HotFreeBooks.com
With Zola in England
by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse

On that point M. Zola spoke in no uncertain language. He understood well enough that the authorities could not justly single out a few of those hundreds of women for prosecution and punishment: but he censured the women quite as much as he censured the convicted men, who were, after all, but common scoundrels.

And he was amazed to find that so few English newspapers ventured to speak out on the matter. There were plenty of leaderettes on the cunning shown by the men, but the alacrity of the women to purchase the bogus medicines was, as a rule, lightly passed over; and great as is M. Zola's admiration for the English Press in many respects, he could but regard its attitude towards the Chrimes case as lamentably inadequate and lacking in moral courage.

'A great responsibility,' said he, 'rests with those who, possessing commanding influence, refrain from requisite action, and who, instead of seeking to cure proved and acknowledged evils, connive at driving them beneath the surface, where, in secret, they steadily grow and expand.' And all this for the sake of the 'young person,' to whose mythical innocence the welfare of a whole nation is often sacrificed. M. Zola's views are summed up in the words: 'Let all be exposed and discussed, in order that all may be cured!'

He regards Neo-Malthusianism and its practices as abominable, and when he had learnt more of the actual situation in England he was emphatically of opinion that his book 'Fecondite,' though applied to France alone, might well, with little alteration, be applied to this country also.

The fluctuations in the English birth-rate from 1872 to 1897 were to him full of meaning. At a certain period, for instance, they showed all the harm wrought by the abominable Bradlaugh-Besant campaign. But what he dwelt on still more was the absolute physical incapacity of so many English mothers to suckle their own offspring. Circumstances are much the same both in France and the United States, at least among the older Colonial families. In three or four generations the women of a family in which the practice of suckling has ceased, are altogether unable to give the breast; and the 'bottle' ensues, with its thousand evils and a gradual deterioration of the race.

On the last occasion when James Russell Lowell came to England he was asked what change, if any, he remarked since his last visit, among the people he met, and he replied that he was most struck by the falling off in height, and breadth of shoulders, of the average man in the London streets.

Though matters have not yet reached such a point as in France and elsewhere, it is I think incontestable that the English race, like many another, is physically deteriorating. Athletics tend to improve the standard, but there must be proper material to work upon, and M. Zola, I found, held the view that for a race to be healthy its womenfolk should be willing and able to discharge the primary duties of Nature. When he discovered that so many Englishwomen would not or could not suckle their babes, he remarked that England had started on the same downward course as France.

He often watched the troops of nursemaids and children whom he met during his afternoon strolls. He noticed and told me how many of the former neglected their charges, standing about, flirting or gossiping, or looking into shop windows, while the baby in the bassinette or the mail-cart sucked away at that vile invention the bone and gutta-percha 'soother,' and he was astonished that ladies should apparently consider it beneath them to accompany baby on the promenade. Indeed the invariable absence of the mothers gave him a rather bad opinion of them: for surely they must know that many of the nurse-girls neglected the infants and yet they exercised no supervision. 'Of course,' said he, 'they are visiting or receiving, or reading novels, or bicycling or playing lawn tennis. Ah! well, that is hardly my conception of a mother's duty towards her infant, whatever be her station in life.'

Now and again at intervals I accompanied him on his afternoon walks. These generally took a semi-circular form. We descended from the plateau of Upper Norwood on one side to climb to it again on another. Sometimes we passed by way of Beulah Spa, then round by some fields and a recreation ground, with the name of which I am not acquainted. There were several shapely oak trees thereabouts, which he greatly admired and even photographed.

'Do you know,' he remarked to me one afternoon, 'when I come out all alone for my usual constitutional, and want to shake off some worrying thoughts, I often amuse myself by counting the number of hairpins which I see lying on the foot-pavement. Oh! you need not laugh, it is very curious, I assure you. I already had ideas for two essays—one on the capital "I" in its relation to the English character, and another on the physiology of the English "guillotine" window and the forms it affects, not forgetting the circumstance that whenever an architect introduces a French window into an English house, it invariably opens outwardly so as to be well buffeted by the wind, instead of into the room as it should do. Well, now I am beginning to think that I might write something on the carelessness of Englishwomen in fastening up their hair, and the phenomenal consumption of hairpins in England. For the consumption must be enormous since the loss is so great, as I will show you.'

Then he proceeded to ocular demonstration. As we walked on for half an hour or so, principally along roads bordered by the umbrageous gardens of villa residences, we counted all the hairpins we could see. There were about four dozen. And he was careful to point out that we had chiefly followed a route where there was but a moderate amount of traffic.

Not one man in a thousand probably would have thought of counting the lost hairpins in the streets; but then M. Zola is an observer, and if I tell this anecdote, which some may think puerile, it is by way of illustrating his powers of observation and the length to which he occasionally carries them.

On one point, I told him, he was rather in the wrong. The great loss of hairpins did not proceed so much from the carelessness of women in fastening their hair, as from their 'pennywise and pound-foolish' system of buying cheap hairpins with few and inefficient 'twists.' These cheap hairpins never 'caught' properly in their coiled-up tresses. The women went out, walked rapidly, tossed their heads perchance, and one at least of their hairpins fell to the ground. Supposing one hundred women passed along a certain road or street in the course of the day, it would not be surprising to find that at least thirty hairpins were lost there. And I concluded by saying that, to the best of my belief, the aforesaid hairpins were 'made in Germany.'

Another thing which amused and interested M. Zola when he took his walks around Norwood was to note the often curious and often high-sounding names bestowed on villa residences. As a rule the smaller the place the more grandiose the appellation bestowed on it. Some of the names M. Zola, having now made progress with his English, could readily understand; others, too, were virtually French, such as Bellevue, Beaumont, and so forth; but there were several that I had to interpret, such as Oakdene, Thornbrake, Beechcroft, Hillbrow, Woodcote, Fernside, Fairholme, Inglenook, etc. And there was one name that I could not explain to him at all—an awful name, which I fancied might be Gaelic or Celtic, though I appealed in vain to Scottish, Irish, and Welsh friends for an interpretation of its meaning. It was written thus: 'Ly-ee-Moon.'

Nobody of my acquaintance was able to explain it to me. M. Zola wrote it down in his memorandum-book as an abstruse puzzle. However, while this narrative was appearing in the 'Evening News,' several correspondents kindly informed me that Ly-ee-Moon (at times written 'Lai-Mun') was Chinese, being the name of a narrow passage or strait between the island of Hong-Kong and the mainland of China (now transferred to Great Britain), at the eastern entrance to the harbour of the city of Victoria on the island.

It seems also that Ly-ee-Moon is a name often given to ships sailing in the China seas. And in the case of the Norwood house, built by a retired shipowner and sea captain, the name was taken from a vessel plying on the Australian coast for many years, and ultimately wrecked with great loss of life. The owner of the Norwood house had an engraving of the ship executed on a plate-glass window of this hall. Until these explanations reached me both M. Zola and myself were quite as much at sea (with regard to 'Ly-ee-Moon') as ever its owner and captain was.

When I spent an afternoon at Norwood with M. Zola we generally returned to the hotel about half-past four for a cup of tea. And on the way back (particularly during the last months) I frequently purchased postage stamps for him at the chief post-office. He might, of course, have bought them himself, and as a matter of fact he did at times do so. But he was aware, I think, that he was regarded with some suspicion by the young lady clerks under the control of the Duke of Norfolk.

At certain periods, Christmas time and the New Year, for instance, M. Zola's correspondence became extensive, and on the first occasion when he entered the Upper Norwood post-office and asked for fifty 2 12 d. stamps he was looked at with surprise. When, a couple of days later, he applied for another fifty, the young ladies eyed him as if he were a genuine curiosity. A hundred 2 12 d. stamps in four days! What could he do with them? Nobody could tell. When, shortly afterwards, he returned for another supply of the same kind, the Norwood post-office was convulsed. And I doubt if even now some of the young ladies have quite got over that brief but extraordinary run on the so-called 'foreign stamp.'

I hope they do not imagine that M. Zola was hungry, and bought those stamps to eat.



XIII

WINTER DAYS

The winter was hardly a cold one, but it proved very tempestuous, and Upper Norwood, standing high as it does, felt the full force of the gales. Christmas found M. Zola alone; still, this did not particularly affect him, as Christmas, save as a religious observance, is but little kept up in France, where festivity and holiday-making are reserved for the New Year. In M. Zola's rooms the only token of the season was a huge branch of mistletoe hanging over the chimney-piece. This he had bought himself, after I had told him of the privileges attached to mistletoe in England. There were, however, no young ladies to kiss, and, if I remember rightly, Mme. Zola, who had been absent in Paris, did not return to Norwood until a day or two before the New Year.

While her husband formed a fairly favourable opinion of England, its customs and its climate, Mme. Zola, I fear, was scarcely pleased with this country. At all events, she finally left it vowing that she would never return. But then for three or four weeks bronchitis and kindred ailments had kept her absolutely imprisoned in her room—her illness lasting the longer, perhaps, because she was unwilling to place herself in the hands of any medical man.

The New Year was but a day or two old, when one of the London morning newspapers announced with a great show of authority that an application for the extradition of M. Zola was imminent. Somebody, moreover, informed the same journal that he had recognised and interviewed M. Zola an evening or two previously, to which statement was appended a brief account of some of M. Zola's views. All this amazed me the more as on the very day mentioned in the newspaper I had been with the master till nine P.M. and I could hardly believe than anybody had interviewed him after that hour. Moreover, my wife had since seen him, and he had said nothing to her of any visit or interview. Nevertheless, as other papers proceeded to copy the statements to which I have referred, I thought it well to communicate with our exile on the subject.

Through the carelessness of one of M. Zola's friends, Wareham's name and address had lately been given to an English journalist usually resident in Paris, and this journalist had then come to London to try to discover the master's whereabouts. It was therefore possible that there might be some truth in the story. But M. Zola promptly wired to me that such was not the case, and followed up his telegram with a note in which he said:

'My dear confrere and friend,—I have just telegraphed to you that the whole story of a journalist having interviewed me is purely and simply a falsehood. I have seen nobody. Again, there can be no question of extradition in my case; all that could be done would be to serve me with the judgment of the Assize Court. Those people don't even know what they write about.

'As for ——-'s indiscretion, this is to be regretted. I am writing to him. For the sake of our communications, I have always desired that Wareham's name and address should be known only to those on whom one can depend. Tell him that he must remain on his guard and never acknowledge that he knows my address. Persevere in that course yourself. I will wait a few days to see if anything occurs before deciding whether the correspondence arrangements should be altered. It would be a big affair; and I should afterwards regret a change if it were to prove uncalled for. Let us wait.'

Going through the many memoranda and notes I received from M. Zola during his exile, I also find this, dated February: 'You did right to refuse Mr. ——- my address. I absolutely decline to see anybody. No matter who may call on you, under whatever pretext it be, preserve the silence of the tomb. Less than ever am I disposed to let people disturb me.'

Again, a little later: 'No; I will see neither the gentleman nor the lady. Tell them so distinctly, in order that they may worry you no more.'

With the New Year, it will be remembered, had come a succession of startling events which kept M. Zola in a state of acute anxiety. The violent attacks of the anti-Revisionists on the Criminal Chamber of the Cour de Cassation culminated in the resignation of Q. de Beaurepaire, in an inquiry into the Criminal Chamber's methods of investigation, and finally in the passing of a law which transferred the task of the Criminal Chamber to the whole of the Supreme Court. On the many intrigues of that period I often conversed with M. Zola, who was particularly angered by the blind opposition of President Faure and the impudent duplicity of Prime Minister Dupuy. These two were undoubtedly doing their utmost to impede the course of justice.

Then suddenly, on February 17, came a thunderbolt. Faure had died on the previous evening, and by his death one of the greatest obstacles to the triumph of truth was for ever removed. We talked of the defunct president at some length, M. Zola adhering to the opinions that he had expressed during the summer.

But the great question was who would succeed M. Faure. When M. Brisson had fallen from office after initiating the Revision proceedings, M. Zola had said to me: 'Brisson's present fall does not signify; it was bound to come. But hereafter he will reap his reward for his courage in favouring revision. Brisson will be Faure's successor as President of the Republic.'

In expressing this opinion M. Zola had imagined that Faure would live to complete his full term of office. His death in the very midst of the battle entirely changed the position. M. Brisson's time had not come, and considering his age it indeed now seemed as if he might never attain to the supreme magistracy. The future looked blank; but M. Loubet was elected President, and a feeling of great relief followed.

I have reason to believe that M. Zola regards the death of President Faure as the crucial turning-point in the whole Dreyfus business. Had Faure lived every means would still have been employed to shield the guilty; all the influence of the Elysee would, as before, have been brought to bear against the unhappy prisoner of Devil's Island.

During those January and February days M. Zola was an eager reader of the newspapers. Rumours of all kinds were in circulation, and once again in M. Zola's mind did despondency alternate with hopefulness. I must say, however, that he was not particularly impressed by Paul Deroulede's attempt to induce General Roget to march on the Elysee. He regards Deroulede as a scarcely sane individual, and holds views on Parisian demonstrations which may surprise some of those who believe everything they read in the newspapers.

These views may be epitomised as follows: The Government can always put down trouble in the streets when it desires to do so. If trouble occurs it is because the Government allows it. Three-fourths of the 'demonstrations' that have taken place in Paris during the last year or two have been simply 'got up' by professional agitators. The men who start the shouting and the marching are paid for their services, the tariff being as a rule two francs per demonstration. With 500 francs, that is 20 l., one can get 250 men together. These are joined by as many fools and a small contingent of enthusiasts, and then you have a rumpus on the boulevards, and half the newspapers in Europe announcing on the morrow: 'Serious Disturbances in Paris. Impending Revolution.' Some people may ask, Where does the money for many of these demonstrations come from? The answer is that it comes largely from much the same sources as those whence General Boulanger's funds were derived—that is, from the Orleanist party.

As for military insubordination, plotting, or anything of that kind, M. Zola often pointed out to me that no general could effect a revolution, for the simple reason that he could not rely on his men to follow him in an illegal attempt. It was quite possible that now and again other generals besides Boulanger had dreamt of overturning the Republic, but they had not the means to do so. It was as likely as not that the officer foolhardy enough to make the attempt would be shot in the back by some of the Socialists among the rank and file. Boulanger no doubt could have counted on a good many men and 'non-coms.,' as he was popular with them, but few if any officers above the rank of captain would have followed him.

To-day, moreover, intense jealousy still reigns among the French general officers. There is not one among them of sufficient pre-eminence and popularity to gather round him a large contingent of military men of high rank for any political purpose. And this, of course—quite apart from the opinions of the masses—largely makes for a continuance of the Republican regime.

With a weak Government in office, one with a policy of drift, everything may become possible; but, so long as foresight and vigilance are shown, the Republic remains impregnable. If military malcontents become obstreperous it is only necessary to treat them as General Boulanger was treated.

I recollect hearing M. Yves Guyot, who was a member of the Cabinet which put down 'the brave general on the black horse,' and who was also one of the few French friends who visited M. Zola during his exile, give a brief account of some of the decisive steps which were taken to stop the Boulangist agitation. The Prefect of Police of that time was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior, where two or three members of the Government awaited his arrival. Amongst other orders given him was one (if I remember rightly) for the dissolution of M. Deroulede's 'League of Patriots,' which then, as more recently, was at the bottom of much of the agitation.

The Prefect hesitated; he was afraid to execute his orders. 'Very well, then,' said M. Constans, M. Guyot, and others, 'you may regard your resignation as accepted; you are not the man for the situation; if you are afraid, there are plenty who are not; and we shall immediately replace you.'

The threat of the loss of office wrought an immediate change in the Prefect. He became as brave as he had been timorous, and with all due energy he proceeded to carry out his instructions. Boulangism was crushed and held up to public opprobrium and ridicule; and but for the culpable weakness and connivance of M. Felix Faure and his favourite Prime Minister, M. Meline, it would never have revived in its varied forms of anti-Semitism, anti-Dreyfusism, etc.

French functionaries, those of the Civil Service, are, as a rule, a docile set; but every now and again a Government finding some laxity among prefects and sub-prefects makes a few examples. Three or four prefects of departments are transferred in disgrace to less important towns; two or three are cashiered, and the same method is followed with some of the sub-prefects. Thereupon, all the others, prefects and 'subs,' throughout the eighty and odd departments of France, hasten to show themselves vigilant and, if need be, energetic. Taking one consideration with another, this system of frightening the prefects into obedience and vigilance has, so far as the maintenance of public order is concerned, answered admirably well whenever it has been applied during the last fifty years. It has undoubtedly been adopted at times for the furtherance of purely despotic or arbitrary aims; but if ever it was justified such was the case during the Dreyfus agitation. If the Government had not connived, for purposes of its own, at the proceedings of what the French call the 'militarist' party, there would have been no turmoil at all.

But those in power desired to shield culprits of high rank and to defend the effete organisation of the French War-office. And those who thus misused the power they held, who sacrificed the national interests, who trampled truth and justice under foot, and rendered their country an object of amazement, distrust, and ridicule throughout the length and breadth of Europe (Russia not excepted) will be censured and condemned in no uncertain voice by the France of to-morrow.

But I am forgetting the prefects and sub-prefects. I mentioned them partly because M. Zola himself might have been one of them. It is not generally known, I believe, that at the time of the Franco-German war he in some degree assisted one of the sub-prefects in the discharge of his duties, and (had he only so chosen) might even have become a sub-prefect himself. He had been an opposition, a Republican journalist, before the fall of the Empire, and M. Gambetta, during his virtual dictatorship throughout the latter part of the Franco-German war, was very fond of appointing journalists of that description to office, both in the army and the Civil Service. M. Zola, then, might have become a sub-prefect to begin with; and, later, a full-blown prefect. Picture him in a cocked hat and a uniform bedizened with gold lace, and with a slender sword dangling by his side. That, at all events, was how sub-prefects and prefects used to array themselves when 'in the exercise of their functions.'

I doubt of M. Zola would ever have made a good functionary. His character is too independent, and in all likelihood he would have resigned the very first time that he happened to have 'a few words' with his Minister. But politics having caught him in their grasp he would doubtless (like the few functionaries of independent views who throw up their posts in France) have next come forward as a candidate for the Chamber or the Senate. And then—why not? He might have been an Under-Secretary of State, later a Minister, and finally President of the Republic. True, as he himself knows, and readily admits, he is no orator; but then orators are not always the men who get on in France. Thiers was a ready and fluent speaker, but MacMahon could scarcely say (or learn by heart) twenty consecutive words. Grevy, it is true, could be long-winded, prosy, and didactic; but the powers of elocution which Carnot and Felix Faure possessed were infinitesimal. And so the idea of Emile Zola, President of the Republic, may not be so far-fetched after all, particularly when one remembers Zola's great powers of observation, analysis, and foresight.

Had he taken to politics in his younger days he would at least have made his mark in the career thus chosen. And it may be that, in some respects, French public life might then have been healthier than it has proved during the last quarter of a century. Perchance, too, on the other hand, many old maids and young persons, not to mention ecclesiastics and vigilance societies, would have been spared manifold pious ejaculations and gasps of horror. Again, my poor father—imprisoned, ruined, and hounded to his death—might still have been alive.

Unless some other courageous man had arisen to tear the veil away from before human life, such as it is in so-called civilised communities, and show society its own self in all its rottenness, foulness, and hypocrisy—so that on more than one occasion, shrinking guiltily from its own image, it has denounced the plain unvarnished truth as libel—there would have been no 'Nana' and no 'Pot Bouille,' no 'Assommoir,' and no 'Germinal.' And no 'La Terre.' 'La Debacle,' and 'Lourdes,' and 'Rome,' 'Paris,' and 'Fecondite,' and all the other books that have flowed from Emile Zola's busy pen would have remained unwritten. But for my own part I would rather that the world should possess those books than that Zola when tempted, as he was, should have cast literature aside to plunge into the abominable and degrading vortex of politics.

Like all men of intellect he certainly has his views on important political questions, and again and again he has enunciated them in the face of fierce opposition. In the Dreyfus case, however, he has been no politician, but simply the indignant champion of an innocent man. And his task over, truth and justice vindicated, he asks no reward, no office; he simply desires to take up his pen once more and revert to his life work:—The delineation and exposure of the crimes, follies, and short-comings of society as now constituted, in order that those who are in politics, who control human affairs, may, in full knowledge of existing evils, do their utmost to remedy them and prepare the way for a better and a happier world.



XIV

'WAITING FOR THE VERDICT'

I can still see before me the sitting-room on the second floor of the Queen's Hotel, in which M. Zola spent so much of his time and wrote so many pages of 'Fecondite' during the last six months or so of his exile. A spacious room it was, if a rather low one, with three windows overlooking the road which passes the hotel.

A very large looking-glass in a gilt frame surmounted the mantelpiece, on which stood two or three little blue vases. Paper of a light colour and a large flowing arabesque pattern with a broad frieze covered the walls. There was not a single picture of any kind in the room, neither steel engraving, nor lithograph, nor chromo; and remembering what pictures usually are, even in the best of hotels, it was perhaps just as well that there should have been none in that room at the Queen's. Yet during the many hours I spent there the bareness of the walls often worried me.

Against the one that faced the fireplace stood a small sideboard. Then on another side was a sofa, and here and there were half a dozen chairs. The room was rich in tables, it counted no fewer than five. On a folding card-table in one corner M. Zola's stock of letter and 'copy' paper, his weighing scales for letters, his envelopes, pens, and pencils, were duly set out. Then in front of the central window was the table at which he worked every morning. It was of mahogany, little more than three feet long and barely two feet wide. Whenever he raised his eyes from his writing, he could see the road below him, and the houses across the way. On a similar table at another of the windows he usually kept such books and reviews as reached him from France.

In the centre of the room, under the electric lights—which, however, were only fitted towards the end of M. Zola's sojourn at the hotel, so that throughout the winter a paraffin lamp supplied the necessary illumination—stood the table at which one lunched and dined. It was round and would just accommodate four persons. Finally, beside M. Zola's favourite arm-chair, near the fireplace, was a little gipsy table, on which he usually kept the day's newspapers, and perchance the volume he was reading at the time.

A doorway on the same side as the fireplace gave ingress to the bedchamber, which was smaller than the sitting-room, and adequately, but by no means luxuriously furnished.

On the little writing-table near the middle window were first a small inkstand belonging to the hotel, then a few paper-weights covering memoranda jotted down on little square pieces of paper, about three inches long either way, together with an old yellowish newspaper which did duty as a blotting pad; and a pen with a 'j' nib and a very heavy ivory handle, so heavy, indeed, that though the master often offered it to me I could never write with it. With this pen, however, he himself did all his work. That work he generally cleared away before lunch, and locked up in his bedroom wardrobe, so that by the time a visitor arrived there was never any litter in the sitting-room.

The road, viewed from the writing-table window, was at times fairly lively. Nursemaids and children, bicyclists and others passed constantly to and fro. Stylish carriages also rolled by during the afternoon, and at intervals a little green omnibus went its way at a slow jog-trot. The detached villa residences on the other side of the road were, however, singularly lifeless. One day M. Zola remarked to me: 'I have never seen a soul in those houses during all the months I have been here. They are occupied certainly, for the window blinds are pulled up every morning and lowered every evening, but I can never detect who does this; and I have never seen anybody leave the houses or enter them.'

At last one afternoon he told me that one of these villas had woke up, for on the previous day he had espied a lady in the garden watering some flowers.

Rather lower down the road there was a livelier house, one which had a balconied window, which was almost invariably open, and here servants and children were often to be seen. 'That,' said M. Zola, 'is the one little corner of life and gaiety, amidst all the other silence and lack of life. Whenever I feel dull or worried I look over there.'

As a rule the Queen's Hotel itself is, as I have already mentioned, a very quiet place; but now and again a wedding breakfast was given there. Broughams and landaus would then roll over the gravel sweep, and M. Zola and I would at times lean out of the windows and exchange opinions with respect to the bridal pair and the guests. What surprised and amused him, on one occasion when a wedding party came to the hotel, was to notice that all the coachmen of the carriages wore yellow flowers and favours; for in France yellow is not only associated with jealousy, but also with conjugal faithlessness.

'If those flowers ware to be taken as an omen,' said M. Zola to me, 'that happy pair will soon be in the Divorce Court.'

During the latter part of his stay at Norwood, when the door between his bedroom and sitting-room remained open, one could see on a chest of drawers in the former apartment a pair of life-size porcelain cats, coloured a purplish maroon, with sparkling yellow glass eyes, and an abundance of fantastic yellow spots. These cats had been bought by him as a souvenir of England and English art, for he was much struck by their oddity. He had been offered others—for instance, white ones with little coloured landscapes printed all over their backs and sides—surely as idiotic an embellishment as any insane potter could devise—but although these had sorely tempted him he had finally decided in favour of the maroon and yellow abominations.

A little girl of mine, who found herself face to face with these cats one day in his room, was quite startled by them, and has since expressed the opinion that Sir John Tenniel ought to have seen them before he drew the Cheshire cat for 'Alice in Wonderland.' For my own part I can imagine the laughter and the jeers of M. Zola's artistic friends when those choice specimens of British art are shown to them in Paris.

At intervals during his long sojourn at the Queen's Hotel M. Zola received a few brief visits from French friends, chiefly literary men and politicians, whose names need not be mentioned, but who have identified themselves with the cause of Revision. At times these gentlemen found themselves in London on other matters, and profited by the opportunity to run down to Norwood. On other occasions they made the journey from France for the especial purpose of quieting M. Zola's impatience, and telling him that he must not yet think of returning home. Again, M. Fasquelle, the French publisher, came over four or five times, now on business and now in a friendly way.

I think that during the seven or eight months that M. Zola stayed at the Queen's Hotel, he received altogether some ten visits from compatriots, which visits were often of only an hour or two's duration. Thus, Mme. Zola having returned to France, he was frequently very much alone.

During the last months of his exile my wife fell seriously ill, and I could not then go so often to Norwood. Afterwards ague caught me in its grip, and my visits ceased for two or three successive weeks. All I could do in an emergency was to place my eldest daughter or my son at M. Zola's disposal.

The foreign visitors he received—by foreign I mean non-French—were (apart from the Warehams, myself and family) very few in number. I think that an eminent Russian publiciste who happened to be a personal friend (M. Zola has long been popular in Russia, where even the Emperor has read many of his books) saw him on one occasion. Then, when M. Yves Guyot called, he brought with him an English friend who was pledged to secrecy.

A well-known English novelist and art critic, M. Zola's oldest English friend, and his earliest champion in this country, likewise saw him. Further, in a friendly capacity he received an English journalist for whom he has much regard, and who came to see him quite apart from any journalistic matters. To this list I will add the names of Mr. Andrew Chatto and Mr. Percy Spalding of Messrs. Chatto and Windus, and Mr. George P. Brett, of the Macmillan Company of New York.

Such, then, were M. Zola's visitors and guests—say, apart from the Warehams, myself and family, less than a score of persons, the total duration of whose visits added together amounted perhaps to a hundred and twenty hours spread over many long and trying months.

At times when we chatted together, M. Zola and myself, and mention was made of his friends—of persons occasionally whom we both knew—he referred to the many estrangements caused by the divergence of views on the Dreyfus affair. Friends of twenty and thirty years' standing, men who had laboured sided by side often in pursuit of the same ideal, had not only quarrelled and parted but had assailed each other with the greatest virulence in the Press and at public meetings.

Many whom he himself had regarded as close and sincere friends had trodden upon all the past and attacked him abominably, as though he were the veriest scum of the earth. Some in the earlier stages of the affair had hypocritically feigned sympathy, in order to provoke his confidence, and had then turned round to hold him up to execration and ridicule. One or two had behaved so badly that he had refused ever to receive them at his house again.

He spoke to me of an eminent French litterateur who at the outset of the agitation on behalf of Dreyfus had immediately promised his help, and had even prepared articles and appeals on behalf of the prisoner of Devil's Island. But this litterateur had of recent years been lapsing into mysticism, and at the behests of the reverend father his confessor, he had abruptly destroyed what he had written, and gone over to the other side to wage desperate warfare upon the cause he had promised to help.

The writer in question (one who will probably leave a name in French literature) was tortured by the everlasting fear that he might go to hell when he died, and he was the more timorous, the more easily influenced by certain persons, as he suffered from a horrible, incurable complaint, and feared that his medical man—a bigoted Romanist—might abandon him to all the pangs of sudden death if he did not comply with the injunctions of the Church.

Then there was a friend of many years' standing, a Minister in successive Cabinets, who feigned that by remaining in office he would be able to favour the cause, and who, instead of that, did his utmost against it. A playwright wrote: 'I am heartily with you, but for God's sake don't say it, for my plays might be hissed.'* Another prominent man started on a long journey to avoid having to express any opinion. Nearly all the baser passions of humanity were made manifest in some degree—treachery, rancour, jealousy, and moral and physical cowardice.

* Apropos of the stage, it is a curious circumstance that nine-tenths of 'the profession' in France are ardent Dreyfusards. Nearly every actor and actress and vocalist of note has been on the same side as M. Zola from the outset.

But, of course, there was another and a brighter side to the picture. There were men of high intellect and courage who had not hesitated to state their views and plead for truth and justice, men who, when in office, had been arbitrarily suspended and removed. There were many who had risked their futures, many too who, after years of labour, were well entitled to rest and retirement, yet had come forward with all the ardour of youth to do battle for great principles and save their country from the shame of a cruel crime.

Adversity makes one acquainted with strange bedfellows, and M. Zola was more than once struck by the heterogeneous nature of the Revisionist army. He found men of such varied political and social views banded together for the cause. It all helped to remove sundry old-time prejudices of his.

For instance, he said to me one day: 'I never cared much for the French Protestants; I regarded them as people of narrow minds, fanatics of a kind, far less tolerant and human than the great mass of the Catholics. But they have behaved splendidly in this battle of ours, and shown themselves to be real men.'

All through the spring M. Zola eagerly followed the inquiry which the Cour de Cassation was conducting, and when M. Ballot-Beaupre was appointed reporter to the Court, there came a fresh spell of anxiety. M. Ballot-Beaupre is a man of natural piety, and the anti-Revisionist newspapers, basing themselves on his religious views, at first made certain that he would show no mercy to the Jew Dreyfus, but would report strongly in favour of the prisoner's guilt. Certain Dreyfusite journals, on the other hand, bitterly attacked the learned judge for his supposed clerical leanings; and indeed so much was insinuated that M. Zola for a short time half believed it possible that M. Ballot-Beaupre might show himself hostile to revision.

When I saw M. Zola he repeatedly expressed to me his feelings of disquietude. Then everything suddenly changed. Certain newspapers discovered that M. Ballot-Beaupre, if pious, was by no means a fanatic, and, further, that he was a very sound lawyer, much respected by his colleagues. This cleared the atmosphere, for it seemed impossible that any man of rectitude and judgment could pass over the damning revelations which the Cour de Cassation's inquiry, as published in 'Le Figaro,' had produced.

Time went on, and at last the issue, so frequently postponed, so longingly awaited, came in sight. The week before the public proceedings of the Cour de Cassation opened M. Zola said to me: 'I shall have finished the last chapter of "Fecondite" by Saturday or Sunday, so I shall have my hands quite free and be able to give all my attention to what takes place at the Courts. I am hopeful, yes, very hopeful, and yet at moments some horrid doubt will spring up to torture me. But no! you'll see, our cause will gain the day, revision will be granted, and justice will be done.'

And at last came the fateful week which was to prove the accuracy of his surmises.



XV

LAST DAYS—DEPARTURE

I spent the afternoon of Saturday, May 27, with M. Zola, and we then spoke of the proceedings impending before the Cour de Cassation. All our information pointed to the conclusion that the Court would give judgment on the Saturday following, and it was decided that M. Zola should return to France a few days afterwards. The date ultimately agreed upon was Tuesday, June 6, and the train selected was that leaving Charing Cross for Folkestone at 2.45 in the afternoon.

Though according to every probability the Court's judgment would be in favour of revision, M. Zola was resolved to return home whatever might be the issue, and such were his feelings on the matter that nothing any friend might have urged would have prevented him from doing so. As a matter of fact one friend did regard the return as somewhat unwise, and intimated it both by telegram and letter. This compelled me to see M. Zola again on the following Tuesday (May 30), but the objections were overruled by him, and the arrangements which had been planned were adhered to.

M. Zola had now drafted the declaration which he proposed issuing on the morrow of his return home, and this he gave me to read. It was the article 'Justice,' published in 'L'Aurore,' to which I have occasionally referred in the course of the present narrative.

I left M. Zola rather late that Tuesday night in the expectation that everything which had been arranged would follow in due course. As the writing of 'Fecondite' was now finished he had time on his hands, and a part of this he proposed to devote to taking a few final snapshots of Norwood, the Crystal Palace, and surrounding scenery. He needed something to do, for he could not sit hour by hour in his room at the Queen's Hotel anxiously waiting for news of the proceedings at the Paris Palais de Justice.

For my part I had begun to prepare the present narrative, and as he would not listen to my repeated offers to take him to the Derby, it was arranged that I should not see him again until the end of the week. On Friday, however, reports were already in circulation to the effect that M. Fasquelle (M. Zola's French publisher) had come to London for the purpose of escorting him home.

This was true, and I foresaw that the rumours might lead to some modifications of our programme; for M. Zola did not wish his return to have any public character. He had forbidden all the demonstrations which his friends in Paris were anxious to arrange in his honour, declaring that he desired to go back quietly and privately, and then at once place himself at the disposal of the public prosecutor.

On Friday I sent my daughter Violette to Norwood with a parcel of M. Zola's photographs, received by Messrs. Chatto and Windus from Miss Loie Fuller, who being greatly interested in the Clarence Ward of St. Mary's Hospital, particularly wished M. Zola to sign these portraits in order that they might be sold at a bazaar which was to be held for the benefit of the hospital referred to. I told my daughter that I should myself go down to the Queen's Hotel on the morrow, and she brought me back a message to the effect that I really must go, as complications had arisen, and M. Zola particularly desired to see me.

On the following day, Saturday, I therefore betook myself to Norwood with a parcel of M. Zola's books, which I had received from Messrs. Macmillan & Co. on behalf of the Countess of Bective, who (prompted by the same spirit as Miss Loie Fuller) wished to sell these volumes at the 'Bookland' stall on the occasion of the Charing Cross Hospital Bazaar. And when I arrived I found indeed that it was most desirable that the programme of M. Zola's departure should be modified.

He had already seen M. and Mme. Fasquelle, the former of whom was much annoyed at the reports of his presence in London, and thought it most advisable to precipitate the departure. Delay might, indeed, be harmful if it was desired to avoid demonstrations. Besides, why should he wait until the ensuing Tuesday? Why not return the very next night—that of Sunday, June 4—by the Dover and Calais route? Mme. Fasquelle had declared that she in no way objected to travelling at night time; and so far as the departure from London was concerned, there would be few people about on a Sunday evening, which was another point to be considered. I cordially assented, for now that the imminence of M. Zola's return to Paris had been reported in the newspapers it was certain that delay meant a possibility of demonstrations both for and against him. In spite of his prohibition, many of his friends still wished to greet him like a conquering hero on his arrival at the Northern Railway Station in Paris. And the other side would unfailingly send out its recruiting agents to assemble a contingent of loafers at two francs per demonstration, who would be duly instructed to yell 'Conspuez,' and 'A bas les juifs.' Then a brawl would inevitably follow.

Now M. Zola (as I have already mentioned) did not wish for a homecoming of that kind. There was no question of refusing to 'face the music,' of shunning a hostile crowd, and so forth. It was purely and simply a matter of dignity and of doing nothing that might lead to a disturbance of the public peace. The triumph of justice was undoubtedly imminent, and it must not be followed by disorder.

When I had expressed my concurrence in the views held by M. Zola and M. Fasquelle, M. Zola and I attended to business. First came the question of Lady Bective's books, in each of which a suitable inscription was inserted. Afterwards, in a friend's birthday book M. Zola inscribed his famous, epoch-making phrase, 'Truth is on the march, and nothing will be able to stop it.' Finally, a few brief notes were written and posted, and work was over.

For a little while we chatted together. Some notable incidents connected with the interminable Affair had occurred during the last few days. Colonel du Paty de Clam, for whose arrest the Revisionist journals had clamoured so long and so pertinaciously, had at last been cast into prison. In M. Zola's estimation, the Colonel's arrest had been merely a question of time ever since the day when one had learnt that he had disguised himself with a false beard and blue glasses when he went to meet the notorious Esterhazy.

'A man may be guilty of any misdeed and may yet find forgiveness and even favour,' M. Zola had then said to me, 'but he must not make himself, his profession, and his cause ridiculous. In France, as you know, "ridicule kills." The false beard and the blue spectacles, following the veiled lady, are decisive. One need scarcely trouble any further about M. du Paty de Clam. His fate is as good as sealed.'

And now that the Colonel had at last been arrested, the master remarked, 'The military party is throwing him over to us as a kind of sop; it would be delighted to make him the general scapegoat, and thereby save all the other culprits. But it won't do. There are men higher placed than Du Paty who must bear their share of censure and, if need be, punishment.'

Then we spoke of Esterhazy, 'that fine type for a melodrama or a novel of the romantic school,' as M. Zola often remarked. The Commandant had just acknowledged to the 'Times' and the 'Daily Chronicle' that the famous bordereau had been penned by him, and we laughed at the remembrance of his squabbles on this subject with the proprietress of another newspaper. How indignantly he had then denied having ever acknowledged the authorship of the bordereau, and how complacently he now admitted it! As for the circumstances under which he asserted the document to have been written, M. Zola could make nothing of them. 'So far, the explanations explain nothing,' said he; 'take them whichever way you will, there is no sense, no plausibility even, in them. Hitherto I always thought Esterhazy a very shrewd and clever man, but after reading his statements in the "Times" and the "Chronicle" I no longer know what to think. Still, one point is gained; he admits having written the bordereau, and others hereafter will tell us the exact circumstances under which he did so. Colonel Sandherr, at whose bidding he says he wrote it, is dead; but others who know a great deal about him are still alive.'

While M. Zola thus expressed himself, we sat face to face, he in his favourite arm chair on one side of the fireplace, and I on the other, in the familiar room, with its three windows overlooking the lively road, while all around curvetted the scrolls and arabesques of the light fawn-tinted wall paper. And after chatting about Du Paty and Esterhazy we gradually lapsed into silence. It was a fateful hour. There were ninety-nine probabilities out of a hundred that the decision of the Cour de Cassation would be given that same afternoon; and whatever that decision might be we felt certain that before it was made public by any newspaper in London we should be apprised of it. We knew that five minutes after judgment should have been pronounced a telegram would be speeding through the wires to the Queen's Hotel, Norwood.

M. Zola did not tell me his thoughts, yet I could guess them. We can generally guess the thoughts of those we love. But the hours went by and nothing came. How long they were, those judges! Whatever could be the cause of their delay? Surely—trained, practised men that they were, men who had spent their lives in seeking and proclaiming the truth—surely no element of doubt could have penetrated their minds at the final, the supreme moment.

Ah! the waiter entered, and there on his salver lay a buff envelope, within which must surely be the ardently awaited message that would tell us of victory or defeat. M. Zola could scarcely tear that envelope open; his hands trembled violently. And then came an anti-climax. The wire was from M. Fasquelle, who announced that he and his wife were inviting themselves to dinner at Norwood that evening.

It was welcome news, but not the news so impatiently expected. And, at last, suspense become intolerable, I resolved to go out and try to purchase some afternoon newspapers.

There had been rumours to the effect that as each individual judge might preface his decision by a declaration of the reasons which prompted it, the final judgment might after all be postponed until Monday. Both M. Zola and I had thought this improbable; still, there was a possibility of such delay, and perhaps it was on account of a postponement of the kind that the telegram we awaited had not arrived.

I scoured Upper Norwood for afternoon papers. There was, however, nothing to the point at that hour (about five P.M.) in 'The Evening News,' the 'Globe,' the 'Echo,' the 'Star,' the 'Sun,' the three 'Gazettes.' They, like we, were 'waiting for the verdict.' I went as far as the lower level station in the hope of finding some newspaper that might give an inkling of the position, and I found nothing at all. It was extremely warm, and I was somewhat excited. Thus I was perspiring terribly by the time I returned to the hotel, to learn that no telegram had come as yet, that things were still in statu quo.

Then all at once the waiter came up again with another buff envelope lying on his plated salver. And this time our anticipations were realised; here at last was the expected news. M. Zola read the telegram, then showed it to me.

It was brief, but sufficient. 'Cheque postponed,' it said; and Zola knew what those words meant. 'Cheque paid' would have signified that not only had revision been granted, but that all the proceedings against Dreyfus were quashed, and that he would not even have to be re-tried by another court-martial. And in a like way 'cheque unpaid' would have meant that revision had been refused by the Court. 'Cheque postponed' implied the granting of revision and a new court-martial.

The phraseology of this telegram, as of previous ones, had long since been arranged. For months many seemingly innocent 'wires' had been full of meaning. There had been no more enigmatical telegrams, as at the time of Henry's arrest and death, but telegrams drafted in accordance with M. Zola's instructions and each word of which was perfectly intelligible to him.

It often happened that the newspaper correspondents 'were not in it.' Things were known to M. Zola and at times to myself hours—and even days—before there was any mention of them in print. The blundering anti-Dreyfusites have often if not invariably overlooked the fact that their adversaries number men of acumen, skill, and energy. Far from it being true that money has played any role in the affair, everything has virtually been achieved by brains and courage. In fact, from first to last, the Revisionist agitation, whilst proving that the Truth must always ultimately conquer, has likewise shown the supremacy of true intellect over every other force in the world, whether wealth, or influence, or fanaticism.

But I must return to M. Zola. He now knew all he wished to know. As there had been no postponement of the Court's decision there need be none of his return. A telegram to Paris announcing his departure from London was hastily drafted and I hurried with it to the post-office, meeting on my way M. and Mme. Fasquelle, who were walking towards the Queen's Hotel.

We had a right merry little dinner that evening. We were all in the best of humours. M. Zola's face was radiant. A great victory had been won; and then, too, he was going home!

He recalled the more amusing incidents of his exile; it seemed to him, said he, as if for months and months he had been living in a dream.

And M. Fasquelle broke in with a reminder that M. Zola must be very careful when he reached his house, and must in no wise damage the historic table for which he, Fasquelle, had given such a pile of money at the memorable auction in the Rue de Bruxelles.

Ah, that table! We were in a mood to laugh about anything, and we laughed at the thought of the table; at the thought, too, of all the simple-minded folk who had imagined that they would be able to purchase 'souvenirs' at the auction so abruptly brought to an end.

Then the Fasquelles, having been to the Oaks on the previous day, began to talk of Epsom, and the scene, unique in the whole world, which the famous racecourse presents during Derby week. M. Zola half regretted that he had missed going. 'But I will go everywhere and see everything,' he repeated, 'the next time I come to England. I shall then be able to do so openly, without any playing at hide and seek. Oh, it won't be till after the Paris Exhibition, that is certain, but I have written an oratorio for which Bruneau has composed the music, and if it is sung in London, as I hope, I shall come over and spend a month going about everywhere. But, of course,' he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, 'I have about two years' imprisonment to do as things stand, so I must make no positive promises.'

The rest is soon told. Final arrangements were made, and we came away, M. and Mme. Fasquelle and myself, about ten o'clock. 'It is your last night of exile,' I said to M. Zola as I pressed his hand, 'and it will soon be over. You must try to sleep well.'

'Sleep!' he replied. 'Oh, there is no sleep for me to-night. From this moment I shall be counting the hours, the very minutes.'

'It will make a change for you, Vizetelly,' said M. Fasquelle, as he, Mme. Fasquelle, and myself walked towards the railway station. 'You will be missing him now.'

This was true. All the routine, all the alertes, the meetings, the missions of those eleven months were about to cease abruptly. What had at first seemed to me novel had with time become confirmed habit, and for the first few days after M. Zola's departure I felt my occupation gone.

That departure took place, as arranged, on Sunday evening, June 4. It was the day when President Loubet was cowardly assailed at a race-meeting by the friends and partisans of the foolish Duke of Orleans; but of all that we remained (pro tem.) in blissful ignorance. The Fasquelles went down to Norwood and brought M. Zola to Victoria. I was busy during the day preparing for the 'Westminster Gazette' an English epitome of the declaration which 'L'Aurore' was to publish on the morrow. That work accomplished, I met the others on their arrival in town. Wareham had been warned of the change in the programme on the previous night, and came up from Wimbledon with my wife. There was a hasty scramble of a dinner at a restaurant near Victoria. We were served, I remember, by a very amusing and familiar waiter, who, addressing M. Zola by preference (I wonder if he recognised him?), kept on repeating that he was a 'citizen of the most noble Helvetian Confederation,' and assured us that potatoes for two would be ample, and that chicken for three would be as much as we should care to eat. 'Take this,' said he, 'it's to-day's. Don't have that, it was cooked yesterday.' And all this made us extremely merry. 'It seems to me more than ever that I am living in a dream,' said M. Zola after a final laugh. 'That waiter has given the finishing touch to my illusion.'

The train started at nine P.M., and we had a full quarter of an hour at our disposal for our leave-takings in the dimly-lighted station. There were few passengers travelling that night, and few loiterers about. We made M. Zola take his seat in a compartment, and stood on guard before it talking to him. Only one gentleman, a short dapper individual with mutton-chop whiskers (Wareham suggested that he looked like a barrister), paid any attention to the master, and, it may be, recognised him. For the rest, all went well. There were au revoirs and handshakes all round, and messages, too, for one and another. And M. Zola would have his little joke. 'If you should come across Esterhazy,' he said to me, 'tell him that I've gone back, and ask him when he's coming.'

'Well,' I replied, 'he will probably want another safe-conduct before answering that question.'

'Do you think that a safe-conduct to take Dreyfus's place would suit him?' was M. Zola's retort.

But the clock was now on the stroke of the hour, the carriage doors were hastily closed, and the signal for departure was given.

'Au revoir, au revoir!' A last handshake, and the train started. For another half-minute we could see our dear and illustrious friend at his carriage window waving his arm to us. And then he was gone. The responsibility which had so long rested on Wareham and myself was ended; Emile Zola's exit was virtually over: shortly after five o'clock on the following morning he would once more be in Paris, ready to take his part in the final, crowning act of one of the greatest dramas that the world has ever witnessed. Truth was still marching on, and assuredly nothing would be able to stop it.

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse