver, who had both alighted from the mourning coach, walked on ahead.
It was a large flat cemetery, still in its youth, laid out by rule and line in the suburban waste land, and divided into squares by broad symmetrical paths. A few raised tombs bordered the principal avenues, but most of the graves, already very numerous, were on a level with the soil. They were hastily arranged temporary sepulchres, for five-year grants were the only ones to be obtained, and families hesitated to go to any serious expense. Thus, the stones sinking into the ground for lack of foundations, the scrubby evergreens which had not yet had time to grow, all the provisional slop kind of mourning that one saw there, imparted to that vast field of repose a look of poverty and cold, clean, dismal bareness like that of a barracks or a hospital. There was not a corner to be found recalling the graveyard nooks sung of in the ballads of the romantic period, not one leafy turn quivering with mystery, not a single large tomb speaking of pride and eternity. You were in the new style of Paris cemetery, where everything is set out straight and duly numbered—the cemetery of democratic times, where the dead seem to slumber at the bottom of an office drawer, after filing past one by one, as people do at a fete under the eyes of the police, so as to avoid obstruction.
'Dash it!' muttered Bongrand, 'it isn't lively here.'
'Why not?' asked Sandoz. 'It's commodious; there is plenty of air. And even although there is no sun, see what a pretty colour it all has.'
In fact, under the grey sky of that November morning, in the penetrating quiver of the wind, the low tombs, laden with garlands and crowns of beads, assumed soft tints of charming delicacy. There were some quite white, and others all black, according to the colour of the beads. But the contrast lost much of its force amid the pale green foliage of the dwarfish trees. Poor families exhausted their affection for the dear departed in decking those five-year grants; there were piles of crowns and blooming flowers—freshly brought there on the recent Day of the Dead. Only the cut flowers had as yet faded, between their paper collars. Some crowns of yellow immortelles shone out like freshly chiselled gold. But the beads predominated to such a degree that at the first glance there seemed to be nothing else; they gushed forth everywhere, hiding the inscriptions and covering the stones and railings. There were beads forming hearts, beads in festoons and medallions, beads framing either ornamental designs or objects under glass, such as velvet pansies, wax hands entwined, satin bows, or, at times, even photographs of women—yellow, faded, cheap photographs, showing poor, ugly, touching faces that smiled awkwardly.
As the hearse proceeded along the Avenue du Rond Point, Sandoz, whose last remark—since it was of an artistic nature—had brought him back to Claude, resumed the conversation, saying:
'This is a cemetery which he would have understood, he who was so mad on modern things. No doubt he suffered physically, wasted away by the over-severe lesion that is so often akin to genius, "three grains too little, or three grains too much, of some substance in the brain," as he himself said when he reproached his parents for his constitution. However, his disorder was not merely a personal affair, he was the victim of our period. Yes, our generation has been soaked in romanticism, and we have remained impregnated with it. It is in vain that we wash ourselves and take baths of reality, the stain is obstinate, and all the scrubbing in the world won't take it away.'
Bongrand smiled. 'Oh! as for romanticism,' said he, 'I'm up to my ears in it. It has fed my art, and, indeed, I'm impenitent. If it be true that my final impotence is due to that, well, after all, what does it matter? I can't deny the religion of my artistic life. However, your remark is quite correct; you other fellows, you are rebellious sons. Claude, for instance, with his big nude woman amid the quays, that extravagant symbol—'
'Ah, that woman!' interrupted Sandoz, 'it was she who throttled him! If you knew how he worshipped her! I was never able to cast her out of him. And how can one possibly have clear perception, a solid, properly-balanced brain when such phantasmagoria sprouts forth from your skull? Though coming after yours, our generation is too imaginative to leave healthy work behind it. Another generation, perhaps two, will be required before people will be able to paint and write logically, with the high, pure simplicity of truth. Truth, nature alone, is the right basis, the necessary guide, outside of which madness begins; and the toiler needn't be afraid of flattening his work, his temperament is there, which will always carry him sufficiently away. Does any one dream of denying personality, the involuntary thumb-stroke which deforms whatever we touch and constitutes our poor creativeness?'
However, he turned his head, and involuntarily added:
'Hallo! what's burning? Are they lighting bonfires here?'
The procession had turned on reaching the Rond Point, where the ossuary was situated—the common vault gradually filled with all the remnants removed from the graves, and the stone slab of which, in the centre of a circular lawn, disappeared under a heap of wreaths, deposited there by the pious relatives of those who no longer had an individual resting-place. And, as the hearse rolled slowly to the left in transversal Avenue No. 2, there had come a sound of crackling, and thick smoke had risen above the little plane trees bordering the path. Some distance ahead, as the party approached, they could see a large pile of earthy things beginning to burn, and they ended by understanding. The fire was lighted at the edge of a large square patch of ground, which had been dug up in broad parallel furrows, so as to remove the coffins before allotting the soil to other corpses; just as the peasant turns the stubble over before sowing afresh. The long empty furrows seemed to yawn, the mounds of rich soil seemed to be purifying under the broad grey sky; and the fire thus burning in that corner was formed of the rotten wood of the coffins that had been removed—slit, broken boards, eaten into by the earth, often reduced to a ruddy humus, and gathered together in an enormous pile. They broke up with faint detonations, and being damp with human mud, they refused to flame, and merely smoked with growing intensity. Large columns of the smoke rose into the pale sky, and were beaten down by the November wind, and torn into ruddy shreds, which flew across the low tombs of quite one half of the cemetery.
Sandoz and Bongrand had looked at the scene without saying a word. Then, having passed the fire, the former resumed:
'No, he did not prove to be the man of the formula he laid down. I mean that his genius was not clear enough to enable him to set that formula erect and impose it upon the world by a definite masterpiece. And now see how other fellows scatter their efforts around him, after him! They go no farther than roughing off, they give us mere hasty impressions, and not one of them seems to have strength enough to become the master who is awaited. Isn't it irritating, this new notion of light, this passion for truth carried as far as scientific analysis, this evolution begun with so much originality, and now loitering on the way, as it were, falling into the hands of tricksters, and never coming to a head, simply because the necessary man isn't born? But pooh! the man will be born; nothing is ever lost, light must be.'
'Who knows? not always,' said Bongrand. 'Life miscarries, like everything else. I listen to you, you know, but I'm a despairer. I am dying of sadness, and I feel that everything else is dying. Ah! yes, there is something unhealthy in the atmosphere of the times—this end of a century is all demolition, a litter of broken monuments, and soil that has been turned over and over a hundred times, the whole exhaling a stench of death! Can anybody remain in good health amid all that? One's nerves become unhinged, the great neurosis is there, art grows unsettled, there is general bustling, perfect anarchy, all the madness of self-love at bay. Never have people quarrelled more and seen less clearly than since it is pretended that one knows everything.'
Sandoz, who had grown pale, watched the large ruddy coils of smoke rolling in the wind.
'It was fated,' he mused in an undertone. 'Our excessive activity and pride of knowledge were bound to cast us back into doubt. This century, which has already thrown so much light over the world, was bound to finish amid the threat of a fresh flow of darkness—yes, our discomfort comes from that! Too much has been promised, too much has been hoped for; people have looked forward to the conquest and explanation of everything, and now they growl impatiently. What! don't things go quicker than that? What! hasn't science managed to bring us absolute certainty, perfect happiness, in a hundred years? Then what is the use of going on, since one will never know everything, and one's bread will always be as bitter? It is as if the century had become bankrupt, as if it had failed; pessimism twists people's bowels, mysticism fogs their brains; for we have vainly swept phantoms away with the light of analysis, the supernatural has resumed hostilities, the spirit of the legends rebels and wants to conquer us, while we are halting with fatigue and anguish. Ah! I certainly don't affirm anything; I myself am tortured. Only it seems to me that this last convulsion of the old religious terrors was to be foreseen. We are not the end, we are but a transition, a beginning of something else. It calms me and does me good to believe that we are marching towards reason, and the substantiality of science.'
His voice had become husky with emotion, and he added:
'That is, unless madness plunges us, topsy-turvy, into night again, and we all go off throttled by the ideal, like our old friend who sleeps there between his four boards.'
The hearse was leaving transversal Avenue No. 2 to turn, on the right, into lateral Avenue No. 3, and the painter, without speaking, called the novelist's attention to a square plot of graves, beside which the procession was now passing.
There was here a children's cemetery, nothing but children's tombs, stretching far away in orderly fashion, separated at regular intervals by narrow paths, and looking like some infantile city of death. There were tiny little white crosses, tiny little white railings, disappearing almost beneath an efflorescence of white and blue wreaths, on a level with the soil; and that peaceful field of repose, so soft in colour, with the bluish tint of milk about it, seemed to have been made flowery by all the childhood lying in the earth. The crosses recorded various ages, two years, sixteen months, five months. One poor little cross, destitute of any railing, was out of line, having been set up slantingly across a path, and it simply bore the words: 'Eugenie, three days.' Scarcely to exist as yet, and withal to sleep there already, alone, on one side, like the children who on festive occasions dine at a little side table!
However, the hearse had at last stopped, in the middle of the avenue; and when Sandoz saw the grave ready at the corner of the next division, in front of the cemetery of the little ones, he murmured tenderly:
'Ah! my poor old Claude, with your big child's heart, you will be in your place beside them.'
The under-bearers removed the coffin from the hearse. The priest, who looked surly, stood waiting in the wind; some sextons were there with their shovels. Three neighbours had fallen off on the road, the ten had dwindled into seven. The second cousin, who had been holding his hat in his hand since leaving the church, despite the frightful weather, now drew nearer. All the others uncovered, and the prayers were about to begin, when a loud piercing whistle made everybody look up.
Beyond this corner of the cemetery as yet untenanted, at the end of lateral Avenue No. 3, a train was passing along the high embankment of the circular railway which overlooked the graveyard. The grassy slope rose up, and a number of geometrical lines, as it were, stood out blackly against the grey sky; there were telegraph-posts, connected by thin wires, a superintendent's box, and a red signal plate, the only bright throbbing speck visible. When the train rolled past, with its thunder-crash, one plainly distinguished, as on the transparency of a shadow play, the silhouettes of the carriages, even the heads of the passengers showing in the light gaps left by the windows. And the line became clear again, showing like a simple ink stroke across the horizon; while far away other whistles called and wailed unceasingly, shrill with anger, hoarse with suffering, or husky with distress. Then a guard's horn resounded lugubriously.