THE INK STAIN
By RENE BAZIN
Preface by E. LAVISSE
RENE-NICHOLAS-MARIE BAZIN was born at Angers, December 26, 1853. He studied for the bar, became a lawyer and professor of jurisprudence at the Catholic University in his native city, and early contributed to 'Le Correspondant, L'Illustration, Journal des Debats, Revue du Deux Mondes,' etc. Although quietly writing fiction for the last fifteen years or so, he was not well known until the dawn of the twentieth century, when his moral studies of provincial life under the form of novels and romances became appreciated. He is a profound psychologist, a force in literature, and his style is very pure and attractive. He advocates resignation and the domestic virtues, yet his books are neither dull, nor tiresome, nor priggish; and as he has advanced in years and experience M. Bazin has shown an increasing ambition to deal with larger problems than are involved for instance, in the innocent love-affairs of 'Ma Tante Giron' (1886), a book which enraptured Ludovic Halevy. His novel, 'Une Tache d'Encre' (1888), a romance of scholarly life, was crowned by the French Academy, to which he was elected in 1903.
It is safe to say that Bazin will never develop into an author dangerous to morals. His works may be put into the hands of cloistered virgins, and there are not, to my knowledge, many other contemporary French imaginative writers who could endure this stringent test. Some critics, indeed, while praising him, scoff at his chaste and surprising optimism; but it is refreshing to recommend to English readers, in these days of Realism and Naturalism, the works of a recent French writer which do not require maturity of years in the reader. 'Une Tache d'Encre', as I have said, was crowned by the French Academy; and Bazin received from the same exalted body the "Prix Vitet" for the ensemble of his writings in 1896, being finally admitted a member of the Academy in June, 1903. He occupies the chair of Ernest Legouve.
Bazin's first romance, 'Stephanette', was published under the pseudonym "Bernard Seigny," in 1884; then followed 'Victor Pavie (1887); Noellet (1890); A l'Aventure (1891) and Sicile (1892)', two books on Italy, of which the last mentioned was likewise crowned by the French Academy; 'La Legende de Sainte-Bega (1892); La Sarcelle Bleue (1892); Madame Corentine (1893); Les Italiens d'aujourd'hui (1894); Humble Amour (1894); En Province (1896); De toute son Ame (1897)', a realistic but moderate romance of a workingman's life; 'Les Contes de Perrette (1898); La Terre qui Meurt (1899); Le Guide de l'Empereur (1901); Les Oberle (1902), a tale from Alsace of to-day, sketching the political situation, approximately correct, and lately adapted for the stage; 'Donatienne' (1903).
With Bazin literary life does not become a mirage obscuring the vision of real life. Before being an author Rene Bazin is a man, with a family attached to the country, rooted in the soil; a guaranty of the dignity of his work as well as of the writer, and a safeguard against many extravagances. He has remained faithful to his province. He lives in the attractive city of Angers. When he leaves it, it is for a little tour through France, or a rare journey-once to Sicily and once to Spain. He is seldom to be met on the Parisian boulevards. Not that he has any prejudice against Paris, or fails to appreciate the tone of its society, or the quality of its diversions; but he is conscious that he has nothing to gain from a residence in the capital, but, on the contrary, would run a risk of losing his intense originality and the freshness of his genius.
E. LAVISSE de l'Academie Francaise.
CHAPTER I. THE ACCIDENT
All I have to record of the first twenty-three years of my life is the enumeration of them. A simple bead-roll is enough; it represents their family likeness and family monotony.
I lost my parents when I was very young. I can hardly recall their faces; and I should keep no memories of La Chatre, our home, had I not been brought up quite close to it. It was sold, however, and lost to me, like all the rest. Yes, fate is hard, sometimes. I was born at La Chatre; the college of La Chatre absorbed eighteen years of my life. Our head master used to remark that college is a second home; whereby I have always fancied he did some injustice to the first.
My school-days were hardly over when my uncle and guardian, M. Brutus Mouillard, solicitor, of Bourges, packed me off to Paris to go through my law course. I took three years over it: At the end of that time, just eighteen months ago, I became a licentiate, and "in the said capacity"—as my uncle would say took an oath that transformed me into a probationary barrister. Every Monday, regularly, I go to sign my name among many others on an attendance list, and thereby, it appears, I am establishing a claim upon the confidence of the widow and the orphan.
In the intervals of my legal studies I have succeeded in taking my Arts Degree. At present I am seeking that of Doctor of Law. My examinations have been passed meritoriously, but without brilliance; my tastes run too much after letters. My professor, M. Flamaran, once told me the truth of the matter: "Law, young man, is a jealous mistress; she allows no divided affection." Are my affections divided? I think not, and I certainly do not confess any such thing to M. Mouillard, who has not yet forgotten what he calls "that freak" of a Degree in Arts. He builds some hopes upon me, and, in return, it is natural that I should build a few upon him.
Really, that sums up all my past: two certificates! A third diploma in prospect and an uncle to leave me his money—that is my future. Can anything more commonplace be imagined?
I may add that I never felt any temptation at all to put these things on record until to-day, the tenth of December, 1884. Nothing had ever happened to me; my history was a blank. I might have died thus. But who can foresee life's sudden transformations? Who can foretell that the skein, hitherto so tranquilly unwound, will not suddenly become tangled? This afternoon a serious adventure befell me. It agitated me at the time, and it agitates me still more upon reflection. A voice within me whispers that this cause will have a series of effects, that I am on the threshold of an epoch, or, as the novelists say, a crisis in my existence. It has struck me that I owe it to myself to write my Memoirs, and that is the reason why I have just purchased this brown memorandum-book in the Odeon Arcade. I intend to make a detailed and particular entry of the event, and, as time goes on, of its consequences, if any should happen to flow from it.
"Flow from it" is just the phrase; for it has to do with a blot of ink.
My blot of ink is hardly dry. It is a large one, too; of abnormal shape, and altogether monstrous, whether one considers it from the physical side or studies it in its moral bearings. It is very much more than an accident; it has something of the nature of an outrage. It was at the National Library that I perpetrated it, and upon—But I must not anticipate.
I often work in the National Library; not in the main hall, but in that reserved for literary men who have a claim, and are provided with a ticket, to use it. I never enter it without a gentle thrill, in which respect is mingled with satisfied vanity. For not every one who chooses may walk in. I must pass before the office of the porter, who retains my umbrella, before I make my way to the solemn beadle who sits just inside the doorway—a double precaution, attesting to the majesty of the place. The beadle knows me. He no longer demands my ticket. To be sure, I am not yet one of those old acquaintances on whom he smiles; but I am no longer reckoned among those novices whose passport he exacts. An inclination of his head makes me free of the temple, and says, as plainly as words, "You are one of us, albeit a trifle young. Walk in, sir."
And in I walk, and admire on each occasion the vast proportions of the interior, the severe decoration of the walls, traced with broad foliated pattern and wainscoted with books of reference as high as hand can reach; the dread tribunal of librarians and keepers in session down yonder, on a kind of judgment-seat, at the end of the avenue whose carpet deadens all footsteps; and behind again, that holy of holies where work the doubly privileged—the men, I imagine, who are members of two or three academies. To right and left of this avenue are rows of tables and armchairs, where scatters, as caprice has chosen and habit consecrated, the learned population of the library. Men form the large majority. Viewed from the rear, as they bend over their work, they suggest reflections on the ravages wrought by study upon hair-clad cuticles. For every hirsute Southerner whose locks turn gray without dropping off, heavens, what a regiment of bald heads! Visitors who look in through the glass doors see only this aspect of devastation. It gives a wrong impression. Here and there, at haphazard, you may find a few women among these men. George Sand used to come here. I don't know the names of these successors of hers, nor their business; I have merely observed that they dress in sober colors, and that each carries a number of shawls and a thick veil. You feel that love is far from their thoughts. They have left it outside, perhaps—with the porter.
Several of these learned folk lift their heads as I pass, and follow me with the dulled eye of the student, an eye still occupied with the written thought and inattentive to what it looks on. Then, suddenly, remorse seizes them for their distraction, they are annoyed with me, a gloomy impatience kindles in their look, and each plunges anew into his open volume. But I have had time to guess their secret ejaculations: "I am studying the Origin of Trade Guilds!" "I, the Reign of Louis the Twelfth!" "I, the Latin Dialects!" "I, the Civil Status of Women under Tiberius!" "I am elaborating a new translation of Horace!" "I am fulminating a seventh article, for the Gazette of Atheism and Anarchy, on the Russian Serfs!" And each one seems to add, "But what is thy business here, stripling? What canst thou write at thy age? Why troublest thou the peace of these hallowed precincts?" My business, sirs? Alas! it is the thesis for my doctor's degree. My uncle and venerated guardian, M. Brutus Mouillard, solicitor, of Bourges, is urging me to finish it, demands my return to the country, grows impatient over the slow toil of composition. "Have done with theories," he writes, "and get to business! If you must strive for this degree, well and good; but what possessed you to choose such a subject?"
I must own that the subject of my thesis in Roman law has been artistically chosen with a view to prolonging my stay in Paris: "On the 'Latini Juniani.'" Yes, gentle reader, a new subject, almost incapable of elucidation, having no connection—not the remotest—with the exercise of any profession whatsoever, entirely devoid of practical utility. The trouble it gives me is beyond conception.
It is true that I intersperse my researches with some more attractive studies, and one or two visits to the picture-galleries, and more than an occasional evening at the theatre. My uncle knows nothing of this. To keep him soothed I am careful to get my reader's ticket renewed every month, and every month to send him the ticket just out of date, signed by M. Leopold Delisle. He has a box full of them; and in the simplicity of his heart Monsieur Mouillard has a lurking respect for this nephew, this modern young anchorite, who spends his days at the National Library, his nights with Gaius, wholly absorbed in the Junian Latins, and indifferent to whatsoever does not concern the Junian Latins in this Paris which my uncle still calls the Modern Babylon.
I came down this morning in the most industrious mood, when the misfortune befell. Close by the sanctum where the librarians sit are two desks where you write down the list of the books you want. I was doing so at the right-hand desk, on which abuts the first row of tables. Hence all the mischief. Had I written at the left-hand desk, nothing would have happened. But no; I had just set down as legibly as possible the title, author, and size of a certain work on Roman Antiquities, when, in replacing the penholder, which is attached there by a small brass chain, some inattentiveness, some want of care, my ill-luck, in short, led me to set it down in unstable equilibrium on the edge of the desk. It tumbled-I heard the little chain rattle-it tumbled farther-then stopped short. The mischief was done. The sudden jerk, as it pulled up, had detached an enormous drop of ink from the point of the pen, and that drop—Ah! I can see him yet, as he rose from the shadow of the desk, that small, white-haired man, so thin and so very angry!
"Clumsy idiot! To blot an Early Text!"
I leaned over and looked. Upon the page of folio, close to an illuminated capital, the black drop had flattened itself. Around the original sphere had been shed splashes of all conceivable shapes-rays, rockets, dotted lines, arrowheads, all the freakish impromptu of chaos. Next, the slope lending its aid, the channels had drained into one, and by this time a black rivulet was crawling downward to the margin. One or two readers near had risen, and now eyed me like examining magistrates. I waited for an outbreak, motionless, dazed, muttering words that did not mend the case at all. "What a pity! Oh, I'm so sorry! If I had only known—" The student of the Early Text stood motionless as I. Together we watched the ink trickle. Suddenly, summoning his wits together, he burrowed with feverish haste in his morocco writing-case, pulled out a sheet of blotting-paper, and began to soak up the ink with the carefulness of a Sister of Mercy stanching a wound. I seized the opportunity to withdraw discreetly to the third row of tables, where the attendant had just deposited my books. Fear is so unreasoning. Very likely by saying no more about it, by making off and hiding my head in my hands, like a man crushed by the weight of his remorse, I might disarm this wrath. I tried to think so. But I knew well enough that there was more to come. I had hardly taken my seat when, looking up, I could see between my fingers the little man standing up and gesticulating beside one of the keepers. At one moment he rapped the damning page with his forefinger; the next, he turned sidewise and flung out a hand toward me; and I divined, without hearing a word, all the bitterness of his invective. The keeper appeared to take it seriously. I felt myself blushing. "There must be," thought I, "some law against ink-stains, some decree, some regulation, something drawn up for the protection of Early Texts. And the penalty is bound to be terrible, since it has been enacted by the learned; expulsion, no doubt, besides a fine—an enormous fine. They are getting ready over there to fleece me. That book of reference they are consulting is of course the catalogue of the sale where this treasure was purchased. I shall have to replace the Early Text! O Uncle Mouillard!"
I sat there, abandoned to my sad reflections, when one of the attendants, whom I had not seen approaching, touched me on the shoulder.
"The keeper wishes to speak to you."
I rose up and went. The terrible reader had gone back to his seat.
"It was you, sir, I believe, who blotted the folio just now?"
"It was, sir."
"You did not do so on purpose?"
"Most certainly not, sir! I am indeed sorry for he accident."
"You ought to be. The volume is almost unique; and the blot, too, for that matter. I never saw such a blot! Will you, please, leave me your Christian name, surname, profession, and address?"
I wrote down, "Fabien Jean Jacques Mouillard, barrister, 91 Rue de Rennes."
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Yes, sir, that is all for the present. But I warn you that Monsieur Charnot is exceedingly annoyed. It might be as well to offer him some apology."
"Yes. It is Monsieur Charnot, of the Institute, who was reading the Early Text."
"Merciful Heavens!" I ejaculated, as I went back to my seat; "this must be the man of whom my tutor spoke, the other day! Monsieur Flamaran belongs to the Academy of Moral and Political Science, the other to the Institute of Inscriptions and the Belles-Lettres. Charnot? Yes, I have those two syllables in my ear. The very last time I saw Monsieur Flamaran he let fall 'my very good friend Charnot, of the 'Inscriptions.' They are friends. And I am in a pretty situation; threatened with I don't know what by the Library—for the keeper told me positively that this was all 'for the present'—but not for the future; threatened to be disgraced in my tutor's eyes; and all because this learned man's temper is upset.
"I must apologize. Let me see, what could I say to Monsieur Charnot? As a matter of fact, it's to the Early Text that I ought to apologize. I have spilled no ink over Monsieur Charnot. He is spotless, collar and cuffs; the blot, the splashes, all fell on the Text. I will say to him, 'Sir, I am exceedingly sorry to have interrupted you so unfortunately in your learned studies! 'Learned studies' will tickle his vanity, and should go far to appease him."
I was on the point of rising. M. Charnot anticipated me.
Grief is not always keenest when most recent. As he approached I saw he was more irritated and upset than at the moment of the accident. Above his pinched, cleanshaven chin his lips shot out with an angry twitch. The portfolio shook under his arm. He flung me a look full of tragedy and went on his way.
Well, well; go your way, M. Charnot! One doesn't offer apologies to a man in his wrath. You shall have them by-and-bye, when we meet again.
CHAPTER II. THE JUNIAN LATINS
December 28, 1884.
This afternoon I paid M. Flamaran a visit. I had been thinking about it for the last week, as I wanted him to help my Junian Latins out of a mess. I am acquiring a passion for that interesting class of freedmen. And really it is only natural. These Junian Latins were poor slaves, whose liberation was not recognized by the strict and ancient laws of Rome, because their masters chose to liberate them otherwise than by 'vindicta, census, or testamentum'. On this account they lost their privileges, poor victims of the legislative intolerance of the haughty city. You see, it begins to be touching, already. Then came on the scene Junius Norbanus, consul by rank, and a true democrat, who brought in a law, carried it, and gave them their freedom. In exchange, they gave him immortality. Henceforward, did a slave obtain a few kind words from his master over his wine? he was a Junian Latin. Was he described as 'filius meus' in a public document? Junian Latin. Did he wear the cap of liberty, the pileus, at his master's funeral? Junian Latin. Did he disembowel his master's corpse? Junian Latin, once more, for his trouble.
What a fine fellow this Norbanus must have been! What an eye for everything, down to the details of a funeral procession, in which he could find an excuse for emancipation! And that, too, in the midst of the wars of Marius and Sylla in which he took part. I can picture him seated before his tent, the evening after the battle. Pensive, he reclines upon his shield as he watches the slave who is grinding notches out of his sword. His eyes fill with tears, and he murmurs, "When peace is made, my faithful Stychus, I shall have a pleasant surprise for you. You shall hear talk of the Lex Junia Norband, I promise you!"
Is not this a worthy subject for picture or statue in a competition for the Prix de Rome?
A man so careful of details must have assigned a special dress to these special freedmen of his creation; for at Rome even freedom had its livery. What was this dress? Was there one at all? No authority that I know of throws any light on the subject. Still one hope remains: M. Flamaran. He knows so many things, he might even know this.
M. Flamaran comes from the south-Marseilles, I think. He is not a specialist in Roman law; but he is encyclopedic, which comes to the same thing. He became known while still young, and deservedly; few lawyers are so clear, so safe, so lucid. He is an excellent lecturer, and his opinions are in demand. Yet he owes much of his fame to the works which he has not written. Our fathers, in their day, used to whisper to one another in the passages of the Law School, "Have you heard the news? Flamaran is going to bring out the second volume of his great work. He means to publish his lectures. He has in the press a treatise which will revolutionize the law of mortgages; he has been working twenty years at it; a masterpiece, I assure you." Day follows day; no book appears, no treatise is published, and all the while M. Flamaran grows in reputation. Strange phenomenon! like the aloe in the Botanical Gardens. The blossoming of the aloe is an event. "Only think!" says the gaping public, "a flower which has taken twenty springs, twenty summers, twenty autumns, and twenty winters to make up its mind to open!" And meanwhile the roses bloom unnoticed by the town. But M. Flamaran's case is still more strange. Every year it is whispered that he is about to bloom afresh; he never does bloom; and his reputation flourishes none the less. People make lists of the books he might have written. Lucky author!
M. Flamaran is a professor of the old school, stern, and at examination a terror to the candidates. Clad in cap and gown, he would reject his own son. Nothing will serve. Recommendations defeat their object. An unquestioned Roumanian ancestry, an extraction indisputably Japanese, find no more favor in his eyes than an assumed stammer, a sham deafness, or a convalescent pallor put on for the occasion. East and west are alike in his sight. The retired registrar, the pensioned usher aspiring late in life to some petty magistrature, are powerless to touch his heart. For him in vain does the youthful volunteer allow his uniform to peep out beneath his student's gown: he will not profit by the patriotic indulgence he counted on inspiring. His sayings in the examination-room are famous, and among them are some ghastly pleasantries. Here is one, addressed to a victim: "And you, sir, are a law student, while our farmers are in want of hands!"
For my own part I won his favor under circumstances that I never shall forget. I was in for my first examination. We were discussing, or rather I was allowing him to lecture on, the law of wardship, and nodding my assent to his learned elucidations. Suddenly he broke off and asked, "How many opinions have been formulated upon this subject?"
"One is absurd. Which? Beware how you give the wrong answer!"
I considered for three agonizing seconds, and hazarded a guess. "The first, sir." I had guessed right. We were friends. At bottom the professor is a capital fellow; kindly, so long as the dignity of the Code is not in question, or the extent of one's legal knowledge; proverbially upright and honorable in his private life.
At home he may be seen at his window tending his canaries, which, he says, is no change of occupation. To get to his house I have only to go by my favorite road through the Luxembourg. I am soon at his door.
"Is Monsieur Flamaran at home?"
The old servant who opened the door eyed me solemnly. So many young freshmen come and pester her master under the pretext of paying their respects. Their respects, indeed! They would bore him to death if he had to see them all. The old woman inferred, probably from my moustache, that I had taken at least my bachelor's degree.
"I think he is."
He was very much at home in his overheated study, where he sat wrapped up in a dressing-gown and keeping one eye shut to strengthen the other.
After a moment's hesitation he recognized me, and held out his hand.
"Ah! my Junian Latin. How are you getting on?"
"I am all right, sir; it's my Junian Latins who are not getting on."
"You don't say so. We must look into that. But before we begin—I forget where you come from. I like to know where people come from."
"From La Chatre. But I spend my vacations at Bourges with my Uncle Mouillard."
"Yes, yes, Mouillart with a t, isn't it?"
"No, with a d."
"I asked, you know, because I once knew a General Mouillart who had been through the Crimea, a charming man. But he can not have been a relative, for his name ended with a t."
My good tutor spoke with a delightful simplicity, evidently wishing to be pleasant and to show some interest in me.
"Are you married, young man?"
"No, sir; but I have no conscientious objections."
"Marry young. Marriage is the salvation of young men. There must be plenty of pretty heiresses in Bourges."
"Heiresses, yes. As to their looks, at this distance—"
"Yes, I understand, at this distance of course you can't tell. You should do as I did; make inquiries, go and see. I went all the way to Forez myself to look for my wife."
"Madame Flamaran comes from Forez?"
"Just so; I stayed there a fortnight, fourteen days exactly, in the middle of term-time, and brought back Sidonie. Bourges is a nice town."
"Yes, in summer."
"Plenty of trees. I remember a grand action I won there. One of my learned colleagues was against me. We had both written opinions, diametrically opposed, of course. But I beat him—my word, yes!"
"I dare say."
"My boy, there was nothing left of him. Do you know the case?"
"A magnificent case! My notes must be somewhere about; I will get them out for you."
The good man beamed. Evidently he had not had a talk all day, and felt he must expand and let himself out to somebody. I appeared in the nick of time, and came in for all his honey. He rose, went to a bookcase, ran his eye along a shelf, took down a volume, and began, in a low tone: "'Cooperation is the mighty lever upon which an effete society relies to extricate itself from its swaddling-clothes and take a loftier flight.' Tut, tut! What stuff is this? I beg your pardon. I was reading from a work on moral philosophy. Where the deuce is my opinion?"
He found it and, text in hand, began a long account of the action, with names, dates, moments of excitement, and many quotations in extenso.
"Yes, my young friend, two hundred and eighteen thousand francs did I win in that action for Monsieur Prebois, of Bourges; you know Prebois, the manufacturer?"
At last he put the note-book back on its shelf, and deigned to remember that I had come about the Junian Latins.
"In which of the authorities do you find a difficulty?"
"My difficulty lies in the want of authorities, sir, I wish to find out whether the Junian Latins had not a special dress."
"To be sure." He scratched his head. "Gaius says nothing on the point?"
"Then I see only one resource."
"What is that?"
"Go to see Charnot."
I felt myself growing pale, and stammered, with a piteous look:
"Monsieur Charnot, of the Acad—"
"The Academy of Inscriptions; an intimate friend of mine, who will welcome you like a son, for he has none himself, poor man!"
"But perhaps the question is hardly important enough for me to trouble him like this—"
"Hey? Not important enough? All new questions are important. Charnot specializes on coins. Coins and costumes are all one. I will write to tell him you are coming."
"I beg, sir—"
"Nonsense; Nonsense; I'll write him this very evening. He will be delighted to see you. I know him well, you understand. He is like me; he likes industrious young men."
M. Flamaran held out his hand.
"Good-by, young man. Marry as soon as you have taken your degree."
I did not recover from the shock till I was halfway across the Luxembourg Gardens, near the Tennis Court, when I sat down, overcome. See what comes of enthusiasm and going to call on your tutor! Ah, young three-and-twenty, when will you learn wisdom?
CHAPTER III. AN APOLOGY
I have made up my mind. I shall go to see M. Charnot. But before that I shall go to his publisher's and find out something about this famous man's works, of which I know nothing whatever.
He lives in the Rue de l'Universite.
I have called. I have seen him. I owe this to an accident, to the servant's forgetting her orders.
As I entered, on the stroke of five, he was spinning a spiral twist of paper beneath the lamplight to amuse his daughter—he a member of the Institute, she a girl of eighteen. So that is how these big-wigs employ their leisure moments!
The library where I found them was full of book cases-open bookcases, bookcases with glass doors, tall bookcases, dwarf bookcases, bookcases standing on legs, bookcases standing on the floor—of statuettes yellow with smoke, of desks crowded with paper-weights, paper-knives, pens, and inkstands of "artistic" pat terns. He was seated at the table, with his back to the fire, his arm lifted, and a hairpin between his finger and thumb—the pivot round which his paper twist was spinning briskly. Across the table stood his daughter, leaning forward with her chin on her hands and her white teeth showing as she laughed for laughing's sake, to give play to her young spirits and gladden her old father's heart as he gazed on her, delighted.
I must confess it made a pretty picture; and M. Charnot at that moment was extremely unlike the M. Charnot who had confronted me from behind the desk.
I was not left long to contemplate.
The moment I lifted the 'portiere' the girl jumped up briskly and regarded me with a touch of haughtiness, meant, I think, to hide a slight confusion. To compare small things with great, Diana must have worn something of that look at sight of Actaeon. M. Charnot did not rise, but hearing somebody enter, turned half-round in his armchair, while his eyes, still dazzled with the lamplight, sought the intruder in the partial shadow of the room.
I felt myself doubly uneasy in the presence of this reader of the Early Text and of this laughing girl.
"Sir," I began, "I owe you an apology—"
He recognized me. The girl moved a step.
"Stay, Jeanne, stay. We shall not take long. This gentleman has come to offer an apology."
This was a cruel beginning.
She thought so, too, perhaps, and withdrew discreetly into a dim corner, near the bookcase at the end of the room.
"I have felt deep regret, sir, for that accident the other day—I set down the penholder clumsily, in equilibrium—unstable equilibrium—besides, I had no notion there was a reader behind the desk. Of course, if I had been aware, I should—I should have acted differently."
M. Charnot allowed me to flounder on with the contemplative satisfaction of an angler who has got a fish at the end of his line. He seemed to find me so very stupid, that as a matter of fact I became stupid. And then, there was no answer—not a word. Silence, alas! is not the reproof of kings alone. It does pretty well for everybody. I stumbled on two or three more phrases quite as flatly infelicitous, and he received them with the same faint smile and the same silence.
To escape from my embarrassment:
"Sir," I said, "I came also to ask for a piece of information."
"I am at your service, sir."
"Monsieur Flamaran has probably written to you on the matter?"
"Yes, three days ago."
"I have received no letter; have I, Jeanne?"
"This is not the first time that my excellent colleague has promised to write a letter and has not written it. Never mind, sir; your own introduction is sufficient."
"Sir, I am about to take my doctor's degree."
"No, in law; but I have a bachelor's degree in arts."
"You will follow it up with a degree in medicine, no doubt?"
"Why—Why not, since you are collecting these things? You have, then, a bent toward literature?"
"So I have been told."
"A pronounced inclination—hey? to scribble verse."
"The old story; the family driving a lad into law; his heart leaning toward letters; the Digest open on the table, and the drawers stuffed with verses! Isn't that so?"
I bowed. He glanced toward his daughter.
"Well, sir, I confess to you that I don't understand—don't understand at all—this behavior of yours. Why not follow your natural bent? You youngsters nowadays—I mean no offence—you youngsters have no longer any mind of your own. Take my case; I was seventeen when I began to take an interest in numismatics. My family destined me for the Stamp Office; yes, sir, the Stamp Office. I had against me two grandfathers, two grandmothers, my father, my mother, and six uncles—all furious. I held out, and that has led me to the Institute. Hey, Jeanne?"
Mademoiselle Jeanne had returned to the table, where she was standing when I entered, and seemed, after a moment, to busy herself in arranging the books scattered in disarray on the green cloth. But she had a secret object—to regain possession of the paper spiral that lay there neglected, its pin sticking up beside the lamp-stand. Her light hand, hovering hither and thither, had by a series of cunning manoeuvres got the offending object behind a pile of duodecimos, and was now withdrawing it stealthily among the inkstands and paperweights.
M. Charnot interrupted this little stratagem.
She answered very prettily, with a slight toss of the head:
"But, father, not everybody can be in the Institute."
"Far from it, Jeanne. This gentleman, for instance, devotes himself to one method of inking parchment that never will make him my colleague. Doctor of Laws and Master of Arts,—I presume, sir, you are going to be a notary?"
"Excuse me, an advocate."
"I was sure of it. Jeanne, my dear, in country families it is a standing dilemma; if not a notary, then an advocate; if not an advocate, then a notary."
M. Charnot spoke with an exasperating half-smile.
I ought to have laughed, to be sure; I ought to have shown sense enough at any rate to hold my tongue and not to answer the gibes of this vindictive man of learning. Instead, I was stupid enough to be nettled and to lose my head.
"Well," I retorted, "I must have a paying profession. That one or another—what does it matter? Not everybody can belong to the Institute, as your daughter remarked; not everybody can afford himself the luxury of publishing, at his own expense, works that sell twenty-seven copies or so."
I expected a thunderbolt, an explosion. Not a bit of it. M. Charnot smiled outright with an air of extreme geniality.
"I perceive, sir, that you are given to gossiping with the booksellers."
"Why, yes, sir, now and then."
"It's a very pretty trait, at your age, to be already so strong in bibliography. You will permit me, nevertheless, to add something to your present stock of notions. A large sale is one thing to look at, but not the right thing. Twenty-seven copies of a book, when read by twenty-seven men of intelligence, outweigh a popular success. Would you believe that one of my friends had no more than eight copies printed of a mathematical treatise? Three of these he has given away. The other five are still unsold. And that man, sir, is the first mathematician in France!"
Mademoiselle Jeanne had taken it differently. With lifted chin and reddened cheek she shot this sentence at me from the edge of a lip disdainfully puckered:
"There are such things as 'successes of esteem,' sir!"
Alas! I knew that well, and I had no need of this additional lesson to teach me the rudeness of my remark, to make me feel that I was a brute, an idiot, hopelessly lost in the opinion of M. Charnot and his daughter. It was cruel, all the same. Nothing was left for me but to hurry my departure. I got up to go.
"But," said M. Charnot in the smoothest of tones, "I do not think we have yet discussed the question that brought you here."
"I should hesitate, sir, to trespass further on your time."
"Never mind that. Your question concerns?"
"The costume of the Latini Juniani."
"Difficult to answer, like most questions of dress. Have you read the work, in seventeen volumes, by the German, Friedchenhausen?"
"You must have read, at any rate, Smith, the Englishman, on ancient costume?"
"Nor that either. I only know Italian."
"Well, then, look through two or three treatises on numismatics, the 'Thesaurus Morellianus', or the 'Praestantiora Numismata', of Valliant, or Banduri, or Pembrock, or Pellerin. You may chance upon a scent."
"Thank you, thank you, sir!"
He saw me to the door.
As I turned to go I noticed that his daughter was standing motionless still, with the face of an angry Diana. She held between her fingers the recovered spiral.
I found myself in the street.
I could not have been more clumsy, more ill-bred, or more unfortunate. I had come to make an apology and had given further offence. Just like my luck! And the daughter, too—I had hurt her feelings. Still, she had stood up for me; she had said to her father, "Not every one can be in the Institute," evidently meaning, "Why are you torturing this poor young man? He is bashful and ill at ease. I feel sorry for him." Sorry—yes; no doubt she felt sorry for me at first. But then I came out with that impertinence about the twenty-seven copies, and by this time she hates me beyond a doubt. Yes, she hates me. It is too painful to think of.
Mademoiselle Charnot will probably remain but a stranger to me, a fugitive apparition in my path of life; yet her anger lies heavy upon me, and the thought of those disdainful lips pursues me.
I had rarely been more thoroughly disgusted with myself, and with all about me. I needed something to divert me, to distract me, to make me forget, and so I set off for home by the longest way, going down the Rue de Beaune to the Seine.
I declare, we get some perfect winter days in Paris! Just now, the folks who sit indoors believe that the sun is down and have lighted their lamps; but outside, the sky—a pale, rain-washed blue—is streaked with broad rays of rose-pink. It is freezing, and the frost has sprinkled diamonds everywhere, on the trees, the roofs, the parapets, even on the cabmen's hats, that gather each a sparkling cockade as they pass along through the mist. The river is running in waves, white-capped here and there. On the penny steamers no one but the helmsman is visible. But what a crowd on the Pont de Carrousel! Fur cuffs and collars pass and repass on the pavements; the roadway trembles beneath the endless line of Batignolles—Clichy omnibuses and other vehicles. Every one seems in a hurry. The pedestrians are brisk, the drivers dexterous. Two lines of traffic meet, mingle without jostling, divide again into fresh lines and are gone like a column of smoke. Although slips are common in this crowd, its intelligent agility is all its own. Every face is ruddy, and almost all are young. The number of young men, young maidens, young wives, is beyond belief, Where are the aged? At home, no doubt, by the chimney-corner. All the city's youth is out of doors.
Its step is animated; that is the way of it. It is wide-eyed, and in its eyes is the sparkle of life. The looks of the young are always full of the future; they are sure of life. Each has settled his position, his career, his dream of commonplace well-being. They are all alike; and they might all be judges, so serious they appear about it. They walk in pairs, bolt upright, looking neither right nor left, talking little as they hurry along toward the old Louvre, and are soon swallowed out of sight in the gathering mist, out of which the gaslights glimmer faintly.
They are all on their way to dine on the right bank.
I am going to dine on the left bank, at Carre's, where one sees many odd customers. Farewell, river! Good night, old Charnot! Blessings on you, Mademoiselle Jeanne!
CHAPTER IV. THE STORY OF SYLVESTRE
I am back in my study. It is very cold; Madame Menin, my housekeeper, has let the fire out. Hallo! she has left her duster, too, lying on the manuscript of my essay.
Is it an omen, a presage of that dust which awaits my still unfinished work? Who can fathom Dame Fortune's ironic humor?
Eight o'clock.... Counsellor Mouillard has finished his pleadings and must be sitting down to a game of whist with Counsellors Horlet and Hublette, of the Court of Bourges. They wait for me to make up the four. Perish the awful prospect!
And M. Charnot? He, I suppose, is still spinning the paper spiral. How easily serious people are amused! Perhaps I am a serious person. The least thing amuses me. By the way, is Mademoiselle Jeanne fair or dark? Let me try to recollect. Why, fair, of course. I remember the glint of gold in the little curls about her temples, as she stood by the lamp. A pleasant face, too; not exactly classic, but rosy and frank; and then she has that animation which so many pretty women lack.
Madame Menin has forgotten something else. She has forgotten to shut my window. She has designs upon my life!
I have just shut the window. The night is calm, its stars twinkling through a haze. The year ends mournfully.
I remember at school once waking suddenly on such a night as this, to find the moonlight streaming into my eyes. At such a moment it is always a little hard to collect one's scattered senses, and take in the midnight world around, so unhomely, so absolutely still. First I cast my eyes along the two rows of beds that stretched away down the dormitory—two parallel lines in long perspective; my comrades huddled under their blankets in shapeless masses, gray or white according as they lay near or far from the windows; the smoky glimmer of the oil lamp half-way down the room; and at the end, in the deeper shadows, the enclosure of yellow curtains surrounding the usher's bed.
Not a sound about me; all was still. But without, my ear, excited and almost feverishly awake, caught the sound of a strange call, very sweet, again and again repeated—fugitive notes breathing appeal, tender and troubled. Now they grew quite distant, and I heard no more than a phantom of sound; now they came near, passed over my head, and faded again into the distance. The moon's clear rays invited me to clear up the mystery. I sprang from my bed, and ran in my nightshirt to open the window. It was about eleven o'clock. Together the keen night-air and the moonlight wrapped me round, thrilling me with delight. The large courtyard lay deserted with its leafless poplars and spiked railings. Here and there a grain of sand sparkled. I raised my eyes, and from one constellation to another I sought the deep blue of heaven in vain; not a shadow upon it, not one dark wing outlined. Yet all the while the same sad and gentle cry wandered and was lost in air, the chant of an invisible soul which seemed in want of me, and had perhaps awakened me.
The thought came upon me that it was the soul of my mother calling to me—my mother, whose voice was soft and very musical.
"I am caring for thee," said the voice. "I am caring for thee; I can see thee," it said, "I can see thee. I love thee! I love thee!"
"Reveal thyself!" I called back. "Oh, mother, reveal thyself!" And I strove feverishly to catch sight of her, following the voice as it swept around in circles; and seeing nothing, I burst into tears.
Suddenly I was seized roughly by the ear.
"What are you doing here, you young rascal? Are you mad? The wind is blowing right on to my bed. Five hundred lines!"
The usher, in nightdress and slippers, was rolling his angry eyes on me.
"Yes, sir; certainly, sir! But don't you hear her?"
"Who is it?"
He looked to see whether I were awake; cocked his head to one side and listened; then shut the window angrily and went off shrugging his shoulders.
"It's only the plovers flying about the moon," said he. "Five hundred lines!"
I did my five hundred lines. They taught me that dreaming was illegal and dangerous, but they neither convinced nor cured me.
I still believe that there are scattered up and down in nature voices that speak, but which few hear; just as there are millions of flowers that bloom unseen by man. It is sad for those who catch a hint of it. Perforce they come back and seek the hidden springs. They waste their youth and vigor upon empty dreams, and in return for the fleeting glimpses they have enjoyed, for the perfect phrase half caught and lost again, will have given up the intercourse of their kind, and even friendship itself. Yes, it is sad for the schoolboys who open their windows to gaze at the moon, and never drop the habit! They will find themselves, all too soon, solitaries in the midst of life, desolate as I am desolate tonight, beside my dead fire.
No friend will come to knock at my door; not one. I have a few comrades to whom I give that name. We do not loathe one another. At need they would help me. But we seldom meet. What should they do here? Dreamers make no confidences; they shrivel up into themselves and are caught away on the four winds of heaven. Politics drive them mad; gossip fails to interest them; the sorrows they create have no remedy save the joys that they invent; they are natural only when alone, and talk well only to themselves.
The only man who can put up with this moody contrariety of mine is Sylvestre Lampron. He is nearly twenty years older than I. That explains his forbearance. Besides, between an artist like him and a dreamer like myself there is only the difference of handiwork. He translates his dreams. I waste mine; but both dream. Dear old Lampron! Kindly, stalwart heart! He has withstood that hardening of the moral and physical fibre which comes over so many men as they near their fortieth year. He shows a brave front to work and to life. He is cheerful, with the manly cheerfulness of a noble heart resigned to life's disillusions.
When I enter his home, I nearly always find him sitting before a small ground-glass window in the corner of his studio, bent over some engraving. I have leave to enter at all hours. He is free not to stir from his work. "Good-day," he calls out, without raising his head, without knowing for certain who has come in, and goes on with the engraving he has in hand. I settle down at the end of the room, on the sofa with the faded cover, and, until Lampron deigns to grant me audience, I am free to sleep, or smoke, or turn over the wonderful drawings that lean against the walls. Among them are treasures beyond price; for Lampron is a genius whose only mistake is to live and act with modesty, so that as yet people only say that he has "immense talent." No painter or engraver of repute—and he is both—has served a more conscientious apprenticeship, or sets greater store on thoroughness in his art. His drawing is correct beyond reproach—a little stiff, like the early painters. You can guess from his works his partiality for the old masters—Perugino, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Memling, Holbein—who, though not the masters in fashion, will always be masters in vigor of outline, directness, in simple grace, and genuine feeling. He has copied in oils, water-colors, pen, or pencil, nearly all the pictures of these masters in the Louvre, in Germany, in Holland, and especially in Italy, where he lived for many years. With tastes such as his came the habit, or rather the fixed determination, never to paint or engrave any but sacred subjects. Puffs and cliques are his abomination. His ideal is the archaic rendered by modern methods. An artist of this type can but obtain the half-grudging esteem of his own profession, and of the few critics who really understand something about art. Gladly, and with absolute disdain, he leaves to others the applause of the mob, the gilded patronage of American purchasers, and the right to wear lace cuffs. In short, in an age when the artist is often half a manufacturer and half a charlatan, he is an artist only.
Now and then he is rich, but never for long. Half of his earnings goes in alms; half into the pockets of his mendicant brethren. They hear the gold jingle before it is counted, and run with outstretched palms. Each is in the depths of misfortune; on the eve of ascending the fatal slope; lost, unless the helpful hand of Lampron will provide, saved if he will lend wherewithal to buy a block of marble, to pay a model, to dine that evening. He lends—I should say gives; the words mean the same in many societies. Of all that he has gained, fame alone remains, and even this he tries to do without—modest, retiring, shunning all entertainments. I believe he would often be without the wherewithal to live were it not for his mother, whom he supports, and who does him the kindness to need something to live on. Madame Lampron does not hoard; she only fills the place of those dams of cut turf which the peasants build in the channels of the Berry in spring; the water passes over them, beneath them, even through them, but still a little is left for the great droughts.
I love my friend Lampron, though fully aware of his superiority. His energy sets me up, his advice strengthens me, he peoples for me the vast solitude of Paris.
Suppose I go to see him? A lonely watch to-night would be gloomier than usual. The death of the year brings gloomy thoughts, the thirty-first of December, St. Sylvester's day—St. Sylvester! Why, that is his birthday! Ungrateful friend, to give no thought to it! Quick! my coat, my stick, my hat, and let me run to see these two early birds before they seek their roost.
When I entered the studio, Lampron was so deep in his work that he did not hear me. The large room, lighted only in one corner, looked weird enough. Around me, and among the medley of pictures and casts and the piles of canvases stacked against the wall, the eye encountered only a series of cinder-gray tints and undetermined outlines casting long amorphous shadows half-way across the ceiling. A draped lay figure leaning against a door seemed to listen to the whistling of the wind outside; a large glass bay opened upon the night. Nothing was alive in this part of the room, nothing alight except a few rare glints upon the gold of the frames, and the blades of two crossed swords. Only in a corner, at the far end, at a distance exaggerated by the shadows, sat Lampron engraving, solitary, motionless, beneath the light of a lamp. His back was toward me. The lamp's rays threw a strong light on his delicate hand, on the workmanlike pose of his head, which it surrounded with a nimbus, and on a painting—a woman's head—which he was copying. He looked superb like that, and I thought how doubly tempted Rembrandt would have been by the deep significance as well as by the chiaroscuro of this interior.
I stamped my foot. Lampron started, and turned half around, narrowing his eyes as he peered into the darkness.
"Ah, it's you," he said. He rose and came quickly toward me, as if to prevent me from approaching the table.
"You don't wish me to look?"
He hesitated a moment.
"After all, why not?" he answered.
The copper plate was hardly marked with a few touches of the needle. He turned the reflector so as to throw all its rays upon the painting.
"O Lampron, what a charming head!"
It was indeed a lovely head; an Italian girl, three quarter face, painted after the manner of Leonardo, with firm but delicate touches, and lights and shades of infinite subtlety, and possessing, like all that master's portraits of women, a straightforward look that responds to the gazer's, but which he seeks to interrogate in vain. The hair, brown with golden lights, was dressed in smooth plaits above the temples. The neck, 1351 somewhat long, emerged from a dark robe broadly indicated.
"I do not know this, Sylvestre?"
"No, it's an old thing."
"A portrait, of course?"
"You never did better; line, color, life, you have got them all."
"You need not tell me that! In one's young days, look you, there are moments of real inspiration, when some one whispers in the ear and guides the hand; a lightness of touch, the happy audacity of the beginner, a wealth of daring never met with again. Would you believe that I have tried ten times to reproduce that in etching without success?"
"Why do you try?"
"Yes, that is the question. Why? It's a bit foolish."
"You never could find such a model again; that is one reason."
"Ah, no, you are right. I never could find her again."
"An Italian of rank? a princess, eh?"
"Something like it."
"What has become of her?"
"Ah, no doubt what becomes of all princesses. Fabien, my young friend, you who still see life through fairy-tales, doubtless you imagine her happy in her lot—wealthy, spoiled, flattered, speaking with disdainful lips at nightfall, on the terrace of her villa among the great pines, of the barbarian from across the Alps who painted her portrait twenty years since; and, in the same sentence, of her—last new frock from Paris?"
"Yes, I see her so—still beautiful."
"You are good at guessing, Fabien. She is dead, my friend, and that ideal beauty is now a few white bones at the bottom of a grave."
Sylvestre had used a sarcastic tone which was not usual with him. He was contemplating his work with such genuine sadness that I was awed. I divined that in his past, of which I knew but little, Lampron kept a sorrow buried that I had all unwittingly revived.
"My friend," said I, "let that be; I come to wish you many happy returns."
"Many happy returns? Ah, yes, my poor mother wished me that this morning; then I set to work and forgot all about it. I am glad you came. She would feel hurt, dear soul, if I forgot to pass a bit of this evening with her. Let us go and find her."
"With all my heart, Sylvestre, but I, too, have forgotten something."
"I have brought no flowers."
"Never mind, she has plenty; strong-scented flowers of the south, a whole basketful, enough to keep a hive of bees or kill a man in his sleep, which you will. It is a yearly attention from an unhappy creditor."
"Debtor, you mean."
"I mean what I say—a creditor."
He lifted the lamp. The shadows shifted and ran along the walls like huge spiders, the crossed swords flashed, the Venus of Milo threw us a lofty glance, Polyhymnia stood forth pensive and sank back into shadow. At the door I took the draped lay figure in my arms. "Excuse me," I said as I moved it—and we left the studio for Madame Lampron's little sitting-room.
She was seated near a small round table, knitting socks, her feet on a hot-water bottle. Her kind old rough and wrinkled face beamed upon us. She thrust her needles under the black lace cap she always wore, and drew them out again almost immediately.
"It needed your presence, Monsieur Mouillard," said she, "to drag him from his work."
"Saint Sylvester's day, too. It is fearful! Love for his art has changed your son's nature, Madame Lampron."
She gave him a tender look, as on entering the room he bent over the fire and shook out his half-smoked pipe against the bars, a thing he never failed to do the moment he entered his mother's room.
"Dear child!" said she.
Then turning to me:
"You are a good friend, Monsieur Fabien. Never have we celebrated a Saint Sylvester without you since you came to Paris."
"Yet this evening, Madame, I have failed in my traditions, I have no flowers. But Sylvestre tells me that you have just received flowers from the south, from an unfortunate creditor."
My words produced an unusual effect upon her. She, who never stopped knitting to talk or to listen, laid her work upon her knees, and fixed her eyes upon me, filled with anxiety.
"Has he told you?"
Lampron who was poking the fire, his slippered feet stretched out toward the hearth, turned his head.
"No, mother, I merely told him that we had received a basket of flowers. Not much to confide. Yet why should he not know all? Surely he is our friend enough to know all. He should have known it long since were it not cruel to share between three a burden that two can well bear."
She made no answer, and began again to twist the wool between her needles, but nervously and as if her thoughts were sad.
To change the conversation I told them the story of my twofold mishap at the National Library and at M. Charnot's. I tried to be funny, and fancied I succeeded. The old lady smiled faintly. Lampron remained grave, and tossed his head impatiently. I summed my story thus:
"Net gain: two enemies, one of them charming."
"Oh, enemies!" said Sylvestre, "they spring up like weeds. One can not prevent them, and great sorrows do not come from them. Still, beware of charming enemies."
"She hates me, I swear. If you could have seen her!"
"Me? She is nothing to me."
"Are you sure?"
He put the question gravely, without looking in my face, as he twisted a paper spill.
"What is the matter with you to-day, misanthrope? I assure you that she is absolutely indifferent to me. But even were it otherwise, Sylvestre, where would be the wrong?"
"Wrong? No wrong at all; but I should be anxious for you; I should be afraid. See here, my friend. I know you well. You are a born man of letters, a dreamer, an artist in your way. You have to help you on entering the redoubtable lists of love neither foresight, nor a cool head, nor determination. You are guided solely by your impressions; by them you rise or fall. You are no more than a child."
"I quite agree. What next?"
"What next?" He had risen, and was speaking with unusual vehemence. "I once knew some one like you, whose first passion, rash, but deep as yours would be, broke his heart forever. The heart, my friend, is liable to break, and can not be mended like china."
Lampron's mother interrupted him afresh, reproachfully.
"He came to wish you a happy birthday, my child."
"One day, mother, is as good as another to listen to good advice. Besides, I am only talking of one of my friends. 'Tis but a short story, Fabien, and instructive. I will give it you in very few words. My friend was very young and enthusiastic. He was on his way through the galleries of Italy, brush in hand, his heart full of the ceaseless song of youth in holiday. The world never had played him false, nor balked him. He made the future bend to the fancy of his dreams. He seldom descended among common men from those loftier realms where the contemplation of endless masterpieces kept his spirit as on wings. He admired, copied, filled his soul with the glowing beauty of Italian landscape and Italian art. But one day, without reflection, without knowledge, without foresight, he was rash enough to fall in love with a girl of noble birth whose portrait he was painting; to speak to her and to win her love. He thought then, in the silly innocence of his youth, that art abridges all distance and that love effaces it. Crueller nonsense never was uttered, my poor Fabien. He soon found this; he tried to struggle against the parent's denial, against himself, against her, powerless in all alike, beaten at every point.... The end was—Do you care to learn the end? The girl was carried off, struck down by a brief illness, soon dead; the man, hurled out of heaven, bruised, a fugitive also, is still so weak in presence of his sorrow that even after these long years he can not think of it without weeping."
Lampron actually was weeping, he who was so seldom moved. Down his brown beard, tinged already with gray, a tear was trickling. I noticed that Madame Lampron was stooping lower and lower over her needles. He went on:
"I have kept the portrait, the one you saw, Fabien. They would like to have it over yonder. They are old folk by now. Every year they ask me for this relic of our common sorrow; every year they send me, about this time a basket of white flowers, chiefly lilacs, the dead girl's flower, and their meaning is, 'Give up to us what is left of her, the masterpiece built up of your youth and hers.' But I am selfish, Fabien. I, like them, am jealous of all the sorrows this portrait recalls to me, and I deny them. Come, mother, where are the flowers? I have promised Fabien to show them to him."
But his old mother could not answer. Having no doubt bewept this sorrow too often to find fresh tears, her eyes followed her son with restless compassion. He, beside the window, was hunting among the chairs and lounges crowded in this corner of the little sitting-room.
He brought us a box of white wood. "See," said he, "'tis my wedding bouquet."
And he emptied it on the table. Parma violets, lilacs, white camellias and moss rolled out in slightly faded bunches, spreading a sweet smell in which there breathed already a vague scent of death and corruption. A violet fell on my knees. I picked it up.
He looked for a moment at the heap on the table.
"I keep none," said he: "I have too many reminders without them. Cursed flowers!"
With one motion of his arm he swept them all up and cast them upon the coals in the hearth. They shrivelled, crackled, grew limp and discolored, and vanished in smoke.
"Now I am going back to my etching. Good-by, Fabien. Good-night, mother."
Without turning his head, he left the room and went back to his studio.
I made a movement to follow him and bring him back.
Madame Lampron stopped me. "I will go myself," said she, "later—much later."
We sat awhile in silence. When she saw me somewhat recovered from the shock of my feelings she went on:
"You never have seen him like this, but I have seen it often. It is so hard! I knew her whom he loved almost as soon as he, for he never hid anything from me. You can judge from her portrait whether hers was not the face to attract an artist like Sylvestre. I saw at once that it was a trial, in which I could do nothing. They were very great people; different from us, you know."
"They refused to let them marry?"
"Oh, no! Sylvestre did not ask; they never had the opportunity of refusing. No, no; it was I. I said to him: 'Sylvestre, this can never be-never!' He was convinced against his will. Then she spoke to her parents on her own account. They carried her off, and there was an end of it."
"He never saw her again."
"Never; he would not have wished it; and then she lived a very little time. I went back there two years later, when they wanted to buy the picture. We were still living in Italy. That was one of the hardest hours of my life. I was afraid of their reproaches, and I did not feel sure of myself. But no, they suffered for their daughter as I for my son, and that brought us together. Still, I did not give up the portrait; Sylvestre set too great store by it. He insists on keeping it, feeding his eyes on it, reopening his wound day by day. Poor child! Forget all this, Monsieur Fabien; you can do nothing to help. Be true to your youth, and tell us next time of Monsieur Charnot and Mademoiselle Jeanne."
Dear Madame Lampron! I tried to console her; but as I never knew my mother, I could find but little to say. All the same, she thanked me and assured me I had done her good.
CHAPTER V. A FRUITLESS SEARCH
January 1, 1885.
The first of January! When one is not yet an uncle and no longer a godson, if one is in no government employ and goes out very little, the number of one's calls on New Year's Day is limited. I shall make five or six this afternoon. It will be "Not at home" in each case; and that will be all my compliments of the season.
No, I am wrong. I have received the compliments of the season. My porter's wife came up just now, wreathed in smiles.
"Monsieur Mouillard, I wish you a Happy New Year, good health, and Heaven to end your days." She had just said the same to the tenants on the first, second, and third floors. My answer was the same as theirs. I slipped into her palm (with a "Many thanks!" of which she took no notice) a piece of gold, which brought another smile, a curtsey, and she is gone.
This smile comes only once a year; it is not reproduced at any other period, but is a dividend payable in one instalment. This, and a tear on All Souls' Day, when she has been to place a bunch of chrysanthemums on her baby's grave, are the only manifestations of sensibility that I have discovered in her. From the second of January to the second of November she is a human creature tied to a bell-rope, with an immovably stolid face and a monosyllabic vocabulary in which politer terms occur but sparsely.
This morning, contrary to her habits, she has brought up by post two letters; one from my Uncle Mouillard (an answer), and the other—I don't recognize the other. Let's open it first: big envelope, ill-written address, Paris postmark. Hallo! a smaller envelope inside, and on it:
ANTOINE AND MARIE PLUMET.
Poor souls! they have no visiting-cards. But kind hearts are more than pasteboard.
Ten months ago little Madame Plumet, then still unmarried, was in a terrible bother. I remember our first meeting, on a March day, at the corner of the Rue du Quatre-Septembre and the Rue Richelieu. I was walking along quickly, with a bundle of papers under my arm, on my way back to the office where I was head clerk. Suddenly a dressmaker's errand-girl set down her great oilcloth-covered box in my way. I nearly went head first over it, and was preparing to walk around it, when the little woman, red with haste and blushes, addressed me. "Excuse me, sir, are you a lawyer?"
"No, Mademoiselle, not yet."
"Perhaps, sir, you know some lawyers?"
"To be sure I do; my master, to begin with, Counsellor Boule. He is quite close, if you care to follow me."
"I am in a terrible hurry, but I can spare a minute or two. Thank you very much, Monsieur."
And thus I found myself escorted by a small dressmaker and a box of fashions. I remember that I walked a little ahead for fear of being seen in such company by a fellow-clerk, which would have damaged my reputation.
We got to the office. Down went the box again. The little dressmaker told me that she was engaged to M. Plumet, frame-maker. She told her tale very clearly; a little money put by, you see, out of ten years' wages; one may be careful and yet be taken in; and, alas! all has been lent to a cousin in the cabinetmaking trade, who wanted to set up shop; and now he refuses to pay up. The dowry is in danger, and the marriage in suspense.
"Do not be alarmed, Mademoiselle; we will summons this atrocious cabinet-maker, and get a judgment against him. We shall not let him go until he has disgorged, and you shall be Madame Plumet."
We kept our word. Less than two months later—thanks to my efforts—the dowry was recovered; the banns were put up; and the little dressmaker paid a second visit to the office, this time with M. Plumet, who was even more embarrassed than she.
"See, Antoine! this is Monsieur Mouillard, who undertook our case! Thank you again and again, Monsieur Mouillard, you really have been too kind! What do I owe you for your trouble?"
"You must ask my master what his fees come to, Mademoiselle."
"Yes, but you? What can I do for you?"
The whole office, from the messenger to the clerk who came next to me, had their eyes upon me. I rose to the occasion, and in my uncle's best manner I replied:
"Be happy, Mademoiselle, and remember me."
We laughed over it for a week.
She has done better, she has remembered it after eight months. But she has not given her address. That is a pity. I should have liked to see them both again. These young married folk are like the birds; you hear their song, but that does not tell you the whereabouts of their nest.
Now, uncle, it's your turn.
Here it is again, your unfailing letter anticipated, like the return of the comets, but less difficult to analyze than the weird substance of which comets are composed. Every year I write to you on December 28th, and you answer me on the 31st in time for your letter to reach me on New Year's morning. You are punctual, dear uncle; you are even attentive; there is something affectionate in this precision. But I do not know why your letters leave me unmoved. The eighteen to twenty-five lines of which each is composed are from your head, rather than your heart. Why do you not tell me of my parents, whom you knew; of your daily life; of your old servant Madeleine, who nursed me as a baby; of the Angora cat almost as old as she; of the big garden, so green, so enticing, which you trim with so much care, and which rewards your attention with such luxuriance. It would be so nice, dear uncle, to be a shade more intimate.
Ah, well! let us see what he writes:
"BOURGES, December 31, 1884.
"MY DEAR NEPHEW:
"The approach of the New Year does not find me with the same sentiments with which it leaves you. I make up my yearly accounts from July 31st, so the advent of the 31st of December finds me as indifferent as that of any other day of the said month. Your repinings appear to me the expressions of a dreamer.
"It would, however, not be amiss if you made a start in practical life. You come of a family not addicted to dreaming. Three Mouillards have, if I may say so, adorned the legal profession at Bourges. You will be the fourth.
"As soon as you have taken your doctor's degree-which I presume should not be long—I shall expect you the very next day, or the day after that at the furthest; and I shall place you under my supervision.
"The practice is not falling off, I can assure you. In spite of age, I still possess good eyes and good teeth, the chief qualifications for a lawyer. You will find everything ready and in good order here.
"I am obliged to you for your good wishes, which I entirely reciprocate.
"Your affectionate uncle,
"P. S.—The Lorinet family have been to see me. Mademoiselle Berthe is really quite pretty. They have just inherited 751,351 francs.
"I was employed by them in an action relating thereto."
Yes, my dear uncle, you were employed, according to the formula, "in virtue of these and subsequent engagements," and among the "subsequent engagements" you are kind enough to reckon one between Mademoiselle Berthe Lorinet, spinster, of no occupation, and M. Fabien Mouillard, lawyer. "Fabien Mouillard, lawyer"—that I may perhaps endure, but "Fabien Mouillard, son-in-law of Lorinet," never! One pays too dear for these rich wives. Mademoiselle Berthe is half a foot taller than I, who am moderately tall, and she has breadth in proportion. Moreover, I have heard that her wit is got in proportion. I saw her when she was seventeen, in a short frock of staring blue; she was very thin then, and was escorted by a brother, squeezed inside a schoolboy's suit; they were out for their first walk alone, both red-faced, flurried, shuffling along the sidewalks of Bourges. That was enough. For me she will always wear that look, that frock, that clumsy gait. Recollections, my good uncle, are not unlike instantaneous photographs; and this one is a distinct negative to your designs.
The year is getting on. My essay is growing. The Junian Latin emerges from the fogs of Tiber.
I have had to return to the National Library. My first visits were not made without trepidation. I fancied that the beadle was colder, and that the keepers were shadowing me like a political suspect. I thought it wise to change my side, so now I make out my list of books at the left-hand desk and occupy a seat on the left side of the room.
M. Charnot remains faithful to his post beneath the right-hand inkstand.
I have been watching him. He is usually one of the first to arrive, with nimble, almost springy, step. His hair, which he wears rather long, is always carefully parted in the middle, and he is always freshly shaven. His habit of filling the pockets of his frock-coat with bundles of notes has made that garment swell out at the top into the shape of a basket. He puts on a pair of spectacles mounted in very thin gold, and reads determinedly, very few books it is true, but they are all bound in vellum, and that fixes their date. In his way of turning the leaves there is something sacerdotal. He seems popular with the servants. Some of the keepers worship him. He has very good manners toward every one. Me he avoids. Still I meet him, sometimes in the cloakroom, oftener in the Rue Richelieu on his way to the Seine. He stops, and so do I, near the Fontaine Moliere, to buy chestnuts. We have this taste in common. He buys two sous' worth, I buy one; thus the distinctions of rank are preserved. If he arrives after me, I allow him the first turn to be served; if he is before me, I await my turn with a patience which betokens respect. Yet he never seems to notice it. Once or twice, certainly, I fancied I caught a smile at the corners of his mouth, and a sly twinkle in the corners of his eyes; but these old scholars smile so austerely.
He must have guessed that I wish to meet him. For I can not deny it. I am looking out for an opportunity to repair my clumsy mistake and show myself in a less unfavorable light than I did at that ill-starred visit. And she is the reason why I haunt his path!
Ever since M. Mouillard threatened me with Mademoiselle Berthe Lorinet, the graceful outlines of Mademoiselle Jeanne have haunted me with a persistence to which I have no objection.
It is not because I love her. It does not go as far as that. I am leaving her and leaving Paris forever in a few months. No; the height of my desire is to see her again—in the street, at the theatre, no matter where—to show her by my behavior and, if possible, by my words that I am sorry for the past, and implore her forgiveness. Then there will no longer be a gulf betwixt her and me, I shall be able to meet her without confusion, to invoke her image to put to flight that of Mademoiselle Lorinet without the vision of those disdainful lips to dash me. She will be for me at once the type of Parisian grace and of filial affection. I will carry off her image to the country like the remembered perfume of some rare flower; and if ever I sing 'Hymen Hymnaee'! it shall be with one who recalls her face to me.
I do not think my feelings overpass these bounds. Yet I am not quite sure. I watch for her with a keenness and determination which surprise me, and the disappointment which follows a fruitless search is a shade too lively to accord with cool reason.
After all, perhaps my reason is not cool.
Let me see, I will make up the account of my ventures.
One January afternoon I walked up and down the Rue de l'Universite eight times in succession, from No. 1 to No. 107, and from No. 107 to No. 1. Jeanne did not come out in spite of the brilliancy of the clear winter day.
On the nineteenth of the same month I went to see Andromache, although the classic writers, whom I swear by, are not the writers I most care to hear. I renewed this attempt on the twenty-seventh. Neither on the first nor on the second occasion did I see Mademoiselle Charnot.
And yet if the Institute does not escort its daughters in shoals to applaud Andromache, where on earth does it take them?
Every time I cross the Tuileries Garden I run my eyes over the groups scattered among the chestnut-trees. I see children playing and falling about; nursemaids who leave them crying; mothers who pick them up again; a vagrant guardsman. No Jeanne.
To wind up, yesterday I spent five hours at the Bon Marche.
The spring show was on, one of the great occasions of the year; and I presumed, not without an apparent foundation of reason, that no young or pretty Parisian could fail to be there. When I arrived, about one o'clock, the crowd already filled the vast bazaar. It was not easy to stand against certain currents that set toward the departments consecrated to spring novelties. Adrift like a floating spar I was swept away and driven ashore amid the baby-linen. There it flung me high and dry among the shop-girls, who laughed at the spectacle of an undergraduate shipwrecked among the necessaries of babyhood. I felt shy, and attaching myself to the fortunes of an Englishwoman, who worked her elbows with the vigor of her nation, I was borne around nearly twenty counters. At last, wearied, mazed, dusty as with a long summer walk, I took refuge in the reading-room.
Poor simpleton! I said to myself, you are too early; you might have known that. She can not come with her father before the National Library closes. Even supposing they take an omnibus, they will not get here before a quarter past four.
I had to find something to fill up the somewhat long interval which separated me from that happy moment. I wrote a letter to my Uncle Mouillard, taking seven minutes over the address alone. I had not shown such penmanship since I was nine years old. When the last flourish was completed I looked for a paper; they were all engaged. The directory was free. I took it, and opened it at Ch. I discovered that there were many Charnots in Paris without counting mine: Charnot, grocer; Charnot, upholsterer; Charnot, surgical bandage-maker. I built up a whole family tree for the member of the Institute, choosing, of course, those persons of the name who appeared most worthy to adorn its branches. Of what followed I retain but a vague recollection. I only remember that I felt twice as if some inquisitive individual were looking over my shoulder. The third time I woke up with a start.
"Sir," said a shopwalker, with the utmost politeness, "a gentleman has been waiting three quarters of an hour for the directory. Would you kindly hand it to him if you have quite finished with it?"
It was a quarter to six. I still waited a little while, and then I left, having wasted my day.
O Jeanne! where do you hide yourself? Must I, to meet you, attend mass at St. Germain des Pres? Are you one of those early birds who, before the world is up, are out in the Champs Elysees catching the first rays of the morning, and the country breeze before it is lost in the smoke of Paris? Are you attending lectures at the Sorbonne? Are you learning to sing? and, if so, who is your teacher?
You sing, Jeanne, of course. You remind me of a bird. You have all the quick and easy graces of the skylark. Why should you not have the skylark's voice?
Fabien, you are dropping into poetry!
CHAPTER VI. THE FLOWER-SHOW
For a month I have written nothing in this brown notebook. But to-day there is plenty to put down, and worth the trouble too.
Let me begin with the first shock. This morning, my head crammed with passages from Latin authors, I leaned my brow against the pane of my window which looks on the garden. The garden is not mine, of course, since I live on the fourth floor; but I have a view of the big weeping-willow in the centre, the sanded path that runs around it, and the four walls lined with borders, one of which separates it from the huge premises of the Carmelites. It is an almost deserted garden. The first-floor tenant hardly ever walks there. His son, a schoolboy of seventeen, was there this morning. He stood two feet from the street wall, motionless, with head thrown back, whistling a monotonous air, which seemed to me like a signal. Before him, however, was nothing but the moss on the old wall gleaming like golden lights. People do not whistle to amuse stones nor yet moss. Farther off, on the other side of the street, the windows of the opposite houses stretched away in long straight lines, most of them standing open.
I thought: "The bird is somewhere there. Some small Abigail with her white cap will look out in a moment."
The suspicion was stupid and ill-natured. How rash are our lightest judgments! Suddenly the school-boy took one step forward, swept his hand quickly along the moss as if he were trying to catch a fly, and ran off to his mother triumphant, delighted, beside himself, with an innocent gray lizard on the tips of his fingers.
"I've got him! I've got him! He was basking in the sun and I charmed him!"
"Basking in the sun!" This was a revelation to me. I flung up the window. Yes, it was true. Warmth and light lay everywhere: on the roofs still glistening with last night's showers; across the sky, whose gay blue proclaimed that winter was done. I looked downward and saw what I had not seen before: the willow bursting into bud; the hepatica in flower at the foot of the camellias, which had ceased to bloom; the pear-trees in the Carmelites' garden flushing red as the sap rose within them; and upon the dead trunk of a fig-tree was a blackbird, escaped from the Luxembourg, who, on tiptoe, with throat outstretched, drunk with delight, answered some far-off call that the wind brought to him, singing, as if in woodland depths, the rapturous song of the year's new birth. Then, oh! then, I could contain myself no longer. I ran down the stairs four at a time, cursing Paris and the Junian Latins who had been cheating me of the spring. What! live there cut off from the world which was created for me, tread an artificial earth of stone or asphalt, live with a horizon of chimneys, see only the sky chopped into irregular strips by roofs smirched with smoke, and allow this exquisite spring to fleet by without drinking in her bountiful delight, without renewing in her youthfulness our youth, always a little staled and overcast by winter! No, that can not be; I mean to see the spring.
And I have seen it, in truth, though cut and tied into bouquets, for my aimless steps led me to the Place St. Sulpice, where the flower-sellers were. There were flowers in plenty, but very few people; it was already late. None the less did I enjoy the sight of all the plants arranged by height and kind, from the double hyacinths, dear to hall-porters, to the first carnations, scarcely in bud, whose pink or white tips just peeped from their green sheaths; then the bouquets, bundles of the same kinds and same shades of flowers wrapped up in paper: lilies-of-the-valley, lilacs, forget-me-nots, mignonette, which being grown under glass has guarded its honey from the bees to scent the air here. Everyone had a look of welcome for those exiles. The girls smiled at them without knowing the reason why. The cabdrivers in line along the sidewalk seemed to enjoy their neighborhood. I heard one of them, with a face like a halfripened strawberry, red, with a white nose, say to a comrade, "Hallo, Francis! that smells good, doesn't it!"
I was walking along slowly, looking into every stall, and when I came to the end I turned right about face.
Great Heavens! Not ten feet off! M. Flamaran, M. Charnot, and Mademoiselle Jeanne!
They had stopped before one of the stalls that I had just left. M. Flamaran was carrying under his arm a pot of cineraria, which made his stomach a perfect bower. M. Charnot was stooping, examining a superb pink carnation. Jeanne was hovering undecided between twenty bunches of flowers, bending her pretty head in its spring hat over each in turn.
"Whichever you like; but make up your mind soon; Flamaran is waiting."
A moment more, and the elective affinities carried the day.
"This bunch of mignonette," she said.
I would have wagered on it. She was sure to choose the mignonette—a fair, well-bred, graceful plant like herself. Others choose their camellias and their hyacinths; Jeanne must have something more refined.
She put down her money, caught up the bunch, looked at it for a moment, and held it close to her breast as a mother might hold her child, while all its golden locks drooped over her arm. Then off she ran after her father, who had only changed one carnation for another. They went on toward St. Sulpice—M. Flamaran on the right, M. Charnot in the middle, Jeanne on the left. She brushed past without seeing me. I followed them at a distance. All three were laughing. At what? I can guess; she because she was eighteen, they for joy to be with her. At the end of the marketplace they turned to the left, followed the railings of the church, and bent their steps toward the Rue St. Sulpice, doubtless to take home M. Flamaran, whose cineraria blazed amid the crowd. I was about to turn in the same direction when an omnibus of the Batignolles-Clichy line stopped my way. In an instant I was overwhelmed by the flood of passengers which it poured on the pavements.
"Hallo, you here! How goes it? What are you staring at? My stovepipe? Observe it well, my dear fellow—the latest invention of Leon; the patent ventilating, anti-sudorific, and evaporating hat!"
It was Larive who had just climbed down from the knifeboard.
Every one knows Larive, head clerk in Machin's office. He is to be seen everywhere—a tall, fair man, with little closetrimmed beard, and moustache carefully twisted. He is always perfectly dressed, always in a tall hat and new gloves, full of all the new stories, which he tells as his own. If you believe him, he is at home in all the ministries, whatever party is in power; he has cards for every ball, and tickets for every first night. With all that he never misses a funeral, is a good lawyer, and as solemn when in court as a dozen old mandarins.
"Come, Fabien, will you answer? What are you staring at?"
He turned his head.
"Oh, I see—pretty Mademoiselle Charnot."
"You know her?"
"Of course I do, and her father, too. A pretty little thing!"
I blushed with pleasure.
"Yes, a very pretty little thing; but wants style—dances poorly."
"An admirable defect."
"A little big, too, for her eyes."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Her eyes are a little too small, you understand me?"
"What matters that if they are bright and loving?"
"No matter at all to me; but it seems to have some effect on you. Might you be related?"
"Or connected by marriage?"
"So much the better—eh, my boy? And how's uncle? Still going strong?"
"Yes; and longing to snatch me from this Babylon."
"You mean to succeed him?"
"As long hence as possible."
"I had heard you were not enthusiastic. A small practice, isn't it?"
"Not exactly. A matter of a thousand a year!"
"That's good enough. But in the country, my poor fellow, in the country!"
"It would be the death of you, wouldn't it?"
"In forty-eight hours."
"However did you manage to be born there, Larive? I'm surprised at you."
"So am I. I often think about it. Good-by. I must be off."
I caught him by the hand which he held out to me.
"Larive, tell me where you have met Mademoiselle Charnot?"
"Oh, come!—I see it's serious. My dear fellow, I am so sorry I did not tell you she was perfection. If I had only known!"
"That's not what I asked you. Where have you seen her?"
"In society, of course. Where do you expect me to see young girls except in society? My dear Fabien!"
He went off laughing. When he was about ten yards off he turned, and making a speaking-trumpet of his hands, he shouted through them:
Larive is decidedly an ass. His jokes strike you as funny at first; but there's nothing in him, he's a mere hawker of stale puns; there's nothing but selfishness under his jesting exterior. I have no belief in him. Yet he is an old school friend; the only one of my twenty-eight classmates whose acquaintance I have kept up. Four are dead, twenty-three others are scattered about in obscure country places; lost for want of news, as they say at the private inquiry offices. Larive makes up the twenty-eight. I used to admire him, when we were low in the school, because of his long trousers, his lofty contempt of discipline, and his precocious intimacy with tobacco. I preferred him to the good, well-behaved boys. Whenever we had leave out I used to buy gum-arabic at the druggist's in La Chatre, and break it up with a small hammer at the far end of my room, away from prying eyes. I used there to distribute it into three bags ticketed respectively: "large pieces," "middle-sized pieces," "small pieces." When I returned to school with the three bags in my pocket, I would draw out one or the other to offer them to my friends, according to the importance of the occasion, or the degrees of friendship. Larive always had the big bits, and plenty of them. Yet he was none the more grateful to me, and even did not mind chaffing me about these petty attentions by which he was the gainer. He used to make fun of everything, and I used to look up to him. He still makes fun of everything; but for me the age of gumarabic is past and my faith in Larive is gone.