"Oh, don't say that!" exclaimed the Countess.
"It is so nice to be slender. I intend to reduce myself at once."
But Madame de Mortemain took offense, forgetting in her anger the presence of a young girl.
"Oh, of course, you are all in favor of bones, because you can dress them better than flesh. For my part, I belong to the generation of fat women! To-day is the day of thin ones. They make me think of the lean kine of Egypt. I cannot understand how men can admire your skeletons. In my time they demanded more!"
She subsided amid the smiles of the company, but added, turning to Annette:
"Look at your mamma, little one; she does very well; she has attained the happy medium—imitate her."
They passed into the dining-room. After they were seated, Musadieu resumed the discussion.
"For my part, I say that men should be thin, because they are formed for exercises that require address and agility, incompatible with corpulency. But the women's case is a little different. Don't you think so, Corbelle?"
Corbelle was perplexed, the Duchess being stout and his own wife more than slender. But the Baroness came to the rescue of her husband, and resolutely declared herself in favor of slimness. The year before that, she declared, she had been obliged to struggle with the beginning of embonpoint, over which she soon triumphed.
"Tell us how you did it," demanded Madame de Guilleroy.
The Baroness explained the method employed by all the fashionable women of the day. One must never drink while eating; but an hour after the repast a cup of tea may be taken, boiling hot. This method succeeded with everyone. She cited astonishing cases of fat women who in three months had become more slender than the blade of a knife. The Duchess exclaimed in exasperation:
"Good gracious, how stupid to torture oneself like that! You like nothing any more—nothing—not even champagne. Bertin, as an artist, what do you think of this folly?"
"Mon Dieu, Madame, I am a painter and I simply arrange the drapery, so it is all the same to me. If I were a sculptor I might complain."
"But as a man, which do you prefer?"
"I? Oh, a certain rounded slimness—what my cook calls a nice little corn-fed chicken. It is not fat, but plump and delicate."
The comparison caused a laugh; but the incredulous Countess looked at her daughter and murmured:
"No, it is very much better to be thin; slender women never grow old."
This point also was discussed by the company; and all agreed that a very fat person should not grow thin too rapidly.
This observation gave place to a review of women known in society and to new discussions on their grace, their chic and beauty. Musadieu pronounced the blonde Marquise de Lochrist incomparably charming, while Bertin esteemed as a beauty Madame Mandeliere, with her brunette complexion, low brow, her dusky eyes and somewhat large mouth, in which her teeth seemed to sparkle.
He was seated beside the young girl, and said suddenly, turning to her:
"Listen to me, Nanette. Everything that we have just been saying you will hear repeated at least once a week until you are old. In a week you will know all that society thinks about politics, women, plays, and all the rest of it. Only an occasional change of names will be necessary—names of persons and titles of works. When you have heard us all express and defend our opinions, you will quietly choose your own among those that one must have, and then you need never trouble yourself to think of anything more, never. You will only have to rest in that opinion."
The young girl, without replying, turned upon him her mischievous eyes, wherein sparkled youthful intelligence, restrained, but ready to escape.
But the Duchess and Musadieu, who played with ideas as one tosses a ball, without perceiving that they continually exchanged the same ones, protested in the name of thought and of human activity.
Then Bertin attempted to show how the intelligence of fashionable people, even the brightest of them, is without value, foundation, or weight; how slight is the basis of their beliefs, how feeble and indifferent is their interest in intellectual things, how fickle and questionable are their tastes.
Warmed by one of those spasms of indignation, half real, half assumed, aroused at first by a desire to be eloquent, and urged on by the sudden prompting of a clear judgment, ordinarily obscured by an easy-going nature, he showed how those persons whose sole occupation in life is to pay visits and dine in town find themselves becoming, by an irresistible fatality, light and graceful but utterly trivial beings, vaguely agitated by superficial cares, beliefs, and appetites.
He showed that none of that class has either depth, ardor, or sincerity; that, their intellectual culture being slight and their erudition a simple varnish, they must remain, in short, manikins who produce the effect and make the gesture of the enlightened beings that they are not. He proved that, the frail roots of their instincts having been nourished on conventionalities instead of realities, they love nothing sincerely, that even the luxury of their existence is a satisfaction of vanity and not the gratification of a refined bodily necessity, for usually their table is indifferent, their wines are bad and very dear.
They live, as he said, beside everything, but see nothing and study nothing; they are near science, of which they are ignorant; nature, at which they do not know how to look; outside of true happiness, for they are powerless to enjoy it; outside of the beauty of the world and the beauty of art, of which they chatter without having really discovered it, or even believing in it, for they are ignorant of the intoxication of tasting the joys of life and of intelligence. They are incapable of attaching themselves in anything to that degree that existence is illumined by the happiness of comprehending it.
The Baron de Corbelle thought that it was his duty to come to the defense of society. This he did with inconsistent and irrefutable arguments, which melt before reason as snow before the fire, yet which cannot be disproved—the absurd and triumphant arguments of a country curate who would demonstrate the existence of God. In concluding, he compared fashionable people to race-horses, which, in truth, are good for nothing, but which are the glory of the equine race.
Bertin, irritated by this adversary, preserved a politely disdainful silence. But suddenly the Baron's imbecilities exasperated him, and, interrupting him adroitly, he recounted the life of a man of fashion from his rising to his going to rest, without omitting anything. All the details, cleverly described, made up an irresistibly amusing silhouette. Once could see the fine gentleman dressed by his valet, first expressing a few general ideas to the hairdresser that came to shave him; then, when taking his morning stroll, inquiring of the grooms about the health of the horses; then trotting through the avenues of the Bois, caring only about saluting and being saluted; then breakfasting opposite his wife, who in her turn had been out in her coupe, speaking to her only to enumerate the names of the persons he had met that morning; then passing from drawing-room to drawing-room until evening, refreshing his intelligence by contact with others of his circle, dining with a prince, where the affairs of Europe were discussed, and finishing the evening behind the scenes at the Opera, where his timid pretensions at being a gay dog were innocently satisfied by the appearance of being surrounded by naughtiness.
The picture was so true, although its satire wounded no one present, that laughter ran around the table.
The Duchess, shaken by the suppressed merriment of fat persons, relieved herself by discreet chuckles.
"Really, you are too funny!" she said at last; "you will make me die of laughter."
Bertin replied, with some excitement:
"Oh, Madame, in the polite world one does not die of laughter! One hardly laughs, even. We have sufficient amiability, as a matter of good taste, to pretend to be amused and appear to laugh. The grimace is imitated well enough, but the real thing is never done. Go to the theaters of the common people—there you will see laughter. Go among the bourgeoisie, when they are amusing themselves; you will see them laugh to suffocation. Go to the soldiers' quarters, you will see men choking, their eyes full of tears, doubled up on their beds over the jokes of some funny fellow. But in our drawing-rooms we never laugh. I tell you that we simulate everything, even laughter."
Musadieu interrupted him:
"Permit me to say that you are very severe. It seems to me that you yourself, my dear fellow, do not wholly despise this society at which you rail so bitterly."
"I? I love it!" he declared.
"I despise myself a little, as a mongrel of doubtful race."
"All that sort of talk is nothing but a pose," said the Duchess.
And, as he denied having any intention of posing, she cut short the discussion by declaring that all artists try to make people believe that chalk is cheese.
The conversation then became general, touching upon everything, ordinary and pleasant, friendly and critical, and, as the dinner was drawing toward its end, the Countess suddenly exclaimed, pointing to the full glasses of wine that were ranged before her plate:
"Well, you see that I have drunk nothing, nothing, not a drop! We shall see whether I shall not grow thin!"
The Duchess, furious, tried to make her swallow some mineral water, but in vain; then she exclaimed:
"Oh, the little simpleton! That daughter of hers will turn her head. I beg of you, Guilleroy, prevent your wife from committing this folly."
The Count, who was explaining to Musadieu the system of a threshing-machine invented in America, had not been listening.
"What folly, Duchess?"
"The folly of wishing to grow thin."
The Count looked at his wife with an expression of kindly indifference.
"I never have formed the habit of opposing her," he replied.
The Countess had risen, taking the arm of her neighbor; the Count offered his to the Duchess, and they passed into the large drawing-room, the boudoir at the end being reserved for use in the daytime.
It was a vast and well lighted room. On the four walls the large and beautiful panels of pale blue silk, of antique pattern, framed in white and gold, took on under the light of the lamps and the chandelier a moonlight softness and brightness. In the center of the principal one, the portrait of the Countess by Olivier Bertin seemed to inhabit, to animate the apartment. It had a look of being at home there, mingling with the air of the salon its youthful smile, the grace of its pose, the bright charm of its golden hair. It had become almost a custom, a sort of polite ceremony, like making the sign of the cross on entering a church, to compliment the model on the work of the painter whenever anyone stood before it.
Musadieu never failed to do this. His opinion as a connoisseur commissioned by the State having the value of that of an official expert, he regarded it as his duty to affirm often, with conviction, the superiority of that painting.
"Indeed," said he, "that is the most beautiful modern portrait I know. There is prodigious life in it."
The Comte de Guilleroy, who, through hearing this portrait continually praised, had acquired a rooted conviction that he possessed a masterpiece, approached to join him, and for a minute or two they lavished upon the portrait all the art technicalities of the day in praise of the apparent qualities of the work, and also of those that were suggested.
All eyes were lifted toward the portrait, apparently in a rapture of admiration, and Olivier Bertin, accustomed to these eulogies, to which he paid hardly more attention than to questions about his health when meeting some one in the street, nevertheless adjusted the reflector lamp placed before the portrait in order to illumine it, the servant having carelessly set it a little on one side.
Then they seated themselves, and as the Count approached the Duchess, she said to him:
"I believe that my nephew is coming here for me, and to ask you for a cup of tea."
Their wishes, for some time, had been mutually understood and agreed, without either side ever having exchanged confidences or even hints.
The Marquis de Farandal, who was the brother of the Duchesse de Mortemain, after almost ruining himself at the gaming table, had died of the effects of a fall from his horse, leaving a widow and a son. This young man, now nearly twenty-eight years of age, was one of the most popular leaders of the cotillion in Europe, for he was sometimes requested to go to Vienna or to London to crown in the waltz some princely ball. Although possessing very small means, he remained, through his social station, his family, his name, and his almost royal connections, one of the most popular and envied men in Paris.
It was necessary to give a solid foundation to this glory of his youth, and after a rich, a very rich marriage, to replace social triumphs by political success. As soon as the Marquis should become a deputy, he would become also, by that attainment alone, one of the props of the future throne, one of the counselors of the King, one of the leaders of the party.
The Duchess, who was well informed, knew the amount of the enormous fortune of the Comte de Guilleroy, a prudent hoarder of money, who lived in a simple apartment when he was quite able to live like a great lord in one of the handsomest mansions of Paris. She knew about his always successful speculations, his subtle scent as a financier, his share in the most fruitful schemes of the past ten years, and she had cherished the idea of marrying her nephew to the daughter of the Norman deputy, to whom this marriage would give an immense influence in the aristocratic society of the princely circle. Guilleroy, who had made a rich marriage, and had thereby increased a large personal fortune, now nursed other ambitions.
He had faith in the return of the King, and wished, when that event should come, to be so situated as to derive from it the largest personal profit.
As a simple deputy, he did not cut a prominent figure. As a father-in-law of the Marquis of Farandal, whose ancestors had been the faithful and chosen familiars of the royal house of France, he might rise to the first rank.
The friendship of the Duchess for his wife lent to this union an element of intimacy that was very precious; and, for fear some other young girl might appear who would please the Marquis, he had brought about the return of his own daughter in order to hasten events.
Madame de Mortemain, foreseeing and divining his plans, lent him her silent complicity; and on that very day, although she had not been informed of the sudden return of the young girl, she had made an appointment with her nephew to meet her at the Guilleroys, so that he might gradually become accustomed to visit that house frequently.
For the first time, the Count and the Duchess spoke of their mutual desires in veiled terms; and when they parted, a treaty of alliance had been concluded.
At the other end of the room everyone was laughing at a story M. de Musadieu was telling to the Baroness de Corbelle about the presentation of a negro ambassador to the President of the Republic, when the Marquis de Farandal was announced.
He appeared in the doorway and paused. With a quick and familiar gesture, he placed a monocle on his right eye and left it there, as if to reconnoiter the room he was about to enter, but perhaps to give those that were already there the time to see him and to observe his entrance. Then by an imperceptible movement of cheek and eyebrow, he allowed to drop the bit of glass at the end of a black silk hair, and advanced quickly toward Madame de Guilleroy, whose extended hand he kissed, bowing very low. He saluted his aunt likewise, then shook hands with the rest of the company, going from one to another with easy elegance of manner.
He was a tall fellow, with a red moustache, and was already slightly bald, with the figure of an officer and the gait of an English sportsman. It was evident, at first sight of him, that all his limbs were better exercised than his head, and that he cared only for such occupations as developed strength and physical activity. He had some education, however, for he had learned, and was learning every day, by much mental effort, a great deal that would be useful to him to know later: history, studying dates unweariedly, but mistaking the lesson to be learned from facts and the elementary notions of political economy necessary to a deputy, the A B C of sociology for the use of the ruling classes.
Musadieu esteemed him, saying: "He will be a valuable man." Bertin appreciated his skill and his vigor. They went to the same fencing-hall, often hunted together, and met while riding in the avenues of the Bois. Between them, therefore, had been formed a sympathy of similar tastes, that instinctive free-masonry which creates between two men a subject of conversation, as agreeable to one as to the other.
When the Marquis was presented to Annette de Guilleroy, he immediately had a suspicion of his aunt's designs, and after saluting her he ran his eyes over her, with the rapid glance of a connoisseur.
He decided that she was graceful, and above all full of promise, for he had led so many cotillions that he knew young girls well, and could predict almost to a certainty the future of their beauty, as an expert who tastes a wine as yet too new.
He exchanged only a few unimportant words with her, then seated himself near the Baroness de Corbelle, so that he could chat with her in an undertone.
Everyone took leave at an early hour, and when all had gone, when the child was in her bed, the lamps were extinguished, the servants gone to their own quarters, the Comte de Guilleroy, walking across the drawing-room, lighted now by only two candles, detained for a long time the Countess, who was half asleep in an armchair, to tell her of his hopes, to suggest the attitude for themselves to assume, to forecast all combinations, the chances and the precautions to be taken.
It was late when he retired, charmed, however, with this evening, and murmuring, "I believe that that affair is a certainty."
A FLAME REKINDLED
"When will you come, my friend? I have not seen you for three days, and that seems a long time to me. My daughter occupies much of my time, but you know that I can no longer do without you."
The painter, who was drawing sketches, ever seeking a new subject re-read the Countess's note, then, opening the drawer of a writing-desk, he deposited it on a heap of other letters, which had been accumulating there since the beginning of their love-affair.
Thanks to the opportunities given them by the customs of fashionable society, they had grown used to seeing each other almost every day. Now and then she visited him, and sat for an hour or two in the armchair in which she had posed, while he worked. But, as she had some fear of the criticisms of the servants, she preferred to receive him at her own house, or to meet him elsewhere, for that daily interview, that small change of love.
These meetings would be agreed upon beforehand, and always seemed perfectly natural to M. de Guilleroy.
Twice a week at least the painter dined at the Countess's house, with a few friends; on Monday nights he visited her in her box at the Opera; then they would agree upon a meeting at such or such a house, to which chance led them at the same hour. He knew the evenings that she did not go out, and would call then to have a cup of tea with her, feeling himself very much at home even near the folds of her robe, so tenderly and so surely settled in that ripe affection, so fixed in the habit of finding her somewhere, of passing some time by her side, or exchanging a few words with her and of mingling a few thoughts, that he felt, although the glow of his passion had long since faded, an incessant need of seeing her.
The desire for family life, for a full and animated household, for the family table, for those evenings when one talks without fatigue with old friends, that desire for contact, for familiarity, for human intercourse, which dwells dormant in every human heart, and which every old bachelor carries from door to door to his friends, where he installs something of himself, added a strain of egoism to his sentiments of affection. In that house, where he was loved and spoiled, where he found everything, he could still rest and nurse his solitude.
For three days he had not seen his friends, who must be very much occupied by the return of the daughter of the house; and he was already feeling bored, and even a little offended because they had not sent for him sooner, but not wishing, as a matter of discretion, to be the first to make an approach.
The Countess's letter aroused him like the stroke of a whip. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. He decided to go immediately to her house, that he might find her before she went out.
The valet appeared, summoned by the sound of Olivier's bell.
"What sort of weather is it, Joseph?"
"Very fine, Monsieur."
"White waistcoat, blue jacket, gray hat."
He always dressed with elegance, but although his tailor turned him out in correct styles, the very way in which he wore his clothes, his manner of walking, his comfortable proportions encased in a white waistcoat, his high gray felt hat, tilted a little toward the back of his head, seemed to reveal at once that he was both an artist and a bachelor.
When he reached the Countess's house, he was told that she was dressing for a drive in the Bois. He was a little vexed at this, and waited.
According to his habit, he began to pace to and fro in the drawing-room, going from one seat to another, or from the windows to the wall, in the large drawing-room darkened by the curtains. On the light tables with gilded feet, trifles of various kinds, useless, pretty, and costly, lay scattered about in studied disorder. There were little antique boxes of chased gold, miniature snuff-boxes, ivory statuettes, objects in dull silver, quite modern, of an exaggerated severity, in which English taste appeared: a diminutive kitchen stove, and upon it a cat drinking from a pan, a cigarette-case simulating a loaf of bread, a coffee-pot to hold matches, and in a casket a complete set of doll's jewelry—necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, ear-rings set with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, a microscopic fantasy that seemed to have been executed by Lilliputian jewelers.
From time to time he touched some object, given by himself on some anniversary; he lifted it, handled it, examining it with dreamy indifference, then put it back in its place.
In one corner some books that were luxuriously bound but seldom opened lay within easy reach on a round table with a single leg for a foundation, which stood before a little curved sofa. The Revue des Deux Mondes lay there also, somewhat worn, with turned-down pages, as if it had been read and re-read many times; other publications lay near it, some of them uncut: the Arts modernes, which is bought only because of its cost, the subscription price being four hundred francs a year; and the Feuille libre, a thin volume between blue covers, in which appear the more recent poets, called "les enerves."
Between the windows stood the Countess's writing-desk, a coquettish piece of furniture of the last century, on which she wrote replies to those hurried questions handed to her during her receptions. A few books were on that, also, familiar books, index to the heart and mind of a woman: Musset, Manon Lescaut, Werther; and, to show that she was not a stranger to the complicated sensations and mysteries of psychology, Les Fleurs du Mal, Le Rouge et le Noir, La Femme au XVIII Siecle, Adolphe.
Beside the books lay a charming hand-mirror, a masterpiece of the silversmith's art, the glass being turned down upon a square of embroidered velvet, in order to allow one to admire the curious gold and silver workmanship on the back. Bertin took it up and looked at his own reflection. For some years he had been growing terribly old in appearance, and although he thought that his face showed more originality than when he was younger, the sight of his heavy cheeks and increasing wrinkles saddened him.
A door opened behind him.
"Good morning, Monsieur Bertin," said Annette.
"Good morning, little one; are you well?"
"Very well; and you?"
"What, are you not saying 'thou' to me, then, after all?"
"No, indeed! It would really embarrass me."
"Yes, it would. You make me feel timid."
"And why, pray?"
"Because—because you are neither young enough nor old enough—"
The painter laughed.
"After such a reason as that I will insist no more."
She blushed suddenly, up to the white brow, where the waves of hair began to ripple, and resumed, with an air of slight confusion:
"Mamma told me to say to you that she will be down immediately, and to ask you whether you will go to the Bois de Boulogne with us."
"Yes, certainly. You are alone?"
"No; with the Duchesse de Mortemain."
"Very well; I will go."
"Then will you allow me to go and put on my hat?"
"Yes, go, my child."
As Annette left the room the Countess entered, veiled, ready to set forth. She extended her hands cordially.
"We never see you any more. What are you doing?" she inquired.
"I did not wish to trouble you just at this time," said Bertin.
In the tone with which she spoke the word "Olivier!" she expressed all her reproaches and all her attachment.
"You are the best woman in the world," he said, touched by the tender intonation of his name.
This little love-quarrel being finished and settled, the Countess resumed her light, society tone.
"We shall pick up the Duchess at her hotel and then make a tour of the Bois. We must show all that sort of thing to Nanette, you know."
The landau awaited them under the porte-cochere.
Bertin seated himself facing the two ladies, and the carriage departed, the pawing of the horses making a resonant sound against the over-arching roof of the porte-cochere.
Along the grand boulevard descending toward the Madeleine all the gaiety of the springtime seemed to have fallen upon the tide of humanity.
The soft air and the sunshine lent to the men a festive air, to the women a suggestion of love; the bakers' boys deposited their baskets on the benches to run and play with their brethren, the street urchins; the dogs appeared in a great hurry to go somewhere; the canaries hanging in the boxes of the concierges trilled loudly; only the ancient cab-horses kept their usual sedate pace.
"Oh, what a beautiful day! How good it is to live!" murmured the Countess.
The painter contemplated both mother and daughter in the dazzling light. Certainly, they were different, but at the same time so much alike that the latter was veritably a continuation of the former, made of the same blood, the same flesh, animated by the same life. Their eyes, above all, those blue eyes flecked with tiny black drops, of such a brilliant blue in the daughter, a little faded in the mother, fixed upon him a look so similar that he expected to hear them make the same replies. And he was surprised to discover, as he made them laugh and talk, that before him were two very distinct women, one who had lived and one who was about to live. No, he did not foresee what would become of that child when her young mind, influenced by tastes and instincts that were as yet dormant, should have expanded and developed amid the life of the world. This was a pretty little new person, ready for chances and for love, ignored and ignorant, who was sailing out of port like a vessel, while her mother was returning, having traversed life and having loved!
He was touched at the thought that she had chosen himself, and that she preferred him still, this woman who had remained so pretty, rocked in that landau, in the warm air of springtime.
As he expressed his gratitude to her in a glance, she divined it, and he thought he could feel her thanks in the rustle of her robe.
In his turn he murmured: "Oh, yes, what a beautiful day!"
When they had taken up the Duchess, in the Rue de Varenne, they spun along at a swift pace toward the Invalides, crossed the Seine, and reached the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, going up toward the Arc de triomphe de l'Etoile in the midst of a sea of carriages.
The young girl was seated beside Olivier, riding backward, and she opened upon this stream of equipages wide and wondering eager eyes. Occasionally, when the Duchess and the Countess acknowledged a salutation with a short movement of the head, she would ask "Who is that?" Bertin answered: "The Pontaiglin," "the Puicelci," "the Comtesse de Lochrist," or "the beautiful Madame Mandeliere."
Now they were following the Avenue of the Bois de Boulogne, amid the noise and the rattling of wheels. The carriages, a little less crowded than below the Arc de Triomphe, seemed to struggle in an endless race. The cabs, the heavy landaus, the solemn eight-spring vehicles, passed one another over and over again, distanced suddenly by a rapid victoria, drawn by a single trotter, bearing along at a reckless pace, through all that rolling throng, bourgeois and aristocratic, through all societies, all classes, all hierarchies, an indolent young woman, whose bright and striking toilette diffused among the carriages it touched in passing a strange perfume of some unknown flower.
"Who is that lady?" Annette inquired.
"I don't know," said Bertin, at which reply the Duchess and the Countess exchanged a smile.
The leaves were opening, the familiar nightingales of that Parisian garden were singing already among the tender verdure, and when, as the carriage approached the lake, it joined the long file of other vehicles at a walk, there was an incessant exchange of salutations, smiles, and friendly words, as the wheels touched. The procession seemed now like the gliding of a flotilla in which were seated very well-bred ladies and gentlemen. The Duchess, who was bowing every moment before raised hats or inclined heads, appeared to be passing them in review, calling to mind what she knew, thought, or supposed of these people, as they defiled before her.
"Look, dearest, there is the lovely Madame Mandeliere again—the beauty of the Republic."
In a light and dashing carriage, the beauty of the Republic allowed to be admired, under an apparent indifference to this indisputable glory, her large dark eyes, her low brow beneath a veil of dusky hair, and her mouth, which was a shade too obstinate in its lines.
"Very beautiful, all the same," said Bertin.
The Countess did not like to hear him praise other women. She shrugged her shoulders slightly, but said nothing.
But the young girl, in whom the instinct of rivalry suddenly awoke, ventured to say: "I do not find her beautiful at all."
"What! You do not think her beautiful?" said the painter.
"No; she looks as if she had been dipped in ink."
The Duchess, delighted, burst into laughter.
"Bravo, little one!" she cried. "For the last six years half the men in Paris have been swooning at the feet of that negress! I believe that they sneer at us. Look at the Comtesse de Lochrist instead."
Alone, in a landau with a white poodle, the Countess, delicate as a miniature, a blond with brown eyes, whose grace and beauty had served for five or six years as the theme for the admiration of her partisans, bowed to the ladies, with a fixed smile on her lips.
But Nanette exhibited no greater enthusiasm than before.
"Oh," she said, "she is no longer young!"
Bertin, who usually did not at all agree with the Countess in the daily discussions of these two rivals, felt a sudden irritation at the stupid intolerance of this little simpleton.
"Nonsense!" he said. "Whether one likes her or not, she is charming; and I only hope that you may become as pretty as she."
"Pooh! pooh!" said the Duchess. "You notice women only after they have passed the thirtieth year. The child is right. You admire only passee beauty."
"Pardon me!" he exclaimed; "a woman is really beautiful only after maturing, when the expression of her face and eyes has become fully developed!"
He enlarged upon this idea that the first youthful freshness is only the gloss of riper beauty; he demonstrated that men of the world were wise in paying but little attention to young girls in their first season, and that they were right in proclaiming them beautiful only when they passed into their later period of bloom.
The Countess, flattered, murmured: "He is right; he speaks as an artist. The youthful countenance is very charming, but it is always a trifle commonplace."
The painter continued to urge his point, indicating at what moment a face that was losing, little by little, the undecided grace of youth, really assumed its definite form, its true character and physiognomy.
At each word the Countess said "Yes," with a little nod of conviction; and the more he affirmed, with all the heat of a lawyer making a plea, with the animation of the accused pleading his own cause, the more she approved, by glance and gesture, as if they two were allied against some danger, and must defend themselves against some false and menacing opinion. Annette hardly heard them, she was so engrossed in looking about her. Her usually smiling face had become grave, and she said no more, carried away by the pleasure of the rapid driving. The sunlight, the trees, the carriage, this delightful life, so rich and gay—all this was for her!
Every day she might come here, recognized in her turn, saluted and envied; and perhaps the men, in pointing her out to one another, would say that she was beautiful. She noticed all those that appeared to her distinguished among the throng and inquired their names, without thinking of anything beyond the mere sound of the syllables, though sometimes they awoke in her an echo of respect and admiration, when she realized that she had seen them often in the newspapers or heard stories concerning them. She could not become accustomed to this long procession of celebrities; it seemed unreal to her, as if she were a part of some stage spectacle. The cabs filled her with disdain mingled with disgust; they annoyed and irritated her, and suddenly she said:
"I think they should not allow anything but private carriages to come here."
"Indeed, Mademoiselle!" said Bertin; "and then what becomes of our equality, liberty and fraternity?"
Annette made a moue that signified "Don't talk about that!" and continued:
"They should have a separate drive for cabs—that of Vincennes, for instance."
"You are behind the times, little one, and evidently do not know that we are swimming in the full tide of democracy. But, if you wish to see this place free from any mingling of the middle class, come in the morning, and then you will find only the fine flower of society."
He proceeded to describe graphically, as he knew well how to do, the Bois in the morning hours with its gay cavaliers and fair Amazons, that club where everyone knows everyone else by their Christian names, their pet names, their family connections, titles, qualities, and vices, as if they all lived in the same neighborhood or in the same small town.
"Do you come here often at that hour?" Annette inquired.
"Very often; there is no more charming place in Paris."
"Do you come on horseback in the mornings?"
"And in the afternoon you pay visits?"
"Then, when do you work?"
"Oh, I work—sometimes; and besides, you see, I have chosen a special entertainment suited to my tastes. As I paint the portraits of beautiful women, it is necessary that I should see them and follow them everywhere."
"On foot and on horseback!" murmured Annette, with a perfectly serious face.
He threw her a sidelong glance of appreciation, which seemed to say: "Ah! you are witty, even now! You will do very well."
A breath of cold air from far away, from the country that was hardly awake as yet, swept over the park, and the whole Bois, coquettish, frivolous, and fashionable, shivered under its chill. For some seconds it caused the tender leaves to tremble on the trees, and garments on shoulders. All the women, with a movement almost simultaneous, drew up over their arms and chests their wraps lying behind them; and the horses began to trot, from one end of the avenue to the other, as if the keen wind had flicked them like a whip.
The Countess's party returned quickly, to the silvery jingle of the harness, under the slanting red rays of the setting sun.
"Shall you go home?" inquired the Countess of Bertin, with whose habits she was familiar.
"No, I am going to the club."
"Then, shall we set you down there in passing?"
"Thank you, that will be very convenient."
"And when shall you invite us to breakfast with the Duchess?"
"Name your day."
This painter in ordinary to the fair Parisians, whom his admirers christened "a Watteau realist" and his detractors a "photographer of gowns and mantles," often received at breakfast or at dinner the beautiful persons whose feature he had reproduced, as well as the celebrated and the well known, who found very amusing these little entertainments in a bachelor's establishment.
"The day after to-morrow, then. Will the day after to-morrow suit you, my dear Duchess?" asked Madame de Guilleroy.
"Yes, indeed; you are charming! Monsieur Bertin never thinks of me when he has his little parties. It is quite evident that I am no longer young."
The Countess, accustomed to consider the artist's home almost the same as her own, replied:
"Only we four, the four of the landau—the Duchess, Annette, you and I, eh, great artist?"
"Only ourselves," said he, alighting from the carriage, "and I will have prepared for you some crabs a l'alsacienne."
"Oh, you will awaken a desire for luxury in the little one!"
He bowed to them, standing beside the carriage door, then entered quickly the vestibule of the main entrance to the club, threw his topcoat and cane to a group of footmen, who had risen like soldiers at the passing of an officer; mounted the broad stairway, meeting another brigade of servants in knee-breeches, pushed open a door, feeling himself suddenly as alert as a young man, as he heard at the end of the corridor a continuous clash of foils, the sound of stamping feet, and loud exclamations: "Touche!" "A moi." "Passe!" "J'en ai!" "Touche!" "A vous!"
In the fencing-hall the swordsmen, dressed in gray linen, with leather vests, their trousers tight around the ankles, a sort of apron falling over the front of the body, one arm in the air, with the hand thrown backward, and in the other hand, enormous in a large fencing-glove, the thin, flexible foil, extended and recovered with the agile swiftness of mechanical jumping-jacks.
Others rested and chatted, still out of breath, red and perspiring, with handkerchief in hand to wipe off faces and necks; others, seated on a square divan that ran along the four sides of the hall, watched the fencing—Liverdy against Landa, and the master of the club, Taillade, against the tall Rocdiane.
Bertin, smiling, quite at home, shook hands with several men.
"I choose you!" cried the Baron de Baverie.
"I am with you, my dear fellow," said Bertin, passing into the dressing-room to prepare himself.
He had not felt so agile and vigorous for a long time, and, guessing that he should fence well that day, he hurried as impatiently as a schoolboy ready for play. As soon as he stood before his adversary he attacked him with great ardor, and in ten minutes he had touched him eleven times and had so fatigued him that the Baron cried for quarter. Then he fenced with Punisimont, and with his colleague, Amaury Maldant.
The cold douche that followed, freezing his palpitating flesh, reminded him of the baths of his twentieth year, when he used to plunge head first into the Seine from the bridges in the suburbs, in order to amaze the bourgeois passers-by.
"Shall you dine here?" inquired Maldant.
"We have a table with Liverdy, Rocdiane, and Landa; make haste; it is a quarter past seven."
The dining-room was full, and there was a continuous hum of men's voices.
There were all the nocturnal vagabonds of Paris, idlers and workers, all those who from seven o'clock in the evening know not what to do and dine at the club, ready to catch at anything or anybody that chance may offer to amuse them.
When the five friends were seated the banker Liverdy, a vigorous and hearty man of forty, said to Bertin:
"You were in fine form this evening."
"Yes, I could have done surprising things to-day," Bertin replied.
The others smiled, and the landscape painter, Amaury Maldant, a thin little bald-headed man with a gray beard, said, with a sly expression:
"I, too, always feel the rising of the sap in April; it makes me bring forth a few leaves—half a dozen at most—then it runs into sentiment; there never is any fruit."
The Marquis de Rocdiane and the Comte Landa sympathized with him. Both were older than he, though even a keen eye could not guess their age; clubmen, horsemen, swordsmen, whose incessant exercise had given them bodies of steel, they boasted of being younger in every way than the enervated good-for-nothings of the new generation.
Rocdiane, of good family, with the entree to all salons, though suspected of financial intrigues of many kinds (which, according to Bertin, was not surprising, since he had lived so much in the gaming-houses), married, but separated from his wife, who paid him an annuity, a director of Belgian and Portuguese banks, carried boldly upon his energetic, Don Quixote-like face the somewhat tarnished honor of a gentleman, which was occasionally brightened by the blood from a thrust in a duel.
The Comte de Landa, a good-natured colossus, proud of his figure and his shoulders, although married and the father of two children, found it difficult to dine at home three times a week; he remained at the club on the other days, with his friends, after the session in the fencing-hall.
"The club is a family," he said, "the family of those who as yet have none, of those who never will have one, and of those who are bored by their own."
The conversation branched off on the subject of women, glided from anecdotes to reminiscences, from reminiscences to boasts, and then to indiscreet confidences.
The Marquis de Rocdiane allowed the names of his inamoratas to be guessed by unmistakable hints—society women whose names he did not utter, so that their identity might be the better surmised. The banker Liverdy indicated his flames by their first names. He would say: "I was at that time the best of friends with the wife of a diplomat. Now, one evening when I was leaving her, I said to her, 'My little Marguerite'"—then he checked himself, amid the smiles of his fellows, adding "Ha! I let something slip. One should form a habit of calling all women Sophie."
Olivier Bertin, very reserved, was accustomed to declare, when questioned:
"For my part, I content myself with my models."
They pretended to believe him, and Landa, who was frankly a libertine, grew quite excited at the idea of all the pretty creatures that walked the streets and all the young persons who posed undraped before the painter at ten francs an hour.
As the bottle became empty, all these gray-beards, as the younger members of the club called them, acquired red faces, and their kindling ardor awakened new desires.
Rocdiane, after the coffee, became still more indiscreet, and forgot the society women to celebrate the charms of simple cocottes.
"Paris!" said he, a glass of kummel in his hand, "The only city where a man never grows old, the only one where, at fifty, if he is sound and well preserved, he will always find a young girl, as pretty as an angel, to love him."
Landa, finding again his Rocdiane after the liqueurs, applauded him enthusiastically, and mentioned the young girls who still adored him every day.
But Liverdy, more skeptical, and pretending to know exactly what women were worth, murmured: "Yes, they tell you that they adore you!"
"They prove it to me, my dear fellow," exclaimed Landa.
"Such proofs don't count."
"They suffice me!"
"But, sacrebleu! they do mean it," cried Rocdiane. "Do you believe that a pretty little creature of twenty, who has been going the rounds in Paris for five or six years already, where all our moustaches have taught her kisses and spoiled her taste for them, still knows how to distinguish a man of thirty from a man of sixty? Pshaw! what nonsense! She has seen and known too many of them. Now, I'll wager that, down in the bottom of her heart, she actually prefers an old banker to a young stripling. Does she know or reflect upon that? Have men any age here? Oh, my dear fellow, we grow young as we grow gray, and the whiter our hair becomes the more they tell us they love us, the more they show it, and the more they believe it."
They rose from the table, their blood warmed and lashed by alcohol, ready to make any conquest; and they began to deliberate how to spend the evening, Bertin mentioning the Cirque, Rocdiane the Hippodrome, Maldant the Eden, and Landa the Folies-Bergere, when a light and distant sound of the tuning of violins reached their ears.
"Ah, there is music at the club to-day, it seems," said Rocdiane.
"Yes," Bertin replied. "Shall we listen for ten minutes before going out?"
They crossed a salon, a billiard-room, a card-room, and finally reached a sort of box over the gallery of the musicians. Four gentlemen, ensconced in armchairs, were waiting there already, in easy attitudes, while below, among rows of empty seats, a dozen others were chatting, sitting or standing.
The conductor tapped his desk with his bow; the music began.
Olivier adored music as an opium-eater adores opium. It made him dream.
As soon as the sonorous wave from the instruments reached him he felt himself borne away in a sort of nervous intoxication, which thrilled body and mind indescribably. His imagination ran riot, made drunk by melody, and carried him along through sweet dreams and charming reveries. With closed eyes, legs crossed, and folded arms, he listened to the strains, and gave himself up to the visions that passed before his eyes and into his mind.
The orchestra was playing one of Haydn's symphonies, and when Bertin's eyelids drooped over his eyes, he saw again the Bois, the crowd of carriages around him, and facing him in the landau the Countess and her daughter. He heard their voices, followed their words, felt the movement of the carriage, inhaled the air, filled with the odor of young leaves.
Three times, his neighbor, speaking to him, interrupted this vision, which three times he began again, as the rolling of the vessel seems to continue when, after crossing the ocean, one lies motionless in bed.
Then it extended itself to a long voyage, with the two women always seated before him, sometimes on the railway, again at the table of strange hotels. During the whole execution of the symphony they accompanied him, as if, while driving with him in the sunshine, they had left the image of their two faces imprinted on his vision.
Silence followed; then came a noise of seats being moved and chattering of voices, which dispelled this vapor of a dream, and he perceived, dozing around him, his four friends, relaxed from a listening attitude to the comfortable posture of sleep.
"Well, what shall we do now?" he asked, after he had roused them.
"I should like to sleep here a little longer," replied Rocdiane frankly.
"And I, too," said Landa.
"Well, I shall go home," he said. "I am rather tired."
He felt very animated, on the contrary, but he wished to go, fearing the end of the evening around the baccarat-table of the club, which unfortunately he knew so well.
He went home, therefore, and the following day, after a nervous night, one of those nights that put artists in that condition of cerebral activity called inspiration, he decided not to go out, but to work until evening.
It was an excellent day, one of those days of facile production, when ideas seem to descend into the hands and fix themselves upon the canvas.
With doors shut, far from the world, in the quiet of his own dwelling, closed to everyone, in the friendly peace of his studio, with clear eye, lucid mind, enthusiastic, alert, he tasted that happiness given only to artists, the happiness of bringing forth their work in joy. Nothing existed any more for him in such hours of work except the piece of canvas on which was born an image under the caress of his brush; and he experienced, in these crises of productiveness, a strange and delicious sensation of abounding life which intoxicated him. When evening came he was exhausted as by healthful fatigue, and went to sleep with agreeable anticipation of his breakfast the next morning.
The table was covered with flowers, the menu was carefully chosen, for Madame de Guilleroy's sake, as she was a refined epicure; and in spite of strong but brief resistance, the painter compelled his guests to drink champagne.
"The little one will get intoxicated," protested the Countess.
"Dear me! there must be a first time," replied the indulgent Duchess.
Everyone, as the party returned to the studio, felt stirred by that light gaiety which lifts one as if the feet had wings.
The Duchess and the Countess, having an engagement at a meeting of the Committee of French Mothers, were to take Annette home before going to the meeting; but Bertin offered to take her for a walk, and then to the Boulevard Malesherbes; so both ladies left them.
"Let us take the longest way," said Annette.
"Would you like to stroll about the Monceau Park?" asked Bertin. "It is a very pretty place; we will look at the babies and nurses."
"Yes, I should like that."
They passed through the Avenue Velasquez and entered the gilded and monumental gate that serves as a sign and an entrance to that exquisite jewel of a park, displaying in the heart of Paris its verdant and artificial beauty, surrounded by a belt of princely mansions.
Along the wide walks, which unroll their massive and artistic curves through grassy lawns, throngs of people, sitting on iron chairs, watch the passers; while in the little paths, deep in shade and winding like streams, groups of children crawl in the sand, run about, or jump the rope under the indolent eyes of nurses or the anxious watchfulness of mothers. Two enormous trees, rounded into domes, like monuments of leaves, the gigantic horse-chestnuts, whose heavy verdure is lighted up by red and white clusters, the showy sycamores, the graceful plane-trees with their trunks designedly polished, set off in a charming perspective the tall, undulating grass.
The weather was warm, the turtle-doves were cooing among the branches, and flying to meet one another from the tree-tops, while the sparrows bathed in the rainbow formed by the sunshine and the spray thrown over the smooth turf. White statues on their pedestals seemed happy in the midst of the green freshness. A little marble boy was drawing from his foot an invisible thorn, as if he had just pricked himself in running after the Diana fleeing toward the little lake, imprisoned by the woods that screened the ruins of a temple.
Other statues, amorous and cold, embraced one another on the borders of the groves, or dreamed there, holding one knee in the hand. A cascade foamed and rolled over the pretty rocks; a tree, truncated like a column, supported an ivy; a tombstone bore an inscription. The stone shafts erected on the lawns hardly suggest better the Acropolis than this elegant little park recalled wild forests. It is the charming and artificial place where city people go to look at flowers grown in hot-houses, and to admire, as one admires the spectacle of life at the theater, that agreeable representation of the beauties of nature given in the heart of Paris.
Olivier Bertin had come almost every day for years to this favorite spot to look at the fair Parisians moving in their appropriate setting. "It is a park made for toilettes," he would say; "Badly dressed people are horrible in it." He would rove about there for hours, knowing all the plants and all the habitual visitors.
He now strolled beside Annette along the avenues, his eye distracted by the motley and animated crowd in the gardens.
"Oh, the little love!" exclaimed Annette. She was gazing at a tiny boy with blond curls, who was looking at her with his blue eyes full of surprise and delight.
Then she passed all the children in review, and the pleasure she felt in seeing those living dolls, decked out in their dainty ribbons, made her talkative and communicative.
She walked slowly, chatting to Bertin, giving him her reflections on the children, the nurses, and the mothers. The larger children drew from her little exclamations of joy, while the little pale ones touched her sympathy.
Bertin listened, more amused by her than by the little ones, and, always remembering his work, he murmured, "That is delicious!" thinking that he must make an exquisite picture, with one corner of this park and a bouquet of nurses, mothers and children. Why had he never thought of it before?
"You like those little ones?" he inquired.
"I adore them!"
He felt, from her manner of looking at them, that she longed to take them in her arms, to hug and kiss them—the natural and tender longing of a future mother; and he was surprised at this secret instinct hidden in this little woman.
As she appeared ready to talk, he questioned her about her tastes. She admitted, with pretty naivete, that she had hopes of social success and glory, and that she desired to have fine horses, which she knew almost as well as a horse-dealer, for a part of the farm at Roncieres was devoted to breeding; but she appeared to trouble her head no more about a fiance than one is concerned about an apartment, which is always to be found among the multitude of houses to rent.
They approached the lake, where two swans and six ducks were quietly floating, as clean and calm as porcelain birds, and they passed before a young woman sitting in a chair, with an open book lying on her knees, her eyes gazing upward, her soul having apparently taken flight in a dream.
She was as motionless as a wax figure. Plain, humble, dressed as a modest girl who has no thought of pleasing, she had gone to the land of Dreams, carried away by a phrase or a word that had bewitched her heart. Undoubtedly she was continuing, according to the impulse of her hopes, the adventure begun in the book.
Bertin paused, surprised. "How beautiful to dream like that!" said he.
They had passed before her; now they turned and passed her again without her perceiving them, so attentively did she follow the distant flight of her thought.
"Tell me, little one," said the painter to Annette, "would it bore you very much to pose for me once or twice?"
"No, indeed! Quite the contrary."
"Look well at that young lady who is roaming in the world of fancy."
"The lady there, in that chair?"
"Yes. Well, you, too, will sit on a chair, you will have an open book on your knee, and you will try to do as she does. Have you ever had daydreams?"
He tried to confess her as to her aerial flights, but she would make no reply, evaded his questions, looked at the ducks swimming after some bread thrown to them by a lady, and seemed embarrassed, as if he had touched upon a subject that was a sensitive point with her.
Then, to change the conversation, she talked about her life at Roncieres, spoke of her grandmother, to whom she read aloud a long time every day, and who must now feel very lonely and sad.
As he listened, the painter felt as gay as a bird, gay as he never had been. All that she had said, all the doings, the trifling everyday details of the simple life of a young girl, amused and interested him.
"Let us sit down," he said.
They seated themselves near the water, and the two swans came floating toward them, expecting some fresh dainty.
Bertin felt recollections awakening within him—those faded remembrances that are drowned in forgetfulness, and which suddenly return, one knows not why. They surged up rapidly, of all sorts, and so numerous at the same time that it seemed to him a hand was stirring the miry depths of his memory.
He tried to guess the reasons of this rising up of his former life which several times already, though never so insistently as to-day, he had felt and remarked. A cause always existed for these sudden evocations—a natural and simple cause, an odor, perhaps, often a perfume. How many times a woman's draperies had thrown to him in passing, with the evaporating breath of some essence, a host of forgotten events. At the bottom of old perfume-bottles he had often found bits of his former existence; and all wandering odors—of streets, fields, houses, furniture, sweet or unsavory, the warm odors of summer evenings, the cold breath of winter nights, revived within him far-off reminiscences, as if odors kept embalmed within him these dead-and-gone memories, as aromatics preserve mummies.
Was it the damp grass or the chestnut blossoms that thus reanimated the past? No. What, then?
Was it his eye to which he owed this alertness? What had he seen? Nothing. Among the persons he had met, perhaps one might have resembled some one he had known, and, although he had not recognized it, it might have rung in his heart all the chords of the past.
Was it not a sound, rather? Very often he had heard by chance a piano, an unknown voice, even a hand-organ in the street playing some old air, which had suddenly made him feel twenty years younger, filling his breast with tender recollections, long buried.
But this appeal, continued, incessant, intangible, almost irritating! What was there near him to revive thus his extinct emotions?
"It is growing a little cool; we must go home," he said.
They rose, and resumed their walk.
He looked at the poor people sitting on benches, for whom a chair was too great an expense.
Annette also observed them, and felt disturbed at the thought of their lives, their occupations, surprised that they should come to lounge in this beautiful public garden, when their own appearance was so forlorn.
More than ever was Olivier now dreaming over past years. It seemed to him that a fly was humming in his ear, filling it with a buzzing song of bygone days.
The young girl, observing his dreamy air, asked:
"What is the matter? You seem sad."
His heart thrilled within him. Who had said that? She or her mother? Not her mother with her present voice but with her voice of long ago, so changed that he had only just recognized it.
"Nothing," he replied, smiling. "You entertain me very much; you are very charming, and you remind me of your mother."
How was it that he had not sooner remarked this strange echo of a voice once so familiar, now coming from these fresh lips?
"Go on talking," he said.
"Tell me what your teachers have taught you. Did you like them?"
She began again to chat pleasantly. He listened, stirred by a growing anxiety; he watched and waited to detect, among the phrases of this young girl, almost a stranger to his heart, a word, a sound, a laugh, that seemed to have been imprisoned in her throat since her mother's youth. Certain intonations made him tremble with astonishment. Of course there were differences in their tones, the resemblance of which he had not remarked immediately, and which were in some ways so dissimilar that he had not confounded them at all; but these differences rendered all the more striking this sudden reproduction of the maternal speech. He had noted their facial resemblance with a friendly and curious eye, but now the mystery of this resuscitated voice mingled them in such a way that, turning away his head that he might no longer see the young girl, he asked himself whether it were not the Countess who was speaking thus to him, twelve years earlier.
Then when he had woven this hallucination, he turned toward her again, and found, as their eyes met, a little of the shy hesitation with which the mother's gaze had met his in the first days of their love.
They had already walked three times around the park, passing always before the same persons, the same nurses and children.
Annette was now inspecting the buildings surrounding the garden, inquiring the names of their owners. She wished to know all about them, asked questions with eager curiosity, seeming to fill her feminine mind with these details, and, with interested face, listening with her eyes as much as with her ears.
But when they arrived at the pavilion that separates the two gates of the outer boulevard, Bertin perceived that it was almost four o'clock.
"Oh," he said, "we must go home."
They walked slowly toward the Boulevard Malesherbes.
After the painter had left Annette at her home he proceeded toward the Place de la Concorde.
He sang to himself softly, longed to run, and would have been glad to jump over the benches, so agile did he feel. Paris seemed radiant to him, more beautiful than ever. "Decidedly the springtime revarnishes the whole world," was his reflection.
He was in one of those periods of mental excitement when one understands everything with more pleasure, when the vision is clearer and more comprehensive, when one feels a keener joy in seeing and feeling, as if an all-powerful hand had brightened all the colors of earth, reanimated all living creatures, and had wound up in us, as in a watch that has stopped, the activity of sensation.
He thought, as his glance took in a thousand amusing things: "And I said that there were moments when I could no longer find subjects to paint!"
He felt such a sensation of freedom and clear-sightedness that all his artistic work seemed commonplace to him, and he conceived a new way of expressing life, truer and more original; and suddenly he was seized with a desire to return home and work, so he retraced his steps and shut himself up in his studio.
But as soon as he was alone, before a newly begun picture, the ardor that had burned in his blood began to cool. He felt tired, sat down on his divan, and again gave himself up to dreaming.
The sort of happy indifference in which he lived, that carelessness of the satisfied man whose almost every need is gratified, was leaving his heart by degrees, as if something were still lacking. He realized that his house was empty and his studio deserted. Then, looking around him, he fancied he saw pass by him the shadow of a woman whose presence was sweet. For a long time he had forgotten the sensation of impatience that a lover feels when awaiting the coming of his mistress, and now he suddenly felt that she was far away, and he longed, with the ardor of a young man, to have her near him.
He was moved in thinking how much they had loved each other; and in that vast apartment he found once more, where she had come so often, innumerable reminders of her, her gestures, words, and kisses. He recalled certain days, certain hours, certain moments, and he felt around him the sweetness of her early caresses.
He got up, unable to sit quietly any longer, and began to walk, thinking again that, in spite of this intimacy that had so filled his life, he still remained alone, always alone. After the long hours of work, when he looked around him, dazed by the reawakening of the man who returns to life, he saw and felt only walls within reach of his hand and voice. Not having any woman in his home, and not being able to meet the one he loved except with the precautions of a thief, he had been compelled to spend his leisure time in public places where one finds or purchases the means of killing time. He was accustomed to going to the club, to the Cirque and the Hippodrome, on fixed days, to the Opera, and to all sorts of places, so that he should not be compelled to go home, where no doubt he would have lived in perfect happiness had he only had her beside him.
Long before, in certain hours of tender abandon, he had suffered cruelly because he could not take her and keep her with him; then, as his ardor cooled, he had accepted quietly their separation and his own liberty; now he regretted them once more, as if he were again beginning to love her. And this return of tenderness invaded his heart so suddenly, almost without reason, because the weather was fine, and possibly because a little while ago he had recognized the rejuvenated voice of that woman! How slight a thing it takes to move a man's heart, a man who is growing old, with whom remembrance turns into regret!
As in former days, the need of seeing her again came to him, entering body and mind, like a fever; and he began to think after the fashion of a young lover, exalting her in his heart, and feeling himself exalted in his desire for her; then he decided, although he had seen her only that morning, to go and ask for a cup of tea that same evening.
The hours seemed long to him, and as he set out for the Boulevard Malesherbes he was seized with a fear of not finding her, which would force him still to pass the evening alone, as he had passed so many others.
To his query: "Is the Countess at home?" the servant's answer, "Yes, Monsieur," filled him with joy.
He said, with a radiant air: "It is I again!" as he appeared at the threshold of the smaller drawing-room where the two ladies were working, under the pink shade of a double lamp of English metal, on a high and slender standard.
"What, is it you? How fortunate!" exclaimed the Countess.
"Well, yes. I feel very lonely, so I came."
"How nice of you!"
"You are expecting someone?"
"No—perhaps—I never know."
He had seated himself and now looked scornfully at the gray knitting-work that mother and daughter were swiftly making from heavy wool, working at it with long needles.
"What is that?" he asked.
"For the poor?"
"Yes, of course."
"It is very ugly."
"It is very warm."
"Possibly, but it is very ugly, especially in a Louis Fifteenth apartment, where everything else charms the eye. If not for your poor, you really ought to make your charities more elegant, for the sake of your friends."
"Oh, heavens, these men!" said the Countess, with a shrug of her shoulders. "Why, everyone is making this kind of coverlets just now."
"I know that; I know it only too well! Once cannot make an evening call now without seeing that frightful gray stuff dragged over the prettiest gowns and the most elegant furniture. Bad taste seems to be the fashion this spring."
To judge whether he spoke the truth, the Countess spread out her knitting on a silk-covered chair beside her; then she assented indifferently:
"Yes, you are right—it is ugly."
Then she resumed her work. Upon the two bent heads fell a stream of light; a rosy radiance from the lamp illumined their hair and complexions, extending to their skirts and their moving fingers. They watched their work with that attention, light but continuous, given by women to this labor of the fingers which the eye follows without a thought.
At the four corners of the room four other lamps of Chinese porcelain, borne by ancient columns of gilded wood, shed upon the hangings a soft, even light, modified by lace shades thrown over the globes.
Bertin took a very low seat, a dwarf armchair, in which he could barely seat himself, but which he had always preferred when talking with the Countess because it brought him almost at her feet.
"You took a long walk with Nane this afternoon in the park," said the Countess.
"Yes. We chatted like old friends. I like your daughter very much. She resembles you very strongly. When she pronounces certain phrases, one would believe that you had left your voice in her mouth."
"My husband has already said that very often."
He watched the two women work, bathed in the lamplight, and the thought that had often made him suffer, which had given him suffering that day, even—the recollection of his desolate home, still, silent, and cold, whatever the weather, whatever fire might be lighted in chimney or furnace—saddened him as if he now understood his bachelor's isolation for the first time.
Oh, how deeply he longed to be the husband of this woman, and not her lover! Once he had desired to carry her away, to take her from that man, to steal her altogether. To-day he was jealous of him, that deceived husband who was installed beside her forever, in the habits of her household and under the sweet influence of her presence. In looking at her he felt his heart full of old things revived, of which he wished to speak. Certainly, he still loved her very much, even a little more to-day than he had for some time; and the desire to tell her of this return of youthful feeling, which would be sure to delight her, made him wish that she would send the young girl to bed as soon as possible.
Obsessed by this strong desire to be alone with her, to sit near her and lay his head on her knee, to take the hands from which would slip the quilt for the poor, the needles, and the ball of wool, which would roll under a sofa at the end of a long, unwound thread, he looked at the time, relapsed into almost complete silence, and thought that it was a great mistake to allow young girls to pass the evening with grown-up persons.
Presently a sound of footsteps was heard in the next room, and a servant appeared at the door announcing:
"Monsieur de Musadieu."
Olivier Bertin felt a spasm of anger, and when he shook hands with the Inspector of Fine Arts he had a great desire to take him by the shoulders and throw him into the street.
Musadieu was full of news; the ministry was about to fall, and there was a whisper of scandal about the Marquis de Rocdiane. He looked at the young girl, adding: "I will tell you about that a little later."
The Countess raised her eyes to the clock and saw that it was about to strike ten.
"It is time to go to bed, my child," she said to her daughter.
Without replying, Annette folded her knitting-work, rolled up her ball of wool, kissed her mother on the cheeks, gave her hand to the two gentlemen, and departed quickly, as if she glided away without disturbing the air as she went.
"Well, what is your scandal?" her mother demanded, as soon as she had gone.
It appeared that rumor said that the Marquis de Rocdiane, amicably separated from his wife, who paid to him an allowance that he considered insufficient, had discovered a sure if singular means to double it. The Marquise, whom he had had watched, had been surprised in flagrante delictu, and was compelled to buy off, with an increased allowance, the legal proceedings instituted by the police commissioner.
The Countess listened with curious gaze, her idle hands holding the interrupted needle-work on her knee.
Bertin, who was still more exasperated by Musadieu's presence since Annette had gone, was incensed at this recital, and declared, with the indignation of one who had known of the scandal but did not wish to speak of it to anyone, that the story was an odious falsehood, one of those shameful lies which people of their world ought neither to listen to nor repeat. He appeared greatly wrought up over the matter, as he stood leaning against the mantelpiece and speaking with the excited manner of a man disposed to make a personal question of the subject under discussion.
Rocdiane was his friend, he said; and, though he might be criticised for frivolity in certain respects, no one could justly accuse him or even suspect him of any really unworthy action. Musadieu, surprised and embarrassed, defended himself, tried to explain and to excuse himself.
"Allow me to say," he remarked at last, "that I heard this story just before I came here, in the drawing-room of the Duchesse de Mortemain."
"Who told it to you? A woman, no doubt," said Bertin.
"No, not at all; it was the Marquis de Farandal."
The painter, irritated still further, retorted: "That does not astonish me—from him!"
There was a brief silence. The Countess took up her work again. Presently Olivier said in a calmer voice: "I know for a fact that that story is false."
In reality, he knew nothing whatever about it, having heard it mentioned then for the first time.
Musadieu thought it wise to prepare the way for his retreat, feeling the situation rather dangerous; and he was just beginning to say that he must pay a visit at the Corbelles' that evening when the Comte de Guilleroy appeared, returning from dining in the city.
Bertin sat down again, overcome, and despairing now of getting rid of the husband.
"You haven't heard, have you, of the great scandal that is running all over town this evening?" inquired the Count pleasantly.
As no one answered, he continued: "It seems that Rocdiane surprised his wife in a criminal situation, and has made her pay dearly for her indiscretion."
Then Bertin, with his melancholy air, with grief in voice and gesture, placing one hand on Guilleroy's shoulder, repeated in a gentle and amicable manner all that he had just said so roughly to Musadieu.
The Count, half convinced, annoyed to have allowed himself to repeat so lightly a doubtful and possibly compromising thing, pleaded his ignorance and his innocence. The gossips said so many false and wicked things!
Suddenly, all agreed upon this statement: the world certainly accused, suspected, and calumniated with deplorable facility! All four appeared to be convinced, during the next five minutes, that all the whispered scandals were lies; that the women did not have the lovers ascribed to them; that the men never committed the sins they were accused of; and, in short, that the outward appearance of things was usually much worse than the real situation.
Bertin, who no longer felt vexed with Musadieu since De Guilleroy's arrival, was now very pleasant to him, led him to talk on his favorite subjects, and opened the sluices of his eloquence. The Count wore the contented air of a man who carries everywhere with him an atmosphere of peace and cordiality.
Two servants noiselessly entered the drawing-room, bearing the tea-table, on which the boiling water steamed in a pretty, shining kettle over the blue flame of an alcohol lamp.
The Countess rose, prepared the hot beverage with the care and precaution we have learned from the Russians, then offered a cup to Musadieu, another to Bertin, following this with plates containing sandwiches of pate de foies gras and little English and Austrian cakes.
The Count approached the portable table, where was also an assortment of syrups, liqueurs, and glasses; he mixed himself a drink, then discreetly disappeared into the next room.
Bertin found himself again facing Musadieu, and felt once more the sudden desire to thrust outside this bore, who, now put on his mettle, talked at great length, told stories, repeated jests, and made some himself. The painter glanced continually at the clock, the hands of which approached midnight. The Countess noticed his glances, understood that he wished to speak to her alone, and, with that ability of a clever woman of the world to change by indescribable shades of tone the whole atmosphere of a drawing-room, to make it understood, without saying anything, whether one is to remain or to go, she diffused about her, by her attitude alone, by the bored expression of her face and eyes, a chill as if she had just opened a window.
Musadieu felt this chilly current freezing his flow of ideas; and, without asking himself the reason, he felt a sudden desire to rise and depart.
Bertin, as a matter of discretion, followed his example. The two men passed through both drawing-rooms together, followed by the Countess, who talked to the painter all the while. She detained him at the threshold of the ante-chamber to make some trifling explanation, while Musadieu, assisted by a footman, put on his topcoat. As Madame de Guilleroy continued to talk to Bertin, the Inspector of Fine Arts, having waited some seconds before the front door, held open by another servant, decided to depart himself rather than stand there facing the footman any longer.
The door was closed softly behind him, and the Countess said to the artist in a perfectly easy tone:
"Why do you go so soon? It is not yet midnight. Stay a little longer."
They reentered the smaller drawing-room together and seated themselves.
"My God! how that animal set my teeth on edge!" said Bertin.
"He took you away from me a little."
"Oh, not very much."
"Perhaps not, but he irritated me."
"Are you jealous?"
"It is not being jealous to find a man a bore."
He had taken his accustomed armchair, and seated close beside her now he smoothed the folds of her robe with his fingers as he told her of the warm breath of tenderness that had passed through his heart that day.
The Countess listened, surprised, charmed, and gently laid her hand on his white locks, which she caressed tenderly, as if to thank him.
"I should like so much to live always near you!" he sighed.
He was thinking of her husband, who had retired to rest, asleep, no doubt, in some neighboring chamber, and he continued:
"It is undoubtedly true that marriage is the only thing that really unites two lives."
"My poor friend!" she murmured, full of pity for him and also for herself.
He had laid his cheek against the Countess's knees, and he looked up at her with a tenderness touched with sadness, less ardently than a short time before, when he had been separated from her by her daughter, her husband, and Musadieu.
"Heavens! how white your hair has grown!" said the Countess with a smile, running her fingers lightly over Olivier's head. "Your last black hairs have disappeared."
"Alas! I know it. Everything goes so soon!"
She was concerned lest she had made him sad.
"Oh, but your hair turned gray very early, you know," she said. "I have always known you with pepper-and-salt locks."
"Yes, that is true."
In order to dispel altogether the slight cloud of regret she had evoked, she leaned over him and, taking his head between her hands, kissed him slowly and tenderly on the forehead, with long kisses that seemed as if they never would end. Then they gazed into each other's eyes, seeking therein the reflection of their mutual fondness.
"I should like so much to pass a whole day with you," Bertin continued. He felt himself tormented obscurely by an inexpressible necessity for close intimacy. He had believed, only a short time ago, that the departure of those who had been present would suffice to realize the desire that had possessed him since morning; and now that he was alone with his mistress, now that he felt on his brow the touch of her hands, and, against his cheek, through the folds of her skirt, the warmth of her body, he felt the same agitation reawakened, the same longing for a love hitherto unknown and ever fleeing him. He now fancied that, away from that house—perhaps in the woods where they would be absolutely alone—this deep yearning of his heart would be calmed and satisfied.
"What a boy you are!" said the Countess. "Why, we see each other almost every day."
He begged her to devise a plan whereby she might breakfast with him, in some suburb of Paris, as she had already done four or five times.
The Countess was astonished at his caprice, so difficult to realize now that her daughter had returned. She assured him that she would try to do it as soon as her husband should go to Ronces; but that it would be impossible before the varnishing-day reception, which would take place the following Saturday.
"And until then when shall I see you?" he asked.
"To-morrow evening at the Corbelles'. Come over here Thursday, at three o'clock, if you are free; and I believe that we are to dine together with the Duchess on Friday."
"Good-by, my friend."
He remained standing, unable to decide to go, for he had said almost nothing of all that he had come to say, and his mind was still full of unsaid things, his heart still swelled with vague desires which he could not express.
"Good-bye!" he repeated, taking her hands.
"Good-by, my friend!"
"I love you!"
She gave him one of those smiles with which a woman shows a man, in a single instant, all that she has given him.
With a throbbing heart he repeated for the third time, "Good-by!" and departed.
A DOUBLE JEALOUSY
One would have said that all the carriages in Paris were making a pilgrimage to the Palais de l'Industrie that day. As early as nine o'clock in the morning they began to drive, by way of all streets, avenues, and bridges, toward that hall of the fine arts where all artistic Paris invites all fashionable Paris to be present at the pretended varnishing of three thousand four hundred pictures.
A long procession of visitors pressed through the doors, and, disdaining the exhibition of sculpture, hastened upstairs to the picture gallery. Even while mounting the steps they raised their eyes to the canvases displayed on the walls of the staircase, where they hang the special category of decorative painters who have sent canvases of unusual proportions or works that the committee dare not refuse.
In the square salon a great crowd surged and rustled. The artists, who were in evidence until evening, were easily recognized by their activity, the sonorousness of their voices, and the authority of their gestures. They drew their friends by the sleeve toward the pictures, which they pointed out with exclamations and mimicry of a connoisseur's energy. All types of artists were to be seen—tall men with long hair, wearing hats of mouse-gray or black and of indescribable shapes, large and round like roofs, with their turned-down brims shadowing the wearer's whole chest. Others were short, active, slight or stocky, wearing foulard cravats and round jackets, or the sack-like garment of the singular costume peculiar to this class of painters.
There was the clan of the fashionables, of the curious, and of artists of the boulevard; the clan of Academicians, correct, and decorated with red rosettes, enormous or microscopic, according to individual conception of elegance and good form; the clan of bourgeois painters, assisted by the family surrounding the father like a triumphal chorus.
On the four great walls the canvases admitted to the honor of the square salon dazzled one at the very entrance by their brilliant tones, glittering frames, the crudity of new color, vivified by fresh varnish, blinding under the pitiless light poured from above.
The portrait of the President of the Republic faced the entrance; while on another wall a general bedizened with gold lace, sporting a hat decorated with ostrich plumes, and wearing red cloth breeches, hung in pleasant proximity to some naked nymphs under a willow-tree, and near by was a vessel in distress almost engulfed by a great wave. A bishop of the early Church excommunicating a barbarian king, an Oriental street full of dead victims of the plague, and the Shade of Dante in Hell, seized and captivated the eye with irresistible fascination.
Other paintings in the immense room were a charge of cavalry; sharpshooters in a wood; cows in a pasture; two noblemen of the eighteenth century fighting a duel on a street corner; a madwoman sitting on a wall; a priest administering the last rites to a dying man; harvesters, rivers, a sunset, a moonlight effect—in short, samples of everything that artists paint, have painted, and will paint until the end of the world.
Olivier, in the midst of a group of celebrated brother painters, members of the Institute and of the jury, exchanged opinions with them. He was oppressed by a certain uneasiness, a dissatisfaction with his own exhibited work, of the success of which he was very doubtful, in spite of the warm congratulations he had received.
Suddenly he sprang forward; the Duchesse de Mortemain had appeared at the main entrance.
"Hasn't the Countess arrived yet?" she inquired of Bertin.
"I have not seen her."
"And Monsieur de Musadieu?"
"I have not seen him either."
"He promised me to be here at ten o'clock, at the top of the stairs, to show me around the principal galleries."
"Will you permit me to take his place, Duchess?"
"No, no. Your friends need you. We shall see each other again very soon, for I shall expect you to lunch with us."
Musadieu hastened toward them. He had been detained for some minutes in the hall of sculpture, and excused himself, breathless already.
"This way, Duchess, this way," said he. "Let us begin at the right."
They were just disappearing among the throng when the Comtesse de Guilleroy, leaning on her daughter's arm, entered and looked around in search of Olivier Bertin.
He saw them and hastened to meet them. As he greeted the two ladies, he said:
"How charming you look to-day. Really, Nanette has improved very much. She has actually changed in a week."
He regarded her with the eye of a close observer, adding: "The lines of her face are softer, yet more expressive; her complexion is clearer. She is already something less of a little girl and somewhat more of a Parisian."
Suddenly he bethought himself of the grand affair of the day.
"Let us begin at the right," said he, "and we shall soon overtake the Duchess."
The Countess, well informed on all matters connected with painting, and as preoccupied as if she were herself on exhibition, inquired: "What do they say of the exposition?"
"A fine one," Bertin replied. "There is a remarkable Bonnat, two excellent things by Carolus Duran, an admirable Puvis de Chavannes, a very new and astonishing Roll, an exquisite Gervex, and many others, by Beraud, Cazin, Duez—in short, a heap of good things."
"And you?" said the Countess.
"Oh, they compliment me, but I am not satisfied."
"You never are satisfied."
"Yes, sometimes. But to-day I really feel that I am right."
"I do not know."
"Let us go to see it."
When they arrived before Bertin's picture—two little peasant-girls taking a bath in a brook—they found a group admiring it. The Countess was delighted, and whispered: "It is simply a delicious bit—a jewel! You never have done anything better."
Bertin pressed close to her, loving her and thanking her for every word that calmed his suffering and healed his aching heart. Through his mind ran arguments to convince him that she was right, that she must judge accurately with the intelligent observation of an experienced Parisian. He forgot, so desirous was he to reassure himself, that for at least twelve years he had justly reproached her for too much admiring the dainty trifles, the elegant nothings, the sentimentalities and nameless trivialities of the passing fancy of the day, and never art, art alone, art detached from the popular ideas, tendencies, and prejudices.
"Let us go on," said he, drawing them away from his picture. He led them for a long time from gallery to gallery, showing them notable canvases and explaining their subjects, happy to be with them.
"What time is it?" the Countess asked suddenly.
"Half after twelve."
"Oh, let us hasten to luncheon then. The Duchess must be waiting for us at Ledoyen's, where she charged me to bring you, in case we should not meet her in the galleries."
The restaurant, in the midst of a little island of trees and shrubs, seemed like an overflowing hive. A confused hum of voices, calls, the rattling of plates and glasses came from the open windows and large doors. The tables, set close together and filled with people eating, extended in long rows right and left of a narrow passage, up and down which ran the distracted waiters, holding along their arms dishes filled with meats, fish, or fruit.
Under the circular gallery there was such a throng of men and women as to suggest a living pate. Everyone there laughed, called out, drank and ate, enlivened by the wines and inundated by one of those waves of joy that sweep over Paris, on certain days, with the sunshine.
An attendant showed the Countess, Annette, and Bertin upstairs into a reserved room, where the Duchess awaited them. As they entered, the painter observed, beside his aunt, the Marquis de Farandal, attentive and smiling, and extending his hand to receive the parasols and wraps of the Countess and her daughter. He felt again so much displeasure that he suddenly desired to say rude and irritating things.
The Duchess explained the meeting of her nephew and the departure of Musadieu, who had been carried off by the Minister of the Fine Arts, and Bertin, at the thought that this insipidly good-looking Marquis might marry Annette, that he had come there only to see her, and that he regarded her already as destined to share his bed, unnerved and revolted him, as if some one had ignored his own rights—sacred and mysterious rights.
As soon as they were at table, the Marquis, who sat beside the young girl, occupied himself in talking to her with the devoted air of a man authorized to pay his addresses.
He assumed a curious manner, which seemed to the painter bold and searching; his smiles were satisfied and almost tender, his gallantry was familiar and officious. In manner and word appeared already something of decision, as if he were about to announce that he had won the prize.
The Duchess and the Countess seemed to protect and approve this attitude of a pretender, and exchanged glances of complicity.
As soon as the luncheon was finished the party returned to the Exposition. There was such a dense crowd in the galleries, it seemed impossible to penetrate it. An odor of perspiring humanity, a stale smell of old gowns and coats, made an atmosphere at once heavy and sickening. No one looked at the pictures any more, but at faces and toilets, seeking out well-known persons; and at times came a great jostling of the crowd as it was forced to give way before the high double ladder of the varnishers, who cried: "Make way, Messieurs! Make way, Mesdames!"
At the end of ten minutes, the Countess and Olivier found themselves separated from the others. He wished to find them immediately, but, leaning upon him, the Countess said: "Are we not very well off as it is? Let them go, since it is quite natural that we should lose sight of them; we will meet them again in the buffet at four o'clock."
"That is true," he replied.
But he was absorbed by the idea that the Marquis was accompanying Annette and continuing his attempts to please her by his fatuous and affected gallantry.
"You love me always, then?" murmured the Countess.
"Yes, certainly," he replied, with a preoccupied air, trying to catch a glimpse of the Marquis's gray hat over the heads of the crowd.
Feeling that he was abstracted, and wishing to lead him back to her own train of thought, the Countess continued:
"If you only knew how I adore your picture of this year! It is certainly your chef-d'oeuvre."
He smiled, suddenly, forgetting the young people in remembering his anxiety of the morning.
"Do you really think so?" he asked.
"Yes, I prefer it above all others."
With artful wheedling, she crowned him anew, having known well for a long time that nothing has a stronger effect on an artist than tender and continuous flattery. Captivated, reanimated, cheered by her sweet words, he began again to chat gaily, seeing and hearing only her in that tumultuous throng.
By way of expressing his thanks, he murmured in her ear: "I have a mad desire to embrace you!"
A warm wave of emotion swept over her, and, raising her shining eyes to his, she repeated her question: "You love me always, then?"
He replied, with the intonation she wished to hear, and which she had not heard before:
"Yes, I love you, my dear Any."
"Come often to see me in the evenings," she said. "Now that I have my daughter I shall not go out very much."
Since she had recognized in him this unexpected reawakening of tenderness, her heart was stirred with great happiness. In view of Olivier's silvery hair, and the calming touch of time, she had not suspected that he was fascinated by another woman, but she was terribly afraid that, from pure dread of loneliness, he might marry. This fear, which was of long standing, increased constantly, and set her wits to contriving plans whereby she might have him near her as much as possible, and to see that he should not pass long evenings alone in the chill silence of his empty rooms. Not being always able to hold and keep him, she would suggest amusements for him, sent him to the theater, forced him to go into society, being better pleased to know that he was mingling with many other women than alone in his gloomy house.
She resumed, answering his secret thought: "Ah, if I could only have you always with me, how I should spoil you! Promise me to come often, since I hardly go out at all now."
"I promise it."
At that moment a voice murmured "Mamma!" in her ear.
The Countess started and turned. Annette, the Duchess, and the Marquis had just rejoined them.
"It is four o'clock," said the Duchess. "I am very tired and I wish to go now."
"I will go, too; I have had enough of it," said the Countess.
They reached the interior stairway which divides the galleries where the drawings and water-colors are hung, overlooking the immense garden inclosed in glass, where the works of sculpture are exhibited.
From the platform of this stairway they could see from one end to the other of this great conservatory, filled with statues set up along the pathway around large green shrubs, and below was the crowd which covered the paths like a moving black wave. The marbles rose from this mass of dark hats and shoulders, piercing it in a thousand places, and seeming almost luminous in their dazzling whiteness.
As Bertin took leave of the ladies at the door of exit, Madame de Guilleroy whispered:
"Then—will you come this evening?"
Bertin reentered the Exposition, to talk with the artists over the impressions of the day.
Painters and sculptors stood talking in groups around the statues and in front of the buffet, upholding or attacking the same ideas that were discussed every year, using the same arguments over works almost exactly similar. Olivier, who usually took a lively share in these disputes, being quick in repartee and clever in disconcerting attacks, besides having a reputation as an ingenious theorist of which he was proud, tried to urge himself to take an active part in the debates, but the things he said interested him no more than those he heard, and he longed to go away, to listen no more, to understand no more, knowing beforehand as he did all that anyone could say on those ancient questions of art, of which he knew all sides.