Suddenly, Rosanette said in an appealing tone:
"We'll preserve the body—shall we not?"
She wished to have the dead child embalmed. There were many objections to this. The principal one, in Frederick's opinion, was that the thing was impracticable in the case of children so young. A portrait would be better. She adopted this idea. He wrote a line to Pellerin, and Delphine hastened to deliver it.
Pellerin arrived speedily, anxious by this display of zeal to efface all recollection of his former conduct. The first thing he said was:
"Poor little angel! Ah, my God, what a misfortune!"
But gradually (the artist in him getting the upper hand) he declared that nothing could be made out of those yellowish eyes, that livid face, that it was a real case of still-life, and would, therefore, require very great talent to treat it effectively; and so he murmured:
"Oh, 'tisn't easy—'tisn't easy!"
"No matter, as long as it is life-like," urged Rosanette.
"Pooh! what do I care about a thing being life-like? Down with Realism! 'Tis the spirit that must be portrayed by the painter! Let me alone! I am going to try to conjure up what it ought to be!"
He reflected, with his left hand clasping his brow, and with his right hand clutching his elbow; then, all of a sudden:
"Ha, I have an idea! a pastel! With coloured mezzotints, almost spread out flat, a lovely model could be obtained with the outer surface alone!"
He sent the chambermaid to look for his box of colours; then, having a chair under his feet and another by his side, he began to throw out great touches with as much complacency as if he had drawn them in accordance with the bust. He praised the little Saint John of Correggio, the Infanta Rosa of Velasquez, the milk-white flesh-tints of Reynolds, the distinction of Lawrence, and especially the child with long hair that sits in Lady Gower's lap.
"Besides, could you find anything more charming than these little toads? The type of the sublime (Raphael has proved it by his Madonnas) is probably a mother with her child?"
Rosanette, who felt herself stifling, went away; and presently Pellerin said:
"Well, about Arnoux; you know what has happened?"
"However, it was bound to end that way!"
"What has happened, might I ask?"
"Perhaps by this time he is——Excuse me!"
The artist got up in order to raise the head of the little corpse higher.
"You were saying——" Frederick resumed.
And Pellerin, half-closing his eyes, in order to take his dimensions better:
"I was saying that our friend Arnoux is perhaps by this time locked up!"
Then, in a tone of satisfaction:
"Just give a little glance at it. Is that the thing?"
"Yes, 'tis quite right. But about Arnoux?"
Pellerin laid down his pencil.
"As far as I could understand, he was sued by one Mignot, an intimate friend of Regimbart—a long-headed fellow that, eh? What an idiot! Just imagine! one day——"
"What! it's not Regimbart that's in question, is it?"
"It is, indeed! Well, yesterday evening, Arnoux had to produce twelve thousand francs; if not, he was a ruined man."
"Oh! this perhaps is exaggerated," said Frederick.
"Not a bit. It looked to me a very serious business, very serious!"
At that moment Rosanette reappeared, with red spots under her eyes, which glowed like dabs of paint. She sat down near the drawing and gazed at it. Pellerin made a sign to the other to hold his tongue on account of her. But Frederick, without minding her:
"Nevertheless, I can't believe——"
"I tell you I met him yesterday," said the artist, "at seven o'clock in the evening, in the Rue Jacob. He had even taken the precaution to have his passport with him; and he spoke about embarking from Havre, he and his whole camp."
"What! with his wife?"
"No doubt. He is too much of a family man to live by himself."
"And are you sure of this?"
"Certain, faith! Where do you expect him to find twelve thousand francs?"
Frederick took two or three turns round the room. He panted for breath, bit his lips, and then snatched up his hat.
"Where are you going now?" said Rosanette.
He made no reply, and the next moment he had disappeared.
Twelve thousand francs should be procured, or, if not, he would see Madame Arnoux no more; and until now there had lingered in his breast an unconquerable hope. Did she not, as it were, constitute the very substance of his heart, the very basis of his life? For some minutes he went staggering along the footpath, his mind tortured with anxiety, and nevertheless gladdened by the thought that he was no longer by the other's side.
Where was he to get the money? Frederick was well aware from his own experience how hard it was to obtain it immediately, no matter at what cost. There was only one person who could help him in the matter—Madame Dambreuse. She always kept a good supply of bank-notes in her escritoire. He called at her house; and in an unblushing fashion:
"Have you twelve thousand francs to lend me?"
That was another person's secret. She wanted to know who this person was. He would not give way on this point. They were equally determined not to yield. Finally, she declared that she would give nothing until she knew for what purpose it was wanted.
Frederick's face became very flushed; and he stated that one of his comrades had committed a theft. It was necessary to replace the sum this very day.
"Let me know his name? His name? Come! what's his name?"
And he threw himself on his knees, imploring of her to say nothing about it.
"What idea have you got into your head about me?" Madame Dambreuse replied. "One would imagine that you were the guilty party yourself. Pray, have done with your tragic airs! Hold on! here's the money! and much good may it do him!"
He hurried off to see Arnoux. That worthy merchant was not in his shop. But he was still residing in the Rue de Paradis, for he had two domiciles.
In the Rue de Paradis, the porter said that M. Arnoux had been away since the evening before. As for Madame, he ventured to say nothing; and Frederick, having rushed like an arrow up the stairs, laid his ear against the keyhole. At length, the door was opened. Madame had gone out with Monsieur. The servant could not say when they would be back; her wages had been paid, and she was leaving herself.
Suddenly he heard the door creaking.
"But is there anyone in the room?"
"Oh, no, Monsieur! it is the wind."
Thereupon he withdrew. There was something inexplicable in such a rapid disappearance.
Regimbart, being Mignot's intimate friend, could perhaps enlighten him? And Frederick got himself driven to that gentleman's house at Montmartre in the Rue l'Empereur.
Attached to the house there was a small garden shut in by a grating which was stopped up with iron plates. Three steps before the hall-door set off the white front; and a person passing along the footpath could see the two rooms on the ground-floor, the first of which was a parlour with ladies' dresses lying on the furniture on every side, and the second the workshop in which Madame Regimbart's female assistants were accustomed to sit.
They were all convinced that Monsieur had important occupations, distinguished connections, that he was a man altogether beyond comparison. When he was passing through the lobby with his hat cocked up at the sides, his long grave face, and his green frock-coat, the girls stopped in the midst of their work. Besides, he never failed to address to them a few words of encouragement, some observation which showed his ceremonious courtesy; and, afterwards, in their own homes they felt unhappy at not having been able to preserve him as their ideal.
No one, however, was so devoted to him as Madame Regimbart, an intelligent little woman, who maintained him by her handicraft.
As soon as M. Moreau had given his name, she came out quickly to meet him, knowing through the servants what his relations were with Madame Dambreuse. Her husband would be back in a moment; and Frederick, while he followed her, admired the appearance of the house and the profusion of oil-cloth that was displayed in it. Then he waited a few minutes in a kind of office, into which the Citizen was in the habit of retiring, in order to be alone with his thoughts.
When they met, Regimbart's manner was less cranky than usual.
He related Arnoux's recent history. The ex-manufacturer of earthenware had excited the vanity of Mignot, a patriot who owned a hundred shares in the Siecle, by professing to show that it would be necessary from the democratic standpoint to change the management and the editorship of the newspaper; and under the pretext of making his views prevail in the next meeting of shareholders, he had given the other fifty shares, telling him that he could pass them on to reliable friends who would back up his vote. Mignot would have no personal responsibility, and need not annoy himself about anyone; then, when he had achieved success, he would be able to secure a good place in the administration of at least from five to six thousand francs. The shares had been delivered. But Arnoux had at once sold them, and with the money had entered into partnership with a dealer in religious articles. Thereupon came complaints from Mignot, to which Arnoux sent evasive answers. At last the patriot had threatened to bring against him a charge of cheating if he did not restore his share-certificates or pay an equivalent sum—fifty thousand francs.
Frederick's face wore a look of despondency.
"That is not the whole of it," said the Citizen. "Mignot, who is an honest fellow, has reduced his claim to one fourth. New promises on the part of the other, and, of course, new dodges. In short, on the morning of the day before yesterday Mignot sent him a written application to pay up, within twenty-four hours, twelve thousand francs, without prejudice to the balance."
"But I have the amount!" said Frederick.
The Citizen slowly turned round:
"Excuse me! I have the money in my pocket. I brought it with me."
"How you do go at it! By Jove, you do! However, 'tis too late now—the complaint has been lodged, and Arnoux is gone."
"No! along with his wife. They were seen at the Havre terminus."
Frederick grew exceedingly pale. Madame Regimbart thought he was going to faint. He regained his self-possession with an effort, and had even sufficient presence of mind to ask two or three questions about the occurrence. Regimbart was grieved at the affair, considering that it would injure the cause of Democracy. Arnoux had always been lax in his conduct and disorderly in his life.
"A regular hare-brained fellow! He burned the candle at both ends! The petticoat has ruined him! 'Tis not himself that I pity, but his poor wife!" For the Citizen admired virtuous women, and had a great esteem for Madame Arnoux.
"She must have suffered a nice lot!"
Frederick felt grateful to him for his sympathy; and, as if Regimbart had done him a service, pressed his hand effusively.
"Have you done all that's necessary in the matter?" was Rosanette's greeting to him when she saw him again.
He had not been able to pluck up courage to do it, he answered, and walked about the streets at random to divert his thoughts.
At eight o'clock, they passed into the dining-room; but they remained seated face to face in silence, gave vent each to a deep sigh every now and then, and pushed away their plates.
Frederick drank some brandy. He felt quite shattered, crushed, annihilated, no longer conscious of anything save a sensation of extreme fatigue.
She went to look at the portrait. The red, the yellow, the green, and the indigo made glaring stains that jarred with each other, so that it looked a hideous thing—almost ridiculous.
Besides, the dead child was now unrecognisable. The purple hue of his lips made the whiteness of his skin more remarkable. His nostrils were more drawn than before, his eyes more hollow; and his head rested on a pillow of blue taffeta, surrounded by petals of camelias, autumn roses, and violets. This was an idea suggested by the chambermaid, and both of them had thus with pious care arranged the little corpse. The mantelpiece, covered with a cloth of guipure, supported silver-gilt candlesticks with bunches of consecrated box in the spaces between them. At the corners there were a pair of vases in which pastilles were burning. All these things, taken in conjunction with the cradle, presented the aspect of an altar; and Frederick recalled to mind the night when he had watched beside M. Dambreuse's death-bed.
Nearly every quarter of an hour Rosanette drew aside the curtains in order to take a look at her child. She saw him in imagination, a few months hence, beginning to walk; then at college, in the middle of the recreation-ground, playing a game of base; then at twenty years a full-grown young man; and all these pictures conjured up by her brain created for her, as it were, the son she would have lost, had he only lived, the excess of her grief intensifying in her the maternal instinct.
Frederick, sitting motionless in another armchair, was thinking of Madame Arnoux.
No doubt she was at that moment in a train, with her face leaning against a carriage window, while she watched the country disappearing behind her in the direction of Paris, or else on the deck of a steamboat, as on the occasion when they first met; but this vessel carried her away into distant countries, from which she would never return. He next saw her in a room at an inn, with trunks covering the floor, the wall-paper hanging in shreds, and the door shaking in the wind. And after that—to what would she be compelled to turn? Would she have to become a school-mistress or a lady's companion, or perhaps a chambermaid? She was exposed to all the vicissitudes of poverty. His utter ignorance as to what her fate might be tortured his mind. He ought either to have opposed her departure or to have followed her. Was he not her real husband? And as the thought impressed itself on his consciousness that he would never meet her again, that it was all over forever, that she was lost to him beyond recall, he felt, so to speak, a rending of his entire being, and the tears that had been gathering since morning in his heart overflowed.
Rosanette noticed the tears in his eyes.
"Ah! you are crying just like me! You are grieving, too?"
"Yes! yes! I am——"
He pressed her to his heart, and they both sobbed, locked in each other's arms.
Madame Dambreuse was weeping too, as she lay, face downwards, on her bed, with her hands clasped over her head.
Olympe Regimbart having come that evening to try on her first coloured gown after mourning, had told her about Frederick's visit, and even about the twelve thousand francs which he had ready to transfer to M. Arnoux.
So, then, this money, the very money which he had got from her, was intended to be used simply for the purpose of preventing the other from leaving Paris—for the purpose, in fact, of preserving a mistress!
At first, she broke into a violent rage, and determined to drive him from her door, as she would have driven a lackey. A copious flow of tears produced a soothing effect upon her. It was better to keep it all to herself, and say nothing about it.
Frederick brought her back the twelve thousand francs on the following day.
She begged of him to keep the money lest he might require it for his friend, and she asked a number of questions about this gentleman. Who, then, had tempted him to such a breach of trust? A woman, no doubt! Women drag you into every kind of crime.
This bantering tone put Frederick out of countenance. He felt deep remorse for the calumny he had invented. He was reassured by the reflection that Madame Dambreuse could not be aware of the facts. All the same, she was very persistent about the subject; for, two days later, she again made enquiries about his young friend, and, after that, about another—Deslauriers.
"Is this young man trustworthy and intelligent?"
Frederick spoke highly of him.
"Ask him to call on me one of these mornings; I want to consult him about a matter of business."
She had found a roll of old papers in which there were some bills of Arnoux, which had been duly protested, and which had been signed by Madame Arnoux. It was about these very bills Frederick had called on M. Dambreuse on one occasion while the latter was at breakfast; and, although the capitalist had not sought to enforce repayment of this outstanding debt, he had not only got judgment on foot of them from the Tribunal of Commerce against Arnoux, but also against his wife, who knew nothing about the matter, as her husband had not thought fit to give her any information on the point.
Here was a weapon placed in Madame Dambreuse's hands—she had no doubt about it. But her notary would advise her to take no step in the affair. She would have preferred to act through some obscure person, and she thought of that big fellow with such an impudent expression of face, who had offered her his services.
Frederick ingenuously performed this commission for her.
The advocate was enchanted at the idea of having business relations with such an aristocratic lady.
He hurried to Madame Dambreuse's house.
She informed him that the inheritance belonged to her niece, a further reason for liquidating those debts which she should repay, her object being to overwhelm Martinon's wife by a display of greater attention to the deceased's affairs.
Deslauriers guessed that there was some hidden design underlying all this. He reflected while he was examining the bills. Madame Arnoux's name, traced by her own hand, brought once more before his eyes her entire person, and the insult which he had received at her hands. Since vengeance was offered to him, why should he not snatch at it?
He accordingly advised Madame Dambreuse to have the bad debts which went with the inheritance sold by auction. A man of straw, whose name would not be divulged, would buy them up, and would exercise the legal rights thus given him to realise them. He would take it on himself to provide a man to discharge this function.
Towards the end of the month of November, Frederick, happening to pass through the street in which Madame Arnoux had lived, raised his eyes towards the windows of her house, and saw posted on the door a placard on which was printed in large letters:
"Sale of valuable furniture, consisting of kitchen utensils, body and table linen, shirts and chemises, lace, petticoats, trousers, French and Indian cashmeres, an Erard piano, two Renaissance oak chests, Venetian mirrors, Chinese and Japanese pottery."
"'Tis their furniture!" said Frederick to himself, and his suspicions were confirmed by the doorkeeper.
As for the person who had given instructions for the sale, he could get no information on that head. But perhaps the auctioneer, Maitre Berthelmot, might be able to throw light on the subject.
The functionary did not at first want to tell what creditor was having the sale carried out. Frederick pressed him on the point. It was a gentleman named Senecal, an agent; and Maitre Berthelmot even carried his politeness so far as to lend his newspaper—the Petites Affiches—to Frederick.
The latter, on reaching Rosanette's house, flung down this paper on the table spread wide open.
"Well, what?" said she with a face so calm that it roused up in him a feeling of revolt.
"Ah! keep up that air of innocence!"
"I don't understand what you mean."
"'Tis you who are selling out Madame Arnoux yourself!"
She read over the announcement again.
"Where is her name?"
"Oh! 'tis her furniture. You know that as well as I do."
"What does that signify to me?" said Rosanette, shrugging her shoulders.
"What does it signify to you? But you are taking your revenge, that's all. This is the consequence of your persecutions. Haven't you outraged her so far as to call at her house?—you, a worthless creature! and this to the most saintly, the most charming, the best woman that ever lived! Why do you set your heart on ruining her?"
"I assure you, you are mistaken!"
"Come now! As if you had not put Senecal forward to do this!"
Then he was carried away with rage.
"You lie! you lie! you wretch! You are jealous of her! You have got a judgment against her husband! Senecal is already mixed up in your affairs. He detests Arnoux; and your two hatreds have entered into a combination with one another. I saw how delighted he was when you won that action of yours about the kaolin shares. Are you going to deny this?"
"I give you my word——"
"Oh, I know what that's worth—your word!"
And Frederick reminded her of her lovers, giving their names and circumstantial details. Rosanette drew back, all the colour fading from her face.
"You are astonished at this. You thought I was blind because I shut my eyes. Now I have had enough of it. We do not die through the treacheries of a woman of your sort. When they become too monstrous we get out of the way. To inflict punishment on account of them would be only to degrade oneself."
She twisted her arms about.
"My God, who can it be that has changed him?"
"Nobody but yourself."
"And all this for Madame Arnoux!" exclaimed Rosanette, weeping.
He replied coldly:
"I have never loved any woman but her!"
At this insult her tears ceased to flow.
"That shows your good taste! A woman of mature years, with a complexion like liquorice, a thick waist, big eyes like the ventholes of a cellar, and just as empty! As you like her so much, go and join her!"
"This is just what I expected. Thank you!"
Rosanette remained motionless, stupefied by this extraordinary behaviour.
She even allowed the door to be shut; then, with a bound, she pulled him back into the anteroom, and flinging her arms around him:
"Why, you are mad! you are mad! this is absurd! I love you!" Then she changed her tone to one of entreaty:
"Good heavens! for the sake of our dead infant!"
"Confess that it was you who did this trick!" said Frederick.
She still protested that she was innocent.
"You will not acknowledge it?"
"Well, then, farewell! and forever!"
"Listen to me!"
Frederick turned round:
"If you understood me better, you would know that my decision is irrevocable!"
"Oh! oh! you will come back to me again!"
"Never as long as I live!"
And he slammed the door behind him violently.
Rosanette wrote to Deslauriers saying that she wanted to see him at once.
He called one evening, about five days later; and, when she told him about the rupture:
"That's all! A nice piece of bad luck!"
She thought at first that he would have been able to bring back Frederick; but now all was lost. She ascertained through the doorkeeper that he was about to be married to Madame Dambreuse.
Deslauriers gave her a lecture, and showed himself an exceedingly gay fellow, quite a jolly dog; and, as it was very late, asked permission to pass the night in an armchair.
Then, next morning, he set out again for Nogent, informing her that he was unable to say when they would meet once more. In a little while, there would perhaps be a great change in his life.
Two hours after his return, the town was in a state of revolution. The news went round that M. Frederick was going to marry Madame Dambreuse. At length the three Mesdemoiselles Auger, unable to stand it any longer, made their way to the house of Madame Moreau, who with an air of pride confirmed this intelligence. Pere Roque became quite ill when he heard it. Louise locked herself up; it was even rumoured that she had gone mad.
Meanwhile, Frederick was unable to hide his dejection. Madame Dambreuse, in order to divert his mind, no doubt, from gloomy thoughts, redoubled her attentions. Every afternoon they went out for a drive in her carriage; and, on one occasion, as they were passing along the Place de la Bourse, she took the idea into her head to pay a visit to the public auction-rooms for the sake of amusement.
It was the 1st of December, the very day on which the sale of Madame Arnoux's furniture was to take place. He remembered the date, and manifested his repugnance, declaring that this place was intolerable on account of the crush and the noise. She only wanted to get a peep at it. The brougham drew up. He had no alternative but to accompany her.
In the open space could be seen washhand-stands without basins, the wooden portions of armchairs, old hampers, pieces of porcelain, empty bottles, mattresses; and men in blouses or in dirty frock-coats, all grey with dust, and mean-looking faces, some with canvas sacks over their shoulders, were chatting in separate groups or hailing each other in a disorderly fashion.
Frederick urged that it was inconvenient to go on any further.
And they ascended the stairs. In the first room, at the right, gentlemen, with catalogues in their hands, were examining pictures; in another, a collection of Chinese weapons were being sold. Madame Dambreuse wanted to go down again. She looked at the numbers over the doors, and she led him to the end of the corridor towards an apartment which was blocked up with people.
He immediately recognised the two whatnots belonging to the office of L'Art Industriel, her work-table, all her furniture. Heaped up at the end of the room according to their respective heights, they formed a long slope from the floor to the windows, and at the other sides of the apartment, the carpets and the curtains hung down straight along the walls. There were underneath steps occupied by old men who had fallen asleep. At the left rose a sort of counter at which the auctioneer, in a white cravat, was lightly swinging a little hammer. By his side a young man was writing, and below him stood a sturdy fellow, between a commercial traveller and a vendor of countermarks, crying out: "Furniture for sale." Three attendants placed the articles on a table, at the sides of which sat in a row second-hand dealers and old-clothes' women. The general public at the auction kept walking in a circle behind them.
When Frederick came in, the petticoats, the neckerchiefs, and even the chemises were being passed on from hand to hand, and then given back. Sometimes they were flung some distance, and suddenly strips of whiteness went flying through the air. After that her gowns were sold, and then one of her hats, the broken feather of which was hanging down, then her furs, and then three pairs of boots; and the disposal by sale of these relics, wherein he could trace in a confused sort of way the very outlines of her form, appeared to him an atrocity, as if he had seen carrion crows mangling her corpse. The atmosphere of the room, heavy with so many breaths, made him feel sick. Madame Dambreuse offered him her smelling-bottle. She said that she found all this highly amusing.
The bedroom furniture was now exhibited. Maitre Berthelmot named a price. The crier immediately repeated it in a louder voice, and the three auctioneer's assistants quietly waited for the stroke of the hammer, and then carried off the article sold to an adjoining apartment. In this way disappeared, one after the other, the large blue carpet spangled with camellias, which her dainty feet used to touch so lightly as she advanced to meet him, the little upholstered easy-chair, in which he used to sit facing her when they were alone together, the two screens belonging to the mantelpiece, the ivory of which had been rendered smoother by the touch of her hands, and a velvet pincushion, which was still bristling with pins. It was as if portions of his heart had been carried away with these things; and the monotony of the same voices and the same gestures benumbed him with fatigue, and caused within him a mournful torpor, a sensation like that of death itself.
There was a rustle of silk close to his ear. Rosanette touched him.
It was through Frederick himself that she had learned about this auction. When her first feelings of vexation was over, the idea of deriving profit from it occurred to her mind. She had come to see it in a white satin vest with pearl buttons, a furbelowed gown, tight-fitting gloves on her hands, and a look of triumph on her face.
He grew pale with anger. She stared at the woman who was by his side.
Madame Dambreuse had recognised her, and for a minute they examined each other from head to foot minutely, in order to discover the defect, the blemish—the one perhaps envying the other's youth, and the other filled with spite at the extreme good form, the aristocratic simplicity of her rival.
At last Madame Dambreuse turned her head round with a smile of inexpressible insolence.
The crier had opened a piano—her piano! While he remained standing before it he ran the fingers of his right hand over the keys, and put up the instrument at twelve hundred francs; then he brought down the figures to one thousand, then to eight hundred, and finally to seven hundred.
Madame Dambreuse, in a playful tone, laughed at the appearance of some socket that was out of gear.
The next thing placed before the second-hand dealers was a little chest with medallions and silver corners and clasps, the same one which he had seen at the first dinner in the Rue de Choiseul, which had subsequently been in Rosanette's house, and again transferred back to Madame Arnoux's residence. Often, during their conversations his eyes wandered towards it. He was bound to it by the dearest memories, and his soul was melting with tender emotions about it, when suddenly Madame Dambreuse said:
"Look here! I am going to buy that!"
"But it is not a very rare article," he returned.
She considered it, on the contrary, very pretty, and the appraiser commended its delicacy.
"A gem of the Renaissance! Eight hundred francs, messieurs! Almost entirely of silver! With a little whiting it can be made to shine brilliantly."
And, as she was pushing forward through the crush of people:
"What an odd idea!" said Frederick.
"You are annoyed at this!"
"No! But what can be done with a fancy article of that sort?"
"Who knows? Love-letters might be kept in it, perhaps!"
She gave him a look which made the allusion very clear.
"A reason the more for not robbing the dead of their secrets."
"I did not imagine she was dead." And then in a loud voice she went on to bid:
"Eight hundred and eighty francs!"
"What you're doing is not right," murmured Frederick.
She began to laugh.
"But this is the first favour, dear, that I am asking from you."
"Come, now! doesn't it strike you that at this rate you won't be a very considerate husband?"
Some one had just at that moment made a higher bid.
"Nine hundred francs!"
"Nine hundred francs!" repeated Maitre Berthelmot.
"Nine hundred and ten—fifteen—twenty—thirty!" squeaked the auctioneer's crier, with jerky shakes of his head as he cast a sweeping glance at those assembled around him.
"Show me that I am going to have a wife who is amenable to reason," said Frederick.
And he gently drew her towards the door.
The auctioneer proceeded:
"Come, come, messieurs; nine hundred and thirty. Is there any bidder at nine hundred and thirty?"
Madame Dambreuse, just as she had reached the door, stopped, and raising her voice to a high pitch:
"One thousand francs!"
There was a thrill of astonishment, and then a dead silence.
"A thousand francs, messieurs, a thousand francs! Is nobody advancing on this bid? Is that clear? Very well, then—one thousand francs! going!—gone!"
And down came the ivory hammer. She passed in her card, and the little chest was handed over to her. She thrust it into her muff.
Frederick felt a great chill penetrating his heart.
Madame Dambreuse had not let go her hold of his arm; and she had not the courage to look up at his face in the street, where her carriage was awaiting her.
She flung herself into it, like a thief flying away after a robbery, and then turned towards Frederick. He had his hat in his hand.
"Are you not going to come in?"
And, bowing to her frigidly, he shut the carriage-door, and then made a sign to the coachman to drive away.
The first feeling that he experienced was one of joy at having regained his independence. He was filled with pride at the thought that he had avenged Madame Arnoux by sacrificing a fortune to her; then, he was amazed at his own act, and he felt doubled up with extreme physical exhaustion.
Next morning his man-servant brought him the news.
The city had been declared to be in a state of siege; the Assembly had been dissolved; and a number of the representatives of the people had been imprisoned at Mazas. Public affairs had assumed to his mind an utterly unimportant aspect, so deeply preoccupied was he by his private troubles.
He wrote to several tradesmen countermanding various orders which he had given for the purchase of articles in connection with his projected marriage, which now appeared to him in the light of a rather mean speculation; and he execrated Madame Dambreuse, because, owing to her, he had been very near perpetrating a vile action. He had forgotten the Marechale, and did not even bother himself about Madame Arnoux—absorbed only in one thought—lost amid the wreck of his dreams, sick at heart, full of grief and disappointment, and in his hatred of the artificial atmosphere wherein he had suffered so much, he longed for the freshness of green fields, the repose of provincial life, a sleeping existence spent beneath his natal roof in the midst of ingenuous hearts. At last, when Wednesday evening arrived, he made his way out into the open air.
On the boulevard numerous groups had taken up their stand. From time to time a patrol came and dispersed them; they gathered together again in regular order behind it. They talked freely and in loud tones, made chaffing remarks about the soldiers, without anything further happening.
"What! are they not going to fight?" said Frederick to a workman.
"They're not such fools as to get themselves killed for the well-off people! Let them take care of themselves!"
And a gentleman muttered, as he glanced across at the inhabitants of the faubourgs:
"Socialist rascals! If it were only possible, this time, to exterminate them!"
Frederick could not, for the life of him, understand the necessity of so much rancour and vituperative language. His feeling of disgust against Paris was intensified by these occurrences, and two days later he set out for Nogent by the first train.
The houses soon became lost to view; the country stretched out before his gaze. Alone in his carriage, with his feet on the seat in front of him, he pondered over the events of the last few days, and then on his entire past. The recollection of Louise came back to his mind.
"She, indeed, loved me truly! I was wrong not to snatch at this chance of happiness. Pooh! let us not think any more about it!"
Then, five minutes afterwards: "Who knows, after all? Why not, later?"
His reverie, like his eyes, wandered afar towards vague horizons.
"She was artless, a peasant girl, almost a savage; but so good!"
In proportion as he drew nearer to Nogent, her image drew closer to him. As they were passing through the meadows of Sourdun, he saw her once more in imagination under the poplar-trees, as in the old days, cutting rushes on the edges of the pools. And now they had reached their destination; he stepped out of the train.
Then he leaned with his elbows on the bridge, to gaze again at the isle and the garden where they had walked together one sunshiny day, and the dizzy sensation caused by travelling, together with the weakness engendered by his recent emotions, arousing in his breast a sort of exaltation, he said to himself:
"She has gone out, perhaps; suppose I were to go and meet her!"
The bell of Saint-Laurent was ringing, and in the square in front of the church there was a crowd of poor people around an open carriage, the only one in the district—the one which was always hired for weddings. And all of a sudden, under the church-gate, accompanied by a number of well-dressed persons in white cravats, a newly-married couple appeared.
He thought he must be labouring under some hallucination. But no! It was, indeed, Louise! covered with a white veil which flowed from her red hair down to her heels; and with her was no other than Deslauriers, attired in a blue coat embroidered with silver—the costume of a prefect.
How was this?
Frederick concealed himself at the corner of a house to let the procession pass.
Shamefaced, vanquished, crushed, he retraced his steps to the railway-station, and returned to Paris.
The cabman who drove him assured him that the barricades were erected from the Chateau d'Eau to the Gymnase, and turned down the Faubourg Saint-Martin. At the corner of the Rue de Provence, Frederick stepped out in order to reach the boulevards.
It was five o'clock. A thin shower was falling. A number of citizens blocked up the footpath close to the Opera House. The houses opposite were closed. No one at any of the windows. All along the boulevard, dragoons were galloping behind a row of wagons, leaning with drawn swords over their horses; and the plumes of their helmets, and their large white cloaks, rising up behind them, could be seen under the glare of the gas-lamps, which shook in the wind in the midst of a haze. The crowd gazed at them mute with fear.
In the intervals between the cavalry-charges, squads of policemen arrived on the scene to keep back the people in the streets.
But on the steps of Tortoni, a man—Dussardier—who could be distinguished at a distance by his great height, remained standing as motionless as a caryatide.
One of the police-officers, marching at the head of his men, with his three-cornered hat drawn over his eyes, threatened him with his sword.
The other thereupon took one step forward, and shouted:
"Long live the Republic!"
The next moment he fell on his back with his arms crossed.
A yell of horror arose from the crowd. The police-officer, with a look of command, made a circle around him; and Frederick, gazing at him in open-mouthed astonishment, recognised Senecal.
A BITTER-SWEET REUNION.
He realised the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burthen of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.
Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.
She caught hold of his hands, and drew him gently towards the window, and, as she gazed into his face, she kept repeating:
"'Tis he! Yes, indeed—'tis he!"
In the growing shadows of the twilight, he could see only her eyes under the black lace veil that hid her face.
When she had laid down on the edge of the mantelpiece a little pocket-book bound in garnet velvet, she seated herself in front of him, and they both remained silent, unable to utter a word, smiling at one another.
At last he asked her a number of questions about herself and her husband.
They had gone to live in a remote part of Brittany for the sake of economy, so as to be able to pay their debts. Arnoux, now almost a chronic invalid, seemed to have become quite an old man. Her daughter had been married and was living at Bordeaux, and her son was in garrison at Mostaganem.
Then she raised her head to look at him again:
"But I see you once more! I am happy!"
He did not fail to let her know that, as soon as he heard of their misfortune, he had hastened to their house.
"I was fully aware of it!"
She had seen him in the street outside the house, and had hidden herself.
"Why did you do that?"
Then, in a trembling voice, and with long pauses between her words:
"I was afraid! Yes—afraid of you and of myself!"
This disclosure gave him, as it were, a shock of voluptuous joy. His heart began to throb wildly. She went on:
"Excuse me for not having come sooner." And, pointing towards the little pocket-book covered with golden palm-branches:
"I embroidered it on your account expressly. It contains the amount for which the Belleville property was given as security."
Frederick thanked her for letting him have the money, while chiding her at the same time for having given herself any trouble about it.
"No! 'tis not for this I came! I was determined to pay you this visit—then I would go back there again."
And she spoke about the place where they had taken up their abode.
It was a low-built house of only one story; and there was a garden attached to it full of huge box-trees, and a double avenue of chestnut-trees, reaching up to the top of the hill, from which there was a view of the sea.
"I go there and sit down on a bench, which I have called 'Frederick's bench.'"
Then she proceeded to fix her gaze on the furniture, the objects of virtu, the pictures, with eager intentness, so that she might be able to carry away the impressions of them in her memory. The Marechale's portrait was half-hidden behind a curtain. But the gilding and the white spaces of the picture, which showed their outlines through the midst of the surrounding darkness, attracted her attention.
"It seems to me I knew that woman?"
"Impossible!" said Frederick. "It is an old Italian painting."
She confessed that she would like to take a walk through the streets on his arm.
They went out.
The light from the shop-windows fell, every now and then, on her pale profile; then once more she was wrapped in shadow, and in the midst of the carriages, the crowd, and the din, they walked on without paying any heed to what was happening around them, without hearing anything, like those who make their way across the fields over beds of dead leaves.
They talked about the days which they had formerly spent in each other's society, the dinners at the time when L'Art Industriel flourished, Arnoux's fads, his habit of drawing up the ends of his collar and of squeezing cosmetic over his moustache, and other matters of a more intimate and serious character. What delight he experienced on the first occasion when he heard her singing! How lovely she looked on her feast-day at Saint-Cloud! He recalled to her memory the little garden at Auteuil, evenings at the theatre, a chance meeting on the boulevard, and some of her old servants, including the negress.
She was astonished at his vivid recollection of these things.
"Sometimes your words come back to me like a distant echo, like the sound of a bell carried on by the wind, and when I read passages about love in books, it seems to me that it is about you I am reading."
"All that people have found fault with as exaggerated in fiction you have made me feel," said Frederick. "I can understand Werther, who felt no disgust at his Charlotte for eating bread and butter."
"Poor, dear friend!"
She heaved a sigh; and, after a prolonged silence:
"No matter; we shall have loved each other truly!"
"And still without having ever belonged to each other!"
"This perhaps is all the better," she replied.
"No, no! What happiness we might have enjoyed!"
"Oh, I am sure of it with a love like yours!"
And it must have been very strong to endure after such a long separation.
Frederick wished to know from her how she first discovered that he loved her.
"It was when you kissed my wrist one evening between the glove and the cuff. I said to myself, 'Ah! yes, he loves me—he loves me;' nevertheless, I was afraid of being assured of it. So charming was your reserve, that I felt myself the object, as it were, of an involuntary and continuous homage."
He regretted nothing now. He was compensated for all he had suffered in the past.
When they came back to the house, Madame Arnoux took off her bonnet. The lamp, placed on a bracket, threw its light on her white hair. Frederick felt as if some one had given him a blow in the middle of the chest.
In order to conceal from her his sense of disillusion, he flung himself on the floor at her feet, and seizing her hands, began to whisper in her ear words of tenderness:
"Your person, your slightest movements, seemed to me to have a more than human importance in the world. My heart was like dust under your feet. You produced on me the effect of moonlight on a summer's night, when around us we find nothing but perfumes, soft shadows, gleams of whiteness, infinity; and all the delights of the flesh and of the spirit were for me embodied in your name, which I kept repeating to myself while I tried to kiss it with my lips. I thought of nothing further. It was Madame Arnoux such as you were with your two children, tender, grave, dazzlingly beautiful, and yet so good! This image effaced every other. Did I not think of it alone? for I had always in the very depths of my soul the music of your voice and the brightness of your eyes!"
She accepted with transports of joy these tributes of adoration to the woman whom she could no longer claim to be. Frederick, becoming intoxicated with his own words, came to believe himself in the reality of what he said. Madame Arnoux, with her back turned to the light of the lamp, stooped towards him. He felt the caress of her breath on his forehead, and the undefined touch of her entire body through the garments that kept them apart. Their hands were clasped; the tip of her boot peeped out from beneath her gown, and he said to her, as if ready to faint:
"The sight of your foot makes me lose my self-possession."
An impulse of modesty made her rise. Then, without any further movement, she said, with the strange intonation of a somnambulist:
"At my age!—he—Frederick! Ah! no woman has ever been loved as I have been. No! Where is the use in being young? What do I care about them, indeed? I despise them—all those women who come here!"
"Oh! very few women come to this place," he returned, in a complaisant fashion.
Her face brightened up, and then she asked him whether he meant to be married.
He swore that he never would.
"Are you perfectly sure? Why should you not?"
"'Tis on your account!" said Frederick, clasping her in his arms.
She remained thus pressed to his heart, with her head thrown back, her lips parted, and her eyes raised. Suddenly she pushed him away from her with a look of despair, and when he implored of her to say something to him in reply, she bent forward and whispered:
"I would have liked to make you happy!"
Frederick had a suspicion that Madame Arnoux had come to offer herself to him, and once more he was seized with a desire to possess her—stronger, fiercer, more desperate than he had ever experienced before. And yet he felt, the next moment, an unaccountable repugnance to the thought of such a thing, and, as it were, a dread of incurring the guilt of incest. Another fear, too, had a different effect on him—lest disgust might afterwards take possession of him. Besides, how embarrassing it would be!—and, abandoning the idea, partly through prudence, and partly through a resolve not to degrade his ideal, he turned on his heel and proceeded to roll a cigarette between his fingers.
She watched him with admiration.
"How dainty you are! There is no one like you! There is no one like you!"
It struck eleven.
"Already!" she exclaimed; "at a quarter-past I must go."
She sat down again, but she kept looking at the clock, and he walked up and down the room, puffing at his cigarette. Neither of them could think of anything further to say to the other. There is a moment at the hour of parting when the person that we love is with us no longer.
At last, when the hands of the clock got past the twenty-five minutes, she slowly took up her bonnet, holding it by the strings.
"Good-bye, my friend—my dear friend! I shall never see you again! This is the closing page in my life as a woman. My soul shall remain with you even when you see me no more. May all the blessings of Heaven be yours!"
And she kissed him on the forehead, like a mother.
But she appeared to be looking for something, and then she asked him for a pair of scissors.
She unfastened her comb, and all her white hair fell down.
With an abrupt movement of the scissors, she cut off a long lock from the roots.
"Keep it! Good-bye!"
When she was gone, Frederick rushed to the window and threw it open. There on the footpath he saw Madame Arnoux beckoning towards a passing cab. She stepped into it. The vehicle disappeared.
And this was all.
"WAIT TILL YOU COME TO FORTY YEAR."
About the beginning of this winter, Frederick and Deslauriers were chatting by the fireside, once more reconciled by the fatality of their nature, which made them always reunite and be friends again.
Frederick briefly explained his quarrel with Madame Dambreuse, who had married again, her second husband being an Englishman.
Deslauriers, without telling how he had come to marry Mademoiselle Roque, related to his friend how his wife had one day eloped with a singer. In order to wipe away to some extent the ridicule that this brought upon him, he had compromised himself by an excess of governmental zeal in the exercise of his functions as prefect. He had been dismissed. After that, he had been an agent for colonisation in Algeria, secretary to a pasha, editor of a newspaper, and canvasser for advertisements, his latest employment being the office of settling disputed cases for a manufacturing company.
As for Frederick, having squandered two thirds of his means, he was now living like a citizen of comparatively humble rank.
Then they questioned each other about their friends.
Martinon was now a member of the Senate.
Hussonnet occupied a high position, in which he was fortunate enough to have all the theatres and entire press dependent upon him.
Cisy, given up to religion, and the father of eight children, was living in the chateau of his ancestors.
Pellerin, after turning his hand to Fourrierism, homoeopathy, table-turning, Gothic art, and humanitarian painting, had become a photographer; and he was to be seen on every dead wall in Paris, where he was represented in a black coat with a very small body and a big head.
"And what about your chum Senecal?" asked Frederick.
"Disappeared—I can't tell you where! And yourself—what about the woman you were so passionately attached to, Madame Arnoux?"
"She is probably at Rome with her son, a lieutenant of chasseurs."
"And her husband?"
"He died a year ago."
"You don't say so?" exclaimed the advocate. Then, striking his forehead:
"Now that I think of it, the other day in a shop I met that worthy Marechale, holding by the hand a little boy whom she has adopted. She is the widow of a certain M. Oudry, and is now enormously stout. What a change for the worse!—she who formerly had such a slender waist!"
Deslauriers did not deny that he had taken advantage of the other's despair to assure himself of that fact by personal experience.
"As you gave me permission, however."
This avowal was a compensation for the silence he had maintained with reference to his attempt with Madame Arnoux.
Frederick would have forgiven him, inasmuch as he had not succeeded in the attempt.
Although a little annoyed at the discovery, he pretended to laugh at it; and the allusion to the Marechale brought back the Vatnaz to his recollection.
Deslauriers had never seen her any more than the others who used to come to the Arnoux's house; but he remembered Regimbart perfectly.
"Is he still living?"
"He is barely alive. Every evening regularly he drags himself from the Rue de Grammont to the Rue Montmartre, to the cafes, enfeebled, bent in two, emaciated, a spectre!"
"Well, and what about Compain?"
Frederick uttered a cry of joy, and begged of the ex-delegate of the provisional government to explain to him the mystery of the calf's head.
"'Tis an English importation. In order to parody the ceremony which the Royalists celebrated on the thirtieth of January, some Independents founded an annual banquet, at which they have been accustomed to eat calves' heads, and at which they make it their business to drink red wine out of calves' skulls while giving toasts in favour of the extermination of the Stuarts. After Thermidor, the Terrorists organised a brotherhood of a similar description, which proves how prolific folly is."
"You seem to me very dispassionate about politics?"
"Effect of age," said the advocate.
And then they each proceeded to summarise their lives.
They had both failed in their objects—the one who dreamed only of love, and the other of power.
What was the reason of this?
"'Tis perhaps from not having taken up the proper line," said Frederick.
"In your case that may be so. I, on the contrary, have sinned through excess of rectitude, without taking into account a thousand secondary things more important than any. I had too much logic, and you too much sentiment."
Then they blamed luck, circumstances, the epoch at which they were born.
Frederick went on:
"We have never done what we thought of doing long ago at Sens, when you wished to write a critical history of Philosophy and I a great mediaeval romance about Nogent, the subject of which I had found in Froissart: 'How Messire Brokars de Fenestranges and the Archbishop of Troyes attacked Messire Eustache d'Ambrecicourt.' Do you remember?"
And, exhuming their youth with every sentence, they said to each other:
"Do you remember?"
They saw once more the college playground, the chapel, the parlour, the fencing-school at the bottom of the staircase, the faces of the ushers and of the pupils—one named Angelmare, from Versailles, who used to cut off trousers-straps from old boots, M. Mirbal and his red whiskers, the two professors of linear drawing and large drawing, who were always wrangling, and the Pole, the fellow-countryman of Copernicus, with his planetary system on pasteboard, an itinerant astronomer whose lecture had been paid for by a dinner in the refectory, then a terrible debauch while they were out on a walking excursion, the first pipes they had smoked, the distribution of prizes, and the delightful sensation of going home for the holidays.
It was during the vacation of 1837 that they had called at the house of the Turkish woman.
This was the phrase used to designate a woman whose real name was Zoraide Turc; and many persons believed her to be a Mohammedan, a Turk, which added to the poetic character of her establishment, situated at the water's edge behind the rampart. Even in the middle of summer there was a shadow around her house, which could be recognised by a glass bowl of goldfish near a pot of mignonette at a window. Young ladies in white nightdresses, with painted cheeks and long earrings, used to tap at the panes as the students passed; and as it grew dark, their custom was to hum softly in their hoarse voices at the doorsteps.
This home of perdition spread its fantastic notoriety over all the arrondissement. Allusions were made to it in a circumlocutory style: "The place you know—a certain street—at the bottom of the Bridges." It made the farmers' wives of the district tremble for their husbands, and the ladies grow apprehensive as to their servants' virtue, inasmuch as the sub-prefect's cook had been caught there; and, to be sure, it exercised a fascination over the minds of all the young lads of the place.
Now, one Sunday, during vesper-time, Frederick and Deslauriers, having previously curled their hair, gathered some flowers in Madame Moreau's garden, then made their way out through the gate leading into the fields, and, after taking a wide sweep round the vineyards, came back through the Fishery, and stole into the Turkish woman's house with their big bouquets still in their hands.
Frederick presented his as a lover does to his betrothed. But the great heat, the fear of the unknown, and even the very pleasure of seeing at one glance so many women placed at his disposal, excited him so strangely that he turned exceedingly pale, and remained there without advancing a single step or uttering a single word. All the girls burst out laughing, amused at his embarrassment. Fancying that they were turning him into ridicule, he ran away; and, as Frederick had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.
They were seen leaving the house; and the episode furnished material for a bit of local gossip which was not forgotten three years later.
They related the story to each other in a prolix fashion, each supplementing the narrative where the other's memory failed; and, when they had finished the recital:
"That was the best time we ever had!" said Frederick.
"Yes, perhaps so, indeed! It was the best time we ever had," said Deslauriers.