If he believes that he will disparage this charming girl in my eyes by telling me that she is a bad dancer, he is wrong. Of great importance it is to have a wife who dances well! She does not dance in her own house, nor with her husband from the wardrobe to the cradle, but at others' houses, and with other men. Besides, a young girl who dances much has a lot of nonsense talked to her. She may acquire a taste for Larive's buffooneries, for a neat leg, or a sharp tongue. In that case what welcome can she give to simple, timid affection? She will only laugh at it. But you would not laugh, Jeanne, were I to tell you that I loved you. No, I am quite convinced that you would not laugh. And if you loved me, Jeanne, we should not go into society. That would just suit me. I should protect you, yet not hide you. We should have felicity at home instead of running after it to balls and crushes, where it is never to be found. You could not help being aware of the fascination you exert; but you would not squander it on a mob of dancers, and bring home only the last remnants of your good spirits, with the last remnants of your train. Jeanne, I am delighted to hear that you dance badly.
Whither away, Fabien, my friend, whither away? You are letting your imagination run away with you again. A hint from it, and off you go. Come, do use your reason a little. You have seen this young lady again, that is true. You admired her; that was for the second time. But she, whom you so calmly speak of as "Jeanne," as if she were something to you, never even noticed you. You know nothing about her but what you suspect from her maiden grace and a dozen words from her lips. You do not know whether she is free, nor how she would welcome the notions you entertain if you gave them utterance, yet here you are saying, "We should go here," "We should do this and that." Keep to the singular, my poor fellow. The plural is far away, very far away, if not entirely beyond your reach.
CHAPTER VII. A WOODLAND SKETCH
The end of April. Students, pack and be off! The first warm breezes burst the buds. Meudon is smiling; Clamart breaks into song; the air in the valley of Chevreuse is heavy with violets; the willows shower their catkins on the banks of the Yvette; and farther yet, over yonder beneath the green domes of the forest of Fontainebleau, the deer prick their ears at the sound of the first riding-parties. Off with you! Flowers line the pathways, the moors are pink with bloom, the undergrowth teems with darting wings. All the town troops out to see the country in its gala dress. The very poorest have a favorite nook, a recollection of the bygone year to be revived and renewed; a sheltered corner that invited sleep, a glade where the shade was grateful, a spot beside the river's brink where the fish used to bite. Each one says, "Don't you remember?" Each one seeks his nest like a home-coming swallow. Does it still hold together? What havoc has been made by the winter's winds, and the rain, and the frost? Will it welcome us, as of old?
I, too, said to Lampron, "Don't you remember?" for we, too, have our nest, and summer days that smile to us in memory. He was in the mood for work, and hesitated. I added in a whisper, "The blackbird's pool!" He smiled, and off we went.
Again, as of old, our destination was St. Germain—not the town, nor the Italian palace, nor yet the terrace whence the view spreads so wide over the Seine, the country dotted with villas, to Montmartre blue in the distance—not these, but the forest. "Our forest," we call it; for we know all its young shoots, all its giant trees, all its paths where poachers and young lovers hide. With my eyes shut I could find the blackbird's pool, the way to which was first shown us by a deer.
Imagine at thirty paces from an avenue, a pool—no, not a pool (the word is incorrect), nor yet a pond—but a fountain hollowed out by the removal of a giant oak. Since the death of this monarch the birches which its branches kept apart have never closed together, and the fountain forms the centre of a little clearing where the moss is thick at all seasons and starred in August with wild pinks. The water, though deep, is deliciously clear. At a depth of more than six feet you can distinguish the dead leaves at the bottom, the grass, the twigs, and here and there a stone's iridescent outline. They all lie asleep there, the waste of seasons gone by, soon to be covered by others in their turn. From time to time out of the depths of these submerged thickets an eft darts up. He comes circling up, quivering his yellowbanded tail, snatches a mouthful of air, and goes down again head first. Save for these alarms the pool is untroubled. It is guarded from the winds by a juniper, which an eglantine has chosen for its guardian and crowns each year with a wreath of roses. Each year, too, a blackbird makes his nest here. We keep his secret. He knows we shall not disturb him. And when I come back to this little nook in the woods, which custom has endeared to us, merely by looking in the water I feel my very heart refreshed.
"What a spot to sleep in!" cried Lampron. "Keep sentry, Fabien; I am going to take a nap."
We had walked fast. It was very hot. He took off his coat, rolled it into a pillow, and placed it beneath his head as he lay down on the grass. I stretched myself prone on a velvety carpet of moss, and gave myself up to a profound investigation of the one square foot of ground which lay beneath my eyes. The number of blades of grass was prodigious. A few, already awned, stood above their fellows, waving like palms-meadowgrass, fescue, foxtail, brome-grass—each slender stalk crowned with a tuft. Others were budding, only half unfolded, amid the darker mass of spongy moss which gave them sustenance. Amid the numberless shafts thus raised toward heaven a thousand paths crisscrossed, each full of obstacles-chips of bark, juniper-berries, beech-nuts, tangled roots, hills raised by burrowing insects, ravines formed by the draining off of the rains. Ants and beetles bustled along them, pressing up hill and down to some mysterious goal. Above them a cunning red spider was tying a blade of grass to an orchid leaf, the pillars it had chosen for its future web; and when the wind shook the leaves and the sun pierced through to this spot, I saw the delicate roof already mapped out.
I do not know how long my contemplation lasted. The woods were still. Save for a swarm of gnats which hummed in a minor key around the sleeping Lampron, nothing stirred, not a leaf even. All nature was silent as it drank in the full sunshine.
A murmur of distant voices stole on my ear. I rose, and crept through the birches and hazels to the edge of the glade.
At the top of the slope, on the green margin of the glade, shaded by the tall trees, two pedestrians were slowly advancing. At the distance they still were I could distinguish very little except that the man wore a frock-coat, and that the girl was dressed in gray, and was young, to judge by the suppleness of her walk. Nevertheless I felt at once that it was she!
I hid at they came near, and saw her pass on her father's arm, chatting in low tones, full of joy to have escaped from the Rue de l'Universite. She was looking before her with wide-open eyes. M. Charnot kept his eyes on his daughter, more interested in her than in all the wealth of spring. He kept well to the right of the path as the sun ate away the edge of the shadows; and asked, from time to time:
"Are you tired?"
"As soon as you are tired, my dear, we will sit down. I am not walking too fast?"
She answered "No" again, and laughed, and they went on.
Soon they left the avenue and were lost in a green alley. Then a sudden twilight seemed to have closed down on me, an infinite sadness swelled in my heart. I closed my eyes, and—God forgive my weakness, but the tears came.
"Hallo! What part do you intend me to play in all this?" said Lampron behind me.
"Yes. It's an odd notion to invite me to your trysting-place."
"Trysting-place? I haven't one."
"You mean to tell me, perhaps, that you came here by chance?"
"And chanced upon the very moment and the spot where she was passing?"
"Do you want a proof? That young lady is Mademoiselle Charnot."
"Well, I never have said another word to her since my one visit to her father; I have only seen her once, for a moment, in the street. You see there can be no question of trysting-places in this case. I was wondering at her appearance when you awoke. It is luck, or a friendly providence, that has used the beauty of the sunlight, the breeze, and all the sweets of April to bring her, as it brought us, to the forest."
"And that is what fetched the tears?"
"I don't know."
"My full-grown baby, I will tell you. You are in love with her!"
"Indeed, Sylvestre, I believe you're right. I confess it frankly to you as to my best friend. It is an old story already; as old, perhaps, as the day I first met her. At first her figure would rise in my imagination, and I took pleasure in contemplating it. Soon this phantom ceased to satisfy; I longed to see her in person. I sought her in the streets, the shops, the theatre. I still blinded myself, and pretended that I only wanted to ask her pardon, so as to remove, before I left Paris, the unpleasant impression I had made at our first meeting. But now, Sylvestre, all these false reasons have disappeared, and the true one is clear. I love her!"
"Not a doubt of it, my friend, not a doubt of it. I have been through it myself."
He was silent, and his eyes wandered away to the faroff woods, perhaps back to those distant memories of his. A shadow rested on his strong face, but only for an instant. He shook off his depression, and his old smile came back as he said:
"It's serious, then?"
"Yes, very serious."
"I'm not surprised; she is a very pretty girl."
"Isn't she lovely?"
"Better than that, my friend; she is good. What do you know about her?"
"Only that she is a bad dancer."
"That's something, to be sure."
"But it isn't all."
"Well, no. But never mind, find out the rest, speak to her, declare your passion, ask for her hand, and marry her."
"Good heavens, Sylvestre, you are going ahead!"
"My dear fellow, that is the best and wisest plan; these vague idyls ought to be hurried on, either to a painless separation or an honorable end in wedlock. In your place I should begin to-morrow."
"Why not to-day?"
"Let's catch them up, and see her again at least."
He began to laugh.
"Run after young girls at my age! Well, well, it was my advice. Come along!"
We crossed the avenue, and plunged into the forest.
Lampron had formerly acquired a reputation for tireless agility among the fox-hunters of the Roman Campagna. He still deserves it. In twenty strides he left me behind. I saw him jumping over the heather, knocking off with his cane the young shoots on the oaks, or turning his head to look at me as I struggled after, torn by brambles and pricked by gorse. A startled pheasant brought him to a halt. The bird rose under his feet and soared into the full light.
"Isn't it beautiful?" said he. "Look out, we must be more careful; we are scaring the game. We should come upon the path they took, about sixty yards ahead."
Five minutes later he was signalling to me from behind the trunk of a great beech.
"Here they are."
Jeanne and M. Charnot were seated on a fallen trunk beside the path, which here was almost lost beneath the green boughs. Their backs were toward us. The old man, with his shoulders bent and his gold-knobbed cane stuck into the ground beside him, was reading out of a book which we could not see, while Jeanne, attentive, motionless, her face half turned toward him, was listening. Her profile was outlined against a strip of clear sky. The deep silence of the wood wrapped us round, and we could hear the old scholar's voice; it just reached us.
"Straightway the godlike Odysseus spake these cunning words to the fair Nausicaa: 'Be thou goddess or mortal, O queen, I bow myself before thee! If thou art one of the deities who dwell in boundless heaven, by thy loveliness and grace and height I guess thee to be Artemis, daughter of high Zeus. If thou art a mortal dwelling upon earth, thrice blessed thy father and thy queenly mother, thrice blessed thy dear brothers! Surely their souls ever swell with gladness because of thee, when they see a maiden so lovely step into the circle of the dance. But far the most blessed of all is he who shall prevail on thee with presents and lead thee to his home!'"
I turned to Lampron, who had stopped a few steps in front of me, a little to the right. He had got out his sketch-book, and was drawing hurriedly. Presently he forgot all prudence, and came forth from the shelter of a beech to get nearer to his model. In vain I made sign upon sign, and tried to remind him that we were not thereto paint or sketch. It was useless; the artist within him had broken loose. Sitting down at the required distance on a gnarled root, right in the open, he went on with his work with no thought but for his art.
The inevitable happened. Growing impatient over some difficulty in his sketch, Lampron shuffled his feet; a twig broke, some leaves rustled-Jeanne turned round and saw me looking at her, Lampron sketching her.
What are the feelings of a young girl who in the middle of a forest suddenly discovers that two pairs of eyes are busy with her? A little fright at first; then—when the idea of robbers is dismissed, and a second glance has shown her that it is her beauty, not her life, they want—a touch of satisfied vanity at the compliment, not unmixed with confusion.
This is exactly what we thought we saw. At first she slightly drew back, with brows knitted, on the verge of an exclamation; then her brows unbent, and the pleasure of finding herself admired, confusion at being taken unawares, the desire of appearing at ease, all appeared at once on her rosy cheeks and in her faintly troubled smile.
I bowed. Sylvestre pulled off his cap.
M. Charnot never stirred.
"Another squirrel?" he said.
"Two this time, I think, father," she answered, in a low voice.
He went on reading.
"'My guest,' made answer the fair Nausicaa, 'for I call thee so since thou seemest not base nor foolish, it is Zeus himself that giveth weal to men—'"
Jeanne was no longer listening. She was thinking. Of what? Of several things, perhaps, but certainly of how to beat a retreat. I guessed it by the movement of her sunshade, which was nervously tracing figures in the turf. I signalled to Lampron. We retired backward. Yet it was in vain; the charm was broken, the peace had been disturbed.
She gave two coughs—musical little coughs, produced at will.
M. Charnot broke off his reading.
"You are cold, Jeanne?"
"Why, no, father."
"Yes, yes, you're cold. Why did you not say so before? Lord, Lord, these children! Always the same—think of nothing!"
He rose without delay, put his book in his pocket, buttoned up his coat, and, leaning on his stick, glanced up a moment at the tree-tops. Then, side by side, they disappeared down the path, Jeanne stepping briskly, upright and supple, between the young branches which soon concealed her.
Still Lampron continued to watch the turning in the path down which she had vanished.
"What are you thinking about?" said I.
He stroked his beard, where lurked a few gray hairs.
"I am thinking, my friend, that youth leaves us in this same way, at the time when we love it most, with a faint smile, and without a word to tell us whither. Mine played me this trick."
"What a good idea of yours to sketch them both. Let me see the sketch."
"It can scarcely be called a sketch; it's a mere scratch."
"Show it, all the same."
"My good Fabien, you ought to know that when I am obstinate I have my reasons, like Balaam's ass. You will not see my sketch-book to-day, nor to-morrow, nor the day after."
I answered with foolish warmth:
"Please yourself; I don't care."
Really I was very much annoyed, and I was rather cool with Lampron when we parted on the platform.
What has come to the fellow? To refuse to show me a sketch he had made before my eyes, and a sketch of Jeanne, too!
April 28th, 9 A.M.
Hide your sketches, Sylvestre; stuff them away in your portfolios, or your pockets; I care little, for I bear Jeanne's image in my heart, and can see it when I will, and I love her, I love her, I love her!
What is to become of her and of me I can not tell. I hope without knowing what or why, or when, and hope alone is comforting.
This afternoon, at two o'clock, I met Lampron in the Boulevard St. Michel. He was walking fast with a portfolio under his arm. I went up to him. He looked annoyed, and hardly seemed pleased when I offered to accompany him. I grew red and angry.
"Oh, very well," I said; "good-by, then, since you don't care to be seen with me."
He pondered a moment.
"Oh, come along if you like; I am going to my framemaker's."
"Something of the kind."
"And that's all the mystery! Yesterday it was a sketch I mustn't look at; to-day it's a picture. It is not nice of you, Sylvestre; no, decidedly it is not nice."
He gave me a look of friendly compassion.
"Poor little chap!" said he.
Then, in his usual clear, strong voice:
"I am in a great hurry; but come if you like. I would rather it were four days later; but as it is, never mind; it is never too soon to be happy."
When Lampron chooses to hold his tongue it is useless to ask him questions. I gave myself up to meditating on the words, "It is never too soon to be happy."
We went down the boulevard, past the beer-houses. There is distinction in my friend's walk; he is not to be confused with the crowd through which he passes. You can tell, from the simple seriousness of the man, his indifference to the noise and petty incidents of the streets, that he is a stout and noble soul. Among the passers-by he is a somebody. I heard from a group of students seated before a cafe the following words, which Sylvestre did not seem to notice:
"Look, do you see the taller of those two there? That's Sylvestre Lampron."
"Prix du Salon two years ago?"
"A great gun, you know."
"He looks it."
"To the left," said Lampron.
We turned to the left, and found ourselves in the Rue Hautefeuille, before a shabby house, within the porch of which hung notices of apartments to let; this was the framemaker's. The passage was dark, the walls were chipped by the innumerable removals of furniture they had witnessed. We went upstairs. On the fourth floor a smell of glue and sour paste on the landing announced the tenant's profession. To make quite certain there was a card nailed to the door with "Plumet, Frame-Maker."
"Plumet? A newly-married couple?"
But already Madame Plumet is at the door. It is the same little woman who came to Boule's office. She recognizes me in the dim light of the staircase.
"What, Monsieur Lampron, do you know Monsieur Mouillard?"
"As you apparently do, too, Madame Plumet."
"Oh, yes! I know him well; he won my action, you know."
"Ah, to be sure-against the cabinet-maker. Is your husband in?"
"Yes, sir, in the workshop. Plumet!"
Through the half-opened door giving access to an inner room w e could see-in the midst of his molders, gilders, burnishers, and framers—a little dark man with a beard, who looked up and hurriedly undid the strings of his working-apron.
Little Madame Plumet was a trifle upset at having to receive us in undress, before she had tidied up her rooms. I could see it by her blushes and by the instinctive movement she made to smooth her disordered curls.
The husband had hardly answered her call before she left us and went off to the end of the room, into the obscure recesses of an alcove overcrowded with furniture. There she bent over an oblong object, which I could not quite see at first, and rocked it with her hand.
"Monsieur Mouillard," said she, looking up to me—"Monsieur Mouillard, this is my son, Pierre!"
What tender pride in those words, and the smile which accompanied them! With a finger she drew one of the curtains aside. Under the blue muslin, between the pillow and the white coverlet, I discovered two little black eyes and a tuft of golden hair.
"Isn't he a little rogue!" she went on, and began to caress the waking baby.
Meanwhile Sylvestre had been talking to Plumet at the other end of the room.
"Out of the question," said the frame-maker; "we are up to our knees in arrears; twenty orders waiting."
"I ask you to oblige me as a friend."
"I wish I could oblige you, Monsieur Lampron; but if I made you a promise, I should not be able to keep it."
"What a pity! All was so well arranged, too. The sketch was to have been hung with my two engravings. Poor Fabien! I was saving up a surprise for you. Come and look here."
I went across. Sylvestre opened his portfolio.
"Do you recognize it?"
At once I recognized them. M. Charnot's back; Jeanne's profile, exactly like her; a forest nook; the parasol on the ground; the cane stuck into the grass; a bit of genre, perfect in truth and execution.
"When did you do that?"
"And you want to exhibit it?"
"At the Salon."
"But, Sylvestre, it is too late to send in to the Salon. The Ides of March are long past."
"Yes, for that very reason I have had the devil of a time, intriguing all the morning. With a large picture I never should have succeeded; but with a bit of a sketch, six inches by nine—"
"Bribery of officials, then?"
"Followed by substitution, which is strictly forbidden. I happened to have hung there between two engravings a little sketch of underwoods not unlike this; one comes down, the other is hung instead—a little bit of jobbery of which I am still ashamed. I risked it all for you, in the hope that she would come and recognize the subject."
"Of course she will recognize it, and understand; how on earth could she help it? My dear Sylvestre, how can I thank you?"
I seized my friend's hand and begged his forgiveness for my foolish haste of speech.
He, too, was a little touched and overcome by the pleasure his surprise had given me.
"Look here, Plumet," he said to the frame-maker, who had taken the sketch over to the light, and was studying it with a professional eye. "This young man has even a greater interest than I in the matter. He is a suitor for the lady's hand, and you can be very useful to him. If you do not frame the picture his happiness is blighted."
The frame-maker shook his head.
"Let's see, Antoine," said a coaxing little voice, and Madame Plumet left the cradle to come to our aid.
I considered our cause as won. Plumet repeated in vain, as he pulled his beard, that it was impossible; she declared it was not. He made a move for his workshop; she pulled him back by the sleeve, made him laugh and give his consent.
"Antoine," she insisted, "we owe our marriage to Monsieur Mouillard; you must at least pay what you owe."
I was delighted. Still, a doubt seized me.
"Sylvestre," I said to Lampron, who already had his hand upon the door-handle, "do you really think she will come?"
"I hope so; but I will not answer for it. To make certain, some one must send word to her: 'Mademoiselle Jeanne, your portrait is at the Salon.' If you know any one who would not mind taking this message to the Rue de l'Universite—"
"I'm afraid I don't."
"Come on, then, and trust to luck."
"Rue de l'Universite, did you say?" broke in little Madame Plumet, who certainly took the liveliest interest in my cause.
"Because I have a friend in the neighborhood, and perhaps—"
I risked giving her the number and name under the seal of secrecy; and it was a good thing I did so.
In three minutes she had concocted a plan. It was like this: her friend lived near the hotel in the Rue de l'Universite, a porter's wife of advanced years, and quite safe; by means of her it might be possible to hint to Mademoiselle Jeanne that her portrait, or something like it, was to be seen at the Salon—discreetly, of course, and as if it were the merest piece of news.
What a plucky, clever little woman it is! Surely I was inspired when I did her that service. I never thought I should be repaid. And here I am repaid both capital and interest.
Yet I hesitated. She snatched my consent.
"No, no," said she, "leave me to act. I promise you, Monsieur Mouillard, that she shall hear of it, and you, Monsieur Lampron, that the picture shall be framed."
She showed us to the top of the stairs, did little Madame Plumet, pleased at having won over her husband, at having shown herself so cunning, and at being employed in a conspiracy of love. In the street Lampron shook me by the hand. "Good-by, my friend," he said; "happy men don't need company. Four days hence, at noon, I shall come to fetch you, and we will pay our first visit to the Salon together."
Yes, I was a happy man! I walked fast, without seeing anything, my eyes lost in day dreams, my ears listening to celestial harmonies. I seemed to wear a halo. It abashed me somewhat; for there is something insolent in proclaiming on the housetops: "Look up at me, my heart is full, Jeanne is going to love me!" Decidedly, my brain was affected.
Near the fountain in the Luxembourg, in front of the old palace where the senate sits, two little girls were playing. One pushed the other, who fell down crying,
"Naughty Jeanne, naughty girl!" I rushed to pick her up, and kissed her before the eyes of her astonished nurse, saying, "No, Mademoiselle, she is the most charming girl in the world!"
And M. Legrand! I still blush when I think of my conversation with M. Legrand. He was standing in a dignified attitude at the door of his shop.
"ITALIAN WAREHOUSE; DRESSED PROVISIONS; SPECIALTY IN COLONIAL PRODUCE."
He and I are upon good terms; I buy oranges, licorice from him, and rum when I want to make punch. But there are distinctions. Well, to-day I called him "Dear Monsieur Legrand;" I addressed him, though I had nothing to buy; I asked after his business; I remarked to him, "What a heavenly day, Monsieur Legrand! We really have got fine weather at last!"
He looked up to the top of the street, and looked down again at me, but refrained from differing, out of respect.
And, as a matter of fact, I noticed afterward that there was a most unpleasant drizzle.
To wind up with, just now as I was coming home after dinner, I passed a workman and his family in the Rue Bonaparte, and the man pointed after me, saying:
"Look! there goes a poet."
He was right. In me the lawyer's clerk is in abeyance, the lawyer of to-morrow has disappeared, only the poet is left—that is to say, the essence of youth freed from the parasitic growths of everyday life. I feel it roused and stirring. How sweet life is, and what wonderful instruments we are, that Hope can make us thus vibrate by a touch of her little finger!
CHAPTER VIII. JOY AND MADNESS
These four days have seemed as if they never would end—especially the last. But now it wants only two minutes of noon. In two minutes, if Lampron is not late—
"It is twelve o'clock, my friend; are you coming?"
It was Lampron.
For the last hour I had had my hat on my head, my stick between my legs, and had been turning over my essay with gloved hands. He laughed at me. I don't care. We walked, for the day was clear and warm. All the world was out and about. Who can stay indoors on May Day? As we neared the Chamber of Deputies, perambulators full of babies in white capes came pouring from all the neighboring streets, and made their resplendent way toward the Tuileries. Lampron was in a talkative mood. He was pleased with the hanging of his pictures, and his plan of campaign against Mademoiselle Jeanne.
"She is sure to have heard of it, Fabien, and perhaps is there already. Who can tell?"
"Oh, cease your humbug! Yes, very possibly she is there before us. I have had a feeling that she would be for these last four days."
"You don't say so!"
"I have pictured her a score of times ascending the staircase on her father's arm. We are at the foot, lost in the crowd. Her noble, clear-cut profile stands out against the Gobelin tapestries which frame it with their embroidered flowers; one would say some maiden of bygone days had come to life, and stepped down from her tapestried panel."
"Gentlemen!" said Lampron, with a sweep of his arm which took in the whole of the Place de la Concorde, "allow me to present to you the intending successor of Counsellor Mouillard, lawyer, of Bourges. Every inch of him a man of business!"
We were getting near. Crowds were on their way to the exhibition from all sides, women in spring frocks, many of the men in white waistcoats, one hand in pocket, gayly flourishing their canes with the other, as much as to say, "Look at me-well-to-do, jaunty, and out in fine weather." The turnstiles were crowded, but at last we got through. We made but one step across the gravel court, the realm of sculpture where antique gods in every posture formed a mythological circle round the modern busts in the central walk. There was no loitering here, for my heart was elsewhere. We cast a look at an old wounded Gaul, an ancestor unhonored by the crowd, and started up the staircase—no Jeanne to lead the way. We came to the first room of paintings. Sylvestre beamed like a man who feels at home.
"Quick, Sylvestre, where is the sketch? Let's hurry to it."
But he dragged me with him around several rooms.
Have you ever experienced the intoxication of color which seizes the uninitiated at the door of a picture-gallery? So many staring hues impinge upon the eyes, so many ideas take confused shape and struggle together in the brain, that the eyes grow weary and the brain harassed. It hovers undecided like an insect in a meadow full of flowers. The buzzing remarks of the crowd add to the feeling of intoxication. They distract one's attention before it can settle anywhere, and carry it off to where some group is gathered before a great name, a costly frame, an enormous canvas, or an outrage on taste; twenty men on a gallows against a yellow sky, with twenty crows hovering over them, or an aged antediluvian, some mighty hunter, completely nude and with no property beyond a loaded club. One turns away, and the struggle begins again between the eye, attracted by a hundred subjects, and the brain, which would prefer to study one.
With Lampron this danger has no existence; he takes in a room at a glance. He has the sportsman's eye which, in a covey of partridges, marks its bird at a glance. He never hesitates. "That is the thing to make for," he says, "come along"—and we make for it. He plants himself right in front of the picture, with both hands in his overcoat pockets, and his chin sunk in his collar; says nothing, but is quite happy developing an idea which has occurred to him on his way to it; comparing the picture before him with some former work by the same artist which he remembers. His whole soul is concentrated on the picture. And when he considers that I have understood and penetrated the meaning of the work, he gives his opinion in few words, but always the right ones, summing up a long sequence of ideas which I must have shared with him, since I see exactly as he does.
In this way we halted before the "Martyrdom of Saint Denis," by Bonnat, the two "Adorations," by Bouguereau, a landscape of Bernier's, some other landscapes, sea pieces, and portraits.
At last we left the oil paintings.
In the open gallery, which runs around the inside of the huge oblong and looks on the court, the watercolors, engravings, and drawings slumbered, neglected. Lampron went straight to his works. I should have awarded them the medaille d'honneur; an etching of a man's head, a large engraving of the Virgin and Infant Jesus from the Salon Carre at the Louvre, and the drawing which represents—
"Great Heavens! Sylvestre, she's perfectly lovely; she will make a great mistake if she does not come and see herself!"
"She will come, my dear sir; but I shall not be there to see her."
"Are you going?"
"I leave you to stalk your game; be patient, and do not forget to come and tell me the news this evening."
And Lampron vanished.
The drawing was hung about midway between two doorways draped with curtains, that opened into the big galleries. I leaned against the woodwork of one of them, and waited. On my left stretched a solitude seldom troubled by the few visitors who risk themselves in the realms of pen and pencil. These, too, only came to get fresh air, or to look down on the many-colored crowd moving among the white statues below.
At my right, on the contrary, the battling currents of the crowd kept passing and repassing, the provincial element easily distinguished by its jaded demeanor. Stout, exhausted matrons, breathless fathers of families, crowded the sofas, raising discouraged glances to the walls, while around them turned and tripped, untiring as at a dance, legions of Parisiennes, at ease, on their high heels, equally attentive to the pictures, their own carriage, and their neighbors' gowns.
O peaceful functionaries, you whose business it is to keep an eye upon this ferment! unless the ceaseless flux of these human phenomena lull you to a trance, what a quantity of silly speeches you must hear! I picked up twenty in as many minutes.
Suddenly there came a sound of little footsteps in the gallery. Two little girls had just come in, two sisters, doubtless, for both had the same black eyes, pink dresses, and white feathers in their hats. Hesitating, with outstretched necks, like fawns on the border of a glade, they seemed disappointed at the unexpected length of the gallery. They looked at each other and whispered. Then both smiled, and turning their backs on each other, they set off, one to the right, the other to the left, to examine the drawings which covered the walls. They made a rapid examination, with which art had obviously little to do; they were looking for something, and I thought it might be for Jeanne's portrait. And so it turned out; the one on my side soon came to a stop, pointed a finger to the wall, and gave a little cry. The other ran up; they clapped their hands.
Then off they went again through the farther door.
I guessed what they were about to do.
I trembled from head to foot, and hid myself farther behind the curtains.
Not a minute elapsed before they were back, not two this time, but three, and the third was Jeanne, whom they were pulling along between them.
They brought her up to Lampron's sketch, and curtsied neatly to her.
Jeanne bent down, smiled, and seemed pleased. Then, a doubt seizing her, she turned her head and saw me. The smile died away; she blushed, a tear seemed ready to start to her eyes. Oh, rapture! Jeanne, you are touched; Jeanne, you understand!
A deep joy surged across my soul, so deep that I never have felt its like.
Alas! at that instant some one called, "Jeanne!"
She stood up, took the two little girls by the hand, and was gone.
Far better had it been had I too fled, carrying with me that dream of delight!
But no, I leaned forward to look after them. In the doorway beyond I saw M. Charnot. A young man was with him, who spoke to Jeanne. She answered him. Three words reached me:
"It's nothing, George."
The devil! She loves another!
In what a state of mind did I set out this morning to face my examiners! Downhearted, worn out by a night of misery, indifferent to all that might befall me, whether for good or for evil.
I considered myself, and indeed I was, very wretched, but I never thought that I should return more wretched than I went.
It was lovely weather when at half past eleven I started for the Law School with an annotated copy of my essay under my arm, thinking more of the regrets for the past and plans for the future with which I had wrestled all night, than of the ordeal I was about to undergo. I met in the Luxembourg the little girl whom I had kissed the week before. She stopped her hoop and stood in my way, staring with wideopen eyes and a coaxing, cunning look, which meant, "I know you, I do!" I passed by without noticing. She pouted her lip, and I saw that she was thinking, "What's the matter with him?"
What was the matter? My poor little golden-locks, when you are grown a fair woman I trust you may know as little of it as you do to-day.
I went up the Rue Soufliot, and entered the stuffy courtyard on the stroke of noon.
The morning lectures were over. Beneath the arcades a few scattered students were walking up and down. I avoided them for fear of meeting a friend and having to talk. Several professors came running from their lunch, rather red in the face, at the summons of the secretary. These were my examiners.
It was time to get into costume, for the candidate, like the criminal, has his costume. The old usher, who has dressed me up I don't know how many times in his hired gowns, saw that I was downcast, and thought I must be suffering from examination fever, a peculiar malady, which is like what a young soldier feels the first time he is under fire.
We were alone in the dark robing-room; he walked round me, brushing and encouraging me; doctors of law have a moral right to this touch of the brush.
"It will be all right, Monsieur Mouillard, never fear. No one has been refused a degree this morning."
"I am not afraid, Michu."
"When I say 'no one,' there was one refused—you never heard the like. Just imagine—a little to the right, please, Monsieur Mouillard—imagine, I say, a candidate who knew absolutely nothing. That is nothing extraordinary. But this fellow, after the examination was over, recommended himself to mercy. 'Have compassion on me, gentlemen,' he said, 'I only wish to be a magistrate!' Capital, isn't it?"
"You don't seem to think so. You don't look like laughing this morning."
"No, Michu, every one has his bothers, you know."
"I said to myself as I looked at you just now, Monsieur Mouillard has some bother. Button up all the way, if you please, for a doctor's essay; if-you-please. It's a heartache, then?"
"Something of the kind."
He shrugged his shoulders and went before me, struggling with an asthmatic chuckle, until we came to the room set apart for the examination.
It was the smallest and darkest of all, and borrowed its light from a street which had little enough to spare, and spared as little as it could. On the left against the wall is a raised desk for the candidate. At the end, on a platform before a bookcase, sit the six examiners in red robes, capes with three bands of ermine, and gold-laced caps. Between the candidate's desk and the door is a little enclosure for spectators, of whom there were about thirty when I entered.
My performance, which had a chance of being brilliant, was only fair.
The three first examiners had read my essay, especially M. Flamaran, who knew it well and had enjoyed its novel and audacious propositions. He pursed up his mouth preparatory to putting the first question, like an epicure sucking a ripe fruit. And when at length he opened it, amid the general silence, it was to carry the discussion at once up to such heights of abstraction that a good number of the audience, not understanding a word of it, stealthily made for the door.
Each successive answer put fresh spirit into him.
"Very good," he murmured, "very good; let us carry it a step farther. Now supposing—"
And, the demon of logic at his heels, we both went off like inspired lunatics into a world of hypotheses where never man had set foot. He was examining no longer, he was inventing and intoxicating himself with deductions. No one was right or wrong. We were reasoning about chimeras, he radiant, I cool, before his gently tickled colleagues. I never realized till then what imagination a jurist's head could contain.
Perspiring freely, he set down a white mark, having exceeded by ten minutes the recognized time for examination.
The second examiner was less enthusiastic. He made very few suppositions, and devoted all his art to convicting me of a contradiction between page seventeen and page seventy-nine. He kept repeating, "It's a serious matter, sir, very serious." But, nevertheless, he bestowed a second white mark on me. I only got half white from the third. The rest of the examination was taken up in matters extraneous to the subject of my essay, a commonplace trial of strength, in which I replied with threadbare arguments to outworn objections.
And then it ended. Two hours had passed.
I left the room while the examiners made up their minds.
A few friends came up to me.
"Congratulations, old man, I bet on six whites."
"Hallo, Larive! I never noticed you."
"I quite believe you; you didn't notice anybody, you still look bewildered. Is it the emotion inseparable from—"
"I dare say."
"The candidate is requested to return to the examination room!" said the usher.
And old Michu added, in a whisper, "You have passed. I told you so. You won't forget old Michu, sir."
M. Flamaran conferred my degree with a paternal smile, and a few kind words for "this conscientious study, full of fresh ideas on a difficult subject."
I bowed to the examiners. Larive was waiting for me in the courtyard, and seized me by the arm.
"Uncle Mouillard will be pleased."
"I suppose so."
"Better pleased than you."
"That's very likely."
"He might easily be that. Upon my word I can't understand you. These two years you have been working like a gang of niggers for your degree, and now you have got it you don't seem to care a bit. You have won a smile from Flamaran and do not consider yourself a spoiled child of Fortune! What more did you want? Did you expect that Mademoiselle Charnot would come in person—"
"Look here, Larive—"
"To look on at your examination, and applaud your answers with her neatly gloved hands? Surely you know, my dear fellow, that that is no longer possible, and that she is going to be married."
"Going to be married?"
"Don't pretend you didn't know it."
"I have suspected as much since yesterday; I met her at the Salon, and saw a young man with her."
"Dufilleul, old chap, friend Dufilleul. Don't you know Dufilleul?"
"Oh, yes you do—a bit of a stockjobber, great at ecarte, studied law in our year, and is always to be seen at the Opera with little Tigra of the Bouffes."
"You pity her?"
"It's too awful."
"To see an unhappy child married to a rake who—"
"She will not be the first."
"Yes, there is that, to be sure."
"A fool, as it seems, who, in exchange for her beauty, grace, and youth, can offer only an assortment of damaged goods! Yes, I do pity girls duped thus, deceived and sacrificed by the very purity that makes them believe in that of others."
"You've some queer notions! It's the way of the world. If the innocent victims were only to marry males of equal innocence, under the guardianship of virtuous parents, the days of this world would be numbered, my boy. I assure you that Dufilleul is a good match, handsome for one thing—"
"That's worth a deal!"
"The deuce he is!"
"And then a name which can be divided."
"With all the ease in the world. A very rare quality. At his marriage he describes himself as Monsieur du Filleul. A year later he is Baron du Filleul. At the death of his father, an old cad, he becomes Comte du Filleul. If the young wife is pretty and knows how to cajole her husband, she may even become a marquise."
"You are out of spirits, my poor fellow; I will stand you an absinthe, the only beverage that will suit the bitterness of your heart."
"No, I shall go home."
"Good-by, then. You don't take your degree cheerfully."
He spun round on his heels and went down the Boulevard St. Michel.
So all is over forever between her and me, and, saddest of all, she is even more to be pitied than I. Poor girl! I loved her deeply, but I did it awkwardly, as I do everything, and missed my chance of speaking. The mute declaration which I risked, or rather which a friend risked for me, found her already engaged to this beast who has brought more skill to the task, who has made no blots at the National Library, who has dared all when he had everything to fear—
I have allowed myself to be taken by her maiden witchery. All the fault, all the folly is mine. She has given me no encouragement, no sign of liking me. If she smiled at St. Germain it was because she was surprised and flattered. If she came near to tears at the Salon it was because she pitied me. I have not the shadow of a reproach to make her.
That is all I shall ever get from her—a tear, a smile. That's all; never mind, I shall contrive to live on it. She has been my first love, and I shall keep her a place in my heart from which no other shall drive her. I shall now set to work to shut this poor heart which did so wrong to open.... I thought to be happy to-night, and I am full of sorrow. Henceforward I think I shall understand Sylvestre better. Our sorrows will bring us nearer. I will go to see him at once, and will tell him so.
But first I must write to my uncle to tell him that his nephew is a Doctor of Law. All the rest, my plans, my whole future can be put off till to-morrow, or the day after, unless I get disgusted at the very thought of a future and decide to conjugate my life in the present indicative only. That is what I feel inclined to do.
Lampron has gone to the country to pass a fortnight in an out-of-the-way place with an old relative, where he goes into hiding when he wishes to finish an engraving.
But Madame Lampron was at home. After a little hesitation I told her all, and I am glad I did so. She found in her simple, womanly heart just the counsel that I needed. One feels that she is used to giving consolation. She possesses the secret of that feminine deftness which is the great set-off to feminine weakness. Weak? Yes, women perhaps are weak, yet less weak than we, the strong sex, for they can raise us to our feet. She called me, "My dear Monsieur Fabien," and there was balm in the very way she said the words. I used to think she wanted refinement; she does not, she only lacks reading, and lack of reading may go with the most delicate and lofty feelings. No one ever taught her certain turns of expression which she used. "If your mother was alive," said she, "this is what she would say." And then she spoke to me of God, who alone can determinate man's trials, either by the end He ordains, or the resignation He inspires. I felt myself carried with her into the regions where our sorrows shrink into insignificance as the horizon broadens around them. And I remember she uttered this fine thought, "See how my son has suffered! It makes one believe, Monsieur Fabien, that the elect of the earth are the hardest tried, just as the stones that crown the building are more deeply cut than their fellows."
I returned from Madame Lampron's, softened, calmer, wiser.
CHAPTER IX. A VISIT FROM MY UNCLE
A letter from M. Mouillard breathing fire and fury. Were I not so low spirited I could laugh at it.
He would have liked me, after taking my degree at two in the afternoon, to take the train for Bourges the same evening, where my uncle, his practice, and provincial bliss awaited me. M. Mouillard's friends had had due notice, and would have come to meet me at the station. In short, I am an ungrateful wretch. At least I might have fixed the hour of my imminent arrival, for I can not want to stop in Paris with nothing there to detain me. But no, not a sign, not a word of returning; simply the announcement that I have passed. This goes beyond the bounds of mere folly and carelessness. M. Mouillard, his most elementary notions of life shaken to their foundations, concludes in these words:
"Fabien, I have long suspected it; some creature has you in bondage. I am coming to break the bonds!
I know him well; he will be here tomorrow.
May 6th. No uncle as yet.
May 7th. No more uncle than yesterday.
May 8th. Total eclipse continues. No news of M. Mouillard. This is very strange.
May 9th. This evening at seven o'clock, just as I was going out to dine, I saw, a few yards away, a tall, broad-brimmed hat surmounting a head of lank white hair, a long neck throttled in a white neckcloth, a frock-coat flapping about a pair of attenuated legs. I lifted up my voice:
He opened his arms to me and I fell into them. His first remark was:
"I trust at least that you have not yet dined."
"To Foyot's, then!"
When you expect to meet a man in his wrath and get an invitation to dinner, you feel almost as if you had been taken in. You are heated, your arguments are at your fingers' ends, your stock of petulance is ready for immediate use; and all have to be stored in bond.
When I had recovered from my surprise, I said:
"I expected you sooner, from your letter."
"Your suppositions were correct. I have been two days here, at the Grand Hotel. I went there on account of the dining-room, for my friend Hublette (you remember Hublette at Bourges) told me: 'Mouillard, you must see that room before you retire from business.'"
"I should have gone to see you there, uncle, if I had known it."
"You would not have found me. Business before pleasure, Fabien. I had to see three barristers and five solicitors. You know that business of that kind can not wait. I saw them. Business over, I can indulge my feelings. Here I am. Does Foyot suit you?"
"Come on, then nephew, quick, march! Paris, makes one feel quite young again!"
And really Uncle Mouillard did look quite young, almost as young as he looked provincial. His tall figure, and the countrified cut of his coat, made all who passed him turn to stare, accustomed as Parisians are to curiosities. He tapped the wood pavement with his stick, admired the effects of Wallace's philanthropy, stopped before the enamelled street-signs, and grew enthusiastic over the traffic in the Rue de Vaugirard.
The dinner was capital—just the kind a generous uncle will give to a blameless nephew. M. Mouillard, who has a long standing affection for chambertin, ordered two bottles to begin with. He drank the whole of one and half of the other, eating in proportion, and talked unceasingly and positively at the top of his voice, as his wont was. He told me the story of two of his best actions this year, a judicial separation—my uncle is very strong in judicial separations—and the abduction of a minor. At first I looked out for personal allusions. But no, he told the story from pure love of his art, without omitting an interlocutory judgment, or a judgment reserved, just as he would have told the story of Helen and Paris, if he had been employed in that well-known case. Not a word about myself. I waited, yet nothing came but the successive steps in the action.
After the ice, M. Mouillard called for a cigar.
"Waiter, what cigars have you got?"
"Londres, conchas, regalias, cacadores, partagas, esceptionales. Which would you like, sir?"
"Damn the name! a big one that will take some time to smoke."
Emile displayed at the bottom of a box an object closely resembling a distaff with a straw through the middle, doubtless some relic of the last International Exhibition, abandoned by all, like the Great Eastern, on account of its dimensions. My uncle seized it, stuck it in the amber mouthpiece that is so familiar to me, lighted it, and under the pretext that you must always first get the tobacco to burn evenly, went out trailing behind him a cloud of smoke, like a gunboat at full speed.
We "did" the arcades round the Odeon, where my uncle spent an eternity thumbing the books for sale. He took them all up one after another, from the poetry of the decedents to the Veterinary Manual, gave a glance at the author's name, shrugged his shoulders, and always ended by turning to me with:
"You know that writer?"
"Why, yes, uncle."
"He must be quite a new author; I can't recall that name."
M. Mouillard forgot that it was forty-five years since he had last visited the bookstalls under the Odeon.
He thought he was a student again, loafing along the arcades after dinner, eager for novelty, careless of draughts. Little by little he lost himself in dim reveries. His cigar never left his lips. The ash grew longer and longer yet, a lovely white ash, slightly swollen at the tip, dotted with little black specks, and connected with the cigar by a thin red band which alternately glowed and faded as he drew his breath.
M. Mouillard was so lost in thought, and the ash was getting so long, that a young student—of the age that knows no mercy-was struck by these twin phenomena. I saw him nudge a friend, hastily roll a cigarette, and, doffing his hat, accost my uncle.
"Might I trouble you for a light, sir!"
M. Mouillard emitted a sigh, turned slowly round, and bent two terrible eyes upon the intruder, knocked off the ash with an angry gesture, and held out the ignited end at arm's length.
"With pleasure, sir!"
Then he replaced the last book he had taken up—a copy of Musset—and called me.
Arm in arm we strolled up the Rue de Medicis along the railings of the Luxembourg.
I felt the crisis approaching. My uncle has a pet saying: "When a thing is not clear to me, I go straight to the heart of it like a ferret."
The ferret began to work.
"Now, Fabien, about these bonds I mentioned? Did I guess right?"
"Yes, uncle, I have been in bondage."
"Quite right to make a clean breast of it, my boy; but we must break your bonds."
"They are broken."
"How long ago?"
"Some days ago."
"On your honor?"
"That's quite right. You'd have done better to keep out of bondage. But there, you took your uncle's advice; you saw the abyss, and drew back from it. Quite right of you."
"Uncle, I will not deceive you. Your letter arrived after the event. The cause of the rupture was quite apart from that."
"And the cause was?"
"The sudden shattering of my illusions."
"Men still have illusions about these creatures?"
"She was a perfect creature, and worthy of all respect."
"I must ask you to believe me. I thought her affections free."
"And she was—"
"Really now, that's very funny!"
"I did not find it funny, uncle. I suffered bitterly, I assure you."
"I dare say, I dare say. The illusions you spoke of anyhow, it's all over now?"
"Well, that being the case, Fabien, I am ready to help you. Confess frankly to me. How much is required?"
"Yes, you want something, I dare say, to close the incident. You know what I mean, eh? to purchase what I might call the veil of oblivion. How much?"
"Why, nothing at all, uncle."
"Don't be afraid, Fabien; I've got the money with me."
"You have quite mistaken the case, uncle; there is no question of money. I must tell you again that the young lady is of the highest respectability."
My uncle stared.
"I assure you, uncle. I am speaking of Mademoiselle Jeanne Charnot."
"I dare say."
"The daughter of a member of the Institute."
My uncle gave a jump and stood still.
"Yes, of Mademoiselle Charnot, whom I was in love with and wished to marry. Do you understand?"
He leaned against the railing and folded his arms.
"Marry! Well, I never! A woman you wanted to marry?"
"Why, yes; what's the matter?"
"To marry! How could I have imagined such a thing? Here were matters of the utmost importance going on, and I knew nothing about them. Marry! You might be announcing your betrothal to me at this moment if you'd-Still you are quite sure she is betrothed?"
"Larive told me so."
"A friend of mine."
"Oh, so you have only heard it through a friend?"
"Yes, uncle. Do you really think there may still be hope, that I still have a chance?"
"No, no; not the slightest. She is sure to be betrothed, very much betrothed. I tell you I am glad she is. The Mouillards do not come to Paris for their wives, Fabien—we do not want a Parisienne to carry on the traditions of the family, and the practice. A Parisienne! I shudder at the thought of it. Fabien, you will leave Paris with me to-morrow. That's understood."
"Certainly not, uncle."
"Because I can not leave my friends without saying goodby, and because I have need to reflect before definitely binding myself to the legal profession."
"To reflect! You want to reflect before taking over a family practice, which has been destined for you since you were an infant, in view of which you have been working for five years, and which I have nursed for you, I, your uncle, as if you had been my son?"
"Don't be a fool! You can reflect at Bourges quite as well as here. Your object in staying here is to see her again."
"It is not."
"To wander like a troubled spirit up and down her street. By the way, which is her street?"
"Rue de l'Universite."
My uncle took out his pocketbook and made a note, "Charnot, Rue de l'Universite." Then all his features expanded. He gave a snort, which I understood, for I had often heard it in court at Bourges, where it meant, "There is no escape now. Old Mouillard has cornered his man."
My uncle replaced his pencil in its case, and his notebook in his pocket, and merely added:
"Fabien, you're not yourself to-night. We'll talk of the matter another time. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten." He was counting on his fingers. "These return tickets are very convenient; I need not leave before to-morrow evening. And, what's more, you'll go with me, my boy."
M. Mouillard talked only on indifferent subjects during our brief walk from the Rue Soufflot to catch the omnibus at the Odeon. There he shook me by the hand and sprang nimbly into the first bus. A lady in black, with veil tightly drawn over a little turned up nose, seeing my uncle burst in like a bomb, and make for the seat beside her, hurriedly drew in the folds of her dress, which were spread over the seat. My uncle noticed her action, and, fearing he had been rude, bent over toward her with an affable expression. "Do not disturb yourself, Madame. I am not going all the way to Batignolles; no farther, indeed, than the Boulevards. I shall inconvenience you for a few moments only, a very few moments, Madame." I had time to remark that the lady, after giving her neighbor a glance of Juno-like disdain, turned her back upon him, and proceeded to study the straps hanging from the roof.
The brake was taken off, the conductor whistled, the three horses, their hoofs hammering the pavement, strained for an instant amid showers of sparks, and the long vehicle vanished down the Rue de Vaugirard, bearing with it Brutus and his fortunes.
CHAPTER X. A FAMILY BREACH
It is an awful fate to be the nephew of M. Mouillard! I always knew he was obstinate, capable alike of guile and daring, but I little imagined what his intentions were when he left me!
My refusal to start, and my prayer for a respite before embarking in his practice, drove him wild. He lost his head, and swore to drag me off, 'per fas et nefas'. He has mentally begun a new action—Mouillard v. Mouillard, and is already tackling the brief; which is as much as to say that he is fierce, unbridled, heartless, and without remorse.
Some might have bent. I preferred to break.
We are strangers for life. I have just seen him to the landing of my staircase.
He came here about a quarter of an hour ago, proud, and, I may say, swaggering, as he does over his learned friends when he has found a flaw in one of their pleadings.
"I've got some news for you."
M. Mouillard banged his hat down furiously upon my table.
"Yes, you know my maxim: when anything does not seem quite clear to me—"
"You ferret it out."
"Quite so; I have always found it answer. Your business did not seem clear to me. Was Mademoiselle Charnot betrothed, or was she not? To what extent had she encouraged your attentions? You never would have told me the story correctly, and I never should have known. That being so, I put my maxim into practice, and went to see her father."
"You did that?"
"Certainly I did."
"You have been to see Monsieur Charnot?"
"In the Rue de l'Universite. Wasn't it the simplest thing to do? Besides, I was not sorry to make the acquaintance of a member of the Institute. And I must admit that he behaved very nicely to me—not a bit stuck up."
"And you told him?"
"My name to begin with: Brutus Mouillard. He reflected a bit, just a moment, and recalled your appearance: a shy youth, a bachelor of arts, wearing an eyeglass."
"Was that all his description?"
"Yes, he remembered seeing you at the National Library, and once at his house. I said to him, 'That is my nephew, Monsieur Charnot.' He replied, 'I congratulate you, sir; he seems a youth of parts.'—'That he is, but his heart is very inflammable.'—'At his age, sir, who is not liable to take fire?' That was how we began. Your friend Monsieur Charnot has a pretty wit. I did not want to be behindhand with him, so I answered, 'Well, sir, it caught fire in your house.' He started with fright and looked all round the room. I was vastly amused. Then we came to explanations. I put the case before him, that you were in love with his daughter, without my consent, but with perfectly honorable intentions; that I had guessed it from your letters, from your unpardonable neglect of your duties to your family, and that I hurried hither from Bourges to take in the situation. With that I concluded, and waited for him to develop. There are occasions when you must let people develop. I could not jump down his throat with, 'Sir, would you kindly tell me whether your daughter is betrothed or not?' You follow me? He thought, no doubt, I had come to ask for his daughter's hand, and passing one hand over his forehead, he replied, 'Sir, I feel greatly flattered by your proposal, and I should certainly give it my serious attention, were it not that my daughter's hand is already sought by the son of an old schoolfellow of mine, which circumstance, as you will readily understand, does not permit of my entertaining an offer which otherwise should have received the most mature consideration.' I had learned what I came for without risking anything. Well, I didn't conceal from him that, so far as I was concerned, I would rather you took your wife from the country than that you brought home the most charming Parisienne; and that the Mouillards from father to son had always taken their wives from Bourges. He entered perfectly into my sentiments, and we parted the best of friends. Now, my boy, the facts are ascertained: Mademoiselle Charnot is another's; you must get your mourning over and start with me to-night. To-morrow morning we shall be in Bourges, and you'll soon be laughing over your Parisian delusions, I warrant you!"
I had heard my uncle out without interrupting him, though wrath, astonishment, and my habitual respect for M. Mouillard were struggling for the mastery within me. I needed all my strength of mind to answer, with apparent calm.
"Yesterday, uncle, I had not made up my mind; today I have."
"You are coming?"
"I am not. Your action in this matter, uncle—I do not know if you are aware of it—has been perfectly unheard-of. I can not acknowledge your right to act thus. It puts between you and me two hundred miles of rail, and that forever. Do you understand me? You have taken the liberty of disclosing a secret which was not yours to tell; you have revealed a passion which, as it was hopeless, should not have been further mentioned, and certainly not exposed to such humiliation. You went to see Monsieur Charnot without reflecting whether you were not bringing trouble into his household; without reflecting, further, whether such conduct as yours, which may perhaps be usual among your business acquaintances, was likely to succeed with me. Perhaps you thought it would. You have merely completed an experiment, begun long ago, which proves that we do not understand life in the same way, and that it will be better for both of us if I continue to live in Paris, and you continue to live at Bourges."
"Ha! that's how you take it, young man, is it? You refuse to come? you try to bully me?"
"Consider carefully before you let me leave here alone. You know the amount of your fortune—fourteen hundred francs a year, which means poverty in Paris."
"Yes, I do."
"Well, then, attend to what I am about to say. For years past I have been saving my practice for you—that is, an honorable and lucrative position all ready for you to step into. But I am tired at length of your fads and your fancies. If you do not take up your quarters at Bourges within a fortnight from now, the Mouillard practice will change its name within three weeks!" My uncle sniffed with emotion as he looked at me, expecting to see me totter beneath his threats. I made no answer for a moment; but a thought which had been harassing me from the beginning of our interview compelled me to say:
"I have only one thing to ask you, Monsieur Mouillard."
"Further respite, I suppose? Time to reflect and fool me again? No, a hundred times no! I've had enough of you; a fortnight, not a day more!"
"No, sir; I do not ask for respite."
"So much the better, for I should refuse it. What do you want?"
"Monsieur Mouillard, I trust that Jeanne was not present at the interview, that she heard none of it, that she was not forced to blush—"
My uncle sprang to his feet, seized his gloves, which lay spread out on the table, bundled them up, flung them passionately into his hat, clapped the whole on his head, and made for the door with angry strides.
I followed him; he never looked back, never made answer to my "Good-by, uncle." But, at the sixth step, just before turning the corner, he raised his stick, gave the banisters a blow fit to break them, and went on his way downstairs exclaiming:
And so we have parted with an oath, my uncle and I! That is how I have broken with the only relative I possess. It is now ten days since then. I now have five left in which to mend the broken thread of the family tradition, and become a lawyer. But nothing points to such conversion. On the contrary, I feel relieved of a heavy weight, pleased to be free, to have no profession. I feel the thrill of pleasure that a fugitive from justice feels on clearing the frontier. Perhaps I was meant for a different course of life than the one I was forced to follow. As a child I was brought up to worship the Mouillard practice, with the fixed idea that this profession alone could suit me; heir apparent to a lawyer's stool—born to it, brought up to it, without any idea, at any rate for a long time, that I could possibly free myself from the traditions of the law's sacred jargon.
I have quite got over that now. The courts, where I have been a frequent spectator, seem to me full of talented men who fine down and belittle their talents in the practice of law. Nothing uses up the nobler virtues more quickly than a practice at the bar. Generosity, enthusiasm, sensibility, true and ready sympathy—all are taken, leaving the man, in many instances nothing but a skilful actor, who apes all the emotions while feeling none. And the comedy is none the less repugnant to me because it is played through with a solemn face, and the actors are richly recompensed.
Lampron is not like this. He has given play to all the noble qualities of his nature. I envy him. I admire his disinterestedness, his broad views of life, his faith in good in spite of evil, his belief in poetry in spite of prose, his unspoiled capacity for receiving new impressions and illusions—a capacity which, amid the crowds that grow old in mind before they are old in body, keeps him still young and boyish. I think I might have been devoted to his profession, or to literature, or to anything but law.
We shall see. For the present I have taken a plunge into the unknown. My time is all my own, my freedom is absolute, and I am enjoying it.
I have hidden nothing from Lampron. As my friend he is pleased, I can see, at a resolve which keeps me in Paris; but his prudence cries out upon it.
"It is easy enough to refuse a profession," he said; "harder to find another in its place. What do you intend to do?"
"I don't know."
"My dear fellow, you seem to be trusting to luck. At sixteen that might be permissible, at twenty-four it's a mistake."
"So much the worse, for I shall make the mistake. If I have to live on little—well, you've tried that before now; I shall only be following you."
"That's true; I have known want, and even now it attacks me sometimes; it's like influenza, which does not leave its victims all at once; but it is hard, I can tell you, to do without the necessaries of life; as for its luxuries—"
"Oh, of course, no one can do without its luxuries."
"You are incorrigible," he answered, with a laugh. Then he said no more. Lampron's silence is the only argument which struggles in my heart in favor of the Mouillard practice. Who can guess from what quarter the wind will blow?
CHAPTER XI. IN THE BEATEN PATH
The die is cast; I will not be a lawyer.
The tradition of the Mouillards is broken for good, Sylvestre is defeated for good, and I am free for good—and quite uncertain of my future.
I have written my uncle a calm, polite, and clearly worded letter to confirm my decision. He has not answered it, nor did I expect an answer.
I expected, however, that he would be avenged by some faint regret on my part, by one of those light mists that so often arise and hang about our firmest resolutions. But no such mist has arisen.
Still, Law has had her revenge. Abandoned at Bourges, she has recaptured me at Paris, for a time. I realized that it was impossible for me to live on an income of fourteen hundred francs. The friends whom I discreetly questioned, in behalf of an unnamed acquaintance, as to the means of earning money, gave me various answers. Here is a fairly complete list of their expedients:
"If your friend is at all clever, he should write a novel."
"If he is not, there is the catalogue of the National Library: ten hours of indexing a day."
"If he has ambition, let him become a wine-merchant."
"No; 'Old Clo,' and get his hats gratis."
"If he is very plain, and has no voice, he can sing in the chorus at the opera."
"Shorthand writer in the Senate is a peaceful occupation."
"Teacher of Volapuk is the profession of the future."
"Try 'Hallo, are you there?' in the telephones."
"Wants to earn money? Advise him first not to lose any!"
The most sensible one, who guessed the name of the acquaintance I was interested in, said:
"You have been a managing clerk; go back to it."
And as the situation chanced to be vacant, I went back to my old master. I took my old seat and den as managing clerk between the outer office and Counsellor Boule's glass cage. I correct the drafts of the inferior clerks; I see the clients and instruct them how to proceed. They often take me for the counsellor himself. I go to the courts nearly every day, and hang about chief clerks' and judges' chambers; and go to the theatre once a week with the "paper" supplied to the office.
Do I call this a profession? No, merely a stop-gap which allows me to live and wait for something to turn up. I sometimes have forebodings that I shall go on like this forever, waiting for something which will never turn up; that this temporary occupation may become only too permanent.
There is an old clerk in the office who has never had any other occupation, whose appearance is a kind of warning to me. He has a red face—the effect of the office stove, I think—straight, white hair, the expression when spoken to of a startled sheep-gentle, astonished, slightly flurried. His attenuated back is rounded off with a stoop between the neck and shoulders. He can hardly keep his hands from shaking. His signature is a work of art. He can stick at his desk for six hours without stirring. While we lunch at a restaurant, he consumes at the office some nondescript provisions which he brings in the morning in a paper bag. On Sundays he fishes, for a change; his rod takes the place of his pen, and his can of worms serves instead of inkstand.
He and I have already one point of resemblance. The old clerk was once crossed in love with a flowergirl, one Mademoiselle Elodie. He has told me this one tragedy of his life. In days gone by I used to think this thirty-year-old love-story dull and commonplace; to-day I understand M. Jupille; I relish him even. He and I have become sympathetic. I no longer make him move from his seat by the fire when I want to ask him a question: I go to him. On Sundays, on the quays by the Seine, I pick him out from the crowd intent upon the capture of tittlebats, because he is seated upon his handkerchief. I go up to him and we have a talk.
"Fish biting, Monsieur Jupille?"
"Hardly at all."
"Sport is not what it used to be?"
"Ah! Monsieur Mouillard, if you could have seen it thirty years ago!"
This date is always cropping up with him. Have we not all our own date, a few months, a few days, perhaps a single hour of full-hearted joy, for which half our life has been a preparation, and of which the other half must be a remembrance?
"Monsieur Mouillard, here is an application for leave to sign judgment in a fresh matter."
"Very well, give it me."
"To the President of the Civil Court:
"Monsieur Plumet, of 27 Rue Hauteville, in the city of Paris, by Counsellor Boule, his advocate, craves leave—"
It was a proceeding against a refractory debtor, the commonest thing in the world.
"Who brought these papers?"
"A very pretty little woman brought them this morning while you were out, sir."
"Monsieur Massinot, whether she was pretty or not, it is no business of yours to criticise the looks of the clients."
"I did not mean to offend you, Monsieur Mouillard."
"You have not offended me, but you have no business to talk of a 'pretty client.' That epithet is not allowed in a pleading, that's all. The lady is coming back, I suppose?"
Little Madame Plumet soon called again, tricked out from head to foot in the latest fashion. She was a little flurried on entering a room full of jocular clerks. Escorted by Massinot, both of them with their eyes fixed on the ground, she reached my office. I closed the door after her. She recognized me.
"Monsieur Mouillard! What a pleasant surprise!"
She held out her hand to me so frankly and gracefully that I gave her mine, and felt sure, from the firm, expressive way in which she clasped it, that Madame Plumet was really pleased to see me. Her ruddy cheeks and bright eyes recalled my first impression of her, the little dressmaker running from the workshop to the office, full of her love for M. Plumet and her grievances against the wicked cabinetmaker.
"What, you are back again with Counsellor Boule? I am surprised!"
"So am I, Madame Plumet, very much surprised. But such is life! How is Master Pierre progressing?"
"Not quite so well, poor darling, since I weaned him. I had to wean him, Monsieur Mouillard, because I have gone back to my old trade."
"Yes, on my own account this time. I have taken the flat opposite to ours, on the same floor. Plumet makes frames, while I make gowns. I have already three workgirls, and enough customers to give me a start. I do not charge them very dear to begin with.
"One of my customers was a very nice young lady—you know who! I have not talked to her of you, but I have often wanted to. By the way, Monsieur Mouillard, did I do my errand well?"
"The important one, about the portrait at the Salon."
"Oh, yes; very well indeed. I must thank you."
"Yes, with her father."
"She must have been pleased! The drawing was so pretty. Plumet, who is not much of a talker, is never tired of praising it. I tell you, he and I did not spare ourselves. He made a bit of a fuss before he would take the order; he was in a hurry—such a hurry; but when he saw that I was bent on it he gave in. And it is not the first time he has given in. Plumet is a good soul, Monsieur Mouillard. When you know him better you will see what a good soul he is. Well, while he was cutting out the frame, I went to the porter's wife. What a business it was! I am glad my errand was successful!"
"It was too good of you, Madame Plumet; but it was useless, alas! she is to marry another."
"Marry another? Impossible!"
I thought Madame Plumet was about to faint. Had she heard that her son Pierre had the croup, she could not have been more upset. Her bosom heaved, she clasped her hands, and gazed at me with sorrowful compassion.
"Poor Monsieur Mouillard!"
And two tears, two real tears, coursed down Madame Plumet's cheeks. I should have liked to catch them. They were the only tears that had been shed for me by a living soul since my mother died.
I had to tell her all, every word, down to my rival's name. When she heard that it was Baron Dufilleul, her indignation knew no bounds. She exclaimed that the Baron was an awful man; that she knew all sorts of things about him! Know him? she should think so! That such a union was impossible, that it could never take place, that Plumet, she knew, would agree with her:
"Madame Plumet," I said, "we have strayed some distance from the business which brought you here. Let us return to your affairs; mine are hopeless, and you can not remedy them."
She got up trembling, her eyes red and her feelings a little hurt.
"My action? Oh, no! I can't attend to it to-day. I've no heart to talk about my business. What you've told me has made me too unhappy. Another day, Monsieur Mouillard, another day."
She left me with a look of mystery, and a pressure of the hand which seemed to say: "Rely on me!"
CHAPTER XII. I GO TO ITALY
In the train. We have passed the fortifications. The stuccoed houses of the suburbs, the factories, taverns, and gloomy hovels in the debatable land round Paris are so many points of sunshine in the far distance. The train is going at full speed. The fields of green or gold are being unrolled like ribbons before my eyes. Now and again a metallic sound and a glimpse of columns and advertisements show that we are rushing through a station in a whirlwind of dust. A flash of light across our path is a tributary of the river. I am off, well on my way, and no one can stop me—not Lampron, nor Counsellor Boule, nor yet Plum et. The dream of years is about to be realized. I am going to see Italy—merely a corner of it; but what a pleasure even that is, and what unlooked-for luck!
A few days ago, Counsellor Boule called me into his office.
"Monsieur Mouillard, you speak Italian fluently, don't you?"
"Yes, sir." "Would you like a trip at a client's expense?"
"With pleasure, wherever you like."
"With very great pleasure."
"I thought so, and gave your name to the court without asking your consent. It's a commission to examine documents at Milan, to prove some copies of deeds and other papers, put in by a supposititious Italian heir to establish his rights to a rather large property. You remember the case of Zampini against Veldon and others?"
"It is Zampini's copies of the deeds on which he bases his claim which you will have to compare with the originals, with the help of a clerk from the Record Office and a sworn translator. You can go by Switzerland or by the Corniche route, as you please. You will be allowed six hundred francs and a fortnight's holiday. Does that suit you?"
"I should think so!"
"Then pack up and be off. You must be at Milan by the morning of the eighteenth."
I ran to tell the news to Lampron, who was filled with surprise and not a little emotion at the mention of Italy. And here I am flying along in the Lyons express, without a regret for Paris. All my heart leaps forward toward Switzerland, where I shall be to-morrow. I have chosen this green route to take me to the land of blue skies. Up to the last moment I feared that some obstacle would arise, that the ill-luck which dogs my footsteps would keep me back, and I am quite surprised that it has let me off. True, I nearly lost the train, and the horse of cab No. 7382 must have been a retired racer to make up for the loss of time caused by M. Plumet.
Counsellor Boule sent me on a business errand an hour before I started. On my way back, just as I was crossing the Place de l'Opera in the aforesaid cab, a voice hailed me:
I looked first to the right and then to the left, till, on a refuge, I caught sight of M. Plumet struggling to attract my attention. I stopped the cab, and a smile of satisfaction spread over M. Plumet's countenance. He stepped off the refuge. I opened the cab-door. But a brougham passed, and the horse pushed me back into the cab with his nose. I opened the door a second time; another brougham came by; then a third; finally two serried lines of traffic cut me off from M. Plumet, who kept shouting something to me which the noise of the wheels and the crowd prevented me from hearing. I signalled my despair to M. Plumet. He rose on tiptoe. I could not hear any better.
Five minutes lost! Impossible to wait any longer! Besides, who could tell that it was not a trap to prevent my departure, though in friendly guise? I shuddered at the thought and shouted:
"Gare de Lyon, cabby, as fast as you can drive!"
My orders were obeyed. We got to the station to find the train made up and ready to start, and I was the last to take a ticket.
I suppose M. Plumet managed to escape from his refuge.
On my arrival I found, keeping order on the way outside the station, the drollest policeman that ever stepped out of a comic opera. At home we should have had to protect him against the boys; here he protects others.
Well, it shows that I am really abroad.
I have only two hours to spare in this town. What shall I see? The country; that is always beautiful, whereas many so-called "sights" are not. I will make for the shores of the lake, for the spot where the Rhone leaves it, to flow toward France. The Rhone, which is so muddy at Avignon, is clean here; deep and clear as a creek of the sea. It rushes along in a narrow blue torrent compressed between a quay and a line of houses.
The river draws me after it. We leave the town together, and I am soon in the midst of those market-gardens where the infant Topffer lost himself, and, overtaken by nightfall, fell to making his famous analysis of fear. The big pumping wheels still overtop the willows, and cast their shadows over the lettuce-fields. In the distance rise slopes of woodland, on Sundays the haunt of holiday-makers. The Rhone leaps and eddies, singing over its gravel beds. Two trout-fishers are taxing all their strength to pull a boat up stream beneath the shelter of the bank.
Perhaps I was wrong in not waiting to hear what M. Plumet had to tell me. He is not the kind of man to gesticulate wildly without good reason.
ON THE LAKE.
The steamer is gaining the open water and Geneva already lies far behind. Not a ripple on the blue water that shades into deep blue behind us. Ahead the scene melts into a milky haze. A little boat, with idle sails embroidered with sunlight, vanishes into it. On the right rise the mountains of Savoy, dotted with forests, veiled in clouds which cast their shadows on the broken slopes. The contrast is happy, and I can not help admiring Leman's lovely smile at the foot of these rugged mountains.
At the bend in the banks near St. Maurice-en-Valais, the wind catches us, quite a squall. The lake becomes a sea. At the first roll an Englishwoman becomes seasick. She casts an expiring glance upon Chillon, the ancient towers of which are being lashed by the foam. Her husband does not think it worth his while to cease reading his guide-book or focusing his field-glass for so trifling a matter.
ON THE DILIGENCE
I am crossing the Simplon at daybreak, with rosepink glaciers on every side. We are trotting down the Italian slope. How I have longed for the sight of Italy! Hardly had the diligence put on the brake, and begun bowling down the mountain-side, before I discovered a change on the face of all things. The sky turned to a brighter blue. At the very first glance I seemed to see the dust of long summers on the leaves of the firs, six thousand feet above the sea, in the virgin atmosphere of the mountain-tops: and I was very near taking the creaking of my loosely fixed seat for the southern melody of the first grasshopper.
No one could be mistaken; this shaven, obsequious, suavely jovial innkeeper is a Neapolitan. He takes his stand in his mosaic-paved hall, and is at the service of all who wish for information about Lago Maggiore, the list of its sights; in a word, the programme of the piece.
ISOLA BELLA, ISOLA MADRE.
Yes, they are scraped clean, carefully tended, pretty, all a-blowing and a-growing; but unreal. The palm trees are unhomely, the tropical plants seem to stand behind footlights. Restore them to their homes, or give me back Lake Leman, so simply grand.
After the sky-blue of Maggiore and the vivid green of Lugano, comes the violet-blue of Como, with its luminous landscape, its banks covered with olives, Roman ruins, and modern villas. Never have I felt the air so clear. Here for the first time I said to myself: "This is the spot where I would choose to dwell." I have even selected my house; it peeps out from a mass of pomegranates, evergreens, and citrons, on a peninsula around which the water swells with gentle murmur, and whence the view is perfect across lake, mountain, and sky.
A nightingale is singing, and I can not help reflecting that his fellows here are put to death in thousands. Yes, the reapers, famed in poems and lithographs, are desperate bird-catchers. At the season of migration they capture thousands of these weary travellers with snares or limed twigs; on Maggiore alone sixty thousand meet their end. We have but those they choose to leave us to charm our summer nights.
Perhaps they will kill my nightingale in the Carmelite garden. The idea fills me with indignation.
Then my thoughts run back to my rooms in the Rue de Rennes, and I see Madame Menin, with a dejected air, dusting my slumbering furniture; Lampron at work, his mother knitting; the old clerk growing sleepy with the heat and lifting his pen as he fancies he has got a bite; Madame Plumet amid her covey of workgirls, and M. Plumet blowing away with impatient breath the gold dust which the gum has failed to fix on the mouldings of a newly finished frame.