"What a bitter and violent declamation against the adorning of our temples!" cried the cardinal. "This young priest is most dangerous. Continue, my good father."
And, in his indignation, his Eminence swallowed several mouthfuls of strawberry-cream. Father d'Aigrigny continued.
"'Q.—Is it true that you received in your parsonage, and kept there for some days, an inhabitant of the village, by birth a Swiss, belonging to the Protestant communion? Is it true that not only you did not attempt to convert him to the one Catholic and Apostolic faith, but that you carried so far the neglect of your sacred duties as to inter this heretic in the ground consecrated for the repose of true believers?
"'A.—One of my brethren was houseless. His life had been honest and laborious. In his old age his strength had failed him, and sickness had come at the back of it; almost in a dying state, he had been driven from his humble dwelling by a pitiless landlord, to whom he owed a year's rent. I received the old man in my house, and soothed his last days. The poor creature had toiled and suffered all his life; dying, he uttered no word of bitterness at his hard fate; he recommended his soul to God and piously kissed the crucifix. His pure and simple spirit returned to the bosom of its Creator. I closed his eyes with respect, I buried him, I prayed for him; and, though he died in the Protestant faith, I thought him worthy of a place in consecrated ground.'"
"Worse and worse!" said the cardinal. "This tolerance is monstrous. It is a horrible attack on that maxim of Catholicism: 'Out of the pale of the Church there is no salvation.'"
"And all this is the more serious, my lord," resumed Father d'Aigrigny, "because the mildness, charity, and Christian devotion of Abbe Gabriel have excited, not only in his parish, but in all the surrounding districts, the greatest enthusiasm. The priests of the neighboring parishes have yielded to the general impulse, and it must be confessed that but for his moderation a wide-spread schism would have commenced."
"But what do you hope will result from bringing him here?" said the prelate.
"The position of Abbe Gabriel is complicated; first of all, he is the heir of the Rennepont family."
"But has he not ceded his rights?" asked the cardinal.
"Yes, my lord; and this cession, which was at first informal, has lately, with his free consent, been made perfectly regular in law; for he had sworn, happen what might, to renounce his part of the inheritance in favor of the Society of Jesus. Nevertheless, his Reverence Father Rodin thinks, that if your Eminence, after explaining to Abbe Gabriel that he was about to be recalled by his superiors, were to propose to him some eminent position at Rome, he might be induced to leave France, and we might succeed in arousing within him those sentiments of ambition which are doubtless only sleeping for the present; your Eminence, having observed, very judiciously, that every reformer must be ambitious."
"I approve of this idea," said the cardinal, after a moment's reflection; "with his merit and power of acting on other men, Abbe Gabriel may rise very high, if he is docile; and if he should not be so, it is better for the safety of the Church that he should be at Rome than here—for you know, my good father, we have securities that are unfortunately wanting in France."(36)
After some moments of silence, the cardinal said suddenly to Father d'Aigrigny: "As we were talking of Father Rodin, tell me frankly what you think of him."
"Your Eminence knows his capacity," said Father d'Aigrigny, with a constrained and suspicious air; "our reverend Father-General—"
"Commissioned him to take your place," said the cardinal; "I know that. He told me so at Rome. But what do you think of the character of Father Rodin? Can one have full confidence in him?"
"He has so complete, so original, so secret, and so impenetrable a mind," said Father d'Aigrigny, with hesitation, "that it is difficult to form any certain judgment with respect to him."
"Do you think him ambitious?" said the cardinal, after another moment's pause. "Do you not suppose him capable of having other views than those of the greater glory of his Order?—Come, I have reasons for speaking thus," added the prelate, with emphasis.
"Why," resumed Father d'Aigrigny, not without suspicion, for the game is played cautiously between people of the same craft, "what should your Eminence think of him, either from your own observation, or from the report of the Father-General?"
"I think—that if his apparent devotion to his Order really concealed some after-thought—it would be well to discover it—for, with the influence that he has obtained at Rome (as I have found out), he might one day, and that shortly, become very formidable."
"Well!" cried Father d'Aigrigny, impelled by his jealousy of Rodin; "I am, in this respect, of the same opinion as your Eminence; for I have sometimes perceived in him flashes of ambition, that were as alarming as they were extraordinary—and since I must tell all to your Eminence—"
Father d'Aigrigny was unable to continue; at this moment Mrs. Grivois, who had been knocking at the door, half-opened it, and made a sign to her mistress. The princess answered by bowing her head, and Mrs. Grivois again withdrew. A second afterwards Rodin entered the room.
(36) It is known that, in 1845, the Inquisition, solitary confinement, etc., still existed at Rome.
CHAPTER XVII. RENDERING THE ACCOUNT.
At sight of Rodin, the two prelates and Father d'Aigrigny rose spontaneously, so much were they overawed by the real superiority of this man; their faces, just before contracted with suspicion and jealousy, suddenly brightened up, and seemed to smile on the reverend father with affectionate deference. The princess advanced some steps to meet him.
Rodin, badly dressed as ever, leaving on the soft carpet the muddy track of his clumsy shoes, put his umbrella into one corner, and advanced towards the table—not with his accustomed humility, but with slow step, uplifted head, and steady glance; not only did he feel himself in the midst of his partisans, but he knew that he could rule them all by the power of his intellect.
"We were speaking of your reverence, my dear, good father," said the cardinal, with charming affability.
"Ah!" said Rodin, looking fixedly at the prelate; "and what were you saying?"
"Why," replied the Belgian bishop, wiping his forehead, "all the good that can be said of your reverence."
"Will you not take something, my good father?" said the princess to Rodin, as she pointed to the splendid sideboard.
"Thank you, madame, I have eaten my radish already this morning."
"My secretary, Abbe Berlini, who was present at your repast, was, indeed, much astonished at your reverence's frugality," said the prelate: "it is worthy of an anchorite."
"Suppose we talk of business," said Rodin, abruptly, like a man accustomed to lead and control the discussion.
"We shall always be most happy to hear you," said the prelate. "Your reverence yourself fixed to-day to talk over this great Rennepont affair. It is of such importance, that it was partly the cause of my journey to France; for to support the interests of the glorious Company of Jesus, with which I have the honor of being associated, is to support the interests of Rome itself, and I promised the reverend Father-General that I would place myself entirely at your orders."
"I can only repeat what his Eminence has just said," added the bishop. "We set out from Rome together, and our ideas are just the same."
"Certainly," said Rodin, addressing the cardinal, "your Eminence may serve our cause, and that materially. I will tell you how presently."
Then, addressing the princess, he continued: "I have desired Dr. Baleinier to come here, madame, for it will be well to inform him of certain things."
"He will be admitted as usual," said the princess.
Since Rodin's arrival Father d'Aigrigny had remained silent; he seemed occupied with bitter thoughts, and with some violent internal struggle. At last, half rising, he said to the prelate, in a forced tone of voice: "I will not ask your Eminence to judge between the reverend Father Rodin and myself. Our General has pronounced, and I have obeyed. But, as your Eminence will soon see our superior, I should wish that you would grant me the favor to report faithfully the answers of Father Rodin to one or two questions I am about to put to him."
The prelate bowed. Rodin looked at Father d'Aigrigny with an air of surprise, and said to him, dryly: "The thing is decided. What is the use of questions?"
"Not to justify myself," answered Father d'Aigrigny, "but to place matters in their true light before his Eminence."
"Speak, then; but let us have no useless speeches," said Rodin, drawing out his large silver watch, and looking at it. "By two o'clock I must be at Saint-Sulpice."
"I will be as brief as possible," said Father d'Aigrigny, with repressed resentment. Then, addressing Rodin, he resumed: "When your reverence thought fit to take my place, and to blame, very severely perhaps, the manner in which I had managed the interests confided to my care, I confess honestly that these interests were gravely compromised."
"Compromised?" said Rodin, ironically; "you mean lost. Did you not order me to write to Rome, to bid them renounce all hope?"
"That is true," said Father d'Aigrigny.
"It was then a desperate case, given up by the best doctors," continued Rodin, with irony, "and yet I have undertaken to restore it to life. Go on."
And, plunging both hands into the pockets of his trousers, he looked Father d'Aigrigny full in the face.
"Your reverence blamed me harshly," resumed Father d'Aigrigny, "not for having sought, by every possible means, to recover the property odiously diverted from our society—"
"All your casuists authorize you to do so," said the cardinal; "the texts are clear and positive; you have a right to recover; per fas aut nefas what has been treacherously taken from you."
"And therefore," resumed Father d'Aigrigny, "Father Rodin only reproached me with the military roughness of my means. 'Their violence,' he said, 'was in dangerous opposition to the manners of the age.' Be it so; but first of all, I could not be exposed to any legal proceedings, and, but for one fatal circumstance, success would have crowned the course I had taken, however rough and brutal it may appear. Now, may I ask your reverence what—"
"What I have done more than you?" said Rodin to Father d'Aigrigny, giving way to his impertinent habit of interrupting people; "what I have done better than you?—what step I have taken in the Rennepont affair, since I received it from you in a desperate condition? Is that what you wish to know?"
"Precisely," said Father d'Aigrigny, dryly.
"Well, I confess," resumed Rodin, in a sardonic tone, "just as you did great things, coarse things, turbulent things, I have been doing little, puerile, secret things. Oh, heaven! you cannot imagine what a foolish part I, who passed for a man of enlarged views, have been acting for the last six weeks."
"I should never have allowed myself to address such a reproach to your reverence, however deserved it may appear," said Father d'Aigrigny, with a bitter smile.
"A reproach?" said Rodin, shrugging his shoulders; "a reproach? You shall be the judge. Do you know what I wrote about you, some six weeks ago? Here it is: 'Father d'Aigrigny has excellent qualities. He will be of much service to me'—and from to-morrow I shall employ you very actively, added Rodin, by way of parenthesis—'but he is not great enough to know how to make himself little on occasion.' Do you understand?"
"Not very well," said Father d'Aigrigny, blushing.
"So much the worse for you," answered Rodin; "it only proves that I was right. Well, since I must tell you, I have been wise enough to play the most foolish part for six whole weeks. Yes, I have chatted nonsense with a grisette—have talked of liberty, progress, humanity, emancipation of women, with a young, excited girl; of Napoleon the Great, and all sorts of Bonapartist idolatry, with an old, imbecile soldier; of imperial glory, humiliation of France, hopes in the King of Rome, with a certain marshal of France, who, with a heart full of adoration for the robber of thrones, that was transported to Saint-Helena, has a head as hollow and sonorous as a trumpet, into which you have only to blow some warlike or patriotic notes, and it will flourish away of itself, without knowing why or how. More than all this, I have talked of love affairs with a young tiger. When I told you it was lamentable to see a man of any intelligence descend, as I have done, to all such petty ways of connecting the thousand threads of this dark web, was I not right? Is it not a fine spectacle to see the spider obstinately weaving its net?—to see the ugly little black animal crossing thread upon thread, fastening it here, strengthening it there, and again lengthening it in some other place? You shrug your shoulders in pity; but return two hours after—what will you find? The little black animal eating its fill, and in its web a dozen of the foolish flies, bound so securely, that the little black animal has only to choose the moment of its repast."
As he uttered those words, Rodin smiled strangely; his eyes, gradually half closed, opened to their full width, and seemed to shine more than usual. The Jesuit felt a sort of feverish excitement, which he attributed to the contest in which he had engaged before these eminent personages, who already felt the influence of his original and cutting speech.
Father d'Aigrigny began to regret having entered on the contest. He resumed, however, with ill-repressed irony: "I do not dispute the smallness of your means. I agree with you, they are very puerile—they are even very vulgar. But that is not quite sufficient to give an exalted notion of your merit. May I be allowed to ask—"
"What these means have produced?" resumed Rodin, with an excitement that was not usual with him. "Look into my spider's web, and you will see there the beautiful and insolent young girl, so proud, six weeks ago, of her grace, mind, and audacity—now pale, trembling, mortally wounded at the heart."
"But the act of chivalrous intrepidity of the Indian prince, with which all Paris is ringing," said the princess, "must surely have touched Mdlle. de Cardoville."
"Yes; but I have paralyzed the effect of that stupid and savage devotion, by demonstrating to the young lady that it is not sufficient to kill black panthers to prove one's self a susceptible, delicate, and faithful lover."
"Be it so," said Father d'Aigrigny; "we will admit the fact that Mdlle. de Cardoville is wounded to the heart."
"But what does this prove with regard to the Rennepont affair?" asked the cardinal, with curiosity, as he leaned his elbows on the table.
"There results from it," said Rodin, "that when our most dangerous enemy is mortally wounded, she abandons the battlefield. That is something, I should imagine."
"Indeed," said the princess, "the talents and audacity of Mdlle. de Cardoville would make her the soul of the coalition formed against us."
"Be it so," replied Father d'Aigrigny, obstinately; "she may be no longer formidable in that respect. But the wound in her heart will not prevent her from inheriting."
"Who tells you so?" asked Rodin, coldly, and with assurance. "Do you know why I have taken such pains, first to bring her in contact with Djalma, and then to separate her from him?"
"That is what I ask you," said Father D'Aigrigny; "how can this storm of passion prevent Mdlle. de Cardoville and the prince from inheriting?"
"Is it from the serene, or from the stormy sky, that darts the destroying thunderbolt?" said Rodin, disdainfully. "Be satisfied; I shall know where to place the conductor. As for M. Hardy, the man lived for three things: his workmen, his friend, his mistress. He has been thrice wounded in the heart. I always take aim at the heart; it is legal and sure."
"It is legal, and sure, and praiseworthy," said the bishop; "for, if I understand you rightly, this manufacturer had a concubine; now it is well to make use of an evil passion for the punishment of the wicked."
"True, quite true," added the cardinal; "if they have evil passion for us to make use of it, it is their own fault."
"Our holy Mother Perpetue," said the princess, "took every means to discover this abominable adultery."
"Well, then, M. Hardy is wounded in his dearest affections, I admit," said Father d'Aigrigny, still disputing every inch of ground; "ruined too in his fortune, which will only make him the more eager after this inheritance."
The argument appeared of weight to the two prelates and the princess; all looked at Rodin with anxious curiosity. Instead of answering he walked up to the sideboard, and, contrary to his habits of stoical sobriety, and in spite of his repugnance for wine, he examined the decanters, and said: "What is there in them?"
"Claret and sherry," said the hostess, much astonished at the sudden taste of Rodin, "and—"
The latter took a decanter at hazard, and poured out a glass of Madeira, which he drank off at a draught. Just be fore he had felt a strange kind of shivering; to this had succeeded a sort of weakness. He hoped the wine would revive him.
After wiping his mouth with the back of his dirty hand, he returned to the table, and said to Father d'Aigrigny: "What did you tell me about M. Hardy?"
"That being ruined in fortune, he would be the more eager to obtain this immense inheritance," answered Father d'Aigrigny, inwardly much offended at the imperious tone.
"M. Hardy think of money?" said Rodin, shrugging his shoulders. "He is indifferent to life, plunged in a stupor from which he only starts to burst into tears. Then he speaks with mechanical kindness to those about him. I have placed him in good hands. He begins, however, to be sensible to the attentions shown him, for he is good, excellent, weak; and ii is to this excellence, Father d'Aigrigny, that you must appeal to finish the work in hand."
"I?" said Father d'Aigrigny, much surprised.
"Yes; and then you will find that the result I have obtained is considerable, and—"
Rodin paused, and, pressing his hand to his forehead, said to himself: "It is strange!"
"What is the matter?" said the princess, with interest.
"Nothing, madame," answered Rodin, with a shiver; "it is doubtless the wine I drank; I am not accustomed to it. I feel a slight headache; but it will pass."
"Your eyes are very bloodshot, my good father, said the princess.
"I have looked too closely into my web," answered the Jesuit, with a sinister smile; "and I must look again, to make Father d'Aigrigny, who pretends to be blind, catch a glimpse of my other flies. The two daughters of Marshal Simon, for instance, growing sadder and more dejected every day, at the icy barrier raised between them and their father; and the latter thinking himself one day dishonored if he does this, another if he does that; so that the hero of the Empire has become weaker and more irresolute than a child. What more remains of this impious family? Jacques Rennepont? Ask Morok, to what a state of debasement intemperance has reduced him, and towards what an abyss he is rushing!—There is my occurrence-sheet; you see to what are reduced all the members of this family, who, six weeks ago, had each elements of strength and union! Behold these Renneponts, who, by the will of their heretical ancestor, were to unite their forces to combat and crush our Society!—There was good reason to fear them; but what did I say? That I would act upon their passions. What have I done? I have acted upon their passions. At this hour they are vainly struggling in my web—they are mine—they are mine—"
As he was speaking, Rodin's countenance and voice had undergone a singular alteration; his complexion, generally so cadaverous, had become flushed, but unequally, and in patches; then, strange phenomenon! his eyes grew both more brilliant and more sunken, and his voice sharper and louder. The change in the countenance of Rodin, of which he did not appear to be conscious, was so remarkable, that the other actors in this scene looked at him with a sort of terror.
Deceived as to the cause of this impression, Rodin exclaimed with indignation, in a voice interrupted by deep gaspings for breath: "It is pity for this impious race, that I read upon your faces? Pity for the young girl, who never enters a church, and erects pagan altars in her habitation? Pity for Hardy, the sentimental blasphemer, the philanthropic atheist, who had no chapel in his factory, and dared to blend the names of Socrates, Marcus, Aurelius, and Plato, with our Savior's? Pity for the Indian worshipper of Brahma? Pity for the two sisters, who have never even been baptized? Pity for that brute, Jacques Rennepont? Pity for the stupid imperial soldier, who has Napoleon for his god, and the bulletins of the Grand Army for his gospel? Pity for this family of renegades, whose ancestor, a relapsed heretic, not content with robbing us of our property, excites from his tomb, at the end of a century and a half, his cursed race to lift their heads against us? What! to defend ourselves from these vipers, we shall not have the right to crush them in their own venom?—I tell you, that it is to serve heaven, and to give a salutary example to the world, to devote, by unchaining their own passions, this impious family to grief and despair and death!"
As he spoke thus, Rodin was dreadful in his ferocity; the fire of his eyes became still more brilliant; his lips were dry and burning, a cold sweat bathed his temples, which could be seen throbbing; an icy shudder ran through his frame. Attributing these symptoms to fatigue from writing through a portion of the night, and wishing to avoid fainting, he went to the sideboard, filled another glass with wine, which he drank off at a draught, and returned as the cardinal said to him: "If your course with regard to this family needed justification, my good father, your last word would have victoriously justified it. Not only are you right, according to your own casuists, but there is nothing in your proceedings contrary to human laws. As for the divine law, it is pleasing to the Lord to destroy impiety with its own weapons."
Conquered, as well as the others, by Rodin's diabolical assurance, and brought back to a kind of fearful admiration, Father d'Aigrigny said to him: "I confess I was wrong in doubting the judgment of your reverence. Deceived by the appearance of the means employed, I could not judge of their connection, and above all, of their results. I now see, that, thanks to you, success is no longer doubtful."
"This is an exaggeration," replied Rodin, with feverish impatience; "all these passions are at work, but the moment is critical. As the alchemist bends over the crucible, which may give him either treasures or sudden death—I alone at this moment—"
Rodin did not finish the sentence. He pressed both his hands to his forehead, with a stifled cry of pain.
"What is the matter?" said Father d'Aigrigny. "For some moments you have been growing fearfully pale."
"I do not know 'what is the matter," said Rodin, in an altered voice; "my headache increases—I am seized with a sort of giddiness."
"Sit down," said the princess, with interest.
"Take something," said the bishop.
"It will be nothing," said Rodin, with an effort; "I am no milksop, thank heaven!—I had little sleep last night; it is fatigue—nothing more. I was saying, that I alone could now direct this affair: but I cannot execute the plan myself. I must keep out of the way, and watch in the shade: I must hold the threads, which I alone can manage," added Rodin, in a faint voice.
"My good father," said the cardinal uneasily, "I assure you that you are very unwell. Your paleness is becoming livid."
"It is possible," answered Rodin, courageously; "but I am not to be so soon conquered. To return to our affair—this is the time, in which your qualities, Father d'Aigrigny, will turn to good account. I have never denied them, and they may now be of the greatest use. You have the power of charming—grace—eloquence—you must—"
Rodin paused again. A cold sweat poured from his forehead. He felt his legs give way under him, notwithstanding his obstinate energy.
"I confess, I am not well," he said; "yet, this morning, I was as well as ever. I shiver. I am icy cold."
"Draw near the fire—it is a sudden indisposition," said the bishop, offering his arm with heroic devotion; "it will not be anything of consequence."
"If you were to take something warm, a cup of tea," said the princess; "Dr. Baleinier will be here directly—he will reassure us as to this—indisposition."
"It is really inexplicable," said the prelate.
At these words of the cardinal, Rodin, who had advanced with difficulty towards the fire, turned his eyes upon the prelate, and looked at him fixedly in a strange manner, for about a second; then, strong in his unconquerable energy, notwithstanding the change in his features, which were now visibly disfigured, Rodin said, in a broken voice, which he tried to make firm: "The fire has warmed me; it will be nothing. I have no time to coddle myself. It would be a pretty thing to fall ill just as the Rennepont affair can only succeed by my exertions! Let us return to business. I told you, Father d'Aigrigny, that you might serve us a good deal; and you also, princess, who have espoused this cause as if it were your own—"
Rodin again paused. This time he uttered a piercing cry, sank upon a chair placed near him, and throwing himself back convulsively, he pressed his hands to his chest, and exclaimed: "Oh! what pain!"
Then (dreadful sight!) a cadaverous decomposition, rapid as thought, took place in Rodin's features. His hollow eyes were filled with blood, and seemed to shrink back in their orbits, which formed, as it were, two dark holes, in the centre of which blazed points of fire; nervous convulsions drew the flabby, damp, and icy skin tight over the bony prominences of the face, which was becoming rapidly green. From the lips, writhing with pain, issued the struggling breath, mingled with the words: "Oh! I suffer! I burn!"
Then, yielding to a transport of fury. Rodin tore with his nails his naked chest, for he had twisted off the buttons of his waistcoat, and rent his black and filthy shirt-front, as if the pressure of those garments augmented the violence of the pain under which he was writhing. The bishop, the cardinal, and Father d'Aigrigny, hastily approached Rodin, to try and hold him; he was seized with horrible convulsions; but, suddenly, collecting all his strength, he rose upon his feet stiff as a corpse. Then, with his garments in disorder, his thin, gray hair standing up all around his greenish face, fixing his red and flaming eyes upon the cardinal, he seized him with convulsive grasp, and exclaimed in a terrible voice, half stifled in his throat: "Cardinal Malipieri—this illness is too sudden—they suspect me at Rome—you are of the race of the Borgias—and your secretary was with me this morning!"
"Unhappy man! what does he dare insinuate?" cried the prelate, as amazed as he was indignant at the accusation. So saying, the cardinal strove to free himself from the grasp of Rodin, whose fingers were now as stiff as iron.
"I am poisoned!" muttered Rodin, and sinking back, he fell into the arms of Father d'Aigrigny.
Notwithstanding his alarm, the cardinal had time to whisper to the latter: "He thinks himself poisoned. He must therefore be plotting something very dangerous."
The door of the room opened. It was Dr. Baleinier.
"Oh, doctor!" cried the princess, as she ran pale and frightened towards him; "Father Rodin has been suddenly attacked with terrible convulsions. Quick! quick!"
"Convulsions? oh! it will be nothing, madame," said the doctor, throwing down his hat upon a chair, and hastily approaching the group which surrounded the sick man.
"Here is the doctor!" cried the princess. All stepped aside, except Father d'Aigrigny, who continued to support Rodin, leaning against a chair.
"Heavens! what symptoms!" cried Dr. Baleinier, examining with growing terror the countenance of Rodin, which from green was turning blue.
"What is it?" asked all the spectators, with one voice.
"What is it?" repeated the doctor, drawing back as if he had trodden upon a serpent. "It is the cholera! and contagious!"
On this frightful, magic word, Father d'Aigrigny abandoned his hold of Rodin, who rolled upon the floor.
"He is lost!" cried Dr. Baleinier. "But I will run to fetch the means for a last effort." And he rushed towards the door.
The Princess de Saint-Dizier, Father d'Aigrigny, the bishop, and the cardinal followed in terror the flight of Dr. Baleinier. They all pressed to the door, which, in their consternation, they could not open. It opened at last but from without—and Gabriel appeared upon the threshold. Gabriel, the type of the true priest, the holy, the evangelical minister, to whom we can never pay enough of respect and ardent sympathy, and tender admiration. His angelic countenance, in its mild serenity, offered a striking contrast of these faces, all disturbed and contracted with terror.
The young priest was nearly thrown down by the fugitives, who rushed through the now open doorway, exclaiming: "Do not go in! he is dying of the cholera. Fly!"
On these words, pushing back the bishop, who, being the last, was trying to force a passage, Gabriel ran towards Rodin, while the prelate succeeded in making his escape. Rodin, stretched upon the carpet, his limbs twisted with fearful cramps, was writhing in the extremity of pain. The violence of his fall had, no doubt, roused him to consciousness, for he moaned, in a sepulchral voice: "They leave me to die—like a dog—the cowards!—Help!—no one—"
And the dying man, rolling on his back with a convulsive movement, turned towards the ceiling a face on which was branded the infernal despair of the damned, as he once more repeated: "No one!—not one!"
His eyes, which suddenly flamed with fury, just then met the large blue eyes of the angelic and mild countenance of Gabriel who, kneeling beside him, said to him, in his soft, grave tones: "I am here, father—to help you, if help be possible—to pray for you, if God calls you to him."
"Gabriel!" murmured Rodin, with failing voice; "forgive me for the evil I have done you—do not leave me—do not—"
Rodin could not finish; he had succeeded in raising himself into a sitting posture; he now uttered a loud cry, and fell back without sense or motion.
The same day it was announced in the evening papers: "The cholera has broken out in Paris. The first case declared itself this day, at half past three, P.M. in the Rue de Babylone, at Saint-Dizier House."
CHAPTER XVIII. THE SQUARE OF NOTRE DAME.
A week had passed since Rodin was seized with the cholera, and its ravages had continually increased. That was an awful time! A funeral pall was spread over Paris, once so gay. And yet, never had the sky been of a more settled, purer blue; never had the sun shone more brilliantly. The inexorable serenity of nature, during the ravages of the deadly scourge, offered a strange and mysterious contrast. The flaunting light of the dazzling sunshine fell full upon the features, contracted by a thousand agonizing fears. Each trembled for himself, or for those dear to him; every countenance was stamped with an expression of feverish astonishment and dread. People walked with rapid steps, as if they would escape from the fate which threatened them; besides, they were in haste to return to their homes, for often they left life, health, happiness, and, two hours later, they found agony, death, and despair.
At every moment, new dismal objects met the view. Sometimes carts passed along, filled with coffins, symmetrically piled; they stopped before every house. Men in black and gray garments were in waiting before the door; they held out their hands, and to some, one coffin was thrown, to some two, frequently three or four, from the same house. It sometimes happened that the store was quickly exhausted, and the cart, which had arrived full, went away empty, whilst many of the dead in the street were still unserved. In nearly every dwelling, upstairs and down, from the roof to the cellar, there was a stunning tapping of hammers: coffins were being nailed down, and so many, so very many were nailed, that sometimes those who worked stopped from sheer fatigue. Then broke forth laments, heart-rending moans, despairing imprecations. They were uttered by those from whom the men in black and gray had taken some one to fill the coffins.
Unceasingly were the coffins filled, and day and night did those men work, but by day more than by night, for, as soon as it was dusk, came a gloomy file of vehicles of all kinds—the usual hearses were not sufficient; but cars, carts, drays, hackney-coaches, and such like, swelled the funeral procession; different to the other conveyances, which entered the streets full and went away empty—these came empty but soon returned full. During that period, the windows of many houses were illuminated, and often the lights remained burning till the morning. It was "the season." These illuminations resembled the gleaming rays which shine in the gay haunts of pleasure; but there were tapers instead of wax candles, and the chanting of prayers for the dead replaced the murmur of the ball-room. In the streets, instead of the facetious transparencies which indicate the costumers, there swung at intervals huge lanterns of a blood-red color, with these words in black letters: "Assistance for those attacked with the cholera." The true places for revelry, during the night, were the churchyards; they ran riot—they, usually so desolate and silent, during the dark, quiet hours, when the cypress trees rustle in the breeze, so lonely, that no human step dared to disturb the solemn silence which reigned there at night, became on a sudden, animated, noisy, riotous, and resplendent with light. By the smoky flames of torches, which threw a red glare upon the dark fir-trees, and the white tombstones, many grave-diggers worked merrily, humming snatches of some favorite tune. Their laborious and hazardous industry then commanded a very high price; they were in such request that it was necessary to humor them. They drank often and much; they sang long and loud; and this to keep up their strength and spirits good, absolute requisites in such an employment. If, by chance, any did not finish the grave they had begun, some obliging comrade finished it for them (fitting expression!), and placed them in it with friendly care.
Other distant sounds responded to the joyous strains of the grave diggers; public-houses had sprung up in the neighborhood of the churchyards, and the drivers of the dead, when they had "set down their customers," as they jocosely expressed themselves, enriched with their unusual gratuities, feasted and made merry like lords; dawn often found them with a glass in their hands, and a jest on their lips; and, strange to say, among these funeral satellites, who breathed the very atmosphere of the disease, the mortality was scarcely perceptible. In the dark, squalid quarters of the town, where, surrounded by infectious exhalations, the indigent population was crowded together, and miserable beings, exhausted by severe privation, were "bespoke" by the cholera, as it was energetically said at the time, not only individuals, but whole families, were carried off in a few hours; and yet, sometimes, oh, merciful Providence! one or two little children were left in the cold and empty room, after the father and mother, brother and sister, had been taken away in their shells.
Frequently, houses which had swarmed with hard working laborers, were obliged to be shut up for want of tenants; in one day, they had been completely cleared by this terrible visitation, from the cellars, where little chimney-sweepers slept upon straw, to the garret, on whose cold brick floor lay stretched some wan and half-naked being, without work and without bread. But, of all the wards of Paris, that which perhaps presented the most frightful spectacle during the progress of the cholera, was the City; and in the City, the square before the cathedral of Notre-Dame was almost every day the theatre of dreadful scenes: for this locality was frequently thronged with those who conveyed the sick from the neighboring streets to the Great Hospital. The cholera had not one aspect, but a thousand. So that one week after Rodin had been suddenly attacked, several events combining the horrible and the grotesque occurred in the square of Notre Dame.
Instead of the Rue d'Arcole, which now leads directly to the square, it was then approached on one side, by a mean, narrow lane, like all the other streets of the City, and terminating in a dark, low archway. Upon entering the square the principal door of the huge Cathedral was to the left of the spectator, and facing him were the Hospital buildings. A little beyond, was an opening which gave to view a portion of the parapet of the Quay Notre-Dame. A placard had been recently stuck on the discolored and sunken wail of the archway; it contained these words, traced in large characters.(37)
"The Working-men carried to the hospitals are poisoned, because the number of patients is too great; every night, Boats filled with corpses, drop down the Seine.
"Vengeance and Death to the murderers of the People!"
Two men, enveloped in cloaks, and half-hidden in the deep shadow of the vault, were listening with anxious curiosity to the threatening murmur, which rose with increasing force from among a tumultuous assembly, grouped around the Hospital. Soon, cries of "Death to the doctors!—Vengeance!" reached the ears of the persons who were in ambush under the arch.
"The posters are working," said one; "the train is on fire. When once the populace is roused, we can set them on whom we please."
"I say," replied the other man, "look over there. That Hercules, whose athletic form towers above the mob, was cue of the most frantic leaders when M. Hardy's factory was destroyed."
"To be sure he was; I know him again. Wherever mischief is to be done, you are sure to find those vagabonds.
"Now, take my advice, do not let us remain under this archway," said the other man; "the wind is as cold as ice, and though I am cased in flannel—"
"You are right, the cholera is confoundedly impolite. Besides, everything is going on well here; I am likewise assured that the whole of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is ready to rise in the republican cause; that will serve our ends, and our holy religion will triumph over revolutionary impiety. Let us rejoin Father d'Aigrigny."
"Where shall we find him?"
"Near here, come—come."
The two hastily disappeared.
The sun, beginning to decline, shed its golden rays upon the blackened sculptures of the porch of Notre-Dame, and upon its two massy towers, rising in imposing majesty against a perfectly blue sky, for during the fast few days, a north-east wind, dry and cold, had driven away the lightest cloud. A considerable number of people, as we have already stated, obstructed the approach to the Hospital; they crowded round the iron railings that protect the front of the building, behind which was stationed a detachment of infantry, the cries of "Death to the doctors!" becoming every moment more threatening. The people who thus vociferated. belonged to an idle, vagabond, and depraved populace—the dregs of the Paris mob; and (terrible spectacle!) the unfortunate beings who were forcibly carried through the midst of these hideous groups entered the Hospital, whilst the air resounded with hoarse clamors, and cries of "Death." Every moment, fresh victims were brought along in litters, and on stretchers; the litters were frequently furnished with coarse curtains, and thus the sick occupants were concealed from the public gaze; but the stretchers, having no covering, the convulsive movements of the dying patients often thrust aside the sheet, and exposed to view their faces, livid as corpses. Far from inspiring with terror the wretches assembled round the Hospital, such spectacles became to them the signal for savage jests, and atrocious predictions upon the fate of these poor creatures, when once in the power of the doctors.
The big blaster and Ciboule, with a good many of their adherents, were among the mob. After the destruction of Hardy's factory, the quarryman was formally expelled from the union of the Wolves, who would have nothing more to do with this wretch; since then, he had plunged into the grossest debauchery, and speculating on his herculean strength, had hired himself as the officious champion of Ciboule and her compeers. With the exception therefore of some chance passengers, the square of Notre-Dame was filled with a ragged crowd, composed of the refuse of the Parisian populace—wretches who call for pity as well as blame; for misery, ignorance, and destitution, beget but too fatally vice and crime. These savages of civilization felt neither pity, improvement, nor terror, at the shocking sights with which they were surrounded; careless of a life which was a daily struggle against hunger, or the allurements of guilt, they braved the pestilence with infernal audacity, or sank under it with blasphemy on their lips.
The tall form of the quarryman was conspicuous amongst the rest; with inflamed eyes and swollen features, he yelled at the top of his voice: "Death to the body-snatchers! they poison the people."
"That is easier than to feed them," added Ciboule. Then, addressing herself to an old man, who was being carried with great difficulty through the dense crowd, upon a chair, by two men, the hag continued: "Hey? don't go in there, old croaker; die here in the open air instead of dying in that den, where you'll be doctored like an old rat."
"Yes," added the quarryman; "and then they'll throw you into the water to feast the fishes, which you won't swallow any more."
At these atrocious cries, the old man looked wildly around, and uttered faint groans. Ciboule wished to stop the persons who were carrying him, and they had much difficulty in getting rid of the hag. The number of cholera-patients arriving increased every moment, and soon neither litters nor stretchers could be obtained, so that they were borne along in the arms of the attendants. Several awful episodes bore witness to the startling rapidity of the infection. Two men were carrying a stretcher covered with a blood-stained sheet; one of them suddenly felt himself attacked with the complaint; he stopped short, his powerless arms let go the stretcher; he turned pale, staggered, fell upon the patient, becoming as livid as him; the other man, struck with terror, fled precipitately, leaving his companion and the dying man in the midst of the crowd. Some drew back in horror, others burst into a savage laugh.
"The horses have taken fright," said the quarryman, "and have left the turn-out in the lurch."
"Help!" cried the dying man, with a despairing accent; "for pity's sake take me in."
"There's no more room in the pit," said one, in a jeering tone.
"And you've no legs left to reach the gallery," added another.
The sick man made an effort to rise; but his strength failed him; he fell back exhausted on the mattress. A sudden movement took place among the crowd, the stretcher was overturned, the old man and his companion were trodden underfoot, and their groans were drowned in the cries of "Death to the body-snatchers!" The yells were renewed with fresh fury, but the ferocious band, who respected nothing in their savage fury, were soon after obliged to open their ranks to several workmen, who vigorously cleared the way for two of their friends carrying in their arms a poor artisan. He was still young, but his heavy and already livid head hung down upon the shoulder of one of them. A little child followed, sobbing, and holding by one of the workmen's coats. The measured and sonorous sound of several drums was now heard at a distance in the winding streets of the city: they were beating the call to arms, for sedition was rife in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. The drummers emerged from under the archway, and were traversing the square, when one of them, a gray-haired veteran, suddenly slackened the rolling of his drum, and stood still: his companions turned round in surprise—he had turned green; his legs gave way, he stammered some unintelligible words, and had fallen upon the pavement before those in the front rank had time to pause. The overwhelming rapidity of this attack startled for a moment the most hardened among the surrounding spectators; for, wondering at the interruption, a part of the crowd had rushed towards the soldiers.
At sight of the dying man, supported in the arms of two of his comrades, one of the individuals, who, concealed under the arch, had watched the beginning of the popular excitement, said to the drummers: "Your comrade drank, perhaps, at some fountain on the road?"
"Yes, sir," replied one; "he was very thirsty; he drank two mouthfuls of water on the Place du Chatelet."
"Then he is poisoned," said the man.
"Poisoned?" cried several voices.
"It is not surprising," replied the man, in a mysterious tone; "poison is thrown into the public fountains; and this very morning a man was massacred in the Rue Beaubourg who was discovered emptying a paper of arsenic into a pot of wine at a public-house."(38)
Having said these words, the man disappeared in the crowd. This report, no less absurd than the tales about the poisoning of the Hospital patients, was received with a general burst of indignation. Five or six ragged beings, regular ruffians, seized the body of the expiring drummer, hoisted it upon their shoulders, in spite of all the efforts of his comrades to prevent them, and paraded the square exhibiting the dismal trophy. Ciboule and the quarryman went before, crying: "Wake way for the corpse! This is how they poison the people!"
A fresh incident now attracted the attention of the crowd. A travelling carriage, which had not been able to pass along the Quai-Napoleon, the pavement of which was up, had ventured among the intricate streets of the city, and now arrived in the square of Notre-Dame on its way to the other side of the Seine. Like many others, its owners were flying from Paris, to escape the pestilence which decimated it. A man-servant and a lady's maid were in the rumble, and they exchanged a glance of alarm as they passed the Hospital, whilst a young man seated in the front part of the carriage let down the glass, and called to the postilions to go slowly, for fear of accident, as the crowd was very dense at that part of the square. This young man was Lord Morinval, and on the back seat were Lord Montbron and his niece, Lady Morinval. The pale and anxious countenance of the young lady showed the alarm which she felt; and Montbron, notwithstanding his firmness of mind, appeared to be very uneasy; he, as well as his niece, frequently had recourse to a smelling-bottle filled with camphor.
During the last few minutes, the carriage had advanced very slowly, the postilions managing their horses with great caution, when a sudden hubbub, at first distant and undefined, but soon more distinct, arose among the throng, as it drew near, the ringing sound of chains and metal, peculiar to the artillery-wagons, was plainly audible, and presently one of these vehicles came towards the travelling-carriage, from the direction of the Quai Notre-Dame. It seemed strange, that though the crowd was so compact, yet at the rapid approach of this wagon, the close ranks of human beings opened as if by enchantment, but the following words which were passed from mouth to mouth soon accounted for the prodigy: "A wagon full of dead! the wagon of the dead!" As we have already stated, the usual funeral conveyances were no longer sufficient for the removal of the corpses; a number of artillery wagons had been put into requisition, and the coffins were hastily piled in these novel hearses.
Many of the spectators regarded this gloomy vehicle with dismay, but the quarryman and his band redoubled their horrible jokes.
"Make way for the omnibus of the departed!" cried Ciboule.
"No danger of having one's toes crushed in that omnibus," said the quarryman.
"Doubtless they're easy to please, the stiff-uns in there."
"They never want to be set down, at all events."
"I say, there's only one reg'lar on duty as postilion!"
"That's true, the leaders are driven by a man in a smock-frock."
"Oh! I daresay the other soldier was tired, lazy fellow! and got into the omnibus with the others—they'll all get out at the same big hole."
"Head foremost, you know."
"Yes, they pitch them head first into a bed of lime."
"Why, one might follow the dead-cart blind-fold, and no mistake. It's worse than Montfaucon knacker-yards!"
"Ha! ha! ha!—it's rather gamey!" said the quarryman, alluding to the infectious and cadaverous odor which this funeral conveyance left behind it.
"Here's sport!" exclaimed Ciboule: "the omnibus of the dead will run against the fine coach. Hurrah! the rich folks will smell death."
Indeed, the wagon was now directly in front of the carriage, and at a very little distance from it. A man in a smock-frock and wooden shoes drove the two leaders, and an artilleryman the other horses. The coffins were so piled up within this wagon, that its semicircular top did not shut down closely, so that, as it jolted heavily over the uneven pavement, the biers could be seen chafing against each other. The fiery eyes and inflamed countenance of the man in the smock-frock showed that he was half intoxicated; urging on the horses with his voice, his heels, and his whip, he paid no attention to the remonstrances of the soldier, who had great difficulty in restraining his own animals, and was obliged to follow the irregular movements of the carman. Advancing in this disorderly manner, the wagon deviated from its course just as it should have passed the travelling-carriage, and ran against it. The shock forced open the top, one of the coffins was thrown out, and, after damaging the panels of the carriage, fell upon the pavement with a dull and heavy sound. The deal planks had been hastily nailed together, and were shivered in the fall, and from the wreck of the coffin rolled a livid corpse, half enveloped in a shroud.
At this horrible spectacle, Lady Morinval, who had mechanically leaned forward, gave a loud scream, and fainted. The crowd fell back in dismay; the postilions, no less alarmed, took advantage of the space left open to them by the retreat of the multitude; they whipped their horses, and the carriage dashed on towards the quay. As it disappeared behind the furthermost buildings of the Hospital, the shrill joyous notes of distant trumpets were heard, and repeated shouts proclaimed: "The Cholera Masquerade!" The words announced one of those episodes combining buffoonery with terror, which marked the period when the pestilence was on the increase, though now they can with difficulty be credited. If the evidence of eyewitnesses did not agree in every particular with the accounts given in the public papers of this masquerade, they might be regarded as the ravings of some diseased brain, and not as the notice of a fact which really occurred.
"The Masquerade of the Cholera" appeared, we say, in the square of Notre Dame, just as Morinval's carriage gained the quay, after disengaging itself from the death-wagon.
(37) It is well-known that at the time of the cholera, such placards were numerous in Paris, and were alternately attributed to opposite parties. Among others, to the priests, many of the bishops having published mandatory letters, or stated openly in the churches of their diocese, that the Almighty had sent the cholera as a punishment to France for having driven away its lawful sovereign, and assimilated the Catholic to other forms of worship.
(38) It is notorious, that at this unhappy period several persons were massacred, under a false accusation of poisoning the fountains, etc.
CHAPTER XIX. THE CHOLERA MASQUERADE.(39)
A stream of people, who preceded the masquerade, made a sudden irruption through the arch into the square, uttering loud cheers as they advanced. Children were also there, blowing horns, whilst some hooted and others hissed.
The quarryman, Ciboule, and their band, attracted by this new spectacle, rushed tumultuously towards the arch. Instead of the two eating-houses, which now (1845) stand on either side of the Rue d'Arcole, there was then only one, situated to the left of the vaulted passage, and much celebrated amongst the joyous community of students, for the excellence both of its cookery and its wines. At the first blare of the trumpets, sounded by the outriders in livery who preceded the masquerade, the windows of the great room of the eating-house were thrown open, and several waiters, with their napkins under their arms, leaned forward, impatient to witness the arrival of the singular guests they were expecting.
At length, the grotesque procession made its appearance in the thick of an immense uproar. The train comprised a chariot, escorted by men and women on horseback, clad in rich and elegant fancy dresses. Most of these maskers belonged to the middle and easy classes of society. The report had spread that masquerade was in preparation, for the purpose of daring the cholera, and, by this joyous demonstration, to revive the courage of the affrighted populace. Immediately, artists, young men about town, students, and so on, responded to the appeal, and though till now unknown one to the other, they easily fraternized together. Many brought their mistresses, to complete the show. A subscription had been opened to defray the expenses, and, that morning, after a splendid breakfast at the other end of Paris, the joyous troop had started bravely on their march, to finish the day by a dinner in the square of Notre Dame.
We say bravely, for it required a singular turn of mind, a rare firmness of character, in young women, to traverse, in this fashion, a great city plunged in consternation and terror—to fall in at every step with litters loaded with the dying, and carriages filled with the dead—to defy, as it were, in a spirit of strange pleasantry, the plague that was detonating the Parisians. It is certain that, in Paris alone, and there only amongst a peculiar class, could such an idea have ever been conceived or realized. Two men, grotesquely disguised as postilions at a funeral, with formidable false noses, rose-colored crape hat-bands and large favors of roses and crape bows at their buttonholes, rode before the vehicle. Upon the platform of the car were groups of allegorical personages, representing WINE, PLEASURE, LOVE, PLAY. The mission of these symbolical beings was, by means of jokes, sarcasms, and mockeries, to plague the life out of Goodman Cholera, a sort of funeral and burlesque Cassander, whom they ridiculed and made game of in a hundred ways. The moral of the play was this: "To brave Cholera in security, let us drink, laugh, game, and make love!"
WINE was represented by a huge, lusty Silenus, thick-set, and with swollen paunch, a crown of ivy on his brow, a panther's skin across his shoulder, and in his hand a large gilt goblet, wreathed with flowers. None other than Ninny Moulin, the famous moral and religious writer, could have exhibited to the astonished and delighted spectators an ear of so deep a scarlet, so majestic an abdomen, and a face of such triumphant and majestic fulness. Every moment, Ninny Moulin appeared to empty his cup—after which he burst out laughing in the face of Goodman Cholera. Goodman Cholera, a cadaverous pantaloon, was half-enveloped in a shroud; his mask of greenish cardboard, with red, hollow eyes, seemed every moment to grin as in mockery of death; from beneath his powdered peruke, surmounted by a pyramidical cotton night-cap, appeared his neck and arm, dyed of a bright green color; his lean hand, which shook almost always with a feverish trembling (not feigned, but natural), rested upon a crutch-handled cane; finally, as was becoming in a pantaloon, he wore red stockings, with buckles at the knees, and high slippers of black beaver. This grotesque representative of the cholera was Sleepinbuff.
Notwithstanding a slow and dangerous fever, caused by the excessive use of brandy, and by constant debauchery, that was silently undermining his constitution, Jacques Rennepont had been induced by Morok to join the masquerade. The brute-tamer himself, dressed as the King of Diamonds, represented PLAY. His forehead was adorned with a diadem of gilded paper, his face was pale and impassible, and as his long, yellow beard fell down the front of his parti-colored robe, Morok looked exactly the character he personated. From time to time, with an air of grave mockery, he shook close to the eyes of Goodman Cholera a large bag full of sounding counters, and on this bag were painted all sorts of playing cards. A certain stiffness in the right arm showed that the lion-tamer had not yet quite recovered from the effects of the wound which the panther had inflicted before being stabbed by Djalma.
PLEASURE, who also represented Laughter, classically shook her rattle, with its sonorous gilded bells, close to the ears of Goodman Cholera. She was a quick, lively young girl, and her fine black hair was crowned with a scarlet cap of liberty. For Sleepinbuff's sake, she had taken the place of the poor Bacchanal queen, who would not have failed to attend on such an occasion—she, who had been so valiant and gay, when she bore her part in a less philosophical, but not less amusing masquerade. Another pretty creature, Modeste Bornichoux, who served as a model to a painter of renown (one of the cavaliers of the procession), was eminently successful in her representation of LOVE. He could not have had a more charming face, and more graceful form. Clad in a light blue spangled tunic, with a blue and silver band across her chestnut hair, and little transparent wings affixed to her white shoulders, she placed one forefinger upon the other, and pointed with the prettiest impertinence at Goodman Cholera. Around the principal group, other maskers, more or less grotesque in appearance, waved each a banner, an which were inscriptions of a very anacreontic character, considering the circumstances:
"Down with the Cholera!" "Short and sweet!" "Laugh away, laugh always!" "We'll collar the Cholera!" "Love forever!" "Wine forever!" "Come if you dare, old terror!"
There was really such audacious gayety in this masquerade, that the greater number of the spectators, at the moment when it crossed the square, in the direction of the eating-house, where dinner was waiting, applauded it loudly and repeatedly. This sort of admiration, which courage, however mad and blind, almost always inspires, appeared to others (a small number, it must be confessed) a kind of defiance to the wrath of heaven; and these received the procession with angry murmurs. This extraordinary spectacle, and the different impressions it produced, were too remote from all customary facts to admit of a just appreciation. We hardly know if this daring bravado was deserving of praise or blame.
Besides, the appearance of those plagues, which from age to age decimate the population of whole countries, has almost always been accompanied by a sort of mental excitement, which none of those who have been spared by the contagion can hope to escape. It is a strange fever of the mind, which sometimes rouses the most stupid prejudices and the most ferocious passions, and sometimes inspires, on the contrary, the most magnificent devotion, the most courageous actions—with some, driving the fear of death to a point of the wildest terror—with others, exciting the contempt of life to express itself in the most audacious bravadoes. Caring little for the praise or blame it might deserve, the masquerade arrived before the eating-house, and made its entry in the midst of universal acclamations. Everything seemed to combine to give full effect to this strange scene, by the opposition of the most singular contrasts. Thus the tavern, in which was to be held this extraordinary feast, being situated at no great distance from the antique cathedral, and the gloomy hospital, the religious anthems of the ancient temple, the cries of the dying, and the bacchanalian songs of the banqueteers, must needs mingle, and by turns drown one another. The maskers now got down from their chariot, and from their horses, and went to take their places at the repast, which was waiting for them. The actors in the masquerade are at table in the great room of the tavern. They are joyous, noisy, even riotous. Yet their gayety has a strange tone, peculiar to itself.
Sometimes, the most resolute involuntarily remember that their life is at stake in this mad and audacious game with destiny. That fatal thought is rapid as the icy fever-shudder, which chills you in an instant; therefore, from time to time, an abrupt silence, lasting indeed only for a second, betrays these passing emotions which are almost immediately effaced by new bursts of joyful acclamation, for each one says to himself: "No weakness! my chum and my girl are looking at me!"
And all laugh, and knock glasses together, and challenge the next man, and drink out of the glass of the nearest woman. Jacques had taken off the mask and peruke of Goodman Cholera. His thin, leaden features, his deadly paleness, the lurid brilliancy of his hollow eyes, showed the incessant progress of the slow malady which was consuming this unfortunate man, brought by excesses to the last extremity of weakness. Though he felt the slow fire devouring his entrails, he concealed his pain beneath a forced and nervous smile.
To the left of Jacques was Morok, whose fatal influence was ever on the increase, and to his right the girl disguised as PLEASURE. She was named Mariette. By her side sat Ninny Moulin, in all his majestic bulk, who often pretended to be looking for his napkin under the table, in order to have the opportunity of pressing the knees of his other neighbor, Modeste, the representative of LOVE. Most of the guests were grouped according to their several tastes, each tender pair together, and the bachelors where they could. They had reached the second course, and the excellence of the wine, the good cheer, the gay speeches, and even the singularity of the occasion, had raised their spirits to a high degree of excitement, as may be gathered from the extraordinary incidents of the following scene.
(39) We read in the Constitutionnel, Saturday March 31st, 1832: "The Parisians readily conform to that part of the official instructions with regard to the cholera, which prescribes, as a preservation from the disease, not to be afraid, to amuse one's self, etc. The pleasures of Mid-Lent have been as brilliant and as mad as those of the carnival itself. For a long time past there had not been so many balls at this period of the year. Even the cholera has been made the subject of an itinerant caricature."
CHAPTER XX. THE DEFIANCE.
Two or three times, without being remarked by the guests, one of the waiters had come to whisper to his fellows, and point with expressive gesture to the ceiling. But his comrades had taken small account of his observations or fears, not wishing, doubtless, to disturb the guests, whose mad gayety seemed ever on the increase.
"Who can doubt now of the superiority of our manner of treating this impertinent Cholera? Has he dared even to touch our sacred battalion?" said a magnificent mountebank-Turk, one of the standard-bearers of the masquerade.
"Here is all the mystery," answered another. "It is very simple. Only laugh in the face of the plague, and it will run away from you."
"And right enough too, for very stupid work it does," added a pretty little Columbine, emptying her glass.
"You are right, my darling; it is intolerably stupid work," answered the Clown belonging to the Columbine; "here you are very quiet, enjoying life, and all on a sudden you die with an atrocious grimace. Well! what then? Clever, isn't it? I ask you, what does it prove?"
"It proves," replied an illustrious painter of the romantic school, disguised like a Roman out of one of David's pictures, "it proves that the Cholera is a wretched colorist, for he has nothing but a dirty green on his pallet. Evidently he is a pupil of Jacobus, that king of classical painters, who are another species of plagues."
"And yet, master," added respectfully a pupil of the great painter, "I have seen some cholera patients whose convulsions were rather fine, and their dying looks first-rate!"
"Gentlemen," cried a sculptor of no less celebrity, "the question lies in a nutshell. The Cholera is a detestable colorist, but a good draughtsman. He shows you the skeleton in no time. By heaven! how he strips off the flesh!—Michael Angelo would be nothing to him."
"True," cried they all, with one voice; "the Cholera is a bad colorist, but a good draughtsman."
"Moreover, gentlemen," added Ninny Moulin, with comic gravity, "this plague brings with it a providential lesson, as the great Bossuet would have said."
"The lesson! the lesson!"
"Yes, gentlemen; I seem to hear a voice from above, proclaiming: 'Drink of the best, empty your purse, and kiss your neighbor's wife; for your hours are perhaps numbered, unhappy wretch!'"
So saying, the orthodox Silenus took advantage of a momentary absence of mind on the part of Modeste, his neighbor, to imprint on the blooming cheek of LOVE a long, loud kiss. The example was contagious, and a storm of kisses was mingled with bursts of laughter.
"Ha! blood and thunder!" cried the great painter as he gayly threatened Ninny Moulin; "you are very lucky that to-morrow will perhaps be the end of the world, or else I should pick a quarrel with you for having kissed my lovely LOVE."
"Which proves to you, O Rubens! O Raphael! the thousand advantages of the Cholera, whom I declare to be essentially sociable and caressing."
"And philanthropic," said one of the guests; "thanks to him, creditors take care of the health of their debtors. This morning a usurer, who feels a particular interest in my existence, brought me all sorts of anti-choleraic drugs, and begged me to make use of them."
"And I!" said the pupil of the great painter. "My tailor wished to force me to wear a flannel band next to the skin, because I owe him a thousand crowns. But I answered 'Oh, tailor, give me a receipt in full, and I will wrap myself up in flannel, to preserve you my custom!'"
"O Cholera, I drink to thee!" said Ninny Moulin, by way of grotesque invocation. "You are not Despair; on the contrary, you are the emblem of Hope—yes, of hope. How many husbands, how many wives, longed for a number (alas! too uncertain chance) in the lottery of widowhood! You appear, and their hearts are gladdened. Thanks to you, benevolent pest! their chances of liberty are increased a hundredfold."
"And how grateful heirs ought to be! A cold—a heat—a trifle—and there, in an hour, some old uncle becomes a revered benefactor!"
"And those who are always looking out for other people's places—what an ally they must find in the Cholera!"
"And how true it will make many vows of constancy!" said Modeste, sentimentally. "How many villains have sworn to a poor, weak woman, to love her all their lives, who never meant (the wretches!) to keep their word so well!"
"Gentlemen," cried Ninny Moulin, "since we are now, perhaps, at the eve of the end of the world, as yonder celebrated painter has expressed it, I propose to play the world topsy-turvy: I beg these ladies to make advances to us, to tease us, to excite us, to steal kisses from us, to take all sorts of liberties with us, and (we shall not die of it) even to insult us. Yes, I declare that I will allow myself to be insulted. So, LOVE, you may offer me the greatest insult that can be offered to a virtuous and modest bachelor," added the religious writer, leaning over towards his neighbor, who repulsed him with peals of laughter; and the proposal of Ninny Moulin being received with general hilarity, a new impulse was given to the mirth and riot.
In the midst of the uproar, the waiter, who had before entered the room several times, to whisper uneasily to his comrades, whilst he pointed to the ceiling, again appeared with a pale and agitated countenance; approaching the man who performed the office of butler, he said to him, in a low voice, tremulous with emotion: "They are come!"
"You know—up there"; and he pointed to the ceiling.
"Oh!" said the butler, becoming thoughtful; "where are they?"
"They have just gone upstairs; they are there now," answered the waiter, shaking his head with an air of alarm; "yes, they are there!"
"What does master say?"
"He is very vexed, because—" and the waiter glanced round at the guests. "He does not know what to do; he has sent me to you."
"What the devil have I to do with it?" said the other; wiping his forehead. "It was to be expected, and cannot be helped."
"I will not remain here till they begin."
"You may as well go, for your long face already attracts attention. Tell master we must wait for the upshot."
The above incident was scarcely perceived in the midst of the growing tumult of the joyous feast. But, among the guests, one alone laughed not, drank not. This was Jacques. With fixed and lurid eye, he gazed upon vacancy. A stranger to what was passing around him, the unhappy man thought of the Bacchanal Queen, who had been so gay and brilliant in the midst of similar saturnalia. The remembrance of that one being, whom he still loved with an extravagant love, was the only thought that from time to time roused him from his besotted state.
It is strange, but Jacques had only consented to join this masquerade because the mad scene reminded him of the merry day he had spent with Cephyse—that famous breakfast, after a night of dancing, in which the Bacchanal Queen, from some extraordinary presentiment, had proposed a lugubrious toast with regard to this very pestilence, which was then reported to be approaching France. "To the Cholera!" had she said. "Let him spare those who wish to live, and kill at the same moment those who dread to part!"
And now, at this time, remembering those mournful words, Jacques was absorbed in painful thought. Morok perceived his absence of mind, and said aloud to him, "You have given over drinking, Jacques. Have you had enough wine? Then you will want brandy. I will send for some."
"I want neither wine nor brandy," answered Jacques, abruptly, and he fell back into a sombre reverie.
"Well, you may be right," resumed Morok, in a sardonic tone, and raising his voice still higher. "You do well to take care of yourself. I was wrong to name brandy in these times. There would be as much temerity in facing a bottle of brandy as the barrel of a loaded pistol."
On hearing his courage as a toper called in question, Sleepinbuff looked angrily at Morok. "You think it is from cowardice that I will not drink brandy!" cried the unfortunate man, whose half-extinguished intellect was roused to defend what he called his dignity. "Is it from cowardice that I refuse, d'ye think, Morok? Answer me!"
"Come, my good fellow, we have all shown our pluck today," said one of the guests to Jacques; "you, above all, who, being rather indisposed, yet had the courage to take the part of Goodman Cholera."
"Gentlemen," resumed Morok, seeing the general attention fixed upon himself and Sleepinbuff, "I was only joking; for if my comrade (pointing to Jacques) had the imprudence to accept my offer, it would be an act, not of courage, but of foolhardiness. Luckily, he has sense enough to renounce a piece of boasting so dangerous at this time, and I—"
"Waiter!" cried Jacques, interrupting Morok with angry impatience, "two bottles of brandy, and two glasses!"
"What are you going to do?" said Morok, with pretended uneasiness. "Why do you order two bottles of brandy?"
"For a duel," said Jacques, in a cool, resolute tone.
"A duel!" cried the spectators, in surprise.
"Yes," resumed Jacques, "a duel with brandy. You pretend there is as much danger in facing a bottle of brandy as a loaded pistol; let us each take a full bottle, and see who will be the first to cry quarter."
This strange proposition was received by some with shouts of joy, and by others with genuine uneasiness.
"Bravo! the champions of the bottle!" cried the first.
"No, no; there would be too much danger in such a contest," said the others.
"Just now," added one of the guests; "this challenge is as serious as an invitation to fight to the death."
"You hear," said Morok, with a diabolical smile, "you hear, Jacques? Will you now retreat before the danger?"
At these words, which reminded him of the peril to which he was about to expose himself, Jacques started, as if a sudden idea had occurred to him. He raised his head proudly, his cheeks were slightly flushed, his eye shone with a kind of gloomy satisfaction, and he exclaimed in a firm voice: "Hang it, waiter! are you deaf? I asked you for two bottles of brandy."
"Yes, sir," said the waiter, going to fetch them, although himself frightened at what might be the result of this bacchanalian struggle. But the mad and perilous resolution of Jacques was applauded by the majority.
Ninny Moulin moved about on his chair, stamped his feet, and shouted with all his might: "Bacchus and drink! bottles and glasses! the throats are dry! brandy to the rescue! Largess! largess!"
And, like a true champion of the tournament, he embraced Modeste, adding, to excuse the liberty: "Love, you shall be the Queen of Beauty, and I am only anticipating the victor's happiness!"
"Brandy to the rescue!" repeated they all, in chorus. "Largess!"
"Gentlemen," added Ninny Moulin, with enthusiasm, "shall we remain indifferent to the noble example set us by Goodman Cholera? He said in his pride, 'brandy!' Let us gloriously answer, 'punch!'"
"Yes, yes! punch!"
"Punch to the rescue!"
"Waiter!" shouted the religious writer, with the voice of a Stentor, "waiter! have you a pan, a caldron, a hogshead, or any other immensity, in which we can brew a monster punch?"
"A Babylonian punch!"
"A lake of punch!"
"An ocean of punch!"
Such was the ambitious crescendo that followed the proposition of Ninny Moulin.
"Sir," answered the waiter, with an air of triumph, "we just happen to have a large copper caldron, quite new. It has been used, and would hold at least thirty bottles."
"Bring the caldron!" said Ninny Moulin, majestically.
"The caldron forever!" shouted the chorus.
"Put in twenty bottles of brandy, six loaves of sugar, a dozen lemons, a pound of cinnamon, and then—fire! fire!" shouted the religious writer, with the most vociferous exclamations.
"Yes, yes! fire!" repeated the chorus!
The proposition of Ninny Moulin gave a new impetus to the general gayety; the most extravagant remarks were mingled with the sound of kisses, taken or given under the pretext that perhaps there would be no to-morrow, that one must make the most of the present, etc., etc. Suddenly, in one of the moments of silence which sometimes occur in the midst of the greatest tumult, a succession of slow and measured taps sounded above the ceiling of the banqueting-room. All remained silent, and listened.
CHAPTER XXI. BRANDY TO THE RESCUE.
After the lapse of some seconds, the singular rapping which had so much surprised the guests, was again heard, but this time louder and longer.
"Waiter!" cried one of the party, "what in the devil's name is knocking?"
The waiter, exchanging with his comrades a look of uneasiness and alarm, stammered Out in reply: "Sir—it is—it is—"
"Well! I suppose it is some crabbed, cross-grained lodger, some animal, the enemy of joy, who is pounding on the floor of his room to warn us to sing less loud," said Ninny Moulin.
"Then, by a general rule," answered sententiously the pupil of the great painter, "if lodger or landlord ask for silence, tradition bids us reply by an infernal uproar, destined to drown all his remonstrances. Such, at least," added the scapegrace, modestly, "are the foreign relations that I have always seen observed between neighboring powers."
This remark was received with general laughter and applause. During the tumult, Morok questioned one of the waiters, and then exclaimed in a shrill tone, which rose above the clamor: "I demand a hearing!"
"Granted!" cried the others, gayly. During the silence which followed the exclamation of Morok, the noise was again heard; it was this time quicker than before.
"The lodger is innocent," said Morok, with a strange smile, "and would be quite incapable of interfering with your enjoyment."
"Then why does he keep up that knocking?" said Ninny Moulin, emptying his glass.
"Like a deaf man who has lost his ear-horn?" added the young artist.
"It is not the lodger who is knocking" said Morok, in a sharp, quick tone; "for they are nailing him down in his coffin." A sudden and mournful silence followed these words.
"His coffin no, I am wrong," resumed Morok; "her coffin, I should say, or more properly their coffin; for, in these pressing times, they put mother and child together."
"A woman!" cried PLEASURE, addressing the writer; "is it a woman that is dead?"
"Yes, ma'am; a poor young woman about twenty years of age," answered the waiter in a sorrowful tone. "Her little girl, that she was nursing, died soon after—all in less than two hours. My master is very sorry that you ladies and gents should be disturbed in this way; but he could not foresee this misfortune, as yesterday morning the young woman was quite well, and singing with all her might—no one could have been gayer than she was."
Upon these words, it was as if a funeral pall had been suddenly thrown over a scene lately so full of joy; all the rubicund and jovial faces took an expression of sadness; no one had the hardihood to make a jest of mother and child, nailed down together in the same coffin. The silence became so profound, that one could hear each breath oppressed by terror: the last blows of the hammer seemed to strike painfully on every heart; it appeared as if each sad feeling, until now repressed, was about to replace that animation and gayety, which had been more factitious than sincere. The moment was decisive. It was necessary to strike an immediate blow, and to raise the spirits of the guests, for many pretty rosy faces began to grow pale, many scarlet ears became suddenly white; Ninny Moulin's were of the number.
On the contrary, Sleepinbuff exhibited an increase of audacity; he drew up his figure, bent down from the effects of exhaustion, and, with a cheek slightly flushed, he exclaimed: "Well, waiter? are those bottles of brandy coming? And the punch? Devil and all! are the dead to frighten the living?"
"He's right! Down with sorrow, and let's have the punch!" cried several of the guests, who felt the necessity of reviving their courage.
"Begone, dull care!"
"Gentlemen, here is the punch," said a waiter, opening the door. At sight of the flaming beverage, which was to reanimate their enfeebled spirits, the room rang with the loudest applause.
The sun had just set. The room was large, being capable of dining a hundred guests; and the windows were few, narrow, and half veiled by red cotton curtains. Though it was not yet night, some portions of this vast saloon were almost entirely dark. Two waiters brought the monster-punch, in an immense brass kettle, brilliant as gold, suspended from an iron bar, and crowned with flames of changing color. The burning beverage was then placed upon the table, to the great joy of the guests, who began to forget their past alarms.
"Now," said Jacques to Morok, in a taunting tone, "while the punch is burning, we will have our duel. The company shall judge." Then, pointing to the two bottles of brandy, which the waiter had brought, Jacques added: "Choose your weapon!"
"Do you choose," answered Morok.
"Well! here's your bottle—and here's your glass. Ninny Moulin shall be umpire."
"I do not refuse to be judge of the field," answered the religious writer, "only I must warn you, comrade, that you are playing a desperate game, and that just now, as one of these gentlemen has said, the neck of a bottle of brandy in one's mouth, is perhaps more dangerous than the barrel of a loaded pistol."
"Give the word, old fellow!" said Jacques, interrupting Ninny Moulin, "or I will give it myself."
"Since you will have it so—so be it!"
"The first who gives in is conquered," said Jacques.
"Agreed!" answered Morok.
"Come, gentlemen, attention! we must follow every movement," resumed Ninny Moulin. "Let us first see if the bottles are of the same size—equality of weapons being the foremost condition."
During these preparations, profound silence reigned in the room. The courage of the majority of those present, animated for a moment by the arrival of the punch, was soon again depressed by gloomy thoughts, as they vaguely foresaw the danger of the contest between Morok and Jacques. This impression joined to the sad thoughts occasioned by the incident of the coffin, darkened by degrees many a countenance. Some of the guests, indeed, continued to make a show of rejoicing, but their gayety appeared forced. Under certain circumstances, the smallest things will have the most powerful effect. We have said that, after sunset, a portion of this large room was plunged in obscurity; therefore, the guests who sat in the remote corners of the apartment, had no other light than the reflection of the flaming punch. Now it is well known, that the flame of burning spirit throws a livid, bluish tint over the countenance; it was therefore a strange, almost frightful spectacle, to see a number of the guests, who happened to be at a distance from the windows, in this ghastly and fantastic light.
The painter, more struck than all the rest by this effect of color, exclaimed: "Look! at this end of the table, we might fancy ourselves feasting with cholera-patients, we are such fine blues and greens."
This jest was not much relished. Fortunately, the loud voice of Ninny Moulin demanded attention, and for a moment turned the thoughts of the company.
"The lists are open," cried the religious writer, really more frightened than he chose to appear. "Are you ready, brave champions?" he added.
"We are ready," said Morok and Jacques.
"Present! fire!" cried Ninny Moulin, clapping his hands. And the two drinkers each emptied a tumbler full of brandy at a draught.
Morok did not even knit his brow; his marble face remained impassible; with a steady hand he replaced his glass upon the table. But Jacques, as he put down his glass, could not conceal a slight convulsive trembling, caused by internal suffering.
"Bravely done!" cried Ninny Moulin. "The quarter of a bottle of brandy at a draught—it is glorious! No one else here would be capable of such prowess. And now, worthy champions, if you believe me, you will stop where you are."
"Give the word!" answered Jacques, intrepidly. And, with feverish and shaking hand, he seized the bottle; then suddenly, instead of filling his glass, he said to Morok: "Bah! we want no glasses. It is braver to drink from the bottle. I dare you to it!"
Morok's only answer was to shrug his shoulders, and raise the neck of the bottle to his lips. Jacques hastened to imitate him. The thin, yellowish, transparent glass gave a perfect view of the progressive diminution of the liquor. The stony countenance of Morok, and the pale thin face of Jacques, on which already stood large drops of cold sweat, were now, as well as the features of the other guests, illuminated by the bluish light of the punch; every eye was fixed upon Morok and Jacques, with that barbarous curiosity which cruel spectacles seem involuntarily to inspire.
Jacques continued to drink, holding the bottle in his left hand; suddenly, he closed and tightened the fingers of his right hand with a convulsive movement; his hair clung to his icy forehead, and his countenance revealed an agony of pain. Yet he continued to drink; only, without removing his lips from the neck of the bottle, he lowered it for an instant, as if to recover breath. Just then, Jacques met the sardonic look of Morok, who continued to drink with his accustomed impassibility. Thinking that he saw the expression of insulting triumph in Morok's glance, Jacques raised his elbow abruptly, and drank with avidity a few drops more. But his strength was exhausted. A quenchless fire devoured his vitals. His sufferings were too intense, and he could no longer bear up against them. His head fell backwards, his jaws closed convulsively, he crushed the neck of the bottle between his teeth, his neck grew rigid, his limbs writhed with spasmodic action, and he became almost senseless.
"Jacques, my good fellow! it is nothing," cried Morok, whose ferocious glance now sparkled with diabolical joy. Then, replacing his bottle on the table, he rose to go to the aid of Ninny Moulin, who was vainly endeavoring to hold Sleepinbuff.
This sudden attack had none of the symptoms of cholera. Yet terror seized upon all present; one of the women was taken with hysterics, and another uttered piercing cries and fainted away. Ninny Moulin, leaving Jacques in the hands of Morok, ran towards the door to seek for help,—when that door was suddenly opened, and the religious writer drew back in alarm, at the sight of the unexpected personage who appeared on the threshold.
CHAPTER XXII. MEMORIES.
The person before whom Ninny Moulin stopped in such extreme astonishment was the Bacchanal Queen.
Pale and wan, with, hair in disorder, hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and clothed almost in rags, this brilliant and joyous heroine of so many mad orgies was now only the shadow of her former self. Misery and grief were impressed on that countenance, once so charming. Hardly had she entered the room, when Cephyse paused; her mournful and unquiet gaze strove to penetrate the half-obscurity of the apartment, in search of him she longed to see. Suddenly the girl started, and uttered a loud scream. She had just perceived, at the other side of a long table, by the bluish light of the punch, Jacques struggling with Morok and one of the guests, who were hardly able to restrain his convulsive movements.
At this sight Cephyse, in her first alarm, carried away by her affection, did what she had so often done in the intoxication of joy and pleasure. Light and agile, instead of losing precious time in making a long circuit, she sprang at once upon the table, passed nimbly through the array of plates and bottles, and with one spring was by the side of the sufferer.
"Jacques!" she exclaimed, without yet remarking the lion-tamer, and throwing herself on the neck of her lover. "Jacques! it is I—Cephyse!"
That well-known voice, that heart-piercing cry, which came from the bottom of the soul, seemed not unheard by Sleepinbuff. He turned his head mechanically towards the Bacchanal Queen, without opening his eyes, and heaved a deep sigh; his stiffened limbs relaxed, a slight trembling succeeded to the convulsions, and in a few seconds his heavy eyelids were raised with an effort, so as to uncover his dull and wandering gaze. Mute with astonishment, the spectators of this scene felt an uneasy curiosity. Cephyse, kneeling beside her lover, bathed his hands in her tears, covered them with kisses, and exclaimed, in a voice broken by sobs, "It is I—Cephyse—I have found you again—it was not my fault that I abandoned you! Forgive me, forgive—"
"Wretched woman!" cried Morok, irritated at this meeting, which might, perhaps, be fatal to his projects; "do you wish to kill him? In his present state, this agitation is death. Begone!" So saying, he seized Cephyse suddenly by the arm, just as Jacques, waking, as it were, from a painful dream, began to distinguish what was passing around him.
"You! It is you!" cried the Bacchanal Queen, in amazement, as she recognized Morok, "who separated me from Jacques!"
She paused; for the dim eye of the victim, as it rested upon her, grew suddenly bright.
"Cephyse!" murmured Jacques; "is it you?"
"Yes, it is I," answered she, in a voice of deep emotion; "who have come—I will tell you—"
She was unable to continue, and, as she clasped her hands together, her pale, agitated, tearful countenance expressed her astonishment and despair at the mortal change which had taken place in the features of Jacques. He understood the cause of her surprise, and as he contemplated, in his turn, the suffering and emaciated countenance of Cephyse, he said to her, "Poor girl! you also have had to bear much grief, much misery—I should hardly have known you."
"Yes," replied Cephyse, "much grief—much misery—and worse than misery," she added, trembling, whilst a deep blush overspread her pale features.
"Worse than misery?" said Jacques, astonished.
"But it is you who have suffered," hastily resumed Cephyse, without answering her lover.
"Just now, I was going to make an end of it—your voice has recalled me for an instant—but I feel something here," and he laid his hand upon his breast, "which never gives quarter. It is all the same now—I have seen you—I shall die happy."