The theater was filling early, for no one wished to lose a note of the two illustrious artists; and throughout the vast amphitheater, under the dazzling electric light from the great chandelier, a throng of people were seating themselves amid an uproar of voices.
From the stage-box, already occupied by the Duchess, Annette, the Count, the Marquis, Bertin and Musadieu, one could see nothing but the wings, where men were talking, running about, and shouting, machinists in blouses, gentlemen in evening dress, actors in costume. But behind the great curtain one heard the deep sound of the crowd, one felt the presence of a mass of moving, over-excited beings, whose agitation seemed to penetrate the curtain, and to extend even to the decorations.
They were about to present Faust.
Musadieu was relating anecdotes about the first representatives of this work at the Theatre Lyrique, of its half success in the beginning followed by brilliant triumph, of the original cast, and their manner of singing each aria. Annette, half turned toward him, listened with that eager, youthful curiosity with which she regarded the whole world; and at times she cast a tender glance at her fiance, who in a few days would be her husband. She loved him, now, as innocent hearts love; that is to say she loved in him all the hopes she had for the future. The intoxication of the first feasts of life, and the ardent longing to be happy, made her tremble with joy and expectation.
And Olivier, who saw all, and knew all, who had sounded all the depths of secret, helpless, and jealous love, down in the furnace of human suffering, where the heart seems to crackle like flesh over hot coals, stood in the back of the box looking at them with eyes that betrayed his torture.
The three blows were struck, and suddenly the sharp little tap of a bow on the leader's desk stopped short all movement, all coughing and whispering; then, after a brief and profound silence, the first measure of the introduction arose, filling the house with the invisible and irresistible mystery of the music that penetrates our bodies, thrills our nerves and souls with a poetic and sensuous fever, mingling with the limpid air we breathe a wave of sound to which we listen.
Olivier took a seat at the back of the box, painfully affected, as if his heart's wounds had been touched by those accents. But when the curtain rose he stood up again, and saw Doctor Faust, lost in sorrowful meditation, seated in his alchemist's laboratory.
He had already heard the opera twenty times, and almost knew it by heart, and his attention soon wandered from the stage to the audience. He could see only a small part of it behind the frame of the stage which concealed their box, but the angle that was visible, extending from the orchestra to the top gallery, showed him a portion of the audience in which he recognized many faces. In the orchestra rows, the men in white cravats, sitting side by side, seemed a museum of familiar countenances, society men, artists, journalists, the whole category of those that never fail to go where everyone else goes. In the balcony and in the boxes he noted and named to himself the women he recognized. The Comtesse de Lochrist, in a proscenium box, was absolutely ravishing, while a little farther on a bride, the Marquise d'Ebelin, was already looking through her lorgnette. "That is a pretty debut," said Bertin to himself.
The audience listened with deep attention and evident sympathy to the tenor Montrose, who was lamenting over his waning life.
Olivier thought: "What a farce! There is Faust, the mysterious and sublime Faust who sings the horrible disgust and nothingness of everything; and this crowd are asking themselves anxiously whether Montrose's voice has not changed!" Then he listened, like the others, and behind the trivial words of the libretto, through that music which awakens profound perception in the soul, he had a sort of revelation as to how Goethe had been able to conceive the heart of Faust.
He had read the poem some time before, and thought it very beautiful without being moved by it, but now he suddenly realized its unfathomable depth, for it seemed to him that on that evening he himself had become a Faust.
Leaning lightly upon the railing of the box, Annette was listening with all her ears; and murmurs of satisfaction were beginning to be heard from the audience, for Montrose's voice was better and richer than ever!
Bertin had closed his eyes. For a whole month, all that he had seen, all that he had felt, everything that he had encountered in life he had immediately transformed into a sort of accessory to his passion. He threw the world and himself as nourishment to this fixed idea. All that he saw that was beautiful or rare, all that he imagined that was charming, he mentally offered to his little friend; and he had no longer an idea that he did not in some way connect with his love.
Now he listened from the depths of his soul to the echo of Faust's lamentations, and the desire to die surged up within him, the desire to have done with all his grief, with all the misery of his hopeless love. He looked at Annette's delicate profile, and saw the Marquis de Farandal, seated behind her, also looking at it. He felt old, lost, despairing. Ah, never to await anything more, never to hope for anything more, no longer to have even the right to desire, to feel himself outside of everything, in the evening of life, like a superannuated functionary whose career is ended—what intolerable torture!
Applause burst forth; Montrose had triumphed already. And Labarriere as Mephistopheles sprang up from the earth.
Olivier, who never had heard him in this role, listened with renewed attention. The remembrance of Aubin, so dramatic with his bass voice, then of Faure, so seductive with his baritone, distracted him a short time.
But suddenly a phrase sung by Montrose with irresistible power stirred him to the heart. Faust was saying to Satan:
"Je veux un tresor qui les contient tous— Je veux la jeunesse."
And the tenor appeared in silken doublet, a sword by his side, a plumed cap on his head, elegant, young, and handsome, with the affectations of a handsome singer.
A murmur arose. He was very attractive and the women were pleased with him. But Olivier felt some disappointment, for the poignant evocation of Goethe's dramatic poem disappeared in this metamorphosis. Thenceforth he saw before him only a fairy spectacle, filled with pretty little songs, and actors of talent whose voices were all he listened to. That man in a doublet, that pretty youth with his roulades, who showed his thighs and displayed his voice, displeased him. This was not the real, irresistible, and sinister Chevalier Faust, who was about to seduce the fair Marguerite.
He sat down again, and the phrase he had just heard returned to his mind:
"I would have a treasure that embraces all—Youth!"
He murmured it between his teeth, sang it sadly in the depths of his soul, and, with eyes fixed always upon Annette's blonde head, which rose in the square opening of the box, he felt all the bitterness of that desire that never could be realized.
But Montrose had just finished the first act with such perfection that enthusiasm broke forth. For several minutes, the noise of clapping, stamping, and bravos swept like a storm through the theater. In all the boxes the women clapped their gloved hands, while the men standing behind them shouted as they applauded.
The curtain fell, but it was raised twice before the applause subsided. Then, when the curtain had fallen for the third time, separating the stage and the interior boxes from the audience, the Duchess and Annette continued their applause a few moments, and were specially thanked by a discreet bow from the tenor.
"Oh, he looked at us!" said Annette.
"What an admirable artist!" said the Duchess.
And Bertin, who had been leaning over, looked with a mingled feeling of irritation and disdain at the admired actor as he disappeared between two wings, waddling a little, his legs stiff, one hand on his hip, in the affected pose of a theatrical hero.
They began to talk of him. His social successes had made him as famous as his talent. He had visited every capital, in the midst of feminine ecstasies of those who, hearing before he appeared that he was irresistible, had felt their hearts throb as he appeared upon the stage. But it was said that he appeared to care very little for all this sentimental delirium, and contented himself with his musical triumphs. Musadieu related, in veiled language because of Annette's presence, details of the life of this handsome singer, and the Duchess, quite carried away, understood and approved all the follies that he was able to create, so seductive, elegant, and distinguished did she consider this exceptional musician! She concluded, laughing: "And how can anyone resist that voice!"
Olivier felt angry and bitter. He did not understand how anyone could really care for a mere actor, for that perpetual representation of human types which never resembled himself in the least; that illusory personification of imaginary men, that nocturnal and painted manikin who plays all his characters at so much a night.
"You are jealous of them!" said the Duchess. "You men of the world and artists all have a grudge against actors because they are more successful than you." Turning to Annette, she added: "Come, little one, you who are entering life and look at it with healthy eyes, what do you think of this tenor?"
"I think he is very good indeed," Annette replied, with an air of conviction.
The three strokes sounded for the second act, and the curtain rose on the Kermesse.
Helsson's passage was superb. She seemed to have more voice than formerly, and to have acquired more certainty of method. She had, indeed, become the great, excellent, exquisite singer, whose worldly fame equaled that of Bismarck or De Lesseps.
When Faust rushed toward her, when he sang in his bewitching voice phrases so full of charm and when the pretty blonde Marguerite replied so touchingly the whole house was moved with a thrill of pleasure.
When the curtain fell, the applause was tremendous, and Annette applauded so long that Bertin wished to seize her hands to make her stop. His heart was stung by a new torment. He did not speak between the acts, for he was pursuing into the wings, his fixed thought now become absolute hatred, following to his box, where he saw, putting more white powder on his cheeks, the odious singer who was thus over-exciting this child!
Then the curtain rose on the garden scene. Immediately a sort of fever of love seemed to spread through the house, for never had that music, which seems like the breath of kisses, been rendered by two such interpreters. It was no longer two illustrious actors, Montrose and Helsson; they became two beings from the ideal world, hardly two beings, indeed, but two voices: the eternal voice of the man that loves, the eternal voice of the woman that yields; and together they sighed forth all the poetry of human tenderness.
When Faust sang:
"Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage,"
in the notes that soared from his mouth there was such an accent of adoration, of transport and supplication that for a moment a desire to love filled every heart.
Olivier remembered that he had murmured that phrase himself in the park at Roncieres, under the castle windows.
Until then he had thought it rather ordinary; but now it rose to his lips like a last cry of passion, a last prayer, the last hope and the last favor he might expect in this life.
Then he listened no more, heard nothing more. A sharp pang of jealousy tore his heart, for he had just seen Annette carry her handkerchief to her eyes.
She wept! Then her heart was awakening, becoming animated and moved, her little woman's heart which as yet knew nothing! There, very near him, without giving a thought to him, she had a revelation of the way in which love may overwhelm a human being; and this revelation, this initiation had come to her from that miserable strolling singer!
Ah, he felt very little anger now toward the Marquis de Farandal, that stupid creature who saw nothing, who did not know, did not understand! But how he execrated that man in tights, who was illuminating the soul of that young girl!
He longed to throw himself upon her, as one throws himself upon a person in danger of being run over by a fractious horse, to seize her by the arm and drag her away, and say to her: "Let us go! let us go! I entreat you!"
How she listened, how she palpitated! And how he suffered. He had suffered thus before, but less cruelly. He remembered it, for the stings of jealousy smart afresh like reopened wounds. He had first felt it at Roncieres, in returning from the cemetery, when he felt for the first time that she was escaping from him, that he could not control her, that young girl as independent as a young animal. But down there, when she had irritated him by leaving him to pluck flowers, he had experienced chiefly a brutal desire to check her playful flights, to compel her person to remain beside him; to-day it was her fleeting, intangible soul that was escaping. Ah, that gnawing irritation which he had just recognized, how often he had experienced it by the indescribable little wounds which seem to be always bruising a loving heart. He recalled all the painful impressions of petty jealousy that he had endured, in little stings, day after day. Every time that she had remarked, admired, liked, desired something, he had been jealous of it; jealous in an imperceptible but continuous fashion, jealous of all that absorbed the time, the looks, the attention, the gaiety, the astonishment or affection of Annette, for all that took a little of her away from him. He had been jealous of all that she did without him, of all that he did not know, of her going about, her reading, of everything that seemed to please her, jealous even of a heroic officer wounded in Africa, of whom Paris talked for a week, of the author of a much praised romance, of a young unknown poet she never had seen, but whose verses Musadieu had recited; in short, of all men that anyone praised before her, even carelessly, for when one loves a woman one cannot tolerate without anguish that she should even think of another with an appearance of interest. In one's heart is felt the imperious need of being for her the only being in the world. One wishes her to see, to know, to appreciate no one else. So soon as she shows an indication of turning to look at or recognize some person, one throws himself before her, and if one cannot turn aside or absorb her interest he suffers to the bottom of his heart.
Olivier suffered thus in the presence of this singer, who seemed to scatter and to gather love in that opera-house, and he felt vexed with everyone because of the tenor's triumph, with the women whom he saw applauding him from their boxes, with the men, those idiots who were giving a sort of apotheosis to that coxcomb!
An artist! They called him a artist, a great artist! And he had successes, this paid actor, interpreter of another's thought, such as no creator had ever known! Ah, that was like the justice and the intelligence of the fashionable world, those ignorant and pretentious amateurs for whom the masters of human art work until death. He looked at them, applauding, shouting, going into ecstasies; and the ancient hostility that had always seethed at the bottom of his proud heart of a parvenu became a furious anger against those imbeciles, all-powerful only by right of birth and wealth.
Until the end of the performance he remained silent, a prey to thought; then when the storm of enthusiasm had at last subsided he offered his arm to the Duchess, while the Marquis took Annette's. They descended the grand stairway again, in the midst of a stream of men and women, in a sort of slow and magnificent cascade of bare shoulders, sumptuous gowns, and black coats. Then the Duchess, the young girl, her father, and the Marquis entered the same landau, and Olivier Bertin remained alone with Musadieu in the Place de l'Opera.
Suddenly he felt a sort of affection for this man, or rather that natural attraction one feels for a fellow-countryman met in a distant land, for he now felt lost in that strange, indifferent crowd, whereas with Musadieu he might still speak of her.
So he took his arm.
"You are not going home now?" said he. "It is a fine night; let us take a walk."
They went toward the Madeleine, in the mist of the nocturnal crowd possessed by that short and violent midnight excitement which stirs the Boulevards when the theaters are being emptied.
Musadieu had a thousand things in his mind, all his subjects for conversation from the moment when Bertin should name his preference; and he let his eloquence loose upon the two or three topics that interested him most. The painter allowed him to run on without listening to him, and holding him by the arm, sure of being able soon to lead him to talk of Annette, he walked along without noticing his surroundings, imprisoned within his love. He walked, exhausted by that fit of jealousy which had bruised him like a fall, overcome by the conviction that he had nothing more to do in the world.
He should go on suffering thus, more and more, without expecting anything. He should pass empty days, one after another, seeing her from afar, living, happy, loved and loving, without doubt. A lover! Perhaps she would have a lover, as her mother had had one! He felt within him sources of suffering so numerous, diverse, and complicated, such an afflux of miseries, such inevitable tortures, he felt so lost, so far overwhelmed, from this moment, by a wave of unimaginable agony that he could not suppose anyone ever had suffered as he did. And he suddenly thought of the puerility of poets who have invented the useless labor of Sisyphus, the material thirst of Tantalus, the devoured heart of Prometheus! Oh, if they had foreseen, if they had experienced the mad love of an elderly man for a young girl, how would they had expressed the painful and secret effort of a being who can no longer inspire love, the tortures of fruitless desire, and, more terrible than a vulture's beak, a little blonde face rending a heart!
Musadieu talked without stopping, and Bertin interrupted him, murmuring almost in spite of himself, under the impulse of his fixed idea:
"Annette was charming this evening."
The painter added, to prevent Musadieu from taking up the broken thread of his ideas: "She is prettier than her mother ever was."
To this the other agreed absent-mindedly, repeating "Yes, yes, yes!" several times in succession, without his mind having yet settled itself on this new idea.
Olivier endeavored to continue the subject, and in order to attract his attention by one of Musadieu's own favorite fads, he continued:
"She will have one of the first salons in Paris after her marriage."
That was enough, and, the man of fashion being convinced, as well as the Inspector of Fine Arts, he began to talk wisely of the social footing on which the Marquise de Farandal would stand in French society.
Bertin listened to him, and fancied Annette in a large salon full of light, surrounded by men and women. This vision, too, made him jealous.
They were now going up the Boulevard Malesherbes. As they passed the Guilleroys' house the painter looked up. Lights seemed to be shining through the windows, among the openings in the curtains. He suspected that the Duchess and the Marquis had been invited to come and have a cup of tea. And a burning rage made him suffer terribly.
He still held Musadieu by the arm, and once or twice attempted to continue, by contradicting Musadieu's opinions, the talk about the future Marquise. Even that commonplace voice in speaking of her caused her charming image to flit beside them in the night.
When they arrived at the painter's door, in the Avenue de Villiers, Bertin asked: "Will you come in?"
"No, thank you. It is late, and I am going to bed."
"Oh, come up for half an hour, and we'll have a little more talk."
"No, really. It is too late."
The thought of staying there alone, after the anguish he had just endured, filled Olivier's soul with horror. He had someone with him; he would keep him.
"Do come up; I want you to choose a study that I have intended for a long time to offer you."
The other, knowing that painters are not always in a giving mood, and that the remembrance of promises is short, seized the opportunity. In his capacity as Inspector of Fine Arts, he possessed a gallery that had been furnished with skill.
"I am with you," said he.
The valet was aroused and soon brought some grog; and the talk was for some time all about painting. Bertin showed some studies, and begged Musadieu to take the one that pleased him best; Musadieu hesitated, disturbed by the gaslight, which deceived him as to tones. At last he chose a group of little girls jumping the rope on a sidewalk; and almost at once he wished to depart, and to take his present with him.
"I will have it taken to your house," said the painter.
"No; I should like better to have it this very evening, so that I may admire it while I am going to bed," said Musadieu.
Nothing could keep him, and Olivier Bertin found himself again alone in his house, that prison of his memories and his painful agitation.
When the servant entered the next morning, bringing tea and the newspapers, he found his master sitting up in bed, so pale and shaken that he was alarmed.
"Is Monsieur indisposed?" he inquired.
"It is nothing—only a little headache."
"Does not Monsieur wish me to bring him something?"
"No. What sort of weather is it?"
"It rains, Monsieur."
"Very well. That is all."
The man withdrew, having placed on the little table the tea-tray and the newspapers.
Olivier took up the Figaro and opened it. The leading article was entitled "Modern Painting." It was a dithyrambic eulogy on four or five young painters who, gifted with real ability as colorists, and exaggerating them for effect, now pretended to be revolutionists and renovators of genius.
As did all the older painters, Bertin sneered at these newcomers, was irritated at their assumption of exclusiveness, and disputed their doctrines. He began to read the article, then, with the rising anger so quickly felt by a nervous person; at last, glancing a little further down, he saw his own name, and these words at the end of a sentence struck him like a blow of the fist full in the chest: "The old-fashioned art of Olivier Bertin."
He had always been sensitive to either criticism or praise, but, at the bottom of his heart, in spite of his legitimate vanity, he suffered more from being criticised than he enjoyed being praised, because of the uneasiness concerning himself which his hesitations had always encouraged. Formerly, however, at the time of his triumphs, the incense offered was so frequent that it made him forget the pin-pricks. To-day, before the ceaseless influx of new artists and new admirers, congratulations were more rare and criticism was more marked. He felt that he had been enrolled in the battalion of old painters of talent, whom the younger ones do not treat as masters; and as he was as intelligent as he was perspicacious he suffered now from the least insinuations as much as from direct attacks.
But never had any wound to his pride as an artist hurt him like this. He remained gasping, and reread the article in order to grasp its every meaning. He and his equals were thrown aside with outrageous disrespect; and he arose murmuring those words, which remained on his lips: "The old-fashioned art of Olivier Bertin."
Never had such sadness, such discouragement, such a sensation of having reached the end of everything, the end of his mental and physical being, thrown him into such desperate distress of soul. He sat until two o'clock in his armchair, before the fireplace, his legs extended toward the fire, not having strength to move, or to do anything. Then the need of being consoled rose within him, the need to clasp devoted hands, to see faithful eyes, to be pitied, succored, caressed with friendly words. So he went, as usual, to the Countess.
When he entered Annette was alone in the drawing-room, standing with her back toward him, hastily writing the address on a letter. On a table beside her lay a copy of Figaro. Bertin saw the journal at the moment that he saw the young girl and was bewildered, not daring to advance! Oh, if she had read it! She turned, and in a preoccupied, hurried way, her mind haunted with feminine cares, she said to him:
"Ah, good-morning, sir painter! You will excuse me if I leave you? I have a dressmaker upstairs who claims me. You understand that a dressmaker, at the time of a wedding, is very important. I will lend you mamma, who is talking and arguing with my artist. If I need her I will call her for a few minutes."
And she hastened away, running a little, to show how much she was hurried.
This abrupt departure, without a word of affection, without a tender look for him who loved her so much—so much!—quite upset him. His eyes rested again on the Figaro, and he thought: "She has read it! They laugh at me, they deny me. She no longer believes in me. I am nothing to her any more."
He took two steps toward the journal, as one walks toward a man to strike him. Then he said to himself: "Perhaps she has not read it, after all. She is so preoccupied to-day. But someone will undoubtedly speak of it before her, perhaps this evening, at dinner, and that will make her curious to read it."
With a spontaneous, almost unthinking, movement he took the copy, closed it, folded it, and slipped it into his pocket with the swiftness of a thief.
The Countess entered. As soon as she saw Olivier's convulsed and livid face, she guessed that he had reached the limit of suffering.
She hastened toward him, with an impulse from all her poor soul, so agonized also, and from her poor body, that was itself so wounded. Throwing her hands upon his shoulders, and plunging her glance into the depths of his eyes, she said:
"Oh, how unhappy you are!"
This time he did not deny it; his throat swelled with a spasm of pain, and he stammered:
She felt that he was near weeping, and led him into the darkest corner of the drawing-room, toward two armchairs hidden by a small screen of antique silk. They sat down behind this slight embroidered wall, veiled also by the gray shadow of a rainy day.
She resumed, pitying him, deeply moved by his grief:
"My poor Olivier, how you suffer!"
He leaned his white head on the shoulder of his friend.
"More than you believe!" he said.
"Oh, I knew it! I have felt it all. I saw it from the beginning and watched it grow."
He answered as if she had accused him: "It is not my faulty, Any."
"I know it well; I do not reproach you for it."
And softly, turning a little, she laid her lips on one of Olivier's eyes, where she found a bitter tear.
She started, as if she had just tasted a drop of despair, and repeated several times:
"Ah, poor friend—poor friend—poor friend!"
Then after a moment of silence she added: "It is the fault of our hearts, which never have grown old. I feel that my own is full of life!"
He tried to speak but could not, for now his sobs choked him. She listened, as he leaned against her, to the struggle in his breast. Then, seized by the selfish anguish of love, which had gnawed at her heart so long, she said in the agonized tone in which one realizes a horrible misfortune:
"God! how you love her!"
Again he confessed: "Ah, yes! I love her!"
She reflected a few moments, then continued: "You never have loved me thus?"
He did not deny it, for he was passing through one of those periods in which one speaks with absolute truth, and he murmured:
"No, I was too young then."
She was surprised.
"Too young? Why?"
"Because life was too sweet. It is only at our age that one loves despairingly."
"Does the love you feel for her resemble that which you felt for me?" the Countess asked.
"Yes and no—and yet it is almost the same thing. I have loved you as much as anyone can love a woman. As for her, I love her just as I loved you, since she is yourself; but this love has become something irresistible, destroying, stronger than death. I belong to it as a burning house belongs to the fire."
She felt her sympathy wither up under a breath of jealousy; but, assuming a consoling tone, she said:
"My poor friend! In a few days she will be married and gone. When you see her no more no doubt you will be cured of this fancy."
He shook his head.
"Oh, I am lost, lost, lost!"
"No, no, I say! It will be three months before you see her again. That will be sufficient. Three months were quite enough for you to love her more than you love me, whom you have known for twelve years!"
Then, in his infinite distress, he implored: "Any, do not abandon me!"
"What can I do, my friend?"
"Do not leave me alone."
"I will go to see you as often as you wish."
"No. Keep me here as much as possible."
"But then you would be near her."
"And near you!"
"You must not see her any more before her marriage."
"Well, at least, not often."
"May I stay here this evening?"
"No, not in your present condition. You must divert your mind; go to the club, or the theater—no matter where, but do not stay here."
"I entreat you—"
"No, Olivier, it is impossible. And, besides, I have guests coming to dinner whose presence would agitate you still more."
"The Duchess and—he!"
"But I spent last evening with them."
"And you speak of it! You are in a fine state to-day."
"I promise you to be calm."
"No, it is impossible."
"Then I am going away."
"Why do you hurry now?"
"I must walk."
"That is right! Walk a great deal, walk until evening, kill yourself with fatigue and then go to bed."
He had risen.
"Good-by, dear friend. I will come to see you to-morrow morning. Would you like me to do something very imprudent, as I used to do—pretend to breakfast here at noon, and then go and have breakfast with you at a quarter past one?"
"Yes, I should like it very much. You are so good!"
"It is because I love you."
"And I love you, too."
"Oh, don't speak of that any more!"
"Good-by, dear friend, till to-morrow."
He kissed her hands many times, then he kissed her brow, then the corner of her lips. His eyes were dry now, his bearing resolute. Just as he was about to go, he seized her, clasped her close in both arms, and pressing his lips to her forehead, he seemed to drink in, to inhale from her all the love she had for him.
Then he departed quickly, without turning toward her again.
When she was alone she let herself sink, sobbing, upon a chair. She would have remained there till night if Annette had not suddenly appeared in search of her. In order to gain time to dry her red eyelids, the Countess answered: "I have a little note to write, my child. Go up-stairs, and I will join you in a few seconds."
She was compelled to occupy herself with the great affair of the trousseau until evening.
The Duchess and her nephew dined with the Guilleroys, as a family party. They had just seated themselves at table, and were speaking of the opera of the night before, when the butler appeared, carrying three enormous bouquets.
Madame de Mortemain was surprised.
"Good gracious! What is that?"
"Oh, how lovely they are!" exclaimed Annette; "who can have sent them?"
"Olivier Bertin, no doubt," replied her mother.
She had been thinking of him since his departure. He had seemed so gloomy, so tragic, she understood so clearly his hopeless sorrow, she felt so keenly the counter-stroke of that grief, she loved him so much, so entirely, so tenderly, that her heart was weighed down by sad presentiments.
In the three bouquets were found three of the painter's cards. He had written on them in pencil, respectively, the names of the Countess, the Duchess, and Annette.
"Is he ill, your friend Bertin?" the Duchess inquired. "I thought he looked rather bad last night."
"Yes, I am a little anxious about him, although he does not complain," Madame de Guilleroy answered.
"Oh, he is growing old, like all the rest of us," her husband interposed. "He is growing old quite fast, indeed. I believe, however, that bachelors usually go to pieces suddenly. Their breaking-up comes more abruptly than ours. He really is very much changed."
"Ah, yes!" sighed the Countess.
Farandal suddenly stopped his whispering to Annette to say: "The Figaro has a very disagreeable article about him this morning."
Any attack, any criticism or allusion unfavorable to her friend's talent always threw the Countess into a passion.
"Oh," said she, "men of Bertin's importance need not mind such rudeness."
Guilleroy was astonished.
"What!" he exclaimed, "a disagreeable article about Olivier! But I have not read it. On what page?"
The Marquis informed him: "The first page, at the top, with the title, 'Modern Painting.'"
And the deputy ceased to be astonished. "Oh, exactly! I did not read it because it was about painting."
Everyone smiled, knowing that apart from politics and agriculture M. de Guilleroy was interested in very few things.
The conversation turned upon other subjects until they entered the drawing-room to take coffee. The Countess was not listening and hardly answered, being pursued by anxiety as to what Olivier might be doing. Where was he? Where had he dined? Where had he taken his hopeless heart at that moment? She now felt a burning regret at having let him go, not to have kept him; and she fancied him roving the streets, so sad and lonely, fleeing under his burden of woe.
Up to the time of the departure of the Duchess and her nephew she had hardly spoken, lashed by vague and superstitious fears; then she went to bed and lay there long, her eyes wide open in the darkness, thinking of him!
A very long time had passed when she thought she heard the bell of her apartment ring. She started, sat up and listened. A second time the vibrating tinkle broke the stillness of the night.
She leaped out of bed, and with all her strength pressed the electric button that summoned her maid. Then, candle in hand, she ran to the vestibule.
Through the door she asked: "Who is there?"
"It is a letter," an unknown voice replied.
"A letter! From whom?"
"From a physician."
"I do not know; it is about some accident."
Hesitating no more, she opened the door, and found herself facing a cab-driver in an oilskin cap. He held a paper in his hand, which he presented to her. She read: "Very urgent—Monsieur le Comte de Guilleroy."
The writing was unknown.
"Enter, my good man," said she; "sit down, and wait for me."
When she reached her husband's door her heart was beating so violently that she could not call him. She pounded on the wood with her metal candlestick. The Count was asleep and did not hear.
Then, impatient, nervous, she kicked the door, and heard a sleepy voice asking: "Who is there? What time is it?"
"It is I," she called. "I have an urgent letter for you, brought by a cabman. There has been some accident."
"Wait! I am getting up. I'll be there," he stammered from behind his bed-curtains.
In another minute he appeared in his dressing-gown. At the same time two servants came running, aroused by the ringing of the bell. They were alarmed and bewildered, having seen a stranger sitting on a chair in the dining-room.
The Count had taken the letter and was turning it over in his fingers, murmuring: "What is that? I cannot imagine."
"Well, read it, then!" said the Countess, in a fever.
He tore off the envelope, unfolded the paper, uttered an exclamation of amazement, then looked at his wife with frightened eyes.
"My God! what is it?" said she.
He stammered, hardly able to speak, so great was his emotion: "Oh, a great misfortune—a great misfortune! Bertin has fallen under a carriage!"
"Dead?" she cried.
"No, no!" said he; "read for yourself."
She snatched from his hand the letter he held out and read:
"MONSIEUR: A great misfortune has just happened. Your friend, the eminent artist, M. Olivier Bertin, has been run over by an omnibus, the wheel of which passed over his body. I cannot as yet say anything decisive as to the probable result of this accident, which may not be serious, although it may have an immediate and fatal result. M. Bertin begs you earnestly and entreats Madame la Comtesse de Guilleroy to come to him at once. I hope, Monsieur, that Madame la Comtesse and yourself will grant the desire of our friend in common, who before daylight may have ceased to live.
"DR. DE RIVIL."
The Countess stared at her husband with great, fixed eyes, full of terror. Then suddenly she experienced, like an electric shock, an awakening of that courage which comes to women at times, which makes them in moments of terror the most valiant of creatures.
Turning to her maid she said: "Quick! I am going to dress."
"What will Madame wear?" asked the servant.
"Never mind that. Anything you like. James," she added, "be ready in five minutes."
Returning toward her room, her soul overwhelmed, she noticed the cabman, still waiting, and said to him: "You have your carriage?"
"That is well; we will take that."
Wildly, with precipitate haste, she threw on her clothes, hooking, clasping, tying, and fastening at hap-hazard; then, before the mirror, she lifted and twisted her hair without a semblance of order, gazing without thinking of what she was doing at the reflection of her pale face and haggard eyes.
When her cloak was over her shoulders, she rushed to her husband's room, but he was not yet ready. She dragged him along.
"Come, come!" said she; "remember, he may die!"
The Count, dazed, followed her stumblingly, feeling his way with his feet on the dark stairs, trying to distinguish the steps, so that he should not fall.
The drive was short and silent. The Countess trembled so violently that her teeth rattled, and through the window she saw the flying gas-jets, veiled by the falling rain. The sidewalks gleamed, the Boulevard was deserted, the night was sinister. On arriving, they found that the painter's door was open, and that the concierge's lodge was lighted but empty.
At the top of the stairs the physician, Dr. de Rivil, a little gray man, short, round, very well dressed, extremely polite, came to meet them. He bowed low to the Countess and held out his hand to the Count.
She asked him, breathing rapidly as if climbing the stairs had exhausted her and put her out of breath:
"Well, Madame, I hope that it will be less serious than I thought at first."
"He will not die?" she exclaimed.
"No. At least, I do not believe so."
"Will you answer for that?"
"No. I only say that I hope to find only a simple abdominal contusion without internal lesions."
"What do you call lesions?"
"How do you know that there are none?"
"I suppose it."
"And if there are?"
"Oh, then it would be serious."
"He might die of them?"
"Very soon. In a few minutes or even seconds. But reassure yourself, Madame; I am convinced that he will be quite well again in two weeks."
She had listened, with profound attention, to know all and understand all.
"What laceration might he have?"
"A laceration of the liver, for instance."
"That would be very dangerous?"
"Yes—but I should be surprised to find any complication now. Let us go to him. It will do him good, for he awaits you with great impatience."
On entering the room she saw first a pale face on a white pillow. Some candles and the firelight illumined it, defined the profile, deepened the shadows; and in that pale face the Countess saw two eyes that watched her coming.
All her courage, energy, and resolution fell, so much did those hollow and altered features resemble those of a dying man. He, whom she had seen only a little while ago, had become this thing, this specter! "Oh, my God!" she murmured between her teeth, and she approached him, palpitating with horror.
He tried to smile, to reassure her, and the grimace of that attempt was frightful.
When she was beside the bed, she put both hands gently on one of Olivier's, which lay along his body, and stammered: "Oh, my poor friend!"
"It is nothing," said he, in a low tone, without moving his head.
She now looked at him closely, frightened at the change in him. He was so pale that he seemed no longer to have a drop of blood under his skin. His hollow cheeks seemed to have been sucked in from the interior of his face, and his eyes were sunken as if drawn by a string from within.
He saw the terror of his friend, and sighed: "Here I am in a fine state!"
"How did it happen?" she asked, looking at him with fixed gaze.
He was making a great effort to speak, and his whole face twitched with pain.
"I was not looking about me—I was thinking of something else—something very different—oh, yes!—and an omnibus knocked me down and ran over my abdomen."
As she listened she saw the accident, and shaking with terror, she asked: "Did you bleed?"
"No. I am only a little bruised—a little crushed."
"Where did it happen?" she inquired.
"I do not know exactly," he answered in a very low voice; "it was far away from here."
The physician rolled up an armchair, and the Countess sank into it. The Count remained standing at the foot of the bed, repeating between his teeth: "Oh, my poor friend! my poor friend! What a frightful misfortune!"
And he was indeed deeply grieved, for he loved Olivier very much.
"But where did it happen?" the Countess repeated.
"I know hardly anything about it myself, or rather I do not understand it at all," the physician replied. "It was at the Gobelins, almost outside of Paris! At least, the cabman that brought him home declared to me that he took him in at a pharmacy of that quarter, to which someone had carried him, at nine o'clock in the evening!" Then, leaning toward Olivier, he asked: "Did the accident really happen near the Gobelins?"
Bertin closed his eyes, as if to recollect; then murmured: "I do not know."
"But where were you going?"
"I do not remember now. I was walking straight before me."
A groan that she could not stifle came from the Countess's lips; then oppressed with a choking that stopped her breathing a few seconds, she drew out her handkerchief, covered her eyes, and wept bitterly.
She knew—she guessed! Something intolerable, overwhelming had just fallen on her heart—remorse for not keeping Olivier near her, for driving him away, for throwing him into the street, where, stupefied with grief, he had fallen under the omnibus.
He said in that colorless voice he now had: "Do not weep. It distresses me."
By a tremendous effort of will, she ceased to sob, uncovered her eyes and fixed them, wide open, upon him, without a quiver of her face, whereon the tears continued slowly to roll down.
They looked at each other, both motionless, their hands clasped under the coverlet. They gazed at each other, no longer knowing that any other person was in the room; and that gaze carried a superhuman emotion from one heart to the other.
They gazed upon each other, and the need of talking, unheard, of hearing the thousand intimate things, so sad, which they had still to say, rose irresistibly to their lips. She felt that she must at any price send away the two men that stood behind her; she must find a way, some ruse, some inspiration, she, the woman, fruitful in resources! She began to reflect, her eyes always fixed on Olivier.
Her husband and the doctor were talking in undertones, discussing the care to be given. Turning her head the Countess said to the doctor: "Have you brought a nurse?"
"No, I prefer to send a hospital surgeon, who will keep a better watch over the case."
"Send both. One never can be too careful. Can you still get them to-night, for I do not suppose you will stay here till morning?"
"Indeed, I was just about to go home. I have been here four hours already."
"But on your way back you will send us the nurse and the surgeon?"
"It will be difficult in the middle of the night. But I shall try."
"They may promise, but will they come?"
"My husband will accompany you and will bring them back either willingly or by force."
"You cannot remain here alone, Madame!"
"I?" she exclaimed with a sort of cry of defiance, of indignant protest against any resistance to her will. Then she pointed out, in that authoritative tone to which no one ventures a reply, the necessities of the situation. It was necessary that the nurse and the surgeon should be there within an hour, to forestall all accident. To insure this, someone must get out of bed and bring them. Her husband alone could do that. During this time she would remain near the injured man, she, for whom it was a duty and a right. She would thereby simply fulfil her role of friend, her role of woman. Besides, this was her will, and no one should dissuade her from it.
Her reasoning was sensible. They could only agree upon that, and they decided to obey her.
She had risen, full of the thought of their departure, impatient to know that they were off and that she was left alone. Now, in order that she should commit no error during their absence, she listened, trying to understand perfectly, to remember everything, to forget nothing of the physician's directions. The painter's valet, standing near her, listened also, and behind him his wife, the cook, who had helped in the first binding of the patient, indicated by nods of the head that she too understood. When the Countess had recited all the instructions like a lesson, she urged the two men to go, repeating to her husband:
"Return soon, above all things, return soon!"
"I will take you in my coupe," said the doctor to the Count. "It will bring you back quicker. You will be here again in an hour."
Before leaving, the doctor again carefully examined the wounded man, to assure himself that his condition remained satisfactory.
Guilleroy still hesitated.
"You do not think that we are doing anything imprudent?" he asked.
"No," said the doctor. "He needs only rest and quiet. Madame de Guilleroy will see that he does not talk, and will speak to him as little as possible."
The Countess was startled, and said:
"Then I must not talk to him?"
"Oh, no, Madame! Take an armchair and sit beside him. He will not feel that he is alone and will be quite content; but no fatigue of words, or even of thoughts. I will call about nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Good-bye, Madame. I salute you!"
He left the room with a low bow, followed by the Count who repeated:
"Do not worry yourself, my dear. Within an hour I shall return, and then you can go home."
When they were gone, she listened for the sound of the door below being closed, then to the rolling wheels of the coupe in the street.
The valet and the cook still stood there, awaiting orders. The Countess dismissed them.
"You may go now," said she; "I will ring if I need anything."
They too withdrew, and she remained alone with him.
She had drawn quite near to the bed, and putting her hands on the two edges of the pillow, on both sides of that dear face, she leaned over to look upon it. Then, with her face so close to his that she seemed to breathe her words upon it, she whispered:
"Did you throw yourself under that carriage?"
He tried to smile still, saying: "No, it was that which threw itself upon me."
"That is not true; it was you."
"No, I swear to you it was it!"
After a few moments of silence, those instants when souls seem mingled in glances, she murmured: "Oh, my dear, dear Olivier, to think that I let you go, that I did not keep you with me!"
"It would have happened just the same, some day or another," he replied with conviction.
They still gazed at each other, seeking to read each other's inmost thoughts.
"I do not believe that I shall recover," he said at last. "I suffer too much."
"Do you suffer very much?" she murmured.
Bending a little lower, she brushed his forehead, then his eyes, then his cheeks with slow kisses, light, delicate as her care for him. She barely touched him with her lips, with that soft little breath that children give when they kiss. This lasted a long time, a very long time. He let that sweet rain of caresses fall on him, and they seemed to soothe and refresh him, for his drawn face twitched less than before.
"Any!" he said finally.
She ceased her kissing to listen to him.
"What, my friend?"
"You must make me a promise."
"I will promise anything you wish."
"If I am not dead before morning, swear to me that you will bring Annette to me, just once, only once! I cannot bear to die without seeing her again. . . . Think that . . . to-morrow . . . at this time perhaps I shall have . . . shall surely have closed my eyes forever and that I never shall see you again. I . . . nor you . . . nor her!"
She stopped him; her heart was breaking.
"Oh, hush . . . hush! Yes, I promise you to bring her!"
"You swear it?"
"I swear it, my friend. But hush, do not talk any more. You hurt me frightfully—hush!"
A quick convulsion passed over his face; when it had passed he said:
"Since we have only a few minutes more to remain together, do not let us lose them; let us seize them to bid each other good-by. I have loved you so much——"
"And I," she sighed, "how I still love you!"
He spoke again:
"I never have had real happiness except through you. Only these last days have been hard. . . . It was not your fault. . . . Ah, my poor Any, how sad life is! . . . and how hard it is to die!"
"Hush, Olivier, I implore you!"
He continued, without listening to her: "I should have been a happy man if you had not had your daughter. . . ."
"Hush! My God! Hush! . . ."
He seemed to dream rather than speak.
"Ah, he that invented this existence and made men was either blind or very wicked. . . ."
"Olivier, I entreat you . . . if you ever have loved me, be quiet, do not talk like that any more!"
He looked at her, leaning over him, she herself so pale that she looked as if she were dying, too; and he was silent.
Then she seated herself in the armchair, close to the bed, and again took the hand on the coverlet.
"Now I forbid you to speak," said she. "Do not stir, and think of me as I think of you."
Again they looked at each other, motionless, joined together by the burning contact of their hands. She pressed, with gentle movement, the feverish hand she clasped, and he answered these calls by tightening his fingers a little. Each pressure said something to them, evoked some period of their finished past, revived in their memory the stagnant recollections of their love. Each was a secret question, each was a mysterious reply, sad questions and sad replies, those "do you remembers?" of a bygone love.
Their minds, in this agonizing meeting, which might be the last, traveled back through the years, through the whole history of their passion; and nothing was audible in the room save the crackling of the fire.
Suddenly, as if awakening from a dream, he said, with a start of terror:
"What? My letters?" she queried.
"I might have died without destroying them!"
"Oh, what does that matter to me? That is of no consequence now. Let them find them and read them—I don't care!"
"I will not have that," he said. "Get up, Any; open the lowest drawer of my desk, the large one; they are all there, all. You must take them and throw them into the fire."
She did not move at all, but remained crouching, as if he had counseled her to do something cowardly.
"Any, I entreat you!" he continued; "if you do not do this, you will torture me, unnerve me, drive me mad. Think—they may fall into anyone's hands, a notary, a servant, or even your husband. . . . I do not wish. . . ."
She rose, still hesitating, and repeating:
"No, that is too hard, too cruel! I feel as if you were compelling me to burn both our hearts!"
He supplicated her, his face drawn with pain.
Seeing him suffer thus, she resigned herself and walked toward the desk. On opening the drawer, she found it filled to the edge with a thick packet of letters, piled one on top of another, and she recognized on all the envelopes the two lines of the address she had written so often. She knew them—those two lines—a man's name, the name of a street—as well as she knew her own name, as well as one can know the few words that have represented to us in life all hope and all happiness. She looked at them, those little square things that contained all she had known how to express of her love, all that she could take of herself to give to him, with a little ink on a bit of white paper.
He had tried to turn his head on the pillow that he might watch her, and again he said: "Burn them, quick!"
Then she took two handfuls, holding them a few seconds in her grasp. They seemed heavy to her, painful, living, at the same time dead, so many different things were in them, so many things that were now over—so sweet to feel, to dream! It was the soul of her soul, the heart of her heart, the essence of her loving self that she was holding there; and she remembered with what delirium she had scribbled some of them, with what exaltation, what intoxication of living and of adoring some one, and of expressing it.
"Burn them! Burn them, Any!" Olivier repeated.
With the same movement of both hands, she cast into the fireplace the two packets of papers, which became scattered as they fell upon the wood. Then she seized those that remained in the desk and threw them on top of the others, then another handful, with swift movements, stooping and rising again quickly, to finish as soon as might be this terrible task.
When the fireplace was full and the drawer empty, she remained standing, waiting, watching the almost smothered flames as they crept up from all sides on that mountain of envelopes. They attacked them first at the edges, gnawed at the corners, ran along the edge of the paper, went out, sprang up again, and went creeping on and on. Soon, all around that white pyramid glowed a vivid girdle of clear fire which filled the room with light; and this light, illuminating the woman standing and the man dying, was their burning love, their love turned to ashes.
The Countess turned, and in the dazzling light of that fire she beheld her friend leaning with a haggard face on the edge of the bed.
"Are they all there?" he demanded.
But before returning to him she cast a last look upon that destruction, and on that mass of papers, already half consumed, twisting and turning black, and she saw something red flowing. It looked like drops of blood, and seemed to come out of the very heart of the letters, as from a wound; it ran slowly toward the flames, leaving a purple train.
The Countess received in her soul the shock of supernatural terror, and recoiled as if she had seen the assassination of a human being; then she suddenly understood that she had seen simply the melting of the wax seals.
She returned to the wounded man, and lifting his head tenderly laid it back in the center of the pillow. But he had moved, and his pain increased. He was panting now, his face drawn by fearful suffering, and he no longer seemed to know that she was there.
She waited for him to become a little calmer, to open his eyes, which remained closed, to be able to say one word more to her.
Presently she asked: "Do you suffer much?"
He did not reply.
She bent over him and laid a finger on his forehead to make him look at her. He opened his eyes then, but they were wild and dazed.
Terrified, she repeated: "Do you suffer? Olivier! Answer me! Shall I call? Make an effort! Say something to me!"
She thought she heard him murmur: "Bring her . . . you swore to me."
Then he writhed under the bedclothes, his body grew rigid, his face convulsed with awful grimaces.
"Olivier! My God! Olivier!" she cried. "What is the matter? Shall I call?"
This time he heard her, for he replied, "No . . . it is nothing."
He appeared to grow easier, in fact, to suffer less, to fall suddenly into a sort of drowsy stupor. Hoping that he would sleep, she sat down again beside the bed, took his hand, and waited. He moved no more, his chin had dropped to his breast, his mouth was half opened by his short breath, which seemed to rasp his throat in passing. Only his fingers moved involuntarily now and then, with slight tremors which the Countess felt to the roots of her hair, making her long to cry out. They were no more the tender little meaning pressures which, in place of the weary lips, told of all the sadness of their hearts; they were spasms of pain which spoke only of the torture of the body.
Now she was frightened, terribly frightened, and had a wild desire to run away, to ring, to call, but she dared not move, lest she might disturb his repose.
The far-off sound of vehicles in the streets penetrated the walls; and she listened to hear whether that rolling of wheels did not stop before the door, whether her husband were not coming to deliver her, to tear her away at last from this sad tete-a-tete.
As she tried to draw her hand from Olivier's, he pressed it, uttering a deep sigh! Then she resigned herself to wait, so that she should not trouble him.
The fire was dying out on the hearth, under the black ashes of the letters; two candles went out; some pieces of furniture cracked.
All was silent in the house; everything seemed dead except a tall Flemish clock on the stairs, which regularly chimed the hour, the half hour, and the quarter, singing the march of time in the night, modulating it in divers tones.
The Countess, motionless, felt an intolerable terror rising in her soul. Nightmare assailed her; fearful thoughts filled her mind; and she thought she could feel that Olivier's fingers were growing cold within her own. Was that true? No, certainly not. But whence had come that sensation of inexpressible, frozen contact? She roused herself, wild with terror, to look at his face. It was relaxed, impassive, inanimate, indifferent to all misery, suddenly soothed by the Eternal Oblivion.