The gloom was gathering fast, and gradually the whole room grew quite dark. Lying full length on the sofa, Renee herself disappeared in the indistinct whiteness of her dressing-gown. Presently nothing at all could be seen, and the room itself seemed all one with the sky.
Renee began to talk then in a low, penetrating voice. She spoke gently and very beautifully; her words were tender, solemn, and touching, sometimes sounding like the chant of a pure conscience, and sometimes falling on the hearts around her with angelic consolation.
Her ideas became more and more elevated, excusing and pardoning all things. At times the things she said fell on the ear as from a voice that was far away from earth, higher than this life, and gradually a sort of sacred awe born of the solemnity of darkness, silence, night, and death, fell on the room where M. and Mme. Mauperin, and Denoisel were listening eagerly to all which seemed to be already fluttering away from the dying girl in this voice.
On the wall-paper were bouquets of corn, cornflowers, and poppies, and the ceiling was painted with clouds, fresh-looking and vapoury. Between the door and window a carved wood praying-chair with a tapestry cushion looked quite at home in its corner; above it, against the light, was a holy-water vessel of brass-work, representing St. John baptizing Christ. In the opposite corner, hanging on the wall with silk cords, was a small bracket with some French books leaning against each other, and a few English works in cloth bindings. In front of the window, which was framed with creeping plants joining each other over the top and with the leaves that hung over bathed in light, was a dressing-table, covered with silk and guipure lace, with a blue velvet mirror and silver-mounted toilet bottles. The shaped mantel-shelf surmounted with a carved panel, had its glass framed with the same light shade of velvet as that on the dressing-table. On each side of the glass were miniatures of Renee's mother, one when quite young and wearing a string of pearls round her neck, and a daguerrotype representing her much older. Above this was a portrait of her father in his uniform, painted by herself, the frame of which, leaning forward, caused the picture to dominate the whole room. On a rosewood dinner-wagon, in front of the chimney-piece, were one or two knick-knacks, the sick girl's latest fancies—the little jug and the Saxony bowl that she had wanted. A little farther away, by the second window, all the souvenirs that Renee had collected in her riding days—her hunting and shooting relics, riding-canes, a Pyrenees whip, and some stags' feet with a card tied with blue ribbon, telling the day and place where the animal had been run to cover. Beyond the window was a little writing-desk which had been her father's at the military school, and on its shelf stood the boxes, baskets, and presents she had received as New Year's gifts. The bed was entirely draped with muslin. At the back of it, and as though under the shelter of its curtains, all the prayer-books Renee had had since her childhood were arranged on an Algerian bracket, from which some chaplets were hanging. Then came a chest of drawers covered with a hundred little nothings: doll's-house furniture, some glass ornaments, halfpenny jewellery, trifles won in lotteries, even little animals made of bread-crumbs cooked in the stove and with matches for legs, a regular museum of childish things, such as young girls hoard up and treasure as reminiscences. The room was bright and warm with the noonday sun. Near the bed was a little table arranged as an altar, covered with a white cloth. Two candles were burning and flickering in the golden daylight.
Through the dead silence, broken only by sobs, could be heard the heavy footsteps of a country priest going away. Then all was hushed, and the tears which were falling round the dying girl suddenly stopped as though by a miracle. In a few seconds all signs of disease and the anxious look of pain had disappeared from Renee's thin face, and in their place an ecstatic beauty, a look of supreme deliverance had come, at the sight of which her father, her mother, and her friend instinctively fell on their knees. A rapturous joy and peace had descended upon her. Her head sank gently back on the pillow as though she were in a dream. Her eyes, which were wide open and looking upward, seemed to be filled with the infinite, and her expression gradually took the fixity of eternal things. A holy aspiration seemed to rise from her whole face. All that remained of life—one last breath, trembled on her silent lips, which were half open and smiling. Her face had turned white. A silvery pallor lent a dull splendour to her delicate skin and shapely forehead. It was as though her whole face were looking upon another world than ours. Death was drawing near her in the form of a great light.
It was the transfiguration of those heart diseases which enshroud dying girls in all the beauty of their soul and then carry away to Heaven the young faces of their victims.
People who travel in far countries may have come across, in various cities or among old ruins—one year in Russia, another perhaps in Egypt—an elderly couple who seem to be always moving about, neither seeing nor even looking at anything. They are the Mauperins, the poor heart-broken father and mother, who are now quite alone in the world, Renee's sister having died after the birth of her first child.
They sold all they possessed and set out to wander round the world. They no longer care for anything, and go about from one country to another, from one hotel to the next, with no interest whatever in life. They are like things which have been uprooted and flung to the four winds of heaven. They wander about like exiles on earth, rushing away from their tombs, but carrying their dead about with them everywhere, endeavouring to weary out their grief with the fatigue of railway journeys, dragging all that is left them of life to the very ends of the earth, in the hope of wearing it out and so finishing with it.
THE PORTRAITS OF EDMOND AND JULES DE GONCOURT
Like Dickens, Theophile Gautier, Merimee, and some other literary celebrities, the brothers Goncourt tried their hands at drawing and engraving before devoting themselves to letters. Sometimes in their hours of leisure they further made essays in water-colour and pastel. Thanks to Philippe Burty, Jules de Goncourt's "Etchings," collected in a volume, and some of Edmond's sepia and washed drawings, allow us to glean certain of the earliest of those records in which the faithful Dioscuri endeavoured to portray each other with a care both affectionate and touching. A very pretty "Portrait of Jules as a child, in the costume of a Garde Francaise," a drawing heightened with pastel, is described by Burty as one of Edmond's best works, but one, unfortunately, which it was not possible to reproduce. "In the swallow-tail coat of the French Guard," says Burty, "starting for a fancy dress ball, the brilliance of his eyes heightened by the powder, his hand on his sword-guard, at the age of ten, plump and spirited as one of Fragonard's Cupids." Here we have the younger of the Goncourts, delineated with all the subtlety of a delicate mannerism. Edmond was eighteen at the time. Scarcely free of the ferule of his pedagogues, he already looked at life with that air of keen astonishment which was never to leave him, and which was to kindle in his eye the sort of phosphorescent reflection that shone there to his last hour. It was the elder and more observant of the two who first attempted to represent his young brother, the one who was to be the greater artist of the pair, as if the compact had already been entered upon, as if both by tacit consent accepted the prolific life in common, then only at its dawn. A great delight to the two brothers was their meeting with Gavarni, at the offices of L'Eclair, a paper founded towards the end of 1851 by the Comte de Villedeuil.
From that first meeting dated the strong friendship between the trio, a friendship that verged on worship on the side of the Goncourts, and on tenderness on that of Gavarni. Two years later, on April 15, 1853, in the series called Messieurs du Feuilleton which he began in Paris, the master draughtsman of the lorette and the prodigal gave a delicious sketch of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. In his Masques et Visages, M. Alidor Delzant, a bibliophile very learned in the iconography of the Goncourts, declares these to be the best and most faithful of all the portraits of the two brothers. We give a reproduction of this fine lithograph. Seated in a box at the theatre in profile to the right, an eye-glass in his eye, Jules, apparently intent on the play, leans forward from beside Edmond, who sits in a meditative attitude, his hands on his knees. M. Delzant compares these portraits to those of Alfred and Tony Johannot by Jean Gigoux. And do they not also recall another group of two literary brothers, older, it is true, the delicate faces of Paul and Alfred de Musset in the delicious frame of the Musee Carnavalet? Gavarni's drawing is a perfect master-piece of expression and subtlety.
Placed one against the other, like the antique medals on which Castor and Pollux are graved in profile in the same circle, how admirably each of these gentle faces, in which we note more than one analogy, completes the other! And as we admire them, are we not tempted to exclaim: Here indeed are the Freres Zemganno of letters!
The reputation of the two brothers increased proportionately with their works—works of the most intense and subtle psychological research. Installed in that apartment of the Rue Saint Georges which they so soon transformed into a veritable museum of prints and trinkets, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt prepared those brilliant monographs of queens and favourites, which have made them the rare and enchanting historians of the most licentious and factious of centuries.
In 1857 Edmond made the water-colour drawing of "Jules smoking a Pipe," which was afterward lithographed. His feet on the edge of the mantel-piece in front of him, Jules, seated in an arm-chair, a small pipe in his mouth, gives himself up to the delights of the far niente. This contemplative attitude was a favourite one with him, and one in which he was often discovered by visitors. By representing him thus, Edmond gave an additional force to the living memory that all who knew his brother have retained of him.
Three years later (1860) Jules in his turn made a portrait of Edmond, not in the same indolent attitude, but also in profile, and with a pipe in his mouth. This print is one of the best in the Burty album. We know of no further mutual representations by the brothers; with the exception of Jules de Goncourt's etching of Edmond seated across a chair, smoking a cigar, the design of which we reproduce. But there are several fine portraits by other hands of the younger brother, the one who was the first to go, perforce abandoning his sublime and suicidal task.
It was in 1870 that Jules de Goncourt died at the age of thirty-nine. "It was impossible," wrote Paul de Saint-Victor in La Liberte, "to know and not to love this young man, with his child's face, his pleasant, ready laugh, his eyes sparkling with intellect and purpose.... That blond young head was bent over his work for months at a time...." It was the profile of this "blond young head" that Claudius Popelin traced for the enamel that was set into the binding of the Necrologe, in which Edmond preserved all the articles, letters, and tokens of sympathy called forth by the irreparable loss of his beloved companion and fellow-labourer. This medallion, etched by Abot, was prefixed afterward to the edition of Jules de Goncourt's Letters, published by Charpentier. The profile, which is reproduced as the frontispiece to this edition of Renee Mauperin, is infinitely gentle; the emaciated contours, the extraordinary delicacy of the features, betray the intellectual dreamer, his mind intent on literary questions, and we understand M. Emile Zola's dictum: "Art killed him."
Prince Gabrielli and Princesse Mathilde also made certain furtive sketches of Jules which have since been photographed. Meaulle engraved a portrait of him on wood, and Varin made an etching of him. Henceforth, save in Bracquemond's double medallion, and in one or two papers in which studies of him by different hands appeared, Edmond de Goncourt was no longer represented in company with his gifted brother, but always alone.
On March 15, 1885, the Journal Illustre published two portraits of the Goncourts drawn by Franc Lamy, and on November 20, 1886, the Cri du Peuple gave two others, in connection with the appearance of Renee Mauperin at the Odeon. We may also note that the medallion of the two brothers drawn and engraved by Bracquemond for the title-page of the first edition of L'Art du XVIIIeme Siecle appeared in 1875. A delicate commemorative fancy caused the artist to surround the profile of Jules with a wreath of laurel.
Utterly crushed at first by the sense of loneliness and desolation his loss had created, Edmond de Goncourt was long entirely absorbed in memories of the departed. The spiritual presence of Jules filled the house with its mute and mournful sentiment. The heart-broken survivor could find consolation and relief for his pain only in friendship. Theophile Gautier, Paul de Saint-Victor, Jules Valles, the painter De Nittis, Burty, Flaubert, Renan, Taine, and Theodore de Banville sustained him with their affection. A band of ardent, active, and audacious young men, among whom M. Emile Zola was specially distinguished by the research of his formulae, began to link him with Flaubert, offering them a common worship. Alphonse Daudet (we have now come to the year 1879) sketched the most faithful portrait of him to whom a whole generation was soon to give the respectful title of "the Marshal of Letters": "Edmond de Goncourt looks about fifty. His hair is gray, a light steel gray; his air is distinguished and genial; he has a tall, straight figure, and the sharp nose of the sporting dog, like a country gentleman keen for the chase, and, on his pale and energetic face, a smile of perpetual sadness, a glance that sometimes kindles, sharp as the graver's needle. What determination in that glance, what pain in that smile!" Many artists attempted to fix that glance and that smile with pencil or burin, but how few were successful!
One of these few was the sculptor Alfred Lenoir, in a remarkable work executed quite at the end of Edmond de Goncourt's life. His white marble bust well expresses the patrician of letters, the collector, the worshipper of all kinds of beauty. A voluptuous thrill seems to stir the nostrils, a flash of sympathetic observation to gleam from the deep set eyes.
The author of this bust, a work elaborated and modelled after the manner of those executed by Pajou, Caffieri, and Falconnet in the eighteenth century (see the reproduction at the beginning of this volume), may congratulate himself on having given to Edmond de Goncourt's friends the most exquisite semblance of their lost comrade. Carriere, on the other hand, in his superb lithograph, where only the eyes are vivid, and Will Rothenstein, in a sketch from nature which represents the master with a high cravat round his throat, his chin resting on a hand of incomparable form and distinction, have reproduced, with great intensity and comprehension, Edmond de Goncourt grown old, but still robust, upright and gallant, a soldier of art in whom the creative faculty is by no means exhausted. Rothenstein's lithograph in particular, with the sort of morbid languor that pervades it, the mournful fixity of the gaze, the aristocratic slenderness of the hands and the features, surprises and startles the spectator. "By nature and by education," says M. Paul Bourget, "M. Ed. de Goncourt possesses an intelligence, the overacuteness of which verges on disease in its comprehension of infinitesimal gradations and of the infinitely subtle creature." Mr. Rothenstein has made this intelligence flash from every line of his drawing.
Frederic Regamey, Bracquemond (in the fine drawing at the Luxembourg), De Nittis (in pastel), Raffaelli (in an oil painting), Desboutins (in an etching), and finally M. Helleu (in dry point), have striven to penetrate and preserve the subtle psychology of the master's grave, proud, and gentle countenance. With these distinguished names the iconography of the Goncourts concludes. Perhaps, as a light and graceful monument of memory, we might add the fine drawing made by Willette on the occasion of the Edmond de Goncourt banquet, which represents the elder brother standing, leaning against the pedestal of his brother's statue, while at his feet three creatures, symbolizing the principal forms of their inspiration, are grouped, superb and mournful. Who are they? No doubt Madame de Pompadour, the Geisha of Japanese art, and finally, bestial and degraded, La Fille Elisa—types that symbolize the most salient aspects of that genius—historic, aesthetic, and fictional—which will keep green the precious memory of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.