Under the Restoration he had been a Carbonaro. He was the son of a draper, and his birth and name of Bourjot had from his earliest childhood exasperated him against the nobility, grand houses, and the Bourbons. He had been in various conspiracies, and had met with M. Mauperin at Carbonari reunions. He had figured in all the tumults, and had been fond of quoting Berville, Saint-Just, and Dupin the elder. After 1830 he had calmed down and had contented himself with sulking with royalty for having cheated him of his republic. He read the National, pitied the people of all lands, despised the Chambers, railed at M. Guizot, and was eloquent about the Pritchard affair.
The events of 1848 came upon him suddenly, and the landowner then woke up alarmed and rose erect in the person of the Carbonaro of the Restoration, the Liberal of Louis Philippe's reign. The fall in stocks, the unproductiveness of houses, socialism, the proposed taxes, the dangers to which State creditors were exposed, the eventful days of June, and indeed everything which is calculated to strike terror to the heart of a moneyed man during a revolution, disturbed M. Bourjot's equanimity, and at the same time enlightened him. His ideas suddenly underwent a change, and his political conscience veered completely round. He hastened to adopt the doctrines of order, and turned to the Church as he might have done to the police authorities, to the Divine right as the supreme power and a providential security for his bills.
Unfortunately, in M. Bourjot's brusque but sincere conversion, his education, his youth, his past, his whole life rose in revolt. He had returned to the Bourbons, but he had not been able to come back to Jesus Christ, and, old man as he now was, he would make all kinds of slips and give utterance to the attacks and refrains to which he had been accustomed. One felt, the nearer one came to him, that he was still quite a Voltairean on certain points, and Beranger was constantly taking the place of de Maistre with him.
* * * * *
"Give the reins to your brother, Renee," said Mme. Mauperin. "I shouldn't like them to see you driving."
They were in front of a magnificent large gateway, opposite which were two lamps that were always lighted and left burning all night. The carriage turned up a drive, covered with red gravel and planted on each side with huge clumps of rhododendrons, and drew up before a flight of stone steps. Two footmen threw open the glass doors leading into a hall paved with marble and with high windows nearly hidden by the verdure of a wide screen of exotic shrubs.
The Mauperins were then introduced into a drawing-room, the walls of which were covered with crimson silk. A portrait of Mme. Bourjot in evening dress, signed by Ingres, was the only picture in the room. Through the open windows could be seen a pool of water, and near it a stork, the only creature that M. Bourjot would tolerate in his park, and that on account of its heraldic form.
When the Mauperins entered the large drawing-room, Mme. Bourjot, seated by herself on the divan, was listening to her daughter's governess who was reading aloud. M. Bourjot was leaning against the chimney-piece playing with his watch-chain. Mlle. Bourjot, near her governess, was working at some tapestry on a frame.
Mme. Bourjot, with her large, rather hard blue eyes, her arched eye-brows, and the lines of her eye-lids, her haughty and pronounced nose, the supercilious prominence of the lower part of the face, and her imperious grace, reminded one of Georges, when young, in the role of Agrippina. Mlle. Bourjot had strongly marked brown eye-brows. Between her long, curly lashes could be seen two blue eyes with an intense, profound, dreamy expression in them. A slight down almost white could be seen when the light was full on her, just above her lip at the two corners. The governess was one of those retiring creatures, one of those elderly women who have been knocked about and worn out in the battle of life, outwardly and inwardly, and who finally have no more effigy left than an old copper coin.
"Why, this is really charming!" said Mme. Bourjot, getting up and advancing as far as a line of the polished floor in the centre of the room. "What kind neighbours—and what a delightful surprise! It seems an age since I had the pleasure of seeing you, dear madame, and if it were not for your son, who is good enough not to forsake us, and who comes to my Monday Evenings, we should not have known what had become of you—of this charming girl—and her mamma——"
As she spoke Mme. Bourjot shook hands with Henri.
"Oh! you are very kind," began Mme. Mauperin, taking a seat at some distance from Mme. Bourjot.
"But please come over here," said Mme. Bourjot, making room at her side.
"We have postponed our visit from day to day," continued Mme. Mauperin, "as we wanted to come together."
"Oh! well, it's very bad of you," continued Mme. Bourjot. "We are not a hundred miles away; and it is cruel to keep these two children apart, when they grew up together. Why, how's this, they haven't kissed each other yet?"
Noemi, who was still standing, presented her cheek coldly to Renee, who kissed her as eagerly, as a child bites into fruit.
"What a long time ago it seems," observed Mme. Bourjot to Mme. Mauperin, as she looked at the two girls, "since we used to take them to the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin to those lectures, that bored us as much as they did the poor children. I can see them now, playing together. Yours was just like quicksilver, a regular little turk, and mine—Oh, they were like night and day! But yours always led mine on. Oh, dear, what a rage they had at one time for charades—do you remember? They used to carry off all the towels in the house to dress up with."
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Renee, laughing and turning to Noemi, "our finest one was when we did Marabout; with Marat in a bath that was too hot, calling out, 'Je bous, je bous!' Do you remember?"
"Yes, indeed," answered Noemi, trying to keep back a smile, "but it was your idea."
"I am so glad, madame, to find you quite inclined beforehand for what I wanted to ask you—for my visit is a selfish one. It was chiefly with the idea of letting our daughters see something of each other that I came. Renee wants to get up a play, and she naturally thought of her old school-friend. If you would allow your daughter to take part in a piece with my daughter—it would be just a little family affair—quite informal."
As Mme. Mauperin made this request, Noemi, who had been talking to Renee and had put her hand in her friend's, drew it away again abruptly.
"Thank you so much for the idea," answered Mme. Bourjot, "thanks, too, to Renee. You could not have asked me anything that would have suited me better and given me so much pleasure. I think it would be very good for Noemi—the poor child is so shy that I am in despair! It would make her talk and come out of herself. For her mind, too, it would be an excellent stimulant——"
"Oh! but, mother, you know very well—why, I've no memory. And then, too—why, the very idea of acting frightens me. Oh, no—I can't act——"
Mme. Bourjot glanced coldly at her daughter.
"But, mother, if I could—No, I should spoil the whole play, I'm sure."
"You will act—I wish you to do so."
Noemi looked down, and Mme. Mauperin, slightly embarrassed and by way of changing the subject, glanced at a Review that was lying open on a work-table at her side.
"Ah!" said Mme. Bourjot, turning to her again, "you've found something you know there—that is your son's last article. And when do you intend having this play?"
"Oh, but I should be so sorry to be the cause—to oblige your daughter——"
"Oh! don't mention it. My daughter is always afraid of undertaking anything."
"Well, but if Noemi really dislikes it," put in M. Bourjot, who had been talking to M. Mauperin and Henri on the other side of the room.
"On the contrary she will be grateful to you," said Mme. Bourjot, addressing Mme. Mauperin without answering M. Bourjot. "We are always obliged to insist on her doing anything for her own enjoyment. Well, when is this play?"
"Renee, when do you think?" asked Mme. Mauperin.
"Why, I should think about—well, we should want a month for the rehearsals, with two a week. We could fix the days and the time that would suit Noemi."
Renee turned towards Noemi, who remained silent.
"Very well, then," said Mme. Bourjot, "let us say Monday and Friday at two o'clock, if that will suit you—shall we?" And turning to the governess she continued: "Mlle. Gogois, you will accompany Noemi. M. Bourjot—you hear—will you give orders for the horses and carriage and the footman to take them to Briche? You can keep Terror for me, and Jean. There, that's all settled. Now, then, you will stay and dine with us, won't you?"
"Oh! we should like to very much; but it is quite impossible. We have some people coming to us to-day," answered Mme. Mauperin.
"Oh, dear, how tiresome of them to come to-day! But I don't think you have seen my husband's new conservatories. I'll make you a bouquet, Renee. We have a flower—there are only two of them anywhere, and the other is at Ferrieres—it's a—it's very ugly anyhow—this way."
"Suppose we were to go in here," said M. Bourjot, pointing to the billiard-room, which could be seen through the glass door. "M. Henri, we'll leave you with the ladies. We can smoke here," added M. Bourjot, offering a cabanas to M. Mauperin. "Shall we have cannoning?"
"Yes," replied M. Mauperin.
M. Bourjot closed the pockets of the billiard-table.
"Have you billiards at home, M. Mauperin?"
"No, I haven't. My son doesn't play."
"Are you looking for the chalk?"
"Thanks. And as my wife doesn't think it a suitable game for girls——"
"It's your turn."
"Oh! I'm quite out of practice—I always was a duffer at it though."
"Well, but you are not giving me the game at all. There, it's all up with my play—I was used to that cue," and M. Bourjot gave vent to his feelings in an oath. "These rascals of workmen—they haven't any conscience at all. There's no getting anything well made in these days. Well, you are scoring: three, I'll mark it. The fact is we are at their service. The other day, now, I wanted some chandeliers put up. Well, would you believe it, M. Mauperin, I couldn't get a man? It was a holiday—I forget what holiday it was—and they would not come—they are the lords of creation, nowadays. Do you imagine that they ever bring us anything of what they shoot or fish? Oh, no, when they get anything dainty they eat it themselves. I know what it is in Paris—four? Oh, come now! Every penny they earn is spent at the wine-shop. On Sundays they spend at least a sovereign. The locksmith here has a Lefaucheux gun and takes out a shooting license. Ah, two for me at last! And the money they ask now for their work! Why, they want four shillings a day for mowing! I have vineyards in Burgundy, and they proposed to see to them for me for three years, and then the third year they would be their own. This is what we are coming to! Luckily for me I'm an old man, so that it won't be in my time; but in a hundred years from now there will be no such thing as being waited on—there'll be no servants. I often say to my wife and daughter: 'You'll see—the day will come when you will have to make your own beds. Five?—six?—- you do know how to play. The Revolution has done for us, you know." And M. Bourjot began to hum:
"'Et zonzon, zonzon, zonzon, Zonzon, zonzon—— '"
"These were not exactly your ideas some thirty years ago, when we met for the first time; do you remember?" said M. Mauperin with a smile.
"That's true. I had some fine ideas in those days—too fine!" replied M. Bourjot, resting his left hand on his cue. "Ah, we were young—I should just think I do remember. It was at Lallemand's funeral.—By Jove! that was the best blow I ever gave in my life—a regular knock-you-down. I can see the nails in that police inspector's boots now, when I had landed him on the ground so that I could cross the boulevards. At the corner of the Rue Poissonniere I came upon a patrol—they set about me with a vengeance. I was with Caminade—you knew Caminade, didn't you? He was a lively one. He was the man who used to go and smoke his pipe at the mission service belonging to the Church of the Petits-Peres. He went with his meerschaum pipe that cost nearly sixty pounds, and he took a girl from the Palais-Royal. He was lucky, for he managed to escape, but they took me to the police station, belabouring me with the butt-end of their guns. Fortunately Dulaurens caught sight of me——"
"Ah—Dulaurens!" said M. Mauperin. "We were in the same Carbonari society. He had a shawl shop, it seems to me."
"Yes, and do you know what became of him?"
"No. I lost sight of him."
"Well, one fine day—it was after all this business—his partner went off to Belgium, taking with him eight thousand pounds. They put the police on his track, but they could hear nothing of him. Our friend Dulaurens goes into a church and makes a vow to get converted if he finds his money again. They find his money for him and now his piety is simply sickening. I never see him now; but in the old days he was a lively one, I can tell you. Well, when I saw him I gave him a look and he understood. You see, I had twenty-five guns in my house and five hundred cartridges. When the police went there to search he had cleared them away. All the same I was kept three months shut up in the new building, and two or three times was fetched up in the night to be cross-examined, and I always went with a vague idea in my mind that I was going to be shot. You've gone through it all, and you know what it is.—And all that was for the sake of Socialism! And yet I heard a few words that ought to have enlightened me. When I was free again one of my prison friends came to see me at Sedan. 'Why, what's this,' he said, 'that I am told at the hotel? It seems that your father has land and money, and yet you have joined us! Why, I thought you hadn't anything!' Just fancy now, M. Mauperin—and when I think that even that did not open my eyes! You see I was convinced in those days that all those with whom I was in league wanted simply what I wanted: laws for rich and poor alike, the abolition of privileges, the end of the Revolution of '89 against the nobility—I thought we should stop there—eleven? Did I mark your last? I don't think I did—let us say twelve. But, good heavens! when I saw my republic I was disgusted with it, when I heard two men, who had just come down from the barricades in February, say, 'We ought not to have left them until we had made sure of two hundred a year!' And then the system of taxes according to the income; it's an iniquity—the hypocrisy of communism. But with taxes regulated by the income," continued M. Bourjot, eloquently breaking off in the midst of his own phrase, "I challenge them to find any one who will care to take the trouble of making a large fortune—thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—very good! Oh, you are too strong a player. All that has made me turn round—you understand?"
"Perfectly," replied M. Mauperin.
"Where's my ball—there? Yes, it has made me turn completely round; it has positively made a Legitimist of me. There—a bad cue again! But——"
"Well, there is one thing—Oh, on that subject, now, I have the same opinions still. I don't mind telling you. Anything approaching a parson—eighteen?—Oh, come, I'm done for! We invite the one here in this place—he's a very decent fellow; but as to priests—when you've known one as I have, who broke his leg getting over the college wall at night—they are a pack of Jesuits, you know, M. Mauperin!
"'Hommes noirs, d'ou sortez-vous? Nous sortons de dessous, terre.'"
"Ah, that's my man! The god of simple folks!
"'Mes amis, parlons plus bas: Je vois Judas, je vois Judas!'"
"Twenty-one! You've only three more. Now, at the place where my iron-works are, there's a bishop who is very easy-going. Well, all the bigots detest him. Now, if he pretended to be a bigot, if he were a hypocrite and spent all his time at church——"
* * * * *
"I never saw Mme. Bourjot so amiable," remarked Mme. Mauperin, when she and her family were all back in the carriage.
"An odd chap, that Bourjot," observed M. Mauperin. "It isn't much good having a billiard-table of his own either—I could have given him a start of twelve."
"I think Noemi is very strange," said Renee. "Did you see, Henri, how she wanted to get out of acting?"
Henri did not answer.
Noemi had just entered Mme. Mauperin's drawing-room followed by her governess. She looked uncomfortable and ill at ease, almost shy, in fact, but on glancing round she appeared to be somewhat reassured. She advanced to speak to Mme. Mauperin, who kissed her. Renee then embraced her, and, joking and laughing all the time, proceeded to take off her friend's cape and hat.
"Ah, I'm forgetting," she exclaimed, turning the dainty white hat trimmed with pink flowers round on her hand, "let me introduce M. Denoisel again. You have met him before in the old days—that sounds as though we were quite aged, doesn't it?—and he is our theatrical manager, our professor of elocution, our prompter—scene shifter—everything."
"I have not forgotten how kind M. Denoisel used to be to me when I was a little girl," and Noemi, flushing with emotion as her thoughts went back to her childhood, held out her hand somewhat awkwardly and with such timidity that her fingers all clung together.
"Oh, but what a pretty costume!" continued Renee, walking round her. "You look sweet," and then patting her own taffeta dress, which was rather the worse for wear, she held out her skirt and made a low reverence. "You'll make a rather pretty Mathilde—I shall be jealous, you know.—But look, mamma," she continued, drawing herself up to her full height. "I told you so—she makes me quite small.—Now, then—you see you are much taller than I am." As she spoke she placed herself side by side with Noemi and, putting her arm round her waist, led her to the glass and put her shoulder against her friend's. "There, now!" she exclaimed.
The governess was keeping in the background at the other end of the salon. She was looking at some pictures in a book that she had only dared to half open.
"Come, my dears, shall we begin to read the play?" said Mme. Mauperin. "It's no use waiting for Henri; he will only come to the last rehearsals when the actresses are well on."
"Oh, just now, mamma, let us talk first. Come and sit here, Noemi. There—we have a lot of little secrets, so many things that have happened since we last met to tell each other about—it is ages ago."
And Renee began prattling and chirping away with Noemi. Their conversation sounded like the fresh, clear, never-ending babbling of a brook, breaking off now and again in a peal of laughter and dying away in a whisper. Noemi, who was very guarded at first, soon gave herself up to the delight of confiding in her friend and of listening to this voice which brought back so many memories of the past. They asked each other, as one does after a long absence, about all that had happened and what they had each been doing. At the end of half an hour, to judge by their conversation, one would have said they were two young women who had suddenly become children again together.
"I go in for painting," said Renee, "what do you do? You used to have a beautiful voice."
"Oh, don't mention that," said Noemi. "They make me sing. Mamma insists on my singing at her big parties—and you've no idea how dreadful it is. When I see every one looking at me, a shiver runs through me. Oh, I'm so frightened—the first few times I burst out crying——"
"Well, we'll have a little refreshment now. I've saved a green apple for you that I was going to eat myself. I hope you still like green apples?"
"No, thanks, Renee dear, I'm not hungry, really."
"I say, Denoisel, what can you see that is so interesting—through that window?"
Denoisel was watching the Bourjot's footman in the garden. He had seen him dust the bench with a fine cambric handkerchief, spread the handkerchief over the green laths, sit down on it in a gingerly way in his red velvet breeches, cross his legs, take a cigar out of his pocket and light it. He was now looking at this man as he sat there smoking in an insolent, majestic way, glancing round at this small estate with the supercilious expression of a servant whose master lives in a mansion and owns a park.
"Why, nothing at all," said Denoisel, coming away from the window; "I was afraid of intruding."
"We have told each other all our secrets now; so you can come and talk to us."
"You know what time it is, Renee?" put in Mme. Mauperin. "If you want to begin the rehearsal to-day——"
"Oh, mamma, please—it's so warm to-day—and then, too, it's Friday."
"And the year began on a 13th," remarked Denoisel gravely.
"Ah!" said Noemi, looking at him with her trustful eyes.
"Don't listen to him—he's taking you in. He plays jokes of that kind on you all day long—Denoisel does. We'll rehearse next time you come, shall we?—there's plenty of time."
"As you like," answered Noemi.
"Very well, then; we'll take a holiday. Denoisel, be funny—at once. And if you are very funny—very, very funny—I'll give you a picture—one of my own——"
"Oh, well, you are polite—I work myself to death——"
"Mademoiselle," said Denoisel to Noemi, "you shall judge of the situation. I have now a picture of a mad-apple and a parsnip, and then to hang with that a slice of pumpkin and a piece of Brie cheese. There's a great deal of feeling, I know, of course, in such subjects; but all the same from the look of my room any one would take me for a private fruiterer."
"That's how men are, you see," said Renee gaily to Noemi. "They are all ungrateful, my dear—and to think that some day we shall have to marry. Do you know that we are quite old maids—what do you think of that? Twenty years old—oh, how quickly time goes, to be sure! We think we shall never be eighteen, and then, no sooner are we really eighteen than it's all over and we can't stay at that age. Well, it can't be helped. Oh, next time you come, bring some music with you and we'll play duets. I don't know whether I could now."
"And we shall rehearse—quand?" asked Denoisel.
"In Normandy!" answered Renee, indulging in that kind of joke which for the last few years has been in favour with society people, and which had its origin in the workshop and the theatre. Noemi looked perplexed, as though she had not caught the sense of the word she had just heard.
"Yes," said Renee, "Caen is in Normandy. Ah, you don't go in for word-endings? I used to have a mania for them some time ago. I was quite unbearable with it—wasn't I, Denoisel? And so you go out a great deal. Tell me about your balls."
Noemi did as she was requested, speaking freely and getting gradually more and more animated. She smiled as she spoke, and as her restraint wore off her movements and gestures were graceful. It seemed as if she had expanded under the influence of this air of liberty, here with Renee in this gay, cheerful drawing-room.
At four o'clock the governess rose as if moved by machinery.
"It is time we started, mademoiselle," she said. "There is a dinner-party, you know, at Sannois, and you will want time to dress."
"This time you must not expect to enjoy yourself; we are going to rehearse in good earnest," said Denoisel. "Mlle. Noemi, come and sit down there—that's it. We are ready now, are we not? One—two—three," he continued, clapping his hands, "begin."
"The fact is—the first scene," said Noemi, hesitatingly, "I am not quite sure of it—I know the other better."
"The second, then? We'll begin with the second—I'll take Henri's part: 'Good evening, my dear—— '"
Denoisel was interrupted by a peal of laughter from Renee.
"Oh, dear!" she said to Noemi, "how funnily you are sitting! You look like a piece of sugar held in the sugar-tongs."
"Do I?" said Noemi, quite confused and trying to find a better pose.
"If only you would be kind enough not to interrupt the actors, Renee," said Denoisel. "'Good evening, my dear,'" he repeated, continuing his role, "'do I disturb you?'"
"Oh! and where are the purses?" exclaimed Renee.
"Why, I thought you were to see to them."
"I?—not at all. You were to see to them. You are a nice one to count on for the stage properties! I say, Noemi, if you were married, would it ever dawn upon you to give your husband a purse? It's rather shoppy, isn't it? Why not a smoking-cap, at once?"
"Are we going to rehearse?" asked Denoisel.
"Oh, Denoisel, you said that just like a man who really wants to go and have a smoke!"
"I always do want to smoke, Renee," answered Denoisel, "and especially when I ought not to."
"Why, it's quite a vice, then, with you."
"I should just think it is; and so I keep it."
"Well, but what pleasure can you find in smoking?"
"The pleasure of a bad habit—that is the explanation of many passions. 'Good evening, my dear,'" he repeated, once more going back to M. de Chavigny's arrival on the scene, "'do I disturb you?'"
"Disturb me, Henri—what a question!" replied Noemi.
And the rehearsal continued.
"Three o'clock," said Renee, looking up at the time-piece from the little woollen stocking she was knitting. "Really, I begin to think Noemi will not come to-day. She'll spoil the rehearsal. We shall have to fine her."
"Noemi?" put in Mme. Mauperin, as though she had just woke up. "Why, she isn't coming. Oh, I never told you! I don't know what's the matter with me—I forget everything lately. She told me last time that very probably she would not be able to come to-day. They are expecting some people—I fancy—I forget——"
"Well, that's pleasant! There is nothing more tiresome than that—to expect people who don't come after all. And this morning when I woke I said to myself, 'It's Noemi's day.' I was looking forward to having her. Oh, it's quite certain she won't come now. It's funny how I miss her now—Noemi, when she isn't here—ever since she began to take me on again. I miss her just as though she were one of the family. I don't think her amusing, she isn't lively, she isn't at all gay, and then as regards intelligence, why, she's rather feeble—you can take her in so easily. And yet—how is it now?—in spite of all that there is a fascination about her. There is something so sweet, so very sweet about her, and it seems to penetrate you. She calms your nerves, positively, and then the effect she has on you—why, she seems to warm your heart for you, and only by being there, near you. I've known lots of girls who had really more in them, but they haven't what she has. I've always felt as cold as steel with all of them."
"Oh, well, it's very simple," said Denoisel. "Mlle. Bourjot is of a very affectionate, loving disposition. There is a sort of current of affection between such natures and others."
"When she was quite little, I can remember, she was just the same—and so sensitive. How she used to cry, and how fond she was of kissing me; it was amazing—she did nothing else, in fact. And her face tells you just what she is, doesn't it? Her beauty seems to be made up of all the affection she feels, and of all that she has left of her childhood about her. And above all it is her expression. You often feel rather wicked and spiteful, but when she looks at you with that expression of hers it is as though everything of that kind disappears—as though something is melting away. Would you believe that I never ventured to play a single trick on her, and yet I was a terrible tease in the old days!"
"Nevertheless, it's very extraordinary to be as affectionate as all that," said Mme. Mauperin.
"Oh, no, it's quite natural," answered Denoisel. "Imagine a girl, who is born with the instinct of loving, just as we have the instinct of breathing. She is repelled by the coldness of a mother, who feels herself humiliated by her daughter, and who is ashamed of her; she is repelled also by the selfishness of a father, who has no other pride, no other love, and no other child but his wealth; well, a girl like this would be just like Mlle. Bourjot, and in return for any trifling interest you might take in her, she would repay you by the affection and the effusions of which you speak. Her heart would simply overflow with gratitude and love, and you would see in her eyes the expression Renee has noticed, an expression which seems to shine out through tears."
The rehearsals had been going on a fortnight, when one day Mme. Bourjot herself brought her daughter to the Mauperins. After the first greetings she expressed her surprise at not seeing the chief actor.
"Oh, Henri has such a wonderful memory," said Mme. Mauperin; "he will only need a couple of rehearsals."
"And how is it getting on?" asked Mme. Bourjot. "I must own that I tremble for my poor Noemi. Is it going fairly well? I came to-day, in the first place, to have the pleasure of seeing you, and then I thought I should like to judge for myself——"
"Oh, you can be quite at your ease," said Mme. Mauperin. "You will see how perfectly natural your daughter is. She is quite charming."
The actors went to their places and began the first scene of The Caprice.
"Oh, you flattered her," said Mme. Bourjot to Mme. Mauperin after the first two or three scenes. "My dear child," she continued, turning to her daughter, "you don't act as though you felt it; you are merely reciting."
"Oh, madame," exclaimed Renee, "you will frighten all the company. We need plenty of indulgence."
"You are not speaking for yourself," answered Mme. Bourjot. "If only my poor child acted as you do."
"Well, then," said Denoisel to Mme. Bourjot, "let us go on to the sixth scene, mademoiselle. We'll hear what they have to say about that, for I think you do it very well indeed; and as my vanity as professor is at stake, Mme. Bourjot will perhaps allow me——"
"Oh, monsieur," said Mme. Bourjot, "I do not think it has anything to do with the professor in this case; you are not responsible at all."
The scene was given and Mme. Bourjot continued, "Yes, oh yes, that wasn't bad; that might pass. It's a namby-pamby sort of scene, and that suits her. Then, too, she does her utmost; there's nothing to be said on that score."
"Oh, you are severe!" exclaimed Mme. Mauperin.
"You see, I'm her mother," murmured Mme. Bourjot, with a kind of sigh. "And then you'll have a crowd of people here——"
"Oh, you know one always gets more people than one wants on such occasions," said Mme. Mauperin. "There is always a certain amount of curiosity. I suppose there will be about a hundred and fifty people."
"Suppose I were to make the list, mamma?" suggested Renee, who was anxious to spare Noemi the rest of the rehearsal, as she saw how ill at ease her friend was. "It would be a good way of introducing our guests to Mme. Bourjot. You will make the acquaintance of our acquaintances, madame."
"I shall be very pleased," replied Mme. Bourjot.
"It will be rather a mixed dish, I warn you. It always seems to me that the people one visits are rather like folks one comes across in a stage-coach."
"Oh, that's a delightful idea—and so true too," said Mme. Bourjot.
Renee took her seat at the table and began to write down with a pencil the names of the people, talking herself all the time.
"First comes the family—we'll leave that. Now, then, who is there? Mme. and Mlle. Chanut, a girl with teeth like the pieces of broken glass people put on their walls—you know what I mean. M. and Mme. de Belizard—people say that they feed their horses with visiting-cards."
"Renee, Renee, come, what will every one think of you?"
"Oh, my reputation's made. I needn't trouble any more about that. Then, too, if you imagine that people don't say quite as much about me as I say——"
"Oh, let her alone, please, let her alone," said Mme. Bourjot to Mme. Mauperin, and turning to Renee she asked with a smile, "And who comes next?"
"Mme. Jobleau. Ah, she's such a bore with her story about her introduction to Louis Philippe at the Tuileries. 'Yes, sire; yes, sire; yes, sire;' that was all she found to say. M. Harambourg, who can't stand any dust—it makes him faint—every summer he leaves his man-servant in Paris to get the dust from between the cracks of the floors. Mlle. de la Boise, surnamed the Grammar Dragoon; she used to be a governess, and she will correct you during a conversation if you make a slip with the subjunctive mood. M. Loriot, President of the Society for the Destruction of Vipers. The Cloquemins, father, mother, and children, a family—well, like Pan's pipes. Ah! to be sure, the Vineux are in Paris; but it's no use inviting them; they only go to see people who live on the omnibus route. Why, I was forgetting the Mechin trio—three sisters—the Three Graces of Batignolles. One of them is an idiot, one——"
Renee stopped short as she saw Noemi's scared eyes and horrified expression. She looked like some poor, loving creature, who scarcely understood, but who had suddenly been troubled and stirred to the depth of her soul by all this backbiting. Getting up from her seat Renee ran across and kissed her. "Silly girl!" she said gently, "why, these people I am talking about are not people that I like."
Henri only came to the last rehearsals. He knew the play and was ready with his part in a week. The Caprice was a very short piece for the soiree, and it was decided to finish up with something comic. Two or three short plays given at the Palais Royal were tried, but given up as there were not enough actors, and finally a very nonsensical thing was chosen that was just then having a great run in one of the smaller theatres, and which Henri had insisted on in spite of Mlle. Bourjot's apparently groundless objection to it. Considering her usual timidity, every one was surprised at her obstinacy on this point; but it seemed, since Henri had been there, as if she were not quite herself. Renee fancied at times that Noemi was not the same with her now, and that her friendship had cooled. She was surprised to see a spirit of contradiction in her which she had never known before, and she was quite hurt at Noemi's manner to her brother. She was very cool with him, and treated him with a shade of disdain which bordered on contempt. Henri was always polite, attentive, and ready to oblige, but nothing more. In all the scenes in which he and Noemi acted together he was so reserved, so correct, and indeed so circumspect, that Renee, who feared that the coldness of his acting would spoil the play, joked him about it.
"Pooh!" he answered, "I'm like the great actors. I'm keeping my effects for the first night."
A small stage had been put up at the end of Mme. Mauperin's drawing-room, and a leafy screen, made of branches of pine and flowering shrubs, hid the footlights from view. Renee, with the help of her drawing-master, had painted the drop-scene, which looked something like the banks of the Seine. On each side of the stage was a hand-painted poster which read as follows:
The names of the actors were at the end of the bill. All the chairs in the house were placed closely together in rows in front of the stage, and the ladies, in evening dress, were seated, their skirts, their laces, the flashing of their diamonds, and their white shoulders all mingling together. The two doors at the other end of the room leading into the dining-room and the small salon had been taken off their hinges, and the masculine part of the audience, in white neckties, were grouped together there and standing on tip-toe.
The curtain rose on the first scene of The Caprice. Renee was very lively as Mme. de Lery; Henri, in the role of husband, proved himself a talented amateur actor, as so many young men of a cold temperament, and grave society men, often do. Noemi, well sustained by Henri, admirably prompted by Denoisel, and slightly carried away by seeing the large audience, played her touching part as the neglected wife very passably. This was a great relief to Mme. Bourjot, who was seated in the front row anxiously watching her daughter. Her vanity had been alarmed by the thought of a fiasco. The curtain fell, and amid the applause were heard shouts for "All the actors!" Her daughter had not made herself ridiculous, and the mother was delighted with this great success and gave herself up complacently to listening to that Babel of voices, opinions, and criticisms, which at amateur dramatic performances succeeds the applause and continues it, as it were, in a sort of murmur. In the midst of it all she heard vaguely one phrase, spoken near her, that came to her distinctly and seemed to rise above the general hubbub.
"Yes, it's his sister, I know," some one was saying; "but for the role he takes I don't think he is sufficiently in love with her; he is really far too much in love with his wife—didn't you notice?"
The lady who was speaking saw that Mme. Bourjot was listening, and, leaning towards her neighbour, whispered something to her. This little incident made Mme. Bourjot turn very serious.
After an interval the curtain was once more raised, and Henri Mauperin appeared as Pierrot, but not arrayed in the traditional calico blouse and black cap. He was an Italian Pierrot, with a straight felt hat, and was entirely clothed in satin from his coat to his slippers. There was a movement among the ladies, which meant that they thought both the man and the costume charming, and then the buffoonery began.
It was the silly story of Pierrot married to one woman and wishing to marry another; a farce mingled with passion, which had been discovered by a vaudeville-writer, aided by a poet, among the stock-pieces of the old Italian theatre. Renee took the part of the deserted wife, this time, appearing in various disguises when her husband was love-making elsewhere. Noemi was the woman with whom he was in love, and Henri delighted the house in his love scenes with her. He acted well, putting plenty of youthful ardour, enthusiasm, and warmth into his part. In the scene where he confessed his love, there was something in his voice and expression that seemed like a real declaration, which had escaped him, and which he could not keep back. Noemi certainly had made up as the prettiest Colombine imaginable. She looked perfectly adorable, dressed as a bride in a Louis XVI costume copied exactly from the Bride's Minuet, an engraving by Debucourt lent by M. Barousse. All around Mme. Bourjot it seemed as if every one were bewitched, the sympathetic public appeared to be helping and encouraging the handsome young couple to love each other. The piece continued, and every now and then it was as though Henri's eyes were seeking, beyond the footlights, the eyes of Mme. Bourjot. Meanwhile Renee arrived, disguised as a village bailiff: there was only the contract to be signed now, and Pierrot, taking the hand of the girl he loved, began to speak of all the happiness he should have with her.
The lady who was seated next Mme. Bourjot felt her leaning slightly on her shoulder. Henri finished his speech, the plot came to the climax, and the piece ended. Mme. Bourjot's neighbour suddenly saw something sink down at her side; it was Mme. Bourjot, who had fainted.
"Oh, do go in again, please," said Mme. Bourjot to the people who were standing round her in the garden, to which she had been carried for air. "It's all over; there's nothing the matter with me now; it was the heat." She was very pale, but she smiled as she spoke. "I shall be quite right again when I have had a little more air. M. Henri will perhaps stay with me."
Every one returned to the house, and the sound of the footsteps had scarcely died away, when Mme. Bourjot seized Henri's arm in a firm grip with her feverish fingers.
"You love her!" she exclaimed. "You love her!"
"Madame," said Henri.
"Be quiet; you won't tell me the truth!" she exclaimed, pushing his arm away.
Henri merely bowed without attempting to speak.
"I know all. I saw everything. Look at me!" she went on, and she gazed into his eyes. He kept his head bent and was silent. "Say something, anyhow—speak. Ah, you can only act comedy with her!"
"The fact is I have nothing to say, Laure," replied Henri, speaking in his gentlest and clearest voice. Mme. Bourjot drew back when he called her Laure as if he had touched her. "I have been struggling against it for the last year, madame," he continued. "I will not attempt to make any excuse; but everything has drawn me to her. We have known each other from childhood, and the fascination has increased lately day by day. I am very sorry, madame, to have to tell you the truth; but it is quite true that I love your daughter."
"But you never can have talked to her, surely? Why, I blush for her when we are out—you surely have not even looked at her. What in the world possesses you men, tell me! Do you think she is beautiful? What nonsense! why, I am better looking than she is. You are so foolish, all of you. And then, I have spoiled you. You'll see whether she will pamper your pride, let you revel in your vanity, and flatter and help you in your ambitions. Oh, I know you thoroughly. Ah, M. Mauperin, all this is only met with once in a lifetime. And women of my age—old women, you understand—are the only ones who care about the future of those they love. You were not my lover; you were like a dear son to me!" As she said this, Mme. Bourjot's voice changed and she spoke with the deepest feeling. "That's enough, though; we won't talk about that," she continued in a different tone. "I tell you that you don't love my daughter—it is not true—but she is rich——"
"Well, there are men like that—I have had them pointed out to me. Sometimes it succeeds to begin with the mother in order to finish with the dowry. And for the sake of a million, you know, one can put up with being bored."
"Speak more quietly, I beg you—for your own sake. They have just opened one of the windows."
"It's very fine to be so calm and collected, M. Mauperin, very fine—very fine indeed," said Mme. Bourjot, and her low, hissing voice sounded choked.
Some clouds that were moving quickly along in the sky passed like the wings of night-birds over the moon, and Mme. Bourjot gazed blankly into the darkness in front of her. With her elbows resting on her knees and supported by her high heels, she remained silent, tapping the gravel path with her satin slippers. After a few minutes she sat up, moved her arms about in an unconscious way as though she were scarcely awake, then quickly, and in a jerky way, she put her hand between her dress and waistband, pressing the back of her hand against the ribbon as though she were going to burst it. Finally she rose and began to walk, followed by Henri.
"I count on our never seeing each other again, monsieur," she said, without turning round.
As she passed by the fountain she handed him her handkerchief, saying, "Will you dip that in the water for me?"
Henri obeyed, kneeling down on the curbstone. He handed her the damp handkerchief, and she pressed it to her forehead and her eyes.
"We will go in now," she said; "give me your arm."
"Oh, madame, how courageous you are!" said Mme. Mauperin, advancing to meet Mme. Bourjot when she entered the room. "It is not wise of you, though, at all. I will have your carriage ordered."
"No, please don't, thank you," replied Mme. Bourjot quickly. "I think I promised you that I would sing; I am quite ready now," and she went across to the piano, gracious and valiant once more, with that heroic smile beneath which society actors conceal from the public the tears they are weeping within themselves, and the wounds which discharge themselves into their hearts.
Mme. Bourjot had married in order that two important business houses should be united; for the sake of amalgamating various interests she had been wedded to a man whom she did not know, and at the end of a week of married life she had felt all the contempt that a wife can possibly feel for a husband. It was not that she had expected anything very ideal, nor that she had looked on marriage as a romantic and imaginative girl so often does. She was remarkably intelligent herself, and seriously inclined, her mind had been formed and nurtured by reading, study, and acquirements which were almost more suitable for a man. All that she asked from the companion of her life was that he should be intellectual and intelligent, a being in whom she could place all her ambitions and her pride as a married woman, a man with a brilliant future before him, capable of winning for himself one of those immense fortunes to which money nowadays leads, and who should prove himself able to leap over the gaps of modern society to a high place in the Ministry, the Public Works, or the Exchequer.
All her castles in the air crumbled away with this husband, whom she found day by day more and more hopelessly shallow, more and more incapable, devoid of all that should have been in him, and which was in her instead, more narrow-minded, more mean and petty as time went on, and all this mingled with and contradicted by all the violences and weaknesses of a childish disposition.
It was her pride that had preserved Mme. Bourjot from adultery, a pride which, it may be said, was aided by circumstances. When she was young, Mme. Bourjot, who was of a spare build and southern type, had features which were too pronounced to be pleasing or beautiful. When she was about thirty-four she began to get rather more plump, and it seemed then that another woman had evolved from the one she had been. Her features, though still strongly pronounced, became softer and more pleasing; the hardness of her expression appeared to have melted away, and her whole face smiled. It was one of those autumn beauties such as age brings to certain women, making one wish to have seen them as they were at twenty; a beauty which makes one imagine for them a youthfulness they never had. As a matter of fact, then, so far Mme. Bourjot had not run any great danger, nor had she known any very great temptations. The society, which on account of her tastes she had chosen, her surroundings, the men who frequented her salon and whom she met elsewhere, had scarcely made it necessary for her to stand seriously on the defensive. They were, for the most part, academicians, savants, elderly literary men, and politicians, all of them unassuming and calm, men who seemed old, some of them from stirring up the past and the others the present. Satisfied with very little, they were happy with a mere nothing—the presence of a woman, a flattering speech, or the expression of eyes that were drinking in their words. Accustomed to their academic adoration, Mme. Bourjot had, without much risk, allowed it free scope and had treated it with jests like an Egeria: it had been a flame which did not scorch, and with which she had been able to play.
But the time of maturity arrived for Mme. Bourjot. A great transformation in her face and figure took place. Tormented, as it were, by health which was too robust and an excess of vitality, she seemed to lose the strength morally which she was gaining physically. She had a great admiration for her past, and she felt now that she was less strong-minded, and that there was less assurance in her pride than formerly.
It was just at this time that Henri Mauperin had made his appearance in her drawing-room. He seemed to her young, intelligent, serious, and thorough, equipped for the victories of life with all those dispassionate and unwavering qualities that she had dreamed before her marriage of finding in a husband. Henri had seized the situation at a glance, and, divining his own chances, he made his plans and swooped down on this woman as his prey. He began to make love to her, and this woman, who had a husband and daughter, who had been a faithful wife for twenty years, and who held a high position in Parisian society, scarcely waited for him to tempt her. She yielded to him at their first interview, conducting herself like a mere cocotte. Her love became a mad passion with her, as it so frequently does with women of her age, and Henri proved himself a genius in the art of attaching her to himself and of chaining her, as it were, to her sin. He never betrayed himself, and never for an instant allowed her to see a sign of the weariness, the indifference, or the contempt that a man feels after a too easy conquest, or of that sort of disgust with which certain situations of a woman in love inspire him. He was always affectionate, and always appeared to be deeply moved. He had for Mme. Bourjot those transports of love and jealousy, all those scruples, little attentions, and thoughtfulness which a woman, after a certain age, no longer expects from her lover. He treated her as if she were a young girl, and begged her to give him a ring which she always wore, and which had been one of her confirmation presents. He put up with all the childishness and coquetry which was so ridiculous in the passion of this mother of a family, and he encouraged it all without a sign of impatience on his face or a shade of mockery in his voice. At the same time he made himself entirely master of her, accustoming her to be docile and obedient to him, revealing to her such passionate love that Mme. Bourjot was both grateful to him and proud of her victory over this apparently cold and reserved young man. When he was thus completely master of her, Henri worked her up still more by impressing her with the danger of their meetings and the risks there were in their liaison, while by all the emotions of a criminal passion he excited her imagination to such a pitch of fear that her love increased with the very thought of all she had to lose.
She finally reached that stage when she only lived through him and for him, by his presence, his thoughts, his future, his portrait, all that remained to her of him after she had seen him. Before leaving him she would stroke his hair with her hands and then put her gloves on quickly. And all day afterward, when she was at home again with her husband and her daughter, she would put the palms of her hands, which she had not washed since, to her face and inhale the perfume of her lover's hair.
This soiree, and this treason and rupture at the end of a year, completely crushed Mme. Bourjot. She felt at first as if she had received a blow, and her life seemed to be ebbing away through the wound. She fancied she was really dying, and there was a certain sweetness in this thought. The following day she hoped Henri would come. She was vanquished and quite prepared to beg his pardon, to tell him that she had been in the wrong, to beg him to forgive her, to entreat him to be kind to her, and to allow her to gather up the crumbs of his love. She waited a week, but Henri did not come. She asked him for an interview that he might return her letters, and he sent them to her. She wrote and begged to see him for the last time that she might bid him farewell. Henri did not answer her letter, but, through his friends and through the newspaper and society gossip, he contrived to let Mme. Bourjot hear the rumour of an action that had been taken against him for one of his articles on the misery of the poor. For a whole week he managed to keep her mind occupied with the ideas of police and police courts, prison, and all that the dramatic imagination of a woman pictures to itself as the consequence of a lawsuit.
When the Attorney-General assured Mme. Bourjot that the action would not be taken, she felt quite a coward after all the terror she had gone through, and weak and helpless from emotion, she could not endure any more, and so wrote in desperation to Henri:
"To-morrow at two o'clock. If you are not there I shall wait on the staircase. I shall sit down on one of the stairs till you come."
Henri was ready, and had taken great pains to dress for the occasion in an apparently careless style. He was wearing one of those morning suits in which a young man nearly always looks well.
At the time appointed in the letter there was a ring at the door. Henri opened it and Mme. Bourjot entered. She passed by and walked on in front of him as though she knew the way, until she reached the study. She took a seat on the divan, and neither of them spoke a word. There was plenty of room by her on the divan, but Henri drew up a smoking-chair, which he turned round, and, sitting down astride on it, folded his arms over the back.
Mme. Bourjot lifted her double lace veil and turned it back over her hat. Holding her head slightly aside, and with one hand pulling the glove slowly off the other, she gazed at the things on the wall and on the mantel-shelf. She gave a little sigh as if she were alone, and then, glancing at Henri, she said:
"There is some of my life here—something of me—in all that." She held out her ungloved hand to him, and Henri kissed the tips of her fingers respectfully.
"Forgive me," she went on, "I did not intend speaking of myself; I have not come here for that. Oh, you need not be afraid, I am quite sensible to-day, I assure you. The first moment—well, the first moment was hard! I won't deny that I had to pull myself together," she continued, with a tearful smile, "but it's all over now. I scarcely suffer any more, and I am quite myself again, I assure you. Of course everything cannot be forgotten all in a minute, and I won't say that you are nothing to me now—for you would not believe me. But this I can assure you, and you must believe me, Henri, there is no more love for you in my heart. I am no longer weak; the woman within me is dead—quite dead, and the affection I have for you now is quite pure."
The light seemed to annoy her as she spoke, as if it were some one gazing at her. "Will you put the blind down, dear?" she said. "The sun—my eyes have rather hurt me the last few days."
While Henri was at the window she arranged her hat and let the cloak she was wearing drop from her shoulders. When the light was not so strong in the room she began again:
"Yes, Henri, after struggling a long time, and enduring such anguish as you will never know, after passing nights such as I hope you may never have, and after crying and praying, I have conquered myself. I have won the victory, and I can now think of my daughter's happiness without being jealous, and of yours as the only happiness now left for me on earth."
"You are an angel, Laure," said Henri, getting up and walking up and down the room as though he were greatly agitated. "But you must look at things as they are. You were quite right the other day when you said that we must separate forever—never see each other again. The idea of our constantly meeting! You know we could not. It would take so little to open wounds as slightly closed as ours are. Then, too, even if you are sure of yourself, how do you know that I am as sure of myself? How can I tell—if we were meeting at all times—with such constant temptation—if I were always near you," he said, speaking very tenderly, "why, some day, unexpectedly—how can I tell—and I am an honourable man."
"No, Henri," she answered, taking his hands in hers and drawing him to the seat at her side, "I am not afraid of you, and I am not afraid of myself. It is all over. How can I make you believe me? And you will not refuse me? No, you cannot refuse me the only happiness which remains for me—my only happiness. It is all I have left in the world now—it is to see you, only to see you—" and throwing her arms round Henri's neck she drew him to her closely.
"Ah, no, it is quite impossible," said Henri, when the embrace had lasted a few seconds. "Don't say any more about it," he continued, brusquely, getting up as he spoke.
"I will be brave," said Mme. Bourjot very seriously.
When they had played out their comedy of renunciation they both felt more at ease.
"Now, then, listen to me," began Mme. Bourjot once more, "my husband will give you his daughter."
"How foolish you are, really, Laure."
"Don't interrupt me—my husband will give you his daughter. I fancy he intends asking his son-in-law to live in the same house. Of course you would be quite free—your suite of rooms, your carriage, meals, and everything quite apart—you know what our style of living is. Unless M. Bourjot has changed his mind, she will have a dowry of forty thousand pounds, and unless he should lose his money, which I do not think is very probable, you will have, at our death, four or five times that amount."
"And how can you seriously imagine that Mlle. Bourjot, who has forty thousand pounds, and who will have four or five times that much, would marry——"
"I am her mother," answered Mme. Bourjot in a decisive tone. "And then—don't you love her? Why, it would merely be a kind of marriage of expediency," and Mme. Bourjot smiled. "You provide her with happiness."
"But what will the world say?"
"The world? My dear boy, we should close the world's mouth with truffles," and she gave her shoulders a little shrug.
"And M. Bourjot?"
"That's my part. He will like you very much before the end of two months. The only thing is, as you know, he will want a title; he has always intended his daughter to marry a count. All I can do is to get him to consent to a name tacked on to yours. Nothing is simpler, nowadays, than to get permission to add to one's name the name of some estate, or forest, or even the name of a meadow, or a bit of land of any sort. Didn't I hear some one talking to your mother about a farm called Villacourt that you have in the Haute-Marne? Mauperin de Villacourt; that would do very well. You know, as far as I am concerned, how little I care about such things."
"Oh, but it would be so ridiculous, with my principles, and a Liberal, too, bound as I am. And then, you know——"
"Oh, you can say it is a whim of your wife's. Every one goes about with names like that now; it's a sort of cross people have to bear. Shall I say a word for you to any one in authority?"
"Oh, no; no, please don't! I didn't think I had said anything which could make you imagine I should be inclined to accept. I don't really know, frankly. You understand that I should have to think it over, I should have to collect myself and consider what my duty is; to be more myself, in fact, and less influenced by you, before I could give you an answer."
"I shall call on your mother this week," said Mme. Bourjot, getting up and pressing his hand. "Good-bye," she said sadly; "life is a sacrifice!"
"Renee," said Mme. Mauperin one evening to her daughter, "shall we go and see Lord Mansbury's collection of pictures to-morrow? It appears that it is very curious; people say that one of the pictures would fetch four thousand pounds. M. Barousse thought it would interest you, and he has sent me the catalogue and an invitation. Should you like to go?"
"Rather. I should just think I should like to go," replied Renee.
The following morning she was very much surprised to see her mother come into the room while she was dressing, busy herself with her toilette, and insist on her putting on her newest hat.
"There are always so many people at these exhibitions," said Mme. Mauperin, arranging the bows on the hat, "and you must be dressed as well as every one else."
Although it was a private exhibition there were crowds of people in the room on the first floor of the Auction Buildings, where Lord Mansbury's collection was on view. The fame of the pictures, and the scandal of such a sale, which it was said had been necessitated by Lord Mansbury's folly in connection with a Palais Royal actress, had attracted all the habitues of the Hotel Drouot; those people whom of late years the fashion for collecting has brought there—all that immense crowd of bric-a-brac buyers, art worshippers, amateurs of repute, and nearly all the idlers of Paris. It had been found necessary to hang the three or four valuable pictures for sale in the hall out of reach of the crowd. In the room one could hear that muffled sound which one always hears at wealthy peoples' sales, the murmur of prices going up, of whims and fancies, of follies which lead on to further follies, of competitions between bankers, and of all kinds of vanities connected with money matters. Bidding, too, could be heard, being quietly carried on among the groups. "The foam was rising," as the dealers say.
When they entered the room, Mme. Mauperin and her daughter saw Barousse, arm-in-arm with a young man of about thirty years of age. The young man had large, soft eyes, which would have been handsome if they had had more expression in them. His figure, which was slightly corpulent, was a little puffy, and this gave him a rather common appearance.
"At last, ladies!" said Barousse, addressing Mme. Mauperin; "allow me to introduce my young friend, M. Lemeunier. He knows the collection thoroughly, and if you want a guide he will take you to the best things. I must ask to be excused, as I want to go and push something in No. 3 room."
M. Lemeunier took Mme. Mauperin and her daughter round the room, stopping at the canvases signed by the most celebrated names. He merely explained the subjects of the pictures, and did not talk art. Renee was grateful to him for this from the bottom of her heart, without knowing why. When they had seen everything, Mme. Mauperin thanked M. Lemeunier, and they bowed and parted company.
Renee wanted to see one of the side-rooms. The first thing she caught sight of on entering was M. Barousse's back, the back of an amateur in the very height of the excitement of the sale. He was seated on the nearest chair to the auctioneer, next to a picture-dealing woman wearing a cap. He was nudging her, knocking her knee, whispering eagerly his bid, which he imagined he was concealing from the auctioneer and his clerk, from the expert, and from all the room.
"There, come, you have seen enough," said Mme. Mauperin, after a short time. "It's your sister's 'At Home' day, and it is not too late. We have not been once this year to it, and she will be delighted to see us."
Renee's sister, Mme. Mauperin's elder daughter, Mme. Davarande, was the type par excellence of a society woman. Society filled her whole life and her brain. As a child she had dreamed of it; from the time she had been confirmed she had longed for it. She had married very young, and had accepted the first "good-looking and suitable" man who had been introduced to her, without any hesitation or trouble and entirely of her own accord. It was not M. Davarande, but a position she had married. Marriage for her meant a carriage and servants in livery, diamonds, invitations, acquaintances, drives in the Bois. She had all that, did very well without children, loved dress, and was happy. To go to three balls in an evening, to leave forty cards before dinner, to run about from one reception to another, and to have her own "At Home" day—she could not conceive of any happiness beyond this. Devoting herself entirely to society, Mme. Davarande borrowed everything from it herself, its ideas, its opinions, its way of giving charity, its stock phrases in affairs of the heart, and its sentiments. She had the same opinions as the women whose hair was dressed by the famous coiffeur, Laure. She thought exactly what it was correct to think, just as she wore exactly what it was correct to wear. Everything, from her very gestures to the furniture in her drawing-room, from the game she played to the alms she gave away, from the newspaper she read to the dish she ordered from her cook, aimed at being in good style—good style being her law and her religion. She followed the fashion of the moment in everything and everywhere, even to the theatre of the Bouffes Parisiens. She had, when driving in the Bois, been told the names of certain women of doubtful reputation, and could point them out to her friends, and that made an effect. She spelt her name with a small "d," an apostrophe, and a capital A, and this converted it into d'Avarande. Mme. Davarande was pious. It seemed to her that God was chic. It would have seemed almost as improper to her to have no parish as to have no gloves. She had adopted one of those churches where grand marriages are celebrated, where people with great names are to be met, where the chairs have armorial bearings, where the beadle glitters with gold lace, where the incense is perfumed with patchouli, and where the porch after high mass on Sundays resembles the corridor of the Opera House when a great artiste has been singing.
She went to hear all the preachers that people were supposed to hear. She confessed her sins, not in the confessional, but in a community. The name and the individuality of the priest played an important part so far as she was concerned in the sacraments of the Church: she would not have felt that she was really married if any one but the Abbe Blampoix had officiated at her wedding, and she would not have considered a baptism valid if a ten-pound note had not been sent to the cure inside the traditional box of sugar-plums. This woman, whose mind was always fixed on worldly things, even when at church and during the benediction, was naturally, thoroughly, and absolutely virtuous, but her virtue was not the result of any effort, merit, or even consciousness. In the midst of this whirlwind, this artificial air and warm atmosphere, exposed to all the opportunities and temptations of society life, she had neither the heart which a woman must have who is given to dreaming nor enough intelligence to be bored by such an existence. She had neither the curiosity nor the inclination which might have led her astray. Hers was one of those happy, narrow-minded dispositions which have not enough in them to go wrong. She had that unassailable virtue, common to many Parisian women who are not even touched by the temptations which pass over them: she was virtuous just in the same way as marble is cold. Physically, even, as it happens sometimes with lymphatic and delicate natures, the effect of society life on her had been to free her from all other desires by using up her strength, her nervous activity, and the movement of the little blood she had in her body, in the rushing about on visits and shopping, the effort of making herself agreeable, the fatigue of evening parties, resulting in utter weariness at night, and enervation the next day.
There are society women in Paris who, by the amount of vitality and vigour they expend, and by the intense application of their energy and grace, remind one of circus-riders and tight-rope dancers, whose temperament suffers from the fatigue of their exercises.
* * * * *
Mme. Mauperin and her daughter met Mme. Davarande in her dining-room, accompanying a smooth-faced gentleman with blue spectacles to the door. She was extremely amiable to him, and when she had seen him out she returned to her mother and sister.
"Excuse my leaving you," she said, as she kissed them, "but it was M. Lordonnot, the architect of the Sacred Heart Convent. I cultivate him for the sake of my collections. Thanks to him I had forty-eight pounds you know last time. That's very good: Mme. de Berthival has never reached thirty-two pounds. I'm so glad to see you; it's very nice of you to have come. We'll go into the other room—there's no one here to-day. Mme. de Thesigny, Mme. de Champromard, and Mme. de Saint-Sauveur, and then two young men, young de Lorsac—you know him I think, mamma, and his friend de Maisoncelles? Wait a minute," she said to Renee, patting her hair down a little, "your hair looks like a little dog's," and then advancing and opening the drawing-room door, she announced her mother and sister.
Every one rose, shook hands, or bowed, and then sat down again and looked at each other. Mme. Davarande's three lady friends were leaning back in their easy chairs in that languid attitude due to cushioned seats. They looked very dainty in their wide skirts, their lovely hats, and gloves about large enough for the hands of a doll. They were dressed perfectly, their gowns had evidently been cut by an artiste, their whole toilette with the hundred little nothings which set it off, their graceful attitudes, their bearing, their gestures, the movement of their bodies, the frou-frou of their silk skirts—everything was there which goes to make the charm of the Parisian woman; and, although they were not beautiful, they had discovered the secret of appearing almost pretty, with just a smile, a glance, certain little details and semblances, flashes of wit, animation, and a smart look generally.
The two friends, Lorsac and Maisoncelles, in the prime of their twenty years, with pink-and-white complexions, brilliant health, beardless faces and curled hair, were delighted at being invited to a young married lady's "At Home" day, and were sitting respectfully on the edge of their chairs. They were young men who had been very well brought up. They had just left a pension kept by an abbe who gave little parties every evening, at which his sister presided, and which finished up with tea handed round in the billiard-room.
"Henriette," said Mme. de Thesigny to Mme. Davarande, when the conversation had commenced again, "are we going to see Mlle. de Bussan's wedding to-morrow? I hear that every one will be there. It's made such a stir, this marriage."
"Will you call for me, then? What's the bride-groom like—does any one know? Do you know him, Mme. de Saint-Sauveur?"
"No, not at all."
"Is she making a good match?"
"An awful match!" put in Mme. de Champromard, "he hasn't anything—six hundred pounds a year all told."
"But," said Mme. Mauperin, "it seems to me, madame, that six hundred——"
"Oh, madame," continued Mme. de Champromard, "why, nowadays, that isn't enough to pay for having one's jewellery reset."
"M. de Lorsac, are you coming to this wedding?" asked Mme. Davarande.
"I will come if you wish it."
"Well then, I do wish it. Will you keep two chairs for us? One spoils one's dress quite enough without that. I can wear pearl grey, can't I?"
"Oh, certainly," answered Mme. de Thesigny, "it's a moire antique wedding. M. de Maisoncelles, will you keep two chairs for me? Don't forget."
De Maisoncelles bowed.
"And if you are very good you shall be my cotillon partner on Wednesday."
De Lorsac blushed for de Maisoncelles.
"You don't go out much, do you, mademoiselle?" said Mme. de Sauveur to Renee, who was seated next her.
"No, madame, I don't care about going out," answered Mlle. Mauperin rather curtly.
"Julia," said Mme. de Thesigny to Mme. de Champromard, "tell us again about your famous bride's bed-room—Mme. Davarande wasn't there. Just listen, my dear."
"Oh, it was my sewing-woman who told me. Only fancy, the walls are draped with white satin, finished with applications of lace, and ruches of satin to outline the panels. The sheets—I've seen the pattern—they are of cambric—spider-web. The mattresses are of white satin, caught down with knots of pale blue silk that show through the sheet. And you will be surprised to hear that all that is for a woman who is quite comme il faut."
"Oh, yes," said Mme. de Saint-Sauveur, "that is most astonishing, for everything, nowadays, is for the other kind of women. What do you think happened to me in the country—a most disagreeable affair! There is a woman, who is not all she ought to be, living near us. We came across her at church, for she has sittings there—just fancy! Well, ever since she has arrived in our part of the world, everything has gone up in price. We positively cannot get a sewing-girl now in the house for less than seven-pence halfpenny an hour. Money is nothing to creatures of that kind, of course. And then every one adores her—she is such a schemer. She goes to see the peasants when they are ill, she finds situations for their children, and she gives them money—a sovereign at a time. Before she came we used to be able to do things for the poor without much expense, but that isn't possible now. It's outrageous! I told the cure so—it really is quite scandalous! And we owe all this to one of your relatives, M. de Lorsac, to your cousin, M. d'Orambeau. My compliments to him when you see him."
The two young men threw themselves back on their chairs and laughed heartily, and then both of them instinctively bit their canes with delight.
"Where have you just come from?" Mme. Davarande asked her mother and sister.
"From the auction-room," answered Mme. Mauperin. "M. Barousse persuaded us to go to an exhibition of pictures."
"Lord Mansbury's collection," put in Renee.
"Ah, we must go to those auction-rooms, Henriette," said Mme. de Thesigny; "we'll go and rococoter—it's great fun."
"Have you seen Petrucci's pictures, my dear?" asked Mme. de Saint-Sauveur.
"Is she selling them?" asked Mme. de Thesigny.
"I did so want to go," said Mme. Davarande. "If I had only known that you were going——"
"We were all there," interrupted Mme. de Saint-Sauveur. "It was so curious. There was a glass-case of jewellery, a necklace of black pearls among other things—if only you had seen it—three rows. There isn't a husband in the world who could give you a thing like that; it would take a national subscription."
"Shall we not see your husband?" asked Mme. Mauperin, turning to Mme. Davarande.
"Oh, he's never here on my day—my husband—thank goodness!" Mme. Davarande looked round as she heard some one coming in by the door behind her chair. It was M. Barousse, followed by the young man who had been with him at the auction-room.
"Ah, we meet again," he said to Mme. Mauperin, as he put down on a chair the little portfolio which never left him.
Renee smiled and the chattering began again.
"Have you read that novel—that novel?"
"The one in the Constitutional?"
"By—I can't think of the name. It's called—wait a minute."
"Every one's talking about it."
"Do read it."
"My husband will get it me from his club."
"Is that play amusing?"
"I only like dramas."
"Shall we go?"
"Let's take a box."
"Shall we go to supper after?"
"It's at the Provencaux."
"Will your husband come?"
"Oh, he does what I want him to do, always."
They were all talking and answering each other's questions without really listening to anything, as every one was chattering at the same time. Words, questions, and voices were all mingled together in the Babel: it was like the chirping of so many birds in a cage. The door opened, and a tall, thin woman dressed in black, entered.
"Don't disturb yourselves, any of you; I have only just come in as I am passing. I have only one minute."
She bowed to the ladies and took up her position in front of the chimney-piece, with her elbow on the marble and her hands in her muff. She glanced at herself in the glass, and then, lifting her dress skirt, held out the thin sole of her dainty little boot to the fire.
"Henriette," she began, "I have come to ask you a favour—a great favour. You absolutely must undertake the invitations for the ball that the Brodmers are giving—you know, those Americans, who have just come; they have a flat in the Rue de la Paix, and the rent is sixteen hundred a year."
"Oh, the Brodmers—yes," put in Mme. de Thesigny.
"But, my dear," said Mme. Davarande, "it's a very delicate matter—I don't know them. Have you any idea what these people are?"
"Why, they are Americans. They've made their fortune out of cotton, candles, indigo, or negroes—or—I don't know what; but what in the world does that matter to us? Americans, you know, are accepted nowadays. As far as I am concerned—with people who give balls, there's only one thing I care about, and that is that they shouldn't belong to the police and should give good suppers. It's all superb at their house, it seems. The wife is astonishing. She talks the French of the backwoods; and people say she was tattooed when she was a child. That's why she can't wear low dresses. It's most amusing, and she is so entertaining. They want to get plenty of people, you see. You will do it for me, won't you? I can assure you that if I were not in mourning I should have had great pleasure in putting on the invitation cards, 'With the Baronne de Lermont's compliments.' And then, too, they are people who will do things properly. Oh, as to that I'm convinced of it. They are sure to make you a present——"
"Oh no, if I undertake the invitations I don't want a present for it."
"How queer you are! Why, that sort of thing's done every day—it's the custom. It would be like refusing a box of sweets from these gentlemen here on New Year's day. And now I must go. I shall bring them to see you to-morrow—my savages. Good-bye! Oh dear, I'm nearly dead!" and with these words she disappeared.
"Is it really true?" Renee asked her sister.
"That guests are supplied for balls in this way?"
"Well, didn't you know that?"
"I was in the same state of ignorance," said the young man M. Barousse had brought.
"It's very convenient for foreigners," remarked Mme. Davarande.
"Yes, but it seems to me that it's rather humiliating for Parisians. Don't you think so, mademoiselle?" said the young man, turning to Mlle. Mauperin.
"Oh, it's an accepted thing, anyhow," said Mme. Davarande.
Mme. Bourjot had just arrived with her daughter at the Mauperins'. She kissed Renee and sat down by Mme. Mauperin on the sofa near the fire.
"My dears," she said, turning to the two girls, who were chattering together on the other side of the room, "suppose you were to let your mothers have a little talk together. Will you take Noemi out in the garden a little, Renee? I give her over to you."
Renee put her arm round Noemi and pulled her along with her, skipping as she went. In the hall she caught up a Pyrenees hood that was lying on a chair and threw it over her head, put on some little overshoes, and ran out into the garden, rushing along like a child, and keeping her arm round her friend all the time.
"There's a secret—a secret. Do you know what the secret is?" she exclaimed, stopping suddenly short and quite out of breath.
Noemi looked at her with her large, sad eyes and did not answer.
"You silly girl!" said Renee, kissing her. "I've guessed it—I caught a few words—mamma lets everything out. It's about his lordship, my brother. There now!"
"Let's sit down—shall we? I'm so tired." And Noemi took her seat on the garden bench, just where her mother had sat on the night of the theatricals.
"Why, you are crying! What's the matter?" exclaimed Renee, sitting down by her. Noemi let her head fall on her friend's shoulder and burst into tears, that were quite hot as they fell on Renee's hand.
"What is it, tell me—answer me—speak, Noemi—come now, Noemi dear!"
"Oh, you don't know!" answered Noemi, in broken words, which seemed to choke her. "I won't—no, I cannot tell you—if only you knew. Oh, do help me!" and she flung her arms round Renee in despair. "I love you dearly—you——"
"Come, come, Noemi; I don't understand anything. Is it this marriage—is it my brother? You must answer me—come!"
"Ah, yes; you are his sister—I had forgotten that. Oh, dear, I wish I could die——"
"Die, but why?"
"Why? Because your brother——"
She stopped short, in horror at the thought of uttering the words she was just going to say, and then, suddenly finishing her sentence in a murmur in Renee's ear, she hid her face on her friend's shoulder to conceal her blushing cheeks and the shame she felt in her inmost soul.
"My brother! You say—no, it's a lie!" exclaimed Renee, pushing her away and springing up with a bound in front of her.
"Should I tell a lie about it?" and Noemi looked up sadly at Renee, who read the truth clearly in her eyes.
Renee folded her arms and gazed at her friend. She stood there a few minutes deep in thought, erect and silent, her whole attitude resolute and energetic. She felt within herself the strength of a woman, and something of the responsibility of a mother with this child.
"But how can your father—" she began, "my brother has no name but ours."
"He is to take another one."
"Ah, he is going to give our name up? And quite right that he should!"
"Oh, it's you, is it; you are not in bed yet?" said Henri to Renee, as she went into his room one evening. He was smoking, and it was that blissful moment in a man's life when, with slippers on and his feet on the marble of the chimney-piece, buried in an arm-chair, he gives himself up to day-dreams, while puffing up languidly to the ceiling the smoke of his last cigar. He was thinking of all that had happened during the past few months, and congratulating himself on having manoeuvred so well. He was turning everything over in his mind: that suggestion about the theatricals, which he had thrown out with such apparent indifference when they were all sitting in the garden; then his absence from the first rehearsals, and the coolness with which he had treated Noemi in order to reassure her, to take her off her guard, and to prevent her refusing point-blank to act. He was thinking of that master-stroke, of his love suddenly rousing the mother's jealousy in the midst of the play, and it had all appeared to be so spontaneous, as though the role he was filling had torn from him the secret of his soul. He thought of all that had followed: how he had worked that other love up to the last extremity of despair, then his behaviour in that last interview; all this came back to him, and he felt a certain pride in recalling so many circumstances that he had foreseen, planned, and arranged beforehand, and which he had so skilfully introduced into the midst of the love-affairs of a woman of forty.
"No, I am not sleepy to-night," said Renee, drawing up a little stool to the fire and sitting down. "I feel inclined for a little chat like we used to have before you had your flat in Paris, do you remember? I got used to cigars, and pipes, and everything here. Didn't we gossip when every one had gone to bed! What nonsense we have talked by this fire! And now, my respected brother is such a very serious sort of man."
"Very serious indeed," put in Henri, smiling. "I'm going to be married."
"Oh," she said, "but you are not married yet. Oh, please Henri!" and throwing herself on her knees she took his hands in hers. "Come now, for my sake. Oh, you won't do it—just for money—I'm begging you on my knees! And then, too, it will bring bad luck to give up your father's name. It has belonged to our family for generations—this name, Henri. Think what a man father is. Oh, do give up this marriage—I beseech you—if you love me—if you love us all! Oh, I beseech you, Henri!"
"What's this all mean; have you gone mad? What are you making such a scene about? Come, that's enough, thank you; get up."
Renee rose to her feet, and looking straight into her brother's eyes she said:
"Noemi has told me everything!"
The colour had mounted to her cheeks. Henri was as pale as if some one had just spat in his face.
"You cannot, anyhow, marry her daughter!" exclaimed Renee.
"My dear girl," answered Henri coldly, in a voice that trembled, "it seems to me that you are interfering in things that don't concern you. And you will allow me to say that for a young girl——"
"Ah, you mean this is dirt that I ought to know nothing of; that is quite true, and I should never have known of it but for you."
"Renee!" Henri approached his sister. He was in one of those white rages which are terrible to witness, and Renee was alarmed and stepped back. He took her by the arm and pointed to the door. "Go!" he said, and a moment later he saw her in the corridor, putting her hand against the wall for support.