M. Plumet is pensive. He is burdened with a secret. I am convinced I did wrong in not waiting longer on the Place de L'Opera.
At last I am in Milan, an ancient city, but full of ideas and energy, my destination, and the cradle of the excellent Porfirio Zampini, suspected forger. The examination of documents does not begin till the day after to-morrow, so I am making the best of the time in seeing the sights.
There are four sights to see at Milan if you are a musician, and three if you are not: the Duomo, 'vulgo', cathedral; "The Marriage of the Virgin," by Raphael; "The Last Supper," by Leonardo; and, if it suits your tastes, a performance at La Scala.
I began with the Duomo, and on leaving it I received the news that still worries me.
But first of all I must make a confession. When I ascended through the tropical heat to the marble roof of the cathedral, I expected so much that I was disappointed. Surprise goes for so much in what we admire. Neither this mountain of marble, nor the lacework and pinnacles which adorn the enormous mass, nor the amazing number of statues, nor the sight of men smaller than flies on the Piazza del Duomo, nor the vast stretch of flat country which spreads for miles on every side of the city—none of these sights kindled the spark of enthusiasm within me which has often glowed for much less. No, what pleased me was something quite different, a detail not noticed in the guide-books, I suppose.
I had come down from the roof and was wandering in the vast nave from pillar to pillar, when I found myself beneath the lantern. I raised my eyes, but the flood of golden light compelled me to close them. The sunlight passing through the yellow glass of the windows overhead encircled the mighty vault of the lantern with a fiery crown, and played around the walls of its cage in rays which, growing fainter as they fell, flooded the floor with their expiring flames, a mysterious dayspring, a diffused glory, through which litany and sacred chant winged their way up toward the Infinite.
I left the cathedral tired out, dazed with weariness and sunlight, and fell asleep in a chair as soon as I got back to my room, on the fifth floor of the Albergo dell' Agnello.
I had been asleep for about an hour, perhaps, when I thought I heard a voice near me repeating "Illustre Signore!"
I did not wake. The voice continued with a murmur of sibilants:
This drew me from my sleep, for the human ear is very susceptible to superlatives.
"What is it?"
"A letter for your lordship. As it is marked 'Immediate,' I thought I might take the liberty of disturbing your lordship's slumbers."
"You did quite right, Tomaso."
"You owe me eight sous, signore, which I paid for the postage."
"There's half a franc, keep the change."
He retired calling me Monsieur le Comte; and all for two sous—O fatherland of Brutus! The letter was from Lampron, who had forgotten to put a stamp on it.
"MY DEAR FRIEND:
"Madame Plumet, to whom I believe you have given no instructions so to do, is at present busying herself considerably about your affairs. I felt I ought to warn you, because she is all heart and no brains, and I have often seen before the trouble into which an overzealous friend may get one, especially if the friend be a woman.
"I fear some serious indiscretion has been committed, for the following reasons.
"Yesterday evening Monsieur Plumet came to see me, and stood pulling furiously at his beard, which I know from experience is his way of showing that the world is not going around the right way for him. By means of questions, I succeeded, after some difficulty, in dragging from him about half what he had to tell me. The only thing which he made quite clear was his distress on finding that Madame Plumet was a woman whom it was hard to silence or to convince by argument.
"It appears that she has gone back to her old trade of dress-making, and that one of her first customers—God knows how she got there!— was Mademoiselle Jeanne Charnot.
"Well, last Monday Mademoiselle Jeanne was selecting a hat. She was blithe as dawn, while the dressmaker was gloomy as night.
"'Is your little boy ill, Madame Plumet?'
"'You look so sad.'
"Then, according to her husband's words, Madame Plumet took her courage in her two hands, and looking her pretty customer in the face, said:
"'Mademoiselle, why are you marrying?'
"'What a funny question! Why, because I am old enough; because I have had an offer; because all young girls marry, or else they go into convents, or become old maids. Well, Madame Plumet, I never have felt a religious vocation, and I never expected to become an old maid. Why do you ask such a question?'
"'Because, Mademoiselle, married life may be very happy, but it may be quite the reverse!'
"After giving expression to this excellent aphorism, Madame Plumet, unable to contain herself any longer, burst into tears.
"Mademoiselle Jeanne, who had been laughing before, was now amazed and presently grew rather anxious.
"Still, her pride kept her from asking any further questions, and Madame Plumet was too much frightened to add a word to her answer. But they will meet again the day after to-morrow, on account of the hat, as before.
"Here the story grew confused, and I understood no more of it.
"Clearly there is more behind this. Monsieur Plumet never would have gone out of his way merely to inform me that his wife had given him a taste of her tongue, nor would he have looked so upset about it. But you know the fellow's way; whenever it's important for him to make himself clear he loses what little power of speech he has, becomes worse than dumb-unintelligible. He sputtered inconsequent ejaculations at me in this fashion:
"'To think of it, to-morrow, perhaps! And you know what a business! Oh, damnation! Anyhow, that must not be! Ah! Monsieur Lampron, how women do talk!'
"And with this Monsieur Plumet left me.
"I must confess, old fellow, that I am not burning with desire to get mixed up in this mess, or to go and ask Madame Plumet for the explanation which her husband was unable to give me. I shall bide my time. If anything turns up to-morrow, they are sure to tell me, and I will write you word.
"My mother sends you her love, and begs you to wrap up warmly in the evening; she says the twilight is the winter of hot climates.
"The dear woman has been a little out of sorts for the last two days. Today she is keeping her bed. I trust it is nothing but a cold.
"Your affectionate friend,
CHAPTER XIII. STARTLING NEWS FROM SYLVESTRE
MILAN, June 18th.
The examination of documents began this morning. I never thought we should have such a heap to examine, nor papers of such a length. The first sitting passed almost entirely in classifying, in examining signatures, in skirmishes of all kinds around this main body.
My colleagues and I are working in a room in the municipal Palazzo del Marino, a vast deserted building used, I believe, as a storehouse. Our leathern armchairs and the table on which the documents are arranged occupy the middle of the room. Along the walls are several cupboards, nests of registers and rats; a few pictures with their faces to the wall; some carved wood scutcheons, half a dozen flagstaffs and a triumphal arch in cardboard, now taken to pieces and rotting—gloomy apparatus of bygone festivals.
The persons taking part in the examination besides the three Frenchmen, are, in the first place, a little Italian judge, with a mean face, wrinkled like a winter apple, whose eyelids always seem heavy with sleep; secondly, a clerk, shining with fat, his dress, hair, and countenance expressive of restrained jollity, as he dreams voluptuous dreams of the cool drinks he means to absorb through a straw when the hour of deliverance shall sound from the frightful cuckoo clock, a relic of the French occupation, which ticks at the end of the room; thirdly, a creature whose position is difficult to determine—I think he must be employed in some registry; he is here as a mere manual laborer. This third person gives me the idea of being very much interested in the fortunes of Signore Porfirio Zampini, for on each occasion, when his duties required him to bring us documents, he whispered in my ear:
"If you only knew, my lord, what a man Zampini is! what a noble heart, what a paladin!"
Take notice that this "paladin" is a macaroni-seller, strongly suspected of trying to hoodwink the French courts.
Amid the awful heat which penetrated the windows, the doors, even the sun-baked walls, we had to listen to, read, and compare documents. Gnats of a ferocious kind, hatched by thousands in the hangings of this hothouse, flew around our perspiring heads. Their buzzing got the upper hand at intervals when the clerk's voice grew weary and, diminishing in volume, threatened to fade away into snores.
The little judge rapped on the table with his paperknife and urged the reader afresh upon his wild career. My colleague from the Record Office showed no sign of weariness. Motionless, attentive, classing the smallest papers in his orderly mind, he did not even feel the' gnats swooping upon the veins in his hands, stinging them, sucking them, and flying off red and distended with his blood.
I sat, both literally and metaphorically, on hot coals. Just as I came into the room, the man from the Record Office handed me a letter which had arrived at the hotel while I was out at lunch. It was a letter from Lampron, in a large, bulky envelope. Clearly something important must have happened.
My fate, perhaps, was settled, and was in the letter, while I knew it not. I tried to get it out of my inside pocket several times, for to me it was a far more interesting document than any that concerned Zampini's action. I pined to open it furtively, and read at least the first few lines. A moment would have sufficed for me to get at the point of this long communication. But at every attempt the judge's eyes turned slowly upon me between their half-closed lids, and made me desist. No—a thousand times no! This smooth-tongued, wily Italian shall have no excuse for proving that the French, who have already such a reputation for frivolity, are a nation without a conscience, incapable of fulfilling the mission with which they are charged.
And yet.... there came a moment when he turned his back and began to sort a fresh bundle with the man of records. Here was an unlooked-for opportunity. I cut open the envelope, unfolded the letter, and found eight pages! Still I began:
"MY DEAR FRIEND:
"In spite of my anxiety about my mother, and the care her illness demands (to-day it is found to be undoubted congestion of the lungs), I feel bound to tell you the story of what has happened in the Rue Hautefeuille, as it is very important—"
"Excuse me, Monsieur Mou-il-ard," said the little judge, half turning toward me, "does the paper you have there happen to be number twenty-seven, which we are looking for?"
"Oh, dear, no; it's a private letter."
"A private letter? I ask pardon for interrupting you."
He gave a faint smile, closed his eyes to show his pity for such frivolity, and turned away again satisfied, while the other members of the Zampini Commission looked at me with interest.
The letter was important. So much the worse, I must finish it:
"I will try to reconstruct the scene for you, from the details which I have gathered.
"The time is a quarter to ten in the morning. There is a knock at Monsieur Plumet's door. The door opposite is opened half-way and Madame Plumet looks out. She withdraws in a hurry, 'with her heart in her mouth,' as she says; the plot she has formed is about to succeed or fail, the critical moment is at hand; the visitor is her enemy, your rival Dufilleul.
"He is full of self-confidence and comes in plump and flourishing, with light gloves, and a terrier at his heels.
"'My portrait framed, Plumet?'
"'Yes, my lord-yes, to be sure.'
"'Let's see it.'
"I have seen the famous portrait: a miniature of the newly created baron, in fresh butter, I think, done cheap by some poor girl who gains her living by coloring photographs. It is intended for Mademoiselle Tigra of the Bouffes. A delicate attention from Dufilleul, isn't it? While Jeanne in her innocence is dreaming of the words of love he has ventured to utter to her, and cherishes but one thought, one image in her heart, he is exerting his ingenuity to perpetuate the recollection of that image's adventures elsewhere.
"He is pleased with the elaborate and costly frame which Plumet has made for him.
"'Very nice. How much?'
"'One hundred and twenty francs.'
"'Six louis? very dear.'
"'That's my price for this kind of work, my lord; I am very busy just now, my lord.'
"'Well, let it be this once. I don't often have a picture framed; to tell the truth, I don't care for pictures.'
"Dufilleul admires and looks at himself in the vile portrait which he holds outstretched in his right hand, while his left hand feels in his purse. Monsieur Plumet looks very stiff, very unhappy, and very nervous. He evidently wants to get his customer off the premises.
"The rustling of skirts is heard on the staircase. Plumet turns pale, and glancing at the half-opened door, through which the terrier is pushing its nose, steps forward to close it. It is too late.
"Some one has noiselessly opened it, and on the threshold stands Mademoiselle Jeanne in walking-dress, looking, with bright eyes and her most charming smile, at Plumet, who steps back in a fright, and Dufilleul, who has not yet seen her.
"'Well, sir, and so I've caught you!'
"Dufilleul starts, and involuntarily clutches the portrait to his waistcoat.
"'Mademoiselle—No, really, you have come—?'
"'To see Madame Plumet. What wrong is there in that?'
"'None whatever—of course not.'
"'Not the least in the world, eh? Ha, ha! What a trifle flurries you. Come now, collect yourself. There is nothing to be frightened at. As I was coming upstairs, your dog put his muzzle out; I guessed he was not alone, so I left my maid with Madame Plumet, and came in at the right-hand door instead of the left. Do you think it improper?'
"'Oh, no, Mademoiselle.'
"'However, I am inquisitive, and I should like to see what you are hiding there.'
"'It's a portrait.'
"'Hand it to me.'
"'With pleasure; unfortunately it's only a portrait of myself.'
"'Why unfortunately? On the contrary, it flatters you—the nose is not so long as the original; what do you say, Monsieur Plumet?'
"'Do you think it good?'
"'How do you like the frame?'
"'It's very pretty.'
"'Then I make you a present of it, Mademoiselle.'
"'Why! wasn't it intended for me?'
"'I mean—well! to tell the truth, it wasn't; it's a wedding present, a souvenir—there's nothing extraordinary in that, is there?'
"'Nothing whatever. You can tell me whom it's for, I suppose?'
"'Don't you think that you are pushing your curiosity too far?'
"'Yes, I mean it.'
"'Since you make such a secret of it, I shall ask Monsieur Plumet to tell me. Monsieur Plumet, for whom is this portrait?'
"Plumet, pale as death, fumbled at his workman's cap, like a naughty child.
"'Why, you see, Mademoiselle—I am only a poor framemaker.'
"'Very well! I shall go to Madame Plumet, who is sure to know, and will not mind telling me.'
"Madame Plumet, who must have been listening at the door, came in at that moment, trembling like a leaf, and prepared to dare all.
"I beg you won't, Mademoiselle,' broke in Dufilleul; 'there is no secret. I only wanted to tease you. The portrait is for a friend of mine who lives at Fontainebleau.'
"'Gonin—he's a solicitor.'
"'It was time you told me. How wretched you both looked. Another time tell me straight out, and frankly, anything you have no reason to conceal. Promise you won't act like this again.'
"'Then, let us make peace.'
"She held out her hand to him. Before he could grasp it, Madame Plumet broke in:
"'Excuse me, Mademoiselle, I can not have you deceived like this in my house. Mademoiselle, it is not true!'
"'What is not true, Madame?'
"'That this portrait is for Monsieur Gonin, or anybody else at Fontainebleau.'
"Mademoiselle Charnot drew back in surprise.
"'For whom, then?'
"'Take care what you are saying, Madame.'
"'For Mademoiselle Tigra of the Bouffes.'
"'Lies!' cried Dufilleul. 'Prove it, Madame; prove your story, please!'
"'Look at the back,' answered Madame Plumet, quietly.
"Mademoiselle Jeanne, who had not put down the miniature, turned it over, read what was on the back, grew deathly pale, and handed it to her lover.
"'What does it say?' said Dufilleul, stooping over it.
"It said: 'From Monsieur le Baron D——-to Mademoiselle T——-, Boulevard Haussmann. To be delivered on Thursday.'
"'You can see at once, Mademoiselle, that this is not my writing. It's an abominable conspiracy. Monsieur Plumet, I call upon you to give your wife the lie. She has written what is false; confess it!'
"The frame-maker hid his face in his hands and made no reply.
"'What, Plumet, have you nothing to say for me?'
"Mademoiselle Charnot was leaving the room.
"'Where are you going, Mademoiselle? Stay, you will soon see that they lie!'
"She was already half-way across the landing when Dufilleul caught her and seized her by the hand.
"'Stay, Jeanne, stay!'
"'Let me go, sir!'
"'No, hear me first; this is some horrible mistake. I swear'
"At this moment a high-pitched voice was heard on the staircase.
"'Well, George, how much longer are you going to keep me?'
"Dufilleul suddenly lost countenance and dropped Mademoiselle Charnot's hand.
"The young girl bent over the banisters, and saw, at the bottom of the staircase, exactly underneath her, a woman looking up, with head thrown back and mouth still half-opened. Their eyes met. Jeanne at once turned away her gaze.
"Then, turning to Madame Plumet, who leaned motionless against the wall:
"'Come, Madame,' she said, 'we must go and choose a hat.' And she closed the dressmaker's door behind her.
"This, my friend, is the true account of what happened in the Rue Hautefeuille. I learned the details from Madame Plumet in person, who could not contain herself for joy as she described the success of her conspiracy, and how her little hand had guided old Dame Fortune's. For, as you will doubtless have guessed, the meeting between Jeanne and her lover, so dreaded by the framemaker, had been arranged by Madame Plumet unknown to all, and the damning inscription was also in her handwriting.
"I need not add that Mademoiselle Charnot, upset by the scene, had a momentary attack of faintness. However, she soon regained her usual firm and dignified demeanor, which seems to show that she is a woman of energy.
"But the interest of the story does not cease here. I think the betrothal is definitely at an end. A betrothal is always a difficult thing to renew, and after the publicity which attended the rupture of this one, I do not see how they can make it up again. One thing I feel sure of is, that Mademoiselle Jeanne Charnot will never change her name to Madame Dufilleul.
"Do not, however, exaggerate your own chances. They will be less than you think for some time yet. I do not believe that a young girl who has thus been wounded and deceived can forget all at once. There is even the possibility of her never forgetting—of living with her sorrow, preferring certain peace of mind, and the simple joys of filial devotion, to all those dreams of married life by which so many simple-hearted girls have been cruelly taken in.
"In any case do not think of returning yet, for I know you are capable of any imprudence. Stay where you are, examine your documents, and wait.
"My mother and I are passing through a bitter trial. She is ill, I may say seriously ill. I would sooner bear the illness than my present anxiety.
"P. S.—Just as I was about to fasten up this letter, I got a note from Madame Plumet to tell me that Monsieur and Mademoiselle Charnot have left Paris. She does not know where they have gone."
I became completely absorbed over this letter. Some passages I read a second time; and the state of agitation into which it threw me did not at once pass away. I remained for an indefinite time without a notion of what was going on around me, entirely wrapped up in the past or the future.
The Italian attendant brought me back to the present with a jerk of his elbow. He was replacing the last register in the huge drawers of the table. He and I were alone. My colleagues had left, and our first sitting had come to an end without my assistance, though before my eyes. They could not have gone far, so, somewhat ashamed of my want of attention, I put on my hat, and went to find them and apologize. The little attendant caught me by the sleeve, and gave a knowing smile at the letter which I was slipping into my pocketbook.
"E d'una donna?" he asked.
"What's that to you?"
"I am sure of it; a letter from a man would never take so long to read; and, 'per Bacco', you were a time about it! 'Oh, le donne, illustre signore, le downe!'"
"That's enough, thank you."
I made for the door, but he threw himself nimbly in my way, grimacing, raising his eyebrows, one finger on his ribs. "Listen, my lord, I can see you are a true scholar, a man whom fame alone can tempt. I could get your lordship such beautiful manuscripts—Italian, Latin, German manuscripts that never have been edited, my noble lord!"
"Stolen, too!" I replied, and pushed past him.
I went out, and in the neighboring square, amicably seated at the same table, under the awning of a cafe, I found my French colleagues and the Italian judge. At a table a little apart the clerk was sucking something through a straw. And they all laughed as they saw me making my way toward them through the still scorching glare of the sun.
MILAN, June 25th.
Our mission was concluded to-day. Zampini is a mere rogue. Brought face to face with facts he could not escape from, he confessed that he had intended to "have a lark" with the French heirs by claiming to be the rightful heir himself, though he lacked two degrees of relationship to establish his claim.
We explained to him that this little "lark" was a fraudulent act which exposed him at least to the consequence of having to pay the costs of the action. He accepted our opinion in the politest manner possible. I believe he is hopelessly insolvent. He will pay the usher in macaroni, and the barrister in jests.
My colleagues, the record man and the translator, leave Milan to-morrow. I shall go with them.
CHAPTER XIV. A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER
MILAN, June 26th.
I have just had another letter from Sylvestre. My poor friend is very miserable; his mother is dead—a saint if ever there was one. I was very deeply touched by the news, although I knew this lovable woman very slightly—too slightly, indeed, not having been a son, or related in any way to her, but merely a passing stranger who found his way within the horizon of her heart, that narrow limit within which she spread abroad the treasures of her tenderness and wisdom. How terribly her son must feel her loss!
He described in his letter her last moments, and the calmness with which she met death, and added:
"One thing, which perhaps you will not understand, is the remorse which is mingled with my sorrow. I lived with her forty years, and have some right to be called 'a good son.' But, when I compare the proofs of affection I gave her with those she gave me, the sacrifices I made for her with those she made for me; when I think of the egoism which found its way into our common life, on which I founded my claims to merit, of the wealth of tenderness and sympathy with which she repaid a few walks on my arm, a few kind words, and of her really great forbearance in dwelling beneath the same roof with me—I feel that I was ungrateful, and not worthy of the happiness I enjoyed.
"I am tortured by the thought that it is impossible for me to repair all my neglect, to pay a debt the greatness of which I now recognize for the first time. She is gone. All is over. My prayers alone can reach her, can tell her that I loved her, that I worshipped her, that I might have been capable of doing all that I have left undone for her.
"Oh, my friend, what pleasant duties have I lost! I mean, at least, to fulfil her last wishes, and it is on account of one of them that I am writing to you.
"You know that my mother was never quite pleased at my keeping at home the portrait of her who was my first and only love. She would have preferred that my eyes did not recall so often to my heart the recollection of my long-past sorrows. I withstood her. On her death-bed she begged me to give up the picture to, those who should have had it long ago. 'So long as I was here to comfort you in the sorrows which the sight of it revived in you,' she said, 'I did not press this upon you; but soon you will be left alone, with no one to raise you when your spirits fail you. They have often begged you to give up the picture to them. The time is come for you to grant their prayers.'
"And now, dear friend, help me to keep my promise. I do not wish to write to them. My hand would tremble, and they would tremble when they saw my writing. Go and see them.
"They live about nine miles from Milan, on the Monza road, but beyond that town, close to the village of Desio. The villa is called Dannegianti, after its owners. It used to be hidden among poplars, and its groves were famous for their shade. You must send in your card to the old lady of the house together with mine. They will receive you. Then you must break the news to them as you think best, that, in accordance with the dying wish of Sylvestre Lampron's mother, the portrait of Rafaella is to be given in perpetuity to the Villa Dannegianti. Given, you understand.
"You may even tell them that it is on its way. I have just arranged with Plumet about packing it. He is a good workman, as you know. To-morrow all will be ready, and my home an absolute void.
"I intend to take refuge in hard work, and I count upon you to alleviate to some extent the hardships of such a method of consolation.
When I got Lampron's letter, at ten in the morning, I went at once to see the landlord of the Albergo dell' Agnello.
"You can get me a carriage for Desio, can't you?"
"Oh, your lordship thinks of driving to Desio? That is quite right. It is much more picturesque than going by train. A little way beyond Monza. Monza, sir, is one of our richest jewels; you will see there—"
"Yes," said I, repeating my Baedeker as accurately as he, "the Villa Reale, and the Iron Crown of the Emperors of the West."
"Exactly so, sir, and the cathedral built—"
"By Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, A.D. 595, restored in the sixteenth century. I know; I only asked whether you could get me a decent carriage."
"A matchless one! At half-past three, when the heat is less intense, your lordship will find the horses harnessed. You will have plenty of time to get to Desio before sunset, and be back in time for supper."
At the appointed time I received notice. My host had more than kept his word, for the horses sped through Milan at a trot which they did not relinquish when we got into the Como road, amid the flat and fertile country which is called the garden of Italy.
After an hour and a half, including a brief halt at Monza, the coachman drew up his horses before the first house in Desio—an inn.
It was a very poor inn, situated at the corner of the main street and of a road which branched off into the country. In front of it a few plane-trees, trained into an arbor, formed an arch of shade. A few feet of vine clambered about their trunks. The sun was scorching the leaves and the heavy bunches of grapes which hung here and there. The shutters were closed, and the little house seemed to have been lulled to sleep by the heat and light of the atmosphere and the buzzing of the gnats.
"Oh, go in; they'll wake up at once," said the coachman, who had divined my thoughts.
Then, without waiting for my answer, like a man familiar with the customs of the country, he took his horses down the road to the stable.
I went in. A swarm of bees and drones were buzzing like a whirlwind beneath the plane-trees; a frightened white hen ran cackling from her nest in the dust. No one appeared. I opened the door; still nobody was to be seen. Inside I found a passage, with rooms to right and left and a wooden staircase at the end. The house, having been kept well closed, was cool and fresh. As I stood on the threshold striving to accustom my eyes to the darkness of the interior, I heard the sound of voices to my right:
"Picturesque as you please, but the journey has been a failure! These people are no better than savages; introductions, distinctions, and I may say even fame, had no effect upon them!"
"Do you think they have even read your letters?" "That would be still worse, to refuse to read letters addressed to them! No, I tell you, there's no excuse."
"They have suffered great trouble, I hear, and that is some excuse for them, father."
"No, my dear, there is no possible excuse for their keeping hidden treasures of such scientific interest. I do not consider that even an Italian nobleman, were he orphan from his cradle, and thrice a widower, has any right to keep locked up from the investigation of scholars an unequalled collection of Roman coins, and a very presentable show of medallions and medals properly so-called. Are you aware that this boorish patrician has in his possession the eight types of medal of the gens Attilia?"
"I am certain of it, and he has the thirty-seven of the gens Cassia, one hundred and eighteen to one hundred and twenty-one of the gens Cornelia, the eleven Farsuleia, and dozens of Numitoria, Pompeia, and Scribonia, all in perfect condition, as if fresh from the die. Besides these, he has some large medals of the greatest rarity; the Marcus Aurelius with his son on the reverse side, Theodora bearing the globe, and above all the Annia Faustina with Heliogabalus on the reverse side, an incomparable treasure, of which there is only one other example, and that an imperfect one, in the world—a marvel which I would give a day of my life to see; yes, my dear, a day of my life!"
Such talk as this, in French, in such an inn as this!
I felt a presentiment, and stepped softly to the right-hand door.
In the darkened room, lighted only by a few rays filtered between the slats of the shutters, sat a young girl. Her hat was hung upon a nail above her head; one arm rested on a wretched white wood table; her head was bent forward in mournful resignation. On the other side of the table, her father was leaning back in his chair against the whitewashed wall, with folded arms, heightened color, and every sign of extreme disgust. Both rose as I entered—Jeanne first, M. Charnot after her. They were astonished at seeing me.
I was no less astounded than they.
We stood and stared at each other for some time, to make sure that we were not dreaming.
M. Charnot was the first to break the silence. He did not seem altogether pleased at my appearance, and turned to his daughter, whose face had grown very red and yet rather chilling:
"Jeanne, put your hat on; it is time to go to the station." Then he addressed me:
"We shall leave you the room to yourself, sir; and since the most extraordinary coincidence"—he emphasized the words—"has brought you to this damnable village, I hope you will enjoy your visit."
"Have you been here long, Monsieur?"
"Two hours, Monsieur, two mortal hours in this inn, fried by the sun, bored to death, murdered piecemeal by flies, and infuriated by the want of hospitality in this out-of-the-way hole in Lombardy."
"Yes, I noticed that the host was nowhere to be seen, and that is the reason why I came in here; I had no idea that I should have the honor of meeting you."
"Good God! I'm not complaining of him! He's asleep in his barn over there. You can wake him up; he doesn't mind showing himself; he even makes himself agreeable when he has finished his siesta."
"I only wish to ask him one question, which perhaps you could answer, Monsieur; then I need not waken him. Could you tell me the way to the Villa Dannegianti?"
M. Charnot walked up to me, looked me straight in the eyes, shrugged his shoulders, and burst out laughing.
"The Villa Dannegianti!"
"Are you going to the Villa Dannegianti?"
"Then you may as well turn round and go home again."
"Because there's no admission."
"But I have a letter of introduction."
"I had two, Monsieur, without counting the initials after my name, which are worth something and have opened the doors of more than one foreign collection for me; yet they denied me admission! Think of it! The porter of that insolent family denied me admission! Do you expect to succeed after that?"
"I do, Monsieur."
My words seemed to him the height of presumption.
"Come, Jeanne," he said, "let us leave this gentleman to his youthful illusions. They will soon be shattered—very soon."
He gave me an ironical smile and made for the door.
At this moment Jeanne dropped her sunshade. I picked it up for her.
"Thank you, Monsieur," she said.
Of course these words were no more than ordinarily polite. She would have said the same to the first comer. Nothing in her attitude or her look displayed any emotion which might put a value on this common form of speech. But it was her voice, that music I so often dream of. Had it spoken insults, I should have found it sweet. It inspired me with the sudden resolution of detaining this fugitive apparition, of resting, if possible, another hour near her to whose side an unexpected stroke of fortune had brought me.
M. Charnot had already left the room; his rotund shadow rested on the wall of the passage. He held a travelling-bag in his hand.
"Monsieur," said I, "I am sorry that you are obliged to return already to Milan. I am quite certain of admission to the Villa Dannegianti, and it would have given me pleasure to repair a mistake which is clearly due only to the stupidity of the servants."
He stopped; the stroke had told.
"It is certainly quite possible that they never looked at my card or my letters. But allow me to ask, since my card did not reach the host, what secret you possess to enable yours to get to him?"
"No secret at all, still less any merit of my own. I am the bearer of news of great importance to the owners of the villa, news of a purely private nature. They will be obliged to see me. My first care, when I had fulfilled my mission, would have been to mention your name. You would have been able to go over the house, and inspect a collection of medals which, I have heard, is a very fine one."
"Unfortunately you are going away, and to-morrow I have to leave Milan myself, for Paris."
"You have been some time in Italy, then?"
"Nearly a fortnight."
M. Charnot gave his daughter a meaning look, and suddenly became more friendly.
"I thought you had just come. We have not been here so long," he added; "my daughter has been a little out of sorts, and the doctor advised us to travel for change of air. Paris is not healthful in this very hot weather."
He looked hard at me to see whether his fib had taken me in. I replied, with an air of the utmost conviction, "That is putting it mildly. Paris, in July, is uninhabitable."
"That's it, Monsieur, uninhabitable; we were forced to leave it. We soon made up our minds, and, in spite of the time of the year, we turned our steps toward the home of the classics, to Italy, the museum of Europe. And you really think, then, that by means of your good offices we should have been admitted to the villa?"
"Yes, Monsieur, but owing only to the missive with which I am entrusted."
M. Charnot hesitated. He was probably thinking of the blot of ink, and certainly of M. Mouillard's visit. But he doubtless reflected that Jeanne knew nothing of the old lawyer's proceedings, that we were far from Paris, that the opportunity was not to be lost; and in the end his passion for numismatics conquered at once his resentment as a bookworm and his scruples as a father.
"There is a later train at ten minutes to eight, father," said Jeanne.
"Well, dear, do you care to try your luck again, and return to the assault of that Annia Faustina?"
"As you please, father."
We left the inn together by the by-road down the hill. I could not believe my eyes. This old man with refined features who walked on my left, leaning on his malacca cane, was M. Charnot. The same man who received me so discourteously the day after I made my blot was now relying on me to introduce him to an Italian nobleman; on me, a lawyer's clerk. I led him on with confidence, and both of us, carried away by our divers hopes, he dreaming of medals, I of the reopened horizon full of possibilities, conversed on indifferent subjects with a freedom hitherto unknown between us.
And this charming Parisienne, whose presence I divined rather than saw, whom I dared not look in the face, who stepped along by her father's side, light of foot, her eyes seeking the vault of heaven, her ear attentive though her thoughts were elsewhere, catching her Parisian sunshade in the hawthorns of Desio, was Jeanne, Jeanne of the flower-market, Jeanne whom Lampron had sketched in the woods of St. Germain! It did not seem possible.
Yet it was so, for we arrived together at the gates of the Villa Dannegianti, which is hardly a mile from the inn.
I rang the bell. The fat, idle, insolent Italian porter was beginning to refuse me admission, with the same words and gestures which he had so often used. But I explained, in my purest Tuscan, that I was not of the ordinary kind of importunate tourist. I told him that he ran a serious risk if he did not immediately hand my card and my letter—Lampron's card in an envelope—to the Comtesse Dannegianti.
From his stony glare I could not tell whether I had produced any impression, nor even whether he had understood. He turned on his heel with his keys in one hand and the letter in the other, and went on his way through the shady avenue, rolling his broad back from side to side, attired in a jacket which might have fitted in front, but was all too short behind.
The shady precincts of which Lampron wrote did not seem to have been pruned. The park was cool and green. At the end of the avenue of plane-trees, alternating with secular hawthorns cut into pyramids, we could see the square mass of the villa just peeping over the immense clumps of trees. Beyond it the tops and naked trunks of a group of umbrella pines stood silhouetted against the sky.
The porter returned, solemn and impassive. He opened the gate without a word. We all passed through—M. Charnot somewhat uneasy at entering under false pretenses, as I guessed from the way he suddenly drew up his head. Jeanne seemed pleased; she smoothed down a fold which the wind had raised in her frock, spread out a flounce, drew herself up, pushed back a hairpin which her fair tresses had dragged out of its place, all in quick, deft, and graceful movements, like a goldfinch preening its feathers.
We reached the terrace, and arranged that M. and Mademoiselle Charnot should wait in an alley close at hand till I received permission to visit the collections.
I entered the house, and following a lackey, crossed a large mosaic-paved hall, divided by columns of rare marbles into panels filled with mediocre frescoes on a very large scale. At the end of this hall was the Countess's room, which formed a striking contrast, being small, panelled with wood, and filled with devotional knick-knacks that gave it the look of a chapel.
As I entered, an old lady half rose from an armchair, which she could have used as a house, the chair was so large and she was so small. At first I could distinguish only two bright, anxious eyes. She looked at me like a prisoner awaiting a verdict. I began by telling her of the death of Lampron's mother. Her only answer was an attentive nod. She guessed something else was coming and stood on guard, so to speak. I went on and told her that the portrait of her daughter was on its way to her. Then she forgot everything—her age, her rank, and the mournful reserve which had hitherto hedged her about. Her motherly heart alone spoke within her; a ray of light had come to brighten the incurable gloom which was killing her; she rushed toward me and fell into my arms, and I felt against my heart her poor aged body shaking with sobs. She thanked me in a flood of words which I did not catch. Then she drew back and gazed at me, seeking to read in my eyes some emotion responsive to her own, and her eyes, red and swollen and feverishly bright, questioned me more clearly than her words.
"How good are you, sir! and how generous is he! What life does he lead? Has he ever lived down the sorrow which blasted his youth here? Men forget more easily, happily for them. I had given up all hope of obtaining the portrait. Every year I sent him flowers which meant, 'Restore to us all that is left of our dead Rafaella.' Perhaps it was unkind. I did reproach myself at times for it. But I was her mother, you know; the mother of that peerless girl! And the portrait is so good, so like! He has never altered it? tell me; never retouched it? Time has not marred the lifelike coloring? I shall now have the mournful consolation I have so long desired; I shall always have before me the counterpart of my lost darling, and can gaze upon that face which none could depict save he who loved her; for, dreadful though it be to think of, the image of the best beloved will change and fade away even in a mother's heart, and at times I doubt whether my old memory is still faithful, and recalls all her grace and beauty as clearly as it used to do when the wound was fresh in my heart and my eyes were still filled with the loveliness of her. Oh, Monsieur, Monsieur! to think that I shall see that face once more!"
She left me as quickly as she had come, and went to open a door on the left, into an adjoining room, whose red hangings threw a ruddy glow upon the polished floor.
"Cristoforo!" she cried, "Cristoforo! come and see a French gentleman who brings us great news. The portrait of our Rafaella, Cristoforo, the portrait we have so long desired, is at last to be given to us!"
I heard a chair move, and a slow footstep. Cristoforo appeared, with white hair and black moustache, his tall figure buttoned up in an old-fashioned frockcoat, the petrified, mummified remains of a once handsome man. He walked up to me, took both my hands and shook them ceremoniously. His face showed no traces of emotion; his eyes were dry, and he had not a word to say. Did he understand? I really do not know. He seemed to think the affair was an ordinary introduction. As I looked at him his wife's words came back to me, "Men forget sooner." She gazed at him as if she would put blood into his veins, where it had long ceased to flow.
"Cristoforo, I know this will be a great joy to you, and you will join with me in thanking Monsieur Lampron for his generosity. You, sir, will express to him all the Count's gratitude and my own, and also the sympathy we feel for him in his recent loss. Besides, we shall write to him. Is Monsieur Lampron rich?"
"I had forgotten to tell you, Madame, that my friend will accept nothing but thanks."
"Ah, that is truly noble of him, is it not, Cristoforo?"
All the answer the old Count made was to take my hands and shake them again.
I used the opportunity to put forward my request in behalf of M. Charnot. He listened attentively.
"I will give orders. You shall see everything—everything."
Then, considering our interview at an end, he bowed and withdrew to his own apartments.
I looked for the Countess Dannegianti. She had sunk into her great armchair, and was weeping hot tears.
Ten minutes later, M. Charnot and Jeanne entered with me into the jealously guarded museum.
Museum was the only name to give to a collection of such artistic value, occupying, as it did, the whole of the ground floor to the right of the hall. Two rooms ran parallel to each other, filled with pictures, medals, and engravings, and were connected by a narrow gallery devoted to sculpture.
Hardly was the door opened when M. Charnot sought the famous medals with his eye. There they were in the middle of the room in two rows of cases. He was deeply moved. I thought he was about to make a raid upon them, attracted after his kind by the 'auri sacra fames', by the yellow gleam of those ancient coins, the names, family, obverse and reverse of which he knew by heart. But I little understood the enthusiast.
He drew out his handkerchief and spectacles, and while he was wiping the glasses he gave a rapid and impatient glance at the works that adorned the walls. None of them could charm the numismatist's heart. After he had enjoyed the pleasure of proving how feeble in comparison were the charms of a Titian or a Veronese, then only did M. Charnot walk step by step to the first case and bend reverently over it.
Yet the collection of paintings was unworthy of such disdain. The pictures were few, but all were signed with great names, most of them Italian, a few Dutch, Flemish, or German. I began to work systematically through them, pleased at the want of a catalogue and the small number of inscriptions on the frames. To be your own guide doubles your pleasure; you can get your impression of a picture entirely at first hand; you are filled with admiration without any one having told you that you are bound to go into ecstasies. You can work out for yourself from a picture, by induction and comparison, its subject, its school, and its author, unless it proclaims, in every stroke of the brush, "I am a Hobbema," "a Perugino," or "a Giotto."
I was somewhat distracted, however, by the voice of the old numismatist, as he peered into the cases, and constrained his daughter to share in the exuberance of his learned enthusiasm.
"Jeanne, look at this; crowned head of Cleopatra, Mark Antony on the reverse; in perfect condition, isn't it? See, an Italian 'as-Iguvium Umbriae', which my friend Pousselot has sought these thirty years! Oh, my dear, this is important: Annius Verus on the reverse of Commodus, both as children, a rare example—yet not as rare as—Jeanne, you must engrave this gold medal in your heart, it is priceless: head of Augustus with laurel, Diana walking on the reverse. You ought to take an interest in her. Diana the fair huntress.
"This collection is heavenly! Wait a minute; we shall soon come to the Annia Faustina."
Jeanne made no objection, but smiled softly upon the Cleopatra, the Umbrian 'as', and the fair huntress.
Little by little her father's enthusiasm expanded over the vast collection of treasures. He took out his pocketbook and began to make notes. Jeanne raised her eyes to the walls, took one glance, then a second, and, not being called back to the medals, stepped softly up to the picture at which I had begun.
She went quickly from one to another having evidently no more than a child's untutored taste for pictures. As I, on the contrary, was getting on very slowly, she was bound to overtake me. You may be sure I took no steps to prevent it, and so in a very short time we were both standing before the same picture, a portrait of Holbein the younger. A subject of conversation was ready to hand.
"Mademoiselle," said I, "do you like this Holbein?"
"You must admit, sir, that the old gentleman is exceedingly plain."
"Yes, but the painting is exquisite. See how powerful is the drawing of the head, how clear and deep the colors remain after more than three hundred years. What a good likeness it must have been! The subject tells his own story: he must have been a nobleman of the court of Henry VIII, a Protestant in favor with the King, wily but illiterate, and wishing from the bottom of his heart that he were back with the companions of his youth at home in his country house, hunting and drinking at his ease. It is really the study of a man's character. Look at this Rubens beside it, a mere mass of flesh scarcely held together by a spirit, a style that is exuberantly material, all color and no expression. Here you have spirituality on one side and materialism on the other, unconscious, perhaps, but unmistakable. Compare, again, with these two pictures this little drawing, doubtless by Perugino, just a sketch of an angel for an Annunciation; notice the purity of outline, the ideal atmosphere in which the painter lives and with which he impregnates his work. You see he comes of a school of poets and mystics, gifted with a second sight which enabled them to beautify this world and raise themselves above it."
I was pleased with my little lecture, and so was Jeanne. I could tell it by her surprised expression, and by the looks she cast toward her father, who was still taking notes, to see whether she might go on with her first lesson in art.
He smiled in a friendly way, which meant:
"I'm happy here, my dear, thank you; 'va piano va sano'."
This was as good as permission. We went on our way, saluting, as we passed, Tintoretto and Titian, Veronese and Andrea Solari, old Cimabue, and a few early paintings of angular virgins on golden backgrounds.
Jeanne was no longer bored.
"And is this," she would say, "another Venetian, or a Lombard, or a Florentine?"
We soon completed the round of the first room, and made our way into the gallery beyond, devoted to sculpture. The marble gods and goddesses, the lovely fragments of frieze or cornice from the excavations at Rome, Pompeii, or Greece, had but a moderate interest for Mademoiselle Charnot. She never gave more than one glance to each statue, to some none at all.
We soon came to the end of the gallery, and the door which gave access into the second room of paintings.
Suddenly Jeanne gave an exclamation of surprise.
"What is that?" she said.
Beneath the large and lofty window, fanned on the outside by leafy branches, a wooden panel, bearing an inscription, stood upright against the wall. The words were painted in black on a white ground, and arranged with considerable skill, after the style of the classic epitaphs which the Italians still cultivate.
I drew aside the folds of a curtain:
"It is one of those memorial tablets, Mademoiselle, such as people hang up in this part of the country upon the church doors on the day of the funeral. It means:
"To thee, Rafaella Dannegianti—who, aged twenty years and few months—having fully experienced the sorrows and illusions of this world—on January 6—like an angel longing for its heavenly home—didst wing thy way to God in peace and happiness—the clergy of Desioand the laborers and artificers of the noble house of Dannegianti—tender these last solemn offices."
"This Rafaella, then, was the Count's daughter?"
"His only child, a girl lovely and gracious beyond rivalry."
"Oh, of course, beyond rivalry. Are not all only daughters lovely and perfect when once they are dead?" she replied with a bitter smile. "They have their legend, their cult, and usually a flattering portrait. I am surprised that Rafaella's is not here. I imagine her portrait as representing a tall girl, with long, well-arched eyebrows, and brown eyes—"
"Green, if you prefer it; a small nose, cherry lips, and a mass of light brown hair."
"Golden brown would be more correct."
"Have you seen it, then? Is there one?"
"Yes, Mademoiselle, and it lacks no perfection that you could imagine, not even that smile of happy youth which was a falsehood ere the paint had yet dried on the canvas. Here, before this relic, which recalls it to my thoughts, I must confess that I am touched."
She looked at me in astonishment.
"Where is the portrait? Not here?"
"No, it is at Paris, in my friend Lampron's studio."
"O—oh!" She blushed slightly.
"Yes, Mademoiselle, it is at once a masterpiece and a sad reminder. The story is very simple, and I am sure my friend would not mind my telling it to you—to you if to no other—before these relics of the past.
"When Lampron was a young man travelling in Italy he fell in love with this young girl, whose portrait he was painting. He loved her, perhaps without confessing it to himself, certainly without avowing it to her. Such is the way of timid and humble men of heart, men whose love is nearly always misconstrued when it ceases to be unnoticed. My friend risked the happiness of his life, fearlessly, without calculation—and lost it. A day came when Rafaella Dannegianti was carried off by her parents, who shuddered at the thought of her stooping to a painter, even though he were a genius."
"So she died?"
"A year later. He never got over it. Even while I speak to you, he in his loneliness is pondering and weeping over these very lines which you have just read without a suspicion of the depth of their bitterness."
"He has known bereavement," said she; "I pity him with all my heart."
Her eyes filled with tears. She repeated the words, whose meaning was now clear to her, "A to Rafaella." Then she knelt down softly before the mournful inscription. I saw her bow her head. Jeanne was praying.
It was touching to see the young girl, whom chance had placed before this simple testimony of a sorrow now long past, deeply moved by the sad tale of love, filled with tender pity for the dead Rafaella, her fellow in youth and beauty and perhaps in destiny, finding in her heart the tender impulse to kneel without a word, as if beside the grave of a friend. The daylight's last rays streaming in through the window illumined her bowed head.
I drew back, with a touch of awe.
M. Charnot appeared.
He went up to his daughter and tapped her on the shoulder. She rose with a blush.
"What are you doing there?" he said.
Then he adjusted his glasses and read the Italian inscription.
"You really take unnecessary trouble in kneeling down to decipher a thing like that. You can see at once that it's a modern panel, and of no value. Monsieur," he added, turning to me, "I do not know what your plans are, but unless you intend to sleep at Desio, we must be off, for the night is falling."
We left the villa.
Out of doors it was still light, but with the afterglow. The sun was out of sight, but the earth was still enveloped, as it were, in a haze of luminous dust.
M. Charnot pulled out his watch.
"Seven minutes past eight. What time does the last train start, Jeanne?"
"At ten minutes to eight."
"Confusion! we are stranded in Desio! The mere thought of passing the night in that inn gives me the creeps. I see no way out of it unless Monsieur Mouillard can get us one of the Count's state coaches. There isn't a carriage to be got in this infernal village!"
"There is mine, Monsieur, which luckily holds four, and is quite at your service."
"Upon my word, I am very much obliged to you. The drive by moonlight will be quite romantic."
He drew near to Jeanne and whispered in her ear:
"Are you sure you've wraps enough? a shawl, or a cape, or some kind of pelisse?"
She gave a merry nod of assent.
"Don't worry yourself, father; I am prepared for all emergencies."
At half-past eight we left Desio together, and I silently blessed the host of the Albergo dell' Agnello, who had assured me that the carriage road was "so much more picturesque." I found it so, indeed.
M. Charnot and Jeanne faced the horses. I sat opposite to M. Charnot, who was in the best of spirits after all the medals he had seen. Comfortably settled in the cushions, careless of the accidents of the road, with graphic and untiring forefinger, he undertook to describe his travels in Greece, whither he had been sent on some learned enterprise by the Minister of Education, and had carried an imagination already prepossessed and dazzled with Homeric visions. He told his story well and with detail, combining the recollections of the scholar with the impressions of an artist. The pediment of the Parthenon, the oleanders of the Ilissus, the stream "that runs in rain-time," the naked peak of Parnassus, the green slopes of Helicon, the blue gulf of Argus, the pine forest beside Alpheus, where the ancients worshipped "Death the Gentle"—all of them passed in recount upon his learned lips.
I must acknowledge, to my shame, that I did not listen to all he said, but, in a favorite way I have, reserved some of my own freedom of thought, while I gave him complete freedom of speech. And I am bound to say he did not abuse it, but consented to pause at the frontiers of Thessaly. Then followed silence. I gave him room to stretch. Soon, lulled by the motion of the carriage, the stream of reminiscence ran more slowly—then ran dry. M. Charnot slept.
We bowled at a good pace, without jolting, over the white road. A warm mist rose around us laden with the smell of vegetation, ripe corn, and clover from the overheated earth and the neighboring fields, which had drunk their full of sunlight. Now and again a breath of fresh air was blown to us from the mountains. As the darkness deepened the country grew to look like a vast chessboard, with dark and light squares of grass and corn land, melting at no great distance into a colorless and unbroken horizon. But as night blotted out the earth, the heaven lighted up its stars. Never have I seen them so lustrous nor in such number. Jeanne reclined with her eyes upturned toward those limitless fields of prayer and vision; and their radiance, benignly gentle, rested on her face. Was she tired or downcast, or merely dreaming? I knew not. But there was something so singularly poetic in her look and attitude that she seemed to me to epitomize in herself all the beauty of the night.
I was afraid to speak. Her father's sleep, and our consequent isolation, made me ill at ease. She, too, seemed so careless of my presence, so far away in dreamland, that I had to await opportunity, or rather her leave, to recall her from it.
Finally she broke the silence herself. A little beyond Monza she drew closer her shawl, that the night wind had ruffled, and bent over toward me:
"You must excuse my father; he is rather tired this evening, for he has been on his feet since five o'clock."
"The day has been so hot, too, Mademoiselle, and the medals 'came not in single spies, but in battalions'; he has a right to sleep after the battle."
"Dear old father! You gave him a real treat, for which he will always be obliged to you."
"I trust the recollection of to-day will efface that of the blot of ink, for which I am still filled with remorse."
"Remorse is rather a serious word."
"No, Mademoiselle, I really mean remorse, for I wounded the feelings of a gentleman who has every claim on my respect. I never have dared to speak of this before. But if you would be kind enough to tell Monsieur Charnot how sorry I have been for it, you would relieve me of a burden."
I saw her eyes fixed upon me for a moment with a look of attention not previously granted to me. She seemed pleased.
"With all my heart," she said.
There was a moment's silence.
"Was this Rafaella, whose story you have told me, worthy of your friend's long regret?"
"I must believe so."
"It is a very touching story. Are you fond of Monsieur Lampron?"
"Beyond expression, Mademoiselle; he is so openhearted, so true a friend, he has the soul of the artist and the seer. I am sure you would rate him very highly if you knew him."
"But I do know him, at least by his works. Where am I to be seen now, by the way? What has become of my portrait?"
"It's at Lampron's house, in his mother's room, where Monsieur Charnot can go and see it if he likes."
"My father does not know of its existence," she said, with a glance at the slumbering man of learning.
"Has he not seen it?"
"No, he would have made so much ado about nothing. So Monsieur Lampron has kept the sketch? I thought it had been sold long ago."
"Sold! you did not think he would sell it!"
"Why not? Every artist has the right to sell his works."
"Not work of that kind."
"Just as much as any other kind."
"No, he could not have done that. He would no more sell it than he would sell the portrait of Rafaella Dannegianti. They are two similar relics, two precious reminiscences."
Mademoiselle Charnot turned, without a reply, to look at the country which was flying past us in the darkness.
I could just see her profile, and the nervous movement of her eyelids.
As she made no attempt to speak, her silence emboldened me.
"Yes, Mademoiselle, two similar relics, yet sometimes in my hours of madness—as to-day, for instance, here, with you near me—I dare to think that I might be less unfortunate than my friend—that his dream is gone forever—but that mine might return to me—if you were willing."
She quickly turned toward me, and in the darkness I saw her eyes fixed on mine.
Did the darkness deceive me as to the meaning of this mute response? Was I the victim of a fresh delusion? I fancied that Jeanne looked sad, that perhaps she was thinking of the oaths sworn only to be broken by her former lover, but that she was not quite displeased.
However, it lasted only for a second. When she spoke, it was in a higher key:
"Don't you think the breeze is very fresh this evening?"
A long-drawn sigh came from the back part of the carriage. M. Charnot was waking up.
He wished to prove that he had only been meditating.
"Yes, my dear, it's a charming evening," he replied; "these Italian nights certainly keep up their reputation."
Ten minutes later the carriage drew up, and M. Charnot shook hands with me before the door of his hotel.
"Many thanks, my dear young sir, for this delightful drive home! I hope we shall meet again. We are off to Florence to-morrow; is there anything I can do for you there?"
"No, thank you."
Mademoiselle Charnot gave me a slight bow. I watched her mount the first few steps of the staircase, with one hand shading her eyes from the glare of the gaslights, and the other holding up her wraps, which had come unfolded and were falling around her.
CHAPTER XV. BACK TO PARIS
MILAN, June 27th. Before daybreak.
He asked me whether there was anything he could do for me at Florence. There is something, but he would refuse to do it; for I wish him to inform his charming daughter that my thoughts are all of her; that I have spent the night recalling yesterday's trip—now the roads of Desio and the galleries of the villa, now the drive back to Milan. M. Charnot only figured in my dreams as sleeping. I seemed to have found my tongue, and to be pouring forth a string of well-turned speeches which I never should have ready at real need. If I could only see her again now that all my plans are weighed and thought out and combined! Really, it is hard that one can not live one's life over twice—at least certain passages in it-this episode, for instance....
What is her opinion of me? When her eyes fixed themselves on mine I thought I could read in their depths a look of inquiry, a touch of surprise, a grain of disquiet. But her answer? She is going to Florence bearing with her the answer on which my life depends. They are leaving by the early express. Shall I take it, too? Florence, Rome, Naples—why not? Italy is free to all, and particularly to lovers. I will toss my cap over the mill for the second time. I will get money from somewhere. If I am not allowed to show myself, I will look on from a distance, hidden in the crowd. At a pinch I will disguise myself—as a guide at Pompeii, a lazzarone at Naples. She shall find a sonnet in the bunch of fresh flowers offered her by a peasant at the door of her hotel. And at least I shall bask in her smile, the sound of her voice, the glints of gold about her temples, and the pleasure of knowing that she is near even when I do not see her.
On second thoughts; no; I will not go to Florence. As I always distrust first impulses, which so often run reason to a standstill, I had recourse to a favorite device of mine. I asked myself: What would Lampron advise? And at once I conjured up his melancholy, noble face, and heard his answer: "Come back, my dear boy."
PARIS, July 2d.
When you arrive by night, and from the windows of the flying train, as it whirls past the streets at full speed, you see Paris enveloped in red steam, pierced by starry lines of gas-lamps crisscrossing in every direction, the sight is weird, and almost beautiful. You might fancy it the closing scene of some gigantic gala, where strings upon strings of colored lanterns brighten the night above a moving throng, passing, repassing, and raising a cloud of dust that reddens in the glow of expiring Bengal lights.
Moreover, the illusion is in part a reality, for the great city is in truth lighted for its nightly revel. Till one o'clock in the morning it is alight and riotous with the stir and swing of life.
But the dawn is bleak enough.
That, delicious hour which puts a spirit of joy into green field and hedgerow is awful to look upon in Paris. You leave the train half-frozen, to find the porters red-eyed from their watch. The customs officials, in a kind of stupor, scrawl cabalistic signs upon your trunk. You get outside the station, to find a few scattered cabs, their drivers asleep inside, their lamps blinking in the mist.
"Cabby, are you disengaged?"
"Depends where you want to go."
"No. 91 Rue de Rennes."
The blank streets stretch out interminably, gray and silent; the shops on either hand are shuttered; in the squares you will find only a dog or a scavenger; theatre bills hang in rags around the kiosks, the wind sweeps their tattered fragments along the asphalt in yesterday's dust, with here and there a bunch of faded flowers. The Seine washes around its motionless boats; two great-coated policemen patrol the bank and wake the echoes with their tramp. The fountains have ceased to play, and their basins are dry. The air is chilly, and sick with evil odors. The whole drive is like a bad dream. Such was my drive from the Gare de Lyon to my rooms. When I was once at home, installed in my own domains, this unpleasant impression gradually wore off. There was friendliness in my sticks of furniture. I examined those silent witnesses, my chair, my table, and my books. What had happened while I was away? Apparently nothing important. The furniture had a light coating of dust, which showed that no one had touched it, not even Madame Menin. It was funny, but I wished to see Madame Menin. A sound, and I heard my opposite neighbor getting to work. He is a hydrographer, and engraves maps for a neighboring publisher. I never could get up as early as he. The willow seemed to have made great progress during the summer. I flung up the window and said "Good-morning!" to the wallflowers, to the old wall of the Carmelites, and the old black tower. Then the sparrows began. What o'clock could it be? They came all together with a rush, chirping, the hungry thieves, wheeling about, skirting the walls in their flight, quick as lightning, borne on their pointed wings. They had seen the sun—day had broken!
And almost immediately I heard a cart pass, and a hawker crying:
"Ground-SEL! Groundsel for your dickey-birds!"
To think that there are people who get up at that unearthly hour to buy groundsel for their canaries! I looked to see whether any one had called in my absence; their cards should be on my table. Two were there: "Monsieur Lorinet, retired solicitor, town councillor, of Bourbonnoux-les-Bourges, deputy-magistrate"; "Madame Lorinet, nee Poupard."
I was surprised not to find a third card: "Berthe Lorinet, of no occupation, anxious to change her name." Berthe will be difficult to get rid of. I presume she didn't dare to leave a card on a young man, it wouldn't have been proper. But I have no doubt she was here. I scent a trick of my uncle's, one of those Atlantic cables he takes for spider's threads and makes his snares of. The Lorinet family have been here, with the twofold intention of taking news of me to my "dear good uncle," and discreetly recalling to my forgetful heart the charms of Berthe of the big feet.
"Good-morning, Monsieur Mouillard!"
"Hallo! Madame Menin! Good-morning, Madame Menin!"
"So you are back at last, sir! How brown you have got—quite sunburnt. You are quite well, I hope, sir?"
"Very well, thank you; has any one been here in my absence?"
"I was going to tell you, sir; the plumber has been here, because the tap of your cistern came off in my hand. It wasn't my fault; there had been a heavy rain that morning. So—"
"Never mind, it's only a tap to pay for. We won't say any more about it. But did any one come to see me?"
"Ah, let me see—yes. A big gentleman, rather red-faced, with his wife, a fat lady, with a small voice; a fine woman, rather in my style, and their daughter—but perhaps you know her, sir?"
"Yes, Madame Menin, you need not describe her. You told them that I was away, and they said they were very sorry."
"Especially the lady. She puffed and panted and sighed: 'Dear Monsieur Mouillard! How unlucky we are, Madame Menin; we have just come to Paris as he has gone to Italy. My husband and I would have liked so much to see him! You may think it fanciful, but I should like above all things to look round his rooms. A student's rooms must be so interesting. Stay there, Berthe, my child.' I told them there was nothing very interesting, and that their daughter might just as well come in too, and then I showed them everything."
"They didn't stay long, I suppose?"
"Quite long enough. They were an age looking at your photograph album. I suppose they haven't got such things where they come from. Madame Lorinet couldn't tear herself away from it. 'Nothing but men,' she said, 'have you noticed that, Jules?'—'Well, Madame,' I said, 'that's just how it is here; except for me, and I don't count, only gentlemen come here. I've kept house for bachelors where—well, there are not many—'
"That will do, Madame Menin; that will do. I know you always think too highly of me. Hasn't Lampron been here?"
"Yes, sir; the day before yesterday. He was going off for a fortnight or three weeks into the country to paint a portrait of some priest—a bishop, I think."
"Midi, roi des etes." I know by heart that poem by "Monsieur le Comte de l'Isle," as my Uncle Mouillard calls him. Its lines chime in my ears every day when I return from luncheon to the office I have left an hour before. Merciful heaven, how hot it is! I am just back from a hot climate, but it was nothing compared to Paris in July. The asphalt melts underfoot; the wood pavement is simmering in a viscous mess of tar; the ideal is forced to descend again and again to iced lager beer; the walls beat back the heat in your face; the dust in the public gardens, ground to atoms beneath the tread of many feet, rises in clouds from under the water-cart to fall, a little farther on, in white showers upon the passers-by. I wonder that, as a finishing stroke, the cannon in the Palais Royal does not detonate all day long.
To complete my misery, all my acquaintances are out of town: the Boule family is bathing at Trouville; the second clerk has not returned from his holiday; the fourth only waited for my arrival to get away himself; Lampron, detained by my Lord Bishop and the forest shades, gives no sign of his existence; even Monsieur and Madame Plumet have locked up their flat and taken the train for Barbizon.
Thus it happens that the old clerk Jupille and I have been thrown together. I enjoy his talk. He is a simplehearted, honorable man, with a philosophy that I am sure can not be in the least German, because I can understand it. I have gradually told him all my secrets. I felt the need of a confidant, for I was stifling, metaphorically as well as literally. Now, when he hands me a deed, instead of saying "All right," as I used to, I say, "Take a chair, Monsieur Jupille"; I shut the door, and we talk. The clerks think we're talking law, but the clerks are mistaken.
Yesterday, for instance, he whispered to me:
"I have come down the Rue de l'Universite. They will soon be back."
"How did you learn that?"
"I saw a man carrying coals into the house, and asked for whom they were, that's all."
Again, we had a talk, just now, which shows what progress I have made in the old clerk's heart. He had just submitted a draft to me. I had read it through and grunted my approval, yet M. Jupille did not go.
"Anything further, Monsieur Jupille?"
"Something to ask of you—to do me a kindness, or, rather, an honor."
"Let's hear what it is."
"This weather, Monsieur Mouillard, is very good for fishing, though rather warm."
"Rather warm, Monsieur Jupille!"
"It is not too warm. It was much hotter than this in 1844, yet the fish bit, I can tell you! Will you join us next Sunday in a fishing expedition? I say 'us,' because one of your friends is coming, a great amateur of the rod who honors me with his friendship, too."
"Who is he?"
"A secret, Monsieur Mouillard, a little secret. You will be surprised. It is settled then—next Sunday?"
"Where shall I meet you?"
"Hush, the office-boy is listening. That boy is too sharp; I'll tell you some other time."
"As you please, Monsieur Jupille; I accept the invitation unconditionally."
"I am so glad you will come, Monsieur Mouillard. I only wish we could have a little storm between this and then."
He spoke the truth; his satisfaction was manifest, for I never have seen him rub the tip of his nose with the feathers of his quill pen so often as he did that afternoon, which was with him the sign of exuberant joy, all his gestures having subdued themselves long since to the limits of his desk.
I have seen Lampron once more. He bears his sorrow bravely. We spoke for a few moments of his mother. I spoke some praise of that humble soul for the good she had done me, which led him to enlarge upon her virtues.
"Ah," he said, "if you had only seen more of her! My dear fellow, if I am an honest man; if I have passed without failing through the trials of my life and my profession; if I have placed my ideal beyond worldly success; in a word, if I am worth anything in heart or brain, it is to her I owe it. We never had been parted before; this is our first separation, and it is the final one. I was not prepared for it."
Then he changed the subject brusquely:
"What about your love-affair?"
"Fresher than ever."
"Did it survive half an hour's conversation?"
"It grew the stronger for it."
"Does she still detest you?"
I told him the story of our trip to Desio, and our conversation in the carriage, without omitting a detail.
He listened in silence. At the end he said:
"My dear Fabien, there must be no delay. She must hear your proposal within a week."
"Within a week! Who is to make it for me?"
"Whoever you like. That's your business. I have been making inquiries while you were away; she seems a suitable match for you. Besides, your present position is ridiculous; you are without a profession; you have quarrelled, for no reason, with your only relative; you must get out of the situation with credit, and marriage will compel you to do so."
CHAPTER XVI. A FISHING-TRIP AND AN OLD FRIEND
M. Jupille had written to tell me where I was to meet him on the Sunday, giving me the most minute directions. I might take the train to Massy, or to Bievres. However, I preferred to take the train to Sceaux and walk from there, leaving Chatenay on my left, striking across the woods of Verrieres toward the line of forts, coming out between Igny and Amblainvilliers, and finally reaching a spot where the Bievre broadens out between two wooded banks into a pool as clear as a spring and as full of fish as a nursery-pond.
"Above all things, tell nobody where it is!" begged Jupille. "It is our secret; I discovered it myself."
When I left Sceaux to meet Jupille, who had started before daybreak, the sun was already high. There was not a cloud nor a breath of wind; the sway of summer lay over all things. But, though the heat was broiling, the walk was lovely. All about me was alive with voice or perfume. Clouds of linnets fluttered among the branches, golden beetles crawled upon the grass, thousands of tiny whirring wings beat the air—flies, gnats, gadflies, bees—all chorusing the life—giving warmth of the day and the sunshine that bathed and penetrated all nature. I halted from time to time in the parched glades to seek my way, and again pushed onward through the forest paths overarched with heavy-scented leafage, onward over the slippery moss up toward the heights, below which the Bievre stole into view.
There it lay, at my feet, gliding between banks of verdure which seemed a season younger than the grass I stood on. I began to descend the slope, knowing that M. Jupille was awaiting me somewhere in the valley. I broke into a run. I heard the murmur of water in the hollows, and caught glimpses of forget-me-not tufts in low-lying grassy corners. Suddenly a rod outlined itself against the sky, between two trees. It was he, the old clerk; he nodded to me and laid down his line.
"I thought you never were coming."
"That shows you don't know me. Any sport?"
"Not so loud! Yes, capital sport. I'll bait a line for you."
"And where is your friend, Monsieur Jupille?"
"There he is."
"Staring you in the face; can't you see him?".
Upon my word, I could see nobody, until he directed my gaze with his fishing-rod, when I perceived, ten yards away, a large back view of white trousers and brown, unbuckled waistcoat, a straw hat which seemed to conceal a head, and a pair of shirt-sleeves hanging over the water.
This mass was motionless.
"He must have got a bite," said Jupille, "else he would have been here before now. Go and see him."
Not knowing whom I was about to address, I gave a warning cough as I came near him.
The unknown drew a loud breath, like a man who wakes with a start.
"That you, Jupille?" he said, turning a little way; "are you out of bait?"
"No, my dear tutor, it is I."
"Monsieur Mouillard, at last!"
"Monsieur Flamaran! Jupille told the truth when he said I should be surprised. Are you fond of fishing?"
"It's a passion with me. One must keep one or two for one's old age, young man."
"You've been having sport, I hear."
"Well, this morning, between eight and nine, there were a few nibbles; but since then the sport has been very poor. However, I'm very glad to see you again, Mouillard. That essay of yours was extremely good."
The eminent professor had risen, displaying a face still red from his having slept with his head on his chest, but beaming with good-will. He grasped my hand with heartiness and vigor.
"Here's rod and line for you, Monsieur Mouillard, all ready baited," broke in Jupille. "If you'll come with me I'll show you a good place."
"No, no, Jupille, I'm going to keep him," answered M. Flamaran; "I haven't uttered a syllable for three hours. I must let myself out a little. We will fish side by side, and chat."
"As you please, Monsieur Flamaran; but I don't call that fishing."
He handed me the implement, and sadly went his way.
M. Flamaran and I sat down together on the bank, our feet resting on the soft sand strewn with dead branches. Before us spread the little pool I have mentioned, a slight widening of the stream of the Bievre, once a watering-place for cattle. The sun, now at high noon, massed the trees' shadow close around their trunks. The unbroken surface of the water reflected its rays back in our eyes. The current was barely indicated by the gentle oscillation of a few water-lily leaves. Two big blue dragonflies poised and quivered upon our floats, and not a fish seemed to care to disturb them.
"Well," said M. Flamaran, "so you are still managing clerk to Counsellor Boule?"
"For the time."
"Do you like it?"
"What are you waiting for?"
"For something to turn up."
"And carry you back to Italy, I suppose?"
"Then you know I have just been there?"
"I know all about it. Charnot told me of your meeting, and your romantic drive by moonlight. By the way, he's come back with a bad cold; did you know that?"
I assumed an air of sympathy:
"Poor man! When did he get back?"
"The day before yesterday. Of course I was the first to hear of it, and we spent yesterday evening together. It may surprise you, Mouillard, and you may think I exaggerate, but I think Jeanne has come back prettier than she went."
"Do you really think so?"
"I really do. That southern sun—look out, my dear Mouillard, your line is half out of water—has brought back her roses (they're brighter than ever, I declare), and the good spirits she had lost, too, poor girl. She is cheerful again now, as she used to be. I was very anxious about her at one time. You know her sad story?"
"The fellow was a scoundrel, my dear Mouillard, a regular scoundrel! I never was in favor of the match, myself. Charnot let himself be drawn into it by an old college friend. I told him over and over again, 'It's Jeanne's dowry he's after, Charnot—I'm convinced of it. He'll treat Jeanne badly and make her miserable, mark my words.' But I wasted my breath; he wouldn't listen to a word. Anyhow, it's quite off now. But it was no slight shock, I can tell you; and it gave me great pain to witness the poor child's sufferings."
"You are so kind-hearted, Monsieur Flamaran!"
"It's not that, Mouillard; but I have known Jeanne ever since she was born. I watched her grow up, and I loved her when she was still a little mite; she's as good as my adoptive daughter. You understand me when I say adoptive. I do not mean that there exists between us that legal bond in imitation of nature which is permitted by our codes—'adoptio imitatur naturam'; not that, but that I love her like a daughter—Sidonie never having presented me with a daughter, nor with a son either, for that matter."
A cry from Jupille interrupted M. Flamaran:
"Can't you hear it rattle?"
The good man was tearing to us, waving his arms like a madman, the folds of his trousers flapping about his thin legs like banners in the wind.
We leaped to our feet, and my first idea, an absurd one enough, was that a rattlesnake was hurrying through the grass to our attack.
I was very far from the truth. The matter really was a new line, invented by M. Jupille, cast a little further than an ordinary one, and rigged up with a float like a raft, carrying a little clapper. The fish rang their own knell as they took the hook.
"It's rattling like mad!" cried Jupille, "and you don't stir! I couldn't have thought it of you, Monsieur Flamaran."
He ran past us, brandishing a landing-net as a warrior his lance; he might have been a youth of twenty-five. We followed, less keen and also less confident than he. He was right, though; when he drew up his line, the float of which was disappearing in jerks, carrying the bell along with it beneath the water, he brought out a fair-sized jack, which he declared to be a giant.
He let it run for some time, to tire it, and to prolong the pleasure of playing it.
"Gentlemen," he cried, "it is cutting my finger off!"
A stroke from the landing-net laid the monster at our feet, its strength all spent. It weighed rather under four pounds. Jupille swore to six.
My learned tutor and I sat down again side by side, but the thread of our conversation had been broken past mending. I tried to talk of her, but M. Flamaran insisted on talking of me, of Bourges, of his election as professor, and of the radically distinct characteristics by which you can tell the bite of a gudgeon from that of a stickleback.
The latter part of this lecture was, however, purely theoretical, for he got up two hours before sunset without having hooked a fish.
"A good day, all the same," he said. "It's a good place, and the fish were biting this morning. We'll come here again some day, Jupille; with an east wind you ought to catch any quantity of gudgeons." He kept pace beside me on our way home, but wearied, no doubt, with long sitting, with the heat, and the glare from the water, fell into a reverie, from which the incidents of the walk were unable to rouse him.
Jupille trotted before us, carrying his rod in one hand, a luncheon-basket and a fish-bag in the other. He turned round and gave us a look at each cross-road, smiled beneath his heavy moustache, and went on faster than before. I felt sure that something out of the way was about to happen, and that the silent quill-driver was tasting a quiet joke.
I had not guessed the whole truth.
At a turn of the road M. Flamaran suddenly pulled up, looked all around him, and drew a deep breath.
"Hallo, Jupille! My good sir, where are you taking us? If I can believe my eyes, this is the Chestnut Knoll, down yonder is Plessis Piquet, and we are two miles from the station and the seven o'clock train!"
There was no denying it. A donkey emerged from the wood, hung with tassels and bells, carrying in its panniers two little girls, whose parents toiled behind, goad in hand. The woods had become shrubberies, through which peeped the thatched roofs of rustic summerhouses, mazes, artificial waterfalls, grottoes, and ruins; all the dread handiwork of the rustic decorator burst, superabundant, upon our sight, with shy odors of beer and cooking. Broken bottles strewed the paths; the bushes all looked weary, harassed, and overworked; a confused murmur of voices and crackers floated toward us upon the breeze. I knew full well from these signs that we were nearing "ROBINSON CRUSOE," the land of rustic inns. And, sure enough, here they all were: "THE OLD ROBINSON," "THE NEW ROBINSON," "THE REAL ORIGINAL ROBINSON," "THE ONLY GENUINE ROBINSON," "ROBINSON's CHESTNUT GROVE," "ROBINSON'S PARADISE," each unique and each authentic. All alike have thatched porches, sanded paths, transparencies lighted with petroleum lamps, tinsel stars, summerhouses, arrangements for open-air illumination and highly colored advertisements, in which are set forth all the component elements of a "ROBINSON," such as shooting-galleries, bowling-alleys, swings, private arbors, Munich beer, and dinner in a tree.
"Jupille!" exclaimed M. Flamaran, "you have shipwrecked us! This is Crusoe's land; and what the dickens do you mean by it?"
The old clerk, utterly discomfited, and wearing that hangdog look which he always assumed at the slightest rebuke from Counsellor Boule, pulled a face as long as his arm, went up to M. Flamaran and whispered a word in his ear.
"Upon my word! Really, Jupille, what are you thinking of? And I a professor, too! Thirty years ago it would have been excusable, but to-day! Besides, Sidonie expects me home to dinner—"
He stopped for a moment, undecided, looking at his watch.
Jupille, who was eying him intently, saw his distinguished friend gradually relax his frown and burst into a hearty laugh.
"By Jove! it's madness at my age, but I don't care. We'll renew our youth for an hour or so. My dear Mouillard, Jupille has ordered dinner for us here. Had I been consulted I should have chosen any other place. Yet what's to be done? Hunger, friendship, and the fact that I can't catch the train, combine to silence my scruples. What do you say?"
"That we are in for it now."
"So be it, then." And led by Jupille, still carrying his catch, we entered THE ONLY GENUINE ROBINSON.
M. Flamaran, somewhat ill at ease, cast inquiring glances on the clearings in the sgrubberies. I thought I heard stifled laughter behind the trees.
"You have engaged Chestnut Number Three, gentlemen," said the proprietor. "Up these stairs, please."
We ascended a staircase winding around the trunk. Chestnut Number 3 is a fine old tree, a little bent, its sturdy lower branches supporting a platform surrounded by a balustrade, six rotten wooden pillars, and a thatched roof, shaped like a cocked hat, to shelter the whole. All the neighboring trees contain similar constructions, which look from a little distance like enormous nests. They are greatly in demand at the dinner hour; you dine thirty feet up in the air, and your food is brought up by a rope and pulley.
When M. Flamaran appeared on the platform he took off his hat, and leaned with both hands on the railing to give a look around. The attitude suggested a public speaker. His big gray head was conspicuous in the light of the setting sun.
"He's going to make a speech!" cried a voice. "Bet you he isn't," replied another.
This was the signal. A rustling was heard among the leaves, and numbers of inquisitive faces peeped out from all corners of the garden. A general rattling of glasses announced that whole parties were leaving the tables to see what was up. The waiters stopped to stare at Chestnut Number 3. The whole population of Juan Fernandez was staring up at Flamaran without in the least knowing the reason why.
"Gentlemen," said a voice from an arbor, "Professor Flamaran will now begin his lecture."
A chorus of shouts and laughter rose around our tree.
"Hi, old boy, wait till we're gone!"
"Ladies, he will discourse to you on the law of husband and wife!"
"No, on the foreclosure of mortgages!"
"No, on the payment of debts!"
"Oh, you naughty old man! You ought to be shut up!"
M. Flamaran, though somewhat put out of countenance for the moment, was seized with a happy inspiration. He stretched out an arm to show that he was about to speak. He opened his broad mouth with a smile of fatherly humor, and the groves, attentive, heard him thunder forth these words:
"Boys, I promise to give you all white marks if you let me dine in peace!"
The last words were lost in a roar of applause.
"Three cheers for old Flamaran!"
Three cheers were given, followed by clapping of hands from various quarters, then all was silence, and no one took any further notice of our tree.
M. Flamaran left the railing and unfolded his napkin.
"You may be sure of my white marks, young men," he said, as he sat down.
He was delighted at his success as an orator, and laughed gayly. Jupille, on the other hand, was as pale as if he had been in a street riot, and seemed rooted to the spot where he stood.
"It's all right, Jupille; it's all right, man! A little ready wit is all you need, dash my wig!"
The old clerk gradually regained his composure, and the dinner grew very merry. Flamaran's spirits, raised by this little incident, never flagged. He had a story for every glass of wine, and told them all with a quiet humor of his own.
Toward the end of dinner, by the time the waiter came to offer us "almonds and raisins, pears, peaches, preserves, meringues, brandy cherries," we had got upon the subject of Sidonie, the pearl of Forez. M. Flamaran narrated to us, with dates, how a friend of his one day depicted to him a young girl at Montbrison, of fresh and pleasing appearance, a good housekeeper, and of excellent family; and how he—M. Flamaran—had forthwith started off to find her, had recognized her before she was pointed out to him, fell in love with her at first sight, and was not long in obtaining her affection in return. The marriage had taken place at St. Galmier.
"Yes, my dear Mouillard," he added, as if pointing a moral, "thirty years ago last May I became a happy man; when do you think of following my example?"
At this point, Jupille suddenly found himself one too many, and vanished down the corkscrew stair.
"We once spoke of an heiress at Bourges," M. Flamaran went on.
"Apparently that's all off?"
"You were within your rights; but now, why not a Parisienne?"
"Yes, indeed; why not?"
"Perhaps you are prejudiced in some way against Parisiennes?"
"I? Not the least."
"I used to be, but I've got over it now. They have a charm of their own, a certain style of dressing, walking, and laughing which you don't find outside the fortifications. For a long time I used to think that these qualities stood them in lieu of virtues. That was a slander; there are plenty of Parisiennes endowed with every virtue; I even know a few who are angels."
At this point, M. Flamaran looked me straight in the eyes, and, as I made no reply, he added:
"I know one, at least: Jeanne Charnot. Are you listening?"
"Yes, Monsieur Flamaran."
"Isn't she a paragon?"
"As sensible as she is tender-hearted?"
"So I believe."
"And as clever as she is sensible?"
"That is my opinion."
"Well, then, young man, if that's your opinion—excuse my burning my boats, all my boats—if that's your opinion, I don't understand why—Do you suppose she has no money?"
"I know nothing about her means."
"Don't make any mistake; she's a rich woman. Do you think you're too young to marry?"
"Do you fancy, perhaps, that she is still bound by that unfortunate engagement?"
"I trust she is not."
"I'm quite sure she is not. She is free, I tell you, as free as you. Well, why don't you love her?"
"But I do love her, Monsieur Flamaran!"
"Why, then, I congratulate you, my boy!"
He leaned across the table and gave me a hearty grasp of the hand. He was so agitated that he could not speak—choking with joyful emotion, as if he had been Jeanne's father, or mine.
After a minute or so, he drew himself up in his chair, reached out, put a hand on each of my shoulders and kept it there as if he feared I might fly away.
"So you love her, you love her! Good gracious, what a business I've had to get you to say so! You are quite right to love her, of course, of course—I could not have understood your doing otherwise; but I must say this, my boy, that if you tarry too long, with her attractions, you know what will happen."